On the day they leave the Quiet Isle, it finally begins to snow.
Somehow they have been shielded from the foul winter weather during their long stay. The Isle has been a world of its own, concealed within the turbulent Riverlands like the calm eye of a great storm. Though chilly and overcast, the deep snows have blown past the small island and left it mostly untouched. In the same way, the bloody chaos of the region has not reached them here, but for the bodies that wash up on the shore. It is as though a great hand stretches out over the Quiet Isle and shelters it invisibly from the world.
But today that protection has lifted, and as the outsiders move their belongings from the guest cottages to the stables the snow begins to fall.
All morning the strange party moves up and down the pebbled path to load their provisions. Young Podrick Payne gambols in the snow cheerfully, eager to be away. The Quiet Isle has been too somber for him, and he is eager to distance himself from sickbeds and septs. He chatters away to Ser Hyle, seemingly not noticing the hard line of dissatisfaction the man’s mouth makes as he carries the bags to the stables. The hedge knight is fully recovered from his injuries, with not even scars to show for his time of imprisonment. Yet he has been strangely subdued and downcast here on the Quiet Isle, and especially as they ready to leave with their newest companions.
The most recent addition to their strange party, Sandor Clegane, formerly the Hound and recently a gravedigger, saddles his huge black horse with a somber countenance. He limps still a little, and says not a word to anyone, as though still an initiate among the brothers. He revealed himself to Brienne only days before, in private, and what exactly was said only they know.
Brienne is still acquainting herself to her horse, brushing her flank and speaking to her quietly. They have met only this morning; no one knows what became of her pretty mare and they hesitate to ask. She herself had arrived at the Isle in no condition to ride anything, across someone else's horse.
She is pale in her travel clothes, not yet strong enough to wear her armor. More in hope than necessity her armor is strapped neatly to her horse’s back. Her right arm hangs from a sling and she is bandaged from one end to the other. Still she is eager to be away, determined to follow a rumor of the Stark girl in the Vale, and her companions know very well she will leave without them if they do not follow.
She moves a little stiffly, but her expression betrays no discomfort. Her only concern shows in worried glances down the path, watching anxiously for the last member of their party to appear.
Elder Brother watches them make their preparations a short distance away; he has said his goodbyes already, and accepted Brienne’s copious gratitude for their hospitality, and for the care they have shown her in her convalescence. Now he stands on the hill overlooking the stables, waiting patiently. Lord Lannister approaches him with the uneasy feeling that this strange septon is waiting exactly for this conversation. One Jaime has been avoiding as long as possible.
He climbs to the top of the grassy hill, frost crunching beneath his boots and snowflakes sticking in his shaggy blonde hair. When he stands beside the monk, he finds himself pointed precisely at Brienne directly below them. The only woman on the Isle, such as she is, presently strapping weapons to her horse and hitching her trousers to prepare to mount it. The maid of Tarth, the leader of their little company.
“You said that you would annul it,” he says to the septon in an undertone. “Have you done it?”
Elder Brother does not turn his head, and the cowl of his voluminous brown robes conceals his expression. “I said that the marriage could be annulled if you both regretted it, when you left the isle.”
“Then it’s done?”
Elder Brother glances at him, dark eyes gleaming beneath his hood. “I cannot.”
“You cannot–” Jaime glares at the man, who looks back at him placidly.
Lord Lannister grimaces, and looks down at Brienne. She looks up at precisely that moment, and when she sees the two of them standing together she hurriedly averts her gaze. Turns her back on the hill and busies herself with her mare’s bridle, her stance tense and uncomfortable.
Gods, this is going to be an ordeal, isn’t it? Jaime takes the monk by the arm and forcibly steers him away from her view. “What does she know?”
“I’ve explained it to her,” Elder Brother says, allowing himself to be lead over the crest of the hill. “The Lady Brienne has long known the rules of our order, that you could not have resided with her except as her husband. And you shared a cottage with her for well on a month now.”
“But not a bed. You saw that yourself. Surely you cannot mean to leave us married?”
He has a knowing sort of tone, Elder Brother. “We cannot administer and dissolve holy vows at a whim, Lord Lannister. However, considering the… unusual circumstances of your union, one of you being at death’s door at the time, we can make some allowances.”
“Allowances…” Jaime echoes his tone bitterly, and his hand makes a fist at his side. “You told me it could be undone. You told me she was dying, and anyway it could be undone. And now you refuse.”
“You’ll remember I have taken your confession as well, my lord,” he reminds the impatient lord. ”Your vows were sworn in earnest, and cannot be dissolved for convenience.”
Jaime struggles to maintain calm, appear disinterested. “I would not take so seriously the confession of a man without honor.”
“You told me that the girl would have let the Brotherhood hang her rather than betray you. She let them put a rope around her neck. You said not one person in all your life had ever shown you such loyalty, not a single one.”
“I say a lot of things,” Jaime hisses at him. “If I praise your ‘gravedigger’ will you marry me to him as well?”
Elder Brother gives him a measured look. It is similar to the disdain with which he had first greeted Jaime, when he had been landed on their Island, but there is another and more fatherly mien to his gaze now, despite that he is not so much older.
“Do you know, Lord Lannister, why we require that men and women be married to reside together here?”
“Because you’re a religious order bound more by rules than sense!” Jaime snaps, with an anxious glance at the stables.
“Because marriage is sacred.” The Elder Brother presses his hands together in a benediction, the same gesture he had made when he administered the vows. “Because it is blessed by the gods, and it is by the gods will that we work our healing. The bonds of family, the oaths of matrimony, the things we promise one another. These are among the most holy things in our world.”
Jaime laughs to himself at that. “I do not know why you have allowed me to make mockery of them then.”
The expression the monk gives him after this comment is much closer to pity than anything appropriate to a priest; Jaime likes it not.
“On the contrary, you have upheld your vows faithfully. You stayed at her side these weeks, you tended to her body and her spirit. I believe it saved her life.”
Jaime shakes his head. “You healed her, I did next to nothing. And I still would like very much to know how your healing works. Her recovery is nothing short of miraculous.”
Elder Brother sidesteps the underlying question quite smoothly. “Precisely. Many desperately ill and wounded people come to us on the Isle, and over the years you come to know who can be healed and who cannot. I tell you not one of us thought Brienne of Tarth would live out the night, all of the Quiet Isle expected her to perish. But not you. You would not allow it.”
He shrugs. “I know her better. I knew she would survive if given the chance. I only convinced you not to give up on her. That is all.”
“Listen, my lord.” Elder Brother turns to him fully and draws back his pointed cowl, revealing his bald head, as broad and sturdy as a bull’s. An expression as stubborn as one, too. “I could annul the marriage. Given that we truly believed she would die and she did not, and that she did not speak the vows herself, we could declare the ceremony null and void, a false pretense for convenience sake.”
Jaime nods to it. “That would be a relief.”
“But I won’t. I truly believe that the ceremony was real and it was sacred, and that your union is blessed by the gods. What’s more, I believe you truly love one another. That is a rare thing, a love that could bring a person back from the brink of death. I cannot in good conscience dissolve this marriage.”
“Surely someone can.” Jaime turns half away. He is imperious now, every inch the arrogant lord that Elder Brother had taken him for at the first. “It is a fine story you tell, but you are mistaken. I have only the highest respect for the Lady Brienne, but I am no lovestruck suitor of hers. And she has no wish to be married to me. I know The Council of Faith in King’s Landing would see this union as a fraud - a forced marriage, a concerned liege persuaded to wed an unconscious woman. They will annul it at my request.”
Elder Brother continues patiently. “I said there would be allowances. We have made no report to the Faith of your vows, and only we on the Isle know of them. I would not hold you to this union if you both are truly unwilling. If the marriage is not consummated by year’s end, you may consider your vows rescinded.”
Lord Lannister snorts and walks away, pulling a glove over his golden hand. “So I suppose that problem will solve itself in time.”
Elder Brother watches the golden Lannister descend the hill, approach his destrier and mount it smoothly, riding out of the stable and down to the shore without a glance at the rest of his party, most pointedly not at the woman who watches him with a perplexed and hungry expression.
“We shall see,” he says.