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A Wreath of Thorns

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THE EVENSTAR

 

The snow flake fell on the back of his hand, almost frizzling at the contact with warm skin. The weather wasn’t so cold yet that it required the use of gloves, but, Lord Selwyn Tarth mused, soon they would become a necessity. Snow in Tarth wasn’t that uncommon during winters: the Lord of Evenfall Hall had lived through thirteen of them, he was actually born during a winter that lasted for two years, but this was different. Everybody seemed to notice. Even the cattle and the horses in the stables, growing more and more agitated, and the flocks on the hills, as cold winds had swept the island, stronger each passing night.

The days were becoming short, too, and the sun barely flickered, grey and dull, a perpetual twilight through the misty miasma that plagued the island like a pestilence, gripping in a vice its inhabitants since two months now.

For a week the island had quaked under the violence of a thunderstorm that had devastated both the coastline and the inland and had torn down the largest part of the port buildings: the fishermen villages, the market, the shops of blacksmiths and craftsmen, the brothels, the many taverns and inns.

He ordered the population to evacuate and take refuge in the warm caves hidden on Shepherd’s Hill that since ageless times, before the Andals, before the Age of Heroes and the First Men, had been giving sanctuary and protection to the good people of Tarth.

The storm had passed, but the miasma came in its stead.

Now an otherworldly silence had slithered down on the palace and its surroundings; in the dead calm, the sea had become a flat, murky board and its distinctive sapphire colour, for which the isle was renowned in all Westeros and beyond, had turned a dull, ominous grey, the glittering whiteness of the foamy waves now more akin to the colour of sour milk.

And, all over, the breath of the island smelled of salt, seaweed, and rotten flesh as though someone had unearthed all the graves of the Seven Hells combined.

Lord Selwyn knew what everyone was saying; that the fog had been brought forth by the Queen across the Narrow Sea, the Mother of Dragons, as many were starting to call her even in Westeros (although these famed dragons, as far as he was concerned, were still nowhere to be seen), when she landed on Dragonstone and retook her ancient seat, vacated by the Baratheons. The people of Tarth, still secured in the grottos, had started to curse her name, but Selwyn knew better.

The advent of Daenerys Stormborn coinciding with the start of the bad weather and the dark mist has been only a sad, fortuitous happenstance; the real reason for it, if his men’s reports were to be taken seriously, must be found elsewhere, in the North.

The Lord of the Sapphire Isle dropped his eyes to the message delivered the previous day from Oldtown, carrying the seal of the Night’s Watch: dire state of affairs beyond the Wall…an army of White Walkers, thousands of them… the Night King walks among the living…if the Wall falls down, we’ll all be dead…send as many men as you can, dragonglass and Valyrian blades, if you have them…

White Walkers…Night King…those were only old tales he remembered from his old wet nurse, stories to frighten naughty children who did not do what their Lords fathers had ordered. The missive was signed ‘Samwell Tarly, Maester of the Night’s Watch’: he did not know the lad. He supposed he was one of the sons of that brooding, ill-tempered Randyll Tarly of Horn Hill.

Why would Tarly’s son, a sworn black brother, lie about such crucial, vital matters?

Up until a month ago, dispatches directly from the North came through Gulltown or Storm’s End. Now direct communication has abruptly stopped, as the ravens could not be sent farther north than Moat Cailin anymore; they simply would die for the cold.

News was scarce and disturbing. Rumours, mostly.

The horsemen and knights travelling in search of news often weren’t even brave enough to face the big expanse of ice separating Winterfell from Castle Black. And the roads connecting the valleys of the South to the colder regions, roads once moderately secured by the King’s peace, now swarmed with sellswords, brigands, cutthroats, savages beasts and other dangers only secretly whispered in hushed tones in the middle of the night, for fear that a word said aloud would make these terrors too real even under the daylight.

Occasionally the men sent to the North would come back half dead of exposure, their hands and feet swollen and covered with purplish and blackened blisters, toes, fingers and nails fallen off, and they would speak of a cold so deep and devastating that their bones wouldn’t stop rattling against each other, not even when they’d wrapped themselves in layers and layers of furs and wool covers, across from a warm, merrily crackling fireplace. On few cases, the men had come back lost in a stupor, demented and speechless, and they had let themselves die of starvation or thirst a few weeks after.

Sometimes, the men wouldn’t come back at all.

The last time he had trustworthy updates of Brienne had been five months ago, when Ser Germont Connington, his loyal Captain of the Guards, had met her in Winterfell, after she had returned from Riverrun, a few days after the Battle of the Bastards and the fall of the Flayed Men of Dreadfort. Ser Germont reported that she was unscathed, in fairly good health, all things considered, but he also said that she had looked melancholic and despondent. Ser Germont, the good man, had tried to cover it up with a bad case of homesickness: ‘Lady Brienne longs for the sapphire sea of Tarth, my lord, but she would not return. She swore an oath to Lady Sansa Stark’, he had said, and while Lord Selwyn knew it was partially true, nostalgia was not the only reason for her current state of mind.

He was a father, and he had learned to read his daughter’s silences better than anyone, even better than herself, many years ago.

When his beloved Dyanna, her spirit and heart broken over the loss of Arianne and Alysanne and unable to counter the combined attacks of pain and grief, surrendered her body to the illness that was slowly eating her away, dying shortly after the twins and taking all of her secrets to the grave with her, Brienne and Galladon had become all Selwyn’s world, until the Gods and the cresting waves of Tarth decided to take away from him his purple-eyed boy, his heir. Selwyn’s world had then contracted to his girl, the princess with the sapphire eyes and an ungainly appearance that would have made a good match with any of the great houses of Westeros difficult, if not impossible.

The Lord of Evenfall Hall didn’t care. He only feared she would never be happy.

He had cherished her with all the unfaltering love a father could muster and, yes, even doted on her, to the point that her every wish had been his command. When Brienne had wanted to learn how to fight and joust like a boy, Selwyn gladly let her, even encouraged her, his only reward the look of absolute freedom and joy he would see shining in her eyes whenever she held a sword. He had meant well; he had hoped to strengthen her against the storms of life, which were sure to beat and mar even the most virtuous, to inspire in her a higher sense of justice that would sprout and grow from truth, not beauty, from fairness, not prettiness, from acceptance, not vengeance.

He had tried to shield her from the public contempt, from the jests of men, and the malice of women – which sometimes was even crueller – but he could not shield her from her innocent nature: Brienne has always been a very passionate girl, an idealistic and a dreamer. She had tried to conceal her heart beyond armours and swordsmanship, under discipline and honour, but he knew better: when she was a child, her most favourite stories were the ones about Galladon of Morne and Florian the Fool. Epic tales of heroes and chivalric feats, sure. But tales of love, at their core.

It came to no surprise at all for him to discover her affections for Renly Baratheon: she fell in love with him, because he was the handsome, spotless knight pulled out straight from one of those tales. He had been gentle with her when everybody else would sneer and call her Brienne the Beauty in jest; he made her dance and donned a blue cloak on her shoulders.

But after Renly got murdered it became blatantly clear that Selwyn could not shelter her against the sorrows of heartbreak: he had written a heartfelt letter, then, begging her for his sake to put aside her dreams and illusions to become a knight and to come back home, fearing for her life and her sanity. Brienne had been adamant in her answer: I love you, Father, but I am what you and life made me, and I will not rest until I’ve brought to justice Renly’s murderer.

He had known then, without a doubt, that his daughter had a knight’s heart, full of high ideals on honour, glory and nobility that, Selwyn feared, would crumble at the first clash with a discordant, unforgiving reality. Selwyn suddenly understood that, instead of giving her a sword to play with and feeding her the chivalric stories of old, he should have taught her to be wiser and more practical; he had meant well, but all his good intentions had failed and backfired on him in a rather spectacular way.

And now history was repeating itself.

Selwyn wasn’t a fool. He had heard the rumours – even if Ser Germont had threatened to cut the tongues of anyone in Tarth who would dare to even whisper such obscene slanders.

The Kingslayer’s whore.

After the wrath which instinctively almost brought him to raise arms against both King’s Landing and Casterly Rock had subdued, with a clear mind he pondered the predicament: he couldn’t believe that Brienne, his Brienne, so proper and modest, would ever let herself get so much involved and drawn in to forget herself and her principles…and yet…even in the most ignominious gossip, sometimes a bit of truth could be found. 

He wouldn’t believe rumours, just as he didn’t believe them when they had suggested that Brienne had killed Renly because he’d rejected her in his bed.

But she was just a girl, then. Now she was a grown woman. A strong-willed, spirited, hopelessly romantic woman.

After Bitterbridge, after her oath to Catelyn Stark, after his ignored offer of three hundred gold Dragons to ransom her at Harrenhal, she wrote to him a long letter from King’s Landing, in which she recounted her travels back to the capital with Jaime Lannister, in the hope to get Lady Stark’s daughters to safety. She told him about the Kingslayer, how he bargained for her maidenhead and lost a hand in the process, how he saved her from the bear pit in Harrenhal, unarmed and unarmoured, how he gave her a wonderfully crafted new armour that caught glorious blue iridescences under the light, sapphire gleams like the sea of Tarth, and a Valyrian sword, a real Valyrian sword, sharp as dragonglass, with mesmerizing dark red veining and a golden hilt in the shape of a raging lion’s head which alone would have made a prince’s ransom. It was so light and balanced that, when she wielded it, she seemed to dance on water like the Braavosi swordsmen old Ser Goodwin used to tell her about. ‘I’ve named it Oathkeeper,’ she had added, ‘But it’s not mine. I’ll return it to Ser Jaime when my oath will be fulfilled.’

She also wrote that Ser Jaime wasn’t the man everyone believed he was, that he was brave and honourable, in his own way, that he had protected her like a perfect knight would have done even when most of the time he was the one needing protection, that he was sincerely horrified when he had been informed about what had transpired at the Red Wedding, that his eyes were open and clear and wore none of the coldness of his father’s eyes. He broke some vows, during his life, ‘twas true. Many of them. However, sometimes circumstances on which we don’t have any control whatsoever force our hand to make hard, brutal decisions that not always corresponded to one’s deepest desires and good nature.

But Ser Jaime had solemnly sworn to bring the Stark girls to safety and never raise arms against Tully or Stark. And now his vow had become hers: she had to honour it, for Lady Stark’s memory and for him.

I trust him, Father.’

He knew then; it wasn’t a childhood crush.

He knew then that it was serious and that she was lost.

Of all the men she could have chosen…

Kingslayer, Oathbreaker, father of his own sister’s children, as the story went…

She did not write what has made her change her mind about him, but Ser Germont told him that Brienne still had that Valyrian sword with her, when he saw her.

She had just returned from Riverrun, kept under siege by Lannister forces; did she meet him there? Why didn’t he want his sword back?

Selwyn wasn’t worried about his daughter’s honour – Brienne was more than capable of defending herself. He was worried about her heart. If she were at Evenfall Hall, she would ask for his advice and guidance; they had always been close and had no one else but each other to rely on.

What would he say to her?

Probably the same thing her mother used to tell her, even if she probably couldn’t even remember: 'Follow your heart'.

The steps of his Captain of the Guards, his sword clinking against his chainmail, drew him back from his musings.

“My Lord.”

Ser Germont stood behind him, fully armoured: he was a stout man with a formidably round and shiny bald head and the Connington trademark auburn beard and moustache. He had served the Sapphire Isle for longer than Selwyn could remember: he already was in the Guard when Lord Edwyn, Selwyn’s father, had been the Evenstar, and he was the knight who brought a young, orphaned Dyanna Storm to Tarth to be raised, after tragedy struck in Summerhall. Out of gratitude and friendship, Selwyn had hoped, once, to merge their families, but truth be told, Germont’s nephew was a cunt and he was secretly grateful to the Seven that Brienne had beaten him in such a dramatic, public way during the grand melee at Bitterbridge.

“My Lord, they’re coming.”

Selwyn pointed the Myrish Eye on the Straits: from the observatory set on Shepherd’s Hill, the highest spot on the isle, he could have a good view from all the cardinal points on the valley below, the palace and the coastline.

On clear days he could easily see the rainwood, where it was said the descendants of the Children of the Forest still lived after the conquest of Durran Godsgrief, all the way to Rain House on the tip of Cape Wrath, and to Durran’s Point, miles away, where the lone tower of Storm’s End would stand tall and proud, grey and menacing, a fist raised in defiance to the Storm Gods.

Now, amidst the mist, Selwyn could barely make out the outlines of several slender galleys swiftly approaching Starfall’s Beach, although it was still too dark to perceive how many and which colour their sails were.

It mattered not.

Dragons, Lions, Squids…everyone, sooner or later, would have wanted the Sapphire Isle, but if he were to bet his money, it would be on Queen Cersei’s soldiers: his sentries had been reporting movements of armed forces carrying the new banners of the Lannisters – a crowned rampant lion, gold on a field of crimson and black stripes – over Shipbreaker Bay for days now. They were only waiting for the dead calm to lift and for the Straits to become accessible again. He should have expected it. He had tried to stay as neutral as possible; Tarth had never mingled in the politics of the capital, when it could be avoided, but it has always been a feast too succulent and delicious to pass by. The island held a strategic position in the bay and its natural resources alone – woods, crops, livestock – could ensure the survival of all the population of King’s Landing through a few winters. If Tarth would fall into Cersei’s hands, it would be disrobed of all its natural beauties, savagely raped, until nothing would remain but a wasteland. 

Nonetheless, more than a strategic move meant out of necessity, the impending invasion tasted like vengeance, pure and simple: Brienne had sworn a fealty oath to the Starks and the new King in the North. The Queen on the Iron Throne surely didn’t appreciate it.

“I need you to ride North,” he said to Ser Germont, without preamble. He would never have asked, if the situation hadn’t already been compromised beyond repair. Selwyn pulled out from his girdle two parchments, sealed with Tarth’s insignia.

“You will deliver this message to Lord Snow, or whatever name he likes to call himself these days. And this letter….this is for my daughter’s eyes only…you’ll give it to her, with this,” he added, as he took off from his finger the ring crowned with the large sapphire and engraved with the sigil of House Tarth. His hand felt weird, weightless without the sweet burden of the jewel he honourably had worn for the best part of thirty years. He wrapped it up in a piece of cloth with the blue and pink colours and the yellow sun and white crescent moons of Tarth.

A gift.

Many moons ago, his own father had handed it over to him on his deathbed, telling him that the Evenstar was the sentinel of the East, and that this ring was the harbinger of the morning light to come.

Dawn will come again, dear child, he had written to Brienne. Wait for it. Fight for it.

His own fight was almost over.

“My Lord, I’m begging you, let me stay and fight at your side.”

Selwyn’s blue eyes bore into Ser Germont’s bronze ones: he remembered thinking, when he was younger, with no spite whatsoever, but with genuine admiration, that Ser Germont’s eyes were akin to a horse’s: big, deep, noble, full of unreserved love, loyal.

Loyalty, true loyalty was hard to come by, and Selwyn prized his Captain’s friendship and revelled in it like a rare gift. Mostly, he was grateful: so many years ago, Germont had brought to Tarth the girl Selwyn would fall in love with. The only woman he would ever truly love, no matter how many others he had, in the futile attempt to fill up his days and nights, and his solitude.

“Your fealty is to Tarth, not to myself,” he spoke gently. “I expect that you will serve my daughter as admirably as you have served me.”

Ser Germont straightened his spine and nodded curtly, but Selwyn could read a deep emotion in his placid eyes.

“My friend,” he added, putting a steady hand on his shoulder, the words of gratitude left unspoken. His hand gripped Germont’s arm stronger. A silent plea.

“Ride as fast as you can.”

And the Gods be with you.

Through the Myrish eye, the Lord of Tarth followed his Captain and saw him reaching by horse the sheltered, hidden cove on the eastern side of the island, where a small, inconspicuous sailboat was waiting for him.

It is done, he thought with a sigh, as he redirected the Myrish eye of Starfall’s Beach: the crowned lion was now unmistakably discernible. He prayed that Jaime Lannister wasn’t with them, leading them; Selwyn really hoped, for his daughter’s sake, that he wouldn’t be that kind of man.

Lord Selwyn’s lips turned up in a sad smile; it was ironic, to say the least, that, in the middle of one of the greatest crisis Tarth had endured since the Andal invasion, his main concern was still Brienne and her wellbeing.

Or maybe not. Maybe, in the same circumstances, any father would think the same.

He unsheathed his blade and climbed down the steps separating the observatory to Evenfall Hall, where his men – a little more than forty soldiers – were waiting for his orders.

Snow was falling hard and fierce, now. As he walked through the thick patches of white, rapidly collecting on the edge of the road, Lord Selwyn let his mind drift.

He thought of Galladon, then, of the summer day he had taught him to swim in the open water, his innocent, excited laughter bouncing on the sea, like pearly waves rolling over onto the beach and expanding in his heart.

The sea is sooo blue, papa! It’s the same colour as your ring!

That sea that killed him. That sea they both had loved.

He thought of Dyanna, of endless mornings spent in the stronghold on Morne, holding each other and talking about the future, as they waited together for the sun to rise.

Her hair had an almost silver glitter, under the first light. 

And Brienne…Brienne who didn’t have any idea of how beautiful she truly was, Brienne with her gentle, strong heart, and fiery sapphire eyes.

His same eyes.

Brienne who would be also the last chance for Tarth to survive.

He sent a final, silent prayer to the Gods for his extraordinary daughter, for her to stay alive during the cold Darkness that was sure to follow, and, most of all, for her to find happiness even at the end of world, and braced himself to greet at best, with steel and blood, the Queen’s men, knowing full well that in a few hours’ time a new Evenstar would be rising in the west.