The world is an endless repetition.
Ripe fruit, falling from the mighty Ash Tree Yggdrasil holding up the cosmos, the sky, eternity, to drop into the water of the wells residing by the world tree’s mighty roots, nourishing and poisoning the ash as bad blood keeps dripping back into the wells to feed a new cycle, a new war, a new life.
Beginning and ending.
The first and the last.
The world is quarrel.
The world is war.
Water and earth.
Fire and ice.
The same solemn song dripping from different tongues, travelling past different lips, but always with the same words, the same outcry for honor, shield, and axe, ready to strike, ready to earn one’s place within the great halls of our ancestors, of our Gods, the Father to us all.
The world is an endless repetition, an endless fight.
The Twilight of the Gods.
The final clash of forces beyond any worldly measure.
The end anticipated, prayed for, fought for, died for.
Until everything starts anew, begins to bloom as the sun rises behind green mounts, above white clouds and gray mist hanging over the still waters of the fjords.
And thick grass covers the world.
And rye sways in the winds coming from the North, howling, whistling, whispering the tales of old and new alike.
Until the world is nourished back to bloom, hungrily drinks the milk pouring out of the cosmos to make it strong again, like the babe suckles on the mother’s breast, fed by a power that perhaps not even a battle axe can wield – love.
And then, life shall begin again, for it is this struggle, to come back from whence we came, return to the beginning of life itself, to be nourished, held close to drink that first milk, consume that life and live it, which makes the peace that stands at the beginning of a new cycle worth dying for.
Over and over again.
This is the song of the world.
The Song of Ice and Fire.
Brienne loves the smell of grass in the morning, when the dew is not yet dried on the green blades, and the pearls of water bring even the strongest grass stalk to bow under its weight.
Because most people will underestimate the water’s power that doesn’t burn like fire, but is no less threatening, no less lethal, no less powerful, to make even the earth bow to its feet residing on the tip of the blades of grass at the top of a small mount, in a village almost entirely unheard of.
And Brienne feels joy rise in her chest to witness that every day anew, to remind herself of the place now her home, the tranquility, the peace within that seemingly won’t ever reach beyond their borders.
It never did.
So long she has those moments of private peace, Brienne can well live with the daily duties that come with being the only living daughter to her father, when she would rather be down by the beach to practice with shield and axe.
However, Brienne rather keeps those secret joys to herself as she carries water from the well back to her home to water the animals, stomping through soft soil, which squelches beneath her leather boots, feeling the heavy grass brush against the exposed skin of her calves.
Life has been more of a hardship as of late. The last Winter, while short, was harsh and unforgiving to soil and plants, whereas the Spring was too mild. Many farmers struggled growing much of anything despite the fact that her clan has its village set at a place where the ground is fertile, more fertile than in many other regions across the continent. However, they still hold more than most other clans did or ever will. Her father always says that they are as strong as an ash tree because they learned to grow the backbone of nourishment, the root of the tree holding their world, instead of only counting on a strong arm to wield the axe or hold the shield.
Most jarls rely too much on raids these days to keep in power over the karls and thralls, ignoring the treasures they have resting in their soils, could grow for themselves instead of chasing fame on the battlefield alone, in favor of the shining treasures they see glistening at the distance, in stranger villages, stranger lands across the sea.
While of course, many rely on raids and trade foremost, some tend to forget that having good, fertile ground, growing crops to feed the young, the old, the men, women, and children, is about as important as is to fight and earn one’s place in the Great Halls of Valhalla.
The fact that they have such good and fertile grounds is what makes other jarls within their closer periphery want their village ever the more these days. This is true especially during times such as these, Brienne knows, in times of hunger and absence, even though, back in the days, they let them have this land because no one else would even bother to take it.
How the seasons change…
And that is why Brienne prepares, spends every free moment she has to spare to train, to be able to defend her people, her family, her father’s new lands upon which he succeeded in growing a new ash tree, strong and beautiful, meant to last for many generations, for more generations than the one they had to see burn back in the day.
They have to be ready. They have to be prepared, swords raised, shields aligned to fend off whatever enemy may dare come to their shores, may dare to trespass their borders.
Because we must never again be defenseless. That mustn’t repeat itself, not so long I still have might in my body to prevent it.
Brienne reaches the wooden fence encircling their stables at last. She’d want to wipe off the beads of sweat on her brow, but can’t thanks to the heavy buckets she carries. The young, blonde woman enters, pushing the gate open with her hip. She is instantly greeted by sheep, goats, and pigs roaming around her under squealing and grunting, waiting for their drink.
She stomps through the mud, over to the wooden water trough set at the far end. Brienne sighs as she puts one bucket down to take hold of the other to pour into the trough. After emptying out the second bucket as well, the mannish woman steps back to watch the animals gather about it to drink almost gleefully.
And sometimes Brienne wonders, if only to herself, how it is possible that the animals can be at peace when it comes to sharing this resource while the humans fail to stay at peace when there is enough fertile ground for everyone.
They could achieve so much more if only they put their clan quarrels aside, Brienne is sure of it. They could accomplish much more with an army the size of those living on the other side of the wide sea. They could earn treasures beyond their own measure, could see lands no one has set foot upon, but so long they are bound to fight each other, there will be no great raid to explore the Western side of the continent, no great war, no quest for honor that Brienne believes would be worth dying for.
Brienne had a dream, she had many dreams, about how strong an army they could be, if only they fought together, about how much of a great wave they could form on the sea, a wave that could crush a hundred ships, if not more, and spread fertile ground all around them for all to have enough to eat.
A wave that would crush even the ships that used to crush her world years ago.
Brienne shakes her head as she leaves the animals to their water and short-lived peace, and instead gathers the eggs from the hens to carry back to their house. She puts them in the basket filled with straw set on the bench by the entrance, before sitting down next to the basket to pull off her muddy boots, which come off only under much effort.
She slips into the lighter, shorter boots made of buckskin Brienne normally wears around the house and town, so not to ruin the good leather with mud, grabs the basket, and makes her way inside.
Her father is still fast asleep, snoring loudly, as always. Though that only ever brings a small smile to Brienne’s lips as those are the kind of peaceful hours she learned to relish after they came to stay here, built their longhouses, built their new homes.
Brienne sees about the fire in the hearth and starts to prepare the day meal after briefly plunging her hands into the water basin by the window to wash off the dirt. Once that is done, she grabs a bowl from the windowsill to remove the cloth she put on top to reveal the scoops of dough she left there to sit for a while. Brienne pours some rye flower over her palms before starting to flatten out the balls of dough she prepped up before she went off to get the water for the animals. One for one fill the flat pan, and once all scoops are formed, Brienne carries it over to the hearth to roast them over the open, cracking fire.
That smell is about as good as that of fresh grass in the morning, at least in Brienne’s opinion.
Once all is done, the young woman sets up the bowls carved out of driftwood back from where they once came from, the few memorabilia they dare to hold on to in their new home, so not to raise too many ghosts from the sea.
It is those mornings that put Brienne’s mind at ease. Everything takes its usual course. There is nothing out of the ordinary while the whole village is still fast asleep. It’s always the same, day in, day out, getting up, preparing food, getting water from the well, treading through moist grass and sticky mud, watering the animals, over and over, a kind of continuity that she had to labor for hard, after their life was thrown into such turmoil, so much chaos.
Brienne learned to cherish that at a very young age, was forced to realize how precious it is to have those routines, because once you no longer have them, you lose your sense of home, you lose your home, or have lost it already.
And along with it, you lose your sense of self, of who you are.
After flipping the flat loafs of bread over once, Brienne busies herself in her own chamber to shake out her thin woolen blanket and flip over some of the straw underneath the furs she lies down on at night.
Brienne moves back into the kitchen once she hears her father’s footsteps shuffling over the wooden ground.
“A good morning to you, my daughter,” he says over his shoulder, already seated by the table, his back broad facing towards to her. Brienne walks over to the fireplace to take the breads out of the pan, to be sure not to burn them.
“A good morning to you, too, Father. You chose a wise time to awake, the bread’s ready now,” she greets him, putting the bowl with steaming breads down at the center of the small wooden table while pressing a kiss to the top of her father’s head, which makes him chuckle as Selwyn is well aware that he is one of the few who get to see that more tender side of his otherwise very wild daughter.
Brienne loves him fiercely, the Gods know it, with a kind of fervor most people will not be able to comprehend. However, the way the young woman sees it, her father is the only person of true concern for her. She cares about her people, no doubt, she would die for each and every one of them, but the one person of the old world they had to leave in the midst of the night whom she truly loves is and will forever be her father.
“What would I do without you, sweet child?” Selwyn asks as he takes one of the breads. The jarl tears it up a few times to let it cool a bit while Brienne motions around the table to sit down next to him, taking a loaf for herself.
“We both know you’d be lost without me,” she says with a grin, taking a bite of the hot bread.
“You are a grown woman, yet you still cannot bring yourself to listen to my advice to let it cool down a bit. My daughter, you will burn off your tongue one of these days!”
“I didn’t ever, in case you forgot. Perhaps my tongue is about as resistant to fire as it is sharp as a knife,” Brienne tells him with a grin, taking another bite for emphasis. “Do you want mead or milk? I still have some in the barrel from yesterday’s milking.”
“It’s fine for now, thank you,” he tells her, rewarding his daughter with an easy smile.
Yes, Brienne loves those mornings, the ease of them, the familiarity residing within.
And not because they remind her of the time that is no longer, but because that is what they have now, their small life in their small village, their little world they built for themselves over the years, far away from the big cities, the big villages, where the jarls are busy fighting over lands and trade and wedding arrangements to further their interest.
“You make the best rye bread,” her father says as he plops another chunk into his mouth. Brienne snorts at that, “That is because you only ever got my rye bread to eat.”
“Your mother’s was just about horrific, let me tell you,” her father chuckles softly.
Brienne frowns. “And you never told her that?”
He laughs throatily at that. “She would have killed me with her kitchen knife, I am sure.”
“Well, for all that you told me about her, Mother probably would have. So perhaps it’s better that you kept that secret to yourself,” Brienne says, chewing on some more bread.
She has only fragments of memories of her mother. Flashes of light, a distant voice that comes to her only in the midst of the night, every once in a while. Her mother died while Brienne was still very young, leaving only few traces in her mind beside those that her father’s stories added over the years.
Sometimes Brienne is unsure if she can actually consider it a fortune that her mother passed before the night that changed everything. A part of Brienne believes that her mother would be happy to have died where she lived for almost all her life, had fallen in love with the man of her choosing, had birthed their children, nursed them, nourished them, kissed them goodnight as they laid in the cradle. Another part of her feels for her father, however. Brienne is fairly certain that Selwyn would have liked to find rest next to her, to join her in the Great Halls of Valhalla.
However, he will never lie beside her in this world, and Brienne has the feeling that her father dreads just that circumstance, even if he always says that he is bound to find her mother again once he travels to Valhalla, and will always find her, the way he once did to make her fall in love with him.
“I found her once, a rare pearl hiding in an oyster’s shell. You’d be foolish to believe that I wouldn’t manage to do it again!” is what her father always tells her when he knows that Brienne can sense his sadness and remorse as he sits on his chair and finds his mind adrift, travelling back to the world they had to leave behind before it turned to ash.
After all, a jarl is supposed to be strong, not to show weakness.
“I want to head down to the market later the day, to get some fish. We are short on smoked cod, so I better make new ones before we run out of them. And I need new yarn and wool for my weaving loom,” Brienne says after swallowing another chunk of hot bread. “Is there anything you need?”
Her father sighs, tearing the rye bread apart over and over to pluck some cooler chunks into his mouth. “No, no, I need nothing.”
“Are you sure? I don't want to go all the way down again just because you forgot about the ale that one fellow brews,” Brienne huffs. “I had that often enough with you by now.”
“As I said, I don’t need anything,” he insists. Brienne frowns.
While all seems to go its usual ways, there is something strange, and now she can see what it is – it is hiding behind her father’s face, his change of tone, his gaze searching for a fixed point he doesn’t find.
“There seems to be something on your mind, Father,” she says, which has him look at her almost aghast, only to laugh again.
Brienne loves that he laughs so often, with such intensity. At some point she tends to believe that he laughs for the both of them because Brienne rarely does, out in the public at least.
Roelle told me often enough that I should hide those horsey teeth from other people’s view.
Her father looks at her fondly. “You wouldn’t ever know how much you take after your mother. I couldn’t hide anything from her, ever.”
“So? What are you trying to hide then?” Brienne asks.
“I am not hiding anything.”
“But you are not saying what is on your mind,” she argues.
She is stubborn after all, her father long since knows that. He always says that she inherited both his and her mother’s stubbornness, making her perhaps the most willful woman of the village, if not all the lands around.
“Well, as you might recall, it’s this time of the year again…,” her father begins, but that is when howling rings out in the distance, quietening the words on the tip of his tongue. Brienne stands up at once, a sense of danger nagging at her.
“What is Moon up to again?” Selwyn asks with a concerned frown. Brienne motion over to the window to peek through to the mountainside behind their house to see if she can spot Moon or some enemy approaching, but no sign whatsoever.
“I don’t know, I let Moon and Sun out when I got the water. They moved up into the woods, the way they always do,” Brienne says as she gathers axe and shield, sitting beside the door. She hooks the axe through her belt while shouldering the shield to allow for freer movement.
“Brienne, now wait,” her father calls out, already meaning to get up, but Brienne replies, “Wait for what? If it is an enemy, I should be out to slay him.”
“Ring the bell and wait for the others to come,” Selwyn insists.
“That gives away the game,” Brienne argues. “I will see about it. If it is too many, I will come back and get the others. You stay here.”
“I will not!” he persists.
“Your leg is still giving you trouble, so yes, you’ll stay,” Brienne retorts before hurrying out the door.
“Brienne!” he calls after her.
However, the jarl’s daughter is already out the door, out of his reach, because even if Selwyn were to hurry after her, he could not catch up with the bad leg of his. Brienne scrambles up the mount leading towards the woods normally serving as a natural protection against attacks from this side of their lands.
Once she reaches the outskirt of the forest, Brienne can spot the familiar blue and red orbs in the lingering darkness. She raises her arm above her head, and the two direwolves come out of their hideouts to run over to her to press against either side of her legs. Brienne bends down, brushing over their furs once, muttering, “What did you see, hm? Will you show me?”
Sun rushes ahead first – he always does – to guide the way, whereas Moon roams protectively by Brienne’s side – as she always does.
The direwolves couldn’t be more alike while being the same. Sun is a hotspur whereas Moon is very quiet, very mindful of her movements, but at the same time, they hunt the same way, fight over the same things all over – they always quarrel over every chunk of meat handed to them, and they are very protective of their master.
The young woman follows Sun’s lead further into the woods, his brownish fur shining almost golden as light dances through the canopy down upon the fine hairs covering his body.
They reach a small clearing, the wind whipping about Brienne’s face and feet, making her shudder for a moment as she tries to detect the enemy she still fears hides somewhere amongst the trees and brushes, which are howling in the breeze.
Brienne turns her head when she can hear a rustling of dry leaves, which announces the presence of another person close by. The young woman takes out her axe as her eyes remain on Sun’s red gaze to guide the way, as they have done it many times already, perfected over the years.
Brienne already means to lunge, when she catches sight of a familiar worn robe, dragging across the dry leaves, accompanied by a small wheezing sound and the scraping of feet barely lifting off the ground as they move forward.
“Maggy!” Brienne cries out, sliding the axe through her belt as she approaches with fast strides. The short, old woman with a hunch turns slowly, roughly in Brienne’s direction.
Maggy is their seer, though she cannot see anymore.
Well, not with her own eyes, that is.
Yet, Maggy sees with the ones that the norns granted her instead. While the present is lost to her as the old woman cannot look upon what is happening all around her, Maggy gained a vision reaching back and forth, into future and past, which makes her perhaps the only one to see the world in the ways that matter.
“What are you doing here all alone in the woods? You could have stumbled and fallen, broken a leg…,” Brienne says, grabbing the old woman’s forearm gently, if resolutely.
“Oh, your furry companions led me the way just fine,” Maggy says with a lazy smile, patting Moon as the direwolf moves in beside her. “You trained them well. One should think that one cannot tame a wild beast of the ancient times, such as a direwolf, yet, you command two of them.”
Moon wrinkles her snout when Maggy taps her flat hand on her nose, though the old woman well knows it is the nose she is currently touching. She likes to play games with them on occasion, taking some strange kind of glee in the lack of reaction coming from Moon.
“They act as one most of their time, two sides of the same coin,” Brienne says, glancing at Sun as he move closer to them as well.
Brienne nursed them back to health after she found them abandoned, their mother dead. They were hungry and alone, had no place to go, no place to stay other than beside their mother’s corpse, wailing at the sky above. That was during a time when Brienne felt nothing but loneliness beating in herself like a second heard, so she found two familiar spirits in these animals, if only united in the sad spirit of solitude.
Her father was not pleased at first, believing it too dangerous for a young girl like Brienne to raise two direwolves, but he didn’t dare to tell her no, seemingly having sensed how much young Brienne needed those wolves, how much she found herself in them after she had lost everything, including herself.
At some point, those two creatures are perhaps the closest she will ever get to children. And even if not, they are their most trusted companions now.
“But that still doesn’t answer why you went here all alone,” Brienne goes on to say.
“I dreamed last night,” the old woman informs her.
“Far away?” Brienne asks.
“Close by, actually,” Maggy tells her with a grin.
The old woman always says that she either dreams “far away” or “close by,” depending on how far she dreams into the future. Sometimes it’s years, sometimes it’s only days. Because the Gods make up their own mind and decide how much they mean to reveal.
“What did you see?” Brienne asks as she starts to guide the old seer over the uneven ground.
Maggy licks her chapped, veiny, almost lilac lips, “Dark shadows, rising from the West. Ashes, raining from the sky. A high tide about to crush against our walls, our homes…”
“Another clan will try to rise against us, you mean?” Brienne asks, cold dread clutching at her at the mere thought of it.
“It was bigger than a single clan daring to come to our shores. Clans are all but mist in the air, fading in and out of the world with the first beams of sunlight, but this was fire, sweet child. All-consuming fire and ash,” Maggy says, he hoarse voice slightly shaking as she speaks.
Brienne swallows. “So something else is coming… something bigger.”
Like the wave that consumed my world?
“Yes,” the old woman confirms.
“But why would you then want to go to the woods?” Brienne asks with a grimace. “You didn’t have to see about it here, did you?”
“I wanted to consult with the weirwood,” Maggy says.
“You always say the weirwood belong to the Old Gods long since dead,” Brienne reminds her. “And you say that they shall be damned, and we are fools for ever bringing it here.”
The Northerners pray to their Gods, too, but amongst some clans, of that Brienne knows, they also pray to ghosts and gods residing in the trees.
“It can’t harm to consult them anyway. Their ghosts still hold some truths,” the old woman cackles. “Even the dumb ghosts can get right every once in a while!”
“And that was the only reason?” Brienne asks.
“I also saw some shadow in the woods as the future came to me. I wanted to see if that was close by or far away,” Maggy tells her. Brienne sighs at that, “How often do I have to tell you that you shouldn't be going off on your own?”
Sometimes Brienne feels as though she was the mother to all of the villagers, including their seer and their jarl, and that even though Brienne is anything but a mother!
The old woman rasps amused, “How often do I have to tell you that I am by far too old to bother to care?”
They reach the outskirt of the woods, the ground now steeper. Brienne holds out her arm to guide Maggy’s arm to rest upon it. “Make sure to hold on as I lead you back down, alright? I bet the village will already fuss about you being gone. You shouldn’t forget that while you no longer bother to care, the people here care a lot about what happens to their seer.”
“People tend to rely on that oh too much,” Maggy tells her.
Brienne huffs at that. “What? It’s our faith that you see the future.”
“You also have dreams. How special does that make me in turn?” the old woman snorts.
“Only ever figments,” Brienne reminds her.
And she would rather not have them – or at least forget about them the morning after. Because the figments, however small, only ever leave Brienne in cold sweat, drowned in fear, and on the verge of tears.
“Prophecies are curious things, my child. People tend to believe in them too much, let me tell you as someone who had to suffer through many years of people misinterpreting every damn word spoken by a seer,” Maggy tells her. “In my experience, for most, prophecies are only ever what people want them to be.”
“You foresaw some many things,” Brienne argues. “And not just because people asked you for it. For that, you are too stubborn anyway.”
Maggy nods her head slowly as they waddle their way down the mount. “I see things, but only once it happens do we know how to read those runes, how to make sense of the images, the symbols within. Prophecies are tricky things. Like the God of Mischief, they like to have us be fooled. Prophecies are what you let them be – some allow them control their lives, others don’t. But you will learn that in due time, I am sure, child. There’s still time for you.”
“Careful with the step,” Brienne reminds her.
“Sweet child, you should worry less.”
Worry less? Brienne can’t help but snort at that. “Worry is what keeps me sharp and focused. And now that you had those dreams, we have to be alert ever the more, wouldn’t you agree?”
“You’re still as tight as a bowstring, my dear,” Maggy cackles, groping her arm. “I can feel it.”
Brienne rolls her eyes at that. “Now don’t start me on that, too.”
That is one of those things Brienne had people say about her so very often that she can no longer bear hearing that echo come back to her over and over.
“Oh, you will excuse an old woman having her own queer ways. But perhaps you will learn how to shoot that arrow away, far, far away,” the old woman argues.
“Wouldn’t you think it’s better to keep the arrow to use against an enemy?” Brienne objects. Maggy only ever laughs at that, her curious sort of laughter that soon ebbs into a whistle.
“You still have so much to learn, my dearest child,” Maggy chuckles, tapping the tall woman’s arm lightly.
“Would you like to eat with us?” Brienne asks as they keep making small, careful steps down the hill.
The old woman smiles at her crookedly. “Oh, I thought you’d never ask. That young girl who’s supposed to help me around the house is absolutely useless as a housewife. But at least she is pretty to look at.”
“How would you tell?” Brienne asks, curling her lips into a frown. Maggy cackles at that.
“She sounds like a pretty girl, and the men keep whistling after her as she brings me food and drink,” Maggy chimes, amused. “Oh, and then I heard her fucking that pig of a man close to my stables not long ago. They were at it like rabbits, again and again to the point that I thought it’d scare my pigs away. She is a screamer!”
“Maggy!” Brienne exclaims, feeling a brush creep up her face.
On her old days, Maggy grew ever the quirkier, and for some reason still far beyond Brienne, she took particular pleasure in those kinds of comments and japes.
“Leave an old woman to the joys of making fun of the youths. I am old, crusted, wrinkly, and crunching with every step I take. I have to make fun of someone other than me. Why not that dull girl who doesn’t know how to scale a fish?”
Brienne blows air up her face to keep some loose strands out of her blue eyes. “Maybe Sassa needs more time.”
“You think I have that much time left? I am old, I get to be impatient,” Maggy argues. “Even more so because the girl has enough time to scale some many men’s salmons, but still fails at the task of prepping one up for us to eat.”
“She simply better hurry up. That girl will wind up with child soon enough so long she keeps spreading her milky thighs for any runaway karl or thrall who looks at her the right way. And then marrying her off will be even more difficult than it is anyways to marry off a good-for-nothing, not-even-a-shieldmaiden, let-alone-a-maiden girl who is a screamer on tops.”
“But it’s as you say, she is pretty,” Brienne argues, rolling her broad shoulders.
That always does the trick for men, at least in Brienne’s experience. Because quite the opposite is true for her. She can very well do all the duties it would require, but as ugly and mannish as she is, not even a runaway karl or thrall would be willing to take her for wife.
Not that Brienne minds, of course, because she won’t have any runaway karl or thrall either. She doesn’t need that, the Gods foretold her that much, too.
“She is pretty and pretty dull,” Maggy snorts.
“As far as I am concerned, men quite like that about women.”
Which is why they don’t like me, don’t want me. Ever.
Brienne can still vividly recall when her father took her to the annual gathering of the jarls, the althings. It is supposed to help find young women a suitable match, too, while also handling the clans’ businesses, which should be far more important, though most fathers will use just that occasion to find their sons and daughters a suitable match and work on a dowry with the spouse’s father.
And that proved to be a series of disasters for me.
“But that’s not the women they should want, if they were right in their minds. They need the sturdy women, the sinewy women, with broad shoulders and broad hips to bear the next generation. Frailty is such a foolish concept. Who’d want to sit on a twig if he can sit on a mighty branch?”
“Well, that is how people think,” Brienne chuckles softly, glancing at the ground to be sure to step on steady soil so that the old woman won’t slip.
“And people are foolish,” Maggy huffs, clicking her tongue to make her disappointment about the matter known. Though Brienne can’t bring herself to object to that – Maggy has the rights of it, people are foolish.
They reach the house, where Selwyn is already on the front porch, glancing on nervously, only ever letting relief wash over him once he sees them approach.
“What happened?” the jarl asks.
Brienne can see Moon and Sun move to their usual spot by the stone ledge off to the left of their house, to catch the first rays of warm sunlight raining down on their furs, painting them golden and silver.
Maggy lets out a loud, shrill laugh, snapping Brienne’s attention back to her and her father, “You will excuse, Jarl Selwyn, but I seem to have gotten lost on my morning stroll, but your dear daughter was kind enough to find me.”
“How did you even get up there in the first place, Maggy?” Selwyn asks.
“You just need time and patience,” the old seer tells him with a crooked grin, before shaking her left foot in his direction. “That, and good boots.”
“Ah,” he says with a big frown.
“And stop frowning so much,” Maggy lectures him. “That gives you wrinkles.”
She always knows what people do, even tough she cannot see it.
“So, Brienne said that you have some bread for me to spare. I must say that the morning stroll left me starving for some good old rye bread,” Maggy goes on to hum almost gleefully. “Needless to mention that I don’t get any good to eat down in the village.”
“You know that you are always welcome into our home, Maggy,” Selwyn tells the old woman, flashing him her typical crooked grin, showing her yellowed and missing teeth.
Brienne leads the old woman inside, but Maggy stops once she stands next to Selwyn. “Now, my good Jarl, I have a question for you, one of true importance.”
“What is your opinion on little, unable-to-bake-good-rye-bread, promiscuous girls who happen to be screamers?”
Brienne rolls her shoulders as she makes her way back home. Training with the youths is always strenuous, not because anyone would stand a chance against her, far from it, but Brienne has to show them the same moves over and over until their arms knows how to do them before their minds have to command their bodies to set into motion.
To raise one’s shield to protect oneself and others has to be a memory of the body as well as of the mind, it has to be part of the flesh, the body, an extension of it.
Brienne likes training the young well enough. They only ever get difficult once they grow to be men – because only then does it occur to them that a woman training them is an odd thing and does something to their perception of strength and what it takes to be a warrior.
The girls are easiest to handle because they tend to admire Brienne, so long they seek to become shieldmaidens under her watch.
The other women around the village? They mean nothing but trouble for me, just like the men. Seemingly, they all start making trouble once they grow older.
At least that is her experience. It may well be different for most others, but then again, Brienne is well aware that she is unlike anyone she met outside her family. Men are at least rather straightforward in not approving of her, which is something Brienne finds herself being able to deal with considerably easy. They will laugh at her or tease her on occasion, forgetting her position as the Jarl’s daughter more often than they should, and more than her father would permit if he were to hear of it. However, the women carry it in their eyes and fake smiles as they see Brienne roll in the sand with another youth she means to teach a lesson about combat. And that is something Brienne finds herself struggling with. It is a fight without axe, without shield or sword, which is why she often feels more exposed than she does to comment that come to her by men who like to have their fun at her expenses.
It’s odd to Brienne the more she thinks about it. Being a shieldmaiden should be a respectable position, even if it is a thing of rarity especially in their regions, admittedly. Being a Jarl’s daughter is a respectable position. Being Selwyn Tarth’s, the Evenstar’s, daughter is a respectable position. Yet, she has to fight for every ounce of respect, every glance of appreciation and acknowledgment, and it may falter and collapse the next moment, for no other reason but Brienne walking around the village dressed in men’s attire, hair shorter than most women wear it, or going about businesses in her father’s stead ever since that incident that left him with the bad leg.
To Brienne’s understanding, there are three forces at work here: For one, she is a woman not uncomfortable as a soldier, wearing the clothes, moving like a man, talking like one, commanding men and women alike, and showing that even when it’s no time for an attack. Brienne does not retreat to her role as a woman of the house for all to see, and somehow that seems to irk people, too, because they believe she doesn't have that side to herself. And Brienne can’t find it in herself to bother to care to convince them of the opposite.
At the same time, Brienne is still unwed, and that even though some women are younger than her and already bear their second or third child, or long since have a second husband after the first one came to pass during one of the raids or attacks from their enemies coming to their shores. Some women joked during one of the feasts that Brienne may die a spinster at this rate. One girl who thought herself very smart commented that maybe the Jarl’s daughter should try to find herself a woman instead, and just act as the man, the way Brienne always does.
Well, for all they know.
And lastly, Brienne is ugly, mannish, and freakish tall, freckled with short-cropped hair that looks more like straw than gold, a look that only she seems to unite in one strong, ungainly body. Some people still tend to think her to be a bastard child to her father and the ancient giantess Skaði. Though Brienne knows as a matter of fact that the giantess of the old tales was not the one who gave life to her. While her memories of her mother are faint, she was not Skaði, Brienne is fairly certain of that. And her father would likely boast about the matter, if he had been wed to an ancient giantess, after all. Nevertheless, people tend to be foolishly scared of her. When Brienne was still younger, some of the smaller children would run away whenever she approached the village, shouting in fear that the giants were coming.
These days, the children, or at least some of them, are perhaps the only ones standing on her side, because Brienne tends to them when not everyone else does. Some lost their mothers, some lost their fathers, some are broken things.
Einar is one of those broken things. His left forearm had to be amputated after he stuck his hand down the jetty to grab a toy that had fallen into the water below. He didn’t anticipate the boat to swing against the jetty in the strong tide of the time. Thus, the arm was broken badly, leaving them with no choice but to take it off after the infection threatened to kill the young boy. Brienne took particular interest in Einar after the men told him that he could never be a warrior with such an injury. She was the only one who told him otherwise and has Einar train his left upper arm to hold the shield instead, by strapping it down to his shoulder. The young boy still has a lot to learn, and it remains an open question if Einar is ever to join a serious raid, but Brienne would rather die than tell a child not to work towards earning his place in the great halls of the Allfather, if there is a way for him to earn his honor, earn his seat among the Gods.
Even if he doesn’t join us on the battlefields, his strong arm may come to protect the village one day, and then it will be him who will laugh at the men for ever having doubted him.
Einar cares about Brienne fiercely. He even gets a bit possessive of her every now and then because the boy would rather have Brienne train only him. The other children whom Brienne gives the first lessons to care about her the same way because Brienne gives them something to do, much to the young boy’s disappointment.
So yes, Brienne is far better off with the children for all she cares.
Children are plain as day honest. She’d rather have every child believe her a giantess to run off in fear than the whispers in her back, mumbled over horns filled with ale and mead, hidden behind fake smiles, and hands held over the bearded mouths as though not having Brienne see them speak would undo the words from entering the world and taking root there.
But rarely do we get what we desire most…
Brienne finally makes it to the house, Sun and Moon instantly running up to her to greet her. They were quite disappointed that she didn’t take them with her to the village below, but Brienne knows that the mothers tend to be scared of the direwolves, for the sake of their children, which Brienne does understand.
Even though Sun and Moon have protected just those children numerous times.
“Any trouble while I was gone?” she asks. Moon tilts her head as they continue walking up the path leading to the house. While they obviously don’t understand the common tongue, the direwolves seem to have a sense for what Brienne means to say, which is why she sees little opposition to talking to them every now and then.
They are perhaps the best conversation partners I happen to have, Brienne thinks to herself, amused, as she climbs the steps leading towards the house. At least they listen.
“Father, I am back!” she calls out as she enters, leaving her shield and axe by the small stool set by the door.
“You are late,” Selwyn greets her, offering a small smile, sitting by the table, sharpening his dagger on a whetstone.
“Garth is rather slow on the uptake. He still has no idea whatsoever how to make a proper lowcut. I had to show it to him for about an hour. You know, one of these days, my shoulder will not be bad from battle, but from teaching Garth how to make a proper lowcut. And what a waste that would be!”
Brienne walks up to the small basin by the kitchen to wash her face and hands, relishing the cool sensation against her heated skin.
“You shouldn’t overdo it,” he tells her.
“Father!” Brienne groans. “I am a warrior. Training some youths is nothing compared to fighting for life and death during an attack, let’s not pretend.”
“Normally, I would take over some of it, but…,” he means to say, but Brienne interrupts him, “Stop it. You can’t do it at this point of time. I like doing it. I train the shieldmaidens anyway, so why not some young men who have not yet learned to disrespect me? Maybe that brings about some change?”
Because that is what they have been chasing, already back in their old life, a change, an interruption in the world’s ongoing cycle of endless repetition. And while it didn’t work in that old life, the two still dare to hope to make it happen now, hidden away from the eyes of most others, too small for most to even bother to go looking for them and their little fjord somewhere by the Fingers.
“I fear that is more of wishful dreaming, my sweet daughter,” Selwyn sighs.
“Probably yes,” Brienne agrees, wrinkling her nose as she undoes the leather bound around her forearms that she normally wears to the training so that a wooden sword won’t have her too badly bruised. After all, the youths tend to have a very poor aim.
“Are there any news?” he asks.
“Not really,” Brienne answers as she unlaces her leather vest. “I talked to Maggy briefly. She really doesn’t seem to like Sassa. She says the girl wants to starve her. I suppose I will have to see about Sassa finally taking some lessons from the older women, or seeing to it that Maggy gets more of our food instead.”
“Talk to the other women. It’s their business to teach the young girls just those duties. You already fulfill too many of those low tasks already, as the jarl’s daughter,” Selwyn insists.
Brienne sighs. “Father.”
“What?” he huffs, his dagger clanking against the whetstone. “You know it’s the truth I am speaking. It’s enough that you have to occupy all of our property. You should have the youngsters working more for you. You have to learn to delegate the tasks.”
Brienne rolls her eyes at him as it always seems to be the same with her father on that matter. “I want it to be done properly. That is how I ensure that they don’t screw up my crops. I grew those seedlings all by myself. I won’t have Garth and his friends stomp them to pulp. They are clumsy like that. You have seen them fight!”
“You have to teach them, then. They won’t learn it unless you show them how,” her father argues.
“The others can have them work on their properties to train them, I don't care. I won’t let them near our fields until they have learned it,” Brienne retorts.
This is her home, and Brienne will not have it invaded, ever again, not even by some youths who yet have to find their place in the village, in the world. She labored so hard, sacrificed so much, for this place to feel like home, and no, the jarl’s daughter will not allow for it to be taken over. If that means that she has to labor twice as much, then so be it.
“As the Jarl’s daughter, delegating is an important duty you have to learn, my dear daughter. That is how the women and men will learn to respect you,” Selwyn lectures her.
“They can respect me for putting food in their stomachs, defending their home, and training their youths to do the same. If they can’t bring themselves to it despite that fact, then that is not my concern,” Brienne insists.
“It has to be your concern,” her father argues more forcefully this time.
Brienne frowns at him, crossing her arms over her flat chest, sensing the tension in the room. “What is the matter with you, Father?”
“The matter is that you have to learn to act more like a jarl’s daughter, for your own sake, Brienne. You act like a peasant girl and shieldmaiden, not like a jarl’s daughter,” her father tells her.
Brienne rolls her broad shoulders with a blank grimace. “Well, we are farmers and warriors, so I suppose that is in fact quite fitting.”
Selwyn puts down the dagger with a chink.
“You are no simple farmer, no peasant girl, you are…,” he means to say, but Brienne interrupts him, “That is over. You know it better than I do, Father.”
Selwyn bows his head.
It is true, they were more once. They had more. They had to worry about nothing, until they had to worry about everything. Until everything was ripped away from them.
Turned to ash.
And cast into the winds.
“We live a smaller life, so that makes me a peasant girl as much as it makes me a shieldmaiden. If it worries you so much that I overwork myself, rest assured that I don’t. I am sturdy without a doubt, Father. Even the other women give me that much, despite their misgivings. I like the work well enough. And those tasks that I don’t like, I don’t bother doing anyway,” Brienne reassures him. “I rather have it this way than constantly frustrating myself with having to suffer through everyone doing it not the way it is supposed to be done.”
“And that is the thing,” her father insists. “You do it alone, and so you stay alone.”
“I don’t need the others for that. You said it to me, remember? As a child, when we came here. We are the tree stem, holding up the branches, which are our people. Your words, Father, and I believe them with all my heart,” Brienne tells him, tapping her palm against her flat chest. “I am the backbone, they are the rips, arms, and legs. I don't see why I have to let them be the fingers to poke at me now, too.”
“Because you are my daughter and your position is another, even if smaller now than it would have been back in the day. You stand above them, yet you crawl on the ground,” Selwyn argues, curling his lips into an angry grimace.
“As I know, I am taller than most,” she huffs. “So I have to bend down more often than not.”
He sighs, pitching the bridge of his flat nose. “That is not what I mean.”
“I am aware. I am just jesting,” she argues, looking at him with growing irritation. It’s very much unlike him to act that way. “Father, what makes you so upset? It’s not like I started that behavior only just yesterday. What is changed now?”
Selwyn lets out a weary breath. “Nothing is changed, I just see it happen, day in, day out. And I worry about you.”
“You don't have to worry about me,” Brienne insists, shaking her head.
He looks at her with determination and affection. “I always do, I always will. You are everything I have left in this world, the Gods know it, and I thank them daily for you, for that they let me keep you.”
Brienne gives his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “I am sorry if I grieved you. It was not my intention, Father.”
“I know that you just do what you feel you must, but… this is… this is not what it should be,” he argues, shaking his head, rubbing his hand over his bad leg.
“Then what should it be?” she questions. Selwyn licks his lips. Brienne tilts her head to the side. “Wait, is that about what you wanted to tell me short before Moon howled because of Maggy wandering through the woods all alone?”
“Yes,” he confirms.
“Then what is it about?” she wants to know.
Her father straightens up slightly, harrumphs himself, before he goes on to say, “Well, as I was about to say back then… it’s this time of the year. The althing is about to take place, you might recall.”
“I know,” Brienne agrees, nodding her head. “I do hope that we will finally succeed in convincing the other jarls of better peace treaties to form sturdier alliances at last, through trade rather than raid. This has gone on for far too long already.”
Brienne believes that to be the only way to guarantee peace and prosperity, but she fears that people will never understand what Brienne sees as evident truth, for she has seen it in reality, not just in dreams and prophecies. Brienne knows it can work, she lived in that safe haven for four years, where there was this peace, palpable, within reach, peace you could touch, feel, taste.
Until it was disrupted, destroyed, annihilated, burned down to the ground.
But till that day, it was the stability in a world that seems displaced most of its time. It was this peace that held up the small cosmos they called their own, and it was good. And Brienne still dares to hope that one of these days, the great Jarls will understand that this is the only way to build a steady future, that this is the only way to grow for themselves the world tree Yggdrasil within this their world, right at the center of Midgard, among themselves. She prays to Frigga every night that she will make the jarls listen to reason at last, and put their quarrels of the present aside in favor of a future not just built on stilts, but sitting on top of a solid foundation of wood and stone and shared effort.
“That is not what I meant to say,” Selwyn argues.
“Then what?” Brienne frowns.
That is one of the things they discuss constantly, sitting by the fire place, breaking rye bread, sharpening their weapons. It bears more chances to ponder the future instead of lingering in the past that turned to ash in their mouths.
“You know what is part of the usual business that comes at the althing. One of the reasons why I take you with…, he says, his voice trailing off towards the end, and that is when Brienne knows.
“Not that again,” she groans, holding her hand to her forehead in exasperation. Brienne starts to walk circles on the other side of the table.
That is yet another matter they constantly discuss, though Brienne would rather discuss the peace than this folly, because that is part of a past she would rather forget, wipe out of the world, drown in the well Urðr.
“I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to. I know that you don’t fancy thinking about those matters, but would rather take a ship to discover some new land with shield and axe in hand, but those matters are important, and you know it true, daughter,” Selwyn insists, pushing his dagger across the table with growing frustration, as though he meant to underline that he is sick of her fighting in particular.
Brienne snaps her jaws together with a clank of her teeth. “And I may remind you that the men there wouldn’t ever want me because I look the way I look and act the way I act. Frigga was my witness, I wore a fine dress to the occasion, and the men only ever called me a sow in silks!”
“I know all that, but you may also recall that one of them was not entirely opposed to the idea,” Selwyn argues. Brienne whips her head around to look at him, her eyes almost ablaze with anger.
That opens up some very old wounds.
Brienne bangs her palms down on the table. “You cannot be sincere. I told you that I would rather die than even consider that mule of a man. You do recall what he did last time we saw one another, yes?”
“He was a lad by the time, green as summer grass, foolish and chasing approval by his peers,” her father tells her, which only gets Brienne’s anger ever the more flaring.
“You wouldn’t dare to make excuses for him, would you?” she asks, her eyes all but narrow slits, but this time, it is her father who seems seriously offended.
“Daughter, you know me better than that. I would have loved to open his throat already back then for such effrontery,” Selwyn curses.
“Maybe you should have,” Brienne mutters, straightening back up to hug her arms, feeling her anger deflating a bit at once. She knows that her father doesn’t mean to shame her by saying so, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Because the past is unchangeable, whereas the future is full of hopes, and in the past, there is nothing but this steady, unmoving bit of shame that is now part of her story.
Thanks to this oaf and his friends!
Selwyn licks his lips, searching for the words lying on the tip of them. “The point is… I have talked to his father, last time I was on that trip across the fjord.”
And while Brienne found her anger leaving her for a second, it's right back now, rising up and down like a gigantic wave on the verge of collapse. “On that trip you wouldn’t take me along with, you mean? Oh, so now I know why that was so! You moved behind my back to start making arrangements with that oaf and the son of an oaf for a good dowry?!”
“I didn’t go there for only just that purpose. I went there to talk about trade with their jarl,” her father insists, keeping his voice leveled. “But I met him, true enough, and we talked. His father was very apologetic about what his son did back during that althing. But he is a grown man now. You should have seen him! As strong as an ox.”
“And as dull as one, too, I am sure,” Brienne grumbles.
At least he was the last time I’ve seen him. And men tend to change slowly, if at all.
“He, too, apologized for what happened back then. Hyle admitted that he felt driven to the task because his friends kept pressuring him,” Selwyn continues.
“Which doesn’t make it any better,” Brienne retorts, shaking her head.
If anything, it proves my point – he is a weakling not worth the attention!
“It does not, but he also expressed that he would like to ma…,” her father means to say, but Brienne is quick enough to interrupt him before he can get to the point, “To marry me? Oh, what a joy, Father! What a joy! That dull oaf believes that he can just have me back after he apologized to you? What about me? What about me and my shame I bear thanks to him and his friends ever since that day?”
Brienne taps against her chest, her heart beating incredibly faster out of sheer anger and agitation. They shamed her father and her family by humiliating her, but they also brought shame upon her as a person.
For having me believe that they’d want me…
“Well, perhaps it’d be best if he came here, for visit. So that he could apologize to you in person,” Selwyn tries to debate. “To see where it goes from there.”
“To see where it goes from there? And then all is fair, so he gets to gather the wager he and his friends had on my maidenhead?” she snaps.
The young woman throws her hands in the air, not knowing how else to control her anger, because it runs deep, deep, right to her bones, sets them ablaze. It’s one thing to make fun of her, but those men shamed her and meant to destroy the bit of worth that comes with her sex. Brienne can live with comments, can live with jokes at her expenses, the whispers, even, however painful some of them may be. Yet, she will not accept to be shamed, even less so by a man her father now seemingly believes to have regrown to being worthy of her after he, after years of nothing, after years of silence, brought himself to apologize for the way he shamed Brienne and her family.
And not even on his own accord! It’s not like he dared to set sail here to come to apologize, Brienne thinks to herself. Though then again… I would have killed him for it, most likely, so that may have been reasonable after all…
“No! Just no! I will never marry that man! Never! You hear me? Never! Then I rather die a spinster!” Brienne shouts, nostrils flaring, voice rising like a wave about to crush.
“You should not talk to me in such a way, daughter,” Selwyn warns her, but Brienne won’t have it, not on that matter, no. “And you should not demand that of me, Father.”
“I don't demand, I ask.”
“By starting to make wedding arrangements without consulting me first?” she huffs.
He snorts at that. “As though you would have agreed, had I told you.”
“Which should prove to you that I don’t want it, at all, don't want him, at all,” Brienne snarls. “I don’t need him to run the household for me. I know how to handle myself – and I know how to handle the people of our village. If the people won’t help, I will do it all by myself, I don't care. But for that, I don't have to live in the same that such a union would come with.”
I don't need anyone but my father. The rest can go to Hel for all I care.
“You cannot do everything by yourself, Brienne,” her father sighs.
“Oh, I can, just watch me, Father.”
“No, you can’t. You can’t stay alone in this world,” he argues, sadness resonating with his voice along with the anger and frustration.
Brienne shakes her head. “I rather stay alone than by someone’s side who is not deserving of it.”
“You are not getting any younger,” he argues, more or less out of the blue. Brienne curls her lips into a frown.
“I am aware,” she huffs, so he goes on to add, “And I am not getting any younger either, which is something we have to bear in mind, Brienne.”
“Well, that is not the last althing I am to attend, right? Maybe someone comes by one of the following years?” Brienne huffs. “And imagine the shame it’d be to meet that man, while I am wed off to weakling like Hyle Hunt the Cunt.”
“He is an option you should consider.”
“You promised me that I would get to marry a man of my own choosing. You promised me, Father!” Brienne insists, sadness starting to replace burning anger, leaving her with all but a chill deep inside her.
She prided herself with that, that her father was so respectful of her and her wishes, understood that his daughter was one of a kind and didn't see the bad in it.
What changed about that all of a sudden? Just what happened on the other side of the fjord?
“And I do mean to keep it,” Selwyn says with resolution.
She frowns at him incredulously. “By starting to make arrangements with that oaf?!”
Selwyn looks her deep in the eye, and Brienne can spot the same concern and affection in his eyes that she has known since she was all but a girl. “Yes, because I have to think about your future, my beloved daughter.”
“What now?” she asks, quieter now.
“You cannot become Jarl. The people would never accept it, you know it better than I do. They already struggle to see you as the Jarl’s daughter, which you undoubtedly are! I wish it were different, I’ve tried, but they will not move out of their ways. And neither will those karls and jarls at the althings.”
“Yes, I know all that,” Brienne agrees, rolling her wrist.
That is why she is bound to do so much by herself. Because the men won’t follow her once they come of age. Because the women are too busy laughing at her queer ways instead of seeing Brienne for the Jarl’s daughter she apparently happens to be.
“That means that once I pass, a new jarl will rise from the karls, and it’d seem most likely that he’d mean to take you to bride because we inherit most of the lands and most of the treasures,” he goes on.
“Well, problem solved!” she snorts.
“You know how I mean it.”
“Yes, I know all that, Father.”
It should have been Galladon. It always should have been Galladon.
He would have continued the lineage, he would have become the next Jarl, no doubt, if only the sea had not taken him away, had not ripped him from their shaking, cold hands as they were tossed around by a storm set ablaze.
And sometimes, or rather, more often than she’d like to admit to herself, Brienne wished she had been born a man, had been born the second son to Jarl Selwyn, if only to save her and her father all of that trouble that comes with her sex, the trouble others attach to it because they can’t move out of their old ways.
“You know, but you don’t want to see, my sweet, sweet daughter,” he argues, his voice now anguished. Brienne blinks as he puts his old, calloused, veiny hands on top of hers. “If we don’t make plans about your future being secured while I am still alive, you may be in danger once I come to pass. Who tells me that one of them will not force himself upon you to secure his position as Jarl? Will not kill you to earn your wealth? I trust these men with my life, but not with yours. Wealth makes monsters of most of us – we’ve seen it back home.”
“They’d have to manage first,” she huffs. Selwyn grabs her arm tightly with his free hand. “Brienne. Listen to me. If you have a husband and bear him children, you will be secure even after I pass. You’d pose no threat, but at the same time have the villagers’ respect.”
She pushes away from him, feeling bad for giving him that bit more pain, but she has to walk, or else she will lose her senses and only scream again.
Brienne licks her lips, blowing out air through her nostrils. “And of all men there are, you want to choose that man for me? Hyle wouldn’t know his own mind if his friends did not command it. He may be as strong as an ox when it comes to the might in his body, but he is and will always be weak of the mind, Father. And that is the kind of man you’d mean to choose for me?”
Selwyn nods his head. “Precisely.”
Brienne frowns. Back in the day, her father used to tell her how “only the very best” would get to try out to win her favor. Before she was even allowed to come to an althing, he built up those magical althings inside her head, spun tails about them, how all important people gathered there in one place to decide like the norns decide over all their fate, where there was dance and honor and happiness, young men, all wanting to dance with her, all wanting to fall in love with her.
Surely, Brienne was only just a child back then, but during a time where they had nothing and had to fight for everything, it seemed to be a great comfort to dream away to a place and time where she would find a place within another person’s heart, to battle off the loneliness Brienne’s felt deep inside her ever since the raging storm destroyed her home, tore out her roots and tossed her into the ocean along with everyone else. Yet, it was her father who encouraged her to dream away to those distant places as though they were palpable, as though they were real. He spoke about young Jarls, young karls, and how she would have to make a wise choice over who to choose out of the masses.
And now… a grown woman, Brienne seemingly has to accept that she has no choice at all, because the place she dreamed away to as a young child not yet knowing what ugliness meant was not real. Whereas the real place of the althing only offers the sobering truth that no one, in his right mind, would choose her.
Well, safe for Hyle Hunt the Cunt, that is.
“Now what? He is not worthy much of anything,” Brienne can’t help but argue anyway. “His father is no jarl. They are karls, no more, no less. Not even particularly wealthy ones, as far as I am concerned. Let alone influential. Why should I wed this nobody of a man who thought he could cheat me out of my maidenhead with a single training session?”
Though perhaps she feels most shame not so much for his vile act, but much more for ever having fallen for the idea. Despite the fact that Brienne should have known better. Roelle told her often enough to look at herself in the looking glass, taught her about her ugliness, the truth of it.
Who would want me if he can have… any other?
“Because he is no jarl’s son, because he is just like that. Which is why Hyle is so well suited for this purpose,” Selwyn explains. Brienne’s frown deepens. “What?!”
Her father licks his lips, searches her eyes, and finds them. “My sweet child, more than anything, I want to leave those lands we now call our own to you. I want them to be yours. I want you to continue protecting our people in my stead. I want you to be home.”
He looks aside, seemingly feeling ashamed himself for having to admit that. “Back when we were… home, it would have been different. Your title would have protected you better, but it’s gone now. I am only just a lesser jarl, and jarls come and go like the ebb and flow. I cannot bequeath you with the title I bear now. You cannot have it for matters of your sex. That is what the rules command, and what you will find people say at any gathering, at any althing. They would not listen to you, no matter what truths you would be speaking.”
“I know,” Brienne says, her voice barely audible. It is rare for her to capture a glance of her father’s desperation. He normally knows well to conceal it. He had to. When all felt weak and wounded, he stood up as the Jarl and gave them strength to pull through the storm, the times of exile.
But you can’t be strong all the time.
“But if you have someone by your side who will follow your lead, and looks as though he was the one making the calls, though he does not, then you can be a jarl in all but name,” Selwyn explains. “And far more importantly, you would be Jarl of your home. You would not be taken away to stranger lands. He would be here with you. You would stay home, with your people, and no one would dare to take you away again.”
Brienne blinks at him. She never thought he’d have such a plan in mind.
“And for that I am supposed to have him… wed me, bed me? After all he’s done to me to get to the latter without properly following through the former first?” Brienne asks anyway, because the mere thought makes her feel sick.
“I fear there is little choice left as of now. You will have to wed at some point, my daughter,” her father argues.
“And as we know, the men don't want me. They fear me. Which is ridiculous, considering that shieldmaidens are of honor,” Brienne huffs.
Needless to mention that she can cook, keep the farm, grow crops, is a hard worker, and is not barren, despite what people tend to say about her.
It’s as Maggy said – men are foolish.
“If we follow through with the plan early on, you can take up on more of my tasks for all to see, can learn to delegate, can learn to act like a true daughter of a jarl, so that the people will not question you making the orders though your husband who would be called Jarl in my stead. The sooner your husband would live around here, the better, which would make it ever the more favorable if the marriage took place little time from now. Then the others will proclaim him Jarl without much effort. He’d be treated as one of their own. And you would make him yours to be the jarl these people need, though they don’t seem to know it.”
“You cannot be sincere,” she hisses, shaking her head.
“I am. I am sincere, very sincere. I just want you to be secure, my daughter.”
“Secure? With a man who’d never survive a fight like we fought them against true enemies?” Brienne snaps. “And in any case, so long I know how to defend our lands, know to defend myself, what does it matter if I wed and bear that oaf children? I want to go down in war, Father, I want to be in Valhalla, right next to you by the great table where the Allfather will welcome all our warriors.”
They talked about it many times, as they set sail, fought off enemies, hunched over in the boat, ready to fight, fingers flexing around their weapons.
He knows that this is what she wants.
He knows it in his heart.
And now he wants to deny me even that?
Brienne can feel wetness climb to her eyes, though she does not allow tears to form.
“I know all that,” Selwyn says, bowing his head.
“Then why would you want to tie me to the kitchen table instead?” Brienne asks, her voice full of anguish this time. “To his?”
“Because I need you to continue our lineage,” he says, with equal measures of pain wearing his voice down, wearing him down.
Brienne sucks in a deep, shuddered breath. “I told you often enough that you should take a new bride and make another son.”
“I cannot,” Selwyn insists.
“You do not want to!” Brienne growls, not knowing where to put her anger and sadness as the forces keep fighting for dominance within her.
“I would, if only to unburden you, my child. I would, I really would, but…,” he argues, though she interrupts him, “But what?”
Selwyn lets out a long sigh, rubbing his hands over his thighs. “Short before they came to plunder our home, I went to the seer there. He’s had a vision.”
She frowns. “You never told me about it.”
“I didn't want to burden you with my own prophecies. You have to deal with those you have already in plenty, wearing you down,” her father says, offering a gentle kind of grimace.
Brienne looks at him sadly.
“The seer said to me that my bloodline was the Trident, and that the Trident was cast black and red before seizing to carry water. One arm for Arianne, one for Alysanne, and one for Galladon. Their blood stopped flowing, their lines ended,” he goes on, before extending his hand to her again. “But yours is meant to go on.”
“Perhaps I am destined to die the same way and leave no traces?” Brienne argues.
Maybe I am so utterly unimportant that I don’t even get an arm of the Trident, ever crossed your mind, Father?
“You are at a marriageable age, you are fertile. Your sisters and your brother all died before they could come of age. But you have grown to full bloom. You can continue our lineage, you can carry our blood. You can carry it to a new generation, a new age,” her father insists, now almost in a frenzy, which is little wonder, Brienne supposes. Apparently, he has been carrying that secret around with him for years.
“By mixing it with oaf blood?” she can’t help but remark.
“If you must?”
“Listen to me, Brienne. My blood was cursed, I know it now. That is why that tragedy happened back home. To take Galladon as the last arm of my Trident’s bloodline. That is why the Gods took your sisters, and your brother, my heir. That is what the Gods wanted, the seer’s foretold it.”
Brienne blinks, eyes glistening, when her father runs his rough hand over her cheek. “But you? You can continue the lineage, carry it to the next age. And you must. You are the last of our kind, my sweet daughter. You have the fire in your blood and you need to carry it on, to bring the Evenstar back to rise and shine in the night’s sky. The seer told me that there is the Evenstar’s light shining down on the Trident after the darkness. It has to be you. You are to be the Evenstar, your children are meant to rise to the firmament, held up by the world tree Yggdrasil. I am sure of it. So yes, you must continue our lineage. So that your children and their children can rise again from the ash that once was Tarth.”
Brienne tears his hand away from her cheek, averts her gaze. She turns her back to him, not wanting her father to see the tears on the verge of falling as she speaks, “I told you I had a dream. I told you that the Gods gave me this vision when I flowered for the first time, as I sat by the weaving loom for a new dress. I wove my destiny that day. The norns foretold it! That the only man I’d marry would best me in fight. The Gods gave me that vision of the future the same way the seer told you about the Trident beneath the Evenstar. You ask me to defy mine own destiny! The one the Gods foretold!”
“But your suitor may…,” Selwyn means to say, but Brienne is having none of it, snapping her head back around to him, “He’d never manage to beat me. Hyle would die in the attempt! He is weak. You said it yourself. But the Gods told me that I would only ever wed a man who would best me in fight. And no one has yet, though I have fought many wars by now. None of them managed to beat me. None of them! And perhaps that is what they are trying to tell me, that there is no man for me. Because no one beats me. The Gods have spoken, Father. Who are we to interfere?”
Brienne believes in the Gods, and she believes in the Gods’ justice. If that is the path they have chosen for her, she will accept it, but Brienne is not willing to yield to earthly ideas if they mean to defy the holy purpose that was sent to her in a vision, in a dream of the future, woven like the norns do it, clad in crimson and with hair as golden as the sun.
“Maybe it wasn’t someone else you saw in your vision but you yourself, my daughter. Ever thought about that?” he asks.
“I don’t know…,” she replies slowly.
“Maybe you are meant to choose yourself in the end, maybe that is what the Gods tried to tell you. I only ever understood what the vision meant once it was too late. And if you marry Hyle, you will get to choose yourself. You will be Jarl in all but name. You will lead your people, if not directly, if not at once. But if you prove yourself, then maybe they will change their minds after all, and proclaim you Jarl, will see you as the leader you are meant to be. And meanwhile, you may find tender feelings in your heart for him at last – or even if not, form him to the man he needs to be to deserve being by your side. I know you can do that. Perhaps that is what the visions tried to tell you, that you have to weave your own future.”
“I dare doubt it,” Brienne says, barely moving her jaws apart as she speaks.
A part of her dares to believe it, actually. But Brienne doesn’t want to believe, doesn’t want that to be true. Brienne always consoled herself with the secret knowledge that, one day, the promised partner would stand by her side, would come to her, and that the Gods would have chosen him for her, to make all of the jests, all the insults, all the jokes, all the pain she took over the years, worth it – and if not, at least leave her with honor to console her. Because no matter how much Brienne tries to have others believe the opposite, she, too, seeks those things. Stability, home, someone outside herself to turn back into herself, someone by her side, someone to love, someone who loves her, only ever her. But if she isn’t granted it, then she will choose honor any day, no doubt.
“Doubt it or not, but we need to be sure that you stay where you are, with a husband by your side to protect you from being married off against your will or killed once I am no longer,” Selwyn insists. “When I am gone, the other men will be made responsible for your marriage arrangements, as the old rules have it. If we don’t want them to make those choices only to their advantage, we have to act before they can get to it.”
“Then why not another jarl or a jarl’s son, at least? Why not someone who is… at least somewhat important? Why that oaf who is all but dust in the wind?” Brienne argues.
Perhaps not the shining creature who appeared to her in her dreams, fine, but Brienne cannot imagine that the Gods would want that of her.
Or would they? Do they think that lowly of me?
“Because he is below you. A jarl who’d be on your level or even above it would take you with him to his lands, away from here. And that would leave our village unprotected, unshielded. I need you here, Brienne. They need you here. These are your people as they are my people. We vowed to their protection. You have to stay, and a man who is all but dust in the wind guarantees that you are not blown away by the storm. Someone below your rank guarantees that you can stay home. Such a man will ensure that you will not suffer the same destiny twice, be forced out of the place you worked so hard for to make your home. Like this, you get to stay. Till the day you die and join us in Valhalla.”
Brienne’s big blue eyes fill with tears. No matter how much she curses these people most of the time, Brienne cares deeply about them, they are the few remains of the home they had to give up on, in favor of this smaller one, the big life they had to let go of in favor of a life in small, but theirs, only theirs.
And to think that she’d have to give up on that seems perhaps even more unbearable than being wed off to that oaf.
To think that she’d leave her people unprotected tears her apart.
To think that everything they built up over the years would turn to ash again tears her apart.
To think that she could lose this home to, it tears her apart.
“This is not fair,” Brienne says, her voice shaking with emotion, finding hold only once she can feel her father’s hand enclosing hers once more.
“I know it’s not, but sometimes we don’t get to choose,” he says, his voice full with anguish, too.
“When do we ever?” she huffs sadly, feeling defeated, not by men but circumstance.
“I chose your mother.”
“But I will not get to choose my children’s father?” Brienne argues with a sad smile that is not a smile if not for her lips curling upwards. Her father grabs her hand a little tighter as he tells her, “Choose him with your heart, but actually only just to choose yourself. And of that I am certain, it will earn you a seat at the very front of Odin’s table.”
“For bearing children to a weak man?” Brienne argues.
For yielding to circumstance?
For yielding to a man who could never make her yield in duel?
“For forgetting your own wishes in favor of the people under your protection. For fighting for them with all that you have, not just battle axe and shield. You would be the shieldmaiden to this village, Brienne. If the Allfather did not choose you to rank among the highest once you come to pass, come back to me, then he would have to be a fool. And you know that Odin knows everything. He cannot be a fool.”
Brienne bends her knees to lean her head on her father’s strong shoulder, the way she has done it so many times ever since she was a child, only ever finding security in his strength, finding a way through the storm by searching for this rock standing above any wave.
“That is not what I was foretold,” she whispers.
Brienne always counted on that hope, however faint, that there would be a man out there, strong and tall, with golden crown and the grace of a mountain lion. Because that man would have been worthy to yield to, but a weakling? Someone who would only ever eat the dust beneath her feet? That cannot be the man whom she saw so many times in the mist of her dreams.
She took solace in that, even if that man were not real, she would be a shieldmaiden, thus, that she would never be bested in fight. That she would become a tale, a story told to children huddled around the hearth, to hear of her great deeds, the woman no one could best, the warrior woman no one could win, for she won, always.
And now? Now I am supposed to yield to conventions?
She was a princess once. And now… now she is supposed to yield to someone who’d lose any fight to her? Who is no prince, no king, not even a jarl?
Brienne can feel her father pat the back of her head tentatively. “I know. And my heart pains for demanding it of you, but I will not last forever, you know it.”
“Then last a while longer,” she mutters. “Please.”
“I will last for as long as the Gods grant it to me. I will live as long as I can, for you and no one but you, but the time will come that I join your mother, that I find her by Odin’s table to ask her for one last dance.”
Brienne nods, her closed eyes still pressed to the dip of his shoulder. “I know. And I wish it for you, Father. I pray to Frigg and Thor that they will take you there, but… not just now. Not just yet.”
Selwyn presses a kiss to the side of her head with the faintest smile. “I will try, be certain of that. You don’t get rid of me that easily.”
“Is that a threat?” she laughs drily.
“A promise, my child, always a promise.”