Chapter 1: Noonday Madness
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?
Chapter 2: The Ride to Raventree
In which Brienne and her companions seek Jaime Lannister, Tom o'Sevenstreams sets a trap, and Brienne gets a good look at the aftermath of war.
How long the ride to the castle lasted, Brienne never knew. Dunk—she had decided to name the plowhorse after the legendary leader of Aegon V’s Kingsguard, Ser Duncan the Tall—was a stolid animal and would not be hurried, no matter how much Tom o’Sevenstreams cajoled or Lem the Hound threatened. Lem, who was impatient to arrive at the Lannister camp, tried leaning across from his own horse and whipping Dunk with a thin willow branch, but only once. Dunk merely glared, bit the branch in half and then bared his teeth at Lem, who swallowed several times and then flung the remnants of the willow switch in the opposite direction.
This did not improve Lem’s temper one bit. He muttered and swore, turning the air around him blue with his comments on “seven-times-damned, maggot-spawned whore-horses” and “filthy, disobedient, stupid, ugly sluts who fuck lions by the roadside.” Brienne could tell from his sly glances that she was supposed to react to this and provoke a fight, and so said nothing.
Tom eventually intervened. “Quiet, you,” he whispered, striking Lem on the hound helmet. “Or have you forgotten that the Lannisters have scouts as well as guards? Do you want us to be captured? If Lady Stoneheart doesn’t get what she wants, she will eat our souls.”
Brienne felt a chill at those words. Hastily she prayed to the Mother and the Crone—as she might have when she was a small girl frightened by thunderstorms—that no such peril might exist and that Lem’s words were no more than loud and faraway echoes, bereft of meaning.
As they progressed toward to the castle—Tom o’Sevenstreams said that it was called Raventree Hall and was in Blackwood Vale—they left the wood behind. Any forests in the Vale had fallen to saws and axes decades, perhaps centuries ago. As for the houses, farms, mills and orchards that had replaced the woods, virtually all were blackened ruins. Here and there lay bones of sheep and cows that had been slaughtered by passing armies…and, once in a while, the skull or arm bone or ribs of a human as well.
Most telling, however, was the fact that nothing seemed to grow in this valley save weeds and nettles—not so much as a blade of grass remained in the slough of mud, ashes and patches of snow. Brienne had the uneasy feeling that the smallfolk, their homes, beasts and crops destroyed, had eaten the one thing they had left.
When at last they came within range of the small camp besieging the castle—and this was no grand siege, for there were no more than a few hundred tents and perhaps twice as many men—Brienne was astonished to discover how decrepit the castle looked. Its ancient walls were thick with moss; the two square, mud-splashed towers flanking its gates resembled nothing so much as squat legs. But the castle was well-prepared for someone to attack; the walls surrounding the castle had other, smaller, equally square towers placed at irregular intervals—wherever there was an angle, Brienne supposed. It was not a massive fortress, but, judging by those towers, which could be used by archers, ravens, guardsmen or spies, it was a wary, watchful one.
But its alertness and suspicion had done it no good. From the walls near the gates hung two brown banners, each bearing a red stallion against the shape of a golden shield. The stallion was rearing on its hind legs and facing left. House Bracken’s banner. The Blackwoods must have yielded—and not long ago, or the army would be gone.
Of Jaime Lannister and his forces, there was no sign.
Tom studied the camp. “They’re packing up.”
It was true, Brienne realized, gazing at the men striking the tents and advancing toward the gate. “I don’t see any Lannister banners.”
“No.” Tom looked thoughtful. “Wait here, both of you. And Lem, leave off that helmet if you value your life.” And with that, he slipped dexterously from his horse and moved toward the camp.
It seemed to take forever, but at last he returned—and in a fairly cheerful mood. “It is amazing what people will tell singers. I heard enough gossip to spin seventy new songs, at least.”
“What do I care about your songs?” snarled Lem. “Where in the seven hells is Lannister?”
Tom clambered onto his own horse’s back, turned in the saddle, and pointed toward two hills. “There. Right between the Teats is the village of Pennytree, or what’s left of it. One of the Bracken men heard Ser Jaime say that he and his forces would camp there.” He glanced at Lem. “We could be there in a few hours.”
“No,” said Brienne quietly. “Not ‘we.’ Me.”
“Maybe you think that we’re just going to let you ride to Pennytree all by yourself?” Lem demanded, eyeing her suspiciously.
“Yes. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Lem stared at her, open-mouthed. “You’re mad,” he said when he could finally speak. “Do you really believe that we’d let you out of our sight for half a moment when all you would have to do is slip inside the village to be with your lover and betray the lot of us?”
Brienne shook her head. “I doubt if the Lannisters would trust me any more than you do. If I’m too much of a lion for you, I’m too much of a wolf for them. And there’s nowhere for me to run; you’ve seen the state of this valley. If I run, I’ll starve—if the Brotherhood or either sides’ armies don’t catch me first. There’s nowhere to hide, either, nothing I could use as cover. But…if I can get to Pennytree…I might be able to pass on a message that will make Ser Jaime come with us. He knows me. And he knows this sword.” Lightly she touched Oathkeeper, which, though denuded of rubies, hung at her hip once more.
Lem would have argued, but Tom put a restraining hand on his arm. “And what message do you intend to pass on, lass?”
Brienne told them. It did not occur to her to lie; if this worked, they would unquestionably ask Ser Jaime what she had said, and if the messages did not match, she had no doubt that things would go badly for her.
Lem was not impressed. “And you think Ser Shit-For-Honor will care?”
He sent me on this quest, Brienne thought. Do you think he does not want to know its end? But aloud she said only, “It has nothing to do with honor. He’s a Lannister. My lady is a Stark. He would have wanted to know even before the death of King Joffrey. Now…he’ll be mad to know.”
Tom weighed this for a few minutes. “Aye, it might work. Though I can’t say that I like the notion of you going to the village alone.”
“The two of you can’t surprise him if you come with me,” Brienne said, hating herself for saying this. She didn’t want to plot the capture of Ser Jaime; she didn’t want to be anywhere near this fallen castle, or Pennytree, or the camp of the Brotherhood Without Banners, for that matter. “We’ll need your voice and the Hound’s helmet to make this work.”
Tom rubbed his chin. “You can’t just ride up the road toward us, though. He’d spot us waiting.”
“Let him,” said Lem, grinning unpleasantly. “If three against one isn’t a match for a one-handed man—“
Brienne didn’t want to ask, but she had to. “Three?”
Lem’s unpleasant grin grew wider, displaying brown and crooked teeth. “You will be helping us—won’t you, sweetheart?”
Tom waved away Lem’s words as if he were brushing away an irksome fly. “Listen. There’s a village to the east of Pennytree, or the remains of one. Ninetimes, it’s called. I’ve been there often; they had fine ale, and I tried to live up to the challenge in the village’s name. There’s not much there now, but the forge was still standing when I saw it last. It’s a day’s ride from Pennytree. You should be able to get there in three days, even after you rest and water your horse. We’ll be waiting.” He gave her a sudden, sharp glance. “You can’t miss it. There’s nothing between Pennytree and Ninetimes, nothing at all.”
Which meant that it wouldn’t be hard to find her if she fled or arrived late and said that she got lost. Brienne bowed her head in what she hoped looked like calm agreement.
There seemed to be little to say after that. Tom and Lem headed eastward. Brienne gave Dunk some water and then, without a backward glance, rode off toward Pennytree.
Chapter 3: Phantasms
In which Brienne rides to Pennytree by night, sees many strange things, and meets an unexpected traveler.
The ride to the village was long and emptily silent. There were no carts rattling down the rutted road or the solid sound of several horses clopping through mud and snow. No drunken drovers singing “The Dornishman’s Wife.” No chickens or geese from nearby farms shrieking as foxes and badgers hunted eggs and birds alike. No leaves rustling in the ruined orchards or small creatures scurrying through shrubbery. Even the melancholy cries of whippoorwills and the hooting of owls were missing.
The silence ate at Brienne, fretting her nerves like a mouse gnawing at a piece of rope. Quiet nights could be a comfort, oh yes. But there was no comfort in the silence of dead things…especially now that she knew that the dead no longer stayed dead. More than once, she thought that she heard Pod whispering, “Ser? I mean, my lady?”; more than once, she would have taken oath that she’d heard Ser Hyle riding beside her and laughing.
And, as the night grew darker, she began to see things. At least…she hoped she was seeing things.
She saw a shadow of a man standing by the side of the road. Only when she drew near him did she realize that he had the head of a massive wolf.
She saw dead bodies dancing in the branches of peach trees. Sometimes there seemed to be thousand of corpses, all clad in armor and bearing the banner and colors of Robb Stark, the Young Wolf. Other times, there only seemed to be two—an auburn-haired girl of thirteen and a dark-haired child of eight or nine. Brienne could not see the girls’ faces clearly, and for that, she was grateful.
At one point, she was certain that she was dreaming, for Catelyn Stark—the woman to whom Brienne had sworn her allegiance, not that dead creature with her fingers pressed against her cut throat—seemed to be riding beside her. Her lips did not move, but she spoke in her own voice and not in the garbled syllables of Lady Stoneheart. A strange route you’re taking to find my daughters.
“I have been searching, my lady.” Brienne could not keep a touch of defensiveness from her voice. “You wanted me to bring Jaime Lannister to you.”
Not me, precisely, child.
“I know,” Brienne whispered, her eyes filling with tears. “Oh, I know.”
Listen. You must not let me kiss him.
“But—why would you—“
Do NOT allow it.
The words seemed to echo, even though there was nothing to cause such an echo. Frightened, Brienne nodded…albeit as little as possible.
Good. Now, where were you planning on bringing my children once you found them?
Brienne could feel her face growing hot, for she had not thought beyond merely finding Sansa. Until she had met the Elder Brother on the Quiet Isle and had heard his tale, she had not suspected that Arya had even remained long enough to leave a trail. “I—I don’t know. Perhaps…their father’s bannermen? Or House Tully’s?”
No. Not my house. My brother is…many things. But I would not trust him to recall our family words.
“’Family, Duty, Honor,” Brienne quoted, and then looked at Lady Stark’s face. Despite the fact that there was no moon, she could see clearly that the older woman’s face was a mask of grief.
Like my sister, Edmure would not welcome Starks in need of help and protection. He might, if winter were not here and the Lannisters not at Riverrun. But he will not strain himself for children he does not know—especially when the Lannisters want both so badly.
“Home to the North, then?”
No. It is not safe. The Greyjoys…the Boltons…my boys died in the North. And it is too close to the Wall. There are not enough men on the Wall now, my husband’s brother used to say. Take the girls south, or across the Narrow Sea. Protect them. No one else will.
Brienne’s head was whirling with commands. She managed to stammer out one question. “The Wall. You’re afraid that the North will be invaded by wildlings?”
The Wall was not built to protect men from wildlings.
And with that, Lady Stark was gone. Brienne blinked and glanced about her, but she saw no sign of anyone.
And then, quite suddenly, she did. Two riders were coming toward her…and behind them was a cluster of dimly lit houses that might, if you were charitable, be called a village.
Pennytree. And while the men coming toward her might be outlaws or deserters of any of a half dozen armies, this close to the village, they were most likely to be Ser Jaime’s scouts.
Digging her heels into Dunk’s sides, Brienne rode up to them. “My name is Brienne of Tarth,” she said, speaking loudly and—she hoped—confidently. “I need to speak to Ser Jaime. I have a message for him.”
Chapter 4: Dishonor
In which Brienne spins a tale for Jaime Lannister, and most of it is true.
The scouts were Freys. She discovered this after they brought her back to the village; there was enough candlelight and firelight in the cottages that the Lannister forces had commandeered for her to see the black twin towers of their House emblazoned against their gray surcoats. She suppressed a shiver, but said nothing; Ser Walder gave the orders at the Twins, not his sons and grandsons. As much as she wanted to flail at them and demand to know how two knights could allow their elder kinsman to harm guests who had eaten his bread and salt and drunk his wine—and, by the law of the Seven, he was sworn to protect guests who had broken bread with him as if they were of his own blood and dearer to him than his very life!— or how they could bear to stand by and watch innocent, trusting folk slaughtered for a broken promise and an old man’s vanity, it would solve nothing and only anger them.
And it was as well that she kept silent. For, surprisingly, after staking their horses and Dunk at the village commons, they did as she had asked. They took her directly to Ser Jaime, who was sitting on a bench near the hearthfire in the village inn.
“She rode up bold as you please, m’lord, demanding to have words with you,” said the younger of the two scouts.
Ser Jaime stood up hastily, a look of shock in his eyes. “My lady. I had not thought to see you again so soon.” Then he noticed the cloth covering her cheek. “That bandage…you’ve been wounded…”
“A bite.” Brienne had no wish to re-live the battle with Biter. Touching the hilt of Oathkeeper, she changed the subject. “My lord, you gave me a quest.”
Ser Jaime took a deep breath. “The girl. Have you found her?”
“I have.” Too brief and curt a reply, she knew, and yet she was bad at lying. So perhaps brevity was the better choice.
“Where is she?”
Where, thought Brienne. Not ’Is she alive? Is she unhurt? Is she safe?’ For none of that matters, does it?
“A day’s ride,” she answered. “I can take you to her, ser…but you will need to come alone. Elsewise, the Hound will kill her.”
The Freys—their names were Lyonel and Tytos, Brienne learned, with Tytos being the much-younger uncle of Lyonel—objected. So, for that matter, did Ser Jaime’s sworn men, who liked the sound of this not at all, insisting that it was a trap.
“The Hound said that he would butcher any who got between him and the Kingslayer,” Brienne said in a grey and weary voice, recalling moments on the journey when Lem had said precisely that. “I believe him.”
That was almost her entire contribution to the conversation. After that, Ser Jaime motioned for her to take his seat on the fireside bench. She sat down, leaned against a wall…and dozed off almost immediately. Occasionally she heard men asking, then demanding answers of her and she tried to answer, but the words turned to gibberish on her tongue. Eventually, the voices faded into the background. She remembered nothing more.
When she awoke the next morning—a bit stiff for having slept sitting up—a cloak of Lannister crimson was draped over her, and Ser Jaime was sitting beside her, sipping a mug of ale and grimacing. As she stirred, he fumbled about on the bench for a moment with a hand that shone like gold before giving up and offering her half of a small loaf with his good hand.
“I’d offer you some ale,” he said as she gnawed at the stale bread. “Given all the bodies and skeletons hereabouts, I’m sure you haven’t been eager to drink from the rivers. But what little we’ve found is sour and bitter as cat’s piss. Either the brewer smuggled all the decent stuff into the holdfast or he’s been cheating his fellow villagers for years.”
Brienne shrugged. “If it’s wet, I’ll drink it.”
That summoned a surprised chuckle from him. “There’s the stubborn wench that I know.” He handed her his own nearly-full mug with both hands, Brienne noticed—the gold hand encircling the mug and the good hand holding it steady.
Nothing complicated. Nothing showy. Just the simple, everyday gesture of a man who had to persuade others, every minute of every day, that his skills and will and mind had not been cut away along with his hand.
Ser Jaime waited until she was nearly done with both the ale (which was every bit as bad as he’d said) and the bread before he spoke again. “So. Where did you find the girl?”
“In a bandit camp, but—wait. Let me explain how I came there.” And Brienne told of coming to the Crosswinds Inn; of meeting Long Jeyne Heddle, her sister and the orphans; of the sudden, unwelcome arrival of seven of the Brave Companions; of the Hound, on recognizing her, charging at her with uplifted sword; of driving him back, but only to be blindsided by the cannibal Biter, who had smashed her face and forearm, and then had taken a bite out of her cheek as well.
“I passed out then from the pain,” she said with a sigh. “And Biter’s mouth must have been near-poisonous, for I spent a long time in a fever-dream. When I awoke, Ser Hyle and Podrick Payne and I were in the clutches of a local band of outlaws, one well-known to the innkeeper. One of them—I don’t know which—had stabbed Biter through the neck with a spear.”
The first lie, for she did know who had saved her. But not only would the truth endanger Gendry, it was too incredible to believed. Who would credit that she’d been saved by a ragged, heroic young hedge knight-and-blacksmith who was the bastard son of King Robert? It sounded like a tale out of the Age of Legends.
“The Hound—I must have wounded him, though I don’t remember doing it—“
“That often happens in battle.” Ser Jaime motioned for her to continue.
“They captured him as well. They wanted to try him for what he’d done at Saltpans, and I think that they would have…except that he saw a girl standing by the edge of the crowd, watching him.” She swallowed. “I-I didn’t even recognize her.”
Ser Jaime’s reply was as sharp as a cut from a whip. “Why not? I thought that you had a good idea of what Sansa Stark looks like.”
Brienne shook her head. “No. It’s been months, and she’s still growing. She’s gotten taller.” A sudden memory of one of her father’s women coloring her graying locks made her add, “And she’s dyed her hair.”
“No wonder we didn’t find her,” Ser Jaime muttered. “We were looking for an auburn-haired child. What color?”
“Blonde,” said Brienne automatically. If she had accidentally hit on the truth—and the more she thought of it, the more sense it made—then she was certain that Sansa Stark would not have chosen to dye her hair blonde. Yellow hair was most often found in south of Winterfell—around Casterly Rock, Lannisport, Highgarden…and Tarth. The people of the North tended toward brown or black hair. Fair hair wouldn’t make her invisible as she made her way home; it would make her stand out as much as her normal Tully-auburn shade.
“I didn’t recognize her,” she repeated. “But the Hound did. He rushed right at her. Some of the men tried to stop him, but he knocked them away. He grabbed her by the arm—it must have hurt, for she cried out—and then he half-dragged her onto a horse. Lady Stoneheart wasn’t pleased—“
“You found her camp?”
Brienne nodded, wanting only to be done with the story. “She sent two men after him. I followed them. They…they were angry about that. They said that I just wanted to bring the girl back to the Lannisters—or my…” She let the sentence die there. Not for crowns or thrones could she have told Jaime Lannister that some people thought them lovers. “I tried to tell them about the quest—but they said that no one not in the Lannister camp would be bearing a Lannister sword of Valyrian steel. One of them got very angry—and very loud. We were close to what was left of a village by then. It didn’t look like anyone was there, but…the shouting attracted the Hound’s attention. He said that if I was that close to Jaime Lannister, then bring him to that village—or he’d do to her what his brother did to Elia of Dorne.”
She had no idea what Gregor Clegane had done to the poor, sickly wife of Prince Rhaegar, though she’d heard for years that he was the one responsible for her death. Judging by the sick look on Ser Jaime’s face, however, it must have been bad.
“And of course he assures me that this is not a trap.”
“I don’t know what it is,” Brienne said in a tone that was two inches away from a sob. “But I do know that I can’t give up now. And I can’t let my lady’s daughters die.” Wherever they are. “And I don’t want to go back…but…”
“You do realize that she’s wanted for the murder of my nephew.”
“Lady Sansa had nothing to do with that!”
“She’d been a prisoner since her father’s death! Open a cage door, and any bird will flee.”
“Not the best timing on her part.”
Brienne did not bother to reply to this; it was painfully true. Instead, she gazed at the floor. “Will you come?” she asked, feeling certain that Lady Stoneheart would hunt her down and tear out her heart if the answer was “no.”
“If you answer one question. Why did you start calling me ‘Ser Jaime’? I thought that I was forever the Kingslayer to you, wench.”
“I heard people calling me that. Then I knew how it grated.”
Ser Jaime did not reply to this. As Brienne waited, the silence stretched between them like an endless chasm.
Good, she thought. Don’t speak to me. I just told you a bellyful of lies so that a mad, dead thing will be able to kill you. I betrayed you. And…and I owe you my life.
Hot tears of shame began to sting her eyes.
For a moment, the word had no meaning. Brienne could only gape at Ser Jaime in confusion. Then she realized what he meant, and she blinked.
“To the east, about a day’s ride away from here.”
“Yet you came up the river road.”
“I’d heard that you were besieging the Blackwoods. I went there first. Then I was told you were in Pennytree. So—” A shrug. “I had to double back.”
Another long silence, this one even longer than the last. And, like the last one, it was broken by one word: “Yes.”
Brienne couldn’t believe that she’d heard right. “’Yes’?”
Ser Jaime smiled, and for a moment, Brienne had the odd sensation that she was looking at two people—the sardonic and somewhat cynical man that she remembered from Harrenhal, and a youth not much older than herself and eager for adventure. “Well, how often does a man like me get to save orphaned damsels? Though I do make a very poor substitute for Ser Aemon the Dragonknight.”
His smile—which still looked both sardonic and mischievous to Brienne—widened. “And of course my late lord father would have said that the life of one maid, however highborn, was of little consequence during a war. Having seen the his army’s lack of concern written in bones and ashes across this vale, I think I’m allowed to ignore him, at least for a day.”
He stood up. “I’ll go see if I can find a fresh horse for you, as well as some food and water for our saddlebags. Then we’ll set off. With luck, we’ll be able to convince the Hound to accept some ransom other than my blood, and Lady Sansa—I suppose I must call her Lady Stark, now— will be safe by sunrise.”
Chapter 5: Flames of Justice
In which Jaime Lannister tells the truth, Thoros of Myr recognizes a terrible danger, and Brienne must make a hard choice.
The ride to Ninetimes was both the longest and the shortest of Brienne’s life, for she was still half-sick with shame at having lied. It is not honorable. I know that knights are not always truthful or just—and I am no knight. But I wanted to be better than this. And yet—if she didn’t bring him with her, she knew that what was left of her lady would hunt her down personally. She would never close her eyes again without wondering if the next thing she would feel would be the insane corpse of Lady Stark tearing out her throat.
And will watching her tear out his throat be so much better?
She dared not confess. The woods could be full of the Brotherhood’s scouts by now, and they would regard such a confession as pure treachery. Which, to be fair, it would be. The Lannister armies were not merciful to outlaws or turncloaks.
And she could think of no reason to dismount from her horse so that she could write the facts in the slurry of mud and human ashes. After all, they were supposed to be rushing to Lady Sansa’s rescue. And Brienne had seen no springs and no wells, and there were no trees to rest beneath. Nothing in this vale of ruins would make anyone, least of all Ser Jaime, want to spend one scrap of time longer here than he wanted to.
Round and round her mind went in a circle dance. She had lied. She couldn’t let those lies stand. She couldn’t warn him. She had to warn him.
As they neared Ninetimes, Brienne’s stomach was a-roil with tension and fear. She had thought that she would craft a solution by this point. She had not. And she had no idea what to do next.
Before she could decide anything, she heard a shrill scream tearing through the air, followed by the shouts of a man out of his mind with fury.
With a muttered oath, Ser Jaime dismounted and then shoved his horse’s reins. “Stay here, wench. No point in both of us getting killed.” And before she could protest or argue, he was striding off toward the smithy.
For a moment Brienne hesitated. Then a sentence seemed to fill the world, though she could not have said if she was imagining it or hearing it.
You must not let me kiss him.
Gulping (and feeling certain that the words demanded some kind of acknowledgment), Brienne nodded. Then she slipped from the saddle and, her hand on the hilt of Oathkeeper, crept toward the smithy.
She walked into a scene of pure chaos.
If she had been thinking, she would have said that she’d expected Lem the Hound and Tom o’Sevenstreams to be shackling Ser Jaime hand and foot ere they brought him back to the bandit camp for Lady Stoneheart’s judgment. Perhaps, at worst, Lem would be pulling Ser Jaime’s golden hand from his wrist. Humiliating, but not deadly. At least…not yet.
None of that was happening. Instead, the red priest Thoros was pressed against the wall, looking as if he wanted to be anywhere but here. Lem and Tom had forced Ser Jaime to his knees and were slowly dragging him toward Lady Stoneheart, who was standing beside the anvil, waiting. Brienne was certain that a mountain would wait no less endlessly or implacably.
Lady Stoneheart pressed her fingers against her wounded neck. “Where are my daughters?” she rasped.
Brienne expected Ser Jaime to give her a scornful or contemptuous glance, for that question clearly said that she’d lied. But he did not. He kept his eyes fixed on the dead woman’s face and spoke in a flat tone that said he did not believe that any of this was really happening.
“I don’t know. Sansa fled the city on the death of my nephew—“
A deep sigh. “If you like. Most people say that she and my brother connived at the murder of Joffrey—“
“I did not say it was true.” A pause. “Tyrion confessed to me that he’d committed the murder, but he was furious with me at the time—justly so—and would have said anything to hurt me. As for your daughter, I don’t believe for a moment that she would have conspired with Tyrion. That would have involved trust and liking…and we both know that she had no reason to trust my family. No. She saw a chance to escape from her prison, and she took it.”
“Married. To Ramsay Snow—pardon me, Ramsay Bolton. I saw her being escorted north for her wedding—a skinny, brown-haired, brown-eyed girl of thirteen or fourteen—“
It wasn’t her, then, Brienne realized. Sansa is the elder of the two—and she’s thirteen. If Ramsay Snow’s bride has seen as many name days or more than Sansa has, she’s not Arya.
“You. Are. Lying.” Lady Stoneheart’s voice seemed to be both angrier and more grating.
“My lady,” patiently—and, Brienne thought, a thin edge of disbelief that he was actually arguing with a dead woman. “She said she was Arya Stark. She was married under the name of Arya Stark. Both were enough to satisfy my father. He arranged both marriages, and I doubt very much if he cared who the thin Northern girl wedding the Bolton bastard was, so long as the marriage helped keep Winterfell in the hands of the Lannisters or their bannermen. And yes—the Boltons are our bannermen now.”
The room seemed to turn colder as he said this. Perhaps it was merely her imagination—but Brienne didn’t think so.
Did the others find this unnerving as well? Lem and Tom were focusing all of their efforts on forcing Ser Jaime to kneel to the dead woman. He’s nothing to them, just a Lannister who leads armies. And girl-children running away from the Lannisters and evading them for a year or so…they can’t believe that. The Lannisters slaying the girls and then claiming they ran away makes more sense to them.
From that point of view, she supposed, it was only right that he be treated like any noble hostage, whose blood could pay for the sins of his or her House. If the Lannisters had killed the girls, a Lannister should die for this. Since she’d been a child, she’d never thought it just that someone of the same blood should die rather than the one who had given offense …but then children were usually the hostages.
The Stark girls weren’t dead, though. Brienne was sure of that. Why would Ser Jaime send her on a quest to find a girl that he knew was dead? And Arya—why kill a girl of eight or nine? What threat could a child be to the Lannisters? And if Arya had died, wouldn’t some servant or guard have whispered that she’d died because of a pillow or a dagger? And wouldn’t someone outside the Red Keep have heard that and repeated it—or sworn that she’d died of bloody flux or breakbone fever? Yet she’d been in alehouse and inn alike and had heard no gossip and no speculation about Arya at all. The girl had simply faded into oblivion.
No. That wasn’t quite true, was it? The Elder Brother of the Quiet Isle had told her that she had been following Arya’s trail, thinking that it was Sansa’s. Saltpans. She made it to a port. But where did she go from there?
Lady Stoneheart’s harsh death rattle of a voice broke into her thoughts. Brienne couldn’t understand what she was saying, but, with every minute that passed, Lady Stoneheart was growing angrier.
Brienne glanced at Thoros, wondering if he’d thought to bring a weapon with him. He knows how to raise the dead. He should know how to stop them. But—no. He had no weapons with him—at least not that Brienne could see—and he was whispering what might have been prayers to R’hllor. No help there.
Desperately, Brienne scanned the room, searching for something that she might be able to use as a weapon. Oathkeeper was worse than useless, for it could neither wound nor slay. It might hamper Lady Stoneheart, but only if Brienne could chop off her legs or her head. Necks and leg bones were hard to sever..and even thinking about cutting the lady’s throat a fraction deeper seemed too much like collusion with the Freys.
There were some molds stacked near the wall, but Brienne was hard pressed to think of a way to use them as weapons. A few smith’s hammers were hanging above the molds, but nothing that she could be sure would stop Lady Stoneheart. There certainly weren’t any of the former smith’s works lying about, and even if there had been, what would she do with them? The quenching trough was empty. And hurling the anvil at Lady Stoneheart…well, the Mountain that Rides might be able to manage such a feat, but not her.
And that left only the bellows and the tongs, which were propped up near the burning furnace—
Yes. The forge’s furnace was lit. Lem and Tom had probably kindled it to keep warm.
And Lady Stoneheart had Ser Jaime’s face in a vise-like grip, and was pulling him closer. There was no more time.
Brienne edged around the wall until no one stood between her and the forge. Fortunately, no one seemed to be paying too much attention to her.
Gripping the tongs, she opened the furnace door.
“What’s she doing?”
Lem. Of course. Couldn’t you have simply not noticed me for another moment?
“Get away from that furnace, girl,” said Tom. “Now’s not the time to be playing at heroics. You made a promise, remember.”
Brienne had never felt less heroic in her life. Without letting herself think about what she had to do, she plunged the tongs into the fire and pulled out a blazing coal. Then, closing her eyes, she touched the coal to Lady Stoneheart’s left sleeve, left shoulder and hair.
Forgive me, my lady. Please. I know this is terrible—but I hope it will send you to your husband and your sons.
Her eyes were still closed when Lady Stoneheart, her hair and arm ablaze, flew at her.
The blow sent Brienne reeling across the room—far from the furnace, which was good, but far from the tongs and burning coal, which was very bad. And Lady Stoneheart was much stronger and far, far closer than Brienne could have wished, which was worse.
It was useless to yell, she knew; there was no noise that could penetrate madness or death. But she could not be patient one moment longer.
“You told me not to let you change him!” she shouted, backing away from the dead woman. “You ordered me not to!”
Lady Stoneheart snarled a jumble of jagged syllables, and Tom o’Sevenstreams sighed. “She says that you’ve betrayed her again. She’s sickened by you.”
“I have not betrayed her!” Brienne retorted. “I had a dream—or a vision—of the real Lady Stark. She said that no matter what, I must not let her do…well, what Lord Beric did to bring her back.”
“The girl’s right.” That was Thoros, stepping away from the wall. “The living can restore the dead to life, if the one doing the restoring is one of R'hllor’s—though that’s not to be done without cause. I never heard of the dead restoring the dead until Lord Beric passed on his strength to the lady. But the dead changing the living…that’s foul. For they can’t restore life that’s already there, do you see? They can only take. And when they steal breath from the living…it makes them all the stronger.”
Brienne could hear Tom shouting something—probably recriminations—at Thoros, but she had no time to listen to the growing argument, as Lady Stoneheart was advancing rapidly. Brienne dodged to the right, barely keeping herself from being backed against the wall…only to realize that she was drawing near the open furnace once again. The tongs, however, were out of her reach, and the coal had long since cooled. Not that either had worked well. Lady Stoneheart was still burning, but the fire wasn’t consuming her. And there were no weapons within arms’ reach—
Except the bellows.
Brienne dove for it, gripped the handles and sent a gust of air in the lady’s direction.
How long it took the air from the bellows to strengthen the flames enough to consume what was left of Lady Stark, Brienne never knew. Pumping the bellows while dodging the lady’s enraged blows and powerful grip was anything but pleasant. It seemed to drag on for eternity. More than once, she found herself wishing that one of the men would help. All right, not Ser Jaime, but surely the members of the Brotherhood had to fear the dead woman they served, didn’t they? But no help came from that quarter.
When she finally saw the dead woman’s skin blister and blacken, she wanted to be grateful, but all she felt was a dreadful weariness and a conviction that she was about to be violently sick.
After there was nothing left but ashes of clothing and charred bone, Brienne knelt down.
“My lady,” she said, her voice thick with grief. “Oh, my lady, I’m sorry…”
Chapter 6: An Oath to the Seven
Which there is much discussion of honor, guilt and hard choices, and Jaime Lannister gives Brienne an unlooked-for gift.
When at last she looked up, the smithy was empty, save for her and Ser Jamie, who was sitting on the floor, shoving his golden hand back over his stump. Had someone yanked off before? Brienne couldn’t remember.
The other three men seemed to have melted into the air.
“Well. So you’re finally back with us.” Ser Jaime surveyed her as he would a bug. “Can you tell me why I shouldn’t slay you where you’re kneeling?”
Sighing, Brienne rocked back on her haunches. “No.” There was a pause so long that she thought she could hear snow falling. “I didn’t know she would be here. I thought that they were going to bring you to the camp. I was hoping that we could both fight her there.”
“But you did know that this was a trap.”
Ser Jaime’s voice took on a dry, mocking tone. “If you normally set traps for your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
Brienne winced. He was right. It had been dishonorable, and there was no blinking that. “What I told you about the fight at the inn and being captured was true.”
“Only there was no Hound, except for that pup with his helmet. And no Sansa.”
Brienne said nothing. Why belabor the obvious?
Ser Jaime exhaled noisily. “If you were so eager to lead me into a trap…why fight her?”
“I wasn’t eager.”
“Then why do it?” He looked genuinely baffled…and, Brienne thought, not a little hurt. She had seen him wearing that expression at Harrenhal.
“I was afraid of her. I would have said anything to get away and not be hanged…or worse. I—I think I would have run if I had believed that I could escape her men. Or her. But I didn’t. I kept hoping I’d come up with some brilliant plan on the way to Ninetimes. Or on the way back to the camp. Or that someone would know what to say or do to calm her.”
“To stop her.”
Brienne dragged the long sleeve of her rough tunic across her eyes and nodded.
Again, silence fell for a few minutes. Then she heard Ser Jaime say in a very odd tone, “It’s not easy slaying monsters, is it? Mind you, I couldn’t have done it that way. Not after Aerys.”
“I couldn’t think of anything else that might stop her in time.” Brienne met his eyes, hoping that she wouldn’t start crying once more. “And she did say to stop her. She did.”
“In your vision,” Ser Jaime said, his tone tinged with disbelief.
Brienne was too tired to do more than place a shade of emphasis on the word. “Yes. But I didn’t know what to do until I saw her holding your face and pulling you close.” And I can’t speak of this any longer. If I do, I’ll weep until I melt. “What happened to the others? And—what are you going to do with me?”
Ser Jaime shrugged. “I let them go. And no, it wasn’t mercy. My armies don’t have enough food to feed a band of outlaws and their families. I did toss the Hound’s helm into the furnace, though. No one else will be adding to the Hound’s sterling reputation.” His gaze sharpened. “As for you…what do you think I ought to do with you?”
Brienne would have given anything to be able to say, and honestly, I think that you should let me go, ser. But she couldn’t. She’d betrayed him and slain her lady, and neither logic nor terror could excuse either offense.
She pushed herself to her feet, wobbling a bit. “A-after my execution, will you see to it that my body is sent back to Tarth? And will you tell my father that I’m sorry?”
Ser Jaime looked at her as if she were heat-crazed and burning up with fever besides. “You just slew a wight straight out of the legends of the Long Winter. I can almost believe that we’ll be attacked by snarks and grumkins next. It seems rather pointless to kill a monster-slayer when Westeros might need one. I’m rather averse to killing people who might keep me and mine alive.”
A vision of that terrible undead army marching across Westeros filled her mind once more . Brienne shuddered. “I don’t think that I’d last very long.”
Ser Jaime barked a laugh. “The gods must be strangely wroth with you. They neglected to give you a scrap of pride in your achievements.”
“I killed my lady.” Brienned gazed down at him in disbelief. “I don’t want to feel proud of that.” She drew a shaky breath. “And must we talk about this here?”
“No.” Ser Jaime pushed himself to his feet. “No, we can talk outside.”
Once they’d extinguished the furnace and left the smithy, however, they were slow to resume their conversation. Brienne was not eager for it to begin again. The notion of being praised for what she had done made her feel like…like punching a dragon. The dragon would probably kill her and Ser Jaime wouldn’t understand in the least why she wanted to do something like that, but it would be enormously satisfying.
Jaime’s voice broke into her thoughts. “What will you do now?”
Brienne shrugged. “Try to find Lady Sansa, I suppose.” And Lady Arya, who definitely is not in the North. “I swore to protect her, after all.” Them. Lady Stark wanted me to protect them.
Though who knew if she would ever find them? The trails of both girls were long since cold.
Ser Jaime nodded as if that was no more than he had expected. “That’s the stubborn wench I know,” he said, and he sounded almost ruefully amused. “You’d be much safer if you just went home.”
“I can’t. I—“
“You swore. Yes. I know.” He ran his good hand through his thinning hair. “Gods, it’s like talking to myself at your age. You don’t understand, I suppose, why I said that you should be proud.”
“Because no one else will be.”
Brienne gaped at him, astonished.
“Didn’t expect me to say that, did you?” Ser Jaime looked, again, as he were two men—one mocking the follies of the world and the other weary of its idiocy. “It’s true, though. There’ll be those who swore that you did it out of hatred or ambition or as part of a long-standing plot. Some will swear that she was never undead and that you slew her for gold or the promise of power or just because I’m so wonderful in bed. And the singers will sing whatever tale best suits their audience. Mobs and crowds are savage beasts. Mind you don’t let them see you bleed.” He swung up into his saddle, then gazed down at her. “Ride with me for a bit.”
“Of course,” Brienne replied. “I must return your horse to your camp—though he won’t be very rested.”
Ser Jaime glanced about the village. “Perhaps not, but I’m not staying the night here. The Brotherhood will likely be back in a day or so, full of ale-courage and happy to wound, maim and kill a former captive and a woman who committed the worst of offenses.”
“Killing their lady.”
“No. Being brave while three of them stood by and did nothing.” Digging his heels into the horse’s side, he clucked his tongue, and the horse began ambling in the direction that the road lay. “”You asked me once why I’d taken the white cloak—and why I’d slain a king I’d sworn to protect.”
Brienne swallowed. “You said that it was an honor to be named to the Kingsguard at fifteen.”
The words fell from his lips like stones. “Because a mummer’s puppet show held finer kings than Aerys. Because I was sick to the soul of watching men having their tongues pulled out with and roasting to death in their armor for a madman’s amusement. Because I had to kill his pet pyromancer to keep the fool from burning down King’s Landing with wildfire. Because if I hadn’t killed him, he would have given the same thrice-damned order to another pyromancer, and I might not have killed that one in time. Because he ordered me to bring him my father’s head.”
Brienne mulled this over. “He had no right to ask that.”
The sardonic look was back. “Best not say that too loudly, lass. Kings aren’t fond of hearing that they don’t have a right to do something.”
“But—could no one have persuaded him not to—?“
“About as well as you could persuade her not to slaughter all of her enemies.” He seemed to be avoiding the name Lady Stoneheart had borne in life, for which Brienne was profoundly grateful. “And I’m sure you noticed how many opponents she had.”
Reluctantly, Brienne nodded. “It’s still wrong, though,” she said in a plaintive voice.
“Sometimes you don’t get the easy choice. Sometimes all you can choose between are wrong and…less wrong. Or maybe ‘equally wrong, but hurts fewer people.’ And sometimes no matter what you choose is horrible. The gods don’t seem to like making things easy for man.” A chuckle. “Or woman, either.”
They passed the rest of the day riding at a quiet trot, making their way across burned and ruined lands to the Pennytree road once more. But by nightfall, a vicious storm blew up out of the east, pelting them with rain and sleet and coating the rutted road with black ice. Fortunately, Brienne spotted a shrine to the Seven where they could shelter for the night. It was small—they’d have to sleep sitting up, for there wasn’t room for one of them to stretch out, let alone two—but the walls and roof were in good repair.
After they’d fed and watered the horses and were squatting about a tiny fire (feeling, in Brienne’s opinion, just as damp but somewhat warmer), Ser Jaime spoke once more. “I’ve a present for you, lass. Mind, I doubt if anyone else will care, but it might mean something to you. Kneel, if you can. I’ll try to stand and draw my sword without crushing the fire underfoot.”
Brienne knew what he meant and all but flinched, for she knew it was impossible. “Don’t joke!”
“Who’s joking?” Ser Jaime seemed honestly bewildered.
“You once told me that there were some things I could not do because the gods had deprived me of a cock,” Brienne snapped. “Did I suddenly turn into a man when I wasn’t looking?”
Ser Jaime snorted. “If you can’t be knighted on a day that you battle an insane monster out of legend—and quite possibly save the uncle of the king from turning into a similar creature—I don’t know when you can do it. Of course, there aren’t any women knights at the moment, but until recently, there weren’t any wights, either, so I don’t think that matters. I haven’t any land to bestow on you with the title, and I don’t know that you’ll ever be able to say openly that you are a knight without many—lords and smallfolk alike—laughing. You’d still be, essentially, a hedge knight. But you’d have the title to go with it.”
Brienne brushed most of this aside. “I don’t want to be rewarded for harming my lady.” Why can’t you understand that?
Ser Jaime sighed in what, to Brienne’s ears, sounded remarkably like exasperation. “You didn’t harm Catelyn Stark. She was long gone. But if that isn’t enough for you—and I see it’s not—will you at least permit me to thank you for saving my life?”
How can I separate one from the other? Brienne wondered. “Ser. You have thanked me. Truly, that’s enough. Why would you want to give me such a-a gift?”
There was a long pause, and when he spoke again, his voice was bitter and sad. “Because you act as though what’s said in a knight’s oath is real. How many knights have you known who cared about that?”
Brienne said nothing, but her mind answered him, nevertheless. None.
“I’ll wager you could recite it from memory.”
Well, why not? her tired mind asked. Where’s the harm if he wants to hear it again? The sleet’s still coming down, after all, and this will pass a few minutes, at least.
She closed her eyes. “’In the name of the Warrior, I charge you to be brave. In the name of the Father, I charge you to be just. In the name of the Mother, I charge you to defend the young and innocent. In the name of the Maid, I charge you to protect all women. In the name of the Crone, I charge you to act with wisdom and understanding In the name of the Smith, I charge you to use your skill to build a better land for all who dwell on it. And in the name of the Stranger, I charge you to face death and the unknown without surrendering to either.’”
“’And in the name of the Seven, I dub thee knight.’”
Brienne felt a tap on her left shoulder. Her eyes flew open as her right shoulder was tapped as well.
Ser Jaime was grinning. “Normally, this would be where the knight who’d trained you would place a sword in your hands. However, as you’re already wearing Oathkeeper, I think we can dispense with that. Let’s go on to more pressing matters—what to call you?”
Brienne opened her mouth to protest, but decided at the last minute not to. What was done, was done. “Perhaps…saera? I don’t want to have to argue that women aren’t sers—not even to myself. And it means ‘mounted woman warrior.’” Ser Jaime snorted, but Brienne ignored him. “The Targaryens used to use that word describe their women dragonriders.”
“No one will ever pronounce the Old Valyrian right, you know.”
Brienne shrugged. Either they would learn or they wouldn’t. There wasn’t much point in fussing about it before it happened.
In any case, she had something else to say first. Courtesy demanded it, even if she wasn’t quite sure how she felt about this yet. “Thank you, ser.”
Ser Jaime favored her with a tiny smile. “You’re welcome…saera."
Chapter 7: Epilogue -- North
In which Brienne lies by omission and resumes her quest to find.
The next day they arrived back at Pennytree—much to the shock of Ser Jaime’s commanders. Ser Jaime spun a tale about the Hound fighting both of them and then, badly wounded, fleeing with Sansa Stark. “And the gods alone know where they are now,” he grumbled. “We searched the forest for them in all directions, but it was no use.”
Brienne picked up the cue. “I’ll keep looking for them, ser. I found them once. I can do it again.”
“Where are you going to look for them?” demanded Tytos Frey.
Brienne hesitated for a second, wondering if Tytos hadn’t emphasized the word “you” a hair too much. Then she gave the only reply that she could give.
“North. I think that she’d head somewhere that she felt safe.”
Tytos smirked at this, as did a number of the other commanders. A few commented on naïve and foolish girls who’d run home to a burned castle. But not one doubted her. Not one asked why Sansa Stark—who had to know of the fall of Winterfell and her brothers’ deaths by now—would race into the arms of her mortal enemies.
Which was a good thing. It meant that she didn’t have to lie.
A few hours later, she and Dunk were heading northwest of Pennytree. With luck, they’d end up some miles west of Raventree Hall. She didn’t want to meet the besieging army when she began following the river southeast once more. Or go anywhere near the Old Crossroads Inn, come to that.
She hadn’t lied, though. She was going to head north. She simply had to go southeast to Saltpans first, because that was where Arya Stark had last been seen. Saltpans, after all, was a port. If everyone in your homeland wanted to kill you, the sensible thing to do would be to go somewhere else.
Of course, Arya could have ended up anywhere in the East—Pentos, Tyrosh, Myr, Lys—but Brienne had decided to start with Braavos, the northernmost of the Nine Free Cities. People often forgot that “north in Westeros” was not the same thing as “north everywhere.”
What she would do when she found the child, she had no idea. Winterfell had fallen, and there were at least three armies squabbling over the North. And the ghost of Lady Stark told me to protect her daughters. Though how do I protect them from undead wights? How will you do that, saera?
The Old Valyrian word made her recall a rumor that she’d overheard in an inn in Oldtown what seemed like eons ago. She’d disregarded it until now, but—well, it was no more impossible than anything else that had happened.
As Brienne rode on, she envisioned Arya—a slim, dark-haired amalgamation of Lady Stark and Ser Jaime, clad in black homespun—greeting her with perplexity. “I’m not going back to Westeros. There’s nothing for me there. And I just left.”
“I promised your mother that I’d find you and protect you,” she heard herself saying. “Bringing you back to Westeros—no. I couldn’t protect you there.”
The real Brienne smiled, picturing creatures out of ancient myth and a fierce warrior-queen out of legend as her imaginary self spoke.
“Tell me, Arya…have you ever wanted to see a dragon?”