His first thought is that he is dead, surely, dead and buried in this tomb of crushing blackness, lost and alone for the rest of eternity in whichever of the hells he’s be judged fit to reside in.
His second thought is to register the sound of his own heartbeat, thumping sluggish and stubborn deep in his ears and echoing through his aching skull.
So not dead, then.
His third thought is of the look on Cersei’s face as the blade had slipped so easily between her ribs, that one fleeting second of genuine astonishment when she had turned and seen what he was doing, and the sound her body had made as it crumpled to the floor. He’d tried to catch her, hold her, lower her with some last semblance of dignity at least, but then his stupid hand had slipped and she’d just…dropped.
His fourth thought is to wish he were dead after all. Alone in the dark with nothing but his very long list of failures, what else should he hope for? And maybe there will be a kindness he can find in death that he has hardly ever known in life, an ending of it all even if not a resolution.
After all this time, and all this suffering, at least it would finally be over.
Time passes in funny fits and starts, and his mind wanders. He wonders if the entire keep is pressing down above him, or if it’s just one part of it. He hopes that Tyrion is unharmed, wherever he is, and that he’s the one to find Cersei, assuming she’s not buried somewhere above his head. He trusts his brother to ensure that her body is not despoiled, even after everything. Tyrion will do it for the love of him, maybe, rather than for any residual love he might bear for the sister who never once treated him kindly, but the whys don’t really matter, in the end.
Brienne would treat her respectfully too, even if it meant going against orders from the Dragon Queen, and that just makes him even gladder that he left her behind, bereft and heartbroken maybe, but safe and well and every inch of her containing more honour than he’s known in his entire life. In a life that’s been marked out by nothing but selfish deeds leaving her free before she could be dragged down into his mire is maybe the only truly altruistic thing he’s ever succeeded in. She’s a thousand miles away; nothing he does can harm her now, and there’s something freeing in that, like he can finally face his love for her only now he knows she’s safe from the destructive force of it.
He still can’t help but wish she were here, at the end, to lay a cool, calloused hand on his face and sooth the terrors away, but he’s spent so many years marking time by her absence from his side, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that it all finishes the same way.
His leg throbs. The darkness is suffocating, and that, somehow, is worse than the pain; pain at least is an old and familiar foe. This helpless blindness is a new layer of cruelty. Somewhere in the distance a precarious pile of rubble wavers and topples, sending a cloud of dust and grit over him and making him cough. Even that is too much exertion for his beaten, broken soul. Though the darkness doesn’t change he closes his eyes once more, and Jaime Lannister does not think again for a long, long time.
They tell him later that he was lucky; lucky that the seas were calm, lucky that Ignet was on watch, with her keen, curious eyes. Lucky that they were passing at all, skirting the wreckage of the Greyjoy fleet for easy pickings. Lucky they were traders merely scavenging, not pirates or soldiers. Lucky Talut has a soft heart, for all his loud bluster and giant build.
Waking up to the gentle rocking of the boat, pain in his head and his heart and nothing but a gaping empty blankness where his memories should have been, opening his eyes and looking around for…something, someone, seeking a face or a name he doesn’t know, maybe hasn’t ever known…
…it doesn’t feel much like luck.
The first few days he keeps waiting for something – anything – to seep through, some trace of a name he can claim or a past he might recognise. They wean him off the poppy milk and his thoughts grow sharper; each day he can stay awake a little longer, his body steadily and surely recovering from its physical hurts, but the mental ones show no sign of lifting.
They give him the facts, such as they are, once he’s able to stay awake long enough to take them in. He understands Valyrian, so they tell him, and the Common Tongue of Westeros, and so there is enough of a shared language for communication. The ship he’s on is the Swallow, a trading cog nominally out of Myr, though Talut the captain is Pentosi, and his wife, the gentle-handed woman who had tended to him in his sickbed, names herself Norah of Lys. The rest of the crew is equally diverse; every one of the Free Cities is represented, and a few from either further east, from the fringes of Slaver’s Bay and beyond.
They’d found him drifting in Blackwater Bay in a battered old row boat with two oars and no sign of food or water.
“And whoever you were, you were an idiot,” Talut chortles when he reaches that part of the story. He is a giant of a man with a gregarious nature; so far he’s not been without a smile or a laugh on his face. “What does a one-handed man want with two oars? Did you mean to eat one?”
He can’t answer that question any more than the rest.
“We don’t normally cross the Narrow Sea,” Talut continues, unperturbed by his new companion’s silences. “The trading’s not been worth it, especially these last few years. War is bad for business. But we are in Volantis and we hear that the Golden Company are paying good money for passage across the Narrow Sea. Money is money, and maybe they will want us to take them home again too. That would be very good money. But they do not, so Qyrosh my first mate says, ho Talut, how about those burning ships? Everyone knows the Iron Fleet are no better than pirates, and pirates travel with gold. Which is lucky for you, because else we might not have come this way out the bay. Talut has no gold either way, but you have your life, so maybe not such a bad call!”
And then he laughs and slaps his thighs as if he’s told a particularly excellent jape, and takes his leave, still chuckling.
By the time they reach Braavos he’s been on board for close to four moons and his physical injuries are as healed as he can hope them to ever be. The first couple of ports they had called in at he had paid no attention to, at first because his hurts kept him confined to his bunk and then because his understanding of the ship and its people was still so rudimentary. But by Braavos he’s got to know them, at least a little, and the interpersonal intricacies of life on board. A few people trickle away once they make port, passengers who have reached their intended destination or those who wish to stay longer in the city than the Swallow will be docked for, but the core crew – the ones he is starting to come to recognise and know – remain.
He does consider leaving, briefly, in the same manner, knowing that the crew would wish him and well and not begrudge him his departure – indeed, would likely add it to the mythos of his story when they told it next, and enjoy it all the more for the unsolved mystery.
But in the end he stays. He stays because they are decent people and they treat him well. He stays because he likes it on board, likes how they work and eat and live together. He stays because they saved his life, and he feels bound to them, in thanks for that.
He stays because he has nowhere else to go.
They call him Stumps, for want of anything better. He quite likes it, as names go; doubtless there are worse ones.
Life on board the Swallow is easy, on the whole. They’re a mishmash crew, mostly men and women of the Free Cities who have sound themselves adrift from home due to preference or circumstance. They please themselves, which proves far easier than trying to please other people. Talut is their captain by mutual consent; he is the biggest, and the loudest, but more than that he fair and honest, as much as any captain can be and far more than most. He fills his crew with those whose loyalty he has earnt, and he takes care to go on earning it.
Stumps finds he fits in well with the rest of them. He’s a novelty at first and then just an oddity, and it becomes a popular pastime amongst the rest to try and guess at who he might have been and what he might have done before. Ignet, the sharp-eyed young Lorathi woman who first spotted his plight the day they pulled him on board, makes a game of coming up with new tales for how he might have lost his hand. She has a new one every evening, and not one of them feels any more fitting to him than the rest.
The months pass. They pick up a cargo in one city and exchange it for coin in the next. Occasionally they take on passengers as well; small-time traders, travellers and missionaries, the occasional band of mummers or sell swords. Each day is a little different to the one before and after it, but at the same time there is a rhythm and a routine that he finds comforting and safe.
Most days it is easy to forget that he might ever have had a life other than this one.
“Ae you not even slightly curious?” demands Garrett one evening. The navigator is an equable, lanky Pentosi native whose company Stumps particularly enjoys. Many nights find the two of them and Ignet sharing a drink and a conversation, though in general Stumps is more inclined to listen than contribute. Tonight they’re drifting somewhere between Lys and Volantis. The sea is calm and the winds are low, and other than the gentle lapping of the waves against the ships sides the air is almost completely silent. In the darkness the shoreline is completely invisible; they might be the only people left in all the world.
Stumps stays quiet for a moment, weighing the question carefully, wanting to answer as truthfully as he is able.
“I have dreams, sometimes,” he says at last. “I don’t really remember much more than the feelings from them, when I wake up. But…they’re enough to make me think I don’t want to know any more.”
They both look at him in silence for a time, light from the lantern flickering strange shadows over their faces, and he starts to worry that he’s erred, admitted too much, but, “You’re a strange man, Stumps,” Garrett drawls, smiling, “but I’m glad we fished you up.”
Ignet laughs, a mocking sound that he’s learnt means she’s genuinely pleased as well, and the warm feeling in the pit of his stomach follows him to his small bunk that night. Whoever he was, whatever he did, it doesn’t matter here, and he thinks that is probably for the best.
(And though he never knows it, on this same night, a world away, Jaime Lannister’s children are born)
They discover he can fight quite by accident. They’re moored for a few days in Tyrosh, taking on supplies and making minor repairs to the Swallow while Talut negotiates their next cargo. Stumps, Norah and Ignet spend the afternoon exploring the local markets; he still carries the staff that Norah insists he keeps to hand whenever he might have to walk any great distance, but he goes the entire afternoon without needing to use on it, solid proof of his healing body. And Ignet has never been to the city before either, so for once he feels on an equal footing in his ignorance, and there’s something comforting about that, too.
So it’s been a good day, which is what makes it all the more annoying when they get jumped half way back to the ship.
They’re wending their way through the docks when they are caught. The first two men grab him from behind while a third goes for Norah and the fourth tries to wallop Ignet. He reacts instinctively, lashing out with his feet and swinging the staff round to meet the larger of his two attackers. It’s over quickly after that; he and Ignet deal with their own assailants and then chase off Norah’s in swift succession, and all in all he could have done with the brawl lasting a little longer, because now his adrenaline is up and there’s nowhere to channel it.
They’re still riding high on the victory when they make it back to the ship, bloodied and dishevelled but still clutching their purses and purchases, and even Talut’s loud and expressive anger that anyone dared try to harm his wife and crew doesn’t dampen their exultation. Ignet tells the story with relish over supper that evening, finishing with “You should have seen Stumps go for the bastards with his staff though. Man knows how to wield a weapon.”
He’d kept quiet through Ignet’s retelling of their adventure, but now he finds himself the centre of attention and shifts uncomfortably under the scrutiny. “I just…did,” he tries to explain. “It was instinct.”
“Could you use a sword?” asks Talut with interest.
“Let’s see,” Qyrosh, the Braavosi first mate demands, and so once the meal is finished Stumps finds himself back on deck standing opposite the smaller man with a blade in hand and the rest of the crew watching on, eager and interested. They start with a few simple parries, and when he meets those with ease Qyrosh grins and starts to press him harder.
It’s indescribable, the feeling that settles over him as his grip automatically adjusts to the weight of the blade and the pattern of Qyrosh’s attacks. Every move, every step, every swing is a revelation, his body moving and responding instinctively to each cut and thrust, forgetting the residual aches and pains that have marred his slow recovery, and it is glorious. He’s got no frame of reference for what coming home might feel like, but he thinks it must be something like this.
Qyrosh calls the match off long before he is ready to finish. “You are very good,” he says with a grin, sheathing his blade. “We’ll do this again.”
Stumps can only nod, panting slightly from effort and exhilaration but unable to rein in the broad smile he can feel on his face.
“Someone spent a lot of time and money training you, once,” observes Talut thoughtfully. “And then they spent it again after your maiming. You were a big man, somewhere.”
“Maybe he learnt with the left. Some men do,” points out Ignet, but Qyrosh shakes his head.
“No. The instinct is there, still, to use the right more than he should. Talut is right; he fights like a Westerosi knight, a good one, but most would let such an affliction put an end to their fighting days.”
The little first mate stares at him in thoughtful contemplation for a moment more, then shrugs easily and moves away. The rest of the crew take their cue from him, drifting back to their previous tasks, and then he is alone, the blade still a familiar weight in his hand. He stays on deck for a long time, running his hands back and forth over the hilt, letting the light of the rising moon glint off the steel. Something has settled deep inside, clicked comfortably into place, something he didn’t even know he was missing until it was returned, and he wallows in the pleasure of it until Garrett at last comes by on second watch and chases him to his bunk.
That night his dreams are of fire, burning red hot one moment and ice cold the next, surrounded by faces he doesn’t recognise and yet still knows, somehow, knows deep in his marrow where the heft of the sword and the kiss of steel sits. He wakes in the dark with terror clawing at his chest and his throat, reaching out for something that is never there, and it is a long time before he can fall asleep again.
Come morning he can’t remember the details, not the faces or the forms, just the impressions of fear and loss and grief, and the overwhelming sense of desolation.
They move on to Lys from Tyrosh, where Talut drags him to a smithy and commissions him a hook.
“Consider it thanks for bringing Norah safely home,” he demurs when Stumps protests at the expense. “Ignet is getting that Myrish eye she’s been coveting. This is small change in comparison.”
It doesn’t feel like small change though, when he returns to the ship with it a few days later and Qyrosh is already waiting, an expectant gleam in his eyes. They have sparred a few times now and his strength is steadily improving day by day, but Stumps knows the first mate is eager to see how he might do with the hook to balance out his right side.
It soon becomes apparent that it will take a lot more work, however; whatever muscle-memory his body has retained for a blade does not carry over to the hook.
“You may have been a big man,” chortles Talut at the end of the session, from the spot where he and Ignet have been watching with interest. “But you were also a stupid one. What sort of a solider doesn’t arm his stronger side, if he is determined to keep fighting?”
Stumps shrugs and laughs too, because what can he say? Maybe he was a stupid man, whoever he used to be. It doesn’t matter now.
Time passes. Months become a year, and then two. They travel back and forth, mostly keeping to the south of Essos, and never going further west than Lys. Stumps quietly has the impression that whatever else Talut saw and heard in the days around the time they fished him out of Blackwater Bay was enough for even their steadfast captain to want to keep as much distance from Westeros as possible.
They stay east instead, skirting the southern Free Cities and the fringes of Slaver’s Bay, and so he’s walking through a market in New Ghis when it happens. He’s with Ignet and Garrett, half an ear on their bickering and the rest of his attention on the surrounding stalls and vendors. It’s past midday and his stomach is reminding him that he hasn’t eaten yet when they pass a stall where fish is being fried in a large open pan, sending out an enticing smell of cooked oils and spices, and he thinks Tyrion would like that.
And then he stumbles to a halt, ignoring the swears and grumbles of the crowd around him, because a moment previously he had no idea who or what a Tyrion was.
But he’s there now, sitting fully formed in his mind as if he’s been there all along, his brother, grinning at him from a corner of his mind that has stood barren and empty for so long. There’s nothing else, nothing of use, and nothing has changed really, because it’s no more than a name and a face, except it is so much more than that, because he has a brother, and he loves him, and that knowledge is shattering.
Ignet looks over her shoulder and calls his name, chiding him for falling behind, and that’s not right either. Jaime, he thinks, my name is Jaime…
He hurries after them, automatically winding through the crowd even as his mind is racing far away.
He doesn’t say anything, not straight away, and if anyone notices that he’s a little quieter, a little more preoccupied than normal, no one mentions it to him. The crew of the Swallow are well used to his silences by now.
He keeps running the name over and over in his mind – Tyrion, Tyrion – matching it to a face he would have walked straight past this morning and will never be able to ignore again by this evening.
There’s nothing else there, no other names or faces or moments to look back on, but for the first time in years he finds curiosity more pressing than fear.
A few days later he wakes up remembering Brienne’s face in the firelight in the Great Hall at Winterfell, and gods how could he have ever forgotten that?
Talut seeks him out, a week or so later. They’ve been sailing east out of New Ghis with a cargo destined for Qarth, a route Stumps has only travelled part of once before, and never the entire way. But where Stumps would have been eagerly caught up in the adventure of fresh seas and the promise of new sights, Jaime has too much else on his mind. He shouldn’t be surprised that the captain as noticed.
“You’ve been quiet, recently,” Talut says in his straightforward way. “Even for you. What’s wrong?”
Jaime hesitates, torn, wanting to share and discuss what has happened with the man he respects, considers a friend, but at the same time terrified of what giving voice to his past might mean for his present. The crew welcomed and accepted Stumps; they don’t know Jaime at all – but then, neither does he, not yet, not really. He is still adrift, no longer entirely one nor yet completely the other. He’s been nursing a low level headache for days over that one, trying and failing to smooth the edges between who he’s been since the Swallow picked up against what little he’s remembered so far of who he was before.
“I’ve started to remember things,” he says at last. “Not much. But…bits.”
“What have you got so far?” asks the big man with careful neutrality.
“My name was Jaime. I had a brother, and a lover.”
So little, and yet so much.
“Aye, well, most men do,” Talut says in his easy way. “What now?”
“I’m not sure,” he admits. “I’m not…I don’t know who I am, now, Stumps or Jaime or someone else entirely. I don’t know if I even want to know.”
Talut eyes him steadily for a moment, and then clasps a vast hand on his shoulder.
“You’re a part of this crew,” he shrugs. “Whatever name you go by, that doesn’t change. The rest may come. We’re weeks from Qarth; you’ve got time.”
He gives his shoulder a companionable squeeze and ambles away, leaving Jaime alone with his thoughts.
It’s a disorientating process. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to the pattern of his returning memories. One day he wakes up to find whole swathes of his adolescence suddenly back where they should be, years of squiring and serving and training that goes some way towards explaining his innate skill with a blade. A week after that, in the galley, Norah slices through a haunch of meat, a rare treat when they’re not in port, and the noise is so similar to the sound of Vargo Hoat’s blade severing his hand from his body that he physically retches.
On deck, the sun on his face and the wind in his hair, he thinks of Tyrion’s laughter, Brienne’s ferocity, Myrcella’s sweetness, and hopes that wherever they are and whatever they are doing, they are happy with their lot.
But while by day he can find that balance, to examine the scant details of his past while still keeping a grip on his present, the nights are an altogether different beast. The hazy, restless, uneasy dreams that have plagued him for as long as he has been with the Swallow shift into something altogether darker and more terrifying, and he wakes most nights at least once or twice with sweat sticking to his skin and a cry on his lips. It’s like the early days after he first picked up a blade all over again; the newfound peace in his waking hours are paid for with the hell of his sleeping ones.
They’re still a couple of weeks out of Qarth when he remembers standing on a different boat in a different ocean, cradling his dying daughter in his arms and being unable to do a damn thing about it. It’s somehow even worse, losing her a second time, the grief renewed and refreshed, and with a new edge of terror too, because what other anguish is there lurking in the shadows of his mind?
He shouldn’t be surprised that those around him pick up on his distress, but it’s still a shock when he comes into Talut’s cabin one afternoon a few days later to find a small crowd waiting for him.
“You’re not happy, Stumps,” Talut says without preamble. “And you look awful.”
It has been weeks now of poor, broken sleep even without his more recent grief, and he knows his night terrors are starting to affect the rest of the crew as well.
“I’m sorry,” he says, the words utterly inadequate, because these people took him in when he was less than nothing and whatever happens next will hurt them; is already hurting them.
“Do you need to go back to Westeros?” asks Norah, gentle and steady. “We can head west again next, if you want. See if we can find your people, or what became of them. Maybe that will find you peace.”
It’s tempting, and he’s touched that she offers. But even if they started out west straight from Qarth it would be moons before they’d reach Westeros, even assuming the rest of the crew agreed. And then he’d be…where, exactly? In a land that feels only distantly familiar, searching for people he can only hope are still living. He doesn’t even know what side of the war he stood on; he could land and find himself arrested for things he has no memory of doing.
“I was content, before,” he begins slowly, wrestling with the words, trying to turn them into something he can understand, never mind the rest of them. “Knowing nothing, it was…simple. And now I know some things, but not nearly enough. I don’t know what sort of a man I was before I washed up with you all, and I can’t make decisions based on someone I might not be anymore. There might not even be anything left for me there. I remembered my daughter alive for days before I remembered her dead; maybe it’s the same with the rest, as well. I need to remember.”
It’s quite possibly the longest speech he’s ever made and for a moment the assembled crew members just stare at him, varying degrees of shock and sympathy on all their faces.
“It might come, with time,” suggests Ignet quietly, her eyes very wide. “You already know so much more than you did.”
He shakes his head and runs a frustrated hand through his hair. “It’s been weeks, and all I’ve got is a handful of names and a few conversations. It could take years, this way.”
“They say there are witches, in Asshai,” says Garrett quietly, his usually dancing eyes sober. “Who can look into your eyes and see your very soul, walk every pathway in your mind besides you, even those from when you were a small babe, the times you would never remember for yourself.”
“Witches,” mutters Talut darkly, his face unhappy, but Jaime ignores him.
“Then that’s where I must go.”
There is outcry; Ignet and Talut both start yelling at Garratt simultaneously, while Norah pleads with Jaime direct and Qyrosh just glowers round at all of them.
“I’m sorry!” Jaime shouts eventually, breaking through the clamour. And then, more quietly, “I’m sorry. But I need answers, and if that’s where they are to be found, that’s where I’ll go.”
“We can’t sail you there, Stumps,” says Talut, his voice heavy with regret. “I won’t risk taking us any further east than Asabhad.”
“And I wouldn’t ask you to,” Jaime agrees quickly.
“We can try and pick up a cargo for Asabhad in Qarth though,” suggests Norah with an unhappy frown. “Take you that far. I’d like to see the Jade Sea again.”
The others nod in ready agreement, and the matter is settled.
Qyrosh pulls him aside, his last night on board the Swallow. They’ve been docked in Asabhad for a few days already, giving the crew time to enjoy some shore leave and Jaime himself time to find a ship or caravan travelling east willing to let him join them. The idea of leaving has got harder and harder, the closer the day has come – the Swallow has been his home for nigh on three years now, is still the only one he knows as either Stumps or Jaime, and it’s people have been his family – and Qyrosh doesn’t make it any easier.
“I wish you would stay with us,” the dangerous little man says with unusual sincerity.
“You know why I can’t. I need to find answers, and this is the surest way.”
Qyrosh says nothing for a moment, just looks up at him in the moonlight with a torn expression on his face.
“I like you, Stumps,” he says eventually. “I like your bravery and I like your skill with a blade. And I respect you. I wish you well with your quest, but remember you may not like what it is you find at the end of it.”
“What do you mean?”
Qyrosh falters for a moment. “I spent some time in Westeros, before I joined with Talut,” he hedges eventually. “More so than any of the others. The wars there were long and bloody, and I heard tales of horrific deeds performed by men from all sides. I hope I am wrong. I hope you find what you are looking for and return to your home a whole and happy man. But if you do not, or cannot, I hope at least you can live with what you learn, and come back to us instead.”
He says no more, and Jaime knows him well enough to know he’ll get no more by asking, but the anxious concern in the smaller man’s voice stays with him long after he retires to his bunk.
Jaime leaves soon after dawn the next morning. Most of his goodbyes had been dealt with the previous night, but Ignet and Talut are both there to see him off, all three pretending not to see the tears of the other two, and when he turns back at the end of the wooden dock for one last look, he can just make out Qyrosh up in the nest, watching him go.
The journey from Asabhad to Asshai is long and, on the whole, boring. The fat-bottomed cog Talut had helped him find a berth on is sluggish in the water and stops off at every port. Jaime earns his keep as a sell sword of sorts, trailing the merchants whenever they disembark to trade or negotiate and standing with an appropriately menacing expression, sword in hand. It’s a role he finds surprisingly easy to fulfil, but it’s a lonely existence. The other travellers keep mostly to themselves, and while no one seems to resent his presence, they don’t exactly welcome it either. It’s a disagreeable change after the closeness and warmth of the Swallow, and by the time they reach Asshai he’s so relieved to be leaving the ship that he’s almost forgotten his apprehension about what comes next.
He thinks, afterwards, that he must have spent weeks in Asshai, but when he looks back on it there is nothing more than a haze of shadowy impressions that might have just been dreams.
He remembers the silence, the stifling, cloying flatness that imbues everything away from the markets clustered round the main port. He remembers wandering through narrow alleys and across cavernous, echoing squares, past buildings that looked like ruins one moment and opulent palaces the next. He doesn’t remember eating, or sleeping, though he must have done both, and though he is sure he does talk to other people within the city, he can never again picture their faces. He thinks he remembers ducking into a low-roofed building, seeing a strange golden hand lying on the table before the fire, hearing a woman’s low voice, though not the words she spoke…but it’s all indistinct, distant, like he’s seeing it through a haze sea water and silt.
But what he does remember, for all the rest of his long life, as familiar and clear as his own reflection and vivid in its sharpness, is the scratch of the blanket under his hand, the sickly-sour smell of burning in the air, the look of thoughtful calm on the witch’s face when he had opened his eyes, hours, days later, and she had said, “Hello, Jaime Lannister,” and he realised he remembered: everything.
He goes back to the docks after leaving the witch’s shop. It’s the only place he can think to go to, and anyway, he’s always found something calming about being near water; he knows that for certain, now.
That’s the hardest part, at first; aligning who he has spent nearly three years living as with the fully formed man he was for a lifetime before that.
Or maybe that’s only the hardest part because it’s the easiest part to think on, and so for a while at least he ignores the rest.
Some parts are easier than maybe they should be. Joffrey, Tommen, his father… he remembers them in life and in death in the same instant, and so he knows, from the start, that those memories are all he’ll ever have, now. It’s not like Myrcella, who he had thought of as living for days before he remembered her dead, losing her so absolutely twice in a lifetime working to compound his grief. He will forever mourn his sons, his father, in different, complicated ways, but it’s a weight he learnt to carry long ago.
“I can give you what you seek,” the witch had said, dark eyes and pale hair and a strangely child-like voice. “But I can’t promise that you will like what you find.”
Qyrosh had warned him, too. Jaime wonders how much the Braavosi swordsman had known, or suspected. Enough, evidently. Enough to suspect that his quiet crewmate might once have been a Kingslayer, enough to think – hope - that he might not want to be that man again. Of course Qyrosh had no way to know that the monster from the stories had been beaten and broken years before; Jaime Lannister in Winterfell was no closer to Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard than Stumps had been to either one of them.
It is days before he can bring himself to really think of Cersei. He thinks around her for hours, because there is so much to take in that he can almost fool even himself that he’s not actively avoiding her, he’s just…concentrating on other things.
He sits and watches the harbour, boats big and small moving around, each one its own little world. They’d done the same as children, he and Cersei, slipped away from whoever was meant to be minding them and snuck down to Lannisport to see the ships and dream of where they might go. He spends a long time concentrating on those memories, the very earliest days of his childhood when everything was so easy and simple, just being Jaime and Cersei, not JaimeandCersei against the world because they hadn’t needed to be, back then.
And it helps, actually, to remember Cersei as she was; as a child, yes, but as a young woman, too, when the children were young and her entire world could revolve around them and their own small needs and wants. She’d been happy, then, as happy as Jaime had ever known her to be, maybe the happiest she could be, and it’s a lot less complicated to mourn for the loss of that joy than it is to deal with the mix of grief and relief for the death of what she became.
He stays there for a long time, not moving, just staring out across the water, completely immune to the noise and movement of the market behind him, lost in thought and memory. Dusks comes and goes, night falls, lanterns are lit, the cold starts to burrow into his joints. When he finally stands to move away his bones scream in protest from the inactivity and his face is wet with the tears he hadn’t realised were falling, but his heart feels lighter and freer, and he thinks he is ready, now, to go home.
It takes nearly a full year to reach Westeros again. It should be frustrating - the long, interrupted journey, boat hopping from port to port, scrabbling to find ships willing to offer him passage in exchange for work - but there’s something calming in the steady progress, slowly but surely inching west, waking up every morning just a little bit closer to where he wants to be. He leaves messages at each port, just in case anyone from the Swallow comes passing through, but mostly he keeps his company and thoughts to himself.
He thinks about Tyrion and Brienne a lot during that year. Warily, at first, almost fearfully; he has no memory of their deaths, but it’s been years since he would have even known to care about such news from Westeros. Brienne at least was safe in Winterfell when he left, but he has no doubt she will have thrown herself between the Starks and any threat they’ve faced since. And Tyrion had marched with the Dragon Queen’s army, and even if had survived whatever followed their arrival in King’s Landing there are so many other ways he could have died since.
It’s not until he reaches Volantis again that he finally starts to trust the gossip he hears, and even then it’s nothing concrete. Queen Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, sits on the Iron Throne, and keeps a dwarf as her Fool, or her Hand, depending on the tale, or possibly she fed her entire council to her dragons and rules alone. Of Brienne it is even harder to find news; certainly Sansa Stark rules the North, as either Queen or Steward, but no one can tell him anything of her court, and the one time he dares ask after the Lady Knight of Westeros the sell swords he is drinking with laugh in open disbelief. But Lord Selwyn yet lives, that is consistent enough to be almost a certainty, and that is enough for him to hope that Tarth may provide word of Brienne at least, if not the Lady herself.
So it is to Tarth he goes. He tries not to think about what reception awaits him. That they presume him dead is almost a certainty, that he has been labelled Cersei’s killer equally so. He is confident Tyrion, at least, will welcome him - they’ve parted on far worse terms in the past and still forgiven one another. But Brienne…it is better not to think about Brienne. Once he starts he finds he can’t really think of anything else, and thinking is a hollow defence in the face of all the ways he has wronged her.
If she lives then he will go to her. Once his own self-loathing might have kept him away – better she never knows he lives, better she lives out her life undisturbed by his presence on even the fringes of it – but he’s a weak man, now. He has to see her, even if it’s just once more, even if it is only to hear her tell him she never wishes to see him again. He’ll do it, if that’s what she wishes. He’ll do whatever she asks.
And if he hopes for anything more than that, well. What he dreams up in the privacy of his own bunk is no one’s business but his own.
The boat docks in Tarth’s main harbour, a natural inlet sheltered by the cliffs that sweep up and around the bay in both directions. The harbour town clings to the land on one side of the valley, rows of colourful cottages and the occasional grander building, inns or market halls or septs, while on the other side woodland gives way to stretches of golden sand at the water’s edge. The water is a hive of constant activity - larger sea-faring vessels are moored in the deeper channels at the centre of the bay while a fleet of smaller sailing and row boats bob around in between them – and when he finally disembarks the land is almost as busy, fishermen and farmers by far outnumbering the more well-dressed merchants.
For a moment Jaime just stops and breaths it all in. He’s surrounded by snatches of conversation, the Common Tongue falling easily from lips everywhere he turns; he can smell saltwater and fish and horse dung, hear the creaking of boats and the clank of some unseen knight walking past in full plate. All the things that have meant home, in different places and different guises, finally falling together.
The late afternoon sun is warm on his neck and the breeze off the sea a pleasant counterpoint as he makes his way through the small town, taking the main road that winds up the sides of the valley towards Evenfall Hall. It’s a small keep, perched atop the cliff overlooking the harbour on one side and the sea on the other, but a beautiful building in both construction and location. Grey stone walls rise above the trees that surround it on the inland side, the corners marked by curved towers, and the whole structure dotted with glassed windows that glint in the afternoon sunlight.
Jaime pauses at the crest of the hill that brings the Hall fully into view for the first time and just…stares. It’s a large, unpretentious building, and though he’s never seen it before – has never so much as set foot on Tarth before this afternoon – there’s something about it that feels both welcoming and familiar. The nerves that have been twisting in his stomach since he first spotted the Westerosi coast on the horizon are finally, at least temporarily, eased.
The track runs alongside the towering body of the keep for almost the entire length, and he follows it in the shadow of the tall stone walls until it curves around the far corner to where the main gates stand open. The courtyard within buzzes with activity; carts unloading, squires running to and fro with packages and crates, dogs underfoot, a small group of men-at-arms laughing and joking in one corner.
But none of that is what grabs his attention.
Even before he developed a personal interest in the Isle Jaime had heard stories about the beauty of Tarth, with its sapphire waters and emerald forests. But nothing he had heard, or even seen on his journey up the hillside, had prepared him for the sight that opens up before him now.
The courtyard is bounded by stone on three sides; the wall and main gate behind him, the long, narrow jut of the keep to his left and the main body of the castle with its curving towers ahead. But to his right there is nothing but a low stone wall. Beyond that the land drops away, a series of descending terraces laid out in vibrant gardens that scramble down to the cliff edge, and from there the estuary, visible through the trees, the blue waters sparkling far below nestled in the lee of the gently sweeping hills. Jaime was raised in the grandeur of Casterly Rock, has gazed unmoved upon the beauty of Highgarden, the stony majesty of Volantis, the ethereal splendour of Asshai; but it is this that stills him, captures his gaze and his breath, and for a moment all he can do is stand there and stare.
Movement on one of the terraces below distracts him, two levels down and at the far end from where he stands, under the walls of the main castle. She’s little more than a smudged outline at this distance, and it’s been five years and thousands of miles; he is quite literally a different man to the one he once was. But the shape and form of Brienne of Tarth moving with a sword in her grip is as familiar to him as the back of his remaining hand, etched into the very marrow of his battered soul.
The vista is completely forgotten. His entire being, every scrap of focus, is centred on that single distant figure. He can’t see who she’s with, what she’s doing, but it doesn’t matter. She’s there, alive and safe and wielding a blade like it’s an extension of her own limb, and for a moment he just basks in the sheer relief that brings.
A low gate transects the stone wall a short distance away, and, after a quick glance around to confirm no one is paying him the slightest attention, he slips through it and down a flight of stone steps into the gardens beyond. The gravelled path winds between grassed lawns and beds of bright, fragrant flowers, at one point crossing a bubbling stream as a small stone bridge. He finds a second flight of steps and drops another level, losing all sight of his destination along with the advantage of height. Twice the path he tries unexpectedly doubles round back on itself, and he’s just starting to curse whoever designed this infernal maze masquerading as a garden when he hears voices and the familiar sound of wood hitting wood ahead.
He follows the sound between two more planted beds and past a shady pool covered in soft green vegetation, until the path twists once, twice more to enter an archway laden with blooming roses and edged by thick hedges, and, on the other side...
He freezes, still hidden in the shadows of the arch. The path he’s been following opens out onto a wide grassy lawn, with another stunning view of the estuary and distant headland on one side. But this time he ignores the scenery completely.
On the opposite side to the edge of the terrace, in the shelter of a stone wall that retains the level above, is Tyrion, a little older, a little greyer, but still every inch his little brother, sitting at a small table with a cup in front of him and a grin on his face.
And on the grass before him is Brienne.
In his memories she is absurdly tall; here, standing mere yards away, he realises his mind has done her a disservice. Absurdly tall, yes, and every inch of her more magnificent than his memories have ever been able to realise. She isn’t wearing armour like he had pictured so many times, just breeches and jerkin, but she stands as straight and proud as any knight in full plate. There are two small children before her and her attention is focused wholly on them, watching, correcting, praising, while they lunge back and forth with wooden swords that fit their grip far better than the tourney sticks he remembers using as a squire.
Jaime draws back deeper in to the shadows, his gaze greedily drinking in every detail, jumping from the sun on Brienne’s hair to the sound of his brother’s throaty chuckle and then back again. He finds himself at a loss, finally at the end of the journey that has consumed every waking thought and sleeping dream for so long and suddenly faced with the prospect of what comes next.
He wants to go to them; he wants to leave, run and hide, because surely this can’t be real, after all this time, surely there’s some trick or trap just waiting for him to spring it. He’s not ready; he can’t face them. He wants to touch them, both of them, feel them solid in his grip, and he is paralysed by the indecision, because to move towards one is to move further away from the other, and he can’t bear the prospect of putting any more space between them again.
How long he would have stayed frozen like that he never knows, because just then Podrick Payne appears on the steps leading from the terrace above, heading down towards Tyrion. Brienne must see him at the same moment Jaime does; she stops the children with a word and crouches down to their level, whispering with them conspiratorially. Pod too pauses, exchanging a few words with Tyrion and then turning to cross the lawn towards the huddled trio just as Brienne straightens and grins down at the children.
Jaime realises what is about to happen all of two seconds before it does. Pod opens his mouth but before the words can emerge the two girls are racing towards him, shrieking gleefully, swords discarded. It’s over in seconds; he catches the first girl as she launches towards his midriff and tosses her easily into the air to shrieks of laughter, but the second wraps herself around his knees and then they are all three of them down on the grass in a mess of limbs and laughter.
Pod is the first to regain his feet, albeit hampered by both the children still clamouring around him and his own breathless laughter. He plucks a child up under each arm and deposits them back at Brienne’s feet with a broad grin and a small bow.
“Yours, milady?” he says cheekily, and god, the look on her face, the last time Jaime saw such ready mirth and delight it was lit by the fires of the Great Hall at Winterfell and fuelled by no small amount of alcohol during Tyrion’s ridiculous game.
It’s too much, and all the emotions he’s been trying to wrestle under control finally break through as a strangled, incredulous, delighted laugh. The sound must carry across the grass because Brienne freezes, straightening up and turning to stare into the shadows that conceal him. He can’t read the expression on her face, not at this distance, but he recognises the sudden tensing of her shoulders, the automatic adjustment to her stance; alert, searching for the threat, ready to respond to it.
Suddenly glad to have the decision taken out of his hand, Jaime takes one step forward, and then another, moving into the clear light of the afternoon sun.
There is a beat of absolute silence, broken by the crash of Tyrion’s cup clattering from his grip and falling to the stone flags below.
“Jaime?” he rasps, and Jaime wrenches his gaze away from Brienne’s pale face to stare at his little brother, who has come three shaky steps towards him and then frozen again. He’s gazing up at him, shock and disbelief writ large across his face, his mouth opening and closing but completely unable to form words or sounds other than a second, incredulous, “Jaime?”
But before he can say anything more, and before Jaime can find his own voice and formulate some sort of response, Brienne is moving, turning away, like she doesn’t understand how absolutely vital the sight of her face is to him at this moment; he’s gone years without it but now it’s in front of him again the idea of losing it for even a second is unbearable. He wants to say her name, stop her, but his tongue is too big for his mouth and if Tyrion’s vocabulary has been reduced to a single word, Jaime’s has been wiped altogether.
Brienne, of course, is having no such difficulties.
“Pod, I need you to take the girls inside now, please,” she says, voice low and firm and not at all like she’s barely gripping onto control of her own emotions by her fingertips in the way that Jaime himself is.
Pod is already nodding, gathering the two children to him and hustling them towards the steps up to the keep above. One of them keeps twisting round to try and stare at him some more but Jaime pays her no mind; Tyrion has come forward again to stand a few feet in front of him, and for the first time he doesn’t have to choose which of them he looks at, these two souls he’s been thinking about for as long as he’s known who they were to miss, and now he fills his gaze with them, drinking them in.
“Jaime,” Tyrion croaks one more time, and finally the spell is broken. Jaime drops to his knees and reaches out to gather his little brother in his arms. How long they sit like that he never knows. When they finally break apart Tyrion’s face is red, the front of Jaime’s tunic stained with tears, and his own face is sticky despite not realising he had been crying at all.
“How?” breathes Tyrion, finally expanding on his vocabulary, and later Jaime is sure he will look back on this with smug pride, the day he finally rendered his witty little brother lost for words, but for now he is too happy to care.
“It is a really, really long story,” he says with a heavy shrug, turning to look up again at Brienne. She’s still staring down at him with an unreadable expression and he abruptly worries about what other changes the past few years might have wrought, that for the first time in the whole of their acquaintance he can’t guess at least three of her thoughts just from one look at her face.
He stands, awkward, wanting – needing - to touch her, to ground himself against her in the way he has Tyrion. But the moment for impulsive embraces has passed and he missed it without even realising; suddenly all he can think about is the last time he saw her, sobbing in the moonlight in Winterfell’s courtyard
It doesn’t matter. Maybe she can see something of his want on his face, or maybe she just has the same urgent need. She lurches forwards a step, pauses, and then reaches out to seize his upper arm in a vicelike hold, squeezing slightly as if to convince herself of his own solid presence. It’s not enough and it’s too much all at once, and it’s all he can do to keep standing there, still as stone, wanting to reach out and touch her in return but terrified that even the slightest movement might send her skittering back again.
Though maybe he should just be pleased she’s not coming at him with a sword.
Tyrion saves them from another silence by ushering him forwards, towards the back of the terrace. Brienne stays close to his other side and so he allows himself to be led, not caring on the destination as long as they are both near. They don’t take him far, however, just back to the table where Tyrion had been sitting when he arrived. Tyrion pushes him into a chair, moving easily and freely around the space, obviously comfortable in a way borne of long familiarity, and the chair he climbs into has been modified in a style Jaime recognises of old. Brienne settles on his other side without hesitation, both of them used to sharing this spot, and he absently wonders if the third seat he is currently occupying is usually Pod’s, or some other as yet unseen person.
“You look awful,” Brienne says quietly.
Jaime shrugs again; he has a feeling he’s going to be doing a lot of that before the day is through. “I’ve been far worse, believe me.”
“Oddly enough that is not a comfort,” frowns Tyrion, pouring a generous measure of wine from the jug on the table and thrusting the cup into his hands. “Jaime. Where have you been?”
“Essos, mainly. I was east of Qarth before I remembered where I ought to be, and travelling west isn’t cheap.”
Tyrion and Brienne exchange glances and Jaime is struck again by the awareness that time has passed here; last time he saw them sat together they were little more than acquaintances, united by a common ally, and now they are at complete ease in each other’s company, holding a whole conversation without words.
And the thing is, he knows he isn’t helping, knows that everything he says is only giving rise to more questions; knows, fundamentally, that they deserve apologies and explanations beyond count. But he’s still so caught up in the pure, visceral thrill of being near them again that he can’t keep his thoughts straight.
Maybe he should ask if they could just sit in silence for a while, let him look, maybe touch, for a time, before his brain has to engage enough to deal with the conversation and explanations that have to follow.
But maybe that’s too strange a request, even for him.
“And how did you come to be in Qarth?” presses Tyrion.
“It’s…complicated,” Jaime hedges. “How much…what do you know?”
“We found Cersei,” says Tyrion, simple and straight. “And your sword. We knew you’d been there, and we knew you hadn’t come out of the Red Keep above ground, there were too many people, you would have been spotted. Which left the tunnels.”
“Most of which are still buried deep in rubble and earth. We assumed you lost in it.” Brienne’s voice is clipped and short, and for the first time since he saw her standing before him Jaime can’t bring himself to look at her face. She had mourned him, of course she had mourned him, and now here he sits, alive and well, a mockery to her grief.
“A lot of that is still hazy,” he says instead, keeping his gaze focused on some distant spot. “Even after everything else came back, I’ve never really got a grip of those early days.”
Out of the corner of his eye he can see Tyrion’s brow furrow in confusion and frustration and Brienne frowning at him, looking, of all things, concerned, and he can’t bear it. He closes his eyes, shutting out their faces for just a moment, swallowing hard and grounding himself. He owes them this, owes them his explanation for being so completely and brutally absent all this time, owes them absolute honesty if he’s to ever have any hope of deserving a place in their lives again.
It’s just so hard.
He starts slowly, haltingly, stumbling over words and backtracking, clarifying, expanding out of order, but it gets easier the more he talks.
He thinks of the witch in Asshai; he had never asked how the golden hand came to be in her possession, so very far away from where it was forged, but after he woke it had looked duller, somehow, tarnished and diminished, and when she tossed it into a fire that shouldn’t have been hot enough to even singe it had melted away into nothingness and all he felt was relief.
“It did it’s time, and it’s duty,” she had explained, though he hadn’t voiced a question. “It bought you here. It cannot take you back.”
At the time he’d thought she’d meant the monetary value, that he couldn’t bargain his passage west using it’s golden coating.
Now, sitting in the shade of Tarth with his hook resting easily on the table in front of him, his brother on one side and his…Brienne…on the other, he realises she probably meant something more numinous than that. Damn witches.
He tells them about his years as Stumps, his time aboard the Swallow and the friends he found there. About the slow trickle of memories, the journey to Asshai, and what little he is sure about from his time there. About the cold, dawning realisation that his ignorance had drawn him so far away from where he wanted to be.
“And I’ve been boat hopping back since,” he finishes with a shrug, as if the last few months had been nothing at all. “It would have been easier to find work on a Westerosi merchant ship, perhaps, but they seemed to question my capabilities.” He waves his hook wryly for a moment, and then, after a pause, continues. “And, to be honest, I had no idea of what I might be returning to. Stumps was regarded very differently to Jaime Lannister, Kingslayer.”
“Pardoned Kingslayer,” corrects Brienne flatly. Jaime looks at her in surprise but it is Tyrion who continues.
“Queen Daenerys issued you with a formal pardon, and made clear the reasons behind your actions to the general populous,” he explains with an odd expression on his face; he looks almost amused, of all things, though Jaime can’t see the joke.
“And that worked?” he snorts, disbelieving.
“Well to be honest, you were missing presumed dead, so most people had more pressing concerns to worry about.”
“I’m surprised she felt the need to say anything at all. Dead men don’t care what people think of them.”
“And yet, as it turns out, those who love the dead men do,” Tyrion snaps back. “Are you really complaining about this?”
“Not at all. It’s good to know that a reputation is as malleable a thing in the new Westeros as it was in the old.”
Tyrion looks briefly indignant and then relaxes into a wry chuckle. “That, I will concede. You’ll find it genuine though, at least where it matters. King’s Landing knows it stands twice over with thanks to you. The North will always be its own beast, but it will be generations before those who fought in the Long Night are forgotten. And here, of course.”
Jaime frowns at that; though Tyrion drops it in as almost an afterthought, it feels a little too forced, like he is making a point without saying so. “On Tarth? Why should the people here care?”
“I won’t have mistruth and rumour spread here,” says Brienne flatly. Her voice is steady but her eyes skitter back and forth, avoiding meeting his gaze and, he realises, dodging Tyrion’s as well.
Tyrion suddenly leaps to his feet and grabs the wine jug. “We need more wine,” he proclaims, though quite who he is speaking to Jaime isn’t certain, especially since he can hear liquid still sloshing about in the pitcher. But he pays Tyrion little heed as he bustles away up the steps; his focus is entirely on Brienne, sitting opposite and twisting her hands together anxiously on the table top. He wants to reach out, still her twitching palms with his own, but in all the years he’s known her there were only ever a few short weeks when he could have been certain of such an intrusion being welcome, and they are as far from that now as they ever were before.
Instead he says softly “Brienne?”, the first time he’s said her name out loud in years, gods he’s missed the shape of it on his tongue, and that finally draws her gaze again. She falters and then smiles, a small, sweet thing, genuine for all that it is an unfamiliar expression on this dearly familiar face.
“It is so good to see you,” she says all in a rush, the words pouring out now she has found them. “Truly, Jaime. I’ve…you’ve been missed, you must know that.”
“I missed you too. Even before I knew what it was I had lost, I knew I was missing it.”
Her smile widens at that and for a moment they just look at each other. Jaime tracks his eyes over her, noting small changes, welcoming familiar sights he had forgotten. Her hair is longer and looser, her face a little more lined, her eyes still the same deep blue. The edge of a faded pink scar pokes out from under her tunic near her neck and it makes him smile to see it, that old familiar friend.
She appears to be doing the same to him, her gaze roving over his face and then moving down, resting momentarily on his hook where it is strapped to his wrist, revealed by the shorter sleeves of his shirt; he remembers dimly that he’d have hidden it, once, under layers of cloth regardless of the heat of the day, and that she would have disapproved that he did. She has always been so much wiser than him.
There’s still something she’s not saying though, and he’s just rallying himself to make a comment on the beauty of Tarth – because apparently after five years apart that’s the sort of asinine small talk she reduces him to – when she takes another leap into conversation.
“Tyrion is trying to give us some privacy, I think,” she begins hesitantly, and that’s another new one; he’s seen her naive, he’s seen her wrong-footed and confused, but he’s never seen her falter so damnably.
He nods his head at that, because five years may pass, regimes may topple and rise, he may lose and regain every part of his past and himself and more besides, and his little brother with still brandish conversational subtlety like a blunt weapon. Brienne grins at the look on his face and he realises abruptly that she now knows this about his bother too, that at some point in the intervening time she has learnt to read Tyrion’s foibles, and to laugh at them as well.
Maybe Tyrion left so that she can tell him they are married.
He needs a moment to process that image.
“You…you saw us with the children, when you arrived,” Brienne continues, eyes once again fixed firmly on the table in front of him rather than on his face; this time, however, he is relieved, because it means she won’t see whatever expression passes over his face as his brain resets and tries to follow this new thread.
“I…yes, yes I did. Pod took them inside.”
Maybe she married Pod. Maybe that’s what she’s trying to find the words for, she married Pod and they’re producing a new generation of the most honourable, loyal knights to ever grace the Kingdoms.
Her eyes are back on his face again now, staring at him intently, like she’s willing him to make some intuitive leap and he’s disappointing her.
“They’re my daughters,” she says, and he’s already nodding, because that isn’t a surprise, with or without Pod; in hindsight he knew it from the moment he saw them, not just in colour and look but the ease and familiarity of their interactions. If he hadn’t been so distracted by the sight of Brienne herself, and Tyrion just beyond, he’d have made the link immediately.
“Congratulations?” he tries, because she’s still looking at him like there’s something he’s just not seeing, but apparently that’s not right at all because she just closes her eyes in frustration and blushes.
“They’re your daughters as well,” she finally forces out, cheeks aflame and refusing to meet his gaze. “Yours and mine. Ours.”