The War of the Five Kings was underway, the Brotherhood without Banners were harassing their supply lines, the Wall persisted in sending petitions for more men, and yet it was the news of a defection that caused Joffrey and Cersei to fly into a rage.
"A woman! Our bannermen defected for a woman!"
Sansa Stark remained silent, head bowed as Varys explained the situation. "Officially, the reports were that the men followed one of the lords, but it's common knowledge that he takes council from one of the healers who joined his camp. There has been no reliable information about her past, many guess she is not from Westeros, but there has been some other disturbing news."
"What is it, speak up!" Joffrey cried.
"They say her name is Susan Pevensie, but what's disturbing is the family sigil she claims to have once had. Obviously she carried no proof and did not announce it, but it was overheard that she told someone her family was all dead, and that they used to carry the crest of a red lion."
There was a pause, "Lies!"
"No, not lies," Tyrion Lannister was exasperated. "No one would claim such a thing, it is a death sentence. Of course this woman would not publicly state her heritage! Depending on her age, she might be two generations or so away when the Reyne family was ended, maybe the grandchild of a lesser son or daughter married off: The last of House Reyne!"
The thing is, the supposed last daughter of the Red Lion had not planned for this label.
"My lady," the soldiers did not bow, but their tone was definitely deferential and they moved out of her way. They would watch as Susan all but glide over the grass, and marvel at how she was calm, intelligent, and so lovely to look at. It would be a sharp difference to how they first greeted her, with threats of rape and questions about her competence, held back only because she proved a capable healer. The same capricious men who, at her words, had turned against their Lannister leader.
A mutiny did not just end with an authority figure ousted, no revolt or uprising had ever been solved so easily. New leaders had to be chosen, new purpose given, and more often then not a rebellion too easily faded away with only a few faces changed but the same problems, or even worse descended into chaos until everyone ended up dead. In this confused state men looked at Susan and saw someone with confidence, who inspired loyalty, who they could see as a queen.
Even if that title was not spoken, she had authority, and that made her a target.
The common soldier now looked at her with admiration, Susan was confident she had won them over, but some of the remaining commanders were now second-guessing their actions. Susan did her best to reassure them of their decisions, but not all of them were so easily convinced. There were whispers already, of just going wild like Clegane's men, raiding at will. This was unacceptable, Susan had seen how much the civilians here were suffering. Which was why, she needed to make another ally. Some part of her had been afraid this was going to end up badly, but it was a risk she had to take.
"My lady," the guard posted at the camp nodded towards the forest foliage, "They're here."
Several men were approaching the former-Lannister camp, wary and with weapons drawn. They were not as well outfitted or equipped as Susan's men, but she could see a few newer elements shared between them, probably a result of their own raids. This group, however, raided more acceptable targets in Susan's eyes. One of the men stepped forward, unfolding his long body to meet her eyes. The man was standing in close range to an army that would have once attacked him not too long ago, but he seemed just as comfortable as if he had simply returned to his own.
"I am Thoros of Myr," the man confirmed.
"Susan Pevensie," she answered, and made no move to bow or dip. The man's lips twitched and he exchanged a look with his co-leader in the Brotherhood without Banners. Broad-shouldered and with an eye patch, Beric Dondarrion cut an impressive figure.
"The stories do you no justice, my lady."
"The stories you have inspired bring hope."
It wasn't that Susan disliked the Brotherhood, far from it, she respected them for working with the tools they had been given to ease some of the smallfolk's suffering. Back home, Thoros would be Robin Hood and his merry men. What irked Susan was the air of distrust practically wafting off them. Susan wasn't a fool and she understood her story was like a testimony filled with holes, but you'll think the men who had also decided to turn against their former masters and attack supplies meant for the crown would be a little less self-righteous.
Thoros looked around, when no one tried to fight he gave a sharp nod to his men, who lowered their weapons. Susan waved a hand, and from several hiding spots men emerged, sheathing weapons. Men who Susan trusted to attack if anything untoward happened, and were now retreating to give them some privacy, as they did so Beric spoke up.
"Your reputation doesn't lie," his tone of voice implied so many hidden meanings that Susan didn't deign guessing, and he continued, "Tell me, what are we supposed to think? You convinced Lannister men, some of most proud and well paid, to stage a mutiny. Nobody knows your past and you all but refuse to talk about it, and because of that we wonder. If you just talked..." Susan's beautiful visage turned cold, but Beric didn't stop. "We speculate with what we do know, and you haven't been careful enough. Because it has not escaped notice that you are not from the Riverlands. Because you speak of a family taken from you by lions. Because out of all the families you could have insulted, it had to be Lannister. I look at all these things and I put them together to form a picture I am not sure I want to see."
Susan's voice was ice, "When I heard of the Brotherhood, I was led to believe that it was an organization first formed to hunt down Lannister bannermen. Now you've expanded to any raiding bannermen, and you're telling me...you do not like my methods?"
“No one knows the Pevensie name, if it’s not fictional your house is either extinguished or of the small folk but if the stories are true your manners and education say otherwise.”
“My manners,” Susan ignored the implication she was lying as she gestured to the bow and arrows slung over her shoulder, tools that had taken time to obtain “I was under the impression that proper manners and education will not include archery.”
“At this point, simply more material for your considerable mystique. Perhaps that is your method, but the Brotherhood face enough unknowns and uncertainties.” Beric can personally attest to that. “We have no interest in duplicity and guessing games, and for an alliance we want to know exactly who we are dealing with. Do you know how many already suspect you a witch, or a red priestess similar to the one said to accompany Stannis Baratheon?”
Susan looked at Thoros, “I do not see the problem.”
“Thoros does not believe in burning human sacrifices,” Beric wondered how she had not heard that, the Lannisters had used such actions as propaganda that a victorious Stannis would doom the kingdoms. “No one has done what you’ve accomplished, it makes people uneasy, it makes us question your motivations. We’ve heard a possible explanation, but we need to know: is your family the House of Reyne?”
What? “My family is dead, there is nothing else to say.”
“From what we understand the story has already reached Kings Landing, that you confessed a red lion used to be on your family’s shield.”
Susan had noticed that the soldiers’ favourite song was no longer sang with the frequency as it previously was, but she had not thought much of it. Had the soldiers ceased because they now believed her as Susan of Castamere? And if so, what benefits and drawbacks will that give her? It will give her legitimate reason not to talk about her past, but the main Lannister family will definitely take it as an insult, and the infamous Tywin Lannister might even take it personally.
On the other hand, who said she had to choose? Men hear what they want to hear, and assuming the reports didn't minimize her role in stirring up mutiny in the first place, she was already a target for the Lannisters.
“I cannot claim that name, but I can assure you that my actions were done regardless of any family tragedy." Whether her own or of House Reyne, let others draw their own conclusions.
Judging by the way the brotherhood's leaders were looking at her, they had settled for their own answer. Beric was the first to speak again, "Forgive my earlier actions, but I had to ask. Be very careful of these rumours that prevail, and be very careful what you say, I was a boy when I met a Lannister bannerman who told me that no one got away."
In for a penny..."What did he say?"
"That he saw the children as the soldiers closed the gates, that he heard the screams, but it's the silence after that he remembers. They say that Tywin Lannister himself told the men that they did a proud and vital task, and so many bards tried to compose songs to memorialize the moment. The golden lion won, if a red lion, a red lioness reveals herself..."
"A lioness still has claws," Susan's eyes were bright, with tears? Beric couldn't tell if it was innocence or guile, because none fell, and there was a power in her voice that made her statement sound more like a fact than a reassurance.
And he could believe, why her power had brought a legion of Lannister soldiers to heel. "I can guess that you have more reasons than simply helping the smallfolk, like the brotherhood does?"
"I have a feeling there will be another mutiny if I simply joined you, some of the men here were already affected by your raids, but they need a purpose. They have been reminded of honour and childhood dreams they once had before the Lannisters brought them into this war, why not commit them to action?"
"And if, by doing so you strike against the Lannisters, all the better," Beric had no problem with anything that would further weaken their enemies. She wanted information and tactics? He was happy to help.
In the days that followed, he will continue hearing the stories. Many thought her deeds were those of his own brotherhood, and there were more rumours that some of the Lannister men had deserted. There was apparently one memorable incident where old Lannister lion flags were painted red with blood and flown in honour of House Reyne, but Beric dismissed it as exaggeration if not a lie.
"Surely, Susan is not that stupid," He muttered, and Thoros laughed.
"She is planning to move out of the Riverlands, soon no one can deny that we had nothing to do with her actions. A pity, Anguy so enjoyed the stories that the brotherhood employed a sorceress to bewitch good Lannister men into doing our bidding."
They moved on, and later, Beric will meet Arya Stark; the daughter of the very man who first sent him out to stop Lannister forces from pillaging the villagers.
Susan continued to lead the men who had shed the lion banner, and unwittingly picked up the one lion everyone was looking for.
Jaime could not believe his terrible luck when, having rescued Brienne of Tarth from the bear pit and so close to getting out of the Riverlands, his escorts were attacked by what he first thought was a brigade...manned by Lannister defectors. The Bolton captain cried out as a wave of arrows came over them, and Qyburn pushed them to find shelter, shushing them.
"Those aren't Lannister men, not anymore! Be quiet!"
They scrambled and hid, trying to escape, but soon were surrounded. In the chaos, Brienne managed to grab a sword, and Jaime would have reminded her she was still injured if not for the fact that he was also considering doing the same because he was so close to returning to King's Landing and he refused to die like this.
"You're a woman," one of the men looked surprised, and Brienne braced herself for the insults and derision but, "You don't look like a whore or healer, who are you and what are you doing here?" Only when they didn't respond did the man raise his voice, "Speak up and answer!"
Not for the first time, Jaime was glad that his disheveled appearance meant no one looked too closely at him. Granted, these men may be his former bannermen but unless they had seen him before Jaime can bet they had never seen his face. Qyburn, looking older and more experienced, spoke up "We are simply making our way to Kings Landing. The war has depleted many apothecaries and we hope to have better luck there."
"Do you take us for fools? These men escorting you are northerners, and Stark men have pillaged the nearby towns!"
"We do not serve the Starks," Jaime snapped. "And you, I see your men wearing Lannister..."
"We no longer serve the Lannisters!" The man boomed, "That family dragged us to war, called it glory to die, only to carelessly throw our lives away! We have toiled in their service for long enough!”
“Our Lannister lord believed himself invincible, we had him de-clawed and de-toothed," there was a scattering of cruel laughter, Jaime had to physically force himself not to react. "We have been following the wrong lion for too long.”
“The wrong lion?” Brienne repeated, confused.
“The Lannisters are not lions, they just think they are.”
The men parted like a wave as a woman came forward, she was dressed in healer robes but instead of carrying the tools of her trade she had a bow and a quiver of arrows. She made no secret of looking at Jaime's maimed hand and Brienne's experienced handling of her sword, "Oh, you are definitely not Locke's men, why were you with them?"
Not again, Jaime thought, but it was Qyburn who spoke. "My lady, we are near Harrenhal, it has been claimed by both Lannister and Stark forces and we know they are not kind men. Look at what they have done to my companions, we seek to leave the Riverlands."
"My lady," another man cut in, "They were being escorted by northerners, they were protected by them, these people are important to someone or another."
"Everyone is important to someone," the woman smiled briefly at the speaker before turning back to look at them, "That said, I recognize recovering wounds. They may not be fresh, but they definitely need help."
"As your prisoners?" Brienne demanded.
"If you were prisoners, I would have thrown you with the Lannister," the other woman answered.
"Who are you?" Jaime couldn't believe how badly this war was turning, "To have imprisoned a Lannister..."
"I am Susan Pevensie," she answered, "And this is, well, what name are we going with nowadays?"
"No to that!" Susan objected, "That sounds like we'll be painted red soon!"
"I thought we settled for the Claw?" Another soldier asked.
"Claw clansmen!" The first voice, clearly showing a love of alliterative names, dissolved into laughter. Susan smiled, her expression indulgent and not angry, even Jaime who was familiar with making light of any tense situations was unsure how to deal with it in this case. Brienne and Qyburn didn't either, their expressions tense, but Susan waved a hand and the men surrounding them began sheathing their weapons.
"Come! Join us, we have food and other supplies."
She turned and moved away, and the rest of them followed. Jaime would have liked to stay behind and perhaps plot another escape, but he could feel the suspicious gazes. He wondered if the woman really trusted them so much, or if she trusted her soldiers to watch her back.
Brienne must have shared similar thoughts, as they started walking she eyed her escorts before choosing one that seemed most approachable, "Your lady, who is she?"
The man humoured her, "We call her that, and should have called it sooner. She came to us as a healer, very capable, did her job well and saved so many of our lives. Around here we have learned to stop questioning her past but...well, the rumours are already out, even if she never confirms it."
"What do they say?"
The man grinned and made a show of making sure Susan wasn't within earshot, "That we're following the last Reyne of Castamere."
Jaime nearly tripped over his feet, Qyburn steadied him, giving him a warning look.
Clearly enjoying their reactions, the man continued, "Yes...a nobody healer joining us, with knowledge rivaling the lords’ maesters, who bothered to learn our names and histories - we're not under the great Tywin Lannister, only one of his lesser nephews, she couldn't have picked a better unit to incite rebellion."
"How?" Jaime blurted out, "A woman? She's not even..." he looked at Brienne, still holding onto a sword since no one had tried to take it from her.
"She's as good with her bow as she is with the healing arts, the Seven knows the Lannister only survived because she decided so. He could've died, but the lady insists he's more useful to us as leverage."
"Don't you think, as a woman, she simply doesn't want more bloodshed?"
"Considering she was the one who shot him with an arrow in the first place? No," there was laughter in the man's voice, "Lannister couldn't believe it either, it was an excellent shot, our archers would be jealous. There he was, screaming about the arrow in his leg, and she marches forward and tells him 'good is not nice'." Quite a few of the men surrounding them chortled, all finding the memory funny, Jaime felt ill.
He remained mostly silent when they arrived at a camp, and when Susan rejoined them to look over their wounds. She complimented the healer-work done, and Qyburn couldn't help claiming credit. Between talk with him about wound dressing and with Brienne about her skill with the sword, Jaime was allowed to remain silent.
"I don't have much training with the bow, my lady," Brienne admitted. "The sword is my preferred weapon."
"And you don't even use a slimmer model, your instructor must be proud," Susan smiled, and Brienne's cheeks turned pink, clearly unused to praise.
Jaime could see the way Brienne looked at Susan as she spoke to her and Qyburn. The healer robes Susan wore were drab and worn, but there was no denying the grace in her movements and her lovely voice, Susan Pevensie was beautiful, and the world was spellbound.
But for all his life, Jaime only had eyes for one woman, and she was not present. His thoughts distracted him for a while, but he quickly realized what Susan was doing.
"...trained mostly in the forest, but it made an interesting terrain..."
"...out in the open, where the sea reflected the sunlight..."
"Wench," Jaime had to interrupt, "How much are you planning to tell her about your history?"
Brienne's voice trailed off, her eyes widening. Susan did not look bothered, "I was not under the impression you had anything to hide."
"We do not," Qyburn smoothly injected. "Our friend here is simply cautious about our status, we have been travelling in lands pillaged by so many bannermen, after all. What's to stop you from ransoming us?"
Susan's lips curled, "Do you have someone I can ransom you to?"
Jaime did not tense, "What happened to the 'good' in 'good is not nice'?"
"Someone told you about our prisoner's escape attempt?" Susan glanced around at the camp, but didn't seem concerned. “That story is spreading too fast for my liking.”
“As opposed to, say, the desertion story?” Qyburn asked.
“Now this I’m curious about,” Susan returned her full attention to him, “What do others say about the soldiers’ desertion?”
Qyburn didn’t glance it Jaime, but he might as well have said it for his benefit, “That you let them leave, that you actually told some of the men to return to the Westerlands. Then you told them that if they are questioned they are to say they deserted.”
Brienne looked between the two of them, “Why?”
But Jaime could guess, “A smaller but more effective force, truly committed to you, and perhaps to look small and weak - too insignificant for the main Lannister armies or Tywin Lannister to take note. That would work better if you haven’t captured a Lannister as your prisoner.”
“The alternative would have been to kill him, and since doing so will definitely give his family incentive to hunt us down as an example, I decided against it. I know sending those men away risked adding them back to other legions, but they will remember that they had a chance to get out of the war and return to their families, only to be dragged back in by their lords. They had a successful rebellion once, what they choose to do next will be up to them.”
“If you are who you say you are, you know picking fights with the Lannisters will be the worst mistake of your life.”
“I am simply a girl, with the remnants of an army reduced to half its original size.” Susan, Jaime realized, was not going to admit to the Reyne name.
“I don’t need to be a Lannister to guess that the men you encouraged to leave will probably be those who are too old or too young.”
“Nonsense, many of the injured should return home, and they all need the able-bodied to help everyone back. I personally told some of the men who already missed home that they are needed as protection.”
“For those who were going to desert anyways, you've given them an excuse. And people will say you lost half your army, but your enemies will have only earned turncoats, even if those people who left tried to betray you the people still on your side have already committed to your cause.”
“Hmmmm, if you can already guess my motivations, I have to wonder how many others could.” Susan still did not look particularly concerned, Jaime couldn’t help wondering if she was fine with those options, he said as much and the girl laughed. “Yes, both paths will help me, won’t they? You’re right, I don't have the best resources. If I plan to win, the plan isn’t to find the best path, the plan is so all paths will give me a win.”
At that moment, one of the soldiers approached them, greeting Susan before leaning in and whispering something in her ear. Susan frowned, nodding before she got up, "If you'll excuse me, I have to attend to some matters."
"The Lannister prisoner?" Jaime couldn't help asking.
"Always complaining, that one," Susan seemed more amused than annoyed, "He has some interesting threats, but in his current state I doubt he can actually do anything about them. Still, we should move camp, staying in one place too long is simply asking for trouble."
"And we're...free to go?" Qyburn asked cautiously.
"I can't offer you too many of our supplies, unless you need something else? A letter to whoever is waiting for you?"
"Wench, if we're dictating a letter you're going to have to write..." Jaime saw Brienne's second horrified look just as he realized his mistake.
Susan didn't look particularly happy at the success of her bait, "Most commoners are not literate, and even the merchants don't always bother teaching their women, you really are not simply smallfolk, are you?"
Jaime cursed, he could see some of the soldiers surrounding them now eyeing them with varying degrees of mistrust, the soldier who had first gave Susan news already had a hand on his sword, and Susan herself still had her bow...
And Jaime thought of what he had seen of this group, of what Susan said about trying to be better than raiding pillagers, and how he himself had gotten Brienne out of that bear pit when he only had one hand and the knowledge that no one would want him dead...
"You know we're not here for you," he spoke. "We're not here to fight you, sabotage you, or even rescue your Lannister prisoner. If you search us, we are not carrying messages from any of the warring factions, and our weapons are clearly picked up from the discarded. There is no reason for you to kill or imprison us, not after we've just eaten together and gotten along."
Heart racing, he looked at Susan, praying she would honour Sacred Hospitality traditions but then...
"Surely, my lady, you won't dare ask for a trial by combat?"
All eyes went to Qyburn at his words, "You want a trial by combat?"
Qyburn didn't even look at Jaime or Brienne, "Let the gods decide our innocence."
"An old man, a one-handed man, and a woman," Susan picked up his thinking, "I see, all paths for a win - a victory from any one of you will be humiliation for my champion, and a victory on my side will be seen as simply bullying the weak."
Brienne clenched her hands together, "I assure you, my lady, if that is what it takes for the three of us to leave here unharmed, I will gladly fight your champion."
"Wench," Jaime was aware how pained his voice was, and not just at this escalation, "You're hurt, I'll fight."
Susan looked at him, back at Brienne's determined gaze, "Are you two lovers?"
Any other time, Jaime will do a spit take, even Brienne's gaze wavered, "What?"
At least Susan didn't sound mocking, "it puts a different light to things. None of you want to reveal your identities, but I was listening since the beginning: if you're being escorted by bannermen you are important to someone who occupies some position of power. Your man may not have said much, but you confirmed to me you had sword instructors, you weren't just taught by a family member. By speaking so long with me you allowed me to pick up some of your finer speech patterns, add that with the confirmation you are literate - and I know that the joke about ransom is actually something more tangible."
Brienne bristled, "None of us will reveal our identities, letting us leave will be best."
"It's not," Susan said bluntly, "Even if everything your man said is true, the smart thing now will be to kill you all, because any highborn involved in this war is definitely a risk factor, and I can't imprison you if I don't even know your names. I thought you've lost your minds, but this makes sense. Of course it's dangerous, of course you'll be too honourable to lie, but if you're willing to die for each other then the rest of the world doesn't matter - especially since whether peace or war, highborn ladies might as well be traded like cattle for alliances."
Jaime suddenly thought of his sister again, of how Tywin Lannister had given her away to Robert Baratheon, who had treated her worse than cattle. Robert couldn't kill Cersei, not without starting another war with the Lannisters as his opponent, but he had done everything up to and including abuse and humiliation. No wonder Cersei never seemed to care about the world and its people, who had only stood by and watched.
Susan said it herself, the rest of the world doesn't matter...
"We can't control who we love," Jaime said softly. "It's not a choice."
He would have done anything to get back to Cersei's side, he had killed his own cousin for the Seven's sake. The only hiccup was his decision to go back for Brienne, instead of moving to the Red Keep as fast as he could, and still he told himself that things will be faster with Brienne at his side, especially since now Steelshanks was no longer around to protect him...
"Sacred Hospitality will say I should not kill you now, but I can't trust you by my side," Susan pointed in one direction, "If you go that way, it will be the fastest way to King's Landing. I know you're injured, but I'm going to have to ask that you run, and not look back."
Hope slipped into his voice, "You're releasing us?"
"You'll have to run," Susan raised her voice for those around to hear her, "And if you are slow or look back, my men have permission to shoot you, and should you live we'll throw you with the Lannister and this time say it'll be a fight to the death."
One of men let out a gleeful whistle, Jaime looked at his face and marked him for death.
"Should you find what you're looking for, you can confirm or deny the stories about us, either way works for me. Farewell, and good luck." As if to make her point, Susan reached for her bow.
Jaime wasted no time, he sprang to his feet and took off, Brienne running beside him and Qyburn like a shadow behind. He heard Susan's voice telling some of the man to pack up camp, but it was drowned by the crunch of leaves and rock as he crashed through the forest. He knew he should have probably checked on the status of which Lannister they currently held prisoner, but he was sure he could find that out later - if he survives.
Luckily, only a total of three arrows landed near him. Jaime didn't want to know if it was a warning or if someone actually missed.
In her own way, the red lioness honoured the rules of Sacred Hospitality, and in doing so released the heir of the lions. This act would bring her much more attention, as Jaime Lannister will make her a more credible threat when he gives his story to the rest of the Lannisters in the Red Keep.