The nightmare began as it always did, with loneliness and ice. Sometimes, it was Dragonstone fallen into cold ruin. On some occasions, it was Summerhall succumbing to the infinite winter. This night, as several before, it was the Red Keep serving as the frozen stage for one performer. A lone singer who's ballad was of cries of desperation, fear, and ultimately pain and who's audience was death.
"Mother! Elia! Viserys!" Rhaegar shouted as he ran through the empty, snowed over hallways of Maegor's Holdfast. Each breath left cold air in its wake and pain gnawing in his lungs. His armor rattled with each footfall, always cutting through the otherwise oppressive silence. He knew there would be no answer to his calls. There never was. And every time, he hoped something would change.
"Arthur! Barristan! Gerold!" The hallways went for an eternity, a black void in some parts whilst others were blasted open, revealing the full bleakness of his surroundings. Through the massive cracks, Rhaegar saw all of Kings Landing engulfed in snow, a white wasteland as far as the eye could see. There was no fire anywhere, no noise of city life, naught but the howling of a cold, lonely wind. The sky covered by thick, white clouds blotting out the sun began to darken, enveloping all under it in shadow.
What little reason there was to the Red Keep vanished the closer night came to fall upon the castle. Hallways went on without end, side passages, and staircases brought him to places that could not, should not be there. The shadows grew thicker, the flame of his torch began to wane, the steel sword in his hand threatened to freeze over his fingers. The billowing snow outside became a storm, devouring the interiors with each passing moment through every crack and hole. Rhaegar's run slowed, his feet struggling to make each new step in the growing mounds. He dared not shout anymore, a single intake of cold air would assuredly destroy his throat.
Then he heard it, the great flapping of leather wings, a shadow passing over the castle in the dimming daylight, and a chorus of three great roars. The dragons had returned! All was not lost, if he could just get to them, this disaster could be averted. Not even the coldest frost could withstand the searing heat of dragon fire. Rhaegar, as always, felt the dwindling embers of his strength rekindled and chased after the dragon with renewed vigor. Forgetting the inevitable futility of his efforts once again. His erratic surroundings began to take a more familiar shape, leading him to the throne room.
With a great effort, Rhaegar pushed and hacked his way through the sealed doors like a drowning man clutching for every scrape of air. Behind him, the shadows of falling night drew closer, and in the room denied to him, the roars grew louder. He even felt a rush of heat from the other side, a burning inferno waiting to embrace him. If he could grasp at but a fraction of this power, claim the dragon awaiting him, Rhaegar could still save what little there was left of the world.
The doors gave out after a final push, the roar in his throat echoing past the vacant halls and pathways of the Red Keep. With all the grace of a drunken dwarf, Rhaegar fell face-first into the throne room following his slam into deep snow within it. His helmet fell from his head, his torch was extinguished and lost from his grasp.
Forcing himself back onto his feet, he stared at the blown open roof of the throne room, allowing the intensifying blizzard outside in. Then, frantically, desperately, Rhaegar looked for signs of the three-headed dragon, of the heat he'd felt mere moments ago. There was no sign of anything or anyone there. Not a claw print in the snow, not a single sign of burns anywhere. There was naught even a trace of people. The only things in the room were himself, the iron throne... and the dragon skulls watching, judging him silently.
Rhaegar stared back, remembering the words of an unpleasant yet knowledgable voice. It spoke of power lying within those bones, leftover strength from the mighty beasts that brought the world to heel centuries ago. He was foolish or desperate enough to believe he could grasp at this power through sheer force of well, grasping at... Something that was there and slipping between his fingers regardless. Eventually, the last effort robbed him of his strength, and of what little, precious time was left, sending him to his knees.
His eyes never left the dragon bones, however. The longer he stared, the less they seemed a promise of power and salvation and more of a portent of his own fate.
"The dragons are gone, little prince," The heads of the dead fire breathers almost seemed to say to him, a contemptuous chorus. "Now, so too will their riders."
Rhaegar hated them at that moment, hated how for all their power, they died out. Dying to their own kin and to masses of enraged smallfolk alike. He hated his own ancestors for so foolishly culling their numbers, weakening House Targaryen and leaving all of Westeros vulnerable to a death not seen in thousands of years. He hated himself for knowing of this storm and failing to stop it. Such was the fury in his chest, Rhaegar almost entertained the fool notion it would be enough to make a difference.
Any fantasy of a grand, defiant last stand was shattered by the simple fact he could not get up from his kneeling position. His sword hand was so frozen around the pommel, it would snap off if he tried to brace himself on it. His torch was lost, buried in the growing snow mound around him. The armor covering his entire body had become so rigid, Rhaegar could scarcely move at all. All his years of study, preparation, skill at arms amounted to nothing. Everyone he knew, loved, admired, hated, and respect was dead and gone. He'd failed them all to the last man, woman, and child. Despair overwhelmed him, a desire for the cold to simply get on with it, freeze him dead and let it all be over.
The blizzard heard his silent plea. The clouds overhead turned from white to grey to finally black, the throne room was so dark, he could see naught at all. Yet, he knew he was not alone. Something... Moved in the shadows, vague shapes dancing about, observing him through strange, glowing eyes eternally fixed on him. The chill intensified monumentally, such was its strength Rhaegar's own hair froze around his neck. He couldn't even shut his own eyes. Then the shapes halted, their eyes moving to something beyond Rhaegar's sight. A green light illuminated his surroundings, forcing the shadow shapes to reel back.
The creatures... Hissed, the sound of icicles grinding against one another. Rhaegar felt a fresh warmth pass through him, letting him breathe and move. With a gasp, he fell upon the snow, his helmet falling from his head. When Rhaegar lifted his gaze, he found something standing between him and the darkness. It was a wolf, white as the snow itself and entirely unafraid of the monsters threatening it in their strange tongue. When the beast turned to look upon him, its eyes were red.
Rhaegar did not awake from the nightmare with a dull, agonizing headache or near incapable of even moving. Such was it when the terrors of sleep frequented him in the past since he was a boy. The experience of age only adding to their frightening clarity and terrifying complexity. Not so this time. If anything, the sight of the wolf, burned into his memory like a brand, left him invigorated, validated. There was nothing to second guess about this, it was the Witcher, turned into a living incarnation of his silver, red-eyed medallion.
For some weeks now, he'd regaled them all on an evening basis of many tales of his lands, of places where magic remained strong, ever-present. Of lands where dragons lived with honor and dignity despite their treatment, where corpse-eating beasts roamed the swamps and seas, and griffins soared through the skies, building families and terrorizing men. Rhaegar would not have believed it to be true were it for Geralt's... Demonstration. Among other things.
Though he did not dare approach the Witcher directly, Varys and numerous other would gossip and spin tall tales to his father, Rhaegar had agents of his own. The Kingsguard, though oath and duty-bound to serve the king, were no friends of his. That privilege was Rhaegar's. He was the one who trained with them until his marriage to Elia and Aerys' madness forced him to Dragonstone. It was he who took them on many youthful escapades into Kings Landing and beyond, spoke to them as people. Not as merely walking swords to stave of delusions of knives in the dark. Or any other unsavory things.
Rhaegar rose from his bed, walking to a bowl of cold water left for him to refresh himself with. The early morning sun rose in the horizon, such a sight he felt inspired to write a ballad for the first time in many moons. It was... heartening to have his mood better for a change. Still, there were other matters to focus on, far more important than his good spirits. The Witcher's combative prowess was startling and welcome, they would need as many great fighters as they could muster for the dark days ahead.
He'd learned of Geralt's interest in Harrenhal from Ser Oswell, particularly of a strange experience the knight suffered in his youth. From other, less famous agents, the Witcher's interest in the ruined castle and the curse long since rumored to hang over it was known to Pycelle. The Grand Maester had shared many a tome on the subject. The Witchers' interests in matters of little concern to those who could, and should care, did not end there. He'd inquired into the Valyrian Freehold, the Doom, the Age of Heroes, the Long Night. Yet, it was one matter he discussed with Ser Barristan which surprised and shook Rhaegar profoundly.
"Geralt spoke with Ser Gerold, and I of the weather, Prince Rhaegar," The bold knight told him during the hour of the wolf, in the safety of the vast Godswood. It was a place few frequented, and fewer still knew as well as Rhaegar who spent many, many days of his youth observing and traveling through its thick, winding pathways. "He asked us if our winters or summers last as long as he heard they did. When we told him it was true, he was troubled..."
"Aye, I believe his precise words were: how the hell are any of you still alive? He explained to us of his own homelands seasons, how all four of them lasted but months, three at most. How they were constant, with some years being warmer or colder. Completely unlike our own seasons here."
"A winter lasting but months?" Rhaegar repeated. The very idea was absurd, unbelievable. Yet, this was the Witcher. A man who, for all of his experience in the arcane arts, seemed entirely incapable of flights of fancy. Then he remembered something of the Long Night from the tales of a winter that lasted an entire generation. Rhaegar's own blood seemed to freeze as a horrifying thought came to mind.
"We thought him jesting, at first," Barristan said, his low voice dropping lower still. "There was no humor. If anything, Geralt seemed to grow paler still, pressing a hand against his temple."
"Did he say any more...?"
"Only that there was more Witcher's work to be done here than he thought."
Was it truly possible, was the influence of the Others still strong over Westeros? Their power cast a darkness over the land millennia before the first Andals or Valyrians came. Who was to say its effect did not persist even now? He'd proposed this to Maester Aemon, writing to his wise, aged kin on the Wall numerous times of The Witcher. He'd hoped to meet the strange man and to inquire into matters of magic. Aemon did not openly write of the Others, yet from his words, Rhaegar knew he'd begun to suspect something foul afoot as well.
If only he could find a chance to speak to Geralt directly, with no others around. Even with his closest confidants, Rhaegar was hesitant to overtly speak of his visions, his thoughts of prophecy. They would begin to doubt him, think him a different kind of mad from Aerys, and in the days to come, he needed every staunch ally he could. To present himself as the infallible prince they all believed him to be. Yet, with the Witcher, he could speak openly. If there was any man who would not think him mad, it was one who'd clawed his way from the matters of magic time and again.
Geralt crept through the mostly vacant hall, his steps making neither sound nor vibration. His fingers gently tightened and loosened about the pommel of his sword. He didn't wish for Jaime to so much as hear the creaking of his leather gloves. The boy stood in the center of the room, blade held in a middle guard in both hands and knees bent slightly. His breathing was faint, measured, executing the exercises Geralt imparted on him with flawless rhythm. His posture was still somewhat tense, particularly around his shoulders, much of the rest of his body gave off the false impression of almost arrogant ease.
Geralt hesitated to call it to deem it good, not until he struck. Whirling his blade in a silent, semi-circle, he struck Jaime's left side from behind. He intentionally let the blunted weapon aim high, only to change course in the last possible moment and go for his legs. Jaime leaped forward without looking and turned his entire body around in time to meet Geralt's follow-up attacks. The boy withstood a swift, frontal Fiery Dancer sequence with greater ease than before, his arms and body moving to deflect and block the blows.
When Geralt switched strategies, choosing a heavy, Temerian Devil overhead blow, Jaime answered it well. The boy knew he simply couldn't take the Witcher strength versus strength, and so he wisely didn't try. Instead, the young Lannister let the attack hit and push him back. He did not awkwardly stumble into messy footwork, allowing the momentum to carry him and practice to cushion his landing. Then, his legs twisted, using the considerable inertia to empower his own overhead strike.
Geralt avoided it and, feeling a bit clever, plunged his sword into the spet Jaime's right foot was poised to land on. The boy froze, leg hovering inches above the sword and completely unsure what to do. When the sword swung to Jaime's other leg still on the ground, the boy successfully leaped back and regained his balance.
"Is fighting one-legged the next step in our training?" Jaime huffed, wiping some sweat from his brow. "Allow me to venture a guess: once a three-headed snail poisoned your left foot, and you had to hop on a single leg to defeat it?"
"There's no such thing as a three-headed snail, wise-ass," Geralt reprimanded him, even as he smiled. "And yes, I've faced the difficulties of fighting with a leg immobilized. My knee was once shattered and didn't heal properly. On several occasions, it gave out from under me."
"Truly? It does not seem to hinder you now."
"I went someplace, very far away. Let's just say my wounds, old and new alike, were healed there. No healer or Maester can match it in this regard."
"A useful place, mayhaps I could go there should something ill befall me?"
"Be better than I was, and you won't have to," In a show of self-depreciation, Jaime snorted, no doubt thinking this an impossibility. Not that it stopped him from trying. The boy's desire for them to fight one day, closer as equals, was still present. Tempered now with some wisdom and patience. The past few days, he'd done so well in the sparring ring, he'd gotten this morning off to relax. He chose to spend it prolonging their secret exercise for the day.
The truth was, Jaime had great potential. Even beyond his sword skills, exemplifying the adage that a man could be born to fight, there was intellect, consideration, and even compassion in the boy. If he could weather the storm of the real world and continue resisting some of his own worst tendencies, Jaime could be a great man. Not just a knight or lord. He wouldn't tell him this, not yet, Jaime's ego had been lessened to a reasonable level. It would not do to upset this.
"But you were right, there will be another step in your reflex training, taking on more than one opponent at once."
"I'd assumed we'd come to that, sooner rather than later."
"You assume well. Whatever men your father chooses for this task may not be my equals in swordplay," Jaime snorted again. "But they don't have to be. Even the best of the best can only compensate for his enemy's numerical superiority for a time. Often times, it's better to simply retreat to more favorable ground or give way entirely, live to fight another day."
"Many men would balk at such a thought," The boy smiled, resting his palm atop the sword handle. "You'd balk at their stupidity."
"One of life's greatest gifts that keeps on giving is witnessing the infinite ways people screw themselves over for pride or glory," While his student was resting, Geralt swiftly moved to see how well he could do when they weren't actively fighting. To his satisfaction, Jaime reacted quickly, whirling his blade and blocking Geralt's thrust aside. "Good, you're paying attention."
"I'll not fall for the same trick again."
"Thank you for telling me, I'll be sure to resort to my many, many other tricks henceforth."
Two hours later, once morning was well and truly underway, the two parted. Geralt commanded Jaime to take the remainder of it off, rest was just as important as practice. A warrior gained nothing by torturing his body. He'd take his own advice too. Between tutoring Jaime, training with the Kingsguard, sharing information with Pycelle, investigating the oddities of Westeros, and entertaining a lunatic, Geralt had kept himself busy these past few weeks. Lying down in his bed, enjoying a meal or two, and simply reading a book for the sake of itself, there were worse ways to pass the time.
So, of course, something was wrong. Before Geralt had even reached the chamber, he heard someone asking for him. This, someone, was a messenger, bearing something from Aerys. An immediate summons. The Witcher sighed, feeling a wave of irritation pass over him. Irritation and trepidation.
"I'm here, royal messenger," Geralt said with the utmost respect, bowing to the young man who struggled not to jump at his sudden appearance. The nearby guards seemed faintly amused by this. "How may I be of service to his majesty?"
The man collected his strength and turned to face Geralt, doing a remarkable job of appearing dignified even as his heart still beat like a drum.
"His Grace demands your presence at the throne room, Master Witcher. In our king's own words, he wishes you to behold the end of the Kingswood Brotherhood."
Geralt said nothing, did nothing but look at the messenger. No, past the man, no doubt growing uncomfortable under the snake-eyed gaze. Toyne had been sent to the Wall, most of the rest were dead. There was only Wenda the White Fawn left of the Brotherhood, and now Aerys was going to burn her alive. Let wildfire devour her, and make Geralt watch...
"Let us make haste then," Geralt said, unblinkingly, fists clenched and voice harder than steel. "We wouldn't want to anger the king, now would we?"