Brienne paced outside the closed door of the throne room, unable to calm her nerves. The two guards outside the door, one Dothraki and one Unsullied, stared at her with barely-disguised annoyance, as if her mere presence there troubled them, but she did not pay them any mind. She’d tried, for the first few minutes, to remain stoic, to stand outside the chamber and wait patiently for the verdict—but she’d quickly given it up as an impossible task, which was when she’d set to pacing.
The war was won. Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow—now legally declared Aegon Targaryen—had been crowned King and Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and nearly as soon as the feasting had stopped, they’d sat down to begin taking care of all the stray bits of business, everything that needed to be seen to. Brienne, herself, had already been in the throne room, had already received her knighthood and an offer of place in the Royal Guard. Daenerys Targaryen had told her, very clearly, that she believed women should have all the rights and privileges that men had, and had given her a few days to consider their offer.
She still wore the title of Lady Brienne, but the Lady meant something else, something different than it had before. It meant that ladies could be knights and knights could be ladies, and Daenerys Targaryen had been adamant that she wanted everyone in the Seven Kingdoms to know it, and she would be honored if Brienne would accept a position in their guard.
Brienne wanted to accept. It was everything she’d dreamed of, since the day of the ball her father had thrown for her, the day that she’d sworn away any concept of marriage and courtly life. She’d decided that she would dedicate herself fully and completely to using the only things with which nature had seen fit to bless her—her size and her strength. And she’d become one of the greatest swords in the Seven Kingdoms, a knight offered a coveted place in the Royal Guard of the reinstalled Targaryen regime, the Queen’s belly just beginning to swell with the silent signal that the Targaryen dynasty would not end with them. Brienne wanted to accept the offer—of everything she’d ever wanted since the day of that ball.
And yet she stood there, pacing in front of the door and awaiting the fate of Jaime Lannister, a man she’d once despised, then come to begrudgingly respect, and then—somehow, despite every disastrously awful part of him—to love. She wasn’t certain why they’d called Jaime into the throne room, wasn’t sure if it was to reward him or to punish him.
Cersei Lannister was alive but a prisoner, and Jaime wasn’t that—he’d been walking free all along, for he’d pledged himself to their cause, had helped lead the King and Queen’s armies. Cersei’s Hand, the disgraced maester, had already been executed. Samwell Tarly had already been called in, freed from his vows of the Night’s Watch and the Citadel and granted his father’s holdings. The wildling child had been legitimized. Robert Baratheon’s son Gendry, who so resembled Renly that it almost hurt, had also been called in, legitimized, and granted the lands of Storm’s End. There was no hint of any order, the way the King and Queen were summoning people to the throne room; some came for punishment and some for reward, and she had no idea what their plan for Ser Jaime was.
There was also the matter of the child—and though it sickened her to think of the life in Cersei’s womb, a child conceived in a bed of incest, she simply couldn’t make herself forget that that child was also Jaime’s child. That, if the maesters were believed, would be a son—and even with Queen Daenerys declaring that women were equal to men, that daughters could inherit as easily as sons, they had hundreds and thousands of years of precedent to fight against, and a son was still the most dangerous.
So Brienne watched the door, and she paced, working her mind through every scenario she could think of. Was Jaime to be executed? Restored as the heir to Casterly Rock? Or would Tyrion take Casterly Rock, leaving Highgarden for Jaime? Or Highgarden to Tyrion, the most fruitful of the lands, while Jaime was left with Casterly Rock? Or perhaps Jaime was to be stripped of all lands and titles, left to live in exile? Somehow, every option seemed equally likely, and the fact that Brienne couldn’t make herself give credence to any one outcome over the others made her all the more nervous.
And the longer Jaime was with the King and Queen, the more Brienne began to fret. Was it good that Jaime had been with them so long, or was he perhaps inside, arguing for his life, pleading for mercy for the crimes he’d committed? They’d emptied the chambers of even their advisors, something they hadn’t done for any of their other meetings, and when she’d seen Sansa and Tyrion leave the room, it had filled her with a sense of dread. She knew Sansa, knew she was an honorable woman, despite all that had happened to her—and even more, she knew that Tyrion would argue for his brother. But inside the throne room was just the King and Queen and a handful of Dothraki and Unsullied, none of whom would spare a moment’s care for some Westerosi lord’s fate.
It was only when Brienne had managed to talk herself into the worst possible outcome that the doors to the throne room opened—and Jaime walked out, as proudly as he’d walked in, accompanied by no guards and no irons around his wrists. Brienne breathed out an audible sigh of relief.
“What happened?” she demanded immediately as she faced him—and Jaime just shook his head, his expression steely.
“Not here,” he said simply, and he took her by the elbow almost like she was a child, leading her through the halls of the Red Keep until he pulled her into a room, a set of clearly unused chambers, dust cloths settled atop all the pieces of furniture. She’d almost forgotten that he knew the Red Keep so well, and all the memories of why made her feel slightly queasy again. First she’d loved Renly Baratheon, who’d only had eyes for men in general and Loras Tyrell in specific—and then she’d fallen for Jaime Lannister, who’d only ever had eyes for his twin. It was perhaps a mercy that she’d never been allowed the luxury of a marriage; she was certain not a single good match existed for her in the whole of the Seven Kingdoms or beyond.
When Jaime closed the doors behind her and finally spoke, the words from his mouth were not at all what Brienne had expected.
“I’m to take the black,” Jaime told her finally, grimly and through gritted teeth. It took a moment for the words to settle upon her, and when they did, all she could feel was outrage.
The look Jaime gave her at that was pure Jaime Lannister, the kind that had made her want to hit him, when they’d first become acquainted. In fact, she still wanted to hit him when she saw it.
“Well,” he started blithely, holding out one finger on his good and and using his golden one to point clumsily at it, “for starters, I stabbed the Queen’s father in the back, when I was sworn to protect him—”
Remembering that day in the baths, when Jaime had confessed all his reasons to her, Brienne felt offended for his sake to hear him lay it out like that.
“He was going to burn the city,” she protested, but he spoke over her, putting out a second finger and continuing on counting his sins as if she had said nothing.
“—crippled the King’s cousin when he was a boy of ten, attacked the King’s uncle and adoptive father in the street, was complicit in the previous Queen committing incest and adultery against her husband the King, conspired with my sister to place two false kings upon the Iron Throne—”
Brienne felt her rage rising up within her at the words; she knew that Jaime had done those things, but she couldn’t believe that the good he’d done since then didn’t absolve him of some of his guilt.
“You helped lead the defense against the White Walkers!” she declared seriously. “You helped the King and Queen defeat your sister’s armies! Without you, they might not sit on the throne today! How can they make you—”
Jaime interrupted her mid-word, his voice softer than she was used to hearing from him.
“They didn't make me, Brienne,” he told her, his tone low and serious. “I chose.”
Brienne stared at Jaime for a long minute, somehow unable to believe his words, unable to believe that Jaime could choose that kind of life for himself. Except that she could; the way that he’d listed off his crimes, so clearly and cavalierly, made it obvious that he didn’t view himself as blameless in any of this. And in truth, Brienne didn’t either, not if she thought about it honestly.
“The Night's Watch needs a new Lord Commander, and there is no one left alive who is skilled enough to take on that task long-term.”
The words were gentle and reasonable, and that, at least, made sense to Brienne. Jaime was a natural commander; she’d seen the devotion in the men who had followed him North, betrayed their vows to his sister because they respected him so much as a commander. It fit him better than being the lord of some castle, getting old and fat while filling some Lord’s daughter—who he didn’t, couldn’t, love—with a brood of babies.
“The King and Queen will name you Lord Commander?” she found herself asking, slightly numb. Jaime smiled at her, almost indulgently, like she was a child.
“They can't name me Lord Commander,” he corrected her evenly. “The Night's Watch elects their own leadership. Perhaps someday, the men will come to trust me and my leadership, and they can name me Lord Commander. Until then, I will be a sworn brother of the Night's Watch, no more and no less.”
For all that life at the Wall didn’t seem like a pleasant fate—and for all that Jaime knew that he’d be starting at the bottom, when he’d always been a lord’s son—he didn’t sound petulant or resigned about it. Perhaps he was just happy for the fighting to be over, for his fate to be decided; Brienne could sympathize with that. And she could understand why the King and Queen would want him there, could understand the calculation that rested behind their decision. She couldn’t imagine a better Lord Commander than Ser Jaime, even during such a time of relative peace, where the Wall had become more of a gate between the lawless Northern lands and the Seven Kingdoms than a barrier to keep the wildlings and White Walkers out.
“And what of your sister?” Brienne asked then, her tone flat. Because that was the other thing, the other looming question around them. She remained a prisoner, still a few months from giving birth, and Brienne knew the King and Queen couldn’t execute her—the optics of bringing a visibly pregnant woman to the execution block couldn’t be overcome that easily, not even when the King and Queen could ride in, majestically, atop two dragons and awe the masses.
At the mention of Cersei, Jaime’s expression turned cold, hard.
“They will hold her until she gives birth. She will be under twenty-four-hour guard in order to ensure she brings no harm to the child. Once the child is born, Cersei will be executed.”
Jaime said the words emotionlessly, like he was talking of someone distant and unrelated, not his twin sister and their unborn child. Brienne frowned.
“What will you do with the child?”
The look Jaime gave her was odd, like he couldn’t quite fathom her question.
“I’ll have to give him up,” he told her, seriously and emotionlessly again. Brienne didn't expect the disbelief that sprung up in her at those words; she knew he couldn’t bring a child to the Wall, and yet the idea that he could abandon his child—his son—so recklessly and without care made her unbearably angry.
“He’s your son!” she protested, and the life suddenly returned to Jaime’s eyes, flashing with anger barely held in check.
“Yes, my son,” he agreed, his tone sharp and bitter. “The son of the Kingslayer and the Mad Queen. A bastard child born of incest. People will never accept him. Someone will try to murder him in his crib, if they know he’s mine.”
It was obvious, then, that a lot of foresight and gone into Jaime’s decision; it hadn’t been carelessly that he’d decided to throw his son aside, and it wasn’t that he didn’t already love the unborn babe. It was, in fact, love that told him to abandon the child, and that made Brienne incredibly sad.
“You can find a way to keep him safe—” she tried again to protest, but Jaime just shook his head resignedly.
“The best way for me to keep him safe is to give him up,” he told her. “To hide who he is.”
“You don’t have to—”
Jaime interrupted her again, and although his tone was still angry, this time it carried an air of regret.
“If Ned Stark had told the truth about who Jon was, do you think Jon would be alive today to rule beside his Dragon Queen?” he asked her, his tone level and far too reasonable considering that he was discussing the choice to abandon his child. “To spare the son of his enemy?”
The next words were out of Brienne’s mouth before she could even consider the implications.
“I’ll take him.”
It was the first time during their conversation that Jaime had looked truly taken aback; he looked at Brienne with an air of total and complete disbelief.
“You?” he asked, almost mockingly. “Raise a child?”
Brienne had to admit that it sounded ridiculous the moment that Jaime put it into words. She’d wanted to be a mother, once, before she’d resigned herself to the fact that she was the ugliest woman who had ever lived, that no one would ever want her. She’d always enjoyed physical pursuits, had never been one for sewing and dancing and braiding her hair, but there had been a part of her that had still held out hope that there was someone who would want her despite that, that she could have a husband and a family. But she’d given up on that dream so long before that it seemed like it had been a dream of another woman entirely.
But even as she thought of it, considered the utter ridiculousness of the proposition, she’d already committed herself to it—and in her mind, she’d already turned down the King and Queen’s generous offer to be a part of their guard.
“Do you have someone else you’d trust more with the safety of your child?”
It was an ironclad argument, and one that she knew that Jaime would not be able to argue with. There was only one person Brienne suspected Jaime might trust more than he trusted her, and that was his brother—but with his brother appearing poised to wed Sansa Stark, he seemed an impossibility. There was no way that Lady Sansa would agree to raise the child of Cersei Lannister, not after all the woman had done to her.
As Brienne had suspected, Jaime did not argue the point.
“And who will you say is the father of your child?” Jaime asked instead, pragmatically. “You're unwed. If I must give my child another life, it will not be that of a bastard.”
Brienne was unsure of what Jaime’s original plan had been, if he’d even had one; perhaps it had been to give the child to a couple who hadn’t been able to bear children of their own, to command they pretend him their trueborn son. She hadn’t expected the demand, though, not really; when she’d first boldly declared that she’d take Jaime’s child, she thought she’d be expected to love it and raise it, not to produce a husband and fake father.
“I don’t know,” she told Jaime honestly. Jaime smirked.
“What about your wildling admirer?”
It took Brienne a beat to figure out who Jaime was referring to, for she spent the majority of her time trying to avoid being in the presence of Tormund Giantsbane whenever possible. She’d always been ugly, and as such, she’d never known what it was like to be at the receiving end of men’s lascivious glares. When she’d first encountered the red-bearded wildling man, she’d almost been grateful for that fact, for the fact that she’d been able to spend her life unencumbered by the burden of turning away the unwanted advances of men. The way he looked at her, like he wanted to pin her down and take her right on the ground in front of everybody, made her uncomfortable in ways she wasn’t even able to articulate.
“What about him?” she echoed, suspicious and angry.
“He loves you.”
Jaime said it simply and with such an air of gentle naïveté that Brienne was sure that he believed what he was saying. The affront that Brienne felt at the mere suggestion was almost enough to silence her in sheer disbelief.
“He doesn’t love me,” she spat out angrily. “He doesn’t know anything about me.”
And that was, perhaps, the most obnoxious thing about Tormund’s attentions. He stared at her with the most inappropriate look in his eyes, but he’d never bothered to have a proper conversation with her. She’d never felt more like a slab of meat, like a pair of walking breasts and genitals, until he’d first gazed upon her.
Jaime’s indulgent smile almost made her want to punch him, a feeling she had grown quite used to.
“I think he does,” he said slowly, with the air of someone who was arguing just for the sake of it. “He knows you’re a strong, powerful woman, a good fighter. A lot of men from south of the Wall would see that as a problem. But not only does he not mind, he admires you for it.”
For all that Brienne wanted to hit the man, some sense of logic in his words seeped through, tickling at the edges of her consciousness. Because she could acknowledge that yes, Tormund did recognize and admire her fighting ability, but that was not the sum of who she was. And yet, she was the daughter of a lord, and she very well knew that most arranged marriages began with even less.
“I don’t want him,” Brienne breathed quietly, annoyed by how suddenly girlish she felt saying the words aloud. “I want you.”
The look Jaime gave her in response, though not unkind, was sharp and uncompromising.
“Well you can't have me,” Jaime told her, with all the arrogance that she’d come to know of him, when she’d first encountered him in Robb Stark’s camp. “And if you want to keep my child and raise it as your own, you're going to have to find some way to deal with the issue of who will be the father.”
Brienne took a day to consider what she’d agreed to, trying to decide whether she was sure. Whether she could really go through with what she’d told Jaime that she would do, whether she could live with the ultimatum Jaime had given her about finding a husband. She only took a day because she realized that she didn’t have much more time; Jaime was already talking about making preparations to leave for the Wall, and he’d made it clear that if she didn’t have everything settled before he left, he’d give the dubious honor of deciding the fate of his child right back into the hands of the King and Queen.
The timeline of Jaime leaving King’s Landing wasn’t the only issue—because she could beg Jaime to delay, but she could not beg Jaime’s child to stay in Cersei’s womb for any longer than it would, and there were scarcely three moons left until the child would be born, and that was only if it did not come early.
So Brienne took a day, and in the end, she resolved that she would stay the course. The idea of taking Jaime’s child was terrifying—but the idea of giving the child away to some strangers, not ever knowing what had happened to him, was even worse. She knew what she was giving up, the position and respect she’d always wanted but never thought she’d been able to have—but she also knew she was giving it up for something she’d once also wanted and thought she’d never have.
A child. A marriage. A husband.
The fact that the marriage would be to Tormund Giantsbane soured her nervous excitement a little, but for all the problems that Brienne had with Jaime's suggestion, the pragmatic part of her told her one thing very clearly: Cersei Lannister's child was due in three months, and there was only one man she could convince to marry her before the child was born. In fact, there was more than likely only one man that she could convince to marry her at all.
The day passed, and Brienne woke on the second day determined to settle everything before Jaime set out for the Wall. She got up and dressed, paying particular attention to what she wore, for once in her life. She’d been wearing the armor that Jaime had had made for her, all that time since she had received it, but she purposely did not put it on that morning. She selected trousers, still, and she searched through the items she’d managed to scavenge together since she’d arrived in the capital, until she found the largest, loosest shirt that she could find.
If this was a fiction that they were going to perpetrate, the fewer people who knew—who could even guess what had happened—the better. Which meant that it was in Brienne’s best interest, and the best interest of the child, that she not appear in public not pregnant just three months before the child was born.
As Brienne stepped in front of the mirror to take in her appearance, a part of her wanted to roll her eyes. She looked far too disheveled for the halls of the Red Keep, in trousers and a mismatched men’s shirt that didn’t even fit. At least in the armor, while people could and did mock her for not looking like a lady, she looked distinguished and respectable. But the important part wasn’t whether she looked respectable; the important part was whether she looked as though she was trying to conceal a pregnancy—and, at the very least, it didn’t look like an impossibility.
The first thing that struck her, when she left her rooms that morning, was that she had no idea where Tormund even was. The absolute absurdity of the whole arrangement struck her anew, the fact that she was going out to propose marriage to someone, and she didn’t even know whether or not he was even in King’s Landing any longer. She cursed the fact that she hadn’t thought that through beforehand, that there was a good chance the whole plan she’d carefully talked herself into going along with could fall to pieces simply because her prospective husband may have already left the city. She’d thought so many things through, even going so far as to dress as though she might be hiding a pregnancy, but she hadn’t gone so far as to consider where Tormund might be.
Brienne laughed at herself quietly, sardonically, as it stuck her that this whole thing was going to be a lot more complicated than even she’d realized.
The first person she found who she could ask was Samwell Tarly; he was, unsurprisingly, in the library, and Brienne could feel nothing but relief when he told her that the wildlings were still in the city. Apparently, the King had promised them a feast, and the wildlings were never the type to turn down a feast.
She found Tormund in the godswood of all places. She knew that the wildlings north of the Wall kept the old gods, but it struck her as she found him standing beneath the heart tree that she had no idea if Tormund was actually deeply religious or if he was just missing the forests of the North, feeling uncomfortable within the cloying city walls of King’s Landing. She realized, in fact, that she knew as little about him as she thought he did about her.
He’d look out of place in the Red Keep, she thought, all ragged furs and unkempt beard, but in the godswood, he looked perfectly at home, especially since the snows had reached the South in earnest, and a thin blanket of white covered the ground. She wondered, vaguely, where the two of them would live, if he agreed to her proposition; she couldn’t imagine taking him back to Tarth to meet her father, couldn’t imagine that being comfortable for either of them. But Brienne had grown up in the South, all warm weather and green grass and blue sky, and she wasn’t certain if she was ready to resign herself to spending the rest of her life in snow.
But then, she’d already resigned to spend the next decade or two raising a child, had to acknowledge that her life was no longer hers, not really. She wondered again about her father, if he’d be glad to hear that she’d managed to marry at all—or angry to hear that she’d married some filthy wildling man from north of the Wall.
Which was supposing that Tormund even agreed to her request. Supposing that she’d even find the words to say to him, realizing that the two of them had never even spoken, not directly. It was strange to think about that, after all the time with him lusting after her so clearly, that he’d never so much as said an indecent word to her. Which was far more gentlemanly than she’d expect from someone who likely had no idea what a gentleman even was.
“Excuse me,” Brienne said, and Tormund turned over his should to look at her, no shock at hearing her words. He’d been aware of another presence with him, wasn’t surprised by her arrival, although it was also clear enough that he hadn’t realized that the other person approaching was her, not from the way his mouth widened into that giant, predatory grin at the sight of her. Brienne cleared her throat, trying to fight back her discomfort.
“I was wondering…what I mean is—”
Brienne stopped herself after two feeble attempts to start a conversation, cursing silently to herself. She wasn’t afraid to speak to men. She took down men in battle, threatened them with absolutely no sense of hesitation. But she’d never had to talk about a man like this before, had never had to discuss marriage of all things. Tormund didn’t say anything, though his lascivious grin remained in place.
“I was wondering if we could speak somewhere in private,” she ventured again, and Tormund looked back and forth, raising his eyebrow as his gaze fell upon no one but them. He held out his hands as if to illustrate the point.
“Looks pretty private right here,” he remarked, tone gravelly and almost teasing. Brienne looked around and shook her head.
“Somewhere we’re less likely to be overheard,” she amended, and Tormund’s grin was right back in place.
“Want to fuck me somewhere no one will hear you scream out your pleasure?” he asked with a grin, his tone unexpectedly sincere, and it galled her to think that he actually believed that that was what she could want with him. It struck her again that he didn’t know her at all.
This is a mistake, she told herself, half-tempted to walk away and pretend she’d never considered this course of action. But then she remembered the ticking clock of Cersei’s expanding womb, Jaime’s ultimatum. If there was another choice, she’d surely make it, because most anyone had to be a better marriage prospect than Tormund. But there was no one else who would have her, and even if she believed in the power of her feminine wiles, the time necessary to seduce someone was time she, regrettably, didn’t have. Brienne was used to difficult situations, at least, and she would stand her ground this time as she had every other time in the past.
“A private conversation is all I ask of you,” she said, as politely as she could manage—though the politeness was more for her sake than his, a way to prove to herself that she was still in control of her emotions. After taking a minute to survey her, Tormund shrugged.
“Could be interesting,” he remarked to no one in particular. “Lead the way, lady knight.”
Brienne picked her way through the Red Keep, managing to locate the room where she and Jaime had conversed the day before, unable to face the idea of bringing him to her bedroom; that was the kind of message she was not willing to send to him. It was bad enough that she’d be proposing the idea of marriage to a man she barely knew; to do it in a room with an available bed was going much too far. She closed the door behind them and turned to the red-haired wildling man, steeling herself for the conversation that was about to happen.
To Tormund’s credit, he listened attentively to her as she laid out the whole case. He never interrupted her, though his expressive face spoke volumes of what he thought at different points as she laid out the plan as she saw it. It was appreciated in one way, because Brienne wasn't sure she’d be able to get through the whole miserable proposition if he managed to throw her off track with questions; on the other hand, it was nerve-wracking to not know exactly what he thought of her proposal, to not know whether or not she was making a fool of herself by continuing to carry on about a plan he might have already been prepared to refuse.
He was silent for a long time once she finished speaking, and Brienne stared at him, hoping to glean something from him about his possible response. Only when Brienne felt almost about to shake him just to get him to say something did he speak.
“So you’re asking me to marry you to hide the son of a crazy Southern cunt of a Queen, and to claim the child as my own?”
The skeptical tone of Tormund’s voice sounded too much like rejection, and Brienne immediately felt a flood of embarrassment that she’d ever thought that this was a workable plan, that she’d ever been willing to let herself hope that he would go along with it. She felt the stinging sensation of not being able to honor her word, of having let Jaime down.
“I’m sorry I asked,” she said, turning toward the door—but Tormund’s rough voice stopped her.
“I didn’t say ‘no,’” he said, and Brienne stopped, hope fluttering uncertainly in her chest. She turned back around to face him as he continued speaking. “But I have conditions.”
Brienne felt a sudden sense of trepidation; Jaime had had conditions, too, and what had once seemed such a simple idea was starting to become more cumbersome and unwieldy by the second. But it struck Brienne, not for the first time and most assuredly not for the last, that she had very limited options in the situation. She loved Jaime, and she wanted to protect his child—to have, in some oblique way, the only part of him she could. Tormund had no such motivations; this child meant nothing to him, so it wasn’t surprising he’d have expectations of his own. She took a deep breath.
“What are your conditions?”
Tormund’s eyes grazed over her face, then her body, but all the joking flirtatiousness was gone, and there was a sense of seriousness about him she hadn’t seen outside of battle.
“If you’re to be my wife, you will do it for real,” he said, tone uncompromising. “We’ll fight together, we’ll fuck, and you’ll bear my children. If you don’t think you can do that, then find someone else. I’m not going to be part of this farce for some Southern sisterfucker’s child.”
Her heart felt like a lead weight in her chest at his words; part of her had expected it, that he wouldn’t accept a marriage purely for show, especially since he’d made no secret of the fact that he wanted her. She’d expected that, although she’d scarcely let herself think on it, because it was so impossible to imagine warming his bed.
But hearing him speak of Jaime’s child with such disdain was the worst part of what he’d said; part of her imagined the child, years down the line, when he was old enough to realize that the man who was supposed to be his father hated his very existence. But who could she find that wouldn’t? There wasn’t a man out there who was unattached and had any love for Jaime; she resolved that she would have to find a way to love the child twice as much, just to counteract Tormund’s apparent derision.
“I understand,” she told him softly, almost numbly, wondering to herself how any of this could possibly work, how they could possibly ever be a family for Jaime’s child. She wondered, with a sense of self-recrimination, if it wouldn't be better for the child to let Jaime and the King and Queen go through with whatever their original arrangement must have been. She wondered if the child would be better off with some family who would feel blessed to have any child at all. But selfishly, she didn’t want to give this up, this small part of Jaime that could be hers.
Tormund stepped closer to her, the closest he’d ever been—and though she was taller than him, there was something intimidating about him still, something overwhelming about the sheer wildness of him.
“Think long and hard on it, lady knight,” he said, his tone low and almost threatening. “I won’t let you make me a rapist. You’ll come to my bed willingly, or you won’t talk to me again about this horseshit.”
And then, without waiting for Brienne’s response, Tormund was gone, the door slamming shut behind him.
Brienne and Tormund’s wedding was a week later, in the godswood in King’s Landing; it didn’t seem right to marry a wildling man in the sept, were it even still standing. For whatever small mercies there still were in the world, Brienne realized that she was to marry a man who had absolutely no expectation of her being a lady, and so she wore trousers to her wedding. News of her impending wedding, and her previously hidden “pregnancy” was all over the capital, though Brienne kept to herself and to her rooms as much as possible for fear that the farce would be discovered. She saw Tormund only to make arrangements for the wedding, which would be attended by the smallest contingent that they could justify.
Sansa sent her a white, flowing blouse that she’d somehow managed to sew on short notice. The blouse was cut with a seam just beneath her breasts and flowed outward in a billowing shape, just the sort of blouse one might use to downplay a burgeoning pregnancy. Sansa had been busy all week, helping the King and Queen, so the blouse had arrived in the hands of a servant, and Brienne had no idea whether Sansa was in on the farce or whether the girl thought she truly had been running into battle with a hidden pregnancy for all those months. Then again, the Queen had ridden into battle atop her dragon with a child growing in her belly, so perhaps it all seemed a strangely normal possibility to the Stark girl.
Brienne didn’t plan to enlighten Sansa, if the girl didn’t know already; the fewer people who had knowledge of their plans, the better.
Brienne hadn’t invited her father, although he more than likely would have had time to reach the capital for the wedding, had he been so inclined. But facing her father with the fiction that she’d lay with a wildling man, was marrying him from the shame of her unintended pregnancy, was more than she had the energy for. If the scandal was good for nothing else, though, it likely had everyone convinced that she really was with child, for who would create such a dishonorable fiction? It would be easier to hide the truth the more convincing their story was, and most everyone knew by then the things that could happen in the heat of war. Brienne and Tormund’s wedding wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last born of an unintended pregnancy in this war.
Since she had no family in the capital, Jaime had agreed to escort her to the godswood; the irony of it wasn’t lost on her, that the man she’d rather be marrying was escorting her to the marriage she’d agreed to only by necessity. When Jaime arrived at her chambers, he looked her up and down twice before stepping inside and closing the door behind him.
“This suits you better than a dress,” he told her sincerely, and Brienne had a hard time trying to figure out if there was a compliment somewhere in the statement. It was, at the very least, one of the few times he’d ever said anything about her appearance that could, even obliquely, be seen as positive.
“You have my thanks, Ser Jaime,” she said stiffly, not quite sure how to take him. Jaime looked handsome as always, in Lannister red that somehow made even his stiff golden hand seem majestic, like a purposeful choice rather than a handicap. The look he gave her in return was sincere, almost too sincere to be on the face of Jaime Lannister.
“No, you have mine, Lady Brienne,” he countered with a tip of his head. “I know that you will never let any harm befall my child.”
Brienne nodded, which was true enough—but if their charade was as successful as it had been so far, protecting the child from harm wouldn’t be a worry. Being a mother to the child was the part that would be most essential, and the part for which Brienne feared she was most ill-equipped. Brienne knew almost nothing about babies, and she didn’t even remember her own mother; Catelyn Stark had been the closest to a mother figure she’d ever known, and she’d scarcely been acquainted with the woman for a few months. The closer everything got to becoming a reality, the more terrifying it all was.
It was, Brienne feared, going to be an unmitigated disaster when it came down to it. They’d have a wet nurse, at least—out of necessity, for Brienne’s body would produce no milk for the babe. That was a small consolation.
“I vow to do my best by him,” was all she could say—and it was the truth, at least. Whether her best would be good enough remained to be seen.
“I’m sure you will,” Jaime told her seriously. “The Queen has made arrangements to have the child brought to you as soon as it is born.”
Brienne felt a jolt of shock in her chest at that, at the detached and businesslike tone of Jaime’s voice. She knew the King and Queen were involved in their little act of subterfuge, but somehow, she’d always imagined that it would be Jaime who would bring her the babe.
“You won’t—?” she began and then broke off, uncertain of how to finish her sentence. Despite that, Jaime seemed to understand what she’d been trying to express.
“I’ll be leaving for the Wall within the week,” he told her, not unkindly. “The King and Queen will take care of all the arrangements from here.”
Brienne, somehow, had been woefully unprepared for the pronouncement. She knew that Jaime would be leaving the city, and he had reaffirmed it on several occasions, but somehow the reality of it was marching up upon her sooner than she’d expected. She’d thought—or hoped—that she’d have more time with him.
“You’re leaving before the child is born?” inquired Brienne, disbelievingly. “You don’t even want to see him?”
Jaime’s face turned sour, the line of his mouth grim.
“It’s better if I don’t,” he told her dourly. And Brienne felt another flutter of panic in her chest.
“What…what should his name be?” she asked, then, surprised that they hadn’t discussed it before. Part of her had been certain he’d stay at least long enough for the child’s birth, even though he’d said he would leave King’s Landing soon. She hadn’t expected to have to make all these decisions right away.
“He’s your son now, Brienne,” he told her sincerely, though the emotion in his tone was obvious. “You decide.”
Tormund was already there waiting in the godswood when Brienne and Jaime arrived. To his credit, Tormund had clearly made an effort for the day; though his beard remained wild and untamed, his hair had clearly been brushed back, his waves sitting neatly against his head, and someone had found him clothes worthy of any man in the capital. She wondered who had acquired the clothing for Tormund to wear; absurdly, she thought of Sansa and the blouse she’d sewn, but more than likely the King had been responsible for the new outfit.
The King and Queen were there, Jon’s arm resting protectively against Daenerys’ back and his dire wolf by his side. Across from them stood Sansa and Tyrion, and next to them Arya and Gendry Baratheon. Two wildling men Brienne didn’t recognize stood on the other side of Ghost, and some feet away stood two Unsullied guards, obviously there to protect the King and Queen, though it was forbidden to spill blood in the godswood. Jaime led Brienne to stand beside Tormund before taking a place beside his brother.
“You look beautiful,” Tormund told her without a single ounce of irony, his eyes twinkling in a way that made it obvious that he wasn’t lying. Brienne had never been called beautiful, not with any sincerity—and she found that the compliment made her almost more uncomfortable than Tormund’s lustful gazes had.
The ceremony was short and direct. When it was over, Brienne could scarcely believe that it was done, that she and Tormund were officially married.
They had a feast, after that, just the small group of them, but Brienne spent the entire time on edge, carefully making certain not to smooth down her blouse, making sure it billowed appropriately to hide her non-existent belly, for it became more than obvious that the King, Queen, Jaime and Tormund—and perhaps Tyrion, she thought—were the only others who were in on their deception. Sansa babbled on cheerfully about children throughout the meal, and Brienne spent a good portion of it wishing she could have wine to settle her nerves.
Tormund, for his part, was perfectly courteous, not exactly the savage she’d expected, although he did seem somewhat uncomfortable with the finery of the meal. But he passed her all the finest cuts of meat, foregoing them himself; she wondered if that was normal behavior for him or if he was playing into the fiction as well, if it was appropriate among his people to give the best food to a pregnant woman for the sake of the babe. She knew that conditions had been harsh north of the Wall; she supposed miscarriages and deaths of children in infancy must be common.
She wondered if they must appear in love, to those in the room not privy to the plan; she wondered if they thought him a doting husband rather than a pawn in a marriage of necessity. She was certain that everyone must have been able to see her discomfort, the stiff way she sat in her chair, but if anyone noticed, no one remarked upon it.
Her nerves were even worse when they returned to her chambers; the King and Queen had been kind enough to free up adjoining chambers next to her, and Brienne was thankful that she had the option of banishing her new husband to a different bed. She’d agreed to Tormund’s proposition, had spent the whole week talking herself into it—into sleeping with him—but the moment he closed the door behind her, she felt herself panic.
She’d loved Renly and Jaime both for their character and not their looks, but they’d both been beautiful, the kind of noble men who littered the songs and stories she’d secretly loved as a child. Brienne had seen Jaime at his worst, but the rest of the time, he’d always been so perfectly composed and put together, close shaven and impeccably dressed, and Renly had as well. She’d known from the first that a relationship with Renly would be out of the question, which was perhaps what had made it so safe to love him; she’d never had to think herself through the mental gymnastics of what it would be like to invite him into her bed, which despite her love for him remained a rather bizarre prospect to imagine. The concept of a relationship with Jaime was less obtuse but seemed no less an impossibility; he’d called her no less than a beast when he’d first seen her, and perhaps the impossibility that he’d ever desire her also made her love for him absolutely unreturnable and safe.
Tormund was different from both of them in every way. Physically, he was nothing like either of them, all wild red curls and a bushy, untamed beard. He wasn’t beautiful; he wasn’t the stuff of romantic stories and songs, and when she looked upon him, she saw nothing that would make her want to see him stripped of his clothing, nothing that would make her want him in her bed. But unlike the men she’d loved, he made no secret of wanting her; she knew if she’d allow it, he’d strip her of her clothing in a second and take her. There was nothing “safe” about this arrangement—except for the fact that she was still fairly certain that she could beat him in a fight, if necessary.
She wondered, frantically, as if she’d made a terrible mistake.
Tormund stepped toward her; Brienne, despite telling herself to stand her ground, took a step back. The look he gave her was not amused.
“I’ve never…with a man,” she said haltingly, by way of explanation—and the stark disbelief in Tormund’s eyes at the proclamation was almost a comfort.
“A woman beautiful and strong as you, and you've never? Not even once?” he pressed, sounding as though that was the most implausible thing he’d ever heard. Brienne couldn’t help but wonder if Tormund’s interest in her was an anomaly, or if other wildlings were just better at disguising their feelings; she wondered if she’d been born a wildling instead of a noble lady of the South if she’d have been a highly sought-after prize instead of an outcast.
“No,” she intoned slowly, seriously, not taking her eyes from his. Her heart was beating a wild pattern in her chest; her maidenhead shouldn’t be such a frightful thing to lose, except there was a part of her that still couldn't imagine giving it away, not like this, despite what she’d promised him. She swallowed thickly.
“But we...we can't, not yet,” she told him nervously. “What if I...I can't be with child, not until after Cersei’s child is born. Or it will ruin the whole plan.”
The argument was flimsy, and she could tell that Tormund knew it as well as she did. His unamused look said as much.
He took a step toward her again, and this time, she forced herself not to recoil. Tormund came to stand directly in front of her, and it would have been intimidating except for the fact that she still towered over him.
“There are other ways, lady knight,” he said, his tone gravelly and dangerous. “I know you're not so sheltered that you don't know that.”
She wasn’t; she’d been among fighting men for so much of her life that she was fairly certain she’d heard the full gamut of perversions that two people could get up to in bed, many of which involved absolutely no possibility of pregnancy. There was also moon tea, which could prevent a pregnancy even if they did engage in that one specific act that could.
“But if you want me to go, I will,” the red-haired wildling said then, his tone measured, and Brienne felt some of the tightness in her chest loosen at the words. “But not forever. Remember what we agreed.”
Brienne did, and the thought caused the panic to well up in her chest once more.
“I know,” she told him seriously. “But…I’m not ready yet.”
Tormund looked at her with a penetrating gaze—and then he stepped back and shook his head to himself, moving across the room and letting himself through the door to his adjoining rooms without another word. The sound of the door closing behind him echoed through the space, and Brienne sat, deflated, atop the bed.
All those years ago, when she’d been a child and still held out hope that she might one day grow into her looks, she’d imagined the marriage she might have. She was a highborn lady; she knew she might marry a knight or a powerful lord, and back in those idealistic days, she’d imagined what a marriage might be like.
This was so very far from what she’d imagined.
The child was brought to her in the middle of the night, unexpectedly—and most strangely enough by the King himself, with no guard accompanying him. It was a tiny thing, smaller and pinker than expected, with a little tuft of blond hair on its head. Brienne had heard not a word of Cersei’s labor; it must have happened fast, too fast for any of the few who were privy to the plan to notify them as had been previously arranged.
Jon passed Brienne the child, with a surreptitious look in both directions, though the hallway outside her rooms was empty save for the King and his white dire wolf by his side.
“The Queen has summoned for the wet nurse to come; you must be in bed when she arrives,” he told her seriously, his voice barely above a whisper—and Brienne took the child into her arms, feeling clumsy and overlarge with the tiny thing cradled to her breast. She was in a sleeping shift and nothing else, but she had no time to feel worried about her modesty; Jon had not given her a second look. The child, as if sensing the need for subterfuge, slept through it all—and Brienne could feel nothing but overwhelmed.
“Is it—?” she began, then stopped, looking down at the child’s face as if trying to determine its gender. The maesters had suspected the child to be a boy, before it was born, but there was no hint of masculinity or femininity upon the tiny, sleeping face.
“A boy,” Jon confirmed in hushed tones. “Congratulations.”
The baby woke and began crying almost as soon as Jon left the room, as if Jon’s presence was a comfort and the child had just realized that he was alone in the arms of a woman with no proper maternal instinct. Brienne froze, panicked; the child had been sleeping mere moments ago, peaceful and quiet, and part of her had hoped she’d have at least a few more minutes of peace to acclimate herself to the fact that she now had a son, that her life had well and truly changed forever. But the child gave her no such luxury; she felt totally at a loss, not sure how to guess what the baby might want from her, still not sure if there was possibly a way to tell. And if he was hungry, Brienne as completely helpless; she could do nothing except wait for the wet nurse to arrive.
She stared at the crying infant’s face for a muddled moment, wondering if Cersei had already nursed the child, wondering who had been with Jaime’s twin when the babe had been born. Wondering who else might be privy to some part of their deception.
Before she could ponder that any further, she heard a loud bang, the sound of the adjoining door between her room and Tormund’s slamming hard against the stone wall. Tormund stood there, breathing heavily, shirtless and wearing just a pair of trousers, eyes wild as they darted back and forth across the room. There was a dagger in his hand.
When his eyes fell upon the child in Brienne’s arms, red-faced and bawling, his posture relaxed immediately.
“Oh,” he exhaled softly, letting his body fall out of the ready-to-fight stance, taking a step forward and placing the dagger down on the table. Tormund may have been relieved, perhaps having expected some midnight assassins in her quarters, but Brienne was not; she could handle midnight assassins, but she wasn’t so certain about a screaming infant.
Brienne wasn’t sure if her discomfort at holding the child in her arms was obvious, but Tormund reached his arms out, and she handed the child over gratefully.
“The Queen has sent for the wet nurse,” she told him numbly, watching as Tormund cradled the baby close against his bare chest, gently swaying his body in what was obviously meant to be a soothing motion. He was less hairy than Brienne might have imagined, considering the ample amount of hair covering his face; he had no more than a sparse thatch of hair decorating his chest, darker than the hair on his head, a brownish-red. He looked more comfortable holding a child than she had felt—and Brienne watched blankly, wondering at the possibility that this savage Northern man could very likely be more nurturing than she.
“Then you should get in bed, wife,” he told her, surprisingly more astute than she’d expected of him. “After all, you’ve just given birth.”
The sarcasm was thick on Tormund’s tongue as he spoke, but there was no bitterness in his tone as he continued to rock Jaime’s son. After a few minutes, the boy’s ear-splitting wails quieted to soft sniffles, and Brienne felt uncomfortably helpless, wondering again what she’d been thinking when she’d agreed to this, wondering how she’d possibly believed she could be a good mother.
A knock sounded at the door, and Tormund gave her a pointed look. She climbed into the bed without protest.
Sansa was their first visitor the next day, after a not particularly restful night; she brought a tiny quilt she’d sewn for the child, cooing at the sleeping babe in his crib as she tucked the quilt around his impossibly tiny form.
“He’s beautiful,” Sansa told her sincerely, beaming at the sight of the child. “He looks just like you.”
In truth, Brienne didn’t think the child looked like anyone in particular, not even Jaime and Cersei; all he looked like was a baby, face soft and strangely featureless. If Brienne had to choose, she’d say he looked almost like a Targaryen, the tiny tuft of blond on his head nearly platinum blond, his eyes dark and fathomless blue. She knew that most children’s hair darkened with age, that he was unlikely to keep that pale blond color indefinitely, knew that it was likely that his eye color might change as well. Brienne couldn’t help but wonder to herself, dimly, if Jaime and Cersei had looked the same, when they’d been born.
She wondered how Sansa could imagine any resemblance between her and the child, wondering if their fiction could truly be this easy to perpetrate. It was a saving grace that both she and Jaime were blond; Brienne couldn’t imagine what issue Ned Stark would have had claiming Jon as his bastard if he’d been born with the trademark Targaryen blond hair.
Brienne’s silence on the matter of the infant’s resemblance to her didn’t seem to dissuade Sansa at all, her attention obviously transfixed by the sleeping child before her.
“Have you decided what you’ll name him yet?” Sansa inquired eagerly, sounding young in a way that Brienne had never heard her sound, a way Brienne imagined Sansa must have sounded before all the horror that had befallen her in recent years.
When it came down to it, the name had been easy, possibly the easiest decision she’d had to make in this whole debacle. As with many things recently, Brienne had found herself taking cues from Ned Stark; the best way to hide Jaime’s child, she reasoned, was to give him a name with great personal significance to her and absolutely no significance to him.
“Selwyn,” she told Sansa calmly. “After my father.”
She’d written to her father not long before with news of the marriage and child, and she’d prepared herself for the very real possibility of his harsh disapproval, but he’d greeted the news with a sense of stoic resignation. This was clearly more than he’d come to expect of her, having long ago concluded that their family line would end with her. It was clear that her father expected the child or one of their theoretical future progeny to inherit their lands; apparently a wildling grandchild beat out the possibility of no grandchild at all.
“I’m sure he’s very proud,” Sansa told her courteously, resting her hands against the edge of Selwyn’s crib. “I’d thought to name my first born son after my father, but I believe Jon plans to beat me to it. They say the Queen is carrying a boy as well.”
Daenerys was barely a month from birthing her own babe, though she scarcely looked it; the last time Brienne had seen her, her belly had still been smaller than Brienne had expected, not that Brienne was particularly well-versed in the details of pregnancy. Still, it hadn’t looked possible that she had a child inside her tiny body, almost ready to be born. But Brienne had seen very little of anybody except Tormund since the wedding, having largely been confined to their rooms for the for the fear that her pregnancy would be discovered to be fake.
“Eddard Targaryen,” Brienne said aloud, testing the name on her tongue. It sounded strange, so different from all the dynastic Targaryen names she’d read about in history books. She wondered, absently, if the queen would allow the name—but then, Daenerys was clearly a woman who did not feel terribly bound by tradition. In fact, Brienne suspected that the Queen would prefer a girl, if only to prove a point to everyone about the feasibility of first-born women to inherit.
“It’s bizarre,” Sansa agreed quietly. “I never thought our line would join with the Targaryens. After all, the Targaryens were already gone before I was even born, or so I thought.”
Brienne didn’t know what to say in response to that; the return of the Targaryen dynasty to Westeros had been a shock to all of them, but the implications had been startlingly more personal to the Stark family.
“Cersei should give birth soon, too,” Sansa remarked then, once more undeterred by Brienne’s silence. Brienne perked up at the mention; apparently Sansa thought that Cersei was still with child, an incorrect notion she strongly hoped everyone shared. If people thought that Cersei and Brienne had given birth on the same day but that Cersei’s child hadn’t survived…it would be too much of a coincidence, invite far too much scrutiny.
“I wonder what will happen to the child,” Sansa mused aloud, although she seemed to be talking mostly to herself. “You don’t suppose…they can’t kill it, can they? I don’t believe Jon would, but Daenerys…I’m not sure about her.”
“I don’t know,” Brienne remarked, trying to keep her tone as noncommittal as possible.
The official news came about a week later, buzzing through the Red Keep like wildfire—that the Mad Queen had gone into labor and hadn’t survived. That the child, a girl they said, had been stillborn. Cersei’s mother had died in childbirth, too, murmured scattered voices, had died birthing the imp Tyrion Lannister. That perhaps Cersei’s daughter had been like that, too, a deformed child of incest who had never had a chance at live and had killed her on the way out.
Brienne hugged Selwyn close to her chest, the day that she heard that news, marveling at how absolutely perfect he seemed, in contrast to everyone’s fatalistic beliefs about Cersei’s child. There was no hint of deformity upon his body, everything perfectly formed and perfectly proportioned. Brienne didn’t dare ask the King or Queen if there was more to the lie about Cersei’s passing; she found that she did not want to know if it wasn’t true.
Their plans for after the child was born had been set in stone scarcely a week after the wedding. Tormund had made it abundantly clear that he refused to live anywhere without summer snows, and Brienne hadn’t been able to bring herself to argue with him, for she still hadn’t fulfilled her end of their bargain, still hadn’t joined her husband in their marriage bed. With all that she was denying him already—in compelling him to accept a child that wasn’t his blood as his own, in refusing to bed him despite how much he clearly lusted after her—she couldn’t bear to deny him this, too.
They hadn’t been able to find a wet nurse would would agree to venture north of the Wall, so the plan was to go as far north as Winterfell once Selwyn was strong enough to travel, to remain there until he could be weaned. Then they would set out for the village where Tormund had determined they would live; he’d sent some of his wildling companions north ahead of them to announce their impending arrival, since most of the people who lived north of the Wall couldn’t read a message from a raven even if they’d sent one.
Tormund seemed pleased enough by the compromise, even if it necessitated that they remain in King’s Landing for another half year at least before Selwyn would be able to make the trip with them. It was perhaps the fact that since it remained winter, snow still fell intermittently in the capital, though the weather was far milder than what Brienne had experienced at the Castle Black, even before winter had come in earnest.
Brienne had tentatively offered her husband the option of heading north ahead of her, knowing how much he disliked the Southern city in which they were residing, but she’d been secretly pleased when he’d declined. He had been a lifesaver with Selwyn, seemingly a natural caregiver where Brienne herself was decidedly not. Brienne had been surprised, at first, at the ease with which he interacted with the baby, but Tormund had explained that all responsibility was shared, in the northernmost reaches of the land; both men and women fought and hunted, and they shared the responsibility of caring for children, for any other alternative wasted resources and was a danger in the harsh environment if they ever experienced an imbalance of men and women.
In some ways, Tormund was more than likely perfect for her, a man born of a people who not only allowed women to fight but expected it, who valued a woman’s strength as much as that of a man. He was surprisingly courteous, never having pushed her on the topic of sex again, and he filled in her gaps in experience with childrearing with no complaint.
And despite all that, she still couldn’t make herself want him, the mere prospect of sharing his bed filing her with a sense of deep trepidation—and each day that passed, she felt more and more guilt over her failure to honor her word. Every day, she woke up and told herself, today is the day I lie with my husband, and every night she found herself lacking in the courage and conviction to go through with it.
She had plenty of excuses; they’d both been catching sleep whenever they could, perpetually exhausted from being woken many times during the night by Selwyn’s cries. Even with the wet nurse and near-daily visits from Sansa—who ironically doted on the child for not knowing it was Cersei’s—it was a struggle.
Two months after Selwyn’s birth, Brienne gratefully returned to training with her sword, feeling pent up and frustrated from months of near-constant exile in her own chambers, first to hide the fiction of her pregnancy and then to keep up the pretense of recovering from childbirth. She was out of shape and out of practice from months of indolence—and she didn’t have to fake that—but returning even just to light sparring did much to improve her mood, though it also contributed greatly to her daily exhaustion.
She had many very good reasons not to bed her husband, even if the biggest reason was that she simply didn’t want to. She’d believed herself capable of the act, when she’d agreed to his terms, for she wouldn’t have agreed if she hadn’t—and months down the line, she felt like a coward and an oath breaker.
Crown Prince Eddard Targaryen had been born early, scarcely two weeks after Selwyn’s birth, black-haired and dark eyed like his father. Sansa was beaming every time she spoke of him, seeming uncharacteristically happy for all the joy she saw around her for the first time since she’d left her home those years before. Brienne was glad, in retrospect, that Sansa didn’t know the truth about her son; that was an additional darkness that Sansa didn’t deserve, not after everything the poor girl had already been through.
Parting with Sansa was one of the most difficult facts about leaving the capital, for some piece of Brienne still clung onto the vow she’d made to Catelyn Stark those years before and the subsequent vow she’d made to Sansa herself. And even more than that, Sansa had been a near-constant companion since Selwyn had been born; Sansa had come see Selwyn nearly every day, wanting to soak up every moment she could with the child, and simply considering making the shift to not seeing Sansa again for a long while left a strange, hollow feeling in Brienne’s chest.
And Brienne knew Sansa had been spending just as much time with little Eddard as she had with Selwyn. Brienne had never known someone quite so eager to be a mother, and Sansa was a natural with Selwyn, just as Tormund was—a stark contrast to Brienne herself, who still felt awkward and uncertain with the child, even after the months that had passed. She’d learned to recognize when he was hungry, when he needed to be changed, when he was overtired and simply needed to sleep—but she still couldn’t seem to reconcile in her mind that this was her child, perhaps because she knew he wasn’t, not by blood. She loved him, of course, but she wasn’t sure she felt the maternal attachment Sansa cooed and raved about, so excited to one day experience it herself.
Or perhaps, Brienne found herself thinking, there was something simply defective about her—that she could only love people from afar, but that when they were in her arms, the feeling simply faded away like sand between her fingertips. Perhaps that was why she couldn’t warm to Tormund, either; he was a good man despite his rough edges, an excellent father to Jaime’s child despite his initial protests, and he was her husband, to whom she’d sworn more than one vow. And still, what she felt for Tormund paled in comparison to what she felt for Jaime, what she’d felt for Renly, even though they’d never shown her a hint of the attention Tormund had.
Travel in the winter was difficult, especially with an infant in tow, one who was increasingly active and aware with each passing day. The only reason it was even feasible was because winter had not fallen as thick or as deep as the maesters had predicted, something that could most likely be attributed to the destruction of the White Walkers, the ones who had brought the storm.
Snow fell intermittently during their journey, but the Kingsroad was well shoveled and well traveled, and it was possible for them to make their way along at a reasonable pace, even with a wagon in tow. They had two more wildlings in their party to serve as extra protection for the nurse and the child in case of any unexpected trouble.
On the days that it snowed, Selwyn remained in the covered wagon with his wet nurse, restless and fussy; on the days when it was clear enough, Brienne and Tormund took turns carrying him in a sling Tyrion had designed and Sansa had sewn for them. Those days were the easiest, Selwyn’s attention held by the constantly changing scenery and easily rocked to sleep by the gentle movements of their horses.
They stayed at inns whenever they could, which more often than not necessitated she share a room—and a bed—with Tormund. It was awkward and uncomfortable the first time, at least for Brienne, though Tormund seemed to experience none of her concern. The first morning, she woke to Tormund face down next to her, his arm flung casually across her waist in sleep. She didn’t move to push him off immediately; the sight of his face pressed into the pillow made him look almost endearingly young under his bushy red beard.
To Brienne’s relief, Tormund never pressed the issue, when they had to share a bed, never moved to touch her except unconsciously in his sleep, his body more than likely seeking her warmth. On the nights when they were unable to reach an inn, Tormund and the other wildlings pitched tents, and Brienne shared with Selwyn and the wet nurse while the three Northerners bunked down together, and those nights were a welcome reprieve from the cloying reminder of her failure to do her duty.
The closer they got to Winterfell—and, by extension, the Wall—the more often she thought of Jaime, wondering how he was fairing with the Night’s Watch, wondering if they’d accepted him or if they scorned him as the Kingslayer and his twin’s lover. Wondering if he’d heard of Cersei’s death, if it still grieved him terribly—or if he’d already accepted the inevitability of her death before it had even happened. Brienne had written him with the news of the birth of “her” child, afraid that the news of Cersei’s supposed stillbirth would reach him first, but the raven had brought no response back from him, not that she’d truly expected one. She had hoped, though.
The journey from King’s Landing to Winterfell took them nearly a month, Selwyn seeming to grow perceptibly with each passing day. It was with a sense of relief that Brienne first saw the gates of Winterfell after the lengthy journey, feeling a familiar rush of happiness at the sight of the Stark banner once again hanging from the walls.
Brienne went into the main hall fully expecting to see Brandon Stark, who would now be Lord of Winterfell, but instead she came face-to-face with young Lyanna Mormont. The girl couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen at the oldest, if Brienne remembered correctly, but she sat at the front of the hall with all the regal command of a queen. Brienne stopped a few steps back from the dais.
“Forgive me, Lady Mormont,” Brienne ventured uncertainly. “I was expecting Lord Stark.”
Calling the boy “Lord Stark” felt strange on her lips, for Bran seemed to defy all convention; it was sometimes difficult to remember that he was human, let alone to accept that he was something so mundane as the lord of a Northern keep. Lyanna gazed at her with stony eyes.
“I am the betrothed of Brandon Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North,” the young Lady Mormont declared, tone all confidence and conviction. “I will one day be Lady Lyanna Stark and I rule the North in his stead.”
Brienne wasn’t certain what to make of the situation; Sansa had made it sound as though Brienne would encounter Bran when she arrived, but the boy was nowhere in sight. It shouldn’t necessarily have surprised her, she supposed; Bran Stark was one of the strangest boys she’d ever met, didn’t seem terribly keen on conforming to anyone’s expectations of him—a rather striking commonality among the Starks, Brienne thought. Still, the uncertain situation put her a little on edge; she pulled Selwyn, who she had cradled in her arms, a little closer to her chest.
“Where is Lord Stark?” Brienne ventured uncertainly.
“Lord Stark is away on urgent business,” Lyanna informed Brienne without hesitation, although she provided no further details, and her curt tone made it clear she wouldn’t provide any if asked. “I have been in correspondence with the King, and he has informed me of your situation. Rooms have already been made up for your party.”
Brienne frowned, wondering at what sort of business a crippled boy could have away from his home, how he was managing with his limited mobility. But then, this wasn’t like the stories she’d heard of when he’d been venturing north of the Wall, pulled on a sled by one young woman; he was Lord of Winterfell, and there were doubtless many people willing to help him get around. And at any rate, the Starks were not hers to protect anymore; she had a more pressing concern, a boy smaller and much more helpless than young Brandon Stark.
“Many thanks for your hospitality, Lady Mormont,” Brienne said with an abbreviated bow, and one of the servants came to show them all to their rooms. Tormund, who had let her lead the encounter, appeared suddenly behind her as they were led through the corridors.
“That girl is stronger than half the witless Southern lords,” Tormund said into her ear, sounding almost prideful as he said it. “That Bran Stark is a smart boy.”
Brienne stopped and looked over her shoulder at him, feeling suddenly taken aback. He couldn’t possibly have meant it the way that it sounded, for the Lady Lyanna was no more than a girl—but she hadn’t heard that kind of covetous pride in his voice since the day he’d seen her sparring with Podrick in the yard there at Winterfell, when he had seemed jealous to see her fighting with Podrick and not him.
“Don’t get any ideas, Tormund,” she told him warningly, feeling slightly lightheaded at the realization that she was having this conversation with him. She wasn’t sure if she felt more like a mother scolding a wayward child or a wife chastening a straying husband. “She’s no more than a girl.”
Tormund looked at Brienne for a few long seconds before he seemed to catch on to what she was implying—and then, after the look of shocked comprehension, came a hearty laugh.
“No need to worry about that, lady knight,” he reassured her with a broad grin. “There’s only one woman in the world for me, and she’s standing right in front of me.”
With that, Tormund clapped her on the shoulder in an almost fraternal gesture before walking down the hallway past her, moving to catch up with the castle servant that was still leading the nurse and their wildling travel companions. Brienne could hear his laughter all the way down the hallway, and she couldn’t help but wonder to herself what exactly Tormund found so amusing about the whole thing.
Winterfell was peaceful, much more so than the last time Brienne had been there. A year prior, there’d been multiple large armies stationed outside the gates and many of Jon and Daenerys’ allies residing within the keep’s walls—but now it was comparatively quiet, filled only with the regular daily activity of servants, advisors, and Lady Lyanna Mormont.
Whatever business had taken Bran Stark from the castle was a lengthy thing, because months passed without Brienne catching a single glimpse of him nor hearing any word of his return. But Bran apparently had an implicit sense of trust in Lady Mormont to manage everything in his absence, even if he would be gone for months at a time—and as far as Brienne had been able to tell, his trust had not been misplaced. Lady Mormont may have been young, but she was stern, serious, and utterly competent.
She had requested both Tormund and Brienne to help train her in combat, wanting to learn both their fighting styles and tactics, and not a single soul in Winterfell seemed to begrudge her the desire to learn to fight—or, at the very least, none of them had the courage to express such a sentiment out loud anywhere where Brienne could hear them. But then, if Brienne remembered correctly, the Mormonts had had a long tradition of fighting women; Brienne’s own father had let her learn to fight, but only grudgingly, and the lack of pushback still struck Brienne as something of a novelty.
Lady Lyanna was small in stature still and wielded a sword in much the way Brienne imagined Arya must have before she’d begun learning to fight in the Bravosi style, fierce but underpracticed. Lady Lyanna might have benefitted from Arya’s tutelage, Brienne found herself thinking—but Arya had gone to Storm’s End with Gendry Baratheon not long after Brienne and Tormund’s wedding, remarking that Gendry had no idea how to manage a castle. Brienne wasn’t certain that Arya did, either, but she’d at least grown up the child of a great house, so she should have more of an inkling than the bastard blacksmith did. And Brienne knew as well as everyone else who had ever met Arya Stark: once she had made her mind up about something, there was absolutely no dissuading the girl.
Brienne had to hope that the two of them had good people at Storm’s End to give them advice; Brienne had loved Storm’s End, and it would grieve her to see the castle and lands that had once belonged to Renly fall into ruin not from war but from something so benign as mismanagement.
When she wasn’t instructing Lady Lyanna or taking care of Selwyn, Brienne found the rest of her time taken up with helping with various tasks around Winterfell. Some parts of the castle were still in serious disrepair, and Brienne and Tormund both did what they could to help with the rebuilding, slow going due to the snow that fell on and off every few days.
The other side effect of the damage to the structure was that Brienne and Tormund had had little choice but to share a room—and by extension, a bed. Brienne had become accustomed to sharing a bed with Tormund while they had been on the road, but that had been only intermittently; sleeping next to him every day had still been something of an adjustment. Brienne’s thoughts of protest had been stymied almost immediately, though, for even more than causing an inconvenience to Lady Mormont by asking for additional chambers, she was afraid to show any hint of discord between her and her husband, afraid to portray anything other than the fiction of the passionate love affair that had ended with her pregnant in the middle of the war.
But sharing a bed turned out to be a strangely less troublesome affair than Brienne had imagined; the bed was large enough that it was possible for both of them to have their space, and Tormund made no more overt moves to pursue her, perhaps waiting for her to come to him. Living with Tormund was, as it had been in King’s Landing, strangely pleasant—almost too pleasant, Brienne thought, as though they were just waiting for the equilibrium to shift, for everything to come crashing down around them.
They’d been at Winterfell for about four months when Brienne woke, for the first time, in her husband’s arms. It was something that, implausibly, had never occurred before; Tormund tended to be a restless sleeper, and although Brienne often woke in the same position in which she’d been when she’d fallen asleep, how Tormund woke tended to be incredibly variable. Sometimes he was so far away from her that he was almost falling off the edge of the bed—and sometimes, Brienne woke with Tormund’s arm around her waist, his hand on her thigh, or one ankle slung casually over hers. But those mornings, it had been easy enough to extricate herself before Tormund woke to find them in such a compromising position, easy enough to avoid any of the inevitable requests and accusations.
But that morning was different, and Brienne knew it the moment she returned to consciousness from sleep, even before she had a chance to open her eyes. She felt the rough, almost ticklish feeling of Tormund’s beard against her neck, the warm sensation of another body pressing against her side.
For a brief moment, once she realized the situation in which she’d found herself, Brienne felt a sense of rising panic—but she forced herself to calm down and consider her situation carefully while Tormund slept on, blissfully unaware. Tormund’s head was tucked against her neck, his right leg tossed casually over hers as he cuddled against her side. The most perilous part, though, was his arm thrown full across her chest in such a way that Brienne knew she would have a difficult time moving out of his grasp without waking him.
Tormund wasn’t a very light sleeper until there was some kind of noise; most mornings, if Selwyn didn’t wake them by crying, Brienne was able to slip out of their shared bed without him ever stirring. So Brienne set about strategizing the most methodical process of extricating herself from her husband’s arms.
She started with her leg, trying to slip it slowly out from beneath his—and trying to remain as silent as possible as she did so, knowing that any sound was more likely to wake him than her movements were. She bent her knee, using the movement to carefully leverage his leg off of her—and then stopped abruptly as he made a soft noise in his sleep. She froze in place for an interminable minute, waiting to see if he’d open his eyes—but there was no further reaction from him, so she continued, undeterred, in her attempts to extract her leg.
After another long minute, her leg was free, and so she turned her focus to the arm wrapped around her torso. It would be trickier, she realized, to move away without waking him, and after a bit of consideration, she resolved that the best way to get out of the predicament would be to simply try to slide out from under his arm. And so she shifted and, ever-so-slowly, started to move.
For a second, Brienne thought she was going to get away with it—but then Tormund released a groggy groan of protest, and his arm tightened reflexively around her. And then, she realized in a brief moment of shock before it happened, Tormund was kissing her.
It was clear that her husband was only half awake, his eyes still closed as his mouth found hers seemingly instinctually—and Brienne froze, too taken aback to react.
It was different than she’d thought, when she’d tried to force herself to consider this; the touch of his lips to hers was gentle, barely-there. His lips were dry, warm and slightly chapped from all the time spent outside in the cold; his beard tickled her skin as it brushed against it, the hair there coarse and thick.
Her senses returning to her suddenly, she pushed Tormund away almost without thinking about what she was doing. He didn’t quite fall out of the bed—though it was a near enough thing—but his eyes shot open suddenly, catching himself before he tumbled backward to the floor. His posture went tense almost immediately, searching their surroundings for any sign of danger—and after a long moment, his eyes fell on her, and that seemed to produce a moment of recollection, of clarity. His eyes narrowed.
“So I’m thrown out of bed for kissing my wife?” he inquired, voice still gravelly and uneven from sleep—and his tone wasn’t obviously anger, was indistinct and difficult to read. Brienne felt a renewed moment of shame at his words; their arrangement certainly wasn’t a typical one between a husband and wife, but put in Tormund’s words, it sounded like a bitter accusation. After all, he’d asked her to be his wife not just in name, and she’d agreed—and then she’d gone back on her promise, unable to hold up her end of the bargain, and she still couldn’t put her finger on why it was so difficult for her to truly see Tormund as her husband.
“I’m sorry,” Brienne told him, quietly and sincerely, unable to think of anything better to say; although she knew she owed him an explanation, she still didn’t have one. Tormund rubbed his eyes, a strangely innocent gesture, belied by the crassness of his next words.
“You won’t fuck me because you want to fuck your one-handed crow,” he declared with absolutely no pretense of propriety. Something about the way he said it, the suddenness of the statement, struck Brienne.
Tormund cut her off, something he rarely did, and that was the only reason Brienne could tell how angry he was, because his voice remained strangely soft and even.
“Don’t lie to me, lady knight,” he said sternly. “You’re not good at it.”
It was strange to hear the words directed at her in anger, an address Brienne had come to think of almost as a term of endearment from him. It was a peculiarity of Tormund’s that Brienne had gotten used to very quickly, the way he never actually referred to her by name. It could have been irksome, even patronizing if it was directed only at her—but she’d found that it was a quirk of Tormund’s that applied to most everyone.
His tone was flat, still, but it was hard to imagine that there wasn’t animosity behind the words, and Brienne had no idea how to respond. Her instinctive reaction was to want to tell him that he was wrong, that she didn’t have any desire to bed Jaime Lannister—but she knew that that would be a lie, and lying on top of everything else she’d already done to him seemed unbearably cruel. She’d never bedded a man, although she of course knew what that entailed—but even so, it was difficult for her to imagine what bedding Jaime would even mean.
Except that she was still entirely certain that she did want to.
“You’re my husband—” Brienne started feebly instead, and he uncharacteristically cut her off a second time.
“And you want to fuck the one-handed crow,” he said again, more forcefully this time—and Brienne fell guiltily silent, unable to make herself deny the accusation. She looked at her husband helplessly, not sure what he wanted her to say; she was so thrown off-kilter by the unexpected turn the interaction had taken that she was woefully unprepared for it, her mind feeling thick and slow, as though she wasn’t yet fully awake. Perhaps, so thought helplessly, this was all a strange dream.
“So do it,” he startled her by saying, his voice flat and emotionless. Brienne stared at him, not sure she hadn’t imagined the words.
Tormund sighed, shaking his head like he was disappointed in her, like he couldn’t quite believe that she was so thick. When he spoke the next time, his voice was low and gentle once more.
“Take the babe to see its father at the Wall,” he suggested.
Brienne continued to stare at him in disbelief, everything about the suggestion sending her reeling, both the idea that Tormund could suggest it and the idea that any of it would even be possible in any way. The idea that her husband was asking her—no, almost commanding her—to have sex with another man was something that, for as little as she knew about marriage, she certainly hadn’t had any idea to expect, hadn’t been even remotely prepared for.
“He doesn’t want me, Tormund,” she told him numbly, with perfect conviction behind her words. Because since she’d first met Jaime, he’d referred to her as a beast and mocked her for not being enough of a woman; she was certainly no competition for Jaime’s one and only great love. Cersei, for all her other faults, had been beautiful and ladylike in ways that Brienne couldn’t even hope to mimic; even trying would be nothing more than a grotesque mockery of the mere idea of femininity.
Tormund gave her a long-suffering look.
“He gave you his baby,” he insisted impatiently. “He gave you away at our wedding. He wants you more than you think.”
Brienne shook her head reflexively; Tormund had scarcely even spoken to Jaime, and when he had, it had generally only been due to disagreements about battle strategy. Tormund didn’t know anything about Jaime, and certainly not enough to truly understand if Jaime had feelings for her. But from the steely look in Tormund’s eyes, it didn’t seem worthwhile to argue that point with him; even if he had very little to support his claim, his expression told her he wasn’t going to back down from it.
“The Night’s Watch has vows,” she reminded him instead, a sense of hysteria building up inside her at the absolute insanity of the conversation she was having.
Tormund laughed a full, throaty laugh.
“The crow fucked his sister,” he reminded her once he’d gotten control of himself again, and Brienne winced at it being laid out so plainly before her once again, one of those irreconcilable bits of darkness that muddied Brienne’s love for the man. “He doesn’t care about rules.”
And Jaime had been a member of the Kingsguard at the time, Brienne’s inner voice told her insidiously. They had vows, too.
When Brienne didn’t say anything in return, Tormund seemed to think he’d won the argument, and perhaps he had. He stood from the bed, making his way over to Selwyn’s crib—and Brienne only then noticed that the child was awake, standing and supporting his weight on the edge of the crib to keep himself on his feet. For once, Selwyn had woken silently, and he was staring at them with large, blue eyes, curious and interested. Tormund gathered Selwyn up into his arms and turned back to Brienne.
“We can’t keep on like this,” Tormund said to her, with a sense of sincerity. “So fuck him, find out what it’s like, and get it out of your system.”
And with that, Tormund turned and left the room with Selwyn, and all Brienne could think of then was the genuine hope that their son wouldn’t immediately learn the word “fuck.”
Brienne departed for the Wall a few days later with Selwyn, the wet nurse, and the two wildlings who had traveled to Winterfell with them, who planned to pass through Castle Black on their way further north. It gave at least some pretense for their visit, and it also gave them some capable fighters besides Brienne on the visit up in case they came upon any kind of trouble, leaving Brienne to worry only about the trip back down. Tormund saw them all off, and there was no hint of lingering bitterness in his expression when he kissed Brienne on the cheek to bid her goodbye, nor when he helped her secure Selwyn in his sling for travel.
She didn’t write Jaime to tell him they were coming, fearful that he’d refuse if he knew. That left her open to innumerable possibilities for disappointment; Jaime might refuse to see her, making her entire journey amount to nothing—or even worse, he might not even be at Castle Black but instead on a mission somewhere beyond the Wall. Jaime had been at the Night’s Watch for around a year already, and they had already been very depleted of men; she had no doubts that an experienced fighter like Jaime would have cause to be sent on missions beyond the Wall.
The trip to Castle Black took a little over a week, and it was rougher going than their month-long trip from King’s Landing to Winterfell had been, with fewer towns and inns along the way and even more snow. Traveling with Selwyn now was easier in some ways and harder in others. He’d begun crawling already, and he didn’t appreciate being held in his sling for long periods of time the same way he had on their trip up to Winterfell, wanting instead to be up and about and crawling around himself. On the other hand, he was able to sleep through the whole night through most of the trip, which made the overall experience easier, especially since they spent most nights bundled up in tents beneath a pile of furs.
A light snow was falling the day they arrived at Castle Black, the familiar sound of a horn blast greeting them as they rode up, the gates opening in front of them. When their small party rode through the gates, Brienne was surprised to see Edd there to greet her.
“When the scouts told me they spotted a giant blonde woman with a baby approaching, I didn’t believe my ears,” said Edd as he walked up to her, holding out a hand to help her down from her horse. It was the type of gesture she would have once scoffed at but had had to learn to accept, for dismounting a horse with an increasingly weighty baby attached to her wasn’t exactly the easiest task. “And this must be your son. Looks just like you.”
It was a remark to which Brienne had long since learned to become accustomed; no one seemed to be able to see past Selwyn’s blond hair, which had been somewhat of a blessing overall. His hair had grown in darker than it had been when he was born, much closer to Cersei’s warm, honey blonde, and it had gotten a bit of a curl to it. His eyes remained blue—everything close enough to Brienne’s own coloring, she supposed, not to draw suspicion, though she didn’t see the resemblance most people seemed to believe existed.
“This is Selwyn,” she told him with a gentle smile, neither confirming nor denying the child’s resemblance to her. She found that the less she openly lied, the easier it was to continue on with the fiction.
“So what brings you here, Lady Brienne?” Edd asked her. “Not the best place for a baby. Though we get ‘em here now, from time to time, what with all the traveling going on.”
Brienne nodded at the proclamation; she couldn’t deny that her appearance was a bit on the strange side, but she’d already been prepared for the question and had rehearsed her lies. It had been the only way she’d been certain she could deliver the lines with a straight face.
“These two are heading north of the Wall and would beg your hospitality for the night, as would we,” she told him courteously. She took a deep breath. “And I have a message for Ser Jaime Lannister from the King, and he begged me deliver it in person. Is he here?”
Edd gave her a slightly inquisitive look, but after a pause he shrugged.
“Aye, Ser Jaime is here. I’ll fetch him, and some food for your party. We can spare you some chambers for the night.”
It was just past the time for the midday meal, but they seemed to have some leftovers and their party was able to eat in their meals in relative seclusion, only a few men left behind in the mess hall. They’d apparently all gotten used to seeing wildlings around and not killing them, because none of the men seemed to think anything of her two companions; they were clearly less used to seeing babies, because most of them kept shooting her strange looks as she fed small pieces of meat and vegetables to a squirming Selwyn, who still seemed rather more interested in wearing his food than eating it.
They were just finishing up their meal when the door opened with rather more force than necessary; Brienne knew, even before she turned around, that Jaime would be standing in the doorway.
“Lady Brienne,” he said stiffly, a familiar tone of annoyance mixed with a rather unfamiliar title from him considering the two of them had been on a first name basis for a long time already. “May I speak with you outside?”
She turned around on her bench, one hand around Selwyn’s middle as he squirmed in her arms—and stopped as her eyes fell upon Jaime for the first time in over a year. He looked different than she’d ever seen him; his beard was full and shaggy, the way it had been when she’d been escorting him to King’s Landing, and the severe black cloak was so different than the Lannister or Kingsuard armor and fine clothing she’d seen him in previously. His clothes were simple, although in much better shape than what he’d worn on their trek to King’s Landing all those years ago—but somehow, the severe black suited him, made his golden hair all the more apparent, even peppered with grey as it now was.
Jaime, too, seemed stunned into silence, his eyes falling straight onto Selwyn, unable to draw his gaze away. It was a momentous occasion, one Brienne had spent much time imagining—but what she saw on Jaime’s face wasn’t happiness but rather a sense of grim acceptance.
“Of course,” she said as she stood, glancing over at the wet nurse for a moment before shaking her head to herself and bringing Selwyn with her, following Jaime outside into the light snow. Jaime didn’t appear to much appreciate her decision not to hand Selwyn over, but he didn’t say anything, just strode out of the building until they were far enough away that they would hopefully not be overheard.
“What were you thinking?” Jaime hissed as he turned on Brienne, his eyes blazing. Selwyn, entirely oblivious, giggled as he tried to catch snowflakes in his hands as they fell toward him, and when Jaime’s eyes fell upon his son’s smiling face, his own expression softened. “It’s too dangerous to bring him here. What were you thinking?”
He asked it the second time more softly, and Brienne stared at him for a moment, not quite sure what to say. She’d rehearsed what she’d say to the Night’s Watch members to get her time to speak with Jaime; she hadn’t quite figured out what she’d say to him, how she’d explain her presence there. Jaime had never wanted her, and he had been more than clear about that; to say, ‘my husband all but ordered me to come here to have sex with you,’ certainly wasn’t the best of explanations, regardless of how close it was to the truth.
“It was Tormund’s idea,” she found herself saying, numbly. “He thought you should meet…my son.”
Brienne had been very close to saying ‘your son,’ but she glanced around suspiciously as she amended her words at the last moment. She hadn’t seen anyone around them, but it certainly didn’t hurt to be extra careful.
“Has your husband gone mad?” Jaime demanded disbelievingly. “Or was he mad to begin with? That seems more likely, actually.”
“You should hold him,” Brienne said in lieu of answering the question, and then Jaime was looking at her as if she was the one who was mad. Jaime opened his mouth with some kind of retort, but Selwyn seemed to have finally caught on to the fact that something strange was happening.
“Mama?” he asked softly, sounding a little frightened—and all the anger on Jaime’s face melted away at the word, any protest he might have planned dying on his lips. Brienne took her opening.
“Selwyn, this is Jaime,” Brienne said, turning him so he could see his father’s face better. “He’s a friend of mama’s, and he’d like to hold you. Is that okay?”
Jaime quirked his head at her, like he found it strange the way that she talked to the child. It wasn’t the first time someone had thought so, but she still had no idea the proper way to talk to a baby. Selwyn was smarter than she’d expected for an infant, though, and even though she talked to him almost like he was an adult, he seemed to understand her more often than not.
“‘me?” Selwyn ventured, eyeing Jaime with some suspicion. Taking that as assent, Brienne reached out and handed over the child, and Jaime took the babe from her arms almost unconsciously. It was almost a relief when Brienne realized that the resemblance between the two was not so striking; with Jaime’s hair starting to go increasingly grey and the way his beard grew in in a darker brown, she would have not guessed that the two were related, not if she hadn’t known.
Selwyn, usually on the shy side with strangers, didn’t cry as Jaime took him into his arms—and Brienne wasn’t certain if it was because she’d introduced Jaime as her friend or if, somehow, he could sense the truth. Brienne had seen enough strange things not to doubt the possibility of the latter. Instead, Selwyn reached out and buried his fingers in Jaime’s beard, the same thing he liked to do with Tormund. Unfortunately for Selwyn’s sense of enjoyment, Jaime had much less beard for him to grip at.
Despite the obvious reluctance Jaime had displayed about holding the child, as soon as Selwyn was in his arms, his expression softened once more, even with Selwyn tugging at his beard in a way that Brienne supposed must be painful. It seemed almost an instinctive motion, Brienne thought, when Jaime held his son closer to his chest.
“How is he?” Jaime asked her finally, obviously having resigned himself to the situation. The question was a seemingly innocuous one, but despite that, Brienne knew what Jaime was really asking, where his fears lay. Brienne sighed.
“He’s a baby, Jaime,” she told him quietly. “He only speaks a few words. He hasn’t even passed his first name day yet.”
Jaime looked down at Selwyn, who was just then occupying himself with rubbing his hand along Jaime’s cheek, seemingly reveling in the difference in texture between the smoothness of his face and the coarseness of his beard, a move that Jaime bore with a surprising amount of grace.
“I know,” Jaime responded, equally quietly. “But…”
He trailed off with a helpless look, as if begging Brienne not to make him put to words what he was thinking. Brienne sighed, sad to have to consider the possibility that something might be wrong with her son, sad that the possibility was also so much at the forefront of Jaime’s mind. Brienne thought this might be the reason Jaime had agreed to the prospect of Brienne raising his son—for she knew who he truly was, the dangerous abnormalities that might lie in his very blood.
“Could you tell with Joffrey, when he was this young?” she asked him sincerely, and Jaime’s expression turned pensive and troubled.
“I couldn’t,” he admitted honestly. “But he was our firstborn son. He could do no wrong in our eyes. But in retrospect…maybe I should have always known. He was always cruel—taking toys from other children, making them cry…but everyone simply looked the other way because he was the prince.”
Brienne frowned at the pained expression on Jaime’s face at the recollection.
“You couldn’t have known,” Brienne soothed him automatically. “Children are cruel sometimes. That doesn’t always mean…”
Brienne trailed off, sharing Jaime’s disinclination to put into words what they were both thinking. That Jaime and Cersei had created a child that was a monster. That Jaime had once broken his oaths and killed a man just as mad, only to break his oaths again to bring another such monster into the world. Jaime just shook his head.
“Tommen and Myrcella weren’t,” he told her honestly. “Joffrey bullied them mercilessly, and we simply…let him.”
Despite Jaime’s complicity in the whole affair, Brienne couldn’t help but feel for him, seeing how conflicted he was. But then, Brienne still hadn’t come to terms with what she would do if it turned out that Jaime and Cersei’s third son was as evil as their first; for more than one reason, Brienne was far from an unbiased observer.
“Selwyn isn’t like that,” she assured Jaime finally, because some of the other people at Winterfell also had small children, and Brienne had never seen more than the vague squabble. “He’s a sweet boy.”
“With quite the affinity for beards,” Jaime noted with a wince as Selwyn began determinedly trying to pull out a tiny fistful of Jaime’s beard. Brienne reached out with a small smile and closed her hand around her son’s tiny one, forcing him to loosen his grip.
“What did your father tell you about pulling like that?” she scolded the boy, who had the grace to give her a guilty look. “It hurts, and it’s not a nice thing to do.”
Selwyn let go of Jaime’s beard and reached his hands out to Brienne instead.
“Mama?” he asked with a tearful expression, as though he wasn’t sure she would forgive him for his slight. With a sigh, Brienne reached out and took him from Jaime’s arms, and it was difficult to pinpoint whether the resulting expression on Jaime’s face was one of regret or relief.
“I should give him back to his nurse,” Brienne told Jaime, brushing snow out of the boy’s golden curls. “There’s something else I need to speak to you about.”
Brienne said the words with more confidence than she felt; she had no idea how to bring any of this up with a man, for she’d never once even tried. And even if she’d ever thought to, she’d certainly never have planned to proposition a man who had, on several occasions, made it very clear that he didn’t want her. More than once on their trip to Castle Black, Brienne had asked herself what she was possibly thinking in following Tormund’s advice.
But once Tormund had made the suggestion, it was like a seed had been planted in her mind, growing exponentially each day until suddenly, Jaime was once more the only thing she had been able to think about. She’d been able to put him mostly out of her mind before that by sheer force of will, but Tormund’s reminder seemed to have brought her lingering feelings painfully back to the surface.
Jaime’s stunned expression indicated clearly that he hadn’t expected to hear the words any more than she had expected to say them.
“You don’t honestly have a message from the King?” he prodded with a furrowed brow. “I assumed that was some fiction you’d come up with as a pretense to talk to me about Selwyn.”
Brienne averted her gaze, annoyed with herself for being so terribly transparent. She hoped that only Jaime had been able to see past her lie so easily; she hoped Edd hadn’t also caught on to her deception, for the last thing that they needed was any more scrutiny.
“It was,” Brienne admitted sheepishly. “But there’s something else I need to speak with you about. And…it would be better if Selwyn wasn’t present. He understands more than you’d think.”
Jaime, who’d already helped Cersei raise three children of their own, didn’t seem at all surprised by the proclamation; he frowned and nodded, following behind Brienne as they made their way back toward the mess hall and Selwyn’s wet nurse.
Jaime showed Brienne to the chambers where she’d be spending the night so they could have some place to talk in private, and Brienne felt herself growing more and more nervous with each moment they got closer. She was to sleep in the same area where she’d stayed during her previous tenure at the Wall, the area they’d set up for their suddenly surprising influx of women and children.
Once inside, Jaime pulled the door closed and turned to Brienne, speaking almost immediately and with clear impatience.
“Why are you really here, Brienne?”
His tone was deeply suspicious, almost combative, the kind of tone she recognized easily from their early days on the road together, long before he’d grown to begrudgingly respect her. Brienne stared at him, her mind suddenly frustratingly blank; she’d thought through this scenario seemingly thousands of times since Tormund had first brought it up, but it all suddenly slipped out of her mind like water through a sieve.
“I…Tormund told me to come,” she ventured again, helplessly.
“Yes, you told me that already,” Jaime reminded her impatiently. “Why?”
Staring at Jaime and his steely and annoyed expression, Brienne sucked in a sharp breath, gathering her courage to speak. Somehow, talking to Jaime about this was the most terrifying ting she’d ever faced, dead men and bears notwithstanding.
“My husband believes me in love with you,” she admitted finally, sharply—and watched as Jaime’s annoyance deflated a little, replaced by something that looked uncomfortably like pity. “And he’s right.”
Jaime shook his head in disbelief.
“And so he sent you here? Why?”
Brienne gave Jaime a long-suffering look, although even she could not deny that her husband’s motives in some ways eluded her just as much as they did him.
“Why do you think?” she asked him after a moment, tone resigned. She found it impossible to even say it aloud, to admit that she’d acquiesced to Tormund’s suggestion because she’d wanted it, even as she’d been so certain that Jaime would turn her down on the spot.
“He really is mad,” Jaime intoned after a moment, sounding slightly dazed at the realization.
Brienne released a strained laugh, the uncomfortable feeling in the room almost a palpable force between them. She sat back onto the mattress behind her, running her hand through her short hair in silent frustration.
“He is, a little,” she acknowledged with a strange feeling of fondness. She may not have loved her husband, but she’d come to appreciate him and his rather unorthodox way of dealing with the world. Her marriage to Tormund wasn’t exactly the prison she might have imagined it to be.
“Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. I swore a vow,” Jaime breathed out—and Brienne looked up at him in surprise. She’d expected a flat-out refusal from Jaime, had prepared herself for it, because at least then she’d know. She hadn’t shared Tormund’s confidence that Jaime would want her, but she thought that perhaps Tormund was right in some respect, that simply having an answer meant she would be able to get the possibility out of her mind. What she hadn’t expected was for Jaime to provide halfhearted excuses instead of the refusal for which she’d so carefully prepared herself.
It seemed, suddenly, that everything in Brienne’s mind had shifted in that one simple moment. Slowly, she stood back up, although she kept her distance from him. She felt as though she was in a dream, like she was no longer fully in control of her body—and perhaps that was what gave her the courage to speak again, the vague feeling that she’d wake up soon and find that none of this had ever really occurred.
“You swore a vow not to marry and never to sire children,” Brienne pointed out evenly, her tone quiet. It was a distinction she knew many of the men of the Watch considered paramount, celibacy inferred but not codified, a loophole they could cite if caught. “I’m not asking you for either of those things.”
When Jaime opened his mouth next, Brienne expected the stern refusal that hadn’t come initially, a stark affirmation of his complete lack of interest in her. What he said instead surprised her.
“I’ve never been with any woman besides Cersei,” he told her seriously, and it was unclear if the words were meant as a deterrent or an encouragement. They had an odd effect on her, the way mentions of his relationship with his twin always had, bringing out a bizarre mixture of pity and disgust she had a difficult time shaking—and and difficult time reconciling with the fact that she loved him and wanted him despite that.
“I’ve never been with a man,” she countered in lieu of saying anything about Cersei, not sure what would come out of her mouth if she tried. And in a second, any vulnerability that she’d sensed from Jaime was gone, replaced by the more familiar haughty condescension.
“Still?” he demanded disbelievingly. “But you’ve been married a year. Are you frigid, woman?”
The words were harsh—but no harsher than what she felt she deserved. She’d made Tormund a promise and she’d failed to honor it; she’d made Jaime a promise to have a husband and give his son a father, and she was well on her way to letting him down as well, for she was unsure how long Tormund’s patience could possibly last.
“No, I…” she began helplessly, swallowing thickly as she forced herself to continue. “I don’t love him.”
Jaime’s answering expression was absolutely flabbergasted.
“Sex doesn’t require love,” he scoffed, despite the fact that he’d just admitted to never having been with anyone besides the one woman he’d loved. The irony of it rested thick between them; she wondered if Jaime realized his hypocrisy, if he even cared. “You swore a vow, to me and to him, or did you mean it when you told me ‘fuck loyalty’?”
Hearing him throw her words from the Dragonpit back at her made her chest sting a little; if she’d learned anything from watching the less than noble actions of so many of the noble houses, she’d learned that blind loyalty wasn’t always the right choice. But she regretted the words she’d spoken to him, the glibness of them; blind loyalty in the face of dishonorable aims was different than the loyalty she still believed in, the kind toward those who deserved it. And Tormund and Jaime had both, in their own way, proven they deserved it.
Jaime stared at her silently for awhile before shaking his head to himself.
“What happened to my flawlessly honorable protector?” he asked softly, sounding almost defeated. “To the woman who named her sword ‘Oathkeeper’?”
The subtle rebuke made Brienne’s chest hurt.
“I don’t know,” she admitted softly, feeling strangely small for all that she still stood taller than him. She looked down at her feet, wondering how the whole conversation had suddenly fallen so out out of control.
Brienne looked up sharply as she heard the sound of Jaime moving, thinking that he was going to leave—but instead, she watched as he turned and slowly latched the door. Her breath caught in her throat, and she felt totally adrift, uncertain of what was happening anymore. Her eyes followed Jaime’s progress across the room as he walked to the other side of the bed and sat down, resting his right elbow on his thigh.
Brienne watched, wordlessly, as Jaime pulled back his sleeve—watched as he unlaced the gauntlet that held his golden hand to his stump with a slow, practiced awkwardness. Brienne felt transfixed as she watched the fingers of his left hand undo the laces in a methodical fashion, until he was able to remove the false limb, the metal making a soft thunk as Jaime set it down on the table. He removed the padded cloth, obviously to protect his stump from chafing, and set it aside as well.
It had been a long time since Brienne had seen Jaime without the false hand, since before Cersei had even had it crafted for him—and it had become such a part of him that Brienne had almost forgotten that it wasn’t actually attached. The wound had healed surprisingly well, considering the horrible conditions Jaime had endured after he’d gotten it, a lump of puckered scar tissue where his flesh had knitted back together. Jaime held out his mangled arm toward her, as if trying to ward her away with it.
“Do you still want me now?” he challenged, and Brienne felt a pang in her heart at that, a sudden surge of confidence in the face of Jaime’s obvious self-loathing. She took a step around the bed, closer to Jaime.
“You forget that I’ve seen it much worse than that,” Brienne reminded him softly, and Jaime gave her a dark look.
“Cersei hated it,” he told her bleakly. “She made me get this damned thing because she detested seeing me as imperfect, detested letting anyone else see me that way either. She preferred me to keep it on when we fucked.”
The second attempt to scare Brienne away—this time by crudely referencing his relationship with his sister—was even more transparent than the first, had the paradoxically opposite effect of emboldening her instead. She crossed the final few steps toward Jaime and stopped in front of him, towering over him even more now with him sitting before her.
“If you’d like to tell me no, Ser Jaime, then tell me no,” she challenged evenly, her heart hammering in her chest even as she said it. “But if you think you can scare me away, it’s not going to work.”
Brienne waited there in tense silence for a minute, still half-expecting Jaime to find whatever courage had fled him and simply deny her outright—but Jaime remained stubbornly silent. Brienne took the final step toward him, until she was standing almost between his knees, and it was difficult to interpret the look he gave her when he finally lifted his gaze to meet her eyes. But whatever it was, it wasn’t rejection.
Gathering her courage once more, Brienne leaned down and pressed her lips to Jaime’s, waiting for him to push her away. But far from that, Jaime surged up to meet her, and the way he kissed her had an almost violent desperation to it, forcing her breath from her lungs.
The one true kiss she’d exchanged with Tormund had been nothing like this. Where Tormund’s lips had been soft and unobtrusive against hers, Jaime’s mouth was harsh and demanding, teeth and tongue. It was almost painful when he took her lower lip between his teeth, the fingers of his still-whole left hand fisting in the hair at the back of her neck.
Whatever concerns had held Jaime back seemed to have entirely fled the instant their lips had touched, because there was absolutely no hesitation in him now, only strident need. His fingers clumsily unfastened her cloak, letting it fall to the floor, and then he was grabbing at her tunic, pulling her down to the mattress in a graceless flop.
Before Brienne had entirely wrapped her mind around what was happening, Jaime was on top of her, straddling her body, her legs still hanging awkwardly over the edge of the bed. Jaime was a hard, solid pressure atop her, and it made her feel strange to be manhandled this way, the exact thing she’d spent much of her life railing against. It helped that she knew that she could push Jaime off her, and easily enough—and despite that knowledge, she didn’t, didn’t even want to.
She wasn’t certain what she’d expected from Jaime—perhaps softness, gentle coaxing at the knowledge of her total and complete innocence. This wasn’t that, not in the slightest—but even so, she felt her body responding to him, felt a rush of wetness between her legs. And if she’d had any doubts that Jaime wanted her too, those were quickly dispensed by the hard, insistent pressure against her hip. She may have never been with a man, but she’d traveled with them, been encamped with them, and as such, she knew far more about men’s lusts than she’d ever cared to.
Jaime lay himself halfway onto the bed, propping himself up on the elbow of his mangled arm, his other hand picking insistently at the laces that held her tunic closed at the front. It was a staggering, seemingly frustrating process with one hand, but Brienne didn’t offer to help him; she didn’t want to bring any more attention to the handicap that still so obviously plagued his thoughts—and were she honest with herself, she was not eager for Jaime see her body bared, was willing to cling on to any opportunity to delay it. She may have been the one who had initiated this, but that didn’t drive away any of her doubts, her fears that he’d change his mind the moment he saw her without her clothes. He’d seen her before, of course, in the baths at Harrenhal—but he’d been injured and half-starved and barely lucid at the time, had obviously taken no time to observe her as a woman.
But he was approaching her as a woman, then, and the closer she got to exposing her bare breast, the more conscious she became of how disappointing the sight would undoubtedly be to him. Cersei, though wicked, had been beautiful and feminine in all the ways that Brienne wasn’t, her body most likely unmarred where Brienne’s was covered in scars.
It took a long time for Jaime to fully unlace her, and then his good hand was forcing the fabric open, bearing her chest to his gaze. He pulled back from their kiss to observe her, and Brienne had to fight her instinctive urge to cover herself under the intense scrutiny. But Jaime was looking not at her breasts, which were nearly bared through the light fabric of her undershirt, but instead at the parallel scars across her chest, the mark that had been left by the bear.
Jaime surprised her, then, by leaning forward and pressing his lips against the mark, all his earlier ferocity gone.
“I’m sorry,” he breathed quietly against her skin, his voice seeming strangely loud inside the quiet room. Brienne’s chest ached at the words.
“Don’t be,” she told him sincerely, the conversation feeling out of place in the wake of Jaime’s obvious lust. “You saved me.”
Jaime regarded her for another long minute before seeming to decide that it wasn’t worth arguing the point. Instead, he sat up and guided her to follow him, allowing him enough space to guide her tunic off her broad shoulders, following it with her undershirt. Brienne countered by removing his cloak, letting it join hers on the floor.
The room was chilly without her cloak and tunic; she suddenly wished they’d taken the time to light a fire as she shivered. Jaime pulled back the furs with a pointed expression.
Brienne moved to get under them before realizing she still wore her boots. She unlaced them with efficient movements, self-conscious with her top half bared to the cold air. As soon as the boots were off, she slid beneath the furs, lacking the courage to remove her trousers, despite knowing it was an eventual necessity.
Jaime removed his boots with the same agonizing slowness with which he’d unlaced her tunic, and it struck Brienne acutely how difficult his life must be now with only one hand, the absolute strain it added to the most rudimentary of tasks. But he used his stump with a kind of practiced ease, bracing it against the side of each boot as he pulled them off.
She mused at what a picture the two of them must have looked together: her, an overtall and masculine woman in trousers and no shirt, the scar from a bear’s claw adorning her chest—and him, a man exiled to the Night’s Watch, equally scarred and missing a hand. They were both a mess, both outsiders, now, marked and broken and scorned for their many imperfections.
Jaime tossed aside his second boot, and something of the tedious process of it all had robbed the scene of its earlier passion—and Brienne now felt only awkward and exposed under Jaime’s gaze. Whether Jaime was unaffected by the change, Brienne could not guess, but he stripped out of his black doublet without shame, holding Brienne’s gaze until he was bare to the waist.
Despite the scars that peppered Jaime’s chest, he was still beautiful, his body so different than when she’d seen him in the baths so long ago. He’d been filthy and near-emaciated then, virtually all his muscle mass gone from his time in captivity and the meager rations they’d had on the road. But his muscles were firm and well-defined, now, an obvious signal of the sinewy strength in his body.
When Jaime noticed Brienne looking at him, a cocky grin spread across his face, all the confidence of the Jaime Lannister of years past; he held her gaze once more as his hand reached down, and Brienne swallowed thickly as she realized he was beginning to unlace his trousers. She couldn’t help but glance down at the sound of the fabric hitting the floor, Jaime Lannister standing before her in all his glory.
For all that Brienne had thought about this moment, she’d never fully been able to imagine what Jaime would look like, naked and roused before her. She felt her face heating as she observed him, averting her eyes instinctively. Jaime chuckled softly in response.
“The Maid of Tarth,” he breathed out, but he said the words not with the familiar air of scorn with which she was used to hearing them spoken; instead, there was an air of amazement in his voice, as if he couldn’t quite believe her still so innocent after everything. That just made Brienne’s blush deepen.
And then Jaime was lifting the furs and climbing into bed with her, his skin cool against hers. Brienne turned to Jaime, and then he was kissing her again, and she forgot to be embarrassed by his nudity. Jaime’s hand trailed to her chest, then, tracing her scar one more time before moving to cup at her breast, barely a handful in Jaime’s palm. Brienne felt another moment of desperate self-consciousness; they must be less than what Jaime had been used to, must have been less substantial than Cersei’s had been.
Darkly, Brienne wondered to herself which of them had thought more about Jaime’s sister in these moments, herself or Jaime.
Pushing that thought out of her mind, Brienne tried to focus once more on Jaime, to the still somewhat bizarre feeling of being kissed by him. His fingers pinched her nipple and she gasped against him, the sound swallowed by his mouth.
Jaime’s hand slid down her stomach, brushing against the still-defined muscles there—and Brienne was glad at that moment that Jaime was also in on their ruse, that she had no need to explain to him how her body had undergone no softening from childbirth less than a year prior. His hand stopped at the laces of her breeches.
“Take these off,” he told her gently, perhaps tired of fussing with so many laces one-handed, twice the number he usually had to contend with when disrobing only himself. It was easier for Brienne to acquiesce than it would have been if he’d asked her earlier, because Jaime couldn’t see her bare, hidden as she was beneath the furs.
She shimmied out of her breeches and smallclothes, dumping them unceremoniously over the edge of the bed—and then Jaime’s hand was on her in an instant, fingers finding her most sensitive spot and rubbing her expertly. She nearly released a moan of surprise but caught herself at Jaime’s warning look, remembering where they were, the caution they had to exercise.
Jaime kissed her again, and Brienne was unsure whether the kiss was motivated more by desire or by the fact that it was an easy way to swallow any noises of pleasure from her before they could be overheard. She almost flinched away as Jaime’s hand traveled lower, embarrassed by how obvious her arousal was, how clearly he’d be able to feel how slick she was with want for him. But if Jaime was in any way deterred by her body’s wanton need, he showed no indication, continuing to kiss her as he slipped a finger inside her.
Part of her had expected pain, even at something so insignificant as this, but Jaime’s finger slid inside her almost embarrassingly easily, her body slick and ready for the intrusion. It wasn’t the same focused pleasure as when Jaime’s fingers had been rubbing at the sensitive nub above her core, but there was something still pleasurable about it, in a vague and unsettled way, something about the realization that a man was inside her, even if it was nothing more than a single finger.
Jaime’s finger moved experimentally for a minute before a second joined it—and this time, she did feel it, the more substantial intrusion into her body. It didn’t hurt, precisely, but the sensation was sharper, more focused, as if her body was learning to accommodate the previously unexperienced pressure there.
Jaime continued kissing her, two fingers giving way to a more substantial three—and Brienne, for all her innocence about the specifics of this act, understood what Jaime was trying to do, that he was trying to prepare her for the full girth of him, which she was certain was thicker than his three fingers. It wasn’t what Brienne had expected, especially considering his earlier rough eagerness; for all that she’d heard men’s gossip about their bed partners, she’d almost never heard of any consideration for the woman’s comfort or pleasure, which was perhaps part of her reluctance to lie with her wild husband.
But this was considerate of Jaime, was more than her septa had taught her to expect as a girl, when they’d still held out hope for a respectable match for her.
There was a noise outside the door, and Brienne and Jaime both stilled immediately, a honed warrior’s instinct in both of them. Jaime’s lips still brushed almost imperceptibly against hers as they both held their breaths, the reality of getting caught at what they were doing suddenly much more acute. Jaime didn’t relax against her until the voices they’d heard had faded away into the distance.
When he seemed certain that they were gone, he pulled back and met her gaze with a serious expression. Brienne was apprehensive that he’d put a stop to the encounter just then, too aware of the possibility of discovery. It all seemed so very dangerous all of a sudden.
“We don’t have much time. Someone will notice my absence soon,” Jaime told her gravely, and Brienne realized in that moment what he was trying to say to her. His slow exploration of her body was done; if she was not ready to complete the act, this was her moment to call an end to it.
Brienne swallowed thickly, nervous excitement thrumming in her chest at the realization that Jaime could be inside her within moments, that she would be the Maid of Tarth no longer. Slowly, she nodded her assent.
“Do it,” she said resolutely, her voice barely above a whisper.
And then Jaime’s fingers were gone from her and Brienne felt bereft for a moment, having grown used to the strange new pressure inside her. But before she had a chance to think too much about that feeling, Jaime was bracing himself above her, settling his body in between her legs. Barely able to summon her breath, Brienne spread them further to accommodate him.
The blunt pressure against the entrance of her body was at least as wide as his three fingers had been, and her heart caught in her throat for a second as Jaime looked down at her, waiting again for her assent. Brienne sucked in a long breath and forced herself to nod.
And then Jaime was pressing into her achingly slowly, and it did hurt as her body fought to accommodate him, though the process was eased by her not inconsiderable wetness. She winced, her eyes fluttering closed—and she felt dry lips pressing against her forehead, the kiss almost chaste.
“I’m sorry,” Jaime told her sincerely, and then he was finally seated all the way inside her. She felt uncomfortably full in a way she hadn’t quite been able to imagine, and she could feel Jaime’s skin pressing against hers, slick with a light sheen of sweat despite the cool temperature of the room.
Jaime remained where he was for what seemed like a long time, though it was obvious from his ragged breathing that it was somewhat of a struggle for him to hold himself still. Brienne appreciated those moments he gave her, the ability to collect herself—and when a bit of the sharpness had faded, she met Jaime’s eyes and nodded again wordlessly.
Jaime looked like he was about to praise the gods Brienne doubted he even believed in as he finally began to move in a slow, even rhythm. The sharp pain of the initial penetration was gone, replaced by a more subdued ache, and her limbs felt gangly and overlong in a way they hadn’t since she’d had her final growth spurt as a teenager. It wasn’t a revelation of pleasure but neither was it unbearable pain—and the look of utter rapture coloring Jaime’s face nearly made up for any discomfort she was feeling.
And slowly, the discomfort began to give way to pleasure, a soft rolling sense of it, goaded on by Jaime’s ragged, panting breaths, muffled by his obvious effort to remain quiet. Every soft sound he made caused her body to tingle, knowing that it was in her body he was finding such pleasure—and soon enough, Jaime was moving inside her with a new sense of ease, any unconscious resistance from her body giving way and accepting him inside her.
Seeming to sense the same change she had, Jaime shifted them, lifting one of her legs and holding it in place deftly with his damaged arm. The move changed the angle of his thrusts, and her body accepted him deeper inside, sending a rush of pleasure through her.
“Oh,” she gasped breathily, quickly muffling an exclamation, and Jaime chuckled under his breath, his left hand reaching down to touch her where their bodies were joined.
Brienne bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut against the sudden onslaught of sensation, Jaime’s hand deftly rubbing her as his cock pleased her from the inside. Suddenly, it struck her why everyone had looked upon the idea maidenhood to such an advanced age with such utter shock—and she, too, almost had a difficult time believing she’d missed this for so long.
It was obvious that Jaime was practiced at this, at pleasing a woman, but Brienne couldn’t bring herself to think too deeply on the reason why, the sensations in her body exquisite enough to distract her. Coupled with the pressure to keep quiet, her entire capacity for thought was gone, and she began to move unconsciously against Jaime, her body arching to meet his thrusts.
Jaime cursed under his breath at that, and the movement of his fingers upon her lost some of their coordination, slipping around in their combined slickness. The press of the digits was almost too much, and Brienne bit down on her lip so hard that it almost hurt—and all of a sudden, the pleasure was crashing into her like waves. She threw her hand over her own mouth to keep herself from crying out, and then Jaime was grasping both her legs with his arms, thrusting into her with renewed vigor until he cursed under his breath once more, his body shuddering as he spilled himself inside her.
They stayed that way, tangled together beneath the furs, for only a few stolen minutes, Jaime’s body sweat-slicked and feverish against hers. She felt the soreness acutely when Jaime finally pulled away from her; the muscles in her thighs, already aching from a week of riding, felt newly stressed in ways she’d never before experienced. She watched Jaime clean himself off from a bowl of water that sat across the room, walking unselfconsciously nude—and she envied Jaime that comfort in his own skin.
Brienne pulled on her undershirt, which was long enough to mostly cover her—and she quietly helped Jaime lace himself back up into all his clothing, the need for haste seeming more acute then. He gave her a strange look when she helped him replace the metal hand but didn’t refuse her help—and when he was strapped back into all his clothing, his black cloak replaced around his shoulders, she could have believed that absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had happened mere minutes before.
Jaime gave her an almost chaste kiss, and then he was gone.
Jaime’s departure left a strange sense of malaise in Brienne’s chest; she’d known that Jaime would not be able to lie with her for hours luxuriating beneath the furs, but to be left so bereft so suddenly left her reeling. A part of her, she supposed, had still held in her heart the frivolous ideal of the chivalrous knight who’d love her; the reality was the Kingslayer who’d at best accepted her and then abandoned her out of necessity, although he’d at least treated her kindly.
There was something wicked and debauched about the whole thing—of breaking oaths, of sex with a man who wasn’t her husband, of the feel of Jaime’s seed still trickling down her thigh. It was precisely the opposite of the lady everyone had tried in vain to mold her into, when she’d been a child, and she didn’t know if she felt a sense of thrill or mortification at the realization.
Her two wildling companions set off the next morning north of the Wall, and the same day a group of three wildlings came through to the South with the blessing of the Watch. Brienne found herself wondering, as she watched the bustling activity, if Castle Black would become more of a trading post than a garrison, or if the tensions between the wildlings and the South would ramp up again soon enough.
She saw Jaime only in passing that day, and every time her eyes fell upon him, she felt a strange sense of both glee and mortification at the memory of what they’d done, the lingering soreness in her body a brisk reminder. Even when Tormund had sent her up to Castle Black for that exact purpose, only a small part of her had believed that it would really happen, so sure she’d been that she was too plain or too mannish for Jaime to ever consider her, and the reality of what had happened still struck her with wonder and confusion.
They stayed one more night at Castle Black, and despite her own reservations, Brienne found herself thinking about her husband. Now that she’d experienced the act, she found it almost impossible not to wonder about Tormund, about what it would be like to lie with him. Would he be rougher than Jaime, or gentler? Would he be as confident and self-possessed? Would he be focused on her pleasure, or merely his own?
The contemplations plagued her on the trip back down to Winterfell, and the thoughts of both the men in her life were hard to banish as they rode, especially with the travel on horseback reminding her none-so-gently of what she and Jaime had done, reigniting the lingering soreness she’d felt after the act. She wondered if she’d see Jaime again, or if this would be nothing more than the one time Tormund had suggested, simply a clearing of her palate so she could get over Jaime.
Brienne didn’t feel over Jaime, not at all. But strangely, she didn’t feel nearly as intimidated by the prospect of sleeping with her husband, either.
Someone must have seen their party approaching and alerted Tormund, because he was there to greet Brienne when she rode through the gates of Winterfell. Brienne was surprised to feel a small spark of fondness for him as she spotted him standing there, regarding her with a huge grin. It was only then that Brienne realized that she’d spent nearly every day in Tormund’s company since the day they’d gotten married; having spent over two weeks away from him suddenly felt strange to her.
“Papa!” Selwyn shrieked in glee as Tormund helped her off her horse, the boy reaching his arms out toward Tormund. Brienne helped him take Selwyn out of his sling, the boy clinging tightly to Tormund the moment Tormund had gotten him in his arms.
“Did you miss your papa?” Tormund asked Selwyn with obvious affection, and the boy continuing to cling to him seemed to be answer enough. Selwyn tucked against his chest, Tormund took a step toward Brienne, pressing a kiss against her cheek the same way he had as he’d seen her off. Impulsively, Brienne reached for him when he started to pull away, pressing a kiss against his lips instead.
It was brief, chaste, and nothing like the kisses she’d shared with Jaime, for she lacked the boldness for that. But for the look of absolute glee upon Tormund’s face when she pulled away, she felt as though she might have just given him the greatest gift in the Seven Kingdoms.
“What was that for?” he asked her suspiciously, though even that suspicion could not wipe the smile from his lips. Brienne shrugged.
“Thank you,” was all she was able to say finally, “for letting me go.”
The look Tormund gave her was soft and indulgent, no hint of any jealousy in his features. And it struck Brienne, then, that what Jaime had told her about Tormund all those months ago really was true: he loved her, and it was obvious in the way he looked at her. She didn’t know why she hadn’t seen it before, why it hadn’t been perfectly obvious—and she felt guilty yet again for not at least making more of an effort to make him happy in return for the obvious devotion he showed to her.
Tormund accepted her gratitude with a simple nod, his smile still lingering.
“Get some rest, wife,” he told her instead. “I’ll watch the boy for now.”
For all that it was against Brienne’s nature to remain idle, she obeyed the directive, had a bath and even managed to doze for an hour or two. When she woke up, she felt no particular urge to do anything, instead electing to sit in bed and watch the snow that had begun to fall outside the window. That was how Tormund found her when he came into their bedroom some time later that day, without Selwyn in tow.
“He and the other children are all sleeping,” Tormund told her by way of explanation, and Brienne nodded. There were several others at Winterfell who also had small children, and it wasn’t uncommon for all of them to play together and take their midday naps together, watched over by one of the mothers or Selwyn’s wet nurse.
“You’ve washed,” Tormund remarked into her silence, and Brienne supposed it must have been obvious from her appearance; the accumulated dirt of the road had been visibly washed away, and her hair had been brushed down into some semblance of order once more. She’d changed into a clean shift before she’d gotten into bed for her own impromptu nap. And if Brienne wasn’t mistaken, her husband seemed a bit disappointed by those facts.
“You prefer me unwashed?” she asked him with a raised eyebrow, and the grin he gave her in return was positively lecherous.
“Maybe,” he told her with a surprising amount of seriousness, enough that she was unable to tell if he was joking or not. It struck her again how different he was from the proper sort of lord she’d once been told she’d marry—and not for the first time, she felt unquestionably glad for that fact.
“You’re absolutely shameless,” she told him without reproach, having been too long in his company to feel offended any longer, and his grin only widened.
“What use is shame?” he asked her with absolutely no hint of it. “Newly washed or covered in mud, you’re still a beauty to me.”
It was obvious from the sincerity in Tormund’s tone that he meant every word, and Brienne felt her cheeks heating with embarrassment. She remembered this feeling from the first times that Tormund had seen her, when he’d eyed her with undisguised lust—but she no longer felt the accompanying disgust that she’d felt back then.
Taking a deep breath, Brienne slid out of bed to stand before him. The nervousness she felt, then, was different than what she’d felt with Jaime; with Jaime, she’d been nervous for the possibility that he didn’t want her, that he’d turn her away. With Tormund, the fear was of a different kind—that he’d want her too much after she’d forced him to wait so long.
But Tormund had always been surprisingly respectful toward her, was not quiet the savage she’d believed him to be before she’d married him. He wasn’t some perfumed lord, certainly, and there was a definite air of wildness to him, an air of impropriety that would make any court lady blush. But she trusted that he wouldn’t hurt her, that he respected her and her strength both.
So Brienne forced her feet to move forward and pressed her lips against his—easier the second time than it had been the first, when she’d kissed him in the courtyard. But this time, she didn’t keep it chaste, instead tried to remember how Jaime had kissed her. She was more tentative than Jaime had been with her, but she let her tongue dip out from between her own lips to tease at Tormund’s. He opened his lips to her easily, and then their tongues were mingling together between their mouths.
She could tell the moment Tormund realized that the tenor of the kiss had changed, shifted from something innocent to something that was anything but. His arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her flush against him in a slow yet forceful movement. It felt strange to be this close to him, but not nearly as uncomfortable as it had been the morning she’d woken up unexpectedly pressed against him. It was difficult to remember that that had only been a few weeks prior.
She could do this, she told herself with a feeling of confidence. And not only was she certain that she could go through with it, emboldened by recent events, but she was curious about it, about the man with whom she’d shared the past year of her life. She didn’t love Tormund, not the way she loved Jaime—but she was fond of him, which was a luxury she knew many highborn ladies never got from their marriages.
Boldly, she reached for the belt that held closed his great coat, and Tormund pulled back from their kiss, looking up at her with an incredulous expression.
“Really?” he asked her with an almost childlike sense of wonderment, and it was difficult to believe that the man who could make that expression was the same man she knew could be a ruthless killer. Despite whatever uncertainty lingered within her, Brienne couldn’t help but return that smile.
“Really,” she confirmed, and Tormund’s grin grew even wider, guiding her hands to where the end of his belt slipped through its loops, holding her gaze meaningfully as she slipped it free.
Tormund shrugged out of the large coat with a casual disregard for the garment, letting it fall heavily to the floor behind him. Disrobing Tormund proved to be something of an endeavor, layers upon layers until his chest was finally bare.
She’d seen Tormund bare-chested in the past, but she’d never truly taken the time to observe him before, and unconsciously, she found herself comparing him to Jaime. He was broader than Jaime was, his muscles bulkier and more defined, and where Jaime only had a light dusting of hair across his chest, Tormund had long curls of reddish-brown chest hair, although still less than she’d have expected after seeing the fullness of his beard.
Tentatively, Brienne reached out and pressed her hand against his chest. Tormund chuckled softly.
“Touch whatever you want, lady knight,” he told her fondly, and she did, running her hand down his chest and across his stomach, criss-crossing scars that she realized she had no idea the origin of. It was still strange for her, touching a man this boldly—even if the man was her husband and had been for over a year. Tormund watched her slow exploration with a curious expression.
“What do you want?”
“I don’t know,” she told him honestly, and the smile he gave her was fond. She watched in confusion as he dropped to his knees in front of her, hands still resting on her hips. Tormund pressed a soft kiss to her lower abdomen through the admittedly thin fabric of her shift, and it only took mere moments for Brienne to recognize, with a frisson of anticipation, how close he was to the most intimate parts of her. He looked up at her with an intense gaze.
“Can I?” he inquired earnestly, and Brienne found herself nodding numbly, not entirely certain what she was agreeing to.
Tormund reached up under her shift, his fingers trailing along her thighs in a motion that almost tickled and yet at the same time made her body tingle with breathless expectation. Tormund shed her of her smallclothes, then lifted up her shift to expose her to the air. She fought back a rush of mortification at the exposure, at knowing that Tormund was right there, viewing her nakedness up close. Jaime hadn’t seen her this exposed, had never had the chance, and that had made it somehow easier with him, for part of her had still half-expected him to tell her it was all a joke, as those young lords pretending to vie for her affection had done those years ago.
But Tormund regarded her like she was the finest buffet he’d ever seen—and Brienne only realized Tormund’s intentions moments before he was acting on them, leaning forward and burying his face in her thatch of coarse blonde curls.
The first touch of Tormund’s tongue against her went through her like a shock, warm and wet. He traced his tongue along the part of her Jaime had so expertly massaged with his fingers, but Tormund’s tongue brought out a different sort of pleasure, gentler and yet sharper at the same time. His long beard tickled her inner thighs as his tongue created sensations in her unlike anything she’d ever felt before.
This was certainly not something she’d have expected of a lordly husband, but from Tormund, it didn’t shock her as much as it otherwise could have. Her eyes fluttered closed as pleasure rushed through her body, Tormund’s tongue continuing to circle that most sensitive part of her, soft and almost teasing, before it finally slid down, slowly, to dip inside of her.
Brienne hazily wondered if she should feel embarrassed that Tormund was tasting her with such wanton greed, but it felt too good for her to worry about it, instead just gave herself over to the sensations. After some indeterminate amount of time, his tongue returned to the spot above her core, spearing her there with much more focused attention. She felt her pleasure rising inside her, and this time, she was not surprised when she felt it crest, her body shuddering against Tormund’s tongue.
Brienne’s knees buckled beneath her, and then Tormund was the only thing supporting her weight, the only reason she didn’t fall to the floor. She had the foggy realization of what a feat it was for any man to support her weight as Tormund clumsily guided her back to the bed.
The room was warm, a fire burning in the grate, warm enough that Brienne felt flushed in just her light sleep shift. She turned to look at Tormund, who stood beside the bed looking at her hungrily, his beard visibly damp from what he’d been doing to her, the arousal he’d drawn forth from her body. Brienne was too relaxed to even feel embarrassed for that, watching as Tormund pulled off his boots, one after the other, unable to look away even as he began unfastening his trousers.
If there was anything Tormund and Jaime had in common, Brienne thought, it was an unabashed nonchalance about their own nudity, for Tormund dropped his trousers with absolutely no embarrassment, his cock hard and flushed beneath a bed of red-brown curls. Tormund was, Brienne reflected, probably larger than Jaime, a fact she never planned to share with either of them; she’d been around men long enough to know that there was nothing they loved more than comparing the size of their swords than…comparing the size of their swords.
Tormund grinned at her as he noticed her looking, giving his cock a slow stroke as if to show it off. Brienne couldn’t help but flush and avert her gaze, and Tormund laughed.
“You Southerners are so shy,” he remarked with an air of teasing, and she felt the bed dip as he got on beside her, hand brushing across her breast, still covered by fabric. “There’s nothing to be shy about, wife.”
As if to verify his statement, her nipple perked up stubbornly beneath his teasing touch. Brienne pushed his hand aside and, as if to prove him wrong, sat up and pulled off her shift in one swift movement, before she could be plagued by any second thoughts.
Tormund was silent for long enough that she almost regretted her boldness—but after a long moment, he reached out and brushed his thumb across her now-bare nipple, which again responded easily under his touch.
“I dreamed about this,” Tormund told her with a surprising air of sincerity, and then he was pressing his lips against her chest, a small sprinkling of kisses with no definite intent. Instead, there was an air of reverence about his movements, like he was worshiping her body—and it astounded her still that after all the years of being told how hideous she was, there could truly be a man who coveted her body so.
And then Tormund was kissing her lips again, the taste of her now mingling between their mouths. Brienne would have expected it to be off-putting, but strangely it wasn’t.
Tormund rolled them over so that she was on top of him, straddling his hips, and she sat up to regard him, his hands skimming absently along her barely-defined waist. Seeing her questioning look, Tormund smiled.
“Whenever you’re ready, wife,” he told her seriously. “I could touch you like this forever. I’m in no rush.”
It was such a striking contrast to Brienne’s encounter with Jaime, where haste literally had been a necessity. But there was no especial eagerness in Tormund; she didn’t doubt the truth of his statement, that he’d be glad to continuing lying there and simply touching her indefinitely.
It was strange to realize that Tormund was trying to put her in control of this, and Brienne suddenly felt desperately adrift. She’d lain with a man precisely once, and it had been a rushed and hurried affair. She’d done little more than simply allow Jaime to take her how he wanted, although she’d certainly derived her own pleasure from the experience.
“I don’t know what to do,” she confessed truthfully, and the smile Tormund gave her in response was not unkind.
“Women are complicated. Men are simple,” he told her. “Do what feels good for you, and it will feel good for me.”
Tormund’s cock stood out proudly from his body as if to confirm his statement, though she’d done nothing in particular to earn it except allow him to pleasure her. It wouldn’t take much, she realized, to lift her pelvis up and take him inside of her.
Taking a deep breath, Brienne lifted herself up onto her knees, and Tormund seemed to understand without words what she intended, because he was gripping at the base of his length, as if to steady himself for her. Brienne bit her lip as she felt the blunt pressure of him against her entrance; she was slick and wet from a mixture of her own arousal and Tormund’s saliva, but it was immediately clear that he was indeed larger than Jaime had been, and even that had hurt her at first.
As if understanding her reluctance, Tormund’s other hand came up to press lightly against her hip.
“Slow,” he said softly, his tone low and strangely seductive in a way that sent an unexpected shiver down her spine. His hand on her hip guided the pace, and it was slow as she lowered herself onto him.
The stretch was uncomfortable, bordering on painful without ever quite reaching it, accompanied by the same sense of overwhelming fullness she’d felt with Jaime. She took a minute to acclimate herself, to try to get used to the new sensation—and then she began to move experimentally, thinking of the rhythm of riding a horse.
Tormund seemed content to let her experiment, not trying to guide Brienne at all; instead he simply rested his hands gently on her hips, letting her ride him. It was awkward, exposed in a way that it hadn’t been with Jaime; with Jaime, they’d both been hidden under the blankets of furs, but now her whole body was exposed for Tormund’s appraisal, and his eyes seemed unable to get enough of her.
Like it had been with Jaime, the feeling was pleasing but not overwhelming, not the way it had been when Tormund had been using his mouth on her. Curious, Brienne tried leaning forward, bracing her hands on Tormund’s chest to give her leverage to move. The change in angle was more pleasing, Brienne realized, and if she moved just the right way, it sent little shocks of pleasure through her. Tormund had told her to do what felt good for her, so she did, and Tormund took advantage of the new angle to reach up and cup her breasts, massaging the flesh in his hands.
She tried changing the rhythm of her hips, found a very pleasing way to grind down into him with almost circular movements—and once she had found that rhythm, she continued with it, unable to keep soft moans of pleasure from escaping her lips. She felt the pleasure rising in her yet again, but that peak of bliss remained frustratingly elusive; the more she chased her own release, the further away it seemed to go. Tormund seemed to sense her frustration, traced her hips with his hands as he regarded her with a surprisingly sanguine expression.
“Touch yourself,” he told her with no sense of shame or irony, and Brienne opened her mouth to protest, but Tormund grasped her hand in hers.
“You know how,” he reassured her, his voice low and gruff with his own arousal. He took her hand and pressed it against the same place he’d so lovingly applied his tongue not long before, guiding her finger to rub herself with circular motions. “Like this.”
Brienne flushed but didn’t pull her hand away; nothing in her life had prepared her for this level of wanton hedonism, and she felt exposed and absolutely debauched chasing her own pleasure with such abandon. Even when she’d heard men’s salacious stories and fantasies, she’d never ascribed them to herself; she’d always imagined that if she got a husband, he’d bed her only out of duty, that none of it would be about her pleasure—and yet with Tormund, it seemed like it was entirely about that. Jaime had given focus to her pleasure, too—but not in this same unabashed way.
“That’s the way,” he told her encouragingly, and for the first time, he began to move against her, gripping her around her hips and thrusting up into her body. Brienne closed her eyes against the sharp embarrassment at the realization of what Tormund was doing, for now Brienne was able to focus fully on simply touching herself, no longer having to worry about keeping a rhythm as she rode him.
Her release rushed upon her quickly like that, so quickly that it hit her with unexpected vigor, her body shuddering as she continued to touch herself. She heard, through the haze of her own pleasure, a low and guttural noise from her husband; his thrusts became rough and erratic, enough that they were almost painful against her, and then he was grunting as he finished inside her.
Selwyn’s first name day came and went, and they began making plans to go north. The boy was fully weaned, and they had no further need to remain at Winterfell, no further pretense. Tormund was brimming with excitement at leaving what he still determinedly referred to as ‘the South’; Brienne was slightly less excited, because for all the time she’d spent in the snow in the past few years, she wasn’t certain if she was ready for the harsher conditions of what her husband called the ‘real North.’ And she wasn’t certain if Selwyn was ready for that, either, though the boy loved the snow; he’d begun walking, then running nearly immediately afterward, and even falling into piles of the freezing snow did nothing to deter his love of running through it. Some of the other children cried when they got snow down their backs; Selwyn only laughed, like it was the jolliest thing in the world.
Lost in the chaos of weaning a baby who didn’t particularly want to be weaned, the preparations for their trip north, and the regular goings-on of Winterfell, Brienne didn’t notice when she didn’t bleed that first month. It was mere days before they were meant to depart Winterfell that Brienne realized that she didn’t remember the last time she’d bled, except that it had certainly been before her trip to Castle Black.
She went to see Maester Wolkan to confirm what she already knew to be true; she was with child.
Every muscle and bone in her body felt panicked with the realization; she already had a son, but she hadn’t quite been prepared for the inevitability of actually carrying one of her own, of the realization that a tiny life was now growing inside her body. Part of Brienne had wondered if she’d even be capable of it; part of her wondered if she was simply so mannish that her parts didn’t function correctly, if that was why she’d never gotten the full breasts, slender waist, or wide hips of a woman. But it appeared, in fact, that the opposite was true; she’d lain with a man for the first time, and within two months, she’d already found that she had a child in her belly.
Tormund’s eyes had lit up with delight when she’d told him, but the excitement was gone as quickly as it had come, because he’d clearly realized the implications as easily as she had. He eyed her with deep suspicion.
“Is it mine or is it his?” he inquired simply—and Brienne considered lying to him, assuring her husband that there was no way that the child wasn’t his. She’d promised to be his wife and bear his children, and the prospect of having children with her was clearly something that brought Tormund great pride. But Brienne found that she didn’t have it in her to lie to him; Tormund had proved himself deserving of more than that.
“I don’t know,” she told him honestly, and Tormund just shook his head and left the room wordlessly, slamming the door behind him.
Tormund’s resentment was palpable when they were alone together but practically undetectable outside their bedchamber—and Brienne was surprised that absolutely none of it spilled over to the way that he treated Selwyn, which was at least something she had cause to be pleased about. For all that he’d talked about ‘Southern sisterfuckers,’ he’d never treated Selwyn as anything but his son, delighted when the boy called him ‘papa.’ Tormund seemed even more suited to fatherhood now than he had when Selwyn was just a baby; he’d now chase Selwyn through the snow, the boy shrieking in delight as he tried in vain to escape his father.
On balance, Brienne thought, it was more than likely that the child was Tormund’s and not Jaime’s; she’d lay with Jaime just once, but Tormund had had her dozens of times since the first. She was more than convinced that Tormund would have taken her every day, and multiple times a day, if she had acquiesced. That Jaime could have impregnated her on just one try was unlikely, though not impossible—and the most burning realization was that she simply did not know, and thus had no power to reassure her husband.
After Tormund had spent the past two months desperate to have her at every possible opportunity, it was strange to adjust to the way he suddenly never seemed to want to touch her, never seemed to even want to be in her presence. She’d grown used to the feeling of being wanted—had even come to enjoy it—and with the sudden distance between them, the lack of it felt almost overwhelming. She wondered if this was what Tormund had felt, when she’d refused him all those months, if he’d felt the same gaping chasm of emptiness.
With the wet nurse gone, Tormund spent every night before they departed for Winterfell in the room she’d vacated; he got Selwyn up every morning and brought him down to breakfast, and Brienne couldn’t help the sudden feeling of isolation she had from her small and unorthodox family, even as she’d just realized that their family was about to grow by one.
She lay awake those last nights at Winterfell, alone in the bed she’d shared with Tormund for months, wondering if she’d irreparably damaged everything, if Tormund would leave her. She had a difficult time imagining Tormund leaving Selwyn, who he clearly loved deeply despite their lack of shared blood—but it was difficult to gauge exactly how angry Tormund was, how much he’d be willing to sacrifice for his anger toward her.
Brienne was fairly certain she would have left, if she’d been in his position, saddled with a wife who had refused to be with him for a year, then gotten herself with child, very possibly the child of another man. Tormund certainly had a very good case for leaving her, and Brienne couldn’t help but wonder if Jaime would see it as a betrayal of her oath if Tormund left because of Brienne’s own misdeeds, for Jaime had wanted his son to grow up with a father.
And yet despite all the turmoil it had caused, Brienne could not make herself regret the child in her womb; she was terrified but also brimming with happiness, and she’d lay in bed with her hand pressed against her stomach, in awe of the fact that there was another life growing inside of her. She couldn’t even make herself regret that the child might be Jaime’s; to have a child that would truly be hers and Jaime’s was exciting, something she’d wished for in the deepest recesses of her mind but had never been willing to believe could actually be possible.
The morning they prepared to leave Winterfell seemed like the first time she’d seen her husband in days, for he’d been in her presence only in passing since he’d found out she was with child. It was one of the few times she’d seen Selwyn, too, who Tormund had been keeping jealously close to him. That was something Brienne hadn’t had the heart to deny him, not after all the other things she’d already done to hurt him. She felt an ache in her chest as Tormund took Selwyn’s new sling—for he’d outgrown his old one—and strapped Selwyn to himself; Brienne had at first believed herself lacking in maternal instinct, but the time separated from her son made her heart feel hollow—and part of her had stared to wonder if she truly wasn’t unfit for motherhood at all. She certainly hoped not, not with the knowledge that there was another child on the way.
Realizing she was poised for almost a fortnight’s travel with a man who was barely able to stand her presence if she didn’t do something to remedy the situation, Brienne took a deep breath and caught Tormund’s arm before he could mount his horse. Tormund turned to her with an unreadable expression—but one that made her feel guilty all the same.
“I’m sorry,” she told him simply, unable to formulate anything more substantial than that apology. If she’d expected Tormund to accept her words with grace, she was sorely mistaken.
“Good,” he told her with an offhand air of almost-vindictiveness. “You should be.”
Despite Brienne’s resolve to try to make amends with Tormund, his words rankled her, and she found herself responding without thinking.
“You told me to go to him,” she reminded him in a soft hiss. “To lie with him. You didn’t tell me not to—”
Tormund cut her off mid-sentence, one of the surest ways to detect that he was angry with her.
“I didn’t think I had to,” he told her, his voice soft and full of disappointment. Whatever anger Brienne had been feeling deflated immediately at the obvious disappointment in Tormund’s voice, an acute contrast to the near-worship it usually held when he spoke to her. She hadn’t realized how much she’d come to appreciate her husband’s obvious adoration of her, not until it was gone.
“I didn’t mean to—”
Tormund cut her off once more.
“How hard is it not to let him finish inside you?” he bit out scathingly—and Selwyn, still strapped to Tormund’s chest, sniffed quietly. Both their eyes turned to the boy immediately, whose eyes were brimming with unshed tears mere seconds from falling down his cheeks, obviously sensing the discord between his parents. Tormund reached down and stroked Selwyn’s golden curls soothingly, and when he spoke next, his words were softer, though not lacking in malice.
“I agreed to be your husband,” he told her sharply. “Not to be a cover for you to make babies with your beloved crow.”
And with that, Tormund turned and mounted his horse, a clear indication that he considered the conversation to be over. Feeling dejected, Brienne mounted her own horse and they were off, though Brienne had a difficult time banishing Tormund’s words from her mind as they rode. She’d hoped for a gracious acceptance of her apology, though of course she didn’t deserve it. She and Jaime had done nothing to try to avoid this eventuality when they easily could have; Tormund had every right to be angry with her.
They stopped briefly for lunch, during which Tormund spoke with her only when he had to. He did hand over Selwyn for the second half of the day’s journey, something for which she found herself immensely grateful, comforted by his warm presence against her breast as he dozed off almost immediately once they set off.
They stayed in the same tent that night and all the subsequent ones with Selwyn between them, Tormund obviously maintaining his distance. And every day they got closer to Castle Black, the greater Brienne’s sense of trepidation became. In other circumstances, she might have been excited to see Jaime, even if they never went to bed together again—but she wasn’t sure how Tormund would react to seeing him, except for the fact that she was certain that it would not be good.
And there was still the rather pressing truth of the child in her belly, the fact that it might be Jaime’s; it was still too early for her body to show any obvious signs of pregnancy, so she could conceivably hide it from him, but Brienne wasn’t certain she had the strength or resolve not to tell Jaime if he was standing right in front of her. And she wasn’t sure how Jaime would react to that news, either.
She got an unexpected reprieve when they arrived to Castle Black just over a week after they’d set out on their trip; Edd greeted her with the same effusiveness as the last time, even enfolded Tormund in a surprising hug. He also gave them the news that Jaime was out with a ranging party beyond the Wall, a fact that came as both a relief and a disappointment.
They stayed only one night at Castle Black before they set out again, their ultimate destination a few days’ ride north still, the village where Tormund had determined they would settle down. They could make it in a few days’ time, Tormund informed her, if the weather held up; so far, the snows had been mild, the maesters certain that the fabled Long Night would not be so long after all, something they all seemed fit to ascribe to the destruction of the White Walkers. But the lands north of the Wall were considered bleak for a reason, and there was no definite expectation that the favorable conditions would continue.
But the snows did not fall even once they passed the Wall—and the moment they had passed it, there was a noticeable lightness that seemed to overtake her husband. Where he’d spoken to her only out of necessity in the preceding days, he suddenly began to talk to her as they rode, telling her of the places they passed and the places they were going. If they were lucky, he told her, they’d be able to reach Crastertown by nightfall and sleep in a real bed for the second consecutive night.
Crastertown, he told her, was a small settlement that had begun going up upon the ashes of a place that had been burned down by Jon Snow’s men. Tormund told her of Craster—the man Brienne knew as the father of Samwell Tarly’s wildling wife—told her the story of what had happened there, that Craster had been an awful man who enslaved his own daughters into marriage. He told her that he’d heard the town had been built by Craster’s former wives, perhaps a determination to make something positive out of the ashes of their own misery.
They rode past the town of Whitetree, and Tormund showed her the giant weirwood tree with a sense of wonder and excitement; Selwyn was awake as they passed it, and made gleeful noises at all the exciting new sights they were passing. Tormund told her of the geography of the true North, about the Gorge and the Shivering Sea, the Fist of the First Men and the Milkwater, and despite everything that had happened with them, Tormund’s excitement to be in an area he considered home was infectious. Brienne didn’t think she’d feel this glee if she went back to Tarth now; she wasn’t certain where she thought of as her home any longer, which was one of the reasons that it had been so easy to acquiesce to Tormund’s demand that they go north of the Wall.
The snow was surprisingly light on the ground, and they made good time, easily reaching Crastertown by nightfall. Brienne guessed that Tormund’s assessment of how the place had come to be was correct, as the women in the town vastly outnumbered the men, and many of the women bore a very strong resemblance to each other. They gave Tormund and Brienne a bed to sleep in and food to eat without complaint; upon hearing that Brienne was with child, they offered her special tea, which she only accepted after Tormund nodded to her, acknowledging that it was safe for her to drink.
The house where they stayed even had a crib for Selwyn, although only one room for the two of them to share—and it was the first night, Brienne realized, that the two of them would be sharing a bed without Selwyn since Tormund had found out about her pregnancy. It was with some trepidation that Brienne readied herself for bed once they’d put Selwyn down for the night, and when she prepared to get into bed, she found Tormund already there on the far side of the bed, eyes closed and tucked beneath a blanket of furs.
With a sigh, Brienne lifted up the furs on the other side of the bed, carefully sliding herself beneath them. Once she was settled, she turned her back on where her husband lay, purposely trying to keep as much distance between the two of them as possible as she forced her eyes closed. She was half-tempted to get Selwyn out of his crib to join them; this feeling of being so alone despite sharing a bed with her husband wasn’t a particularly comfortable one for her.
Brienne was surprised when the bed shifted beneath her as Tormund turned over—and even more surprised when she heard Tormund’s voice.
“Come here, wife.”
He said the words softly, more suggestion than order, and Brienne turned to look over her shoulder at him, sure he must be half-asleep and had forgotten her perceived betrayal. But Tormund’s eyes were perfectly clear as he looked at her, brimming with a wealth of emotions Brienne wasn’t certain that she could identify if asked.
Uncertainly, Brienne scooted back across the mattress, until their bodies were almost pressing together—and Tormund’s arm circled around her waist, pulling her the rest of the way until his body was flush against her back. She felt the familiar sensation of Tormund’s coarse beard against her neck as he buried his face there. And Brienne let out a long breath she hadn’t even realized she was holding as Tormund settled there, showing no indication of letting her go.
It wasn’t quite forgiveness, but it was a start.
Brienne found herself learning a lot about the lands north of the Wall during their stay at Crastertown, the kinds of things she suddenly wondered why she’d never asked about earlier. Some of it built on the things she already knew, like the relative peace between various wildling tribes and the destruction of the White Walkers having created new opportunities for people that had been previously unavailable. Some of the peoples who had previously been more nomadic had taken the opportunity to settle into villages, of which Crastertown was one; what had once been no more than a tiny settlement with one home and a few small outbuildings had grown into what was quickly becoming a thriving town.
Once they set out from Crastertown, Brienne’s suspicions were confirmed when she asked Tormund; the village where they would settle was another of them. Brienne wasn’t certain what she’d expected about moving north of the Wall, but she certainly hadn’t expected that they’d have to build their own house when they arrived.
The site, at least, was beautiful, not far from a river and nearby a large weirwood tree, though not nearly as large as the one they’d passed at Whitetree. The reason they’d chosen the site, Brienne was told, was because of a cave in the nearby hills that held a natural hot spring. With hills on one side and the river on the other, though, it was an easily defensible location; if Tormund was the one who had chosen it, it was clear enough that he didn’t necessarily count on the fact that the fragile peace would last.
The people all seemed to know Tormund already, and to respect him; the whole lot of them appeared to regard Tormund as some kind of leader although he’d only just arrived, and Tormund acted as though he expected that, falling into the role easily. The village already had twelve homes standing, some larger than others, sturdy stone structures and wooden ones both. Two more buildings were partially constructed, and there was already a plot of land cleared out where Brienne and Tormund would build their home.
Building her own home was something that was so far out of Brienne’s realm of expectation that she wasn’t quite certain how to process the realization. She’d grown up in a castle with the expectation that she’d inherit, at least after her brother had died; Evenfall Hall had often required repairs, but they’d had stewards and stonemasons to take care of all of those things, and Brienne had scarcely ever even heard about it. The closest she’d come to anything like building was when she and Tormund had lent a hand with some of the repairs at Winterfell while they’d stayed there.
They stayed with a women named Maja and her husband Orik; the couple had two small children, the younger only a few months Selwyn’s junior, not quite up and walking yet. She shared a spare bedroom with Tormund while Selwyn slept in a room with the other two children, and it was all very…humble. Brienne was more than used to travel, to sleeping in tents and inns and even beneath the open sky, but she’d never pictured living, or raising a family, in a small stone home with only a few bedrooms. That had been the sort of thing for the smallfolk, not a noble lady—even one from her comparably small house. Then again, there were a lot of things about this arrangement she’d never imagined—living in the snow, giving up a prestigious position in the Royal Guard in order to raise a family, marrying a wildling man.
But Brienne found that, despite all that, she wasn’t unhappy. Her new life lacked all the intrigues of courtly life that she’d experienced briefly at King’s Landing; the people were all very helpful, and no one expected her to act like a lady. Tormund had told her the truth; everything was very egalitarian, and everyone took turns watching the children, hunting, and helping to erect the new homes. Even more surprising, none of them expected her to take a step back from physical pursuits, despite the fact that they all knew that she was with child. Brienne could be nothing but grateful for that; she kept waiting to feel different, to feel the nausea or fatigue that other women had warned her might come, but she felt decidedly normal.
Tormund’s good humor at being north of the Wall once more continued to shine through; things hadn’t quite settled back into a sense of normalcy between them—whatever ‘normal’ was—but Tormund was no longer ignoring her except for the essential things, which was at least an improvement. They argued, but their arguments were mostly good-natured and without malice. One them had been about the size and layout of their house, how many bedrooms they’d need for what Tormund clearly expected would be their many children. Brienne argued with him in earnest until his numbers of expected children began to become so outlandish that she realized he’d been trying to joke with her the whole time—and that she’d missed it entirely.
Even whatever resentment was obviously lingering within him about the child in her belly didn’t show through much in their interactions, except in the bedroom—and Brienne wondered, fleetingly, if this was what being married to Tormund would have been like from the beginning had she come to him willingly instead of under duress with so many conditions. Of course, she never would have gone to Tormund had it not been for Selwyn; Cersei’s pregnancy had been the only thing that had made their relationship even a possibility.
If Tormund’s unexpected good humor did anything else, it was convince her that moving north of the Wall was the right choice; Tormund would have felt so very out of place on Tarth, and it was difficult to imagine Selwyn there, either. He’d have to go there eventually, Brienne realized, unless she had another son who would rather inherit; Brienne had no doubt that her father would like Evenfall Hall to go to his namesake, but it felt wrong in so many ways to send Cersei and Jaime’s child to inherit her family’s lands.
That, of course, was many years off, and Brienne forced herself to put those worries out of her mind for the time being.
They’d been north of the Wall for about a month, her body slowly beginning to swell with the proof that she truly was with child, the first time Tormund returned his attentions to her. Brienne had been half dismayed and half relieved that he’d not tried to rekindle their intimate activities after that first night he’d again held her in his arms at Crastertown, but when he finally came to her that night, she was relieved. It was different than when he’d bedded her previously; he said almost nothing, no joking or cajoling or telling her how beautiful she was. Instead, he simply kissed her wordlessly and climbed on top of her.
It had previously been Tormund’s way to deliberately take the time to please her—occasionally for a very long time—before he entered her, but this time, he touched her only enough to get her slick enough to slide inside her. The feeling was more acute that night, more like the first time with Jaime than any time with Tormund. She would have believed it eagerness on his part if he hadn’t taken her with deliberate slowness—but part of her wondered if, for him, this was some kind of reclaiming of her. She surprised herself by not only letting him but wanting him to, wanting to give him that reassurance, incredibly unconcerned for her own pleasure.
It was with a sense of wonder and trepidation that she watched her belly grow as the months went on. Even when she’d been young and still believed in her ability to marry, she’d never much considered the realities of pregnancy and childbirth; her own mother had not been around to talk to her about it, and she’d stopped listening to her septa long before the woman had apparently deemed it to be relevant information.
Several of the other women in the village had given birth and were prepared to deliver the child when the time came, which was the only thing that kept Brienne from full-blown panic about the eventuality. They were days away from civilization as she thought of it, with no familiar robed maester to tend to her if something went wrong. She had to trust these strange women from her husband’s strange tribe—and so she hoped and prayed that nothing would go wrong.
The larger she got, the more inconvenient things became; by her seventh month, it was simply too impractical and uncomfortable to hunt or help with the building, and all that left Brienne feeling restless, remembering the months surrounding Selwyn’s birth—except that this time, she was carrying a child for real, the occasional movement she felt from within her body confirmation enough that that was true.
Selwyn was absolutely delighted every time he felt it, would sit surprisingly still with his hand against her belly and waiting for the baby to kick. He was learning words with increasing frequency, “baby” being one of his new personal favorites.
She saw less and less of Tormund the closer they came to the child’s birth; where he’d wanted her again with increased frequency during the previous months, he now often came to bed exhausted, having redoubled his efforts to have their home finished before the babe was born. She also got the feeling, as more of it went up, that he was doing it for her, concerned about the fact that she’d grown up in a much grander castle and that this wouldn’t quite measure up. She didn’t know how to reassure him, or even if she could; things were in such a constant state of flux that it was impossible to settle upon how she felt about her new situation.
The invitation to Sansa and Tyrion’s wedding also came during her seventh month, but even if she’d been inclined to travel all the way back to King’s Landing for the wedding, she was in no state to do so; she sent Sansa back a response telling her about her current circumstances and began thinking over whether they should keep messenger ravens in their village now that they had someone who could read the messages.
She brought up the idea with Tormund, who praised her, and even suggested she try to teach some of the children to read as well; the new, freer travel between the Northern lands and the Seven Kingdoms meant that some of them might one day travel south past the Wall, and reading could be a useful skill. Brienne took Tormund’s suggestion to heart and felt better for having something to distract her from the impending birth. She had only a few books with her, but it was enough to get her started; the next time they went south, if they did again, Brienne determined that she’d buy more to bring some with them.
Their home was finished that same month, though only partially furnished; they had a bed for her and Tormund and for Selwyn, too, which at least allowed them to move themselves in. Tormund set to work, then, making a crib for the baby, and Brienne spent a surprising amount of her time in bed, often tired and sore from carrying around the added weight of her increasingly large stomach.
How little she’d known about Tormund—and how little she knew about him still—struck her with increasing frequency with each day that passed. Not only was Tormund a good fighter and hunter, as well as good with children, he was also good at working with wood, Brienne realized as the crib materialized, along with a table and some chairs. Confined largely to bed, Brienne found herself spending a large amount of time sewing, something she’d long despised and never been particularly good at. But this was different than the intricate embroidery into fine linens that her septa had tried to force her into as a child; it was the more utilitarian creation of blankets and furs and clothing made of animal hides, which required little precision and even less artistry. No one quite trusted her with the more intricate items, like breeches—and rightly so—but as time passed, she found herself with an increasing wardrobe of items for herself and her small but growing family.
She had been taking an increasingly rare walk around town when it happened, the rush of wetness between her legs that she’d expected but somehow not been at all prepared for; she might have panicked if one of the other women in town hadn’t calmly led her back to her home and helped her change from her drawstring trousers—the only she’d been able to conceivably wear for months—and into a simple shift. Everyone else seemed prepared although she was not, calling for all the women experienced in childbirth who would aid her, boiling water, and sending for Tormund, who was out with a group hunting.
She was in bed when her husband finally rushed into the room, sweaty and breathing hard as if he’d run the whole way there from the depths of the Haunted Forest; she hadn’t thought of it much, but it didn’t surprise her that they had no taboos about men in the birthing room, because no one showed any surprise about Tormund’s presence, nor did Tormund show any discomfort at being there. He came in as one of the women, named Dasha, was checking her to see how close she was to the actual birthing, and despite everything, she felt a rush of embarrassment as Tormund gazed at her between her legs with a look of slight intrigue.
“It’ll be awhile yet,” Dasha told Tormund when he gave her a questioning look.
“You shouldn’t look,” Brienne told Tormund, trying to tear his gaze away from her most private parts, feeling her face flush. It seemed to work, as Tormund came to sit next to the bed as Dasha placed the blankets back over her legs. The look he gave her in response to her words was one of blank incomprehension.
“Why?” he asked her, obviously confused. “I’ve seen it before, wife. Or have you forgotten how babies are made?”
Brienne’s embarrassment faded a little at Tormund’s words—not at the reminder of his total lack of Southern shame but the other part, for this was as close as Tormund had ever come to acknowledging that he might truly be the father of her child. It had seemed, until that very moment, that he’d managed to convince himself that the child was undoubtedly Jaime’s, and he’d held onto that belief with such conviction that Brienne had almost started to believe it herself.
“How long ago did it start?” Tormund asked with a legitimately interested expression. Brienne shrugged.
“Maybe an hour ago?” she ventured, looking for one of the other women for confirmation, but they’d all suddenly left the room, leaving her alone with her husband. She tried again to keep calm; Dasha had said very clearly that it was some time before the baby would come, so there was no reason to have anyone hovering over her at every moment.
“You should have an easier time of it than many women,” he said in a tone Brienne supposed was meant to be reassuring. “You have the right hips for birthing children.”
Tormund, of course, was the only one there who knew it was her first time experiencing this; everyone else believed this was her second time giving birth. She’d tried her best to keep up a brave front when the other women had been present, trying not to portray any of her inner panic.
Just then, one of her labor pains hit her; Brienne clenched her fists and her jaw, trying to hold back the scream that threatened to escape. She was breathing heavily when it passed, glaring in Tormund’s direction.
“This doesn’t feel like an easy time,” she told him accusatorily, and Tormund’s unconcerned expression became suddenly sympathetic. He moved his chair closer to her side, taking her hand in his and giving it a light, reassuring squeeze.
“You can squeeze my hand as hard as you need,” he assured her with a sincere expression. “Break my fingers if you have to.”
From the earnest expression that accompanied the pronouncement, it was blatantly clear that Tormund meant every word of the offer—that he would let her break his fingers without complaint. Brienne sighed, her anger at him fading as quickly as it had appeared.
“I’ll need your help with the baby,” she told him softly. “It would be difficult to do with broken fingers.”
Her labor pains began to come more frequently after awhile, but everything seemed to take an absurdly long time, more time than she cared to be in such a considerable level of pain. The closer she came to the delivery, the more she realized with a sense of acuteness that this was a thing that women died from—and with the level of pain ripping through her body, it was easy to believe that that was an actual possibility.
Tormund stayed with her even as the baby was coming, which didn’t happen until late into the night; Brienne did scream as Dasha told her to push, feeling like her body was splitting open—and then there was a cry, high-pitched and angry-sounding, and Brienne fell back against the pillows, exhausted and covered in a sheen of sweat, but it struck her dimly that the baby was out and very much alive, and so was she.
Tormund gripped her hand tightly, a huge grin on his face.
“It’s a girl,” he told her proudly, but the baby was already out of Brienne’s sight, though she could still hear the newborn’s cries. Brienne felt a sudden sense of unease; she’d scarcely seen her daughter before the child had been taken away.
“Where is she?” Brienne demanded frantically, looking around the room as if the babe would suddenly appear in a corner. Tormund placed a soft kiss against the back of her hand.
“They’re just going to clean her off,” Tormund assured her gently. “Then they’ll bring her back.”
Brienne couldn’t help but continue to feel unsettled until Dasha finally came back with the child, wrapped in a blanket so that only her head was visible. She was tiny, almost impossibly so; it was difficult to remember, with Selwyn now running and jumping and climbing and talking, that he had ever been this small.
Her eyes were the same deep blue that Selwyn’s had been when he’d been born; the hair on her head was a strangely familiar pale blonde, just one tiny tuft of it. Brienne swallowed thickly as she took her daughter into her arms; Brienne knew that she, too, had blonde hair and blue eyes, that the child’s coloring was no guarantee of her paternity, that her eye color especially may still change. But there was no hint of Tormund’s red hair or green eyes, and her resemblance to Selwyn when he’d been born was undeniable.
When Brienne finally had the courage to look up and meet her husband’s eyes, it was clear from his expression that she wasn’t the only one who thought so.
She named her daughter Catelyn after Catelyn Stark when it was clear that Tormund had no interest in naming the girl. Lady Stark had been the closest to a mother figure that Brienne had ever had, and it was a name that she thought Jaime would approve of as well. Catelyn Stark was the thread that tied her and Jaime together, and though she knew she shouldn’t care about that—there was no proof the girl was Jaime’s and not Tormund’s—she couldn’t help the burst of sentimentality and nostalgia.
The first few days with Catelyn were easier in some ways than the first days with Selwyn had been and harder in others. Everyone in the village seemed ready to pitch in and help with whatever they needed, which took a lot of the pressure away—but unlike the period after Selwyn’s birth, she really was recovering from childbirth, and she was exhausted and drained. She slept whenever Catelyn did, irregularly and in tiny bursts; she woke only to eat, relieve herself, and nurse her daughter.
Having her daughter suckle at her breast was strange and awe-inspiring all at the same time; before Catelyn had been born, she’d almost disbelieved that her small breasts could provide enough milk for a child, but they’d gotten fuller and heavier the further along she’d gotten. They ached now until Cat nursed, like they were overfull and eager to be emptied, and thankfully Cat obliged by being hungry often.
Selwyn adored the baby, repeating the words “sister” and “Cat” so many times that Tormund had to scold him to be quiet and not wake her up while she slept. Selwyn would stand there and brush his hand absurdly gently through her fine blonde locks through the bars of her crib, as awed by the tiny new presence as Brienne still was, somehow unable to believe that the child had come out of her own body this time.
The days seemed to pass in something of a blur as Brienne recovered. It was nearly a month before she was able to be up and out of bed for the majority of the day, but she still spent most of her time when she wasn’t taking care of Selwyn and Cat instructing the older children on how to read and taking care of their new messenger ravens; she didn’t even attempt any more physical pursuits for that first month after she was out of bed.
Two more families arrived and settled in their little town while Brienne was still recuperating; after another month, Brienne began light sparring once more and started lending some help with the building. Her body had changed from the pregnancy, more than she’d expected; returning to her previous physique seemed at first an impossibility, but after a few months, she began to feel a bit more like herself.
She had mixed feelings when Dasha declared her well enough to once more lie with her husband; Tormund was absurdly gentle with her that first time, and when he’d finished inside her, part of her had wished desperately for her womb to quicken again, if only to give Tormund a child that was undeniably his. Tormund doted on Cat the same way he’d doted on Selwyn from the start, gave no indication that he loved them any less than he would were they decidedly his blood, but the awkwardness still hung thick between them, and Brienne felt somewhat hopeful that a new child might banish that.
But the other part of Brienne hoped that she wouldn’t find herself with child again, not so soon; she felt more herself with her body forming once again into the one she’d known all her life, at being able to fight and perform physical labor once more, and some part of her was selfishly unwilling to give that up again, not even for the sake of her marriage.
Tormund hadn’t said a word about leaving her, but part of her still feared he would; he’d made her promise to be his wife in all ways, to lie with him and bear his children, and so far Tormund was raising, in his eyes, two children of Jaime Lannister.
Brienne felt terrified when her moon blood didn’t return after she gave birth, until Maja assured her that it was common enough when one was nursing a baby. Brienne quickly covered up her lack of knowledge by telling the other woman that she’d had a wet nurse for Selwyn, and thankfully Maja didn’t seem suspicious. When she bled finally, a few months after Cat’s birth, it was uncommonly light but decidedly there, a confirmation that she was not, in fact, with child again right away.
Cat was a fussier baby than Selwyn had been; even Tormund had a difficult time soothing her where he’d always seemed to have some kind of magical touch with Selwyn. But she was healthy and seemed to be growing normally, which was what was important.
There was nothing out of the ordinary on the day their fragile holding pattern was broken. Brienne had spent some time with the children and some sewing a new coat for herself, and she and Tormund had put Cat and Selwyn both down for the night. Selwyn’s second name day had passed; Cat now slept through the night about half the time. Brienne and Tormund lay in bed together, both tired and sated after their lovemaking, when Tormund turned to her and spoke unprompted.
“Go see your crow,” he told her out of nowhere, his voice low and even. “Show him his new daughter and how his son has grown.”
The words were so thoroughly unexpected from Tormund that Brienne wasn’t certain how to react at first to her husband’s suggestion that she go visit a one-time lover while his own seed still leaked out of her. For all his malice about her pregnancy, he seemed somehow not to begrudge her her love for Jaime; it was difficult to wrap her mind around his feelings about the matter, for his behavior in regards to Jaime had been bizarre from the start.
“Are you sure?” she managed to ask finally, and Tormund just shrugged.
“You want to,” he told her astutely, and then he turned around and wrapped the furs around himself, a clear indication that he had no desire to pursue the conversation any further. Brienne stared at her husband’s bare back with a feeling of confusion.
She could not, in good conscience, tell Tormund he was wrong; she still thought of Jaime often, but she wouldn’t have dared visit or contact him while she’d been with child, for Jaime had been such a sore subject between her and her husband. It was dangerous, too, for them to continue their association; she didn’t think anyone suspected the truth about Selwyn, but the best way to ensure that that continued to be true was to never see Jaime again.
But she would be lying to herself and Tormund both if she said she didn't want to see Jaime again, didn’t want to show him the babe that could very possibly have been born of his seed. She didn’t try to argue with Tormund’s conviction that that was the truth, so set was he in his belief. She hadn’t seen Jaime in over a year; it had been before Selwyn’s first name day that she’d last seen him, before Selwyn had even been walking. She wondered what Jaime would think to see Selwyn so grown and active; she wondered what he’d think about Catelyn, about what they might have created together that one fateful day.
Brienne wasn’t certain, though, that Jaime would even agree to see her—but after Tormund had spoken to her, she was convinced that she at least had to try. If she didn’t, it would plague her thoughts forever; she would always wonder what would have happened if she’d just asked him to see her and the children. She didn’t know what she expected of Jaime, didn’t know if he’d ever want to touch her again—but she told herself that just to see him, to have him see the children, would be enough.
She sent a raven ahead this time, couching her words in the vaguest terms possible, for she knew that the message would fall into the hands of someone else at the Night’s Watch before it was ever relayed to Jaime. After the first few days, she was certain that Jaime would not send a response; she’d almost resigned herself to never seeing him again when the raven finally arrived with the return message. Tormund was with her when the bird arrived.
“What does it say?” he asked with muted curiosity, and Brienne read over the message.
“He wants me to meet him in Crastertown at the full moon,” Brienne told him with a frown, considering the message. The moon would be full in about a fortnight, she reflected—and it was better, she supposed, for them to meet somewhere besides Castle Black, for there was no denying that a woman coming to visit him at Castle Black, even a woman such as Brienne, could send a dangerous message.
Crastertown wasn’t a bad rendezvous point; it was barely a day’s ride north of Castle Black and a few days south from her, not quite a middle point but convenient enough for Jaime, who she supposed couldn’t get much time away from his duties. She wondered, in fact, how he’d managed to get permission to go; even more than that, she wondered if he’d purposely set their meeting away from the men of the Night’s Watch because he did want to lie with her again—or if that day, the day he might have sired baby Catelyn, was nothing more than a fluke for him.
And she wondered how he’d react to Cat, to the realization that she might be his daughter.
Brienne managed to convince two of the others from the village to accompany her to Crastertown, for they had friends in town they were interested in visiting. Brienne was relieved that it had fallen together so easily, for she knew she couldn’t ask Tormund; for all that he was willing to grant her permission to go, it was far too much to ask of him to accompany her, to have to see her with the man who’d been the source of so much contention between them.
The trip to Crastertown took three days, that time, the three of them taking turns with each of the children. Catelyn rode in Selwyn’s old sling; Selwyn, now big enough to sit up in the saddle himself, rode along with one of them in turns, strapped to one of their bodies with a belt so that he didn’t fall. Selwyn, at least, found the whole process incredibly exciting, though they rode along at a fairly slow pace.
Jaime wasn’t yet in town when their party arrived; they were given food and quarters in which to stay the night, and some of the women in town took turns with Brienne watching her children and the others. It wasn’t much different than her own village, Brienne reflected, except in the preponderance of women and girls and the comparatively small contingent of men.
Brienne was outside the next day helping to watch some of the children when she saw a rider approaching in the distance, and even from far away, she could recognize the familiar figure; she got the attention of Sissy, the woman who was watching the children with her, to let her know she’d be going to the edge of town to meet her friend.
Selwyn followed her curiously and Brienne let him, Cat bundled in her arms in blankets of furs. Brienne watched the mounted figure come closer, until he was close enough for her to observe properly—and Brienne felt her chest clench at the sight of him.
Jaime wore a cloak of grey and not the black of the Night’s Watch—a deliberate choice, she was certain. It would not be so difficult for anyone in town to find out his identity, for they were but a day’s ride from Castle Black, but best not advertise who he was. His beard remained full and slightly unkempt, though it was trimmed much shorter than Tormund’s was; it was difficult to tell from a distance, but it looked like there was a greater sprinkling of grey among the strands of hair and beard both.
The most striking thing she noticed, as he came closer, was that he wasn’t wearing the familiar golden hand; his intact left hand held the reins, but the other sleeve hung open at his side, a void where the hand would once have poked out. It was, Brienne reflected, perhaps another way to avoid broadcasting his identity—and perhaps, she hoped, Jaime’s understanding that she didn’t care about that, about whether he had two hands or none.
The sound came from far below her, and Brienne looked down at Selwyn, who was eyeing the approaching rider with a look of suspicion. Brienne smiled down at her son.
“His name is Jaime,” she told him seriously. “He’s a friend. You’ve met him before, but you were barely bigger than Cat, so you probably don’t remember.”
Selwyn’s face scrunched up in an exaggerated attempt to remember, and Brienne almost laughed at the sight of it. Her son was a terribly earnest child; she still saw nothing of Joffrey in him, of the monster Jaime had told her the boy had been even when he’d been small.
“Don’t ‘member,” Selwyn told her seriously as Jaime finally reached them, dismounting his horse and looking at Brienne, then at Selwyn, and then back at Brienne.
“Jaime!” Selwyn exclaimed, proud to show that he knew Jaime’s name—and Jaime’s expression morphed into a soft smile. He crouched down in front of Selwyn, bringing himself closer to the boy’s height.
“Do you remember me, Selwyn?” he asked with noticeable surprise, and Selwyn shook his head emphatically.
“Don’t ‘member!” he declared with an equal amount of pride, and Jaime laughed despite himself, exchanging another look with Brienne. It struck Brienne, then, how rarely she’d seen Jaime smile—at least not genuinely. He ruffled Selwyn’s golden curls before standing back up, coming to stop in front of Brienne.
“Who is this?” he asked with a raised eyebrow, and Brienne opened her mouth to explain, but Selwyn once more beat her to it.
“Sister!” he told Jaime proudly. “Cat!”
Jaime glanced at Selwyn, who was grinning maniacally, before his gaze returned yet again to Brienne, awaiting her explanation. Brienne wondered how this must seem to Jaime; they hadn’t seen each other in over a year, hadn’t exchanged so much as a letter. He’d had no idea that she’d had a child, for she hadn’t said anything in her recent message sent to Castle Black.
“Cat?” he echoed, and Brienne gave Jaime a sheepish smile.
“Catelyn,” she told him, likely confirming his suspicions. “It seemed…fitting.”
She didn’t explain to him why she’d felt that way, but he turned to look more closely at Cat, who was sleeping in Brienne’s arms. Her hair had darkened a bit, just as Selwyn’s had, but hadn’t quite reached the honey blond of Selwyn’s hair, and there was no hint of Selwyn’s curls, at least not yet. Brienne saw Jaime purse his lips, saw his expression turn pensive; she wondered if he must be doing the math in his head, trying to figure out when the child had been conceived.
“Is she mine?” Jaime asked finally, his voice quiet, likely trying to keep it low enough that Selwyn would hear nothing. Brienne gave him a self-conscious smile.
“I don’t know,” she told him honestly. “Tormund believes she is.”
Jaime went silent and pensive again, clearly mulling over her answer. Selwyn, who had apparently become bored with the new adult already, had started jumping around in the snow beside them. Jaime’s expression gave no hint of what he thought about this development, whether he was glad or angry that Brienne might have born him a child.
“What do you believe?” he asked finally, his tone even. Brienne averted her gaze, unable to meet Jaime’s eyes; she wasn’t sure what she believed, but she knew what she wanted to believe. She knew it made her a bad wife to Tormund, but she wanted to believe that Catelyn truly was Jaime’s child; she wanted to believe that they’d managed to make something beautiful together. Tormund already believed it, and Brienne wanted to believe it, too.
“I don’t know,” Brienne admitted finally, feeling helpless.
Brienne handed Cat and Selwyn over to one of the other women and helped Jaime unsaddle and brush down his horse; she wasn’t certain about how to feel about where things stood with them, for Jaime still hadn’t given much indication of how he felt about the whole situation, about the new developments. So when Jaime followed Brienne to the room where she was staying, she wasn’t certain if he was coming to kiss her or simply yell at her somewhere in private.
She felt a sense of trepidation as he closed the door behind him, acutely aware that she hadn’t seen him in over a year. So much had changed for her in the time since she’d last seen him—and she had no idea how much had changed for him. She loved Jaime, and part of her was certain that she always would—but even when they’d been together that one time before, he’d expressed no great love for her, and she had no idea where they stood.
Brienne was surprised by what she saw when she met Jaime’s eyes as he took a step toward her—because there was an unexpected lust there along with a question. He held her gaze for a long minute, probably waiting for her to object—and when she didn’t, Jaime closed the final bit of distance between them and kissed her.
Brienne had grown so used to kissing Tormund that she’d forgotten what it was like to kiss Jaime; Jaime’s kisses were harsher, more aggressive, the kind that seemed to rob all the air from her lungs. Jaime’s left hand reached up and cupped the side of her neck, subtly tilting her head just the way he wanted, his teeth worrying her lower lip and making Brienne gasp into his mouth.
Deliberately, Brienne forced herself to pull back, pressing her hand flat against Jaime’s chest and pushing him away from her gently. Jaime took a step back and looked at her in confusion, his lips wet from the kiss. His gaze told her clearly that he was wondering if he’s misinterpreted her lack of protest, and Brienne bit her lip before speaking.
“We can’t…that is to say…” Brienne began haltingly, not quite certain how to bring up the conversation she needed to have with Jaime, the one that had been swirling around in her mind since the moment she realized she’d see him again, that this could be a possibility. But for all that Tormund had tried to convince her not to be ashamed, there were parts of her Southern upbringing that she’d never been able to shake, and this conversation would never be an easy one. She cleared her throat pointedly.
“The next child needs to be Tormund’s,” Brienne told Jaime finally, trying her hardest to hold her voice even. “There can’t be any doubt. So you can’t…”
Brienne trailed off again, unable to find the words, but Jaime’s sympathetic smile made it obvious enough that he understood.
“Nothing that can create a child?” he ventured with a raised eyebrow, and Brienne flushed, nodding mutely. “If your husband is so angry about us, then why are you here?”
The words surprised her, though it wasn’t something she hadn’t thought herself; the two times she’d seen Jaime had been entirely at Tormund’s suggestion, and she still couldn’t figure out what motivated him to suggest it. Part of her wanted to defend Tormund, to insist that it wasn’t like that; but on the other hand, it seemed impossible for her to adequately explain his feelings, because she didn’t truly understand them herself.
“I don’t believe he’s angry about us, not exactly,” she told Jaime finally, though her own words seemed largely conjecture to her own ears. “He…he feels like he’s being used, so I can have a cover to have children with you.”
Jaime sputtered, clearly offended by the suggestion.
“That’s absurd,” he scoffed after a moment, and when Brienne looked up to meet Jaime’s eyes, it was clear that he was put off by the suggestion. “We didn’t plan this.”
Brienne wondered, fleetingly, if he’d planned all his children with Cersei or if that had been an accident as well. Selwyn, she knew, hadn’t been planned—and Jaime had always had a reckless streak to him and sometimes an inability to think of the consequences of his actions. Brienne hadn’t thought of them, either, though she knew she should have.
“No,” she agreed in a placating tone. “But we didn’t try very hard to prevent it, either.”
They hadn’t tried at all, Brienne reminded herself, despite how easy it would have been. She could come up with excuses for her own behavior, the newness and excitement and apprehension of losing her maidenhood, the elation of finally being acknowledged by a man that she loved. But part of her wondered if she hadn’t secretly wanted this outcome, if she hadn’t wanted a child of Jaime’s, if she’d deliberately avoided thinking of the consequences because of that. Jaime’s guilty expression told her clearly enough that he wasn’t able to argue with her logic, either. Brienne sighed.
“If he doesn’t get a child he’s sure is his…I’m afraid he might leave me,” Brienne confessed finally, her voice soft and uncertain. He’d never said as much, never so much as hinted it, but Brienne also wasn’t about to test her husband’s devotion to her by coming home full with another Lannister child. Jaime stared at her for a long minute, as if appraising her, before he pursed his lips thoughtfully.
“And that upsets you,” he intoned speculatively after a moment, his voice oddly emotionless. “The idea of him leaving you.”
Brienne was almost offended that Jaime would doubt it, that he thought she’d revel in the idea of ripping Jaime’s son away from part of his family.
“Selwyn loves him,” she responded sincerely. “Tormund’s the only father he’s ever known.”
Jaime’s speculative expression turned into a slight smirk.
“And you love him, too,” he remarked after a pause, and Brienne stared at Jaime with raised eyebrows.
“Selwyn?” she returned. “Of course I do.”
Jaime just shook his head.
“No, Tormund,” he said with a bemused expression. “You love him. I wasn’t sure you ever would, but you do.”
It was on the tip of Brienne’s tongue to insist that she didn’t; she’d grown to like and respect Tormund, but what she felt for Tormund was different than what she felt for Jaime, different even than the distant devotion she’d felt toward Renly. There was no denying that she’d grown to care deeply for Tormund, to desire him even, but the idea that what she felt for him was love…the mere suggestion felt odd, but still she found that she didn’t have it in her to dispute it.
“I still love you,” Brienne murmured instead, quietly, almost ashamed to say the words out loud. For despite all the things that had passed between them, she didn’t truly believe that Jaime loved her back, didn’t dare even hope that he would ever be capable of feeling that for her. A lesser man than Jaime might have laughed at her for expressing the sentiment, might have told her of the impossibility of its reciprocation—but Jaime simply gave her a kind look and lifted his hand, pressing it against her cheek.
“I don’t think one precludes the other,” he told her sincerely, and then he was kissing her again, though the kiss this time was softer, slower. Brienne let her eyes fall closed, allowing herself to relax into the kiss, the long-missed feeling of him pressed up against her. It was novel, this time, not to feel hurried, nor frightened of discovery; Jaime seemed to feel it, too, the way he kissed her with no sense of urgency.
They made their way to the bed eventually, slowly disrobing each other; part of Brienne still expected Jaime to recoil when he saw her fully nude, but he didn’t, simply running his hands over her body with a sense of gentle exploration. He didn’t look upon her with the same hungry, lustful eyes that Tormund did, but whatever Jaime felt, it certainly wasn’t disgust.
It was with a sense of awkwardness that Brienne took Jaime into her hand, stroking his length tentatively—but she was bolstered on when Jaime sighed softly, pressing his face against her neck. He kissed her there, his lips and tongue pressing against the juncture between her neck and her shoulder.
Emboldened by that, Brienne gently nudged Jaime enough so that he was lying on his back. Jaime eyed her with a curious expression as she peppered small kisses down the length of his chest and stomach; she stopped right at his lower abdomen, glancing up at him with a questioning gaze—and the dark, lustful look in his eyes was enough indication that he had guessed her aims. Brienne wrapped her hand around the base of him and leaned forward, tentatively darting her tongue out to taste him.
This act still wasn’t a terribly familiar one to her; it wasn’t one of Tormund’s preferences, for he seemed to prefer giving her pleasure over taking his own—and when he did, he tended to favor finding his release inside her. Tormund pleasured her with his mouth often; the times he asked her to reciprocate had been few and far between.
Jaime, though, seemed to have no such objections, letting out a soft gasp at the first touch of her tongue. His hand came to rest at the back of her neck, but he did not urge her on, and with some trepidation, Brienne finally took Jaime into her mouth.
She was rewarded by a low groan from him, and Brienne set about finding what Jaime liked.
Jaime was, in some ways, easier than Tormund; Tormund tended to be surprisingly reserved in his expressions of pleasure, making it difficult to judge whether she was satisfying him, but Jaime gave her a steady stream of cues, soft moans and murmurs of appreciation. He liked the flat pressure of her tongue against the sensitive spot beneath the head of his cock; he liked it when she took him as deep as she could, almost to the point of choking. There was something debauched about pleasing him in such a way, but that was a feeling she was no longer unused to, the same feeling of shameless hedonism she felt when Tormund encouraged her to unabashedly touch herself.
Brienne’s concentration was broken when Jaime’s hand fisted in the hair at the back of her skull, hard enough to get her attention but not hard enough to be seriously painful. She released his length from her mouth with an obscene pop, looking up at Jaime in concern. His answering expression was soft.
“Come here,” he encouraged gently, and Brienne let Jaime guide her back up so their lips could meet. Jaime’s kisses remained soft and unhurried, and his hands wandered down her body, finding her sensitive spots without difficulty. Brienne gasped under the touch as she pulled back from their kiss, resting her forehead against Jaime’s.
“You didn’t like…?” she ventured with a flush, unable to help comparing herself to Cersei yet again. Brienne didn’t know how long Jaime had been sleeping with his twin, but she’d probably used her mouth on him hundreds of times, was probably experienced and skilled and knew exactly what he liked. Brienne was probably nothing compared to her, all clumsy inexperience. Of course, that was presuming that Cersei hadn’t seen herself as too proper to perform the act in the first place.
Jaime laughed, a low and guttural sound.
“I did,” he told her sincerely. “Too much. I don’t want this to be over too quickly.”
It was unclear if that was the truth or a lie to spare Brienne’s feelings, but if it was a lie, it was a kind one, and one that filled Brienne’s chest with warmth. They hadn’t had the luxury of taking their time before; that Jaime could want that, could want to prolong their time together, made Brienne happy in a way she couldn't quite express in words.
True to Jaime’s wishes, they proceeded slowly, pleasuring each other with their mouths and their hands until they were both well and sated, lying sweaty and naked atop the furs. Jaime might have been able to take her as he had before, as long as he didn’t finish inside her—but Brienne just shook her head when he’d asked, too paranoid to even venture toward something so dangerous. There could be no doubt, she knew, not this time.
They had another luxury this time that they hadn’t had the previous, and Brienne was pleased when Jaime lingered half-curled around her, his fingers trailing absently across her skin.
“How long can you stay?” Brienne asked finally into the silence, watching the progress of Jaime’s fingers as they danced a vague pattern along her chest and stomach.
“I can stay the night,” he told her softly. “If you’ll have me.”
The second part he added with pursed lips, as if remembering his courtesies at the last moment. Brienne didn’t ask him how he’d managed to get the time away; she wondered, absently, if he’d been able to find allies among the Night’s Watch or if he’d somehow gotten Edd to grant him a reprieve for Brienne and Tormund’s sake. Edd was, if nothing else, rather fond of Tormund, and he knew that she and Jaime were friends.
But however Jaime had managed it, Brienne was relieved to have even the one night; something about the gentle simplicity of sharing a bed with Jaime made her smile. She wondered if he’d chase her warmth at night the way Tormund did, if he slept restlessly or peacefully.
Brienne was broken out of her reverie by the approaching sounds of an infant’s cries; she shook her head to herself as she sat up, for she’d recognize her daughter’s wails anywhere. Jaime shot her an inquisitive look as she stood up and pulled on her clothes hastily, just enough to adequately cover her nakedness.
A knock sounded at the door, and Jaime shifted in the bed, moving the furs just enough to preserve his modesty. Brienne shot him a soft smile and pulled open the door, though she made sure not to open it enough to reveal his nakedness in any case.
An older woman she knew as Morag stood at the door with a crying Catelyn in her arms.
“I think she’s hungry,” Morag told Brienne with an apologetic look, but Brienne just smiled and took her daughter from the woman.
“Thank you for bringing her,” Brienne said, and Morag departed with a nod. Brienne closed the door behind her, looking down at her red-faced and bawling daughter. She’d clearly worked herself into a frenzy of crying, but her tiny fists began scrabbling at Brienne’s shirt impatiently, a clear enough message that the woman’s assessment had been correct.
Brienne sighed, walking back toward the bed, with Cat cradled in the crook of one arm while she unlaced the front of her shirt with her other hand. She settled back onto the bed, propping herself against the headboard as she finally got her laces undone and her daughter latched onto her nipple, her cries going silent immediately, though she still sniffled quietly.
So intent had Brienne been on her daughter that she’d almost forgotten Jaime’s presence until he sidled up next to her, brushing a lock of golden hair away from Cat’s face. Cat gave Jaime a suspicious look but was concentrating enough on the task at hand that she seemed to decide to ignore the sudden intrusion into her personal space.
Part of Brienne wondered if she should be embarrassed at Jaime watching so intently, but she wasn’t; there was a softness about Jaime’s face that was rare for him as he watched Catelyn nurse with a look of something akin to awe. Brienne met Jaime’s eyes, and he looked for a moment as if he might say something—but instead, he just shook his head, leaning forward and placing a surprisingly tender kiss against Brienne’s lips.
Jaime set off the next morning, but the remainder of the day with him and the morning hours before he set off were a strangely idyllic experience. It was a strange sort of pleasure to see Jaime with the children; he still seemed somewhat tentative with both of them, possibly still afraid of the danger it posed to be close with them. But there was a tenderness, an innocence about his face as he held Catelyn and played with Selwyn, a side of Jaime that Brienne had never expected to see.
Brienne couldn’t help but wonder if this was the way he’d been with Cersei’s older children; she couldn’t help but see the parallels. Jaime having children he couldn’t acknowledge as his own, children he might be reluctant to love too much for fear of the truth coming out. But despite all that, it was clear that the did care, the same way he had about Cersei’s older children—even about Joffrey, for all that he had been a monster.
She bid Jaime farewell the next morning with mixed feelings of gratitude at the short amount of time they’d been able to spend together and grief at having to part with him again so soon. They stayed one more night before heading back themselves, arriving home in the evening on the third day after they’d set out. Tormund greeted the three of them effusively as usual, listening attentively as Selwyn told him in halting speech about the children in Crastertown—and about Jaime.
It was easy to get the children to bed that night after all the excitement of their trip; even Cat went down without much fuss, and then Tormund was on her almost immediately, pulling her into his arms and kissing her with brutal intensity. Brienne smiled into the kiss, playing over Jaime’s words in her head as she realized that she’d missed this, being kissed by Tormund, even though she’d been gone not even a fortnight. She wondered if Jaime was right, if she somehow had grown to love Tormund despite everything.
Brienne pulled back from the kiss and carded her hands through Tormund’s unkempt waves, and Tormund regarded her with a perplexed expression.
“I missed you,” Brienne told him with a surprising amount of sincerity, and Tormund’s mouth split into a wide grin.
“And I missed you, wife,” he told her, although there was less softness in his tone, more open desire. The way his hands trailed over her body, even over her clothing, left no doubt about at least one of the things he’d missed about her. Feeling somewhat regretful, Brienne reached down and caught his hand before it could slide up under her clothing.
“We can’t,” she told him apologetically. “I’m bleeding.”
Brienne had been relieved when her moon blood had come; despite the fact that she and Jaime had done nothing that could possibly create a child, the affirmation of the impossibility was somewhat encouraging. Tormund gave her a look, almost like he wanted to praise her for managing to spend a day with Jaime without getting with child; were it not with just cause, Brienne likely would have been offended.
And then Tormund’s gaze turned somewhat wicked.
“You think I’m scared of a little blood, wife?” he asked with mischievous smirk, and Brienne felt herself flush as the implications of his words hit her. She’d never considered that—that Tormund simply wouldn't mind—but then, Tormund had absolutely no sense of Southern propriety.
Before she could think upon that any more, Tormund folded his hand into hers and tugged her in the direction of the door.
“Come on,” he coaxed, and slightly startled by the sudden movement, Brienne stumbled after him.
“But the kids—” she began to protest, and Tormund shook his head.
“—are sleeping. They’ll be fine for half an hour.”
The look Brienne gave him must have portrayed how unconvinced she felt by his words; he snorted, grabbing a few blankets and dragging her, confused, in the direction of Maja and Orik’s home. Maja answered the door and agreed easily when Tormund asked her to go over and stay in the house with Catelyn and Selwyn while they slept, seeming entirely nonplussed by the sudden request. With that seemingly settled, Tormund dragged a confused Brienne away.
It was cold outside, a light blanket of snow covering the ground still, and neither of them were wearing their coats. Brienne shivered slightly as she followed Tormund, realizing that he was leading her in the direction of the hot spring. It was dark, with only the light of the moon and the sprinkled lights from nearby homes to guide them, and when Tormund pulled her through the mouth of the cave, it was almost pitch black.
It was warmer inside the cave than it was outside; it was too dark to see, but Brienne could feel the heat of the steam rising off the water, warming the semi-enclosed space. She waited as Tormund lit one of the torches, then watched in the flickering light as he tossed the blankets on the ground in some approximation of a bed.
Brienne balked as she realized what Tormund intended.
“We can’t—not here,” she protested, feeling slightly scandalized by the suggestion that they lie together in the open air, where anyone from the village could walk in and see them.
“Why not?” Tormund asked her with such an air of innocence that Brienne legitimately believed he didn’t truly understand the source of her objections. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the extreme differences in their upbringing had struck her.
“What if someone walks in and sees us?” she pressed, and Tormund grinned again.
“Maybe they’ll join in,” he suggested roguishly, and Brienne stared at him with a disbelieving look. Seeing her stricken expression, Tormund took a step forward and laid his hand gently atop her arm.
“I didn’t mean it like that, wife,” he said, his tone suddenly reassuring. “I’m not sharing you.”
The words were totally incongruous with Tormund’s actions, with the way he urged her to spend time with Jaime, and the absolute bizarreness of the statement in the light of where she’d just been struck her so acutely that she couldn’t let the proclamation pass without comment.
“You already share me,” she couldn’t help but remind him. Tormund just snorted.
“That’s different,” he insisted. Brienne just frowned in incomprehension.
“How?” she pressed, and a rare look of discomfort flitted across Tormund’s face. He took a step back, putting some distance between them.
“He had your heart before I even laid eyes on you,” Tormund finally answered haltingly. “I’d be sharing you either way, either with him or with the memory of him. You might as well be happy and in love with him instead of miserable and in love with him.”
Brienne stared at Tormund in disbelief; his rationale made some bizarre sort of sense, but this was perhaps the most honest and vulnerable that Tormund had ever been with her, and the sheer force of it was overwhelming. Suddenly, the strange mixture of possessiveness and magnanimity from Tormund made more sense, and Brienne felt a burst of gratitude toward her husband.
She took a step forward, reaching cautiously for him, wondering vaguely if he’d pull away, too struck by the vulnerability he’d shown her. When he didn’t, Brienne leaned down and kissed him again, tentative and testing the waters. The kiss remained soft and almost chaste for a minute until Tormund deepened it again.
They remained like that, kissing slowly but intensely, until Tormund’s hands came to the laces of her tunic, breaking the kiss and regarding her with a raised eyebrow. With a sigh, Brienne nodded.
It was bizarre letting Tormund strip her like this, relatively in the open; she remained acutely aware that someone could walk in at any moment, but some of Tormund’s nonchalance seemed to have inexplicably rubbed off on her, because she was more concerned with the man in front of her than the fear of discovery. And, she reflected, Tormund’s nonchalance about the whole thing was probably well-founded; most everyone north of the Wall seemed to share Tormund’s casual disregard for the entire concept of shame.
Tormund shed his own clothing and laid her down on the makeshift bed of furs he’d made—and it became instantly, abundantly clear that he truly had no concern that she was bleeding, for he touched her there with casual nonchalance. Brienne flushed with embarrassment but didn’t object; Tormund’s fingers still felt good, almost heightened in a way, although Brienne wasn’t certain if that was truly due to any changes in her body or if she was simply hyperaware of Tormund’s touches.
Brienne forced herself not to focus on that, instead just giving in to the sensations that Tormund was creating in her body; it felt like her body was easier to rouse despite her reluctance, every nerve ending tingling with need. She felt a sense of almost-desperation unlike anything she’d ever felt when Tormund finally slid inside of her; she felt tighter and more ready all at the same time, and she couldn't help but moan as he filled her.
Whatever reluctance she’d felt was gone as Tormund moved inside her; it was immediately obvious how well he knew her body, how much he’d committed to memory, for he knew just how to move against her. Brienne bit her lip, trying to hold back any noises that threatened to escape her lips, conscious of the way they’d echo against the cave’s walls. Seeming to sense her reluctance, Tormund leaned forward and caught her lips, swallowing any cries that might escape.
Brienne found her release almost embarrassingly quickly, for all that she’d been reluctant about the whole affair; her body felt tense and oversensitive until Tormund finally finished inside of her. She felt it acutely when he pulled out, rolling away far enough to give her space.
Once her breathing had calmed, Brienne took a moment to survey them; somehow, she’d expected a huge mess of blood and carnage, but she had only a little smeared across her thigh. Tormund had fared far worse than she had in that regard, though he appeared entirely unconcerned about the mess—so Brienne laid back against the furs and told herself not to be concerned, either.
They lay there silently for a long few minutes before Tormund finally stood; he reached his hand down for Brienne, which she took without thought, letting him pull her up and guide her toward the water.
The warmth of the water was soothing against her skin, her muscles sore from days of riding. Tormund followed her into the waters, and then he was kissing her again, although these were the soft, meandering kisses of a man whose desires were already sated. As Tormund kissed her, Brienne found herself wondering what her younger self would have thought to see her now, naked in a cave north of the Wall, kissing her shaggy-haired husband. She wondered what her father would think, if he could see the reality of her situation, wondered what he’d think when one of their wild children showed up years down the line to inherit their lands.
Tormund pulled away after a long minute, resting his forehead against hers.
“Stop thinking,” he admonished, though his tone was kind rather than truly scolding. Brienne was so taken aback by the unexpected utterance that she responded before she’d even considered her words.
Tormund brushed a wet finger along her cheek and gave her a soft smile.
“You’re always thinking too much, worrying too much,” he told her honestly. “Sit back, relax with me, and enjoy the water for once.”
Part of Brienne wanted to admonish her husband in return—that perhaps he didn’t think or worry enough—but his previous confession about Jaime still hung thick between them, and it didn’t seem a fair thing to say. So instead, Brienne simply sighed and willed herself to relax into Tormund’s embrace, resting her head against his shoulder—and Brienne swore she could feel him smile against her as his arms wound more tightly around her body and he placed a kiss against the crown of her head.
For as quickly as Brienne had managed to get with child the first time around, she’d expected the second child—Tormund’s child—to come easily for them. Brienne still had mixed feelings about birthing another child, desperately wanting to give Tormund the child he desired while simultaneously wanting to continue to enjoy her independence, unencumbered by the limitations of a babe growing in her belly. Nursing Cat still restricted her some; she couldn’t go on any extended hunting trips, which relegated her mostly to work around the village—but she could still fight and help with physical tasks, something she knew would become impossible again once she became full with child once more.
Each month, she hoped—and each month, she bled and silently felt a little relief among her disappointment. There was a little voice in the back of her mind that wondered if she wasn’t somehow sabotaging herself; it seemed ridiculous to consider, except that in a world where she’d seen dragons and walking dead men, shadow assassins and boys who could see the future, it was difficult not to believe that many things could be possible.
It could be possible that her love for Jaime had helped her to conceive Catelyn so readily; it was possible that her reluctance in the face of carrying another child was impeding her now. She felt like apologizing to Tormund every month she bled; part of her felt like this was just another way she was failing in her vows to him.
Cat passed her first name day, and still Brienne bled every month; it didn’t help when news from the capital finally reached them, that Queen Daenerys had given birth to a second son, Aemon. Brienne couldn't help but increasingly wonder if her first pregnancy had somehow been nothing more than a lucky occurrence, a strange anomaly not to be repeated.
Her moon blood came every month like clockwork—until one month, it finally didn’t, and Brienne felt the same sense of giddy fear-laced excitement she’d felt when she’d realized she’d been with child the first time. Tormund, for his part, was ecstatic when she told him—though it seemed as if no one was more excited than Selwyn, glad for the chance to be a big brother twice over.
Selwyn was quickly growing into almost the perfect antithesis of how Jaime had described young Joffrey; he loved his sister unconditionally, often preferred to help with feeding and changing her clothes over playing with the older children. He took his responsibilities as an older brother incredibly seriously, and the whole thing was terribly endearing, even though his attempts to help often proved to be more of a hindrance than anything.
Her second pregnancy proved, quickly enough, much harder than the first one; where she’d felt very little nausea the first time around, this time, she found herself struck down by it almost immediately. She spent a good amount of time in bed, barely able to keep her legs under her if she tried to stand, and Selwyn would often stay with her, making a somewhat adorable attempt to play nursemaid.
The sharp difference between the two experiences left her concerned; after the first week the symptoms had come, when she’d barely been able to keep any of her food down and could scarcely stay out of bed for a few hours at a time, the others in town began visiting her, often bringing her tea that was said to help with the nausea. It was the first time that Dasha came that Brienne asked her the question that she hadn’t dared voice to her husband.
“You don’t think this means there’s something wrong with the baby?” Brienne pressed as she drank the tea Dasha had brought her, feeling tense and nervous as she awaited the other woman’s response. Dasha herself was visibly full with child, her second, and she regarded Brienne with a kind smile.
“You didn’t have any nausea with your first two?” she pressed, and Brienne felt a momentary sense of panic at the question; she’d almost forgotten that everyone believed this her third pregnancy and not her second. She hoped she’d recovered quickly enough that Dasha didn’t sense anything amiss with her response.
“Not like this,” Brienne answered noncommittally; she’d been shocked by how normal she’d felt during those early months carrying Cat. Any nausea she’d felt had been mild and passed quickly; it certainly hadn’t been the near-debilitating thing she was experiencing now, which had her body rejecting nearly half her meals and made her feel positively miserable. Dasha regarded Brienne with a soft smile.
“It’s different every time,” Dasha told her gently. “My first time was the worst—maybe as bad as this time with you, but it gave me a sweet baby boy.”
Brienne thought of Dasha’s eldest child, a boy of seven and already quite skilled with a bow.
“I miscarried twice, but had almost no nausea either time,” Dasha told her after a beat, her tone remarkably matter-of-fact. “But you had almost no nausea and delivered a healthy baby boy and a girl after that.”
Brienne was struck by the unexpected proclamation. She gave Dasha a sympathetic look, reaching out to squeeze the other woman’s hand reassuringly before letting it go. She hadn’t known anything about Dasha’s miscarriages, but she knew miscarriages and stillbirths were common enough; it was part of the reason she was so concerned about this pregnancy. She wondered if Dasha was equally concerned about the babe she now carried in her womb, despite the sense of bravado with which she’d tried to tell Brienne that every time was different, that her symptoms didn’t necessarily mean anything. But Brienne resolved not to be concerned about her own pregnancy; after all, she’d only carried one child before, so it was impossible to tell which experience was an anomaly for her. Perhaps if she carried a third, she’d be just as sick again as she was this time.
A few days later, Brienne was feeling marginally better, so she was out helping with the horses when she saw two people she didn’t recognize riding into town. Visitors were a common enough occurrence, usually those stopping the night on their travels north or south from the Wall—but these two were different, and it became apparent when they got close enough for Brienne to observe them properly.
Both men were clothed in heavy furs like most of the people Brienne had met who resided North of the Wall, and both had thick, unkempt beards. But one of them rode one-handed, his other arm held close to his chest, as if injured; the other had a long slick of dried blood caked to the side of his face.
Someone called for Tormund, who seemed to know both men by sight; they were taken inside and Dasha and Orik began checking their wounds as they told their story.
It was scattered full of names Brienne had a difficult time keeping straight but were all clearly familiar to the others; from what Brienne could tell, some kind of dispute had broken out between two neighboring clans, with whom Tormund was obviously quite familiar.
Brienne sat quietly as they discussed and argued about the situation and what should be done as it struck her how handicapped she was in this whole mess. If there’d been some kind of dispute in the South, Brienne could have, at the very least, provided an opinion, but she knew nothing about these people and their history. Eventually, it was decided that Tormund would ride north with a small contingent from their village; Brienne knew, even before Tormund told her, that she wouldn’t be among them.
Brienne spent most of the afternoon stewing while everyone made preparations to leave the next morning; she leant her help where she could, but it was impossible for her not to feel annoyed about the new developments, about how much she felt like a weak little woman left behind as soon as the fighting began. When she and Tormund had dinner that night, it was tense and uncomfortable, although the tension was somewhat eased by the process of trying to wrangle more of Cat’s food into her mouth than onto her face.
Tormund waited for her by the fire once the children were in bed; the look he gave her when she approached told her very clearly that he was fully expectant that this would be a fight, and Brienne wasn’t certain whether she was more pleased that her husband knew her so well or annoyed at the fact that she was so transparent.
“This is exactly what I didn’t want from a marriage,” she told him sullenly, her arms crossed across her chest as she glared at Tormund. “Being left behind birthing children while my husband runs away to fight a war.”
It was the same fear and anger she’d felt at the early suggestions from her father that she be married off; a life of sitting around and waiting while others fought in her place as absolutely unacceptable for her. It was one of the many parts of being a lady and a wife that had long been so abhorrent to her; she hated being treated like the only thing she was good for was birthing children, and this was the first time she’d truly felt like Tormund had treated her as no more than a vessel for carrying his children.
It almost annoyed Brienne that Tormund appeared totally nonplussed by her anger.
“I hope there won’t be a war,” he told her carefully. “With any luck, I can get them to reconcile within the week.”
Brienne wasn’t certain if the words were meant to lighten the mood, but they did anything but; instead, they only fueled her anger.
“That’s not the point,” she hissed, and Tormund sighed, running a hand through his red curls, leaving them almost as unkempt as his beard. He stood and took a step toward her, placing a hand gently on her arm. Brienne fought every instinct to pull away.
“I know that’s not the point, wife,” he told her resignedly. “But I don’t know what I can do. If I could carry the child for you, you know that I would, and let you go off and fight.”
As usual, Tormund’s sincerity showed through; it was the same authenticity with which he’d earnestly told her that she could break his fingers when she’d gone into labor with Cat, the kind of sentiment so unaffected that she couldn’t deny its sincerity. She’d truly believed, then, that he’d let her break his fingers if it had helped to ease some of her pain; she believed, now, that if there was a way, he’d happily carry their child and suffer through the nausea and vomiting and aches that accompanied it. Brienne felt some of her anger abate.
“I know you would,” she acknowledged softly, shaking her head to herself. Part of her wished, for only a moment, that her husband was someone awful, someone toward whom she’d be able to hold on to her anger. But like many of the things Jaime had told her, it had proved to be true that Tormund loved her, accepted and admired her for who she was. He wasn’t the type to try to force her into being a doting wife; that wasn’t at all what he’d wanted from her.
The look Tormund gave her was kind.
“If you weren’t so sick, I’d bring you,” he told her seriously, and Brienne, despite all her annoyance at the situation, believed that, too. “But you’d be a liability to us right now, and you know that. And all you’d do is put yourself and the child in danger.”
The words stung, but Brienne knew the truth of them; for all that Tormund seemed fairly certain that things might not fall to all-out war, there was a possibility that they would, and Brienne was at far less than one hundred percent. If she had been the one making the call about who to bring into a possible battle, she wouldn’t have brought herself, either. But none of that helped soothe any of her resentment about the situation.
“I know,” she acknowledged finally, scathingly.
The fact that Tormund left her in charge of everything in the town took away some of the sting at being left behind, but not all. If anything, having important tasks to focus on was something to distract her from the irksome symptoms of her pregnancy; she would steal away at intervals to expel the contents of her stomach and then move on with the rest of her responsibilities. The force that Tormund had taken with him had much depleted them; just looking after all the children in the town was a struggle with so few people, even without taking into account any of their other usual tasks.
Brienne wasn't certain if she was glad or disappointed when Tormund’s party returned unharmed barely two weeks later. True to his predictions, there had been no war—no more bloodshed, even—which should have soothed her thoughts at being left behind, although that didn’t quite do it either. Tormund said nothing when she sent a raven to Castle Black, didn’t flinch when she received word back from Jaime and announced that she’d be riding to Crastertown in a few days’ time.
The whole thing was almost infuriatingly cordial; Tormund didn’t begrudge her her anger and resentment and didn’t try to talk her down from it. He was shockingly affable when she turned away his advances in the bedroom for the first time in a very long time, and he bid her safe travels as she set off to Crastertown to visit her other lover.
The trip to Crastertown was much more unpleasant than the previous one, for her nausea didn’t let up, and she found herself stopping their party multiple times a day to retch unhappily against the trunk of a tree. Catelyn seemed to find the whole affair incredibly amusing while Selwyn, having just passed his third name day, was both old enough and empathetic enough to be concerned about her. That her young son thought it unfair that babies made their mothers sick was, in some ways, a small consolation for the whole thing.
They arrived earlier than Jaime did, just as they had the previous time—and Brienne considered that a saving grace, for she’d scarcely ever felt less attractive than after three days of riding interspersed with multiple interludes of retching up the entire contents of her stomach. She took the time to bathe and change into clean clothes and let the others in the town watch her children when they would; she went to bed as soon as she got the two of them to go down for the night and woke late in the morning to the particular pleasure of seeing that Selwyn had taken it upon himself to amuse his sister and keep her quiet while Brienne slept on.
Seeing Jaime ride into town the next afternoon made the whole miserable trip seem worth it. It was only when Brienne set eyes upon him again that she realized that somehow nearly another year had passed since she’d last seen him; he continued to look greyer but somehow no less attractive for it. He’d carefully hidden his glee when Selwyn had actually recognized him this time, though Brienne had been able to see it; she’d also seen the way he scrutinized Cat’s face, as if searching for signs of his own features upon it.
She and Jaime dutifully helped Selwyn and Cat to build a castle out of snow; it was difficult to say which one of them, Jaime or Cat, was doing more damage to the careful construction that Selwyn and Brienne were crafting, Jaime with only one hand at his disposal and Cat with the boisterous impatience of a child of not even one and a half years. Selwyn took the destruction of his hard work good-naturedly and did not cry; he chased dutifully after his sister when she got bored of their castle, and Brienne and Jaime broke off to return to the rooms where she was staying.
“Can you stay the night?” she asked Jaime breathlessly between kisses as he lowered her to the bed, fingers tugging at her clothes with reckless abandon.
“Mm,” Jaime breathed in the affirmative, pulling back to trace his fingers along her jaw. “Two nights, even.”
Brienne felt a surge of glee in her chest; she didn’t know how her life had gotten to this point, but it had—the point where spending two nights with Jaime was a huge luxury she hadn’t dared even hope for.
“I assume we remain under restriction from your husband,” he said into her silence as he got her tunic open to reveal her undershirt. Brienne felt another surge of excitement at the thought, for although she’d enjoyed their previous encounter, she longed for the closeness of Jaime pressed inside her, the two of them as close as two people could be. She hadn’t realized it when she’d set out, hadn’t thought that far ahead, but they had no reason to deny themselves that, not anymore.
“No restrictions necessary,” she told him with a grin. “I’m with child already.”
The look that passed over Jaime’s face was unexpected, surprise and genuine happiness both; he reached down and pressed his hand against her stomach, although there was no discernable swell there, not yet. This child wasn’t his—they all knew it wasn’t his, for she and Jaime hadn’t seen each other in a year—but for all the pleasure she saw in Jaime’s expression, it very well could have been.
“I’m happy for you,” Jaime told her sincerely before his expression morphed into a wolfish grin. “And I shall enjoy having you every way that I can for the next two days.”
Brienne couldn’t help but laugh at the strange mixture of sincerity and wickedness that was so decidedly Jaime; in fact, Tormund exhibited some of the same traits, perhaps one of the only striking similarities she could see between the two men in her life.
“I believe I shall enjoy it, too,” she rejoined without shame—something she wouldn’t have been able to say without a blush before she’d met Tormund. Jaime smiled and kissed her again, and that was all the talking they did for a rather long while.
Brienne woke abruptly, for a long moment uncertain of what it was that had roused her. The confusion didn’t last long, her body seeming fit to remind her with a sharp spike of pain and a roiling feeling of nausea. Brienne groaned, squeezing her eyes shut against the pain; she’d been feeling awful for most of the day, had retired to bed in the early afternoon, dozing fitfully throughout the day until Tormund had joined her some time after sunset. She remembered him coming to bed with a kind of hazy recollection, remembered the way he’d placed a gentle kiss on her forehead and told her to go back to sleep. That could have been hours or mere minutes before; Brienne wasn’t certain.
Another wave of pain hit her, and it was only then that Brienne realized that this pain was different; it was the horrible, cramping ache in her lower abdomen, not unlike she sometimes felt when her moonblood came. Feeling somewhat groggy still, Brienne reached down and pressed her hand against her belly; there was the smallest bump there, for she was nearly three moons gone, and it struck her, hazily, that she should not be having her moon blood, not when she was already with child. Dimly, as if through a fog, Brienne felt a stickiness between her legs; she reached down and felt it with her hand, realizing immediately that wasn’t a figment of her imagination.
Brienne pulled her hand back up, feeling the slickness there; it was nearly pitch black, with only the vague shine of the moon through the window for her to see, but the fluid covering her hand was dark-colored and slick, and Brienne knew what that meant. She barely held back a sob, staring in shock through the darkness at her hand—and she reached over with her unmarred one and shook Tormund frantically.
“Tormund!” she hissed, half-frantic—and Tormund sat up abruptly, muscles corded and ready for battle. When he realized that there was no threat there, nothing for him to vanquish, he groggily turned to Brienne—and blinked, half-awake, before turning to light the candle beside their bed.
The single candle only provided so much light, but it was enough to show Brienne exactly what she’d feared; the dark, slippery substance on her hand was blood, and when she sat up further and threw back the furs, she saw that there was a lot of it, her night shift soaked with it, all concentrated rather suspiciously in the area between her legs.
Her abdomen cramped again; she groaned in pain, then whimpered softly as the reality of what was happening hit her.
“Tormund, the baby—” she choked out, but Tormund just made a soft, shushing sound, pulling her into his arms.
“I know,” he told her softly, and Brienne felt the tears that had been threatening to pour forth well up then at the sound of pure resignation in his voice. With the grief came anger.
“The baby,” she tried again, frantically. “We have to—”
Brienne cut herself off, not sure what they had to do, only that they had to do something. Tormund just squeezed her a little tighter.
“It’s too late, wife,” he told her in a dull voice. “The baby is gone.”
She’d known it was true even before he’d said the words, but part of her refused to believe it—and yet even she, for as little as she knew about things such as this, knew what all this blood and pain meant. She clung to him, feeling numb; her nature was to want to fight back against the things that would hurt her and those she cared about, but it struck her that this wasn’t a thing she could fight.
“Mother?” came a soft voice from across the room, and Tormund pulled away from her enough to turn, seeing Selwyn standing at the far end of the room, looking at them with absolute terror in his eyes. “What’s wrong?”
Brienne’s brain felt foggy and slow to react; seeing her son standing there, she felt helpless, knowing how terrified he must feel. Her hand and her night shift were covered in blood; it must be a horrifying thing for a child of three to witness, but she couldn’t bring herself to comfort him, her whole body feeling frozen and cold. She shivered against the feeling.
“It’s all right, son,” Tormund told him, his voice much steadier than Brienne felt. “Go back to bed.”
Brienne closed her eyes silently and prayed that Selwyn would listen, that he’d turn around and forget what he’d walked in to see. But their son was nothing if not firm and steadfast; though he looked frightened, he took a step forward, coming into the circle of light cast by the candle’s flame. Another harsh cramp hit her, but Brienne at least had the sense not to cry out, not in front of her son.
“But…she’s bleeding,” Selwyn protested in a whisper, and the affirmation of what she already knew coming from the child’s lips almost sent Brienne into the sobs she’d barely managed to hold at bay. “I want to help. Please, father.”
One of Tormund’s arms remained wrapped around her; she felt him hold her tighter as he seemed to resign himself to this, too.
“All right,” he told Selwyn after a moment, his tone low and even. “Put on your boots and coat and go get Maja. Ask her to come over here and stay with you and your sister so I can go take care of your mama.”
Selwyn nodded, his lower lip trembling slightly though his expression remained brave, and he ran off toward his bedroom to fetch his coat and shoes. Brienne watched the whole process with a sense of unreality, feeling like she was watching it all happen to someone else, like there was no way this whole thing was possibly happening to them. Mere moments later, Selwyn was dashing out the front door and into the dark, and Brienne felt a moment of terror to have her son out of her sight, even just to go to the house next door.
“Tormund,” she whimpered, but Tormund just kissed her brow.
“It’ll be all right,” he told her steadfastly, and then he was getting up, gathering her into his arms.
It was with an even stranger sense of unreality that she felt Tormund pick her up; no one had picked her up like this since she was a child, and even doing so was a feat of which many men would be incapable. But Tormund picked her up as though she weighed nothing, jamming his feet into his boots before carrying her outside.
The wind hit her immediately, chilling her to the bone; it was only then that she realized that Tormund was stark naked save his boots, but if he was at all affected by the cold, he didn’t show it. There was light coming from Maja and Orik’s house, she noted vaguely, but Tormund passed it without stopping; it was only when they were almost there that Brienne realized that he was taking her to the hot springs.
She realized, dimly, that she wore no shoes when Tormund finally set her down; the rocky floor of the cave was cold against the soles of her feet, and Tormund held her for a long minute to make sure she could keep her feet under her before he let her go. In the darkness and the cold, Brienne felt suddenly abandoned and desperate, felt a sense of absolutely illogical panic—and then the darkness lifted as Tormund lit one of the torches, bathing the cave in a flickering glow.
Brienne looked at the blood on her hand and her clothing once more with a sense of shock; she couldn’t help but notice that Tormund had blood on him, too. She couldn’t help but remember that time, nearly a year prior, when they’d been in this same place, blood smeared across their skin; Brienne released a sharp, dark sound of not-quite-laughter as the drastic change in circumstances hit her. Then she let out a soft, breathless sob.
Tormund stripped her of her bloody clothes with a sense of clinical detachment, and the bizarreness of everything struck her anew; Tormund had never before been so solemn in undressing her, and that only further highlighted the awfulness of this. She still felt the ache in her abdomen, seizing with pain every so often, reminding her of what had happened, what was still happening. What neither of them was able to stop.
She let him lead her into the water, feeling strangely detached from her body. She barely even felt the warmth of the water around her, submitted silently and without protest as he cleaned the blood from her thighs. She saw dimly as someone came into the cave but didn’t bother to be embarrassed by her nakedness; she didn’t even notice who it was, just that they left towels for them to dry off and what might have been clothing for both of them.
Eventually, she let Tormund lead her out of the water, let him gently dry her body off; normally, she would have protested that she could do it herself, but her mouth and her limbs didn’t seem to want to work as he helped her into a clean shift and into her boots, so she could walk back. She couldn’t even be embarrassed when he helped her into her smallclothes, helped her situate the strips of cloth inside them, like the ones she used to soak up the blood when her moonblood came. It left no doubt that whoever had dropped off the bundle knew exactly what had happened; it left no doubt to Brienne that they didn’t believe this was the last of it. She wondered how many more days of blood and pain she’d have to suffer before it was over.
It seemed that half the village was awake, and Brienne felt a sense of bone-deep mortification at the realization that everyone likely knew, already, what had happened. Light flickered in most of the windows, which had been dark when Tormund had carried her out, but everything was still strangely silent and peaceful as Tormund lead her through the snow and back to their home.
When they stepped inside, Brienne expected there to be some kind of chaos, somehow—some indication of the horribleness that had happened there—but everything was still and quiet as they’d left it. Light flickered from down the hall, but Tormund ignored it, leading her instead back to their bedroom.
Brienne felt a sense of trepidation as she waited for Tormund to light the candle again, expecting to find the bed still drenched in blood—but it was clear enough what everyone had been doing, why there were lights in so many windows. The sheets had been replaced with clean ones, the bloodstained ones taken away, and Brienne wasn’t sure if she was relieved or angry to not have to be confronted with the sight once again. She stared at the clean sheets as Tormund pulled them back for her, feeling frozen in place—didn’t get into bed until Tormund directed her, tucking the furs around her.
“Rest,” he commanded softly. “I’m going to go check on the children.”
Part of Brienne wanted to protest, wanted to beg him not to leave her there, but her voice seemed once more to have left her. She watched him leave the room, heart pounding in her chest; she cursed silently, telling her self to calm down, forcing herself to take long, deep breaths. But no matter what she did, she couldn’t help but remember waking up here what seemed like mere minutes ago, couldn’t help but remember the moments of pain before she realized the magnitude of what had just happened.
She heard sounds in the hallway, muffled voices she recognized as Tormund’s and Maja’s. She listened to the hazy, faraway sound of them talking, unable to make out the words, but the familiar sound of his voice calmed her a little; she sat back against the pillows and closed her eyes, trying not to think about it, trying not to see the blood on her hand and staining her night shift, trying not to groan as her abdomen continued to cramp.
Brienne heard the sound of their front door closing not long after that, and then Tormund was back, his expression somber as he returned to their bedroom.
“Selwyn is sleeping again,” he told her gently, but Brienne barely heard the words, could muster no more than a dull nod in response. Tormund gave her a sad look, but he shook his head and didn’t say anything more. Instead, he made his way toward the bed and snuffed the candle; Brienne waited with bated breath as he slid into the bed next to her, pulling her into his arms without preamble.
Brienne found herself uncommonly unable to relax in his arms, but Tormund held her even tighter for that. For the first time, Brienne let her hand trail down to her stomach, placing her hand flat against the place where their child had once been growing—and was no more. Finally, the tears that had threatened to break through all night slipped from her eyes, but she felt numb as they trailed sideways down her cheeks, soaking into the pillow. A soft sob escaped her lips, and Tormund gripped her tightly as the reality hit her anew.
Their child was gone.
Brienne hadn’t known it was possible to feel so empty—like it was a physical force, an actual void inside her where something vital should have been. She’d thought it wasn’t possible to feel any worse than she’d felt after she’d seen Renly slain right in front of her, hadn’t thought it was possible to feel anything worse than the sense of failure at having been unable to protect him despite her vows—but this feeling was somehow infinitely worse.
Brienne knew what she was feeling was irrational, but that did nothing to stop it. She knew there was no way she could feel the void inside her left by the loss of her child, but all the same, she was certain that she did. She knew it was irrational to feel a sense of panic every time Cat or Selwyn was out of her sight, terrified that the gods would take them away, too—but despite knowing it was irrational, she still felt it.
Brienne volunteered more often for watching the children and less for the physical tasks in which she’d previously relished—and every time she did, she expected someone to call her on it, to point out her paranoia, to call her a hysterical woman, because she was. She expected someone to tell her that women lost babies all the time, that she should accept the realities of the world and move on.
No one did.
It was impossible to shake the guilt she felt; she’d resented the child for making her ill, for stranding her like a weak and frightened woman while the others ventured into possible danger. She’d resented the child for relegating her to bed when she’d rather have been doing something productive—but now, she wished for nothing more than to have the nausea back, for it would be a confirmation of the child inside her, no matter how unpleasant the experience was.
The things that had once brought her joy had somehow ceased to do so; she scarcely picked up a sword any longer, and when she did, she felt as though she was simply going through the motions. It did not send a rush of excitement and freedom through her belly the way that it once had.
Part of Brienne wished that Tormund would blame her for what had happened—or that he’d press her to try for another—but Tormund did neither of those things. It surprised her, still, how well Tormund seemed to have grown to know her over the years when he still seemed somewhat of an enigma to her; he gave her space when she needed it and held her close when she was craving it, even though she never directly asked him for either. It was almost infuriating the way Tormund was so accommodating of her and her illogical feelings; she longed for him to yell or rage or do anything besides be so supportive, but Tormund remained a rock when Brienne felt like she was a complete mess.
She wasn’t even surprised that time when Tormund suggested she should go see Jaime—and part of her wanted to argue with him just for the sake of it, except that time away sounded like a blessing to her when everything—Tormund, their bedroom, the hot spring—all served as a constant reminder of what had happened, of what they had lost.
Brienne wondered if Jaime was surprised to hear from her again so quickly, for less than three moons had passed since the last time they’d seen each other. He didn’t deny her request, though, sent her back a raven with a simple response about the next time he’d be able to make it to Crastertown.
It was the first time that Jaime managed to beat her there; he was waiting for her when her party arrived in town, and the soft smile that appeared on his face at the sight of her nearly broke her heart.
Jaime helped Selwyn out of the saddle in front of her to his excited exclamation of “Jaime!” Brienne watched with a sad smile as Jaime listened patiently as Selwyn regaled him with the stories of their trip down—the animals they saw, the trees, the other people. Brienne dismounted slowly and went over to release Cat from her sling, where one of the others had carried her. She set Catelyn down in the snow, letting her run around—and after a minute, Jaime set Selwyn down, too, and turned to Brienne.
Brienne saw the exact moment when Jaime realized what had happened. She didn’t have to say anything to him, for she would have been nearly six moons gone had she not lost the child, and when his eyes swept up and down her body, it was likely immediately obvious that she wasn’t six moons gone, even under the heavy furs of her coat. The smile slipped from Jaime’s face.
“Oh Brienne,” was all he said, his voice soft, as he stepped forward and enfolded her in his arms. Brienne wanted to feel indignant—to tell him that she didn’t need his pity—but no words came, and she just let him hold her for a long minute, neither of them saying anything more.
Jaime remained close to her as she made sure someone was watching the children, and then they went to unsaddle and brush down the horses. Jaime helped her wordlessly, but the mood between them was somber; in some ways, Jaime seemed almost more struck by this than Tormund had been, and that was something she hadn’t expected.
Jaime, for once, seemed more intent on spending time with the children than getting her alone, and Brienne found herself strangely relieved by that fact; Jaime helped her bathe the children and get them ready for bed, and it was only after both of them were asleep in the next room that she and Jaime were alone together at last.
The atmosphere between the two of them was awkward, more so than it had been since the first time Brienne had propositioned him. Ironically, it was Jaime who seemed to be at a loss for words this time, but Brienne felt no eagerness to discuss the matter either, so she remained silent, letting the quiet moment linger between them. When the silence had lingered too long to be comfortable, Jaime frowned and finally spoke.
“When did it happen?” he inquired at last, his words strangely delicate for someone usually so confident and outspoken. Brienne sighed.
“Not long after I saw you last,” she confirmed after a moment, her hand trailing unconsciously to her abdomen as she remembered, unbidden, the pain she’d woken up to that night, the cramps that had signaled her body’s rejection of the child that had been growing inside it. Brienne snatched her hand away when she noticed what she’d been doing, lowering her eyes in mortification.
And then Jaime was in front of her, his finger under her chin, gently forcing her gaze back up to meet his. His expression was soft and sympathetic, and Brienne couldn’t help but notice the way he rested his right forearm atop her shoulder, as if he’d simply forgotten how much he hated to call any attention to the empty space there where his hand should be.
“I hate that I couldn’t be there for you,” Jaime admitted with a surprising amount of sincerity, and Brienne felt her heart clench in her chest at the words; it was the closest Jaime had ever come to telling her he cared for her, and Brienne wished she could simply enjoy that moment, that it wasn’t couched in such terrible circumstances. With a sigh, Brienne shook her head.
“No, you don't,” she told him honestly. “It’s not a thing you’d want to see.”
Logically, Brienne knew that Jaime had seen worse—had seen his own sword hand severed from his body, then festering with infection, had seen men burned alive and seen them bleed out and die right before his eyes. Brienne had seen those things, too, but somehow it wasn’t the same as waking up in those blood-soaked sheets.
Brienne pursed her lips, a dark thought passing through her mind—and she fought against it for a long minute before deciding that she didn’t care to censor the thought. She felt too frazzled to be worried about propriety, not then.
“Did Cersei ever—?” Brienne started, letting the question trail off, lacking the courage to get all the words out. A sour look passed over Jaime’s face, one that was difficult to decode.
“No,” he told Brienne finally, frowning, before his expression darkened. He hesitated for a beat, then added, “She had a son with Robert, before Joffrey was born.”
Brienne frowned at the words, somehow shocked that she’d never known about that, though she’d never taken much interest in the Queen before she’d met Jaime. She supposed she must have heard about it, when the child had been born, that there must have been an announcement throughout the kingdom of the birth of the prince—but she simply couldn’t call up the memory. She wondered what had happened to the boy, though it was clear that he hadn’t lived, but she dared not ask.
“How do you know he was Robert’s?” she asked instead, delicately, and Jaime released a low, harsh laugh.
“He looked just like Robert. Black-haired, and I swear he had Robert’s face,” Jaime admitted finally, darkly, before releasing his breath in a deliberate exhale. “Cersei killed the boy.”
The declaration was so unexpected that Brienne almost couldn’t process what she’d heard at first—then thought it must be some sort of morbid joke—before it became clear that Jaime’s words were deadly serious. Brienne felt thankful, yet again, that Cersei hadn’t lived to raise her last son; with as sweet as Selwyn was, it was difficult to imagine what he might have become under his true mother’s tutelage. She was grateful she’d never have to find out.
Brienne wanted to ask Jaime how he’d been able to stand it, remaining loyal to a woman who had been willing to murder infants with impunity—wanted to ask him how he’d possibly been able to love a woman who had been capable of such feats of cruelty. But at the back of her mind, there was the little voice reminding her that Jaime had been the one to push a ten-year-old boy out a window without remorse, and she had another of those odd moments when she once again had to reconcile the fact that she loved a man who had once been capable of the same level of senseless cruelty.
Brienne sat down on the edge of the bed with a sigh, feeling oddly defeated by the whole exchange. She ran a hand through her hair, exasperated with herself, before looking up at Jaime again. His expression was open but somber; she wondered if the same thoughts that were running through her head were also running through his. The rawness of the moment seemed to seep through her bones; unbidden, Brienne found herself speaking the fears that had been plaguing her, the ones she dared not disclose to her husband.
“What if I did this, somehow?” she asked Jaime after a moment, surprised by how ragged her voice sounded. “Maybe I didn’t love him enough. Maybe the gods knew it, and that was why they took his child away from me.”
The words sounded positively insane even as she spoke them; Brienne had never been much of a believer in the gods, neither old nor new, but everything of the past few years of her life had made her start to question, had made her start to doubt whether she actually had any control of her destiny. And those doubts had been plaguing her since the moment she and Tormund had begun trying for a child and had such a difficult time of it; she hadn’t been able to help wondering whether her inability to love her husband as deeply as she loved Jaime had impeded them—and then worse.
Jaime’s expression was stunned, sad.
“Brienne—” he protested softly, but Brienne just shook her head, finding that once she’d started speaking, it was becoming very difficult to stop.
“No, don’t,” she bit out, stopping him mid-breath; she couldn’t stand to hear him trying to absolve her of all responsibility—not Jaime, of all people. “I resented that child,” she admitted finally, feeling the knot of guilt deep in her chest. “I resented being left behind when Tormund went out to fight, and I resented that the child made me sick. What if I did this?”
Jaime fell silent for a long minute, as if waiting to see if she’d say more—and when he’d resolved that she wouldn’t, he took two steps forward to reach her, falling to his knees in front of where she sat on the bed. He took one of her hands into his, regarding her with a serious look.
“I don’t believe that,” he told Brienne honestly, and Brienne didn’t know what she had been expecting in confiding her feelings to Jaime, didn’t know how she was expected to feel at Jaime’s absolution. She wanted to feel relieved that Jaime saw her as blameless, wanted to believe that Tormund would say the same, if she confided her fears to him as well—but the reality was that she didn’t feel better, didn’t feel in any way absolved.
Brienne looked sadly at Jaime as he pressed a soft kiss against the back of her hand.
“Let’s go to bed,” he suggested after a minute, but the words were far from the lusty proposals they’d exchanged in meetings past. Brienne nodded, and they readied themselves for bed in somber silence.
Brienne was somehow unsurprised that Jaime remained in his own undershirt, when he usually slept naked for lack of any desire to redress after they’d made love; she wasn’t certain whether to be disappointed or relieved that Jaime seemed to have no plans to pursue something physical with her that night. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if he did, if she’d ultimately pull him closer or push him away.
Brienne got into bed and shot a confused look in Jaime’s direction when he didn’t immediately join her; instead, he disappeared into the adjoining room where the children slept. When Jaime reappeared a minute later, he had Cat in his arms, who thankfully slept on, undisrupted by the movement.
Brienne watched, silently, as Jaime gently laid Catelyn down on the bed next to her—and Brienne felt a sudden swell of affection for Jaime as she looked down at her daughter, brushing a hand gently through her golden locks. Jaime disappeared into the next room a second time, and this time he came back with Selwyn clinging to him. Jaime hadn’t been as lucky moving Selwyn as he had with Cat, for Selwyn was bleary and half-awake, rubbing his eyes groggily.
“Wha’s ‘appenin’?” Selwyn slurred, arms wound around Jaime’s neck. Brienne held her breath, not certain what Jaime had planned to say by way of explanation.
“Your mama isn’t feeling well,” Jaime told Selwyn in a matter-of-fact voice. “It would make her feel better if you were with her.”
Brienne wondered how Jaime had been able to read her so easily, wondering if she was somehow so blindingly obvious, if her unease at being even one room away from her children had truly been so transparent.
Selwyn blinked owlishly at the explanation.
“Because of the baby?” he asked then, astutely—and Brienne felt a pain in her chest again at the words, hating how much everything had affected her son, hating how much he’d had to see that night. One thing Brienne had quickly realized about Selwyn was his strong sense of empathy, how much he tended to see and catch on to, even though he’d barely passed his third name day.
Jaime exchanged a look with Brienne, and he tightened his arms around Selwyn’s body.
“Yes, because of the baby,” Jaime told him honestly after a moment of hesitation, and Selwyn nodded, letting Jaime deposit him onto the bed. Selwyn carefully leaned over his still-slumbering sister and pressed a gentle kiss to Brienne’s cheek.
“It’ll be okay, mother,” he told her with the optimism only a child could possess, and he promptly laid down next to his sister and closed his eyes as if the whole matter was settled. Despite the somberness of the situation, Jaime’s eyes twinkled a little a Selwyn’s proclamation.
“You should listen to him. Children are sometimes the wisest of us all,” Jaime told her with a slightly mischievous expression—and despite herself, Brienne smiled back at him.
Jaime climbed onto the other side of the bed, facing Brienne with the children between them, Selwyn having by all appearances having fallen immediately back to sleep. It was a tight fit in the bed with all four of them, and Brienne couldn’t help but wonder if she or Jaime would accidentally roll off the bed in the middle of the night—wondered if she’d at some point have to justify to the children why she sometimes slept in the same bed as a man who wasn’t their father—but at that moment, she didn’t care.
“Thank you,” Brienne whispered sincerely, trying to avoid waking the children—and a soft smile curled at the corners of Jaime’s mouth as he leaned gingerly across the children sleeping between them, placing a brief, chaste kiss against her lips.
It was a few weeks later when Brienne received a raven with the Lannister seal—and she stared at it for a long minute, wondering which Lannister could be writing her, for Jaime had revoked the right to use his house’s standard at the same time he’d revoked his lands and titles, and all his previous letters had come unadorned. She was surprised to see the words written on the page in a familiar, delicate hand, surprised to see Sansa’s signature at the bottom, for she’d almost managed to forget that Sansa had become Lady Lannister of Casterly Rock.
The letter from Sansa was polite but spare on details, bidding Brienne and her family to come to Winterfell at their earliest convenience and asking them to be prepared for a lengthy stay, if they could manage it. Tormund was intrigued when she read him the letter—and Brienne knew she had to go, because for all that she’d concluded the Starks no longer required her protection, there was no way she could turn down this kind of request. Part of her expected Tormund to refuse, to tell her to take the trip herself, citing his responsibilities to their village—but instead, Tormund simply shrugged and said, “Why not?”
They set out south two days later, just the two of them and the children, and Brienne was struck with the strange recognition that this was the first time she and Tormund had traveled anywhere together in over two years, when they’d first come north together from Winterfell. With all the times she’d gone back and forth from Crastertown, it was bizarre to realize that she’d never made another trip with her husband.
If there was one good thing about Brienne’s previous treks with the children, it was that they were fairly accustomed to traveling and didn’t cause too much of a fuss on the road, although it was more than twice as long a trip as their usual. Brienne and Tormund took turns telling the children tales of Winterfell and the Wall, and Brienne spent a good amount of time wondering about the reason behind the strange summons from Sansa.
It was only when they reached Crastertown that another worry struck her—that they’d be passing through Castle Black and that they might have to see Jaime. Tormund and Jaime hadn’t come face to face since her wedding to Tormund, for Jaime had been away the first time they’d passed through Castle Black—and Brienne wondered helplessly if it was possible that their luck might hold out a second time. After all, it was one thing for Tormund to accept her relationship with Jaime in the abstract, but she wasn’t sure how Tormund would react to actually seeing Jaime, to seeing the two of them together, even in the most innocent of circumstances.
Their luck didn’t hold out, however, for Jaime was at Castle Black when they arrived, but Brienne scarcely caught sight of him—and whether he was actually busy or simply doing his best to stay out of Brienne and Tormund’s way, Brienne wasn’t certain. She and Tormund had dinner that night in Edd’s chambers, and Brienne couldn’t help but wonder if it was simply chance—and perhaps Edd simply wanting to spend time privately with them—or if Tormund had orchestrated the whole thing as an excuse to avoid Jaime and to make certain that Brienne did the same. They set out again the next morning, and the issue of Jaime became a moot point once again.
It was strange, Brienne reflected, being back within the Seven Kingdoms; it struck her for the first time that she’d begun to honestly think of their little village north of the Wall as home, that this land south of the Wall no longer gave her that feeling, though she’s spent the majority of her life in the confines of those kingdoms.
Brienne had somehow expected Sansa to be at Winterfell already when they arrived, having assumed that Sansa had sent the raven from there, but she was surprised to instead find only Lyanna Mormont in residence for a second time. According to Lady Lyanna, Sansa should be making her way there from White Harbor, where she’d sailed from King’s Landing; Bran, she said, was at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea overseeing the rebuilding of the section of the Wall that had been destroyed. The proclamation did not particularly inspire confidence in Brienne; she wondered what the boy might have seen to think the Wall would remain necessary in the future.
It had been over two years, and Lady Lyanna looked less like a child now and much more like a woman grown, though she was likely no more than six and ten still. Curiously, she and Brandon Stark still had not been married, and Brienne wondered why they were waiting, for at six and ten, Lady Lyanna was a woman in the eyes of the Seven Kingdoms, and it was almost certain that she had already flowered. But Brienne hoped, in the back of her mind, that they’d continue to wait; they both still seemed children to her, not ready to have a marriage or children of their own.
They had already been at Winterfell for three days when Sansa finally arrived with her party; Brienne heard the announcement of her arrival and made her way out to the courtyard to greet the girl.
A party of riders came through the gates first—all soldiers and guards by Brienne’s estimation—and Brienne looked around for Sansa, expecting to see her traveling on horseback as well, as was the custom of all the Starks. A covered wheelhouse came through the gates next, and when the doors opened and Sansa stepped out, it immediately became clear enough why she hadn’t been riding.
Sansa wore a plain gray dress, perhaps in deference to her arrival at her ancestral home, and her stomach was round and very obviously full with child. If Brienne had to guess, she’d have said Sansa was perhaps six moons gone. Many noble ladies wouldn’t have made the trip in such a condition, but Sansa was clearly made of sterner stuff than most, something she’d proven time and time again. Sansa greeted Lady Lyanna first, for custom dictated it, then Maester Wolkan and several other servants who remained from the last time she’d been in the keep. She broke away from the maester’s fussing eventually and managed to make her way over to Brienne—and Brienne was surprised when Sansa pulled her into an embrace, a somewhat awkward move around her full belly.
“Thank you for coming, Lady Brienne. I hope your trip here wasn’t too unpleasant,” Sansa said with all the courtesy of a Southern lady as she pulled back from their embrace—and those were the courtesies that had dictated Brienne’s life for so long but had suddenly begun to feel foreign, had been somewhat difficult to summon since they’d crossed back into the Seven Kingdoms.
“It was uneventful, My Lady,” Brienne confirmed with a tiny bow, and Sansa smiled warmly at her.
“Let’s go inside so we can speak somewhere warm,” Sansa suggested gently, and Brienne followed Sansa inside, feeling somewhat out of sorts. If Sansa had traveled all the way to Winterfell when she was this far along, there was no doubt that she wouldn’t be able to make it back to King’s Landing before the child was born—and her husband, suspiciously, was nowhere in sight. Brienne felt a sense of trepidation; Tyrion had always struck Brienne as a good man, but she couldn’t help but wonder if she hadn’t made a terrible mistake, thinking Sansa could now take care of herself.
Sansa suggested they speak in Brienne’s rooms so they would not be disturbed, since servants would be bringing in all of Sansa’s things to her own chambers. Brienne acquiesced and led her there, both of them sitting down at the table after Brienne had built a fire. Sansa rested her hand unconsciously against her belly—and Brienne felt a sudden stab of regret for the loss of her own child, a thought she’d managed to push away for an impressive couple of hours. Once Sansa had settled her skirts around her, she finally spoke.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve summoned you here,” Sansa remarked with a little lilt to her voice, one Brienne had a difficult time identifying.
“I must confess that this is a bit…unexpected,” Brienne admitted after a moment, because it was—not that Sansa was with child, because she and Tyrion had been wed for nearly two years already, but that she had traveled up to Winterfell and asked Brienne to come. In all the scenarios that had crossed Brienne’s mind on the trip, this one hadn’t made even the slightest appearance. Sansa looked a bit self-conscious at the words.
“I’m sorry not to have explained in more detail,” Sansa apologized, clearing her throat daintily, her fingers twining in her lap in a strangely childlike gesture. “I discussed the matter with Tyrion, and I decided that I’d like to have my child here, in Winterfell.”
Brienne didn’t say anything, but part of her certainly didn’t blame Sansa, nor begrudge her the bit of sentiment; for all that Sansa now resided in King’s Landing, for all that her children would inherit Casterly Rock, Sansa was a child of the North, and that much had been clear about her for as long as Brienne had known her. Clear enough, in fact, that Brienne hadn’t been entirely certain that she’d have been willing to leave Winterfell again at all, not until she actually had.
“Will your husband be joining us?” Brienne asked finally, curious. Sansa gave Brienne a noncommittal smile.
“There’s a bit of a…delicate diplomatic situation,” Sansa told her after a pause, sounding every part the experienced politician, her face and her words revealing nothing. “Nothing you should concern yourself with. He’ll make it up here when he can, but I doubt it will be before the birth. It’s…unfortunate, but unavoidable.”
Brienne couldn’t help but wonder what it was that was so important as to keep Tyrion from being present for the birth of his first child, but she didn't ask; statecraft had never been Brienne’s strong suit, and even if Sansa had confided in her, she didn’t imagine she could be of much help.
“I might have remained in King’s Landing,” Sansa prefaced delicately, “but there’s another reason I wished to come here.”
Sansa paused, looking slightly sheepish, before seeming to force herself to continue.
“My mother is gone, and I have no more aunts, no older sisters...there is no one I care for who has experienced this who can help me through it,” Sansa admitted, looking somewhat chagrined. “I had hoped you would stay, see me through the birth.”
The request was perhaps not unexpected, not after the realization of Sansa’s current condition coupled with her request that Brienne and her family be prepared to remain at Winterfell for some months. But it galled Brienne to think that Sansa believed her her only option; Brienne was certain there must be someone more well-versed in the topic of motherhood and childbearing than she. Of course, Sansa, like most others, thought she’d already birthed two children instead of just one. Brienne searched her mind for others in Sansa’s life who were already mothers, who could doubtless be more well-suited to guide her through this.
“The Queen—” she protested half-heartedly after a moment, but Sansa just shook her head.
“The Queen has more important things to worry about,” Sansa said somewhat brusquely, the bitterness in her voice somewhat surprising to Brienne. Her thoughts must have shown on her face, because Sansa looked a little sheepish and moved to amend her statement. “She is…Jon loves her, but she and I have never been close. I had hoped it would be you. Will you stay?”
Of all the things Brienne might have foreseen in her life, being the preferable option to see someone through childbirth certainly hadn’t been one of them. But Sansa’s request was perfectly sincere; she truly wanted Brienne to be there, and Brienne couldn’t, in good faith, deny Sansa’s request.
“Of course I’ll stay, My Lady,” she assured Sansa, and Brienne was slightly gratified by the look of relief that passed across Sansa’s features. Brienne regarded Sansa for a moment. “How are you feeling?”
Sansa bit her lip, as if not quite certain how to answer; her hand began to subconsciously move across her belly.
“I’m fine,” she said finally, then winced slightly, perhaps conscious of how sharply the words had come out. “Excited. Worried. Frightened.”
It struck Brienne, then, how young Sansa still was, something unbelievable when Brienne considered how much the girl had already been through. She wouldn’t even yet be three and twenty, and she had long ago lost all her female role models, the ones who could have soothed her fears and apprehensions. Reassurances coming from those one scarcely knew didn’t always mean much, a fact Brienne had learned well enough herself.
“What are you frightened of?” Brienne couldn’t help but ask, feeling the corners of her mouth turn up into a soft smile. Sansa looked around the room self-consciously, as if worried that someone would be eavesdropping upon their conversation, before she finally leaned in closer to Brienne, her voice barely above a whisper.
“What…what if it’s twins?” she asked almost conspiratorially. “They run in the Lannnister family, you know.”
The shy question was so full of innocence that Brienne almost laughed aloud, although she managed—just barely—to keep her laughter in check. Her eyes dropped to Sansa’s belly once more.
“When did you last bleed?”
Sansa bit her lip nervously.
“Nearly seven moons ago,” Sansa confided, and this time, Brienne did laugh.
“It’s not twins, Lady Sansa,” Brienne assured her, because for as little as she sometimes felt she knew about these matters, it was clear enough that there was no way that there were two babies in Sansa’s womb, not if she was that far gone already. “If I might say, you’re even a bit small.”
Rather than assuage Sansa’s concern, Brienne’s words seemed only to worry her further.
“You mean…do you think—?” Sansa began in an almost-panicked tone, and Brienne quickly regretted her words.
“You were always slender, My Lady. Unless the maesters have told you there is something to worry about, I wouldn’t be concerned,” Brienne reassured her, although of course she had no idea, either. But if there was anything wrong, Brienne hoped that the maesters would have been able to tell; she didn’t know if she’d be able to handle it if something happened to Sansa’s child, not after what had happened to her own mere months before.
Before she could delve into that morbid train of thinking for another second, the door to their rooms burst open and Selwyn and Cat both ran in, giggling and soaked from playing in the snow. Both Brienne and Sansa’s gazes shot up at the unexpected burst of noise, and then Tormund was running in after them, both children shrieking in delight as they ran away from their father. Selwyn stopped halfway through taking off his coat as his eyes fell upon Sansa; Catelyn seemed absolutely unperturbed by the new presence, running across the room and hiding behind the bed. Sansa, ever the lady, stood to greet the new arrivals.
“Tormund,” Sansa greeted somewhat stiffly, seeming a bit awkward at greeting someone with whom she was not close without a title of some kind, for Tormund didn’t have one, not one recognized in the Seven Kingdoms, at any rate. Brienne had the absurd thought, then, that Tormund would technically be Tormund Tarth in the eyes of the Seven Kingdoms, since she was of higher birth, and the realization of that was so absurd that Brienne almost burst out laughing as she thought it, so incongruous it was with Tormund’s character.
“It’s nice to see you again,” Sansa remarked when Tormund didn’t say anything, and Tormund gave her a slightly awkward smile in response.
“And you, too,” he returned, about as close to Southern politeness as Brienne could reasonably expect from him, and the awkwardness of the whole exchange was striking enough that it was almost comical. Selwyn was the one who broke the moment when he stopped in front of Sansa and poked her stomach.
“Is there a baby in there?” Selwyn ventured curiously, and Brienne felt a moment of mortification.
“Selwyn!” she scolded, feeling her cheeks heat slightly. “It’s not polite to poke a lady’s belly.”
Selwyn looked suitably chastened, but Sansa just smiled down at him.
“It’s all right, Brienne,” Sansa reassured her before turning her attention back to Selwyn. “Yes, there’s a baby in there,” she confirmed. “You can feel it move sometimes, if you’re very patient. Would you like to feel?”
Selwyn’s face lit up at the offer, for he’d always loved the novelty of that, even when he’d barely been more than a baby himself, had loved to sit there with his hand on Brienne’s stomach when she was carrying Catelyn.
“Yes, please!” he exclaimed, and Brienne sighed, feeling at least slightly mollified that he’d managed to be somewhat courteous in his excitement. Sansa sat back down and let Selwyn climb into her lap, pressing his hand against Sansa’s belly and waiting patiently. Sansa stroked her fingers through Selwyn’s curls.
“You know, the last time I saw you, you were just a little baby, too,” Sansa told Selwyn with a soft smile, but Selwyn, staring intently at his hand as though that would make Sansa’s baby move, didn’t respond at all. Sansa seemed undisturbed by his lack of response. “And that must be little Catelyn.”
Brienne looked over to see Tormund doing his best to wrangle a rather recalcitrant Cat out of her wet coat, Cat wriggling and protesting the whole way, and Brienne again felt a moment of mortification that her children weren’t more well-behaved in the face of Sansa’s cool composure. She gave Sansa a slightly sheepish look.
“I suppose I can’t name my child Catelyn, now, if it’s a girl,” Sansa mused aloud. “It would be far too confusing if our children were friends.”
Brienne felt a sudden stroke of guilt; she hadn’t considered that at all when she’d named Catelyn, hadn’t considered that the Starks might be somehow offended or inconvenienced by her choice of name, and Brienne cursed herself for having been so thoughtless. She opened her mouth to apologize, but Sansa seemed to have seen her guilt on her face, because she turned a soft smile on Brienne.
“It was a joke,” Sansa reassured Brienne before she could say anything, and Brienne forced herself to exhale slowly, letting her brief moment of panic subside. She should have realized, she thought, since it wasn’t at all uncommon for children to have the same names, but Brienne had never had a good instinct for jokes.
“We’ve already picked out names,” Sansa assured Brienne after a moment. “Joanna if it’s a girl, and Robb if it’s a boy.”
Brienne opened her mouth to comment upon the choice of names, but then Selwyn released an excited squeal, for he’d obviously felt the baby move. He looked up at Sansa with an eager expression.
“Did you feel it?” he inquired enthusiastically, and Sansa smiled indulgently at him.
“It’s difficult not to, when the baby is kicking my insides,” she told him with gentle humor, and Selwyn released a soft murmur in reply.
“Mother had a baby in her belly, too, but it died,” Selwyn told her matter-of-factly, with none of the tact or subtlety that an adult would have—and suddenly, it seemed as if all activity in the room stopped. Tormund froze, and Cat took advantage of the opportunity to wrench herself out of his grasp, her coat dangling off one arm as she ran across the room, clearly still viewing the whole endeavor as a game. Brienne dared not look at him; when she met Sansa’s gaze, there was a sadness in the other woman’s eyes.
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” she told Selwyn as evenly as she could manage, though her voice sounded slightly pained, and Brienne suddenly felt as though she could scarcely breathe. “It’s very sad when babies die.”
Selwyn nodded, his agreement absolutely sincere.
“I hope your baby doesn’t die,” Selwyn told Sansa with the raw honesty only a child could muster, and Brienne stared wide-eyed at her son, slightly unable to believe the words coming out of his mouth. Even Sansa looked a bit taken aback by the innocent and earnest proclamation. Brienne cleared her throat.
“The baby’s already alive, Selwyn,” she informed him softly, barely able to hear her own words past the rhythmic beating of her heart. “That’s why you can feel it move.”
Selwyn tilted his head slightly, as if deeply considering Brienne’s words, before he seemed to accept that logic with a nod.
“I hope mother has another baby, too,” he told Sansa seriously. “It makes father very happy to have new babies.”
Brienne couldn’t help but glance over at Tormund then, who absolutely stricken by their son’s words—and none of them said anything, the air in the room undeniably uncomfortable. Seemingly obvious to all of that, Selwyn slipped off Sansa’s lap suddenly, marching toward his sister with his hands on his hips.
“Cat, stop playing!” he told her authoritatively. “Take off your wet coat, or you’ll get sick!”
Sansa, Tormund, and Brienne all exchanged looks as Selwyn’s words broke through the awkward silence—and they all laughed, quietly and uneasily, as Selwyn took over trying to wrestle his sister out of her coat.
It was surprisingly easy to fall into the rhythm of things at Winterfell again, and the addition of Sansa added an extra layer of joy to the experience. Looking back at where Sansa had been when Brienne had first come into Lady Catelyn’s service, it was gratifying to see Sansa where she was now, a confident and self-assured young woman. It made it easier for Brienne to come to terms with having left the girl’s service; not for the first time, she heard Jaime’s words inside her head—“No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other”—but perhaps for the first time, Brienne felt completely at peace with her choice.
For all that Sansa seemed not to particularly get along with the Queen, she was incredibly friendly with her younger brother’s betrothed, Lady Lyanna; Brienne might have expected there to be clashes between the two of them about who had supremacy at Winterfell, but Sansa never stepped on Lyanna’s toes, never questioned her in front of others. Instead, Sansa gave her gentle and useful advice in such a way that Lyanna seemed generally inclined to accept.
Whatever the situation was at the capital, Sansa seemed to be keeping herself apprised of it despite being so far from King’s Landing and despite the fact that she was growing heavier with child every day. It became clear enough that Sansa’s explanations for why she’d come to Winterfell had been legitimate and not an excuse to cover for any kind of discord between her and her husband, because a steady stream of ravens were exchanged between Sansa and Tyrion, half reports of political intrigue written in code Brienne didn’t comprehend and half reports of Sansa’s health.
Being at Winterfell also had the added blessing of giving Brienne space from everything that had occurred not so long before. She rarely woke up imagining the blood on her sheets by virtue of simply being in a different bed; she no longer balked every time she bathed, struck by the memory of having been carried out of her home like a child. She’d half worried that being around Sansa the closer the girl got to the birth would only serve as a reminder that she’d also be soon giving birth had it not been for that tragedy, but Sansa’s jovial mood was infectious, and that night haunted Brienne less and less as time went on.
It was difficult to tell how Tormund felt about the whole thing, but then, it usually was with him; he’d been pleased enough when she’d come to him again at night, had been understanding enough when she’d told him she intended to begin drinking moon tea in order to prevent the possibility of another pregnancy, for that was not a thing she felt prepared to tackle again, not yet. He didn't tell her as much, but Brienne couldn’t help but wonder if he was disappointed in her, if it was somehow a betrayal of his wishes to do so. After all, it had taken them over a year to conceive the child they’d lost, and in the face of that, asking her husband to let her attempt to prevent another pregnancy seemed unfair. Brienne didn’t know when she’d feel ready again, but she was highly conscious of the fact that it might take them another year, or perhaps more—and that every moment she delayed, it might seem increasingly possible to Tormund that she valued Jaime’s children over his.
But despite that worry, Brienne couldn’t make herself commit to another child, and Tormund didn’t ask her to.
Sansa’s labor began early one morning; Brienne was notified by a knock on the door as one of the stewards summoned her to Sansa’s chambers. Brienne woke groggily and dressed, urging Tormund to go back to sleep, for she knew it would likely be several hours at least before the babe was finally born, and Tormund had no need to be there for the birth. Tormund grumbled and turned back over, burying his face in the pillow.
When Brienne arrived to her chambers, Sansa’s usually cool demeanor was gone, and a nervous and frightened girl had appeared in her place. Brienne couldn’t blame her; she’d been near enough to panic when her own time had come, and she hadn’t been near as young as Sansa was. The only thing that had kept Brienne from panicking had been the steadfast calm of the women that had been around her—and Tormund’s support, of course, had been invaluable. But Sansa’s assessment that Tyrion would not arrive before the birth had been correct, and he was not there to provide Sansa the same kind of support.
So Brienne resolved to be a calm presence for Sansa, assuring her gently that she was doing well, reminding her that the pain would be worth it in the end, for she’d have a beautiful son or daughter to show for it. Maester Wolkan was another soothing influence, but he came armed with more facts, telling her that her labor was progressing at a perfectly normal pace, that the babe was well-positioned for the birthing. Brienne was slightly surprised when Lyanna also appeared at Sansa’s bedside not long after Brienne had, and Lyanna was perhaps the most calming influence of all, for her strong conviction that everything would be fine was somehow the most difficult to argue against.
The babe was a girl; Sansa actually wept when Maester Wolkan handed the child to her and declared her perfectly healthy. Joanna Lannister had not the golden hair of the Lannisters but the auburn hair of her mother—and it struck Brienne only as she stared into Joanna’s large blue eyes that the girl was, in truth, Selwyn’s cousin and possibly Catelyn’s as well, a fact she could tell none of them.
Maester Wolkan consented to allow Brienne to write the letter to Castle Black announcing the birth, and Brienne couldn’t help but wonder what Jaime would think at the news, if he would be glad to hear that he had become an uncle. She had to imagine he would, but part of her wondered if he’d ever have any chance to meet his niece with Sansa poised to return to King’s Landing once she and Joanna were both strong enough.
Brienne and Tormund both did what they could to help Sansa in those early days, but no one was more ecstatic about the new baby than Selwyn. Sansa was inarguably endeared by Selwyn’s offers of help and indulgently allowed him to do what he could. Joanna was a quiet child, quite unlike Catelyn had been when she’d been born, and Brienne sat by Sansa’s bed one day, watching as Selwyn stood next to Joanna’s cradle, gently rubbing her back to try soothe her to sleep.
“Do you ever get used to it?” Sansa asked out of the blue, and Brienne turned to her with a confused look.
“Get used to what?” she pressed, and Sansa gave her a sheepish look.
“Being a mother,” Sansa elaborated finally, uncertainly. “I helped my mother with Rickon, you with Selwyn, and Jon with Eddard and Aemon, but…it’s difficult to believe that Joanna is my daughter. I don’t feel like a mother.”
Brienne considered Sansa’s question carefully, carding through her own complicated feelings about motherhood. Brienne had felt that same sense of disconnection with Selwyn at first, had assumed that it was because she hadn’t, in truth, given birth to him—but there’d been a strange sense of unreality following Cat’s birth as well, an odd sort of disbelief that another human had somehow truly been born of her body. It was almost a relief to hear that Sansa felt something similar, that it wasn’t some horrible failing of Brienne’s that she hadn’t felt an immediate maternal connection to her children. Brienne had assumed that it would be easy for Sansa, for she had such an easy way with children, was naturally nurturing in a way that Brienne was decidedly not—and perhaps Sansa had expected it to come easily to her, too, and was taken aback to find that the feelings did not blossom naturally within her.
For the first time since she had learned why Sansa had called her to Winterfell, Brienne actually felt perfectly equipped to give the younger woman advice.
“It can be surreal at first,” Brienne reassured Sansa gently. “It will come to feel more natural in time.”
It was with a strange sense of pride that Brienne realized her words were the truth; she still had her doubts about whether she could be a good mother, but she longer felt strange that she was a mother, and upon reflection, she’d felt that way for quite some time. It still felt a little bizarre to see herself as a wife and mother instead of just a warrior, but it didn’t feel wrong or like she was trying to wear clothing that didn’t fit, not anymore.
Brienne spent the next few weeks mulling over her conversation with Sansa and the ensuing revelations—and somehow, she felt more confident all of a sudden, no longer felt like the worst equipped person to give her friend advice on motherhood. Brienne felt stronger than she had in a long time, which felt undeniably ironic; she’d assumed that being relegated to the womanly duties of being a wife and mother would make her feel weak, but for the first time, it made her feel strong.
Tyrion arrived to Winterfell nearly three moons after the birth of his daughter, and Sansa was undoubtedly happier for it; no matter how mismatched a couple they might have seemed, it was obvious how much they loved and respected each other. Tyrion appeared totally enamored of his young daughter and somewhat relieved at the sight of her; Sansa had been worried she might have been carrying twins and not that she might be carrying a dwarf, but the possibility had clearly worried her husband, and the visual confirmation that that wasn’t the case seemed to calm him.
When Sansa and Tyrion began discussing their plans to return to King’s Landing, Brienne recognized that it was their time to leave as well; the time away had been somewhat of a blessing, but they’d been away from home for more than six moons already, and Brienne found herself surprisingly eager to return. They celebrated Selwyn’s fourth name day less than a week before departing Winterfell, and as Brienne watched her son gleefully eating lemon cakes, she found herself making a resolution.
She stopped visiting Maester Wolkan for moon tea, trying to figure out how she wanted to address the topic with Tormund. And yet they became busy with preparations to leave, and the time to mention it never seemed to present itself.
It was on the day that they left Winterfell that she resolved, finally, to tell him; they were loading up their horses, Selwyn and Cat running around in the snow by their feet when Brienne stopped Tormund with a hand on his arm. She couldn’t help but remember the last time they’d been preparing to leave Winterfell, when she’d tried to apologize to Tormund for falling pregnant with Catelyn; it was difficult not to marvel at how much things had changed since then.
Tormund turned to her with a raised eyebrow, and Brienne was struck by a rush of affection for him, for how patient and kind he’d been with her, for the steadfast way he’d remained by her side through so much. Years ago, Brienne had resigned herself to marrying a savage, and yet Tormund had turned out to be so much more than that, so much more than she’d have ever dared to hope for.
Perhaps, Brienne reflected, she had grown to love him.
“I want to have another baby,” she told him then, matter-of-factly—and he stared at her for a long minute in disbelief before a huge grin split across his face. He threw his arms around her, and she felt herself lifted off the ground—an awkward feat considering she had several inches of height on him. But he didn’t seem to care about that as he spun her around in circles as though she weighed nothing, laughing in unrestrained glee.
Tormund was in such good spirits on their trip up to Castle Black that she didn’t even worry about the possibility of an encounter with Jaime; conversely, she hoped he would be there when they arrived, even if they could do nothing more than talk, for it would please her just to see him again after many months. Brienne’s timing had, perhaps, not been the best; Tormund seemed eager to get to making babies right away, but it wasn’t a practical thing to do on the road with two small children huddled beneath the furs with them for warmth and protection both. She could feel her husband’s eagerness and felt slightly guilty for not being able to fulfill his wishes, but even the inability to lie with her didn’t seem to chip into his good mood.
They made good time to Castle Black, the snow beginning to recede—spring was coming, according to the maesters’ projections, and Brienne was somewhat glad to see the ground again beneath the snow, even if it was mostly just mud and slush, nothing like the green fields she’d known in the South. Edd was, as usual, quite glad to see them when they arrived; Brienne let their restless children loose to run around, keeping an eye on them to make certain the two of them stayed out of any trouble as she and Edd talked. Brienne couldn’t help but keep an eye out for a familiar head of blond hair, too, hoping to catch some sight of him, see some confirmation that he was there—but if Jaime was at Castle Black at that moment, he was apparently busy somewhere else, and Brienne tried not to feel disappointed by that fact.
Eventually, Edd invited Brienne and Tormund both to his chambers for some ale, but Brienne let the two of them go by themselves—and Tormund gave Brienne a knowing look out of the corner of his eye but didn’t say anything, didn’t try to prevent her from leaving him. Far from it, Tormund summoned the children to come with him, and Brienne recognized that for what it was, tacit permission to go look for Jaime.
And look for Jaime Brienne did, wandering around through Castle Black, trying not to appear too much as though she was looking for someone; she ducked her head into the armory, then the stables, then the mess hall, but she didn’t catch even a glimpse of him. She looked at the lift that would take her to the top of the Wall, but it seemed too much to ask the winch operator to go through all the trouble to take her up there to go on what was most likely a futile search, so Brienne eventually gave it up as a lost cause. She thought for a moment about joining Edd and Tormund but decided to let the two of them have some time without her.
Instead, Brienne made her way back to the chambers where they’d be spending the night, feeling content to light a fire and spend some time in the warm, finally, for despite the receding snows, the trip had been long and cold as usual. Brienne opened the door to her chambers with a sigh, ready to relax—and then someone was scrambling to stand up to greet her, and Brienne had to blink twice when she found herself face to face with the man for whom she’d spent at least an hour fruitlessly searching.
“My lady,” he greeted formally, and Brienne just barely managed to avoid making a face at the bizarre address—until her gaze shifted and she spotted a second man standing next to Jaime, also wearing the black cloak of the Night’s Watch. Jaime’s posture was as stiff and formal as his words. “I hope you can forgive the intrusion. I was hoping I could beg for news of my niece.”
Jaime met her eyes with an apologetic expression, as if to say I wanted to see you, and this was the only way I could manage it—or perhaps that was merely wishful thinking on Brienne’s part. She looked over at the other Night’s Watch man, who was obviously there as some sort of chaperone—and it made more sense to Brienne why Jaime had insisted that they meet at Crastertown and not Castle Black, though she supposed she’d known it already. She didn’t know if their first experience had just been a lucky oversight on the Watch’s part or if the rules had been strengthened because there were more often women staying the night at Castle Black as they passed north or south of the Wall. But whatever the circumstance, it was clear enough: she and Jaime were not going to be left alone together, and they thus had to settle for what they could get.
Brienne cleared her throat quietly, trying to gain her bearings.
“Your niece is well,” Brienne told him, her voice sharp and formal to match his. “Lord Tyrion and Lady Sansa should be returning to King’s Landing with her shortly.”
The look Jaime gave her was approving, as if he hadn’t quite been sure that she’d manage to catch on without giving them away, and Brienne wasn’t certain whether to feel proud that she had or annoyed that Jaime had had so little faith in her. Jaime spoke again.
“I am so very glad to hear that,” he told her with an air of feigned sincerity, and it took Brienne a moment to identify why—but he knew that his brother would have written him if something had happened to the child, so asking was clearly nothing but a pretense. “You also look well, my lady.”
Jaime said the words in an incredibly neutral voice, but he looked her up and down as he said so, his gaze questioning although his tone was not. Brienne thought back to the last time she’d seen Jaime, remembering how distraught she’d still been with the loss of her child—and she mulled over his words for a moment, trying to find a way to answer his question without giving away too much of the sentiment between them. Brienne took a deep breath.
“I am well,” she assured him stiffly. “My time at Winterfell with Lady Sansa and the babe were very refreshing.”
Brienne fought not to wince at how insincere that sounded, but it had been the best she’d been able to come up with on such short notice, and she hoped that it conveyed her meaning anyway. The soft smile that appeared on Jaime’s face was indication enough that her words had been received as they were intended.
“I am glad to hear that as well,” he told her vaguely, and he opened his mouth to say something else—but before he could, the door to the room opened, and all three of them turned to see Tormund standing there in the doorway. His face was impassive as it fell upon the scene before him, and Brienne was uncertain if she’d ever experienced any moment in her life more uncomfortable than this one, than her husband standing in the doorway glaring at her lover. Brienne stood frozen, entirely uncertain how to react.
“Get out,” Tormund said sharply after a beat, and both Jaime and the other Night’s Watch member shifted uncomfortably, starting to move for the door. Tormund looked piercingly at Jaime. “Not you.”
Jaime stopped mid-movement, fixing Tormund with a perplexed look, as if uncertain what to make of the entire situation. Brienne felt the same; she eyed Tormund with a deep frown.
“It’s not right for me to be alone with a lady,” Jaime remarked finally, his tone stiff and uncomfortable—and Tormund released a soft snort.
“You won’t be alone with her, crow,” he told Jaime harshly. “You’ll be in the presence of her husband.”
The other Watch member looked between all three of them, as if trying to determine whether the situation was an acceptable one for him to leave to happen—but as his eyes met Tormund’s, he seemed to shrink back visibly. Without any further hesitation, he scurried out of the room, Tormund stepping aside to allow him to move past. Brienne watched in dim incomprehension as Tormund shut the door behind him, fastening the latch.
When Tormund turned, Brienne met his eyes with a pleading look, hoping that this wasn’t what she feared it might be—hoping that she wasn’t about to be forced to diffuse some sort of violence between them. It felt difficult to predict Tormund and what he might do; he’d been everything from reticent to accepting to hostile on the subject of Jaime, and Brienne was uncertain where he’d landed that particular day.
But if Brienne had expected anything from Tormund at that moment, it was not what he actually did. He came up behind her and wrapped an arm around her middle—and Brienne frowned, trying to turn in his arms to ask him what he was doing, but he held her fast with a surprising amount of strength. She could fight him off if she wanted to, but she didn’t, still uncertain what his aims were. Jaime stood silent before them, his expression uncomprehending—and then Brienne was surprised to feel Tormund unfastening the belt that held her coat in place, pulling it off her shoulders without a word.
“Tormund—” Brienne started, but then he startled her a second time by wrapping his arms around her again, and it was only a brief second before she realized his hands were going to the laces of her tunic. “Tormund, what are you doing?”
But Tormund didn’t answer her, and since she couldn’t see his face, she could glean nothing from that; Jaime’s face, though, she could see clearly, and it was rife with confusion. He seemed almost too stunned to speak, a feeling that Brienne shared; Tormund could be, by turns, unfathomable and unpredictable, but this moment took that truth to a startling new level.
Tormund had gotten Brienne’s tunic undone in the front with a surprising amount of ease, pulling it open to reveal her undershirt—and something about that seemed to finally snap Jaime out of whatever moment of shock had overtaken him, because he suddenly averted his eyes, as though the sight somehow embarrassed him.
“I should leave—” Jaime began to protest, but once more, Tormund’s gruff voice stopped him.
“Stay,” he commanded, and Jaime froze, though it was difficult to fathom precisely why Jaime had obeyed the directive. Perhaps he remained as stunned as Brienne was, the feeling keeping her from protesting even as Tormund’s hand slid below the neckline of her undershirt, fingers teasing along the line of her breasts. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
Jaime’s head shot up, as if by reflex, and his eyes widened, though whether at the words or at the sight of Tormund’s hand down the front of her shirt, it was difficult to say. Brienne, herself, wasn’t certain she’d ever felt so out of sorts, so totally shocked to the point that she couldn’t even seem to muster words. When Jaime said nothing, Tormund released a soft sound of annoyance.
“Do you need an invitation, crow?” Tormund intoned in an almost scornful voice.
Jaime’s eyes remained clouded with confusion, but a sudden moment of clarity struck Brienne. Perhaps it was because she’d spent so long with Tormund, long enough that Tormund’s queer world view had started to make a bizarre sort of sense to her—and Brienne knew that what Tormund seemed to want, above all, was for her to be happy. She felt a peculiar sense of bravery all of a sudden, of disinhibition.
“Come here, Jaime,” she commanded softly, and Jaime’s brow furrowed, but he took a step toward her, his eyes questioning as he met her gaze. Brienne gave him a soft look as she reached up, pressing her hand against his cheek—and it was strange to feel their roles reversed, for her to be the one giving Jaime a chance to object. When he didn’t say anything, Brienne leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.
“That’s my girl,” Brienne heard Tormund say into her ear, his tone gruff but strangely approving. The whole thing felt surreal, like it must all be a dream—except Brienne wasn’t certain that her subconscious could have possibly conjured this, that she would even have had the imagination for it, Tormund’s body a firm presence against her back as she kissed Jaime.
The kiss was slow, almost tentative—and Brienne waited for Jaime to seize control the way he usually did, to meet her with harshness and aggression, but Jaime’s lips were hesitant against hers, perhaps afraid that Tormund’s mood would shift suddenly, that he might come to regret this thing he’d started. Far from it, though, Tormund pulled her tunic off her arms, leaving her in her trousers and her thin undershirt. He turned his attentions, then, to her neck, placing a soft line of kisses, nips, and licks against the skin there—and Brienne couldn’t help but release a soft sigh of pleasure, which was swallowed by Jaime’s mouth.
This is really happening, Brienne thought to herself with a meek sense of disbelief. This is really happening, and Tormund is letting it happen, and I am letting it happen. Nothing about that seemed in any way sane, and was undoubtedly not in any way acceptable—certainly not in Westeros and certainly not here, in rooms at Castle Black.
She and Jaime broke apart to catch their breaths, and Tormund took the opportunity to reach for the hem of Brienne’s undershirt, pulling it up and over her head in one practiced movement. Brienne lifted her arms almost unconsciously to help him, and then her chest was bared to Jaime’s gaze.
Every time she was with Jaime, she still experienced the same moment of sudden uncertainty, the fear that he’d see her and reject her—but instead, Jaime reached forward with an almost dreamlike movement, fingers tracing along the line of Brienne’s scars. For a few scant seconds, it seemed almost as though he’d forgotten Tormund was there, lost as he was in the recollection of that day at Harrenhal.
The moment was broken when Tormund reached for the laces of her breeches, and Brienne’s hand shot out instinctively, closing over his to halt his movements. She felt a flush rising on her cheeks.
“Tormund,” she protested softly, feeling suddenly shy, embarrassed to be bare before both of them. Tormund let out a dismissive noise.
“He has seen your body before,” Tormund pointed out almost scathingly. “Or are you so modest in the South that you fuck fully clothed?”
Jaime snorted, his eyes twinkling in unexpected amusement, almost as if he’d suddenly decided that he approved of Tormund.
“You are rather shy for a woman who fucks two men,” Jaime pointed out with a raised eyebrow, and Brienne couldn’t help but feel, suddenly, like the two of them had teamed up against her—and she’d never have expected them to get along, never expected them to be on the same team. Brienne felt suddenly even more embarrassed by the words, at hearing it put so crudely; she loved Jaime, and Tormund was her husband, but the way Jaime put it made her sound like some kind of harlot, a woman wholly unable to control her lusts, unable to contain herself to one bed.
Jaime must have seen her anger and mortification on her face, because he seemed to quickly have realized his mistake, his expression turning immediately apologetic.
“My apologies, my lady,” he murmured softly, taking his hand into hers and placing a soft kiss against her knuckles. It seemed almost play-acting from him, the same kind of forced platitudes she’d seen Jaime use at King’s Landing—but the words strangely didn’t lack sincerity, and the look in his eyes was almost flirtatious. “I simply meant—you have no need to be shy with me.”
Those words, at least, were likely enough the truth. Brienne didn’t know why she still felt the way she did; perhaps it was because Jaime had never lavished effusive praise upon her body the way Tormund did, and no matter how many times she’d bedded Jaime, she still half-believed he’d one day come to his senses and remember that he found her hideous.
“Let me make it up to you,” Jaime intoned mischievously, and before Brienne could reason out what he meant by that, Jaime had dropped to his knees before her. Tormund sniggered behind her, and Brienne started, having almost forgotten that he was there, even as he remained wrapped around her from behind. His fingers made quick work of her laces, and then her trousers and smallclothes were pooling around her ankles.
And Jaime’s mouth was upon her, Tormund’s fingers skimming the edge of her jaw, turning her head so they could share a kiss. It was an awkward angle, with Tormund practically having to come onto his toes to meet her mouth, but he seemed not to care. And before Brienne could think upon it any further, Jaime’s tongue swept over her, and she couldn't think at all.
With both of them on her, it was even more difficult than usual not to compare them. The way Jaime’s mouth worked over her was purposeful, serious and goal-oriented in a way that Tormund usually wasn't; Tormund could content himself with touching and kissing her for a long time, letting her pleasure come as it would, but Jaime clearly intended to have her come apart beneath his tongue. The way Jaime usually kissed her was more aggressive than Tormund, too—and perhaps it was simply who Jaime was, or perhaps it was because Tormund knew he had all the time in the world, while her time with Jaime was always so limited.
And come apart beneath Jaime’s mouth she did, moaning breathlessly into Tormund’s kiss as her knees buckled, and it took both of them to keep her from crumpling into a heap on the ground.
They all ended up in a tangle of limbs on the bed, and Jaime was kissing her, then, with the same desperate aggression he was used to from him. Brienne could taste herself on Jaime’s lips, could dimly feel Tormund unlacing her boots before tossing them and her trousers off the side of the bed. Brienne pulled back after a long minute, trying to catch her breath, acutely aware that she was now completely nude while both of them were fully clothed. Perhaps it was better that way, Brienne mused absurdly; when she tried to imagine all three of them rolling around unclothed beneath the furs, the image was somehow laughable.
But Brienne wasn’t laughing at all as Tormund’s fingers found her most sensitive spot, the same one Jaime had been assaulting not so long ago with his tongue—and Brienne bit her lip to keep from making noise as her husband rubbed her, eased by her own considerable slickness.
“My wife tells me she’d like to try for another baby,” Tormund remarked then, his tone conversational, as if they were all sharing a cup of tea rather than pressed against each other in the cramped bed, Tormund’s fingers touching her expertly. Jaime met Brienne’s eyes questioningly, and Brienne flushed and nodded. A huge grin appeared on Jaime’s face.
“Perhaps you should get to making one,” Jaime commented mischievously, and then two of Jaime’s fingers slid inside of her as he said, “I’ll help.”
Brienne released a truly embarrassing sound, then, almost a whimper, feeling overwhelmed as Tormund’s fingers worked her without while Jaime’s fingers did the same from within. Brienne buried her face against Jaime’s neck, trying to muffle the sound, some part of her still faintly aware of where they were.
Everything was an almost overwhelming blur of pleasure after that; at some point, Jaime’s fingers withdrew and were replaced by Tormund’s cock—and before Brienne could even reflect on the strangeness of that, Jaime was kissing her, and all rational thought, all concern about the utter insanity of the whole situation fled her mind. And somehow, through the haze of headiness and bliss, Jaime’s cock was out, too, and then her mouth was on him, though she couldn’t quite recall when or how any of that had happened.
It was almost too much for her senses, the musky taste of Jaime against her tongue with Tormund thrusting into her from behind—so much that she had no concept of rhythm, nothing guiding the movements of her mouth against him except for the sheer need to feel Jaime’s flesh against her tongue. And then Tormund’s fingers were on her again as he moved inside her with deliberate rolls of his hips, and her pleasure crested a second time, making her moan helplessly around her mouthful.
Everything hazy, her body still tingling with pleasure, Brienne felt Tormund stiffen and still behind her—and he remained there, connected with her for a long minute, before he finally withdrew.
Brienne heard Tormund padding around the room, seeming wholly unconcerned by what was still happening, so Brienne focused on Jaime, then, trying to concentrate, trying to make a deliberate attempt to bring him pleasure. She grasped her hand around the base of him, directing the movements of her tongue on the spots she knew he liked, and Jaime’s hand curled in her hair gently, releasing a soft murmur of appreciation.
Brienne felt the mattress dip again, as Tormund returned, and she thought she should maybe feel self-conscious at being so studiously observed, but she was too sated to bring up the shame she thought she should feel. Instead, she took as much of Jaime into her mouth as she could, fighting the instinct to gag, and Jaime’s hand tightened in her hair warningly.
“Brienne,” he breathed, but she stayed stubbornly put, working him with her tongue until he finished in her mouth.
Brienne fell back against the furs, and she felt an arm wrapping around her middle, one she faintly recognized as belonging to Tormund. Jaime remained slightly separate from them, leaning up against the pillows as he tucked himself back into his breeches. None of them said anything, but the atmosphere was surprisingly not uncomfortable—and even more surprising than the lack of awkwardness was the fact that Jaime made no immediate move to leave, instead remaining lounged carelessly against the pillows. His eyes raked over Brienne’s body slowly, and despite everything, Brienne shivered under his gaze. Tormund reached over and covered her with one of the furs, perhaps believing the tremor was due to the cold.
“How are the children?” Jaime asked after a minute of silence, sounding surprisingly composed after all that had occurred, as if the whole encounter had been nothing out of the ordinary at all. It took Brienne a moment to get her bearings.
“They’re doing well,” she responded finally, Tormund’s fingers playing absently along the line of her ribs where his arm remained wrapped around her. “Cat’s two now, and Selwyn just passed his fourth nameday before we left Winterfell.”
Jaime, of course, would have known that; Brienne didn’t believe that he’d ever manage to forget when his and Cersei’s son had been born, the very same day his twin and lover had died. He just gave her a wan smile.
“You should see them,” she remarked after a second, but Jaime just shook his head.
“It’s better if I don’t,” he remarked finally, regretfully. “Not here, not with so many eyes on us.”
Brienne frowned, but she could understand Jaime’s caution. This moment, in itself, was dangerous, but Tormund’s presence gave them plausible deniability; any suspicion thrown in the direction of the children could have dire consequences, for Selwyn most of all.
“I’ll send word when I can see them,” Jaime told them a moment later, as if to remove some of the sting of his rejection. “They’ve made it part of the rules that everyone gets proper leave now, so people can visit their families if they’d like. The King’s idea originally, I think; he has a lot of ideas about what he thinks the Night’s Watch should be.”
Brienne mulled over Jaime’s words, wondering what that meant for them—wondering if that meant that she and Jaime could have more than one or two nights together at a time. A week, even, sounded like a previously unthinkable indulgence.
“You should come visit us, then,” Tormund surprised her by saying—and clearly enough, the words were a shock to Jaime as well, because he regarded Tormund with a raised eyebrow, and Tormund released an annoyed noise. “I’m not asking for a repeat performance, crow. I’m offering to let you spend time with your children in their own home.”
It was difficult to say who Tormund was trying to reassure, Jaime or himself, but there was surprisingly no malice in Tormund’s tone when he referred to them as Jaime’s children—and even if Jaime didn’t, Brienne recognized the offer for what it was, a show of good faith from her husband to her lover. Perhaps, she mused to herself, that had been what this whole strange encounter had been about; in some absolutely absurd and unconventional way, it was an incredibly sweet gesture from her wild husband.
Smiling, Brienne rolled over and pressed her lips to Tormund’s, and she hoped her husband could feel her gratitude.
Brienne liked to believe that that was the day their child had been conceived. She had no way of knowing for certain, of course, for Tormund had had great fun in “trying” to make a baby in the ensuing days and weeks. But she liked to believe that that day had truly been the day, that the three of them had all, somehow, had a part in creating this child.
Brienne told Tormund as soon as she was certain, but they tried to hold off on telling Selwyn that time, for they didn’t want him to have to go through it again if something went wrong, if the child did not live to be born. But it soon became impossible to hide it from him, because Selwyn was nothing if not a perceptive child, and when the nausea started, Selwyn had been quick to catch on and not easily placated by the explanation that she was simply ill.
The return of the nausea and fatigue made Brienne nervous despite all the reassurances that she got from Tormund and the others. Brienne was careful almost to the point of paranoia, drinking the herb tea they told her was good for a woman with child, resting whenever she felt unwell, and trying her best to eat even when she felt nauseated. The saving grace of it all was that the nausea seemed less debilitating than it had been with her previous pregnancy—or perhaps she’d simply gotten better at coping with it, for she spent fewer days in bed, and if she sat down awhile and breathed slowly, she was able to keep her food in her stomach more often than not. It helped, too, that her children were increasingly independent; Cat, though she had still seen only two namedays, was willful and independent and could occupy herself more often than not, and Tormund was already beginning to school Selwyn on how to use a bow, for he hadn’t particularly taken to the sword.
When three moons passed since the last time Brienne had bled, her nausea receded while her stomach began to grow, and it was only then that Brienne began to relax a little. The danger of losing a child in the womb, Dasha told her, was less after the first three turns of the moon—and yet Brienne still could not relax completely, for there remained the chance for a stillbirth, and the possibility haunted her dreams still. The first time she felt movement in her belly, she relaxed further still. She’d at first thought it her imagination or wishful thinking, but after the second time she felt it, she was certain—their baby was alive in her womb.
The snows began to recede slowly, even north of the Wall; it was strange to see grass begin to sprout up where there had previously been only blankets of snow, but the increased sunshine made it impossible not to be optimistic, and so Brienne was.
She almost panicked at the memory when she woke to a sharp pain in her abdomen, barely able to remember where she was until her hand moved to her belly, round and full under her touch. Brienne closed her eyes and took a deep breath; she was about a week before they’d expected the birth, not so early as to be worried. Brienne felt another sharp pain and clenched her teeth, breathing until it passed, before turning over and shaking Tormund awake.
“Tormund,” she hissed softly, and he made a groggy noise and turned toward her, his grunt of response low and gravelly with sleep. “The baby is coming.”
He came fully awake within seconds after she spoke the words, sitting up and lighting a candle. Brienne sat up, too, movements somewhat more arduous with the swell of her belly impeding her, and Tormund looked at her with a twinkle of excitement in his eye. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers, all excitement and no sensuality.
“I’ll wake the others,” he assured Brienne as he scrambled out of bed, haphazardly dressing. Brienne watched him, breathing in a low hiss as another of her labor pains hit her. Tormund gave her a look, almost as though he wanted to apologize for having subjected her to this, but he said nothing; he simply pressed his lips quickly to hers once more and he was gone.
It was easier, this time, to remain calm, for she’d experienced the whole ordeal already, and Sansa’s wasn’t the only birth she’d attended. She knew very well what the progression of things would likely be, knew that since her labor pains had just begun and since they were so spread out, it would be some time still before the moment was actually upon her. So she forced herself to get out of bed and move around, no matter how much of a hassle the whole thing was, for she knew she was likely to be largely confined to bed soon enough. She wandered into the front room, lighting candles as she went and stopping to clutch at the ends of the table or a wall each time the pain came upon her again.
It was not long before Tormund returned with Dasha and Orik in tow; the two of them set about preparing everything, and Brienne got back into bed at Dasha’s instruction, spreading her legs unselfconsciously to allow the other woman to examine her.
“It’ll probably be a few hours still,” she announced, telling Brienne what she already knew. But things seemed somehow easier this time, although whether the labor was actually easier on her or Brienne simply found it so because she knew exactly what to expect, it was difficult to say for certain. She sat and chatted with the others in between bouts of pain, and even those seemed less severe than they had the first time.
When Dasha finally told her the time to push would be coming soon, Brienne turned to Tormund and gave him a piercing look.
“This is your last chance to decide you want a say in the child’s naming,” she told him seriously, but he simply smiled and used a cloth to wipe the sweat from her brow. She’d brought up the topic with Tormund more than once over the months that she’d carried the child, thinking Tormund would be more inclined to want a say in the name of this child he knew for certain was his blood. But this time, like all the previous times, Tormund shrugged and demurred.
“I have no one I want to name the child for,” he told her seriously, and not for the first time. “You choose.”
And not long after that, Dasha was telling her to push, and she was not so concerned about the child’s name as she was with wondering if it was somehow possible it could make its way out of her body, for in that moment, through the splitting pain, it once again seemed perfectly impossible. But despite her doubts, Dasha was pulling the babe from her body, and Brienne collapsed, sweat-drenched and exhausted, against the sheets. She lay back against the pillows with her eyes closed, waiting to hear the child’s cries—and when the sound never came, Brienne’s eyes shot open in a panic.
“Why isn’t it crying?” she demanded frantically, wondering if the gods could be so cruel as to carry the child safely to the day of his birth only to have it die. She was convinced that must be it, that the babe must not have survived, but then Tormund was at her side, squeezing her hand reassuringly.
“He’s fine,” he told her, and Brienne might have suspected Tormund to be lying to spare her an awful truth, but that wasn’t Tormund’s way. And even if it had been, he’d never have been able to fake the large grin that was plastered on his face, not if anything dire had happened to the child.
“A boy?” she ventured softly, and Tormund nodded. “But why isn’t he crying?”
But Dasha returned with the child in her arms before Tormund could answer, the babe cleaned and swaddled in blankets.
“Some babies don’t cry,” she offered with a helpless shrug before she handed over the child, and Brienne took her son into her arms for the first time. “But he’s fine.”
Brienne looked down at the child’s face, and it was obvious enough that Dasha’s words had been the truth. The child’s eyes were open, big and blue and regarding Brienne with what she imagined must have been soft curiosity. He had more hair on his head, already, than Selwyn or Catelyn had been when they’d been born—but the hair was the same pale blond that theirs had been, the shade almost eerily identical. There was no obvious hint of Tormund, not in his face and not in his coloring, though the child was unquestionably his; she and Jaime had seen each other only that once at Castle Black, and Tormund had been present, knew quite well that she and Jaime had done nothing that could have possibly created this child she held in her arms.
When she looked up and met her husband’s gaze, he appeared conflicted; she wondered if the same doubts were running through his head as were suddenly running through hers. Tormund had been wholly convinced that Catelyn was Jaime’s child, citing how much she’d looked like Selwyn had as an infant when she’d been born—and he’d been so adamant in that belief that he’d managed to sway them all to his conviction. But this child looked as much like Catelyn when she’d been born as Brienne had thought Catelyn had looked like Selwyn—and suddenly, where she’d been so certain, she was not any longer.
Selwyn, in truth, now resembled Cersei much more than he did Jaime; he had warmer blond hair and her wavy curls, had soft and almost feminine features that hearkened to Jaime’s twin more than Jaime himself. Catelyn didn’t really resemble Jaime either, not if Brienne thought about it clearly; she had Brienne’s lighter blonde hair, her eyes a shade of blue that could have come from Brienne as easily as it could have come from Jaime. Only when Tormund reached a hand forward and brushed it through their son’s hair did Brienne finally speak.
“You had other children,” she intoned softly, and Tormund looked up to meet her gaze, confusion written clearly on his features.
“Yes,” he breathed finally, cautiously, as if uncertain what the point was, though his words only confirmed what Brienne already knew. She knew Tormund had had other children before they’d married, though she knew nothing about them, for Tormund almost never mentioned them. From his cagy responses, she couldn’t help but imagine that they were estranged—or worse, dead, so she’d never pressed him on the matter before.
“Do they all look like you?” Brienne asked him, then, eyebrow raised—and when Tormund finally seemed to comprehend what Brienne was asking, a slow smile spread onto his features.
“No,” he admitted finally. “Not anywhere near all of them.”
Brienne didn’t say anything more about it, but she knew Tormund had understood her point, that perhaps Tormund had been too quick to jump to conclusions about Cat’s parentage—that she could just as easily be Tormund’s as Jaime’s, that there was no way for them to tell. It didn’t change anything, not really, for Tormund had never treated Catelyn or Selwyn as anything but his children—but somehow, it felt like it mattered, like something that had been lingering heavily between them had finally been dismissed.
“Sandor,” Brienne said then, without preamble, and Tormund’s brow furrowed in confusion.
“I think we should name him Sandor,” Brienne clarified after a moment, and when Tormund’s mind finally seemed to process the proclamation, something undefinable passed across his face.
Sandor Clegane had fallen in the battle for King’s Landing; the only consolation had been that he’d been able to take his brother down with him, had cleared the way for them to get to Cersei and capture her. Brienne had seen both their bodies afterward, the Hound’s burned face splattered with blood, lying next to his even more grotesque brother, who’d barely seemed any more human than the wights they’d fought before. They’d burned Ser Gregor’s body, unable to feel assured that he’d truly remain dead without that; the Hound’s body had not been subjected to the same fate, for the idea would have been too cruel.
House Clegane had been wiped out of existence that day, and there were so few left to remember Sandor Clegane, and even fewer who had any kind words to say. Sansa and Arya, perhaps, thought kindly of him—and Brienne did, somehow, despite the time he’d tried to kill her. They’d both thought they were doing the right thing at the time, both of them trying to protect Arya, and Brienne couldn’t find it in herself to hate him, not after all he’d done for their cause—not after he’d given his life in helping to ensure Cersei’s fall.
Tormund smiled and looked down at their son, who remained silent, his eyes having fallen closed, though his chest continued to rise and fall reassuringly, banishing any worry Brienne might have had about his strange silence.
“I liked the Hound,” Tormund told her sincerely. “He was a big, mean fucker, but he had a good heart. He saved my life once.” Tormund paused, leaning forward to press a kiss against her temple. “It’s a good name.”
Sandor was a quiet baby, almost the exact opposite of how Cat had been in those early months after she’d been born. He cried so rarely that Brienne sometimes worried for him, afraid that he’d lack what he needed for want of crying out for it, that she wasn’t doing the right things for him when he needed them. But he had a healthy appetite and gained weight normally enough, and as everyone continued to try to reassure her that there was nothing to worry about, she eventually had to come to accept that that was simply his personality.
It would have been strange before she’d had children to think than infants had personalities already, even before they could speak or walk or even sit up by themselves, but by her third child, she had no choice but to accept it as truth. And her children were, in some ways, as different as three people could possibly be.
Selwyn was nurturing and full of empathy, studious yet playful, already interested in his letters even before he’d reached his fifth name day. In sharp contrast, Cat was wild and boisterous, as Brienne remembered she had once been; Cat loved to play at swordfighting with sticks and was fiercely competitive with the other children though prone to tears whenever she didn’t get her way. And Sandor…he was silent and unobtrusive, could occupy himself with a single toy for hours on end. When Brienne laid him in his crib, he would lie awake silently for awhile, until at some point he would drift off silently and without any fuss. And when he woke, he would lay patiently beneath his blankets, waiting patiently for one of them to fetch him.
Time seemed to pass quickly and simply after Sandor’s birth, without the pressure of having to give Tormund a child, without the fear for the state of her relationship with him. Without the worries about Jaime and Tormund, about whether or not Tormund would begin to resent her because of her relationship with Jaime.
Selwyn passed his fifth name day, then Catelyn her fourth, and finally Sandor his first. Jaime made good on Tormund’s offer and came to visit them, and Brienne was surprised by how cordial the whole thing was. Tormund easily ceded time to Jaime, and Brienne slept in the guest room with him while Tormund, uncomplaining, slept alone in their bed. They all ate meals together, and Jaime and Tormund talked as though they were friends—or, at the very least, cordial acquaintances. Jaime stayed four days before leaving to return to Castle Black, and the whole thing seemed almost too idyllic to be real.
It wasn’t long after Jaime’s visit that they had other visitors, too—more of the free folk that Brienne didn’t know, although this time it came with, thankfully, no news of battles and bloodshed. It wasn’t that part of Brienne wouldn’t have been happy for a fight, something she’d been denied for quite some time—but there was also the part of her that had become a mother, that wished for nothing but safety and security for her family.
But the band of men, women, and children—about thirty in total—were only staying for a few nights, which saw feasting and dancing and all manner of revelry. Brienne joined in with the feasting but eschewed the dancing, though she enjoyed watching Selwyn and Catelyn dance around together, clumsy and uncoordinated. She even enjoyed watching Tormund twirl some of the women around by the fire after the children had retired for the night, though seeing another woman in Tormund’s embrace gave her a queer feeling of disquiet.
What was even more disquieting was the day that they left, this time with one more than the number with which they’d come. Brienne had watched in confusion as one of the women from their village, a younger woman named Grinna, slung a bag over her shoulder and departed with them. It was a strange thing watching her leave, for she had a husband and two small children besides, and Brienne told Tormund as much when the two of them were alone later. Tormund just laughed, a low, bellowing thing.
“That’s the way of the free folk, wife,” he told her with a wry smile. “We make villages when we want, but we leave when we want. That’s what freedom means.”
There was something liberating about Tormund’s words, but it was also somewhat unnerving; Brienne couldn’t imagine just walking away from her children one day simply because she felt like leaving. She couldn’t even imagine walking away from Tormund, not anymore—not even if she didn’t have to part with her children as a consequence.
“I thought she and Arald were married,” Brienne remarked after a moment, uncertainly, and Tormund gave her an indulgent smile, like she was terribly naïve.
“I thought you knew by now that the free folk don’t do ‘marriage’ like you do in the South,” Tormund remarked after a moment, his tone almost scolding, though not unkind. “We don’t swear ‘until the end of my days.’ If a man wants a woman, he takes her—and if she doesn’t want him, she leaves. If a woman wants a man, she’ll go with him. If she thinks he’ll sire strong children for her, she’ll get them. Doesn’t matter if they’re married. A woman won’t stay with a man if she’s unhappy, not because of some silly vow.”
It was one of the not-infrequent circumstances in which Brienne was reminded how different they were, how different were the rules and customs that governed their lands—and that somehow, even after four years north of the Wall, Brienne still hadn’t managed to wrap her mind around the place she now lived.
And part of her wondered, uncomfortably, if this hadn’t been part of it with Jaime—if Tormund hadn’t been afraid she’d simply leave if he hadn’t given her a long tether, or afraid that she’d believed Jaime a better sire of children than he was. But Tormund knew that Brienne wasn’t like him, that she was ruled largely by oaths and vows—but perhaps his worries weren’t always informed by rationality, either. Brienne didn’t have the heart to ask him, to open those wounds anew when they seemed, at last, to be somewhat healed.
And the band of nomadic free folk weren’t their only visitors, either; it was about a month after Sandor’s first name day, when Brienne was out in the rookery, that she heard surprised exclamations from outside that alerted her of an unexpected visitor. She rushed out herself, hand on the hilt of her sword—and she saw immediately what had everyone reacting to, a great figure flying circles around them, large enough almost to blot out the sun entirely when it flew between it and the land. Brienne watched dimly as it came to touch some distance away, but even so, the reverberations of the landing shook the ground enough that she could feel it.
Some of the smaller children began weeping at the sight, and Brienne could understand why; no matter how many times she saw them, Brienne wasn’t certain she’d ever get used to the sight of a fully-grown dragon. It was the green one, Rhaegal, and it was difficult to believe, looking at it, that it was the smaller of the two living dragons.
Brienne spotted Tormund’s distinctive red hair as he made his way toward the dragon without fear, and Brienne jogged after him, seeing Jon slide off the beast’s back with a surprising amount of grace, clearly born of much practice at it. Brienne watched him brush his hand against the dragon’s snout, was just close enough to hear him say something to it in what might have been Valyrian—and the dragon took off in a large gust of wind, so strong Brienne had to make a serious effort to stay on her feet. Once the dragon had taken off, Tormund stepped toward Jon and threw his arms around the other man.
“Jon Snow,” he growled into the man’s ear, as if Jon wasn’t a king now, about as far from being a bastard as one could possibly be. “Why didn’t you say you were coming?”
When Jon pulled back from Tormund’s friendly embrace, though, he was smiling; he clearly took no offense at the address.
“I had business at Castle Black, and I thought I’d stop by while I was in the area,” he explained with a grin. They were only ‘in the area’ of Castle Black, of course, if one traveled at the speed of a dragon; on horseback, it was four or five days’ travel, and on foot, it was at least twice that.
It had been, Brienne reflected as her eyes roved over Jon, more than five years since she’d left King’s Landing, since she’d last laid her eyes on the King of the Seven Kingdoms. Time hadn’t changed him much; he wore a simple padded tunic with a gorget over it, a Stark dire wolf on one side and a Targaryen dragon on the other. His cloak was perhaps the only other indication of his changed status, made of fine material, black with a red Targaryen sigil emblazoned upon it. Had she thought of it, she might have imagined him changed—but his face remained largely unlined, although the scars of battles past still marred it. His body, too, remained largely unchanged; unlike Robert Baratheon, he had not let his time administrating turn his body soft, remaining, as he’d always been, small and slender next to her and Tormund.
“Your Grace,” she greeted him more formally, the words accompanied by a small bow. Jon just laughed good-naturedly.
“Please, Brienne, call me Jon,” he told her kindly. “I’m no king here.”
The words were true enough, but even outside the Seven Kingdoms, it still felt strange to drop the courtesy; it was true that she’d known Jon before he’d ever been a king of any kingdom, but there had always been some distance between them. She’d served Sansa and not Jon directly; the two of them had never been exactly friendly, not precisely the sort to refer to each other by given names. Brienne ducked her head in acknowledgement of his words but remained silent. Jon seemed not to notice, turning his attention instead to their surroundings, which he took in with curious eyes.
“It’s a nice place you’ve settled here,” Jon told Tormund after a moment, and Brienne was surprised to see Tormund looking a bit abashed.
“It’s not your red castle, but it’s ours,” he said almost defensively—and Jon gave him a look, clasping Tormund on the shoulder in a fraternal gesture.
“I mean no offense, my friend,” he assured Tormund sincerely. “I miss the North. Things were always…so much simpler up here. And I miss the snow.”
They’d been hit by a small flurry of snow the day before; most of it had melted away and never quite stuck to the ground, but there were small, unmelted banks of the stuff upon the roofs of buildings and scattered across the ground. From the wistful look in Jon’s eyes as he regarded their surroundings, Brienne couldn’t imagine that his words were anything but truth.
She was surprised when, after a second, Jon looked back at her.
“Where is your son?” he asked after a moment, and it was clear enough despite how casual he attempted to keep his tone which son he meant, that he wasn’t asking after their newest son, if he even knew of Sandor’s birth. Brienne had written to Sansa with the news, but she was uncertain how far the news had traveled after that. Brienne opened her mouth to respond, but Tormund beat her to it.
“He’s with his brother and sister,” Tormund told him almost defensively, his earlier moment of camaraderie with Jon having quickly given way to suspicion. “Why are you asking?”
“How is he?” Jon asked in lieu of actually answering the question—and she knew what Jon was asking, even if he hadn’t said it directly. It was the same thing Jaime had asked her, before he’d ever spent time with his son. Tormund regarded his friend with a guarded expression; clearly he understood the unspoken implications of Jon’s words, too.
“He’s a boy,” he responded defensively. “He likes reading and playing in the snow.”
Jon looked at Brienne, then, as if expecting to find support from her, but Brienne remained silent, thinking better of any desire to jump into the middle of the suddenly tense conversation. Brienne didn’t think Jon was wrong for asking; after all, it had been at his behest that Selwyn had been spared, and if Selwyn had turned out as cruel as Joffrey had, the King would doubtlessly feel responsible for any havoc he might wreak. But Brienne also knew better than to get in Tormund’s way when he was angry.
“You haven’t seen anything…?” Jon finally ventured, his tone tentative.
“No,” Tormund answered stonily, his tone absolutely uncompromising. “Do you check your own children for signs of madness?”
“Yes,” Jon replied without hesitation. “I have to, and so do you. We can’t have another King Joffrey.”
Tormund was well and truly angry, then, and for a second, Brienne was afraid that he was going to strike Jon. Tormund had never met Joffrey, had never much cared for the affairs of the South; perhaps that was why he did not take the possibility with the same seriousness as Jon did. But surprisingly enough, Tormund did not hit his friend, though when he responded, his tone was seething.
“Joffrey was raised by an evil cunt who told him the sun shined out of his arsehole,” Tormund bit out angrily. “My son is not like that.”
Jon looked surprised at Tormund’s words, at his vehement defense of Selwyn.
“Your son?” Jon echoed with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes. My son,” Tormund returned with a challenging expression, and something indefinable seemed to pass behind Jon’s gaze before a soft smile spread onto his features.
“I’d like to meet him, if that’s all right with you,” Jon ventured carefully after a moment—but Briennne, sensing Tormund’s dark mood, took a step toward her husband, placing a gentle hand on his arm. When Tormund turned to look at her, his eyes were narrowed in anger, though Brienne knew it wasn’t directed at her.
“I’ll take him,” Brienne offered in a soft voice, hoping to give Tormund a moment to calm down. Tormund almost looked like he might argue the point with her before he simply frowned.
“Fine,” he hissed, then turned on his heel and stalked away without another word. Jon’s eyes followed Tormund’s movements silently, and Brienne shot Jon an apologetic look. Jon’s resulting expression was a bit guilty.
“I didn’t mean to make him angry,” he told her sheepishly, and Brienne gave Jon a sympathetic look.
“I know,” she reassured him gently. Not seeming able to accept Brienne’s placid understanding, Jon scrambled for more.
“I have to ask,” he told her helplessly, seeming somewhat at a loss. Brienne gave him another small smile.
“Just give him some time to cool down,” she advised after a moment, taking pity on the man.
And possibly kill something, she thought to herself, though she didn’t speak those words aloud. Either way, Jon probably already knew them; he’d known Tormund longer than she had, although perhaps not so well. What she said instead of voicing the thought aloud was, “I’ll bring you to meet Selwyn.”
Brienne found Catelyn first, in a group with some of the older children, all of whom were practicing shooting rocks from a slingshot toward a piece of wood they’d set up on a stump toward the westernmost part of town. Jon trailed silently after Brienne as she called out to her daughter.
“Cat, do you know where Selwyn is?” she asked, and Catelyn glanced disinterestedly over her shoulder.
“How should I know?” she asked with a careless shrug. “But did you see the dragon? I bet he didn’t even see it. He’s probably got his face buried in a book.”
Cat said the word as though it was something shameful; at four, she didn’t share the interest in books her brother had already developed at that age, and she made no secret of the fact that she found her older brother’s interests rather dull. Jon snorted at Catelyn’s response.
“She reminds me of Arya at that age,” he remarked when Catelyn had turned her attention back to the group’s adventures with the slingshot. “Actually, she reminds me of Arya now.”
Brienne smiled; ‘headstrong’ was a word she’d use to describe her daughter, and it was most certainly one that applied to Arya as well.
“How is Arya?” she couldn’t help but ask. She hadn’t heard much of the girl since Arya had gone with Gendry to Storm’s End. Sansa hadn’t had much to say on the subject of her sister, when she’d seen her at Winterfell, mostly shrugs and admissions that she didn’t really understand the girl. Brienne did, though; she saw shades of herself in Arya, the same way she saw shades of herself in her daughter.
“Willful. Frustrating,” Jon told Brienne, although he was smiling as he said it. “We’ve been trying to convince her to marry Gendry, but of course Arya will not be told what to do—despite the fact that everyone is fairly certain the two of them have been lovers for years. It’s all quite a scandal in the South.”
Brienne smiled at Jon’s words, fully able to imagine Arya defying others’ expectations simply because she could, refusing to be pinned down by the conventions of her birth. Jon didn’t seem genuinely upset by her behavior, though.
They finally came upon Selwyn with some of the younger children; he was holding Sandor’s hands as he guided his younger brother to walk, something Sandor hadn’t yet managed unaided, having not quite developed the balance to stand without support. Jon stood silently next to her as she watched the scene with a soft smile on her lips; Selwyn, nearly six years old already, had taken it upon himself to teach his younger brother to walk, a task he was tackling with some vigor, though he hadn’t yet been successful.
Brienne called Selwyn’s name, and he looked over his shoulder at her before nodding. Selwyn’s honey curls were shaggy and unkempt, falling into his eyes, but he’d protested at any suggestion that he cut it, and Tormund had insisted he should be able to keep his hair any way he wanted it. Tormund, Brienne had realized, likely had a vested interest in the proposition, for he let his own hair and beard grow fairly long and wild, and perhaps he feared relenting on allowing Brienne to cut Selwyn’s would open the door to insisting Tormund cut his own. It might have been a saving grace, anyway; somehow, with the shaggy curls, Selwyn looked as though he might truly be of Tormund’s blood, though Brienne knew with certainty that that wasn’t the case. But the hair made him look more like Tormund than either Cat or Sandor did, both of them with Brienne’s much lighter, straight blonde hair.
Selwyn set Sandor back down on his hands and knees in the grass, saying something softly to his brother before jogging over to them across the grass. He stopped in front of Jon and Brienne with a curious expression.
“Yes, mother?” he ventured, and Brienne smiled softly. Selwyn really was the polar opposite of his sister, polite and well-behaved where she could be difficult and fractious.
“Selwyn, this is Jon,” Brienne introduced carefully. “He’s a friend of mine and your father’s.”
Selwyn’s eyes swept up and down Jon’s body, lingering on the sigils on his gorget.
“You’re the King of the Seven Kingdoms,” he remarked astutely after a moment, and there was a bit of distrust in his expression, as though he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the man and his presence there outside the lands he ruled. Brienne almost laughed; it was nearly too cynical for a boy of not yet six years.
“You’re a very smart boy, Selwyn,” Jon remarked kindly, in the voice of someone very used to talking with children—but he must be, Brienne reflected, for he had two young sons of his own. Selwyn pursed his lips thoughtfully before looking at Jon with a perplexed expression.
“If your name is Aegon, why does mother call you Jon?” he asked finally.
The question might have been considered uncouth by some, but Jon smiled down at Selwyn with absolutely no malice. He lowered himself down to a crouch so he could meet Selwyn at his own eye level.
“I’d like to tell you a story,” Jon offered after a moment, but Selwyn’s expression remained skeptical.
“It’s not some kind of fable, is it?” he asked suspiciously. “One to teach children not to wander away at night because they could be eaten by bears, or to teach them it’s bad to lie?”
Brienne again held back her laughter at that; Selwyn said the word children as though he wasn’t one, as if he looked down upon the concept that he might need morality tales to warn him of the correct way to act. It was clear enough from Jon’s response that he’d picked up on that, too, the way Selwyn almost fancied himself grown.
“Not this one,” he assured Selwyn. “This is a true story, and it’s only for brave boys, ones who can handle a few scary parts. Is that you?”
Selwyn still looked a little wary of Jon, but clearly the words had worked, because he looked a little intrigued, too.
“I’m brave,” Selwyn declared after a moment, though his voice wavered a bit, as though he wasn’t quite certain of that fact. Jon smiled and found a rock to sit upon, and Selwyn sat down on the grass in front of him with an expectant expression. Brienne hovered a few feet away, curious about what Jon was about to tell her son.
“You see,” Jon began slowly, “a long time ago, my mother and father fell in love. But they couldn't be together.”
Selwyn, for all his initial skepticism, was clearly transfixed from the moment Jon began speaking, and he made no secret of that fact.
“Why not?” he asked curiously, eagerly.
“Well, she was promised to another man,” Jon explained patiently. “One she didn’t love.”
Selwyn’s face scrunched up in distaste, the kind of faint disapproval that could only come from an innocent child, one who didn’t yet know what the world could truly be like. Selwyn had already learned his share of history, but it had never been personal stories like this, and perhaps he’d never considered that many arranged marriages were forced, that love had no place in them at all. Selwyn was, perhaps, even more sheltered than most highborn boys would have been, knew nothing of the obligations that would have rested heavy on his shoulders if she’d chosen to raise him in Tarth.
“She had to marry someone she didn’t love?” he asked in disbelief. “That’s not fair.”
Jon smiled softly and shot Brienne a quick look; Brienne wondered, absently, what Selwyn would think if he knew how Brienne’s own relationship with Tormund had begun. A moot point, of course, because she never planned to tell him that truth.
“No, it’s not,” Jon agreed quietly. “And they didn’t think so, either. So one night, my father came and took her away.”
Selwyn gave Jon a slightly disbelieving look.
“She was a Stark. How could he just take her away?” he asked skeptically, perhaps thinking himself an expert on the Starks, having spent a few months at Wintefell just a few years prior. Brienne had to suppress a laugh at Selwyn’s rather affronted tone—but Jon, to his credit, remained stony and serious.
“Well he was the prince and the heir to the throne,” Jon remarked softly. “He thought he could do what he liked.” Jon paused, then added deliberately, “What do you think about that?”
The point of the whole exercise suddenly became clear to Brienne, and she almost wanted to commend Jon for how cleverly he’d slipped it in, a disguised test of her son’s morality. Brienne wondered if what Jon had told Tormund was true, if he really tested his own sons in the same way, searching for signs of the infamous incest-fostered Targaryen madness. Selwyn’s face turned pensive, and he truly appeared to be considering the question carefully.
“That’s not right,” he finally declared, with all the confidence of a five-year-old who hadn’t yet experienced all the intricacies of the world. “A prince isn’t supposed to do what he likes. A prince is supposed to do what’s honorable and what’s best for the kingdom.”
Brienne remembered when she, too, had been that naïve; even after she’d been grown, she’d placed so much stock in honor. She remembered when it had all seemed so simple, so black and white—and clearly her own particular brand of morality had, somehow or other, rubbed off on her son. Jon smiled at the boy’s words.
“That’s what I think, too,” Jon told the boy, and Selwyn beamed at that, as if he’d managed to answer a difficult question correctly—and perhaps that was exactly what he’d done. “My father did what he did because he loved my mother, but what he did was still wrong. And the man who was supposed to marry my mother went to war over it, because he believed my mother had been kidnapped, and her family believed it, too. My father died because of that choice, and my mother, too. He died in battle, and my mother died from giving birth to me.”
A sad look appeared on Selwyn’s face.
“So you never knew your mother?” he asked, sounding horrified at the prospect—and Brienne felt a peculiar blend of feelings swirling in her chest at the words. Selwyn, of course, didn’t know how much his own story paralleled Jon’s—didn’t know that he’d never known his real mother, who had died giving birth to him, though Selwyn had what Jon had never had, a woman who’d accepted him as her own. Any pride Brienne may have felt at Selwyn’s obvious love for her—the affirmation that she had perhaps, against all odds, been a good mother to him—was tempered by the memory of how all this had started in the first place.
“No,” Jon affirmed seriously, his tone giving nothing away. “But my uncle found me, and he saved me. He took me back to Winterfell and told everyone I was his son, not his sister’s.”
“Why did he lie?” Selwyn inquired, perplexed. Jon smiled indulgently.
“The man who’d wanted to marry my mother had been declared the new king, and he hated my father and his family for taking her away. My uncle knew he would kill me if he found out who my real father was.”
“That’s not right!” Selwyn protested. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You were just a baby!”
Brienne felt like she could scarcely breathe for a moment; if only Selwyn knew, if Jon had been a different king, that he might have been subjected to exactly the same fate. Jon met Brienne’s eyes briefly; she could tell he was thinking the same thing.
“Yes, I was,” Jon confirmed gently. “So my uncle called me ‘Jon’ after his foster father, and that’s the name I grew up with. He couldn’t call me ‘Aegon,’ because that’s a Targaryen name, and that would have given away the secret.”
Recognition dawned behind Selwyn’s eyes. “Like Aegon the Conqueror,” he intoned breathlessly, and Jon nodded.
“Exactly,” he affirmed gently. “So you see, my uncle lied because sometimes there are only bad choices, and the only thing you can do is make the choice that is the least bad. He could lie and save me, or he could tell the truth and watch me die.”
Selwyn sat silently in the grass for a minute, his expression thoughtful. Jon didn’t say anything, seeming content to allow Selwyn to mull it over, to take from the story what he would.
“I think he made the right choice,” Selwyn resolved finally. “If anyone tried to hurt Catelyn or Sandor, I’d lie to keep them safe.”
It was Jon’s turn to look pensive, regarding Selwyn with a curious expression. After a long minute, he nodded to himself, as if he’d just made some sort of resolution.
“You know, Selwyn, I have a son, Ned, just about your age,” he remarked gently. “I hope you can meet each other some day. I think you would like each other very much.”
Selwyn’s face lit up at the words, perhaps realizing the boy in question was the Crown Prince of the Seven Kingdoms. “I’d like to meet him,” Selwyn said politely but with a tone full of excitement.
The sound of a high-pitched scream made all of them look up—and Brienne’s eyes fell immediately upon her daughter on the ground covered in mud. A few of the other children were hovered around her as she burst into tears; more than likely, she’d been running and fallen. From where Brienne stood, Cat looked more muddy than actually injured, though from the vehemence of her sudden sobs, one might have believed her to be dying. Brienne would have been more worried, had she not already known that her daughter was fairly prone to histrionics. Brienne sighed and took a step toward the scene, but Selwyn shot to his feet.
“No, mother—I’ll get her,” he offered sweetly, and with an abbreviated bow to Jon, he ran off before Brienne could protest. She watched carefully from a distance, wondering if she’d have to intervene, but Selwyn seemed to have everything in hand, shooing the other children away as he knelt in front of his sister, talking to her quietly. After a moment, her sobs quieted slightly, and she held out her arm for Selwyn to inspect.
“He’s a sweet boy,” Jon said, and Brienne started; she’d been so intent watching the scene before her that she’d entirely forgotten Jon’s presence, hadn’t even heard him rise and come to stand beside her.
“He is,” Brienne agreed after a minute, watching as Selwyn helped his sister to her feet and began leading her in the direction of their home—hopefully, Brienne thought, to help her get cleaned up and change out of her muddy clothing. Deciding that the crisis had been averted for the moment, Brienne turned her attention back to Jon, though she made a note to check on Cat later, to make sure she had nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises. Jon smiled at Brienne with something akin to fondness.
“I’d never have seen you as a mother,” he confessed with a smile. “When you first came to us with this proposition, the Queen and I thought you’d lost your mind. But…motherhood suits you.”
Brienne smiled at him but didn’t respond; she thought it went without saying that she agreed. She’d also thought herself crazy when she’d first agreed to take Jaime’s child, had never expected to find herself so comfortable with it.
“You’re even ahead of us,” Jon remarked after a moment with a sheepish grin. “You already have three, and we’re just now cooking our third.”
Brienne chuckled at Jon’s choice of words and turned her smile on him. She hadn’t heard the news of the Queen carrying another child, but she was surprisingly glad to hear it, though she had never been particularly close with the other woman. She remembered not so long before, when Daenerys had claimed she was barren; Brienne couldn’t help but wonder if the Queen, like Brienne herself, was surprised at the turn her life had taken.
“I don’t think it’s meant to be a race, Your Grace,” Brienne remarked with a slight smile, and Jon gave her a somewhat exasperated look, although his smile didn’t falter.
“Jon,” he reminded Brienne with a soft look, and Brienne smiled.
“Jon,” she acknowledged softly, and he nodded his head in appreciation. Brienne felt her own grin turn a bit mischievous, then. “But…if it is a race, we’re quite a bit in the lead. After all, we’re already cooking our fourth.”
It had come as somewhat of a surprise when Brienne hadn’t bled a few moons prior; they hadn’t specifically discussed whether there would be more children, but neither had they been working to prevent another. And it had been one of her easiest pregnancies so far, perhaps even easier than when she’d carried Cat. Brienne felt no different for it, save the knowledge that the child was growing inside her, though her body didn’t yet show the change, not to the casual observer.
“Congratulations,” Jon told her sincerely, and Brienne’s hand wandered almost unconsciously to rest upon her abdomen. “Maybe one day, we can marry one of yours to one of mine.”
Brienne regarded Jon with a curious expression, uncertain if the words were merely a platitude or a serious suggestion, for House Tarth wasn’t a large one, and wasn’t one with which the Crown needed to secure an alliance. It was all especially muddied by the fact that Brienne had clearly dishonored her house in the eyes of many by marrying someone lowborn, and a wildling at that. And Jon had only sons, and Brienne had only one daughter; she tried to imagine, briefly, Catelyn going to court, and the idea was laughable in the same way as Arya or Brienne herself had been at court. But then, she and the Queen were both carrying another, and Brienne wondered, absurdly, if they’d let a potential daughter of theirs marry Jaime and Cersei’s son. Perhaps not, Brienne thought—perhaps Sandor, then.
“You’d have to ask them,” Brienne remarked finally, diplomatically, her head starting to hurt from trying to think though the possibilities and the seeming absurdity of all of them. “I think we all know the dangers of forcing a betrothal.”
Jon laughed, though it was a dark sound, lacking in humor.
“You make a good point,” he acquiesced after a moment, and then he sighed. “I think I should perhaps find your husband, see if I can beg his forgiveness.”
Brienne simply shrugged, feeling a strange sense of fondness for Tormund—even for his temper.
“Good luck,” she remarked. “He holds grudges.”
Jon snorted, although his smile was fond, too.
“I know,” he acknowledged quietly. “But I’ve won him over before. We’ll see if I can’t do it again.”
Their child was born in the middle of the night, more than a fortnight after they’d expected it. Those last few weeks had been especially frustrating for Brienne; both Cat and Sandor had been earlier than predicted, and waiting for this babe had been excruciating, her body swollen and aching from all the extra weight she’d been carrying around. Tormund, unsurprisingly, had wanted her no matter how impossibly full with child she’d become—and she reluctantly acquiesced if only because Dasha told her that it was possible that the activity might hasten her labor.
It didn’t, but it had at least allowed her to focus on something for a little while other than how much her body ached, so it hadn’t been a total loss.
Brienne was nothing if not relieved when she finally felt the familiar pain, but it was undoubtedly the worst of all her births; the extra time in the womb had made the child large, and Brienne knew things had gone badly when Dasha and Orik called for others to come in and help, when they pulled away rag after blood-soaked rag—but unlike Sandor, this child was most definitely crying, so Brienne at least knew that it lived.
That was the last thing she remembered for awhile, but she woke to clean sheets and Tormund by her bedside, gripping her hand in his, a worried expression on his face. He perked up a little when she opened her eyes, leaning forward to place a kiss against her brow.
“How are you feeling?” he asked softly, never letting go of her hand. Brienne blinked a few times, trying to get her bearings, trying to remember what had happened. Her mouth felt sticky and dry when she tried to speak.
“Thirsty,” she confessed finally, and Tormund released her hand to pour her a cup of water. He helped her to sit up against the pillows and, feeling slightly disoriented still, she allowed him to help her drink it. She drained the cup, but Tormund simply set it aside, not pouring another—probably for the best, she thought to herself, for although Brienne felt like she could have had another, she knew she could easily make herself ill by drinking too much too fast.
“Good morning!” said another voice, cheerily, and Brienne looked over to see Dasha standing in the doorway. “I’m glad you’re awake. We thought we might have lost you there for awhile.”
Brienne looked at Tormund for confirmation, and his tired face said it all, that Dasha was not exaggerating. Brienne felt the pain in her loins but only dimly; she wondered if they’d managed to administer milk of the poppy to her even as she’d been unconscious.
“How long?” Brienne asked, her mouth still feeling dry and sticky when she tried to speak. It must have been awhile, she reckoned; Tormund wouldn’t have had those dark circles under his eyes after just a few hours. It was clear enough that he’d missed sleep.
“More than a full day,” Tormund told her gruffly, and he poured her another cup of water, which she took into her hands this time, taking a slow sip. “I almost sent a message to Castle Black, telling the crow to get his one-handed arse up here before you died.”
Tormund’s words were brusque and sharp, but there was obvious emotion beneath them and what looked suspiciously like wetness in his eyes. It struck Brienne that this was the closest she’d ever seen her husband come to crying. Frowning, Brienne shifted her cup to one hand and grasped Tormund’s with her other. It warmed her, somehow, that he’d considered summoning Jaime; she wondered who he’d get to write the letter for him, since he’d never bothered to learn himself.
Dasha came and sat on the bed next to Brienne, touching her hand to Brienne’s forehead.
“Still no fever, which is good,” he declared, and she gently removed the cup from Brienne’s hand and set it aside so she could feel the beat of Brienne’s pulse in her wrist.
“The baby?” Brienne ventured tentatively after a moment, almost afraid to hear the answer. Dasha squeezed her hand reassuringly.
“She’s fine,” she soothed. “Maja’s got her for now.”
Brienne felt a rush of relief in her chest; the woman she and Tormund had stayed with, when they’d still been constructing their own home, had given birth to her own babe a few months prior, and Brienne knew her child would be in good hands. She felt a pang of loneliness in her chest when it struck her that the other woman had probably been nursing Brienne’s daughter in her place, too, for Brienne had been unable to.
“Can I see her?” Brienne asked hopefully, and Dasha patted Brienne briefly on the arm.
“I’ll fetch her,” she assured Brienne. “But then you should rest. I’m not going to feed you lies, Brienne—you’ll be stuck in bed for quite some time, and the more you rest, the quicker you’ll recover.”
With that rather dire warning, Dasha left the room, leaving Brienne alone with Tormund again.
“You scared me,” Tormund told her flatly after a moment, and he took her hand in both of his, resting his lips against his knuckles, though he didn’t go so far as to actually place a kiss against them. Instead, he simply rested his mouth against her hand, as if he couldn’t bear for her to be any further from him.
“I’m sorry,” was all Brienne could manage to say, not sure how else to make him feel better. She reached across her body with her other hand and carded it through his messy waves. “I’ll be okay.”
“Yes, you will,” Tormund declared, as if he could make it true by sheer force of will. “I’m not letting you out of this bed, no matter how frustrated you get.”
Brienne smiled fondly at her husband, recognizing the gruffness as Tormund’s particular brand of caring. But Brienne felt exhausted; there was no chance of her trying to get out of bed anyway, even without Tormund’s stern words. Of course, after a few weeks, that might no longer be true; Tormund’s brusqueness was probably not unfounded.
There was a knock against the doorframe, then, and Dasha ducked her head inside. “I’ve brought your new daughter, but there are a couple more here who wouldn’t take no for an answer when I told them to stay behind,” she remarked and the door burst open with a high-pitched shriek, a flash of long blonde hair blazing across the room. Tormund picked Cat up straight from a run, intercepting her before she could reach Brienne.
“Your mama’s hurt, remember?” Tormund said in an almost scolding tone. “You need to be gentle with her.”
Cat burst into tears almost immediately at the harsh sound of Tormund’s voice, and Tormund sighed, pulling her to his chest and rubbing her back soothingly. Selwyn came in more gingerly, Sandor toddling after him. Selwyn climbed gently onto the bed beside her, then helped his brother up, Cat continuing to cling to Tormund and cry.
Selwyn moved toward her and gave her a hug, gentle and barely there, as if he was afraid of hurting her. Sandor sat silently at her feet, eyeing the scene with a watchful expression. When Selwyn pulled back from the embrace, he was frowning.
“How are you?” Brienne asked her son gently, and Selwyn actually rolled his eyes at the question.
“Better than you,” he told her bitterly, hugging his knees to his chest, looking small and childlike in a way he usually didn’t, thinking himself a nearly man grown at all of six years. His honey-blond curls fell into his eyes as he lowered his head. “It’s not fair.”
His tone was petulant and angry, and Brienne felt a surge of sympathy for the boy; it was easy to forget, sometimes, how young he truly was.
“What’s not fair?” she prodded gently, and Cat’s sobs had finally quieted, and she was watching their exchange with tearstained cheeks, still clinging tightly to her father.
“That just having a baby is so dangerous!” he exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air in frustration. “I’m glad I’m not a girl. I’m not brave enough.”
There were tears in Selwyn’s eyes, then, which he wiped away furiously, and Cat started sniffling again, perhaps realizing that she was a girl. It was bizarre to hear the words from her son, the characterization of the act of having children as bravery, for it was a thing Brienne had seen for many years as nothing more than an act of weakness, of subjugation to one’s husband. Of course, children sometimes saw the right of it, and it was difficult in that moment not to believe that Selwyn’s words were truth—that childbirth was as dangerous as battle, that every time a woman entered into it, she was risking her life. Brienne hadn’t felt it as acutely with Cat or Sandor’s births, for although both had been unpleasant, she’d never really felt the danger of this.
Brienne brushed back Selwyn’s curls.
“There are difficult parts about being a boy, too,” she assured her son with a small smile, and Selwyn looked skeptical, as if he couldn’t possibly imagine anything being worse than this. And perhaps he was right.
As a moment of silence fell over the room, punctuated only by Cat’s small sniffles, Dasha finally stepped forward and revealed the small bundle she held in her arms—and Brienne felt a pang in her chest as she realized she was seeing her daughter for the first time.
The child was unmistakably Tormund’s, the way neither Cat nor Sandor were, a tuft of red hair adorning her head. Her eyes were blue, too, but paler than the other children’s had been when they’d been newborns; all three children’s eyes had remained blue, but Brienne couldn’t help but wonder if this little girl’s eyes might shift to her father’s green, in time. Brienne felt a rush of affection as she took the child into her arms; she realized acutely that she’d nearly died bringing this little girl into the world, and there was a time she might have resented the child for it, or resented Tormund, or resented the circumstances of her life having made her a wife and then a mother several times over. But that time had passed; now, Brienne felt only grateful for what she did have.
“Have you named her yet?” Brienne asked softly, and Tormund shook his head, hand still gently rubbing Catelyn’s back.
“But I’d like to name this one, if that’s all right with you,” he surprised her by saying, and Brienne gave him a curious look. He’d been singularly uninterested in naming any of their other children; she wondered if the reason he wanted to name this one was perhaps because she shared his coloring, that he felt an affinity for her that he hadn’t felt for the others at first. Brienne gave him a small smile.
“What’s our little girl’s name, then?”
“Ygritte,” he told her quietly, and Brienne looked down into her daughter’s eyes, finding it strangely fitting that their little red-haired daughter had such a Northern name. Brienne kissed the babe on the forehead.
“Hello, Ygritte,” she said softly, smiling.
It was two full turns of the moon before Brienne was able to be out of bed for more than a few minutes at a time, and nearly three before she felt anywhere near back to her normal self. Tormund had been right that he situation would rankle her; Brienne had never had to rely on others nearly as much as she had to then, and she hated every moment of it.
Tormund and the others in the village took turns bringing her meals and sometimes bringing Ygritte when she needed feeding. They had to help her to a chair near the bed whenever the sheets needed changing, and Tormund carried her out to the hot springs and helped her wash, an indignity she’d never wanted to suffer through again. She wasn’t even able to nurse Ygritte half the time, so Maja acted as something of a part-time wet nurse for her more often than not during those first few moons, Brienne too weak even for that. She nursed the girl when she could, feeling guilty and disconnected whenever she couldn’t, hating her frailty.
Brienne slept an awful lot, her body recovering, and spent what felt like far too little time in the company of her children. The nights became her favorite time, when Tormund would join her in bed, when he’d reliably bring the babe for her nighttime feedings; those were the only times Brienne felt like things were remotely normal.
Even after three moons had passed, Brienne was still taking it easy. Orik had declared her well enough to lie with her husband if she cared to, but Tormund made no moves toward that, seeming more interested in holding her close beneath the furs.
Jaime came to visit once Brienne was up and about again; he’d wanted to come earlier, but Brienne had insisted he not spend his limited time away from the Watch sitting beside her sickbed while she slept. Things fell into the same sort of easy equilibrium as soon as he arrived, she and Jaime moving to sleep in the guest room while Tormund stayed in their bedroom with the baby.
It was late afternoon when Jaime arrived; they spent some time with the children, ate dinner together, and retired fairly early, Jaime obviously tired from his multi-day journey to reach them.
Brienne woke a few hours later enfolded in Jaime’s arms. She was uncertain at first what had woken her, warm and snug as they were beneath the furs, until she heard the familiar sound of crying; Brienne sat up and yawned, and Jaime moved beside her as well. Brienne could just barely make out Tormund’s silhouette in the meager moonlight passing through the window; a second later, Jaime lit a candle and she could see him more clearly, then, bouncing their crying daughter in his arms. Brienne reached for her wordlessly, and Tormund moved across the room and handed her over, Brienne undoing the front of her shift so Ygritte could get at her breast.
Ygritte’s soft cries died out immediately as she latched onto Brienne’s nipple, and Brienne looked up to see both Tormund and Jaime watching her with soft expressions on their faces. It was an odd moment though not an uncomfortable one, the room bathed in flickering candlelight, Tormund having sat himself on the mattress beside her feet. He was shirtless and barefoot, apparently unbothered by the cold; Jaime had sat up next to her, his own chest covered by a night shift, the sleeves long enough to fall over his missing hand.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Tormund said after a moment into the silence, and for whatever strange truce had fallen between the two of them, Jaime still seemed surprised at the words. For her part, Brienne was surprised as well, but Tormund did have a habit of being quite unpredictable. “The three of us have something to discuss.”
Jaime frowned, and Brienne also felt taken aback.
“We do?” Jaime asked with a perplexed expression, and Tormund nodded sagely.
“Yes,” he told Jaime seriously. “About whether or not we’ll be having another.”
The words were so bizarre an unexpected that Brienne wasn’t sure how to respond at first; Jaime, thankfully, was not struck speechless as she was.
“Another child?” he asked with a furrowed brow, looking down at Ygritte cradled into Brienne’s breast, then back at Tormund. “Why does that concern me?”
“It concerns you,” Tormund said slowly, tone slightly annoyed, “because she nearly died giving birth to this one. And I’m not the only one who will lose her.”
Jaime looked struck by the words, like he hadn’t expected that level of consideration from Tormund—and in a way, Brienne wasn’t surprised, but she hadn’t quite expected it either. Tormund hadn’t breached the topic with her, not yet—and she’d thought it was simply because they hadn’t needed to, hadn’t yet rekindled that sort of physical intimacy, but perhaps it had been because he’d been waiting for Jaime, wanting all three of them to be a part of the conversation. Jaime looked torn.
“This…this is your decision,” he said seriously, looking at Brienne with uncertain eyes. “You’d have to carry a child, and you two would have to raise it. I stop by for a few days once or twice a year. This isn’t my decision.”
Brienne opened her mouth to speak, although she wasn’t certain what to say to him in the face of such obvious emotional turmoil from Jaime. Before she could think of what she wanted to say, though, Tormund spoke again.
“You’re a part of this, crow,” he said gruffly. “Whether you like it or not.”
Brienne held back a smile; she recognized Tormund’s brusqueness for what it was, the acceptance of Jaime not only in her bed but in their family, but Jaime didn’t know Tormund as well, and he likely did not. She sighed and gave Tormund an indulgent look.
“What do you want?” Brienne asked Tomund instead, trying to give Jaime a moment to compose himself.
“I want all the children you’ll give me,” Tormund told her without hesitation. “I’d take twenty if we could. But when you say we’re done, we’re done.”
The answer didn’t surprise her, not at all; part of her could easily imagine Tormund wrangling a household of twenty children, even if she knew it was impossible for her to birth so many, and the image brought a slight smile to her lips. She looked at Jaime with a raised eyebrow, hoping the moment had given him the time to consider his own answer. Jaime shrugged.
“I love you,” Jaime said, and Brienne felt her breath catch for a moment, realizing it was the first time he’d ever said the words to her, though she hadn’t realized it until she’d finally heard him say them. “And I love your children. Whatever you want is what I want.”
Brienne looked between the two of them, mulling it over in her head. Thinking back to the woman she’d been back when she’d agreed to take on Selwyn and raise him as her own, wondering what that woman would think of her now. Even when she’d finally come to see herself as a mother, she wasn’t certain she’d ever have pictured herself a mother of four—and now, Tormund was asking her whether she wanted to be a mother of five. And Tormund wasn’t wrong about the other concern—Ygritte’s birth had been difficult for her, and there was no guarantee that another child wouldn’t lead to the same result, or worse. And yet—
“I’d like to have another,” she said finally, sincerely—and a huge grin spread onto Tormund’s face. He leapt off the bed and came around to her side, pressing a kiss against the crown of her head. Ygritte had fallen slack and sleepy in her arms, and Tormund took the babe from her, cradling her against his shoulder and rubbing her back gently. But when Tormund met Brienne’s eyes, his expression was deadly serious.
“Then whatever you two would like to do,” Tormund began, then paused, his eyes darting briefly to Jaime before meeting Brienne’s gaze again, “I have no objections.”
This time, impossibly, Jaime caught on to Tormund’s implication before Brienne did; he looked at Tormund as though the other man had positively lost his mind.
“‘Sire no children’ is one of my vows, Tormund,” he reminded Tormund slowly, and it was only then that it struck her that Tormund was giving them permission to try for their own child together, the very thing that had started so much of the turmoil in their relationship, all those years ago. The whole thing seemed surreal.
“Officially, I’ll be the father,” Tormund reminded him, still rubbing Ygritte’s back. “Yours or mine…why does it matter?”
And Tormund left the room, humming softly to himself as he carried Ygritte back to their room and her crib, leaving Brienne feeling positively stunned by the exchange. Jaime stared after Tormund after he’d disappeared, seeming just as taken aback by the whole thing—likely even more so because it was the middle of the night and he’d scarcely just woken. One had to have their wits about them when interacting with Tormund—and that was a thing Brienne had learned about him very early on.
“I don’t think I’ll ever understand him,” Jaime admitted a minute later—and Brienne couldn’t help the small smile that found its way onto her face at the words, remembering that she’d once felt similarly, that she’d once believed Tormund erratic and unfathomable. But nearly seven years with Tormund had changed things; he perhaps didn’t react to things in an expected manner, but he certainly wasn’t irrational. Early in their marriage, Tormund had been insecure, and rightly so, having felt slighted by Jaime usurping what he’d seen as his—and it had been a long process for him, Brienne thought, accepting that Jaime wasn’t a threat to their marriage. It might have taken years, and several children that were, without question, his—but he’d gotten there somehow, had perhaps even come to appreciate Jaime’s presence in their life.
“I think it’s his way of telling you he likes you,” Brienne remarked mischievously, and Jaime just looked even more unsettled by that, like the prospect of being in Tormund’s good graces might be something dangerous.
“‘I like you, so please try to impregnate my wife’?” he inquired somewhat hysterically, and feeling some sympathy for Jaime’s predicament, Brienne leaned forward and pressed her lips against his, her hand cupping his cheek gently.
“That’s not what he said,” she told him gently, brushing her fingers along the coarse hairs along his jaw. “Just that—there’s no need to try to prevent it. That it doesn’t matter to him who’s the father of the next child.”
She and Jaime had spent years being quite careful in order to spare Tormund’s feelings, making sure he never finished inside of her when there was any chance she might fall with child. In that way, it had been almost their saving grace that she’d been with child so many times, for those times, there had been no need for caution, and they had been able to let go and enjoy each other in any way they saw fit.
“Does it matter to you?” Jaime asked then, his tone suddenly very serious. “If Cat is mine, or…”
Jaime trailed off, averting his gaze as though embarrassed that he needed to ask, that it was something that apparently still concerned Jaime when Tormund had so clearly managed to overcome that very worry. Brienne reached down and grasped Jaime’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.
“Part of me as always wanted to believe that she’s yours,” Brienne admitted softly, and when Jaime looked up at her, there was a raw sort of vulnerability in his eyes, and even without him saying anything, she knew he felt the same.
“Sometimes I wish this had all gone differently,” Jaime admitted after a moment. “That I’d listened to my father when I got back to King’s Landing. That I’d reclaimed my place as the heir to Casterly Rock, gotten away from Cersei, and made you my wife.”
Brienne gave him a soft smile; it was a nice image, and one made somewhat hilarious as she imagined Tywin Lannister’s reaction to Jaime saying that he’d agree to marry her of all people. But that was all a fiction created by hindsight; Brienne didn’t believe that Jaime would have ever asked for her hand, not all those years ago.
“I wouldn't have gone with you, not then,” she reminded him instead, kindly. “Even if part of me would have wanted to, I made a vow to Lady Catelyn, and I couldn’t break it.”
“I know,” Jaime admitted softly, wistfully. “But…don’t you ever wish?”
“Sometimes,” Brienne admitted gently. “But then we wouldn’t have Selwyn or the other children. We’d have our own children, I suppose, but…I couldn’t imagine my life without them, not anymore.”
And I couldn’t imagine my life without Tormund, she added silently, though she didn’t say the words aloud, recognizing how fragile Jaime seemed at that moment.
“Nor could I,” Jaime admitted quietly. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t wish we could have…more than this. More than a few days here and there.”
Brienne couldn’t say that she didn’t wish the same, and that it didn’t warm her to hear that Jaime cared enough to want that. But there was the other part of her, the practical part, that told her this was likely the best possible outcome for all of them. She imagined for a moment if she’d gone to Casterly Rock with Jaime, but in that world…he might never have turned on his sister, for he might never have felt pushed too far. He might never have helped the Starks and Targaryens, might never have gained enough respect from them to earn leniency. They could have easily been executed as traitors, and she’d take a few days here and there over that outcome.
With a soft sigh, Brienne brushed her hand through Jaime’s hair, and then she moved to straddle his lap, swallowing his expression of surprise with a kiss. It wasn’t often that Brienne took the initiative in their lovemaking, but Jaime let her, his lips falling lax beneath hers, and Brienne kissed him softly and slowly. After a long minute, she pulled back and met Jaime’s gaze with serious eyes.
“Why don’t we stop worrying about what we could have had and enjoy what we do have?” she asked Jaime with a raised eyebrow—and slowly, a smile spread across Jaime’s face.
“You always have the most excellent ideas,” Jaime remarked slyly, and in one quick movement, he’d switched their positions, hovering over her as he pressed her body back down into the mattress. The way he kissed her was brisk and purposeful, and Brienne found herself grateful that Tormund was picking up the slack with the children, because Brienne was fairly certain they wouldn’t be sleeping much more that night.
For those of you who know at least a teensy bit about genetics: if you're bothered by the implications of real-world genetics in this chapter, I have a long-winded explanation for you at the end of the chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was six moons later when they received a raven from Winterfell, one that was not entirely unexpected. In fact, it was one that Brienne had been expecting for years and had been consistently surprised not to receive, for the whole thing felt rather long overdue.
“What news?” Tormund asked her when he saw her come up with the unfurled scroll in her hand, and Brienne just sighed.
“An invitation,” she told him quietly. “To the wedding of Lord Brandon Stark and Lady Lyanna Mormont at Winterfell.”
A slight smirk appeared on Tormund’s face, but then, he’d always been rather fond of Lady Mormont and her fierce personality. But after a moment, his face fell a little, and his eyes dropped to her midsection.
“We can’t go,” he surmised—and correctly so. Winterfell would normally be a perfectly manageable trip for them, less than a fortnight’s travel, but Brienne was six months heavy with child, and she felt larger that time than she’d ever been.
She’d been, in some ways, elated to find herself with child again so soon, bolstered on by the knowledge that the child could be Jaime’s as easily as Tormund’s, for the timing was right for either. It was like Cat all over again—Jaime had had her first, though far more than once this time—and Tormund had not been shy in having her after, either. There was no way for her to know which one was the father—and yet she found herself sharing in Tormund’s strange new confidence that it didn’t matter either way. In fact, it was almost better not to know—in that way, it was almost possible to believe that the child was all of theirs’, although that was impossible.
“Perhaps a turn of the moon prior, I would have considered it,” Brienne told her husband gently. “But now…I don’t think it’s possible.”
Traveling while with child was enough of a burden already, and to add to that three children and a babe of less than one year seemed almost impossible, even if Selwyn was big enough to ride on his own then. It might have been a feasible thing if she were still the lady of a castle with a retinue of servants and soldiers to accompany them, but barring that, Brienne couldn’t imagine it possible.
Tormund gave her a reassuring smile, stepping toward her and pressing their lips together for a moment. He rested his hands upon her belly, leaving them there even as he pulled back from the kiss.
“It’s all right, wife,” he reassured her quietly. “Why would I want to attend some Southern wedding anyway?”
Brienne didn’t bother to argue with him that a union between House Mormont and House Stark could be nothing but a Northern wedding, because it didn’t matter how many years had passed; Tormund would not relent on what he believed constituted the North and what was the South. It was almost easy to believe the lie from Tormund, that he wouldn’t care about not attending—but they both knew that the occasion would likely bring together many of their friends from the South, most of whom they hadn’t seen in years. Having to miss it was a disappointment for both of them.
“I’m heavier than I was the last time, at six moons,” she pointed out to Tormund in an almost accusatory tone, flicking her gaze to where his hands rested on her belly. Tormund, conversely, appeared almost pleased at her proclamation.
“You’re older than the last time,” he pointed out after a moment, but the twinkle in Tormund’s eye as he said it made it obvious even to her that it wasn’t a serious comment. It had taken her years, but she’d finally started to get a handle on when her husband was joking with her and when he was being serious. Of course, if the words had been serious, they’d have been a perfectly absurd suggestion; it had been less than a year since she’d last carried a child.
“Barely,” she pointed out to him with a raised eyebrow. It was easy enough to make jokes then, well into her sixth month; had Tormund attempted the same banter early in the pregnancy, he would have found her far less receptive, for this had been perhaps her worst time of it, worse even than when she’d carried the child she’d lost in the womb. She’d been exhausted and barely able to keep even water in her stomach at times—but she’d learned not to draw conclusions from that, for she could scarcely find any commonality between her symptoms and the outcomes, and trying seemed a futile activity. If the gods truly did exist, Brienne was ready to leave it in their hands.
Tormund’s hand brushed gently, almost reverently, over her belly.
“You fell with child almost right after the last time,” he pointed out instead by way of explanation for why her body felt achier and more swollen than she’d have expected at that point. And that second suggestion was not a joke—or if it was, it was a surprisingly astute one, and he likely had the right of it. She’d been confined to a bed for some time after Ygritte’s birth, had never managed to get into any semblance of her previous physical condition before she’d found herself with child once more. And it seemed, with each year and new child, to become a more difficult task to try to regain her physique.
“Whose fault is that?” she asked, though she tempered it with a good-natured smile, not nearly so good at joking as her husband was. Tormund held up his hands in protest.
“Unless it comes out a ginger, I’m blaming your crow,” he told her with a grin, and Brienne shook her head and laughed, the whole thing feeling somewhat surreal. She couldn’t imagine how she’d have felt if someone had tried to tell her years ago that Tormund would one day be jesting good-naturedly about the prospect that she might be carrying Jaime’s child, that a thing that had once brought him such strife would now bring him joy.
But Tormund’s genial japes pushed her the last step toward telling Tormund the thought that had been plaguing her for some time, since she’d first begun showing overt signs of pregnancy. At first, she’d thought she was imagining it, but the more her stomach had swelled with child, the clearer it became that she was growing large more rapidly than before—and Sansa’s worries those years prior at Winterfell had come back to Brienne in a rush. Sansa had given birth to a second child just a few months prior—still not twins as she’d feared the first time, but instead a boy who she’d named Robb.
It hadn’t struck Brienne when she’d been with child the first time, full with the possibility that the child might be Jaime’s—but this time, it lay heavily upon her mind that Tyrion wasn’t the only one from the Lannister family, a family with a high propensity for siring twins. Brienne cleared her throat carefully.
“Twins run in the Lannister family,” she remarked a moment later—a fact she’d have never felt comfortable pointing out to her husband if his feelings about Jaime hadn’t changed. Because if there were two children in her womb, that would be all but confirmation of the children’s paternity. Years ago, Tormund likely would have scowled and stormed away in anger at the mere suggestion, but now his face split into another wide grin.
“Is it twins?” he inquired gleefully, pressing his hands against her belly as if he might somehow discern the answer by touch. Brienne smiled softly.
“I don’t know,” she admitted quietly, although she had a strong suspicion that it might be. And that was frightening—for birthing even just one babe was dangerous enough—but it was also invigorating, and Tormund obviously shared in Brienne’s nervous excitement.
“Shall we write him and tell him?” Tormund asked with unrestrained delight, the jubilant expression on his face better suited to one of their children. Brienne clasped Tormund’s hand gently.
“There’s nothing to tell. We know nothing for certain,” she reminded him quietly, although it touched her that Tormund could be so excited to tell Jaime this news, that he could feel such joy for the other man’s sake. Though what Selwyn had told Sansa years ago was true enough—that Tormund loved children, that some of his happiness was likely for his own sake rather than Jaime’s. With the knowledge that this might be her last pregnancy, he was likely elated at the prospect of two children instead of the expected one.
In fact, she mused to herself with amusement, he might have suggested Jaime father more of their children sooner, had he known that creating two at a time was such a possibility.
“But you expect two,” Tormund guessed with a raised eyebrow and a rakish smirk, and Brienne shrugged.
“I have no special knowledge, Tormund—no more than you do,” she told him with a patient smile. “You’ve seen me full with child before—and perhaps it is two, or perhaps your first guess was correct, that I fell with child again so quickly, that that’s why I’m larger than before.”
Tormund looked unprepared to abandon the prospect of two babies, wholly unconvinced by Brienne’s conservative assessment of the situation.
“Is there any history of twins in your family?” he pressed with a knowing smile, and Brienne sighed, resigning herself to continuing this conversation.
“No,” she admitted slowly. “Not so far as I’m aware.”
“Nor mine,” Tormund told her amiably, and Brienne knew what that meant as well as Tormund seemed to.
“I think he’ll be glad,” Tormund remarked finally, after a prolonged silence, a small smile still playing at the corners of his mouth. Brienne gave him a soft smile in return, not willing to argue with him any further about not jumping to conclusions.
“I hope so,” she told her husband wistfully.
In real life, whether or not twins run in the father's family is irrelevant in the possible incidence of twins. But since we have no idea exactly how genetics works in the world of GOT/ASOIAF, I decided there's a good chance that genetics don't follow real world rules. Yes, I shamelessly broke real world rules in order to support the plot I wanted to write. No, I'm not sorry about it. xD
As the moon turned again and Brienne’s belly grew, she became more and more convinced that there were two babies growing inside her, because there was no other possible explanation she could think of to account for how she’d grown almost impossibly large. The date of Bran and Lyanna’s wedding came and went, and it was increasingly clear with each passing day that they’d made the correct decision in not attending, for simply mounting a horse was such a struggle that it was almost not worthwhile; a prolonged journey on horseback would have been next to impossible.
The whole village was abuzz with the prospect of her twins arriving; twin births were apparently quite rare north of the Wall, surviving twins even more so. News of that worried Brienne, though Tormund and the others all tried to reassure her; the mild spring weather and the amount of people in town who were well-versed in midwifery gave them very good chances, they told her, and Brienne tried quite earnestly to remain positive.
Remaining cheerful, on the other hand, was a sight more difficult, however, for at seven moons full with child, she was already as large as she’d been in the days before Ygritte’s birth. Her feet and back ached as much as they ever had, and everything was difficult to manage around her full belly, from feeding Ygritte to bathing the children and even simply minding the ravens. She spent more time in bed than she’d have liked, especially considering the amount of time she’d already been confined to bed that year, but there was nothing to be done about it other than simply suffer through it.
It helped to imagine the two babies she’d birth scarcely two months down the line, blond-haired and blue-eyed and beautiful; it helped, too, to imagine Jaime’s reaction when he laid eyes upon them. Jaime had been right in those months prior; she did wish that they could have more than what they did, though she knew it an impossible wish. She couldn’t give him his freedom or her hand in marriage—but she could give him these two babes, so she focused on that thought whenever she became frustrated with the circumstances.
It was on one such day, when she’d retreated to bed after the midday meal, too tired and sore to continue moving about, that Tormund ducked his head inside their bedroom with a grin. He found her at her despised sewing, for wont of anything better two do while she lounged abed.
“Wife,” he greeted her with his customary brusqueness, “you have a visitor.”
Brienne’s brow furrowed at the words; the only visitor she’d ever had had been Jaime, for she knew no one from the North who hadn’t already been acquainted with Tormund first. Any callers were usually his, visiting with her only as an afterthought. But Tormund left before she could ask him for clarification; in any case, it didn’t much matter, for a familiar figure strode in a moment later, and it was perhaps the last visitor Brienne had expected.
“Arya!” Brienne exclaimed, pleased as she realized this was the first time she was laying eyes on the girl in nearly seven years. Arya was still tiny but she was well and truly a woman, then, any childishness that might have remained in her features when Brienne had last seen her having given way to the more mature features of an adult. She dressed still in trousers and a leather jerkin, but these were clearly finely-crafted, and a small dire wolf was stitched into the collar. She looked, Brienne reflected, like a woman content with herself.
“Lyanna told me you wrote to say you were too heavy with child to travel to Winterfell for the wedding, but Seven Hells! She wasn’t kidding.”
Arya’s surprise was evident in her voice, and it was clear enough that her personality hadn’t much changed in the intervening years, that she was still as outspoken as ever.
“Twins, we think,” Brienne informed her mildly, and Arya made a face that didn’t leave much doubt as to what she thought of that.
“You didn’t miss much,” she reassured Brienne, grabbing a chair without waiting for an invitation and dragging it to Brienne’s bedside. “Everyone got too drunk and feasted and danced too much.”
Arya made a face as if she found the whole affair rather dull, although a grand feast with lots of drink and dancing was exactly the sort of thing many lords and ladies looked forward to, some break from the monotony of their everyday lives. That Arya was unimpressed by the whole affair didn’t surprise Brienne much at all. Brienne wasn’t much for dancing, either, not enough of a lady for it, nor was she enamored of drunkenness—but she was sad to have missed the opportunity to see many of the people she’d known in her former life, for most would not dare venture north of the Wall as Arya had.
“That sounds awful,” Brienne told Arya dryly, and the girl snorted.
“Now I think you’re mocking me,” she remarked, though without malice. Brienne smiled.
“No wedding in your future?” Brienne asked with a raised eyebrow, remembering Jon’s visit a few years prior, the way he’d remarked upon trying to convince Arya to marry Gendry, apparently without much success. Arya made another face, one that looked as though she’d just bit into a lemon.
“Gendry has asked,” she admitted sourly. “Several times, actually. He’s quite persistent.”
There were equal parts exasperation and fondness in Arya’s voice, and it was clear enough that Arya hadn’t resisted the proposal out of malice toward the man. If what Jon had told Brienne could be believed, Arya and Gendry had already been lovers for years, in fact.
“And you’ve told him no?”
Arya looked sullen.
“I haven’t told him anything,” she admitted sheepishly, and Brienne resisted the urge to laugh at the image that created in her mind, the image of Gendry sincerely asking for Arya’s hand in marriage only to have Arya walk away without answering him.
“But you remain at Storm’s End?” Brienne prodded, and Arya looked guilty at that, like she was a child caught doing something she knew she shouldn’t have.
“I’ve visited the Free Cities a few times,” she remarked defensively, although she didn’t dispute the fact that when she’d returned, she’d gone back to Storm’s End—and to Gendry.
“And yet you go back to him afterward,” Brienne remarked knowingly, and Arya pursed her lips.
“Gendry still doesn't know anything about being a lord,” she said by way of explanation. “He'd be hopeless without me.”
Brienne very much doubted that that was the case; it had been seven years already, and Gendry might not have been raised to be a lord, but he wasn’t stupid, either. There was no way he hadn’t learned a thing or two about managing a keep in the intervening years, and he doubtlessly had advisors other than Arya to fill in the gaps. Still, Brienne didn’t protest the presentation of the situation.
“So you want to stay with him, but you don’t want to marry him,” Brienne remarked with a raised eyebrow. Arya frowned in response.
“Then everyone will expect me to be the Lady of Storm’s End,” she said grumpily, crossing her arms across her chest, looking all of a petulant child and not a girl of five and twenty. Brienne had to hold back her urge to laugh.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I think you’re already the Lady of Storm’s End,” Brienne pointed out, and Arya looked at her with a disgruntled expression, though she didn’t protest the assertion. “Gendry has known you for a long time, Arya; I don’t think he expects you to suddenly become your sister just because you’ve become his wife. I’m sure he doesn’t expect you to be someone you’re not.”
Arya bit her lip, another surprisingly childish gesture—and her eyes darted down to Brienne’s stomach, then up to her face again. When she spoke, it was with a guilty expression.
“Everyone keeps talking about the future of the Baratheon line,” she remarked unsteadily after a moment, sounding strangely vulnerable all of a sudden—and at that moment, Brienne understood why Arya had wanted to ride up there from Winterfell, understood the thing that must have been plaguing Arya’s thoughts. She and Arya were alike in many ways, were both resistant to the definition of womanhood their station wanted to force upon them—and in Arya’s eyes, it must have looked like Brienne had given in, had let go of her principles. And Arya had come for Brienne’s advice because everyone seemed to be pushing her to do the same.
Brienne found herself once again in a strange position, the same kind she’d been in when Sansa had asked her to come to Winterfell to help her with her first birth. She’d never expected to find herself in this position, advising girls on marriage and children, for she’d never expected to be anything of an expert in either.
“You don’t want children,” Brienne guessed slowly, and Arya just shrugged.
“I don’t care about the damned Baratheon line,” she told Brienne bitterly. “But I care about him.”
Brienne empathized with the girl and her situation; she knew, perhaps better than most, what it was like to be torn between conflicting desires and obligations.
“And what does he want?” Brienne asked Arya after a moment, and Arya shrugged again.
“I think he’d like children,” she answered finally, somewhat regretfully. “But I think he’d give that up if I asked him to, just let the Baratheon line die with him.” Arya paused, looking at Brienne with a sad expression. “But that’s not fair to ask, is it? I tried to convince him to marry someone else and just keep me on the side, but he’ll have none of it. Stubborn bull.”
Brienne almost laughed at the similarity of that hypothetical situation with her own, and the irony of that didn’t escape her, the idea of her and Arya ending up in similar circumstances yet with their roles reversed. And Brienne imagined the scandal that might create, the King’s cousin a concubine of the heir to Storm’s End. It was probably scandal enough already with Arya living there with him without any pretext for her presence there.
“You have to make a decision, Arya,” Brienne told the young woman quietly, with the impression that she wasn’t telling Arya anything she didn’t already know. “If you don't want children but you want to let him have them…you need to let him no there’s no hope of having them with you. But if you want to marry him…Arya, there are a lot of lady’s duties that you can delegate to someone else, but having children…that’s something you can’t ask someone else to do for you.”
Arya frowned and looked thoughtful, as if trying to figure out some loophole that would allow her to do just that. Her eyes trailed again to Brienne’s stomach.
“You have so many,” Arya remarked listlessly after a moment. “Don't you ever get tired of being with child all the time?”
Brienne mused over Arya’s question with some seriousness, considered for a moment being less than truthful. But Arya deserved better than some rosy version of reality from her; she wasn’t a child, hadn’t been for a very long time, and she clearly valued Brienne’s perspective. Brienne sighed.
“Yes,” she told Arya honestly. “I get tired of it. I hate being bedridden. I hate feeling helpless.” Brienne trailed off for a few seconds, then shrugged. “But I love my children. So I consider it worth the trouble in the end.”
Arya looked pensive at that, sitting back in her chair and pursing her lips, though she made no move to respond, not at first. Finally, Brienne broke the prolonged silence.
“Is that what you’re worried about?” she prodded gently. “Carrying a child? Or actually raising one?”
Arya frowned. “I don’t think I’d be a very good mother,” she admitted finally. “And what if I birth all daughters and just keep having to carry more and more until I bear a son?”
Brienne forced back a smile, not wanting Arya to feel as though she was being laughed at—for it was clear enough, then, that Arya was perhaps not as opposed to marrying Gendry and carrying on the Baratheon line as she’d originally seemed. What she was frightened of was being forced into the mold of a lady, a fear Brienne understood well.
“The Queen has decreed that firstborn daughters can inherit throughout the Seven Kingdoms,” Brienne reminded Arya gently. “You needn’t hold out for a son. You needn’t have more than one, not if you so choose.”
Arya looked petulant.
“What if I have one and it dies?” she inquired pragmatically, and it was a question neither of them could well dodge; they’d both lost siblings who had been their heir to their lands, and they both knew it was a possibility, in wartime and in peace both.
“Perhaps two, then,” Brienne suggested, holding back her smile. Arya rocked her chair onto its back legs with a surprising amount of balance.
“What if I want to visit the Free Cities?”
It seemed, almost, that Arya was grasping for anything she could find as an excuse, but Brienne humored her.
“Then take your child with you. Show them the world,” Brienne suggested. “Or leave them in the care of your husband for a few months. You needn’t change everything about yourself to become a wife and mother, Arya.”
Arya’s frown deepened, as though she couldn’t quite imagine it to be so simple. “Wouldn't my children miss me?” she pointed out, and Brienne shrugged.
“I’m certain they would,” she agreed. “But they might also learn to be independent and self-sufficient.” Brienne paused for a moment, glancing around the room. “I could have convinced my husband to come to Tarth with me. My children could have grown up in a beautiful castle in a nice climate, surrounded by luxury. But instead, they grew up here.”
Brienne held up her hands to indicate her home—large enough, they’d made certain, for a whole host of children but magnitudes humbler than Evenfall Hall would have been. Arya looked around the room at the sparse furnishings, her expression contemplative.
“Don’t let others tell you how to be a good wife or mother,” Brienne told the younger woman. “If Gendry wanted some soft southron lady, he’d be asking for her hand in marriage. But he’s asking for yours.”
Arya pursed her lips.
“You’re right, of course,” she admitted somewhat begrudgingly, and then her eyes lit up with a sense of mischievous glee. “You have weirwood trees—we should do it.”
The abrupt change left Brienne feeling a bit dizzy.
“What?” she demanded. “Now?”
“When else?” Arya asked blithely, standing up with a huge grin on her face. “You can give me away. If…I mean…you can stand, right?”
Brienne equal parts affronted by the question and totally flustered by the situation.
“I’m with child, Arya, not crippled,” she assured the girl. “But it strikes me you have need of your prospective husband as well.”
“Oh, he’s waiting outside,” Arya reassured Brienne with a careless wave of her hand. “He insisted on not allowing me to come alone. He’s stubborn; I told you.”
Arya evidently was as well, and Brienne stared at her open-mouthed.
“Tormund can perform the ceremony,” she mused aloud, not at all concerned by Brienne’s silence. “Gendry has no living kin, after all. Tormund keeps the old gods, right? He must know the ceremony. If he doesn’t, I can teach him; it’s simple enough.”
Brienne blinked, startled by the absolute rush of words out of Arya’s mouth, and it struck her that there were a number of people who would have been more than happy to officiate such a ceremony, and who would feel wounded at being left out. Ser Davos at the least—and Jon, and certainly Sansa.
“Arya, your sister will be furious if you get married without her there,” Brienne pointed out helplessly, grappling for some way to get a handle on the conversation that seemed to have suddenly gotten so out of hand. Arya snorted, unconcerned.
“She’ll be glad enough that I’m married at all,” Arya remarked casually, and she held out a hand to Brienne. “Come on; I have need of a husband.”
“There’s no reason to rush into this…” she tried one last time.
Arya laughed, then, full-bellied and bursting with mirth. It took a long minute for her to get control of herself.
“I’ve waited years,” she said finally, once she’d gotten a handle on the laughter. “You said it—I can be whatever type of wife I’d like to be, right? Well this is the type of wife I am—the type who will get married without telling any of my family in a town north of the Wall. If he won’t accept that, then we’ll know, won’t we?”
Arya inclined her head to indicate her outstretched hand, the look in her eyes impatient. Recognizing that Arya wasn’t likely to be dissuaded, not once she’d decided, Brienne sighed and took Arya’s hand, letting the girl help her up and out of bed.
True to Arya’s words, Gendry was outside with Tormund. He looked quite regal in his black and gold, a stag embroidered on his yellow doublet. Both Tormund and Gendry looked up at Brienne and Arya as they walked up—and Tormund, for one, seemed surprised to see Brienne once more up and out of bed. He cocked his head in silent inquiry, but Gendry was the first to speak.
“What is it?” he prodded, perhaps sensing something strange in the way they’d approached.
“We’re getting married; that’s what!” Arya declared pointedly, and Brienne had never seen a man’s eyes go so wide so quickly.
It was scarcely a fortnight after Arya and Gendry had left them that the day came. She was out of bed despite all the pain and inconvenience of it, refusing to let herself become completely bedridden no matter how large she became or how tired it made her. She usually managed at least a few hours before it became too uncomfortable to be out of bed, and that time was spent largely helping watch the children. It was as she was watching Ygritte crawl across the grass, ready to intercede should her daughter try to place rocks in her mouth—something she had been wont to do recently—that Brienne felt a wetness between her legs, one all too familiar.
Brienne was stricken, unwilling to believe it, for it had not even been eight moons yet. As calmly as she could manage, Brienne excused herself and changed into a clean pair of trousers then set off to find Dasha. The first frisson of pain ripped through her, but she weathered it, and after a few minutes, she found Dasha instructing one of the children with a bow. She pulled Dasha aside, sounding calmer than she felt as she told the other woman what had happened. She expected Dasha to be as stricken as she was, but the other woman simply smiled.
“I suppose they’re ready to come, then,” she remarked amiably, handing off her bow, and the other woman’s quiet composure nearly made Brienne crazy.
“They can’t be,” Brienne told Dasha breathlessly. “It’s too early. Far too early.”
“They’ll come when they come, Brienne,” Dahsa assured her with a gentle squeeze to her arm. “They say twins often come early. They’ll be small, but likely not too small to survive.”
Brienne did not find herself at all calmed by the other woman’s confidence; she remembered how small even Ygritte had seemed, a fortnight past her expected delivery. It seemed almost impossible that her twins, more than a whole turn of the moon early, could possibly live.
“And how many sets of twins have you delivered?” Brienne asked critically, knowing full well it had been none. She clenched her teeth as another wave of pain hit her.
“It’s no use being short with me,” Dasha told her with raised eyebrows and all the impatience of a mother talking with a fussy child. “It’s started already, and I can’t put them back in if they’re determined to come out.”
Brienne frowned but she knew that Dasha was correct, that there was no way to stop it once it had begun—and that made her feel helpless, for she wanted nothing more than to keep them inside until she had a better assurance that they might actually survive. It was racing through her mind, then, the exact thing she’d been trying to convince herself would not happen—that one or both of her twins might not survive. The thought of that, of losing another child, was crushing; she couldn’t fathom how women came to cope with multiple miscarriages or stillbirths, for even just one had been nearly unbearable.
What Brienne was thinking must have been reflected on her face, for she’d never truly learned how to mask her feelings. Dasha regarded her with a gentle smile.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure nothing bad happens,” Dasha assured her kindly, and Brienne wondered if she’d spoken her worries aloud without even realizing it. “Come on—let’s find your husband, and then I’ll fetch all the others.”
They found Tormund splitting wood shirtless despite the chilly air around them, and he seemed much more optimistic about the whole thing than Brienne felt.
“Twins often come early,” he told her with a confident expression, and Brienne wondered, with some annoyance, when everyone in her life had decided they fancied themselves an expert on twins. She knew, of course, that it was their attempt to reassure her, and the sentiment was appreciated even if the attempts were wholly ineffective. The pain struck her again, and Tormund gave her a sympathetic look once it had passed, pressing a kiss against her cheek.
They came upon Selwyn on their way back to their home to prepare for the birth—and Selwyn, astute as always, took one look at her and managed to put together what was going on.
“Are the babies coming?” he asked them with wide eyes. “But it’s too early!”
Brienne didn’t know whether to be amused or dismayed that her son, at least, shared her concern over the situation, even if no one else seemed to be nearly as alarmed. She did, however, have enough sense to forbid him from attending her during the birth, no matter how curious or concerned the boy was. Seven years was too young to watch one’s sibling die—or one’s mother.
For all that Brienne was worried about it being too soon for the babes, the process of childbirth no longer concerned her; having been through the thing three times already made the course of everything seem somewhat mundane, for all she knew the outcomes could sometimes be awful. But she knew already that there would be a great deal of waiting, and she knew what the waiting felt like; she knew that there would be pain and blood, and she knew what that felt like, too.
It seemed that half the town was prepared to attend her for the birth, perhaps quite poised for something to go disastrously wrong or perhaps simply excited for the expected novelty of a twin birth. Either way, it seemed as though easily twice as many people as usual found their way in and out of her room as they waited.
Brienne had prepared herself for a long wait; the previous births had taken many hours, but it seemed almost no time at all when the pains came closer together, seemed entirely too soon when Orik examined her and looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
“It seems they are in quite a hurry,” he told her with a curious look. “It’s time to start pushing, Brienne.”
Brienne almost wanted to argue; she hadn’t had enough time to even prepare herself for the very real possibility that soon enough she might have two new children, or one—or none. But Tormund held her hand and gave her an encouraging nod, and Brienne knew fighting her own body was a futile endeavor.
The pain was familiar enough; Ygritte’s birth hadn’t been so long prior that Brienne didn’t recall it, but it was no more welcome than it had ever been. But suddenly, the babe was out, and Brienne saw through the haze of pain and exhaustion as Orik handed the tiny form off to Dasha. Brienne bit her lip, waiting nervously to hear the child’s cries. She felt, only dimly, as Orik examined her again, then nodded to himself.
“You had the right of it, Brienne,” he told her after a minute. “I’ll need you to push again.”
It wasn’t at all a surprise, of course; Brienne had been all but certain of twins, but the reality of it was still somehow terrifying. Brienne was exhausted already, sweat-soaked and in pain—but she’d been in enough fights during which she’d believed she’d reached her point of breaking and had managed to push past the exhaustion, knowing that her own survival and the survival of others had depended on her not giving up.
She gritted her teeth and pushed.
The whole thing was overwhelming, pushing past the point of exhaustion, but Tormund was squeezing her hand and somehow she managed it. It seemed easier, almost, though Brienne was uncertain whether it truly was easier or if it simply seemed so, because she was too exhausted to be much troubled anymore. But then Orik had another tiny form in his hands that he handed over, and for a few long seconds, it seemed like the only thing she could hear were the harsh sounds of her own breathing and the pounding of her blood in her ears.
But then she heard it, the sound of tiny cries, soft and high-pitched, and Brienne almost sobbed in relief at the sound. She listened carefully, nervously, trying to see if she could discern two screaming voices—and after a long, breathless minute, she heard a second cry.
Brienne fell back against the pillows with a deep sigh of relief, and Tormund remained beside her bed all the while, holding her hand with a slightly nervous look on his face. The expression only slackened when Dasha returned with a small bundle in her arms.
“Both your little girls are fine,” she assured them, and Brienne felt finally as though she could actually breathe. She could scarcely believe that Dasha wasn’t lying, that she wasn’t living in a dream of some kind—couldn’t possibly believe in such a favorable outcome, not when she’d been prepared for so many different sorts of disasters. Inexplicably, she burst into tears—and perhaps sensing that the tears were of relief rather than sadness, Tormund laughed and pressed his lips chastely against hers.
“You did good, wife,” he told her, beaming, and Dasha handed her one of her newly-born daughters.
This wasn’t how Brienne had pictured it when she’d tried to imagine the moment she’d first hold her new babe, when she’d been trying to tell herself the whole uncomfortable pregnancy would be worth it for the end result. She’d pictured holding her beautiful blond-haired child and immediately seeing Jaime in the babe, but this little girl had a dusting of hair so sparse and so fine that she appeared nearly bald. She was also impossibly tiny, so small that Brienne felt as though she could somehow break her.
Maja appeared and handed the girl’s twin over to Tormund—and seeing the babe tucked into the crook of her husband’s arm only emphasized how tiny she truly was. Brienne knew the babe she held must look just as absurd in her own arms—but Dasha had spoken true, because although both babes were small, neither appeared malformed, and both girls had lungs strong enough to cry out with a surprising amount of power from such little bodies.
Everyone else shuffled around for a few minutes, clearing things away and cleaning what they could; eventually, though, everyone cleared out and left Brienne and Tormund alone with their new daughters.
Jaime’s new daughters, Brienne reminded herself as Tormund came to the edge of the bed, letting her lay eyes on the other child for the first time. She looked much the same, tiny and pink and near-bald, but both girls had quieted in their arms.
“Now that we know for certain it’s two, can we send him a raven?” Tormund asked her with a raised eyebrow and a strange sense of eagerness. Tormund, bizarrely, had become Jaime’s biggest advocate; he’d wanted to tell Jaime from the second she’d confided to him that she suspected twins. It had only been Brienne who had had resisted, not wanting to get Jaime’s hopes up if her suspicions had been wrong.
“We can send him a raven,” she acknowledged with a soft smile, and Tormund’s face lit up.
Whatever queer desire had overcome Tormund when he’d declared he wanted to name their second daughter had fled him—perhaps because he knew the girls were unequivocally Jaime’s—and he expressed no particular desire to name their new daughters. A part of Brienne had wanted to name them something significant to Jaime, but it felt dangerous enough already to be so friendly with Jaime and then to bear twins, and the last thing she wanted was to draw any additional scrutiny toward them. They were somewhat protected, she thought, being out of the Seven Kingdoms, but it was still possible that someone significant might put the pieces together, and that was the last thing they wanted.
So in the end, she’d taken the same route as she had with Selwyn, had chosen names obviously significant to her own family. She’d named them Arianne and Alysanne after her sisters who had died when they’d been only babes; she prayed, fervently, that the names weren’t some sort of ill omen for them, something that would subject them to the same fates.
But both girls, though small, were alert and strong; they nursed greedily and often, enough that Brienne sometimes doubted her body’s ability to produce enough milk for the both of them. But somehow, her body did manage it; Ygritte, on the other hand, wasn’t at all fond of being weaned, jealous and angry that the new babes could drink from her breast while she could not. Ygritte’s frequent tantrums seemed to put a mirror up to Catelyn and show her something in herself she didn’t like; nearing six years now, Catelyn had taken it upon herself to follow her older brother’s example and help with the younger children, although she did so only begrudgingly, as if in an attempt to prove her maturity in contrast to her younger sister.
Brienne had written a letter to Jaime the very day of the girls’ birth, at Tormund’s insistence; out of necessity, Brienne had kept their correspondence very bland, having to trust in Jaime’s ability to read between the lines. His reply had come a few days later, though it had been equally inscrutable, with news that he’d be free two visit two moons hence. Brienne imagined him glad, but she knew she’d be much more relieved to see the happiness on his face when he actually arrived.
It took a few more days before Brienne gathered up the motivation to write the rest of the letters she knew she ought to write, though of course none was as important as the first; she wrote to Sansa and to Arya—and she wrote to her father. Her father’s response left her the most fraught with worry; she brought it to Tormund the night she received it, once all the children were in bed, and she read its contents to him.
“So he wants Selwyn to go South, to learn to be a little lordling of your castle,” Tormund summed up once Brienne had finished reading it to him. His tone was somewhat suspicious, filled with the same wariness his voice always held when he spoke about the South and the highborn both. Brienne nodded.
Her father’s demand, though not unexpected, chilled her to the core. She knew, of course, that it was common enough for children of seven or eight to be sent away to be fostered, but seven seemed far too young for her to part from her son, no matter how much he fancied himself nearly a man grown. And the thought of the dangers of sending Cersei’s son south struck her acutely; it had been a long time since she’d last thought of Selwyn as Cersei’s son, and she knew that anyone in the South who saw him and noticed the resemblance likely would not share her assessment that Selwyn was her son, not Cersei’s. Brienne couldn’t help her desire to keep Selwyn as far from King’s Landing as possible, and Tarth was far too uncomfortably close for her liking.
“You don’t want to send him,” Tormund remarked astutely, though his voice was flat, giving no indication of how he felt on the matter. Brienne frowned.
“And you do?” she demanded defensively. Tormund snorted in response.
“Of course I don’t,” he said scornfully. “Southern castles mean nothing to me, not even yours. I’d have my son stay here—or go somewhere else, when he chooses, where he chooses.”
Brienne’s frown deepened and she ran her fingers through her short hair, frustrated.
“What if he wants to go?” she asked finally, restlessly. “Should we stop him?”
Tormund gave her a critical look. “Why even tell him if you don’t want him to go?” he asked critically. “Just tell your father no.”
Brienne couldn’t help but feel frustrated by the conversation; Tormund cared nothing for Southern nobility, for the system of lands and inheritances. He cared nothing for the shame Brienne had brought her father over and over again—first when she’d been such a deplorable lady, again when she’d refused her father’s every attempt to have her betrothed, and finally when she’d had the temerity to marry a man of no noble blood and a wildling on top of that, choosing to bring her family north instead of returning to her rightful place at Evenfall Hall as her father’s heir. Childishly, Brienne wished Jaime was there instead of Tormund; Jaime would understand why she couldn’t simply deny her father as though it were nothing.
“Someone needs to inherit my family’s lands,” she told him helplessly. “And they need to learn about them and how to run them. And they need to earn the trust of my father’s people.”
Tormund snorted again and rolled his eyes, but to his credit, he didn’t make any further scathing remarks about Southern castles.
“What if he doesn’t want to go, then?” he asked after a quiet moment. “Do you send him our daughter instead?”
Despite the seriousness of the conversation, the image almost made Brienne laugh; Cat was much the way Brienne herself had been when she’d been a child, except perhaps even more fractious. Brienne couldn’t imagine her father’s reaction at having to raise another wild girl, especially now that her father was in his sixties already, much less able to keep up with a rambunctious young child.
“I’m sure he’d prefer one of the boys,” Brienne remarked after a moment, a slight smile playing at the corners of her mouth at the image of her father with Cat. This time, Tormund made an obviously annoyed sound.
“Well we have four daughters and two sons, and I’m not sending any of them against their will,” Tormund told her with a steely look. “So if neither of the boys want to go, he’ll take one of the girls, or he’ll get nothing at all.”
Brienne couldn’t help but smile at Tormund’s characteristic stubbornness; his desire to protect their children, to give them happy lives, was one of the things she most loved about him. She knew there was no use fighting him on this, not that she particularly disagreed. Years ago, she might have believed her eldest son was duty-bound to inherit, but eldest sons had deferred to younger ones before, and with the Crown’s decrees making women inheriting a more commonplace occurrence, giving her children a real choice was no longer out of the realm of possibility.
“What if none of them wants it?” Brienne pressed after a moment with a raised eyebrow, and Tormund waved an unconcerned hand.
“We have six children. One of them will want it,” he told her vaguely. “But the question now is only if our first son does. So we can ask him. But we should talk to your crow before we make any decisions about it for certain.”
Brienne couldn’t help but smile at Tormund’s words, at his unrelenting desire to keep Jaime involved in all decisions made about their family. She took a step toward him and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“I love you,” she told him quietly, the sincerity of the sentiment laid bare in her voice. He smiled back and didn’t say anything, but he leaned forward and pressed his lips sweetly against hers, and she knew very well the sentiment was reciprocated.
They waited to talk to Selwyn until the next afternoon while their younger children were all napping, since that was the only time they had a reasonable expectation that they’d be able to talk to their eldest son without a great chance of interruption. Brienne laid out the situation for Selwyn in as neutral a way as she could manage; they’d decided to gauge his interest in going South before telling him anything about lordships and inheritances, though Selwyn had read enough histories that it was more than likely that he already knew what they were leaving out. But any discussion of the politics of it, they’d decided, was better left for once Jaime arrived.
Selwyn, to his credit, looked incredibly contemplative when posed the question of going south, but Brienne had expected nothing less of her eldest son, who had always been too measured by half for a boy of his age. Even if he hadn’t figured that a lordship would be in his future if he agreed, it was clear enough that he realized the question was of utmost importance, that they wouldn’t dream of sending him away otherwise, and thus he was giving the matter the reflection it was due.
After a long silence, he gave Brienne a pensive look.
“Your father…is he kind?” he asked slowly, tentatively. Brienne took a long minute to mull over her response to that; Selwyn’s namesake was stern and serious, certainly, but despite the fact that she’d put her father through all seven hells, she’d never doubted that he loved her, and she knew that wasn’t true of all fathers, not by a long shot.
“Your grandfather is a serious man,” Brienne told her son honestly. “He has high expectations. But he’s fair.”
Selwyn nodded solemnly, taking that in, and Brienne didn’t miss the way he looked back and forth between her and Tormund, as if trying to discern what kind of response they wanted from him. Brienne did her best to school her expression; she didn’t want to influence her son’s decision either way.
“Does it snow in the South?” he asked then, absurdly, and Brienne almost laughed at the question. It was with questions like that that Brienne remembered that her son was still no more than a child. She still remembered the first time she’d set Selwyn down to crawl across the snow when he’d been a baby, remembered the way he’d grasped his hands in it and, impossibly, laughed, undeterred by how cold it was against his fingers.
“Almost never,” she told him seriously. “But Tarth is an island; it’s warm and pleasant, and you can swim in the sea and go outside without a coat.”
Brienne saw Selwyn taking the time to consider the novelty of that, and she tried to imagine Selwyn there, excitedly diving from the rocks into the sea, the way she had when she’d been a child. After a long minute of consideration, Selwyn made a face.
“I don’t think I’d like to live there, Mother,” he told her finally, his voice wavering a little as he said it, like he was afraid of disappointing them. “I want to stay in the North, with you and father and Sandor and the girls. And Uncle Jaime.”
Tormund didn’t even bother to hide his snigger when Selwyn said “Uncle Jaime,” for Tormund had been the one who had encouraged the nickname while Brienne had tried so very hard to discourage it, making sure that Selwyn knew that Jaime wasn’t his real uncle, that he believed that there was no blood relation between them. But the title had stuck, though her lesson seemed to have as well, because any time he explained “Uncle Jaime” to anyone, it came with a disclaimer of, “He’s not really my uncle, just a good friend of my parents’.”
When Brienne didn’t say anything in response to Selwyn’s proclamation, his expression turned nervous.
“Is…is that okay?” he asked her in an uncertain voice, and Brienne gave Selwyn a soft look, wrapping her arms around him reassuringly.
“Of course it’s okay,” she told Selwyn seriously, secretly relieved that he’d refused, that they could put off this decision for a few more years at least. And really, Selwyn’s answer didn’t much surprise her; Selwyn might have been born of Jaime’s seed, might have been birthed in King’s Landing, but his personality was much more Tormund’s, and Brienne couldn’t think of him as anything but a child of the North. Asking Selwyn to leave the North, the snow, and his younger siblings felt almost as absurd as asking Tormund to do so. After holding her son for a minute, Brienne pulled back from the embrace, giving Selwyn a serious look.
“You know that we’ll love you no matter what it is you decide to do, right?” she asked him gently, and Selwyn’s eyes sparkled a little with unshed tears. His eyes darted to Tormund, always the sterner of the two of them, as if needing his confirmation that Brienne’s words were truth.
“No matter what happens,” Tormund affirmed, “you’ll always be our son.”
Brienne felt her own eyes stinging with tears, then, and she grasped for Tormund’s hand. He took her hand into his without hesitation and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
It was about a moon’s turn after their conversation with Selwyn that Jaime finally arrived to visit them. Catelyn was the first to notice his arrival late in the afternoon, and nearly the entirety of the town knew within seconds as she ran excitedly between all their homes yelling, “Uncle Jaime is here! Uncle Jaime is here!” Ostensibly, she meant to alert her siblings, but Brienne was fairly certain that everyone in town—and perhaps anyone in any neighboring town—had heard her as well.
Tormund was out with a group hunting, but Selwyn, always considerate, came to fetch Alysanne while she picked up Arianne, and by the time the four of them got outside, Cat had already thoroughly enfolded herself around Jaime’s legs, Jaime’s horse still saddled beside them. Sandor stood some distance away, always the most reserved of her children, and he held his little sister’s hand as Ygritte quirked her head in quiet interest at the newcomer. She, of course, would not recognize Jaime; the last time he’d visited, she’d been but a few months old.
“…and I beat him in a sword fight!” Brienne heard Cat telling Jaime, still clinging to Jaime’s legs, effectively preventing him from moving. “Even though he’s older! And a boy!”
She said the words with the particular scorn that young girls always held for young boys. Brienne, who herself had heard this story already nearly a dozen times, shook her head to herself when Jaime gave her a rather helpless look.
“Did you?” he asked Cat after a second with perfectly feigned interest, and Selwyn made a face behind Cat’s back.
“I let her win,” Brienne saw him mouth at Jaime when he had made sure that Catelyn wasn’t looking, and Brienne had to hold back a laugh at the knowing look that Jaime gave him. But Brienne didn’t doubt that Catelyn would best Selwyn with a sword on her own merit soon enough, for she had taken better to swordplay than he had, though Selwyn still had the size and strength to best his sister for the time being. Catelyn, on the other hand, didn’t have the patience or precision with a bow that Selwyn had; she wouldn’t even try to outdo him at that anymore, too discouraged by her constant failed attempts.
Brienne stopped beside Jaime with a smile.
“Are these the girls?” he asked when Catelyn had finally tired herself out retelling their battle with wooden swords. “I’m afraid I can’t hazard a guess about which girl is which.”
Brienne smiled at that; it was not easy for Brienne to tell the two apart, and she’d seen them every day since their birth. It would certainly be close to impossible for Jaime to discern a difference between them.
“This is Arianne,” Brienne supplied helpfully. “Selwyn has got Alysanne.”
Selwyn stepped forward and offered his sister for Jaime to hold.
“Here—you take the baby and I’ll take your horse,” Selwyn offered, and Catelyn objected almost immediately.
“But I wanted him to see me sword fight!” she protested, clearly knowing that if Jaime took the baby, it was a near-guarantee of no further excitement for the day. Brienne gave her eldest daughter a stern look.
“Jaime is very tired after he traveled four days to get to us,” she pointed out scoldingly, and Cat pouted but didn’t protest. Jaime crouched down in front of her.
“I promise I’ll watch you tomorrow,” he told the girl sincerely, and Cat’s eyes lit up immediately at the vow.
“Will you show me how you learned to fight with your left hand?” she asked excitedly. “I want to learn how to fight with both.”
Jaime gave the girl an indulgent look; the children all lacked subtlety about his missing hand, for they’d never known him otherwise, viewed his stump as nothing more than a passing peculiarity about him. But it was perhaps better that when they did take note of it, they regarded the handicap with excitement rather than pity.
“There’s no trick, Cat—it’s just practice,” he told her seriously, and Cat looked slightly disappointed at that, like she had been hoping Jaime would give her some sort of shortcut. Seeing the way her face fell, Jaime sighed. “I’ll help you tomorrow,” he promised, and Cat perked up at that, throwing her arms around his neck briefly before running off.
Jaime stood again with a shake of his head, and he finally took Alysanne from Selwyn and Selwyn took Jaime’s horse by the reins and led him off. Sandor stood there for another moment before turning and walking away wordlessly, hand still clasping his younger sister’s as she toddled away next to him. Jaime raised an eyebrow.
“Those two are certainly somber,” he remarked as he watched them walk away, and Brienne had to fight back the urge to laugh. Ygritte was still barely speaking, but Sandor, at three, could speak—he simply chose not to more often than not, and ever since she’d begun walking, Ygritte had been following Sandor around like a baby duckling.
“Let’s go inside,” Brienne said instead of remarking upon that, and Jaime followed back to her home, cradling his small daughter in the crook of his arm almost reverently. Once the door had closed behind them, Brienne turned and pressed her lips to Jaime’s, careful of the bundles they both carried. When they broke apart, Jaime looked down at the two infants with an expression of wonderment.
“Did we really make them?” he asked breathlessly, and Brienne couldn’t help but smile at that, at Jaime’s obvious happiness. It was exactly what she hoped he’d feel when she’d needed encouragement during those months when she’d realized she was carrying twins, Jaime’s twins.
But before she could say anything, the door opened, and Brienne took a reflexive step away from Jaime. But the intruder was only Tormund, back from his hunt, sweaty and smiling.
“Am I interrupting?” he asked with a sly grin. “Should I avert my eyes?”
Tormund, of course, could tell there was nothing untoward occurring at the moment, for they were both fully-clothed and holding their daughters besides. Jaime released a tense laugh.
“Nothing you haven’t seen before, Tormund,” he told the other man with a hint of exasperation. It was true, of course, though there had never been a repeat of that strange day at Castle Black years prior. Tormund laughed heartily and suddenly threw his arms around Jaime in greeting, though somewhat more gently than he might have had Jaime not been holding Alysanne in his arms. Jaime looked slightly bewildered, and Brienne just barely managed to hold in a laugh at that.
“I hear I can call you King Crow now,” Tormund remarked as he pulled back from the embrace, holding out his hand for Alysanne to grip his finger, something at which she’d gotten more practiced in recent days.
The news that Jaime was now Lord Commander had come in his most recent letter—a result of another change Jon had insisted for the Watch. He’d ascribed that service until death was no longer compulsory, that men could retire after a set number of years of service. Edd had been granted lands and a lordship; Jaime had been elected as his replacement. The news had been a welcome surprise, and Brienne had been proud of Jaime—proud that he’d managed to inspire that much loyalty in the men around him. It was a feat of which she’d believed him more than capable.
But what else the news had done had been to give Brienne cause to wonder if there would be an end date to Jaime’s service—and what he’d do if that day came. If he’d choose to stay on or…there were possibilities there, but Jaime moving one day to live in their village could cause far more scrutiny than his infrequent visits, might be too dangerous a prospect. But still, part of Brienne hoped.
“I’d prefer you didn’t call me ‘crow’ at all,” Jaime remarked sourly, though there was a touch of fondness in his tone. Tormund released a dismissive snort, not even deeming that worthy of a response, and went off to wash and get changed.
The remainder of the day was mundane in its simplicity; she nursed the twins and they all ate dinner, with Jaime making a valiant attempt to help Ygritte use a spoon, not yet knowing how hopeless a prospect that was. Tormund and Brienne both watched the struggle with muffled chuckles, not offering any assistance—but truly, having an extra body made the whole process of wrangling all six children into bed marginally easier, though Brienne knew the twins would wake before long to nurse again.
It was when all the children were in bed that Tormund pulled out a bottle of ale and, with a grin, proclaimed, “We should celebrate!”
Jaime, looking bemused by Tormund as usual, let the other man pour him a cup, but Brienne waved her husband away when he offered her one; being drunk while trying to breastfeed two tiny infants in an hour or two sounded far too dangerous a prospect after all she’d done to bring the twins safely into the world. Tormund just shrugged and poured himself a cup of ale and touched it to Jaime’s.
“What are we celebrating?” Jaime asked with a raised eyebrow, and Tormund laughed.
“Our new babes. Your new position. Either, both. Take your pick,” Tormund remarked offhandedly, taking a swig from his cup. Brienne couldn’t help but feel warmed at the way he referred to the twins as if they were all of theirs’, but after a moment, she sighed, remembering one of the thoughts that had been plaguing her for some time. She’d decided, in deference to Tormund’s new desire to include Jaime in all important discussions about their family, to wait until she could discuss it with both of them at the same time.
“The twins will be our last,” Brienne told them both after a moment, sorry to break the good humor with the somber thought. But rather than appear dismayed, a knowing smile appeared on Tormund’s face; the proclamation had not come as a surprise to him.
“Six is a good number,” he told her reassuringly, and Brienne felt a rush of gratitude in her chest at her husband’s easy acceptance. She knew that he’d love another child, would be overjoyed if she’d grant him another—but he was equally prepared to accept her proclamation that she was done carrying children.
Brienne turned to look at Jaime, wondering how he felt at the announcement—wondering if he felt better knowing these two new children were his, that he’d gotten the chance to have them with her. Jaime’s face was pensive and uncharacteristically open; he cleared his throat, and when he finally spoke, his voice wavered a little.
“When I joined the Kingsguard, I never thought I’d have a family,” Jaime confessed after a moment, looking down at his hand, still curled around his cup. “Cersei…she gave me that, in the only way I thought I’d ever have it. And then, when they all died…”
Jaime trailed off, clearing his throat again as if trying to fight back tears, and Brienne reached out, instinctively placing her hand atop his. Jaime raised his eyes and gave her a grateful look.
“When they all died,” he began again, his voice steadier that time, “I never thought I’d get another chance. Thank you, both of you, for giving me a family. I don’t deserve it, but thank you.”
Brienne squeezed Jaime’s fingers reassuringly, wanting to tell him he did deserve it, but Tormund beat her to it.
“You think I’d let a man who didn’t deserve it in my home, with my children?” he asked gruffly, and Jaime stared at him for a long moment before he laughed, wiping his eyes with his forearm, apparently not willing to let go of Brienne’s other hand.
Brienne looked back and forth between the two of them, thinking how all of this had started, how none of this would have happened without the both of them. For Jaime fathering Selwyn, as awful as the whole situation had been—and for Tormund, who had been willing to take her when so few men would have, who had been willing to raise another man’s son as his own without question. Who had been willing to be patient when she hadn’t been the wife she’d promised to be. Without Jaime, she wouldn’t have Selwyn—and without Selwyn, he’d never have had Tormund or any of their other children.
Selwyn, who was of Jaime and Cersei’s blood but who was so much Tormund in demeanor that it was difficult to believe that Tormund hadn’t sired him. Cat, whose paternity remained so illusive that Brienne no longer even troubled herself over it, who was spirited and outgoing and utterly frustrating. And the two children who were undoubtedly of Tormund’s blood: the quiet and serious Sandor and his beloved redheaded sister Ygritte, who already so resembled Tormund that Brienne couldn’t wait to see her as she grew into a young woman with Tormund’s face—which Brienne had still never seen under his shaggy beard. And the twins, too young still to know what they’d become, but the last and greatest gift she’d been able to give Jaime and Tormund both.
Her father and the highborn lords of Westeros might have scoffed at it, called it scandal and abomination if they’d known the truth, but Brienne didn’t care. It may not have been conventional or expected from a woman of her station, but Brienne had never done what was expected of her.
Jaime, Tormund, and all the children, regardless of their blood…they were all her family, and she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
...and that is the end! Thank you to everybody who followed the story and all the ups and downs of Brienne, Tormund, and Jaime's unconventional little family. It was a joy to write and a joy to share with all of you.
I'm also going to start posting another ASOIAF-related story very soon, though the upcoming story will be based largely on the book canon and is definitely a different sort of flavor than this story was. If you were here only because you were a fan of the main pairing(s), the new story likely won't be to your taste, but if you're open to other things, please keep an eye out for my next work. :D