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Ring of Fire

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The prisoner lies unmoving in a darkened tent.

Her wrists and ankles are chained heavily and staked to the dirt below. But they needn’t have bothered. Though she was once as dangerous as anyone alive, there is no spirit left in her now. What lies bound and chained on the ground is only a body.

The prisoner has been a hedge knight, armed and armored. She is also a woman, though one might have to unclothe her to be sure -- tall and broad, well-muscled and masculine, and ugly besides. Her face is scarred horrifically, her body bruised and broken. 

Beauty, they call her mockingly. Once she had been astonished at the consistency of her nickname, how from place to place it would follow her among strangers like a stray dog trailing behind her. No one can resist the irony of blessing her hulking form with a name so delicate and pretty, and every man believes themselves brilliant for thinking of it anew. Here in this camp she no longer takes note of her nickname. She hears very little now.

Since she was brought to the Lannister camp, Brienne has done nothing but lie here lifelessly in the dark.

Soldiers come in from time to time. They sneer at her, check her bindings and change her bandages with rough hands. Each time she expects, dully, that this is when they will beat her, rip the clothes from her, but their manhandling is half-hearted at best and she remains unmolested. Brienne the Beauty is too hideous for that, she is told. There is some grumbling about orders, that she is to be kept undamaged, and that is mockery as well. There is nothing undamaged about her. 

Brienne the Beauty. She knew that woman once. Even that is a distant memory. Now she is Brienne the Beaten, Brienne the Broken. She has betrayed everyone. The Starks will know only that she broke faith with Catelyn Stark and absconded with the Kingslayer. The Brotherhood Without Banners calls her Kingslayer’s Whore and the Lannister Camp calls her beast and traitor. She brought Jaime Lannister to Lady Stoneheart to save her squire Podrick, and now Jaime imprisons her and poor Pod is gone. Hyle Hunt is gone. Her magic sword is gone, her horse and her armor and the shield she had brought with her from Tarth. All gone. She has failed in her knightly quest, failed in her life. Failed King Renly, failed her Lady Catelyn, failed Podrick Payne and Hyle Hunt, failed Jaime Lannister. She has had nothing but her honor to sustain her, and now she has no honor left. 

And what is she without her honor? What use is she, what is the point of her? Without that she is only a body, as battered and broken as it is. Without it she is nothing.

There is nothing more for her in this world but the stubborn insistence of her body to keep living, her lungs still breathing and her heart still beating. But even that will cease, given time. 

That time crawls by while she is awake, and dreaming she slides into horror. 

She is hanging. Hanging and choking and clawing at the air. And all around her are all the people she has failed, in a ring surrounding her. As the rope twists she can see each face in turn, spinning and spinning, and it seems to go on forever. So many faces. Her father, Septon Merribald, Catelyn Stark, Randall Tarly, her old quartermaster, Renly, Ronnet Connington, half a hundred more she cannot put a name to. She wants to beg them all for forgiveness, but she can’t breathe. She pulls urgently at the rope around her neck, trying to loosen it enough to get the words out, but she can only rasp and suck in small gasps of air that taste like death and decay. It goes on and on, the world spinning around her while her life drains out. Kicking, dying, issuing faint, animal cries for mercy.

No matter where her dreams begin they end here, with the agonizing pain of the noose choking the life from her as onlookers cheer. She wakes gasping for air and feeling for the rope around her neck and it is no better. Awake there is no end to her suffering. Her wounds pain her, old and new, and the knowledge of her betrayal pains her even more. Somewhere beyond this tent is Jaime and he will not come to her. Her most painful wound is his, a dagger sunk into her shoulder without hesitation or mercy. It throbs even now, and bleeds through the bandages still tied there.

The last she had seen of him, he had cursed her for a traitor and ordered her capture by his arriving reinforcements, lead by Ser Illyn Payne. Somehow the silent headsman had followed them, when Brienne lead him away, turned back, and brought a rescue party. Somehow he had been in time to stop the Brotherhood from murdering his liege lord. He had not been in time to stop her betrayal of him, his capture at her hands. 

Ser Illyn had dragged her away from Lady Catelyn’s body. Threw Brienne over a horse and rode her roughly to a new camp, somewhere in the Riverlands, she knows not where. She could hardly see her surroundings during the ride for weeping. Then she had been thrust into irons and left here, alone, ever since. 

Periodically a bowl of stew is put before her, which she ignores. She has no stomach for it, no use for food anymore.

A guard kicks her when he comes to collect her bowl. “Eat up, Beauty. The Lord Commander will have my head if you don’t get a meal in you before we march.” Later he kicks her again, but it does not improve her appetite. The bowl is taken away untouched.

She is wasting away, drifting. It is almost peaceful, to leave behind the striving and struggle. Hope is a cruel weight, and without it she is light as a feather.  

But when she closes her eyes…

A weight atop her heavy as a boulder that she cannot lift with all of her strength, pinning her back to the ground. A weight that claws and scrambles and tears into her with teeth like knives. Biter. Biter tearing at her face, Biter eating her flesh. And all around a faceless crowd of soldiers from the Baratheon camp, from the Lannister camp, from the Vale Knights, from every camp she had ever encountered, watching her struggle and die and doing nothing. They could even be cheering, but she cannot hear them over the wet ripping sound of another bite –

Brienne jerks awake from these violent dreams out of breath and with her heart racing. Such terror afflicts her in these moments that she cannot take in when or where she is or what danger exactly surrounds her. She reaches out for Oathkeeper every time, hands fumbling at her waist where her sword-belt should be, at the space beside her where she would keep her blade at the ready. Her magic sword can soothe her at such times, and just to hold it in her hands makes her feel protected and strong. But Oathkeeper is gone. Jaime took it from her, when he locked her in shackles. 

Oathkeeper comforts her as much for its deadly effectiveness as for the memory it brings of the man who bestowed it on her, she is beginning to realize. The blade has been her connection to Jaime, and when she holds it, she feels him with her. Her protector. Her source of strength. Now its absence punctuates the breaking of that connection. Her hands fumbling in the dark cannot find the lion pommel that her fingers know so well, and she remembers again that Jaime despises her.

She remembers this and shuts her eyes against the reality of her surroundings, the hard iron around her wrists and ankles. She would rather sleep and dream of dying than live in a nightmare she cannot wake from. 

Like this she floats in and out of consciousness, not quite awake, becoming more and more unreal.

At last, in the monotony of her drifting days, a well-familiar voice interrupts her half-dreaming state.

“You aren’t eating.”

Jaime Lannister.

She doesn’t look at him, nor reply. In the corner of her eye she can still see his shape hovering there in the flap of the tent, shifting unsteadily, unable to hold still.

“If you intend to spite me by starving to death, you should know it’s a very slow process. We will have reached King’s Landing before that can happen.”

He says it casually, almost conversationally. There is only a hint of the bitterness in his voice that she knows she will see on his face, if she can bring herself to look.

“You have to eat,” he insists strangely.

Why? What would be the point? It doesn’t matter even enough to respond. She just looks at his shadow stretching across the ground, how it reaches past her, carried in the moonlight.

There is a rustling sound, and then movement. The tent flap closes, and the moonlight winks out. The shadow is replaced with fine leather boots, and Brienne has to close her eyes.

Then he is crouching down beside her.

“I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering what to do with you,” Jaime says quietly, directly above her face.

He waits.

“Are you going to ask me what I’ve decided?” He pauses again. She can feel his eyes on her steadily. “No interest?”

His presence sparks something in her, feeble but present. She is more awake than she has been in days. Her wounds ache in his presence. The one in her shoulder sharpest of all. 

“Come now, you are disappointing me. Where has your cunning gone? You playacted so earnestly to entice me to my doom, and now you lay there like a lump. Will you not argue for your release, at least?”

She has nothing to say to that. There is nowhere for her to go, if he releases her. 

He shifts restlessly. Her inaction is upsetting him, she is realizing it slowly but can’t understand. She is so tired. She wants everything to be over.

He repeats his order, a little bit louder. “You have to eat.”

“What for?” she murmurs weakly.

He comes nearer, satisfied perhaps that at last she has responded to him. “Your wounds won’t heal if you don’t eat.”

Her wounds won’t heal anyway. She is more wounds than flesh at this point. Why is he bothering with her? He should go away and let her sleep.

Confused, she opens one eye and takes in his blurry shape. When she glimpses his face she blanches, despite herself. He looks awful. There are dark rings around his eyes, and a cut on his forehead from the melee with the Brotherhood. He looks pale and exhausted, aged, haunted. 

“You stabbed me,” she says in a hoarse whisper.

He makes a noise that resembles a laugh, but sounds a little more like a punch in the stomach. “You betrayed me. How else should I respond?”

Does that make them even? Probably not. She is chained to a stake in the ground. That does not suggest forgiveness is in the offering.

He goes on. “Let’s have it then, your excuses. You did not mean to do it. You were forced into it. Your liege lady commanded you and you had to obey. Which tale will you go with? Tell it to me.”

Jaime’s voice breaks on this last and he glares at her, furious, or so she thinks.

It will do no good. She could tell him any number of things, and it will not matter. Her reasons are not reason enough, and anyway he will not believe her. 

She stays silent, watching him.

“Do you mean to die now? Is that what this is?” His words are heavier now, laden with feeling. “After all this? You should be enjoying your victory. You had me fooled, Brienne of Tarth. You made me believe in honor and justice again. Me, the Oathbreaker, the man without honor. A stunning achievement. You should be proud.”

He doesn’t wait for her to reply this time. 

“I suppose I should thank you. Here I have been wasting my time trying to make a hero of myself, and you have reminded me of what I truly am. It does not matter what I do, my whole life long. I shall always be a villain. The Smiling Knight forever.”

He laughs at it again, and it is awful.

“How is it you are suffering so? Do you mourn your liege lady? Don’t take well to imprisonment? Sore loser? Or do you expect a cruel fate at my hands? Shall I tell you what I have planned?”

She doesn’t mean to speak. The words slip out without her notice, accusingly.

“You stabbed me.”

Jaime seizes her by the shoulders. He moves so suddenly she jerks in surprise, gasping audibly. Before she knows quite what’s happened, he is atop her, holding her down. His lips are pursed in grim determination. But his eyes are wild.

“The neck,” he tells her through gritted teeth, his voice lowered, “will kill at the slightest cut. The groin will spit blood to ten paces and empty you in under a minute. The belly - that would kill you slowly. The knee, that long cord at the ankle, you’d live, but you’d never walk rightly again. But here –”

He pushes his hand into her wound roughly, painfully, until his hand is bloody and she is wincing so hard her face nearly collapses in on itself.

“- this will heal,” he finishes, with great emphasis. “It will heal.”

He glares at her, wild with worry, completely unable to look away. 

Her mind reassembles itself slowly. Takes in what he has said. 

“I would have-” she tries to say, but he stops her. He cannot help himself.

“You didn’t. And now no one we left alive will believe you came willingly. My forces destroyed the Brotherhood, killed their leader, and took you prisoner. When you escape the villainous Kingslayer in the Riverlands you can safely journey North, or wherever decent people go now.”

She swallows several objections, her sluggish mind parsing through his intentions. 

He manages to sound accusing and spiteful even as he offers her a lifeline. She cannot understand it.

Escape. He means her to escape. He means to let her go? Why?

“And if I don’t?” she manages to ask.

“We don’t keep prisoners. Do you want to be hanged again?”

She turns her face away from him. That, she does not want. Anything but that.

His hands holding her down grow heavier. The metal hand and the flesh one.

“We will march soon for King’s Landing, and there is no reason I should ever see you again. Is there anything you would tell me? This is your last chance.”

Brienne looks back up at him, as much as it pains her. She owes him that at least.

She remembers the look on his face when the Brotherhood took him. It was not merely betrayal, it was injury. A wound struck to the core of him, one he would never forgive. She saw only then how completely he had trusted her, and how badly she was breaking him.

She had not thought, in her wildest imaginings, that she could ever hurt him that way. Even knowing she would betray him, she had not known how much he would be damaged by it. She shouldn’t have the capacity for that, the power over him. And yet there he was, wounded.

She thinks on it and she looks directly into his eyes, something she has never quite dared to do. Like everything else about him, they are stunning - the green so green, his eyelashes long and delicate and pretty. He is too much for her, she cannot take him in. He burns too bright to look on directly. He is too beautiful, too volatile, too… Jaime. 

She has hardly strength enough to raise her voice, but she spends it here. It is the only thing she wants him to know. 

“Jaime… I am so very sorry…”

Right away she sees that there is nothing she could have said to pain him more. For a moment, he wavers. All around his eyes his face tightens into an expression of deep sorrow. Behind his grass-green eyes she can see the wound that she has struck, raw and bleeding. Then his jaw clenches, and he swallows hard, and he makes himself smile. An awful, painful smile.

“Call me Kingslayer.” 

Then he releases her and rises slowly to his feet. He leaves her alone in the tent, and the nightmare continues.

 


The scars of your love remind me of us
They keep me thinking that we almost had it all
The scars of your love, they leave me breathless
I can't help feeling
We could have had it all

(Rolling in the Deep, Adele)