And then, suddenly, the noose of coarse rope that had been encircling her neck snapped, and Brienne of Tarth, her arms bound behind her, fell to her knees on the forest floor before Lady Stoneheart and her men.
The strangling noises overhead from Ser Hyle and her poor makeshift squire Pod told her that they hadn’t been so lucky.
If, indeed, she was lucky. Lady Stoneheart regarded her as a betrayer and an oathbreaker, either deluded by the Lannisters or paid with Lannister gold. And her sword Oathkeeper, given to her by Jaime Lannister, had not helped to convince…well, whatever Lady Stoneheart now was, for she was not even human, let alone Catelyn Stark of Winterfell…that Brienne was still true and had been seeking the elder of Lady Catelyn’s daughters for eons.
There were worse ways of dying than hanging. Far worse. All Lady Stoneheart had to do was give the word, and these men would tear her to shreds. And if she stood up to die standing tall as a knight should, they would do so all the quicker.
I cannot perish fighting, like a knight in a song. I haven’t even a knife, let alone a sword.
Brienne heard a rasping sound—part gasp, part death wheeze. It went on for a long time. When it ended, the air was thick with rage.
The one calling himself the Hound spoke first. “No. You cannot mean to let her go.”
Thoros, the self-proclaimed “bad priest and worse wizard” who had spoken to her in the cavern that had served as her cell, answered him. “You heard our lady, Lem. The woman has sworn to slay Jaime Lannister. She will need her clothes for this task. And her armor. And a horse that will not die in a matter of days.”
“One word is all it takes to wipe out this woman’s crimes?” Brienne couldn’t see the Hound’s face, but she was sure that he was snarling no less than his dog’s-head helmet. “One word puts paid to all? A minute ago, she was ready to slay the bitch for her part in the Red Wedding—and do not tell me that the Lannisters had naught to do with that. They say that the Late Lord Frey and Tywin Lannister were close as hand in glove, at least before someone shot the old lion in the privy.”
“That’s as may be,” said Thoros mildly. “But do you truly think that either lord confided in this girl and told her the plot beforehand? Our lady is not blaming her for knowing of the plot, but for being on the side of the murderers.”
I knew nothing of the Red Wedding, Lady Catelyn. I was a prisoner, first of Vargo Hoat and then of Roose Bolton. I was thrown into a bear pit and given nothing to defend myself with but a tourney sword. By the time I knew that Walder Frey had betrayed and murdered you, you were long gone. And after Jaime Lannister freed me, I scoured the countryside for your lost daughter in the hope that I could get her somewhere safe where no one could harm or use her. I kept the memory of our friendship close.
I did not truly believe you were dead until I saw you standing before me, your face the slack face of a corpse, with grave rot creeping across your cheeks and hatred for me glowing in your eyes.
She was startled from her reverie by the singer—Tom o’Sevenstreams, he’d said his name was—yanking her to her feet and then cutting the rope that bound her hands . “Don’t look at the Hound,” he whispered. “He’s angry enough to kill you with his bare hands. When you leave here, ride quickly.”
Brienne wanted to protest that there was no reason for him to hate her, that she had done nothing to the Hound’s wife and daughter, and that she was sorry that they were dead. Instead, she tried to nod, stopping when her jawline began to press against the noose-knot just below her left ear. Hesitantly, sure that someone would throw a knife or loose an arrow at her for doing so, she turned the noose around so that the knot hung just below her throat. Perhaps I can find a way to cut it off later.
It probably didn’t take that long for Long Jeyne Heddle, the orphaned innkeeper from an inn that Brienne had defended, to find Brienne’s clothing or for one of the men to retrieve most of her armor. A few men swore that some parts had been too badly damaged for her to use; she suspected that they’d either stolen them or had bartered them for food while she had lain fevered and unconscious in her cell. It didn’t matter. She would make do.
Long Jeyne and Thoros of Myr were sent to watch her as she dressed herself. Brienne had hoped that she would be allowed to go back to her cavern for this, but instead the two led her to a clearing some distance from the hanging trees.
“Make haste,” said Long Jeyne, thrusting the bundle of Brienne’s garments at her. “It won’t take long before they decide that you’ve overpowered or murdered both of us and are trying to escape. Then they’ll have an excuse for killing you.”
Brienne stared at her. “They’d do that?”
Long Jeyne rolled her eyes. “Why do you think that we were assigned to guard you and not men as burly as yourself?”
Burly. Strange how that word hurt, for it was true. She was strong and muscular. But still, it was not a description that she’d ever craved.
The rest of it, however, made sense. A tall, thin girl of eighteen and an equally tall, loose-skinned man with grey hair. Neither one would be a test for my strength, not even after my illness. The Brotherhood set its trap well.
As she realized this, Thoros spoke. “I’ll go keep watch, just in case our brothers become…imaginative. Call me when she’s ready to don her armor.” And with that, he walked to the edge of the clearing and began circling it slowly.
Long Jeyne grabbed the noose-knot with one hand, drew a dagger with the other, and began slicing through the rope. It took several minutes. Evidently Long Jeyne’s dagger was not quite as sharp as that of the man who’d severed the noose from the hanging rope. But at last Brienne felt the rope go slack. She immediately pulled it away from her neck, dropping it to the ground.
Then she turned to the other girl. “Thank you for your care and your advice—not to mention your knife. I appreciate all of this more than I can say.”
Long Jeyne didn’t even smile. “You’re in the camp of the Brotherhood Without Banners, and not an hour ago, you were nearly hanged. You should not need anyone to tell you that you’re still in danger.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Brienne gazed at the girl. “Come with me.”
“And be your love?”
“No.” Brienne removed her rags and struggled into her smallclothes. Her right forearm was no longer broken, but it still ached a bit. “I could use your common sense in this quest, though.”
Long Jeyne sighed. “I have a younger sister and a family of orphans to care for, an inn to tend, and Brothers that I owe loyalty to. You’re sworn to an impossible task—to several, in fact. Common sense says that it’s best if I stay far away from you.”
“Several impossible tasks?” I only spotted one.
“You’ve sworn to slay the Kingslayer,” retorted Jeyne, tugging nervously on a long brown braid with a bony hand. “That’s madness in itself. They say he has a golden hand now instead of a human one, and that it’s some sort of device from Braavos that makes him fight ten times as well as any man, living and dead. And even if you do defeat him, you’ll then have to get away with it. Do you think that any of the Lannisters will just accept his death as if he were a month-old babe who’d died a-crib? The Hand of the King will hurl the law at you as if it were a rock in a catapult, and the queen mother will tear the world apart in revenge for her twin brother! And the Seven alone know what the boy king will do when he learns you’ve slain his uncle. They say he’s a bit soft and tender-hearted—but tender-hearted for kings may be different than it is for the rest of us. And this is family.”
Brienne listened, open-mouthed. It was bad enough that she would have to kill the man who had put his own life on the line to rescue her; that she would have to plan to escape arrest and execution had simply not occurred to her. Planning to avoid execution, arrest, even suspicion implied that what she had sworn to do was a crime.
Not just any crime. Murder.
Her stomach roiled at the thought.
“And assuming that you do get away with it,” Long Jeyne continued relentlessly, “you’re still sworn to find milady’s daughters—and don’t think she’s forgotten about that! The younger one’s been lost for a year or more, since her father died. What unmarked roadside grave will you seek her in? And the older one’s not been seen since King Joffrey died; most likely she’s rotting in a dungeon somewhere, for there’s no love lost between those sworn to the Starks and those sworn to the Lannisters. Why would a lioness be any different than her sworn men? Why would she feel compassion for a she-wolf pup when her own cub died?”
“But—she didn’t kill Joffrey.”
“Put your tunic on.” Brienne obeyed. “And how do you know that she didn’t? Why do you even think that it matters? The queen mother has no love of Starks or northmen—everyone knows that. If she has the girl in her clutches, do you really think that she’ll let her go?”
Brienne, appalled and heartsick, said nothing.
Sighing, Long Jeyne shook her head. “And if you do find her—if the Warrior guides your sword arm and the Crone lights the way to safety for you both—what then? Will you truly turn her over to Lady Stoneheart? Will you stand there and watch the girl’s mind snap when her dead mother gives her the kiss of welcome?” She peered at Brienne’s bitten and bandaged face as if seeking answers there, and then swiftly looked away.
Feeling as if a smith’s hammer had just slammed into her stomach, Brienne scanned the clearing for something to sit on. Spying a large, mossy, flat-topped boulder, she flopped down on it and began putting on her leggings and breeches.
“I hadn’t thought of any of this,” she said in a muted voice.
“I know. That’s why I wouldn’t go with you even if I was free to do so. It’s noonday madness. And none of it is going to make anything any better.”
Every word was a javelin throw to Brienne’s heart. “It’s honorable. I swore. I have to keep my promise.”
“And if you do, we’ll all die for your honor. Such as it is. After all, you’ve already killed one king.”
Hot tears sprang to Brienne’s eyes. “No,” she said, dragging her tunic sleeve across her eyes. “No. I did not harm Renly.”
“Many folk say you did.” And those people, Long Jeyne’s expression added, made a great deal more sense than Brienne did.
Brienne could not refrain from shouting. “No! Never! I was with Lady Catelyn when it happened. We were talking. Renly entered the tent so that I could help him on with his armor, and then…there was a shadow, a living shadow, and it stabbed him over and over...” She drew a shuddering breath. “And his men thought that I had done it and that Lady Catelyn had helped, because we were there and so was the—the body.”
“A shadow, you say?”
Brienne was still sitting down, but even so, she jumped. Long Jeyne was calmer. “Lord Thoros. We didn’t hear you approach.”
“I’m not surprised, since she”—Thoros jerked a thumb in Brienne’s direction—“was bellowing like a bear.”
Despite her wounded cheek, Brienne tried to smile; sometimes it was better to jest about things before anyone else did. “A bear? All black and brown and covered with hair?”
Thoros gave her a probing look. “Calm yourself, child. I meant no insult, only that you were being loud. Though given the topic, that’s hardly strange. You say that you saw a shadow slay a man?”
Brienne lifted her head high and thrust out her lower lip. ”Yes.”
“You realize that this makes little sense?”
“I know that.”
“It’s what I saw.”
Thoros shivered. “So a priestess of R’hllor is about in Westeros. This is not good.”
Long Jeyne gazed at him skeptically. “How do you know it’s a priestess?”
“It would have to be a priestess,” Thoros replied, rubbing his face. “Such shadow creatures are spawned in the wombs of devout servants of R’hllor; they are righteous wrath given form. But they are only supposed to kill the most vile and contemptible of monsters—men and women who are demons in all but shape.”
“That,” Brienne said firmly, “was not Renly.”
“He may not have been,” Thoros agreed. “But perhaps someone truly believed that Renly’s death would prevent far more terrible evils from occurring. In such a case, I believe the magic would work. It would not be just—but it would still work.” He looked deeply troubled. “The agents of the god of light should not be serving as assassins.”
Long Jeyne shrugged. “It’s no worse than bringing back the dead, is it? And it’s not likely to have much to do with us.”
“No likelier than that this girl should have seen such a shadow about its work. And yet it happened.” Thoros looked down at Brienne. “You will need to be very cautious when you leave this place. It’s not unlikely that the shadow’s mother saw those watching it. You do not want her to see you as evil, or even a minor obstacle. It would be very dangerous to you—and to anyone traveling with you. Do you understand?”
“Not very well.” Brienne fumbled for words as she struggled to understand why the priestess of a foreign god would care two pins about her. “I’ve never met any red priests, save for you. Why would this priestess concern herself with me?”
“Child,” Thoros said gently, “I am not devout. I have found many and much to love in Westeros. To those devoted to the God of Light, however, there are but two types of people. There are the righteous—and there are those who worship demons and who, willingly or not, serve the cause of R’hllor’s eternal foe. The demon worshipers must be converted or they must be destroyed. You have already seen what the devout would view as the power of R’hllor…and you did not turn to him. In fact, you were repulsed and horrified. You still are.” He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “And so, in the eyes of passionate believers, you proclaim yourself to be a foe of light, goodness and justice.”
To Brienne, it all sounded like one more obstacle that she didn’t need. “I don’t want to be the enemy of a god. And I don’t want to put anyone at risk.”
Long Jeyne snorted at that. “You already are. You already have. Don’t you realize that yet?”
The conversation died after that. Thoros and Long Jeyne silently helped her put on her armor: a shirt of chain mail, a plate cuirass fitting over that, mismatched leather gauntlets, and a belt and sheath for her sword. Thoros told her that if she had had a helmet, vambraces or greaves, they were long gone, but that he had managed to scrounge up a pair of boots for her. They even fit. Brienne accepted the gift gratefully.
When they walked back into camp—much to the disgust and disappointment of many of the Brotherhood, Brienne now noticed—quite a few of the children began jeering at her.
“Look, it’s Florian the Fool, come again!” cried a brown-haired waif in Oldtown accents.
“No, it’s Ser Lady Raggle-Taggle!” called out a dark-haired child who sounded as if he’d come here from the Riverlands. “And she’s lost her sword!”
“I’ll give her another one!” hooted a boy of fourteen or so.
A young man who might have been that boy’s three-years’-older twin snickered at this. “Ah, but would you really want someone who looks like that to use it?”
She had not thought that she looked quite so ridiculous, and her face grew hot. She would have given anything not to care—or even to avoid looking as if she cared—what mere children said. Then a shadow caught her eye, and she looked up at the bodies of Ser Hyle and Pod, still swinging from a pair of elm trees.
There were worse things than being thought ridiculous.
The men had brought a handful of mounts for her to choose from, none of them the ones that she or her dead companions had been riding. Few looked as if they could bear her for more than a mile or two, and three were seriously ill. The hocks on the rear legs of one chestnut rouncey were swollen with bone-fever; the second, a rawboned bay gelding, was coughing and had a runny nose, would almost certainly be dead of glanders in a handful of days; and a third, a young sorrel mare, was staggering so badly that Brienne wondered if the poor creature had wobbler’s disease. Two men had brought healthy animals, but both were mules. This would have been fine, she supposed, if she had not been quite so tall or the mules had been somewhat bigger. As it was, she had visions of herself astride a mule, knee-walking from town to town.
The sixth choice was a large, roan plowhorse—mostly white with liver-colored spots—that Brienne was certain had been tossed in as cruel commentary on her own size and homeliness. He was no more of a beauty than she was. But she liked the way he stood calmly, unflustered by noise, leaves and bodies moving in the wind, or the smell of death. He looked strong enough to carry Brienne and some heavily packed saddlebags—or, perhaps, Brienne and Lady Sansa.
Brienne stepped forward and caressed the plowhorse’s neck. “This one.”
The man who had brought him burst out in raucous laughter. “Oh, what a fine knight you’ll make!”
She forbore to point out that women could fight in war—there were tales about the Mormont women of Bear Island doing precisely that—but could not be knighted. The member of the Brotherhood knew this as well as she did. “He will carry me wherever I need to go, and that’s all I ask.”
“As it happens, you won’t be riding far,” said Tom o’Sevenstreams. “The Kingslayer’s only a few days’ ride from here. He’s laying siege to a castle a bit north of here.”
“You’re going to get him,” said Lem the Hound. Brienne couldn’t tell, since he was wearing his helmet, but she sensed that he was grinning. “You’ll get to see your lover again.”
Lady Stoneheart pressed her fingers against her wounded throat then, croaking a few words that even Brienne could understand. “Bring him to me.”
“And two of us will ride with you to be sure that you don’t decide to break another oath by escaping or calling down the alarm on us and the Brotherhood,” Lem continued, a smirk all but audible. “Just three friends riding together. And then, for a while, four—until that one has a tragic, tragic accident in front of her ladyship, thanks to a false friend.”
Four will be three again, Brienne thought, her mind swimming in despair. And then three will become two. After all, they won’t need me any longer once Ser Jaime is dead, will they?