Chapter 1: The Scars of Your Love, They Leave Me Breathless
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.”
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.
“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)
Chapter 2: After every plan had failed and there was nothing more to tell
It seems she will live after all.
Her body is stubborn. For all the damage done to it, it clings robustly to life. It does not require any desire on her part to live, it just goes on doing it. Her wounds close and bones mend, and day by day there is less pain than before.
Even after days without food, she does not simply fade away. She lingers, she feels. There is not much to see in her darkened tent where she is staked to the ground, but she sees anyway. She thinks of the white beaches of Tarth and the waves breaking on the shore, and they are as real to her as her hand before her face. She can hear the roaring of the surf and smell the salt in the air. Remember, her mind is telling her. Tarth is still there. You can see it again.
In time she is hungry. It does not rouse her right away, but grows slowly and steadily until it seems to consume her entire being, slowly tormenting her awake until she eats the food they have brought her simply to be rid of the feeling. Again her body has made her choices for her, and she will have to go along with it. After that, she eats whatever’s offered her, even if a bit sullenly. It makes her feel more herself, and she will need her strength if she is going to go on being alive.
Then they bring her heart back to her.
Two soldiers, heavy-handed, not knowing what riches they carry, lift the flap of her tent. They call out to her and when Brienne looks up she sees in silhouette a small figure, a boy, held between them.
“Pod!” The name escapes her lips like a bark of pain. Pod is dead. It cannot be. This is a cruel trick.
“My lady ser!” The boy squirms in the guards’ grasp, kicking at the air.
They jerk him this way and that and finally release him; the boy hits the ground running and rushes straight for Brienne.
Podrick falls on her weeping so hard she can barely make out what he is saying. “My lady Ser, after that night I thought you were surely dead. When I learned the Lannisters had you I came to help.”
Over them the soldiers frown. “He was trying to rescue you. He managed to injure two of us. Not very badly - he isn’t much with a blade.”
Brienne holds him at arm’s length and looks him over, trembling. “You are unhurt? How is this possible?”
The boy hiccups, tears and snot running down his face. “I was playing dead, my lady. When the fighting started I took a blow to the head and fell down, but it seemed sensible to stay there. I saw milord Jaime hit you with his dagger and you went down too. I laid still amongst the bodies until the shouting stopped and the soldiers rode away. Next morning I looked and looked for you and you weren’t anywhere. I thought you must have burnt up, with the Dread Lady.” He sniffles and looks utterly miserable.
Brienne wipes at his face with her sleeve. “I am well, Pod,” she lies. “What about Ser Hyle?”
He shakes his head no. She does not inquire further.
“The Brotherhood is gone. The soldiers killed a lot of them and the rest ran. The Red Priest went off into the woods. I was too scared to go very far at first and then I couldn’t find where they had gone, but I saw Lannister banners at Pennytree and I followed them back here. I’m sorry Ser, I meant to rescue you but I failed.”
She holds onto the lad tightly. “Thank you,” she tells him over and over. He tried to save her. At least he tried.
The guards shift restlessly as they embrace, until at last they seem to lose patience. “You will come now and join the other boys, squire. There are some lads your age we are keeping in this camp, and you will sleep with them.”
A fierceness that Brienne does not recognize rises up suddenly within her. With new strength she raises her voice. “You keep children as prisoners? Have you no honor? Let the boy go. He is no danger to you.”
They are unmoved. “We’ll take good care of him. Come on now.”
“Please, at least allow him to stay with me!” she pleads with them. Here, she can protect him, even if she cannot set him free. With one arm she pushes the boy behind her, showing more resistance on his behalf than she had ever shown for herself.
But too many hands grab at him, drag him up and away from her. “He will stay with the others. Come now.”
Brienne snarls at them like an angry mongrel, and pulls at her bindings, but she cannot prevent the soldiers taking him away. Not while she is chained and weakened by injury. They push her aside easily, and Pod slips from her grasp.
"Don't worry, milady Ser. Don't worry," she can hear him saying, outside the tent, and again, further into the distance.
Angry with herself, and angry with everything, she sits down hard on the ground.
No more of this.
She recovers herself in earnest after that. Podrick needs her; she must be strong, alert. If indeed she is given the opportunity to leave, or even if she is not, she must escape. Wherever Pod and these other children are imprisoned, she will free them. They will return to the road, find somewhere safe to ride out the winter.
From then on she eats, she stretches her legs and lifts her arms. She tests how her wounds are healing, demands a change in bandages. She watches, she listens. How many men guard her, which part of the camp she is kept in, she tries to form a picture of it in her mind.
The next morning they march.
Well, Brienne does not march - she rides in a wagon with the army provisions, her hands bound. Around her the Lannister army is on the move, men on foot and horseback with arms and provisions, moving slowly but steadily from morning to night. It is a monotonous journey but the ride is almost pleasant – the chilly air and dim sunshine are refreshing after so long in a darkened tent, and they return her strength to her rapidly. She still winces at every jolt, the wagon bumping over the snowy terrain reminding her of every wound she carries. But it is less and less, and day by day she is stronger.
This will heal, Jaime had said.
When Brienne has strength enough, she might leap from the wagon and make a run for it. But she does not know where they are keeping Podrick, and so she will wait. She does not know what she is waiting for, but she will know the moment when it arrives.
When you escape the villainous Kingslayer in the Riverlands you can safely journey North, or wherever decent people go now.
Jaime Lannister rides at the front of the army on his destrier Glory, a magnificent grey stallion dressed in the crimson of his house. His golden hair shimmers with flakes of snow when she catches sight of him, and his mien is grim and serious. He does not look upon her.
Perhaps he means her to take the initiative, and get herself out of his sight. Part of her wants to do it, to run away and away and never come back. Another part of her simply wants him to look on her again, just once more. Let her tell him again how she had agonized over her choice, so that he might despise her just a little bit less. One ounce of forgiveness, and she will ask for nothing more in all her life.
Jaime does not come back to her.
While they are stopped at the end of each day Brienne stares at the tent flap well into the night but he does not appear. Only her meals come to her, and she finishes them. She stands, cautiously, so much as her chains will allow, and moves her body experimentally, testing her limits. She must be strong for Pod.
After several days of marching, when the sun is dipping in the sky and they stop to make camp, Brienne is left behind in the wagon to contemplate the sunset until they have put up her tent and prepared her shackles. But this time the guards who have staked her into the ground each night and left her, they instead bring her to the Commander’s tent and bid her stand between them, her hands bound together.
She is filthy, her hair caked with dirt, and her own blood is still dried on her clothing, on her skin. Amongst the finery of the Lord Commander’s tent, where everything is clean and polished and fine, she feels even more unkempt and ungainly. She stands between her guards and slumps, her chin nearly resting on her collarbone.
The Lord Commander takes no note of her, seemingly. His armor is gleaming, his crimson cloak spotless at the edge of her vision. He stands behind a fine desk that they have seemingly carried across the Riverlands for him. All around him is crimson and gold, the ghastly colors of House Lannister. In the torchlight the billowing walls look bloody and foreboding.
He scrawls orders and hands them to men who run eagerly out of the room. He takes messages from other men who come running in. Something is happening of great import, she gathers, and it must have to do with where they are headed to. She hears fleet and Golden Company, and references to someone called Aegon. Named for the dead prince? There is an invasion, it seems, by some other forces who march under the Targaryen banner. Brienne hadn’t thought there were any Targaryens left. Regardless, someone is marching on King’s Landing, and the Lannister forces are racing back to the capital to aid in its defense.
After a time of quiet conference with his men, Lord Lannister raises his voice just loud enough for her to hear. “We camp at Maidenpool tomorrow, and then to King’s Landing. Set camp just south of the hills, a good distance from the hamlet - there are Tully supporters sheltering there, and we should not court skirmishes at this time. We will have battles enough ahead of us when we reach the capital.”
Brienne listens carefully. Tully supporters. Might she reach them there, and travel with them North? If she tells them she has escaped from the Lannister camp, will they believe her? She does not know what news has traveled of the Brotherhood’s demise, whether she is denounced a traitor or praised an ally of that grim fellowship. The Brotherhood had hung her, but would anyone still living know that?
Again Jaime’s voice cuts into her whirling thoughts. “The Riverlands are riled after we dispersed the Brotherhood, but we left few survivors to tell the tale and none would know what precisely occurred. We should not antagonize them, but I do not expect any trouble.”
Though he does not look at her, she knows for certain this last is aimed precisely at her. He may stand surrounded by his men, and speaks to them, the words are meant for her ears.
Brienne’s eyes widen. He has summoned her here to seemingly no purpose other than to overhear this information. Why is he doing this?
His eyes, flickering briefly in her direction, capture this reaction and as quickly shut it down. With a dismissive gesture he addresses the guards at her elbows. “Take the oathbreaker back to her cell. I can’t stand to look on her a moment longer.”
Tomorrow, she thinks again. Tomorrow I must escape. And then Jaime will march on and I will never see him again.
“My lord,” she speaks up as her guards take her by the arm, “don’t you wish to interrogate me? There is much that I can tell you.”
Let me explain. I’ll tell you everything. Only give me a chance.
He dismisses her with a wave of his hand. “I know all I need to.”
“At least free the boy,” she suddenly pleads, and at her plaintive tone her captors slow and stop. “He has raised no arms against you.”
Jaime hands a new missive over, and several of his lieutenants rush from the tent.
Desperately, she raises her voice. “Please, Ser. He had no part in my actions. He was a prisoner of the Brotherhood just as you were. He is a cousin to your Ser Illyn, is he not? His name is Podrick Payne.”
“I know,” the Lord Commander responds, finally, without looking up from his missive. “I know very well who I have taken into this camp. Ser Illyn has little use for a squire and less for a child, so he is staying with the other boys. I spoke to the lad myself and he seems in good health.”
He interrogated poor Podrick? Brienne is incensed. Her hands form fists at her sides, at least partly in frustration that even now he will not look at her, and she draws herself up straight and tall. “You would imprison and question a child? How many children have you taken from their homes, that they have their own jailers?”
Several unpleasant expressions pass across his face in succession. The last is harder, and angrier.
The letter falls to his ledger forgotten, as Jaime rises up from his desk and approaches her in sharp strides. “The boy,” he tells her firmly, stopping just before her, “is comfortable. We had a perfectly pleasant conversation, no tortures involved. You can ask him of it yourself.” He holds her gaze firmly now, his green eyes steely and sharp.
There is now none of the desperate anguish he had shown when he had come to her in her tent. At once he is every inch the military commander, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, sworn knight and liege lord, the legend. And in his beautiful, disdainful gaze, she is nothing and noone.
Though she wants to falter, she stands her ground. Looks right back, and does not blink. “Did he tell you what happened with the Brotherhood?”
“He tells me you were forced to betray me to save his life.”
For the first time, Brienne feels a spark of hope. Surely he must believe Podrick’s tale, he is only a boy, and too frightened to lie. “Then you believe us?”
His smile is cutting. “I’ve decided that your actions were more in stupidity than malice, yes.”
“Stupidity, Ser?” She gapes at him, shocked. “I had no other choice!”
He stands uncomfortably close now. She can feel the heat of his body, he is so near.
“You might have asked me for help.”
Brienne blinks rapidly, thunderstruck by the simplicity of the idea, which she had so quickly dismissed at the time.
“Ask you to willingly make yourself a hostage? To save two people you had never met? I had assumed you would say no.”
His eye twitches subtly, almost invisibly. His voice sounds dispassionate, but he is clearly not. “Did it not occur to you there were other solutions? I have an army, we might have simply invaded their camp.”
She falters. It sounds so reasonable now. It might have worked. But no, she had considered that too.
“They would have killed Pod and Ser Hyle the second they saw your soldiers,” she emphasizes.
“And you wouldn’t risk them.”
“But you could risk me.” He lands on the last word like a blow, and there, there it is, the hurt. His face tightens, and he swallows. The wound her betrayal opened bleeds still, though he covers it well.
There’s no way to respond to this accusation, because obviously she could take that risk. She did. She hadn’t thought of it that way because she had no intention of letting any harm come to him. She had some idea that if she played along, followed their rules, honor would show her the way to get them all clear of it alive. She would have risked any kind of harm to herself to make that happen. Maybe it was stupidity, after all.
She bites her lip hard, and then tries to explain. “They told me there were spies in your camp, loyal to the Brotherhood, and if I tried to warn you they would kill us all.”
He scoffs, stepping back from her. “What would they need you for then? Why not have these ‘spies’ murder me themselves? There is no sense to your story.”
Brienne hangs her head again, has to look away. “I know it makes little sense, Ser. I think they meant only to be as cruel as possible. They wanted to take you alive, for their sport.”
Jaime laughs. “I gathered that. I saw enough of their sport before my men came to my rescue.”
He had. The Brotherhood had put him in stocks, kicked him, spat on him. And Lady Stark had– but it wasn’t really Lady Stark. It was a monster.
His cruel smile tightens; he is remembering the same scene, she knows it. How it must have looked from his position. How nightmarish. And her the cause of it, leading him blithely to his doom.
Accusingly, he goes on. “If Ser Ilyn hadn’t followed us your Brotherhood would have roasted me on a spit. Or worse.”
As earnestly as she can, she insists: “I would never have allowed that.”
“Forgive me if I don’t find that especially comforting,” he snaps. “I don’t fault you for trading a Kingslayer’s life for that of an innocent child. But you cannot expect me to trust in you after that. Not ever again.”
“But you can,” Brienne says breathlessly. “I swear to you that you can.”
“Swear it on what? Your honor?”
She flinches. Brienne takes a deep breath, fighting to keep her voice from quavering like a child’s. “You march to battle at the capital, I heard you say. Return the sword to me and I will aid you.”
Jaime takes no time to consider her offer. “No. I will find another to wield Oathkeeper. You are not worthy of it.”
Her vision blurs. She closes her eyes over the tears but it can’t stop them trickling down her face. The best she can do is stay silent and not break out sobbing, though the sobs are there, caught in her chest like an animal in a trap.
“Take her back over the hillside,” she hears Jaime say, and this time she allows the guards to lead her away.
The hillside is not a convenient way back to her shackles. It requires that she be led outside the camp and a little way up an incline, so that she can see against the setting sun the entirety of the camp spread out before her, and to the other side a grassy valley dusted with a layer of snow.
She sees them over the rise now, through the tears still shimmering in her eyes. A small crowd of boys running together freely over the valley, playing some sort of game. Sliding in the snow, crashing into one another purposefully. Their laughter and shouting reaches her on the wind, and she thinks she can hear Pod’s amongst them, where he races towards their shared goal.
These boys don’t look like prisoners. They look more like wards of the camp, and well cared-for. They aren’t locked up anywhere. They look happy.
“Call them back for supper,” one of her jailers says to the other, “and take this one back to the holding tent.”
Brienne lies on her back in the holding tent and her tears dry on her face. She had it wrong about the children, clearly. And he wanted her to know it. It bothered Jaime that she would think that of him. Her opinion of him still matters at least this much. He cannot entirely hate her, if that is so.
But Oathkeeper… she opens and closes her hand at her side and she can still feel the place where the lion’s head pressed against her palm, feel the weight of it in her muscles, the perfect balance of it as the blade cut through the air. Her magic sword. She will never hold such a blade again.
He is right; she is not worthy of a valyrian sword. What has she ever done but fail? Fail repeatedly and worse, and become ever more ragged and battered in the process. She has been a poor knight; she has broken all her oaths and lost her honor.
Maybe Pod would be better off here. With boys his own age, safe and well fed and out of danger.
She might believe that, except that they are marching into some kind of battle at King’s Landing. Surely the Crown forces, added to House Lannister banners, can handle any sort of attack with ease, but the thought of Podrick squiring for some stranger fills her with frustration and worry. Podrick came to help her; she must become worthy of that. She will have to find her way back to honor, and bring Pod with her.
Perhaps someday, with great striving, she will accomplish something deserving of the faith that has been placed in her, and in so doing earn it back.
Maybe then Jaime will forgive her.
The boys are dumping snow over each other when she sees them next, in the morning, when she has been allowed to relieve herself outside. Two smaller ones had filled a bucket with snow and overturned it on an older boy when he stopped to fix his boot. Then they had all shrieked and run, gathering snow midstride and forming hurried snowballs to fling at one another.
She stops to look at them, fixing her trousers between the guards perpetually at her elbow. Then she hears laughter, so familiar it makes her ache.
Brienne turns to look for him, could not have stopped herself turning to him if she had tried. She finds Jaime standing not far away. He looks like he has just risen from his bed, not yet fully dressed in his commander’s gear. His golden hair is slightly wet and in disarray, as though he has just splashed water across his face. He must have been passing by and, like her, stopped to watch their antics.
When he notices her his laughter dies. For a moment he just looks at her, and she looks at him.
Then he gestures after the shouting boys. “Noble sons of the Riverlands. They’re intended to be hostages, but I have more or less forgotten to imprison them, and they have more or less forgotten to escape. I suppose we will have to leave them behind soon, when we march to King’s Landing. I think the men will miss their adventures, when they are gone.”
She speaks up quickly. “I mistook you Ser. About the boys. My apologies.”
He nods shortly, with some visible satisfaction, but without meeting her eyes.
“My squire has neglected me,” Jaime says, gesturing to his disheveled state. He sounds far better humored than the day prior. “He has been running about with the boys, supposedly monitoring your young Podrick. Well, I won’t begrudge Peck a few more months of playing in the snow. One can’t do it forever, and he will be of age soon, and I’ll have to knight him. No more snowballs after that.”
He stops himself. Turns his head away. It seems he must remind himself to be angry with her, and not to fall back into the kind of easy rapport they once had.
In profile, the morning light warms his face, draws out the gold in his hair. His undershirt hugs his shoulders, accentuating his lean, muscular form. Again she is struck with the notion that he is the Warrior come to life.
But still he is downcast, troubled. And she is the cause.
Her heart pounds in her ears, drowning out all else. She must try again. What can she do? What can she possibly say to make up for what she has done? It clearly pains him, though not so much as it pains her. This double-edged blade they are both gripping onto, when perhaps they should let it go.
“Why are you doing this?” Brienne says finally. She checks to one side and another; her guards are watching the boys burying a smaller boy in the snow. Then she continues in an undertone. “I know you have not forgiven me. Would you really help me now? You would release me to your enemies, where I could do any amount of damage to you?”
Jaime laughs. It is a mirthless laugh, one she has heard him give many times before she understood how much it concealed behind it. “I don’t know why. I suppose…” he trails off. His green eyes appear uncertain, and then he is turning entirely away. “I suppose I’m a great golden fool.”
Before she can reply, he is disappearing into his tent.
The ride to Maidenpool is uneventful and she dozes through much of it, rocking back and forth in the provisions wagon. As they reach the edges of the Riverlands the road becomes smoother, and in contrast the snow falls heavier. The horizon turns white, and a terrible quiet falls over the countryside.
She wakes with a jolt when they begin to unpack the wagon. Dazed, she climbs out from the back, sees in the distance the smoke and movement of the hamlet in the fading afternoon light, and shivers in the icy breeze.
Maidenpool. Where Tully sympathizers might receive her. Jaime told her she would escape, and this is where she will do it. Perhaps in the night, when everyone is asleep. Perhaps right now, while they are unpacking the wagon. She stands and stares at a puff of smoke lazily lifting into and merging with the cloudy sky.
“You stink,” today’s guard tells her, when he grabs her by the arm. She could throw him to the ground if she wanted, but she does not.
In her tent she sits and thinks, and watches the tent flap all night long.
In the morning they bypass the breakfast cookfire and the ditch where the soldiers have done their business.
“We’re taking you to bathe in the brook while the others strike camp,” her morning guards say.
You must want me to freeze to death, she thinks. No stream would be bearable in this cold. But she does not think on it much at all as she walks between their armored shoulders, their blonde heads bobbing several inches below hers. She only walks, and watches her breath cloud the air. Inside she is quiet and blank as untouched snow.
Behind a stand of trees, her companions prod her forwards. They will remain here. She is to keep walking.
There before her, through the trees, is the brook. Unfrozen as yet, though no doubt as cold as ice, and babbling merrily. Waiting beside it is Jaime, in his fine commander’s armor, and nearby him nibbling at a spare patch of grass stands a pretty chestnut mare.
For a moment she cannot move.
Of course he kept his word. He had not even really given it, but somehow she had never doubted him.
She walks to him like a sleepwalker, slowly. He does not hear her at first, over the sound of water. Not until she is close enough that she could easily overpower him, if she had wanted to. They are alone here together, and she is at his back, and he is unguarded. Relaxed, unconcerned. It is in a way an accusation, and an admission.
“This is where you escape,” he tells her, turning. His eyes are so impossibly green.
Here? Now? But Jaime is riding straight to King’s Landing to defend it, and she will have no more plausible opportunities to run away.
“I cannot leave without Pod,” she protests, and he smiles.
“I know.” Jaime gestures behind her, into the trees.
When Podrick appears through the trees, he is breathless with laughter, his cheeks ruddy, and she almost doesn’t recognize the quiet, downcast boy who had followed her from King’s Landing. Beside him is an older boy, taller and skinnier, with just the beginnings of a beard. He grabs Pod around the shoulders affectionately and rubs his head, mussing his hair in all directions. They look more like brothers than a chaperone and a captive.
Her heart grows even heavier, seeing that.
“It was the worst thing I have ever done,” she says suddenly, very aware of Jaime standing at her side. “Lying to you. I hated it, and I hated myself for doing it. If there had been any other way –”
“You did the right thing,” he says, solemn, still watching Podrick and Peck. “The right thing is often the worst thing, I can tell you that better than anyone.”
She wonders then what he is thinking - is this why he is helping her now? Is he comparing her to his younger self, her soiled reputation like his own?
“Peck,” Jaime says to the older boy. “Did you bring it?”
“Of course, Ser.” The older boy takes something out from under his arm. “The boys were quite impressed with it, like you said. I had to fight to keep them from running off with it themselves, once we snuck it out of the armory.”
“Good work.” Jaime takes the linen-wrapped item from his squire. “I assume you took the opportunity to try it out yourself?”
The skinny lad looks abashed, and Jaime claps him on the shoulder. “Of course you did.”
Podrick, grinning, ambles to Brienne’s side and squeezes her arm. He looks like he’s had a fine time. “Ready to go?” he asks her.
Still, she hesitates. "Are we to take the horse?"
He nods. "The horse, and the equipment we left strapped to it. Your old armor is bashed to pieces, but there is a large chestpiece and pauldrons pillaged from your friends in the Brotherhood. As well as a helm I think you'll recognize. You'll be well-equipped for the journey North."
“But I – I don’t have –”
"You do." Jaime hands her the wrapped bundle. “This is how you got away. Your squire snuck away from his games and attacked Peck here, and he found you bathing in the brook. Or something like that, I’ll work out the details.”
She knows the weight of it immediately. Oathkeeper. He’s giving it back to her. “But you said –”
He cuts her off. “You won’t get far in the Riverlands without a blade.”
“Not this blade.” She tries to meet his eyes. “I cannot wield this sword and call it Oathkeeper when I betrayed you with it.”
He keeps his grass-green eyes on their hands, where he pushes the sword at her. “You can. You swore me no oath, so no oaths were broken.”
I could swear new oaths, she thinks. I could swear them to you. It strikes her that there is nearly nothing she would not do for him, if he only asked. In that moment she knows herself better than perhaps she ever has, knows that all she has ever wanted was for someone to rely on her, to have complete faith in her. Jaime had that once, and now it is gone. He will not ask.
“Thank you,” she whispers. How do you thank someone for your life? For being in it, even if only briefly? Words seem insufficient. She wanted it to be him. She wanted to restore him to honor and to have his admiration for it, wanted that as much as she had ever wanted Renly’s regard. More, if she is honest.
If he says something, she tells herself. If he says anything, even one word, I will stay.
But Jaime says nothing more. Not to her. He and his squire help Pod to mount the chestnut mare, and he is advising the boy to keep working on his swordplay, if his rescue attempt was any indication he is going to need a lot more practice.
Brienne straps Oathkeeper to the fine leather saddle and watches Jaime for any sign. But he’s not even looking at her. If he’s not looking at Pod or Peck he’s looking up at the treetops, at the sky. Anywhere but her. It seems there is nothing left for either of them to say. So she mounts the chestnut horse behind Podrick and rides away.
If your memory serves you well
We're going to meet again and wait
So I'm going to unpack all my things
And sit before it gets too late
No man alive will come to you
With another tale to tell
And you know that we shall meet again
If your memory serves you well
- "This Wheel's On Fire", Bob Dylan
Chapter 3: Love is a Burning Thing
Jaime rides on towards King's Landing, preparing for the coming battle with Aegon Targaryen, and tries to put Brienne out of his mind.
He is riding away from her. Farther and farther away.
Jaime Lannister leads his battalion across the Crownlands, riding at the fore. Glory trots along quite amiably, at pace with hundreds of other horses around him. The road ahead of them is clear and straight, and his horse needs no guidance to follow it. Without his needing to move a muscle, at every moment Brienne is farther away. He can feel the distance stretching between them like she is still holding onto him somehow and pulling with all her might. He has felt it ever since she had left him this morning.
It hurts. Like a steadily increasing stomachache, only it’s some other organ down there in his gut. If there is a structure in the body that secretes devotion like eyes spill tears, it is surely there, somewhere in his belly, and it is contracting violently, whispering at him to turn around and go back. But his gut is perpetually wrong, and cannot be trusted. This is exactly what he wants, to be getting away from Brienne as fast as he can. If it hurts, well, Jaime is quite accustomed to being hurt by the things he wants.
They ride for King’s Landing, and the ache simmers inside him like a low fire. But there is enough else to occupy his mind, and surely it will fade into the background, unimportant, beside the urgency of a Targaryen invasion.
His squire is watching him worriedly from his palfrey nearby, and Jaime straightens under the young man’s scrutiny. Smiles at him until his squire grins cautiously back, and spurs his horse to ride over to the flanks. There, that’s more like it. Lord Lannister is no lovesick boy pining after some maiden. He made a foolish mistake, but fortunately it has cost him little. A few days away from his post, some chagrin before his men, and this wretched ache in his gut. That is nothing he can’t recover from.
His squire is riding, he notes, much more smoothly than he did when last they rode the Kingsroad, leaving the capital. He has grown tremendously in these months. Just as he had told Brienne, he will have to knight him sometime soon, Peck. Else some other knight will do it, and deny him the honor. He has been a good squire, and Jaime will regret losing him.
Does he hope for it? Jaime wonders. At his age I thirsted for battle, and if there are truly Targaryens on the march there will be some promise of glory. If he knights him today, Peck will have to fight for his King. He will probably have to fight either way, but as a squire he will keep to the periphery, and a knight will be expected to charge on horseback, into the thick of the fighting. But Peck has not shown any remarkable talent at swordplay, not as Jaime had when Ser Arthur Dayne had knighted him. Not that, not yet. Let him squire a little bit longer.
To his right flank, Ser Ilyn Payne rides on his own black destrier. Jaime has seen little of him since the conflagration with the Brotherhood. Purposefully so. While assuredly the man had saved his life by following when Brienne had lead him into capture, Jaime has some inexplicable resentment over it.
As well, he expects to see some reproach on the silent knight's pox-marked face, for Jaime's own ill judgement. Ser Ilyn had witnessed exactly how easily he had been taken captive, and by what means. Silent though he may be, the man knows entirely too much. When Ser Ilyn rouses himself from the stupor of the road and looks back in his direction, Jaime hurriedly turns away.
His eyes drift to the wagon where the sons of the Riverlands are riding, where until this morning Podrick Peck had sat chattering and playing at dice with the other boys. What will he do with the hostages when they ride to battle? They could squire for his men. But if he loses any of them in battle, he will lose the cooperation of their parents as well.
I think Peck was sorry to see young Podrick go, Jaime thinks. His squire had taken the smaller boy under his wing, and the younger Payne had looked up to him with the kind of hero worship reserved by young boys for older, not-quite-grown boys. Peck enjoyed that attention, clearly. Podrick still had a starry-eyed eagerness that his squire would be just outgrowing. An innocence.
Jaime had spoken with the child as well, the night they had caught him sneaking into the camp. A scared and reticent boy to begin with, with a fearful glaze and a pronounced stammer that could make one wonder if he had lost his wits. But with only a little encouragement, he had turned into a fair chatterbox. Jaime had been startled to learn that the boy had squired for his brother during the Battle of the Blackwater; it had been he that saved Tyrion's life, though not his nose. Timid he may be, but the young squire does not lack for bravery. It seems he had left King’s Landing looking for Tyrion, and followed the Maid of Tarth in hopes that her quest would lead him there. His brother had been good to him, Podrick said.
As not many people have been, I’ll wager. Cast-off of a cast-off of House Payne, small for his age, and guileless as a newborn.
Jaime had offered the boy a berth in his army. He could squire for Jaime’s cousin Addam Marbrand, or at least apprentice to someone in his camp, earn his keep. He would not be a hostage like the Riverlands’ noble sons, but he could still run about and play with them, as he seems to enjoy doing. I suspect the boy has not done much of that either, he notes.
Pod refused his offer, however. He said, with some hesitation, that he hopes Lord Tyrion is well, and thanked Ser Jamie for the kind offer, but he would rather stay with Lady Brienne, wherever she will be. He had a fair cavalcade of praise for the lady, which Jaime had endured without comment. All in all, he seems a good lad. Loyal. From what little he saw, they are quite tightly bonded, the boy and his lady knight.
He ought to feel better knowing that. If he was to be sacrificed for another, at least the other was a good-hearted and clearly beloved child. It could have been Lem Lemoncloak.
It does not make him feel any better.
He had gritted his teeth to look upon the boy, to be honest. Can one be jealous of a child? But Podrick very obviously had his lady’s regard, and Jaime does not.
He has only just learned how much the wench meant to him, and how comparatively little he had meant to her in return. For her, at a moment’s notice, he had thrown over his family, his house, his responsibilities, to follow her into the Riverlands on the flimsiest of excuses, all because he thought she needed his help. It had been startlingly easy to do it, and as he walked away from his life he had felt lighter and merrier with every step.
What a fool he had been. As it turns out, she would not do the same for him - no, he was no more than a hostage himself, intended to free the companions she valued more. This boy, and that Hunt fellow, a hedge knight of some sort, who awaited them at the Dread Lady’s gallows. Brienne had risked a great deal to come and find him, but the risk had not been for his sake.
But no matter. She is gone now and he will not see her again. He will return to his life and go about forgetting her. That should make these feelings stop. It will have to end sometime, the sharp sting of betrayal, and that time will come much sooner without the constant reminder of her presence. With time he will stop thinking of her, and it will be like he had never met that stubborn, ugly beast of a woman.
This is not making him feel any better either. Cheer up, he tells himself, tomorrow you may die.
The Targaryen pretender has already taken Storm’s End in a rout. This “Aegon” has a band of supporters and a hired troop of mercenaries, the Golden Company, and at last word was riding out to face Mace Tyrell and the Crown forces. Of course it isn’t Aegon Targaryen - Jaime knows all too well the babe was slaughtered, skull crushed against the wall by his father’s creature The Mountain - but he reportedly looks the part, with the Targaryen hair and eyes. Perhaps he is some unknown cousin, some lost branch of the Targaryen family tree using Aegon’s name. Should Westeros be nostalgic for the relative peace of Targaryen rule, they might find the young man very persuasive.
He turns the details over and again in his mind. The Golden Company, a fearful force, and Targaryen banners stirring the populace to rebellion. They could be marching into a battle they cannot hope to win. Impossible to tell from the increasingly vehement missives he has received from the Queen Regent. She commands him to victory, but does she truly expect it? As has been amply demonstrated to him recently, he cannot expect even his closest allies to place much value on his safety. After all, what does anyone care if the Kingslayer should die?
My sweet sister would summon me regardless. She has shown that often enough. As coin she would spend me on a hopeless trial by combat merely to flaunt her purse. No doubt my beheading at the gates of King’s Landing would be just as gloriously pointless.
Cersei, it seems, wants him to return to her side directly, mostly to serve as her personal bodyguard. She is increasingly obsessed with some prophecy that the children will all be murdered and her choked to death at Tyrion’s hands. Hearing that Tyrion himself is approaching the city has sent her into a kind of frenzy. Her last letter was nearly incomprehensible, raving.
Yes, that had been the last bit of news the Spider had passed along, with the rest of his whispers: his own brother Tyrion rides with Aegon, and advises the Targaryen pretender how best to defeat their House in battle. That was the lowest blow, and it had knocked his usual confidence right out of him. Jaime does not fear battle, but he dreads this confrontation.
If one side wins, his sister and son are dethroned and probably executed. If the other side wins, he will have to kill his brother. Jaime loses either way.
He should not worry about defeat. The Crown forces are superior, and King’s Landing is by design a difficult city to take. By any rights the enemy should be routed before he even arrives. But his brother is fearsomely clever, and he was Hand. He defended King’s Landing against Stannis Baratheon, and a man who knows how to hold the city will know how to take it. If he does, he will have his revenge for a lifetime of slights. He knows Tyrion holds it against him still, the lie he had told him about Tysha. After all the years they had been beloved brothers, after Jaime had set him free and saved his life, his little brother saw fit not only to murder their father but to conspire with their enemies to contest Cersei directly for the throne. He does not expect Tyrion will pull any punches now for old time’s sake. Not when they will face each other across a battlefield.
If there is anyone left who has not yet stuck a knife in my heart, they are running out of time to do it.
He mulls over such thoughts feverishly as the dimming winter sun slowly lowers in the sky. For a time he considers pressing the Lannister troops onward into the night to reach King’s Landing. It will be only hours march from here, and their summons have been increasingly urgent. Still, he would rather rest his men so that they can arrive fresh to the fighting and not exhausted from the road, and he commands them to set camp.
“Milord,” a lieutenant interrupts him tentatively as he unhorses, “we have Thoros of Myr bound in your tent as you requested, awaiting interrogation.”
Jaime smiles thinly. They have captured Beric Dondarrion’s Red Priest, who had somehow turned Catelyn Stark into the apparition who had lead the Brotherhood without Banners. Somehow during the skirmish with the Brotherhood the priest had run away and vanished into the trees. But Jaime’s scouts found him in the night, Thoros, stoking a meagre fire near Maidenpool. There was no time to deal with him in the morning, so they bundled him up and brought him along on the march - though they gave him no horse, and forced him to walk along tied to one of the wagons, thinking it would make him more cooperative.
The Lord Commander’s tent is first to rise, and resplendent before ever he sets eyes on it, not that he notices. He leaves Peck to unsaddle his horse and enters his tent in full uniform. He will get through this interrogation before undressing and taking his supper.
Ser Ilyn follows him into the tent, silently.
He settles in the armchair they have carried across the Riverlands for him, and accepts a glass of sherry. The muddy priest is bound on the floor before his desk, and at Jaime's command his bonds are loosened, and he is allowed to sit in a wooden chair. Jaime observes all of this as he finishes the first glass of sherry, and requests another.
Once a huge man, both tall and fat, Thoros of Myr is now considerably diminished. His red robes are cavernous around him, his skin hanging loosely off his skeleton in great folds. Formerly a fierce swordsman, the fire that he once brandished by burning swords has seemingly gone out.
The old Thoros could wear this one like a cloak.
Even before Jaime can begin to question him, the Red Priest speaks up. “What have you done with the girl?”
“Which girl?” he stalls, disconcerted.
“The maiden with your blade.” Thoros may be physically smaller than before but his eyes are bright and sharp, and he holds Jaime’s gaze without flinching. The priest explains patiently, “the tall young woman with the king’s seal, she who brought you to the Brotherhood. I saw you strike her down. Where is she now?”
Jaime ignores this question; it is none of the man’s concern. Instead he asks of his escape from the ambush that night, which quiets him a bit. The Red Priest could have fought them, could have produced a flaming sword and defended his Lady Stoneheart, but instead he had fled without fighting. Thoros does not seem to be interested in explaining why, averting his eyes and answering him shortly with “yes” and “no” and nothing.
He asks the Red Priest about Catelyn Stark, about Berric Dondarrion, about remaining members of the brotherhood and the commonfolk who supported them. Thoros offers no details. He only mumbles myths about the Red God raising people from the dead. It had gone wrong, he said. They had gone astray.
Ser Ilyn listens to these mutterings with some interest, shaking his head at the more outlandish of them. He stands some ways behind the red priest in the shadows, as if he expects to offer his services as a headsman.
Before very long, Thoros turns the conversation back to Brienne.
“But what of the Maid of Tarth? I saw her nowhere in your formation, amongst prisoners or soldiers. I hear tell of her presence here, but she is nowhere to be seen.” He pokes and prods, Thoros, and his brow furrows with concern. “It has not gone unnoticed that she is gone. Some here have it that you have done away with her.”
His patience at an end, Jaime snaps back, “And what if I have?”
Thoros puts on a perplexed expression, blinking at him curiously. “That cannot be. Surely even you are not so cruel as that.”
“Surely I am, ask anyone in the Seven Kingdoms.” Thoroughly tired of judgement, he decides to go along with the Red Priest’s poor opinion of him, if it will loosen his tongue. “The wench lured me to my barely-averted death. I am well within my rights to punish traitors such as she.”
The Red Priest is disturbed, shaking his head sadly. “That poor, brave girl. She defended you to us, did you know? She said that you were a changed man, that you were not responsible for your reported crimes. We called her your whore. But you never touched her, did you? Wouldn’t trouble yourself with someone so pure of heart, when you have your sister the Queen in your bed.”
Ah, so Thoros still has a sense of humor after all. Jaime snorts. “So pure of heart she would lead me to my death, while calling me friend. How is that not a betrayal?”
“She was forced to it. Our dread lady commanded her to kill you and she refused. The entire Brotherhood demanded it and she refused. We offered her a choice, the sword or the noose.”
“And she choose the sword to save her own skin.” Jaime swallows from the glass. “I understand it, of course. It is a hard lesson for one such as her. No one is pure.”
“No!” Thoros smacks the palm of his hand against the commander’s table, and Jaime cannot help flinching. “She chose the noose. The girl said she would not betray you and they put a rope around her neck and hung her, hung her choking and kicking from a tree. She would have died there without relenting but for Podrick Payne, the boy.”
No. No, it isn’t true, he tells himself. But it tracks with what the boy had told him. She did it for me, my lord, you have to understand… He had assumed the choice had been a simple one. Podrick or Kingslayer. But had there been another choice as well? Hadn’t he seen the angry red marks around her neck, or decided not to see?
“They hung him from the tree next to her, and when she saw him dying, she called for a sword. Not before. Not for herself. She would have died for you.”
“Lies.” Jaime has gone very still. Only the muscles of his hand flex, where he holds tightly onto the drinking glass. “The Brotherhood’s Red Priest. Why should I believe anything you say?”
The priest raises his hands, palms beckoning to the air. “What reason have I to lie about this? What benefit to me? I care no more for factions or grudges. I have seen war render this land a hell beyond anything my lord R’hllor or any the Seven could dream up. So far as I care whoever is left standing at its end is welcome to its rotten fruit. All that matters is that in the ruins of honor and justice I met a maid who embodied both, and now she is dead. That, my lord, is a calamity, and I would have you know just how great of one.”
He hardens his heart. “Honor and justice are a mummer's show. Any knight who claims them truly seeks power and glory, deep down, or perhaps not so deep."
“You utter fool.” The Red Priest has the nerve to look sorry for him. “Let me tell you: when we found that girl she was dying of fever, battered and broken by brigands, and all she would do is talk about Jaime Lannister. She said your name in her sleep. She said she had to find your honor. She pleaded for you to come for her when she was next to dead. Not her companions, or her kin. Only you. No sword could have been more loyal to you, and no woman more true to anyone."
Jaime’s guts are churning now, his heart clenching painfully enough to turn him inside-out. What a stupid organ, the heart. If he could, he would carve it out himself.
It makes him snap back at Thoros tightly, “Gold will buy loyalty as reliably, and a woman too.”
“Not like her, not to you. You are only too cynical or too stupid to see it. That girl loved you. She loved you.”
The glass in Jaime’s left hand abruptly shatters.
Thoros jerks back, more at the noise of it than anything else, and stares down wide-eyed at the Lord Commander’s desk. His hand had squeezed and squeezed the glass until it finally popped, in a small explosion of shards and blood. Now his hand opens and stretches, and the Lord Commander examines it curiously. A few jagged bits of glass stick out of his palm and fingers. It hardly hurts at all, but it produces an impressive amount of blood.
Lannister guards burst into the tent at the sound of breaking glass, and the sight of blood makes them draw their swords. Ser Ilyn has already grasped Thoros around the neck with one long, bony arm. Jaime waves them all back to their positions. “My golden hand holds drinking glasses not so well as I’d hoped. Stay at your post.”
“My lord…” Thoros, distinctly alarmed at his lack of reaction, darts his eyes between the bleeding hand and Jaime’s impassive face. “Your hand…”
“It’s nothing.” For a second he moves to pluck the glass bits out of his hand, but his other hand is made of gold. Not much good for that. He can only poke at the bloody shards with a strange fascination. His guards watch warily, not leaving but keeping their distance.
Ser Ilyn releases Thoros, and he rises to his feet. “You know I am a healer. Allow me.”
He shouldn’t allow it, and his guards are visibly appalled, but Jaime makes no move to stop him when Thoros kneels at his side. He moves aside the golden hand, taking his flesh hand and extracting shards of glass with careful attention.
“I can’t imagine why,” the priest murmurs, “but Brienne thought very highly of you. I owe her some kindness, for what we did to her. If she is gone, you will have to do.”
Then it comes again; the pain. Worse than ever. Jaime bows his face to the floor at the weight of it.
“I let her go,” he manages to say, hoarsely. “I gave her the sword and I let her go. Her and the boy.”
“Truly?” Thoros looks up at him dumbfounded, uncertain whether this could be another of his jests.
But of course he let her go. What else could he do? He couldn’t keep her prisoner forever.
He sees it now, too late. Brienne in the cell, wasting away. The tears she had shed when he denied her Oathkeeper. How she had hesitated so inexplicably when he allowed her to leave. The way she had looked on him, as though she would accept any punishment he would give her. He had thought it was her simple goodness that made her contrite. But it could have been more. It could be true; somehow, she had loved him.
When he could not bring himself to harm her, he thought it his own weakness that stayed his hand. Perhaps they share the same weakness.
He jumps up from his chair with that thought, snatching his one working hand back from the damned Red Priest and sweeping out of his commander’s tent. He strides rapidly to the stables and grabs the bridle of the first horse he sees. Honor, not yet unsaddled from their ride.
Jaime rides hard against the twilight, back down the trail they’d come. Back to the place where he’d left her. It was a day’s ride back as an encampment, but a single man riding as fast as his horse is able made the distance in a few hours.
She won’t be there. She could have gone in any direction with a day’s advance. But if she stopped there. If she stayed to rest, and to think out her next move. If she waited there. If she waited for me.
He urges Honor to run faster at the thought.
The Riverlands rush by headlong and the pounding hooves drive every thought from his head until he is pure instinct, animal-simple: find her.
The clearing beside the brook is empty when he arrives, and quiet.
Jaime slings down from his horse looking around him wildly. It’s dark. There’s no sign of anything. No fire, no trail, no sign she had been there at all except that he knows this is where he had left her. He knows that in his bones. He will never be able to forget this place.
He walks aimlessly in one direction and then another. Which way would she have gone? East is Maidenpool, closest of anything, where she might find Tully allies. Riverrun in the other direction, a farther walk but where she might potentially find a ship, go back to Tarth. Or would she have headed singlemindedly North, towards the Vale, without even stopping to supply herself?
He takes not much time to decide. He thinks Maidenpool, then North. Climbing back onto Honor he rides East, alert for any campfires or single riders, scouring the forest hour after hour, and shouting out her name until his voice is nearly gone.
He reaches Maidenpool with the first light of dawn and sees no sign of her there.
In a haze of desperation he accosts passers-by, one after another. Have you seen a maid pass this way, with a sword and a young boy? Riding a chestnut horse?
They all say no. They step back from him like he has gone mad; but of course it sounds a bit mad, doesn’t it? A lady knight with a Valyrian steel sword, as big as The Hound, with her own squire. While he’s at it, he should ask after Galladon of Morne, and mermaids, and the Crone with her lantern. But perhaps it is the stench of a cursed man they respond to, a man who has held riches and lost them. Such ill fortune is catching. They give him a wide berth, they murmur, they leave him standing in the street lost and alone. Perhaps they do not know a Kingslayer when they see one, but anyone can spot a man laid low by love.
Have you seen a woman, an absurdly large woman? With the bluest eyes you’re ever seen? A woman with a sword - a broadsword, two-handed? Looks like she knows how to swing it? Have you seen her? Big and strong as an ox but pure as a maiden? Straw-blonde, a hand taller than me, shoulders as broad as a barn. Has no one seen her? A knight? A true knight? The truest knight that ever walked this land? Tell me where she’s gone. Please, tell me if you’ve seen her. I saw her and I sent her away. She loved me, and I let her go.
The sun is fully risen by the time he returns to the Lannister camp, and there are dark clouds looming in the distance, swirling up from the horizon.
He has hardly left the saddle before he is accosted by a barrage of debriefs and dreadful news.
King’s Landing is burning. Aegon’s forces arrived faster than anyone predicted, has thoroughly broken Mace Tyrell’s formation, and their secondary forces sneaking up the bay have set Flea Bottom afire. The Goldcloaks have surrendered already, and the Red Keep will soon be under siege. Even if they ride full-tilt for the capital it will be a rescue mission now, not a defense.
“Ready us to ride directly to battle in an hour,” he instructs his captains. “Leave the camp set here, and I set my cousin Addam in command. Ser Ilyn will assist him. Peck, you and your lady Pia will stay behind with the hostages and the provisions. If we face defeat see that they are returned to their homes - quickly as you can, the Kingsroad will be dragon territory before long.”
His squire’s face turns quite red and he looks ready to argue with him, and Jaime quickly turns his back to him. He hears the lad sputtering behind him as he throws the tent flap aside and goes into his Commander’s Tent.
Jaime sits alone in his tent for that hour and he burns. He feels the flames of wildfire in King’s Landing, hears the screeching laughter of Aerys Targaryen getting his fiery baptism at last. His most sacred oath is to guard his King, and his King is in mortal danger and he is not there. He left Tommen unprotected. Left his sister, his son, his duty. His doom awaits him there, is waiting for him still. He must go.
All around him his men are making ready for battle. He knows now, with a dreadful foresight, that it is not a battle they can win. It will be glorious, and at the end of it he will be dead and he will never see Brienne again.
Brienne. Brienne. His heart blazes in his chest.
He should have kept her with him. He should have let her tell her tale. His stupid pride would not allow it and now she is gone.
Where is she now? Sheltering in some rain-soaked forest? Hiding in some Tully supporter’s house in Maidenpool? Could she have seen him foolishly asking after her, and held her tongue?
He has been cruel to her. He has let her suffer. He denied her Oathkeeper. He had been badly wounded, his pride wounded, his poor sore heart wounded, and he had wanted to hurt her too. When he saw her tears some sleeping part of him wanted to take it back. He felt monstrous for doing it, and told himself it was because he was a monster. He had stood there and watched her with her shoulders hunched and fists balled at her sides, tears running down her face. What might she have done if he had tried to soothe her tears? He could have been kinder.
Now she will remember him as bitter and petty and hateful when he is gone, and there will be no one left in the world who thinks on him fondly.
But at least she will not see this defeat; at least he gave her Oathkeeper to keep herself safe. She will have to think on him when she wields the sword, and perhaps she will remember whatever it was that had made her care for him. Perhaps she will know, when she holds the blade, that he had cared for her too.
When the hour is up, he leaves his tent, mounts Glory, and rides to battle.
Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bound by wild desire
I fell into a ring of fire
I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down down down and the flames went higher
And it burns burns burns
The ring of fire, the ring of fire
- "Ring of Fire", Johnny Cash
Chapter 4: Through the Fire, To the Limit, To the Wall
Brienne and Podrick are on their way, but to where? Podrick grows concerned about how sad and defeated his lady knight has been since he found her again.
For Podrick, at least, it is a beautiful day.
He had been awakened with a surly shout by the Commander’s squire Peck, who called the boys to order like they were real soldiers, and they had clamoured up and out of their beds with a minimum of dawdling and giggling. They were all ages and sizes, and they lined up by height, rearranging themselves anew every day with Pod shoved somewhere in the middle.
When everyone else had been sent to break their fast, he, Podrick, had been taken on a special mission, stealthily retrieving Oathkeeper from the armory tent. Peck had distracted the quartermaster with conversation while Pod slipped inside, and he had been quiet as a mouse searching through the weaponry to find the valyrian steel sword enclosed in a fine case lined with velvet. The blade stood nearly as tall as him, and he had to smuggle it under his cloak, holding tight to the scabbard with his hands behind his back and even then he looked to have a second head, but somehow no one had questioned him when he reappeared at Peck’s side and they managed to steal away together without raising any alarm.
Peck’s praise for that had been nearly as great a reward as being allowed to swing the sword himself, for just a few moments, before they put it back in the scabbard and brought it to the wood where Ser Jaime awaited them.
Ser Brienne had been there as well. She stood right next to the Commander and yet they had looked very far apart. But still, she had smiled to see Podrick, and the two of them had been set on a pretty chestnut horse and sent riding off into a new adventure – leaving Pod’s new friends behind, but back together with his lady knight, a squire once more.
All in all, it is a wonderful start to a day, and it is still yet morning.
“Did you enjoy your time in the Lannister camp, Podrick?” Ser Brienne asks him. She rides ahead of him, while the squire grips her waist, and she turns her head only a little to address him, so that he cannot see her face.
“Oh yes, milady,” Pod answers her excitedly. “Do you think we could go back for a visit someday?”
She turns away at that, and does not answer.
They ride without speaking for some time. They look to be going east, with the sun stabbing directly at them through the trees. He holds onto her only lightly. Pod knows she had been badly hurt, is still recovering, and he does not want to pain her. He wonders if she is really recovered - any time he catches a glimpse of her face, her brow is furrowed with pain. Perhaps they should have stayed with the Lannister army a day longer.
“Where will we ride to next, milady Ser?” he pipes up.
Still she does not answer.
Ser Brienne has always kept herself to herself, and Podrick is accustomed to this. He feels fine riding silently with her, and it is especially grand to be in her company again after so long apart. With Brienne it’s always all right either way, whether he talks or not. He can be quiet as a mouse, and she will not think him stupid or forget he is there. If he stammers she will not laugh at him, or hurry him along impatiently and push him through each sentence as adults often do. No, the quiet around her has room for him to finish his thoughts, and in her company his stuttering lifts and he can speak quite normally.
There is often a great deal on her mind, and sometimes she is lost in her thoughts and does not answer him. But Ser Brienne remembers things he says even if she doesn’t reply. She always remembers Pod. She always makes sure he has food to eat and a warm place to sleep. She has been teaching him to fight with a sword, just because he asked her to, and she is a patient and forgiving teacher. If she promises him something she will do it without fail. She is solid and reliable and when there is danger she will be there to meet it first of anyone, and she would never run off and forget him or abandon him to a nasty fate. He knows that as surely as he knows the sun will rise.
Pod is safe with Ser Brienne, though that is not a word or a sense that he is familiar with. He does not remember having a real home, or parents, but he remembers sleeping soundly under the stars with Ser Brienne watchful over him in the dark night, and that feeling must be much the same.
Brienne stops them just before they reach Maidenpool. A train of wagons are rolling out of the growing settlement with a moderate guard. They wait a little ways back from the road.
“Lord Tarly’s men,” Podrick identifies the banner. “Allies of King Renly, and of the Tyrells.”
“Lord Tarly is no ally of mine,” she says darkly, and in a lower tone adds, “but what allies have I left?”
He tugs at her sleeve. “Should we tell him of Ser Hyle?” Ser Hyle had left Lord Tarly's service to ride with them, and died at the hands of Lady Stoneheart.
Ser Brienne frowns harder somehow. “What would we tell him? No. We avoid Lord Tarly for now.”
When the train has passed, they ride cautiously into Maidenpool. The streets are crowded, but all are about their own business – moving livestock, doing morning chores. No one gives them a second glance, even though they must be a strange sight, as battered as they are.
They pass the famous bathhouse, newly festooned in banners to cover the faded bloodstains on the stone. It looks livelier and friendlier than he remembers. Women congregate all around its entrance, dressed in bright colors, hair wet and shining in the morning sun.
“Maidenpool looks a fair sight better than it did when we saw it last,” Podrick says, attempting to be cheerful.
He expects her to still be surly and silent, and he is surprised when she stops the horse and answers him instead, staring at the grand bathhouse.
“When first I saw this place, the waters were bloated with corpses, and the streets filled only with burnt-out husks of buildings. Archers ambushed us here, and Ser Jaime and I fought them off.”
Pod blinks back at her. That must have been when Ser Jaime had been her prisoner, on the journey back to King’s Landing. She speaks of that rarely, even less than she speaks of everything. And then she looks back at him, as though she has just remembered that he is there.
“Do you know the tale of Jonquil’s Pool?” Brienne asks him abruptly.
“Yes, milady.” Pod offers it eagerly, leaning towards her. “The knight Ser Florian the Fool saw the lady Jonquil bathing there with her sisters, and he fell in love. I don't remember the rest, but the pool was here, at the spring, and later they built the bathhouse around it.”
Brienne’s expression is distant and unreadable. She looks at the ladies going in and out of the bathhouse, and holds the reins tightly in her hands.
“He was a homely man, Florian. Picture him more patchwork than shining. His armor was mismatched and his reputation spotted. He was only a hedge knight and not well-born. He was no possible match for a highborn maid. But when he saw Jonquil in the bath he could not help but fall in love with her, for she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Despite everything, he could not help himself. And in time he won her heart, through many trials and heartaches, he won her.”
Pod shrugs. “Those songs are for girls maybe. I haven’t heard those parts. They never sang them for me.”
“Perhaps they are for young maidens.” She darkens palpably, her face dipping down into shadow. “I used to love those songs. When I was a girl, or something like it. But I admit it was foolish, Pod. Life isn’t a song.”
She spurs her horse to ride on.
“Could you sing it for me, milady?” His innocent face turns up to her. “One of the songs about Florian and Jonquil?”
She snorts. “Ser Jaime could have sung you Six Maidens in a Pool, with great enthusiasm.”
There is an odder silence after that.
“Do you want to look at the pool, milady Ser? We could stop at the Bathhouse.”
“I’ve never seen it,” she concedes faintly. “Though I’ve been past this way thrice before. But it’s a place for fine ladies, Pod. Not for me.”
Instead they stop at a shallow brook on the other side of Maidenpool. A perfectly ordinary spot, nothing mythical or special about it. Before the winter there would have been flowers along the sides, and one can see where they would have been. Now there are only sickly shrubs. The water, though, is lovely and clear.
Brienne dismounts her horse and kneels, suddenly, at the side of the water. For an odd moment, it seems as though she will remove her riding gear and wade into it. She did after all never get that bath she had been promised. Instead she only leans forward and cups her hands in the water, splashing her face. She leaves her hands covering her face a moment too long, and when she removes them she stares down into the mirrored surface of the water for a long while.
“Pod,” she says very seriously, “did you fare well amongst the boys at the camp? Were you well treated?”
“Yes Milady,” Pod nods eagerly. “They have their own tent and it’s bigger, much bigger than the one we use, and dry and warm and they sing and tell tales all the night through. Then we rode in the wagons and slept when the army moved and at dusk we could run and play until full dark and then we got real meat to eat. Josmyn Peckledon, Ser Jaime’s squire, Peck, would look after us. He said he would spar with me sometime, we never did though…”
Brienne nods back slowly. “Were they frightened? The other boys?”
Pod frowns at her quizzically. “No. Should they be?”
“I suppose not.” Brienne looks up and down the road swiftly. “Would you like to go back to them for a time?”
He frowns harder. “Aren’t we on a quest, milady?”
“I am. You are not.” She stands.
Pod is alarmed. “But I’m your squire.”
“I don’t have a squire. I’m not a knight.” She rubs her face again, leaving it wet and shining. “I’m a foolish girl who’s a long way from home, and I don’t know what to do next.”
“You are a knight really.” Pod argues with her stubbornly. “You’re the best knight I’ve ever seen, better than the Kingsguard and Ser Hyle and the knights we met on the road–”
“But I’m not." Her hands drop to her sides and hang there limply, and she bows her head. "I thought I could be, if I were only so perfect and honorable that no one could find any fault in me, and I could fight better than everyone else, then they would have to knight me, they would have no choice. But I’m none of those things. I promised to protect Lady Catelyn, and instead she was slain. I promised to see her daughters freed from King’s Landing and they were already gone. I promised to see Ser Jaime safe to King’s Landing, and he lost his hand along the way. I promised to rescue Lady Sansa, and I cannot find her, much less see her safely home. I promised to restore Ser Jaime’s honor, and instead I betrayed him.”
“We can still find Lady Sansa,” the boy says stubbornly. “We haven’t looked everywhere yet.”
Her hands curl into fists. “We have no leads. There was only rumor to go on and even that has run dry. She could be anywhere now, she could be in the North or in the Reach, or in the Vale, or even across the Narrow Sea. We cannot search everywhere.” Her head bows forward, and her cheeks are wet. “And what would I say if ever I found her? Shall I tell her how I failed her mother, and what she became? How then would I convince her that I can protect her? I cannot even convince myself.”
“You can protect her! You can protect anybody!”
“No, I can’t. I couldn’t protect Dick Crabb, I couldn’t protect Ser Hyle Hunt or Septon Merribald, I couldn’t protect the children at the orphanage, and I couldn’t protect you.” She looks up through her shaggy hair and her gaze fixes, noticeably, on Podrick’s neck, where an angry red burn around his throat still marks him. “I will never be knighted, and there is no place that I belong. Perhaps I should just return home.”
Brienne looks very sad. She has looked this way ever since they left the camp this morning.
Podrick hates how sad she looks. He wracks his brain for something to say that might make her not look so sad.
“Don’t worry, Pod,” Ser Brienne interrupts his thoughts. She is trying to smile. “All will be well.”
Podrick recognizes this smile. He has seen it before.
Ser Jaime had been angry when Podrick had met him, though he was trying not to show it. He had reassured him, and even made jokes, but something had seethed beneath it. The golden commander had been formidable in his anger, a towering fit of ire, and it had frightened him. The Lion of Lannister, the Kingslayer, had a famous temper fit to topple kingdoms. In the face of it he had stammered and stumbled over his words and the man had been like to snap his head off in frustration, so impatient he had been.
“P-please ser,” he had finally pleaded with him. “It should be me imp…p-prisoned and not her. She only meant to free me; she begged them not to m-make her do it. She begged them. Ser Brienne would not betray a friend, it was m-me, she did it for me. P-put me on a stake in the ground and let her go.”
Ser Jaime had abruptly left him when he said that, with an expression more of pain than anger.
He seemed, on later reflection, less of an angry proud lion lord than he thought at first. More of a lion with a wounded paw roaring to keep everyone back. The second time Podrick met him the Lion had been only wounded and not roaring, and not quite so frightening. He had been kinder to him, that time. He had smiled more, but the smiles did not reach his eyes. He had many more questions that time, mostly about Ser Brienne. Though he had called her Lady, which felt strange. Lady Brienne. No one else on their journey had ever addressed her so, and not with that lightly mocking tone which somehow sounded fond and not cruel. He asked, the Lion, if Lady Brienne had ever spoken of him, and Podrick had to tell him no.
What he should have told him was that her silence on that matter had been very loud indeed. That his Lady kept certain things unspoken, and most of all those closest to her heart. He should have told the Lion how she had unwrapped Oathkeeper, the blade he had given her, only at night when she thought no one was looking and stared upon it, and ran her fingers over the jewels and the lions in the pommel, and wrapped it most carefully afterwards, handled it as though it were the most precious thing that she had, the most beloved.
But he told the Lion no, because he did not know how to explain the other part, and she had never spoken of it. And the Lion had been unsurprised, and he had smiled a false smile, and sent him out to play in the snow, and Podrick had not thought of it again until now, when Ser Brienne shows him the same smile.
They must have the same wound, somehow. A blow which had carved them in twain, and they did not know how to put themselves back together.
Podrick knows little and less of how two people might rebuild that kind of trust. But the memory jars something else in him, a memory of the Lannister brother that he knew far better. Lord Tyrion, the Imp, who had been kind to Podrick, if a little dismissive. He had said a thousand wise things, and even read aloud to him, from time to time. And there had been a book there in his quarters, or even several books, about the great knights and the Age of Heroes. There is something there, faint in his memory, that he knows will be important.
Podrick stands up and speaks eagerly, without stammering. “At King’s Landing, I squired for Tyrion Lannister. Lord Tyrion was a smart man. He used to read a whole book every day! And he said, I remember, he said… that there were no knights in the Age of Heroes, they came later, with the Anders–”
“Andals–” she corrects him quietly.
“–right. The Andals had knights, but Westeros didn’t, not then. The heroes before they came were just heroes. But we call them knights anyway, even though they weren’t actually knighted like we do it now. They weren’t really knights!”
“That’s hardly the point–”
“The point is, it doesn’t matter what they really were. They’re knights now, whether people then called them that or not. Because of what they did. Because they were great.”
Her hands make fists. “They were great. They did great things. I haven’t done anything but lose.”
“They probably didn’t always win! We just don’t sing songs about those parts. Maybe they lost and lost and lost and they kept trying until they did something great, and that’s the part we remember now. Not the hard parts.”
Brienne looks down into the pool.
“If they never knighted you, it wouldn’t change the things you did. You would still have killed the bandits in the Saltpans. You would still have stopped that awful Rorge from hurting the children at the crossroads.”
“But I don’t want to be merely a killer. I want to keep my promises. I want to be honorable.” Her hair falls over her face, obscuring the terrible scars on her cheek. “I couldn’t keep my oath to Lady Catelyn without breaking faith with Ser Jaime. I had to choose. If I cannot keep my oaths, if honor is denied me, what is left?”
But she seems to know the answer to that, even as she says it. She brushes her hair back behind her ears and sighs, and she sounds much older than before.
“There is something… something I feel I must do. But I don’t know if I’m brave enough. This task I cannot fail in, and I do not know if I can succeed.”
“You should try,” Pod pushes. "You can't succeed for certain if you don't try."
“If I still wish to be a true knight,” she says hesitantly, and then more firmly, “then I must protect the realm, and defend the innocent. Less than a day’s ride from here, Pod, there is an invading army coming to kill King Tommen. He’s only a boy, even younger than you. And he is Ser Jaime’s son. I may have failed in the quest he gave me, but I might be able to help him defend the King. I must do whatever I can. Do you understand Pod? I have to.”
Pod brightens. This sounds more like the Brienne he knows. “I can help.”
“No,” she says sharply. “No. This part I must do alone. I can risk myself for this, but I will not risk you.”
“You would leave me behind?”
“I will come back.” She puts her hands on his shoulders. “If I yet live I will come back for you, Pod, and we’ll look for Lady Sansa. And for Lord Tyrion too, I know you wanted to rejoin him…”
“I want to stay with you,” Pod says miserably.
Brienne looks surprised. Then her expression softens, briefly, and she squeezes his shoulders.
“I will not be riding to battle, Podrick, not the way you’re thinking. I cannot be of help on the battlefield without knowing Ser Jaime's plans, but I can try to get into the city ahead of the invasion, and protect the King and the Queen Regent. I will have to disguise myself, and there would be no way to bring you along. But do not worry, I would not go off and forget you. Not for Ser Jaime, not for anyone. I gave him to the Brotherhood to make sure you would be safe.“
Pod’s face falls. Could it be his fault that Ser Lady Brienne and Ser Jaime are so unhappy?
"I’m s-s-sorry,” he stammers.
"Don’t be sorry!” she says quickly, wiping at his face with her thumb. “I’m not sorry. Because of that you are here and alive and well. I could never be sorry for that. But now Ser Jaime is the one who needs my help. Even if the battle fares ill, he will go to King's Landing anyway, to try to save his son. I fear he will perish in the attempt. I cannot allow that to happen.”
Brienne’s face takes on a strange light then, one that Podrick will long remember.
“The knights in the songs would risk their lives to save a fair maiden from danger. Ser Jaime is not a maiden, but… If there is any chance I might save him from a ghastly fate I must try. I know it must seem foolish. I can’t explain it, but… it’s like a song, Podrick, a song I hear in my heart. Like when Ser Galladon went out to face the dragon, or when Florian met Jonquil. They knew which way their destiny lay, and they rode to meet it. I must do the same, or else be a coward forever. I only hope I can live up to their example.”
Podrick does not want to let her go again so soon. But if she doesn’t go, he knows, she will let herself down, and it will make her even sadder, and for a long time. Perhaps if she can help Ser Jaime, it will heal this wound of hers. Perhaps they could heal each other.
“You can do it, milady ser. You can do anything.” He puts all the enthusiasm he can muster into his encouragement. “You’re the best sword-fighter in the world. You can take a few Targaryens.”
Brienne smiles genuinely this time, a gap-toothed, shy smile that Podrick has never seen before.
“That’s going a bit far, Pod, but I shall do my best. You’re right, even if I cannot be a true knight, I can still protect the innocent and do what’s right. And if I cannot fight for honor... I can still fight for love. I would be proud to stand for that.”
The young squire beams. “What can I do to help?”
“You can go and stay with the other boys at the Lannister camp. Jaime won’t take them to war. I think he will leave an ancillary camp behind with the boys, and anyone else he would like to save. The boys, and his squire, and perhaps your cousin too. When you find them there, they will look after you until I return. Find them, and wait for me. Will you do that for me, Pod? So I wont worry?”
He nods. Because he has to, because she needs him to. He’s only just found her again, but he has to let her go. He can see it now - she is a true knight, and she is on a quest to a place he can’t follow. As her squire, he will have to do as she commands.
He will go, and he will take great gulps of air to choke back the tears until she can’t see him anymore.
Brienne busies herself quickly. She saddles the chestnut mare for a shorter rider, saying she will find another way to travel. She leaves him much of the coin that Ser Jaime had left her, and all of the supplies too. She takes only the hound helm, some of the armor pieces, and Oathkeeper.
Brienne kneels before him before he takes his leave. “Keep practicing while I’m gone. Every day, the sword forms and the footwork. Will you?”
Pod nods wordlessly, to keep himself from stammering or sobbing. Kneeling before him, she looks like she is swearing him an oath, and perhaps she is. Her blue eyes are serious and severe, and he knows she would not lie.
“I will return, I promise I will. I came back to the Brotherhood for you and I will come back to you this time. You’re my squire and as long as I live I will come back for you.”
Pod stares into her eyes resolutely. “No matter what. Promise.”
She stares back. “I promise,” she repeats firmly.
Pod throws his arms around her neck, obviously taking her by surprise. At first she is still, but then her big arms wrap around him and pull him flush against her, and she holds him so tightly he can scarcely breathe. She whispers, “thank you,” into his hair, again and again. But he does not know what she could be thanking him for.
Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall
For a chance to be with you
I'd gladly risk it all
Through the fire
Through whatever, come what may
For a chance at loving you
I'd take it all the way
Right down to the wire
Even through the fire
-- Chaka Khan
Chapter 5: Burning Down the House
Jaime searches for Tommen and Cersei as the Golden Company invades King's Landing, has an awful confrontation with Tyrion, fights off wildfire flashbacks as the city burns down, and overall has a terrible awful no good very bad day.
There are multiple candidates for worst day of Jaime Lannister’s life. It is a competitive arena.
There is the day his mother died. The day he lost his right hand - and several days after that, which were equally awful. The day he barely remembers when he and Cersei had so horrified their mother that she had separated them forever and he lost both his twin and any good memories of his mother. The day his brother Tyrion murdered their Father. The day Cersei married Robert. The day he slew Aerys and became forever the Kingslayer.
Despite the crowded field, today is a strong contender.
After destroying Mace Tyrell’s forces the Golden Company has surrounded King’s Landing rather than infiltrate. They are dug in around the city to ensure he will not be able to break them, facing precisely the direction he is arriving. Clearly Tyrion has seen how one siege turned for this city when the Lannister armies arrived, and he has prepared for it.
Yes, he can recognize his little brother’s fingerprints on this plan. Tyrion has plotted this attack in full knowledge that Jaime would be his opponent, and he has held nothing back. Even knowing from the first that it would be the case, it still strikes him to the core to see it. Bad enough his brother has slain Joffrey and their own father, now he is trying to kill all the rest of them too. With a real army, even, right where Jaime is certain to meet them in battle.
Tyrion has no love left for him then, and he will never get his brother back. This is bitter medicine for any lingering hopes he still held of reconciliation.
The city gates are held by Targaryen banners, but the Red Keep still flies the colors of Tommen Baratheon, first of his name. That is Jaime’s one hope, that they are not yet invading the Keep. The best he can hope for is to save his sister and son from the headsman, by somehow rescuing them from a captured city surrounded by enemy troops.
Never before has Jaime Lannister looked out on a battlefield and known that he is going to lose. He did lose once before, but he had not looked upon the Whispering Wood and known he would be beaten and captured on top of it. He had been confident in their victory that day right to the bitter end. Perhaps Robb Stark has taught him what that looks like. Defeat.
When they crest the last rise before King’s Landing Jaime sees it spread out before him. It’s in the enemy’s position on the field, their greater numbers, the time he cannot spend to formulate an optimal attack formation when they might at any moment turn and sack the Red Keep. He cannot win this battle. He knows their forces will lose the city, and that he will lose absolutely everything.
He attacks anyway.
In the end, when victory is so well out of reach that it is pointless to continue, he arranges the remnants of the Lannister army into an arrow, a battering ram, and punctures through the mercenary forces to a minor gate. With a small squadron he enters the city, and arranges a slow leak behind him of troops, instructing all to protect the citizens wherever they can, and if they must, to shed their armor and join the citizenry rather than return to the field, now that it is lost. The city bells ring out behind his instructions, faintly but with increasing urgency.
Jaime leaves behind his Lannister colors with his soldiers, tearing off his cloak and ducking into one of the secret passageways the Kingsguard had discovered after Father’s death. These tunnels run beneath all the city and throughout the Red Keep, dug long ago and forgotten about until his brother disappeared into one. They searched them thoroughly back then and he has personally beheld a map of their entrances and exits. This one empties out closer to the Keep, and if he has any luck left he can emerge unnoticed. He will have to move quickly and without attracting attention, and he hopes his regiments clashing in the streets will keep attention away from the Red Keep.
He does not have to dirty his hair and armor to tarnish the gold and make him less obviously the Kingslayer - the dust of the unused passages does it for him. That, and the blood of battle. He will be like any other refugee, soldier or citizen, running through the streets of the city. Though he will have to hope that no one will be looking at his face in the panic of the Targaryen attack.
He knows at the back of his mind that this is, at best, a mummer’s farce. He is Jaime Lannister the Swordsman no longer; he left that behind with his hand. Before that, he might have battled his way through the entire city and conducted a rescue fit for songs. Instead he is slinking through darkened tunnels, a knight with no sword arm, no plan, and no chance, with nothing left but his honor. And what good will honor do him now? Honor is a horse, and he left him in the Riverlands.
When Jaime crawls out of the passageway and back onto the streets, he hears the ringing of the bells a little louder now, mixed with the shouts and screams of the terrified residents of King’s Landing.
He manages to mingle into a crowded stream of people pushing towards the Red Keep, hoping to find shelter. The gates will be shut, he knows, but there is another passage nearby that he can follow inside. Engulfed by the mob, Jaime can relax a little. The mass of people will shield him well, assuming they continue to go in the right direction.
Somewhere in the distance, a telltale sound is twinging at his memory. Behind the bells, something constant and pounding. A sound and a faint smell, one he has not smelled for a very long time. He is trying not to acknowledge what that might be. It makes his heart beat a little bit faster just the same.
The human flow is diverted not long after that by a man on a white horse, wearing golden armor. Harry Strickland, by Jaime’s estimation, a mild-looking and round-faced man whose voice is not quite loud enough to command the crowd.
“Return to your homes!” he shouts uselessly, as the stream diverges around him. “The transition will be peaceful if you will just…”
His plea dies out in the tummult. Jaime is swept past him, ducking his head to keep from being recognized. He looks up and down the streets ahead to see just what Homeless Harry is trying to divert them from, and spies a small contingent of Golden soldiers wrestling two large barrels towards the Keep.
Soldiers, and one small figure in his own miniaturized version of the golden armor, observing their progress.
Jaime would have stopped short at the sight of him, but is quickly shoved forward by unseen hands. The panicing crowd stops for no one, and he is pulled by its current. His heart speeds further the closer they come to this small party and their furtive movements.
The barrels. What are they doing with the barrels?
He is tempted to pull his helmet back on, to escape detection, but that will make him only more conspicuous. And he needs to be able to see this. Are they bringing the barrels to the Red Keep? Wine, he hears in speculative snatches around him, from people who surmize the soldiers as looters and the dark wooden barrels their spoils of war. But these barrels are not filled with wine. He has not seen these barrels in nearly twenty years, but he could hardly forget them. Their shape and size he remembers well, and they have that smell out of nightmares, the same one he has been detecting on the air ever since he entered the city.
His jaw goes slack as the smell washes over him, the acrid stench of wildfire. He stops in his tracks again and is pushed aside into a cart, momentarily pinned, and closer to the barrels of wildfire that they are dragging up from under the city. He freezes there for a moment in their contemplation.
Worse, his brother turns his head and looks directly at him.
He quickly turns his back and pushes his way into the crowd, but too late. A Summer Islander in a colorful feathered cloak catches his arm and drags him backward, knocking other men aside with little effort. Dragged back and turned around, Jaime is quickly brought face-to-face with Tyrion.
“Not here,” his brother says, looking from side to side. “Take him into the alley.”
Jaime is dumped unceremoniously onto his knees on a side street, out of sight of the crowd and the other Golden Company soldiers. He briefly entertains the idea of drawing his sword and slaying them both, but he still, even now, cannot bring himself to draw his blade against his brother.
“So.” Tyrion stands eye-to-eye with him, his ruined face triumphant. “You’re here to concede defeat? Or are you coming for Cersei?”
Single-mindedly, he looks past his brother out to the streets where the barrels are slowly rolling by. “What are you doing with those? Do you know what they are?”
“Never mind about that.” Tyrion moves to recapture his gaze, but Jaime is stubbornly fixated. Then he huffs inpatiently. “If you must know, we mean to knock on the gates of the Keep. If they do not answer, we will knock a little more emphatically.”
“You fool! There are dozens, hundreds of barrels of wildfire beneath our feet, spread for miles! The entire city will go up in flames…”
Tyrion’s knowing eyes bring his revelation shuddering to a halt. His brother knows this already. He knows about the wildfire.
His stomach drops as though he is falling, and the color drains from his face.
“You’re burning the city,” he whispers, shocked. He knew Tyrion was angry, but he had not known he would do something like this. Perhaps Cersei had been right about him all along. Tyrion is a monster.
“No.” Tyrion puts up his hands, his palms beseeching him. In this he looks rather more like the boy Jaime remembers, the way he once looked when he knew he had done wrong and was not yet ready to admit it. “This wasn’t the plan. We’re only going to use these barrels, up here on the gates. It’s Connington, he’s set fires in Flea Bottom and they’re spreading to the tunnels below. But we’ll put them out.”
“You told all your company of the wildfire stores? For gods’ sake, why?! For what?”
Tyrion’s mouth tightens, his lips thinning, and Jaime sees that he is not nearly so triumphant as he would like. His brother has lost control of a situation that he had carefully planned out to the last letter, and he is worried.
Reluctant to show it, and resentful of being caught out, Tyrion’s hands make fists at his sides, and he raises his voice another notch. “Do not lecture me as though I am a child. I told you, it was Jon Connington. The man’s lost his wits. Keeps saying he can’t let Aegon down again, something about the bells ringing.”
“Oh, I suppose it’s not your fault then? You were only going to burn the Keep, and everyone in it, and that’s, what, a hundred people? And for what?” Jaime spits back at him angrily. “Aegon Targaryen is dead.”
Tyrion puffs up, happy to explain in this case. “Aegon survived. Varys secreted the babe away during the Rebellion, replaced him with another. He wanted to raise a perfect Targaryen, one without Aerys’s madness. And he has succeeded, as you will soon see.”
“No, Elia would never have let go of the babe, she was too afraid of Aerys. She would have realized a switch immediately. I thought you were clever.” Jaime shakes his head in wonderment. How could Tyrion have accepted such a transparent ruse? “I saw the babe. I saw him just-born and I saw him sleeping in his mother’s arms and I saw him with his brains dashed out by Gregor Clegane. He’s dead. You have a mummer’s dragon and a grudge, nothing more. And for that, you’re going to let the Golden Company murder everyone in King’s Landing?”
“That isn’t –” Tyrion tries to defend himself, and then stops short. “I don’t have to explain myself to you. You’ve been Father’s lackey all your life, undermining me, ruining my only chance at happiness. You pretend to be kinder than Cersei, but you’re just as cruel. And even more thoughtless. I don’t care what you think of me. You wouldn’t understand my plans if I drew them out for you in pictures.”
He sucks in air, suddenly winded, and closes his eyes briefly. This is a nightmare. This is all a terrible nightmare.
“Hate me if you must,” he pleads with his brother. ”Revenge yourself on me as you did our Father. Spit on our House and our legacy and give the throne back to the Targaryens. Avenge your country girl, but only spare Tommen. He’s only a boy. He’s never harmed you.”
Tyrion is aghast, startled. Then his cheeks grow quite red. “You really think I would murder Tommen? A child? What kind of monster do you think I am?”
Tyrion had always been very fond of Tommen, of course, and Marcella too. Been a better uncle to them than Jaime had ever been, for certain. Jaime wants to relent for that, forgive him. He never could stay angry with Tyrion; he could never stay angry with any of them.
He hardens his heart instead. Gestures harshly to the sounds of screaming in the streets. “I suppose your Golden Company are here to buffet the present king with pillows? Carry him on their shoulders to Casterly Rock and feed him sweetmeats? Surely you are not this ignorant. You’ve read the histories, tell me, what happens when the Red Keep falls? Do they not kill the king?”
Tyrion glares up at him with his mouth an angry twist. “Maybe you do, Kingslayer, but I do not.”
Had he not already mourned the loss of his brother he would have reeled back at the blow. Instead he is numb through and through, as from a sudden shock of cold water.
Then he finds himself rising up to his feet, spinning on his heel and walking away.
Jaime does not run or even hurry, and he does not look over his shoulder. Let Tyrion see his back, and decide whether to insert the knife himself or call on his hired men. Let the Summer Islander draw his bow and launch an arrow into his heart. If the next thing he knows will be the fatal blow, at least this way he won’t see which of them dealt it.
“Jaime!” he hears Tyrion hiss behind him.
He waits for the blow to land with such certainty he is lightheaded with it. But one step turns into a dozen and then more, and he’s still walking. Even when he turns a corner, he expects the mercenaries will easily overtake him at any moment. But he walks on and the alleyway opens up again into the city streets and there is smoke in the air now, not merely a scent but a lingering cloud that hangs low above them, slowly blotting out the sun.
Averting his eyes, Jaime runs and pushes and shoulders his way forward. It takes long minutes of struggle and his heart pounds in his ears the entire time. When he catches a glimpse of green fire, he flinches as though struck. It is a scene from long-ago nightmares, and at times he is seventeen again, and afraid. Everyone will die, and it will be his fault. The air turns to ashes in his mouth and the foul taste is a steady distraction. It pulses in his mind, a harbinger of imminent death.
After long effort he arrives at the abandoned storehouse that houses a secret passageway into the Red Keep. In the dark tunnels he carries a candle and tries to collect himself. The shadows shake against the walls, but it is only his good hand trembling, and it slowly subsides.
Some feeling is bubbling up inside him. Or perhaps many feelings; he can’t sort them out when they’re this big. It’s something that makes him want to scream and scream until he’s got no air left in his body. But he can’t do that right now, he has to find Tommen. If he can hold that down a little longer, he might get out of this situation.
He feels sick. Sick not just in his guts but in his pounding headache, the wildfire-scented air he breathes, his skin, even his skin, now crawling and clammy. The wildfire. He kept the wildfire a secret and now it is going to destroy the city, just as in the worst of his nightmares. Everyone will die. The king will die. The king is only a boy and he is Jaime’s son and he left him undefended. He abandoned Tommen – left him to Robert, to Cersei, to Westeros. He let them put that gentle boy on a throne and then he abandoned him. He went galavanting around the Riverlands pretending at diplomacy and chasing after a girl. Dreaming absurd fantasies about “Goldenhand the Just”. Now he is days late to his proper place guarding the king, too late to save King’s Landing. Absolutely everything is ruined, even his fruitless attempts to rebuild his honor. Honor is a wench, and she left him in the Riverlands. He has nothing left but himself, and by now that’s nearly nothing.
Jaime lurches to movement again, from where he had fallen still. Sometimes that makes things better, moving, and if it doesn’t, at least he will be somewhere else. He rushes ahead in the darkness, faster and faster until he is nearly sprinting. Outracing the shadows. His candle wavers and flickers and threatens to go out, but he does not slow until he reaches the other end of the passageway and stands panting in the dark, fumbling at the door one-handed.
He emerges in the barracks of the Goldcloaks, thoroughly emptied, stilled again on the inside. Furtively crosses the lower bailey to the White Sword tower and rushes up the stairs.
In the headquarters of the Kingsguard he grasps his Lord Commander’s cloak and throws it about his shoulders, picking up the helm of his office and carrying it under his arm. If he will burn, he will burn in his white cloak. His sworn knights are nowhere to be seen. At his sister’s side, perhaps. He had hoped to rally them, but perhaps he can follow them to where the royal family shelters.
Jamie hears a cough, and stops short - movement, breath, thoughts.
The small sound rings in his ears like an alarm. There was no one in this room when he entered. But the Red Keep is full of secrets, and hidden places. His eyes alight on a cupboard, questioningly, and he realizes he has never once opened it. He must have assumed some sort of supplies are in it, of the sort that he need not trouble himself with. There was another passage from Maegor’s Holdfast that they had never tracked, one too small to follow. Could it lead to the White Sword Tower?
And what inside it might make that noise? A rat? A cat? Or a child, just small enough to squeeze inside?
Jaime crouches on the ground and opens the cupboard into a darkness deeper than the dimensions should allow. There is no back to the cupboard; instead there is an opening like a yawning maw that leads into the wall, and beyond it he cannot see a thing.
He needs a light of some kind. Jaime starts to rise to fetch his candle from the tunnels, but the sound of something shifting inside brings him back down to his hands and knees, staring intently into the darkness.
“Hello?” a small voice says tentatively.
A curly towhead leans towards the light, with wide and fearful green eyes.
Jaime’s heart stops for a moment. “Tommen?” he breathes, his mouth dry.
“Uncle Ser!” The boy brightens immediately, climbing out of the crawlspace. By the time Tommen, concealed in a homespun cloak, has scrambled excitedly to his feet he sounds outright cheerful. Then he flings his small arms around Jaime’s neck and squeezes, exclaiming all the while.
“I knew you would come back! Mama said you would come.” At first, Jaime is gratified to hear it. But then the boy jabbers on. “She said you would crush all of the soldiers single-handedly.”
“Did she,” he comments darkly. Did she laugh when she said it? The only one not hearing the joke is Tommen. He carefully detaches the boy from his neck and holds him out at arm’s length. “How came you to be hiding here? I thought you would be with your mother?”
Tommen’s open face closes slightly as he protests. “I was with Mama! I went in the King’s Tower with her like everybody said, to wait in the ballroom. But I couldn’t find Ser Pounce. He wasn’t anywhere in the apartments. I thought he might of gotten scared and run out into the bailey. I took a cloak from one of the servants. I was only going out for a minute but there was…” The boy trails off briefly, and he hiccups and sniffles.
Jaime wipes at the boy’s tear-and-snot-streaked face.
The King’s face scrunches up with exaggerated fervor. “There was smoke and noise and people everywhere. The door shut and these people were hitting it and shouting to be let in and they didn’t notice me, except one of them pushed me down. I tried not to cry and be a baby – but all the smoke from the Wildfires, it makes my eyes itch. I wanted to ask a soldier for help but they were all busy. Then one of the Goldcloaks took my hand and said we had to go inside somewhere safe.”
Jaime pats his shoulder distractedly. “Why here? Why not back inside the Holdfast?”
“To hide. We ran in the Tower and looked for a good hiding place and I found this. I can go way back inside and nobody can see me. She said I would be safe in here and to be very quiet and only come out if I saw the Lord Commander, because his job is to protect the King. And here you are! Can we go back to my room now?”
“I’m afraid not, your Grace.” Jaime looks to one side and another. Still not another soul in the Tower. If they can cross the Bailey without being seen, he can get Tommen out the very same way he came in. Then a thought strikes him. “Have you followed the passage back? Do you know where it goes?”
Tommen reddens slightly. “I followed it a little bit. It gets bigger, but it’s really dark and I got scared.”
“Do you think I could fit inside?”
The boy tilts his head and looks at him appraisingly. “If you kind of wiggled. You’re too tall, but you’re thin enough you could crawl inside.”
Getting stuck in a crawlspace is exactly the sort of useless death he’d like to avoid. But if his guess is right, and the passage ends at Maegor’s Holdfast, he has found a way inside.
“Uncle?” Tommen’s baby face, round and soft, looks up at him trustingly.
“What?” He says it warily. There are quite a lot of questions he can’t answer right now.
Tommen chews his lip a moment. “I’m not the King anymore, am I?”
Jaime stares at him. That is a simple way to summarize the situation. “No. You’re not.”
The boy nods thoughtfully. “That’s all right. Someone else can be the King. I was getting a little tired of it.”
Jaime laughs, rising to his feet. His fingers dangle into Tommen’s golden curls. “That’s fortunate. Now, be quiet a moment, I need to think.”
Is there time to look for Cersei? A pang of anxiety ripples through him. The holdfast isn’t far. His lifelong instinct is to rush to his twin’s side and protect her, and even now a part of him is eager to find his way to her. But she has the Kingsguard, and Tommen has only him. He should protect their son. Surely his sister would agree that their son takes priority, or she should.
Jaime has a sinking feeling that she would regard it as a betrayal. Leaving without her. But that only strengthens his resolve. Unlike the two of them, Tommen is an innocent. And a knight should protect the innocent.
“Don’t worry, Uncle.” The boy grasps his good hand suddenly, and squeezes it reassuringly. “The lady knight will find Mama.”
Jaime looks down at him sharply. “What did you say?”
“The Goldcloak who brought me back to my room. She said she would find Mama next.”
It hits him like a punch in the chest. She. The lady knight. Could it be?
Seven hells. What in the world would Brienne be doing here?
Jaime drops to one knee to grasp Tommen by the shoulders, focusing all his attention on his son.
“The knight was a woman? Tommen, what did she look like? This is very important.” He’s trying not to shake him – the boy already looks near tears – but does he have to talk so dratted slowly?
“She looked like you, Uncle.” Tommen crinkles his face, thinking, and then elaborates. “She was big, wore armor, and she had a gold cloak, and she had a sword with a lion on it, like a Lannister.”
“Big how? Tall, broad? Did she have a homely face? With a nasty bite in it?”
Tommen glares at him sternly then. “Don’t say that. She was nice.”
Jaime snaps back. “Of course she was nice. I know her. I know that woman. Where did she go, when she left you?”
“She said I should wait for you to find me, and she would find Mama and bring her out. She was going back to the ballroom. Don’t worry, Uncle, she’ll find her. She’s very strong.”
“I know that.” Jaime closes his eyes. “Let me think for a moment. Let me think.”
Back in the camp. He told Brienne the entire situation. Let her overhear exactly where he was going, to defend Tommen and Cersei. Return the sword to me and I will aid you, Brienne had said.
He had turned down her help, he was sure he did. But like a great bloody idiot, he had given her the sword, when he let her go. Seven hells. Of course Brienne had done exactly what she had said she would.
“Do you know the way to the Goldcloaks barracks? No, of course not. Think, dammit, think.”
“Uncle?” Tommen finally sounds worried.
Jaime opens his eyes and studies him. His face is so pale, and he looks so small and so defenseless. He is only eight years old, and there is an entire army of men coming to murder him.
But he is a Lannister, after all. And a King.
He regards the boy very seriously. “Tommen, can you stay here and not move or make a sound? Stay right exactly here and wait for me?”
“Yes.” Tommen nods seriously. “I can wait.”
“I won’t be long. I have to –” Jaime doesn’t know how to explain. He fumbles with the words. “The lady knight is my friend. I have to make sure she knows the way out. So she can help us escape.”
Tommen actually brightens a little. “And bring Mama too?”
“I hope so. If I can find her.”
Both Cersei and Brienne are somewhere in the Red Keep, and both in terrible danger. Brienne can defend herself, but she is alone, while Cersei has all the Kingsguard to protect her. The same Kingsguard may see Brienne as another enemy, certainly not an ally. But Tyrion will be targeting Cersei directly, her more than anyone. Who is in more danger? He may not be able to protect them both. He may not be able to protect anyone.
A small hand pats his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Uncle,” Tommen says in a steady voice. “Here, take this with you.”
Somewhat clumsily, Tommen reaches around his belt and draws out a sword.
“The Lady said I should keep this to protect myself, but I think you need it more.”
Jaime knows it when it comes into his hand. Widow’s Wail, the twin blade to Brienne’s valyrian steel. A shortsword, smaller and lighter than Oathkeeper, but with the same clouded red steel as its mate, and as sharp and strong. He is still next to useless with his left hand, but this blade fits to it as though it were shaped for the purpose.
“Thank you, Tommen.” He pats him on the shoulder again, awkwardly. He thinks to embrace him, but holds just back from it. “I’ll have something for you too.”
He gives Tommen his candle, and sheathes Widow’s Wail in place of his battered battle sword.
“If you hear anyone in the Tower, no matter who, you will have to put it out. No one can see you, understand? Only come out when I return.” He leaves unspoken the danger that he will not return. Best not to put such ideas into the boy’s head - he simply must return, regardless of whether he finds either of the women he seeks inside.
Jaime manages to shimmy inside of the tunnel ahead of Tommen, crawling on his belly. Slithering like a snake, more like. So much for his white cloak. He leaves the boy by the cupboard entrance, his candle burning feebly in the dark. For himself he has no light at all, and he has to feel his way along the dirt floor. It’s more of a hole than the other secret passages, a dirt hole, a mole run. With any luck it will not branch out into different directions where he will have no idea which way to go. Worse, he dreads the possibility that the tunnel will be a dead end. Backing out of this would be a lot more difficult than it was going in.
As Tommen predicted, the tunnel widens as he goes. Only enough that he can crawl on hands and knees, but that’s still considerably better. He can move somewhat faster, and the dreadful sense of all the city standing on your back is lessened by a degree.
As he crawls in the dark his thoughts, unbidden, go first to Brienne. He had never meant for her to attempt something like this, and it had never occurred to him that she would try. Now she’s in the middle of a city on fire, while it’s being invaded by Targaryens, and he has told her what happens when the Red Keep is conquered. There will be a slaughter. At any moment the wildfire caches beneath the city will explode. She could die twenty different ways, all of them awful, and none of them necessary. This isn’t her city, or her House loyalty, she has no family or friends here to defend.
She came anyway. She rescued his son, and now… now she is trying to find Cersei. Because she thinks he would want her to. The thought of that makes his throat tighten so that he can hardly breathe.
He has been fumbling forward for a quarter of an hour when a sudden loud sound shakes the tunnel all around him, so much so he is flung against the walls harshly. Briefly he is convinced the passage will collapse around him, and he will be left to smother. When the shaking stills, and his hands confirm the tunnel is still open ahead of him, he starts moving again, faster this time.
That was a wildfire explosion. Tyrion has blown open the gates.
When the passage widens again and he can stand, crouching, he rushes forwards fast as he can. This tunnel is much too long to lead to Maegor’s, he is realizing. If it does not lead him out soon, he will have to turn back and return to Tommen. He would prefer not to; he loses far too much time crawling in tunnels. If this one brings him out behind the holdfast he may be able to avoid the Golden Company and swim the moat.
It feels like forever until his hands find a wall, and this time there is no door, inspiring a moment of panic until he thinks to drop back to his knees and feel along the ground and finds wood instead of dirt. It seems be a trap door of some sort. Eventually his fingers find a latch, and the wood panel opens out into more darkness. He has no choice but to tumble down into it, crashing down into a soft and sliding landing, in a huge mass of slippery grain.
He’s inside the granary. On the other end of the Keep. Jaime more or less swims out of the gran stores to the stone side, scrambles to his feet and breaks into a run.
Outside the air is even more ruined with wildfire, the smoke burning into his eyes. The Outer Yard has turned a tumult of fighting, white cloaks and scarlet cloaks and gold cloaks and golden armor. Cersei must be nearby, if the Kingsguard are here. Did she leave the holdfast and make for the throne room? Without Tommen?
Then he sees Brienne, and nothing else matters.
She wears a golden cloak now, over mismatched armor, and the helm he had packed onto her horse. She had lost most of her armor during her misadventures in the Riverlands, and he had thought it a great joke to pass on the Hound’s helm, taken from the slain Brotherhood wretch who had worn it last. He has compared her to Sandor often enough in his mind, and it amuses him to see her in his famous hound-faced helmet.
He finds her fighting, of course. She’s fought her way up to the stairs, nearly to the great hall. Fending off two golden-armored mercenaries at once, letting them expend their energy avoiding each other and battering against the brick wall of her guard. Once she wears them out she will strike them down with a single mighty blow, one each, and the look of surprise on each of their faces to take that blow will outlive them.
It is no less satisfying watching the scene play out exactly as he had predicted. On the contrary. He is struck by the notion that Brienne has gotten better since he saw her last, and considerably better since they had fought each other in the Riverlands. It may be the valyrian steel in her hands, and it may be the battles she has seen since he sent her out from King’s Landing. She had been grass-green when he had met her. How many opponents has she fought since? Whatever the reason, she moves faster now, more confidently, and she easily overpowers her opponents despite that she is still recovering from serious injury. He does not doubt for a single second that she will prevail. Wielding Oathkeeper she looks a knight out of legend, and not a patchy hedge knight either.
When the second soldier slumps to the floor, his mouth a round open “oh” of surprise, Jaime calls out to her. “Brienne!”
She turns her head, her eyes enormous and blue and blue. Her sword arm drops as he strides rapidly to her side, and the stone floor holds the weight of Oathkeeper for her. Her arm is still healing. It must pain her, swinging such a heavy sword.
It occurs to him, very suddenly, how he must look. His armor would be bloodstained from battle, and his white cloak and helm would be caked with dirt. It’s a wonder she even recognizes him.
Strangely unbalanced, Jaime says the first thing to come into his head. “I offered you a golden cloak months ago. I thought you didn’t want it?”
“Ser.” She breathes heavily as he approaches, a faint sheen of sweat shining from her pale skin. “I called it a den of brigands and disreputables. I have not changed that opinion. But I find it suits me now.”
“What are you doing here?” He does not mean his tone to be so sharp. It cuts her just the same. “What business would bring you to King’s Landing, in the middle of a siege?”
“Oathkeeping.” She sets her mouth in a firm, stubborn pout. “I may not be deserving of this blade, but I will earn it.”
His own words thrown back at him. It gets his blood up.
“You swore me no oath.” Jaime pulls off his helmet and lets it drop to the ground with a loud clang. “Nor were you bestowed that golden cloak to defend this city. You shouldn’t have come!”
“I’m defending it now. The man I pulled the cloak from had no more use for it, and the Gold Cloaks needed the help.” Brienne gestures to the other end of the Keep. “I left the King in the White Sword Tower. I thought you would find him there.”
“I did. Then I heard about the very brave lady knight who rescued him, and I had to come to see for myself it was you.” He takes a deep breath to steady himself. “If I say I have been very, very stupid, will you leave off and come away with me?”
Brienne removes her own helmet, and her hair unfurls behind her like a yellow flag. His breath catches at the sight. Her golden cloak, her yellow hair.
“I must keep my oaths. I swore to find the King and Queen Regent and bring them out alive.”
“You did not! You swore nothing of the kind, and I never asked it of you.”
“I swore it to myself,” she says stubbornly. “I failed you, and I failed Lady Catelyn. I have failed everyone. But I will not fail now. The little King is in the White Sword Tower, and the Queen –”
“Fuck the Queen,” he says sharply. “I will bring her out if I can for Tommen’s sake, but there is little time and less hope. The city is burning and she has made no effort to escape. It may be there is no way to save her.”
“And still you came after her, as I knew you would.” Brienne turns and pounds against the door that leads to the Throne Room. He does not know her face so well as he would like. Her expression troubles him, but he cannot read its meaning. “Go back to the king, bring him to safety. I will find your sister.”
Why are we arguing? He wonders at it, but he cannot stop. He is nearly shouting at her. That feeling crawling up his throat, it must be anger. Or something very like it.
“I put you in chains and put a knife in you! And still you ride into my city, uninvited, to save my son and my twin. You are more of a glutton for punishment than I ever dreamed. If I’d had you whipped, would you rescue Tommen’s cats as well?”
“I suppose it would be too much to expect you to be grateful,” she snaps back. Now this face he understands: Brienne looks decidedly cross. She gives the door one last blow with her mailed fist. “Why did you leave the boy alone in the Tower? Why would you leave the King undefended? I meant you to take him and go!”
“We will go – with your aid. Help me defend the King, Brienne. Two blades will be better.”
“I’m busy,” she growls. She pulls the helm down over her face, and her stern grimace disappears behind it. Then Brienne issues a sharp kick to the thick door, and it rattles in its hinges.
She kicks in the door on the second try – a heavy door, thick and reinforced – and her boot leaves an imprint in splintered wood as it gives way. She rushes inside without hesitation, and Jaime follows.
Inside, sitting the Iron Throne, is Cersei. She sits the throne much as Jaime once had: insolent, daring their disapproval, and awaiting doom.
At her right side is a hulking figure, familiar and yet not. The Clegane shoulders, the massive bulk of him, seems somehow to have grown larger. He wears white armor cobbled together from pieces, for no forged armor would fit his swollen frame. His face is hidden behind a helmet that reveals not even his eyes, but any man alive would recognize the terrible shape of him, the monstrously huge hands that have torn men and women and children to pieces.
Cersei stares uncomprehendingly at them for a long moment, before realizing they are not the invaders she was expecting. Neither does she look relieved at this realization. Her eyes narrow at him, upon recognition.
Her hair is shorn, her clothes are Lannister scarlet. She is thin and ghostly, pale as moonlight, her face gone angular and aged. Still beautiful - but a wild, wide-eyed beauty, newly brittle.
Jaime freezes in place, startled. Again they are mismatched. He is cloaked in Kingsguard white, his golden curls lengthening in a lion’s mane. She is a scarlet dagger. And yet the doubling sensation is still there, that she on the throne is him, and he is somehow her. The sensation is only momentary – it’s spoiled somehow, discordant; they are too different now. He sees himself in the broken mirror of her eyes and for the first time he has to look away in discomfort.
“You are late.” The Queen rises, her voice ice-cold and accusing. “You answered my call too late. Now look what you’ve done.”
Before Queen Cersei can utter any commands, a strange croaking sound emits from her protector. It is a sound like someone who has not spoken in years, whose throat has corroded from disuse and creaks like rusted armor at the joints. A word, maybe two, or perhaps just a groan. Jaime does not at first understand what he says, and it sends a chill through him just the same.
He is involuntarily backing away from the throne, his hand reaching out to Brienne to pull her along. But she holds her ground, and when he looks up at her standing between him and Gregor Clegane, wearing the helm he had given her, he understands suddenly what that wretched voice had been trying to say.
Jaime grasps at her arm tightly. “Take it off. Take the helmet–”
– but the Mountain is lurching forward, his great lumbering steps closing the gap between them in seconds, long enough only to say again in his great creaking voice: “Sandor…”
And then he is upon them.
Watch out, you might get what you're after
Cool babies, strange but not a stranger
I'm an ordinary guy
Burning down the house
Hold tight, wait 'til the party's over
Hold tight, we're in for nasty weather
There has, got to be a way
Burning down the house
- The Talking Heads
Chapter 6: It was always burning, since the world's been turning
Confrontation before the Iron Throne - Jaime, Cersei, Tyrion, Brienne, The Mountain. Who will leave King's Landing alive?
Ser Robert Strong, the most recent addition to the Kingsguard, has never been observed to say a single word, nor to remove the helm that hides his entire face. No man witnessed his knighting, nor his induction into the Kingsguard, and no one is quite sure where he has come from, which house he serves. Unnaturally strong and inhumanly proportioned, Ser Strong never leaves the Queen’s side. He stands seven feet tall, and of his other features none can say. He does not seem to eat or sleep. There are those that wonder what face would be found beneath that white helm, and if there is any face beneath it at all.
All this Brienne has already heard from the Goldcloaks, as they expressed reluctance to go anywhere near the Red Keep. She had fought at their side as she worked her way into the city, and the cloaks had urged her away from going any further. The city needs protecting more than the Keep, they said -- the Queen will have Ser Strong, and woe betide anyone who gets in that creature’s way.
She had not believed them. “Creature” had sounded inordinately harsh to Brienne at the time. She herself has been called a beast and an oddity often enough that she distrusts such judgements. He must be a large man, and perhaps a strange one, but certainly not a monster.
Just the same, when Brienne sees Ser Strong crossing the Throne Room in her direction, his long strides launching the enormous bulk of him directly at her, she understands exactly why the people of King’s Landing speak of this knight with such dread. The man is three hands or more taller than Brienne and considerably wider, covered from head to toe in white armor, his enameled helm covering his face entirely. She’s not sure how he could even see through such a faceplate, with only a small slit showing blackness where eyes should be. A sting of dismay shoots through her at the sight of him.
Jaime too, shows immediate alarm. “Take off the helmet!” he is shouting at her, shaking her by the shoulder.
But she can hardly remove her armor with such a looming threat. Ser Strong holds in his hands a warhammer as tall as a man with a head the size of a skull, and already he is pulling it back to strike, groaning something she can’t quite understand. But why should he attack them? They wear the colors of the Kingsguard and Goldcloaks, allies to the Queen. Brienne holds her sword at the ready, waiting for the Queen to call back her knight.
The Queen does not. Ser Strong’s hammer swings at both Jaime and Brienne in a wide and deadly arc, and she can feel the wind of it passing as the two of them jump back. Jaime loses hold of her arm in the maneuver, and draws his own blade. “Stand down!” he commands the white knight. “As Commander of the Kingsguard --”
The hammer swings around again; what should have been an awkward maneuver from the wrong side is just as sure and powerful as the first blow, and they scramble back. Even this enormous warhammer is as light as a shortsword for this giant of a man.
“Cersei! Call him off!” Jaime maneuvers around the opposite side of Ser Strong, staying carefully out of warhammer range. The Queen remains standing at the Iron Throne, her arms crossed in front of her, and does not reply.
Brienne tries to speak to the man. “Ser… We come as your allies. There must be some misunderstanding-”
Ser Strong seems to be ignoring Ser Jaime; his next swing is for Brienne only. The blow comes down from above, and Brienne’s sidestep is only barely fast enough. With the size of the man she should be able to outmaneuver him easily, but the warhammer moves so fast!
Jaime takes the opportunity and flies at him, and without turning his head Ser Strong puts out an arm. His strike glances off an enameled vambrace with a metallic ringing and the great arm catches him across the shoulder, knocking him to the ground easily.
Brienne does not hesitate - while Ser Strong is distracted, she swings at the warhammer, hoping to disarm him. But the big man lifts the warhammer with one hand safely out of the way, with his off-hand, and Brienne gapes at him, awestruck at the strength of the man. She herself would work hard to swing such a hammer with both hands, and she knows she is unusually strong.
He grunts, and croaks again the strange word that Brienne cannot understand.
Jaime jumps to his feet, shouting again, “Take off the helmet!”
This time she hears him. When she tips the helmet upwards, exposing her face, Ser Strong freezes. The hammer drops back to the ground abruptly, stone crumbling around it.
“There, see? Look, Gregor.” Jaime moves cautiously closer. He holds his false hand out in front of him, as though trying to pacify a wild animal. “It’s not Sandor. This is Brienne of Tarth, not your brother. She wears a similar helm, that is all.”
The helm rests on her forehead now, exposing her identity, and a few stray hairs escape around her face. Whoever Ser Strong believed she was, he should see now at least that she is a woman. She does think he is looking at her, Ser Strong, but she cannot be sure. The white helmet stays pointed at her, and she cannot see what goes on inside it. Behind the only opening, a thin gap between the faceplate and the helm, there is only darkness.
“I’m sorry Ser,” she says slowly, and lifts her hands out to each side in a placating gesture. “I do not want to fight you. I fight against the invaders outside who threaten your Queen.”
Another grunt, and a huffing breath. Then the hammer lifts again, one-handed, until it lies across Ser Strong’s shoulder. The helm turns, and the white knight looks back. Brienne’s gaze follows the helm’s direction, landing on the Queen.
She is beautiful , Brienne thinks. Of course she knew Cersei would be beautiful. Slim and delicate in her scarlet gown, a diadem glittering on her forehead. Her ruby lips make a perfect moue on her flawless face. Even her shorn hair shines golden in the torchlight. But it is a harsh beauty, and an unfamiliar one. The angles of her cheekbones sharpen unexpectedly, and shadows illustrate the hollows of her cheeks, around her eyes. Brienne frowns slightly. I thought she would look more like Jaime.
The momentary distraction renders her unprepared for the next blow.
Ser Strong turns and swings his hammer in one fluid movement, directly off his shoulder, leaving Brienne nearly no time to react. By reflex she brings her blade up to defend, and it is immediately wrenched from her hands, skittering away across the floor, and she is knocked down to her knees by the blow. Her helmet slides back down over her face, the eyeholes misaligning with her eyes, and for a terrifying few seconds she is blind.
Brienne reacts quickly, rolling to one side in an attempt to grasp after her sword. But she does not know this armor, which she had gotten off one of the Goldcloaks in the city, and her movements are awkward. She comes not quite an arm’s length from Oathkeeper before she has to scramble away again to avoid the warhammer coming down, pushing desperately at her helmet to put it back in place.
She could swear the ground shakes when the hammer hits the floor, and the floor crumbles into a dent under the force of the blow, its heavy weight.
“Cersei!” she hears Jaime shout in anger. “Call him off!”
The Queen’s melodic voice echoes down from the Iron Throne, calm and distant. “I told him to attack anyone who enters this room.”
Brienne takes to her feet again, crouched and panting, thinking only of the next blow of the hammer and which way she will dodge it. She cannot parry against this hammer, it will only wrench her sword away again.
From the corner of her vision she takes in the sight of Jaime racing away in the direction of the throne, which is good. Now she will need to worry only for herself.
Adrenaline pounds through her, and her world narrows to herself and her opponent. She feints in one direction and then dives in another, at last managing to grasp her sword in the process. She rolls up onto her feet again holding Oathkeeper, though she landed hard on her injured arm, and it screams at her sharply.
Elsewhere in the throne room, she can hear Jaime trying to talk to his sister. “Can’t you stop him?”
“Yes, my dog will heel on my command. Will yours?” At a glance, she can see Cersei’s knife-sharp smile, looking too big on her thin face. “Let’s see whose pet is stronger.”
“Cersei,” he says sharply, and he says more things besides but Brienne loses track of them. The great hammer is swinging faster and faster and she will not have the strength to block it. She can only jump back, just out of reach, and strike a blow between where she can.
She can begin to make out the shifts in Ser Strong’s stance that signal a swing, and it gains her seconds to react, and to plan.
Distant in her awareness she can hear Jaime’s voice, anxious and tense, too low for her to make the words out. But she can hear Cersei quite well, especially when she raises her high thin voice to a shriek.
“You disappeared,” the Queen accuses. “And like a fool I said, surely my brave brother has been detained. Nothing in the world would stop him from coming to my side! He must be a prisoner somewhere! He would never abandon me to run away with some ugly beast! And yet here you are, too late, and you dared to bring that with you.”
Brienne doesn’t hear what comes after, but she assumes “that” would be her. And Jaime’s assurances after, probably trying to explain that he didn’t bring Brienne anywhere, or run anywhere with her. From the sound of it, Cersei does not want to be reassured.
“I don’t need you!” the Queen announces in a high, thin voice. “I don’t need anyone. Ser Robert Strong will strike down my enemies. If our misshapen brother dares show his face here, he will see his skull crushed.”
Dodge and counterstrike, her blows coming nowhere near close enough to Ser Strong. He has a much longer reach with his hammer, and she does not dare come closer.
Jaime raises his voice, and she knows without looking how frustrated he is. “Tyrion isn’t the greatest danger! Do you really think The Mountain can defeat an entire army? The city is lost, Cersei!”
“It may be,” the Queen agrees. “But the throne is mine.”
Brienne is waiting for Ser Strong to tire. It has long been her strategy with her most formidable enemies, to wear them down in a drawn-out battle. But the huge man shows no signs of slowing, even with such heavy blows from such a large weapon. Ser Strong is inexhaustable, inhumanly so. She will tire long before he does, even with her long endurance. The spiked mallet swings closer, now and again near enough for her to feel a breeze in its passing.
“The false dragon can rule over a city of ashes,” The Queen declares. “I’ve ensured it will burn to the ground. All those rabble who jeered and laughed at me will die screaming, and the mercenary army with them. Ser Strong will crush Tyrion and anyone else who enters this room, and in the end there will be only me and him, and the Iron Throne.”
She’s mad, Brienne realizes, backing away from her opponent and trying to think of a way out. We will have to drag her to safety against her will .
The great doors to the Throne Room open again. Three figures stand there, two soldiers in golden armor, and one smaller figure in smaller golden armor, with familiar golden curls atop his head. That must be Jaime’s brother Tyrion.
The little man looks past her. “Ah,” he says, “just the two people I’ve been looking for. Together, of course.”
Brienne looks back at the throne, where Jaime is holding Cersei by the arms as though he has just been shaking her. They both are turned to the door, with identically startled expressions.
Cersei reacts first. “Ser Robert!” she calls out, and now she sounds angry. “Use the fire!”
The white helmet turns, seems to look upon a heavy black jar along the wall.
There is an alarmed shout from Jaime at that, and Brienne knows immediately that she cannot let her opponent get to it. She throws herself at him with her whole body, hoping to knock him over, and Ser Strong shrugs her off easily with one arm.
Brienne is knocked to the floor, falling again on her injured arm, and lies there shocked. She is not always the largest opponent, but never has she fought someone who would not at least be thrown off stride by her full weight. Ser Strong hardly seemed to notice her charge. He is already at the jar, and prying open its lid.
Footsteps race past her. The two golden soldiers are rushing Ser Strong while he is distracted with the jar. They will underestimate his strength, his speed. Brienne tries to call out a warning to them, but they do not look at her.
The lid hits the floor with a loud thud that echoes through the room, and the first golden soldier reaches Ser Strong. He reaches out with one enormous fist and grabs the man by the face, throwing him away. The man bounces and slides past Brienne.
A sickly smell fills the room, and Ser Strong dips his warhammer into the oily stuff.
“Our little brother is not the only one who knows what to do with wildfire,” the Queen says, in that sweet voice that echoes through the chamber like bells ringing.
Jaime shouts past her. “Harry Strickland! It’s The Mountain! Be wary!”
The warhammer drips with a sickly green liquid now, and when it strikes the floor the sparks ignite and the weapon burns with green fire. She can feel the heat of it even from a safe distance away.
“Kill him,” Cersei commands. “Kill them all.”
Harry Strickland is surely a great fighter, a fine tactician who pushed the Golden Company to take the city. He looks fine and dashing in his golden armor, like a real and true knight. But he isn’t fast enough. The very first blow from Ser Strong’s Warhammer catches him in the side of the head, and he falls to his knees in a burst of green flame. The second blow sends his helmeted head askew, hanging ajar from his broken neck, and the rest of him tips slowly to the floor, burning.
The second soldier lasts slightly longer, though he is dazed from his fall. He dodges a swing from the hammer and strikes at Ser Strong. His sword glances harmlessly off Ser Strong’s armor, doing him no visible damage.
Brienne gets up to her feet and runs to help. But before she can reach him, she is caught suddenly from behind, an arm looped around her waist, and she struggles. The soldier is caught in a risky charge and knocked to the ground by one of Ser Strong’s fists. The Mountain lifts his great hammer over his head for the killing blow.
She is stuck fast by a hand catching her arm -- Jaime, who has rushed to her side. “Don’t,” he says breathlessly, and the hammer falls.
The mountain of a man swings the hammer twice more, until the man on the ground stops twitching. Gregor, Jaime had called him. But isn’t Gregor Clegane dead, killed by The Viper?
“Brienne,” Jaime says quickly, rushing through the words over the pulpy sound of the man being bludgeoned behind them. “This is between the three of us now. You must leave us.” She tries to say no, and he won’t let her. “He’ll kill you if you don’t,” he tells her firmly, and then he covers her mouth with his.
She reels. With the adrenaline still pounding through her, the world seems to go into a spin around the pivot of his lips, sweet and soft against hers.
When his lips leave her she is too startled to react. Which was probably the idea. He grins at her wolfishly and pushes her in the direction of the door, hard enough that she stumbles several additional steps in that direction. “Go. He won’t follow - he won’t leave the Queen. Save Tommen!”
“Jaime--” she starts to say. I won’t leave you , is what she would have said. She doesn’t get the chance.
Ser Strong turns, his hammer dripping with fire, blood and gore. By the time Brienne has seen him he is already advancing on her, his long strides reaching her position in mere moments. She has nowhere to retreat - her back to the door, not much room to either side. She will have to guard against the blow and hope it doesn’t tear her apart.
With a cry of dismay, she hears that Jaime has realized it too. He moves again in her direction--
Ser Strong advances, and --
his hammer swings, and --
and Jaime --
It takes him across his body in a burst of wildfire. He goes limp immediately. Slumps to the floor like a rag doll and lies there crumpled in an unnatural position.
It takes her two breaths to understand what has happened. Jaime has thrown himself in front of the blow meant for her. It would have surely crushed her skull. He isn’t moving. His white cloak is burning, wildfire licking up into the air from the round of his back. The Mountain is raising his cudgel again and the broken knight lies crumpled and unseeing beneath the blow.
Jaime, why would you --
Time has gone funny, sticky and slow as molasses. The Mountain is still lifting his weapon in a sluggish arc, as though underwater. Her thoughts are underwater too. But her hands are almost unnaturally swift, and the rest of her follows. Oathkeeper comes up in a defensive stance, one mailed hand holding it near the tip while the other grips the hilt, and she braces behind it and she is standing over Jaime and shielding him with her body when the hammer falls.
The blow is jarringly strong, strong enough to break ordinary steel. The impact of the hammer against her sword rattles her teeth in her head. The stone beneath her feet cracks under that blow. It should have broken her in half, and for an instant pain jolts through her with such force it feels as though it has. But Oathkeeper holds, and she stays upright behind it, with a sudden and furious strength.
She hears a high thin scream, one that has been resounding for some time, and finally recognizes the Queen. The Queen is screaming, sounds both terrified and victorious.
The hammer actually rebounds a little from the blow, and Ser Stone stumbles sideways before righting himself, his toothy hammer waving in the air. Blood drips from the hammer onto the floor in a clumsy arc and that is the thing Brienne fixes onto, the blood on his hammer, and rage pounds through her at the sight.
The blood. Jaime’s blood. Rage. This creature, this monster, who should be dead and has been set upright with awful magic, he has hurt Jaime. Maybe killed Jaime. She will kill him.
Gregor Clegane takes a single step back. Hard to tell if he is nonplussed or surprised or even a little afraid, but he looks his opponent in the face and he steps back.
Brienne attacks the Mountain.
Oathkeeper raises high in the air and comes down again and again, and this time it is Ser Strong who has to deflect. His warhammer swats away her sword one way and another, and still the blows keep falling. He takes another step back, and then another.
She pushes him away, away from Jaime, her towering anger driving him back and back. She is beyond herself, possessed by some warrior spirit. Perhaps even the Warrior himself.
Without warning, Brienne shifts her stance and thrusts forward instead of readying another overhead blow. The valyrian steel pierces through the white armor, draws black blood.
Behind her the queen is kneeling on the floor beside Jaime. Her own gown smothers the wildfire until it is naught but smoke, pulling his head into her lap, saying some nonsense about how he was always going to die with her. She has the audacity to weep.
A single stab wound is not enough to bring down The Mountain. It does not seem to even give him pause. The black blood drips down from the burst hole in his armor when Brienne withdraws her blade, but the man stands as solid and steady as before, and even raises his own weapon to return the blow.
Brienne sidesteps the maneuver and stabs out again, this time catching him in the thigh. Any ordinary man would bleed out from this wound, spurting bright pulses of blood from the wound, but instead The Mountain jerks back, taking Oathkeeper with him. The blade juts out from his leg and the blood leaks out thickly around it, and there is no cry of pain, no attempt to withdraw the blade. He only raises his hammer again.
Tyrion is standing beside the twins now, his face unreadable. Outside, the sound of distant screams.
The hammer catches her on a short backswing, clanging against her helmeted head, and even at half-strength it knocks her nearly senseless. She staggers, but somehow keeps her feet and lunges before her opponent can unleash what would surely be the final blow. The point of her blade finds the hollow of his throat, and Oathkeeper passes through the Mountain’s neck.
Ser Strong topples this time. She follows him down, still gripping her blade with all her strength, until she is astride his writhing body. His great arms come up and grasp her to try to throw her off, and she must grip tightly with her knees to keep from being dislodged. Her arms wave desperately back and forth in a sawing motion, tearing at the bloody mass below the Mountain’s helmet with Oathkeeper.
Even with his head mostly off, the monster is still moving, still striking blows against her. One of them sends her sprawling, still clutching the sword, onto her side.
She watches it die, panting. Those awful arms wave in the empty air, still looking for her without eyes to see. They wave entirely too long before they finally drop to the ground and The Mountain finally goes still. She watches awhile longer after that, to be sure.
Then she pushes painfully up to her knees, her armor creaking around her. She tests her balance a moment before trying her feet. One ear is still ringing. When she stands, she holds Oathkeeper against the ground for balance.
A little way away from her, Jaime is still lying crumpled on the ground, and at his side his sister the Queen is weeping prettily, and on his other side Tyrion grasps his arm, watching wide-eyed. He’s saying something to Jaime.
“Get away from him,” she snarls at the Lannister siblings.
It is the first thing they have ever heard her say. They recoil, and she is suddenly aware of her bloodstained armor, the helmet half-split on her head and the feral grimace she wears, but she is not sorry.
She says it again, louder, and grips Oathkeeper tightly. “Get away from him!”
They scramble away in opposite directions, the scarlet blonde queen and the blond dwarf general, with identically startled looks on their faces. The Queen falls onto the throne and the dwarf retreats to the gallery, an onlooker. Brienne drags the valyrian blade along the floor and scrapes sparks from the stone all the way to Jaime’s body and then drops to her knees beside him.
She can’t see for tears. He looks grey and still. She puts her hands on him and can’t tell if he’s breathing, and then she is pulling her gauntlets off with shaking hands.
“Jaime,” she chokes out. “Jaime wake up.”
He groans right away. "Easy with the shouting, wench. I have the most awful headache." He opens his eyes a slit. “Are they…?”
Cersei wails from the Iron Throne, her hands covering her face. “She killed Ser Strong. That beast killed my protector. The prophecy is coming true. Where is my baby? Where is Tommen?”
Tyrion sneers back at her. “Misplaced him, have you? Ran straight for the throne and not your son?”
“Both of you shut up!” Brienne snarls, and turns back to Jaime.
He smiles up at her weakly. “I ought to have brought you home with me ages ago.”
“Why did you let yourself be struck down? And why did you...” she can’t bring herself to say the word kiss. She couldn’t possibly have mistaken what that was, but it is still so impossible that to say it aloud would surely be inviting ridicule.
“Why did you come here?” he says back faintly. “You first, I’m injured.”
Cersei is weeping and wailing on her throne, hysterical. Tyrion is walking to the great doors of the throne room, to bring reinforcements no doubt. In a moment they will be surrounded. Still Brienne is no hurry to move either of them; she struggles still to catch her breath from the fight with Clegane, and Jaime is summoning his strength, his armor still steaming. What injuries he might have beneath it she cannot tell.
“I lost my honor with the Brotherhood,” she says, a plaintive note straining her throat. “If I will regain it, I must do as a knight would. A knight protects the innocent, protects women and children, and their king. And...” She trails off, suddenly reluctant.
Jaime prompts her. “And?”
Brienne can feel her cheeks reddening swiftly. “And I thought you might need my help.”
He stares up at her, incredulous. “You rode into a city on fire surrounded by enemies because I might need you?”
She knows it was foolish, averts her eyes. “I’m afraid so.”
Jaime is blank at first, uncertain at her answer. Then he grins, looking as handsome and carefree as ever, damn him. “That’s why. You came to rescue me on the worst day of my life. That’s why.”
She smooths the hair back from his face in an uncommonly possessive gesture. Then she looks up on the opening doors to the grand hall, and outside there is a terrible sound.
Beyond the doors is smoke and madness. The spark of steel clashing and figures rushing this way and that, and over it all fire. Green fire in the distance, green fire leaping across the courtyard and consuming men whole. A nightmarish sight, like something her Septa would have told her about the seven hells, the one for the worst of all sinners that was only pain and fire.
Beside her, Jaime is trying to sit up. “Tyrion, listen…”
His brother looks back, framed in bright, flashing green. “Jaime, where exactly did you leave my nephew?”
Beyond the courtyard, across Maegor’s Holdfast, the White Sword Tower is on fire. A spiraling green fire creeps up the walls, halfway now.
“He is hiding in the room with the White Book,” Jaime confesses immediately, as Brienne helps him to his feet. He moves stiffly and slow. “In a cabinet. Tyrion--”
Tyrion gestures, and more golden soldiers pound up the stairs.
“Let me go,” Jaime pleads. “I can find him. I know where he’s gone. Please, brother--”
“I have no brother,” the small man says, and three golden soldiers enter the throne room, securing the entrance.
“Do you see?” the Queen calls from the throne. “Do you finally see what a monster our mother died bearing? All our lives I have told you how he would destroy us, and you wouldn’t listen.”
Jaime walks to Tyrion instead, his gait a little unbalanced, awkward. Brienne stays close at his side, should he falter.
“Please,” he appeals to the dwarf. “You have the city. You can keep it. The Rock too, it’s yours.” Jaime stops for breath, or maybe he hesitates. “You don’t want Tommen to die.”
Hard to say if it is a question or an order or simply a statement. Regardless, Tyrion nods shortly, and she can feel the sigh of relief that runs through him.
“Then let Brienne bring him out. She’ll look after him. She’s on a quest. A scavenger hunt for orphans. Cersei and I--”
“Yes,” says Cersei. She must have felt ignored from her seat on the throne, and is stalking over to their side of the room. “Jaime and I will stay together. We came into this world together, and we will leave it together. We could not do otherwise.”
Brienne glares daggers at her.
Tyrion looks at both of them. Then he turns to Brienne, and his expression changes to one of open curiosity.
“What do you say, fearsome knight?” the dwarf says sardonically, and briefly she can see Jaime’s green in his mismatched eyes.
She doesn’t know him, doesn’t know what he wants. But he is Jaime’s brother. She can hope that he will show mercy.
“Let us live, and we will leave quietly. I will take them all out of the city.”
Then they are all blue, his eyes, and pitiless. “You think these two deserve mercy? You don’t know them like I do.”
“I don’t,” she snaps back, sharpish. “I know them in my own way.”
Tyrion tilts his head appraisingly, thinking. “It isn’t up to me, you know. King Aegon will decide what is to become of them. He may like to keep them prisoner, or make examples of them at the block.”
“It is up to you, if you decide now,” she pleads. “Let us go before he arrives, and we will flee the city.”
“No!” Cersei rears up like an angry horse, rising to her feet. “I will not steal away in the night and live like a commoner in a straw house and a dirt floor. I am a Lion of Lannister and the Queen of Westeros and I will meet a Queen’s end, with my pride about me”
“As I expected.” Tyrion turns to Jaime. “What about you, would you share a cell with the queen, or flee?”
Cersei attempts to speak for him. She insists, chillingly, that Jaime will die with her. He cannot possibly live without her - he would be only half a person, and not the better half. Jaime is too stupid and weak to survive on his own, and they are fated to die together. Brienne understands better, hearing this, why her own betrayal had been so cruel for him.
“He asked Jaime,” Brienne breaks in sharply, “not you.”
Tyrion barks out a laugh, abruptly. Jaime looks at his sister, and then away. “Let us take Tommen and go.”
Tyrion shakes his head. “Well. Wonders never cease. Is this what it takes to pry you from Cersei’s clutches? I congratulate you, lady knight. You’ve accomplished in a day what I’ve failed at in a lifetime.”
Simultaneously, Cersei explodes in anger. “Coward! Traitor! Are you a sheep, cowering in the face of death, or are you a lion?”
“I am a father,” Jaime says flatly. “Many years too late, but finally. Someone has to be.”
“A father would want his son to meet an honorable death! Didn’t you learn anything Father taught us? A King does not flee! He does not cower and hide when the invaders come! He waits on the throne to meet his end with dignity, to keep the name of Lannister strong!”
“Tommen is a child!" he snaps back. "He thinks being a king is a game we are playing with him, and when he gets tired of it he can play a different game! I am not letting some Blackfyre imposter cut off our 8-year-old son’s head just to protect the family name!”
“You, you, you. You are nothing! You are nobody! Listen to me, I’m our father’s son, I’m the legacy of this house. You belong to me, you are me! Me with a cock, me with the power and respect I always deserved. When have you ever done anything that wasn’t my idea, my will? You joined the Kingsguard because I asked you to, you gave up Casterly Rock, you did my business in the Riverlands, you carried out my plans wherever I couldn’t. You can’t leave me now, you couldn't! How would you live without me? How would you survive?”
“I’ll tell you what I have done without you.” Jaime’s good hand makes a fist at his side, and his voice takes on a nearly kingly tone. “I killed Aerys Targaryen. And I didn’t do it for Father, or for you. I did it because he filled the entire city with wildfire, the same wildfire that is burning beneath all around us right now, and he was planning to burn the city to the ground rather than let Robert have it. That’s why it’s been there in the catacombs for you to use in your plots, both of you. I killed him to stop that from happening. I killed him to save the city, not to take it from him.”
From the sudden silence in the hall, Brienne realizes suddenly that they didn’t know. Jaime’s own brother and sister. They didn’t know.
“I let all of Westeros call me Kingslayer for that for twenty years, out of some sense of… I don’t know, guilt? Because I broke my vows? Or spite, perhaps, since nobody ever bothered to ask me why I’d done it. Not father, not Ned Stark, not even you. Either of you. Not once in all these years.”
“And now you --” and now he is angry, and shouting “-- both of you, are burning it down anyway, for your own personal vengeance, and never mind a quarter of a million people live here and are dying for it! You’re as bad as Aerys, both of you! You and your wildfire, and your grudges. All I ever wanted was to keep the two of you safe, and all you wanted was that godsdamned throne! You deserve each other!”
The three siblings stare at each other in silence after that.
Jaime turns away from them, and staggers towards the door. He picks up speed as he goes, racing out of the throne room, down the stairs. Brienne follows just behind him, her sword drawn. Behind them, she can hear Tyrion commanding his Golden Company mercenaries to surround the throne room.
Into a nondescript building nearby she follows him, and Jaime is pointing out a hatch in the ceiling, and then stops short. Below them, the pile of grain is moving. “Tommen?” He shouts the name into the dark, once, and then again, louder.
Brienne grasps an unlit torch from the wall and dips it into a nearby blaze of wildfire outside. Jaime winces at it momentarily, and then takes it up, and the granary turns an unearthly green.
“Uncle?” Blond curls shake themselves in the sudden light, and a small voice calls up from below. “I’m sorry, I know you said to stay hidden and not come out, but the fire…”
“No, that was good…” Jaime puts his head in his hands briefly, breathing a sigh of relief. “That was very good Tommen, it was the right thing to do.”
Brienne goes to retrieve him, descending the ladder down into the grain and sinking more than halfway under the weight of her armor. The child clamors easily into her arms. “Hello again!” he says brightly, and Brienne fights off an odd urge to burst into tears at the innocent greeting.
It takes her some time to trudge over to the ladder and climb it with the boy clinging to her neck, and when she steps out into the burning smoke again the fighting is mostly done. A dozen golden soldiers now surround she and Jaime, and little lord Tyrion gives his own sigh of relief when he sees the boy in her arms.
“Gods,” he says, and sounding almost brotherly, “will we ever find all the secrets of this place? Tunnels and wildfire caches and dragon skulls and Gregor Clegane back from the dead. What else did I miss?”
Jaime too speaks casually, and Brienne thinks she can see how they had been with each other once. Clever, and quick, and affectionate. “Qyburn. He brought Gregor back somehow. You’ll have to hunt him out of the Black Cells, I would wager. Make sure he doesn’t bring anything else back.”
“When I saw Gregor I thought nothing short of an entire army would bring him down. Your lady knight is really something,” he says to Jaime quietly.
Jaime nods, and perhaps he looks a little bit proud. “She is.”
“She would make a better sister than Cersei.” Tyrion looks between Jaime and Brienne. “Which would you save if you could? If I gave you the choice?”
“All of you.” When his brother tries to ask again, Jaime insists. “All of you. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, to keep you all safe. Including you, like it or no.”
“Still? Even now? Now who’s a fool?” His brother shakes his head, his expression grave. Then he turns to Brienne, still holding a yawning Tommen in her arms. “All right, get them out of here. I can’t look at him anymore.”
She nods hastily and starts urging Jaime to move. He is heavy against her, dawdling. “Tyrion?” he says, and for a moment he sounds much younger.
Tyrion does not look back at him. Brienne suspects he can’t, without bursting out in tears. “Hurry up, before I change my mind.”
Jaime looks the same. “And Cersei?”
Tyrion turns his back completely. “We deserve each other. Take Tommen and go.”
Jaime looks past his brother, past the soldiers, through the wavering steamy air to the throne room, where Cersei stands in the doorway watching. A dozen swords surround her, and she sees none of them. She is looking back at them, at her twin.
Jaime stands a long moment, and seems to hold his breath. Whatever passes between them then, it is for them alone.
Then he turns and takes Brienne’s arm, and they go.
They stop once, at the Goldcloaks barracks, where Brienne has set down Tommen and is looking him over for injury. He is sooty, but not burned, and he cries only a little, just sniffling, and tears rolling down his round cheeks. She wipes his face.
Jaime sees a flash of orange fur and starts to head out the door.
She catches his arm and holds tightly. “It’s just a cat! We don’t have time!”
He jerks back. “Not just a cat! Tommen’s cat. I have to -- I can’t bring him his mother, but I can bring his cat!”
Jaime hisses the last at her in an anguished tone, and she lets go of him. He drags the creature out from under a bush by a hind leg, while it spits and yowls at him, terrified. It takes to biting his arm, hooking all hour paws around it and digging in with its claws, but he has it, and carries it with a determined wince back to the barracks.
"Ser Pounce!" Tommen squeaks, and seizes the little cat from Jaime's arms. The unruly beast quiets with Tommen clutching him, but it may only have been struggling to catch its breath, with the way the young boy is squeezing him. “Where have you been? I was worried about you.”
"He was hiding in a bush," Jaime tells him, looking around wildly for something to carry the animal in.
"I have him," Tommen reassures his uncle. He has been solemn and silent outside, closing his eyes against the steaming air, but in the relative quiet of the barracks he is talkative again. "Is Mama coming now?"
Brienne jumps in quickly - there isn't time for long explanations. "She's with your Uncle Tyrion. But you're going to come with us. Your Uncle Jaime and me."
"All right,” he agrees easily. “Where are we going?"
"The questions will never stop, will they? Brienne, you need another helm. Put this cloak on, Tommen. It's gold, like.."
"Like the Goldcloaks," Tommen finishes excitedly. "Are we going with them?"
"Gods preserve us. No, Tommen. We're in disguise. We are going to be very quiet and sneaky and not ask any more questions."
Brienne makes a stern face at Jaime, and speaks more kindly to the boy. She has to both kneel down and hunch over to meet his eyes where he stands, cradling his kitten. “Here, Your Grace, wear this helm. It will keep the smoke out of your eyes.”
“A disguise,” he agrees. “We’re pretending to be Goldcloaks. And I am injured, and you are carrying me.”
“That’s right.” She pats the helm into place. It is much too large, but if no one looks twice, it will look just as he says. “Keep Ser Pounce under your cloak, and don’t let him run away again.”
Jaime adds a golden cloak to replace his burned white one, and puts a new helm on Brienne’s head. Then she bundles the boy king up into her arms again, and they dash out again into the burning air, looking for the next tunnel that will take them out of the Red Keep.
Flames and bodies rush past in a green streak. She keeps her eyes trained on Jaime. He does not falter, takes them to another hidden passage, and then out again, and then to another. The tunnels too are filled with smoke, and they must cover their faces with their cloaks and push through hurriedly, and they emerge coughing and wheezing. She follows him from one passage to the next, down chaotic streets of destruction, following a path Jaime seems to know from memory that eventually opens out onto the shore.
There are no boats waiting - what remains are husks of burnt-out ships and splintered rowboats, where the invaders have passed through. They will have to walk along the cliffs. But the air here is fresh and clear of smoke, and a relief. There are no more soldiers here; for the moment, they are safe.
King’s Landing burns behind them. All through the night, it burns.
They walk all that night, and take turns carrying the little king. They don’t know if there will be pursuers, if the Targaryen forces surround the area still, and it is not safe to rest. The sky is green and otherworldly across the southern horizon, outshining even the stars. There is no moon this night, but they need no other light to find their way. The glow of the sky paints even the shadows a dim sickly green. The smell of wildfire lingers in their clothes and hair, and it keeps them moving on, to the end of their strength, as though the flames are licking at their heels. Until the sun rises and the green glow is behind them, but even then, they can still hear the screaming, and the flames.
They don’t speak. There is little left to say. They walk, until they can walk no more, and finally in the full light of the next day they fall down on the ground and sleep.
Chapter 7: How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
At last Brienne has succeeded in a quest, rescuing both Tommen Baratheon and Jaime Lannister from a burning King’s Landing. But she is beginning to suspect that this will be a pyrrhic victory for all of them.
Note the chapter count increase - next chapter will be the last (for real this time).
Many thanks to my beta for this fic aliveanddrunkonsunlight!
In some ways, it was a victory. Her task had seemed impossible, but Brienne had found the young King and hid him from the Targaryens, fought off invaders outside the throne room, defeated the monstrous Mountain, and convinced Jaime’s brother Tyrion to allow the two of them to smuggle Tommen out of the city. While the Iron Throne fell to the invaders and wildfires raged through the streets, they managed to flee King’s Landing with their lives. All in all a very fortunate outcome.
But no triumph awaits the knights fleeing King’s Landing. Instead, they face a very long retreat.
It is several days’ journey to the Lannister camp from the embers of the capital city, and they are not moving fast. The Lannister army had made the march in half a day, but they had been on horseback and in wagons and fresh from sleep. Battered and exhausted, Brienne and Jaime are not nearly so lucky.
After a short sleep on the hard ground, the adrenaline of escape fading, their injuries wake them with a roar of pain. They get themselves back on the move straight away, but they are vastly slowed in pace. Jaime, still in his Kingsguard armor, is visibly limping, his back stiff and sore from the blow he had taken with a warhammer. Brienne cradles her damaged arm carefully, hoping she will not need to draw a blade again anytime soon.
Even had they not been injured from battle, it would be a hard journey. They have no horses, nor provisions, nor proper gear for travel. The hard crust of snow on the ground is slick under their metal boots, and sometimes covers a treacherous layer of ice. They cannot risk the main roads, where an invading army may easily overtake them, and so will have to traverse difficult terrain.
Harder still, there is a child with them. They must take turns carrying Tommen. The young boy walks only short distances before complaining of sore feet, that he is tired and cold and wants to go home. Walking the emptied coast of the Crownlands with his uncle and a stranger is exciting and interesting for only a few hours and then it is unpleasant and a little bit scary. Jaime carries him much of the time, the boy’s arms wrapped tight around his neck. He buries his face in Jaime’s shoulder, not seeing how his uncle winces at every shift in his weight, his face pinched.
For once, Jaime does not complain. He does not say much of anything, in fact. Grey-faced, shaken, he seems to see only the ground a few steps ahead of him and not much else. His once-white Kingsguard cloak and gleaming armor are heavily stained with dirt, smoke, and blood, and his hair is slicked back with sweat and filth. Between this and his uncharacteristic silence, he is nearly unrecognizable.
When Brienne tries to engage him in conversation he answers only shortly, and only when he hears her. There is some longer conversation happening inside his head, she thinks, and she isn’t sure who it is with. His face periodically betrays a series of emotions, from anger to fear to regret, battling within him. He looks back compulsively at the horizon where smoke still looms darkly over the remains of King’s Landing.
Brienne herself is too tired and stunned to focus on anything much more than getting them to safety. Rather than press Jaime for his thoughts, she pushes herself to keep them on their feet and moving. She wears still the Goldcloak armor she had worn in battle, in case they should meet with an attack. It is not armor made for long marches. It’s noisy, and uncomfortable, and heavier than she is used to, and yesterday she fought the hardest battle yet of her young life, and she aches from head to toe.
Still for a few hours at a time she takes Tommen on her back, his little curls bouncing up above her head, and the boy brightens for a little while, looking about them from his new vantage point.
“You will be the lookout,” she tells him. “If you see anything alive, any people or animals, you must alert me.”
This job Tommen takes very seriously, peering around them into the distance. There are very few sightings to alert them, once she has dissuaded him from pointing out every passing bird. The coastline is ragged and not much walked, and in these times no one will be out for a stroll in any terrain. The ghostly wind and whispery waters accompany only the three of them northwards. She looks mostly at her feet, focusing on keeping her footing, while Tommen squints through grey mist ahead. He sees a ship sailing past, over her right shoulder on the sea. Then there is a stray rider on a horse, at a far distance, who eventually turns in another direction and rides out of sight.
Ser Pounce hangs from a kind of sling around his neck. How he has kept the animal from fleeing is a total mystery; perhaps he has charmed it. Brienne frequently forgets the cat is with them.
They walk. They walk and walk and slowly they stray away from the coast to walk on the frost-coated grass. The water recedes away into the mist and trees begin to overtake them, tugging them gently into the woodlands, where they are not so exposed, and can make camp.
They continue through the dimming afternoon into the trees, in a very loud silence. There is no conversation, no sound but for the clank of armor with their plodding steps. Tommen falls asleep across her shoulders and she has to hunch over to keep him from falling off. They walk past the sunset and through the dusk, and she can’t see Jaime’s face anymore, just the shape of him trudging on beside her. She knows he will still have that distant expression, one that takes in little of his surroundings while he is engrossed in his worries. Worries about them, if they are being followed? About what’s happening in King’s Landing? About what’s happening to Cersei? She wonders.
It seems they might walk through the night again, simply for not deciding to stop. Still she knows when it is time to halt and look about them, and somehow at the same moment, when her legs are trembling with exhaustion, Jaime is lifting Tommen from off her back and settling him in the grass, his little cat still curled up in the sling most comfortably.
Wordlessly she helps Jaime off with his white armor, examining the flesh beneath. She finds nothing broken, thank the gods, but he has burns all along his back, where he had been struck by the Mountain and the wildfire coated his armor. He looks more scalded than scorched, the heat of his armor seared red welts against his flesh, but it should not scar. An enormous bruise crosses him shoulder to shoulder, and she shudders to think of what might have happened if the Mountain had hit him only a little harder.
Jaime winces a little as she prods the marks, trying to tell mere bruises from more serious bleeding under the skin. It will be worse tomorrow, and sorer too. She has nothing to dress the burns with, only bits of snow to try to cool his skin and ease the pain.
“A fire is risky,” he tells her in a low voice, as she pulls his shirt down again. “But it will be cold tonight.”
They both look over at Tommen, curled in a ball in the leaves and grass and soundly asleep, and back at each other. They have no blankets, and he has no coat. They will have to risk the fire. Yawning, Jaime drags himself up to look for firewood, while Brienne works on removing the heaviest bits of her armor. He stops to drape his kingsguard cloak over the boy, tucking it around him awkwardly, then disappears into the trees.
Brienne groans a little as she pulls the pieces of armor off. She does not have to look at herself to know how battered and bruised she is from the fighting yesterday - her aches and pains tell her. Her stomach clenches around a hard knot of hunger. It’s too dark to hunt. They should have fished while it was still daylight. Tomorrow they will have to find food.
By the time she is setting up a firepit, Tommen is rubbing his eyes and sitting up. Suddenly shy, he looks around rapidly for his uncle, and hugs his cloak about him. He doesn’t speak up, but he does watch her activity with some interest. He brightens whenever Jaime reappears in the dim strands of moonlight between the trees with an armload of kindling.
She eyes him a little bit nervously. Brienne has little experience with children-- other than Podrick, who is older, and older in so many ways. This curly haired little boy has never slept on the hard ground in his life - even before he was a King, he was a wealthy child of the crown, living in endless comfort. He is more a little boy now than poor Pod probably ever was, still playing with toys and sucking on his thumb when he thinks no one is looking.
Out of habit, as she had always done with Podrick, she shows him how she builds a little house of firewood and stacks the tinder inside it, with kindling covering the top. Tommen does not offer to help, but he listens attentively, and he does look impressed with the result when it quickly blazes up to a cheery fire. He creeps next to her to warm his hands and feet at the fireside.
Jaime brings more than enough firewood for fuel, and plainly has no intention of getting up again. He brushes off the stump besides Brienne and drapes himself over it, and manages only a weak smile at Tommen's chatter.
Brienne stares into the fire for a time as she warms herself, allowing herself to be mesmerized by the flames. She can hear Tommen babbling cheerily to his cat, teasing the creature with a stick from the woodpile. The both of them, having slept much of the journey, are suddenly awake and energetic. The boy asks more questions, of increasing difficulty. Where are they? Where are they going? Where is the rest of the Kingsguard? Questions with no answers.
Jaime fields the boy’s questions with brief, abrupt answers, distracted.
A sudden cry from Tommen rouses Brienne from her stupor. She catches a glimpse of orange fur streaking away from the halo of light around their fire.
“Ouch!” Tommen is betrayed. “He scratched me! No, wait, Ser Pounce!”
The boy ventures only a little beyond the halo of light, hollering after his cat. “Ser Pounce, come back!”
Brienne closes her eyes briefly. She is so tired.
“He ran away,” she can hear the boy saying. “We have to find him. Uncle Jaime, you’ll find Ser Pounce for me, won’t you?”
Jaime neatly sidesteps the request, in a tone completely drained of energy. “I have to guard the campsite, Tommen.”
“Then you, Ser -” He stumbles a moment looking at her, confused. “Ser Lady. Can you find my cat please?”
Brienne grimaces. The cat is probably well away by now. “I’m sorry, your grace. I don’t think we can look for him just now.”
Tommen stamps his foot, frustrated. “But Ser Pounce is lost! You have to help me find him!”
Brienne frowns. Chasing after a cat in a dark forest could take all night, and they still may not find the creature. It is too dark to see well. What’s more, they all need to rest.
“Ser Pounce can probably find his way better than we can in the dark. I don’t want us to be separated in this wood. We can look for him when the sun rises.”
Undeterred, Tommen turns stubbornly to Jaime. “Uncle, tell her she has to look for Ser Pounce!” he commands expectantly, in a voice that is accustomed to being listened to.
Jaime looks past him, seemingly deep in thought.
“We have to sleep, your grace. All of us. I’m sure your cat is sleeping too. He’ll come back in the morning,” she tries to assure him, but Tommen is not soothed. His face twists up and threatens to erupt with tears.
“Uncle, tell her. Tell her she has to.”
Jaime suddenly speaks up.
“I’m not your Uncle.”
It spills from his lips before he can think better of it, from the startled expression on Jaime’s face.
Brienne shifts uncomfortably as the boy’s round face screws up in confusion.
“What do you mean?” he asks, uncertain.
I shouldn’t be here for this. This is private. She tries to rise, to give them some time alone, and before she has even begun Jaime is grasping her arm tightly to prevent her leaving them.
“I’m your father,” he explains, after a moment of hesitation, rather than back down and drop the subject.
Tommen considers this. His brow furrows, his lips parted. He gives the idea all the serious contemplation he can muster, stilled for a tense minute.
“My father died,” the boy offers, as a counter-argument.
“Robert claimed you, yes,” Jaime admits. “But I sired you. You’re my son.”
Brienne doesn’t think Tommen is going to understand that distinction. He is only eight. And he may not understand why it had to be kept secret, what incest would be, why the twins would do it. Seven hells, she doesn’t understand any of that herself. How on earth will Jaime explain it to Tommen?
He must be thinking something similar. His tone is nonchalant, but he shifts uneasily in his seat, and keeps a tight hold of Brienne’s arm, and she realizes that he is nervous. Of his son.
Tommen looks vaguely distressed. “Father wasn’t my father? Was Mama my mother?”
“Yes.” Jaime is suddenly very interested in the fastenings of his golden hand. He examines it carefully where it lies in his lap.
“Then you and Mama were sweethearts? And you’re not my uncle?”
“I’m both, your uncle and your father. Your mother is my sister. And we…” Jaime struggles with the next words.
Brienne looks at him askance. Did he never think of this? Having to explain this? This secret burden on the children they made, who never asked for it? For a moment her sympathy for him evaporates, and she thinks perhaps she should have walked away anyway, and left him to struggle with this consequence alone.
“We were in love,” he finishes weakly. He is bent forward, his shoulders hunched.
Tommen keeps questioning him, quickly, one after another. “And you made me.”
“Joffy too? And Mercy? Or just me?”
“All of you.”
“Does Mercy know?”
“I don’t think so.”
Jaime darkens a little more at that, and Brienne can see the levers of his mind moving. Myrcella is in another kingdom. Someone could have told her by now. Someone who would not mean it kindly.
The questions keep coming.
“Did Father know?”
Jaime shakes his head. “Probably not. But maybe.”
“Is that why he didn’t like me?”
Now Jaime looks flummoxed, and looks up at the boy sharply. “What do you mean? Everyone likes you!”
Tommen’s already moved on from that, thinking hard over the events of the last day. “Is that why I’m not the King anymore?”
Now his father shifts uncomfortably. “Mostly no. The Targaryens took the city. We were conquered.” He hesitates. “But in a way... yes. It’s part of why.”
“Is Mama dead now too? Like Father and Grandfather?”
Jaime looks at Brienne helplessly. If he’s going to be a father, he will have to answer difficult questions. But he probably wasn’t expecting quite so many right at the start.
“I don’t know, Tommen. She was alive when last I saw her. She was taken prisoner.”
“And Uncle Tyrion is with her.”
A statement, not a question. Clearly Tommen paid more attention to their account of yesterday’s events than either of them had thought.
“He came with the Targaryens?”
“Damned if I know.” Jaime laughs nervously, and rakes his good hand through his hair. “That’s not true. I do know why. He’s angry with me. He’s angry with all of us.”
“No, not you, Tommen.” This much he sounds certain of.
“But will he hurt Mama?”
Jaime winces. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
Brienne finally speaks up. Both Tommen and Jaime are looking increasingly upset. And if there had been any doubt in her mind that the one had fathered the other, the identically distressed expressions on their faces would have dispelled the last of it.
She tries to sound reassuring. “Your uncle Tyrion let you and Jaime leave, because he didn’t want anything bad to happen to you. To both of you.”
“But not Mama.” He hangs on this point stubbornly, on the edge of tears.
Unhelpfully, Jaime puts in: “She wouldn’t come. I tried to bring her and she wouldn’t come.”
“But why isn’t she HERE!” The boy shouts the last suddenly, and Jaime visibly jumps. “Didn’t she want me? Didn’t she care?”
“She had to--” he tries to explain, backpedaling.
“YOU should have stayed,” Tommen exclaims, his tears finally escaping. “You should have stayed behind and Mama come with me.”
The boy surely doesn’t mean it the way it sounds, but it hurts all the same. Jaime looks almost absurdly wounded by the boy’s words. And then it gets worse.
“I don’t WANT you to be my father. I want you to be my Uncle. And I don’t want HER, I want my Mama.” Tommen pointed at Brienne accusingly, as though she has somehow caused this. “I want to find my cat and I want to go home and sleep in my bed and have everything how it was.”
Jaime raises his voice, visibly angry. “Nobody’s getting what they want today, Tommen!”
Tommen’s voice grows high and shrill in response, and his curls bounce emphatically with every demand. “Don’t CALL me that. Call me Your Grace, like before. You’re a Kingsguard, you should do as I say! Take me home!”
“We can’t go home,” the soiled white knight snaps back. “We can never go back there. Not you and not me. You’re not the King anymore and if anyone hears me calling you “Your Grace” they’ll kill us both. Now stop whimpering and go to bed!”
Tommen’s baby face wobbles with the effort of holding in tears as he storms over to the farthest pile of leaves and lies down. Soon after they can hear his loud, heart-wrenching sobs echoing all around the trees.
For a while they both sit quietly, listening to the former king crying himself to sleep. Gradually, the sobs turn into hiccups and sniffles, and then it is quiet again, and Jaime is stiff beside her, still grasping her arm tightly.
When it has been quiet for some time, he finally turns to her.
“Well, that could have gone better.”
Jaime is smiling, but his eyes are not. He releases her arm.
“That wasn’t about you,” she tells him. “He’s a little boy and everything’s changed. He’s scared.”
“I should have waited to tell him.” Jaime leans his head against her shoulder, and she freezes solid. It’s heavier than she would have expected. His head on her shoulder. “I did that badly.”
“There probably isn’t a good time for such news,” she says, unable to think of anything more reassuring. “He has a lot to deal with.”
“And I have a gnat’s patience.” He laughs weakly. “This was a terrible idea.”
She tries to sound light. For balance. “It’s only the first day.”
“One day in and I already sound like my own father,” he sighs.
They sit for a while longer like that, with his comfortable warmth pressing into her side. When he lifts his head and moves away, Brienne cannot help but feel slightly bereft.
He volunteers first watch, since he likely won’t be sleeping anyway. She doesn’t question it; she is so bone-tired she cannot ponder anything for long. Brienne makes her own little pile of leaves to try to soften and warm the hard, cold ground, and lies herself upon it.
Her sleep is shallow and dreamless, and when she opens her eyes later the fire has already burned much of the way down.
Jaime sits beside the dying fire, his eyes half-closed, drifting. When they switch places he collapses into the warmth left by her body in the leaves and very soon is asleep, while Brienne stretches herself and stokes the fire back to life, and then takes up his place beside the fire, huddling for warmth and looking about her.
There is no moon, and the woods at night are inky black. There is no sign of movement in the surrounding trees, and not much stimulation to keep an exhausted traveler alert.
She occupies herself with worries of her own. How much farther to the Lannister camp? She knows it’s nearest Maidenpool, but this far off the road she cannot tell the distance left. Can they reach it tomorrow, or will they have to camp again? She thinks they will be slower tomorrow. The snow and cold will increase as they move North. They will need provisions soon, too. And Tommen will need a real bed. The boy has not misbehaved nor has he complained so much as she might expect. But it is hard on him, the walking. Brienne doubts he has ever walked so far in his life. Difficult, too, to be far away from home, and away from his mother. The journey has distracted him from that for a time, but clearly it will no longer. Already he misses his old life, the one he can never go back to. He will have to live in hiding, a King in exile, possibly forever. They will have to be constantly alert to keep him safe.
The very recognizable King of Westeros wandering the countryside will have a large target on his back. He will need a secure place to stay, one they can defend. And then, long-term, somewhere safe to grow up.
What on earth are they going to do with him?
Her thoughts spin around that axis for some time.
Then Jaime jerks awake suddenly in his sleep and sits up, wild-eyed. He struggles to catch his breath, as though he has run himself right out of a dream as fast as he could, and he looks about him as though he has forgotten where and when he is.
Brienne is at his side immediately, without thought. She grasps his arm and leans close, as though she can anchor him to the ground, stop him floating away. “I’m here,” she says, a little uselessly. “We’re safe.”
He looks back at her then, recognition dawning on his face, and smiles ruefully. “Are we?”
She has no answer to that. She goes back to her post.
He follows her back to her position with a deliberate nonchalance that reminds her a little of Tommen’s cat. There he lies down on the ground beside her and curls up against her on his side. The ground is colder here, surely, but it is closer to the fire. There is danger of stray sparks, but she can watch out for them.
In the firelight his golden curls glow like embers. The color flickers in her peripheral vision even as she looks away, looks everywhere but at him.
The fire is warm enough to beat back the cold a little, but he is even warmer beside her. She can feel it.
He huffs again, quietly, and shifts slightly. Brienne frowns. If he doesn’t get any sleep tonight he will not travel well tomorrow. Hesitantly, with careful fingers, she lifts a golden curl from his face and tucks it behind his ear. His eyes are slitted behind long eyelashes, and she sees him blink. His frown melts a little at her touch, and he shifts sleepily into a more comfortable position.
Emboldened, she touches his hair again, the silky strands curling around her fingers. It's startlingly soft. Fascinated, she buries her fingers in the golden stream of his hair, staring. It’s so smooth and pretty, and it shines still in her hands rather than dulling against her rough, calloused fingers.
Jaime sighs at her touch, a contented sound that sits heavy in her chest, and then his eyes close the rest of the way. She goes on that way, lightly running her fingertips along his scalp, and she can pinpoint the moment he slips back into sleep.
Hours later, when the frown returns, and he makes a low murmur of distress, she touches him again, and keeps stroking his hair gently until he settles and his expression smoothes back into contentment.
She thinks he sleeps again, and is surprised when he speaks.
He mumbles slowly, sleepily. “I was in King’s Landing again. Running up and down the streets. Surrounded by wildfire. I couldn’t find any of you. Everything was burning.”
“You found us,” she tries to reassure him, strangely.
“And lost the city.” He is quiet a long while after that. When he speaks again it is even softer than before. “I should have done more.”
“More how?” Her fingers still against his head.
His voice is strangely flat. “To prevent Aegon taking the city. To stop the fires.”
“There was nothing more you could have done.”
He plainly does not believe that. But he turns his face into her palm, and she brushes the hair back from his forehead, and he sighs. She thinks he sleeps again, for a while.
When the sun comes up, he is definitely asleep, and does not stir when she rises.
After relieving herself outside their camp she encounters Tommen scampering after her. He grasps her by the sleeve pleadingly, and there are tears still on his face.
“It’s daylight now. We have to look for Ser Pounce,” the boy explains, wide-eyed. “He’ll be lost and scared. He’s only ever lived in a castle and he won’t know what to do in a forest. Will you help me please?”
He is so sincerely worried that Brienne cannot bring herself to tell him no. It’s surely a futile task, and she feels faintly ridiculous walking through the trees and calling out “Ser Pounce!”, but she can hardly deny him this simple effort after he asked so nicely. She only hopes they will be able to persuade him, when they must be on their way, to continue without Ser Pounce. It seems impossible, in this massive forest, that they will ever find one little cat.
It takes some circling around in the woodlands for half a candlemark, and at first there is little evidence that anything is there to hear them. But Brienne does not stray far from Tommen, and after one of his determined shouts, Ser Pounce emerges from the green and trots over to him with his bottle-brush tail held high.
Tommen sweeps the cat up into his arms and kisses the top of his furry head, and grins at Brienne - a big, toothy grin that wallops her in its resemblance to his golden, grinning Lannister father. She smiles back, shaken.
When they get back to the camp, Jaime is awake and dousing the fire. He looks even worse rested than he did the night before, and he moves stiffly.
“We will break the camp,” he tells her firmly, and she does not argue. While she dozes, she can hear Jaime instructing Tommen how to cover the evidence of their camp, and how to help him replace the pieces of his armor. He is not very patient with the boy, often giving up and doing things himself, but he manages not to be short-tempered.
The second day of walking feels even longer than the first. Snow is more common and deeper as they move Northwards, and in the Woodlands the terrain is unpredictable. Drifts of snow pile in odd places, and there is no path to follow. They must be alert for bears and wolves as well as men, and not to lose their way with the sun hidden behind the clouds.
There is little sign of anything viable to eat. Having left the sea behind there is no opportunity to fish. Other than Tommen’s cat, there are no animals in the wood - certainly nothing they could hunt. Even birds are few and far between. Brienne scans their surroundings constantly for berries, mushrooms, root vegetables, growing less and less choosy. They will grow weak very soon if they do not locate a good meal.
Tommen walks for much of the morning. He walks slowly, a little too slowly, because his legs are sore. He also tends to wander, whenever something catches his eye, and Brienne finds herself whipping her head around to locate him much more often than she’d like. When he tires and must be carried on Brienne’s shoulders, it’s almost a relief.
Jaime is too sore to carry Tommen very far. He is distant and vague today, and seems barely aware of their presence. Some part of him is still running through King’s Landing, relieving the events of that day with obsessive detail, while his body marches on without him. She has to repeat herself several times to catch his attention, and then he seems to shake himself awake.
At midday she grasps his arm to rouse him, and he jerks back from her in sudden alarm. Afterwards he looks sheepish, and a little bewildered, and for this reason she does not comment on his strange behavior.
“There’s an encampment ahead,” she suggests a third time, now that he is fully present with her. “They could have food. And if they might spare us a horse, we could make much better time.”
“Too dangerous,” Jaime says, looking deliberately at Tommen. “You recall what happened the last time someone recognized us traveling.”
I’m not sure we will make it at all if we don’t try it , Brienne thinks. We are in a sorry state. She says aloud: “I will go alone. There’s no reason anyone should recognize me.”
She sets down Tommen and starts walking in the direction of the smoke and sounds of a small campsite. To her annoyance, she hears Jaime following behind her.
“You’re going to bring brigands down on us,” he accuses, staying nearby nonetheless. He has Tommen’s small hand in his.
“It doesn’t look like a bandit camp.” She squints at the rough lean-to nearest them - not a permanent settlement, but not just passing through either. There are animal skins warming their tents, and the firepit has several days’ worth of ash spread about.
Abruptly, there are shouts within the camp. They have been spotted. Brienne holds up her arms to show her empty hands, carefully keeping her two companions behind her.
“I don’t see banners or armor,” she speaks over her shoulder, as two men approach. “I think they are hunters. They could have provisions.”
The men, nondescript in their furry coats, wear no colors to identify them by. But they speak the common tongue, and look like any Crownlanders. The two men greet them cautiously. Brienne introduces them as tourney knights traveling to the Vale for the contest at the Gates of the Moon. They are rather far out of the way for that, and Brienne sees the men exchange confused looks, particularly at her.
She should probably have thought of some other story. But unfortunately the only other tale she could think of was that they were a married couple taking their son to visit her husband's family in the Westerlands, and surely no one would believe that.
“I don’t care if they have provisions enough for one of Robert’s feasts,” she hears Jaime hiss behind her. ”We have no money to give them, and I don’t think we can expect charity.”
“We do so have money,” Tommen speaks up. He reaches into one of the pockets of his fine small trousers and comes up with a handful of glittering coins. “Is this enough?”
Jaime winces and quickly hides him from view before Brienne can react. From the look of it he has enough gold dragons in his tiny hand to buy all of these men’s horses and more besides, and these hunters might get dangerous ideas.
The men don’t seem to have seen Tommen’s stash of coins, but they do study the gold dragons carefully when Jaime hands them over. They leave with two horses, a bay mare and a piebald. They also vastly overpaid for some salted meat and bread for the three of them, but Brienne is so relieved to eat it, and at the blossom of energy that follows, that she would have happily paid double.
The afternoon, after that, is far cheerier. They will make much better time now. The horses are no easier on their wounds, but they will cover ground faster, and neither of them will have to carry Tommen. The boy sits a horse well, riding comfortably in front of Jaime, and even falls asleep in the saddle with his uncle to hold him in place.
They do not push the horses too hard - until they find the road, the horses pick anxiously through frost and undergrowth - and even on the road they keep to a comfortable trot. Brienne feels rather fine riding with a full belly, and Jaime looks almost contented with his son asleep against him, and a little bit of the terror she has been holding in her belly since she left Pod at Maidenpool begins to unclench.
It cannot last, of course.
“It’s just there,” she hears Jaime say late in the afternoon. “Over the next rise.”
She sees the smoke of a camp in the distance, and instead of relief she finds dread.
They will soon be surrounded again with people, and there will be things to do. Decisions to make. And there will be many more parties to those decisions now -- Jaime’s people, and Podrick, and of course everyone will need to decide what to do with the King...
She and Jaime should have been talking, all this time. There is so much to be said.
Jaime does not seem inclined to it now. He spurs his horse to ride a little faster, holding Tommen firmly. All her inquiring looks in his direction, as before, go completely unnoticed. He looks a little bit more tense than he did even minutes before, as though he too is dreading their destination.
She raises the topic cautiously. "I thought you would be relieved, my lord. We're nearly to your camp."
"Relieved?" Jaime snorts. "That's a strange way to describe it, my returning alone with my army crushed, the city burned down behind me."
But alive , Brienne thinks. You and Tommen and I all alive and together, which is far better than I dared hope for when I set out from Maidenpool.
But it’s true there is not much to celebrate. He left his brother holding his sister at swordpoint and both of them surrounded by Targaryens. His army defeated, his city burned. The last twenty years of his life in ashes behind him. All so he could escape to an uncertain future with a son he barely knows and a woman who betrayed him.
There’s nothing she can say to make most of that any better. She can only account for the part she is responsible for, in case it helps.
She turns to him, taking a deep breath. “Before we arrive. I need to say something first. I need to apologize properly.”
“You don’t need to apologize. I forgave you already,” he says immediately. He pushes his blond hair back from his face in a casual gesture, seemingly unbothered.
She ought to be pleased to hear that, but she isn’t. Frowning, she contests it. “You cannot. Not so soon. It’s too easy.”
Now he sounds amused. “Easy? Did I not punish you enough back in the camp before? I thought I took that a bit far, myself. At this point we will both be better off leaving the whole mess in the past.”
Brienne grimaces at the trail ahead of them. She cannot say why it troubles her, but she feels he should not be so ready to move on. Her betrayal of him was severe and important - or at least it had been to her. She had wounded him, she thinks, and they have not acknowledged it. They cannot just forget about it, not without a full reckoning.
She pulls her horse over and ahead, so that he is forced to slow. His horse jerks to a stop and whines unhappily, and she speaks over the beast loudly.
“I have explained why I did what I did, and under the circumstances I think I did the best that I could. But I have not apologized for how I hurt you. And I think I see it now, how I hurt you.”
“Oh?” His hands on the reigns shift in their grip, and his handless arm holds the sleeping Tommen tighter.
Jaime looks taken aback, and for the first time since that terrible scene in the Throne room, she has his full attention. That makes her falter slightly, her mouth run dry, under the intense heat of that stare.
“Yes, I think I do,” She begins uncertainly, and gains confidence as she continues. “Because it was the same thing I saw your sister do to you in King’s Landing. She thought she could… command you to die at her pleasure, and you would just do it. Like your life was hers to keep or cast away. And that was not what I meant to do. I would never assume you were mine to command, and I never meant for you to die. I had planned that you would emerge unharmed, even if I couldn’t find a way out for myself. But even so -- even though I had a plan -- I should have asked. I should have given you the choice.”
Yes, that was her mistake. She thought she had done her best, but when she had the chance to tell Jaime the truth and rely on his help, her courage had faltered. She has been alone too long, and she did not trust him enough, and so she had failed him where it mattered most.
The scenery around them shimmers and wavers, and she blinks rapidly to dispel tears.
“I should have confessed everything and asked for your help, and I didn’t, and I regret that very much. I let you down, and I let you think that you did not matter to me, and nothing could be further from the truth. I’m sorry, Jaime.”
She twitches the reins, and her horse turns back to the road ahead.
A few minutes later, Jaime pulls alongside her, his horse matching her pace.
“As I said, I have forgiven you. But,” his tone warms, and she can hear the smile creeping across his face, “perhaps I should have waited for the apology first. It was very convincing. I don’t know whether to forgive you even more or if perhaps I should have been angrier in the first place.”
“Don’t make me take it back,” Brienne says warningly.
“Seven forbid.” His horse matches her pace, and his gaze settles heavily on her. “Apologies are few and far between in my experience; in fact, I can’t think of another one I’ve received.”
Brienne thinks on the Lannister siblings bickering over his unconscious body, and concludes that this is probably true. “I can’t think of many you’ve given, either.”
He laughs at that. “I will enjoy holding onto this one, for now. I’m sure I will have something to apologize for before very long. Come to think of it - I'm sorry for my moroseness, my lady. It's not often one gets to see their life's work undo itself entirely in only hours. It has me thinking of how little I have left to lose."
A wave of sadness hits her, as clearly his as though he has handed it to her. All he had lost, and all he had given up to protect King's Landing, has been abruptly made meaningless, and right before his eyes. She can only begin to imagine how that must feel.
"You have not lost me," she tells him quietly. "Whatever may happen, I will still bear your sword, and you will still have my - my loyalty."
But that wasn't what she had wanted to say. It wasn't the right word. Not loyalty. Love. She had intended to say it, and the word had frozen on her tongue.
"Your loyalty…" he repeats thoughtfully, and she hopes he had heard the other word, the one she had not said.
They ride over the last rise in silence, pulling up at the crest to let their arrival be noted. Jaime shakes Tommen a little to rouse him, and he sits up straight again in the saddle, looking curiously down at their encampment.
Quickly they are approached by soldiers on horseback, with several more figures running over on foot in the distance. She can see a boy lagging a little behind the rest, running as fast as his short legs will carry him, and she knows immediately that it is Podrick Payne. He made it here. Thank the gods.
The soldiers arrive first, and greet their commander with evident relief. One of them is the copper-haired Lannister cousin, who rides over to them with a wide, charming grin. “Coz, it’s good to see you.”
"Addam." Jaime sounds genuinely relieved to see him. "Glad to see you've kept things in order here."
“Ser!” Jaime’s squire, a skinny boy with dark circles newly shadowing his eyes, comes racing up to them in excitement. “We heard the city was destroyed, and feared the worst. But you did it, you saved the King!”
The young man, Peck, halts himself suddenly, his eyes widening. Then he performs a stiff, deep bow in Tommen’s direction. “Your Grace, you honor us with your visit,” he says hastily.
Tommen speaks up. “Thank you! But I’m not the king anymore. I’m -- what am I now?” He looks up uncertainly at his uncle.
Jaime hesitates only a moment. “Lord Tommen Lannister, of Casterly Rock. And you will all protect him as befits the head of your house.”
“Surely he is still a King in exile.” Jaime’s cousin raises his eyebrows meaningfully. “Unless we mean to surrender the Westerlands to the Targaryens?”
“We don’t. But the situation is… complex,” he defers vaguely.
Jaime does not plan to explain his reasoning just now, but Brienne catches his meaning all the same. If Tommen is publicly acknowledged as Jaime’s son, then he will no longer be a legitimate heir to the throne. That might put him out of danger of assassination from the other contenders for the throne. Might.
A familiar voice shouts out ahead of them, higher-pitched and out of breath. “See, I told you! I told you she’d bring him back!”
Several of their present company exchange glances that suggest that they had been told it many, many times.
Pod appears and quickly collides with her at full speed, his small bulk only knocking her back a step. “Ser Brienne! You came back!” He hugs her tightly about the waist.
She squeezes him back. “I promised, didn’t I?”
“You did it.” He looks up at her adoringly. “You rescued the King and the maiden, just like Ser Florian.”
“The who?” Jaime looks at them quizzically.
“Nothing,” Brienne says quickly, flushing.
“All right,” cousin Addam says, “let’s get them get settled in camp. I’m sure they could use a proper bed, or as close to it as we have. And let me see how big you’re getting!” The Lannister captain puts out his arms to Tommen to help him off the horse. “I haven’t seen you since you were knee-high. Do you remember me?”
“No.” The boy looks skeptical for a moment.
“Well, I’ve known your Mama and your Uncle since they were your age. They were always jealous of how much better looking I was.” The man preens a little bit, charmingly, tosses his long hair over his shoulder in a familiar gesture.
Tommen giggles, then agreeably falls into Addam’s grasp. He sets the boy on the ground with a flourish and escorts him into the camp. He must have some experience with children, as the two seem quite at ease in conversation. Tommen seems to be telling him all about their journey.
Jaime and Brienne dismount their horses as well, leading them into the camp on foot. They walk elbow to elbow, not needing to look at each other.
“Ser Florian, eh? Does that make me Jonquil?” Jaime murmurs to her, sounding deeply amused..
“He’s just -- we were in Maidenpool, when we parted. That’s why he’s thinking of Florian. It makes you one of the maidens in a pool,” she squeaks out finally, blushing, “according to the song.”
He laughs. “As long as I’m pretty.”
The camp looks different here. Of course, there are a lot fewer soldiers. Most of those who stayed behind were supports, cooks and horse-masters and squires, all of them out of armor. The captive children race freely around their procession, yelling and waving. It is an altogether less martial and more convivial camp.
Also, she’s no longer a prisoner.
They stop outside the Commander’s tent, momentarily uncertain. “If there is a berth for me to rest…?” Brienne asks tentatively.
“Of course.” Jaime directs a tent to be set up beside his, not as large but comfortable-looking, with a straw pallet.
Pod lingers at her elbow, as though she will disappear again at any moment. Similarly, Tommen is staying close to his uncle, now that Addam has excused himself. The two boys are eyeing each other a little warily from behind their respective armored knights. For a moment Brienne is struck with worry.
Then, abruptly, Tommen frees his cat from the sling about his neck and holds him so that the creature’s legs dangle unnervingly in the air.
“This is Ser Pounce,” he informs the young squire. The cat squirms a moment more, and then dangles unhappily, resigned.
Pod nods sagely. “Good name.”
“His favorite treat is pickled sunfish,” Tommen announces. “He eats it out of a little dish.”
Pod looks at the adults briefly, for permission. “We have a little river trout. Will that do?”
Brienne nods, and the two take off in the direction of the setting sun, seeking fish. Hopefully the cat isn’t going to run away again when Tommen puts it down.
“We can’t stay here, of course,” Jaime says abruptly, as they watch the two boys scampering away. “It’s the first place he’ll look, the new King. And anyone who wants to curry favor with him. Tommen’s a stag in the open here.”
"Where will you go?" she asks, and it hangs in the air between them. You. Not we.
Jaime sighs heavily. Clearly he has been giving it some thought. "There are options. We can go to Casterly Rock, but that’s precisely what everyone would expect. We would have to bunker ourselves in, and I don't fancy being on the other end of a siege. On the other hand, if we have to, we could hold out there until the worst of the winter breaks our attackers. As an alternative, for slightly more discretion, there are plenty of Lannisters in the Westerlands who would shelter us, and a few in the Riverlands - cousin Lancel, the Freys. I could mix him in with the other Frey children, if I cared to. Gods know they have enough running around.”
Jaime looks sidelong at her, with sudden intensity.
“You could come with us. Help to protect him.”
It isn’t a question. It is a statement of possibility.
“We could see you to your destination, yes. But then...” she trails off, reluctant to finish the thought.
Jaime knows. He knows what she’s going to say, and a smile threatens the corners of his lips even as his eyes soften and sadden.
She finishes: “But then we must move on. We must continue the search for Lady Sansa.”
“Surely,” he suggests lightly, “that promise is null and void at this point. The woman tried to kill us both.”
He isn’t trying to convince her. This is just the next thing to say.
“That was Stoneheart. The promise was made to Lady Catelyn, and it is still owed.”
“You cannot say there was no Catelyn in the dread Lady. It was her anger, and her vengeance, even if it outlived her.”
Now it is she who feels her response inevitable. Jaime knows exactly what she will say, enough that he could probably recite the words along with her.
“Maybe so. But a promise is a promise, and there is still a girl of three-and-ten who is a long way from her home, and needs help.”
He nods, and does not look displeased. “I expected no less from you, though I would not fault you giving up the quest. It does please me to have you continue.”
Then he is summoning up the next thing. It will be the question of where she will go next, and how, and a whole conversation after that which could easily play out without them, and she is suddenly impatient of it. The spaces between their words is louder than it has ever been, and she cannot bear it.
“You could come with me,” she interrupts him, before he can begin. “You could help to find Sansa.”
Jaime smiles wearily. “You know I can’t.”
She does. She knows it, and she is going to make him say it. “Why not?”
“I took Tommen out of King’s Landing on the pretense that I would be his father. I cannot simply dump him on a relative and jaunt away. He needs protection. And as you’ve seen, he won’t take well to life on the road. He needs to be kept somewhere safe, with someone to mind his best interests and not their own ambition. Since I haven’t got any of the latter, it probably has to be me.”
Brienne nods now. It makes sense. It all makes perfect sense and it makes her want to scream.
Jaime, on the other hand, sounds already resigned to it. “But we can rest here at least a few days, and my scouts will alert us of any trouble. I will inquire on the possibilities, and you can consider how long you would like to tarry with us.” He clears his throat suddenly, as though his mouth has gone dry. “We’ll see that you are well provisioned when you go.”
There is so much that she wants to say. Things she needs to tell him, things she wants to ask. She may never have the chance after this - where he and Tommen go, it will surely be very difficult for her to reach. If they will not speak again after this, she wants him to know what she had really meant, when she said “loyalty”. To know it for certain.
"Thank you, my lord,” she says instead.
Chapter 8: Cursed by the Love that I Received
Jaime and Brienne have reached a Crossroads - soon they will have to part. There is much left to say and neither of them quite knows how to talk about it. After all they have been through, is there a way forward?
I apologize for how long it took to complete this final chapter. It was a real beast to pull together. I hope it's satisfying.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
How much sorrow can I take?
Blackbird on my shoulder
And what difference does it make
When this love is over?
Shall I sleep within your bed
River of unhappiness
Hold your hands upon my head
Till I breathe my last breath
Oh, oh woe-oh-woah is me
The last time that you touched me
Oh, will wonders ever cease?
Blessed be the mystery of love
-Sufjan Stevens, “Mystery of Love”
Brienne awakens once again in the Lannister camp, and this time everything is different.
No more is she a prisoner here, reviled for her betrayal of the Lannister commander to the Brotherhood Without Banners. She is now an honored guest, rewarded for rescuing King Tommen from a burning city.
The night before she had been toasted as a hero by men who had last seen her in shackles. The evening passed in a blur of celebration, the last Lannister camp celebrating the return of their commander and their king, and she had spent most of it silent and wide-eyed, overwhelmed by the attention and bewildered by this shift in her fate. She escaped as early as she could excuse, and sank gratefully into her bed. She fell asleep nearly as soon as her head hit the pillow.
Now, Brienne stares at the heavy canvas over her, suddenly wide awake.
She thinks of Jaime.
She spends a lot of time now thinking of Jaime.
They have never been of a piece, she and him. She has at one time been his jailer and his protector, and at another time he has been the Lord Commander to her common hedge knight. He has been both her prisoner and her social superior. She has been his betrayer; he has been her captor. Somehow there is always some status between them, the ground beneath their feet unequal and always shifting.
But they rode back from King’s Landing as something like equals, fresh from the same fight, sharing the same goal. Following no vow. It strikes her now as it had not then that he had never commanded her, nor asked anything of her, nor she him; they had simply been united in purpose. For the first time.
She remembers touching his hair. How she had been so bold, she cannot imagine. It must have been the shock of it all, after the queen and the boy king and the burning city. In the face of that one tired lion lying at her feet had seemed almost ordinary. She had caressed him unthinkingly and he had allowed it. It has been so soft, his hair, curling around her fingertips. It had shimmered in the firelight like real spun gold, right there in her hands. And he had relaxed at her touch, all his restlessness stilled, and gone to sleep. So vulnerable he had been that night, wounded and worried. She has to marvel at such complete trust in such a fraught moment, given to her of all people. He laid down beside her seeking some kind of comfort, and somehow she had given it to him. She will carry that memory with her always.
If she is honest with herself, after all she has rehearsed what she will say to him when she goes, there is no goodbye that will satisfy her now. It will not be enough, no matter what words she could say or gestures she could make. Deep down, she suspects, in the secret and scarcely acknowledged place she keeps her heart, what she really wants is not to part from him at all.
Brienne does not know how that happened. She has always been careful not to want impossible things. She has sensible and achievable goals: to learn to fight with a sword, to fight well, to win the melee, to serve on Renly’s Rainbow Guard. These things she knows she can do. Other things, well, she breaks those down down into little pieces until they become something small enough for her to have. Renly Baratheon was too much for her, she knew she could not have him. But she could be near him, and that would be enough. So she had found a way to do it. Since then she has wanted nothing quite so much as that.
Until now. Now she is wanting more and more all the time, and it is becoming dangerous. She is beginning to want things that she had never dared to imagine with Renly, not even in the dark and secret hours of the night. Things she has no right to imagine for herself. It was one thing to compare herself to Ser Florian back in Maidenpool with Pod, preparing to ride off to a dangerous rescue mission. It is quite another to think of herself that way now, with her magic sword wrapped and put away.
Jaime Lannister is not a rescued maiden, and in what way could she possibly offer herself to him that would allow her to stay at his side? What he needs is for her to ride away and find Sansa Stark, and she is just as determined to do it. When she finds Sansa, that is when she will be free to do as she pleases, once she has fulfilled her oath. She and Podrick will have to resume the search -- the Riverlands yielded nothing promising, but there is the Stormlands still, and the Vale, and even the Reach. When she has restored Sansa to Winterfell and to her bannermen, then she could return to Jaime.
But how long might it take to find her? She has no useful clues, no indication of which way to go. If she chooses incorrectly, she will be wandering uselessly about the countryside for months. What if it takes years to fulfill this oath? And will he even want her to find him then, after everything that has happened? With enough time, will he remember her only as a foolish girl who had once followed him into a city on fire? Perhaps he will forget how he had slept with her hand on his head, and remember only how she had betrayed him. He will remember her torn cheek, and his lost hand, and all the blood and suffering between them, and he will be in no hurry for her to return.
When at last she drifts into sleep, her worries follow her. The Lannister camp transforms into the Tarly camp, the crimson banners melting into the Stormlands sigil, as though she has gone nowhere in the last year, and still lies amongst men who despise her. She never slept well in that camp, not after Lord Tarly told her she deserved whatever came to her as a maiden alone among soldiers. In the small hours of the night, that seemed more of a threat than a warning. She has slept with one hand on her sword ever after, even after she left the camp, even amongst friends, even now.
And then that, too, melts away, from the relative safety of an army camp to the crossroads, from a clear and starry night to the pouring rain, to a night where seven men mean to kill her and one has already tasted her flesh. She can see him clearest of all, taller than the others, advancing, looming over her. He is still chewing, and looking at her with a menacing glare, hungry.
And then she jerks awake, out of breath and heart racing.
Oathkeeper practically flies into her hands where she sits bolt upright in the darkness, and as she clings to it Brienne slowly comes back to herself. Her magic sword soothes her at such times, just to hold it in her hands made her feel protected and strong. And yet the man who gave it to her lies in the next tent, and she cannot reach out to him for the same comfort she gets by holding his sword. She cannot bring herself to ask. The knowledge of that lays on her heavily, that he is so close and yet so far away. The distance between them feels insurmountable.
Brienne lies back, still clutching her sword in her hands. Swords she knows what to do with. Her hands were made to hold a sword, not to clasp another hand. Swords will protect her. Swords will find her way. When she holds a sword she is not simply an ugly woman, she is a fighter. A knight. Someone who matters, in some small way. The reassuring feeling of a sword in her hands begins to calm her, to make her relax back into her pillow.
But when she closes her eyes… she begins to slip back into that memory. The rain starts up again, and shapes appear in the crossroads, and her doom awaits.
Her eyes fly open again, and Brienne sits up. There will be no more peace tonight; she crawls out of the tent still clutching her sword and sits down on the ground outside. The sky above her is only beginning to brighten; it is not yet sunrise.
At such times she might have taken out her kit and polished Oathkeeper with oil, or sharpened it with a stone, finding comfort in the dutiful repetition of the task, but she is in the middle of camp and it would wake the other men. So she sets down her blade and puts her head in her hands and takes deep breaths, waiting for the feeling to pass as it always has before.
A noise nearby draws her attention immediately, vigilant as she always is for danger in the night. The movement comes from the Commander’s tent, and Brienne reaches for her sword again in case she needs to defend it.
But the tent flap opens, and the Lord Commander himself comes out, quietly and without accompaniment.
At first Brienne fears she had made a noise in her sleep that had wakened him, and freezes solid with embarrassment. But Jaime does not seem to see her, and must not have heard anything unusual. Instead he moves quickly away, without looking much around him to one side or other. He strides quite purposefully away from the torchlight between their tents and disappears into the darkness.
Brienne stares after him, startled. Where in the world could he be going in the dead of night? Why is he awake? She knows he would be exhausted from their long journey, that he had not slept well on the road, and should be long asleep at this hour.
She feels, too, a surge of excitement that had flooded her when she saw him appear -- at this moment of all moments, as though in answer to her distress. Briefly, ridiculously, she thought he might have come to comfort her, and even though she would reject such comfort, its offering would be precious to her just the same. She cannot help but be disappointed when he fades into the distance instead.
Without thought she finds herself scrambling to her feet and following. There is no reason for it, no suspicion or fear or curiosity. He simply leads her away as though on a leash, one that pulls tighter around her heart the farther away he goes. She can see him dimly ahead, a lean shadow moving into the distance, and has to hurry to keep up.
Brienne follows him out of the camp.
She finds Jaime some distance away, over the horizon, where he would be hidden from the camp and no noise would carry. He folds his coat on the ground and picks up a sword that glints in the moonlight – a real sword, not a practice blade. Something smaller and lighter than Oathkeeper that he turns easily in his left hand and whips through the air in front of him with almost audible speed.
Brienne watches with a kind of delight. She has thought often of their duel at the river, how skillful he had been even in chains and starving, by far the best fighter she has ever faced. Of course, at the time she could hardly stand back and observe his skill. He would have gutted her for it if she had let him. But now, unobserved, she can take in how swiftly he moves, how precisely his strikes fall, how surely he steps. There is a freedom to him here that she has seen in him at no other time, and a fierce pleasure. Even by only the faint moonlight she can see a smile on his face when he is particularly satisfied with his efforts.
The uninterrupted opportunity to stare is sweet in itself, but to watch him at swordplay makes her flush with pleasure. She imagines her old quartermaster, who had so often thrown up his hands at her footwork, delighting in his skill. There had been no better fighter than Jaime Lannister, she’d heard it even before she left Tarth. She can see that for certain in the feline grace of his movements, the glint of his sword slicing through the air.
He drills over and again the same movements, sometimes twitching with frustration at flaws she cannot see. Fights invisible opponents to a standstill, and then sets himself again. It is exhausting to watch, after a time.
How hard he must have worked for this. By night, to shield his pride, with no one to watch him struggle. Only a year since he had lost his right hand, and by now he is nearly as good with his left.
Nearly, but not quite. For anyone else this would be peak form, but not for Jaime and he clearly knows it. He would surely practice in the yard with the other officers if he thinks himself recovered, but instead he comes here secretly in the dead of night, and works himself into a sheen of sweat, fighting ghosts.
At this realization Brienne loses her pleasure in watching him. She is not meant to see this. This is private.
She withdraws slowly and as silently as she can, suddenly afraid he will detect her. She takes only one last look at him over the rise to be sure he did not see her go.
When she returns to her tent she crawls inside, fearing he will see her awake when he returns. Inside she curls on her side and pictures him out there, sparring with shadows in the moonlight, so beautiful it hurts to look at him. She wonders how much longer he will practice, and what opponents he faces in his mind’s eye. Duelists he had faced at tourney, old enemies? Vargo Hoat who had taken his hand? No, he would not look so calm if he had, she is sure of it. Perhaps he recalls the Kingsguard he had served beside, or the knights of legend he had worshipped as a boy.
Perhaps, at least once, he has thought of their fight in the Riverlands as he practices. That makes her smile to think on.
Her imaginings turn into dreams, and in her dreams the shadows Jaime fights transform into the monstrous Shadow who had taken Renly from her. At first, seeing it, Brienne panics. She would shout to warn him, but she can make no sound come out. She wants to run to protect him, but she cannot move, she is rooted to the spot. More and more Shadows come, gathering around him, advancing with murderous intent. Jaime faces them fearlessly even as Brienne tries her hardest to call him back. She needn’t have worried. He slays them all, easily, even as they keep coming.
The dream goes on like this for some time, threatening disaster, but somehow she is not afraid.
Morning comes at last. As the camp stirs around her Brienne rises reluctantly. She isn’t sure what she will do with herself here. She is sitting indecisively on her bed when a woman comes in.
She is a pretty young washerwoman named Pia who takes her torn and bloodstained clothes, and brings her a simple tunic and trousers. Brienne had not seen the girl in the camp when she was here before, but she had been a prisoner then, and less welcome. Pia is a tiny slip of a girl, and she has a sweet laugh, like little bells ringing. Pia lays the new clothes over the pallet like it was a fine frock, and looks up shyly at the warrior maid, and does a little curtsey.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, miss. Lord Jaime says you came to his rescue in King’s Landing, and that you fight with a sword. I’ve never seen a lady with a sword,” the girl says, a little bit wide-eyed, and then she giggles again. She covers her mouth when she laughs, just like Brienne does. “He asked me to look after you.”
Pia is almost certainly younger than Brienne, but has the confident sort of air about her that expands to fill in the spaces around Brienne’s awkwardness. Before the warrior maid knows quite what’s happening she finds herself sitting on the other side of the bed while Pia runs a brush through her bird’s nest of hair, wincing as small and clever fingers work through the helmet-induced tangles that Brienne is not inclined to spend much time wrestling with. In truth, it has been long weeks since her hair saw a comb.
The girl is kind enough not to mention the sorry state of her hair. Instead she exclaims good-naturedly, "How tall you are! Even sitting down! Gosh, I think I'm no taller than your shoulder.”
Brienne is long used to being informed that she is unusually tall. She only nods back, acknowledging the statement. Yes, she is tall.
“How did you get so big?”
Brienne winces at the pulling on her scalp. “How did you stay so small?” she murmurs back. Brienne can’t remember being small. She must have been little once, but that did not last long.
Indeed, Pia looks like exactly the inverse of Brienne, little and narrow where she is big and broad. The girl’s hands are so small and her fingers so slender they would look like a doll’s, were they not chapped from the laundry.
In all Pia looks like the sort of girl that Brienne would normally avoid - she is very pretty, and she has a coquettish sort of giggle and a tendency towards gossip. Girls of this sort are often hostile to Brienne, for reasons she has never quite understood. But Pia’s broken teeth speak to other experiences. She is curious about Brienne, but not cruelly so. And she is only a little bit younger, and old beyond her years. Perhaps it’s for this reason that there is a kind of kinship between them; or perhaps it’s that they have both been adopted in a sense by the Lannister camp.
She finds herself on the steady receiving end of Pia’s gossip all the while the girl brushes out her hair and plaits it into a close coil about her head, and gathers up the soiled clothing and linens. That Brienne never replies does not seem to dissuade the girl, who is cheerfully oblivious to how awkward and uncertain her new companion is.
She learns a lot of things about the camp from Pia: how Thoros of Myr had been freed when the men rode to battle, but he had not left, but instead tended their wounded in exchange for bread. How Addam Marbrand had commanded the camp in Jaime’s absence, and Ser Ilyn Payne waited silently in the shadows, though for what none could say.
Pia knows quite a lot about Podrick Payne, and had been the first to find him when he wandered back into the Lannister camp. Apparently she had put an arm about the sniffling young boy and lead him directly to Jaime’s squire, Peck, who has been looking after him. It seems Peck had been worried as well for his Lord to return, but keeping up a brave face for Pod had helped.
Peck has taken up Pod’s training over the last few days -- Brienne hopes she will not have to train mistakes out of him now. But she knows how Pod looked up to the older boy, and how he would enjoy that attention.
She lets Pia lead her on a short tour of the camp. Of course there is not so much to see now -- most of the army proper dispersed at the battle for King’s Landing. What remained here when the rest rode to war are the supports, the cooks and smiths and squires, along with the Riverland boys. The indistinct tents conceal a smithery, a small stable of horses, a mess, and an infirmary for wounded soldiers.
The Lannister Commander is nowhere to be seen. Meeting with his remaining lieutenants, most likely. She will see him, and she’s not sure what she will say, nor of what he will say. Will they speak of the Queen, and how he had shouted at her, and how his brother rode in with an invading army, and what it all meant? Or of how they had personally carried the King of Westeros to Maidenpool, in secret, fleeing the Targaryens? Is the boy marked for death now, by a new King? Is Jaime? Is she?
She shakes off these thoughts and follows the new arrivals staggering into the infirmary, as Pia continues on with the washing. After being broken by Aegon’s forces the surviving soldiers of the Lannister army had fallen in with the city guard at Jaime’s command. From there they would have fought to save the burning city, and some may have stayed there, though many fled to their homes. Some survivors stumble back into the camp in a slow trickle, hot on the heels of their Lord Lannister out of the burning remnants of the capital. Their tales are bloody and confused. They smell of wildfire.
Thoros tends to the wounded, the same Red Priest who had once tended her own injuries among the Brotherhood. She cringes a little to see him. That is not a pleasant memory, not in any sense. But he had been the only kindly face in all that nightmare, and she is grateful enough for it to approach him.
Thoros does not seem surprised to see her. He only nods to her from where he is bent over the burned back of a blond soldier, and takes some minutes to conclude his examination and amble in her direction.
“I saw it in the flames,” he says to her abruptly, as though they had seen each other only that morning and not weeks before. “When you were in King’s Landing, I had a vision. The Red God ordained it, that you would bring King Tommen back, and Jaime Lannister as well. And that I would find you again, in the place where we first met, to advise you, when the time comes.”
Advise her as to what, he does not say. The time is not yet now, it seems. Brienne does not know very much about his Red God, but he does not seem prone to explaining things.
“I thank you for your kindness to me,” Brienne tries to tell him, several times. The red priest waves off her thanks.
“But why aren’t you with your lion? You’ve already won him, you know,” Thoros tells her gently. “You only have to claim him.”
Brienne retreats from the infirmary, shoulders up around her ears.
Alone now, Brienne skulks around the camp, trying not to draw notice. Now and again an unfamiliar person catches her eye, and nods to her, or stares with interest, and Brienne remembers how she had been introduced to the Westerlanders last night. As a hero, of all things.
Whenever she sees that, Brienne feels much as she had in the Tarly camp, when a half dozen men were trying to court her. Confused, wary, a little frightened, a little elated. A feeling that, even when she had been much more naive, had made her want to retreat somewhere quiet and contemplate it alone, in private.
She feels much the same way about Jaime. About the way he had been looking at her last night. Fondly, familiarly. Perhaps even with something very like pride. She thinks on it and again and she is deluged with that peculiar mess of feelings so familiar that she is steeling herself for their natural conclusion - the part where it is all a joke, a cruel trick to put her in her place. Surely that part is coming, she cannot help feeling. A terrible dread pools in her stomach at the thought of it.
But he kissed me, she thinks again. There is that.
It is a confusing memory, shot through with adrenaline and terror and yet crystalline and clear, pristine. It had been in the Throne Room, back in King’s Landing, less than a fortnight ago. Strange, it feels like years ago. It feels like a dream, a fantasy. But she could not have imagined that, him kissing her. Her imagination is not nearly so audacious, nor so vivid. Despite her insecurities, she knows she can’t quite explain that memory away. It wasn’t a mistake, or an accident, he did not confuse her with someone else, nor did he trip and fall onto her lips. If he had wanted merely to kiss anyone, he could easily have kissed someone else. The Queen was there in the very same room. He has certainly kissed her often enough in the past, by his own admission. He could surely have kissed Cersei instead, but he didn’t. He had kissed her.
There is no explanation she can think of. Jaime kissed her, he wanted to do it, and that’s most confusing of all. For all she had come to understand him, she cannot understand this at all.
Might it happen again? Her cheeks flush to think on that. The possibility is there, as inexplicable and improbable as it may be. She does not want to hope for it, and if she does not distract herself quickly, she will start to.
She decides instead to locate Podrick, and see what Peck has been doing with him.
She finds them in the very center of camp, a makeshift training yard where the soldiers might warm their sword arm. With most of the soldiers gone, the Riverlands boys have taken it over. Brienne stands herself on the sidelines, watching the children playacting as soldiers, knights, wearing helmets far too large and waving weapons far too heavy. It is not very much like war, not as it really is, she reflects as she watches. In a real battle they do not smile and laugh.
The boys pause in their exertions to take note of her presence, and in Podrick’s case, to wave enthusiastically. Peck flashes her a smile and jabs Pod playfully with his wooden sword, chastising him for dropping his guard.
Not everyone is so pleased to see her there. Another observer of their play scowls in her direction, across the yard.
She had noticed Jaime’s cousin, in particular, watching her closely the night before. Addam Marband is suspicious of her, perhaps rightly so. After all, he had been there that terrible night with the Brotherhood after she had lead his cousin to his capture. From Addam’s perspective, Brienne had enticed Jaime away from his proper place, perhaps ensorceled him away, and she might do it again at any moment. Most of all he seems confused by her, and how she had accomplished such a feat.
Now, in the light of day, his wide and friendly smile still fades when she comes into view. Again Brienne is sorry to see it; she suspects she would have liked him, in other circumstances. He seems truly loyal to Jaime, and dedicated to his cause.
Brienne circles the yard, deciding to approach. She wants to tell him not to worry. She will not be luring Jaime astray again. She isn’t at all sure how she had managed to do it the first time.
“My lord,” Brienne inclines her head in repentance. “I do beg your pardon. I know you must be angry with me for what I did. I can only say that I could not be more sorry for my actions. I had no choice, and even still I suffer the guilt of it. I hated to betray Ser Jaime, truly I did.”
“Maybe you are sorry.” The red-headed man sniffs and looks away from her. “Maybe. But not nearly sorry enough, if you would show your face here again. Maybe you are not finished deceiving my cousin.”
She flinches at that. “I suppose you’ve warned him.”
“I did.” He shifts his weight uneasily now, giving her a sidelong glance. “He said I ought to speak to you about it.”
Brienne is reminded of when Ser Loras came to her at her temporary cell in King’s Landing, incandescently angry, accusatory. Jaime had sent him to her as well. Perhaps he wants her to solve these things on her own.
Now, as then, she fumbles for the right words. “ I - I have nothing to conceal. I will be on my way soon enough, and I will pose no one any danger here.”
Addam nods to the children playing nearby. “Until you reveal the location of King Tommen to our enemies.”
Now she bristles; that accusation is ridiculous. If she will be accused, the accusations should at least make some form of sense.
“Why would I secret the boy out of the capital and then sell him to the Targaryens? I might more easily have handed him over on the spot rather than hide him in the White Sword Tower and fight the Golden Company -- at risk of my own life at that!”
“I cannot imagine why you do any of the things you have done. Sworn to the Stormlands, then the Starks, then Cousin Jaime, then the Brotherhood Without Banners. One who turns their cloak so often might easily shift their allegiance again. You might work for anyone at any moment.”
She cannot stop herself responding defensively. “I have fought for but one cause -- that of justice, and protecting those who cannot defend themselves. That has lead me to ally with different parties, as the situation warrants.”
His skepticism settles in a line between his brows, with some amount of disdain, and Brienne deflates. She will not convince this man. She can barely convince herself anymore. She has made mistakes, clearly, and can she truly state she has fought only for justice, and not for her own purposes? She barely understands herself how she came to be in this position.
At the same time, she can feel how loyal Addam is to Jaime, and how outraged he is on his cousin’s behalf. In a strange way that endears him to her - she is grateful that Jaime has someone he can trust at his side.
“I understand your concern,” she concedes suddenly. “If you wish to have me under surveillance, I will cooperate if it will put your mind at ease.”
Addam’s ruddy eyebrows lift slightly. Then he purses his lips and looks at her carefully. “We have not so many soldiers here that we can spare them to follow you about. But I will be watching you closely, Lady Brienne.”
She nods, and turns again to watch the Riverlands boys in their play. Unexpectedly, he stays as well, watching the squires practicing at swords.
“That one is your squire, is he?” Addam sounds only mildly curious. He feels perhaps obligated to make some attempt to be cordial; perhaps he made some promise to Jaime on this count.
“He’d like to be,” Brienne begins to say, and then corrects herself. “He is.”
“Of your house?”
“No. I found him in the road, he followed me out of King’s Landing. He had been Lord Tyrion’s squire, and was looking for him. He traveled with me out of hope that in finding Lady Sansa we would find his Lord as well.” She folds her arms around herself, thinking. “He’s gotten much better in a short time. He might make a knight one day.”
Watching Peck spar gamely with Podrick, she explains to Addam how she has attempted to train him. The lad has no natural talent, but he works hard and is surprisingly bold in a confrontation. She sees now how his stances have grown more natural, and the Lannister lieutenant shows some approval of his progress.
“It was for Podrick that I betrayed Jaime,” she says suddenly. This is unwise, she knows, and her ears burn with shame, but she cannot stop herself. “The Brotherhood was hanging him from a tree, and he is only a child. I could not allow it to happen.”
She can feel, then, Addam’s eyes on her, studying her at length. She lets him look, and does not attempt to conceal her turmoil.
“When I left my island I thought that one could simply be honorable, and conduct themselves as a knight, and the way would be clear. Not easy, but clear -- the right thing to do would be obvious. I have learned, at great cost, that sometimes there is no right choice. Sometimes all options are terrible, and there will be regret in every direction.” She swallows hard, feeling a ghostly rope about her neck. “I would not change my decision, if I could make it again, for I could not allow Podrick to die. But I will never stop regretting it. Never.”
She spies the former King of Westeros racing about in some sort of running game with several other boys, his fine silks thoroughly muddied. When he sees her he brightens visibly and changes his direction to run over towards her. He does not run very fast, but he tries hard, moving as quick as his chubby little legs can carry him. His curls bounce appealing around his face with each step.
“Ser Lady!” Tommen greets her with unrestrained enthusiasm and a sweet smile. “I’m going to get a turn with a sword soon. Will you stay to watch?”
“I surely will,” she answers him seriously, and he is openly pleased.
Cousin Addam talks to Tommen in the bright, friendly voice he reserves for children, and not the tight and suspicious tones he has used with Brienne.
“Little Coz. You and Podrick Payne seem to have hit it off. And Peckledon’s looking after you both.” He grins, and his affection feels genuine - unlike many adults, Addam seems to like children. “They’re like your big brothers!”
"No!" Tommen sounds a little horrified at the thought. His little fists clench at his sides. "Big brothers are... Peck and Pod aren't that.” He looks quickly over at the bigger boys and then lowers his voice. “They're my friends. Or at least I hope so."
With that the boy dashes back over to the game, and Brienne frowns. “That’s strange. Doesn’t he miss his siblings?”
Addam looks at her sidelong, and then clears his throat. He explains it to her at an undertone. “Joffrey was a bit of a shit, to be perfectly honest. Gods know what he would have been like as an elder brother…” He trails off ominously, and his gaze grows distant. “Cersei liked them to compete for her attention, and Joffrey was always her favorite. I never saw him bully the lad, but Tommen used to hide a lot, and I think he was hiding from him. Myrcella and Tommen seemed close, but she was sent to Dorne years ago, and I wonder if Tommen really even remembers her. He’s only had his mother all along. And now... poor kid.”
She frowns even harder at that. The Lannister family dynamics are more and more appalling the more she learns of them.
“What was Jaime like as a child?”
The words tumble from her lips before she can stop them, and when she realizes what she has said Brienne is frozen in horror. She has no right to ask such things.
Addam only laughs, though, with a kind of pleased surprise.
“Honestly? He looked much the same as Tommen, chubby cheeks and ridiculous curls and all. He was a lot noisier though. Boisterous. Always looking for a bit of fun. We’d all follow him around like ducklings. Not because he asked anyone to, you just… wanted to see where he was going. You just knew wherever it was, there was going to be something exciting. So he’d always have this trail of kids following him this way and that.“
Brienne smiles at that. She can picture it: Jaime the golden boy, charging around Casterly Rock, looking for adventure, and a loyal gang of followers at his heels.
Addam smiles too, remembering. “He was quite protective of us. Of me. He didn’t have to be. I was a lesser cousin, not really appropriate company for the Lannister heir, but he didn’t really care about those things..He wouldn’t hear a bad word about me from anyone, would square up with boys twice his size if they dared it. And his sister… well. He was even more protective of her.”
Addam frowns at the distance for a moment, thinking.
“He was always different when she was around. A little quieter, a little less. He let her take the lead. He’d do whatever she wanted -- she could tell him to do crazy things, just because she could, and he’d do them. He would have done anything for her. And if she got him hurt or got him in trouble, he wouldn’t even have to forgive her - next day, he’d already forgotten it. Like it never happened. It was a little eerie.”
Then he looks at Brienne again, with something sharp in his gaze. “ I didn’t think about that very much, back then. It was just how things were. But now... I worry for him.”
Brienne nods a little. She worries too.
“They were his whole world, Cersei and Tyrion. All his life. It’s been different, since they parted. He has been a little lost without them. The wrong woman could take advantage of that.”
Brienne glares back. “I would never allow that. And neither would you.”
Addam looks at her thoughtfully. “I think I see why he wanted me to talk to you.”
An awkward silence. They watch as Tommen comes to stand outside the fighting ring, waiting for his turn with a practice sword.
“Did you really slay the Mountain?” Addam asks suddenly. “In single combat?”
Brienne dissembles only a little. “Only by the skin of my teeth. But yes, I felled him, after a long and difficult battle. The others with me were cut down, so it came to me to finish it.”
“Coz said you cut off his head and held it aloft for all to see.”
She grows stern. “I did not display it as a trophy. I did have to remove his head, as nothing short of it seemed to stop him fighting. But there was no ‘holding aloft’--”
Addam is laughing. “That sounds like the sort of detail Cousin Jaime would add for flavor. I had to wonder if he had exaggerated the rest as well, for all his bragging one would think you were Arthur Dayne come back to life.”
She flushes. Jaime is bragging about her?
“Speaking of devils.” The redheaded man suddenly raises his voice, shouting out loudly. “Cousin, come and join us!”
Brienne flushes further, more aware than ever that she is surrounded by Lannisters, every one of them bold and brash, and she could not be more out of her element. She does not turn to look, but she somehow can feel Jaime’s approach, somewhere over her left shoulder. She takes a deep breath.
He comes to stand beside her, leaving Addam to her right.
She does not know which way to look now, and so looks straight ahead.
“I was just telling Lady Brienne,” Addam says, with no change to his cheerful tone, “how I have warned you not to trust her.”
“Ah,” she hears him say. “I should have expected that. You are too straightforward, cousin, to stab anyone in the back. Not when you can stab them in the front.”
“I don’t think there was any stabbing,” the redheaded man says. “Just a friendly warning.”
There is a moment of quiet where the two men exchange a look, somewhere behind her back.
“It seems your Lady Brienne has some quibbles with your version of the Mountain’s death. I always knew your tales were embroidered, but it is enjoyable to catch you in the act.”
Jaime responds with affection. “Me, boasting? Never.”
Brienne cannot help snorting at that, and Addam laughs.
“Sort him out, will you?”
Then he is ambling away, leaving the two of them standing alone together.
Brienne hesitates. This will be the first thing she has said directly to him since they rejoined the Lannister camp, it occurs to her. Perhaps it should be something better, but it is all she can think of.
“You should not exaggerate me to your men.”
Jaime smiles. “But it was no exaggeration. You were magnificent.”
She has a moment of vertigo at those words.
He knows he’s caught her off guard. “Of course I’ve boasted about you. I saw you facing off alone against the most feared warrior of my lifetime, stepping aside from his maul as if it were no more than a flyswatter. That’s when I knew.” He stops for a moment, as though catching his breath, and then continues. “... that you were going to win.”
She swallows down her pride at this description, for safety’s sake. “I was never nearly so certain.”
When he turns to her she is struck by the vivid green of his eyes, greener than the dull winter grass beneath their feet. “I only regret that I was flat on my back for the best part of the fight. I rather had to imagine that bit -- forgive me if I embellished somewhat. It makes a good story, so long as I leave out my injury.”
She cannot actually be angry with him, of course. She makes a good effort, frowning at him sternly, but he sees through it, and smirks at her.
Jaime watches quietly as another two soldiers stumble into the camp, their armor battered and hanging from them. There they are quickly collected by scouts and sent to the infirmary in a silent pantomime in the distance.
“I’m not certain what they return to me for,” Jaime confesses bemusedly. “I have neither the Crown nor my House’s support anymore. I can neither pay them nor feed them, and I have no authority over them now.”
Brienne doubts that it matters. She has seen how these men follow Jaime. They admire him, even love him, in a way that she had not seen among other soldiers, not even for Renly. Saving only herself.
“Of course you do. You have your own authority, and you have their loyalty still. They follow you, not your House.”
He shakes his head at that, but he has a small smile, and she knows that he is pleased with what she has said.
Then the squires dismiss themselves and scatter, leaving the practice swords for the smaller boys to take up. Podrick keeps his, and takes an additional wooden sword to Tommen. The former king grasps it awkwardly, until Pod shows him how to adjust his grip.
“Tommen seems to be settling much better than I feared,” Jaime tells her. “I worried that he would be out of place with the other boys, due to his position.”
“I think they have agreed to ignore it,” Brienne observes. “He is certainly as dirty as the other boys now. It’s hard to see him as a king, covered in mud.”
“That’s my hope,” Jaime says.
“You don’t intend to take back the throne?” Brienne has wondered on this. He seems to have given up on the idea so easily.
“I’m not inclined to, if even I could. We have sat enough Kings on that throne of late, and their life expectancy is not improving. The Five Kings have all fallen. So far as I’m concerned Aegon is welcome to it.” Jaime grows more thoughtful, and more apprehensive. “But I don’t know. If I don’t claim him, the Westerlands might rally behind him. We could yet win it back, in time. I suppose I should consult with our bannermen. Perhaps one day Tommen will resent me for giving up his birthright, even if it is a lie.”
“He doesn’t seem to miss being a King,” Brienne observes. He does occasionally give out orders, but more in the manner of an entitled child than a former monarch.
“I have been convinced he would be more bookish, like my brother. The lad has spent too much time alone, and cooped up in the Small Council with adults and papers. It is good to see him run and play.” Jaime thinks on this a little, watching. “It does him good to be around other children. Perhaps one of my cousins should take him, raise him where there will be boys his age.”
She looks at him sidelong. “I think it will help him more to have his father at his side.”
He shakes his head at that. “He doesn’t need me. You heard what he said the other night - he’d rather I stayed his uncle. It was a silly notion of mine, that I could suddenly be his father after all these years. Ridiculous.”
“You can’t quit the first time things are difficult.” Brienne frowns sternly. “Nor can you let an 8-year-old boss you about, even if he did used to be the King. He needs a father. He needs you.”
A little sulky, he says: “I should let you boss me about instead.”
“Oh, hush.” She snaps it back before she can think better of it, but Jaime does not seem to mind the impertinence. He might have been expecting it; he goes on as if she had said exactly what he thought she would.
“You can see how well that worked out for the rest of my family. Needing me.” He nods to the horizon darkly. “Tyrion and Cersei are probably murdering each other right now, as we speak.”
“That’s between them,” Brienne says, thinking on what Addam had said. “You loved them both, and what they do now is up to them. Not you.”
He looks like he would argue with her. His mouth makes a thin line across his clenched jaw.
She is wading into dangerous waters now, but she cannot stop herself.
“They were so unbelievably lucky to have that, your love.”
Her breath hitches in the face of that memory. How very much he had loved them - it had been visible as moonlight. If she could have put her arms about it, just to see what it felt like, she would have. To feel love like that. And they had just pushed it aside like it was nothing. Like it was common as air, and not precious as gold.
“From what I saw, I don’t believe that they deserved it,” she says with conviction.
Jaime is looking at her - she can feel it like a ghostly touch across her face. But if she looks back at him now, she will keep talking, and she will say things that they will both regret.
“That was not either of them at their best,” he admits.
Jaime and Brienne both keep pausing to look over at Tommen and Pod. There is something deeply satisfying about their two charges meeting, and they watch their developing acquaintance with interest.
Podrick is showing Tommen a few simple moves with his wooden sword. Brienne can see that he is trying to recreate her own advice to him, and it is gratifying to witness how closely he was listening. However, Tommen has had little experience with a sword thus far, and at an age when most other boys would have begun squiring for their own knights. Clearly he has not had lessons of his own before.
“His mother would not allow lessons,” Jaime explains in a low voice. “He was the youngest, and she liked to baby him. I found him a few hours with Ser Loras in the tilting yard, and he seemed to enjoy that. But he has had little more than riding lessons, before that afternoon.”
The boy frowns hard and glares at the wooden sword as though sheer will could convince it to behave. Even frowning, little Tommen is not very fierce. But it does show a more serious side to the normally cheerful child.
In a little while he throws his blunted weapon on the ground in frustration. “This sword is terrible,” they can hear him say. “It won’t do what I want.”
Pod is nonplussed. “It isn’t your sword that’s the problem. You need to practice more.”
“I don’t think I like practicing,” Tommen says, whining a bit. But he picks up the sword and looks at it again. “How much practicing does it take to be a knight?”
“A whole lot.” Podrick nods wisely, an expert. “Lady Brienne says even the best knights must practice, so that they don’t lose their skills. And she is the best there is.”
“Uncle Jaime is the best swordfighter,” Tommen interrupts him. He gestures with his little sword for emphasis. “The best in the whole kingdom.”
“Ser Brienne is better,” Pod says firmly. On this matter he will stand up to the little king. “She said your uncle dueled her at Bitterbridge, and he lost.”
Jaime nudges her at that, looking amused. Brienne swallows a smile.
Tommen interrupts him. “He was chained up, the fight wasn’t fair. Anyway he’s not my uncle. He’s my father.”
Jaime visibly startles, sitting up quickly.
Pod’s face screws up in confusion. “But I thought the king was your father?”
“I have two,” Tommen declares, mustering sudden confidence in the face of Podrick’s surprise.
“Oh,” Pod says, and his expression changes. “That’s lucky. I don’t have any.”
“Well, the King died. So I only have the one now.” Tommen nods wisely. “It is lucky.”
“I have only Ser Brienne,” the older boy says. “I’m her squire.”
Tommen looks impressed. “You must be a good squire. She’s a great knight. Almost as good as Uncle Ser.”
Clearly he has not decided on what to call him just yet. But to hear Tommen acknowledge him has a clear effect on Jaime. He listens to the boys with rapt attention.
“I’m all right. I’m getting better.” Pod glances in their direction, perhaps realizing that the adults can hear him. “Ser Brienne is teaching me. I was no kind of squire when she found me, but she let me come along anyway, and learn how to do it properly.”
“She found you? Then she isn’t your mama?” Tommen is keenly interested in this topic of mothers, and being lost, and being found.
“I don’t remember my mum,” Pod shrugs. “I used to wonder about her. But now I have Brienne, so I don’t anymore.”
Jaime squeezes her arm again, this time looking at her meaningfully. Brienne is suddenly blinking rapidly to keep her vision from blurring over. Poor Podrick. Is she the closest thing to a mother he has known? Her? She feels terribly inadequate, quite suddenly, in the face of that.
Now the both of them are listening closely, right as the boys lose interest in talking. They go back to swinging their wooden swords at each other, more and more artlessly as they go. It becomes more of a game than a spar, a game of how hard they can hit their swords together.
Turning away finally, Jaime invites her to sup with him in his Commander’s tent that evening. “We will have to travel light and fast soon,” he explains, “and it could be the last good meal we have for some time. Join me?”
The invitation made, Jaime rises. He half-jogs over to the two fighting boys, and she can hear his warm baritone greeting them in good humor. The boys are excited, waving their wooden swords, and she can hear them speaking energetically of steps and parries.
Then, much to her surprise, she sees Jaime walking away with one of the boys -- not Tommen, but Podrick. Tommen wanders back towards his tent while the two of them walk together, engrossed in discussion.
Brienne is strangely nervous at the sight of the two of them embroiled in conversation.
“What did you speak on?” she asks Pod afterwards, when he comes walking back alone. She is trying to sound a lot less interested than she is.
“We talked about you. Sort of.” He gives her a strange sideways look. “How we shouldn’t be rivals.”
“Rivals,” she repeats with genuine confusion.
Pod looks a little abashed. “I was… a little cross with him. For having your attention.”
“But he says that I’m lucky, because I’m your squire and I will get to go everywhere with you, even places where he can’t follow. I get you forever and he gets you hardly at all. And I will have you all to myself again when we go, and he will miss you. So I said we could share you a little, while we’re here.”
“That’s… nice…” she says faintly, reeling.
“He said so. But I wasn’t being nice really. I know you’ll be sad too, milady, when we go. You will miss him too. So you should spend lots of time with Ser Jaime now and not feel guilty about it. You should be happy. You only really seem happy when he’s around, and he’s only really happy with you. You should get as much happiness as you can now and save it up for later.”
She is visited with the sensation of something squeezing her chest nearly flat. As always she is completely unprepared for sympathy and kindness, and to be seen so clearly. She has to nod tightly and turn her face away.
The dinner, in itself, is pleasant. The rations are nothing special, but the wine is quite fine, and so is the company. In all the tumult of the camp, it is nice to have Jaime entirely to herself, without also running for their lives.
Pia has fixed her hair for her, making a loose braid to rest on her shoulder. She let much of it escape, sweeping the blonde brambles to one side to cover Brienne’s torn cheek without needing to be asked. She’s grateful for that now, with Jaime looking her directly in the face. For one evening, she cannot feel her scarred cheek burning under someone’s gaze, and it is a relief.
She had also given her one of the dress uniforms of the Lannister army. “You’ll look smart in this,” the girl assures her. “It’s a splendid uniform. Sometimes Peck wears his when we--”
“Thank you,” Brienne says quickly, fumbling with the fine gold buttons.
It’s a parade uniform, something for a commander to wear in a victory march, red and gold. Pia has managed to find one long enough in the arms and legs, from some tall lieutenant who had most likely perished at King’s Landing. It only barely accommodates her hips and thighs and she feels slightly indecent in it, and continuously tugs the jacket down to cover her waist as best she can. It feels inappropriate to wear this uniform, which is not her uniform, but she has no other clothes that are not bloody or filthy and Pia has nothing else for her.
The costume had certainly surprised Jaime. He had blinked and stammered for a moment when he saw it. But he must not have disapproved of her appropriation of his army’s uniform; once he recovered he grinned with something like amusement and then pulled out a chair for her. Brienne fights off the sensation that she is being made fun of long enough to sit and gulp nervously at her wine.
If she were not herself, and entirely unsuitable, she would suspect she is being courted. But she has been in this position before, and made the wrong conclusion. It may not be a cruel trick like before, but she will not imagine herself anything more than a trusted friend.
Still she cannot bring herself to worry. When she is with Jaime, he occupies so much of her that there is no room for dread or anxiety. She is focused on him entirely, on noticing everything about him, and hearing everything he says, and every little gesture he makes. He looks especially handsome tonight, in a clean uniform with his hair free and tumbling carelessly over his shoulders. She takes him in and is filled with a buoyant sort of lightness. It might be simple happiness, this warm and elevated feeling. She is not very familiar with that.
The feeling does not last.
They have an argument. A quarrel. Though for the life of her she could not say exactly what had precipitated it. Jaime had been vexing her, but he often vexed her, and this time had been different. There had been no real disagreement and no real point of contention. Suddenly they were both very cross with each other, but the reason why was a bit of a mystery.
Jaime had been asking her about Hyle Hunt, the man in her party who had perished at the hands of Lady Stoneheart. She still winces when she thinks of Hyle, who had been left hanging in the trees to greet her when she had brought Jaime to the Brotherhood. She had not been able to see to his body; the Lannister soldiers had taken care of that, and she had been insensible at the time. She is a little afraid to ask what they had done with him.
Jaime is the one who raises the topic, and it is clear that someone (someone who had to be Podrick) has already told him a little of how he had come to travel with her. Still, he feigns ignorance of the man, so that he might pester her about him.
“So tell me, who exactly was this Ser Hyle, that you wanted so much to save?”
“A hedge knight, and a friend.”
“A good friend, I hope.”
“Why does it matter?” Her forehead creases dubiously.
“I should rate at least one good friend and a squire. In trade.”
She groans a little. “I thought we had settled this matter.”
“Oh, we did. I would just like a sense of my going rate, for the record.”
She will have to remind herself, the next time she is lonely, of how damnably irritating Jaime Lannister actually is.
She casually takes a spoonful of the broth. “He was a frustrating man, actually. Which makes you about even.”
Jaime laughs. “House Hunt, that would be a hanging stag, wouldn’t it? That’s regrettably ironic. You haven’t the best of luck with stags, have you?”
She flashes briefly on the sight of Renly dying at her feet, and flinches. “Ser, that’s quite enough.”
“And your other traveling companions? Pod has mentioned a Nimble Dick? How does one acquire that nickname?”
“Ser.” She is not going to dignify that with a further response.
“And a Septon too? I suppose if Sprightly Richard wished for a ceremony, that would be rather convenient. Marriage-wise.”
She blushes. “Nimble Dick was at least 40 years my senior. And he was dead before we met Septon Merribald.”
“Ser Hunt the hanged then. Was he well-hung?”
Ser Hyle hanging from the trees, flickering in the firelight. She flushes further. “Stop it. I would rather not recall for you all of the men who I lead to their deaths, no matter how amusing it is to you.”
“He was the one who proposed marriage then.” He laughs again, but it sounds rather more forced this time. “Pod told me. He also said you turned him down. I was rather relieved to hear it. I know how lonely the road can be, and you had rather more traveling companions than I had expected of you.”
Now Brienne is quite sincerely annoyed. “You would rather I traveled alone?”
“Of course. On your solitary knight’s quest. And thinking to yourself all the while, if only the dashing Ser Jaime Lannister had come with me…”
Brienne shifts nervously. That is rather closer to the truth than she would prefer.
“I did not intend to find myself so many companions. I seem to accumulate them without meaning to. But I could hardly turn Podrick away, he was quite determined, and the others followed.”
“They followed you a considerable distance.” He leans forward a little, a strange gleam in his eye. “Were you tempted by the offer? He sounds fairly persistent. Perhaps if you had not met with the Brotherhood you might have found yourself in a sept instead?”
She cannot understand why he is so fixated on this point. “I was not the least bit interested, and anyway I would not have abandoned my quest.”
“I should hope not.” Jaime looks satisfied for barely a moment, and then he pushes on. He has a slight sneer that is most unbecoming. “A Hunt! That’s barely even a house. And a hedge knight at that, with nothing to his name. It’s shocking that he even dared ask you to consider him.”
Brienne cannot help but feel accused by him. She answers defensively: “I don’t know why he asked me, Ser. It was perhaps another jape. He was hardly flattering in it. If anything it was Tarth he wanted, not I.”
“But you could only be flattered by such an offer. Otherwise you would have asked him to leave your party.”
Brienne drops her spoon, all appetite lost. It clatters off the side of the bowl and onto the table.
“Why do you belabor this? I turned the man down! I told him no several times!”
“Why?” Jaime sounds entirely reasonable, all of a sudden. “I know you are an only child, your father must have wanted you married.”
Now she feels entirely overwrought, in the face of his sudden calm. Perhaps it was the mention of her father that got her blood up.
“I will not simply marry the first man who comes along -- I am not so desperate to marry as that. I have other concerns.”
“And why was this proposal unsuitable?” he asks, despite that he has already identified several good reasons himself.
“In every way.” She folds her arms across her chest. “His proposal was entirely mercenary, insultingly so. I thought him crude and untrustworthy. Though he proved a strong companion and more trustworthy than I expected, and I’m sorry he is dead. But I did not wish to marry him or bear his children, and that is why I declined.”
Jaime seems to grimace when she refers to Ser Hunt as a knight. “Is that all? No other reason to decline an offer of marriage?”
“Should there be?” She glares back at him. “Is it not reason enough that I did not care to accept?”
“Then you would have accepted a better proposal, had one come along? You would have married Renly if he’d asked, wouldn't you?”
In a flash of anger Brienne pushes up to her feet.
“Do not make fun of me, Ser. And speak no more to me of the men who died under my protection and what they would or would not have done. They are dead, and I will never marry, and it is no business of yours.”
She sweeps out of his tent in a fit of temper that makes her eyes sting and throat clench.
There is nowhere private or solitary in this blasted camp - she marches up and down the line of tents and there are people everywhere, all of them in Lannister crimson. She would prefer not to see that color. As a last resort she ducks into the largest tent where they are keeping the horses out of the snow, and sits herself down on a discarded saddle and fumes.
She should have expected that. When has she ever managed a sustained encounter with the impossible Jaime Lannister without it ending in some kind of insult? The man seems incapable of relating to anyone without it. Brienne only wishes she understood what the slight had been exactly. Was he cross with her for turning down a marriage proposal, or for getting one in the first place? If she had accepted it, would he be pleased or even angrier? She can’t understand it.
Then she is thinking about the kiss again. It was hardly the moment for it, in the middle of a fight. She cannot help seeing that as a mitigating factor. She had been staging a rescue, after all. It could have been simple gratitude. You came to rescue me on the worst day of my life. That’s what Jaime had said afterwards, laying on the ground and dazed from a terrible blow. That happened to knights in the songs, they got a kiss from the maidens they rescued. The songs never said much about what the maidens were thinking. Whether they thought the knight was handsome, if they had fallen in love. Maybe it’s just something you do. Kiss your rescuer.
And what was it he had said, just before it? He told her to leave, to go and save Tommen. He had kissed her then, when he meant to send her away. A kiss goodbye. That is all it was. That’s all it could have been.
With so much on her mind, Brienne could be forgiven for taking several long minutes to realize she is not alone in the stable. It is only when she hears the sound of weeping that she looks up and around her, and finds someone else hiding here.
Tommen is sitting beside the horses feed trough, alone, sniffling quietly, tears running down his face.
Brienne stands up quietly and approaches the boy, concerned. When he sees her he rubs his hands hurriedly over his face, trying to wipe the tears away and accidentally smearing wet from ear to ear.
It is this last gesture that troubles Brienne. The boy went away alone to cry, rather than approach anyone for comfort. And now he tries to hide his tears. But of course, he is surrounded by strangers; his home and his mother are far away. Comfort must seem well out of reach.
“Tommen? What’s wrong?” she calls out tentatively.
Tommen wipes at his face hurriedly, as though he has been caught doing something wrong. “Nothing.”
It’s all right to be sad, she wants to tell him. I’m sad too. But then she might have to explain why she is sad, and that is too long a tale and too difficult to tell.
“Do you like horses?” she asks tentatively.
“Oh yes,” Tommen says, and pats the roan on the nose. “This one is a war horse, they’re big and tough. But he has a limp, so I guess they left him behind. Do you think he’s lonely, with all his friends gone off without him?”
“He might be.” Certainly there is a lonely little boy who would know all about that. “Tell me about the other horses,” she suggests.
The boy has given them all names. Bear, Snowflake, Midnight, Lord Trots. They nuzzle at him when he pats their noses, despite that she had seen the same horses kick and snort at their handlers in the light of day. When he has introduced Brienne to the last horse he wipes at his face again and sniffles.
“I let Ser Pounce go,” he confesses, and then dissolves into hiccuping sobs.
He had let Ser Addam take the kitten to Maidenpool, where surely a family would take good care of him. “He was unhappy in a war camp. There were too many people, and it was too loud, and I couldn’t let him wander about. He might of gotten trampled. And we’re going to march somewhere else, and he didn’t like that much either. So I thought…”
“That was very kind of you, Tommen.” Brienne tells him.
She has to wonder where the boy had gotten such empathy and thoughtfulness in house Lannister. Surrounded by greed and cruelty and dishonor. Perhaps that was the crux of it: a sensitive child feeling everyone’s discontent. Now the boy is even more alone than before, the last piece of home he had brought along with him lost for good. Her heart aches for him then, so young and so sad.
“Would you like to hear a song?” she blurts out. It was all she could think of.
Tommen continues wiping at his face, but behind his hands his expression turns curious.
When she was his age she loved songs more than anything in the world. She had haunted the audience hall hoping to catch a new verse from a visiting bard, and she knew every one of them by name. When she had been sad or lonely, she would think of her favorite songs and sing them to an audience of dolls, remembering all the words perfectly.
But it has been a long time since she did anything like that. Singing was for bards and ladies, and she is neither. She has not sung, even for herself, since she left Tarth, and that feels like a lifetime ago.
Brienne has to close her eyes to do it now, and when she does she envisions the bard who had sung it to her all those years ago. Straining for the words, she finds the tune and lets it carry her through.
There was a knight and a lady bright
And three little babes had she
She sent them away to a far country
To learn their grammary
They hadn't been gone but a very short time
About three months and a day
When the lark spread over this whole wide world
And taken those babes away
Brienne realizes too late that she chose a tragic song - one of the saddest ones she knows. The three babes return to their mother as spirits, and the mother puts them to bed in their funeral shrouds. But it is a pretty tune, and a haunting image that she had never quite forgotten, even though she had been a girl herself when last she heard it.
She set them a table of bread and wine
That they might drink and eat
She spread them a bed of a winding sheet
That they might sleep so sweet
'Take it off, take it off!', cried the eldest one
'Take it off, take it off!', cried she
'For I shan't stay here in this wicked world
When there's a better one for me'
'Cold clods, cold clods inside my bed
Cold clods, down at my feet
The tears my dear mother shed for me
Would wet my winding sheet'
When she finishes she opens her eyes tentatively, dreading that she has either horrified the boy with her singing or made him even sadder than before. But her audience claps his hands excitedly, and she finds Tommen smiling widely, his tears forgotten.
“I don’t know that one!” Tommen sounds delighted by it. “I thought I knew all the songs!”
"I heard it when I was a little girl on Tarth.” Brienne smiles, pleased that she has banished his tears successfully. “There may be a few more verses, but that was all I could remember.”
“That was wonderful,” the little boy says sincerely. “Your voice is so pretty!”
“I’m sure I don’t sing as beautifully as your mother…” Probably Cersei has an exquisite voice, Brienne assumes, to match her great beauty.
Tommen contradicts her cheerfully. “Oh no, Mama doesn’t sing. My Septas sing the songs, or the bards who come to court. But they didn’t sing so well as you!”
“Well.” Brienne feels a blush on her cheeks. “I’m no bard. I haven’t sung in a very long time. But I remember the songs from Tarth very well.”
“Can you sing another?”
He looks at her so pleadingly that she relents and sings a few verses of The False Knight on the Road , since it is about a little boy, and rather more cheerful. A trickster disguised as a knight comes upon a boy on the road and poses riddles to the child with the intent of luring him away. The boy uses common sense to answer all the riddles and keep walking along his own sure path. She cannot do the voice of the wicked knight the gravelly way she had heard it, which had once made her both shudder and giggle all at once, but she gives it a fair try, and Tommen seems delighted.
“Another!” he orders her, clapping his hands together.
“Another time,” she defers. “And perhaps some other people at the camp will know a new song. As you travel through the land, you will meet people who know songs from faraway places.”
Tommen suddenly looks fully twice his age. “Will we be traveling again soon? Not home, I know. We can’t go back there.”
“That’s right.” Brienne thinks of telling him “maybe someday”, but it is unlikely to be true. “I’m not sure where we will be traveling to, but it will be soon.”
She listens for a moment. It’s gone quiet outside, and some time has passed since her disastrous supper. It’s probably safe to return.
“Let’s find our beds,” she suggests to Tommen, rising slowly. “It is long past time for sleep.”
The boy’s small hand crawls into hers. “Will you come with us when we go?”
“I don’t know,” she says, even though she does.
She sees Tommen back to his bed, in a tent he shares with Addam, right next to Jaime’s in the center of camp. Addam looks relieved to see them, and he bundles the former king off to bed.
When Brienne gets back to her tent someone is already there. A pair of fine boots are set near the entrance, and her bed is occupied. She approaches curiously, prepared to oust someone from her bunk, but quickly loses her nerve when she recognizes the black leather gambeson slung across her belongings where they are piled on the floor. Someone is indeed lying in her bed, with his curly blonde hair splayed out around his head like a golden halo, and a long bare arm stretches over the empty space beside him, as if reserving the space.
Faced with the altogether absurd sight Brienne backs out of her own tent and walks into the Commander's tent instead. She falls onto the empty bed there, removing only her boots before diving under the covers.
In a matter of minutes there is the rustle of a tent opening and Brienne shuts her eyes firmly. When the bed dips beside her she does not open them. She only moves when his body stretches out beside hers, rolling quickly, intending to vacate the bed.
An arm clamps firmly around her waist to hold her in place.
"Settle down, you daft woman," Jaime murmurs into her ear. "I could chase you around all night, but I'm a bit tired for that. I haven't slept a wink."
Has he slept since the campsite in the woods? With me? She considers it, and wonders if she is giving herself too much credit. But come to think of it, she has not slept well since that night either.
His voice takes on a note of concern. “Are you cross with me? I’ll ask no more about your companions, if you wish.”
“I’m not cross,” she says finally.
He seems to relax at that. His arm stays draped around her, and his head comes to rest against her shoulder. And she wants to know what he is doing and why and what it means, but instead she goes completely still under his touch, still and breathless. If she asks, he might stop.
So she lies there in his comfortable bed with the soothing warmth of his body pressed all along hers and feels his long lean muscles relaxing and melting into hers and she has never done anything like this before, never felt someone's hot breath against her skin, never been so utterly defenseless and utterly surrendered to.
On the other side of the tent, a candle flickers, guttering. Shadows dance across the canvas. Outside, she hears soldiers walking by, murmuring, their voices lowered out of respect for their commander.
She feels not quite herself; it is too good to be true. This is a dream. It is a silly young girl’s dream, and not something that happens to Brienne the Beast. At any moment she will awake from this, and be back in the sort of story she belongs in.
But she did answer the call, the one she told Podrick was pulling her towards King’s Landing and Jaime. She rode into an inferno for him and she had no reason to expect she would succeed. Yet here they are safe and together he is holding onto her, and it is all the reward she needs. She doesn’t need a song or a legend or even a knighthood. This is enough.
It becomes comfortable, becomes sleep.
Her sleep is untroubled most of that night. She awakens near dawn to the sensation of tangled limbs and not quite knowing where she ends and he begins and she lingers there in this pleasantly liminal state for some time before sliding back into sleep again.
She dreams then that she is standing with him outside, in front of everyone in the camp. Jaime kisses her, and all at once she is naked, as though he has magicked away all of her steel and linen with his lips.
When he looks down at her he bursts out laughing. The sight of her body sends him into hysterics. He laughs so hard he has to stop kissing her, and he pushes her into a pit in the ground and instead of a bear there is it only her, bare, and all around her men jeering and laughing and pointing at her ridiculous nakedness, the audacity of her body.
When she wakes again she is unreasonably cross with Jaime. He surely can't help what she dreams him doing, but it is surely his fault she is dreaming of such foolish things as kissing. If he had not chased her into his bed, she would be dreaming of altogether less mortifying things. She turns onto her back and glares over at him where he lies peacefully beside her, in sleep as obnoxiously innocent as he is not while awake. The proud incline of his head, the sardonic twist of his mouth, the suggestive twinkle in his eyes, all have smoothed into an expression of peace and contentment.
As though he can feel her eyes on him, he stirs. His head turns back towards her, his golden hair tousled prettily against the pillow, and he blinks lazily. He smiles to see her there, a slow and dazzling smile of uncomplicated pleasure.
She cannot help smiling back. He seems so simply happy to awaken beside her. It gives her a warm feeling like a small sun in her chest, and all at once her unpleasant dream vanishes into mist, forgotten.
They lie this way for some time, looking at each other in the morning light.
Brienne has never liked to be looked at, but she does not mind it just now. For once it does not give her that cringe of dread she has always felt since she was small. Jaime looking is different. She should wince and recoil, knowing he can see her torn cheek, her missing teeth, her crooked nose. But he has seen them all before, and still he wants to look again.
Jaime has seen all of her flaws, at some time or other. But he seems to see something else there too, something that is seemingly invisible to every other person in the world. She wishes she knew what it was. Whatever it is, it seems to fascinate him.
She has never seen him so relaxed and untroubled, she realizes slowly. He thinks he is safe here. With me.
But Renly had been surrounded by an army as well, in his own commander’s tent, when he was cut down by a shadow. And there had been nothing she could do to save him.
No one is safe with me, she reminds herself.
With that, she sits up, looking down at herself. She is still wearing the dress uniform from the night before, and she would prefer the other soldiers not see her in it. She has not earned it.
She swings her legs over the side and grabs at her boots, pulling one on.
Jaime lies on his side, watching her. “I rode after you, you know.”
That takes a moment to sink in. She is nearly finished lacing her left boot before she stops short. “When?”
“After Peck and I sent you on your way that morning. I changed my mind and rode back. Looking for you.”
Her fingers untangle themselves and hang limply in the air, her laces quite forgotten. “When - where?”
“It was later that day.” He shrugs, with a gesture that renders the whole story inexplicable, amusing. “I rode all the way back the way we came, went back to the little brook where I left you, and then all the way to Maidenpool. Hoping I might catch you. It was the next morning when I got there, and you were nowhere to be seen.”
“You must have nearly found Pod…he was on his way back to your camp. I had already ridden on to King’s Landing by then.”
“Coming to rescue me.” He grins at that.
“But why did you follow me?”
“I was hoping to… I don’t know what, exactly. I was just desperate to do it.“ He is poking fun at himself, making light of it. But she thinks he looks a little abashed, in a way quite unusual for him. “I didn’t want us to part that way.”
She had thought much the same thing, as she rode to King’s Landing. Brienne fumbles again with her laces, and pulls on her other boot.
“I should return this to Pia. She said she would have a change of clothes for me in the morning. She must be wondering where I am.”
Jaime stretches and sits up as well, and then pulls his shirt over his head.
She physically cannot stop her eyes from darting in his direction, taking in his golden skin, the ripple of muscles across his chest, his abdomen. Just as quickly, she looks away, hoping he hasn’t noticed.
“Attend me,” he says teasingly, pushing a glass bottle into her hands. “I have this oil to treat the burn, but I haven’t enough hands, and I think you could do a better job than Peck.”
She hesitates only until he turns his back to her and she can see the bruising there, enough to make her wince. An angry red welt is raising there on his back, hot to the touch beneath her fingers. She rubs the ointment onto it and frowns.
This burn, he had gotten for her. The Mountain had struck him with his burning warhammer, and he had pushed her out of the way rather than protect himself. His armor had absorbed much of the blow, but the heat of it seared this mark into his back.
"You musn’t do this again,” she chides him, still tracing the welt along his skin. “I could have taken the blow."
"I know you could," he says, "but I didn’t want you to."
She ponders that. He knows she could survive an injury, but he still thought he should take the blow instead. Because she is a woman, and he is a man, perhaps.
He speaks up again, studying her expression over his shoulder.
“I do not like to see you hurt,” he explains patiently, as though it were an obvious conclusion.
But that has never mattered before, she thinks. She is big and brutish, and the hardest blow will not break her, so why shouldn’t she take it instead of someone else?
“A-another scar would hardly matter now,” she stammers. “With so many others.”
She presses a bandage into his back, feeling the warm muscle beneath her fingers around the wound. It is a shame to see more scars and marks on his body, which had once been so flawless and beautiful. First his hand, and now this burn. It must have hurt terribly, the skin burning away and leaving this scaly knot of scar tissue. Her heart aches at the sight of it. She wishes he had been slower, and that she had been hit by the burning warhammer instead.
Is that what he wanted for me? Is that what he felt?
The thought startles her, and she has to stop touching him then. Her hands withdraw abruptly.
He rises from the bed and reaches for a crisp white shirt, a ludicrous extravagance, she thinks. It will be covered in dirt within the hour, simply from walking around the camp. But it does look very fine against his skin.
"I could swear there were not so many buttons in the world before I lost my right hand. I must convince Pia not to give me shirts with so many buttons. She must do it only to frustrate me.”
“Of course she doesn’t.”
Slowly, with some effort, Jaime fastens the buttons on his shirt. The white linen slowly closes over his golden skin, the lithe muscles disappearing behind the buttons where she will not be tempted to look at them.
“Do you still dream of King’s Landing?” she asks him.
He catches her eye. “Not this night. I slept quite well.”
She nods. Did she prevent it somehow? She is glad, regardless.
“But I do often dream of that day, it’s true. I cannot stop thinking about it, sleeping or waking” he says, shaking his head. “Everything still smells of wildfire. It turns my stomach.”
She isn’t sure which day he is speaking of, Aegon or Aerys. Perhaps both. Both memories would smell of wildfire, for certain.
“Would it help to speak on it?” Brienne asks hesitantly. She does not know how to help, but still, she would try.
Jaime only laughs hollowly and shakes his head again. “I’d rather not. Best not to, I think.”
If only she knew the right words. A clever person, a more experienced person, a more womanly woman, would know what to say now. They could make it better for him, ease the pain and worry from his face. But she doesn’t know how to do that.
She is still standing so close to him, close enough to lift her hand and stroke his face. But still, still the distance between them feels insurmountable. She cannot reach him. He is here in front of her, and he is a thousand thousand miles away.
“I hope you are not still blaming yourself, Ser.”
“For what?” he says flippantly, and it is very convincing. “For losing the battle? For not returning to the city weeks before? Or for not getting rid of the wildfire years ago?”
Jaime lets the questions hang, busying himself with lacing up his gambeson over his fine shirt. Brienne twists only a little before she gives in. “For any of it.”
“Oddly enough,” he answers right away, “more than anything I regret not staying behind.”
For your brother? Or for Cersei? She wonders it, but she says: “for the people?”
“For the city.” His eyes unfocus slightly, and his fingers fumble to make a knot one-handed. “Being the secret savior of King’s Landing must have meant a little more to me than I thought. Having it burn down anyway… seems it was all for nothing. It’s rather a wretched waste.”
His life, she realizes. That’s what he means.
“It was not your place,” Brienne hurries to tell him, “to save the city.”
“The bannermen I commanded into battle would rather disagree with you.” He sounds skeptical. Leaves the crude knot and lets his arms settle at his side, looking up at her.
“As Kingsguard, your responsibility was to protect the King.”
“Ah yes.” He laughs bitterly. “This time my place was to let the city burn and save the king. Then what did I do before, when I saved the city and killed the king? At least once I’ve gotten it wrong. Which is it, Brienne?”
That seems unfair. Why should he ask her, of all people, what he should have done?
“You did the best you could.”
“I could have done more.”
“He’s your son, Jaime. The Targaryens wanted to kill him. Of course you put him first.”
“Like you put Podrick first?”
He says it easily, without bitterness. But she still flinches.
“Yes, I imagine it is the same,” she admits. “It was the only thing I could do, and still I agonized over it.”
Jaime reaches out across the space, which had seemed so infinitely wide before, and he presses his hand lightly against her chest, just below her shoulder. It aches, that spot. The wound he had made, the place where he had stabbed her on that terrible night. The angry red scar there would be invisible to him beneath her shift, but he knows exactly where it is. He stares at the spot, through the cloth and bandage, and his face tenses grimly.
The wound throbs beneath his fingers, and Brienne remembers falling, and darkness, and a hot spike of pain in her chest. It had been the last of a long line of blows, and it had nearly broken her. Does he know that? Could he?
“I have worried over it,” he says abruptly. “Your wound. Is it healing?”
She searches his face. His eyes do not quite raise up to hers. Perhaps he is remembering it too.
“It will scar. But it is healing.”
“I am sorry for it.” He frowns. “It was --”
“--I know it,” she breaks in. “It was part of your ruse.” It had been part of his plans to set her free, to play her captor. Even then he had thought of her next journey, even when he had not forgiven her yet.
“-- but not necessary,” he finishes unhappily. “In the moment I thought that it was. I didn’t know -- more than anything I was hurt and I wanted to hurt you back.”
“You didn’t know what to do, or whether you could trust me.”
"But I did know. Deep down I knew that you must have had a good reason for what you did. I just didn't care.” He grimaces, and thinks, and hesitates strangely before continuing. A shadow passes over his face. “It was only later that I realized -- you weighted my life against a child’s, and chose the child. It was the right choice. The choice I should have made, when it was put to me. But it still hurt. It hurt viciously. I thought I had grown a thicker skin after all these years. But when you betrayed me -- it felt like I was seventeen again, and sitting on the Iron Throne, when Ned Stark rode in. When he judged me a Kingslayer.”
Brienne sucks in a sharp breath at that. Because she knows what that means to him. He had confessed it all to her in the baths at Harrenhal. After the terror of Aerys, and the awful decision to cut him down, that had been the worst of it all, when he had been branded an oathbreaker. That was perhaps the worst moment of all his life, a moment that haunts him still. That anything she has done could even compare to that memory is a horrifying thought.
“It all happened so quickly. We arrived and then Stoneheart had me in the stocks and I had just realized… and then my men rode in and… I was not in my full faculties. There were only moments to decide.”
“You don’t have to explain.”
“I do. I want you to understand.”
His hand still sits against her, over her wound. His green eyes bore into her gaze with a new intensity, an expression she cannot recognize. No one has ever looked at her like this.
“I think you had some feeling for me once,” he says quietly, a murmur. “Have I spoiled it?"
She blinks at him. Her heart hammers in her chest, against his hand.
“Anything you did was a fair response to betrayal,” she responds faintly. Her eyes drop down to the floor. “I will be glad if we can put it behind us with the rest.”
Jaime starts to say something. The words are on his lips, it seems, and he draws a breath to speak them. Then he closes his mouth again, and they’re gone.
That, perhaps, is all the sign she needs. Brienne turns from him and walks out of his tent.
She feels if he had only said whatever it was that he had hesitated to say it would have solved everything, made everything better. But what would he have said? She can’t even imagine the words. She doubts they exist - there isn’t a name for what he is to her, and she to him. Perhaps he had only looked for the right words and found nothing.
After all that has passed between them there isn’t a way forward anymore, no destination and no path to get there. She feels she has ridden through fire for him, and he for her. Rushed into the inferno to save one another. But where does that leave them but inside a burning building?
The second day is grey and cold, with watery snowflakes dropping down in a rush and amounting to little but slush. Brienne hugs a warmer coat around her that Pia had conjured up in exchange for her uniform.
“I’ll get this back to the Lord Commander,” the girl had said when she took it from her, and grinned at her discomfitude. It had been one of Jaime’s own dress uniforms that she had worn - no one else there would have been tall enough, Pia told her practically. She would not have dared to steal it; he had given it to Pia, to give to her.
Brienne chooses not to examine that more deeply, wandering out again into the snow and slush.
The boys are congregating inside now, frowning at the rotten weather, and the adults are ill-tempered and harried. It is no day for marching - but few days will be, now that winter has come.
Brienne has to search the tents to locate Podrick. She finally finds him in one of the tents set aside from the camp. Inside Tommen crouches at Ser Illyn Payne’s feet, giggling. The silent knight is rubbing mud into the boy’s hair. Pod helps too, dabbing at the spots he has missed. Golden curls litter the ground at their feet where they have been shorn off at the edge of a knife.
“It’s a disguise!” the former king tells her cheerfully. “Ser Illyn says I will be easier to hide if my hair isn’t so golden.”
She looks quizzically at Ser Illyn. She had thought he had no tongue.
Podrick speaks up. “We understand him fine. Don’t we, Tommen?”
Tommen starts to nod, until Ser Illyn moves his calloused and scarred hand over the boy’s head and holds it still, sternly.
It’s true, the boy looks very different without his curls. His short, muddy hair makes him look more like a Payne than a Lannister, she can’t help thinking. Looking at the three of them, she wonders if they could pass him off as Pod’s brother.
Perhaps, if we could hide the both of them together, then Jaime and I… but no, I musn’t think of it. Brienne reprimands herself for her selfishness. There are more important things at stake.
“Ser Illyn,” she says cautiously, “I must thank you for coming to the rescue. When you brought Jaime’s soldiers to free him from the Brotherhood. It did not go well for me, but I was very glad to see Ser Jaime freed.”
Illyn Payne makes a garbled comment down into Tommen’s muddy hair.
“He says you were awfully suspicious,” the boy helpfully translates.
She’s certain she was. She’s less surprised that Ser Illyn had seen through her ruse than that Ser Jaime had not.
She swallows. Like Addam Marbrand, Ser Ilyn must distrust her still; she would not blame him for it. “I think you must be very loyal to follow Ser Jaime away from the camp, to ensure his safety.”
Hmph, the silent knight responds. That needs no translation.
Well, she was not expecting conversation anyway. It simply needed to be said.
“I hope you will stay at his side,” she finishes. “I will be glad to know he has loyal knights still at his command.”
Ser Illyn releases Tommen, who clamours up and sets off beyond the tent flap to find his Uncle Jaime and show him how they have ruined his hair. Ser Illyn makes a croaking sort of noise that she realizes is laughter.
“He says you are both very foolish,” Podrick tells her.
She brings Podrick back to her tent, hoping to find Pia. The boy will need clothes as well; his own are ill-fitting and much-abused. But Pia is no longer in Brienne’s tent, nor is she with the rest of the washing in her own. The girl must have gone on to Jaime’s tent, returning his uniform. She leaves Podrick there with the laundry, tells him to wait for the girl and find himself some clothes that he can grow into.
Approaching the Lord Commander’s section of the encampment, Brienne freezes. There is a familiar sort of noise coming from Jaime’s tent, the kind of noise she is used to hearing in army camps, at least whenever there are camp followers about. Breathless voices, and moans, and a rhythmic sort of thumping that conjures all kinds of images in the mind whether a person wants them or not.
Jaime’s tent, where Pia had just gone.
Brienne sucks in a sharp breath and holds it tightly, holds her face in a carefully neutral expression, and her hands in fists. She holds that breath all the way out of the camp and a little father than that, walking fast.
When she cannot see to walk any farther she stops and lets the hot tears fall. Her held breath escapes in a single sob.
She wants to weep, and she wants to scream. She will do neither of those things. She instead wipes at her face hurriedly with the back of her hand and force down the sobs to sit unhappily in her stomach, will dry her own eyes with sheer stubborn will.
Why is she upset anyway? She has not lost anything. Nothing is different. Everything is fine.
Everything is fine, she tells herself sternly.
She tells it to herself again, and walks unseeing around the camp. Unconsciously she follows the path she had traced two nights before, to the spot Jaime had been using to practice unobserved. No one will see her there. She can wait there alone, until she has calmed herself.
Pia is a sweet girl, and pretty. Ser Jaime had plucked her out of Harrenhal, brought her along and treated her kindly. He is plainly fond of her. If he also beds her, no one will object. She’s a commoner, and no maiden. He could have been bedding her all along. Even before Brienne had betrayed him. It would have nothing to do with her.
Pretty Pia. Tiny Pia, with her little doll’s hands. Small and delicate. All the men of the camp noticed her, Brienne could see their eyes following her when they walked together. Pia is the kind of girl men notice. She would know how to entice a man like Ser Jaime. And Ser Jaime could surely have any woman he wanted. Surely he would want a girl like Pia.
Of course, she tells herself. Of course. I should have known it all along.
Shocking, how much it hurts. Even coming as no surprise, it hurts viciously.
Brienne turns down the embankment where she means to hide herself, and to her surprise there is a clamor of noise coming from it. The unmistakable sound of wood against wood, grunts of exertion, and there, an excited shout.
Two figures face each other below her, sparring with wooden swords.
It’s Jaime, at his makeshift practice yard, with Ser Payne. But how could he be here, when he is in his tent? She had certainly not imagined the noises she had heard coming from it.
Brienne is so confused she wanders right into Jaime’s line of sight, and he lowers his wooden practice sword. The two men turn to face her.
“I’ll not disturb you,” she says quickly, stumbling over her words. “I was walking to clear my head…”
"You’ve caught me at it,” Jaime says at nearly the same time, and he looks a little abashed. “This is where I can get some practice in. I’m afraid I’m not yet ready for observers.”
“But - I thought you were in your tent?” she forces out.
“I think I’d better stay away from there a little bit longer,” he says, and smiles slightly. “I don’t think Peck is quite ready for me to return yet.”
“Peck?” Brienne’s shoulders fall slightly, releasing some of the tension in them. “But I heard -- There was obviously someone in your tent only moments ago.”
“Oh,” he says, realizing that he will need to put it delicately. “Well, you see, my squire… it’s the only place with a serviceable bed, one large enough for two. So I’ve been letting them…”
“Jaime!” she squeaks, and a little of her earlier upset comes out with it, quite against her will. “I slept in that bed!”
“Apologies, my lady. What is inappropriate in civilized society rather falls by the wayside in an army camp.” His expression turns sly. “I don’t suppose you’d want to know what I’ve done in that bed either.”
She must be as red as a berry by now. “No. I do not.”
“Well, there is always your bed. I imagine that remains pristine.”
Her mind immediately conjures the incredibly tight squeeze of the two of them on the small trundle bed, pressed together, and she flinches it away. The bed would not long remain pristine in that case, she suspects.
The strange croaking noise issues again from Ilyn Payne’s throat as he looks between the both of them. Then he sheathes his sword and walks back towards the camp.
"I suppose we’re done practicing then,” Jaime mutters, then brightens slightly. “But you could take his place, and spar with me. We could find another wooden sword from the practice yard?”
Brienne remembers Jaime practicing in the moonlight. Suddenly a spar seems far too intimate.
“Not just now,” she demurs, and starts to walk back in the direction of the camp.
“Perhaps you could sing a song for me then?”
Brienne stops short. How did he…?
He smirks at her discomfiture. “Tommen told me how you sang for him. He said you have a lovely voice.”
“He must not have much to compare it to,” she says hastily, her heart hammering.
“He was a King. He’s heard the finest bards in all the land.”
“I think he was simply excited to hear a new song. We have different ones on Tarth.”
“Do you? Then will you? Sing me a song of Jonquil and Florian, if I might request. It seems you must know at least one, from what your squire has said.”
Brienne blushes harder. The man is determined to humiliate her.
“I am no singer Ser. I did a little tune for Tommen when I hoped to distract him from his tears. He is sweet to speak well of it, but only a child would be impressed with my singing. I would not impose it upon anyone else.”
“What if I cry a little?”
Incensed, she glares at him. “Surely you can master your emotions with a little more self-control than an 8-year old boy.”
“One would think.” He looks at her blithely, and tilts his head to one side as a new thought comes to mind. “I’m sure you sang for Renly.”
She wanted to. She used to imagine it sometimes. And she might have, if he hadn’t -- well, she used to fantasize about such a thing. If she were to sing her best tune for him sometime, when the bard broke a string and stopped singing. In that dream she would remain hidden from view until all present wondered who could be the mysterious voice, until she stepped forward and revealed herself. Or sometimes it was that Renly would come upon her singing alone in one of the gardens and stop to listen. She would imagine him struck dumb in surprise, that one of his knights could sing so sweetly. He might hear those qualities of a woman, something delicate and pretty, in her voice, that she had lacked in her body. That way she might win a little bit of his heart, if only for the length of a song.
But she was a foolish young girl then, and she is that no longer. She shudders now to think of how she might have embarrassed herself, had she made the attempt.
Brienne crosses her arms over her chest. “That’s not your business.”
Jaime looks sincerely disappointed. “You know, there were bards at Casterly Rock who would sing all kinds of songs, but I hardly ever listened to them. Cersei always said we didn’t like songs. Especially after our mother died. She said they were sentimental nonsense and we were too old for such things. So we would leave the hall or go to the opposite end when the bards played.”
“But I liked them,” he admits, and he smiles at it. “Especially the sentimental nonsense.”
She feels a pang of guilt and longing then. If only she were that person who could sing confidently, sing a love song, proudly and without shame. Jaime deserves that, she thinks sadly.
Before she can follow that line of thought, a commotion breaks out above them, in the camp.
A shout, the sound of fabric tearing. A woman’s scream. A horse rears, somewhere near the heart of the camp, at the commander’s tent.
At once both Jaime and Brienne break into a run.
As they approach the great tent sways, and out of one side a man exits sword-first into the snow. It’s not one of Jaime’s soldiers. He is dressed in dark, unbannered clothes. An assassin of some kind, she realizes, and is cold all over her body in a moment. In Jaime’s tent.
She gets there faster than Jaime, running at full speed, powered almost entirely by outrage. The man raises his blade to her but she does not pause for a moment. She shoulders the man roughly, knocking him aside easily. He only stumbles, does not fall, but he is distracted enough for Jaime to club him across the face with his practice sword.
There is a fight, which ends quickly with the assassin’s own blade in his belly. It might have been either Jaime or Brienne who struck that blow. They both sit up in the muddy snow with blood on their hands.
A horse rears again, a second black-cloaked man on his back. He’s going to get away, Brienne sees. He’s too far from them. He will ride away with full knowledge of where they are. Alarm surges through her with no clear action to relieve it.
Fortunately, one of their Lannister soldiers has had the presence of mind to mount a horse of his own. Only seconds after the first assassin falls, the charge comes. The great roan warhorse pounds across the muddy terrain and is on the stranger in a moment, a long tentpole stretched out before him. The pole catches the assassin by surprise, square in the chest, and knocks him from his horse. He hits the mud flat on his back, and immediately Ser Ilyn Payne is upon him, sword drawn.
“Bind him,” Jaime commands them. “The other is beyond questions, but this one may speak.”
He leans over the prone man and snatches the hood from his head. Beneath it is a Dornish man, unconscious.
“Well, I suppose this settles the question of whether Aegon will pursue us. Dorne rode with the Targaryens to King’s Landing. Take him inside, we’ll confirm it when he wakes. In the meantime, come here, rider! Let me see who has caught our guest in a textbook joust.”
The horse turns, and Brienne can see that the rider is neither armored nor uniformed, and is in fact rather small for a soldier. In fact…
Jaime’s jaw drops slightly. “Tommen?”
Unmistakable even without his blonde curls, the youngest Lannister pulls up his horse next to them quite neatly. As she has been told, the boy is a seasoned rider. He slides off his horse triumphantly. “Did you see? I got him! I dropped my lance though.”
“I saw!” Jaime sounds delighted. He claps the boy on the shoulder and shakes it for emphasis. “Just how you practiced with Ser Loras! Well done!”
Addam is less enthusiastic. The redheaded Lannister cousin blazes across the muddy camp and turns the boy towards him by the sleeve. “Tommen, for gods’ sake… What were you thinking? You should let the grown-ups handle the fighting, your grace.”
Tommen frowns hard at him, and explains to his cousin what he clearly finds patently obvious. “But he was going to hurt Peck. And his lady friend. They were asleep. I had to do something.”
Peck and Pia look at each other, a little red-faced. They were definitely not sleeping, but certainly in no position to defend themselves. They have just raced out of the commander’s tent after pulling on their clothes, still a little unclear of what has just happened.
The other soldiers seem to agree with Addam, that Tommen should have gone to an adult for help. But the plain fact had been that Tommen had been there, and no one else was, and he saw a way he could help. The boy looks about him in increasing bewilderment, confused, now, that this could possibly have been the wrong thing to do.
More than that, he sounds outright offended at the very idea that someone would attack someone when they were defenseless. As though it had never occurred to him before that anyone would do such a thing.
He is so innocent, Brienne begins to think, and then she corrects herself. No, he is honorable. Just like his father.
Yes, he is only a boy, and he has been very sheltered from the world. But he has a good heart, and his first instinct is to protect people.
He would have made a good knight, if there were still a place for good knights in Westeros.
Jaime with some amusement orders Peck and Pia to help Tommen return his horse, and to find somewhere new for their activities. The both of them, disheveled and a little bewildered, hastily agree, and herd Tommen with them.
They have not even left him before Jaime turns to Brienne. “Did you see that? Brienne! Did you see Tommen?”
“I did,” she says, and she cannot help grinning at him. Jaime is terribly excited, swelling with pride for his son, who has so unexpectedly followed in his footsteps.
“DId you see that?” He says it yet again, and grasps her arms. “He has the knack! Only a few lessons in the yard, and he can unseat a grown man. With just a little more training…”
This is a new expression for him - there has not been much opportunity, in their time together, for happiness. When Jaime is delighted, she learns, his whole face lights up, and he shines like the sun. She beams back at him, all reflected glory.
Oh no, she can’t stop herself thinking, looking at his face . I love you. You maddening, insufferable man, I love you.
Brienne can’t even be angry about it. She ought to be. It’s a disaster, it’s the worst thing that could happen to her, and still she is thrilled, besotted, delirious with love.
She will not be able to lecture herself out of love, or fight it back with sheer willpower. It’s too late. She might as well admit it, to herself if no one else.
Jaime squeezes her shoulder and grins at her, an intensely lovable expression, and then he is drawn into the conflagration around the fallen assassin, and Brienne is left reeling, her heart thumping excitedly in her chest.
She watches him confer with his soldiers, growing more serious by the moment. But of course an assassin’s attack is no laughing matter. They had been looking for Tommen in the lead tent no doubt, and would have been happy to strike down Jaime as well. They must have come upon Peck and Pia in the bed and realized their mistake quickly, tried to silence them. Peck had fought back, and Pia had screamed. Had Jaime been the one there in the tent -- Brienne will not think of that.
“We must break the camp,” Jaime announces to his men. “Clearly our location is no secret, and I must get Tommen away from attention. Strike the tents and pack for travel.”
He is considerably more glum when he returns to her. It had most likely been the hunter’s camp they had encountered days before who had reported their passing, and helped the new King locate their camp. The curly-haired golden child would have been unmistakeable, upon questioning. They would have been well paid for the information.
“We’ll go in the morning at first light,” he tells her. “Double guards around the camp tonight. We’ll have to split into groups from here to cover our trail.”
“Yes, of course,” she agrees. “Perhaps Pod and I can draw them off somehow? If you gave us a few of your soldiers we might arrange an ambush of any pursuers…”
Jaime looks at her strangely. But perhaps he is only distracted. He simply says that they will speak later, and then he disappears back into his tent.
“Brienne of Tarth!” Pia admonishes her later, in what sounds like genuine outrage. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Brienne stares back vacantly, distracted. It has been an eventful day. “Tell you what?”
“About you and Lord Jaime!” Pia takes both of her hands and squeezes them. “No wonder he wouldn’t have me, he already had you!”
“He what?” Flustered, Brienne sits down hard on her bed.
Did she just say that she… and that Jaime… but Pia is pretty, and charming, and she clearly knows what to do with a man, and hadn’t she just been assuming that the girl could have most any man she put her mind to? Did she say that Jaime turned her down?
“I had wondered -- he didn’t touch any of the girls that were sent, not of any kind -- and I thought maybe the stories about his sister were true. But it wasn’t that at all, was it? He was waiting for you!”
“Me?” Brienne feels a cold flush stream through her. “I think you have the wrong idea…”
“No, I’ve seen the way he looks at you, and how you look at him. It couldn’t be clearer.” She tilts her head and looks at Brienne appraisingly. “You’re an unusual girl, it’s true, but he’s hardly the usual sort of man. If I’d known he liked maidens with swords I might have been out in the training yard instead of the kitchens, but never mind. I’m having a fine time with Jossmyn, and good for you!”
Brienne is having a hard time keeping up with this conversation. “You--?”
“Oh, I’ve carried a torch for Ser Jaime since I saw him at the Tourney at Harrenhal - the youngest Kingsguard ever sworn, and so handsome! I was just a little girl but I said to myself, Pia, that’s the man for you. A brave, honorable knight. I’ve had lots of knights since then, you know, but none were so brave, or as handsome. You’re so lucky, Brienne. The handsomest knight in the land, and he’s mad for you.”
More likely just mad, Brienne thinks, but she blushes.
Pia giggles at the look on her face. “Have you ever had a man?”
“No. I’ve killed men, but not… I haven’t even been kissed...” she trails off, suddenly lost.
But she has. He kissed her, she remembers again. But it had been so fast, and so unexpected, that she had not thought to count it at first.
“Don’t worry,” the girl says, licking her fingers and patting Brienne’s unruly hair down. “I know all about bedding, I can tell you how to do it nice.”
Brienne is suddenly overwhelmed with a warm gratitude to this girl, who has been so kind to her. She is also feeling guilty for her assumption earlier, of how Pia had come to find a place in the Lannister camp.
“I could show you how to fight with a knife, if you’d like?” she offers awkwardly. “That is, if you’re interested… It’s the sort of skill I have to trade.”
To her surprise, Pia nods vigorously. “Oh yes, that would be lovely. Well, not lovely, but you know. Useful.”
She gives Pia a knife she has kept in her boot since Tarth, carved from whalebone. Tiny, but sharp. She shows the girl where to stick it - the armpit, the neck, behind the ankle. Between the ribs in a pinch, but that requires more aim. Pia giggles only a little at this lesson, watching seriously as Brienne shows her how to quietly flick it open, how to slice and not leave it stuck somewhere she cannot retrieve it.
In return, Pia answers a great many questions that Brienne has had - questions she could not have asked a mother, or a septa, or any of the other ladies at Tarth. Pia does not laugh at her questions, but answers them straightforward and bluntly. By sunset Brienne has one more thing she has never had before - a friend.
Brienne is sure, that night, that Jaime will come to her tent.
Hadn’t he said that they would speak on their plans? And the night before they had… well, that was unusual, and perhaps she cannot expect it again.
Pia seemed very sure that he would come, and she knows about these things. But since the girl left, Brienne’s own certainty has lessened.
No, she should not make assumptions. He may come, and he may not.
She sits on the bed, and lies down. She sets out the pieces of the armor that she has been issued by the quartermaster, and checks their fastenings, makes sure that nothing is missing. She unwraps Oathkeeper and holds it tightly in her hands.
The camp will break in the morning. There will be much to do. There may be time to say goodbye, but not much more than that. And then they will all ride away in different directions and she may not even know where Jaime has gone.
The moon is higher in the sky, and then it is lower again.
She lies on the bed and watches the tent flap for the first sign of movement that will mean Jaime has come.
She waits and wishes and wonders what Jaime is doing right now, at this moment. Is he waiting for the right time? Is he preoccupied with other things? Is he hesitating for some reason? Is he thinking of her at all?
Maybe he isn’t coming after all. Maybe he has nothing else to say to her.
Well, maybe she has a few things to say to him.
Brienne gets up. She goes outside. She stands outside under the stars. It’s past midnight. He isn’t coming.
She thinks she is about to look very foolish. She will go to his tent and he will be asleep, or busy, and wondering why she is troubling him in the middle of the night. She will say something very silly and he will feel sorry for her. Before long everyone will know about it. She will want to shrivel up and die.
She can see his tent from here. The walk feels endless. She is more nervous approaching Jaime’s tent in the middle of the night than she had been riding to King’s Landing to rescue him. She would only have to fight a battle for that. This is far more frightening.
You’ve already won him, you know. You only have to claim him.
He's mad for you.
I’ve seen the way he looks at you, and how you look at him. It couldn’t be clearer.
I think you had some feeling for me once. Have I spoiled it?
She never answered him, did she? She talked around it, she dissembled and stalled, and she managed never to actually say the words. She hasn’t told him -- and that means he may not know. She can’t leave him not knowing, not if they may never meet again.
When she is close, Brienne steels herself, hearing voices, and her heart leaps into her throat and lodges there. He is awake. She will speak with him.
When she pushes the tent flap aside, Jaime and Tommen are standing together. Widow’s Wail is in the boy’s hands, and Jaime is showing him how to hold it aloft, hold it steady.
“I told you,” Tommen says loudly when he sees her, and very obviously grabs Jaime’s arm. The tip of his blade drops on the ground beside him, too heavy for one arm. “I told you she would come.”
He did? How did he know that, when she didn’t know herself? But here she is.
The two of them are staring at her, and Brienne realizes that she is the one who should speak now, and she has not prepared anything to say.
“I suppose you and Podrick will be taking your leave soon,” Jaime says cautiously.
“I don’t want to go,” she says, and immediately cringes. That was not what she meant to say. What does she mean to say? “I mean that -- I want to stay. With you.”
A slow grin starts, unfolds silently on his face, as beautiful as a sunrise. And it’s all for her, because of her. She put it there.
“I want to stay too,” Tommen speaks up. “Stay with you and Pod and Peck and Cousin Addam and Lady Brienne.”
Jaime looks between the both of them very rapidly. Then he turns to Tommen.
“That isn’t an option, Tommen. We can’t stay all together in one place. We talked about this -- you and I will stay with my Aunt Genna and your cousins, and the others are needed elsewhere.”
“But you don’t want to stay with the Freys. You want to go and travel with Lady Brienne.”
Brienne blinks in surprise.
“Can’t I come travel with you?” Tommen asks.
“Are you certain?” Brienne realizes, from his tone and his tired mein, that they have been discussing their options for some time. “I’m sure you’d rather live in a castle. It will be safer.”
Tommen answers him very sensibly. “It wasn’t safer in the Red Keep. They sent soldiers after me there and all the Kingsguard and Goldcloaks couldn’t stop them. And that was the safest castle in the land. Only you and Lady Brienne protected me. Won’t I be safer with you?”
“I don’t know.” Jaime looks back at her again. ”I think it will be very dangerous, where Brienne is going. She will have to meet a lot of people and travel a long way. That would expose you to too many people who might recognize you, and could want to do you harm.”
Brienne doesn’t know either. She can’t promise anyone will be safe with her. Most people under her protection have found their deaths instead.
But she can try. She can damned well try.
Before she can say so, Tommen breaks in determinedly. “You should both stay. I mean…” he stops, flustered, and she thinks she sees his eyes glisten a little. “Don’t go away without me. I want to come too, if you’re having an adventure. I can’t order you to do it anymore but -- please, let me come. Don’t go away and leave me.”
Brienne finds herself moved nearly to tears at his plea.
Jaime seems similarly affected. He gets down on one knee to address the boy eye to eye. “Perhaps a small adventure. A not too dangerous one. And then Brienne may have to go away, but I will stay. I swear I will stay with you, Tommen. I won’t leave you behind.”
Tommen rubs at his eyes, sniffling.
“And I will come back,” Brienne promises similarly. “When my quest is over. I will return to you. Both of you,” she adds, feeling Jaime’s eyes on her.
Jaime squeezes the boy’s shoulder. “It’s long past time for sleep. Why don’t you lie down? Lady Brienne and I will discuss our plans.”
As Tommen clamors into Jaime’s bed, the Lord Commander checks that guards are standing at all four corners of his tent. Then he takes Brienne by the hand and returns to her tiny tent with her, speaking in an undertone.
“We should talk.”
“You think so?”
“We should have talked this out weeks ago. I was too wounded and too proud to do it then.”
Brienne opens her own tent and motions him inside. She finds herself speaking past a lump in her throat. “Is there any point now?”
“There is to me,” he says firmly. “It’s going to be a very cold winter and I will need this to keep me warm. Why did you come to King’s Landing?”
Brienne sits down on her bed. “I told you. To serve the crown and protect the people…”
“You did tell me that. But why did you really?”
“You know why.” Her voice drops down to a whisper. “Will you make me say it?”
“Yes. You have to say it. I need to hear it. I’ve lost everything I thought I couldn’t live without and my worst nightmares have come true. All my hopes are hung on you now. Give me something. Anything. Do I have to say it first? I’m in love with you.”
She looks him up and down. “No you’re not. You couldn’t be.”
“I assure you I am. Now are you going to leave me out here alone on this limb, or is there something you want to tell me?”
Her mouth has gone dry. She needs to say “I love you” and she doesn’t know how. It should not be so difficult to say three rather small words.
Instead she does something much worse. Lacking the words, Brienne closes her eyes and begins to sing. The song he had asked her for hours before - a song of Florian and Jonquil.
Good Florian the errant Knight
He left his Stormlands lord
To find his maiden Jonquil and
To offer her his sword.
The lowborn knight did fear to ask
The maiden for her hand
Highborn she was and clever too
And fairest in the land.
And he was not the greatest knight
Not charming, suave or smart
He knew she’d see his homely face
And she would break his heart.
He bowed to her with all the grace
That armor could afford.
He said, Good lady, grant my wish
And let me be your sword.
The maiden Jonquil stopped and saw
Her knight bowed at her feet
She’d lost him to a victory
And found him in defeat.
She mourns the distance that had grown
In all their time apart.
Ashamed he did not ask her hand
And did not want her heart.
Deceive me not Ser Knight, She said
Seek ye not gold and fame?
Will not you ride away one day
And leave me here in shame?
And then he said, My dear
If I may be so bold
I’d rather have one kiss from you
Than all White Harbor’s gold
What glory on the battle field
Could ever quite compare
To the beauty of your sweet sweet smile
And of your flaxen hair
And if my maid would have me then
I swear to Gods above
I’d leave my house and drop my sword
To join the House of Love
Though I come not from noble blood
Nor fair as you deserve
I’d give my life to keep you safe
And give my self to serve
For you I’ll forsake all my oaths
And swear it by my blood
I’ll pledge my heart, my sword, my life
To serve the House of Love.
When she finishes, she waits a long moment with her eyes squeezed shut, waiting to hear his response. It was the wrong song, he will think it was silly. Scoffing, laughter, a funny clap of his hands, a polite nicety. Something. Jaime is unpredictable, he could do any or none of those things.
It is quiet for much too long; she has to open her eyes.
When she does, Brienne blinks in surprise, as he is much closer than she had imagined. He is standing before her near enough to bite, and there is a strange intensity on his face that she has never seen before.
“Well?” she whispers.
He leans even closer. She can feel his hot breath against her face.
Jaime says, “I’m going to kiss you.”
He says it like a threat, a cause and effect. Brienne can turn and go, and the moment will pass. Or she can stay, and be kissed.
She thinks she doesn’t decide, but perhaps she does, in the way she holds herself perfectly still, scarcely daring to breathe.
Jaime puts his hand against her cheek. His good hand. Her bad cheek. There is little of value there, but he handles her as carefully as the most precious treasure.
This kiss is slower, unhurried. His mouth is hot and sweet, and each touch is a caress. Her lips part under his touch, grow softer, kiss-bruised. His lips catch hers again and again like that, and each time is better than the last.
She remains that way for some time, her mouth slightly agape. He moves over her so carefully, leaning on his right arm, touching her scarred cheek lightly with his good hand.
“Brienne,” he breathes, when their lips part. "I knew when I saw you fighting Gregor Clegane, that I would have figure out how to ask you to marry me."
Brienne guffaws - probably the first time in all her life she has done such a thing. The laughter breaks out of her chest almost violently.
Jaime looks genuinely affronted. "Don't laugh! I couldn't find the right moment. You kept talking about leaving, and how you were never marrying anyone, what was I to think? Most of the time I'm not entirely sure that you like me very much."
"I adore you," she tells him around peals of laughter, "but if you think that was in any way an appropriate attempt at a marriage proposal you are as bad as Hyle Hunt."
He shows grave offense that is only a little exaggerated. "That’s a terrible thing to say."
It is, she thinks, so she kisses him by way of apology. He seems to approve of this reply.
They continue this way for some time -- sweet, careful kisses. Gentle touches. Whispers.
She wonders if this calm, still place she finds herself in now is real. Perhaps it is only the eye of a storm. One they have passed through, buffeted by wind and rain, and the peace here is hard-won but temporary. The storm still rages all around them, and will be just as difficult to escape.
“What can we do?” she whispers to him. Her heart aches to think of parting from him now.
“Have we a mission for Tommen?” he inquires, looking similarly pained.
A mission. Well, it would earn them one more day, at least.
“The Crossroads,” she says at last. “I left some business unfinished there.”
In the morning the camp disperses. Those who had not already floated away over the last three days depart with the sunrise, moving in all directions. Addam is returning to Lannisport with several of Jaime’s lieutenants; others are returning to Casterly Rock. Some others do not say where they are going, and simply depart. The more chaotic their departure, the harder it will be to trace exactly where Jaime and Tommen have gone.
Jaime’s men pack a wagon with supplies. As the encampment breaks up, they must move fast, and without the wagons to carry rations. Those supplies, Brienne has a use for. It is a small quest, but one Tommen can help with. Then she will go with Jaime to the Twins, and see them settled there, before she and Podrick ride on.
It is only a small delay, a postponement to their parting. But it is more time together, and any time now is precious.
And Brienne cannot help feeling this will be an important diversion. Something at the Crossroads is drawing her back - perhaps it is her nightmares, wanting to see the place in daylight. Perhaps it is a nagging sense that she has forgotten something. She will see soon enough.
She and Jaime share the horse, with the wagon behind them. His warmth behind her is a comfort against the cold. His hands on her waist are a different sort of pleasure.
Ser Illyn rides somewhere behind, watching over Tommen and Podrick where they ride in the wagon.
Before very long there is something leaning against her from behind and it’s Jaime, it is his face pressed against her, his nose tickling the hairs on the back of her neck.
“You never answered me truly. Why you came to King’s Landing.” She can feel him inhale, like he is breathing her in. “What did I want? More than anything?” he prompts her quietly.
She could not have answered that question not long ago, and if she thinks on it too much even now she will falter. So she does not think, and only says what is on her tongue.
“For someone to put you first.”
His hands move again - so that he is not so much gripping her for balance as wrapping his arms around her. His front is pressed to her back.
“You did that,” he murmurs into her ear. “You came for me.”
Her heart starts to pound in her ears. “Yes.”
“You even left your squire behind that time - so you couldn’t be made to choose.”
“Yes.” She swallows. “I sent him to your camp. I thought your boy Peck might watch over him.”
Jaime will not be distracted. “And all that about honor and serving your king?”
“True and honorable, and not why I came.” Brienne shivers at the sensation of his body behind her, so very close. “I came for you.”
“You have not told me of your adventures. I want to hear them all. I want to know everything.”
“It would take some time to tell. And we may wish to spend that time on… other things.” She flushes at her own boldness.
“But did you ever think on me, in all that time?”
Brienne guffaws again, a second time in only a few hours, quite out of her ability to contain herself. Her cheeks have grown hot, must be blazing red. She has never blushed so much in her entire life.
“Is it not enough that I rode about on your horse, carrying your sword, on your quest? All my actions were in your name, must you have my thoughts as well?”
“Yes!” He laughs in her ear. “You had mine! It seems only fair.”
She should not ask, but she cannot physically stop herself. “You thought of me?” she asks hesitantly, cringing with real embarrassment.
“I’ve thought of little else. Cursed woman, even when I wasn’t thinking on you, you were there in my thoughts just… looking at me with those big blasted blue eyes. Watching. I can’t do anything anymore without your eyes on me, knowing I will have to explain it to you someday. You’ve ruined me.”
“I…” Her heart is beating so fast. She clutches the reins so that she will not slide out of her saddle. “I saw your ghost, Ser. Everywhere I went in the Riverlands, you were there. I could not be free of you if I tried.”
“Then I’ve cursed you as well?” His breath against her ear is hot as fire. “Were you sorry for it? Did you want to be rid of me?”
“No Ser. Not in the least.”
His breath hitches. His arms tighten around her.
“Would you have come back after? If you had found the girl?”
“I don’t know Ser. I could not find her anywhere, and I was so distraught… I thought more than once of turning back just to tell you how sorry I was. For failing you.”
“Gods. You have never failed me, never.” A soft press against her neck, just behind her ear. His lips ghosting against her. “Thoros of Myr told me you would have hung for me? Is it so? Foolish wench!”
She would have complained about that “wench”, but he says it so fondly that she allows it to pass.
“What if I did? You might never have known it. You would have forgotten me by now if I had.”
“I couldn’t forget you if I tried. And I did try.”
“If it meant your life, I would have died without giving in. If they had not intervened, threatened Podrick…”
“A poor trade that would be, your life for mine. My house would owe them three more Lannisters to make it equal.”
She gasps. “Ser Jaime…”
“If Ser Illyn had not come and interrupted us I believe I would have died for you. I would have gone quietly and let the shade of Catelyn Stark have her vengeance, whatever else you were planning. You would have ridden away with your honor intact and your hedge knight and your squire at your side and it would have been as fine an end of me as I can imagine. Do you see that, wench? I was angrier than anything to learn it, but it’s the truth.”
“It cannot be.” Now she is angry as well. Always anger, in place of other things. “Why would you do such a stupid thing? Why would you follow me in the first place? I am amazed you have lived this long, if you would throw your life away so easily.”
“Not easily, my sweet.” His voice in her ear grows more and more confident. “You’ve stolen it from me. My love, you’ve stolen it. I want it back.”
She feels decidedly faint now. “You want it back?”
“I want yours.” He leans more closely against her, his chest pressed to her back. “Do I have it? Could I?”
She has to close her eyes to say it, but it pours out of her so easily once she does. “Yes, Jaime. Gods, yes. You’ve had it since you jumped into that bear pit, you unforgivably foolish man. You could have died before we’d even gotten started.”
“Let’s start now then. Plainly we are not permitted to die for each other. Let’s try out staying alive. Yes?”
She nods vigorously. Yes.
A softer tickle this time to her neck, his lips pressing slowly, reverently against her skin.
The remainder of the ride is quiet, but no less momentous. His hands, and his lips, busy themselves against her, and she struggles to focus on the horse beneath her and the path before them. Her face blazes all the way.
When the road before them opens up into the crossroads, they come to a stop. Brienne is disquieted for a dizzy moment, remembering the last time she was here. But it is not a nightmare realm anymore - the sun is shining, and snow covers the ground. And she is not alone this time.
Jaime dismounts first, and when she follows his arms meet her on the way down. For a breathless second she is airborne and only his touch tethers her to the earth.
His lips cover hers before she can finish, and steal every thought from her head. With his arms and his hips he presses her back into the flank of her horse, kissing her fiercely. She has never felt so small as she does at this moment, pressed between Jaime and her horse. Small and unarmored and held, like he has her in the palm of his hand.
She had not known there were so many kinds of kisses. In the throne room there had been a kiss that was desperately tender, one he had meant to send her away. Then there had been the searing touch of his lips to her skin during the ride. And here, now, a kiss that is at first cautious and then joyous, teasing, and celebratory.
Brienne wants to laugh. A strange impulse. It bubbles up inside her all on its own, a small burst of delight quite unlike anything she has ever known, that reverberates inside her chest like a trapped bird, fluttering.
Then a small high voice breaks into her awareness. “Uncle! I see the Inn!”
Tommen is clamoring down from the wagon, somewhere behind them. She can hear the slide of his fine linens against the wood in complete clarity.
Jaime breaks back from her reluctantly, still smiling. “I see it,” he says, but he is not looking. His thumb traces down the side of her face, from her cheek to her lips.
“I never sang for Renly,” she confesses. “Just you.”
His smile grows then, and his face shines as bright as it had in his pride for Tommen, a flush of victory and joy.
The orphans at the crossroads have only increased in number -- many more staring eyes greet her at the inn’s door. But enough of them remember her that they quickly admit her inside, and Podrick and Tommen are soon introducing themselves to the orphans as brothers, a pretense they are for now treating as a fun game.
Inside, strong little Willow drops an entire pot of what looks like kitchen grease when she sees Brienne. It lands right-side up, and its contents slosh across the floor unnoticed. Her hands cover her mouth. “I thought surely you were dead!” she gasps.
“I survived,” Brienne smiles back, and Jaime squeezes her hand.
Willow embraces her, hard. “Thank you. For what you did, thank you. The kids don’t know how badly it might have gone for us, but I’ll never forget it."
Her arrival was not a complete surprise. As it happens, someone is waiting to meet her. Willow tells her as they load the supplies into the kitchen. “The red priest said whoever came today, I should send them out to the smithy, so he can meet you there.”
Brienne marvels at it outside. “Thoros! He told me we would meet again where he first found me. How did he know?”
“The Red Priest has been chewing on something since I left for King’s Landing,” Jaime muses back. “Let’s see what he has to say. I think Tommen and Podrick will be visiting with the orphans for a while longer.”
Sure enough, waiting there in the smithy is Thoros of Myr, looking entirely unsurprised to see her. Working the fires is Gendry, who Brienne had last seen swinging a blacksmith’s hammer at Biter.
Jaime extends a hand in greeting. “Baratheon?” he inquires, immediately noting the resemblance.
“Bastard,” Gendry answers, a little defiantly.
They shake on it. Jaime lingers there a moment, noting the boy’s hesitation.
“I understand I have you to thank for Lady Brienne’s survival.” Jaime thanks him, and the boy shuffles his feet, put slightly more at ease.
“I hope you will forgive me,” Thoros interrupts, “but we have done some scheming in your absence.”
Brienne looks from one face to another, Thoros to Gendry, to Ilyn Payne, and to Jaime.
“I hope you will like the result, but it will be up to you to accept or deny the position. The choice is yours, but I’m afraid the whole thing falls apart without you. So I do hope you will accept.”
Accept what? She cannot imagine what the Red Priest would want of her.
Thoros breaks into her thoughts. “The Brotherhood Without Banners has fought for the people throughout these bloody wars, a force without houses. Its members forswear any other loyalties but to each other. Though it may die, it can always rise again, with new leadership.”
She finds Jaime’s face again, and there is a glimmer of hope there. He looks as though he has just realized something, and when Brienne sees it, she realizes it too.
She turns back to Thoros. “You want to reform the Brotherhood?”
“There is safety in numbers. There are remnants of the Lannister army, and remnants of the Tully forces in the Riverlands, and many others fleeing the Targaryens. There are also a great many young people without homes or families, needing somewhere to go.”
“The orphans at the crossroads,” Brienne says immediately. “Someone should see to them. It’s why I came.”
Thoros smiles. “Precisely. I think you know a few others who might join us as well.”
“Podrick,” she adds. “And Jaime’s squire too, I’m guessing, Peck, and Pia too.”
“I would fight for the Brotherhood,” Gendry speaks up. “Lord Beric knighted me. I did not like what it became under Stoneheart, but if Thoros says it will be different, I will come as well.”
Ser Illyn nods his head solemnly. It seems he would join them as well.
Jaime looks at each of them in turn. “If I’m not mistaken, this brotherhood was founded to oppose House Lannister, and for a good portion of its history it’s wanted my head on a pike. Would you invite me to join?”
Thoros shrugs, his expression clouded. “It is the Red God’s will. I admit I did not like it at first, but after spending some time at your camp, I have seen that you are different from your father. And if I am not mistaken, you are no longer fighting for House Lannister, are you? If you are going to hide the boy, you will have to drop that banner.”
Jaime nods cautiously. He has already given this some thought. “I have promised to protect my son, and keep him away from danger. He will need a place to grow up. And I -- I am likely already disinherited by my siblings, not to mention by the Crown. Tyrion will want Casterly Rock, and his King will get it for him. Any followers I have still, they follow me, not my house.”
“By joining the Brotherhood you would renounce your House and your inheritance.”
He laughs. “I’ve done that already. Nothing will be different.”
“Then there is the matter of leadership,” Thoros says. “And this is the most difficult part. WIthout a leader we cannot reform the Brotherhood.”
“Jaime can be the leader.” Brienne knows as soon as she says it that it will not work. He might escape notoriety as a member, but as leader of the Brotherhood he could not remain unnamed.
Jaime looks at Brienne thoughtfully. “Nobody would join a Brotherhood Without Banners lead by a Lannister, renounced or no. They wouldn’t believe it. But there is one person who we would all willingly follow.”
She blinks back at him, confused. “Thoros?”
Jaime chuckles. She has said something amusingly dense again.
Thoros only smiles gently. “You. Brienne of Tarth. You are the only worthy successor, one who will be true to the ideals of the Brotherhood that Ser Beric and I created, one who has served the great houses of Baratheon and Stark and Lannister while belonging to none of them. You have stood on the side of the commonfolk against brigands and great houses both. Best of all, you have slain Gregor Clegane, who the Brotherhood was founded to destroy. You are a knight foresworn to no King and knighted by no noble. Your loyalty is to goodness and right, and there can be no Brotherhood without you.”
Brienne looks between Thoros and Jaime suspiciously. Neither of them appear to be joking.
“But I am an enemy of the Brotherhood. They tried me for treason.”
Thoros interrupts her. “You were pardoned, when you brought Lord Lannister. The Riverlands only knows that the Lannister army destroyed the Brotherhood.”
“And you left a prisoner,” Jaime points out. “No one will know anything different.”
“But I’ve never lead anything.” She tries to explain it to them. Somehow they must see that this is a terrible mistake.
“Did you not lead a party of men to the Whispers? And then across the Saltpans to the Quiet Isle? And back again to the crossroads?” Now it is Thoros’s turn to look sly. “Didn’t you lead the Commander of the Lannister army away from his men?”
She looks aghast at Jaime, but he looks amused instead.
Gendry speaks up. “I saw what you did at the Crossroads for those children. You fought those bandits alone, with no hope of victory. That was incredibly brave. That’s the kind of thing I joined the Brotherhood to do, to protect the defenseless. If you lead the Brotherhood, I will follow it.”
“Thank you,” Brienne tells them all sincerely, “but I’m afraid there is something else I must do. I have another quest to fulfill.”
Thoros chides her gently. “Yes, you have not yet found your missing girl, but the search can continue.”
“We could still seek out Sansa,” Jaime prompts her. “Together, as a force. Gather rumors and send search parties. With more people, we can search faster and farther. If we find her, the Brotherhood will protect her. They’ll love it - protecting a lost Stark. They’ll protect all of your orphans and strays, and somehow get us through this blasted winter. You’ll see. You and I, we can keep all our vows at once, if we do it together. We’ll be true knights, collecting orphans, defending the smallfolk. For the first time.”
“You would stay?”
He nods slowly, his eyes shining. “We could protect Tommen there. Conceal him amongst the other children. No one would ever look for me in the Brotherhood Without Banners, nor seek out the King of Westeros playing in the dirt.”
“But… under my leadership? You would follow me?”
“I would follow you to the ends of the world,” he says softly, for only her to hear.
She gasps softly, and blinks rapidly.
“But if I am the leader of the Brotherhood, what will you be?”
Without breaking eye contact, he answers, “Yours.”
There are all matter of possibilities embedded in the word, but he does not elaborate them. He lets them hover promisingly between them instead. Your Knight. Your Hand. Your husband. All of those and none of them. Anything she wants. She can have it, this time.
Can they live in the eye of a storm?
It is, after all, their storm. They made it. They might find a home in it. It might keep them safe, for as long as it rages.
A septon will be needed. Jaime insists on one, that it will not feel real without one, he has sworn every one of his vows on the Seven and this one will be no different. Brienne, similarly reluctant to swear to the Red God, does not raise the issue to Thoros. He seems not to take it personally, though he does occasionally break away from the construction of their first Brotherhood encampment at Pennytree to ask if there is any service he can do them.
Brienne is beginning to think they will have to steal away to the Quiet Isle, when Septon Merribald arrives, following the rumors of a renewed Brotherhood.
He weeps to see her, for he too had taken her for dead at the hands of Biter. “Too rarely does war give bodies back,” he explains, tears catching in his magnificent gray beard.
He marries them in a simple ceremony under the stars. He is only a little befuddled by the union, noting quickly that as mismatched as the couple might be, they are most obviously devoted to one another. With only Podrick and Tommen as their happy witnesses, they swear their love to each other. In his bounding bass voice Merribald recites a passage on faithful and undying love from the Seven-Pointed Star, and Brienne hears very little of it over the pounding of her heart.
WIth time, people begin to arrive. Former members of the Brotherhood who had fallen away when Lord Beric had fallen. Tullys escaped from Riverrun. Stark sympathizers. Baratheon bannermen. Lannister loyalists fled from King’s Landing, even a few Freys.
Brienne would turn no one away. There would be no Houses in the Brotherhood, no pasts. If you would fight for the cause, you will be accepted. Any hesitations over either Brienne or her Lannister husband are won over, in time, by their deeds.
Their cause? To protect the innocent. To feed the smallfolk. To gather the war orphans and see them to new villages, new homes. They stay on the move, hunting bandits and petty warlords, moving progressively across the Riverlands and accumulating followers as they go. And all the way they seek a girl of four-and-ten with auburn hair, until enough rumor of her whereabouts can be found to send scouts out on the search. When one of them finds her they will ride to her defense, wherever she might be.
To all the fiercest fights, the most hopeless causes, they will ride. The Blue Lady, her husband, and their squires. They are knights of a sort, sworn to no House but the one of their own making. They are the knights of the burning building, the ceaseless storm, the ring of fire, the House of Love.
Folk songs are an interest of mine. The song Brienne sings about the three babes is an old ballad, although I've used Joanna Newsom's version as the basis. The False Knight On the Road is a real Child ballad. The song of Florian and Jonquil, on the other hand, I completely made up. And had to restrain myself from adding 16 more verses. Poor Brienne is not going to sing that long.