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Herself

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"Oy, I told you lot to get back to quarters. Why're you still here?"

Brienne turned awkwardly at the sound of the armour master's gruff voice. She wasn't used to moving in the stiff armor she'd struggled on a few minutes before, alone in the stable after the others had retired for the evening. Embarrassment flushed through her. She tamped it down and straightened her spine, daring him to say anything.

"Brienne," he said more gently when he saw her face.

She'd sparred with the boys for years. At first, they laughed. With time, she became lean and hard, no spindly girlish arms for her, and eventually she regularly beat them at their own game. Now, they learned from her.

But since she was a girl and they were boys, they were the ones who became squires while she had to stay home with the women, learning embroidery and other dainty tasks that made her crazy with the need for the open sky, a horse's broad body clamped between her legs. The one thing she refused to do was wear skirts; she bore stoically the other women's cramped disapproval as she strode around in trousers.

When she could, she watched the squires dress the knights and assist them with their armour, carefully noting the order in which they piled on the odd metal gear and memorising the names for the pieces. She didn't know why. Somehow she hoped to join them, even though it seemed impossible. She'd prove herself and take her rightful place - eventually.

On this day, one squire had failed to put away his master's armor. It lay shining on the bench, haphazardly forgotten. She couldn't resist sneaking in and taking a closer look. It was beautiful, the rounded silver plates, the inlaid design unique to its owner. She reached out and touched it, her finger tracing the patterns. She grasped the edge, solid and implacable in her hand. This was what it meant to be a knight. Protector. A solid wall of might against the enemies of one's liege, pledged until death. Her heart thrilled to the thought.

Before she knew what she was doing, she lifted the armour to her shoulders and put it on. It was heavier than she expected, but it felt good. It made her feel stronger, the weight settling on her broad frame like it was meant to be there. Slowly she added more pieces, one by one, until she wore the entire suit. It fit remarkably well. It felt natural, which pleased her immensely.

She lifted her arm to test the movement, imagined a sword in her hand. It would take some practice, but she knew she could master it. It was empowering. For this moment, she could pretend she was an actual knight.

She was about to put on the helmet when the armour master discovered her. She expected a tirade but instead he said, "It suits you."

Her stomach flipped and her heart beat hard under the metal. She never thought to hear her own feelings echoed by another, much less a man.

"Go on, put on the helmet," he said.

She stared at him wordlessly, then slipped it on over her short hair; another thing the other women disdained.

"Ah," he said. "There you go." A moment passed while he examined her with approval. "You're missing just one thing."

"What's that?" Her voice sounded strange with the helmet on her head.

He went to the wall and picked out a sword, handed it to her. She took it, the heft familiar in her hand. She tried out a few moves, getting used to the feel of the armour. She grinned at him, feeling more alive than she had for ages.

"Now you're a true knight."

"I'm not. You know I'm not." He was taunting her.

"Oh, some day you will be, Brienne. You may be a woman, but there never was a truer knight than you. I've seen it in you since you were a wee tyke. It's your destiny."

"My destiny." Her soul lifted at his words. For she knew they were true. Nothing would stop it. Somehow, some day, she would fulfill that destiny. Her shoulders pulled back and she straightened to her whole, impressive height, broadening her stance. She found herself planting the sword in front of her, as if at attention. The weight of the armour was insignificant. It served only to reinforce her own sense of herself, what she was truly meant to do in this world. "Yes. I think you're right."