The sound of her wretched sobbing haunts him for two full days.
He tries everything he can to block it out: listening to the rhythmic clop of horse-hooves as they dig up snow and mud; singing as many songs in his head as he can remember the words to; plotting and scheming a plan for when he finally reaches Kings Landing, if he reaches Kings Landing, that will not get him killed on sight; when all that fails, remembering the Battle of Winterfell and the terrors endured, the horror and the stench and the relentless dead, because he deserves to feel nothing but pain.
It is no use. Everything brings him back to her: to knighting her and fighting with her; to the feast after the battle; to his brother’s stupid drinking game and the way she lit up in a way he had never seen before, relaxed and happy and laughing with him and Tyrion both; to what happened afterwards, and continued to happen for the weeks that followed; to her face as she pleaded with him not to leave and the way it crumbled as he left her.
You’re a good man.
He is not a good man. A good man would have told her the truth. A good man would have stayed when she begged him to do so. A good man would never have started the whole sorry affair, knowing it would only end in heartbreak.
At this point, he cannot even say whose heart has been broken more.
A hundred times, he wants to turn around; a hundred times, he presses on instead. He has started this preposterous suicide mission, given up the best thing in his dishonourable shit of a life to embark on it, and he is damn well going to finish it.
She will probably never forgive him, and he’ll be better off dead.
It is Podrick who finds her, weeping in Winterfell’s courtyard. He calls her “My Lady”, and then corrects it to “Ser”, and it’s all she can do to keep from sobbing again. She feels weak and stupid, and hates that he has seen her like this, but there’s a gaping hole in her chest and it will not stop aching. She has endured pain beyond reason, but this is the worst kind of agony.
Of course, Podrick guesses what has happened. There’s not a soul in the entire bloody North who isn’t aware of her dalliance with the Kingslayer, thanks to Tyrion’s gossiping tongue, thanks to his brother’s inability to keep his eyes (or hand) off her for more than half a second whenever they share the same space, thanks to fucking Tormund complaining to anyone who’ll listen. It hits her again, the pain, a fresh wave of devastation, like the scrabbling claws of a wight are squeezing her heart. It had felt so real. For a few precious weeks, she had allowed herself to believe in those songs of her childhood, allowed herself to believe that she was loved.
She is a fool. Of course he would leave her and go back to his sister. Of course he did not love her. What a ridiculous notion to cling to.
Podrick lends her his fur and ushers her silently back indoors. He will make a fine knight some day.
He escorts her all the way back to her room and asks if there is anything else she needs. He is trying hard not to fuss over her, and when she sends him away he merely nods. Her grief is bubbling into fury. There is sympathy in his eyes and she does not want it; what she wants is to fight someone in the training yard, beat them until they yield and then beat them again. She wants to go back to the Long Night and throw herself into the fray with all of the anger that burns inside her. She will not take out her rage on Podrick when the person she wants to take it out on is miles away by now.
Once the door closes and she is alone, the dam breaks again. In this room are housed the armour, the sword, the first gifts he had ever bestowed upon her; they remind her of the night before the battle, his blade upon her shoulders, a gift less tangible but as full of significance as any traditional courtship ritual. They have never communicated in traditional ways, and she wishes, just once, that they had managed not to speak in riddles.
Unless that was always his intention, to addle her with misdirection and words dripping with unspoken meaning, saying more with silence than with sentences.
Even now, when they have known each other, she cannot say she understands him. That is what infuriates her most of all; that she did not see this day coming; that he made her believe it would never come.
The smell of him still clings to the pillow, the furs, probably every item of clothing she owns. She wants to burn it all to ashes almost as much as she wants to burrow her face into it; she has no idea how she will get through the next hour, the next day, the next week.
But she will find a way. She will gather the scattered pieces of her broken heart and lock them safely away; she will steel herself against the world as she always has.
She will not allow herself to be weak again.
The news spreads, over the next day; she informs Lady Sansa first, not to seek comfort or for any sense of female solidarity, but because she feels it might be useful to know for the war effort. By late evening most of Winterfell has been made aware, and everywhere she walks she feels eyes upon her. She does not want their sympathy or their pity. Podrick is cautious around her, wanting to assist however he can, but wary of upsetting her.
She goes about her day as normally as possible, evading conversation and eating alone. She trains in the yard but her anger has faded to a dull ache in her stomach. Thank the gods, Tormund has returned to Castle Black with all the other Wildlings; she would not be able to bear his advances now and does not think she has it within her to be polite.
As the sky turns to dusk, she goes to the Godswood for peace and solitude, exhausted from maintaining an emotionless façade. She does not expect to find Bran already there, and almost turns around to leave again, to find somewhere else to spend the evening until she is tired enough to go to bed and not think about what is missing, when he speaks in his usual eerie manner.
“He won’t be coming back.”
It cuts like a dragonglass dagger to her heart, stabbing, a spreading burn, and for a second she cannot breathe; she feels tears welling up and struggles to control them. She turns away from the Stark boy so he will not see her cry, so she does not have to try and unravel his cryptic expressions. Then, he speaks again:
“That’s what he believes.”
She wants to disappear rather than engage in this conversation, but hope blooms in her chest, unprecedented and unchecked, and she cannot quite ignore it.
“You know something,” she guesses, wiping her eyes and turning back.
Bran nods, his eyes warm but strangely unseeing, as though he is looking straight through her.
“He’s going south to kill her, but he doesn’t think he’s going to succeed. He knows she must be stopped.”
“Kill her… No. That’s… that’s not why he…”
Her head is reeling, as she tries to remember his last words to her and what they could have meant. It had seemed so clear at the time: that he was leaving her for his twin. She has spent the past day trying very hard to forget.
She’s hateful. And so am I.
There had been so much noise in her head, she could not understand him. She allows the memory to resurface: his hand clinging to hers like an anchor, the list of terrible deeds he had performed for his sister, the look on his face as she started to cry, the way it had changed only a second later to something steely and emotionless, as though he was shutting himself away.
It crashes down on her like a crumbling wall, the realisation of what he has done, of what he will try to do.
“No. Gods, no. She’ll murder him.”
“He thought she would murder you.”
Finally, finally, she understands that he was trying to keep her safe; trying to prevent her from following him by making her believe he had no good in him. He is the only person who can stop Cersei Lannister from winning this terrible war and terrorising the known world, the only person who can get close enough to kill her.
What terrifies her is that Cersei is not the only one who will end up dead. She will not go down without a fight – not without causing as much damage as possible. She has a clever and fatal tongue, and her Queensguard monster will see to the rest.
“How… what am I supposed to do?”
She feels helpless, trapped by indecision. She wants to follow, but is afraid of what might happen if she does.
“He has only one day’s head start,” says Bran matter-of-factly. “He’ll need to rest at some point.”
“Are you suggesting I should go after him?”
“The decision is yours, Ser Brienne.”
Yes. She is a knight of the Seven Kingdoms, a title hard-earned through deeds which only he had been witness to, oaths that he had bid her to fulfil. She did not survive the Long Night to wait around in Winterfell, and any knight worthy of the title would be rushing off to save the damsel in distress.
Even if the damsel in question is a one-handed Kingslayer who cannot see his own value in the world.
But she is sworn to Lady Stark, and cannot just go marching off into the night for her own personal gain.
“Sansa will understand,” says Bran, as if reading her thoughts, though he sounds more human than he has done for the past few minutes. When she looks at him, there is the hint of a smile on his face and it almost reaches his eyes.
“I’m not so sure about that,” she responds with a sigh. “She only allowed him to stay here at my behest. I have no doubt she would have turned him away once the battle was over, if not for…” She swallows the lump in her throat; it is still too raw to think about. “And I’m sworn to protect her. I can’t just leave.”
“We are all going South, eventually,” Bran informs her. “Some of us will just get there sooner.”
She is gone before darkness falls.