Jaime stares at the entrance of the tent. The night is clear and bitterly cold and in the light of the braziers scattered about the camp, the thick red cotton is as still as the walls of a keep. It is starting to become dusted with a light frost.
This tent is smaller than his and much like many others, all around. The difference is in the occupant, who had tried, at first, to refuse his offer of shelter as they travelled. Yet even her stubbornness had failed when Jaime said that with all his men under canvas, from highest born to low, he wasn't about to leave her to a bedroll alone.
Brienne had accepted that with the sparest of grace, her words polite but emerging from a mouth stuck in grim scowl. Jaime just smiled at her and told her to make the most of it; the further North they go, the heavier and more sudden the snowfall will be, and he doesn't know if the Lannister tents, built for much easier climes, will be able to withstand the weight of it.
In truth, Brienne had taken to having this space of her own well, ignoring the merriments of camp life in the evenings and disappearing into her tent almost as soon as it was in place every night. As the company of soldiers is often rough and ready, Jaime was hardly surprised, and he wonders if she has always done this. If this isolation is another form of armour in the world of men she has chosen for herself.
"What are you doing? Waiting to knock?" Bronn says at his side, as if Jaime has taken leave of his senses. The man who, in spite of all his talk of castles, had been the one to gather those Lannister soldiers willing to fight in the North at the first sniff of Jaime's flight from King's Landing, slaps him on the back. "Get in there. You never know, she might be naked. Do you think she sleeps naked?"
"This isn't exactly the time, Bronn," Jaime points out.
"I reckon she sleeps naked. It's always the way with the quiet ones."
"Strike that last," Jaime mutters, "it's never the time."
"It's always the time for naked women," Bronn says, as if it is a truth carved in stone, for the ages. He nudges Jaime in further encouragement. "Well, I don't want to stand here all night, freezing my ballsack off. Go get her."
So Jaime does, with some reluctance, pushing the canvas aside and stepping in. He has never ventured into Brienne's tent before, though she spends time enough in his, advising him on what lies ahead when they are eating and the camp grows about them, each night. She knows better what to expect in the North, though it is generally nothing good. This tent would normally sleep ten, so it feels empty, though Brienne has laid her armour out in a line to one side, with her clothes folded neatly atop the breastplate. Right in the centre of this space, next to a small folding table with a guttering candle, a cup and a bowl of water, Brienne is sleeping on her bedroll. She'd refused the offer of a low cot, but not out of that stubbornness of hers; there were simply none large enough for her.
Jaime looks at Brienne and feels his breath quicken, though she is not naked. Most of her is buried under a pile of warm furs but one leg, long as summer, has emerged and is resting atop them. A dark sock covers her leg to the knee, though it is badly made and she has had to tie it in place with some matching wool, in a neat bow. The curve of her hip is covered by the ends of her shirt and, between the two, pale and dusted with freckles, her thigh is bare. Jaime has to force himself to look away, because his body's reaction is immediate, and this really isn't the time.
The situation is not aided when he looks to her face instead. When Brienne is awake, her cares sit heavy on her, hardening what nature had already formed with scant attention to her womanhood. In her sleep, though, those cares appear smoothed away, her brow made less ominous, her mouth softer and more content. Jaime is aware he should stop looking and just wake her, but he doesn't want to, and not just because of the selfish urge to drink in the sight before him. He knows that once he has done so, the cares that are Brienne's burden will increase tenfold.
Still, he must. Jaime takes a couple of steps nearer, only to stop and stare again, his heart thudding in his chest, as the movement brings into view what he could not see before. Buried deep in the furs, he can see her hand. It is wrapped around the hilt of Oathkeeper.
For a moment, he wonders if she has been threatened by any of the men, but she fought the Hound, toe-to-toe, and she won, as Podrick never stops telling anyone who will listen. What troops he still has seem to hold her in a certain kind of awe. And Jaime remembers their journey to King's Landing well enough; though Brienne has since told him she is not naturally the lightest of sleepers, if there is any reason for concern, be it the threat of attack or the potential escape of an irksome prisoner, she can be woken by the snap of a twig. He certainly tried to get away from her back then, often enough, though his being on a leash was somewhat limiting. No. Brienne is perfectly easy in her sleep.
He keeps staring down at her hand, as if doing so will resolve what he believes he is seeing into something else in the low light. Yet nothing changes and his heart is gripped by the knowledge that the Maid of Tarth does share her bed, and with the blade Jaime gave her too. He wants to ask her if it is because of Oathkeeper's value, or if there is another meaning in the gesture that he can hardly bring himself to consider, for he deserves no such tenderness, and he is sure she knows it.
But truly, this is not the time.
In silence, Jaime crouches next to her bedroll, taking one final glance at a woman, carefree in her sleep, before her world is altered for good. "Brienne," he says, though he puts no force into it.
Nothing happens, and Jaime, with a soft smile, takes that as proof positive that she does indeed sleep quite heavily. He resists the urge to shake her shoulder or touch her hair and says her name again, dropping his head a little closer. "Brienne."
Her eyes open, fogged with sleep, and she blinks up at him. "Jaime?" she whispers, as if he were an apparition, though thought wakes in her soon enough. "Is there an attack?" she asks, her voice rough as she struggles to sit up, fighting her way out of her furs. Jaime shakes his head, looking at her sadly, ignoring the charm in the way her shirt has twisted, leaving a collarbone exposed. "Then what's wrong?" Brienne says, though it is as if she already knows what is come.
Jaime wants to say nothing is wrong, but he cannot, his mouth stuck at half-mast, neither open nor shut. Brienne seems to find his silence unnerving, unusual as it is. "Tell me, Jaime."
He coughs, willing the words he dreads sharing to come. "Ten men rode into camp an hour ago. They are from Tarth."
"Father?" Brienne's eyes shine, brilliant with a burst of hope, but that dies the moment Jaime gives another single shake of his head. She turns her face, swallowing convulsively as she stares at the blood red canvas in front of her, though when she looks at Jaime again, she is calm. "I see. How?"
Now Jaime has to look away, if but for the length of a single utterance, his gaze drifting to his left knee while he reveals the dreadful fate of Lord Selwyn Tarth. "Flayed." Air rushes out of Brienne as if she had been kicked square in the chest and when Jaime can bear to raise his eyes to hers, he finds them set in a field of pallor, drained in shock. "Euron," he adds, bleakly. "It was some time ago. He decided to amuse himself before he headed full East." Jaime daren't voice his darkest suspicion; that his sister had pointed the rabid Greyjoy in the direction of Brienne's homeland in the first place, out of sheer spite.
Brienne is stricken, though she makes not another sound and Jaime has to drop his head, for once unable to face the blame that he is surely due. He has made his views of Euron plain, but even if he'd had no idea of it happening, there is no denying whose side he was on when this atrocity took place.
Yet no blame comes. Instead, after an agonized silence, Brienne starts to rise. The barest flash of thigh moving over dark fur is enough to drive Jaime up to his feet. He turns away to lend her some privacy and listens as Brienne moves to her clothing and starts to dress.
If there is a fascination in hearing long legs being covered Jaime barely has time to think of why, let alone admit it to himself, for after the quiet sound of laces being tightened and tied somehow fills the air, making it thick, Brienne speaks, her voice strained. "The island?"
Jaime clears his throat. "Few survivors. Most have been moved to the mainland. It's safer there. Tarth was ravaged. It has fallen."
His report is met with a soft groan and nothing else. He listens again as there is another pause and then jerkin and boots find their places on their owner. Then Brienne stops once more, her breath shuddering in and out of her three times, the sound fierce with regret. "If I had been there - "
Jaime rounds on her. "You would have been flayed too, and more besides," he tells her, no warmth in it. Yet that harshness is already gone when he stops right in front of her, replaced by something else entirely. "I could not bear that, and you could not have stopped it, so do not think it, Brienne. Not for a moment." They stare at each other, on the very edge of something Jaime can't quite define, though it feels dangerously like an overly loaded scale in a market, caught at the point of tipping. That does not warrant thought now, so Jaime turns away, speaking of the inevitable. "You will have to head South."
"No. Not yet." Brienne's reply, surely put, sees Jaime spin full circle to face her again. When he does, he finds everything flipped, himself as much an object of concern as Brienne just was to him, though hers has a bleaker set to it. "If the people are safe, my path remains the same." He has no time to open his mouth to object before she explains why she would make such a damn fool choice. "Unless I vouch for you in person, Jaime, you won't survive your first hour at Winterfell, no matter how many letters they get from their king!" She has the right of it, but Jaime is so startled his safety could drive her actions this plainly that he is left almost speechless. And he has a feeling that Brienne will not be argued with, her face set in determination as she peers down at him from inches away. "They need your blade and they need your men."
But Jaime is never almost speechless for long. "My blade and my men will be welcomed, but your word may not be enough to save my neck. We both know that." It is an honesty too far, and one he should have kept unspoken, given the knowledge of her father he has just shared; Jaime can see it in the way Brienne seems to rock back on her feet, though the movement can scarce be seen. They may not have talked of this often, skating around the matter, yet he is aware that the Maid of Tarth will not see him dead, not if she can stop it. They have yet to work out how. Jaime tries to soften what is coming with what is true. "But I thank you for giving your word, Brienne. I do not doubt the path I have chosen. I don't doubt you."
The intensity that rears its head between them too often is there again. It is not something either of them can face, just yet, and as he had changed the subject at hand before, so does Brienne now. "Where are they?"
"My tent. Being fed, and fed well. They looked half-starved. One of them is a baker. He has with him a silver band; a circlet of some kind?" he guesses, running a finger back and forth across his forehead. "He said your father told him to keep it safe, before your home was overrun, so he buried it next to his grain store during the attack. Do Evenstars wear a crown, Brienne?"
His amused implication that Westeros already has crowns enough, or any number too many as Jaime now sees it, is ignored. "No, it's a torc. A neck-ring," Brienne explains without any real thought, only to fall completely still, her head tilted in a particular direction, as if she can see out through her tent and all the way into his, some distance off, where a sorry group of her people awaits her. The weight that rest had taken from her has returned with a vengeance. "If they wish it, I will wear it," she says in the end, though there is a slight tremor in her voice, as if she does not want to.
Jaime knows she will anyway. "Well, I doubt they brought it all this way for me to wear," he tells her, stepping over to her armour himself. He grabs a furred collar and lifts it. "Here," he says, shaking her cloak out and lifting it onto her right shoulder. He starts to heft the collar up at the back of her neck, but he falters as the gesture is too intimate, too loaded with meaning. Brienne appears to feel the same way, a startled glance turning quickly into swift movement when she takes a step away and rights it, securing the straps herself. Without looking at Jaime, she crouches to retrieve Oathkeeper, tying the Lannister red belt into place under her cloak while she rises.
"Are you ready, my Lady of Tarth?" Jaime asks, choosing not to mention her sleeping arrangements and merely watching her cloak flutter and her hands move.
When her task is done, Brienne frowns down past her belt, at her toes, scraping her hair into place. But she has never been anything short of honest with him, so when she looks up again, her new world is wrapped up in one soft word. "No."
Jaime dares to move closer one last time. "None of us ever are," he whispers, another truth, if one that's rarely spoken openly. Such weakness, once admitted, often ends in death hurrying its pace.
Brienne closes her eyes and moves her head from side to side in a manner he has come to know is a habit for her, before she spars. It is as if she is readying herself for battle, albeit one of a different kind to the one she knows best.
Though the light is close to petering out, there is then a moment of transformation. Jaime has long considered Brienne of Tarth out of the ordinary, but when she opens her eyes again, she is different. All of her grief has been locked away, somewhere in that head of hers. She appears, to him, to grow in stature, though it is not possible. He watches as she takes on a cloak of another kind, before him; the dignity that should be worn, in leadership.
In this light, she could...
Jaime stops this old thought, woven in his dreams, even as it grows. It is not worthy of the moment. He simply waits and watches the new Evenstar settle into this form, changed but unchanging.
Brienne takes the few steps over to the entrance and pauses, her shoulders squaring as she readies herself to meet what awaits her, staring at the confines of this red tent. When Jaime comes to her side, he sees her gaze slide to him, though her features are cast in shadow. "They make you swear and swear," she says to him. Old words again, this time quietly offered and not kept hidden away.
"That, they do," he smiles.
With a last, shuddering breath that seems to shake her whole frame and a short nod, Brienne of Tarth steps out from this space of her own, Bronn's expected query as to what they'd been doing in there met with the silence it fully deserves.
The ailing candle flickers out and Jaime follows her, as he suspects he will for as long as he draws breath himself.