September 25, 2012
The Riverlands Center, Memphis, Tennessee
Brienne Tarth relished the quiet as she walked through the deserted corridors of the Riverlands Center. It was late evening, competition concluded for the day. Hours ago these corridors had been filled with riders and crew, reporters, stock contractors, and event staff.
Up above in the arena, a capacity crowd of 18,000 had cheered as 35 riders took turns mounting one-ton bulls. Eight seconds. That’s all it took to earn a score, but those eight seconds were the longest in sports. In eight seconds a player could make a first down, slide into home, slap a puck into the net, or run the court for a lay-up.
In the arena, for eight seconds a rider held on for dear life, one hand wrapped firmly around a rope looped around a bull’s midsection, the other hand held high above his head, balancing to stay astride the bull as it leapt out of the chute, struggling with every buck and twist to toss him into the air. He pressed in with his legs, thighs burning with every flex of the bull’s larger and vastly more powerful muscles, but if he pressed too hard, the blunted spurs on his boots digging in, he’d get a wilder ride. Changing directions, fading, spinning, the bull struggling to buck him off. The bulls weren’t in pain—they were just pissed off. The wilder the ride, the higher the score, if the rider held on. If he didn’t hold on, he faced a sickening drop to the dirt, hooves slamming down around his head and his body if he didn’t roll away fast enough.
Riders who covered their bulls, lasting until the bell and dismounting, would edge away and let the bullfighters push the bull out of the arena. Riders who fell would roll away and trust the bullfighters to protect them until they could get on their feet. Three bullfighters worked as a team, distracting the bull and luring it away. A year and a half ago, Brienne was a rider, usually the only woman competing in each event. Now she was a bullfighter, working the minor circuits of the Professional Bull Riders tour, traveling from one town to the next in her old Chevy truck.
Brienne usually wasn’t at the PBR’s main tour events, but sometimes Renly Baratheon, her long-time friend and one of the tour’s top riders, would invite her along. He had a tame pet bull and would put on educational presentations for local school groups. Brienne helped with these whenever her schedule allowed. She badly needed the extra money Renly paid her and she welcomed the excuse to come watch the top riders.
Tonight she wasn’t supposed to be in the arena, but Renly had forgotten some of his gear in the locker room. He and his boyfriend Loras Tyrell were eager to celebrate after his top score in today’s go-round, and Brienne was eager to avoid bar-hopping with the riders, so she volunteered to go back and retrieve his things. Renly and Loras always invited her along, but she made excuses to avoid going more often than not.
Brienne, six foot three, broad-shouldered and heavily freckled, did not enjoy the bar scene. The average bull rider stood under five foot ten and had zero interest in even speaking to a woman of her considerable size. Even worse, other men sometimes feigned interest until they realized she wasn’t looking for a quick fuck in the dark. Once had been enough.
Once in the locker room, Brienne quickly found Renly’s new custom competition boots and his helmet, discarded under a bench. As she came back out into the corridor, laughter echoed along the walls. Drunk laughter. Brienne set Renly’s gear down and followed the corridor to the tunnel leading up to the main arena. Peeking around the tunnel’s concrete wall, she spotted Vargo Hoat and his lackey Zollo leaning over one of the steel chutes around the edge of the arena floor. They were laughing.
Bang. Bang. Bang. There was a bull in the chute. An angry one, from the sound of it.
Brienne crept out, using the stadium seating to hide her from the two men. She fumbled for her phone, not sure who she would call, but she had to stop this before they did something stupid. First Brienne snapped a picture. At least she could prove what she’d seen later if they tried to deny it.
“What are you jackasses doing in here?” The voice came from the far end of the arena, where Jaime Lannister was striding in. He was one of the older riders, though still one of the most attractive with his dark blonde hair, insolent smile, and piercing green eyes. He wasn’t smiling now.
Lannister shouldn’t even have been here. He had turned out, withdrawing from the competition due to injury. The idiot wouldn’t wear a helmet, like many of the older riders, and he’d gotten a concussion at the last event. He must have been reliving the good old days with the group of retired riders here this week. The three-time world champion was swiftly approaching retirement too, and hadn’t won a title in four years. Renly often referred to him as “the old man.”
Hoat and Zollo looked up. “Lannithter, we’re jutht having thum fun.” That was Hoat, the one with the ridiculous long, pointy goatee. He actually had to tuck it into his shirt during competition so it wouldn’t get caught in the bull rope. The fat one, Zollo, seemed to exist primarily to slap around people who mocked Hoat’s lisp.
Lannister reached the men, looking down at the much shorter Hoat with disdain. He took another step and peered into the chute. His brow furrowed. “Brave Companion? Are you insane? What in the seven hells is wrong with you two?”
Hoat and Zollo shared a furtive look and edged away while Lannister dug his phone out of his pocket. As he unlocked it, Zollo snatched away the phone and heaved it into the middle of the dirt-covered arena floor. Lannister shook his head and started muttering a string of curses as the pair ran away down the tunnel. He walked around the chute and easily vaulted over the rail down onto the dirt. Lannister quickly reached his phone, half-buried in the dirt in the middle of the arena.
Brienne stood and turned to go find arena security as Lannister squatted down to pick up his phone. Suddenly she caught a flash of movement in her peripheral vision.
The chute slammed open.
Brienne didn’t hesitate. “Lannister! Run!” She was already vaulting over the railing as Brave Companion broke out into the arena 30 feet in front of her.
Jaime Lannister shot to his feet faster than she could have hoped, but he was still too far from the railing. Bulls responded to movement, and would generally pursue the fastest thing they saw moving. He looked over his shoulder, spotted the bull charging toward him, and sprinted for the far side of the arena.
Brienne hit the dirt and rolled. She clapped, yelled, tried madly to get Brave Companion’s attention. She just needed to look like a better target than Lannister. This was her job, but there were good reasons why they always worked in teams. Chief among them was that multiple targets were a distraction. This bull didn’t care about her. It was focused on the blonde man sprinting away in boots not meant for running.
What Hoat had been doing with Brave Companion she wasn’t sure, but clearly he’d been taunting it in some way. Even the meanest bulls didn’t usually continue chasing riders once they were bucked off, although it did happen occasionally. This bull hadn’t even been ridden tonight. Not that it mattered. Only two riders had successfully ridden Brave Companion this season, and Jaime Lannister wasn’t one of them.
The three seconds Brienne had before the bull reached Lannister wasn’t enough. She was running full out, breathing hard, dirt sliding under her boots, 20 feet away when the bull caught up to Jaime Lannister, slamming into his back. He was lifted off his feet, sliding facedown in the dirt as Brave Companion trampled him.
Gods, this is bad. In competition, both riders and bullfighters wore protective vests lined with Kevlar. Lannister was not wearing one now. Brienne changed direction as she ran, trying to lure the bull away from his prone form. She hollered for help, yelled to draw the bull’s attention, screamed because none of this should have been happening at all.
The bull turned and followed her along the wall separating the arena floor from the deck above. It charged toward her faster than she expected, its hooves kicking up clouds of dust. Brienne could taste dirt and hear the bull’s labored breathing as she dodged away from the massive animal. Her move came just in time to avoid the worst of the blow when Brave Companion hooked her on its blunted horns, tossing her into the wall. Pain lanced through her back and her face as she slammed against the steel barrier. Brienne’s vision darkened for a moment, coppery blood filling her mouth, but she struggled to her feet and cut back across the loose dirt of the arena floor toward Lannister before the bull turned toward her again.
“Lannister, get up. Get up!” she begged, finally reaching him. Brienne could hear Brave Companion behind her, but it seemed to be calming down. Usually it would have been pushed out of the arena by now and it appeared confused. That would buy them a few seconds, and Brienne desperately needed to get Lannister and herself out of here. Blood dripped into her eye and there was clearly something wrong with her left arm, but she didn’t have time to deal with her injuries. She stood between Lannister and the bull, watching the animal over her shoulder. There was blood on its horns and hooves. While they weren’t sharp, even filed down those horns were rough edged.
Brienne risked a glance down. Lannister was conscious, slowly trying to get up. He put weight on his hands and screamed. His right hand was a mass of blood and splintered bones, and his crimson shirt was torn, a deep gash across his back bleeding freely. Brienne reached down and grabbed him by his left arm, yanking him up. “Get behind me.”
Lannister looked up at her finally, confusion followed by recognition on his face. “You again?” he asked, his voice breaking.
Brienne rolled her eyes. They’d met twice in the past six months. Neither meeting had been pleasant.
“Both of you, get out of there,” came from above. Brienne looked up and Steelshanks Walton, Roose Bolton’s crew chief, stood above them. Walton offered Brienne a hand up, and over her shoulder she saw two men jump down into the dirt at the far end of the arena, drawing the bull away from them.
Brienne scrambled up as quickly as she could, then turned and helped Walton pull Lannister up. He couldn’t hold onto anything with his right hand, so she grasped his arm. Once she and Lannister were both safely sitting on the deck surrounding the arena floor, Walton stood. “Stay awake, both of you. You may have head injuries. I’ll be back with the paramedics.”
Brienne watched Walton walk away, then turned to look at Lannister. His legs, chest, and face were smeared with dirt, and he cradled his ruined right hand in his left, his jaw clenched tight. “Are you okay?” she asked, knowing the answer but at a loss for anything else to say.
He shook his head and spat blood and dirt onto the deck. “Hell no.” Lannister looked up at her, his green eyes slightly unfocused. “You look like shit too.”
The adrenaline that had kept Brienne moving was beginning to ebb, and the pain she’d stubbornly ignored thus far clawed at her arm, her back, and her face. Brienne grimaced as she looked down. Blood soaked her green Highgarden Field Hockey T-shirt. Her left arm was weak, and her back felt sticky. She reached up to touch her face and her hand came away slick with blood.
“Why did you jump in?” he asked, his voice tight with pain. “I told you to run away from danger next time.” Even bloody and broken, Jaime Lannister still managed to patronize her.
“Gods, you’re unpleasant. Now we’re even. Next time I’ll let you die,” she promised. Brienne started to shake her head, but the world tilted and she pressed a hand to her temple.
“Honey, I’m going to pass out now. Don’t let anyone molest me.” Lannister’s eyes closed and he slumped against her side just as the paramedics came out of the tunnel.