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Chapter 145

Joffrey IV

He slowed his breathing to keep it from billowing in the deep cold beyond the Wall. His green eyes were fixed on a point between the trees. He saw the elk turn its head but remained frozen in his crouch. Only when it bent down to keep shoveling snow to find the last remnants of grass did he move. He slowly and carefully placed his foot, staying on the balls of his feet so that he had less chance of snapping twigs. He flicked his eyes away to glance around quickly for a hole in the trees for a better shot before he returned to the buck once more.

Well, father, how do you like me now? Joffrey sneered to himself. He thought back to that moment years ago when King Robert had led them on a hunt in Winterfell's winter wood in search of boar. He still remembered the shame and bite of his father's condescension when the crossbow bolt had struck the antlers. He had never been made to feel a bigger fool at any point before that. How he hated his father at that moment.

Though he hated the feeling of shame then, he simultaneously wished he could throttle his younger self. He had been so weak. Pathetic. He'd never even had proper sword training in his life. When he'd been a boy of ten watching the other boys train, he'd gone to Uncle Jaime and begged to be trained with a sword. He'd been shocked at the cool expression on his uncle's face and the answer.

"No," his uncle had replied curtly. No one said no to him. Ever.

"I demand you teach me!" he'd shouted, stamping his feet in fury.

He'd been able to get the servants and Grand Maester Pycelle to scurry away in fury at his wrath. His uncle had only looked amused. "No," he'd repeated.

"Wait until my mother hears—"

"It's your mother standing in your way, boy. Go on. Run to her. Perhaps you can convince her otherwise," his uncle had said, but there was clear mocking in his voice.

This had brought up Joffrey short in his tirade. The only one he feared more than father was mother. She was kind, doting, but her moods changed with the wind and she used her words to strike like a snake. Joffrey hadn't dared to change her mind.

Coward, he thought viciously about his younger self. If only I'd had the balls then that I do now.

He never would have expected the years in the North to do him these favors. But as it turned out, Meera was a wonderful teacher. Patient, but not given to foolhardiness. She held Joffrey accountable. It had taken time, but she had painstakingly shown him how to hunt, how to forage, and how to skin, dress and cook a kill. He'd even learned some sewing, though Meera was far better at it. He'd grown taller and bulkier since they'd last parted his uncle's company and he'd needed to add more furs to keep the deep chill at bay.

Years earlier as that scrawny, pathetic boy, he would've scoffed at most of these activities. Sewing was women's work! Dressing game was servant's work! But when Meera had asked, he'd said yes without hesitation. Anything to keep boredom at bay. The only part that surprised him is when he realized he could actually be skilled at something and that he enjoyed it.

It had not come without friction. Given his boredom, he'd been initially patient early on, but at one point he'd begun to snap and snarl at Meera for treating him like a baby. At times, it had led to their game fleeing. He hadn't initially cared until they'd been forced to go hungry apart from a few roots. Everyone had been miserable that night. The next day when they'd set out to try again, he'd savagely bitten his own lip to keep from ruining the hunt.

I wonder what my uncle would think of me now, he mused. When he'd first volunteered to escort Bran beyond the Wall, he had seen the surprise on his uncle's face. In the lead up to their splitting from the main group, his Uncle Jaime had trained him hard, mostly pitting him against his squire Pod. It had taken everything in him not to sob and cringe, but his Uncle Jaime was not cruel like Roose Bolton or Captain Brommen. He was patient but thorough. Driving but considerate. Words he'd never thought to liken to his uncle at the time.

After his first training sessions with his Uncle Jaime, he'd walked away feeling confident but confused. His mother had taught him that cruelty brought results, that fear bred the truest loyalty. It had pained him to be at the mercy of Lord Bolton and Captain Brommen, but that's how it all worked. He would have been considered weak to be any less cruel toward the servants who waited on his every whim. But his uncle was far from weak.

When Uncle Jaime had first ridden through the gates of Winterfell, his expression had been one of righteous fury. Even as Joffrey had broken ranks to get his attention, his uncle had bore down on him ready to kill him as an enemy. Joffrey had nearly pissed himself as he quailed under his uncle's murderous rage, but then the rage had retreated just as quickly once Joffrey revealed himself. His uncle had then taken him to the other children in the godswood and they'd sat there while the castle sorted itself. After so much tumult and fear, his uncle had been calm and steady. He had given Cassian the lion's share of attention and at the time Joffrey had felt the familiar flames of jealousy simmering in his belly. He'd quashed it down. He had been shunned by the better part of Winterfell when Lady Catelyn had caught him contemplating his half-brother's death, but he knew his uncle would kill him for such a trespass.

After the initial hubbub had died down, Joffrey had been on tenterhooks waiting for his uncle's wrath to fall down on him about the incident with Cassian, but it never came. He wasn't sure if anyone had even told his uncle or he had simply deemed it too far gone in the past. Whatever the reason, Joffrey wasn't about to open that wound. He kept his head down and trained as his uncle bid him.

Joffrey frowned. It was taking too long to get into position for the shot, but he dared not hurry. This was the first elk they'd seen in weeks. Most of the meat that came their way was in the form of squirrels, rabbits, and ptarmigan. Game had grown scarcer in recent months. There were days when they had to subsist on tubers and mushrooms. It made them all testy. Even Bran had lost the baby fat to his cheeks since they first arrived. Joffrey was just on the right side of gaunt, but they couldn't last much longer. He'd nearly convinced Meera to leave, with or without Bran.

It was nothing against the boy. But he and Meera had little else to do while Bran was squirreled away with the Three-eyed Raven. They didn't even know what he was learning. At first, Bran had been talkative, but as the months had gone by, he'd grown quiet and serious. When either he or Meera had pried, he'd started to simply turn away and stare off into the distance. At first, Joffrey had been endlessly frustrated but he'd eventually learned to not care. He'd felt a loyalty to Bran, the only person who hadn't shunned him at Winterfell. But that boy had grown into a man that Joffrey no longer knew.

Meera was similarly disillusioned, though she kept up a chipper attitude. She still doted on Bran, but it was like a mother more than a friend. More often than not, she was in Joffrey's company. Being in her presence often caused a stirring in his cock, but he knew full well Meera would geld him before she allowed him inside her, especially out of wedlock. She'd promised that once they returned to the other side of the Wall, that she would speak to her father about a match.

"Making a good match is not particularly important to my father. Now that … Jojen is gone, my father needs me to take his place. Anyone whom I will take as a husband will have to forfeit their name," she'd explained.

"It works in my favor that all I have is a bastard's name," he'd replied with a wry smirk.

She'd returned his smile. "More importantly, you've learned most everything that those in House Reed hold in high regard. We have little concern for politics. Our loyalty lies strictly with the Stark at Winterfell. He protects us and we protect the entrance to the North. It's an understanding that goes back a hundred generations," she'd said.

With Bran so distant, Joffrey didn't feel any particular loyalty to the Starks, but if Lord Howland Reed allowed him to continue his activities of hunting and fighting, he'd have no complaints.

Despite Meera's chasteness, they still found ways to convey their desire for one another. They'd sometimes sneak off to a lesser known cave and rut against each other until the overwhelming desire to fuck had been sated. He thought they were being discreet, but Joffrey noticed a change in Bran at their evening meal. He was markedly sullen and, though he was blind, he still glared at them. It made Meera feel guilty and she started to resist those particular outings.

How Bran discovered this, he wasn't sure, but he'd complained to Meera about feeling left out and isolated. Meera's first instinct had been to coddle him, but Joffrey had demanded answers.

"We know nothing of what you're doing here. You expect us to sit in this cave and do nothing?" Joffrey had snapped.

"No, of course not, but you have no time for me," Bran had whined.

"What time? When you're not eating or sleeping, you're with the Three-Eyed Raven," Joffrey shot back.

"Boys, please! We've been through this already. Bran, we'll make more time for you. Just say the word," Meera had interrupted.

They had carved out more time, but the conversation had been stilted. None of them enjoyed reminiscing about home as it only served to darken their mood, afraid that they might not ever see it again. Meera had done her best to keep the atmosphere upbeat by always talking about going home as if it was a foregone conclusion, but that was as far as she went. So much of what they talked about boiled down to the game they hunted, speculating about what was going on south of the Wall, and about the stray wights they encountered.

They'd largely been able to avoid the undead. They left wide furrows in the snow and strange squealing noises despite having no breath. Now that Joffrey could reliably sneak through the woods, he took the opportunity to stalk them and use the dragonglass dagger his uncle had given them to forever end their shambling. He poured all of his malice and frustration into stabbing them over and over. His mood never failed to improve after killing one.

He smirked as he finally found his hole in the trees. He carefully stepped and angled his body to give him the best view. He leveled Meera's bow and pulled back the string, holding it steady. It stopped pawing the ground and looking up. He shot and the arrow buried itself into the elk's neck. It squealed and galloped off.

Joffrey whistled shrilly and his horse came trotting over.

He didn't even need to say anything to it as he leaped aboard and gently nudged it with his heels, keeping his eyes sharp for signs. Whatever you do, don't lose this, he lectured himself. No spells, please, no spells.

At some point in the last five years, he started having periods of blacking out. At first, they all thought it was sleepwalking. Meera had found him wandering the caves in the middle of the night and he'd woken up when she touched him, utterly confused. It happened once every several weeks. Then, when he'd been hunting alone, he'd just been ready to take a shot when he blacked out. When he came to, he'd wandered far afield and the sun was setting. He'd nearly dissolved into panic when the tracking skills Meera taught him allowed him to calm himself and he followed his own trail back. As he followed it, he'd scrunched his forehead in confusion as he'd clearly walked in circles in parts. He'd been half a mile from the weirwood when he'd heard the telltale sounds of wights. His panic overtook him and ran as quickly as he could. For the first time, he'd felt like a rabbit being chased by a pack of wolves. The screeching, creaking sounds of the wights had sounded so close that he had been mere moments from getting grabbed. He could still hear them in his dreams and that had been a few years ago.

Meera and Bran had been sullen when he'd returned to the cave empty-handed after a whole wasted day.

Meera did eventually hug him and say that she'd feared for his life and was grateful he'd returned. He told her about blacking out.

"Are you sure you didn't nap?" she had said.

"Why would I nap in the middle of the woods in winter?" he'd snarled.

She'd drawn her mouth into a disapproving line. "I don't know, Joff, it's just you were only sleepwalking before. And now this?"

"I swear, I was closing in on a deer and then it happened."

Despite their closeness, despite all of the time they'd spent together, learning to trust one another, he could see the doubt in her eyes. Were it not for the dangers of the wights, he could've happily stormed out of that cave and never looked back. Instead, he found an isolated cave and stewed in it for a few days. Meera had found him easily, but she didn't try to speak with him, merely left the leg of a rabbit and some tubers so he wouldn't starve. This wasn't the first time he'd required distance. It took time for him to come back, but he eventually did.

Another time, he'd actually been hunting with Meera and just as he aimed to take a shot, darkness took him and his shot went wide. Given their dire circumstances, Meera had taken the bow from him and done the rest of the hunting that day, leaving Joffrey to follow in her wake and brood. She didn't trust him for weeks after not to black out. With nothing to keep him occupied, he grew stir crazy and stalked the caves. When he'd seen the entrance to the Three-eyed Raven's chambers, he stormed into it. After all, he and Meera were suffering cold and starvation all for Bran and they didn't even know why. He was going to demand an explanation.

Unfortunately, he ran straight into a Child of the Forest on guard, who harassed him with a spear and sent him back with a warning that he'd be skewered straight through if he tried it again. He almost did. What was the point of this if he was going to be treated like little more than a guard. When he returned with Meera, he could look forward to being the lord of a keep, which were higher aspirations than he'd ever hoped for once he'd been named a bastard.

When his spells didn't revisit him for a week, Meera had relented and allowed him to hunt with her again. The spells grew further and farther between, happening once every few weeks. He once went as long as two months.

Now, they just had to survive until they left.

It wasn't difficult to see the splashes of red from the elk as it had crashed through. He found it limping, still on its legs. He frowned and considered it. He was at least a mile from the cave and would have to drag it back. He aimed the bow and arrow and buried another arrow in its hind haunch to make it collapse further.

When he approached it, he used a bone knife he'd sharpened out of an elk rib cage to slash out one of its front legs. Then he got his rope and began hogtying it together. Though it was something he'd done a dozen times before, he felt a pang at hearing its piteous cries.

The first time they had felled a deer, Meera had impressed upon him that a quick death was better. She swore that the suffering of the animal tainted the blood. He personally hadn't noticed a difference, but it was far easier to rope and haul a beast when it was dead, he didn't question her. Then one day they were almost to the cave entrance when an elk they'd felled had come back alive and tried to gore them. When Joffrey stabbed it with the dragonglass dagger, it fell still again, but the meat had rotted through by the transformation and was unusable. The elk had also scored him across the ribs, giving him a nasty gash that became infected. It was only with Meera's sewing skills and tinctures from the Children of the Forest that he eventually was nursed back to health.

Given the need for meat, Meera reluctantly relented on this principle and they started killing them just before entering the cave.

He hopped on the horse and nudged it into a canter as he kept a weather eye out on the woods. He knew this small area so well by now that he only needed to pay half attention to where he was going.

Now that he was capable, he and Meera traded off hunting. Both of them sensed that the game was becoming scarcer, but they worked hard to round it up. After all, they would need rations to return to the Wall and it would be too dangerous to hunt every single day. To prepare for their return, they started drying out meat and making it into jerky to keep. They each kept a pack of jerky and tubers on them at all times.

Joffrey realized that in the hours he'd been stalking and hunting, he'd forgotten to eat and reached into the pouch for a strip. He chewed on it like a piece of bark, largely to keep his mouth busy and his gurgling stomach from distracting him.

As he rode in, he shivered and glanced around. Despite the pile of furs he wore, he felt colder. He glanced to the sky to find the sun low, but nowhere near the horizon to justify the chill. His horse shook out its mane and grumbled, indicating nerves. He slapped the reins and urged it to hustle. Then he glanced back at the elk. It still breathed weakly, but it was glassy-eyed; mere moments from death. He had to hurry.

Suddenly, limbs started cracking like ice on a frozen lake. Joffrey looked behind him and saw movement and dots of blue fire. His horse whinnied as he booted it to a gallop and guided it through the trees. He hoped he gained enough ground to lose them before he reached the back entrance.

Just as he reached it, the camouflage covering the door was thrown wide and Meera and Bran came stumbling out.

"Meera!" Joffrey called.

"Joff!" she shouted back, her eyes wide. "They're coming for us. The magic's broken! They've already come through the entrance. We have to leave now!"

He cursed. "Where's Petra? Storm?"

"Dead," Meera replied.

Joffrey winced. It was just this horse now. And they no longer had Bran's direwolf. Storm never helped in the hunt, but he had at least fed himself. Joffrey had seen him take a full grown elk alone and knew that the wolf was formidable.

He glanced at Bran. Though his eyes were trained to the ground, he appeared morose and upset. He held on to Meera's hand tightly, which caused a burning jealousy to rise in Joffrey, but he gritted his teeth against it.

He jumped down. "Get on!" He helped Meera up and then Bran. He meant to turn and grab the reins to start guiding him, but he felt his body seize. Blackness crept up his vision, but he fought against. Still, he heard himself say, "I'll hold them off! Get out of here; both of you." Then he watched himself swat the horse on the rump and it took off into the forest.

NO! Joffrey tried to scream, as he fought for control. They disappeared into the trees and he felt the grip lessen. He pulled out the dragonglass dagger. He didn't take more than two steps in their direction before he saw blue lights in the trees. He started as he heard a crash behind him and wights burst through the camouflage, leaving it hanging.

He tried to scramble away, but his foot slipped on the ice. A wight reached for him and he lashed out with the dagger, feeling satisfaction as he saw the light fade from its eyes. He stabbed another. He was just turning to slash at another when he gasped and bent over double, staring at the bony hand that had just run him through. He tried to draw breath, but couldn't. He peered up into the skeletal face, with just the remains of a scraggly beard clinging to it. It pulled out its dagger. He arched his back as he felt another dagger enter there. He slumped to the ground, unable to scream, feeling every stab like a punch.

The cold seemed to numb the pain and his eyelids fluttered as they grew heavier until there was only darkness.

Dear Lord Lannister, master of war

As His Grace bids, I am writing to inform you that Brandon Stark and Meera Reed have returned from their journey beyond the Wall. Unfortunately, Joffrey Waters was not with them; they claim he laid down his life to ensure they got away safely. I have no bones to send you, but I will hold a vigil in honor of his sacrifice.

Given what has happened to young Bran, I fear the Night King may nearly be ready. My scouts tell me that they see more dead than alive in the forest now and I've withdrawn them all back behind the Wall. We still lack for men to man our Walls. The King has offered me carte blanche to speak with Stannis about support, but I am concerned about the tension between the men of the Night's Watch and the freefolk presence. An unbalance in numbers may encourage the wildlings in an attempt to overpower us. As master of war, I need assurances that more soldiers will be sent to counterbalance this.

I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

We received our tenth shipment of dragonglass and I can say with confidence that we will have enough daggers to outfit twenty thousand men. I must also thank you for the shipment of parts and materials we needed to fix the catapults on the ramparts. We've stacked and gathered piles of old stones for each catapult to make use of. I am confident that given our preparedness, we will be able to withstand a full scale attack on the Wall by any army, no matter the numbers.

We stand ready,

Lord Commander Jeor Mormont of the Night's Watch

Jaime

The parchment crinkled beneath his fingers as he reached the end, feeling hollow inside. It had been five years since he'd sent Joffrey off with Bran. He'd found his solidarity with the Stark boy— especially given the age difference—peculiar but he was pleased the boy was capable of making friends. He never would've imagined Joffrey would have changed so much that he would be willing to sacrifice himself for these friends.

Well, you proved me wrong, Joff. I'm sorry it had to end this way, Jaime thought morosely. And now his nephew was almost certainly walking amongst the dead. He prayed to all of the Gods that he wouldn't have the misfortune of coming face to face with him. While it certainly wouldn't be considered kinslaying at that point, it would wound Jaime to have to end him. He'd do it, of course.

I would've liked to have seen the man you had become. His thoughts were still on Joff when he picked up the next letter. When he broke it open, he was surprised to find it was from Lady Meera Reed. He'd met the girl in passing, but had paid little mind to her. He'd been impressed with what he'd seen. She was much like Brienne in that she carried a bow and arrows practically everywhere. She'd also been responsible for hunting up game on their journey to the Wall. Jaime hadn't had time to teach Joffrey anything about hunting, so she was most invaluable to the small group.

Dear Lord Lannister,

I had the pleasure of being Joffrey's closest companion. His demeanor was prickly and that never relented, but I wanted to let you know that he was an apt pupil. I taught him how to draw a bow and arrow, how to hunt, track game, dress kills, set traps, cook kills, and even sew.

He often spoke of you and wondered how you might see him once he returned. He never got that chance. The dead breached the caves we were staying in and we were forced to flee. He gave us his horse and stayed behind. He was a true man of honor to the end.

I came to love him. I was prepared to approach my father with an offer for a match. He truly lived up to the ideals of the crannogmen and fulfilled his role as our protector. I miss him dearly. Given our bond, I wanted to make sure you knew his accomplishments.

You have my deepest condolences,

Meera Reed

Jaime thought his mouth had gone dry as he read it. His nephew had made something of himself and actually won the love of a lady. A match with a noble was almost more than he could have imagined. He escaped you, Cersei. He became a man that you would despise and, for that, I am proud of him, he mused.

He would write back to Lady Meera for her kind words regarding his nephew. He was glad someone was able to witness his transformation, but despite his happiness, he felt hollow. He had lived up to his potential and was cut down before his time.

He now regretted rejecting his nephew for sword lessons. He might've been able to do them in secret, but Joff had been barely ten at the time and it almost certainly would've gotten back to Cersei. But then what? He was a boy, after all. Robert would have likely approved and then Cersei would've had no power, not that she wouldn't do her damndest to make Jaime miserable. She had a talent for it.

Jaime looked over at the other correspondence, shook his head, and rose. It would have to wait.

He found the nearest servant and inquired after Julianna's presence and was pointed toward the twins' rooms. Jaime smiled wistfully to himself. After a cadre of boys, Brienne had given birth to two beautiful girls. It had not been a good pregnancy. Brienne had been bed bound far more than with any of the boys and she'd gone into labor early. Jaime had fretted so much that he'd been unable to eat and could barely see to the children. After nearly a full day, the twins were born and though Brienne was weak, she'd managed to pull through. She now took the herb that prevented pregnancy religiously with her tea every morning.

He poked his head in their room and smiled as he saw Julianna stacking blocks with them. She had grown substantially, now coming up to Jaime's shoulder. She had Cersei's beautiful hair that fell in ringlets about her. But unlike Cersei who had been sour even in childhood, she beamed with the energy of a sunny day and doted on the children with true compassion.

The time under Roose Bolton seemed to have left little in the way of scars. Julianna hadn't suffered in the same way that Myrcella had, for which Jaime was forever grateful. Myrcella had reached her seven-and-ten year and had pleaded to join the Silent Sisters. This had surprised Jaime as he'd thought she was thriving at Casterly Rock. They'd continued the sword training that she'd started on Tarth and now she was quite formidable. He wondered briefly if she would've out-matched Joffrey. He tried to talk her out of it, immediately agreeing that she need not ever marry, but she had insisted.

A month later, they had all stood in the lion's mouth and bid her farewell. He'd never admit it aloud, but he'd been inordinately pleased when Myrcella had embraced Brienne as a loved one. There was no reason he could think of that she wouldn't; it cemented that Brienne was a perfectly fitting wife and member of the family. If there was such a thing as an afterlife, he hoped his father was burning in his frustration.

Brienne sat in a rocking chair, overlooking the twins. Her hair was slicked with sweat and her cheeks were rosy from her training earlier in the day. She smiled at him as he entered. He had no doubt that she loved all of their children, but the twins appeared to hold a special place in her heart. They had her sapphire blue eyes, but Cersei's golden locks.

"Did you have an audience this morning?"

She chuckled with him. "You know I did." The boys were beginning to reach an age when their training in the sword would begin. Both he and Brienne were eagerly anticipating that age, but for the time being, the boys were relegated to watching them spar from the sidelines.

His smile faltered. With the news he'd just received, Aemon was apt to insist on mobilizing. Jaime couldn't fault him in that reasoning either. It would take as long as a year to shift their forces northward. As master of war, he'd be overseeing it all, likely marching with the army itself. Cassian was seven, only half a year shy of his eighth birthday, when Jaime promised he could start learning. It seemed more and more likely his education would begin at the hands of their master of arms, Ser Edgar Forge.

No, Jaime thought fiercely. He would start Cassian and Tydus both tonight if it meant being there to start their training.

Brienne watched his good humor fade, but she only raised her eyebrows at him in question.

He handed her the letter. He returned his attention to the girls once more, getting down on the floor with them.

"Uncle," Julianna said by way of greeting, her voice green with her good humor.

"Julie," he replied. Before he could say another word, he heard Brienne suck in a breath behind him. "I need to speak with you. Mind if we go out?"

She caught the shift in the tension, but nodded brightly. They went into the hallway. Never one to mince words, he said, "This is going to be difficult, but you have to know. You know how Joff went beyond the Wall to act as a guard to Brandon Stark?"

Julianna nodded, her brightness dimming.

Jaime put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "He gave his life to save Brandon and Lady Meera Reed. Lady Meera spoke of him as a true hero."

Her face crumpled, but she did not give into her tears. "Thank you, uncle. I was never close with Joff. He didn't care much for me." Her voice's color had deepened to dark blue nearly void of its color.

"Of course, he did. You were his sister," Jaime assured, his own voice a thready purple. He wanted to give Joff the benefit of the doubt, but his childhood years still loomed large in Jaime's head.

Brienne came out into the hallway, the letter still in her hand, and she walked over to them. "Do you need anything, dear?"

"Nuh-no, Aunt Brienne. I-I think I'll be fine. May I go to my room?" Julianna asked.

"Of course," Brienne said, also giving Julianna a light squeeze of her shoulder. They were silent as they watched her fade down the hall until she turned a corner.

"I'm going to start the boys' training," Jaime said.

"Galladon is a touch too young," Brienne replied wistfully.

"I mean Cassian and Tydus."

She nodded. "Then let's go," she turned down the hall. Now that the boys were children, they were far less elusive. Tydus and Galladon were often in their room, playing, wrestling, or listening to the maid tell stories. Though they still had their wild moments, their previous mischief had been largely curbed by Brienne and Jaime ordering a few servants to be on their heels at all times. Though it chafed the boys, it had done the trick of making them less inclined to dangerous mishaps.

Jaime knocked on the door and opened it before he got a response to find Tydus and Galladon bickering.

"Boys, that's enough," Brienne said curtly. They immediately stepped away from each other, acting guilty.

"Come along now. Where's Cassian?"

"I don't know," Tydus said.

Jaime waved them through and they began trooping down the hall. Cassian often played with his younger brothers, but he had lately begun to prefer a nook in the library where he squirreled away reading. It reminded Jaime of Tyrion. He'd told Tyrion about it and received a delighted letter about it to pass along to Cassian. The two now exchanged letters monthly.

They found him in the midst of writing one of these letters.

"Come along now," Jaime said.

"What are we doing?" Cass asked.

"It's time for training, I think," Brienne replied, casting Jaime a conspiratorial look.

He eyed them. "You don't normally train now."

Jaime nudged him and wink. "Come along. This will be a treat."

Cass put the letter in his book and snapped it close. He deposited it in his room on the way to the bottom floor.

In the ring, Jaime and Brienne sorted through the wooden lathes, pulling out several of the best ones they could find.

Jaime swelled with pride as he held out the hilt to Cass. His eyes widened and he took it in his hand.

"Your mother and I think it's time you started training."

His face split into a toothy grin, showing the gaps of his baby teeth. "Oh, thank you, thank you!"

"You too, Tydus," Brienne said.

Their son nearly trembled with delight. Jaime thought he might've seen tears in his eyes, but it was likely a trick of the torches.

"What about me?! I want to train!" Galladon jumped up and down and stamped his feet. Tears were in his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Galladon, your mother and I think you're still too young."

He jutted his bottom lip out and pouted. "But wanna!"

"No, not yet," Brienne said firmly.

"Why am I here?!"

"You can still learn by example. Of course, if you continue this, you can go and sit in your room until dinner," Jaime replied.

He still continued to pout, but he fell quiet.

Since the boys had only lathes, they decided to forgo armor for the time being, which mostly consisted of a tanned hide to protect their chests. As soon as they started fighting, they would need it. The bruises were going to start appearing soon enough.

"Now that you have your sword, we're going to practice grip and stance," Jaime declared.

He and Brienne went between the two, painstakingly correcting their grip after they kept shifting it. Although it was tedious, Jaime wasn't certain he'd ever felt happier. For years, he'd craved this moment: when he could pass on his skills to his son and now he had two, ripe for the picking. There wasn't nearly enough time to teach them everything he knew, but he thought he could now march north without any regrets.