Up in the North, Tyrion delivered on his promise of a feast.
It became clear that the White Walkers were broken, but not completely gone. And the Brotherhood would have to spread years, possibly decades, finishing them off.
Roughly half the forces would remain and begin on that task while the rest would go South to confront the Stormborn and her Dragons. So, the Feast was a rededication for those who stayed and a farewell for those who left.
Even his worst enemies had to admit that Tyrion knew how to party. An abundance of food, drink and music was provided. For a brief moment, people tried to forget what they had endured and ignore what lay ahead.
Meanwhile, Podrick had been doing some deep thinking.
In the aftermath of the various battles, he had seen Ally helping with the wounded. Even during the worst of it, she never hesitated to pitch in.
Of course, during her first shift, the young girl had thrown up several times.
(As they checked on their men, Tyrion dryly commented to Dell that at least one song about battle could include a verse or two on how much shite and stink was involved.
"Still, at least the cold cuts down on some of the smell", the Giant said, philosophically.
Listening nearby, Ally gave him an incredulous look and hurriedly bent over and retched for the third time.)
Once the first session was over, she got completely crocked on wine and started to weep. A concerned Arya gently told her that she didn't have to help her with the wounded. There was never any shortage of other tasks that needed to be done.
"No", Ally hiccuped in response. "I hav' t' do this. M'not strong like you. Can't fight. Bu' I can do this."
The next day, she went back and did. No matter how much she may have grieved, she always did it in private afterwards.
In the process of shouldering an unexpected burden, one often grows stronger to meet the task. While with the hurt and the dying, Ally never showed anything but a quiet sweetness as she worked.
Podrick wasn't the only one who noticed this.
Arya had made it very clear that anyone who took casual liberties with her friend was going to get slowly ground into a fine paste. So, under the assumption that the Wolf-Girl was responsible for the blonde, Arya found inundated with marriage offers for Ally.
(Additionally, word got out that she had taken lessons from one of the finest courtesans in Braavos on how to please a man.
When asked about it by one of the other women in the castle, the young girl confirmed the rumor. And, also, that she had taken a few lessons on how to please a woman.
"It only cost a little extra and I was rather curious."
Oblivious to the expressions of the people listening, Ally said wistfully, "She had the softest skin".)
Picturing her with somebody else, Pod was surprised by how much he hated that idea.
At the party, Ally stepped out of the heat and close air of the Main Hall. When she saw Pod standing out in the cold and staring at the stars, she gave the young knight a cheerful greeting.
Turning to face her, Pod said, "Ally?"
He opened and closed his mouth a few times. "Um. . . .Well."
She looked at him with a blend of affection and exasperation. "Is there something you wish to say?"
For his part, Pod wished he could be Lord Tyrion for a moment. M'Lord always knew how to speak to women.
Thankfully, instinct won out over indecision.
Pod leaned over, cupped Ally's face with both hands and gave her a quiet, deep kiss.
When they parted, she looked up at him with eyes filled with both love and tears.
Then, she half-shouted, "Finally!" and jumped on top of him.
The next morning, a disheveled, exhausted-looking Podrick stumbled in to help Tyrion with his usual routine.
"You're late, Pod."
"I'm very sorry, My Lord. Too much wine last night."
Tyrion nodded sagely. "It must have been an especially strong vintage, judging from the bite mark it left on your neck."
Of course, Pod and Ally were not the only ones.
In an unfamiliar bed, Tormund yawned, stretched and scratched various spots as he tried to remember what happened the previous evening.
His memories abruptly resurfaced when he saw a un-selfconsciously naked Osha on the other side of the room gathering up her clothes and putting them on.
"I know you want Brienne," she said as she began shrugging into her tunic. "Can't blame you, she's a Hell of a woman."
"But, she doesn't want you. I've decided that I do."
Stamping into her boots, Osha walked over to Tormund and gave his beard a quick tug. "We're not Southerners and I'll keep this simple."
Her hand traveled downward, slipped under the bedcovers and cupped him where it counted. "I don't care who I have to fight for it, you're my man. When you come back to the North after the final war in the South, remember that."
Osha turned and strutted out the bedroom door, as Tormund stared after her.
Tyrion and his forces left a few days later.
On the eve of his departure, he and Sansa spoke of the future. If the Breaker of Chains was victorious and Tyrion perished, the safest course would be for her to bend the knee to the new Queen.
"You can point out that our marriage was never your choice to begin with. Therefore, you will be blameless in any acts of rebellion on my part."
Sansa hated that idea. The survivor in her recognized the logic. But, at the same time, she detested the thought of publicly spitting on her husband's memory.
"Yes, you were forced to wed the Demon Monkey." Tyrion injected a note of theatrical gravitas into his voice as he spoke. "Forced to submit to his lewd and filthy desires, as often as a dozen times per day."
Despite herself, Sansa had to roll her eyes at that. "A dozen? Even beyond the grave, you're a braggart."
"Well, if we start now...", he trailed off hopefully.
They laughed together and Tyrion took hold of her hand and gave it a kiss.
They made love that night. And, the next morning, when Tyrion rode off, Sansa allowed herself the luxury of believing that he would return to her.
Far to the South, Tywin and Olenna, flanked by a minimal bodyguard, arrived within sight of the Stormborn's forces.
Ravens and messages had been traded between Daenerys and King's Landing. The two of them would be allowed to visit her encampment and retrieve what was left of thier children.
(Which was more formality than anything else. Cersei's corpse had been already retreived, preserved and was ready to go to Casterly Rock. And, the only thing left of Lord Mace was a half-melted helm.)
The Dothraki, for the most part, scorned most of the soldiers of the Nine Kingdoms that they had seen so far, just as they scorned most of those who lived in cities.
But, when they saw the lean, harsh man riding at the head of the small column, they parted ranks without having to be told. They knew that this was a Khal who was mistakenly born into the wrong life.
The same was true for the old Lady who was helped from her coach. They saw the wit and wisdom in her and gave her the respect owed to a Dosh Khaleen.
For Daenerys, Tywin was one of the demons from her childhood. All of the other enemies that she'd faced so far had been born of her own experiences. This man, however, was one of those chiefly responsible for her family's slaughter and exile.
At first, he looked like nothing more than yet another Westerosi noble, perhaps a little more richly dressed than most others.
Then, she saw the merciless intelligence in his eyes and the unyielding set of his jaw. This man wouldn't just slaughter families, he would slaughter thousands if he felt it was necessary.
What impressed her the most about Tywin was his reaction to her dragons. If he felt fear or awe, he hid it very well.
Instead, he simply gave a little nod to himself, as if he was confirming that there were actual dragons and was mentally revising plans in order to deal with them.
For her part, Lady Olenna didn't bother to hide how impressed she was. One of the damned beasts may have murdered her son, but it didn't change the fact that they lived up to every ounce of their legend.
"Lord Tywin." Daenerys greeted him a formal tone and openly hostile eyes. "You betrayed your King, my father, and helped to destroy everything my family held dear."
Apparently, there wasn't going to be even a pretense at diplomatic formalities. Which Tywin completely understood. Frankly, if he owned dragons, he wouldn't waste time with small talk, either.
Tywin met her gaze unflinchingly, glare for glare. "He was a madman. Before that, a vain fool."
One of the many traits that Tywin shared with Tyrion (Not that either would admit to any) was the pleasure of being center stage and using the opportunity to spit spiteful truths at enemies.
Now, with all eyes upon him, the Lord of Casterly Rock heaped further scorn on the most powerful woman within a thousand miles.
"Your eldest brother Rhaegar was an even bigger fool," he continued. "He sparked a rebellion because he couldn't control his cock."
"Finally, I have heard about how your brother Viserys was the biggest fool of all. "A Crown for a King.'"
Tywin paused and added an edge of derision to his tone. "I have seen more Targaryens than you ever shall. You have the look of a true Targaryen. And, that is the worst insult that I could ever give you."
Daenerys controlled her fury with difficulty as her Dragons sensed their Mother's mood, hissing and snarling. A angry mutter rose from her warriors in grim counter-point.
"Insulting someone with three dragons at her command?", she said, coldly. "You don't consider that a foolish act?"
"You won't kill me." Tywin nodded at Oberyn, standing off to one side. "That would deprive your kinsman of the pleasure."
With an easy shrug and smile, Oberyn stepped forward and said, "It is not surprising that you know of my plans. I made very little effort to hide my intentions."
"Out of respect for a warrior, I am willing to meet you in personal combat. Do you wish to die here and now? Or, wait until my Queen takes King's Landing?'
In response, Tywin simply lifted a hand and waved forward some of his men.
The soldiers carried Lord Lannister's full armor as well as his shield, both richly gilded and polished to flawless perfection.
"I will need time to clean myself after the journey and arm myself properly," Tywin said. "Then, I will face you here in one hour."
Without another word, he turned his back on both Queen and opponent and strode back to where the horses were waiting.
Even as she damned the man for his arrogance, Daenerys had to admit that he was right. The first and only thing that she had promised Oberyn was revenge and, until he was given his chance, no one else could confront Tywin.
It seemed impossible for the old man to win the fight, but the Queen found herself wondering. She had heard the Tale of a Giant facing impossible odds in a similar duel and winning.
Was Tywin's lack of fear because he also had a trick lying in wait?
Within a short period of time, an enclosed area was roped off and all the soldiers were restless with anticipation.
They had seen the Dornish Prince fight and knew how skilled he was. But, a small number bet on Tywin anyway, simply because they admired the balls of the man.
Also, one of the greatest deciding factors in a fight is the drive to kill. And, age had certainly not diminished Lord Lannister's ruthlessness.
As the event was about to commence, the Stormborn Queen walked up to the Queen of Thorns.
But, Olenna cut off Daenerys before she could even get a single word out.
"I do not know what you'll say to me, but any words will be useless," she said. "You killed my son and plan to destroy my granddaughter."
She gave a silent Daenerys a searching look as she continued to speak. "You're a lovely young girl. And, I understand. You had to acquire power and use it or be a victim for the rest of your life."
Wistfully, Olenna added, "Once, I was also young and beautiful."
"Despite my understanding, I will still be praying for your swift death." Lady Olenna nodded to Daenerys in respectfull farewell. "Your Majesty."
Somewhat stunned, Daenerys mechanically returned the gesture and said, "My Lady."
As the older woman was helped to her seat, the younger one tried to mentally digest what just happened. The Queen of Thorns's manner had been as calm and pleasant as Tywin's had been cold and insulting. Yet, Olenna's quiet rebuke made Daenerys feel much worse.
Thankfully, a distraction was provided by the arrival of both men.
The Dothraki were particularly interested. They had seen battles since arriving in the Seven Kingdoms, but never a formal duel.
Usually, such things started with the warriors bragging about their impending triumph or issuing one last insult to an enemy. On this score, neither men disappointed the onlookers.
"You're not wearing a helm?', Tywin asked as he pulled his sword and gave it a last minute inspection.
Oberyn sipped wine as his squire prepared his spear. "I want my face to be the last thing you see before you die." He took another sip and looked at Tywin's blade. "Poisoned?"
"No, poison is a woman's weapon."
(In the audience, unseen by anyone, Olenna smirked to herself.)
Dropping his easy manner, Oberyn gave Tywin a dark ugly look. "Finally," he said, "You will face justice for what you did to Elia. It was on your orders that Gregor Clegane raped her and murdered both her and her children."
Being finished with his sword, Tywin began looking over his dagger. After a long moment, he finally said, "I told Clegane to do as he wished when sacking the city. I assumed that he understood that it only meant the commoners and not the nobles."
Spotting a small nick, he gestured and a servant handed Tywin an oiled sharpening stone. The slow rasp served to emphasize his cold words as he continued speaking.
"I underestimated his brutality, which was unnecessary. I would have made it relatively painless. A quick smothering with a pillow for the children, a quick stab for the mother."
Tywin's calm words made Oberyn livid. "You admit your crimes towards my sister!?", he snarled.
Meeting his eyes, Tywin gave him a look of impatient contempt, the kind you give to a tiresome child who won't be quiet. "When Rickard Stark burned and Brandon Stark strangled, how much outrage did you feel? Did you swear an oath to avenge them?"
"No, you felt as I did. A moment of disgust for the Mad King. Then, you went on with your life." Tywin handed the stone back and gave the dagger a final polish. "You only care about Elia's death because she was your sister. She was not mine and I don't give a damn. Not then and not now."
Enraged beyond words, Oberyn simply threw down his goblet and snatched up his spear.
And so, it began.
Even though his shield was present, Tywin elected not to use it. Instead, he chose to wield his dagger (Which had a thick foot-long blade and a half-moon hilt, almost a short sword.) in his left hand and a sword in his right.
Oberyn made a half-dozen stabs, probing Tywin's defenses, getting progressively stronger with each one.
The Old Lion responded by shuffling backwards, giving space and parrying the attacks. Switching back and forth from right to left, sword and dagger, he showed the smoothness that takes a lifetime to achieve.
Oberyn matched that with skill of his own, stepping up the pace and rapidly thrusting the spear furiously at his enemy.
Tywin blocked one of the attacks with his dagger and, at the last moment, twisted it, trapping the spear shaft between the blade and the hilt.
Swiftly, he swung his sword over the now-immobile spear, looking to take Oberyn's head off of his shoulders.
Oberyn leapt back, avoiding the slash, twisting his spear free. With the same movement, he whipped the spiked butt-end around, catching Tywin's helm with a glancing blow and scratching the fine finish.
The strategy was now obvious to all the warriors watching. One blade would parry, the other would get within the spear's arc and kill the Dornishman.
But, as Oberyn demonstrated, getting the hold isn't the same as keeping it.
Warily, they circled each other.
Oberyn made wide looping sweeps, twirling his spear in elaborate patterns, hoping to knock aside Tywin's defenses through sheer momentum.
After several passes, Tywin finally got a solid block with his sword. Trying to repeat the trick, he got the lock and stabbed under the shaft, going for a disemboweling cut on his enemy.
Instead of jumping away, Oberyn suddenly brought the spear down, pinning the knife underneath it.
Now, the two men were toe to toe. Sword trapping spear, spear trapping knife.
It was now a contest of strength, with both men struggling to neither let go or be brought down onto the dirt.
Twenty years ago, Tywin might have won.
Now, as the Old Lion was inevitably forced lower and lower, Oberyn allowed himself a tight grin of triumph.
"You are dead meat, Lannister!", he hissed through clenched teeth as Tywin went to one knee.
His opponent didn't reply. He simply let go of both blades.
Left with nothing to brace against, Oberyn staggered and nearly fell.
Moments later, he howled with surprise and pain as Tywin pulled a second knife from his boot and buried it in the Prince's thigh.
Despite the agony, Oberyn stayed on his feet and kept hold of the spear. With a second howl, this time of pure rage, he stabbed down, went through the seam in the shoulder where the armor was thin and put sixteen inches of cold steel into the kneeling Tywin Lannister.
Oberyn quickly let go and step-hopped a safe distance away, belatedly realizing that the Old Lion might have a third knife concealed.
But, Tywin didn't reach for a weapon.
Slowly, almost ceremonially, he reached up, unlaced his helm and took it off.
Then, his left arm limp and useless, Tywin reached over with his right and pulled the spear out, ignoring the gush of blood that began flowing from the wound.
All watched, almost disbelieving, as Twyin drove the spearpoint into the earth. Hesitantly, using the spear as a brace, he pulled himself off his knee and stood.
Pale as death, except from the blood dripping down his chin, he looked at a gaping Oberyn.
Unmistakably, Tywin's lips stretched wide in a amused smile.
Then, the glitter in his eyes went flat. He collapsed and was dead before he hit the ground.
That night, Daenerys visited Oberyn as he healed.
She found him sipping wine with Ser Jorah and Daario, arguing over the finer points of the fight.
She asked if he was happy and he replied that it was never about him, but about Elia.
"With Tywin dead, I hope that she is granted some measure of peace."
Still, he seemed slightly pensive and Daenerys asked why.
In reply, Oberyn gestured at his wound, which was in the front part of his thigh.
"Look at that. All muscle and bone there. Painful, but not fatal." He then pointed to the inner part of his thigh. "Lord Lannister had enough time to strike there, where the large vein is. That would have killed me. Yet, he did not."
The Dragon Queen shrugged, unused to the finer points of combat. "Perhaps he acted without thinking?", she suggested.
And what, Oberyn thought, was with that damned smile at the end?
Already miles away in her carriage, Olenna could have easily answered their question. She had instantly understood what Tywin had done.
Kinslayers cannot inherit. If Tywin and Tyrion fought, regardless of the winner, the Westerlands would go to some middling unworthy cousin.
Now the outcome was that Casterly Rock and it's Kingdom was held by someone both strong and clever.
Furthermore, the Lannisters held claims on the North (Through Sansa) and Dorne (If Myrcella married Trystane).
He died a magnificent death, ensuring that his name would pass into legend.
Olenna laughed and said aloud to herself, "Damn the old bastard. He won!"
I have always despised people who repent on their deathbed. If an act is worth the judgement of men, it is worth the judgement of the Gods.
So, as I write these lines, nothing has changed between us. I hate you as much now as I have since the day you were born.
It may be a odd consolation, but if you had been born as tall and handsome as Jaime, I would have still hated you.
You took Joanna from me. Now that you finally know the love of a good and noble woman, you may understand the depths of my despair when I lost her.
I once said that I would be consumed by maggots before you have Casterly Rock. You once wrote that Fate and the Gods conspire to make Liars and Fools of us all.
In the end, we were both correct. By the time you read this, I will be dead and you will be Lord of Casterly Rock, Lord Paramount of the Westerlands and Warden of the West.
Watch over Tommen and Myrcella. Once I am gone, our enemies will begin testing us for weakness.
-Lord Tywin Lannister.
When Tyrion received the raven-borne letter, he saw Tywin's victory just as clearly as Olenna did.
He wept bitter tears, cursed his father ceaselessly and finally just sat and stared at nothing, too depressed to even drink.
That evening, he was still in a black mood when Arya came into his tent.
Before he could tell her to get out, she plopped into a chair and said that she had also gotten a letter from Tywin.
Curiousity won out over all the other emotions and Tyrion asked, "May I see it?"
The young woman handed it over.
The fact that we will never have our final meeting together leaves me both saddened and relieved.
I pray that you have a long life. But, neither of us have ever forgotten a debt or a challenge. When you do die, I will be waiting for you, sword in hand.
Keep up your training. Do not disappoint me when we meet again.
-Lord Tywin Lannister.
"Jeoffrey, Cersei and now, Tywin," Arya mused aloud as Tyrion read. "With Tywin, at least I get a second chance."
"Here is mine." Tyrion handed hers back and his as well.
Swiftly reading it, Arya raised her brows at the contents. "Lord of Casterly Rock and the Westerlands. That's some consolation."
Tyrion gave her a blank look and unexpectedly began chuckling.
The chuckles became guffaws and Tyrion sat and roared with laughter as Arya gave him a mystified look.
"Five years ago, I would have agreed." Tyrion picked up a pitcher and poured them both some wine. "But now?"
"I have my business affairs in Braavos, helping Sansa rebuild the North and this war which never seems to end." Tyrion sipped his wine and said, plaintively, "I read that letter and thought, "Oh Gods, I have enough to do as it is. I don't need more damn work.'"
Arya laughed and lifted her goblet in a toast, "To "Too much damn work!'".
They drank together and Arya got up to leave. "If you'll pardon me, I have a lot of damn work waiting for me."
Tyrion nodded an acknowledgement. "Yes, for me as well. Send Pod in as you go."
Pod was standing just outside the tent. As Arya left, she gave him a slap on the shoulder and said, "He's ready to see you now."
"Yes, My Lady." Pod gave her a smile with a bit more warmth to it than usual. "Thank you, My Lady."
As Tyrion's Army moved south, they were joined by other forces.
The Riverlands contributed men led by the Blackfish, looking to pay back the favor owed to the Giant for removing the Freys and returning the Tullys to their rightfull place.
The Lords of the Vale sent a host of armored Knights. Daenerys had, in exchange for transporting her troops, had promised shipping rights and ports to various sea captains.
Some of those ports were in the Vale of Arryn and such high-handed gifts of their birthrights to others offended Lord Royce. After all, he reasoned, what is to prevent her from giving the rest of the Vale away, just as easily.
He also wasn't happy about the fact that the Hill Tribes were also joining the forces.
Thier constant participation in Tyrion's fights was a bit of a mixed blessing. Their numbers had been whittled down quite a bit, but they had also gained better weapons, armor and battlefield experience.
Lord Yohn consoled himself with images of the Hill Tribes roasting as a whole in a rush of dragon's breath.
Finally, numerous peasants joined simply because they were facing a harsh winter and needed both food and coin.
Of course, it wasn't just soldiers that joined. There was the usual train of camp followers and hangers-on.
Lollys followed her escort meekly as they wended their way through the chaos towards Bronn's tent.
There were shaggy Northerners, swaggering Westerlanders, grimly professional mercenaries, even several Giants.
Wide-eyed, Lollys watched one stump past and scurried to catch up with her guide.
Ushered into his tent, Bronn greeted her with a casual "'Ullo, love," a kiss and a one-handed buttock squeeze.
In response, Lollys blushed. Over the months that she had been married to the sell-sword, she was never quite certain on how to take his advances.
On the one hand, it could all be somewhat tawdry. On the other, after a lifetime of being ignored, it was good to have some honest appreciation, unrefined as it was.
As was usual with things didn't wish to face, Lollys promptly put it out of her mind and began excitedly talking about her own interests.
"We travelled along with both the Queen and the King!" Almost giddy with remembrance, she added, "Queen Margaery spoke to me and actually thanked me for travelling with her!"
Bronn poured them both some wine and sipped from his own glass. "Aye, the Queen's a fair sort and she remembers those that's done well by her. If we win, you'll be sittin' pretty."
Lollys looked a bit worried. "If?"
Scratching his chin thoughtfully, he said, "I've fought the Unsullied and the Dothraki. Tough, but they can be beaten."
"Never fought dragons, so that's the question. What do have that can beat them?" Bronn knocked back some more wine and added, "Still, Tyrion's the smart one. The little bugger's got something planned."
Choosing to ignore the fact that one of the most powerful men in the Seven Kingdoms was casually referred to as "The little bugger", Lollys asked, "What happens if we lose?"
"If I'm dead, you'll get married to a new husband. Easiest way to legitimize some newcomer bastard is to marry him off to an old noble family."
"Speaking from experience.", he added, wryly.
"We lose and I get out alive," Bronn said, "I'm off to Braavos an' you're welcome to join me."
"As a penniless exile," Lollys said, plaintively.
"Exiles, aye, but not penniless." Bronn got out of his seat and began going through some of his gear. "Tyrion's been making money from his merchant ventures. So, I decided to try a few ideas of my own."
He pulled out a cheaply-bound book and handed to her. Puzzled, Lollys opened it and began to read.
Married to a Lord three times her age and usually away at Court, Lady Laeticia was young, beautiful and bored.
Soon, she developed a dangerous vice: gambling and, even worse, never developed the skill to do it successfully. Within a half-year, Laeticia was massively in debt and went to King's Landing to borrow money on her jewels.
Scared that someone would recognize her, she darkened her hair and skin and posed as a Dornishwoman. Unfortunately, that meant that she could not stay with any of her noble friends.
And, the inn that she chose to stay at turned out to be a whorehouse.
Lolly's face flamed scarlet as the lurid tale unfolded with Lady Laeticia (At first, reluctant. Then, after the first few times, enthusiastically.) embarking on her new profession. "Oh", she said weakly.
Then, she saw some of the illustrations (Many of which didn't seem physically possible.) and blushed even harder. "Oh," she squeaked. "Oh, goodness."
"Goodness has nothin' to do with it, love. That's the point." Bronn shook his head with amazement at it all.
Years spent on the battlefield and in taverns had given him an Maester's knowledge of dirty jokes and bawdy tales. Without even trying too hard, he came up with about two dozen and sent them to the illustrators, with more picture heavy volumes for the blokes who couldn't read.
"I've been selling these for about three, four months an' I still can't believe how much money I'm making.", Bronn said.
It was just like Tyrion told him. The right idea at the right time and you could make more coin than a dozen lordships.
"Still, makes sense." He gestured through the tent. "Most of the army won't be getting any women for weeks or months. They'll need something."
"Whatever Hell that Lord Twatbeard's stuck in, I bet he's kicking himself for not coming up with this idea."
Bronn finished his wine with a gulp and wiped his mouth. "I've got to go meet with Tyrion an' the other Commanders. I'll be back in a few hours. Anyone gives you trouble, tell 'em you belong to me."
Still enraptured by the story, Lollys just nodded at him as he left.
"Maybe I should start selling these to women, too.", Bronn said to himself as he walked out.