She could not claim to be the most handsome woman nor the most hideous, nor could she declare herself happy with any confidence, but she was not sad either. She lacked neither wit nor graces, but hers were not the polished social weapons of other girls that bewitched the dance hall and dinner table alike, and she could neither play the piano nor sew without giving up any claim to dignity. She was not rich and she was not poor, she had no great prospects but neither was she destined to a life of drudgery on the streets. But there were moments, when she looked down at her young charges wrestling with the needle and thread and committing verses to memory, that she longed to be a commonly-born girl, with no obligation but to cook and breed. It would be a deal easier than playing at governess to the Stark girls, deceiving herself that she was accomplished enough to school two young daughters of a great family in the art of achieving greatness.
It was not uncommon for Brienne Tarth to spend an afternoon drowning in a crippling sense of inadequacy. After two years as a governess she might have acclimatised to the repetitivity of her life, but she had yet to shake off her childhood fancies of joining the army just like her father. He had seen fit to shatter her dreams by informing her kindly that the Red Coats did not allow girls amongst their ranks, and would not make an exception, not even for Major Tarth’s only child.
Sometimes, working with her charges almost made up for not being able to join a regiment. It was tantamount to sitting calmly on a chair watching two armies engaged in open warfare.
“I heard from Jeyne that the Lannister family have moved in with the Baratheons in Storm’s End,” Sansa said idly, not looking up from her needlework. “All the Lannisters.”
“And how would Jeyne know that?” Arya rolled her eyes. The amount of disdain she had for the London society-types who set up residence in the countryside was legendary and unparalleled, which was a remarkable thing for a girl of thirteen.
“Jeyne’s father is well-connected,” Sansa explained slowly and laboriously, not bothering to hide her own sense of superiority, which was, to be fair, justified, since she was possessed of an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Lords and heraldry of the great families.
“Not as well-connected as our father was!"
Arya’s words were followed by a dull silence. Sansa looked away sharply.
Coughing, Brienne put aside her stitching. “Let’s go for a walk,” she said quietly, glancing at the clock. It was just gone three in the afternoon, and by now Jon would have put the horses away, but they could make it to town by half-past on foot. Arya jumped up faster than was seemly for a girl in a dress and made for the door, Sansa following more reluctantly. Brienne glanced over the room, checking that it was tidy, and followed the girls out. Sansa had gone to put on her walking shoes but Arya had unsurprisingly been wearing hers the whole time, and was halfway down the path.
Mrs. Stark stopped Brienne with a hand on her shoulder, just as she was about to follow Arya out of the house. “Where are you taking them?”
“For a short walk to the Winter Town,” Brienne replied. She was a woman of few words, and Mrs. Stark understood that, keeping conversation to a minimum.
Nodding, Mrs. Stark absently rearranged a few dying roses in the vase that occupied a permanent place of respect just to the side of the door. “Ask Sansa to pick a few blooms on the way back,” she suggested. “These are beginning to take on an air of shabbiness about them.” She paused, looking beyond the doorframe, beyond Arya jumping up and down at the gate, beyond even the trees in the distance. Since the letter had arrived from the Royal Militia expressing their sincere apologies, she had not been quite the same. She was less focused and less sociable. “And we will need new roses here,” she added after a moment, turning back to Brienne, “as I have reason to believe we will be receiving guests tomorrow.”
“Guests?” Brienne asked. She did not enjoy guests, and not only because she was loath to talk to them. The last guest had been a horrid lawyer who seemed to work for the Bolton family, coming with the terms of the late Brigadier Stark’s last will and testament. He had spent half the time leering at Mrs. Stark and Sansa in turn, and the other half obsessing over the minutiae of a most complex inheritance. On top of that, he smelt foul, as though someone had left a wheel of blue cheese in the sun for two hours, rinsed it in river water and painted it across his skin.
“Guests,” Mrs. Stark confirmed solemnly. “You must have heard from Sansa - she’s been telling anyone who’ll listen that we’ve recently acquired new neighbours.”
“The Lannisters,” Brienne said. “She told me they’ve moved into Storm’s End.”
“It’s typical,” Mrs. Stark says with a sting in her tone. “That witch of a woman Cersei Baratheon has moved into her late husband’s manor before he’s cold in the ground. It is a mark of great disrespect.”
“And the younger Baratheon had no say in the matter?” Brienne asked, quite deliberately leaving out the youngest from her question.
“By rights the lands belong to the boy Joffrey now. And even if they didn't, Stannis Baratheon is a renowned anthropologist and has no interests other than documenting his strange religions in the orient. It is rumoured that he has renounced all claim to the lands. And the youngest, Renly Baratheon, is too busy fashioning himself as the embodiment of London society, nor is he old enough to inherit. You knew him once, I believe?”
Don’t think about Renly, Brienne told herself, and kept her face blank. “He stayed with us for a season when I was younger. It has been a long time since our paths last crossed.”
Mrs. Stark nodded. “I can assure you they are not about to cross again any time soon. You may express relief, if you wish. I will forgive you for not being fond of that arrogant young man. The only Baratheons we’ll have to worry about are the widow and her children. If Sansa is to be believed, they have be joined by the dwarf and the cripple, but I daresay we shan’t have to worry about their presence for a while. Our guests tomorrow will be Lady Baratheon and her children Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen. I am assured that they are delightful, but I must confess I look forward to watching their cultivated civilised expressions shatter in horror when they meet Arya.”
Sansa appeared in the doorway, her outfit completely changed for the walk.
“Sansa of course will be the very picture of politeness to our guests, won’t you, my dear?”
“Guests?” Her whole face lit up. “Mama, are we receiving the Lannisters?”
“They are Baratheons,” her mother reminded her, patting her on the shoulder. “Now go on. Miss Tarth will take you to the Winter Town.” Turning to Brienne, she added quietly “Make sure Arya doesn’t go wandering to the blacksmith’s forge, if you would.”
Brienne nodded. “Come on, let’s catch up to your sister,” she said to Sansa, leading the way down the path to the gate. The pine trees surrounding them teetered vaguely in the breeze. Brienne loved Winterfell’s pine trees, and from her room she could smell them clearly. It was nostalgia that drew her to them - her home was surrounded by pines too, and these trees ensured that she never wanted for comfort when her mood tended to pining for her childhood.
Arya was waiting at the gate, kicking the dirt. “No need to hurry!” she snapped.
“Calm down,” Brienne said. “If you behave on the walk to town I’ll take you to the forge and we can look at Mott’s swords.”
This drew a gasp from Sansa. “But mama said to keep Arya away from there!”
“She said not to let her wander there,” Brienne corrected, much to Arya’s delight. “It’s not the same if I take you both.” Sansa frowned but didn’t say anything. She knew she was defeated.
The walk to the Winter Town was an easy one, all things considered. There were no steep hills or chances for accidental social encounters, only a narrow road that was straightforward enough to follow. Brienne had done this walk so many times now that it felt as though her feet went without her needing to direct them. She knew every fence and every tree, and she knew them far too well, as she had very little to do while she walked other than listen to the girls argue.
This time the girls were silent. Perhaps it had been Arya’s earlier comment about their father that had silenced Sansa, or perhaps Arya was too excited about going to the forge to say anything. Perhaps both. Brienne relished the silence, given that in the Stark household the moments without some noise intruding on her thoughts were few and far between. She enjoyed the quiet in a way she could not quite articulate.
By the time they reached the town the sun was lower in the sky and their shadows trailed behind them like slender ghosts. Sansa had succeeded in keeping her mouth shut until the milliner’s store appeared in her view, at which point she squealed that she needed a new bonnet and ran off to inspect the shop window.
“She always needs a new bonnet,” Arya muttered.
“You mustn’t mock her, you know,” Brienne told her, feeling as though it was the Right Thing to say as a governess. “She is interested in bonnets, and you in swords, but she is still your sister.”
“I know,” Arya said. “You’re always right about these things, of course.”
“I am your governess, and therefore you must pay heed to my guidance,” Brienne agreed. “But I doubt I am right about everything. You must also learn to form your own opinions.” She repeated word-for-word something her father had once said to her.
Arya nodded gravely. “Perhaps we should aid Sansa in her choosing of a bonnet.”
Brienne smiled down at her. “An excellent idea, Miss Stark.”
The two of them walking over to the milliner's store made a curious sight. Arya was small for a girl of thirteen, and Mrs. Stark eternally despaired for what others thought of her - how was she to excuse her child's underfed appearance? Remove her frocks and bonnets, and she could pass for a dirty street urchin. Brienne, by contrast, was tall and graceless, qualities which she was condemned to forever hear called "ill-suited to a woman of her station", nor did she lack for muscle. Both girls, however, were used to being accused of being more man than woman, Arya because of her unladylike proclivities, Brienne for her looks.
If she was surprised that they had decided to join her, Sansa did not show it.
“Do you think the blue ribbon would suit me better, or the green?”
Arya pretended to weigh up the choice for a few moments, although it was evident just how little she cared. Brienne felt a small sense of pride in the girl at the back of her mind, but pushed it away quickly.
“Blue, I think.”
“Blue,” Sansa echoed, deep in thought. “Yes, I think the blue will suit me well. Should I choose the thick or the thin trim?”
It was with a pained expression on her face that Arya decided on the thick trim, and it was that expression that set the tone for the rest of their afternoon.
They never did make it to the forge.
By the time they made it back to Winterfell, the sky had been swallowed by an ink-blue shroud and the stars were slowly starting to appear. The pines were rustling quietly and they seemed to numb Brienne and her charges into a somewhat uneasy silence. People always talked of the manor’s beauty, and before Brienne arrived there she had heard numerous tales of the stately home that had painted it in nothing but the most rose-tinted of lights, but now that she knew it intimately she had come to realise that the tales altered the truth somewhat. At night, Winterfell felt almost haunted, and in the cold light of the early mornings it gave off an otherworldly glow to which it had taken some weeks for Brienne to acclimatise. Of course, there were also the ghosts of Brigadier Stark and Officers Stark and Greyjoy wandering the halls and corridors, casting a morbid light on every word uttered in their shadows.
Mrs. Stark was there to greet them at the door, the ghosts standing behind her, using her as a conduit for the despair they radiated. “You’ve been out so long,” she said, “it’s almost time to take our meal. Run upstairs now and change.”
Once the girls were gone, Mrs. Stark turned to Brienne, standing awkwardly in the doorway. “Thank you, you may take your leave for the night.”
That was how it went - once her work was done for the day she took her dinner in the servants’ quarters and then returned to her room to spend the night in the company of her wildest fancies. The next day was a Sunday, her day off, and she would spend the day preparing a lesson plan for the coming week and she might even walk to the Winter Town, for want of anything better to do.
“Your presence will be required tomorrow, Miss Tarth.”
Brienne had nothing to say to that. She paused, waiting for Mrs. Stark to continue.
“I would like you to attend tea tomorrow, when Lady Baratheon and her children visit.”
Her eyes widened. “Mrs. Stark – surely you do not mean for me to socialise in such company!”
“You are much mistaken, Miss Tarth,” she said, an almost mischievous look in her eye. “I expect you to be the very epitome of sociability. Or, if you cannot meet this standard, then you must at least be present in order to keep my daughters in line.”
“Mrs. S-stark, of course I will be present,” Brienne stammered. She despised such formal occasions, and was in no way excited for a return to society after her first and only ball at age fifteen, only five years ago but a lifetime away.
“Good. You cannot run from society forever, Brienne,” Catelyn Stark said, putting a hand on her arm. “You are a young woman who will one day inherit a respectable fortune. You will need to find a husband.”
Brienne simply nodded and excused herself. Such discussion - of fortune and marriage - made her resolutely uncomfortable. She had formed an attachment to a young man once, and it had ended in tears. Thrice had she been betrothed by her father, thrice had a betrothal been annulled. She was as happy as she would ever be as a governess and did not wish to rise above that station.
By the time she reached the servants’ quarters, dinner had already finished, and those left in their dining room were the ones who did not have to serve or cook the meal. She was always grateful for the quiet. Tonight, the only people there were the groundskeeper Rodrik and the men from the stables, the chief horse trainer, Hullen, and the stableboys, Hullen’s son Harwin, simple-minded Hodor and the bastard Jon. Jon was the first to notice her enter.
“Evening, Miss Tarth,” he greeted her. “Busy day?”
“Is Winterfell ever not busy?” Harwin countered.
“Today has been relatively quiet,” Brienne said. She liked talking to Jon and Harwin - they expected nothing from her, which was a welcome change from most other men she met. “But I cannot expect the same comfort tomorrow.”
“Ah yes, the guests,” Harwin muttered.
“Mrs. Stark has requested my presence at tea,” Brienne mumbled, pulling out a chair at the communal table and serving herself some stew.
“And are you going to oblige her?” Jon asked, in a tone of voice that suggested he wished Mrs. Stark would invite him to tea.
“I have to,” she said. “It is my duty to keep the girls from misbehaving, and if there’s anywhere they’ll be like to misbehave, it is around other children.”
“Sansa won’t misbehave,” Jon pointed out. “She is much too keen on impressing those Lannisters.”
Harwin seemed to agree. “I don’t see why a governess should be forced to take tea with the family.”
“Hodor,” Hodor added helpfully.
“I will do as I am bid.”
“Will you tell us, then, what they’re like?” Harwin asked. “The Lannisters, I mean. Since you get the privilege of making their acquaintance.”
“It is hardly a privilege,” Brienne said. “And it will just be a widow, by all accounts a quite unsavoury one, and her three children. It is hardly something to write home about.”
“I’ll wager that the children are worse than the mother,” he said.
Brienne said nothing. She would not enter into such aimless speculation. The temptation to be immediately prejudiced against Cersei Baratheon, the woman who was scorned by everyone to whom Brienne had ever spoken, and who was still called Lannister to her face despite having been married into a great family for so many years, was strong, but Brienne’s willpower was stronger still, and she would judge the formidable woman and her children when she would meet them.
That night she retreated to her quarters early, ostensibly to prepare herself for her upcoming social engagement. The words that Mrs. Stark had said about her needing to find a husband still echoed in her ears, however much she wished that they did not. It was not just her previous luck with betrothals that turned her off the matter. She had precisely chosen to become a governess to move away from that obligation, but as her father grew older and the chance of his marrying again and producing a male heir grew fainter, the chance of her having to make a very delicate choice grew higher: either she would have to marry so she would have any hope of inheriting Evenfall Hall, or she would watch the home in which she was raised being handed over to a distant relative she had not seen since she was an infant.
It was a choice she hoped never to need to make.
She spent the night in turns staring at the ceiling above her bed and reading one of Sansa’s romance novels that the girl had lent to her, a tale of a brave man whisking away an unfortunate girl from a life of sadness on his trusty steed. She preferred the ceiling.