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“Don’t take this the wrong way, Lord Stark, but I could kiss you,” Jaime called down the length of the bridge between them, trying to sound light and cheerful. He thought he carried it off well enough, even if Eddard’s face stayed hard as stone, his arm around his daughter’s shoulders. It was easier to look at him than at what was behind him: his own father, two rows of Lannister soldiers in red cloaks, freedom. But he could see the flick of his father’s eyes, taking in the filth and grime of his clothes and skin, and the tightness it put in his jaw.

Tywin gave a short nod, and the Lannister guards lowered the pikes in front of Eddard and Sansa. Out of the corner of his eyes, Jaime saw Robb Stark give a nod of his own, and the sword at his throat lowered away. It took an act of will equal to anything he’d ever done not to break into a run; instead Jaime determinedly strolled across the bridge, giving Eddard a jaunty nod as they passed one another, Stark still limping, and then Sansa gave a gasp and did break into a run straight into her mother’s arms, bursting into thick choking sobs behind his back.

Jaime clenched his jaw and kept walking, steadily, until he was inside the shelter of the Lannister ranks, and then his father reached out and put his hand on his shoulder, an iron grip, taking hold of him again, and Jaime let out a breath that shuddered all the way up from his belly and let himself believe, at last, that it was over.

Robb Stark said, “Lord Tywin,” and Jaime turned. Sansa and her mother were still holding on to one another, and Robb had his hand on his father’s shoulder, Eddard cupping his son’s head with one hand, a clenched pride in it, looking at his face—his son, the victor of three battles, even outnumbered three to one by the richest army in the world. But Robb was looking across the bridge with his eyes cold as winter, straight at Tywin. “I know what our agreement said, my lord. But I’ll save you the trouble of breaking your word. When you’re done playing with Renly and Stannis—come north anytime you like.” The direwolf stepped forward from beside him and growled, a deep low savage snarling that made all the horses twitch and shudder, and Robb smiled. “After all, you still owe us, don’t you?” he said softly. “One of my sisters hasn’t come home. So we’ll look for you, coming to pay your debt. Don’t make us wait too long. Winter is coming.”

They turned and walked all together off the far end of the bridge, and the Stark bannermen fell in behind them, grinning. Tywin looked broodingly after them a moment, then gave a flick of his hand to his men and turned.

“I don’t suppose there’s a chance of a bath?” Jaime said, walking beside him; the soldiers had fallen in behind him, the familiar marching tread. Every step felt better than the next: like walking straight out of the underworld, back into life. Down the road, he could see an entire brigade formed up, lion banners flying, washed with sunshine; even the air felt warmer already. “I’d take cold water.”

It wasn’t a serious question; he rather expected to be led straight to the nearest farmhouse and met with a steaming tub, a table covered with food, and, he devoutly hoped, a very good sword: he’d felt naked since they’d taken his away. But Tywin said, “Not until tonight,” unexpectedly, and as Jaime blinked at him, he added, “But we’ll have those off, at least,” with a hard look down at the chains.

Not fifteen minutes later, Jaime was out of his manacles, with the hoped-for sword on his belt—not an inconsiderable mercy—and on a horse, riding south at a steady clip, to catch up with the rest of the army, which it turned out had set off at a forced march twelve days ago, the instant the agreement had been reached. “You don’t want to let Stannis and Renly maul one another first?” he asked his father.

“I do not,” Tywin said. “Renly is a dilettante who smiles. Stannis is a highly skilled commander. If we wait, he destroys Renly in a single battle, and all the Baratheon bannermen will rediscover their commitment to primogeniture and go over to him. Then we’ll be facing a unified force under his command. No. If we can engage Renly’s army before Stannis has a chance, he’ll either have to attack Baratheon forces in the rear while we’re fighting them, or wait until we’re done.”

“Or join forces with Renly to defeat us and squabble over the leavings after,” Jaime pointed out.

Tywin snorted. “That would be wise. But Stannis won’t do it. A rigid man. Highly gifted, but he cannot bend. So we’ll break him.”

“And the Tyrells?”

“If Stannis had been willing to put aside his wife and marry the Tyrell girl, there would have been a longer period of negotiations before she married Renly. Once he’s dead, we have the only marriageable candidate. One of the considerations in giving back the Stark girl.”

“You needed more besides getting me back?” Jaime said, putting on a wounded tone.

His father slanted a hard look at him. “In one week’s time, Robb Stark will be married to Walder Frey’s daughter, the Tullys are already behind the Starks, and Catelyn Stark’s sister now rules in the Vale. Meaning that we’ve just exchanged you for the North, half the Riverlands, and the Vale to boot. Don’t get yourself taken again.”

“I’ll do my best,” Jaime said. He firmly planned to fall on his own sword before ever being taken alive again.

He spent three hours bathing that night: scrubbing in the first two tubs and soaking for two hours more in the third, shaved and shorn and clean. He was a solid mass of pain through his thighs and buttocks, his entire body really, aching all over from being back in the saddle after a year spent sitting in his own shit, and it felt magnificent. He finally got out just to eat again, a delightful meal of tender white carp, roasted venison, stewed grain, fresh beans, and half a bottle of wine, like a divine revelation; he’d never really paid much attention to the taste of food before, except to notice if it wasn’t up to standards. He finally got up from the table when he couldn’t manage another bite, then fell face-first into a cot heaped with soft furs and slept dreamlessly until morning.

They caught up to the army on the banks of the Blackwater, and from there marched south together into the Reach. Renly was marching along the Mander from Bitterbridge to meet them, forty thousand strong, and Stannis was coming through the Kingswood, but he wasn’t going to catch Renly in time: dilettante he might be, but Renly wasn’t a complete idiot. He knew if he beat the Lannister army in one good fight, Stannis’s bannermen would desert to him. It looked like no one wanted to fight Stannis, poor fellow.

Jaime was perfectly happy. He’d been drilling morning and night, riding all day every day, eating like a pair of horses at every stop. All the muscle he’d lost was coming back, and he thought he might even be putting on a bit more: he hadn’t trained like this since he’d been thirteen years old. The one thing wanting he wasn’t going to get until he got back to King’s Landing with some laurels of victory, but that was more than acceptable; he wanted to sink his teeth into Baratheon meat. The morning the scouts came in and reported Renly’s army arrayed short of Tumbleton, waiting for them, Jaime rode on ahead to the front lines just to have a look at them with their banners flying tall and proud: oh, he was going to rampage through them tomorrow.

He came back to his father’s tent alive with anticipation, and found him in just as good a mood. “Four scouts have confirmed it: Stannis is six miles to the east, with only nine thousand men,” Tywin said, pouring a cup of wine and passing the jug. 

“So close, and yet so far,” Jaime said, saluting him, and drank; then he reached down and rearranged a couple of the markers to correct positions. “I’ll take the center tomorrow—”

“You will take the Lion Guard,” Tywin said, with a glare from under his brows.

“The Lion Guard!” Jaime said, indignantly. “I’m not going to spend nine-tenths of this battle sitting in the rear.”

“What you’re not going to do is expose yourself unnecessarily,” Tywin said. “Everyone in this army knows you’re brave and knows what you can do; you should be past trying to prove your skill.”

“It has nothing to do with proving my skill!” It was an effort to keep a snarl out of his throat. “You said it yourself. You just traded half the country away—”

More than half.”

“—to get me back; you can’t have done it to put me on a shelf like a porcelain doll,” Jaime said. “Our men need to see why I was worth getting back, and it can’t just be the name Lannister.”

“That’s more than enough cause,” Tywin said.

“Not for the men who are going to have to follow me into battle.” He stepped to the table’s edge and leaned forward over it, glaring at his father. “The last battle I fought, I got beaten and taken prisoner by a boy of nineteen with an army a third the size of mine, and that’s in the heads of every man in this army, every man on the other side—”

“A boy who proceeded to defeat every experienced commander we have in three more battles,” Tywin said.

“None of whom were me,” Jaime said. “We need people to fear our name, you’ve said it yourself. They won’t fear a man who sits in the middle of a shield wall of armor-plated guardsmen while his father destroys his enemies. No. We need the center to hold, you know it. Renly’s coming straight for it.”

“Your uncle—”

“Belongs on the left flank, with his men, keeping an eye on Stannis to the east, and anchoring our defense,” Jaime said. “I take the center. After Renly batters himself on us for the day, I order a retreat. It won’t turn into a rout. I can hold the men through it. And he’ll be hungry for it, you know he will. He’ll overcommit, extend his lines; as soon as he does, you send the Lion Guard—under Ser Gordas, who’s perfectly adequate to the job—to smash him apart on the right. And then we’ll tear him to pieces before he knows what’s happening. You know that’s the way to do it.”

His father had his mouth pressed tight with dislike, but his eyes had gone to the table, and it was the way to do it; it was, and even if he didn’t like it, he couldn’t help but see it. After a moment, he said, “I’ll consider it,” but that was as good as a yes, and it did turn into a yes, that night as they held a final war council with all his officers. As soon as Tywin said, “My son will take the center,” Jaime relaxed, breathing out; he couldn’t imagine what he’d have done otherwise.

“If Stannis comes in on Renly’s side, our left will be exposed,” his uncle said.  

Tywin shook his head. “He will not. His only chance now is to hope that the victor of tomorrow’s battle is so badly mauled that he can take them with his nine thousand men. You must do your best to conserve your forces,” he added. “He will be coming for us, perhaps as soon as the day after tomorrow—”

The tent flap opened, and a young aide came in, his face alarmed, and when Tywin looked at him bobbed his head and said, “My lord—my lord, Lady Margaery Tyrell is here, in the camp. She—she came across with a—” He made an odd gesture and then blurted, “She asks to speak with you at once.”

Tywin stared at him. The entire tent was silent. “Get her in here,” Tywin said after a moment, and a few moments later, the tent flap was lifted to let in a tall young woman, auburn haired, with a circlet of gold perched on her head and in a heavy cloak, the hood flung back; behind her a tall knight wearing a blue cloak—Jaime abruptly did a double-take: was that a woman

“Lady Margaery,” Tywin said. “I am Tywin Lannister.”

“My lord Tywin,” Margaery said. “I have come to beg you for sanctuary.”

“You are Renly Baratheon’s wife,” Tywin said, through his teeth.

“I was, my lord.” she said. “Now I am his widow. He was murdered not an hour ago.”

The story sounded utterly incredible: some sort of shadow monster coming in through the tent wall to murder Renly with a magic blade of vapor. There wasn’t anyone to confirm it other than the two of them who’d been in the tent at the time—the knight was a woman, and supposedly one of Renly’s Kingsguard—and Jaime was more than half ready to call them both mad, except while the Tyrell girl was still explaining it, three scouts came in to report that Stannis was on the move, going straight for Renly’s side at a fast march, not trying to give battle, and more reports coming in of a massive noise going on in the enemy camp.

“It was blood magic,” the woman knight said fiercely. Her face was still blotchy and streaked with tear tracks. “My sword went right through the creature; it didn’t do a thing. And it had Stannis’s face. It was his doing. Him and that red witch who follows him.”

“Lady Brienne is right. Stannis met Renly at a parley this morning,” Margaery said. “He told Renly he had until sundown to fall in line behind him, or suffer the consequences of treason. He must have planned this.”

“And tomorrow, we’ll be facing a unified Baratheon army, under Stannis,” Uncle Kevan said.

“My lord Tywin,” Margaery said, turning to him, “I asked Lady Brienne to bring me to you exactly because I knew the Baratheon bannermen all around us would go over to Stannis once they learned of Renly’s death. But House Tyrell will not stand with a murderer who uses blood magic and sorcery to slay his own kin. I cannot speak for my father, but I can say that much, and promise you his gratitude in return for my safety. I beg you to send word to him at once that I am here.”

Jaime had to admit, it was a truly magnificent performance. Almost anyone would have believed she was a helpless, innocent young widow shocked and appalled by a gruesome magical murder carried out in front of her face, instead of a brilliant game-player instantly recognizing that with Renly dead, the Lannisters were her best option, and moving to make a new play at once. Probably it had been an assassin dressed in black, and she’d made up the story about the magic to make the stain on Stannis a little darker; clever. His father even had an appreciative glint in his eye.

“You will write to him yourself,” Tywin said. “Do you need a maester to take dictation?”

“No, my lord. I can write it in my own hand. My father will recognize it, and I can make sure he’ll know I was not forced to write it.”

“Good,” Tywin said. “Tell him to have his forces fall back to the southeast, and take up position flanking Stannis’s approach. We will have him between two fires. Norton, have a pavilion beside mine made over for Lady Margaery at once, and make her and her…bannerwoman comfortable.”

“I thank you, my lord, but no,” the ludicrous woman said.

Margaery turned. “Lady Brienne—”

“Your Gr—my lady,” Brienne said, correcting herself, “you were my queen, and it was my first duty to see you to safety. But Lord Tywin and your father do not require my help to protect you anymore, and my duty is clear. I will avenge Renly, or die trying.” She turned to Tywin. “My lord, I beg for a place in your front ranks, if you would have the grace to grant it. If not, I will take myself out of your way, and do my best to reach Stannis alone.”

Jaime stared at her fascinated: she absolutely seemed to mean it, hilariously enough. Go hacking through an entire army on her own, trying to reach the commander? She probably was mad. Tywin eyed her as if someone had brought a performing bear into the tent. “Do either of you know anything of Renly’s plan of battle?” he said after a moment. “The Baratheon forces?”

“I was in his war councils for the last month,” the woman said.

“Lady Brienne had Renly’s full confidence,” Margaery said, which if true was further evidence of just how badly they’d been going to beat Renly on the morrow; dammit. “And if you will offer safe conduct, then when I write to my father, I will ask my brother Ser Loras to join us here to tell you all he knows, as well.”

Tywin gave a short nod and looked at Jaime with a jerk of his head towards the woman. “Take her to the front and have her tell you everything she can about the Baratheon forces before Stannis begins to change their positions. Then give her a place in the front lines.”

“What?” Jaime said, a little taken aback. “You want me to put a woman in the front lines?” And then the woman actually glared at him.

“She brought Lady Margaery here. We owe her a debt. If that’s what she wants, she can have it,” Tywin said. “Do you have any kin to inform, if you are slain?” he added.

“Thank you, my lord, you are kind,” the woman said, inclining her head. “Selwyn Tarth is my father.”

Jaime threw his father a speaking look: she was bloody highborn. Tywin frowned. “Are you here with his knowledge and consent?”

She stiffened a little. “Yes, my lord. We looked to Storm’s End; Renly was our liege. We did not have enough men-at-arms to send a company, but I could come instead.”

That made it only more pathetic: not enough soldiers, and having to ship out one girl dressed up in armor to avoid looking like they hadn’t declared. But his father just shook his head after one last hard look at her, and gestured Jaime out of the tent.

The woman could ride decently, at least. There was a low rise near the center of the field, slightly higher ground, which they’d secured as their front position; Jaime took her there. “Were you really in Renly’s Kingsguard?” Jaime said, idly, as they trotted past the tents. 

“I was,” she said shortly, staring straight ahead.

“A woman Kingsguard,” Jaime said. “Oh, Renly. Always putting things in the wrong places.”

She jerked and stared at him and said through her teeth, “I’m not so sure you should talk!”

He did a double-take, staring at her. “What did you say?”

“You heard me,” she said, icy, and turned her face back forward.

Jaime couldn’t help gawking at her. “Have you noticed where we are at the moment?”

She looked at him with a frowning expression, as if it hadn’t occurred to her to be polite just because she was in the middle of his army. “What are you going to do, have me strung up for being rude back to you?”

“Lannisters are bad enemies to make on principle, really,” Jaime said.

“I don’t expect to live past tomorrow; what difference do you think it makes to me?” she said, as casually as if she’d said she was going to go for a summer stroll.

“You really mean to go sailing straight for Stannis through his entire army, just you and your sword?” he demanded. “What use do you think that’s going to be?”

“I don’t know what use,” she said. “But I vowed over the body of my king that I’d avenge him, and it’s not going to happen if I don’t try.”

“Well, it’s not going to happen if you do, either,” Jaime said.

“The gods may know that, you don’t.” They’d come up onto the rise, and she jerked her chin forward, towards the center. “The green and gold banners are House Rowell. Two thousand pikemen, but down two hundred from camp sickness, another two hundred weak. Also three hundred horse lancers, full strength, well rested. The purple doe is House Revere, one thousand foot—”

“It’s odd you don’t have any trouble telling me everything there is to know about your own army,” Jaime interrupted.

“They aren’t my army. They were my king’s army. Now he’s dead, and either they’re going to keep out of it tomorrow, or they’re going to put themselves between Stannis and my sword. In which case, I’ll do whatever I can to get past them. Do you want to hear about them or not?”

“You are ferocious,” Jaime said, finding he couldn’t help grinning. It was like watching Tommen’s kitten trying to pounce a ball of yarn five times its size. He really couldn’t let his father put her on the front lines; it was heartless. “Go on. House Revere, one thousand foot; now tell me something I don’t know.”

“They’re in the center because they can’t be trusted to maneuver cleanly in formation, but they’re all from three towns, so they’ll hold together. They were going to be sent straight at you—”

“Of course they were.” Jaime sighed, regretfully, and she frowned at him.

“—and if you can press them on the flanks, their line’s likely to break,” she finished.

“Right. What about those blue banners, coming up the right towards us; I don’t know that house,” Jaime said, jerking his chin.

She turned and looked at it, and suddenly she straightened in her saddle and said, “Sound the horns.”

“What?” he said.

“Sound the horns! That’s House Orvion, they’re for Stannis. He’s not waiting for the Tyrells to move! He’s coming now. Sound the bloody horns!” and he took a second look and realized—she was right, the blue banners were a company of horse archers with light foot behind them, and they were picking up speed, about to come pouring through the narrow opening between House Rowell and House Revere and straight for them. And they weren’t going to be alone: “Baratheon! Baratheon!” yells were already floating on the wind, close enough to hear, and all along their front line, the men were starting to move; he could see riders still flying through the ranks of the army to either side, going to each banner, undoubtedly with the simple message Renly’s dead, and if you don’t march with me tonight, then tomorrow either you’ll be a Lannister prisoner or your head’s going on a pike, and they were about to be fucked.

Jaime wheeled his mount and roared back to the infantry company behind him, “Sound the horns! Enemy advance! Now!” and then he was yanked abruptly sideways in the saddle by his cloak, half falling, as a hard thwock sounded; his horse gave a shriek and collapsed under him with the arrow buried in its neck, right where his chest had been the instant before.

He got lucky: the horse went down onto its front knees and toppled to the right, he’d already been falling off to the left instead. The horns were sounding as he kicked free of the stirrups and got himself up. “To your lord!” he heard the woman bellowing at the infantry. “To your lord!” She swung out of the saddle as he stood up and shoved her reins in his hand. “Get on!”

“What?” he said, incredulously.

“Get on!” she yelled at him. “What are you, an—” Her horse screamed and went down with another arrow sprouting from its eye, and there were thundering hooves coming, a mass of men yelling with swords, all coming straight at them. She drew her sword and stepped in front of him even as the Lannister soldiers all ran up around them and started to form a line, too late; the first Baratheon horse were flying past them, yelling wildly, and then the foot ran up too and suddenly there were just men all around trying to kill him.

But his sword was already out, in his hand, and there were no more arrows flying, so they weren’t going to succeed. “Lannister!” he shouted. “Lannister, to me!” and surged forward to meet the infantry company, whirling into them with his sword.

Men were screaming all around, dying; he fought and killed and killed, his blood singing, a savage grin curling his mouth. He was distantly aware that the Lannister red around him was being washed away by Baratheon gold, but he didn’t bother to care; he’d have them if they came in his reach, and that was all he could think about for now. He kept fighting, reaping amid his crops, until five men on foot came at him at once, and two of them were decent swordsmen. There was a moment where he thought they had him, and he bared his teeth at them and got ready to take them with him if he possibly could, and then one of the swordsmen went down with a blade coming out through the front of his helm: the woman had killed him. She’d somehow managed to stay alive, even though there were only twelve men left of the entire infantry company.

She took one of the others, and then there was a brief lull when he’d finished killing the three: they’d taken down the last of the enemy company. Jaime caught his breath and cleared his head, looking around: they had fought their way down the field, and the fighting had moved on beyond them for the most part. That didn’t strike him as a very good sign. He’d hacked off his own cloak and tabard to keep them from getting in his way; he cut off another ragged corner and wiped blood and sweat off his face; he had to get back to the command tent and find out what the hell was happening—

“Stannis,” the woman said suddenly, next to him, and Jaime looked at her. She’d taken off her helm. There was blood streaked in a dark smear across her cheek and clotted in her hair, more of it splattered across her armor, and her blade was dripping red. She was staring across the field. “That’s his banner.”

Jaime turned: there was a light infantry company not ten feet away, moving up the center towards another Lannister company, and on their other side, a heavily armored cavalry force with a large banner: the burning heart with the stag’s head in the middle, with torchbearers and a pack of armored knights, and a dark-haired man visible in the middle.

She turned to him. “I’m going after him. Are you coming with me?”

He stared at her in outrage: there were at least twenty knights massed around Stannis, all of them horsed, with an entire rear guard of heavy cavalry behind him. “I realize you’re some kind of madwoman—”

“Do you realize you’re losing?” she snapped at him.

“You don’t know that—”

“Yes, I do,” she said flatly. “Because the man who controls the fight wins, and Stannis Baratheon is the man controlling this battle. Kill him and you win, otherwise you lose. And if you lose, your head goes on a pike for treason in the morning, with your sister and her children to follow. Are you coming?

He wanted to grab her by the throat and squeeze the life out of her, except for the cold-water shock of certainty: she was right. The Baratheon forces weren’t remotely coordinated, but Stannis had actually ensured the Lannister forces would also be in disarray with the unexpected night assault: he’d put them on a level. He had more men, since he’d probably kept the Tyrells out of it entirely—they might not even know Renly was dead yet—and he’d given all his bannermen a single, brilliantly clear order: just go at them and fight. He was in control. And meanwhile, the entire Lannister command probably didn’t know significantly more of what was happening right now than he did, and every less-than-brilliant officer was surely panicking and yelling for fresh orders. It had the vivid stench of disaster about it. 

Before he could say anything, she put her helm back on, and went. Jaime had one last moment of furious rage, and then he slammed his own helm back on, snapped at the last handful of soldiers, “With me!” and went after her.

She was already going around the back edge of the company of foot, keeping low. Before they caught up, a couple of stragglers came up out of the dark and jumped at her with their swords; Jaime swore under his breath and charged, but by the time he got there, she was gutting the second man with a snarl, and the first was on the ground with his throat slashed.

Most of the company was still advancing, but a handful at the back had heard the commotion, and were turning back. Jaime went at them: if they didn’t kill the bastards quick, they’d have the entire company wheeling on them. She fell in on his side, and they charged in together: she put her pauldron at his shoulder like another knight offering a temporary alliance in a melee, making a connected wall of their armor, and he let himself forget about his left; he was distantly aware of men going down on her side even as he killed the ones on his, but nothing came through her guard to rise to his attention, and before the rest of the soldiers reached them, all seven men were dead.

They paused a few moments more on their guard, panting and watchful, but the infantry company was moving onward, and they had a clear line towards the back of Stannis’s guard, with a decent gap to the company of heavy cavalry behind. If they got lucky, they’d get to him and pull him down before the company could get to them. If they didn’t, well, they wouldn’t really have much time to be sorry about it. “Six on her side, five on mine,” Jaime told his men, as they moved towards them. “Go for the horses. We want as many of them down on the ground and thrashing as we can. If any of the men get down, remember they’ve all got breastplates, so go for their legs and bellies. You don’t need to kill them, just get them down long enough for us to get past them. And if we do manage to take Stannis, every one of you lucky bastards who manages to live through this will be an anointed knight before the end of the next day, with a purse of gold on top of it. And if you don’t manage to live through it, your kin will get it. I do hope you like them.”

They grinned wide; they had their blood up, and they were with him. He looked over at Brienne, but she hadn’t paid the least attention to what he was saying; her eyes were fixed on Stannis, the fires of his torches reflecting in them, and there wasn’t even bloodlust in her face, only implacable determination. She looked over at him, a hint of impatience: why weren’t they going yet? Not a kitten at all, but a falcon that wanted to be set loose to stoop and to kill—but no, Tarth was starbursts, wasn’t it? A star, ready to come down blazing into the ranks of her enemies, and he suddenly found himself smiling at her helplessly, almost in wonder; how the fuck had Renly found her?

She blinked at him, and her face went a little puzzled, as if she didn’t understand his expression. “Let’s go kill a king, shall we?” he said to her. “There’s nothing to it, I promise.”

Her eyes widened, and she almost laughed, he saw it; her mouth wobbled involuntarily, even though she also gave him an exasperated look, as if she couldn’t believe he was joking now. As if there was ever going to be a better time. He grinned at her and moved, and she moved with him.

They managed to creep close enough to see the balding back of Stannis’s head before the first man glanced over to see them, and as soon as he did, Jaime was running and she was alongside him; she slashed the horse’s belly across the girth, and he grabbed the saddle and pulled it over as the horse reared, shrieking, and she was diving under it and on to the man behind. The other soldiers were going at the horses like he’d told them to, and men were going down on all sides. Horses were rearing and panicking all around; he caught a glimpse of Brienne bringing down another one.

He threw himself into a roll just as one more toppled over screaming, and came up beside her fighting another man on a horse in heavy barding; behind him, there was a knot of six knights pulling their horses close around Stannis, their swords ready. He parried a sword blow coming down at Brienne’s head, and she took the opening and stabbed the man in the thigh and ripped her blade back out in a gush of arterial blood.

“Get ready to go!” Jaime told her, with a jerk of his head at Stannis behind his guards, as he grabbed the dying man and hauled him down out of his saddle. She nodded, her eyes alight with torchlight and fierce approval, understanding without another word; and she darted off as Jaime hauled himself up into the saddle. He took his helm off his head and tossed it aside and shouted, “Hiding behind other men, Stannis?” as he swung his horse around to face them.

One of them yelled, “It’s the Kingslayer!” and all six of them charged right at him; he was instantly fighting for every single heartbeat of his life, maneuvering the unfamiliar horse with his knees; he couldn’t actually risk extending himself to strike a real blow, only parrying and making quick feints towards them. But behind their backs, Brienne had just killed Stannis’s horse, and he had been forced to jump clear.

“To me!” Stannis shouted. “To me—” and turned to smash aside her sword. The knights all turned to look, and Jaime stuck one of them in the throat, then put his blade into another’s helm; the other four were rushing back to Stannis, but Jaime chased them, and the one in the rear turned to meet him. Not good enough: Jaime parried his slash, grabbed his arm, and pulled him forward onto his blade, held at the belly. The three left looked back as the man screamed, dying, and Brienne kicked Stannis in the balls, then slashed his throat open even as he bent over and crumpled.

The knights all pulled up in horror, staring, as she straightened from the body gasping. Jaime killed them before the poor bastards even managed to pull themselves together. “Get his head off!” he called to Brienne, and turned and grabbed the banner away from the gaping, blank-faced standard bearer. By the time Jaime had shredded it with his bloody sword, wiping great smears of red all over it, Brienne had whacked off Stannis’s head, and she shoved it onto the top of the banner when he held it down to her. He held it out to the standard bearer, who jerked back from him; Jaime nudged his horse on and grabbed the man’s reins and hauled him in and shoved the banner at him. “Take it, and hold it up properly, or I’ll have your head on one, next,” he snarled, and the man took it.

The rest of his soldiers had all died—he hoped they had all liked their kin—but he snagged the reins of another riderless horse and tossed them to Brienne; she pulled herself up beside him just as the commander of the cavalry unit in their rear rode up with six knights flanking him. Jaime wheeled around to meet him. “Ser Dorval, isn’t it?” he said, and the man pulled up, staring at him, and Jaime jerked a thumb up at the pike: they all looked and saw the head, their faces going slack-jawed with shock, and Dorval looked blankly back at him.

“Tell me, Ser Dorval, how smart a man are you?” Jaime asked. “You can kill us, of course, and die very unpleasantly at my father’s hands for nothing—or you can live to swear fealty to a different Baratheon king. What’s it going to be?”

Dorval swallowed, and then said, “My lord Stannis is dead. There is no point to fighting further,” so reasonably smart, after all.

“Very good,” Jaime said. “Now form up your company around us, have them sheathe their swords, and we’re going to ride towards the lines together shouting, ‘Stannis is dead,’ as we go. Assuming you and all your men would rather avoid tedious things like execution and being stripped of your rank and property.”


Dawn was coming as they finally rode back up to the command tent. There were still a few pockets of fighting going on, but the bloody banner with Stannis’s head atop it had been a remarkably effective weapon; it took the guts straight out of the Baratheon bannermen, and gave every Lannister company fresh heart, and soon there had been swords being thrown down and men kneeling in surrender all over the battlefield. There was a cheering crowd of Lannister soldiers all around them, and his father was on a horse watching them come, his face impassive but his eyes glittering with ferocious satisfaction.

“I missed Joffrey’s name day, didn’t I?” Jaime said, pulling up before his father. “I’ve brought a present.”

“Well done,” was all Tywin said, looking up at Stannis’s head, and beckoned for Jaime to come inside with him. “Did you slay him yourself?” he asked, pouring him a glass of wine.

“No,” Jaime said, draining the cup; he was parched. “The honor goes to Lady Brienne, as it happens,” and his father looked up at him incredulously. “No, I’m not joking, I spent the whole damned battle trying to keep up with her. It was her idea to go for Stannis in the first place. She’s magnificent. I have no idea what to do with her, but we can’t possibly let her go back to molder on Tarth. It would be a crime. There’s got to be some excuse we can come up with to take her as a bannerwoman. The Starks have one, don’t they; House Mormont? Why not us?”

“I’ll consider the matter,” Tywin said. “For now, we’ll see to it that she’s in a tent of her own somewhere that she won’t be molested.”

Jaime snorted. “Any man who wants to try to molest her had better have good armor and four friends to help him.”

They talked about the losses a little, while Norton arranged the tent—easier now that several people weren’t coming back to theirs—and then Jaime went out whistling and beckoned Brienne along with a wordless jerk of his head. She read him as clearly off the battlefield as on it, and slid off her horse and followed him to it. “Your pavilion, my lady,” he said, grandly waving her in. It wasn’t very large; neither of them could stand straight up inside, but Norton had done a decent job of it, cot piled with furs, a small table with a loaf of bread and even a jug of wine, and a stand for her armor and her sword, with rags and a whetstone.

Brienne wiped her blade clean with the automatic quality of someone who wore her blade every day and looked after it herself, then put it on the rack, set her helm on it, and then sank down on the cot with a gusty sigh running out of her. Jaime poured two cups and gave her one, sitting down next to her on the cot, since there wasn’t anywhere else to sit, and they tore apart the loaf of bread between them, devouring it to the crumbs. “Where did you learn to fight?” Jaime said, letting himself sprawl back on his elbow. He wasn’t tired; he was still pounding with energy and excitement, pent up in a tight knot at the core of his belly. “I had no idea they grew women that ferocious on Tarth.”

“My father taught me,” she said, distractedly, unbuckling her greaves and putting them aside. She grimaced as she reached around to get the buckles of her breastplate, which had been dented in a few places: she probably had sore ribs. Some sore ribs, a twisted ankle, three fingers swollen up like sausages: that was all, and she’d killed at least fifteen men tonight.

“You’re ludicrously wonderful, do you know that?” he said abruptly, watching her, and she jerked and stared at him a moment as if she thought he was just saying it, and when she realized he wasn’t having some sort of bizarre joke on her, her whole face went red and she averted her eyes and mumbled something unintelligible like a maiden pretending to be modest over someone complimenting her beauty. It was almost unbearable, and he said helplessly, “You have no idea how much I want to fuck you right this instant,” and then her eyes flew back to his face and she looked positively shocked with lust, just as easy to read off her as any of her other thoughts, and he sat up and kissed her.

It was just as good as fighting beside her. She moved so well. It was the thing that separated a good swordsman from a great one, that instinct for the body of an opponent: where it was, what it was doing, how to meet it. He almost didn’t want to stop just rubbing up against her long enough to get inside her; she’d fitted her body to him and they were grappling so wonderfully, like wrestling, only sex instead, her strong hands digging into his thigh and his shoulder, her hips rolling along with his.

“Are you a maiden?” he mumbled into the warm delicious skin of her throat, kissing her, and she nodded, a shy little jerk of her head. “Are you going to give it to me?” he breathed out against her and she shivered wildly and jerked a nod once more, and that did it; oh, he had to, he had to have her, and he rolled onto his back and pulled her up on top of him, getting her astride his hips. She couldn’t quite look at him; her face was flushed and sweaty, still streaked with blood, and she was biting her lip. His cock was hard and jutting up between her legs; he took it in his hand and stroked it and murmured, “Come on, my lady, you’re not afraid of swords,” and she blushed even hotter and he pressed her thigh coaxingly down, and she lowered herself towards him a little, enough so he could stroke at her wet opening with his knuckles and the head of his cock.

She gasped waveringly, another wave of color, and lowered just a bit more, letting him put himself just inside the hot wet folds, and then he grinned up at her and grabbed her and thrust his hips up hard, putting himself inside; that would teach her to let her guard down. She made a squawk, her eyes gone wide, and he laughed and sat up, pulled her down on him hard the rest of the way, getting her seated in his lap, all of his cock inside her. Her face was shocked, her eyes so very blue, and she glared at him just a bit indignantly. “Did I take you by surprise, Lady Brienne?” he said, still beaming helplessly with delight.

Ass,” she said, but breathlessly, and he caught at her mouth to snatch the word out, a kiss, a bite; he put his thumb on her clit between them and nudged his hips up at her coaxingly, and she started to move with him again, her hands braced on his shoulders, panting in great gulping breaths, and oh, starting to move harder, starting to ride him; oh Seven she was so strong; he had his arms around her and was kissing her frantically, his head tipped back as she bent over him and fucked him, fucked him so hard his hips hurt, oh gods, yes, and he came in a rush and she didn’t stop, she just kept fucking him and he was so sensitive he couldn’t help a small whimper, and she laughed at him, giggled, and then he rubbed her clit desperately and she started clenching around him, braced, her eyes shut and her mouth open and gasping.

She fell asleep on him almost immediately, a blanketing sweaty weight draped over his body and half pinning him to the cot, uncomfortable and wonderful; he slung his arm around her shoulders and sank under, sated completely at last. He stirred again only that afternoon, groggy and faintly aware of Brienne sitting up and rubbing her face, and he only really woke when she got out of the bed and went to wash her hands and face in the basin. It didn’t help very much: the water turned dark red almost instantly, and she was still smudged after. “I’ll have them bring us a bath,” he said lazily, stretching.

“Thank you, but I can’t wait,” she said, and went to pick up her clothing. “I shouldn’t have slept, I’ve already lost hours.”

“You’ve what?” he said, blankly. “What are you talking about? Stannis is dead, his army’s beaten—”

“That red witch is still out there,” Brienne said. “She wasn’t anywhere on the battlefield yesterday, you can be sure of that.” She had already pulled back on her clothes and was sitting down on the edge of the cot to strap her greaves back on.

He propped himself up on his elbow. “And what, you’re planning to just sail off after her?”

Brienne paused, and then turned and leveled a hard frowning look at him. “Yesterday, when Lady Margaery and I told you what happened in Renly’s tent, I expect you thought I was just a stupid woman, seeing shadows where there was only a man in black clothes. Do you still?”

He stared back at her and said slowly, “No, I suppose not.”

She gave a sharp nod. “Renly was murdered by a shadow. A shadow that no sword could pierce, and it came into his tent, in the middle of his camp, and murdered him before my eyes. Stannis ordered it, and he’s dead, now, as he deserved. But if that witch lives, she’ll find herself some other man to ride to power, and she’ll do it again. So I’m going to find her, and kill her, and the best chance I have is to go before she’s had time to get far. She’ll have been watching from somewhere nearby, I’m sure, ready to ride in and burn people for her god in celebration.”

She got up and picked up her breastplate, and as she got it on over her head, he realized that she was planning to do it again, she was going to hop right out of his bed and go, just like that, with not so much as a— He swung out of the bed and stood up to face her. “You do like the idea of charging at the world alone, don’t you? Has it occurred to you that you wouldn’t have gotten to Stannis yesterday if it hadn’t been for me?

She got her head out through the neckhole, and straightened and looked him in the face and said, a little stiffly, “If you want to come with me, you’re welcome.”

“If I want to go with you?” he said, his voice rising in outrage. “I’m one of the commanders of this army!”

She didn’t argue at all, only gave a small nod. “May I have a horse?”

“What?” he stared at her.

“I can likely catch one somewhere loose on the field, but it’ll waste time,” she said in a slightly impatient tone, as if she was explaining something that ought to be obvious. “They say Lannisters always pay their debts. I killed Stannis yesterday: is that enough of one for you to give me a horse?”

There were roughly five hundred indignant things he wanted to say to her, but it was vividly clear she wasn’t going to wait for it, so he said through his clenched teeth, “Fine,” and seized his own filthy clothing, sweat-soaked and bloodstained, pulled it back on, and got back into his own armor; he had to get her to pull the straps tight for him in the back, and then he savagely told her, “Wait here,” and stalked out and found one of the pages running around and snapped, “Go get a horse. A decent one, rested, saddled and—go get two,” he finished, because damn her, with her is that enough of a debt, asking for a horse in exchange for the head of Stannis Baratheon, just so she could ride off like Toric of the Glade to kill an evil witch; like hell was he letting her go alone.

Of course, he couldn’t take any men with him, or even go tell his father he was leaving, because as soon as anyone found out what he was doing, he’d undoubtedly be confined for insanity, so he waited until they were both mounted up and told the puzzled page, “Tell my father we’ll be back in two days. If we don’t catch her by then, she’s long gone, and we’ll need to have the Master of Whispers look for her instead,” he added to Brienne firmly, as he spurred his mount into a trot.

“You’ll do as you like,” she said, yielding not an inch, keeping right alongside him.

“Someone’s going to strangle you someday,” he told her savagely. “It might be even be today.”


He didn’t strangle her. He fucked her again instead, late that night, on soft moss under a canopy of weedy willow, the rushing sound of the river going by, cold air on his bare back and her warm body against his chest, her thighs clamped bruisingly tight on his sides as they moved together, her mouth sweet and hungry, and it was unquestionably worth the shouting he was going to get from his father when he got back. And if she tried to keep going without him, he’d fling her over his saddle and carry her back by force: he would. He certainly wasn’t willfully letting her ride off into the world; it would be like letting a unicorn run away from you once you’d caught sight of it. He’d never find her again.

He still had absolutely no idea what he was going to do with her; Cersei was going to have his balls on toast if she even heard he’d fucked another woman in camp, much less if he showed up in King’s Landing with one in tow, but it was too damned bad. He knew she’d fucked Lancel while he’d been chained in the dirt in the North, Tyrion had very delicately dropped just enough hints in his letters for Jaime to figure it out, so now she’d just have to put up with Brienne. Admittedly, that sounded alarmingly improbable even when he was only telling it to himself, but there wasn’t any help for it. He nuzzled into the hollow behind Brienne’s ear and sucked on her skin and coaxed her back onto her side so he could put his cock back into her and make her groan in that faintly shocked way she had when he went deep into her, oh fuck, yes, and when he heard it he knew he wasn’t going to stop, he wasn’t ever going to stop.

They had already found the track: there had been a mounted party of six on a rise overlooking the battlefield, with a large bonfire at their backs; they had all ridden away back south, towards the Mander. All but one of the horses’ tracks were deep enough that there were undoubtedly armored men on their backs. “Five knights,” Jaime said to her, pointedly, but Brienne just got back onto her horse and said, “We need to move faster than them.” There wasn’t going to be any following the trail for any length of time, so instead they’d just gone straight for the river.

Brienne woke him in the dark, at exactly the right time so the sun was coming up just as they hauled themselves back into the saddle, irritatingly. “You do realize there’s no chance of finding any trace of them,” Jaime said to her as they rode along the banks. “They’ll have taken a boat somewhere along the river as soon as they could, and—”

“Seven blessings,” she called, and he looked and saw a cluster of children huddled on the riverbanks peering at them wide-eyed. “Have either of you seen a party of knights ride this way, with a woman among them?”

“Yes, because children are always ideal witnesses,” Jaime said.

“The red woman!” one of the children piped up.

“Yes,” Brienne said, urgently. “Can you tell us which way they went? It’s important. She’s a witch and a murderer.”

“They asked my grandda where to go for a boat that could take horses,” one of the girls said. “He told them Dockley, five mile down the road. You can hire one there as’ll go all the way to Longtable.”

“Thank you,” Brienne said, and Jaime rolled his eyes and dug into his purse to toss the children a handful of silver. “We’re not sailing down the Mander for a month until we hit the Shield Islands and discover we lost them somewhere along the way,” he told Brienne warningly, but she didn’t answer; there was a dangerous hunting gleam in her eyes, and he was increasingly girding himself for the fight to drag her away, right up until the moment they came into the alehouse at Dockley, a minor and obscure fishing village, and the tavern keeper turned round and saw them and blinked as Brienne said, “Seven blessings.”

“Seven blessings, m’lady,” the man said, bobbing his head. “I’ve your letter right here, only a moment.”

“My what?” Brienne said.

“Your letter,” the man said, digging under the counter, and came up with a folded note, sealed with red wax; he held it out to her. “Your friend left it for you.”

Brienne was staring at him utterly baffled. She looked at the letter and slowly reached out and took it. As she broke the seal and opened it, Jaime demanded, “What friend was this, exactly? How did they know we’d be coming?”

The keeper looked at him uncertainly. “Another lady, m’lord,” he said. “Very fine she was, all in red. She said as I was to look for a very tall lady, with yellow hair, in armor,” and he nodded at Brienne, “and as there might be a handsome man in lion armor with her.”

Might be?” Jaime said, frowning, and looked at Brienne and stiffened; her face was bloodless pale, and her eyes wide, staring down at the letter; he reached out and took it from her hands.

Lady Brienne, a clear, slanting hand had written, I will be gone by the time you read this. Do not pursue me further. There is other work ahead of you, and I am not your enemy, though you count me so. You are a servant of light, as am I, and we will one day be warriors on the same side of the battlefield. For the Great War is coming again, and I have seen us together in the North, looking from a great height down upon the armies of the dead. Your face was older than it is now, but you were not yet old.

I thought Stannis was the king destined to lead our armies on that day. I was mistaken, with bitter consequences. The one whom I serve is never wrong, but I am only a mortal woman, and like all of us flawed. I can mistake what is shown to me, or be led astray by my own hopes and fears, instead of truly following His guidance. So it has been in this case. But there is nothing I can do except continue to follow the unclear path as best I can make out the markings, and hope that the Lord of Light can turn even my failings to His service.

I looked in the fire long last night after I knew that Stannis was dead, taking that moment, the death of my false king, as a chance to open the window wider, asking to have my feet set back on the right way. And so now I leave Westeros and go back across the Narrow Sea, for I saw within the flames a shadow of wings in the east, and heard in the crackling the whisper of a great power rising from the ashes of its own destruction. You will hear it soon yourself, even in Westeros, I think. Heed the call, and make ready.

Your child will be born at the turning of the year. Teach him how to use a sword.

In faith,

Melisandre of Asshai


He stared at it, blankly. After a moment, Brienne gathered herself and said to the keeper, “She hired a boat here? When did she leave, and where was she—”

“You’re not going after her,” Jaime said flatly.

“I could still—” Brienne started, but he took her by the shoulders and made her face him.

“They don’t say that the red priestesses can summon shadow demons to commit murder for them, when they tell tales,” he said. “What do they say?”

“That they can foresee,” Brienne muttered, reluctantly. “But I don’t believe it,” she added, lifting her chin. “The future’s ours to write.”

“She saw enough to know you were coming,” Jaime said. “That alone means you’re not going to find her: all she has to do is pay a few different people to lie to you, and you’ll never be able to guess who’s pointing you the wrong way. As for the rest—well, if she’s not lying, and the Great War is coming, go ahead and tell me you won’t be there.”

She fell silent, and didn’t deny it, and Jaime had a strange moment looking at her, this woman who could be seen on that battlefield even at a distance of many years and thousands of miles, and the words there might be a handsome man in lion armor with her, as if there was a crossroads before him, and only one of the turnings would take him there: a road he’d only walk if he was at her side. He swallowed. He didn’t want to go north; he didn’t want to go back north ever in his entire life. But Robb Stark had said, We’ll look for you coming to pay your debt: a life Jaime still owed the North, in exchange for his freedom.

“You’re not going after her,” he repeated. “You’re staying with me.” He turned back to the keeper. “Where’s the nearest septon?”

“Turn right, outside the door, and follow the road through the village and just past the last house,” the keeper said. “The sept’s in the trees, for shade. Septon Royne’ll be in the vegetable garden this time of day.”

Jaime nodded, and turning back found Brienne staring at him, wide eyed. He held out his hand and said, “We’ll teach him together, my lady,” and slowly she reached out and gave him hers.

# End