Brienne came back out of Riverrun after two hours, looking tired and irritated, and when they brought her back to his tent, Jaime said, “He’s refused?”
“No,” she said. “He’s agreed, with conditions. He wants Edmure released to us.”
“Hmm,” Jaime said. “Not unworkable. I’ll have to knock the Freys’ heads together, but if they don’t agree, I’ll take my army and leave. So they’ll agree. What else?”
“He wants you to withdraw your forces half a mile to the west, along the River Road.”
Jaime rolled his eyes. “If I meant to break my word, I could come back half a mile at a forced march and hit him in the rear without the slightest difficulty.”
“I know,” she said, long-suffering. “He doesn’t think that. I persuaded him you’d keep your word.”
“So what’s the point?”
“I wasn’t able to get an answer out of him, but I’m fairly certain it’s mainly to force you to pack up your camp and move half a mile for no good reason.”
“Oh, fuck him,” Jaime said. She gave him a speaking look and shrugged a little. “All right. My soldiers have been sitting around on their asses for a month, they can stand the exercise. What else?”
She took a deep breath, so here it came. “He wants you to personally escort us north of the Twins, so the Freys don’t attack us on the road.”
“He thinks I’m going to hand myself to him as a hostage?” Jaime said incredulously.
“He said you’re welcome to bring along as many men as you want,” Brienne said.
Jaime glared at her. “How kind of him. If I’m going to spend two months marching north and back, I might as well just sit here until my trebuchets are ready and knock his castle down around his ears.”
“Then you won’t have much of a castle when you’re done, and a great many men will be dead on both sides,” Brienne said. “And you’ll have sat here for two months. Do you blame him for not trusting the Freys?”
“I blame him for trying to make that my problem,” Jaime said.
Except then Brienne gave him a hard look and said pointedly, “I’d say House Lannister already had something to do with it,” and he scowled at her, because what else could he say. He knew he didn’t have a winning argument; it was hard to win an argument when the other side could point to a woman butchered with her unborn child and a mother forced to watch her last son die before her throat was slit, all unarmed at a wedding. All he could do was say no, and if he said no, Brienne was going to walk back into that castle to die with the Blackfish and his men, and Jaime wondered suddenly if the bastard had guessed that Jaime—didn’t want that to happen, because otherwise what the hell was he doing, pushing his luck like this?
“He said to tell you he’d just as soon stay home,” Brienne added, which was obviously true, and the one saving grace of giving in was, Jaime was still winning the fight that really mattered, which was getting back home to King’s Landing to help Cersei pry Tommen out of the snatching beak of that beady-eyed cunt in the Sept of Baelor. It would be a month, marching north, but it wouldn’t be two years, and it wouldn’t even be the two months he’d need to finish the fucking trebuchets, with another month of slinging rocks day and night afterwards. This way, he’d send Bronn with half the force marching back to King’s Landing, and on his own way north, he’d leave small companies camped along the way with spare horses: the instant they reached the Bite, he’d turn around and ride hell-for-leather back as fast as he and a few riders could manage, and he’d probably catch Bronn right at the gates of the city.
“Fine, we’ll keep the bastard company, as far as the Twins,” Jaime said. “And that had better be it,” and she nodded. “Good. And you’re staying to dinner,” he added. “He can sit in there and wonder for a while whether I’m going to agree or not.”
“I don’t think he cares,” Brienne said.
“You’ll have to indulge me,” Jaime said. “I want to know more about how the hell you got to Sansa anyway.” Which was true, although what Jaime really wanted, which he didn’t mention, was for the Blackfish to wonder for a while whether she was fucking him and he was walking into a trap. One serving of spite deserved another.
Brienne sighed a little, but she took off her sword and armor with only a little more coaxing, as the servants laid the table. She was a really remarkable trencherwoman, so he didn’t get much out of her during the meal itself. He didn’t try once he saw the way she was eating; he remembered it too well himself, the way food had become almost painfully important after not having enough of it for too long, and he didn’t want to distract her. He got a glass of good wine into her while she was at it, though, to loosen her tongue. “So tell me the rest of the story,” he said, pouring another, when she had finally pushed back her empty plate. “I’m surprised Bolton didn’t keep a better hold on Sansa. He didn’t strike me as incompetent, unlike this lot,” he jerked his head towards the tent flap, comprehensively taking in all the Freys. “A vicious cunt, but not incompetent. It’s been—almost two years. How long did it take you to find her?”
Brienne sat back in her chair, her mouth downturned a little. “I found Arya first.”
Jaime stared at her. “She’s alive, too?”
“I hope,” she said, somberly, and shook her head a little. “I made a mistake. A bad one. I was so sure…We found her on the road to the Eyrie, with the Hound. They were coming back towards the crossroads: they’d already been to the Bloody Gate, they’d heard of Lysa Arryn’s death there.”
“Wait—did you say the Hound? What was he doing with her?” Jaime said, even more bewildered.
“Looking after her,” Brienne said, very grimly, as if the words tasted bad in her mouth. “He said so, and afterwards, I began to think…he’d meant it. But at first—I didn’t believe him. I didn’t believe her. I should have, I should have just gone with them. They’d have agreed, if I’d offered that, I think. We could have gone looking for Sansa together, and then…everything would have gone differently. Sansa would have believed me, too, when I found her, because her sister would have been with me—” She stopped, and heaved a deep breath. “Well, I didn’t. I just…I so wanted to feel as though I’d done something. What had happened to Lady Catelyn, and I wasn’t there…”
“What did you do?” Jaime said, eyeing her, baffled.
“I fought him.”
She sounded ashamed of herself, as well she might. “You picked a fight with the Hound? Had you misplaced half your brain at some point?” he demanded through his teeth.
“I told you I made a mistake!” she said, her head bowed. “By the time I beat him, Arya had just run away. And she’d even managed to leave a bit of a false trail, we followed it for—”
Jaime broke in. “By the time you beat him,” he said flatly.
“It was…a hard fight,” she said, without looking up. “It was almost ten minutes, and Podrick didn’t keep on her—”
“How did you beat him?”
She looked up, her forehead furrowing. “Do you remember fights, after? What you did? At the end I just kept hitting him in the head with a rock until I knocked him off a cliff, I remember that. And I pissed blood for two days after. I don’t really know the rest.”
Jaime clenched his jaw shut on everything that wanted to come out, a howl of outrage and fury, what were you thinking, when obviously what she’d been thinking was she could beat the Hound, and she had beaten the Hound; she shouldn’t have been able to, and yet she had. “What made you think you could beat him?”
“I didn’t take him on because I thought I could win,” she said, as if that was somehow obvious. “I took him on because I thought I should. And I was wrong,” she added, sharp and unhappy. “I wasted his life, and left Arya to run off with no protector at all. If she’s dead somewhere now, alone, it’s because of what I did.” She leaned forward and took her glass and drank off the rest of it in a few gulping swallows, as if she wanted to clear her throat. He mechanically refilled it when she put it down.
“After we gave up looking for Arya,” she went on, after a moment, “we headed back to the Kingsroad. I wasn’t sure where to look for Sansa, if she wasn’t with her aunt. And then we just—ran into her. She was with Littlefinger, and they were traveling together. I went to her and tried to offer her my protection, but…she refused. She didn’t trust me, just like Arya hadn’t, and…and I couldn’t persuade her. I’d just assumed all I needed to do was find her, find either of the girls, and tell them that I served their mother. But they hadn’t seen their mother in years, they’d been hunted and afraid, and I didn’t know how, what to say…”
Then she looked over at the heap of her armor and her sword, her sword with the lion’s head on it, and Jaime finished for her, “And they saw a lion hilt made of gold, and thought you were working for House Lannister.”
“I was working for House Lannister,” she said, and he looked at her, startled. “I told you I’d find her for Catelyn and for you. So I couldn’t even tell them they were wrong.” She gave a small frustrated shrugging of her shoulders. “After that, we just followed her. I didn’t know what else to do. I was already sorry about the Hound by then, but I was sure about Littlefinger; I knew he wasn’t to be trusted. He sent men to try and kill me and Podrick, after. Then we saw them going north, and I realized he had to be taking her to the Boltons. So we rode ahead, and I took a room in Wintertown. The people there remembered the Starks; they were loyal. They got a message to Sansa inside Winterfell, told her I’d be watching for her signal.”
“A signal to do what, exactly?” Jaime said. The question was almost—sincere, despite his best efforts, though it should have been sarcastic. She hadn’t even mentioned what had happened to whatever number of men Littlefinger had sent after her, as if she only took it for granted that she’d killed them. Presumably she’d felt she should do that, too.
“To come get her, to help her, I don’t know. I couldn’t see any way to reach her, I had to wait until she showed me there was a chance.” Brienne made it sound as if she felt somehow inadequate because she hadn’t found a way to smash into Winterfell and beat through all the Bolton men alone to grab Sansa and ride out again. “And then I almost missed it, after all that. Stannis attacked Winterfell, and I thought there might be a chance to avenge Renly—”
“Don’t tell me you waded into the middle of a battle between Stannis and the Boltons just to try and kill him,” Jaime said.
“I am not an idiot!” she said, frowning at him, as if she’d described so much as one even modestly sensible act since she’d started. “I went out to watch the battle, to look for a chance…not thinking that of course it was Sansa’s best chance to get away. If Podrick hadn’t seen the signal, and come to find me—Theon Greyjoy was a Bolton prisoner, but he was allowed to run loose. Ramsey thought he’d been completely broken. But he helped Sansa escape. The two of them fled through the woods, but the Boltons were hunting them with dogs. Thankfully, we were able to follow the barking. We caught up just as they’d found Sansa. We killed them, and then—I took her to Castle Black, and got her to her brother.” She gave a deep sigh and leaned back in her chair, as if she felt it all over again, a sense of completion.
“And so your oath was fulfilled.” He poured more wine for both of them: he needed it.
“I haven’t saved Arya,” Brienne said, low. “And Sansa’s not truly safe yet, either. When she’s back behind the walls of her own home, with a garrison of loyal men—when Arya’s home with her, too—then I’ll call my oath done. Not before.”
“And don’t forget, you’ve still got to deal with Stannis while you’re at it,” Jaime said, with as much of an edge as he could work into it. “Or did one of the Boltons knock him over the head after all?”
“No, I executed him.”
He shut his eyes for a moment. “You what?”
“I found him on the field, after the battle,” Brienne said. “I told him he had to die for murdering Renly. He didn’t even deny it. So I executed him.” She shook her head. “But if it weren’t for Pod—I’d have traded Sansa’s life for that vengeance. And it wouldn’t have been worth it.”
It was—it was unbearable. I promised I’d take you to King’s Landing, and she’d done it; I’ll find Sansa, and she’d done it; I’ll avenge Renly’s murder, and she’d done it: as if that was all it took to do impossible things, as if all you had to do was say you were going to do it and then go marching into the world armed with nothing much more than pure determination. It made no sense. People couldn’t just do that. She wasn’t real, she couldn’t be real, it was all some ridiculous illusion to have her sitting here next to him in his tent drinking wine as if she was just another ordinary human animal like the rest of them, and he couldn’t bear it; he reached over and caught her face in his hand and turned her puzzled towards him and kissed her.
And oh, she was real, after all; she was real, and warm, and her mouth was soft beneath his, his tongue finding that faint little smooth line of the scar on her lip and following it into her mouth, and she tasted of the deep red wine he’d been pouring into her glass. And for a moment—for a single, shocking moment that ran through his whole body like fever-pain, she was his; he felt it, her mouth and her body softening in welcome, yearning towards him, she was his, as impossible as the rest, and then she gasped shuddering and pulled back, stricken, and she said, almost inaudibly, “But you’re—”
It was like—the blade coming down, all over again. He caught his breath and turned sharply away from the wounded, unhappy look that—that he’d put on her face, by offering something he didn’t have to give, pretending there was something in his empty purse to buy her with, when there wasn’t. Because the only reason he’d let her into that castle, the only reason he was saying yes to the Blackfish and sending an army north to fight for Sansa Stark, was Cersei, alone and shorn and beaten and still proud, still fighting to save their son, their last golden child. She needed him, and he was hers, he was theirs, and so Brienne couldn’t be his, after all.
After a moment, behind his back, she said, faintly, “I’ll go tell the Blackfish. We’ll ride out first thing tomorrow morning.”
He couldn’t speak, but he managed to nod. She got up, and he heard her buckling her armor back on. He didn’t turn around to look, or offer his help. She belted the sword back on last, the sword he’d given her; he had that much, at least, and after she’d gone out, he got up and stood at the tent flap and watched her walking back to the castle with it at her side and tried to let it comfort him for her bowed head in the twilight.
It was a special kind of torment, marching for weeks together with her. He was glad for every single moment, and every single moment hurt. He rode beside her, and while he had the strength for it, he teased and rambled at her, making silly conversation just to see her smile a little, to hear her voice answering: anything and everything she’d let him have, the little moments that would have been nothing, only the everyday bits of a life together, and instead would have to stand in for the whole thing. She wasn’t his, and she wasn’t going to be his. She was going north, and it was all too likely he’d never see her again, because she wasn’t magic, she was only flesh and blood, and if she could be kissed, she could be killed. And she probably would be, because she was going to help Sansa try and take Winterfell with a measly three thousand men.
The Blackfish did know, by the end of the second day, and enjoyed it the whole time, and Jaime couldn’t even be sorry, because the smirking bastard insisted on them all eating together as a result. They made an awkward table with Edmure hunched over his seat at one end unsmiling and wary like someone eyeing a dangerous beast; Brienne eating silently, not looking up; and the Blackfish jabbing him with any words that came to mind. But it still meant being there with her, seeing her. Jaime asked Brienne if she wanted him to refuse, if she wanted him to keep away from her. But she only looked away, and then she said, stifled, “No,” giving him permission for this much, even though it hurt her, too, the way it hurt him.
At the crossing of the Red Fork, Bronn took half the army south, the red tongue of Lannister cloaks rolling out towards King’s Landing and the sun, and Jaime led the other half over the crossroads bridge and turned north along the Kingsroad. It was a straight line from there, a road he knew too well, and he could see the North lying ahead like a waiting tomb, cold and dark. As they traveled and every day the ground went frozen-hard underfoot, and ice began to creep over the surface of the Green Fork, more often than not he couldn’t talk, and Brienne didn’t either. They only rode in silence side by side.
A month out from Riverrun, they camped in the triangle where the Kingsroad pulled finally away from the river, on its final and inexorable way north. “Three days’ march from here will see us to the Bite,” the Blackfish said that night, watching Jaime’s face across the table. “And then you can go home to your sister, Kingslayer. Unless,” he added, sour and meanly satisfied, “you feel like actually keeping an oath of yours for once, and coming the rest of the way to see my niece to safety.”
Jaime didn’t bother answering him. He only kept looking at Brienne, even though he knew he was handing the gleeful old bastard a cup of his pain to drink. It didn’t matter. Every moment was a moment more than he’d had before and one he’d never have again. But he walked out of the pavilion with her thinking three days more, only three days more, and fuck everything; he wasn’t a man of honor, he was a selfish, hungry, lustful oathbreaker, so when they were in the dark, between the rows of tents, next to hers, he reached for her hand, her strong callused hand, warm even in the winter, and brought it to his chest, turning her to face him.
He could see her struggling; he’d been lucky, he’d had a few chances to be a man for her, in her eyes, and he’d taken them, and that was how you won any battle, taking the handful of chances that your enemy gave up. She’d let him inside her guard and inside her heart; how little more would it be to let him into her bed? He wanted that to take away with him, too, to keep when he’d left her and she’d left him; he wanted the memory of her body, tangled with his, dirty and sweating and alive, and he leaned towards her and said softly, “Brienne,” against her lips, asking, his mouth brushing hers so closely that the word went into her on his breath.
She didn’t move away. She didn’t. But she said, “You’re going south,” her voice cracking, the way it hadn’t when they’d dragged her off to rape her and the way it hadn’t when they’d thrown her into a pit with a bear. He dropped her hand as if he was holding onto a live coal, and stepped back. They stood there opposite each other in the dark, the faint sounds of the camp around them, crackle of small campfires and low voices talking idly, snores and jingle of mail, the huffs of the horses.
“I’m sorry,” he said, thickly.
She nodded once, a jerk of her head, then she turned and went around the corner and went into her tent. He walked on alone, back to his own pavilion, the large cot heaped with furs, and he lay down and thought, deliberately, of Myrcella crumpling into his arms, going cold and still; he thought of Joffrey on the ground, his face purpled and his mouth choked with foam, his dead children; he thought of Cersei’s blank and tear-streaked face, her hand clenched in his shirt.
Brienne was right to refuse him. He’d taken a kiss from her, he’d taken a corner of her heart, he’d have taken the sweetness of her body if she’d let him, but it was only stealing, or at best a little barter offered on the side, his small bittersweet pleasure for hers. He wasn’t going to ride north with her to keep the vow that should have been half his. He was going south; he was going home to his sister, whom he loved, to whom he belonged, and their child, because she was what mattered, she and Tommen were the only ones that mattered, in the end. Not Brienne, and not his honor or his oaths.
He’d been making a fool of himself, looking longingly at her over there walking her high shining road to the north. She would die, soon even if not in this coming battle, and everything she’d done would be forgotten so completely it wouldn’t even be written down in a dusty book nobody bothered to read, but House Lannister would go on even if they did it under the conquered name of Baratheon, with lions chasing the stags on the banner. So anything he did, he’d do for them, and he’d do anything. He’d let the Blackfish live, and all his men, but he’d have slaughtered them instead without hesitation. He’d have hanged Edmure if it would have gotten him inside the walls; he’d have killed anyone. He’d killed Brandon Stark, or near enough; he’d killed poor Alton. He’d made his choice, long ago; he’d made it and it was done.
He slept, eventually. In the morning he felt better, clearer and stronger. He didn’t ride ahead to be next to Brienne. There was no point. She had nothing to give him, and he had nothing to give her. He spent the day talking to the officers he was leaving in command for the march back, once he’d ridden on ahead, and to the dozen knights who would ride with him as his escort, making sure all of their horses were sound and ready for hard riding. They’d leave behind their plate and ride in mail, with crossbows in case of any trouble. He meant to be in King’s Landing in three weeks. He thought of climbing the stairs to Cersei’s bedchamber in early morning light, pulling aside the thin curtains and bending inside to stir her awake with a kiss, and her arms coming around his neck and her sweet mouth warm for him: it was one of his favorite reveries, when far from home. It was good, useful; it heated him through, against the cold.
They were about to end the mid-morning rest when the rear guard reported the rider coming up on the road behind them. Jaime ordered them to move out anyway: it was only one man, and he didn’t want to delay just to find out who it was; if the man was coming to them, he’d catch up soon enough. But half an hour later, one of the knights rode up from the rear to tell him, “M’lord, it’s Ser Bronn coming,” and baffled, Jaime called a halt and rode to the back to meet him.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Jaime demanded as soon as he’d come into earshot. “You’re supposed to be leading my army back to King’s Landing.”
“Couldn’t send you a fucking raven on the road, could I?” Bronn said, reining in his almost sagging horse. He slid off the back and gestured with his head. “Come on, it’s for you, not the whole fucking company.”
Jaime got down and followed him aside, except Bronn kept going even once they were out of earshot, and Jaime said irritably, “We’re far enough,” and Bronn said, “Just get in the trees, will you,” as if he thought someone was going to read his lips, and Jaime rolled his eyes and followed him into a small grove of spindly evergreens, finally out of sight, and said, “All right, let’s have it,” and then Bronn turned around, and the careless look was gone from his face, and something clenched in Jaime’s throat, in his belly.
“Cersei,” he said, barely audible.
“She’s all right,” Bronn said. “It’s…the king’s dead.”
It didn’t seem real. “Tommen? Tommen’s—” Jaime said, stupidly, and then rage was climbing his throat, red and blind. “Who? The Tyrells—the High Sparrow—”
Bronn only kept looking slack and useless and sorry. “It’s not—”
“Who?” Jaime snarled, taking a step towards him.
“He jumped,” Bronn said. “Off the Red Keep,” and Jaime stopped, because he couldn’t—he didn’t— “The High Sparrow’s dead, all the Sparrows with him. The Tyrells, too, they were all there, except the old woman. Your uncle and your cousin too. Half the court, maybe more—”
“What?” Jaime said, helplessly.
“The Sept blew up,” Bronn said. “Day of the trial. They were all there, all except…the king and your sister.”
“No one knows how,” Bronn said. “They say it was green flames, wildfire, the people who saw it, but no one knows how—”
Jaime didn’t hear whatever else he was saying. There was a deep terrible roaring in his ears, a sound of rushing water, of blood pounding through his body, a river of blood, a river of flame, and he was dizzy and sick and reeling, the way he’d been that day, when he’d put his head into Cersei’s lap and she’d stroked his head and he’d told her, choked, why he’d killed the Mad King; told her, because he’d wanted her to know, he’d wanted the ones who mattered to know the truth about him. Bronn was catching his arm, getting him to the ground as his legs buckled, and Jaime put his face in his hand as Bronn said, “She’s been crowned queen.”
He didn’t really know what happened, the rest of the day. Like fighting a battle, swaths of it going with nothing left behind. Bronn was there, and then he was gone; and then it was growing dark. It didn’t seem as though it was a long time. It probably hadn’t been. The days had been growing shorter; he’d been marching his men well into twilight, not to lose too much time on the road.
He didn’t look up when Brienne came into the grove, and sat down beside him. She had a cold canteen in her hand; she put it in his, and he drank from it, mechanically and deeply; it was only water. “Bronn told me,” she said, and nothing more. She didn’t need to say anything more, ask any questions. Because she knew what Cersei had done, and how. She knew. He’d told her, too, because he’d wanted her to know. He’d wanted her to know…what? That he wasn’t a worthless piece of shit who’d break his most sacred oaths and commit the brutal murder of a defenseless old man just to win a throne? He’d wanted her to know that. He shuddered all over and put his hand over his mouth to hold in a grunt of pain.
Slowly, the last of the light faded. Above, the first few stars began coming out between the half-bare branches, very clear and bright in the cold. Their breath fogged in the air, pale mist hanging. Finally Brienne said, “We’re going to camp here for the night. We sent scouts ahead and to the west; there was no sign of an ambush from the Freys, anywhere between here and the marshes. The Blackfish agreed there’s no need for you to accompany us further. Ser Bronn took charge of your officers: they’ve made ready to march south, and your escort is rested and will be ready at first light.” She paused, and then she said, “Or you can come north with us.”
He gave a small strangled burst of laughter. “Can I?” he said, his voice thick with it. “Can I come north with you? And do what, exactly?”
“See Sansa Stark to safety,” Brienne said. “As you promised you would.”
He bent his head, shaking it a little. “And you think I’m going to do that?” he said, looking up at her, smiling and brutal. “Just ride north, away from Cersei, away from my own army and my own house, on a mad quest to keep my promise to Sansa Stark’s dead mother?”
There wasn’t much light in the clearing, and she wasn’t more than a suggestion of a presence, a vague profile against the dark. “I think that’s for you to choose. I don’t say it’s easy. But it’s the choice you have.”
“How is that a choice, exactly?” Jaime said. “Tell me, I want to understand. Why should I care, even a little, what happens to Sansa Stark? Do you think it would make a difference, any difference at all, to me?”
Brienne’s head did turn towards him, then. “I don’t know,” she said, after a moment. She sounded—uncertain, more than anything. As if he’d asked her a question she didn’t understand. “You wouldn’t get anything for it. But it would make a difference to her. It would make a difference to the North, not to be ruled by a man like Ramsey Bolton. And that would make a difference in the world. Does that matter to you?”
“What about my life would make you think it does?” Jaime said. “My children are dead, my house is in ruins, and you’re speaking as if anything in the world matters—” He stopped and couldn’t speak, his throat closing, and suddenly out of the dark her arms came around him, strong and tight, and he buried his face in her shoulder and wept, gasping sobs, five or six of them, maybe more; he lost count, and then he just kept holding her, his eyes closed. Her hand was cradling his head, stroking it a little.
“I’d give them back to you if I could,” she said, her voice deep with sorrow. “I can’t. All I can give you is a choice. I don’t know anything else to do.”
“You make it sound like a gift,” he whispered. His eyelids felt hot and burning, pressed against the thick wool of her cloak, the strong shoulder beneath. She’d taken off her armor.
“You’re not going to sit here in the wilds weeping. You’re not going to fall on your sword or drown yourself,” she said, as if she knew all of that for certain. “Either you’re going south or you’re going north.”
“Cersei’s all I have left,” he said. “She’s all that matters.” Brienne didn’t stop holding him for that, although he half thought she might; he’d almost said it wanting her to let go, wanting to jab her. She didn’t. She didn’t say anything, didn’t say the things she could have said: your sister just murdered a thousand people and destroyed the Sept of Baelor, your sister just drove your son to kill himself, your sister just set fire to the world and undid the only good thing you’ve ever done. He shuddered. “I already chose. I chose a long time ago.”
But he didn’t pull away from her, and Brienne was still cupping his head, her body steady in his arms, a bulwark in the world. She said, “It’s not…Honor’s not made of glass, and once you smash it, it’s gone; it’s not like that. It’s a choice every time. It’s easier, if you always choose it. But that’s just—practice. Like swinging a sword’s easier, the more you train. Just because you didn’t do it yesterday doesn’t mean you can’t start again today.”
“By going north to help Sansa, instead of my own sister, who needs me.”
“Yes,” Brienne said. “Because what she needs of you is dishonorable. That’s what you’re choosing, if you go back to her after what she’s done. To help her do anything at all, no matter how horrible, so long as it keeps her on the throne. You can’t stop her. If you go back to her after this, she’ll believe you’re hers no matter what she does. And if that’s what you choose, I can’t stop you. But I can give you something else to choose. I’d want something else to choose.”
Every word felt like a blow: every word felt true. Cersei had killed hundreds of people, a thousand, just to get at her enemies among them; she’d burned them to death in a single pyre, and their son had gone tumbling down into the flames. She’d done that. What was there she wouldn’t do? And now all their children were dead. But she was still there in the south, waiting for him, the embers of a fire for him to warm himself by, and there was nothing in the north but ice and death. “I don’t know how,” he said, raw and helpless. “I don’t know how to choose anything else.”
Brienne was silent, and then she turned his face up and kissed him, sweet and deep, offering him—something else to choose, another road to follow. Not her road, that high road he could see glimmering up there and couldn’t imagine walking on his own, too far up a sheer slope to climb onto, but one a little further down that ran in the same direction, at least as far as he could see; a road still far above him, but one that he could reach, if she gave him her hand to scramble up.
He trembled and she stopped, broke it off and just rested her forehead against his. She wouldn’t push; she wouldn’t make the choice for him. But she’d—she’d help him; she was offering to help him, and he put his hand up around her head and kissed her; softly at first, and then urgent, and she began unbuckling his armor and taking it off him, the lion pauldrons and the gorget around his neck, the heavy cuirass, the clinking slats of the faulds coming off his hips, weight lifting, only somehow he was finding it harder to breathe with every moment. It was too cold to undress. His hand was shaking as he reached between the skirts of his leather jacket beneath and jerked open the placket of his trousers, his cock stiff and eager, and her hands were shaking too, her eyes fixed with desperate determined courage on a point somewhere below his collarbone as she undid her own trousers. He guided her into his lap, nosing up at her chin, mouthing the line of her jaw around, and he tugged his gauntlet off with his teeth and sucked his own fingers to make them wet and warm before he reached down between her legs and touched her.
She startled like a bird coming up off the ground in a hop, her breath skittering, before she eased herself carefully back down to his touch, and he shut his eyes in something between joy and agony. What are you doing? she’d asked him, and he’d answered, dying, and she’d told him to live instead; the single hardest thing he’d ever done, until now, until this. He’d have to be worthy of this; he’d have to be someone she could want, every single day for the rest of his life. He’d offered her the easy barter, and she’d said no; so if he took this now and didn’t mean it, he was a raper, scum, the kind of man he’d always looked at with contempt and disgust. And she didn’t believe he was; she wanted him to live, she wanted him to live with honor, and she would hand him a line of all her hope and trust to pull himself up, with his own vanity to make the foothold beneath.
He stroked her tenderly, while she quivered and flinched. It was too dark to see much of her face, but he thought she’d caught her lip in her teeth, and he leaned in and found it with his mouth, tracing her lips with his tongue, feeling her breath coming shaky out. She was becoming wet on his fingers, slick, and starting to relax into him, and he reached down and brought his cock up and put himself into her, just the head, and then he put his hand in the small of her back and guided her forward and down, his breath rasping in his throat as she took him in. And then—and then—it was done. It was done, she was his, and he was hers, and they both held still a moment, her hands on his shoulders, braced, gasping together, and then she had his head in her hands and was kissing him wildly, clumsily, and he was kissing her, and they were moving together.
He fell backwards and she went with him and they were fucking frantically, taking turns at it, each of them on top until they ran out of strength and traded places, and it felt like forever and not nearly long enough before he came, pulling out just in time to keep from spilling in her. He wanted to, oh he wanted to, but he couldn’t, because they had work to do; they had a battle to win, and two girls to save, together. So he pulled out and caught her hand and wrapped it around his cock, and she stroked him through the sweet hot pulses, and then he pushed her onto her back and put his mouth between her wet thighs to finish her, licking and sucking and frantic until she was coming, her fist pressed between her teeth to stifle her moans.
He gathered her back into his arms afterwards, kissing her softly while she buttoned them both back up. She was still breathing hard, a runner after a long race. “North,” he said softly to her, a promise, and her mouth trembled into something like a smile under his.
“Oh, so now you fuck her,” was literally the first thing out of Bronn’s mouth, when Jaime told him and the senior officers at first light the next morning that he was going north. Jaime glared at him, speechless and all the more indignant because it was true. To make matters worse, not a single one of the officers even looked surprised; they just coughed and pretended to be very interested in the pitted surface of the camp table. “Good for you. What the fuck are we supposed to do?”
“What?” Jaime said.
“I’m not going back to your sister if you’re not,” Bronn said. “You think I’m taking orders from her? The woman’s crazy! She blew up the fucking Sept of Baelor!”
Most of the men around the table had expressions of strong agreement. “Where are you planning on going, then?” Jaime said, bewildered.
“You tell me,” Bronn said. “It’s your fucking army.” Jaime stared at him, and Bronn shrugged. “Your father’s dead, your uncle’s dead. You’re the eldest son. It’s your army if it’s anyone’s.” He looked around the table. “Anyone here got someone else in mind?”
Ser Melwyn said slowly, “Ser Bronn is right, my lord. You were Kingsguard when your father passed. You aren’t now. If Lord Kevan is dead—Casterly Rock comes to you.”
The other men around the table were turning to look at him, waiting: they were his, too—if he chose to be theirs. Jaime swallowed and said, “I suppose it does,” his throat tight. He drew a breath and let it out. “Do we have the house standard with us?”
They were all straightening a little in their chairs, relief coming into their faces, as if—they’d wanted something else to choose, too. “We do, my lord,” Ser Addam said.
“Go ahead and raise it,” Jaime said. “And have the men turn around. We’re going north. Bronn, you’re taking the escort and going back to the rest of the Lannister armies. I don’t think we’re going to need them here, but I want them ready for my command. And make sure the Westerlands are secure.”
“Melwyn,” Jaime went on, turning to him, “I want you to take one company and head to the Twins, to Walder Frey. Tell him I’ve raised the standard, and I’m going north to teach Bolton why he shouldn’t have tried to bite the hand that fed him. If Walder can still smell which way the wind is blowing, he’ll have his daughter and his grandson ready to go back to Riverrun with his son-in-law when we’re finished up there. Speak with Lord Edmure before you leave: he may want to go with you. Make clear to him and the Freys that he’s under my protection, if so.”
There were nods along the table, even faint smiles, satisfaction: more of that relief. It hadn’t particularly occurred to Jaime before to think about the feelings of his men. He’d only ever thought of whether his officers were loyal, whether they were competent. All he’d thought he owed them was victory, and at most his own valor at their side. But loyal men couldn’t keep their honor if their lord didn’t keep his own, and he remembered vividly the lurch in his own stomach, looking for a winning argument with Brienne hard-faced staring at him across the tent, trying to defend something that couldn’t be defended. He hadn’t liked it. Why should they?
“It’s going to be a little longer,” he told Brienne, when he rode up to the head of the Tully line, already forming up for the march. “The Tully forces can go on ahead if they want.”
The Blackfish snorted. “Changing your mind already, Kingslayer? Wind a bit nippy for you this morning?”
“We will need heavier cloaks, I suppose,” Jaime said. “But for now we’ll keep warm with marching. We’ll catch up later in the day: my men have to turn their wagons again.”
The Blackfish glanced over his shoulder and frowned a little; Jaime turned in his saddle to follow the look. The heavy old lion standard was going to the head of the Lannister line, the men looking up as it was carried past them, the gold thread glinting and the ruby velvet brilliant against the grey and snow-dusted countryside, a blazoned message: House Lannister is here, and the faint whinnying and snorting from the horses was drifting over the air to them as the work of turning the wagons began.
Brienne was smiling at him when he turned back, just a very slight curving of her lips, but her eyes above them were liquid and shining. “We’ll see you at the midmorning rest—Lord Jaime,” she said, adorably dignified, and he could just have nodded back to her, equally so, but she was going to be out of sight for a whole three hours.
So instead he said, “You will indeed, Lady Brienne,” and then he kneed his horse forward alongside hers and caught her head and kissed her, and then kissed her some more, until finally she stopped only blushing and kissed him back, even with her cheek so hot he could feel the warmth against his. She was red when he let her go. The Blackfish was scowling a little, too. It was remarkably satisfying. “Until then, my lady,” Jaime said, jauntily, and rode back to his men with the heat in his belly to keep him warm, even on a cold road.