There came a spring of high blue skies that never softened to summer. The churned mud of every battlefield slipped into a dream of wildflowers and the children of the realm who ran through them, children whose fears were only ever small. Every dawn a miracle, every night another debt that could never be repaid. A lifetime of such days, each one the impossible gift. A long life, long hours, birdsong, the tide in and the tide out, and trees heavy with apricots. All this, and grief. It was enough.
Brienne rode out into a bright, mild morning with provisions for an excursion to the uplands where meltwater wept from the island's white crown, and the ice cutters in their craggy village had not seen their liege lady in nearly a year. Her sword hung at her hip and her husband rode beside her.
"Arric Kellington, he's two-and-ten," she said.
The small collection of homes and stalls just outside Evenfall's walls were awake with the sun. A breeze off the nearby cliffs swept the scent of fresh bread and crisping fish ahead of it. The people made their cheerful courtesies to their Evenstar and some even to her companion. Brienne paused to dig a copper from her purse for two pork-stuffed rolls.
"I'd been squiring for Lord Crakehall for a year at that age. Two-and-ten, really." He draped his horse's reins securely around his right wrist and caught the roll she tossed him in his left hand, with only a moment of fumbling. "What have they been doing with the boy all this time?"
"Hiding him away, it would seem. Perhaps it's simply their way. Ser Kellington rode out when called, both times, but never with haste, or in force."
"Just a Ser, the father?"
"Yes, and a small household, though only half a day's ride from Felwood. He married the middle Fell daughter." She turned her head back and around to see his face, but he was intent on brushing crumbs and gravy from his beard. "She died in the birthing bed, giving him a second son." He looked up at that, but only grunted in reply.
A halt, then, where the road left the town and began to descend, golden oaks on rocky shoulders to either side, young leaves sketching a canopy. They moved to the side so a wide cart could make its way past. The driver tipped a small nod to them, but otherwise paid them no mind. She knew the man, patriarch of a shrimping family who pulled their harvest from the confluence of the Straits and the Narrow Sea, and who knew that the castle always had a love of the stuff. She knew that he'd known her all her life, and that he meant no disrespect, was only familiar, and elderly besides, and he had heard too much tell of her broken noses and betrothals, had seen her sail off to war and return with dubious spoils. One of those spoils, though, had pride more easily pricked than her own.
"Mylos, you old barnacle," he called out. "You catch anything larger than your cock this time? Last week's lot were barely a morsel each."
Brienne bit out one chastising "Jaime," as Mylos halted abreast of them, his thick-kneed draught horse eyeing their freshly brushed and still shining mares with the same squinted eye that he gave her husband.
"My apologies, my lord. My lady." He smiled, displaying two wooden teeth. "Was told not to bring nothing bigger than the Lord Tarth's cock, so as not to cause offense."
Only a moment of worry, then Jaime leaned across to slap the man's shoulder companionably, guffawing. "Best keep to the morsels, then, I hear he has a lion's temper. And poor judgement besides. Handsome bastard, though."
The old man's grin widened. "Ah, naught but a kitten these days. The rest is as you say, though, my lord."
"Well, we agree on the important parts." Jaime gave the wooden seat of his cart a last, hard pat for good measure. "Off with you, then."
Mylos bid them both good day, dipping his head more deeply and perhaps more sincerely to Brienne than he had a minute past. His cart trundled on up, and they took the road again at an unhurried walk, side by side. She worried at her lower lip, an old habit. She felt his eyes on her then, and knew he'd ask what the trouble was. He'd long since learned that he hadn't the patience to wait out her silences.
"You mislike how I spoke to him," he guessed.
"No," she said, and saw that he didn't believe her. "No! You may speak to him however you like. You were vulgar, but there's no helping that."
"What, then?" And he did wait, for a time, as she fussed with taking her gloves off and putting them on again, then brushing her hair back from her face. She thought of telling him her mind, but before she began, he relented instead. "So, Arric Kellington. I'd never thought we were an attractive prospect for a foster. Well, not we so much as me."
She cast him a quick glare, but it seemed he was in earnest. This was after all not the first offer of a foster that they'd received, but it was the first she'd seriously entertained. It was the first after a maester told them again what they'd known, that there would be no children. Whether it was through her fault, or his, or that of the gods, none could say.
"Storm's End would not have him if he asked," she said eventually. "And Greenstone refused him when he did."
"We're their third choice?" A wonder, that he could still sound so like a little boy. She smiled, barely and despite herself.
"Quite a bit further down the list than third, I'd imagine."
"So, we shall foster a green boy of two-and-ten, son of a jumped-up hedge knight who holds us in no esteem? Yes, I can see why you're thrilled with the idea."
She shrugged. "I won't blame him for his father's fickleness. The boy wants to learn to fight, he says. He wrote his own letter."
He hummed. Then, "You do think the father fickle, though?"
"An…unworthy grudge," she admitted. "During the war, he accepted my father's counsel, but then declared for Stannis."
The world widened as the oaks gave way to lower brush. Juniper and the odd young cypress, tall knotgrass and bushy satin-tail flowers, all windswept and looking hungry for the rain that wouldn't fall until dusk. The high plains of Tarth were more yellow than green in this weather. To the northeast, the foothills awaited them, and their deep pine forests. It would be good to be up among them, she thought. It would be good to take Jaime to see the boulders she'd climbed as a girl, the waterfalls she'd leapt from before anyone told her she shouldn't do such things.
"A good half the stormlands kneeled to Stannis, if I recall," Jaime said. He motioned to catch her eye, and when he had it pointed up, at a kestrel circling above. He'd threatened to take up falconry lately, saying it was the only sport for which only one glove was provided as a matter of course. He looked back at her, his smile crooked. Then he shrugged. "To so openly snub Lord Selwyn's advice, though, was rather bold of someone in his position, certainly rude. But the storm lords have never been a particularly united bunch."
He was only sparring, and she could not help herself. "Are we not, my Lord Tarth?" She claimed a point for his wry chuckle.
"Do you deny it, my Lady Tarth?"
She gave the idea as much consideration as it warranted—a moment's thought. "We are as united as need be, to be considered of a family with one another. Perhaps we value more than others each House's right to freely decide their allegiances as best their honor and loyalties can guide them."
A flight of sparrows took wing from the nearby stand of saplings and curled a path out into the grass. The kestrel dove among them, disappearing below the grass line so Brienne could not see whether it had hit its mark.
"Yes," said Jaime. "Free to decide, even when they've taken leave of their senses and tied themselves to a wet fart of a man and his pyromaniac god." Brienne considered Stannis really more of a dry fart of a man, but didn't give Jaime the satisfaction of her voicing the thought. "No, heavens forbid their independence is infringed upon. Shocking that you're all part of the Kingdoms at all, come to think of it. Imagine how that deal must have been brokered, a table of twenty lordlings with fifty opinions between them."
"I could have sworn there was a library at Casterly Rock where they might have taught you that it was brokered as any such agreement is." He raised an eyebrow at her, all innocent ignorance. A sham, but a harmless one. "Through marriage."
"Ah!" He exclaimed, sudden enough to startle half a trot out of his mare for a stride. "Stormlanders who can only be bested in the marriage bed? Now there is a tale I can relate to." They reached the spot where the road forked, east down to the harbor and north up to the foothills. Brienne spurred her mount on to cut across in front of Jaime and take the mountain path.
"You've bested someone in the marriage bed?" She called over her shoulder. "Do I know the lady?"
There was a long, quite gratifying lull before he caught up to her. The north road was narrower, and to ride abreast found their ankles nearly knocking each other. He did it anyway. When she deigned to look at him, she saw the instinct to retort with something truly nasty cross his face, and leave it just as quickly, replaced with affection.
"All the years I've invested in awaking your sense of humor, and this is my repayment."
"I've always had a sense of humor," Brienne said, allowing herself a laugh, because the look on his face was indeed funny, and because it always had been so.
From the high grassy plains to the wooded foothills, stopping near midday to rest and to water themselves and the horses from a slim and frigid trickle of the Picotee where it danced down the shadowed slopes from the ice that they meant to reach the next day. Fat, sweet apples for the four of them, sausages and cheese on soft, flat bread for her and for him.
Brienne felt bold in the forest, and young, as young as she would be if she had never gone to war. So emboldened, she stole a kiss from her husband as he tightened his horse's girth. A terrible moment to kiss anyone, but especially Jaime, who required the use of his hand, his opposite elbow, and his shoulder in that particular operation, and who immediately gave up all three to turn, and pull her to him, a smile on his lips, his fingers to her pitted cheek, then her neck, then her hip. And her own fingers could not help but tangle in his hair, which had gone shaggy and found its long lost gold in the springtime sun, and she had also then to grip his shirt, since the fabric, pulled, gave up more of the smell of him, warm and close. And then there was nothing for it but to knead at his flesh through the seat of his pants, an action that so inflamed them both that they lurched as one into the rump of Jaime's poor, abandoned mare who, disgruntled, stamped away to the stream where her loosened girth slipped fully free and the uneven weight of her half-packed saddlebags dragged her saddle half-way round her belly before Brienne, and more reluctantly Jaime, caught it and wrestled everything back into place.
Back onto the path, then. Rockier here, and rutted in the width of the tracks of the sleds that carried blocks of ice down the mountain. Sleds which, in summers and milder winters, hauled marble from the mines at the southeastern crag of the island and did more than the rest of their holding combined to keep Tarth's coffers adequately full.
On up the road that cut corridors through the teeth of minor peaks so that its path could ring the vales without dropping into them. Mirrored lakes winked at them as they passed above those deep green dells. On through the smell of pine, the dome of the sky impossibly high, even as they traveled these, the knuckles of the fist of Tarth. In no particular hurry, they agreed to make camp before full dark. The path wasn't notorious for its dangers, but the shoulders of it did drop off into nothing here and there, and the odd wildcat could spook a horse, or rider, or both.
"No bears?" He asked. Brienne scowled at the sparks as she struck them over dry grass and firewood.
"I searched for ages. Not a glimpse."
"I can have one imported for your name day."
"No, thank you." She cast him a look and tilted her head to the side so that the scars along her neck and collarbone stood out. "I've rather soured on bears since I was a girl."
"A poor example of the species, I'm sure his brethren would say. And we bested him, in any case!"
Jaime hollered this from the bubbling spring where he filled their cookpot, and Brienne winced, the old instinct to conceal their location rising in a twisted part of her guts. She pushed it down before it could drive her to snap at him. Still, she waited until he was near to reply.
"I begin to suspect that you do not know what it means to best someone."
He set the pot over her new fire and took a potato from one of their bags, drew his dagger, and started to peel it, held steady between his wrist and his knee. "He likely warms a floor at Harrenhal now, and I escaped with the maiden fair." She grimaced at him, but he wasn't looking, involved as he was with their supper. "I call that a clear victory."
She let it pass, as she had begun to let such comments pass, without objection. She noticed his quick glance at her, and the soft cast of his features. So sincere, this man who haunted her home. Always meaning what he said these days, always checking that he was understood. It made her want to be gentle with him. Or to press him from every side, to find what would be the thing she did that made him slip and be cruel. She'd caught herself trying, pushing at the gaps of his kindness, when she saw that he saw what she was doing, and she recoiled from herself in shame. But he only trusted her, again, only went on trusting her, as if she were easy to forgive.
So she repaid his trust, and told him, "This morning, with Mylos. I'm glad you are so free with him. He should know you, Tarth should know you, as I do." There was a lewd remark sitting in the corner of his mouth, but he didn't give it voice. "I worry only that…" She took a breath, found courage in watching him as he chopped carrots and waited for her. "I worry that they like you better than they do me. The smallfolk. Everyone, really. They always have, of course, but I had thought that perhaps here, well."
He didn't rush to correct her thinking, or to find some jape at her clumsy words. He would have, she thought, in years past, and she wanted again to needle him, to force his hand against her. He shook his head, quiet, and dropped the last carrot in the pot, then rose to sit beside her and lay his hand atop hers on her knee. He traced the length of her fingers with his, huffed something like a laugh, then shook his head again before she could take it amiss.
"Do you know Mylos' youngest?" He asked.
Brienne thought of a girl, dark hair and dark eyes, who came sometimes to Evenfall with her good cheer and her father's cart, and who grew up barefoot on the bowsprit of his boat. "Gemma," she said.
"That's the one. Still a slip of a thing when I first came, and I saw her outside the kitchens at Evenfall, tidying their cart. The first week I was here, in fact. You were, oh, in the training yard, I think, with Pod, and I was probably looking for an extra rasher or three of bacon. And the girl, Gemma, she was up in the cart. I didn't know yet what their business was, only that they'd delivered something or other to the kitchens, and I was hungry and in high spirits, so I asked if I could trouble the young lady for a sample of whatever fine goods they purveyed."
Brienne knocked her shoulder to his. "Did you ask it in those words?"
"Certainly not." He put on a deep, coarse voice and said, "Go on then, little miss longshoreman, look alive, I'll take one of your finest!"
"She threw a shrimp head at me. Right into my hair."
"I always liked Gemma," she said.
"And I, in truth." He sighed. "I said something flip then. I don't recall, exactly. That it was unbecoming behavior, perhaps, or no way to greet a lord in his own home, something. The girl…she was a child. She looked at me with such fear. And then she straightened her spine, and looked again, with such venom. She said she knew who I was, her father had told her. She bid me welcome to Tarth, and said the waters here are beautiful, and they are also deep. A child, you understand, she was less than ten, I'm sure of it. She said that if I brought unhappiness to Lady Tarth, then her father would take my other hand. And she herself would push me overboard where the straits are deepest."
Brienne remembered those early days. She'd been so anxious that he would find reason to leave, or that she herself would. That the spring would prove false.
"Jaime," she said. "You never told me." He squeezed her hand, then let it go.
"What, so you could duel a little girl to defend my honor?"
"I would have spoken to her father." She frowned. "Though you wouldn't have thanked me for it."
"No. It had to be the long path. With him, with Gemma, with all of them." Then he knocked his shoulder to hers. "So that Tarth could know me as you do." They leaned against one another as the stew began to bubble and the nightjars began to trill in the trees. "You are theirs," he said. "You're their pride. What small affection I may have earned comes only from standing long enough in the light of you."
It was ludicrous, of course. But she saw that he believed it, and she believed him, so she turned his face and kissed him.
With the tallest peak still to the east of them, dawn came late to their little camp. Brienne woke in barely-gilded shadows, in the hush between the night's creatures and the day's. The dew made a garden's bouquet of the smell of soil, rockrose, and crushed pine needles. She lay awake while Jaime dozed. She watched the sun turn the trees yellow before it showed them green, the pines and the poplars both. She watched the morning reveal Jaime's nape in front of her, the ragged edge of his hair that really did need seeing to, and the plentiful white in it that she reminded herself, again, to see as he saw it: a blessing, a privilege unlooked-for.
Half dreaming, she pressed her nose to the back of his neck, her mouth to the knob of his spine. She closed her eyes, and behind them the dawn went on in warm bursts of color as she tasted the bones of his shoulder, the wing of his back. He woke only to sigh, to press the whole of his body against hers, and to roll his head to the side, offering up his jugular to her, soft and willing as a lamb. She took it first as a lion might—with her teeth, firm enough to leave a fleeting impression. And then kisses, kisses, to soothe away any sting. Such was her own unlooked-for privilege.
Slow, lazy fumbling. The horses whickering for their morning grain. He turned in her arms so he could find her lips and then the underside of her jaw, and then, softly, her eyelids, her brow, the pads of her fingers when he caught her hand in his.
She had to look, then, and the sight of him with his eyes open, burning, with his mouth on her, sucking her fingertip in to taste the salt of her, the sight of him cut through her. She pushed him onto his back, raised herself up, swung her leg over his hips to straddle his waist-
-and planted her knee, with all her weight behind it, on the dagger-point of a rock sent straight from the seven hells to a spot under her bedroll. She howled. Jaime startled up in confusion and alarm just as Brienne was rocking back onto her other knee, and her head collided with his nose. He fell straight back down, but the spasm of her leg in pain had knocked the rock aside, and now he landed hard onto it, a little lance for the softest part of his lower back. He yelped, lurched over, upending Brienne, scrabbled beneath the bedroll for the offending rock, and finding it, hurled it downhill.
On her ass in the dirt, with a sore head, throbbing knee, and thoroughly doused lust, Brienne imagined the rock tumbling on and on down to Evenfall, where she would find it one week hence sitting in her chair in the great hall, telling her laughing household the tale of this morning.
Jaime gingerly fingered the bridge of his nose. "Well, that was a poor showing," he said.
"If you had cleared the ground before laying down the bedrolls…"
"That's not my job!"
"It isn't my job."
"It's never my job!" He spent another moment sulking before he reached out to rest his bare wrist on her leg. "Your knee?" She scowled, though not at him.
"And your pride?"
He crawled to her and kissed the red spot of impact on her brow. But the heat was gone from it, and she huffed, annoyed. He pressed his cheek to hers, his beard rough against her old scars, and spoke a soft word in her ear, and then rose to feed the horses.
They reached the ice cutter's village before midday. It was not at the ice itself, to Jaime's loudly expressed disappointment, but at the tree line, gathered by the rush of the Picotee. High enough, though, to have them short of breath and their horses, who rarely made such a trip, tossing their heads and slowing their steps, glad at last to be unsaddled and stabled with the village's collection of stout, shaggy mules.
The village itself was barely worthy of the name, just a handful of cabins and one long, low hall, all of them fortified against the wind and snow that would claim the slope when winter came again, if it did. The ice blocks, stacked like stone awaiting a castle, sat in the open air some distance apart from the cabins. They hurt the eye to see. White, undeniably white, but each with its blue heart showing within. They radiated winter. They watched the village as with six dozen frozen eyes. It was quiet, most of the cutters up on the ice, out of sight over a tall ridge.
Sherlyn Sewall met them outside the stable with a skinny boy she dragged by the elbow and told to see to Lord and Lady Tarth's mounts. She was a woman made like a block of ice—hard and square, clad in leather and furs. Brienne had known her in her youth, had attended her roughspun wedding to Hobart Sewall, a boisterous, hairy giant of a man. Now Sherlyn was the absolute mistress of the ice trade, her husband and her many children at her command. They had been expecting a visit, she said, but not until the fifth moon or after.
"We expect our own visitors to Evenfall at the turn of the month," Brienne said.
"And thought to steal some time away before they arrive and trap us in there with them," added Jaime. Sherlyn cracked with laughter.
"Well we're no holiday lodge, but you'll find no need to stand on ceremony here, if that's what you're after." She popped her thick knuckles. "Make yourselves too comfortable and you might find we put a saw in your hands, though."
"We're not strangers to a hard day's work," said Brienne, although she'd rather pictured spending their days nodding at the work as it went on, finding something or other to say about the quality of the mountain's frozen harvest, passing on the Citadel's wild predictions that the spring would carry on blooming, and asking after the health of the trade the cutters had with the men who shipped their fish to the mainland on ice.
"Oh, I know you're not, my lady," said Sherlyn, and cast a teasing look in Jaime's direction. He took it in good humor.
"I have accomplished one or two physical feats in my life, I'll have you know. You may have heard of them, even here." He waved his hand uphill, at the rock and the scree.
"To be sure you have, my lord. Still…" She winked now at Brienne. "He's no islander, is he, my lady?"
Brienne smiled at her boots, then said to Jaime, in all seriousness, "Every man has his failings." He mimed a look of betrayal.
"Are you still islanders up here?" He asked, as forward as if this weren't his first time meeting Sherlyn, and as if she couldn't break him over her boulderous knee. "Two days's ride from the sea, it may as well be the Eyrie."
"Two days? You're ten minutes' walk from the sea, my lord." Sherlyn bid them don the heavy cloaks they'd packed, then led them up and out of the village, not to the ridge where the sled's tracks went, but a gentler, longer slope that brought them from rock to snow. Old snow, hard and brittle. Twice a ten minutes' walk, in truth, because they were not so sure-footed as their guide. Brienne had to watch her feet as they went, and saw Jaime doing the same. Finally, she went to take a step, but there was nowhere higher to go. She looked up, and found that she was a giant, striding atop the world.
"Oh," she said.
They were not at the highest peak, for there was another, more impossible climb to the south, a shelf sharp as a spearpoint, ragged as a broken bone. They stood on the mountain's tamer shoulder, which sloped up the path they'd walked and then broke just a stride from their feet into a sheer cliff, its face open to the Narrow Sea. Six leagues or more of rugged and forested coastland between the mountain and the shore, but it was an afterthought in the face of the sea itself. The midday sky light as a daisy and the sea like the shining armor of some impossible god, glinting in a thousand places.
"You could almost see Essos from here," said Jaime.
"Not quite that, but," Sherlyn beckoned them to turn back the way they'd come.
It was a gift. Brienne kept receiving them, gifts like this moment, and she did not know why, or how to keep them. Their steps in the snow led back to the small village, where now a line of smoke rose from the chimney of the long hall. The treeline banded the cap of the mountain, and the crowns of the pines trickled up and down the tumbled path they'd rode. And further, further, across the yellow uplands hazy with wildflowers, to the smudge of what must have been a little stone upon a hillock. Jaime nodded at it and spoke into her ear. Evenfall, he said.
But the world was wider, and their hills and their grasses, their rocky headlands and crystal shoreline, were revealed by this perspective to be of a family with the whitecapped treacheries of Shipbreaker Bay, the swift, storied depths of the Straits of Tarth, and even, to the northwest, a dark horizon that could only be land, could only be the leading edge of the vast and difficult continent where the both of them had spent so much of the strength of their bodies, and had weathered the trials of their hearts. It had been years since she'd looked on that place. To see it now filled her with a dread, and a longing.
"There's your island, my Lord Tarth. My Lady."
"Thank you, Sherlyn," she said.
"It's only what's out my front door, my lady. You kids come back down in your own time. I'll find you something to eat." She left them.
Brienne stood mesmerized. They must be facing Haystack Hall, she thought, and Bronzegate where it met the kingsroad, and so they were in a straight line to King's Landing. And on, and on, past God's Eye, past Harrenhal, to Riverrun where she'd taken up the burden of this man's life without a second thought. As if he weren't a weight that might drown her. Or her a millstone to him, to make him something else, perhaps something less.
"Brienne," Jaime said again. "Wench." He stepped into her line of sight. He had to go a little downhill to do so. Completely beyond her control, she giggled. He looked aghast at the sound. "Come again?"
Still laughing, half in humor and half a purge of unsorted emotions, she tried to speak. "You're so short," she said, after several false starts. He narrowed his eyes at her, which made it all the worse. The winds on the unshielded slope tossed his long hair about. His nose was bright red. He hadn't called her wench outside of their bed in years. There was a time far away, out past Riverrun, where she hadn't known him yet. And here they stood, looking out at it as if it were another country.
"The alpine air agrees with you, I see." He moved back to her side and faced east again. She turned that way as well, and it was alarming, for a beat, to see that the Narrow Sea in all its splendor had remained there, just behind her, while she wasn't looking. "You hadn't seen this view before?"
"Never," she said. "It seems silly now. I've come to the village half a dozen times, yes, and the field through the gap there, were they do the cutting, but never right here."
He hummed. "What's it called? This mountain of ours. I don't think I've ever known."
"You'll hate it."
"I will? Is that why you've never told me?"
"No!" She held the lie for as long as she could. "Yes."
"I suppose I'm grateful." A fresh wind blew, brought snow down off the higher peak and swirled it around them. Jaime huddled close against her. "Alright then, out with it."
"It's called the Morningstar."
"Ah." He snuffled his nose against her shoulder like a dog, then rested his chin atop it. The cold made him like this. Or the heat, or the movement of the sea under a boat. Or a blanket pulled too far so that his feet were uncovered. "Ah, and you're the Evenstar," he said. "I suppose it does sit to the east of you. Still, there is such a thing as harping too heavily on a theme, isn't there."
"I would say you were one to talk, if you hadn't cast off your lions," she said.
The frigid tip of his nose touched her cheek, then he ducked and hid it briefly in her collar. His voice was muffled when he spoke. "And the peak, it doesn't even look like a morningstar of the other sort."
"It does not." She relented and put her arm about his waist. He looked up, all bright-eyed triumph.
"We could rename it."
"You can't rename a mountain, Jaime."
"And why not? Someone named it once, and you can be sure it had yet another name before some long-dead jackanape spent half a moment thinking up Morningstar."
She turned, and his eyes were inches from hers, twinkling. "Right. What will you name the mountain?"
He considered. His face was so close to hers, and the light with the sun high and the snow beneath them, so bright. She could see the lines that lived on his brow. When he blinked, she could see his eyelashes leave a snowflake on the thin skin beneath his eye, and could see it melt, and weep down his cheek. She could see him try not to smile at his own cleverness just before he said, "Baldy."
"Oh, gods be good."
"What? It looks like some septon's hairless pate, does it not?"
"Leave the poor mountain be, Jaime."
"As you say, my lady." And they went down to the village to see what the kitchen had for them.
They spent an afternoon on the ice field with Hobart and his seven sons and the rest of the cutters, Brienne insisting until she was allowed to wield the two-handed saw and one side of the massive steel tongs, Jaime manning a hooked gaff and admiring the design of the canted pick, chatting with young Cliff and Steff Sewall about having a few sent to the armory at Evenfall for something new to spar with, or something useful to strap to his right wrist, or both. Down with the sleds and the mules, and they were denied the request to help lever the day's blocks up onto the older blocks of ice, were sent instead ahead to the long hall for a flagon of mulled wine to warm their fingers and their bones. Roast guinea fowl and a hearty goat stew as well, and the hall filled with warm, genial folk who were glad to have them, glad to have them both. Sherlyn found them after the meal and the singing and told them that she and Hobart would sleep in their sons' cabin that night, so that Brienne and Jaime could have theirs, small and simple though it was. Jaime sent her first to find the cabin, and then joined her a minute later with a sly smile and a small earthen pot.
"What are you up to?" She asked. He set the pot down on a low shelf, then dug into the bottom of his bag and drew out a wineskin that she hadn't known he'd brought. Then two small, metal goblets that she knew well belonged on the sideboard in their solar at home. From the earthen pot, he shook shards of fresh ice into their two cups. From the skin, he poured yellow apricot wine.
"I thought you might want to taste the fruits of your labor, my lady."
They stood in front of the small hearth and toasted. The wine so sweet, the ice rattling. Brienne plucked a piece of it from her drink and sucked it between her lips, just to taste the mountain. He watched her with heavy eyes.
"It doesn't taste like winter at all," she said. It was clean, and raw, like something just born. "Here." She took it from her lips and pressed it to his. Dragged it along them first, wetting his mouth, and then he opened for her and licked, and sucked until it was only water on her wet fingertips. He pulled her thumb into his mouth to scrape the pad of it against his teeth. She held his jaw. "Not like winter at all," she said, and set his cup aside, and hers.
They undressed. The cabin was so small, the hearth so close to the bed. He lay atop it, naked first and watching her step out of her smallclothes. She'd never learned the trick of seeing herself through his eyes, but she had learned to see what it did to him to see her, so she saw how his breath shuddered out of him and the lids of his eyes trembled. She saw, when she kneeled on the bed by his feet, how he looked over the broad and scarred planes of her body with all the awe she had given to the sea. In return, she tried to tell him, with the press of her hands, what she saw in him.
He was lean. Not slight or slender, but distilled by hard use and long years, and then happy years with little need to raise a sword. The bones of his knees, of his hips, of his ribs, were close under his skin, the muscles of his thighs were long and thick with riding, the flat of his belly soft. That soft place was what she sought, there to lay her cheek, then to kiss him. She kissed him there, and then in the divot of his hip, and then high on the inside of his thigh where his skin was fine and pale and he smelled so much like himself. She pushed and turned his leg to kiss the back of his knee. She smoothed a hand down his sharp shin, squeezed at the arch of his foot. She traveled up again, her lips light on his hip, on his wakening cock, on the plush curve of his side, and under his arm, on his chest. He was contained here somehow, the man she'd met and the man he was now, he was fit into this body and was hers to treasure, or to root out.
His hand went to the crown of her head, petting. His wrist to her shoulder, holding. "Brienne," he said, hoarse. He pulled her up to kiss her.
She loved this. She loved the work of their bodies, the feeling of him giving ground to her. She loved their strength each taken up by the other and given back. Even with her joints sore and her back aching from the day's work, her body sang to move with his. They breathed, and moved, one against the other.
She let her weight rest fully on him. He put his mouth to the cup of her throat and panted there, tasted her sweat.
A fearful passion, an anxious lust was upon them both. Her chest tight to his, she felt the pounding of his heart. His cock against her stomach, hot and slipping. He kneaded at her back with his hand. She tongued the old scars of his maimed wrist and found the places where it had healed tender so that when she met the flesh with her teeth, he gasped and whined. They moved, together, and slipped his cock inside her.
He began to babble, then. His litany, familiar and dear. She used to hide herself away when he did this, she remembered. She would shut her eyes even as he held her face. Now she rose up and rode him with her eyes open and listened to the sound of them coming together and the sound of him telling her what it meant.
He said her name. He prayed to the gods, then pled with them, then rejected them all for her, again, for her. He baited her, laughed with her, declared her a wonder. He teased her and smirked at her and he said her name. He said her name with her breast cupped in his hand, with the stump of his wrist pressed hard against her cunt for her to drive herself into, again and again. "Yours," he said. "Brienne."
He silenced himself when he took her hand in his hand, drove two of her fingers into his mouth, and suckled at them. She watched him, desperately watched him, bore down onto him, their bodies a circle of him within her and her within him, and her pleasure peaked and she lost herself inside of it, she said his name.
She was ungainly again for the long, full moments when she fell against him and caught her breath, her limbs too long and everywhere. Jaime soothed his palm over her shoulder, up and down her arm. He was still hard inside her, holding himself patient, though the tendons of his neck stood up in relief and his legs quivered. Brienne found her hands and held herself up with one, stroked his beard with the other, still loose-limbed and slow.
She said would you like just as he said did you bring, and he chuckled all around her. She rolled off him to hang half of herself off the side of the bed and rummage in her saddlebag. From it she took a sealed pot of rendered deer grease and what she thought of as her truncheon.
A "diletto" he'd called it, when he presented it to her wrapped in silk, with the door to their rooms barred and giddy nervousness plain on his face. It was made of Tarth's white marble, polished smooth as glass. At first she'd stood there silently flapping her mouth at him, not ignorant of its likely uses, but lacking all context for its existence in her life in particular.
"It's for…" he'd started, and she'd stopped him.
"I know what it's for." She looked at him, down him, then back up him. "But you already have… Well. That is, I'm not unsatisfied with…" And he broke out in a wide smile.
"Of course you aren't," he'd said, advancing on her. "Who could be? But no, while I possess, as you say, something comparable, you, my lady, do not. Now what the gods have given you, I hope you know, I adore." He'd touched her. "And I'd hoped you might want to give me something of a…kindred experience." He'd taken her hand in his and led her to touch him where he wanted her. "If you'd like to try."
"Oh." It'd taken her many more silent moments, but she held him, and held her little marble truncheon, and finally said, "Yes, but this part...?" Holding it by the bulb that came off the end like a handle.
"Ah, that bit is for your benefit. It's all for your benefit, but that bit in particular. It might all make more sense when fit into the, ah, saddle."
"The bridle? No. Wait." He'd hesitated, likely because of her scowl inches from his face. "Harness? There are straps, I can show you."
"I am not a horse to be mounted, Jaime."
"No, no, in this case I'm the horse!"
Despite this, they had tried. And then tried again, a few weeks later when the embarrassment of the first try had faded. And over the years if her truncheon was not their constant companion, it was at least a favored one.
She hadn't brought the harness up the mountain with them. The bent, bulbed end she could use as a handle, and she'd often taken him that way, feeling she could be more at her leisure. Leisurely now in their small, warm mountain cabin, she lay beside him with the pot of grease between them. She had to set the truncheon down to open the pot, so she set it on his stomach, where it rose and fell with his careful breaths. It would warm to the heat of him there. It would let him feel the weight of it. It mirrored his cock that curved beside it, dark and slick, urgent and jumping when she stole a moment to kiss its crown.
From the pot of grease, she took a dollop and warmed it between her palms. She barely nudged his hip and his legs fell open, he moved himself up the bed to make room for her between them, he bent his knees. He was so eager for her, her Jaime, with his heaving, bony chest and his flushed face, his wide eyes. It made her yearn for him. Yearn, even though he was right beside her.
Brienne put herself between his splayed legs. She shouldered one of his thighs up, folding him. He threw his chin back, clenched his jaw. The grease had gone slick in her hands, and she reached out for him. Her palm wide first, just spreading the slickness along the cleft of his ass, up and down and then in a circle. Where he wanted her and then away, skimming across his hole over and over, not lingering. She left one hand flat, firm, simply pressing against him when she reached for another dollop of grease from the pot.
He thought it was a pause, and he squirmed, and he tried to start talking again. "Wench," was as far as he got. From the palm that held him down she moved one finger and slid it into him, easy as anything. He spasmed around her fingertip. He hissed. His cock twitched up and down. "Brienne," he said, barely.
And she said, "Jaime. Hold yourself for me, please."
His hand flew down and he cupped himself tightly, he bared himself to her. His other arm he flung back behind his head, the muscles of it stark. He'd told her about feeling his old hand clench. She wished she could touch the ghost of his fist. She put her greased hand atop the truncheon on his stomach and pressed it between them, greasing it and pushing it against him at once while she slipped her finger from him, and slid it in again. So soft he was, inside. So yielding, so warm. All she could reach to kiss was the top of his bent knee. It could not have felt like much at all, but she saw him smile. She added another finger to him and heard him groan.
She took up the truncheon. She'd always liked how heavy it was and how balanced. When she wore it in the harness its weight pulled at her, down and into him. When she held it in her hand, and she saw that he saw her, she felt the weight of his trust.
It was slender, and smooth, and only a little wider around than the width of her two fingers, but she lingered before switching to use it. He felt like nothing else, he felt like silk, he felt like a sheath for her to rest inside of. He pushed himself down against her hand. One more moment, the rough pads of her fingers dragged out of him and in the same fluid motion she pushed the head of the truncheon inside.
Jaime panted, and held himself very still. She waited. She could wait. He was beautiful. She'd thought him beautiful before, in her youth and his, when he flashed with steel and smiles and was golden as the dawn. But to have him like this, to have had him like this more times than she could count, nights and mornings and middays, always wanting her, always coming back and wanting her again, to her he was beautiful as the spring.
He sought out her gaze and made some wordless noise of assent. She fucked him then. She held his leg up by the back of his thigh, her hand slick with grease, kneading him. She watched the marble truncheon slide in and out of him and saw what it did to his body. Sweat at his temples, on his stomach, rolling from the middle of his chest. His cock, flushed so dark. He stroked himself faster than she thrust within him, and, panting still, he chanted her name, called her his lady, called her his wife.
Brienne shifted, and got his knee under her other shoulder, and bent him nearly in half. She was over him then, leaned over him and their hot breath meeting in the handspan between them. He lost his speech and had only sounds. She thought, wildly, that she could find her pleasure again just like this, from the sight of him underneath her and the sounds he made. Groans and pitiful whines and the noise of her fucking him, obscene and regular as a drumbeat.
She wanted to tell him something. But she'd never had his words, even after all this time she couldn’t find it in herself to speak out of her heart when she was inside him, or he was inside her. They welled up within her, the words she didn't know. She felt them pushing out from behind her ribs. She said she loved him, but it was not what she meant, not enough. She said it anyway.
He came. Over his hand and onto his chest, onto hers. He shook. She let his legs fall so she could reach him to kiss him as he needed to be kissed and he reached also for her, to hold her to him again with his arm and wrist about her neck, his kiss searing into her. Then he fell back, and she kissed his chin, his throat that worked to swallow air.
Slowly, slowly, she thrust the truncheon shallowly, and then pulled it from him and set it aside on the bed. She rolled to lay beside him, the heat of their skin meeting suddenly too much, too bright. She kept a hand on his hip even so.
She opened her eyes, not knowing she'd closed them, and Jaime was coming back to bed with a damp cloth for each of them, wiping one at her breast, then distracting himself by mouthing at the other. She was so sensitive, so warm, but oh, how he looked there at her chest. She took the second cloth from him and cleaned him, his stomach, down between his legs while he made little noises about how it felt. Then the cloths went carelessly to the floor and they dozed.
He spoke to her when she was almost asleep and she couldn't say what he'd said, but she put her face into the crook of his neck, and it settled him, and they slept.
In the morning they broke their fast with the cutters and Hobart asked if they planned to pass another day on the ice field. Jaime, who had grimaced a bit when he sat down at the long bench, pled an old knight's aches and pains. Hobart, a man of equal years and hard labor, shrugged and turned a questioning look to Brienne. He may have been wondering if she alone would join them on the ice, but his expression gave her a sudden doubt as to the thickness of their cabin walls.
"Yes," she said, and then paused for too long, unaccustomed to speaking without knowing what she would say. "My lord husband grows weak…in the cold." Jaime turned to look at her, blinking.
Hobart nodded. "Of course," he said. "Not an uncommon affliction." He chuckled and left them. His sons, smallest to largest, tramped out with him.
"I'm sorry," she said as soon as they were alone. "I don't know what I was doing."
"Defending my honor by disparaging my prowess, or something along that line. Ever a surprise, lady wife." She put her elbow in his side and he laughed.
North of the village, in the trees and close enough to walk, was the Picotee's first waterfall with its frigid pool where Brienne had played as a girl. They reached it before the sun was high. It wasn't a tidy thing, but a frayed shelf that split as if cleaved by a giant and spat meltwater down twenty feet of jagged rock. The pool below it was too shallow for diving. Its bottom was a floor of smooth stones, and at its highest its water lapped at her hip. A little lower now, as she was a woman grown. A trio of ancient cedars stood at the edge of the pool and crept their roots along the rocky ground. The water was shockingly cold, and it had the color of the ice in it, white as the peaks, blue as an eye. They sat to pull off their boots and roll their pant legs.
"Tell me," Jaime said. "Did the young Maid of Tarth come to this pool alone? Or with some companion?" She tossed her boot at him.
"Alone," she said. "Although with Galladon the first time. He found it before I did." Jaime rose and gave her his hand to pull her to her feet.
"You must have been very young then, when he brought you here."
"I was." Brienne wanted to remember the features of her brother's face or what words he had said to her. She could not. "Perhaps only five? He died that year."
He kept her hand in his until she looked up and nodded, then he let her go and they waded into the pool until the water was to their knees and the spray of the falls misted their faces. "Gods above, it's cold in here." Jaime was on the tips of his toes, holding himself as far out of the water as he could while still being in it. She laughed at him and he splashed at her.
"Does my lord husband grow weak?" She said. He splashed at her again and she danced away.
The falls chattered and rushed, the warblers tittered in the trees, the sun came over the ridge and lit the canopy. Jaime steeled himself and waded deeper so he could duck his head under the tumbling water. He yelled at the feel of it and shook his head like a wet dog. He grinned at her, his hair falling into his eyes, cheeks flushed, teeth flashing.
"Arric Kellington," he said.
"Young Arric Kellington, our foster. I think I should like to bring him here."
Brienne walked to him. The water soaked the rolled hem of her breeches. "We will take him to foster, then? You will?"
"I would foster a basilisk if you desired it. I would question your wisdom, but I would do it. So what's one boy?"
"Jaime," she said.
"Especially one with the wisdom to want to learn from the finest swordsman in the realm, and with the courtesy to tolerate her husband."
"Jaime." At times, she kissed him as if they had never escaped the war. She kissed him, in moments like these, as if in a terrible grief. Last kisses, every one of them, something in her begging him to stay, only to stay. He returned them with lingering, unhurried kisses that said there would be time for more.
The water came down from the ice, and the sun rose overhead, and on the morrow they would ride home. More days would come, on and on, the gift of living. She would not turn from such a gift. She held him in her arms and the water fell over them both.