It has been approximately four years since the start of this story. Four years since a raven flew north from King’s Landing, bearing the news of Lord Jon Arryn’s death and the coming of King Robert Baratheon to Winterfell to his Warden of the North, Lord Eddard Stark. In that time, we have seen no less than three major wars start, rage and end: the War of the Five Kings which swallowed up every part of Westeros, the War for The Wall between the Night’s Watch and the King Beyond the Wall’s army and the War for Slaver’s Bay between the forces of Daenerys Stormborn and the Slave Masters. We have seen great houses rise and fall. We have witnessed the deaths of heroes and villains alike. And we have seen monsters of every kind leave scars on the minds and bodies of our protagonists. No one still alive in this tale doesn’t carry some kind of battlescar, physical or mental.
In the four years since she left her home, Arya Stark has been a student of fencing, a hidden traveler, a runaway, a captive, a steward to Lord Tywin Lannister, a prisoner of The Hound, a trainee of the Faceless Men and finally, a deliverer of vengeance. But finally walking back into her ancient home provides her with a moment to take stock of all that she’s experienced in that time. Evading her sister’s guards, she makes for her father’s tomb — which is where Sansa finds her. The two sisters, fiercely unique and at each other’s throats for much of their lives, find common ground in all the tragedy that has befallen them and in the strength with which they’ve kept moving forward. But if Sansa thinks she’s gotten her sister back, she’s slowly coming to a realization that this Arya is more than the tomboyish girl who she last saw at King’s Landing. She’s a fighter, a warrior and someone who speaks of a list of targets.
However, even Arya is a bit taken aback at the quiet fortitude with which their brother, Bran, speaks of things he should not know. Let’s consider that he manages to shock the usually unflappable Petyr Baelish when he gives Bran the dagger that was meant to kill him all those years back. Back then, Littlefinger claimed it was his until he lost it to Tyrion Lannister — a claim that drove Catelyn Stark into taking the Imp prisoner and starting the War of the Five Kings. Now he’s stating he has no idea as to its provenance. Bran doesn’t buy it because he knows the truth — even if he cannot voice it yet. Such is the extent of his powers that, the more he gains access to the Three-Eyed Raven’s visions, the more he stops being Brandon Stark. Meera Reed calls him out on it but her words fail to reach the young man she once protected. The power he gained may be enough to turn the tide against the Army of the Dead — just as Arya’s skills may be enough to stop Cersei Lannister in her tracks — but the cost has taken much of who they were from them for good.
Down in Dragonstone, meanwhile, Jon Snow is looking to forge an alliance with Daenerys Targaryen. The King in the North and the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea have also suffered, been brought low and risen stronger to take their positions. In the depths of the dragonglass mine, Jon shows Dany the ancient carvings of the Children of the Forest, depicting their great war against the White Walkers. How the Children united with the First Men to fight off their greatest enemy during the Long Night. Jon takes that moment to explain why he cannot bend the knee to Dany but still seeks an alliance with her. For Jon, his experience being betrayed by the Night’s Watch have taught him that he should not do something that would cause his bannermen to lose faith in him. Bending the knee to Dany might cause them to doubt, right as they need one another more and more. For Dany though, the situation is getting more tense. Upon learning of the loss of the Tyrell army, she is ready to unleash her dragons against King’s Landing herself. Tyrion tries to talk her out of doing so — fearful of the vengeance that the Mad King’s daughter might wreak upon Westeros.
Jon, for his part, is still unsure of what to make of Dany — though Ser Davos seems to think there’s a growing sense of infatuation developing. Perhaps in Dany, Jon finds a kindred spirit: someone who inspires her followers and not someone who buys them or frightens them into fighting for her. He does find it odd that Missandei would not consider leaving Dany’s side or if she even could despite her protestations — she could be as much a prisoner in Dragonstone as he is. Then, he gets an unwelcomed reunion with the former Prince of Winterfell, Theon Greyjoy. Having been rescued by some of Yara’s Ironborn, Theon is there to petition Dany for help in rescuing his sister. Theon has lost much that made him what he was in the years since he was Ned Stark’s ward. Though his losses are physical, it’s in his psyche where the damage is strongest. Having lost his manhood, his title and even his sense of self, he may fear losing Yara most of all — and in that, losing the last bit of himself.
They are not the only ones who have paid much for what they have gained. Queen Cersei Lannister has lost all three of her children, her father and, some might say, her humanity in order to finally seat the Iron Throne. But she has slaughtered all those in her path and now seeks unchallenged dominion. Thanks to the gold her brother looted from Highgarden, the Crown’s many debts — years of work at the hands of the unwitting Robert Baratheon and the devious Littlefinger — are set to be paid. The Iron Bank’s envoy, Tycho Nestoris, is impressed and seeks further business with the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Her goal requires the Golden Company, the greatest sellsword company in Essos. Tycho agrees to assist her goal — as soon as the gold is in his possession.
The gold, along with the grain, is being escorted from Highgarden back to King’s Landing by Jaime Lannister, Bronn, Lord Randyll Tarly and his son, Dickon. Jaime, aware of the incoming winter, asks them all to ensure no granary or farmhouse is left unchecked. They harvest The Reach for the sake of the capital in a desperate attempt to supply their own forces against winter and war. Jaime seems unhappy with the act but knows it needs doing for his and his sister’s sake. Bronn gets a chance to smirk down on the naive and young Dickon Tarly, Sam’s younger brother and a man who had never been in battle before. Unlike his father and brother, Dickon had yet to face any foe with his life on the line.
Their wagon train, however, comes under attack of Dany, Drogon and the Dothraki horde. In that moment, the Dothraki prove right the words of Robert Baratheon so many years back about “only a fool would meet the Dothraki in an open field.” They charge with mad abandon and tear into the Lannister forces. Maybe the battle would have been a draw, but for the presence of Drogon burning gaps in their lines with dragonfire. She tears at the train with precision, burning the Lannisters’ gains and throwing their defense into chaos and confusion. Even Jaime’s vain attempt to have his archers bring Dany down fail. So he sets Bronn to unleashing Qyburn’s scorpion on Drogon…and it works. Sort of.
The sellsword manages to wound the mighty beast to the ground, forcing Dany to dismount and try to dislodge the bolt from her most powerful weapon. Jaime sees an opportunity to strike down the Dragon Queen but as her dragon turns to incinerate him, Bronn saves him from the fire. Both sink into a nearby body of water, unsure of their fates or that of their men. Daenerys remains alive as does Drogon — though what, if anything, that scorpion bolt might do to him remains to be seen.
Much has been paid by these characters to still be alive and still be active in this game of thrones they’re playing. All have been lucky in one way or another. Even so, they carry the wounds and the lessons side by side as they barrel towards the climax. Standing in the distance of the battle, Tyrion Lannister could see his older brother charging at his Queen. The brother he loves and that loves him trying to kill the woman who has found a place of respect and honor for him. Perhaps that is the last lesson these characters will learn — veterans though they are of all the hard lessons these wars have given them. At some point, everyone will have to choose which side they are on and recognize that not everyone will make it out alive. The time for shared allegiances is coming to an end.