Brienne claps spurs to her horse as she approaches the way too familiar path leading up to the cave where everything took a turn for wrong.
Where things rose that should have stayed in the ground or the water. And where things fell from the sky that she hoped would keep up in the air forever, out of people’s reach to touch and corrupt.
It might be the aftermath of the fever or the wounds still bothering her, but Brienne’s stomach feels tight to the point that she could retch yet again. As she did no ten miles further down the road.
Brienne just hopes that Ser Jaime is alright. She made sure of it that he was secure in the crevice in the stone where they had made camp, but one can never know. If she had known, she would have turned another way to spare them all the pains they suffer from.
In the end, all she can do is trying to keep people alive.
Survival is the only thing that matters at this point.
Just live, she thinks to herself bitterly. Live, Ser Jaime.
“Now look who’s back.”
Brienne whips her head around to find the man who’s taken up the Hound’s helmet standing a few feet away from her.
“Took you long enough.”
Brienne says nothing, just looks at him sternly.
“Where is your guard?”
“Not here. I will discuss matters with Lady Stoneheart, if you allowed. It’s urgent, as you know.”
He gives her an uneasy grimace, but doesn’t seem to make objections to her demand.
“Then we shouldn’t keep her waiting.”
He nods at what is in her back. Brienne swallows thickly, but then gives a nod as well. Lem spurs his horse, riding ahead while Brienne follows him wordlessly. Eventually they reach the cave, dipped in the onyx of the approaching night. She had to wait for darkness to come and obscure the view, or else it would have been even harder to what she is about to do.
Brienne is surprised to find almost all of the Brotherhood assembled, as though they all awaited her return. Even Lady Stoneheart, pale face and hollow eyes, glances down on her as she approaches. Brienne can hear some soft murmurs, but pays no attention to them. Her eyes are trained on the thing that is now Lady Catelyn, or rather, once was Lady Catelyn.
This is not my Lady Catelyn. Never.
Once the horse won’t go any further because the climb is too steep, Brienne unsaddles in one quick motion. Her legs shake under the impact and she has to try her best not just fall over, but she doesn’t let it reach her face.
Don’t let them see.
Or else you give away your game.
And it is no game. Not anymore.
No senseless melee where no one’s severely hurt, no matter how hard she swings.
Melees may prepare you to fight in battle, but they teach you nothing about fighting the struggle of life and death. They only teach you the game, not the price. And foolishly, Brienne had believed for a long time that knowing that particular game would keep her from having to pay the price.
Brienne sets her jaw in a straight line as she wordlessly moves to the back of the horse, one hand deftly holding on to stretch of white, soiled cloth.
He said he'd soil it soon enough, but as it appears now, she was the one to soil it.
Please, forgive me.
“M’lady Stoneheart!” she calls out, her voice gladly not betraying her for once. “I bring you the Kingslayer.”
She steps aside to reveal the body on the back of the horse, wrapped in the white cloak. The murmurs rise like a wave as the news travel all the way to the hungry mouth of the cave.
Brienne observes the lady cloaked in gray and vengeance as she says something in this strange language she cannot understand. Gestures are passed back and forth until the red priest who tended to her wounds walks down to her.
Brienne blinks, but then does quick work on the ropes, putting down the body on the stony ground.
The red priest approaches with steady strides until he is next to her.
“… You may have a look at him yourself,” she murmurs, the words catching in her throat.
“That is what I am to do,” Thoros replies as he bends down to examine the body. Brienne tries her best to keep her face hard as stone as she can see Thoros pushing soiled fabric away from the tall frame.
As though he was unwrapping a gruesome present. But isn’t that exactly what it is to Lady Stoneheart? A present? A gift?
And what does that make me in turn, she wonders?
“What happened to his face?” Lem suddenly calls out, glancing down at the dead body in front of them, limp in Thoros hands as he goes on examining. “His head is mush.”
“A fight happened? What did you expect to happen?” Brienne replies, her eyes narrow slits.
And that is indeed the truth. The man they had sent with her put up more than just a fight. One uneasy fellow he was, mocking her again and again about how he had seen her dangling from the willow and how she had deserved it.
“Kingslayer’s Whore”, he had kept saying, so often that the words still echo fresh in her mind.
After they had made camp for the night, he had made the mistake not to tie her to a tree, but only left her tied up, believing that she wouldn’t be able to do much with hands and feet bound - and the wounds weakening her. Truth be told, it took her almost all of her energy to struggle out of them, and she can still feel the fresh burns of the ropes that had cut deep into her wrists and ankles, but it has never been impossible for her to perform that, even in the state she was in by the time.
What made her snap was the moment he said that maybe she should become his whore instead, believing she could not resist, bound up and weak from the wounds, though it is still beyond her how a man seems to find something appealing enough in her to try his luck against the odds of her now even worse looks. He already had the hand on her hip to push her down when Brienne knocked her head against him to throw him off, rolled atop of him and just smashed that bloody stone she had found in the dry leaves to bring down on his face until it disappeared behind blood and flesh.
Brienne had felt so numb after that, she didn’t even feel the throbbing pain in her head.
And so she had dragged the man’s body behind that stone boulder, covered him up with whatever material she could find, as the vile yet necessary plan formed inside her head and the droplets of blood dried on her face, creating new yet bloody freckles on her skin until she washed them off when next morning came, before she set forth to find Ser Jaime’s camp.
“That you just stab him in the back and be done?” Lem snorts.
“Have you battled Jaime Lannister? He’s not that easy to fool… or well, was,” Brienne tells him.
Ser Jaime would have beaten all of them before he lost his hand, Brienne thinks to herself. Even malnourished and in chains he would have beaten them all. One by one.
“Where is the guard we’ve sent with you?” Lem asks once more. “You still owe me an answer for that, woman.”
“He’s dead, too,” Brienne replies. “And I owe you nothing.”
“Where’s his body?” Lem questions, ignoring the harshness in her voice.
“Decaying somewhere close to the Lannister camps. Ser Jaime’s slain him before I killed him,” Brienne says.
She practiced those words a hundred times at least as she rode to the camp and now back to the cave.
“Ser Jaime’s slain him before I killed him”.
“I bring you the Kingslayer”.
Again and again until she almost brought herself to believe them, if not for the images scourged into her mind of killing the man the same way the cut-off heads still haunt her when she closes her eyes.
“And why didn’t you bring him with?”
“Was I supposed to be travelling two bodies?” Brienne retorts. “One was tough enough. His horse ran off before I even got a chance to catch it. What’s the use of bringing the body here? I buried him the way he deserved it.”
“But his face, woman, why his face? I still don’t get that,” Lem shakes his head, gesturing at the mush which used to be a face, a head, a human being, however vile he may have been.
“I already said it, it was a bloody fight. I had to use a stone at some point because he’s managed to take the sword from me. With my broken arm, it's not that easy, you might be able to gather,” Brienne tells him, her voice shaking in cold anger.
She just feels cold.
“So you smashed his face with a stone?”
“And then I shoved the sword through his back, yes,” Brienne hisses.
Like Ser Jaime did with King Aerys.
Just that in her case, there was nothing noble to the act.
“Is that Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, Thoros?” Lem asks, turning to the red priest, who took his time examining the body while the two talked.
Brienne keeps her eyes fixed on Lady Stoneheart and her companions. Thoros looks at the man’s hair, then the golden hand, sprinkled with tiny droplets of blood.
It shined so brightly, Brienne reminds herself. She’d never seen him shining as much as he did when she first saw Ser Jaime having donned the White again. It became him, truly.
She tries to control her breathing as his fingers pass over the stump. Brienne did her best to fashion the body so that it would pass for Ser Jaime’s. She cut the dead man’s hair to the same length… and however macabre a task it was,she cut off his hand and sewed it so that it looked like Ser Jaime’s stump. She hoped that they would be done with looking at the golden hand, though. The red priest looks at this for way too long.
He knows, she thinks to herself, fright rising in her flat chest. He knows and he will tell.
Her Septa was probably right.
She is a stupid thing. A slow child.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
“Well?” Lem grimaces, waiting for an answer.
“Well, his face is beyond unrecognizable, but from what we can see, he’s got a missing hand that’s been cut off. Height fits, color of the skin, too. Stature seems to be the same. I’d say it’s him,” Thoros says, straightening back up.
“This is the Kingslayer, you have my word for it,” Brienne declares.
“The Lady says that this is not what she’s asked of you,” the man speaking for Lady Stoneheart calls out. Brienne can barely make out her face anymore as the world seems to grow darker with every second passing, only the flickering orange light of the torches licking across her pale face every once in a while.
“You wanted me to kill him and that is what I did,” Brienne argues. “You commanded me to kill him and make this sword he gave me Oathbreaker. And that is what I did, m’lady.”
She is an Oathbreaker now.
“Without anyone there to testify for you,” Lem huffs.
“She didn’t ask me to bring him alive, she asked me to kill him, and that is what I did, and for that I demand that you fulfill your part of the contract, m’lady,” Brienne goes on, ignoring the man.
Her business is with the woman hiding in the shadows, not the man hiding behind a Hound’s helmet.
“You are quite confident for someone who’s in no position to.”
“I did what you bid of me, m’lady. I ask you to do what you offered me in turn,” Brienne says. “You told me to choose and I chose.”
And I choose life, even if you may never know of that choice. Not my own, but life nonetheless.
“Sword” she had yelled, Brienne remembers.
Always the sword.
“It’s not the original deal, and you know it. We have no certainty that this is him,” Lem argues.
“If this wasn’t him, then why would I return?” Brienne snaps. “It’d be foolish of me, don’t you agree?”
A fool’s plan, but perhaps foolish enough to fool them in turn.
“Because you want the other two out, easy as that.”
“I am here now and I tell you that this is the Kingslayer, on my honor,” Brienne insists.
“For which you cannot bring any guarantees,” Lem argues. “And what honor do you have?”
None, Brienne reminds herself.
Woman without honor.
“Which is why I offer my services to you as a security, m’lady Stoneheart,” Brienne speaks up louder again as she steps closer to the woman looking down on her as though she was a demon.
“Your services?” Lem grimaces.
“I give you my life. That is my ultimate service I can offer to you. That is my vow to you. It has always been, m’lady. My life for yours,” Brienne says. “I swore it by the Old Gods and the New.”
“You want to serve the Brotherhood?”
“I don't serve the Brotherhood. I serve those I vowed to. And my vow to Lady Catelyn was to give my life for her if I must. M’lady said that I betrayed her. And it seems that she has the rights of it. Therefore I deserve punishment. I brought you the Kingslayer as you commanded me. But there is nothing beyond this that I can do to be to your aid, m’lady. All I can give you is my life as a pledge that it’s the truth I am speaking. So take my life as my pledge – so young Podrick and Ser Hyle may take their leave. You will see those punished who deserve it. The Kingslayer is dead. And I am ready to follow.”
“You mean you want to die,” Thoros says with a frown.
“I don’t want to live in this world anymore, so if that is what hinders her, give her the security that I will die for it that Ser Hyle and Podrick get out of this alive, "Brienne says, her voice resolute, but then she drifts back to the lady cloaked in gray. "Promise me that, and my life shall be yours, too. I will pay the debt I owe you, with his life and with mine."
It’s for the best, she reminds herself. It’s the only way.
“… She says she agrees,” the man speaking for her calls out after a long moment. Brienne can feel the woman’s eyes on her this whole time, even though they disappear in the darkness again and again, only flickering up every once the wind picks up to make the torches spark up higher.
“Then bring them forth and let them go,” Thoros says. Some of the men under the Brotherhood’s command rush off. Brienne tries her best not let out a sigh of relief.
Not until you know for certain, she scolds herself. She looks back at the priest, and if she is not mistaken, there is a hint of pity in his mimic, but Brienne is no good reading people, and what does it matter if he pities her or not.
Pity doesn’t get her anywhere.
And neither does mercy.
For there is none left in this world where young boys hang for the failures of foolish women.
Or where knights are supposed to pay the price for an atrocity he did not commit.
“M’lady, m’lady ser!?” she can hear the voice of young Podrick. Brienne whips her head around to see the two getting escorted down the cave. Brienne swallows thickly.
At least no more harm was done to them. The wounds are starting to heal, and they were fashioned with bandages as far as she can judge. Just like the bruises seem to fade to shades of green and yellow already.
“What is the matter here?” Hyle asks, struggling against the man’s grip who is escorting him to her.
“It’s alright,” Brienne tells him in a calming voice.
“Is that…,” he looks down at the body still on the stony ground.
“The Kingslayer, yes,” Brienne confirms quickly. “Which is why you will be released now.”
“Released?” Podrick looks at her, frightened somewhat. If Brienne were any good with children, she would probably hold him close now, but she can’t. She has to stay strong. She can’t linger. She has to move forward and away.
I will not stay here.
“I suggest he can take your horse, then,” Lem says with a dark grin.
“What is going on here?” she can hear Hyle question, but instead of offering an explanation, she takes the reigns of her horse to stuff into his big hands, talking in a hushed voice, “Ser Hyle, I need you to ride as fast as you can, to take yourself and young Podrick someplace safe. Don’t look back, don’t let them get you a second time. Beyond this point, I can no longer guarantee your safety. You must seize this one change you got - and not look back.”
“What will become of you?” he asks, aghast.
“Quiet now. That is not of your concern. Just see to it that you two get some place safe,” Brienne tell shim, looking him deep in the eye.
“And you are…,” he grimaces, and Brienne nods resolutely, “I’m sure.”
“M’lady ser?” Podrick looks at her again, his eyes wide.
“You will go with Ser Hyle – and not play hero, you hear me?” Brienne tells him, bending slightly down. She means to extend her hand to him, but then pulls away again, her fingers suddenly cramping.
Let it go, she mentally scolds herself. You won’t hold it for much longer anyways.
Let it all go.
“But what will become of you?” the lad asks, the worry apparent in his voice.
And while Brienne knows it's ungracious to even think it, she finds a small comfort that maybe someone will miss her slightly after all.
“We’ll see,” she grimaces, but the straightens back up to search Hyle’s eyes. “Ser Hyle. I leave him into your care.”
“I owe you,” Ser Hyle says with a sad grimace.
“You don’t. Just make sure Podrick gets somewhere safe. That’s all I’m asking of you,” Brienne says, her voice almost betraying her. "... and perchance inform my Father once it's safe for you... He should... know the truth."
No, he doesn’t owe her much of anything.
And this deed is perhaps the only token she can offer to repay him for what she put him through.
The Elder Brother may have had the rights of it, telling her to go home while she still could. But at least the story Ser Hyle will likely tell her Father will have at least that one speckle of light in it - that she died trying to keep others alive. That her death wasn't entirely pointless, and not just a wound suffered in a melee, but for a true purpose, and not just some girlish dreams about knighthood as she knows it from the songs.
“I will, m'lady, you have my word for it,” he assures her. And Brienne is glad for it that he doesn’t try to play hero now, or insist on the point.
He understood, she comforts herself. He understood and will do as she bid him.
They’ll be safe.
Everyone will be safe.
That is all that matters now.
“Thank you. And I’m sorry for all of it. Now go,” Brienne urges him.
Better have them go before someone may realize the massive cracks she knows are in her story. If they are far enough away, then the Brotherhood will likely lose interest in searching for them.
“M’lady ser, please. You must come with us!” Podrick insists.
“I cannot. I have oaths to fulfill. Go with Ser Hyle. Don’t look back, you hear me?” Brienne tells him, before searching Hyle’s eyes another time. He gives a small nod, “C’mon, then, boy. We should be on our way. The lady has spoken.”
Ser Hyle simply picks him up to seat on the horse, then, before climbing atop the animal himself, fastening the reigns about his wrists.
“M’lady Stoneheart. I have your word for it that they shall have safe leave?” Brienne calls out to the shadow hiding in the shadows. After some strange murmurs, she can hear the man speaking for her raising his voice again, “She says no harm will be done to them for as long as you fulfill your vow.”
“Then it shall be so.”
She nods at Hyle, who spurs the horse despite the boy’s protests. Brienne tries her best to keep her body from shaking, but it’s no use.
She watches as the two disappear into the nearby woods.
Ride as far and as fast as you can, she thinks to herself, but then turns back around to face the cave, which already seems to have opened its angry mouth to swallow her in one bite entire.
“You are supposed to come closer, the Lady says.”
Brienne nods before making her way up to the cave’s mouth, her steps growing more and more uneven, more and more uncertain. The heat of the torches licks at her skin, causing a burning sensation even through the thick bandage covering her marred cheek, where the flesh is still soft and sensitive to every touch, even that of fire.
“So, do I get to chop your ugly head off?” she can hear Lem call out with spiteful glee.
But she ignores him. Her eyes are trained on the darkness containing the body of the woman she once served.
“I demand from you that I get to choose my death, m’lady,” Brienne speaks up boldly.
“You make a lot of demands, truly,” Lem huffs.
“I just ask to die in a proper way, and not at the filthy hands of people like you,” Brienne snaps.
“Careful now,” Lem warns her, touching his sword.
“What do I have to lose?” Brienne says bitterly. “My life?”
“Then what? I thought you wanted the hero’s death, running around in mail and armor,” Lem snorts.
“I don’t deserve a merciful quick death for the crimes I have committed, but I’d still ask to leave this life in a rather painless way that saves me some last dignity,” Brienne says, turning her attention back to Lady Stoneheart whose eyes she can feel darting through the darkness, piercing her skin.
“And what do you desire, then?” the man speaking for her questions after some murmurs come out of the darkness yet again.
“I demand to be given over to the waters,” Brienne says.
“You want to be drowned,” Thoros makes a face upon hearing that.
“I come from an island. On Tarth, we are given over to the seas once we die. That is what I want to die like, if I don’t get to die in battle, a fair battle. And since I won’t get a fair battle here, I want to return to the water, where we come from and all go back to,” Brienne says, but then turns to Lady Stoneheart again, even if she can’t make her out in the darkness. “Like you came from it, m’lady, and returned to it, and rose again.”
“… She says it shall be so,” her spokesman confirms.
“And I want him to do it,” Brienne says, gesturing at the red priest.
“Why Thoros?” Lem demands, narrowing his eyes at her.
“I said it, I don’t want to die at the hands of filthy men like you. He seems honorable enough. Let him drown me, that’s all I’m asking for. Give me maybe no honorable death, for I am not deserving of it, but at least one that won’t put me more to shame than does all of this, against anything you’ve vowed me,” Brienne says, her voice gladly not betraying her despite the fact that her knees are shaking.
“She vowed you, Oathbreaker?” Lem snorts, the word echoing through the cave.
“We both promised something that day, m’lady. I promised to be at your service. You promised me that you’d never force me into actions that would bring me disgrace. This is disgrace, so I think it’s just proper that I get to die no dishonorable death,” Brienne says to the face hiding in the darkness.
“… She says that she will grant it to you,” the man speaking for her says eventually.
“Thank you… m’lady…,” Brienne replies slowly.
She gets what she wants.
And probably what she deserves.
Then why am I still afraid?
“At dawn you shall be swept out of this life, she says.”
“Then it shall be so.”