“Marry me instead,” Jaime said.
He had to say it. The only acceptable alternative was a bloody slaughter of the Tarth nobility currently taking up room at Lord Selwyn’s tables. Two weeks ago, Brandon Stark had sent Arya to the front looking for Brienne, to tell her that a White Walker was marching south along the stormlands coast, gathering dead men as he made them, to build a flanking army. And the Straits of Tarth were going to freeze over in three days’ time.
There hadn’t been any troops to spare. Jaime had ridden back to Tarth with her at full-tilt, just the two of them, buying new horses whenever they found any; they’d reached Evenfall House twelve days later and found it under siege. From a distance it looked like any siege, if an absurdly unequal one, the kind where no one would have blamed the commander for surrendering. The dead in the North were mostly long dead, bones and rags. These were fresh corpses, barely starting to rot; at first glance, half the time you thought they were still alive. Until you got close enough to notice the silence, broken only by the scrabbling hungry claws working against the walls, dead men climbing on each other’s shoulders to get at the living.
And at the back, perched on a skeletal stag overlooking the whole field, a single White Walker, its eyes burning blue. There was a double ring of wights guarding him, two dozen, not more. Brienne had looked at Jaime; he’d nodded back, no words necessary, and they’d drawn swords together and gone for him.
A thousand wights had instantly turned from the back of the force and come racing towards them, even as they fought. Jaime had sacrificed his horse to break the line of guards, rolling off to make a hole that let Brienne go charging at the Walker, and he’d held them off at her back, fighting furiously, not looking behind him, with an oceanic wave of death rushing towards them. They’d been almost on him when he’d heard a shrieking cry, and the first hands clawing at his armor fell away, momentum carrying the rushing corpses forward to knock him over, rotting fingers limp on his boots as he staggered back and fell. But he’d heaved himself over on the ground and found her standing on foot amidst a cloud of ice, while all around Evenfall House the besieging dead collapsed, leaving the two of them alone on the field in sight of the walls.
They’d barely come in the gates, washing grave-dirt from their hands and faces in the courtyard trough with guards keeping a respectful distance, when the old maester had come doddering out to tell her that her father was dying. He’d taken them both into the hall, where the so-called knights and lords had been gathered, the host of vultures Jaime knew so well, even if the faces were different: they’d come to pick at the bones and one another, and they looked at Brienne like a cow at market.
She’d gone up to her father’s sickroom, abandoning Jaime in the hall with the worthless lot of them, where he had the distinct and special pleasure of hearing a sow-faced whoreson named Ser Atigan grunting out, after she’d left, “Wonder if it’s worth it. Well, there’s always strong drink,” while the rest of them tittered like the pack of cunts they were.
“Strong drink is useful on so many occasions,” Jaime had said, reaching out for the jug in the middle of the table and pouring himself a cup. “You can drink it by your hearth to comfort yourself for the horror of all those poor bastards on the mainland being torn apart by dead men. Then you can have another round or ten when it gets so fucking cold the Straits of Tarth freeze over enough for the wights to get to you, too. And then, when they show up outside your gates ten thousand strong, you can piss yourself until your liege lady shows up to save your cowering hides. I wonder if she thinks you’re worth it.”
He’d toasted their scowling faces, downed the cup, and gone upstairs to find Brienne sitting at her father’s bedside, holding his hand in hers while the rotting bastard whispered thready deathbed pleas at her. Tywin himself couldn’t have put on a better performance. And Brienne, of course, dutiful honorable stupid Brienne, just nodded her head and said softly, “It’ll be all right, Father,” which was a nearly hilarious lie.
As soon as she’d come out and closed the door, Jaime had tried to point out to her that the flower of manhood in Tarth were collectively a heap of miserable dried-up shits who deserved only to be carted out and dumped into the latrine trench they’d somehow missed. “You can’t possibly marry any of them,” he said. “I promise you, if you’d been in that room for five minutes—”
Brienne only glared at him. “I grew up here! Most of those men were fostered in this very keep as boys. Do you really think you can tell me anything I don’t know about them? Or the things they say about me? I’ve knocked half of them down.”
“And that’s somehow recommended any of them to you as a husband?” Jaime said. “You’ve knocked me down; marry me instead.”
As soon as he’d said it, he meant it. He hadn’t the slightest interest in being the lord of Tarth, but what difference did that make? He’d spent his whole life ignoring titles and responsibilities he had no interest in, and it wasn’t as though Brienne needed any help with the place. What she did need was a husband who wouldn’t treat her like a badly trained bitch, to be kenneled and whipped if she didn’t obey her new master properly. “Brienne. Marry me instead,” he said again, more urgently.
“Don’t joke,” she said, looking away with her mouth turned down.
“I’m not. Listen to me, do you have any idea how any of those men would treat you? You make them look small, and I don’t mean just because you’re a head taller than the next. They are small.”
“They’re just men,” she said. She sounded weary. “Ordinary men, no better or worse than most.”
“Like hell they are,” Jaime said. “Not one of them was on the walls, not that I saw—”
“Ser Atigan was commanding at the south gate and had repelled two attacks,” Brienne said, as if she was thinking of him, of all of them—
“You can’t possibly want to marry him more than me,” Jaime said. “You are a madwoman, but you’re not that mad.”
“How could I possibly marry you?” she said, in apparently sincere bewilderment.
His stomach clenched oddly. “Well, we’d have to stand the wrong way round,” he said, with an effort full of mocking lightness, holding up his golden hand. “And my reputation is a bit stained, I grant you—”
“What are you talking about?” she broke in. “I’m sworn to protect Sansa Stark! How could I possibly reconcile that with handing Tarth to House Lannister?”
She paused there, looking at him half-expectantly, as if she thought surely he must have an answer for that question ready at hand, even if it was a bad one. All words had died in his throat. When he didn’t say anything, she added, “And even if I somehow excused it, you know as well as I do that if we’re not all dead before summer comes, Queen Danaerys will come south. Am I to take these men you sneer at, these ordinary men of Tarth, from their homes, from their families, and put them in front of Dothraki and dragons and the just fury of the North? Because I don’t like them? Because they make fun of my looks? Is that a just cause for me to take them to their deaths?”
He still couldn’t dredge up anything to say. In another room, another world, Cersei was looking up at him, her beautiful face, her eyes glittering, saying, We’re the only people in the whole world who matter. He managed, “And you don’t matter at all? You’ll let your father shove you at one of those pathetic, shrinking slugs—”
“My father could’ve shoved me at one of those men ten years ago,” Brienne said. “He could’ve beaten me when he found me with a sword in my hand, or my knuckles bloody in the stableyard. He could’ve locked me in a tower and forced me into dresses. No one would have stopped him. They told him to do it.” She put her hand on Oathkeeper’s hilt at her waist. “You gave me this sword. But he gave me the arm that wields it. He let me go to serve Renly even when men mocked him for it. He’s asked me for nothing, nothing, except for me to do my duty, not to him but to the people who look to our house. And I won’t fail him. Or them.”
He tried to tell himself he’d done his best, and he couldn’t help it if Brienne really did mean to throw herself to a pack of dogs who didn’t deserve to be allowed to whine at her boots, only the next morning he was pacing the walls when he heard her voice from a tower above, calm but carrying on the wind. “Ser Atigan, please stop. What I need is a honorable man who’ll help me defend Tarth and our people, not someone who can deliver false compliments,” and Jaime had to stop and turn away, facing out over the field of frozen mud dotted with the still-smoking pyramid heaps of the pyres, another one just going up now.
But even as the flames began to catch, she kept talking, unbearably. “I’ll be speaking to the others in turn today as well. I wanted to speak to you first because my father thinks highly of you. I’ve heard you did a great deal to preserve our stores of grain when the dead came, and you fought with courage on the walls. I can marry only one man, but I want you to know that he and I honor you for your service, and will reward it, even if not with my hand.”
It was grotesque. The words were blunt and bluntly spoken, none of the flattery and ornamentation that Cersei would have wreathed around them, and none of her smiles to go with them, but they were still wise, and generous, and honorable; everything Brienne deserved and nothing that Atigan did; she would have done better to strike him across the mouth for insulting her, and told him to beg for her to deign to marry him.
Atigan said, after a moment, “I thank you, my lady.” He sounded a little wary.
She went on, speaking quickly and stiffly. “I have three conditions that you need to know, and I’ll bear no resentment if you find them unacceptable. I’ve made a personal oath to protect Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell. I mean to fulfill that oath to the best of my ability. So the man I marry must take an oath never to do harm to Lady Sansa, nor to take the field against her forces, nor to bar me from taking up arms in her defense. Second, whoever I marry has to come into my house, take the name of Tarth and adopt our crest for himself and any children we may have. And finally, I know my behavior and appearance are unwomanly, but I require that my husband leave me the same liberty in these matters as my father did.
“You don’t need to decide at once, but I’ve no wish to keep any of you dangling. I’ll ask all of you to give me your answer tonight, after the evening meal, and then hear out each of you who are willing. Afterwards, I’ll make my choice, and the marriage will take place tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow went round and round in Jaime’s ears, almost deafening, while she went on, “There’s only one answer I do require now. I must have your solemn promise to support my husband and acknowledge him as lord of Tarth, whichever man I choose. Will you give it?”
Atigan didn’t answer for a long moment; then abruptly he said, “My lady, you have spoken plainly. Will you forgive me if I do the same?”
“Please always do so with me, Ser Atigan.”
“You came here with the Kingslayer,” Atigan said, and a hard knot clenched in Jaime’s belly. “Does he seek your hand?”
Brienne paused, and then said stiffly, “Ser Jaime has made me an offer of marriage. But my conditions hold for him as for any other man, and they bar the way. I won’t bind House Tarth to House Lannister. On that you have my word.”
It wasn’t like a door being shut in his face. It had more the quality of a portcullis slamming down, gates being shut, drawbridge up, hot oil raining down in cascades and arrows flying. It made him want to draw his sword and run up the stairs and start beating on the walls until he forced through a breach and killed every last man standing in his way. Instead he stood there on the battlements after the two of them went back inside. Tomorrow, tomorrow kept clattering around inside his skull until footsteps broke the rhythm: Atigan was coming down from the tower.
“Ser Atigan,” Jaime said, and saw him startle and look round, warily. “If it makes you feel any better, I wouldn’t hold you to it.”
“Hold me to—”
“The promise,” Jaime said. “If she does marry me, it’s all right; you can raise a rebellion if you like. Of course, picking fights with Lannisters hasn’t worked out very well for most people, but perhaps you’ll be the first.” Jaime smiled at him with what he considered charm and warmth, but which Atigan oddly seemed to find a bit disquieting. “And come to think of it, I haven’t made any promises about respecting—”
“What are you doing?” Brienne demanded. Jaime jerked his head back to look straight up into her face: she was on the balcony looking over, outraged.
He winced inwardly as she vanished back over the railing; a moment later she was storming down the stairs three at a time to confront him. Jaime leaned back against the battlements insouciantly, which had the not entirely comforting effect of putting solid stone in the way of backing up, and put on his best innocent expression. It worked on her exactly as well as it ever did.
“Are you threatening Ser Atigan?” She advanced on him, only a little shy of snorting like a bull in a rage.
“Nonsense!” Jaime said. “Ser Atigan and I were just having a friendly conversation.”
“In which you actually suggested that if I marry anyone else, you’ll—do what, exactly? Attack Tarth?”
“I didn’t suggest anything of the sort. I was only saying I hadn’t—”
“You will give me your word!” Brienne said.
Jaime spread his arms and shrugged elaborately. “Well, I don’t see why I should. You didn’t even do me the courtesy of honorably entertaining my suit. I had to overhear the conditions while taking the morning air.”
Brienne was staring at him in delightful, rising, open-mouthed indignation, and then she said, savagely rounding every word, “I will do you the courtesy, Ser Jaime, of considering you a suitor, under precisely the same conditions as every other candidate, including your promise to acknowledge anyone I choose as Lord of Tarth, which you would have to give now!”
“All right,” Jaime said, after a moment.
“What?” Brienne frowned, confused.
“If you will sincerely consider me a candidate, you have my word,” Jaime said.
Brienne paused, shut her eyes and drew a deep breath in through her nose, the charming way she did when she was absolutely livid and needed to stop long enough to avoid killing someone at once. “You did hear the other conditions I described?”
“All of them,” Jaime said. “You said an answer wasn’t required until tonight. Is it agreed, then?”
She actually backed away a step, and some of the anger left her face; she gave him a helplessly baffled look instead. “What are you doing?”
Laying siege, he didn’t say. He still hadn’t the faintest idea in the world how he was going to get over the walls; he wasn’t going to give the game away. “This is now the third time I’ve asked you to marry me. I don’t think I can be any more clear.”
She breathed out and looked away, pressing her lips together. After a moment, she said, “Very well. I’ll consider your suit alongside the rest, and give you fair hearing tonight,” gone quiet and stiff, something a little wounded in her voice, as if she wondered if he was mocking her, and he almost jerked his hand out to her, almost said her name, Brienne, said what he really wanted to say, fuck all of them and fuck Tarth, we’re the only people who matter, you’re the only one who matters, come away with me, let them sort it out on their own, only he couldn’t say any of that to her; she’d only look at him bewildered again before she marched herself past him and straight on to her doom.
But he knew in excruciating detail, as she didn’t, the horror of handing yourself over to be raped for the good of this or the other realm of men, which the world loved to dress up in the trappings of nobility and romance but all came down in the end to a miserable woman forced to let some unworthy shit shove his cock into her. He’d lived a helpless witness while Robert had snuffled over Cersei like the gross rooting pig he was, and he’d felt the rage of it trembling in every limb of her body every time she’d pulled him into her arms, when she’d kissed him in what had been the only vengeance she could take for being used like a whore who didn’t even deserve the most meager payment.
She’d been a girl when she’d gone to her wedding bed. Robert could have made her his, could have made her happy, for the price of a little respect; he hadn’t bothered. She was the most beautiful woman in Westeros, the daughter of the most powerful lord, trained in charm and elegance and savagery, and he’d treated her worse than the tavern girls he liked to fuck on his hunting trips. He hadn’t cared a whit, either, if Jaime was there on duty, watching him cajole and tease and laugh with them, while in the mornings sometimes Cersei sat at her breakfast table with a face rigid as marble and her mouth the line of a knife blade.
And Brienne—Brienne was the only child of a lord who was about to die, and she was a woman that men hated because she made them feel how ordinary they were beside the shining steel of her; her husband was going to look at her the way Robert had looked at Cersei, a seal on a contract he was angry at being forced to sign. And once her father was dead, there wouldn’t be anyone to protect her, even in the most meager sense. Robert couldn’t have strangled Cersei in their bed; Tywin would have gutted his realm up the middle, if Jaime’s sword hadn’t gotten to his belly first. Brienne’s husband could do anything to her, short of murder in the middle of his hall before witnesses, and possibly he could get away with that. And she wasn’t going to save herself, so that meant Jaime had to save her, and he was going to.
So he smiled at her, and kept it on his face while she turned and walked back up to the tower, until she was out of sight; then he turned, and that grunting pigfucker Atigan was still there, looking at him strangely. Jaime smiled at him, too. “Until tonight, Ser,” he said, lightly, and inclined his head, and walked away.
He spent the rest of the day closeted in the castle library with the confused junior maester, demanding the details and precedent in every case of a contested inheritance and match in the entire history of Tarth. There were a handful that seemed potentially useful, not to mention that Westeros had two queens going right now: a woman holding title and lands in her own right was hardly outlandish by comparison. It could work. He’d make his proposal, crammed full of every veiled threat of Lannister power he could manage, to scare off the yapping curs, and then at the end offer to let Brienne hold as Lady Tarth, herself, if she married him. She could keep her own oaths and rule her own people, and if the knights and bannermen of Tarth wanted to object to taking orders from a woman, their alternative would be her Lannister husband. Hardly a difficult choice. For anyone concerned.
He went in to dinner still smiling, except Brienne wasn’t there, and she continued not being there through the meal, while the other men at first were irritated, and then began to fall silent as they realized something had gone wrong. When the third course was cleared, and she still hadn’t come, abruptly Jaime pushed back his chair and went upstairs. The faint smell of rot and shit was coming into the hall, the smell of death; he went into the bedroom and found Brienne sitting silently on the edge of the bed, tears on her face, looking down on her father’s cooling corpse. The septon was just going out of the room; the old maester put his hand on her shoulder and said softly, “I hope you know you eased his going greatly, my lady,” before he too left her, glancing at Jaime before he left.
Jaime went and pulled her up into his arms, and she buried her face against the top of his shoulder and gave a single choked sob that had more grief in it than all the mourning all the world had ever done for Tywin. He kissed her temple, and she wrapped her arms around him—too tight, too strong the same way she always had been, awkward in her pain, and all he wanted to do was hold her forever, take the weight, or half of it at least. But she drew back too quickly, wiping her face gracelessly with her palms, not meeting his eyes. She took in a deep shuddering breath and swallowed, and said hoarsely, “They’re all downstairs. I have to…” trailing off, her face something crumpled and lost.
“You don’t have to,” he said. “They can wait. It can all wait.”
But she only shook her head. She drew another shuddering breath, and then she said, “Jaime. Please—don’t.”
“Whatever you were going to do.” She stopped and looked away, swallowing. After a moment, in an almost inaudible voice, “I’ll be married in the morning. I’m going to make a vow. And I’ll have to…make a partner of him. It’s not going to be easier if you’ve left them all feeling humiliated.”
He wanted to shout at her, to rage; he wanted to shake her into sense and selfishness. He wanted to tell her his plan, but now when he tried to imagine laying it out before her, it all suddenly went to pieces. To make her bannermen obey her with his hinted threats; to weave a clever line skirting around the plain simplicity of her conditions as if they were a lawyer’s contract—every scheming cleverness dashed into foam on the unyielding rock of her, and he saw with agonizing clarity that he’d only be standing before her a fool, holding out handfuls of wet sand as though he thought he cupped jewels beyond price. There wasn’t a trick that would get him under the walls; no traitor on the inside who’d let him through the gates in the dark.
He said nothing. She turned away and went to the basin on the table by the window and washed her face with a few splashes of water. She went out of the room without looking at him again. He looked at the dead man lying in the bed, and then he slowly turned and went out, went back downstairs to the tables. Brienne had taken her father’s place at the head, and the room was silent while she told them in a steady, unbroken voice that her father was dead.
“I would still honor him by filling his place, as he wished, and sharing the mourning for him with the lord who will take his name,” she said. “But I’m—I’m not graceful under good circumstances. I ask you to forgive me if I am more silent than I should be. I don’t mean to offer disrespect to any of you here.”
Ser Atigan stood up abruptly and raised his cup. “The Evenstar has set. We will not see his like again. To Lord Selwyn Tarth.”
Cups raised along the table, and Brienne raised her own and drank, three big healthy swallows, and then she started right in on it, going to each one of them in turn, the nine knights and lords along the table. Each one rose, told her that he accepted her conditions, and vowed to accept any man she chose who did the same. Several of them glanced at Jaime, emphasizing who did the same, and he wanted to smile viciously back, but he couldn’t make his mouth move. They one after another told her of their deeds—their small, petty deeds, raising a manor or putting some few acres into crops, training a few dozen men, taking a prize in a minor tourney, this or that.
She’d been right, of course: Atigan was the pick of the lot. Jaime found, grotesquely, that he had to wish that bastard Tormund here; he’d have met her conditions with a shrug, grinned at all these weak-kneed fish and told them all about the time he’d fucked a bear, and oh by the way he’d killed a giant too, not to mention so many wights he couldn’t count that high; he ruled a few thousand Wildlings; and he’d give her as many monster-sized children as she’d let him. At least that coarse fucker would have known something of what he was getting, would have understood that she was worth the title, the castle, the island and every last thing in it, ten times over. He’d have known that she was worth the Seven Kingdoms and the fucking throne Jaime’s children had died on, his father had died on, his poor damned ash-bitter sister was going to die on; Jaime would gladly have set it all on fire just to—
“Oh,” he said, a little brokenly, mostly to himself. But it came out in a moment of silence: Atigan had just sat down, after finishing his own recital, and they all looked at him. He sat up. “Is it my turn?”
Brienne lowered her head. “Ser Jaime—”
“Let’s see, I’ll skip the story where I rode from Winterfell to Tarth in twelve days and slew a few dozen wights to help Lady Brienne save your lives, you all know that one,” Jaime said. “You were doing tourneys, weren’t you? I’m afraid they muddle together in my head. I only remember the ones I didn’t win. There weren’t that many. Jorah Mormont beat me once, that one still stings. Loras Tyrell unseated me—what was it, six years back? He’s dead now. I remember the first one at Harrenhal, of course—joined the Kingsguard at that one. That…didn’t really end so well, I’m afraid. Let’s try something more recent. Oh, I know: I tilted at a dragon once.”
Brienne had been looking away, her lips pressed tight, but her head swung back around at that. “You what?”
“At the Battle of the Goldroad,” Jaime said. “One of my men managed to get Drogon in the shoulder with a scorpion bolt. Danaerys landed him to pull it out. I had a clear run at her, so I took it.”
“Were you out of your mind?” Brienne said, glaring at him.
“In my defense, I had just seen most of my army incinerated into ash or hacked to pieces by a Dothraki horde in a quarter of an hour,” Jaime said. “If ever desperate measures were called for—”
“And yet Drogon and Danaerys both seem to be very much alive,” Brienne said, through her teeth.
“I didn’t say it worked,” Jaime said. “I just want credit for trying.”
“You don’t get credit for doing something insanely stupid!” Brienne said.
“Oh, come on, you’ve got to give me a little bit of credit,” Jaime said. “Pity, though. I would’ve rather liked to move up to Dragonslayer. It sounds much better, doesn’t it? What else, what else. Well, I successfully avoided nearly fifteen years of my father’s machinations to get me out of the Kingsguard and back to the Rock to produce a little pride of lions, which I have to rank fairly high among my achievements. Then of course I betrayed the queen, my sister, and rode away to the North to fight armies of monsters and corpses... You know, it all sounds very clean when I recite it this way. There was much more blundering around in blood and shit when it was actually happening.”
He knew it was stupid babble, but he’d needed to get his courage up; in the end, sometimes there was no way through a siege but for some lunatic to hurl himself at the walls, even if in the end he only left his corpse lying there in the rubble instead of breaking through. So he dragged in one more breath and looked Brienne in the face and said, flatly, “And I came up with the idea of asking you to marry me with the promise that if your lords acclaimed you as Lady Tarth in your own right, I would recognize you so as well.” She stiffened, and the men along the table glanced at one another, suddenly grim. “I thought that was reasonably clever. It’s a proper Lannister scheme. My father would have approved. Only—I didn’t think you would.”
He pushed his chair back from the table, and stood and went to her. Her widening gaze followed him as he drew his sword and knelt to lay it before her. He looked up over it at her stricken face and said low and steadily, “I swear to you before these witnesses that I will protect Sansa Stark with my life, beside you. I will never take the field against her. I will take your name and your crest and your house as my own—”
He heard the breaths drawn sharp behind him, but he didn’t look away; Brienne had flinched hard, staring down at him. “—and all that I am, I will give to protect Tarth and your people from any who would do them harm. And I—” he had to stop, and swallow, and force it out, “—I will accept whichever man you choose as Lord of Tarth. Even if it’s not me. Will you have me, my lady?”
“Jaime,” she said, her voice cracking. “Jaime, you can’t mean—”
“I can’t do anything else,” he said softly, because of course nothing else could ever have worked, and she shut her eyes, a few tears spilling, and held out her hand.
The sense of delirious triumph carried him all the way to the sept the next morning and through the vows. The lords of Tarth had grudgingly accepted him thanks to their oaths—and his bragging; Ser Fallis had even muttered, “Did you make up that bit about the dragon?” so he had got credit, ha—and stood as witnesses. Jaime went on delightedly accepting the slightly sullen congratulations of the assembled host through the feasting. He rather liked Lord Tarth, actually, and they were all so determined to remind him that he’d given up his name that not a single one of them called him Kingslayer. Then he noticed Brienne had grown silent and was frowning slightly down at her place, and that was when it suddenly occurred to him, possibly later than it should have, that she was going to fuck him.
His entire mind went blank. He’d spent the first month of their acquaintance mocking her looks and rambling out every lurid fantasy he could contrive to taunt her with—oh, how fucking clever he’d been—and for his penance, he hadn’t successfully managed to forget a single one of them since, a marvelous combination of shame and a kind of half-pleasurable torment, lying awake at night with them marching through his head.
There was the one in the boat, him kneeling with his hands manacled and his mouth between her thighs—he’d come up with that one when she’d thrown him down into the bottom of the boat while she rowed him south; he’d been irritated, even though it was for his own good, and he’d had an excellent view of the thighs in question, solid muscle outlined in snug, well-worn leather. He could see them in his mind again without any trouble, any time he liked. Then there was the one he’d blathered at her about him overpowering her until she went soft and yielding beneath him, except ten minutes later he’d watched her slaughter three men and it had involuntarily turned into one where she overpowered him and then kept him pinned to the ground while she rode him for her own pleasure, for ages. He occasionally gave in to temptation and used his hand with that one, even if it left him mortified afterwards.
Then there was the one he’d enthusiastically described to her over his shoulder—she’d tied him to a tree, facing away from her, while she washed in a stream—about him catching her at it like the stag hunter getting a peek at the Maiden, only in his version there was less of him being turned into a stag and more of him going rampant in other ways—and then he’d seen her glistening and naked in the bath, her odd unfeminine body that promptly stuck in his head in detail, those massively broad shoulders and the small breasts he could have fit into his mouth entirely; the revelation of her thick, brutal thighs and calves, which on a man would have told him at once he was looking at a mounted fighter and a dangerously good one, and meant exactly the same thing here; the ugly scar puckered into her left bicep, a knife wound; and the one incongruity, the dark blonde hair at her thighs with the lips of her cunt peeking out, deliciously wet, and now he had a firmly fixed and very vivid mental image of the Maiden that came back to him on many unfortunate occasions.
But he hadn’t imagined any of it actually happening, not even while he’d been desperately scheming to get her to marry him. He’d never thought of asking. She was next thing to the Maiden in some secret blasphemous corner of his heart: she’d taken him out of a pit in the dark, waiting to die, and she’d dragged him to his very own taste of divine retribution, and then she’d told him to live and be a man and a knight anyway. She’d been the only person in years to believe he could still be what he’d once thought that meant.
Only now he had asked, on bended knee even, and she’d said yes, and Jaime was reasonably sure that meant she was planning on taking him to her bed tonight, and he’d never been more terrified in his life.
He had loved Cersei beyond the bounds of all decency and honor because it had been the only way he could save her, the only way he could show her she didn’t deserve her fate, that she deserved to be loved and cherished and treated with respect. And it hadn’t worked, he’d only nearly drowned in rage alongside her, but by the Seven he wanted credit for trying, and though it had been for the most savage reasons, he’d known Cersei wanted him in her bed, in her body. He’d always known what she wanted. But Brienne—he had no idea what Brienne wanted of him, other than for him to stop behaving like a cunt and be an honorable man. She’d certainly never shown the least sign of wanting his cock, for any reason whatsoever.
And then the horrible thought marched in on the heels of that one, that she’d had to marry, and he was the pick of the lot, with his missing hand and his tarnished honor and his encrusted decades of incestuous lies, and he was reasonably certain he was going to be sick.
That was when the old maester crept over to him and said in a tremulous voice, “My lord, Lady Brienne has but lately lost her father; if you were willing to forgo the bedding ceremony, a quiet departure would be a kindness, and I wish to assure you would in no way mar the validity of the—”
Jaime didn’t let him finish; he needed to get Brienne away from what suddenly felt a grotesque farce, to tell her, to be sure she knew he’d slit his throat sooner than make her feel an instant of Cersei’s pain. He pushed back his chair and held his hand out to her, offering it, and she took it silently and came away with him still in silence, and led him upstairs and into the bedroom.
He shut the door behind them and said, harshly, “Brienne,” and foundered on the words, but then she looked away from the bed and over at him and blushed a vivid and blotchy wave that made her sun-chapped cheekbones into miscolored patches for a moment and nearly sank him with relief: it was only the two of them in the room, only them, and if she didn’t want him in her bed, she’d knock him down, and he couldn’t stop her; he was the one man on the island her lords would support her against, if he behaved like a shit.
And the instant he wasn’t terrified like a boy, he was suddenly maddened with lust. “Brienne,” he said, a little strangled, “tell me if you want to wait,” because her father had died yesterday, and the fucking consummation could wait, and so could he, only she said, stifled, “No,” and then she started jerking at the laces of her dress so haphazardly he said, “Let me.”
Then he was standing behind her, and he nuzzled up to the back of her neck and started kissing her while he worked the laces open slowly with his one hand, and she made small gasps and shivered and said, “Jaime,” in a voice that was almost a squeak. He loosened the dress enough to make it slide from her shoulders. She pushed it down her arms and he took hold of it and kept kissing her as he dragged it down the rest of the way: kisses along her shoulderblades, down the curve of her spine, and he turned her around towards him, kissing along the faint swell of her hips around to the front of her, and when he put his mouth on her she did squeak, and then she said, waveringly, “I—I think I’d better sit down,” and he groaned on her with victory.
It was almost an hour before he finally came into her for the first time; he wasn’t dragging it out deliberately, he just couldn’t stop; he spent half the time with his face buried between her thighs and her hands buried in his hair, which he was desperately glad he’d forgotten to cut lately; but after the second time she reached her climax, she started to touch him, and then they were just rolling around in the bed together, rutting wildly, and he could feel how wet she was, his cock riding against her, and she rubbed against it and he wanted to push her down and he wanted her to push him down at the same time, and she tried to do both at the same time too and they ended up half wrestling with just an edge of violence and then they were laughing together helplessly, and she pulled him close and kissed him, tender, her fingers stroking his head, suddenly gentle. They just held each other for a long time, kissing softly, and then she moved against him and he tumbled back into the heat of desire again; finally he put himself into her and they pushed together, both of them, her leg curled over his hip and his hand in the small of her back, and he breathed out, half disbelieving and so glad, so impossibly grateful.
He lay on his side next to her afterwards, just watching her catch her breath, her chest still rising and falling under the sheet she was clutching over herself, a small absurd modesty. It was all right, she could hide under the sheet if she wanted; she was his anyway, she’d said so, she’d promised, and maybe when he’d caught his breath, he’d tug it away and remind her. She looked over at him, her mouth trembling with a curve that stabbed him to the belly; he didn’t know if he remembered ever seeing her smile before. He leaned in and kissed it, softly and carefully, not wanting to press it away, and she stroked his cheek with her fingers.
Then she lay back and took a last deep breath, sighing; the smile didn’t go, but she looked thoughtful, and then she said, “We should send boats to Dragonstone tomorrow, for dragonglass arrows and spear-points, anything they can spare. Even in the worst cold, it was only the one span that froze over, and it wasn’t that wide. We can stop another crossing, if we have enough weapons that kill them.”
He blinked a little, and then he said slowly, thoughtfully, “There was a kind of engine that they used in the defense of the Eyrie, the last time someone tried to lay siege to it—something almost like a sausage grinder, big wheels in a rack, covered with spikes and blades.” He gestured with his hand, trying to shape it in the air. “It had a gap at the bottom. The defenders stood behind it and pushed it forward, and the wheels turned. When it hit men in front of it, it didn’t just stab them, it rolled them down, so the blades didn’t get choked, and they fell down and came through the gap at the bottom, and the defenders pushing it forward just finished them off and passed the bodies back to get them out of the way. When they got to the Bloody Gate, they pulled it back fast, and let the besiegers fill the canyons again and did the whole thing over. It’s funny how quickly the siege stopped,” he added, dryly. “It’s no use on any ground where you can go round it, but it would work here, if we made a few of them with dragonglass. We could hold the island no matter how many came. Dead or living.”
Brienne had rolled on her side to listen. “We could make Tarth a shelter, and tell people to come over from the Stormlands. As long as the roads nearby are open—they can come and bring whatever supplies they have, until we haven’t any more room. We can put up shelters on farmland, in the hills. We’re not going to be planting any crops in this cold anyway.”
“Do you have enough grain?” he asked.
She nodded. “There are old caves high up in our mountains. It’s very cold and dry. Grain lasts there for ten years, dried meat and fish for five or six. And after the fifth year of summer, my father said a hard winter would be coming. He had us start saving more than ever before from every harvest since, up to the limit of going hungry. They’re crammed full. When the reports came the straits were freezing, Atigan took men up and blocked the mouths with stones and boulders, and poured water over it so it froze solid. It’ll take work to chip them back open, but they weren’t violated.”
“I suppose that was clever of him,” Jaime said, magnanimously. “In that case, when you let people come, make them pay you in valuables—not for shelter and food,” he added, in mildly injured tones, to her dismayed look. “Make them pay for—sheltering closer to Evenfall House. Eating in the first call for the communal tables. Bathing a second time a week. Anything that they’ll want, not need. Trade the valuables to Pentos for money, transfer the money to an agent in Braavos to buy food, ship it from there to the North. Euron Greyjoy is taking our supply lines apart in the Narrow Sea, so the shorter we can make them, the better, but we’re already pushing the price of trade goods lower in Braavos.”
“Is there anything we could do here to stop him?” Brienne said. “Most of our ships are small fishing boats.”
Jaime lay back thinking. “Do you have a harbor anywhere on your eastern coast that has with good elevation close by the water?”
“Dawnspoint,” Brienne said instantly. “It’s only a small village, but the harbor is deep, and there’s cliffs all along one side, nearly a hundred feet tall.” She propped herself up on an elbow and drew the curve on the sheet between them with her finger.
He nodded. “Right now, our ships don’t have a friendly port to hide in anywhere between Dorne and Dragonstone. We’ll have to survey it, but with any luck, a few scorpions up high, some trebuchets, and we’ve got a safe harbor for ships to run into if the Ironborn heave up on the horizon.”
She frowned. “I don’t think there’s anyone on Tarth who knows how to make those.”
“I’m here,” Jaime said cheerfully.
“You know how to make a trebuchet?”
There was a note of laughter in her voice, half delighted and half incredulous, and he couldn’t help himself; he pounced on her and kissed the startled yelp out of her mouth. “Do you doubt me, my lady?” he said, in teasing reproach, nuzzling at her neck and her ear and running his hands over her sides, lightly, ticklish, and managed to start an actual laugh out of her, rich and deep, and kept trying to get more until she squirmed loose and pushed him over and pinned him, and he shifted a little further through her thighs and reached down to fit himself back into her, her eyes closing on a gasp as she pressed down onto him, and they were moving together again, shuddering, rising.
He collapsed sprawling and panting for breath after with his hand still cupping the back of her head. She was breathing deep—she’d given up on the sheet, he noted another triumph—and she smiled at him again, a helpless widening in it. He rolled up onto his elbow to kiss her, deeply pleased with himself. “My father felt no commander should try to use equipment he didn’t understand thoroughly,” he told her. “He had me spend my thirteenth year working with his siege engineers until I could draw him a complete plan of trebuchet, mangonel, and ballista. And I went over Qyburn’s scorpion before I towed it all across the Reach. Turned out not to do much good against dragons, but it’ll put a sizable hole in a ship’s hull. I’ll get your smiths and carpenters started tomorrow. If we hide them behind a screen of trees when we get them up there, we might even be able to lure the ironborn into making a run at us the first time any real number of ships put in. A fireship or two waiting down in the port, and we could do some significant damage.”
He grinned at her, wolfishly, and she nodded, her eyes intent, listening to him and thoughtful—and he suddenly almost could have wept, because everything he was, he’d promised her, and she was going to use him well. She’d take everything he’d been trained for, war and rule both, and set it to serve their people, their home: this was his home now, too; he was inside the walls, and safe, with his lady, who would never, never ask of him any service that would dishonor him.