Preparing for the long night and the war that comes with it isn’t quite as Brienne imagined it would be. There’s training and barricading and the forging of weapons to be had, certainly. As well as long monotonous meetings that drone on over the same topics they discussed in exhausting detail at the last. These aspects come as no surprise. And really, the others, though less glamorous, shouldn’t either.
People have to eat. People have to shit. And while she’s been fortunate enough to avoid dealing with the latter, she’s done her fair share of gutting and skinning since she arrived at Winterfell. Being sworn sword to Lady Sansa does not exempt her from such duties. There’s endless wood to be collected and chopped, horses to be tended, and she’s far too able bodied to sit back and let her strength go to waste. Anyone physically capable of doing so is to render aide; even Lady Sansa has spent her days amidst piles of pelts and furs, crafting leather armour and warmer clothing for those who need it.
There’s no shortage of tasks to accomplish, but mostly she trains. It’s not for her own benefit; she’s yet to meet anyone here who can match her skill with a blade. It’s others who need to learn. Pod grows more adept with each lesson, but he’s still too slow, still doesn’t trust intuition to guide his sword. Many of the northern men are sloppy when it comes to fighting, inefficient in their movements, but it’s the children who need her help the most. Boys and girls who must join the fight against the dead, many of whom have never held a weapon, and though she was much younger when she first picked up a sword, Brienne doesn’t ever remember being so small.
She wishes she could shield them from what is to come, guard what innocence remains and give them the opportunity to pick up arms in their own time, but time is short, the days shorter, and when night comes, any training they’ve had will be far better than none.
It feels like ages since the meeting held just that morning, and while Brienne bid good night to both Pod and Lady Sansa some hours past, she has yet to sleep. A fire burns in her hearth, and her mattress is heavy with furs and quilts, but she remains wide awake, a stubborn chill making itself at home in her bones.
The day before last, Lady Sansa offered her unrestricted use of the castle’s hot spring baths, and while the idea had immediately appealed to her sore muscles and near frozen toes, Brienne dismissed it at once, knowing that the same offer had also been made by Jon to a number of others.
She has no interest in being ambushed while naked in the bath. She experienced that once with a half-delirious, fever-ridden Jaime Lannister, and once was quite enough. Now she’s got a red-headed wildling fellow that lurks about and grins at her like some awestruck simpleton. He’s set to leave for Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, might be that he already has, but if he still remains about the castle, she doesn’t doubt he would follow her into the springs should she allow herself to be caught unaware.
She’s quite unsure what to make of him, this Tormund Giantsbane and his entirely unguarded appreciation for her. She doesn’t know much about him at all, though if the whispers about the castle are to be believed, he’s said to be quite the storyteller. He’s been quiet but attentive at most meetings, and apart from informing Pod of his status as a lucky man after she knocked her squire into the snow, the only time he’s really spoken in her presence was immediately afterward to inform her that she reminds him of a bear he once had the fortune of bedding.
What was originally annoyance at his lingering looks and ridiculous smiles, is still so. But somehow, against her will, a tentative curiosity has arisen. She’d like to believe her interest rests solely with the free folk and their cultural differences as a whole; she’s never possessed much prowess when it comes to lying, not even to herself.
And it’s not so much that she expects him to try something untoward should he join her in the baths. Truth is, she doubts he would. Jon trusts him, as do a number of the men here in Winterfell. It’s an unlikely alliance, sure, but she’s beginning to learn that these free folk, no matter how feral they appear, have no intention of breaking it.
So perhaps it’s not him she’s hesitant of, but her own interest, for it’s an interest she ought not to possess.
Somewhere past the walls of Winterfell, a wolf howls in the night. It’s a lonely sound, almost haunted, and Brienne rises from her bed to look out the window at the keep below. The day’s bustle ceased hours ago, and now the muddied ground rests quiet and still beneath a layer of persistently falling snow. Fires burn, flames flickering to keep those on watch warm, but otherwise the castle stands statuesque in the night, the majority of its occupants sleeping as she should be.
Sleep is a fickle thing though, and long ago Brienne decided there’s little use chasing it when it’s not interested in being caught.
Foregoing her armour, she opts instead for the thick fur cloak Lady Sansa handcrafted for her. The garment covers her, head to nearly ankle, in soft bear fur – a gift she at once deemed far too extravagant to accept. Lady Sansa had insisted, though, and there’d been no convincing her charge otherwise.
Fastening the closures, Brienne gathers Oathkeeper and slips from her quarters.
The hallway is cold enough that moisture in her breath crystallizes upon release, and as she moves out into the night air, wrapped in warm fur instead of cold metal, she decides she’ll have to thank Lady Sansa again come morning.
Nodding at a guard as she passes by, Brienne allows her feet to carry her aimlessly around the castle. She stops by the stables to check on the horses, and finishes piling wood that never quite made it from the cart, but still her mind refuses to settle.
Thoughts of the coming battle against the dead cling like burrs to her consciousness, and try as she might, she cannot shake them free. She’s yet to travel north of the wall or actually glimpse a wight or walker, but she does not believe their existence to be simple flights of fancy. There’s truth in fear, and that fear is written plain as day in the eyes of those who have witnessed the coming storm. Her hand may rest against Valyrian steel, but there’s little comfort to be found in it.
Brienne thinks of Arya and wishes the girl had acquiesced and accepted her protection, wonders where she ended up or if she’s even still alive. She doubts it, but perhaps death itself is a mercy in light of what’s to come. She wonders if she’d pushed harder to convince Lady Sansa the first time around, if she could have saved her from the horror that was Ramsey Bolton. And then there’s Lady Catelyn; had she remained by her side, it could all be different. She thinks of Renly and of Jaime, wonders where she went wrong while protecting the former, and slowly begins to accept that she may never again see the latter. Her failures haunt her, and she doesn’t know if their ghosts will ever rest.
Brienne finds no satisfying answers to these questions, nor any others that come to mind, and it’s not until she comes face to face with a mostly submerged Tormund Giantsbane in the springs within Winterfell, that she realises where her wandering has led her.
The baths here are nothing like those in Harrenhal. There are no painted walls or ornate columns, no straight lines or impeccably spaced stonework. It’s all rough edges and sloping stone, nature-made pools flanked by sweating walls leading out to a snowy courtyard. Silver light dances with gold upon the steaming water’s surface, and snow swirls into the cavern on a gust of frigid night air.
Unconsciously gripping the hilt of her sword, Brienne looks upon Tormund with his frost-whitened beard and hair. The grin she’s come to expect pulls at his lips, but its appearance is delayed, accompanied by tired eyes and weary posture. He doesn’t speak and she frowns, ready to beat a hasty retreat before heavy silence and the dark of night reveal something she’s unprepared to face.
It’s absurd, the quickening beat of her heart; after all, it’s not as if he followed her here. No, she’s the one who has managed to walk in on him. Lowering her gaze, she clears her throat. “Apologies, I’ll-”
“Stay.” The lone word is a request, not at all an order despite the rough tone in which it is delivered.
Brienne pauses, though she cannot fathom how remaining here could possibly be a wise decision. Risking a glace in Tormund’s direction, she finds that he is no longer smiling. A look of intense contemplation shadows his bearded face instead.
“You should stay,” he entreats again after a moment, large hands skimming lazy patterns over the surface of the pool. Turning his palms to face upwards, he inspects his fingers with a huff of laughter. “Wrinkled as an old man’s balls. I’ve had my fill; I’ll leave you to it.”
Without warning, Tormund stands and climbs from the pool, entirely unabashed in his nudity. He doesn’t reach for a cloth to dry or cover himself as Brienne expects, instead he strides out into the courtyard and throws himself into the nearest snowdrift with a shout.
Unable to look away, Brienne watches the act with mixed horror and interest until he stands and strides back into the cave. Shaking the snow from his head, Tormund brushes at the flakes clinging to his chest hair. He’s broad and strong, all red fur and more scars than she can count with what she’s determined to keep from becoming a lingering perusal of the wildling man’s body.
He grins at her again, a knowing look in his eyes, and she’s not sure what would be worse, maintaining eye contact or blatantly dropping her gaze to stare at his cock. Heat rises to her cheeks at the thought, and Brienne closes her eyes for a second before steadfastly directing her gaze over his shoulder and out into the courtyard beyond.
“What did you expect?”
The question startles her, and despite her efforts to avoid looking upon him again, Brienne finds herself doing just that. His thighs are as strong as his chest, thick and furred by the same red amber that trails his stomach to nestle around his resting cock.
“Some hairless southern cunt with skin smooth as a babe?” Tormund continues with a laugh, combing his fingers through his wet beard as steam rises from his skin like a slow fog in the orange glow of the flickering sconces on the wall. “My daughters have more hair on ‘em than half the men here. A layer of your own fur keeps you warm on nights such as this when the cold winds blow and the snow falls deep. Not many steaming tubs to be had north o’ the wall.”
He hasn’t made any effort whatsoever to reach for his clothing and while the sight of him has her flustered, it’s not Brienne’s only concern; she can’t imagine it to be at all pleasant standing there with the wind whipping at his exposed skin. “I did not…” she starts before abandoning any discussion of what she did or did not expect of him. With a deep breath, she gestures vaguely at his state of undress. “Would you kindly cloth yourself? This is highly irregular. It’s not…Proper.”
“Proper,” Tormund mocks. There’s a flash of humour in his eyes, but it’s quickly replaced by something darker. He does reach for his trousers, though, fastening them before continuing. “You kneelers have some strange ideas of proper. Is it proper to burn men alive? Children too? To slaughter babes at the breast? Is it proper to barter women as property? To marry them off to a murderous cunt like Ramsey Bolton? For what? For some title or status that somehow makes you more important than the bastard sitting next to you? Is it proper to kneel for kings and queens who don’t give two shits about those they believe beneath them? For cruel lads to rule kingdoms, for those of supposed influence to fight and fuck and feast while common folk suffer for it? If that is proper, then I don’t give a fucking shit about proper.” He’s calm as he speaks, not red in the face or shouting, but his words hold weight all the same.
And at first Brienne doesn’t know what to say. The urge to argue is strong, to claim that there’s error in his thoughts, but she’s hard pressed to do so when there’s more truth than not to what he says. The seven kingdoms are not without fault, not without cruelty and horror, deceit and madness, but there is also good to be found, and as she stands across the pool from this man, this supposed savage, she has to wonder if the same isn’t true of those born north of the wall.
As someone who has never fit the mould of what a lady is expected to be in the seven kingdoms, she’s curious. “Tell me then, what do you consider to be proper? How do your people do things differently?”
Tormund gathers his remaining clothing and while he begins to move toward her, he doesn’t dress further. “You speak of differences as if you southerners are all cut from the same cloth. We have our disputes, our rapists and murders, same as you. There are all sorts north of the wall, just as there are south of it. Good or bad, wild or proper… Are we always one or the other? Never both? I don’t care for labels. I don’t care for kings. Give me a leader who knows how to fight and what for. Someone chosen, not by a birthright, but by the people. When they promise something, they keep their word. No secrets, no lies, no tricks. Man or woman like that is worth more than any crown-wearing cunt on a throne ever will be. Mance was like that, Jon is too; he’s the reason my people are alive, the reason I’m not a pile of ash and bone in the snow at Castle Black.”
Brienne considers this, considers all that she’s witnessed since Renly’s death. Good and bad and downright evil, but also more shades of grey than she ever expected to find in this world. Not all good men are without fault, and not all bad are without hope for redemption. And sometimes that line is so blurred you can’t find it at all. She never despised Robert Baratheon, nor did she care much for him. He wasn’t a good king or a bad king. Really, he wasn’t much of a king at all. She used to think Renly would have made a better one, but now Brienne knows that judgement came more from her heart than her head. Jon might actually be worthy of such a title, though he doesn’t seem to care for it. There’s something telling in that, she thinks, and if she had to choose someone to follow into the coming storm, the former lord commander of the night’s watch and his wildling ally might not be a bad bet.
Following a warrior into battle is one thing. Following a man into bed is another matter entirely.
She knows where Tormund stands when it comes to kneeling. What she doesn’t know is how he treats a woman. It shouldn’t matter. Not to her. It’s not as if they’ll ever be more than acquaintances, more than allies in the coming war, but that doesn’t stop her from asking. “And what about women? How do the free folk take wives?”
A grin splits his face and he answers without hesitation. “Best to find a good strong woman and steal her.”
She ought to have known it would be something barbaric. “Steal? That’s-”
“What? Not proper?” Tormund laughs again. It’s a laugh that makes her feel like a naïve child, like there’s so much in this world she has yet to understand. “Would you rather be bartered like a broodmare to a man who cares not for you, but only your name? Who fucks without regard for your pleasure?”
Brienne frowns, and that seems to be answer enough.
“No? Our customs may sound strange to you, but thing is, when you find a woman worth stealing, make no mistake, that’s no meek lamb you’re after. No, you want a fucking bear. She’d better fight you every step of the way, better bruise your body and bleed your nose, break a bone or two, for if you succeed, you want a woman your equal, you want to know she’s capable of fighting just as hard as you are to protect the life you’ll build together. You want her to know it too. And if you turn out to be a shit husband, well, she’s got every right to slit your throat.”
Brienne wants to ask if that’s why he stares at her, if he intends to steal her. She’s reasonably certain he desires her. She’s seen that look upon many a man’s face. However, the fact that she’s never been on the receiving end of such blatant admiration gives her pause. She’s loved men, and perhaps even one or two of them felt something genuine for her in return, but she’s certainly never been looked at this way.
She wants to ask. She doesn’t have to.
“If we were north of the wall, if surviving the long night didn’t involve making allies of those we’ve spent generations fighting, I’d have stolen you the moment I set eyes upon you.”
His admission isn’t exactly unexpected, but still, it has her drawing breath more forcefully than needed. She may be warming to him, despite her best efforts not to, but she still has the good sense to stand affronted. Scoffing, Brienne tightens her grip on Oathkeeper. “You would have tried.”
“Aye. And you would have punched my teeth in. It would have been bloody and fucking glorious.” He grins wider than she’s ever seen, eyes alight, eyebrows dancing. “Still could be.”
Brienne neglects to respond, refuses to take the bait, and soon the smile fades from his lips, the bravado from his eyes. A tired man stands in place of the boastful one from moments before. Donning the remainder of his furs, Tormund shifts toward the door. “I ride for Eastwatch at first light. Pray to the old gods that I survive to greet the dawn; it’d be a shame to die without our swords ever crossing.”
He’s gone before she can form a coherent reply, the door closing softly behind him, and for all the answers she’s received, Brienne is only left with more questions.
She could go after him, offer to spar right here and now, but what would that accomplish? He still must leave. She’s still bound by oath to stay. Perhaps one day their paths will cross again. Perhaps dawn will rise from the ashes of the past to bring a future where the old notions of proper no longer matter, where good outshines bad, and the spring sun melts the snow. Or perhaps they’ll all die horrible deaths and rise again to march in the army of the dead.
Alone in the cavern, Brienne watches the snow fall, but this time, when a wolf howls, long and lonely in the night, another answers.