Brienne could remember the exact number of times she had seen snow before coming North to meet Sansa Stark. Seven times, six of which had been during a particularly long winter that had happened back when her brother was still alive and they had packed snowballs on the walking paths surrounding Evenfall Hall, watching snow fall onto the already white-capped waves out to see. Since she had met Sansa, there had been no day that she had not seen snow: Falling freely or blowing in great drifts across the wide plains of the North. She had never cared for the cold, but snow – snow had its magic.
And there in the Godswood of Winterfell, the wind quieted by the thickening of the trees, it was especially true. She had not truly prayed for years, not since before she had learned to fight and figured out that if you wanted something in the world, you had to take it. No Gods, not even Seven of them, would hand it to you. She did not come to the Godswood to pray, though even she had to admit that the bleeding eyes of the Weirwood at its center were captivating. Enough to make someone believe in the magic that she had seen living in the army of the Dead and in Bran Stark as he became less and less human.
The snow there glittered, undisturbed except for the occasional footpath that cut through it. Brienne, perhaps not consciously, was careful to take the same path each day. The snow that fell seemed to be always just enough to fill her heavy steps in, slight indentions remaining on the top layers. She had worn the path practically through, it seemed, over the past three months. This place, this unstained snow, seemed to be as far away from the death and the war and the ashes of the realm that Brienne could nearly convince herself that they were not happening.
She had told herself that was the cause of this. The reason she came to the woods each night was to escape the trauma that years of warfare and battering and torture and pain and loss had granted her. That she came to see the ring of winter roses that Lady Sansa had lain for her parents and lost siblings at the base of the Weirwood Tree, that their eyes might guide them back. That she came to have grander contemplations about what it was that Bran saw when he sat here, eyes white and distant. She told herself that she came here not for solitude but to feel close to the life and proof of life that was bound in its trees and waters.
Brienne did not want to think of the other reasons. Of words never said in these woods, the same words exchanged by so many others after The Long Night when it seemed that men and women by the dozen had wed in hurried vows and rushed affairs. That she had thought, fleetingly, that they might do the same in the month that he had stayed fast by her side. That he had whispered those words over her skin, promises that were light as the snowflakes themselves and just as gentle. That he had pledged himself to her more than once in the quiet of her room, in the yard outside the castle, on walks through the Wolfswood, in the hallways. She did not allow herself to think that she came to Godswood because it was the only place that they had never come together.
But this night, like all of the others in front of it, and many more than were certain to follow, the truth compelled her to stand from the log she took rest on. To leave the calm and quiet and return to the castle where responsibility and memory waited as a double-edged sword for her return.
She traditionally broke her fast with Sansa and Podrick in the mornings, the pair of them surprisingly talkative to the point that she thankfully did not have to be. Lady Sansa made sure to thank her each morning, in such a subtle way that Brienne was certain she was not trying to draw attention to it. Thank her for staying, for being a friend as the North stewed in silent rebellion against their self-proclaimed king and she attempted to handle managing all of the preparations for the continuing winter. Thanked her for coming in the first place. For not riding after him in the middle of the night and leaving Sansa in this place by herself.
Today, however, their morning meal was much quieter since sitting next to Sansa was Bran, who spent the better part of five minutes slicing a quarter of some sort of winter melon into identical pieces. After it seemed that he did not wish to say much, Sansa and Podrick spoke of what they usually did. The armory, the training yard, the horses, the grain stores, changing the occasional story of Podrick and Brienne’s travels for one from Sansa’s childhood. Brienne had actually learned a good deal about Podrick from this in the way he told his stories, though she did have to hold her tongue on occasion that he saw fit to exaggerate their exploits.
Bran, it seemed, might have simply wanted company for his meal rather than taking it alone in his chambers. If he cared about what his sister and Podrick were saying, he gave no sign of it, eventually moving from his melon to his eggs. Brienne could not help but watch him. To a degree, all of the Starks were fascinating: With the exception of Sansa (usually) they lacked the false courtesy of southerners and were more apt to speak what they were genuinely thinking. Lady Arya was, as she had overheard one of the Vale Knights saying after Arya had dismembered a training dummy in less than an eyeblink, “more ‘an a bit feral”, but still had the calm resoluteness of the North settled over her. Lady Sansa looked all the part of a highborn Northern woman combined with the graces she had developed acutely from her years learning to play politics, though Brienne could occasionally see through the ice that encased Sansa’s gaze and into the gentle heart beneath it. Bran, however, was a different sort altogether.
Brienne had seen him truly smile only once, when a large raven had landed on one of the handles of his chair while he sat in the yard watching the day’s yard training. Or at least, she thought he had been watching them. She wasn’t exactly certain, no one was exactly certain, but he had asked for Podrick to assist him back into the castle when they were through so she had to assume that he had been at least marginally interested. For the most part, he appeared in the strangest places as part of Brienne’s daily routine. Some days it would be the corner of the library, eyes white and fixed on nothing as he was warmed by the morning sun. Other times it was in the Godswood, through Brienne was never certain how he managed it with all of the snow. Twice in the past week she had found him in the hallway near the baths in the middle of the night only to realize that he had been asleep and never returned to his chambers. Both times, he had thanked her as she helped him back where his bodyservant could truly assist him but said nothing more. No reason for his odd station or what he was doing lingering outside of the baths.
As she watched him now, he finished the first of his eggs taking slow, deliberate bites. “I beg your pardon, brother, Podrick was going to show me the new recruits for the household guard.” Sansa spoke carefully, as if still uncertain what it was that Bran wanted.
“I came to speak with Ser Brienne,” He said to her, eyes fixed on Brienne. Sansa looked between them, curious but knowing her brother meant it as a private conversation.
“They’ll be waiting for us now, my Lady,” Podrick said, standing swiftly and extending his arm for Sansa to take. A final glance at Brienne, and the pair of them were exiting the hall, waiting servants taking their dishes away swiftly.
Finally alone, Brienne waited on Bran to speak. But he said nothing, his long stare fixed on her as he his fork down next to his plate. Brienne wondered if he was waiting on her to admit to something, though what it could be, she had no idea.
“I have to ask an apology from you, Ser Brienne,” He said finally, his voice so lilted that he did not sound like himself. “I have been considering how to tell you this for many days.”
For an absurd moment, she couldn’t help but glance around her, hand on her sword, thinking that someone might be there to kill her. IT would not be the first time someone had been sent to kill her. But the Great Hall had not changed, the smattering of people still eating not paying any more mind to her than they usually did.
“A misunderstanding,” Bran said again, his lips upturned slightly, “I don’t know if what I have is bad news, Ser Brienne.”
She raised her eyebrows, “It cannot be worse than an approaching assassin, Lord Stark,” She said and Bran gave her a real smile.
“I suppose not.” He narrowed his eyes a bit, the blue almost completely hidden between his lids. “There is a rider coming North. From the capital.” He paused. “For you, Ser Brienne.”
“That is not my secret to tell.” He said, cryptic as ever, but his eyes gentled. “Not an assassin, though. They mean you no harm.”
“Thank you, Lord Stark.”
“You may call me Bran, Ser Brienne. I am not truly a Lord.”
How often had she said similar things to many people? How many times had she been Lady Brienne to her own distaste?
“Thank you, Bran.” She said, though his prophecy meant nothing to her at the moment. “Would you like to join Podrick, Lady Sansa, and I in the yard for morning practice?”
“I would,” He said, and she took hold of the back of his chair. To her surprise, rather than the silence she was accustomed to, he started to speak. Talking about the birds and the fresh blooming winter flowers and the birds that came with them. For a moment, she thought he almost sounded pleased.
In the evening, news came from the front. They knew that the siege on Kings Landing had begun, but nothing had come since. The heavy raven that flew to them now carried news of Cersei Lannister’s death, though no description of the circumstances. Brienne was unsure if she cared to know too much.
Otherwise, there was a lack of detail. To Brienne, this seemed a typical wartime transmission. Sansa; however, was made wary by the news. “A note this simple means things are more complicated than they would like us to know,” Her face, framed by her flaming hair, was set in hard lines. It caught the light off of the fire in her chambers, making it seem as though she were truly aflame there in her chair. Or, at least, that is what Brienne knew that others might think. To her, this red became Sansa in a way that Sansa herself could perhaps not see. It was the red of the Godswood, of the Weirwood leaves that feel with the promise of the Old Gods.
“It says nothing of Arya, or Jon,” Sansa had thrown the paper to the table. She had asked after Bran, but had been told he knew already of the contents. Brienne was slightly relieved by this. His presence seemed to unnerve Sansa a bit, even though Brienne had decided he was perhaps better company than she had originally thought after spending so much time with him that morning. “Or of Jaime Lannister.”
Her voice was soft. Soft only for Brienne’s sake since it was underlined still with the harsh distaste Sansa held for him. It chilled Brienne all the same, the cold running along her spine. Everything he had said to her, every word that had sliced down to her bones and settled so deep it seemed to be caught in her marrow, came back in a rush. She let it go in a long breath, closing her eyes as Sansa looked away from her for a fleeting moment.
“If Cersei is dead, I suspect Ser Jaime has met the same fate,” Brienne responded. “IF you would excuse me, My Lady, I am quite tired…”
She stood, knowing that Sansa would not ask her to stay now. “Ser Brienne?” Her Lady’s voice sounded so like a child again that Brienne had to stop, hand on the door to leave. She turned, Sansa’s eyes looking up at her, not betraying her thoughts but seeming to be on the very edge of doing so. “Is that what Bran told you this morning?”
“No, my Lady.” Brienne shook her head, having nearly forgotten the mystery that had troubled her throughout the day, “Only that there is a rider coming North for me. I suspect it is one of my father’s men, recalling me to Tarth.”
“Safe travels to him, then,” Sansa said, her voice tinged with something. Not disappointment. Not truly.
Brienne closed the door softly behind her, listening for only a moment at the sound of the paper being picked up again from the table.
“Meera told me once that a servant at their home used to make tarts from the winter blueberries,” Bran reached out a hand to the bush on the far side of castle underneath his rooms. It was nearly stripped of its berries, the birds having made quick work of it. Brienne wondered how many of them had been guided there by Bran, to ensure they would have food in the harsh cold that started each day and ended each night. “I’ve never actually eaten one.”
“Would you like one?”
Most of the remaining berries were at the top of the tree, slightly shriveled from even the small amount of sun there, and perhaps just out of Bran’s reach.
“No,” He said, after a moment. “I will taste them later.”
The sort of comments that unsettled nearly everyone, including Brienne herself until recently, now made her wonder what it must truly be to fly as a bird. Or run as swift as a deer or wolf in the woods surrounding Winterfell. She didn’t suspect she would ever know, but had decided it was interesting to hear Bran speak of it either way.
“Who is Meera?” She asked, wheeling them past the bush towards the open yard. Brienne did not consider herself one for idle conversation, but there was no such thing as idle conversation with Bran Stark. And they had quite a ways to go on her midday walk, which he had requested she accompany him on.
“Meera Reed,” He answered, “She took me to meet the Three Eyed Raven.”
“The former, I take it.”
“Yes,” And she could hear the slight smile in Bran’s voice, “She will inherit House Reed when her father dies. Her brother Jojen died while we were beyond the wall.”
Brienne did not know what to say. This still, all in all, told her very little of Meera Reed. She imagined a northern girl, like the ones who milled about the castle, and the ones who had come into the new training program she and Podrick had designed. Strong, resolute, with pale skin and dark hair. A touch sad, perhaps, though she seemed to have a taste for blueberry tarts.
Brienne said very little as they continued moving, other than to inquire where Bran would like to be taken. “The Godswood,” He had said, “By the water.”
She had taken him there, wondering if she should wait until he was finished with whatever it was he was planning on doing, standing awkwardly at the edge of the trees.
“You don’t have to stay with me,” He said, “I don’t mind being alone.”
“I don’t mind staying with you,” She said, and she didn’t truly. They had spent the morning in the yard, and the Godswood was a nice change from the bustle of the castle. Bran, in his strange sort of wisdom, had gone from unnerving to rather calming, something she hadn’t realized that she needed. Still waiting on more news from the South, word on Lady Arya and the others, was taking its toll on Brienne’s nerves. Sansa’s as well, who was found pacing the parlor of the Lord chambers more often than not the past week. Being with Bran, who seemed rather unperturbed by it all, was a nice change of pace.
Bran’s gaze was fixed on the water. For a moment, Brienne thought he was gone into whatever trance he put himself into, but his eyes stayed brown as he watched a silvered fish dart by. “Meera loved me,” He said, in the same voice he had told her that someone rode for her. “She wanted us to be together after we returned.”
“We can’t help who we love.” She had expected the words to feel hollow on her lips. They tasted of blood and sweat and mud and everything else he had been caked in when he said them to her. They were whole, they were real. The heaviest thing she had said, and suddenly the world was pressing on her chest.
“No,” He agreed, “I think I would have loved her, too, if I was only Bran. I see her sometimes, in my dreams, but those thoughts aren’t only mine anymore.” He turned to look at Brienne, a question in his stoic face. “It’s a strange thing, to have loved and lost and to still linger.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Your rider is almost here, Ser Brienne,” He said, his voice changing in an instant, “And you will have a choice to make.”
She wanted to know, desperately, what he meant by that. What any of this meant. Why he had told her about Meera. Why, if he could not want and was not truly a man, he still went to her, even if it was while embodying a bird or wolf or owl or whatever form he might take. She understood the impulse, there was so much of her, hidden behind a wall of their parting, that would give nearly anything just to see him again. Smiling, or laughing, or swinging Widow’s Wail in a wide arc. But she did not ask.
“I’m going to go for a while,” Bran broke the silence, “You don’t have to stay with me.”
She moved to sit in her usual space, the quiet form of Bran Stark hardly making a difference in her usual contemplation amongst the trees.
“She’s destroyed Kings Landing,” Sansa sat across from her at their morning meal again, her plate untouched. Podrick swallowed beside Brienne, his face troubled but still looking naïve. Sansa laid the letter flat on the table, “This letter is a warning from Tyrion.”
The writing was neat but the letters were hurried. There was no signature, no seal. “If she knows he sent it, he’s dead by now,” Sansa said, curling and uncurling a gloved fist.
“How do you know it is from Lord Tyrion, My Lady?” Podrick said, looking quizzically at the letter.
“He used to leave me notes each day, telling me where he would be.” Sansa said, as if startled by both the question and the memory, “When we were married.” She added for clarification.
“If you don’t mind, My Lady?” Brienne reached for the letter. Sansa nodded, and Brienne took it between her fingers, ignoring the ink smears to look at the words underneath. Varys was dead, Arya missing. The city had surrendered, the Iron Fleet and Golden Company destroyed, but Daenerys had burned it to ash. Cersei had been dead when they found her, the life choked from her in her bedroom in the Red Keep, wine untouched by her bedside. She had been dead before the siege even began, before the bells were rung. Jon Snow appeared to be Lord Consort, and the remaining Army the Queen held prepared for a full seizure of the remaining kingdoms, of which the North would be one.
Brienne set the letter down, her stomach clenching until she pushed away the plate of food in front of her. “This is not good news, My Lady.”
“The North will not bend the knee again.”
Brienne watched as Sansa stood, taking the letter with her and leaving the hall not for her chambers but for the rookery. Brienne knew it would be but days until a host of Northern lords arrived, and the plans for either a well-laid diplomatic solution or a final war would be constructed.
“Lady Sansa thought you might like to have a weapon,” Brienne reached a dagger out to Bran, who held it as carefully as one might lift glass. It was a handsome dagger, the handle and sheath in black leather, the Stark direwolf on the small pommel.
“I had a dagger before,” Bran said, unsheathing the blade and holding it up to the light where his face reflected off the steel. “Arya was much more equipped to use it.”
For a moment, Brienne thought he might give it back to her, but he simply put it back in its sheath and laid it across his lap, folding one of his thick furs over it. “Thank you,” He said, and she nodded, moving to push his chair back into the castle. “Sansa is worried about Daenerys’ demands.”
“Lady Sansa is worried about many things, one of which is the Queen.” Brienne agreed, moving them into one of the small halls occupied only by a pair of stewards warming their hands on glasses of tea.
“I don’t believe it will come to war,” Bran said as she took a seat on one of the chairs where he could face her. “Though, I can’t say for certain.”
“Can you not?” Brienne asked, genuinely curious.
“I can see everything that has happened. The ink has dried on the past,” He said, with a small smile, “And I can see what is happening now, with some help especially. The future is muddy. Like trying to catch smoke.”
“No,” Bran shook his head, “Not impossible.”
Brienne stood in the Godswood, watching the snow fall softly around her, feeling it catch in her hair. What remained of the Karstarks were due in Winterfell tomorrow, then the Glovers. Then the others would follow. Whatever remained of the great houses of the North would rally again at Winterfell.
Before that happened, however, Brienne had the night in the Godswood. A final night in the snow, watching it fill her footfalls and weight down the furs on her shoulders. She had been there for what seemed like hours. After evening training, she eaten quickly and left Podrick and Sansa to last minute preparations, requesting space to take her leave. Even after the war had officially ended, it seemed, with another brewing on the horizon, this still seemed to be the only place left untouched.
How many times had she been here now with Bran. Learned the stories of the Children of the Forest and the First Men and about warging and everything else. It seemed that when you were talking to the one person who knew everything about the world, there were a seemingly endless stream of topics. She was unsure still, of how she had come so easily into Bran’s favor when he struggled still to speak to his own siblings, but she had stopped questioning it and had decided that it was nice to have a friend of sorts that might possibly be the only person in Westeros with no agenda of any kind.
She sat on her log, Oathkeeper untied from her waist resting against the log. She had debated, on more than one occasion, snapping the lion off of the end of the pommel. Perhaps having it replaced with a sun or moon for Tarth or even a direwolf to honor her service for the Starks. But each time her fist had come around it, she could not bear to do it. Of all of the things that he had ever done for her, Oathkeeper was the one that could never be tainted. And now, it was the way she chose to remember him. Scarred, beautiful, full of the realization that perhaps his life could mean more than endless service to his sister and his father. The man she had seen in Kings Landing, the man who had left Riverrun untouched at her request as he allowed her to escape and fulfil their joint oath.
It looked almost out of place in the Godswood, however. Weapons, generally, did not seem to blend in well with the trees and leaves and peaceful waters. This is where Arya Stark had killed the Night King, though, and the Ironborn had died to protect Bran from wights and whitewalkers alike even as they were slaughtered. This was a place of bloodshed, where the Weirwood tree weeped perhaps for lost life.
Did it weep for her? Or perhaps for Catelyn Stark and her lost children. Perhaps it simply weeped for loss and pain and lingering love until its red sap had dried from the crushing weight of it all. She closed her eyes, fighting back tears of her own. She was tired of war, so tired of fighting. If she prayed still, she would pray they not go to war. That no one ever go to war again and the seven kingdoms lived peacefully.
And that made her think of Kings Landing, lying in ashes and rubble and waste while the innocents who had gone there for protection, who had tried to surrender, had been burned to ash by the woman sworn to protect them. She thought of the bath at Harrenhaal. There had been no Jaime Lannister to break his oath this time, no one to stand for the half a million people blown into nonexistence. If that were not a reason to go to war, what reason could there be?
She heard soft footsteps coming from the entrance, so soft that at first she thought it was perhaps only the wind rattling the stiff branches. But they came closer and closer. She shifted Oathkeeper to her hand, one hand gripping the handle in case it were an unsavory character, though the odds were high it was simply a servant come to fetch her for Lady Sansa.
A hooded figure, cloak torn in various spots, jacket holding oddly, stepped out of the shadows. She drew Oathkeeper then, leaping to her feet even as the figure stopped. “Who are you?” She asked, wary of intruders. If one had made it this far, there could be others. She needed to question him.
Their hands moved, and Brienne took a step closer, nearly within striking range. But they held no weapons, did nothing but push the hood back from their face with their left hand.
“Bran Stark told me you would be here.”
She dropped Oathkeeper into the snow, the blade sinking into the snow between them, creating a wall between her and Jaime Lannister who’s windblown face had tears running down each side of it.