Chapter 1: ... And Take You For My Lord and Husband
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.
Chapter 2: … And Take You For My Lady and Wife
It's not clear just what spirit of mischief has overtaken him, but when it is his turn to make the arrangements at yet another dismal inn Jaime Lannister requests two rooms – one for his companions, and one for his new bride.
A harmless enough deception; it’s even true. The innkeeper accepts his coin with no suspicion whatsoever, and with only a handful of words it seems he has endeared himself to the round little man. A few bits are knocked off the price with a wink and a smile, and though he should be contemptuous of the gullible fool, Jaime enjoys the transaction.
He returns to the other four riders on the road with the arrangements, directing them down the path to the Hound’s Tooth Inn. It has been nearly a week since they were anywhere near a real bed, and they ride to their destination with weary good cheer.
"Look Ser," Podrick points out the name of the inn on the wooden sign, as usual undeterred by the reticence of adults. "It was meant for you."
The Hound actually responds this time. "Well named. I'd trade one of my teeth for a hot meal just now," he says in his granite voice.
Jaime startles to hear him speak; he was starting to think the man had kept his vow of silence from the Quiet Isle. That's slightly disappointing - after Ilyn Payne he has come to appreciate silent companions. Especially by contrast to the endless chattering of Podrick Payne and Hyle Hunt.
He's weary of all of them just now, to be honest. Brienne is far more patient with them than they deserve. Most especially Hyle Hunt, who is endlessly pestering her about this and that, where he thinks they should go next, how her wounds are healing, and other concerns that he raises in a lowered voice with meaningful looks in Jaime's direction. He always rides his horse next to her, even when she moves forward or back in the formation, and seems intent on monopolizing her attention. Then there is Pod's training, which the boy insists on continuing even when she is plainly weary. She will demonstrate maneuvers for him and critique his form for well over an hour each time they set camp. Then in the evenings by the fire Brienne will sit beside the Hound quietly, and there is a comradeship there that makes Jaime seem even more an outsider to their company. Between those three her time is unfairly divided, with none remaining to him.
Well, tonight will be different.
Brienne does not question him when Jaime tells her there will be a room for two and a room for three, instead of all of them crammed into a single bunk. She takes a key to their room with no comment, and allows him stable her horse with quiet gratitude. He doesn't mention that he will be the one sharing the room with her. She can assume what she wants. Anyway, she looks ready to fall asleep on her feet, and there’s no point telling her about his little joke. She is unlikely to find it funny.
After he has seen to the horses he joins the men in the tavern for a plate of food. Hunt mainly ignores him and the Hound has little to say to anyone, but Podrick saved a seat and a plate of food apparently for him.
Podrick tries repeatedly to engage the Hound over supper, but has little luck. He only answers him to tell the boy to stop calling him that.
"The Hound is dead," the man grimly, his destroyed face pointed down at his plate. "Sandor is what I'll answer to now, if I must answer to anything."
Jaime supposes they have that in common. Nicknames they have tolerated and now are trying to shed, and given up for dead. He pushes away from the table and most of his food with that thought, and leaves the three of them.
“Your lady wife is resting upstairs,” the inkeep calls to him when he leaves them in the tavern, and it takes several very disorienting seconds for Jaime to realize that the portly man refers to Brienne.
A more fully absurd summary of her he could not imagine, “lady” and “wife”. He makes a noncommittal noise and continues up the stairs to their room, those two words echoing in his ears.
He finds Brienne, indeed, resting. She's flat on her back on top of the covers, snoring lightly, only bothered to shuck the most troublesome of her armor off along the way. Her hair is stuck up from the pillow in all directions, a thorny nest around her freckled face. Her boots are still on, those absurdly large feet pointing straight up at the ceiling.
There is only one bed in this room, a large and sturdy one with a fine headboard, and Brienne is lying smack in the middle of it. That is potentially a problem. He might have expected that there would be only one bed, had he thought about it more carefully, and tried to get here first. He did tell the inkeep they were newly wed, and as result got a room most suited to a bedding.
Still, this room, with a small crackling fire and a dressing table, is far nicer than the one that Hunt and Clegane will be sharing, which has three beds and not much else. And Jaime does not especially want to share a bed with Podrick again. The boy has taken it in his head to sleep near him since the Isle, and it is a nuisance. Pod talks in his sleep, and thrashes about, and has kicked him several times already. Jaime will take this current discomfort over retreating to the other room.
Brienne doesn’t stir when he shuts the door behind him, nor does she wake when he sits on the side of the bed and unlaces his boots. A good thing really; she has been most cautious of maintaining her distance whenever they set camp, and she will not like sharing the bed with him.
Even though they did, in fact, share a bed on the Quiet Isle. Multiple times. But she had been desperately ill, and does not remember it.
He sets his boots aside, and after a moment’s thought removes hers as well. It takes some time to unlace them with one hand but she sleeps on, even as he pulls them off her feet and puts a blanket over her. She opens her eyes only a little when he tucks the fur around her, allowing just a slice of blue to regard him sleepily before turning her face and closing them again.
Jaime would have to wake her on purpose if he wanted any company, and he supposes he shouldn’t. She was exhausted when they left the road. She is exhausted most days, of late. Brienne is stronger than she was, but not quite back to herself. She tires rapidly, and her face has little color to it, and she engages not at all with his conversation no matter which way he tries. She has lost some of the bandages and the sling on her right arm, but she has not lost that nervousness of him. She's had that ever since she left her bed on the Quiet Isle and learned the monks had married them. She has not quite looked him in the face since.
He considers the bed. It is probably not that much more comfortable than the floor. But there is a blanket, and he is suddenly rather cold.
Brienne would be warm, he is sure of it.
Instead Jaime busies himself freshening up at the basin, even the lukewarm water luxurious after so long on the road. He washes his face and drags his fingers through his hair. He ought to shave while he has the opportunity; there is a small straight razor. His sister had hated his beard; she said it made him look common, and scruffy, and old. He would like to ask Brienne what she thinks of it, but if he wakes her for that she might slice him with the razor.
He decides to trim his beard instead, neatening the edges. He sits in the single chair and takes his time, wiping his face with a cloth draped over his stump. The fire is dying down and periodically he will get up and feed kindling to it until it sputters back to life, and then return to his seat and resume his work, unhurried.
But when there is a knock at the door he jumps to his feet quickly and rushes to snatch it open.
The barmaid is interrupted mid-knock, startled. She is as young as Brienne but sweeter-faced, and holds an armload of wood. “I came to tend to the fire, Ser,” she says pleasantly.
He puts a finger to his lips and shushes her, and she looks past him to the shape in the bed. “I’ll take it,” he says quietly, maneuvering to take the wood and keep her out of the room.
“I’m sorry, My Lord,” she whispers. Then she smiles in a strangely conspiratorial way, puts her own finger to her lips, and closes the door herself.
Everyone loves a newlywed couple, it seems. Everyone else, anyway. He kneels at the firepit, quietly stacking the logs.
They have not discussed it. The marriage. Though admittedly Jaime has not tried very hard. When Brienne rejects his friendly overtures and shies away from him he simply grits his teeth and talks loudly to someone else. He grows ever more charming and personable. He can ingratiate himself to nearly everyone else they meet in their travels, now that he is inclined to make the effort. He banters with innkeeps and learns the news of the day. He makes playful conversation with barmaids, who are far happier to be in his company. He engages the lords and ladies they encounter in the usual idly predictable niceties until Brienne can ask her questions about a red-headed girl of four and ten. He is, he thinks, remarkably helpful and agreeable and it makes no difference whatsoever to the Maid of Tarth, who seems bound and determined to pretend that he does not exist.
He might have been hoping for conversation, when he put them together in this room. Though he should have known it unlikely, after a hard day’s ride. Jaime’s not sure just what he had been hoping for, to be honest. He confuses himself.
There is a small mirror on the table besides the basin, and he regards his face briefly. Plucks a few grey hairs sprouting from the crown of his head. Then he settles back in his chair and scrubs some of the dirt out of his military coat, rubs at the buttons with his rag until they shine again. Vanity, perhaps, but he enjoys these little duties, and with a small fire crackling nearby and Brienne’s quiet breathing, the evening passes peacefully.
When he finds his eyes closing on their own and the fire simmered down to embers, he walks back across the room and lies down on the edge of the bed, keeping a considerable acreage of bed between himself and Brienne for propriety’s sake. He stays on top of the blankets and steals one pillow from under her arm and it is warm already against his face. He lies beside her in the dim light from the fire and is suddenly, terribly awake.
Propriety, he thinks. But of course he literally could not be more proper. He is a husband sharing a bed with his wife.
But she is not happy about that, and in some weeks it will be undone. If they ignore the marriage it will go away, and perhaps things will go back to the way they were between them, or some version of that. He can joke with her again and she will spar with him the way she does with Podrick and ride with him as she does with Ser Hyle, and they will find Sansa Stark somewhere here in the Vale and send her back to what remains of her family and some time after that he and Brienne will part ways. She will continue serving the Starks, most likely, and he will go back to his son in King’s Landing. And that is how it should be. It is sensible and inevitable and yet the thought of it fills him with a strange hollow feeling that makes it difficult to fall asleep.
He has a direct view of the place where the muscles of her long neck dive down into her freckled collarbone. He can’t stop looking at that, the cords of her neck, the gentle slope of her shoulder and the pale flesh below it disappearing down into her tunic.
These are thoughts that, once you’ve had them, you can never un-think. You can try to stop them and they will only start themselves over again, like the words to a song that plays again and again in your mind. That spray of freckles seems to stay with him even when he blinks his eyes. She is freckled in a great many places, he recalls from the baths. He keeps his eyes fixed on her neck so that he won’t become interested in anything else.
If the marriage is not consummated by year’s end, you may consider your vows rescinded.
At the time it was a remote and legalistic proposition, a preposterous one. He had no intention of consummating anything with Brienne. But right now, at this moment, Elder Brother’s words are echoing in his mind and it is a lot more real to him, the possibility. He is an arm’s length away from consummating a marriage. Suddenly he can't banish that thought from his mind and he's not sure why. He didn’t even want to be married. Those damnable monks talked him into it. But she’s here and he’s here and she’s enticingly warm and he’s suddenly obsessed with her neck. He’s losing his senses.
He passes a fitful night in this way, opening and closing his eyes on her and wondering what in the world is wrong with him.
On the morrow Brienne is still sleeping soundly, and Jaime slips away to the kitchens. His restless night has only renewed his sense of mischief; he is a cheerful groom again amongst the kitchen staff.
“My goodwife sleeps still, but I will bring breakfast for her. She’s going to need the energy.” He smirks at the barmaid, who blushes. The cook gives a knowing sort of laugh and loads him down with pasties and sausage, a fine breakfast even for King’s Landing.
This is a good racket, he muses as he climbs the stairs. We could do this all across the Vale, and be fat as pigeons.
He wakes her this time, and insists that she eat. He knows all thirteen verses of “When Willum’s Wife was Wet” and he will sing them at her until she eats the breakfast he took the trouble to bring her. He gets through two verses and begins a third before she pulls the pillow off her face and sits up, glowering.
Brienne rubs at her face and yawns and looks thoroughly unhappy to be awake, and when at last she looks at the bounty he has brought her she is slightly dumbfounded.
“This is enough food for ten of us,” she says, looking over the food spread on the bedcovers with eyes a little wide. “I should share some with Podrick and the others.”
Jaime gently dissuades her. “Later. Let’s break our fast quietly first, without the Hound’s chewing and Pod’s chattering.”
She frowns at it, but she has already picked out a buttered roll that flakes apart in her fingers, and he starts on a sausage, and they eat together in comfortable silence.
After that Jaime takes the remainder to share with their three companions. Only two of them are awake in the next room, Sandor and Pod, and they gladly accept the remaining sausages and bread. He finds Hyle Hunt still abed, having passed the night before in the tavern downstairs, and still suffering its effects. He takes too little interest in the hedge knight to bear him animosity, mostly, but he does make sure to talk just loudly enough to wake him.
By the time he returns Brienne has redressed herself. Still, while Pod is shoveling pasties into his mouth Jaime takes the opportunity to help Brienne buckle her chestpiece, and in return she helps him with his quite amiably. and they leave their rooms rested and well-fed, and all-in-all it is a most pleasant morning until they are accosted on the stairs by the woman who had visited their room the night previous.
The barmaid is climbing upstairs as they descend, and she stops directly in their path. She puts a hand to Brienne’s armored arm after a worryingly bright smile in Jaime’s direction. “Your lord husband,” the barmaid says, “looked after you quite solicitously. I was a little jealous.”
“My what?” Brienne sputters.
Jaime should jump in here to end the conversation before disaster can befall them, but he has suddenly quite forgotten how to speak.
She looks even more amused now, and has a big smile for the bride. “I’m sure that takes some getting used to, newly wed and all that. You are a lucky woman, married to a handsome lord. And rich too, by the looks of him. Does he have any brothers?”
The Maid of Tarth’s eyes have gone so round they are fairly bulging from her face, and belatedly Jaime finds his voice.
“He’s already wed,” Jaime cuts in. “We’re here seeking his wife, actually. A maid of four-and-ten, with red hair, nobly born? Might you have had a guest of that description?”
The barmaid shakes her lovely head. “No, love. We don’t get many redheads round these parts anymore, with the Tullys bunkered up in the Riverlands. Best of luck to you.”
He nods to her very politely and takes Brienne’s other arm. He has to steer her out of the Inn, as she keeps whirling her head around to look back at the barmaid and the inkeep behind them. Her face is very red.
Outside she snatches back her arm abruptly and storms over to her horse.
Later that day, after hours of riding in silence, Brienne pulls her mare alongside his destrier.
“My lord husband,” she says flatly.
His face goes hot with stunning rapidity.
“My lady wife,” he says back, as cheerfully as he can.
“Why did you tell them that?” She sounds defensive; her hands on the horse’s reigns are tight fists.
“It was far simpler to share a room when they believed us wed, and the others our servants. They asked no uncomfortable questions about our identities.”
“That was uncomfortable enough,” she says.
He feels an unpleasant sting at that; is it so intolerable to be thought the Kingslayer’s wife for a few hours? She doesn’t have to be so angry about it.
“I thought you appreciated honesty? We are in fact married, why shouldn’t they know it?”
“It’s hardly necessary to announce it to strangers for your amusement. Is it funny, the thought of me as someone’s wife?”
Yes, he thinks, and also no, not at all. Simultaneously.
“We are not touring the Vale for leisure,” she says, and her cheeks are burning still. “We are seeking the girl Sansa and keeping our vow to her mother.”
He affixes his eyes to the trail in front of them, a little affronted. “I have not forgotten.”
“Good. If it pleases you, let us leave what happened on the Quiet Isle behind us and attend to our quest without distractions.”
She spurs her horse and rides ahead, leaving him stewing.
It does not please him. It does not please him at all.
Which is why, in the next village, Jaime does it again.
Chapter 3: One Flesh, One Heart, One Soul
Brienne has become exceedingly annoyed with him.
It is a little like when they had first met, this antagonism. She had despised Jaime then, and he had been entirely contemptuous of her. But back then he could not arouse any anger in her however he tried. She had remained calmly disdainful that entire journey despite his continued efforts to irritate her.
Now she is vexed. Jaime has succeeded in breaking her composure, nearly without trying, and all he had to do was inform a tavern filled with people that they were married, and convince them to toast his bride and buy them drinks. Drinks that their companions were very appreciative of, mind you. It brought an actual smile to Sandor's misshapen face, and with his great bulk he threatened to empty their patrons' eager pockets all on his own. Even Hyle Hunt, who had refused to accept anything from Jaime thus far, relented and warmed himself with several rounds, and Podrick had finished half a flagon, with Jaime stealing the other half at intervals and holding it over his head warning of the dangers of drunken squires.
After they had spent the past few days waiting out a blizzard huddled in tents against the shores of the Narrow Sea, a warm taproom is just next to heaven and fresh ale more precious than gold. It is a fine afternoon, so far as everyone but the bride is concerned.
His lovely bride had loomed over him as he settled back into his chair after making his announcement, her face turning a now-familiar shade of scarlet. Clearly torn between shouting at him and punching him in the face, she had settled on glaring daggers and leaving the room without a word to anyone, and now she has ridden ahead to their next destination without him.
Jaime is not nearly so satisfied with this accomplishment as he might have expected. It is a little unnerving actually. Brienne avoiding his gaze and not speaking to him had been more troubling than he wanted to admit, but he has never seen her openly angry before and it is inexplicably worse. All his old antics had barely produced annoyance, and he hadn't known for certain that he would be able to upend her temper like this. He has a talent for upsetting people, true. Normally, for people in his contempt, making them angry is a kind of victory. Drawing Brienne's ire is not so gratifying. It makes his food as tasteless as sand, and all the ale they can bring him is not enough to drown out the nervous tension sprouting in his gut.
As they depart he frowns at her empty berth in the stable, confirming that she has ridden away, but says nothing of it. He can feel the other three watching him, but he owes them no explanation. He knows Ser Hyle has been smugly enjoying the deterioration of their relations, and probably encourages it in Brienne's ear at every opportunity. The hedge knight makes several pointed remarks about what a rush the lady must have been in as they ride out to the road. Sandor does not comment, but he does look distantly amused at the situation.
Young Podrick rides beside Jaime most of the afternoon, watching him anxiously.
“Why do you antagonize my lady so, my lord?” he finally speaks up. Podrick has been unfailingly polite to him thus far, but just now he is worried and protective of his lady knight, as loyal as any squire.
“I don’t know what you mean, Podrick.” He gives the boy only a sidelong glance.
“It upsets her. Ser Lady Brienne. I’ve never seen her like this before.” Pod sits up a little straighter on his little horse and affects a hardened expression. “You should be nicer to her.”
Jaime snorts. The lad is about as threatening as a newborn puppy. “I’m very nice to her. Am I not praising her to everyone we meet?”
Pod screws up his face in frustration. “She doesn’t understand. You’re hurting her.”
He shrugs off these comments; surely the boy has it the wrong way around. He spurs his horse and rides ahead all the rest of the way to Ironoaks, and the rough terrain of the rising road successfully occupies his thoughts.
The high road to the Vale is closed by the snows, but they have managed to hug the coast around Wickenden rather than travel through the Mountains of the Moon. It takes weeks longer, and still they have had to fight their way through rising snow. Passing snowstorms will halt their progress for days, and the air in between these blasts does not warm enough to melt it down. Drifts pile on top of drifts, and trails become more and more difficult to follow.
Hopefully their destination is close. Much of the Eyrie court has moved to the Gates of the Moon, and Brienne’s party has heard news of a tourney there to select new members for the new "Brotherhood of Winged Knights." It is in this direction they ride despite the worsening weather. From there they can cross to the rest of the Vale, if needed.
The village surrounding Ironoaks Castle is quiet and still. The residents are either bundled up inside or traveled to the Gates of the Moon, same as them. Jaime rides through the village looking for some central place where he might find Brienne. She would be looking for gathering places and news, and people to question about a red-haired maid of four-and-ten.
That is, if she has not decided to ride somewhere else entirely to escape him. But no, she would not leave her squire, and Podrick Payne is hot on his heels even now, keeping him in sight despite his hurried pace.
He finds her at a posting in the village square. She stands enfolded in her heavy travel cloak, her loose blonde hair blowing in the snow, reading a missive tacked to a post. Pod keeps his distance as Jaime dismounts to join her, probably hoping they will make their peace without his interference.
She's reading an announcement of the tourney, hand-lettered and weather-worn. A minor tourney it would be in these times, when few outside the Vale could ride to join it. Jaime thinks little enough of the Vale Knights - they have always been overconfident in their superiority but never a match for his sword when he had two hands. Still, it is a good lead. The conflagration of nobles and knights will surely be an ideal location to learn news of the region, and a safe place to hide from Crown forces. If the Stark girl is indeed in the Vale, she would surely be there.
“I might have competed in this once,” he says by way of greeting as he comes to stand beside her. “Perhaps you might consider it. Becoming a winged knight. There are not so many Starks left to swear yourself to.”
Brienne does not turn to him. She fairly growls at him, arms crossed beneath her cloak. “I thought you wanted to find your honor? If you are not so distracted by ridiculing me.”
A strange falling sensation fills his stomach. She's still angry.
“Oh, so you’re speaking to me now? How nice.”
“Will you stop telling people I am your bride?”
Now he is the one who refuses to be angered. “Why? It’s true.”
“It’s misleading.” She glares at the missive nailed to the wall as if it has attacked her personally. “I never agreed to be anyone’s wife. Must you make this more unpleasant?”
“It’s not unpleasant for me,” he says cheerfully.
“Of course it isn’t.” Brienne lifts her chin and looks at him, and this time it is he who cannot quite meet her eye. “You can amuse yourself as you like, you are not the one who will be considered spoiled afterwards. Your reputation will be pristine when the marriage is undone, but not mine. Even though I spoke no vow, and was not even awake for the ceremony.”
He feels a pang of guilt at that. “It was not my idea either, Brienne. It was a convenience. I know that it was not real, and you did not agree to it.”
“For gods sake let’s keep it quiet then,” she hisses at him. “For the survival of my good name keep your japes to yourself.”
“For your good name, I’ll refrain from sullying it with mine,” he agrees with considerably less cheer.
“Why did you allow it in the first place? I thought you were forbidden to marry, as a Kingsguard…?” Brienne watches him most earnestly, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
“As it happens, King Tommen has declared me dead and replaced me in the Guard. He did not wait overlong to do it, either. So as dead men have no vows…” he shrugs, with a great deal more indifference than he is feeling.
He hadn’t known that detail at the time. It had most likely happened while they were on the Quiet Isle, and he had only learned of it later from rumors on the road. But she does not need to know that. Nor does she need to know how hurt he had been, to find himself so easily discarded on all fronts.
“But what was the purpose? The Quiet Isle would have tended to me just the same. Why – ?”
How to explain? She doesn’t remember it. She doesn’t remember him holding her belly together as they rode for the Isle. She doesn’t remember screaming in pain in the bed they put her in. How she had thrashed and writhed in it, when they let him look in. They would not let them go to her side, not even young Podrick, who clearly loved her like a mother. Not even him, when he had carried her in pleading for their help, and was still covered in her blood.
How can he explain to her that he tried to tell them no? That he had refused to wed an unconscious woman without her permission? That was when they had shown him how dire her situation truly was. When he had seen her in that bed, he wanted to carry her away immediately from that awful room. It stank of sickness, of infection, and she did not belong there. But of course it was coming from her, the sickness was in her and radiating off her in waves. Her skin was grey and damp with sweat and those wounds open to the air were black and dripping with pus. Her face gaped open at her cheek and he could see a flash of muscle tissue through the swelling, the cheek she had always kept covered before. These were old wounds, weeks’ worth of wounds, one on top of another, and worst of all the one to her belly that should have carved out her guts. They had stitched it shut, that one, but it showed no inclination to stay closed. She was shivering, moving in small, restless jerks.
“Can you give her nothing for the pain?” he had demanded of them, but they said the amount they would have to give to touch these wounds, she was unlikely to wake from it. They said it and the monk and his fellow looked at Jaime expectantly, as though they have asked him a question. It takes him too long to realize what the question is.
“If you’re asking,” he said testily, “whether I agree to a mercy killing, I do not. Brienne will live. You will save her life.”
The monks had shaken their heads sadly. They had explained, one after another, that they could not save her. That her wounds were quite grievous, and quite infected, and the lady was mortally ill. They would be only delaying the inevitable. They thought, revealing it after they had tired of arguing with him, that it would be selfish to continue. It had enraged him, that insinuation.
“When I lost this” – he had shouted at them, holding up what was left of his right arm – “and I was burning with infection, wearing my own rotting hand on a chain around my neck and in such unimaginable pain I was pleading to gods I don’t even believe in to put an end to me, Brienne told me to live. She said I must live, and so I did. I would ask no less of her. I don’t care that she is a maid, she is no weaker than I am and has endured far more than most men. She will survive this if we let her. You will give her the chance to, and so help me I will make certain of it. I will burn this monastery down if you don’t.”
But she had writhed. The monks held her arms down firmly against the bed, to keep her from hurting herself or flinging herself off of it. Her entire body seized with pain, silently, an agony too harsh even to allow a cry to escape her lips. It bent her back so that she arched off the bed and her hands formed claws at her sides.
When she relaxed into unconsciousness again, on then did Jaime notice his lungs screaming at him and remember to breathe in. He took a harsh gulp of air and held it painfully, his vision blurred.
“Do you see?” The Elder Brother had said then. “Do you understand?”
He had nodded wordlessly. He believed them, that she was dying. Dying by inches and measured breaths, the Stranger’s hand on her shoulder. He never told anyone that, not then and not later, that he had given in. Out loud he had insisted she would live, that they must try. But in that moment, looking at her in the bed, he knew that she was dying and there was nothing he could do to save her. That was why he had agreed to marry her. He could do nothing for her terrible pain but he would not allow her to die alone among strangers. He could at least do that.
But she did not die. She did not die, and now she stands before him and she is confused and he does not know what to tell her. She doesn’t remember and there are no words to describe it. It had been agony, that helpless moment looking at her in the bed, and he would have done anything in his power to help her, and so he married her. There is no way to explain that.
Jaime steps closer to Brienne. He has to look decidedly upwards to find her eyes, and has never gotten used to it. His eyeline falls more naturally to the woolen cloak tied about her shoulders, her strong jaw, her pale neck, which he had been so entranced by in the Inn. Her neck, with the fading burn beneath her chin where they had hung her.
He reaches out to her with his good hand. He could kiss her. She is unreasonably tall but he could bury his hand in her hair and turn her face down to his. Her mouth is not pretty but her lips are thick and pillowy and would be sweet to taste. He could do it.
“What about this?” he asks instead, suddenly. Jaime brushes his knuckles against it, the mark around her neck where the rope had been. “Why would you let the Brotherhood do this to you?”
Something strange flickers across her face. “I could hardly protest. There were too many.”
He insists. “You could have simply done as they wanted.”
Brienne shakes her head. “It would not have been right. You did not do the things they accused you of, and I would not execute an innocent man.”
Jaime should have been prepared for that answer but he isn’t. For some reason it hits him square in the chest, like a blow.
“Of course,” he says, a little breathlessly. He lets his hand drop back to his side. “You would only do right.”
Of course. Of course that is why. Brienne is good, she is truly good and honorable and she would have done it for anyone. Brienne would do the right thing, and that is that. She is a true knight and he is a damned fool.
He turns from her and pretends to read the bulletin of the tourney with great interest.
“It was a whim,” he says in answer to her earlier question, and shrugs. “The nuptuals. I could not share your cottage without agreeing to it, and I was not inclined to share with anyone else. They said it could be undone, and it seemed harmless. It took no time at all. Only a few words and it was over.”
“A whim.” She sniffs, and nods harshly.
He laughs. “They were quite set on having you married, their order. For a lot of unmarried monks they are quite obsessed with it.”
“I see,” she whispers.
When he makes the arrangements at the Inn this time, he arranges for the two rooms, but does not mention a wife. He says very little at all, and sets himself in the tavern well apart from the rest of their little party.
Podrick Payne looks between the both of them, openly anxious, but chooses to sit beside Brienne.
Sandor, oddly enough, settles himself next to Jaime, though he offers little in the way of conversation. He makes a pleasant enough drinking companion, in that he signals regularly to the barmaid to replenish their supply, and does not ask any questions.
Probably Clegane appreciates the quiet as well. Jaime could ask any number of questions of the man himself - why he left the Kingsguard, how he came to be on the Quiet Isle, why he would want to join them in wandering the Vale. But something about traveling with Brienne has made their histories unimportant. Perhaps both their pasts, and the places they have intersected, are better left in their graves. He will not ask.
Ser Hyle sits beside Brienne as she sullenly eats her supper, speaking to her eagerly, probably about their ridiculous situation. He had wanted to be the one to marry her, of course. He had offered it, on the Isle. He told the monks that he would make the vows and stay with her instead of Jaime. But Hyle Hunt is a schemer from a minor house and he would wed Brienne for her inheritance and leave her on her deathbed, Jaime thinks. He would not have cared for her the way he had.
But perhaps he should have allowed it. She seems to appreciate Ser Hyle's company, or at least tolerates it far more than his. She had gone to some lengths to ensure his freedom, when they escaped the Brotherhood. If Ser Hyle had wed her, would Jaime be sitting beside her now? Would that have been more pleasing to her?
I know that it was not real, he had told Brienne.
I truly believe that the ceremony was real and it was sacred, Elder Brother had said.
There was not, in fact, much ceremony at all. He had simply sat beside her on her sickbed. The both of them still in the same clothes they had worn before Lady Stoneheart, torn and bloodstained and filthy. They had bound Jaime’s left hand to her right and Elder brother said the words. One flesh, one heart, one soul, now and forever. Her hand was cold and limp in his but he threaded his fingers through hers and squeezed, hoping somehow she felt it as a comfort. If she was not silently screaming in objection to this farce of a wedding.
He said the words; she could not say them back. I am hers and she is mine. From this day until the end of my days.
Then they had left him alone with her, with dreamwine and milk of the poppy to ease her passing, and he poured her a finger of the dreamwine, and when much of it dripped out of her mouth he poured her another, but no more. She did not move about as much after that. Then he had crawled into the bed beside her and slipped an arm around her, just above the stitches at her belly, and held onto her as best he could with his handless arm and her wounded from head to toe.
She at least would not die alone, nor lie in an unmarked grave in a strange place. She would not go unremembered. He would make sure of that.
I don’t doubt you would have chosen better, but I will be a good husband to you in what way I can. I will take you to my home at Casterly Rock and make a place for you and a place for me. One day when I die they will lay our bones there together.
But she did not die. She had survived through long nights and days of pain and fever, had survived the monks and their bandages and resetting of bones and scouring of infection, and slowly her wounds had closed and her fever broke and consciousness returned at last, against all odds and expectations.
She had survived and by the Seven, he had been so relieved. Every day since he has been relieved. For the first time perhaps ever his most fervent prayers have been answered. He has lost his mother and his father, become estranged from his brother, separated from the children he had fathered, lost his right hand and his vocation, found that the great love of his life had been an illusion and a lie, but when he had claimed Brienne for his own she had survived.
So if she doesn’t want him for a husband, he surely cannot begrudge her that. He had not prayed for that, had he? He only asked her to live.
He stays in the tavern longer than all the others. Brienne and Podrick and Ser Hyle finish their supper quickly and disappear. Sandor paces him admirably but eventually excuses himself to his bed, with a strangely sympathetic touch on the shoulder.
He must look miserable indeed to earn pity from Sandor Clegane.
It takes a considerable amount of ale to do him any damage, watered-down as it is, but Jamie makes the effort. By the time he wanders upstairs he is weaving in his steps and sure that Brienne will be long asleep, and he is considerably surprised to find her sitting up, fully dressed and waiting for him.
She sits on the foot of the bed, her hands twisting in her lap, and she looks tentative and uncertain. Jaime likes that least of all, this new timidity. It is Brienne being Good again. She treats him as a suitor that she is letting down gently, and he thinks that if he is going to be rejected, he might at least have made a real overture first. He has not earned this. This is unfair.
“We must put an end to this marriage,” Brienne says slowly, meeting his gaze at last. “I do not like what it has put between us.”
The words stick in his throat awkwardly, though he has thought them often enough. “If we returned to King’s Landing, the Faith could annul the marriage at my request. But I did not think you would want to abandon our search for that.”
“I don’t see much choice.” She wipes the heel of her hand across her face, quickly.
Finally he snaps at her. “Is it so awful, being wed to me? How humiliating for you, married to the most dishonorable man in Westeros. You must be suffering intolerably.”
Her mouth twists. “If you were not the loudest man in Westeros, it would not be so bad. If you did not insist on embarrassing me–”
"I didn’t realize I was to be a shameful secret for you to keep. If it embarrasses you, I will not speak of it But tell me, if you are so distressed, why didn’t you ask your Elder Brother to dissolve this farce?”
“I did,” she replies sullenly.
Oh, he thinks. And then: Oh. Of course she did.
“I suppose he told you the same thing he told me then.” His face is grown hot again, as if held to a fire, and he spits out the words as though they burn. “That it would be dissolved if left unconsummated at year’s end. So there is your freedom if you can stand the wait.”
“I can endure your japes if there will be an end to them.” She hunches over strangely, her shoulders up nearly to her ears. ‘i know that you would never touch me.“
"Certainly not. I am a gentleman.”
She looks up, suddenly fierce. “Sleep you in the other room then, so that there is no mistake. Our companions must support our claim that we do not share a bed.”
“Fine,” he says before he has quite thought about it, and storms out into hall, slamming the door behind him.
He stands frozen in the hall staring at the wall in front of him, until he hears footsteps behind him. Cautious footsteps.
He listens closely to them, imagining their maker, how carefully she steps so that he will not hear. She will open the door at any moment, to be sure he is gone, and he should move quickly into the other room they have rented but he is frozen in place. For some reason or other, he wants her to see him there.
But she does not open the door. Instead he hears the lock clicking into place behind him, sealing him out.
At this he immediately breezes into the adjoining room, startling awake their companions with some story of being locked out of his room after visiting extensively with the bar patrons.
“I knew you’d fuck it up,” Ser Hyle says derisively from his pallet on the floor, and Podrick evinces a small giggle, and Jaime curses them all to the darkest of the seven hells and claims a chair for his bed.
He sleeps fitfully against his fist, and he does not think of his wife asleep alone in the next room behind a locked door and it does not hurt at all, it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Chapter 4: With this Kiss I Pledge My Love
Jaime Lannister should have ridden back to King’s Landing weeks ago.
He had always intended to, after putting the Riverlands to order – to return to his son the boy king, and offer his protection. Get him a proper Small Council who will advise him wisely, and a real Kingsguard to protect him, and get Cersei somewhere well away from him. Garrison the Lannister armies wisely to maintain order, clean up the mess his lord father has made of the kingdom.
Instead Jaime has been wandering about in a fruitless search for an unimportant girl. Spending weeks riding through the increasingly harsh winter in a gods-forsaken corner of the Vale with a motley band of leftovers who don’t want him there. He abandoned his house and his responsibilities at a moment's notice with no plans for his return. He has told not a soul where he has been nor where he is going. He has been gone from his post for so long that the Crown has declared him dead and replaced him on the Kingsguard, and the army he had commanded has been rerouted by unknown orders away from the Riverlands, which he is sure will swiftly descend into renewed chaos.
He should go back. He should abandon this pointless quest and return to his duties. Jaime has no reason not to, except that he swore a vow and meant it. Under duress and foolishly perhaps, an oath sworn to a dying woman who didn’t die after all, but an oath still. I am yours and you are mine. He is keeping his oaths now, even if no one expects or even wants him to.
There had been no cloaks, no kiss, and no pledging of love, only their hands bound together and him speaking the vow. But even if she had not spoken the same vow back, and the marriage bond will soon evaporate into the air as though it had never been, it will not be him that breaks it. He can be stubborn too.
So he wakes on the cold ground each day and saddles his horse and she says barely a word to him and he speaks hardly a word to her as they ride to the Gates of the Moon, and the sands trickle down in the hourglass that is their marriage until only days remain.
Jaime has ridden with her every day through deepening snow and treacherous ice until finally they reached their destination and made camp here, her and Podrick and Hyle Hunt and Sandor Clegane, alongside all of the other travelers who have come to rest at the Gates of the Moon. There are not enough lodgings for all of the people who have come, for those wintering here from the high roads and the Eeyrie on top of those who have come to compete in the tourney and those who have come to observe it. An encampment has formed haphazardly about the tourney grounds, as vast and teeming as an army camp but rather less organized. Each new group makes their own circle of tents and horses and campfires back to back with the others, and it makes for a noisy and chaotic environment where less-than-welcome visitors can easily conceal themselves.
Yet so far the Gates are no more promising than anywhere else they have arrived. There are many knights and nobles from the highlands who could well have the information they need, but none have time for an odd woman in armor and her questions about red-haired girls of four-and-ten. They have camped here several days without progress, and more and more they pursue their own strategies. Brienne wanders amongst the crowds and takes her questions to the various lodgings; Podrick mingles with other squires and boys his own age, though Jaime thinks he passes more time fraternizing than gathering any real information. Hyle Hunt has joined the tourney, supposedly to seek news amongst the other fighters, and has apparently held up in the preliminary tilts, to Jaime's disappointment.
What Sandor does is a mystery. He mostly sits around in the encampment, waiting - but for what, Jaime couldn't say. He doesn't even know why the scarred man wished to travel to the Vale in the first place.
For his part, Jaime has mingled with the crowds, eating and drinking at cookfires and having a fine time, and if they all think he is contributing little to their search, well, they will certainly be surprised when he finds the Stark girl first. There is no better place for gossip than a meal, and it turns out there are a great many things that a person will tell a friendly traveler in the Vale that they would not tell to Lord Commander Lannister. Some of those things are pure nonsense, but others are rather illuminating. The competitors like to talk, and the spectators even more so. They spin tales about the fighters who have come hoping to be Winged Knights - their family connections, their sweethearts and patrons. Jaime collects these rumors and opinions with some interest, and some of them are actually useful.
It is not so bad being dead, as it turns out. He gets many more smiles and greetings as a dead man, and not so many sneers and whispers. He keeps his stump shoved under his travel cloak, has muddied his hair and beard so that they are not quite so golden, and it makes him nearly invisible. He is another middle-aged hedge knight trying to relive his glory days at tourney, so far as anyone knows. Which is not so far off. He could not hope to compete there now. Left-handed these green boys could take him, and without his fearsome reputation to dissuade them his life would be in real danger.
He sits at supper and looks at the farm boys and young lords, in the spring of their youth and the peak of their skills. He imagines Brienne defeating them all, beating them down into the mud until they beg for mercy. It’s a shame she won’t enter the tourney; he’d like to see that. Would any one of them be a match for her, at her full power? They are nearer her age, their reputations as spotless as their unbloodied swords. If she had awakened from her long sleep married to one of them, would she be so aggrieved? These boys especially talk rather eagerly about the Knights of the Winged Brotherhood, and tell him all about Lord Baelish and his natural daughter Alayne Stone who have organized the tourney.
That detail in particular catches his ear. If Littlefinger has a natural daughter I’ll eat my boot. The man is too careful for that. Only the Spider is less likely to produce a bastard offspring, and only out of physical impossibility.
He asks questions, a bit at a time, about the fabled daughter and her upcoming marriage to Harold Hardyng. An awfully advantageous match for a Stone, marrying the next in line to the Vale. Conveniently Petyr Baelish seems to have gotten charge of little lord Robert, and rules the Eeyrie as Regent. Jaime wonders if there might be an accident in store, once that wedding is complete. Maybe several accidents. Sweetrobin and Harry the Heir cleared away, and the Vale belongs to Lord Baelish.
He would very much like to meet this Alayne Stone.
That’s more difficult than he would like. Alayne has thus far has remained out of sight, after the opening banquet that Brienne's company could not attend. Jaime will now have to wait for the tourney and possibly for the very final rounds to lay eyes on her, and that is likely to happen after his deadline is passed.
Not that it makes any difference – the one has nothing to do with the other, no matter how persistently his mind makes the connection. Finding Sansa will not stop the marriage from ending.
It will be a relief to have this situation over with and still Jaime is increasingly agitated at the thought. He lies in his tent each night and he thinks on the Hounds Tooth inn when he had shared a room with Brienne as his bride. Your lady wife. He had passed that evening most pleasantly, and even though nothing of import occurred he finds himself thinking on it fondly. Brienne asleep and unguarded in his bed while he sat by the fire. Friendly strangers wishing them well, simply for having one another. It was a night stolen from someone else’s life, a life he is never going to have.
For his own good this marriage must dissolve. It is inane to cling to an illusion and he has done that quite long enough with Cersei. He must not decieve himself; he is never going to be somebody’s husband, he is a knight and the kingslayer and that is that.
He is chewing on just this thought as he rides back to his tent at sunset. He knows when he returns to camp Brienne will be surprised to see him again, as she has been every day that he has not left their party. She knows very well he has other places to be, and is waiting for him to remember it and ride away. Yet he lingers here unwilling to leave, though what he is waiting for he cannot imagine. Brienne cannot imagine it either, clearly. They are both of them desperately unimaginative.
It’s making him cross, and distracted. He does not notice the riders gathering to his flanks until it is too late to evade them, and when he does he is more irritated than afraid.
Jaime is pulled from his horse before he can draw a blade, and thrown to the ground.
Sellswords, plainly. Not expensive ones. Five of them, looking like they’ve slept rough half their lives and just barely know how to hold a blade. He’s a little insulted that anyone would think him no match for these.
He leans back on his elbows and contemplates them in a relaxed pose. “I haven’t any money, and if you want a fine horse, you’d be better off feeding mine to the one you’ve got. This one’s slow as molasses.”
“No money eh?” A skinny, toothless alley cat of a mercenary points a rusty longsword at him. “No Lannister gold?”
Jaime frowns. Clearly his disguise has not been so effective as he’d hoped.
Some of his mates are skeptical. “Can this be the golden lion? He looks more like a weasel.”
“No, it’s ‘im.” The tallest one spits a dark stream through his teeth and stands over Jaime. “Lord Baelish pointed him out to me personally.”
That’s disappointing. Apparently Littlefinger was in the same room with him and Jaime never laid eyes on the man. Clearly he can cross “spy” off his list of potential careers after “swordfighter”.
Buying his way out of danger has always been his path of least resistance, but at the moment he is next to destitute. He will play that instead. Quite unbothered he informs them, “If you’re seeking out a ransom, you may have to wait some time to get it. Only ravens travel well now, and they don’t carry quite so much gold.”
“We got the gold already,” Toothless tells him. He jingles the money bag that hangs beside the knife on his belt. “Lord Baelish pays us well, and he only needs your head.”
At last Jaime is growing alarmed. Of course. He has asked entirely too many questions. And whatever his plans, Littlefinger has no intention of anyone outside the Vale hearing of them until it’s too late.
“The Crown will have all your heads for it,” he says warningly, taking a much closer look at his opponents.
“You’ll be buried right here, Kingslayer, and they will never know. The Crown believes you dead already and no one will miss you.”
Belatedly, Jaime realizes he is right. Not one of his compatriots in the Kingsguard or the Lannister Army knows where he is, and his own house has already forsaken him for the grave. Next to no one will notice if he dies now rather than two months ago. And even fewer than that will mourn him. Possibly none.
The knife comes easily out of Toothless’s belt and into his side, spraying Jaime with blood. But the remaining four sellswords are on him in a moment, and it takes only a few kicks in the stomach before he lies still in the snow again. He knows this routine.
The tall man has his sword out now. “If you’ll tell us where to find the giant bitch, I can make it painless.”
“Nonsense.” Jaime coughs and spits blood insolently. “Let’s make it hurt. I can only die once, after all.”
“Happy to oblige.” The tall one shoves his face back into the snow and stands on him. Jaime doesn’t even know who he is. Some no-name cutthroat sent by Petyr Baelish. What a stupid way to die this would be. How will he get out of this?
“What in the living fuck is that?” one of them shouts.
The thundering sound of horses approaches. Abruptly the boot on his neck lifts, and Jaime spits out mud. Is there yet another combatant here who wants him dead, after the Brotherhood, the Starks, and Littlefinger? If so he will let them discuss which one will have the privilege of killing him. With any luck they will kill each other first.
He wipes snow from his eyes and sits back on his heels. Two riders are approaching very rapidly, and one of them has a sword raised. The blade crashes into the sellsword who had just been standing over him, with such force it knocks him off his feet.
Brienne dismounts in a strikingly graceful motion, her sword drawn, and she stares them down.
“Unhand my husband,” Brienne growls at them.
Jaime grins. A more wonderful combination of words he cannot imagine.
“Already done,” he points out, waving his stump. “The bloody mummers beat them to it.”
She doesn’t hear him, swings directly into action.
The fight is brief. She holds Oathkeeper with both hands and leads with her left, with her right arm still healing. It should discomfit him how easily she switches her lead hand, how one left-handed blow knocks the blade from her opponents, but instead it makes him smile. She makes short work of their weapons, knocking them from their hands, and their owners from their feet, while Jaime kneels untouched among them.
He hadn’t known how pleasant it could be to be rescued. Someone fighting for him, bleeding for him, spilling blood. When the immediate threats are downed she stands in front of him protectively, Oathkeeper in hand, and she looks like a song. A song only for him, for his sake. It’s really rather wonderful.
“Kingslayer’s Whore!” one of the downed men moans from the ground.
“That’s Kingslayer’s Wife, I’ll have you know,” Jaime tells him. “She’s made an honest man of me.”
“Hush.” Brienne advances on the sellsword. In the time it takes Jaime to stand, Brienne has the man under her boot with a sword pointed to his neck. “What do you want with him? Robbery?”
“Execution,” the wretched man spits. “For crimes against everything good and decent. Kingslayer, Oathbreaker, great golden cripple.”
“That’s right, you do not deserve to say his name,” Brienne tells him. “None of you do. Call him what you will, but you will not be half the man he is.”
Gods be good. Jaime is pierced by those words, a clean wound right through his chest, and he stares at her disbelievingly.
It hurts, sharply, like he is belatedly feeling every insult all together, all at once. Paired with the balm of her defense it is almost unbearable. He never truly realized how much he has been hurt until she spoke up for him, first to the Brotherhood and still here today. No one has ever stood for him before, not the way Brienne has time and again. The stalwart support of all of his house and all of the knights of Westeros could not mean more to him than this, than these words spoken by the Maid of Tarth to a nobody sellsword on the ground.
Abruptly he has discovered a wound that has been bleeding for some time, like an arrow found broken off in his flesh after leaving the battlefield that suddenly throbs with pain on its sighting.
This, this is why he has been so reluctant to leave, why he has wanted to stay her husband, and her to stay his wife. He loves her. He loves her.
Gods, how did that happen? An arrow to the chest would be less confounding.
“Kingslayer’s Whore,” the sellsword repeats, spitting at her. “Got his cock out of your mouth long enough to ride? After murdering your liege lady Stark for him?”
His blade is drawn before he’s even thought to do it, and he’s walking briskly to Brienne’s side.
Jaime aims the end of his sword directly at the man’s mouth, descending until it falls between his teeth and the man is choking and whimpering against it.
“I don’t suppose sword-swallowing is one of your skills?” He pushes it a little further in, and the man gurgles in terror. “I hear in Braavos there are men who can take a sword right down their gullet and all the way to the hilt, and pull it out again right as rain.”
“Ser…” Brienne speaks up, cautiously.
“I wonder how you learn to do a trick like that - a little at a time, or all at once? Let’s find out.”
“There is no need,” she says quietly, putting a hand to his arm.
He meets her eye only briefly. She threatened the man herself only moments ago, but this is too far? He has knocked out a man's teeth for less than that, but he will follow her lead. Reluctantly.
“My lady wife would have me show you mercy. Can you keep a civil tongue in your head?”
The man makes an eager noise, too afraid to nod his head, and Jaime pulls his blade back.
The scene has not gone unnoticed - they are not far from other encampments, and other fires. There are onlookers now, and among them Podrick Payne on his horse, his little sword drawn in their support. He threatens the onlookers with it, having them keep their distance.
“They were tipped off,” Jaime tells Brienne. “Littlefinger is here - Petyr Baelish. I don’t know what he’s up to but he wanted me dead, and you as well.”
“I have no dealings with him,” Brienne says, a bit bewildered. “Could it have something to do with Sansa Stark?”
Unwisely, the man on the ground speaks up. “There’s no Starks in the Vale, whore. No Starks anywhere anymore, thanks to you and yours. They...”
The man trails off when he sees Jaime's murderous expression. He hasn’t yet sheathed his sword, still thinks of feeding it to the sellword. He has brought even more abuse on Brienne simply by his association and it infuriates him.
His voice sharpens to a deadly point. “You will address the lady properly. Or you will keep no tongue in your head at all.”
“Lady Lannister –” the man corrects himself quickly.
Jaime startles at that, and Brienne stiffens beside him. Then he laughs. “Oh, we haven’t settled that bit yet. Lady Brienne will do for now. But there will be no more of this ‘Kingslayer’s Whore’. She is a noble lady, and a sworn blade of your precious Starks, and no one will speak so crudely of her in my presence and keep their tongue. Understand me? Tell that to your noble compatriots.”
The man whimpers agreement and Brienne lifts her boot, allowing him to sit up and rub his throat nervously.
Approaching in a thunderous pack, the city guard are arriving. Vale soldiers. Brienne is cheered by their appearance, but Jaime knows better. Littlefinger will own them too; he is thorough like that.
Exactly as expected they take him by the arms as soon as they dismount holding Jaime between them. Guards will have to make a show of arresting him, so that they can murder him in private.
“Sers, these men attacked us,” Brienne tries valiantly to explain, appealing to the guards with her sword lowered. She still thinks they will listen. Jaime shakes his head at her but she does not see. "Sers. You must--"
One of them shoves her aside. “Quiet, you ridiculous bitch.”
So of course Jaime had to headbutt the man in the face, which hurts, but it drops the man like a sack of flour. Which is satisfying enough to be worth it. For his trouble he is slung into the back of a wagon, a jailer’s hearse.
He sits up rubbing his bloodied nose. Better jailed than dead, he supposes, for as long as that lasts.
“For what crime?” Brienne questions them loudly. “We were defending ourselves from these sellswords.”
“Attacking a city guard,” the guard says.
Brienne considers that, visibly, head cocked to one side.
Then she smashes the man in the face with the hilt of her sword, so that his nose produces a most astonishing spray of blood, and is immediately thrown into the wagon right next to him.
“You could have stopped them,” Jaime grouses to her later.
They are seated on the cold stone floor of a dungeon, last remnants of daylight barely peeking into their cell.
“If by that you mean killed them, we would hardly get anywhere finding Sansa Stark if we run about murdering city guards.”
“We’re not going to find her in here!“
She is unbothered. “They will keep us but a night.”
“And wake us with a knife across the throat.”
“Pod rode for help,” Brienne says stubbornly, staring straight ahead. “He will find Ser Hyle and Ser Clegane. They will think of something.”
Time is passing fitfully as the twilight fades. Their cramped cell is barely big enough for the both of them and it’s freezing besides, and they sit just near each other, not touching, their breaths visibly hovering in the air around them. Brienne pulls her knees closer to her chest, for either warmth or protection. Without her armor she is probably short of both.
A dozen things to say flit through his mind, and he says none of them. The words die on his tongue.
Instead Brienne speaks up next, some time later.
“You did not have to do that,” she says softly. “To threaten the man on the ground. Or attack that guard.”
He snorts. “Certainly I did. What else would a Kingslayer do?”
“I mean that you did not have to defend my name.” She shifts, angling her face away from him. “I am accustomed to being insulted.”
So is he. But Jaime is not accustomed to her being insulted, and he does not plan to become so. “Where did that particular insult come from, I wonder? Kingslayer’s Whore. The Brotherhood said it too, well before the Quiet Isle. Did you ride about the Riverlands declaring that I had sent you? Not a great stratagem.”
“The lions on the sword might have had something to do with it.”
He swallows and thinks about the rope marks around her neck. Perhaps it had not happened because she had any great feeling for him, but it is his fault all the same. He gave her a sword covered with lions and sent her after Sansa Stark, and they broke her arm and tore her face and hung her.
“If you are going to attack anyone who calls me names," she tells him sensibly, "you will have to fight the whole of Westeros from one end to another. Do not bother.”
It troubles him, this practicality. He wants her to be angry and rage about it, and it isn’t in her. She is resigned to this. It makes him want to shake her.
He frowns at her. “If people must make arses of themselves it is one thing. But for you to take abuse on my behalf… that I do not like. Your reputation should not suffer for things that you did not do.”
“It’s the things I did do that I am suffering for,” she says mournfully. “Already the Vale knows I killed my liege lady and disbanded her Brotherhood. I can hardly dispute that. It will be everywhere before long.”
“You cannot possibly be troubling yourself over that.” Jaime grimaces. “You had no choice.”
“I did have a choice, and I made it. I am an Oathbreaker too now."
No. Jaime rejects that thought wholly, and so strongly he cannot speak it. It is one thing to brand him an Oathbreaker, him who has committed sins enough besides to deserve it. But Brienne? He feels a visceral and physical revulsion at the thought. She is nothing like him.
He wants to reassure her. "Your oaths died with Catelyn Stark. You broke no faith, Brienne."
"Don't grant me excuses I did not ask for." She shakes her head slowly, and the tension around her eyes pains him to look upon. "I know that I could not have done otherwise. But I still broke my oath. I failed her."
"Destroying that monster was the only way to honor Lady Catelyn," he vehemently argues. "You did not fail her."
She goes on as though she cannot hear him. “I suppose I have no business continuing on this way. I should have gone back to Tarth from the Isle and hung up my armor. But Sansa Stark is my last chance for honor too. I can only make up for my failure to her mother by keeping my promise, and seeing her safely returned to Winterfell.” She leans her head back against the wall, closing her eyes. “At least then I can hold up my head and know that I did the best I could. I was no kind of knight, and I fell short of honor from one end of it to the other, but I can fulfill Lady Catelyn's dearest promise. I cannot go back to Tarth until I have found her daughter.”
Brienne looks so bone-tired and forlorn at that moment that it aches to look at her.
The protective instinct in him rises up, the most powerful instinct he has, and Jaime is totally unable to resist it. Something is hurting someone dear to him and his most natural reaction is to fling himself at it. He doesn’t have a sword and the enemy is nothing he can protect her from, but Brienne is hurting and he cannot think how to make it stop.
So he grasps her shirt at the collar and pulls her to him, kissing her.
Brienne goes very still and softens all at once, melting against him. Her mouth is warm and sweet and his heart is racing and he is pulled by a current far more powerful than he can swim against. The world rushes by very quickly, a blur.
Her hands struggle up to his chest as if to push him away but they only sit there preparing, always about to.
The thought floats by without his leave. With this kiss I pledge my love. His lips speak it to hers.
But then she does push him back. He stands against her hands catching his breath. Her eyes are so blue and so wide and so full of hurt.
“How could you?” She chokes out the words painfully.
“Like this,” he says, trying to kiss her again.
“Don’t.” She jumps up to her feet, backing away from him as though he had attacked her. “Why would you do something like that?”
Because he wanted to. But he can’t tell her that. A person cannot just admit to the things they want, not out loud. If you reveal what you really want, someone will take it from you, someone will use it to get what they want from you. A person keeps those things inside, and they try not to think on them, so that no one will discern their secrets. With enough practice a person will not even remember the things they want. Or know what they are in the first place.
“I wanted you to stop talking,” Jaime says, too frustrated to think of anything better.
“You…” she sputters angrily, and paces over him. “Did you think you can do as you like because we are still married? Did you think for a moment that I might not want my first kiss in a filthy dungeon…?”
“Your first?” That had not occurred to him.
“Oh, gods.” She covers her face and he can see she’s blushing all down her throat, where it disappears down into her shirt.
“I lost my senses, all right?”
“Stop talking,” Brienne snaps at him, and shoves herself down into the farthest corner away from him, still blushing.
Jaime congratulates himself silently on making everything infinitely worse. And then things get worse again, all on their own.
No more than five minutes later, a woman walks into the dungeon. They know immediately it is a woman, well before they can see her, from her carefully measured, delicate steps echoing down the stairway. She is a tall cloaked figure, though not so tall as Brienne, and she walks to the bars of their cell and looks down upon them calmly.
She takes down the hood of her winter cape, standing over them, and it reveals rather than a noblewoman a young girl, no more than five-and-ten, if that. She is dressed plainly but elegantly, in fine homespun clothes of a lovely warm caramel color that matches her hair, and looks quite out of place in a filthy dungeon.
Jaime searches out her face in the dim light and nods to himself. “Alayne Stone, I presume.”
Alayne nods, and her mouth twists angrily.
“I am, Ser. And you are the Kingslayer, and this lady is your wife, Brienne of Tarth. The woman who murdered Catelyn Stark.”
Chapter 5: Now and Forever
Jaime Lannister finds himself in an entirely familiar scenario: imprisoned in a dungeon, sitting on the cold ground with a Lady Stark interrogating him and Brienne of Tarth standing watchfully nearby. The only difference is that she is on the other side of the bars now.
Well, not the only difference.
“You are the Kingslayer,” his interrogator says, “and this lady is your wife, Brienne of Tarth. The woman who murdered Catelyn Stark.”
Alayne Stone’s expression is carefully controlled, with only the brief suggestion of anger coloring her words. She is well-contained for a girl of her young age, without a single crack in her surface. One could easily believe her to be Littlefinger's offspring and a young woman of the Vale, with every detail in place to back that assumption. But she cannot disguise her face. The girl’s hair is chestnut brown and not red, and literally everyone at the Gates of the Moon knows her as Alayne Stone, but Jaime knows her at once and knows Brienne will too. The resemblance to her mother is unmistakable.
Particularly when she is this suspicious. "Alayne" keeps a careful distance between herself and the bars of their cage, and watches them closely. She is taking a risk appearing here, even under disguise. She must know they have been looking for Sansa - it's why Littlefinger had set a price on their head. Jaime could reveal the charade easily, even if only to their jailers. Why might she risk that?
More courteously, she asks: “You have been openly seeking out information about me, Kingslayer. Why? I am no one.”
Jaime looks up at the girl. He knows he must play this carefully, but the instinct to be insolent to Starks is nearly irresistible.
“I knew Lord Baelish in King’s Landing many years, when he was on King Robert’s Small Council. In all that time I never knew he had a natural daughter. I wished to see her for myself.” He gives her his most charming smile. “I must say, you look nothing like him, Lady Alayne.”
“I take after my mother,” she answers smoothly. “Would you like to speak to my father then? You could have sent word you were coming. He does not like unexpected visitors.”
“Clearly, seeing as he tried to murder us. Oh, did you not know?” He seizes on a brief flicker of an expression on her calm face. “Before the guards came the sellswords, and they said Lord Baelish paid extra if they came back with corpses rather than prisoners.”
Lady Alayne remains unflappable. “There must have been a misunderstanding. He would only react so if he thought you were a threat. Are you a threat?”
Brienne speaks up. As usual, she is entirely straightforward. “We have ridden to the Vale on a quest to find Lady Sansa Stark and offer her my sword in protection.”
The young Stark looks past Jaime to the looming maid of Tarth, and studies her with careful curiosity. “I think you have come to capture Lady Sansa and take her back to the Queen.”
“I do not serve the Queen,” Brienne insists. “I am the sworn sword of Lady Catelyn Stark. She bade me escort Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing in exchange for her daughter’s release from captivity. And the both of us swore to Lady Catelyn we would see her daughters home in Winterfell.”
The girl’s mouth makes a firm line. “No Lannister would swear that.”
“It’s true, my lady.” Jaime squints at Lady Alayne in the limited light. What is her game? Did Littlefinger send her to question them? Or is she here on her own? “Robb Stark captured me at the Whispering Wood, and I was a prisoner in the Stark camp until Lady Stark let me free.”
“And in return you murdered her.”
He knows without looking that Brienne will be too aghast to respond. He gestures for her to remain silent. “Catelyn Stark died at the Twins. We two did slay Lady Stoneheart, but she was no Stark. A pretender.”
This will be easier to explain than the resurrected corpse of her mother; something he doesn’t understand well enough to explain anyway. They never really knew what Stoneheart was, how she came to be. He had been more concerned with staying alive before, and after that he didn't much care.
That distinction does not seem to interest Lady Alayne either. “Dead at the Twins or dead in the Riverlands, it was a Lannister plot either way.”
“I had no part in the Red Wedding. And Lady Brienne most definitely was not involved. The two of us were in the Riverlands, and I was getting my hand cut off.” He waves the fake hand between them.
Lady Alayne’s hands fidget beneath her cape. “And what of the Brotherhood without Banners? Many of them were slaughtered and the rest dispersed. They would have taken back the Riverlands from the Lannisters, restored the Tullys, rescued the people…”
Brienne steps closer to the bars of their cell, and her voice grows more sure. “They slaughtered the people and pillaged the Riverlands. We saw it first-hand. The things they did in Lady Catelyn’s name would not have honored her. She would never have condoned such acts, I know it. I swore my life to her and she swore to me she would ask no service that would bring me dishonor. Lady Stoneheart was not your mother.”
Lady Alayne blinks several times in succession, stumbles over her words. “Of course not. My mother was a kitchen girl who died of fever past five-and-ten years ago. I know no Stoneheart, nor anyone of House Stark.”
“Lady Sansa…” Brienne tries to reach out to her, her hand slipped between the bars. “You must have suffered greatly at the loss of your family. To be so far from home, a prisoner, and forced to live with the enemies of your house… It must have been awful.”
The girl backs away. “Sansa Stark was a silly young girl and she is surely dead. I am Lord Petyr Baelish’s natural daughter and I am engaged to be married.”
“I think that will be a bit difficult,” Jaime says dryly. "You are already married to my brother.”
She stops to compose herself. The ruse has clearly failed and yet she is reluctant to step free of it. It must have been sheltering her here for some time. Brienne’s gentle sympathy will not encourage her to let it go.
“What is your game here, ‘Lady Alayne’?” Jaime says more harshly. “Are you building a knighthood for Robert Arryn's protection, or for your own designs?"
“The knights will be sworn to Sweetrobin,” Alayne insists. Her startled expression tells Jaime that she did not expect such questioning. "I have no need for knights."
Suddenly canny, Jaime catches her eyes. "Are you staying here in the Vale for good and all, or do you have eyes on your family seat? There are quite a lot of soldiers fighting over Winterfell just now. You would need an army of your own to take it back.”
"If I did have such thoughts..." she answers in a lowered voice, "when I marry Harry Hardyng I will have an army."
“But it won’t be yours.” He seizes on this point. “It would be your husband’s, his and Littlefinger’s. Your “father”. Is that what he has you calling him? Kinky, that.“
"Stop helping,” Brienne says in an undertone.
“As soon as you’re married your last move is made. The game is over for you, you’ve forfeit to other players. If you haven’t positioned yourself well, there’s nothing you can do about it.” He looks at Brienne a moment, wondering, and then refocuses. “You’re at your most powerful right now, at this moment, the true heir to Winterfell and a marriageable girl. And you’re marrying a half wit ward of a castellan in the bloody Vale? That can’t be your idea. This isn’t your move, it’s someone else’s. Do you want to be a pawn or a queen?”
“Wait, is she a player or a piece?” Brienne murmurs as an aside.
“Exactly the point,” he shoots back, exasperated. “All right, It isn’t a perfect metaphor but it’s what I have at short notice. The girl doesn’t realize what danger she’s in.”
“I know exactly what danger I am in.” Alayne walks closer to the side of their cage and stands over him. “I am a young woman alone in the world, and powerful men will use me to get what they want. I have no say in where I go, who I marry, and what those men will do with me. I can only hope to use that situation to build my own safety.”
“You won’t find safety here,” Jaime says. “If this is Lord Baelish's plan, it will be to his benefit, not yours. Once you’ve married Harry the Heir you’ll quickly be made a widow, and Lord Robert is sure to meet a most untimely death soon after. If you become inconvenient, so will you.”
“Lady Sansa,” Brienne says most sincerely, dropping down to her knees. “You are not alone in the world. I can fight better than most men, and I will protect you. If you wish to return to Winterfell, I will get you there. I swear it.”
“I wish I could believe you. But you belong to the Lannisters, and they are monsters one and all. I lived among them, Cersei and the King and Lord Tywin, and I will not let you drag me back to them.” Sansa is staring at Jaime unpleasantly. “You look just like her. Did she send you? I know the Queen accuses me of murdering her son. I did not kill Joffrey, but I am not sorry he is dead.”
"Neither am I, to be honest. Joffrey was vile,” he says tiredly. “And so were his parents.”
“I don’t believe you. And I don’t believe you either,” she turns to Brienne. “If you married him, you can be no better.”
Of course the Stark girl would have been already poisoned against him by Ned; gods know what tales he has told her of the dishonorable Kingslayer. Littlefinger could tell worse ones, and some of them true. He more or less expected this reaction.
But Brienne is another matter. After all Brienne has done to find her, what she has suffered through, this girl should be crying tears of gratitude.
Jaime leans his head back against the cold stone wall and stares at his wife fondly.
“You have no idea how fortunate you are, Lady Sansa. You have before you the greatest knight in Westeros. She bested the Knight of the Flowers at tourney and fought me to my knees, two sworn knights of the Kingsguard. She defended an orphanage of children against marauders all on her own, and suffered the wounds you see as a result. She has bested men twice her age and number and still she has chosen to show mercy and kindness at every opportunity. I've served with the finest knights in the land, people whose songs I’m sure you learned by heart, Sansa, and I tell you they would all kneel in her honor if they knew her as I do. You have a living legend pledging her blade to you, ready to lay down her life to defend you. If you would turn her away then perhaps you are a silly little girl.”
Then he sighs, and looks down at his lap glumly. “Lady Brienne here had no say in the marriage. Like you she was wed to a Lannister without her permission. Do not judge her by me.”
He can feel his lady wife’s eyes on him at this last, with that intensely searching expression. Then, when he has finished, Brienne turns back to Sansa. This is where she should disavow the marriage as she has many times before, tell the girl it was a sham and a fake and they already agreed to annul it. In this way she may regain the girl’s trust, and continue on without him to complete their quest.
But she doesn’t.
“Ser Jaime married me,” Brienne says softly, “when I was gravely ill and wounded, and he cared for me faithfully. I was near death, and he sat at my bedside and watched over me as a husband, and has asked nothing of me in return. It’s true, I am no better than he. A man of honor, a knight, who has saved my life many times over to no reward and no gain. I am honored to be in his company.”
Lady Alayne – Sansa – looks at her quizzically. So does Jaime.
But she is so obviously in earnest that there is no way not to believe her, no matter how unlikely her words.
She goes on: “You don’t know how sorry I am that I could not find you sooner. I am sorry that I could not bring you out of King's Landing myself and take you to safety. I am sorriest of all that your lady mother perished at the Twins, with your brother. It is the great regret of my life that I could not prevent that. If I could have given my life to stop it, I would have. Instead I can only keep to the oath I swore to her, to find you and bring you back to your family.”
“I have no more family,” Alayne says mournfully. “A half-brother on the Wall, uncles imprisoned in the Riverlands. The rest are in their graves.”
“Ser Jaime might be able to do something about that,” Brienne says. He turns to her and mouths I might? and she pretends not to see. “And your sister is alive, though perhaps far away.”
“My sister?” Sansa’s voice is different then. Younger. “My sister is alive?”
“You will need to speak to one of our companions about that, he saw her last. If you will accompany us to our camp by the river, you could at least hear his tale. Lady Sansa,” Brienne bows her head to the girl. “Your mother was a great lady, the first person in all the world to treat me as a knight, and I was proud to be her sworn sword. It is my hope to swear myself to you as well. If you will not allow us to take you away from here, then I will stay in the Vale at your service. Or wherever you would have me go.”
She looks questioningly at Jaime. “What about your lord husband?”
Brienne speaks over him rapidly. “He does not command me. I will go where I will.”
Sansa grimaces. “And he will rush back to King’s Landing and tell them everything.”
“He would not,” Brienne says with absolute certainty.
Jaime is less certain. “I don’t know where I will go. King's Landing has given me up for dead. And I don’t know what use anyone has for a one-handed knight. But…”
He thinks on King’s Landing and his responsibilities, and the life he has left behind.
He does not miss it, really. That man is dead. And there is a certain perverse thrill in the thought of how it would outrage his lord father, his eldest swearing yet another oath to a rival house.
He smiles at that thought. He did after all and above all else always want to be a knight, and to protect helpless maidens.
“… if you would accept Brienne into your service, and would accept my sword as well, I will pledge it. I would serve at your command, Lady Sansa.”
Brienne gapes at him.
Sansa nods thoughtfully, then the girl turns her back on them both. She fidgets anxiously a moment, and then puts her shoulders back and straightens, like pulling on a coat. Or putting on a mask.
“I will… consider it.” Lady Alayne says.
“Consider it quickly,” Jaime advises, “I suspect we have an execution scheduled rather soon, if you don’t intervene.”
Lady Alayne says nothing to that. She ascends the stairs leading from their cell without another word.
It is quiet for a long time after she leaves.
Brienne slides to the ground across from Jaime, her gaze distant. That meeting probably did not go as she had envisioned it would. They found the girl against all odds, on little more than a whisper and a prayer, but she may not want their help. That is, most likely, something she had not expected.
Even if she does want their help, what could she do now? She can hardly overpower their captors. She could speak to her “father”, but there is no chance he would set them free now that their game is revealed. Littlefinger doesn’t want the word to get out that he has Sansa Stark, not until he’s secured his position as Lord of the Vale and her wedding as legitimate. Whatever his scheme, it requires King’s Landing to remain blissfully unaware, and for that he will eliminate Jaime, Brienne, and the rest of their companions.
They do have their companions still free. But Jaime is not hopeful about a daring rescue. They’ve one hedge knight, a gravedigger, and a squire; not exactly the Golden Company.
Escape is no less far-fetched. They two have one useful arm each, and no weapons. Against the Vale Knights, even a chance opportunity will not get them far.
He sighs and closes his eyes. Best to conserve his strength. If it will be his last night, he will not spend it worrying.
Moonlight paces across the cell between them.
“Do you remember any of it?” he asks suddenly.
Brienne understands him. Faintly, looking away, she admits: "I remember some things. Not clearly. It was like a strange dream.”
“What do you remember?”
“I remember you were kind.” She looks closely at her feet. “ I remember you lying beside me, I think. I remember you saying the words - the vows - I didn’t understand what it meant then.”
He knew it. He knew she heard him, when he spoke the vows. He grins at that. “I kept waiting for you to object. I thought you might leap out of the bed in outrage.”
“No,” she says softly. “I wasn’t outraged… I thought it was a dream. ”
"No. A bit confusing, perhaps, but a sweet dream."
He blinks rapidly, trying to understand that.
“So if you weren’t completely horrified to find yourself married to me, then why did you run away? You just… went out and didn’t come back. Slept somewhere else. Avoided me.”
“I’m sorry, Ser, I truly am. I panicked, I think. I thought…"
She trails off, and then takes a deep breath. Looks down at her lap where her hands wring together, and abruptly he realizes she is nervous of him, and of what she is about to say.
"Imagine that your fondest dream came true, and it was a mistake. What might you do then?”
Jaime looks away, his thoughts whirling. Already his mind is taking this apart in the way least flattering to him: what she had dreamed of, what was the mistake. He is ready to defend himself in a moment.
But he knows the answer to her question. What do you do? You pretend you never wanted it in the first place.
“When did I say it was a mistake?” he hears himself ask.
“You didn’t have to. You just… didn’t say anything. You were there but you were different. You weren’t grousing or asking questions or chattering away like you did before. You weren’t yourself at all. And you didn’t breathe a word that they had married us. I had to hear it from the Elder Brother, and he took me aside when he realized I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t know how to tell you. That I had done such a thing without your permission - I thought you would be furious.”
"I was a little.” She smiles weakly. “I had evaded a wedding for so long, to wake up a married woman was a shock, and without so much as a by your leave. But Elder Brother explained that it would be up to me, ultimately. Whether to keep the vows.”
“Ah. And he said nothing more?”
“Nothing helpful,” she emphasizes. A little under her breath, she adds something more. “He did say you were willing, and that you were in love with me. But I knew that couldn’t be so,” she adds very quickly, “it’s impossible. If somehow you were, you would have simply told me so.”
Jaime chokes back hysterical laughter, and it turns into something more like a coughing fit.
“I know it is plainly ridiculous. You have certainly never held back in your opinions before. You even told me of your sister…”
Of course I did, I love jokes.
Jaime forces himself to look away from her quizzical expression. He is probably goggling at her like an idiot, and he is struggling with what to say.
Could it be that simple? To simply put what he wants to words? Is that all he would have to do, tell her so?
Of course not. He already said the vows. She must know he would not take such oaths lightly. Any reluctance here is hers.
"Elder Brother was right." Her expression changes swiftly, and he hurriedly adds, "it will be up to you whether to keep the vows. I would keep my oath, but you never spoke the words. I will abide by whatever you decide.”
From across the cell, her pale face is only a dim shape in the dark. But he knows her face so well now that he can see it plainly. There is realization and hurt, battling each other to some end he cannot see. Did she never think of it? That they might remain married? Or is she surprised that he would agree to it?
But he is tired of trying to guess what she is thinking.
“I suppose that is a problem to be solved once we are free. Not much point worrying over it now.” He slides down slightly, slinging an arm behind his head. "I suspect it will be an eventful day tomorrow. We may as well get some sleep."
He closes his eyes and leaves them closed, no matter how tempted he is throughout the night to look at her and see if she is looking at him.
Jaime awakens abruptly, surrounded by guards. They haul Brienne to her feet, heavily, and quickly tie her hands behind her back.
“Yer being moved. Lord Baelish’s orders.”
Moved into a grave, no doubt. Jaime comes up slowly, alert for any opportunity to grab at a weapon, but they are well-trained guards and prepared for that. They drag him by the left arm and the right could maybe manage a single punch that would hurt him a lot more than his target.
Marched outside they find it is morning. The air is frigid and snow falls silently. Another wagon awaits, with a driver and two guards on horseback. Their legs stay chained together, which makes it difficult to climb up and into the wagon. Jaime at least can hoist himself up with his left arm, but Brienne is unceremoniously hoisted over the end and rolled into it, which leaves her quite spectacularly grouchy. She gets herself upright and scowls at the scenery.
The wagon bumps along at a rapid clip, with little consideration to the comfort of its passengers. “What’s the hurry?” Jaime shouts out at them, and of course receives no answer.
Something gnaws at him. He would expect them to be going further through the actual Gates of the Moon, potentially to wherever Lord Royce of the Gates resides, or Lord Baelish’s residence. Instead they are bouncing barely-traveled paths where the snow is increasingly deep, leading in the opposite direction of the amphitheater where most everyone will be preparing for the tourney.
He keeps his voice low. “Where are they taking us?”
She shrugs extravagantly, hands still bound behind her. Her eyes are on the driver, alert for any weakness they might take advantage of. They cannot reach him through the bars unless he comes much closer.
Jaime watches the riders behind the wagon where their horses pick carefully through the wagon treads in the deepening snow.
“Brienne -” he hisses sharply in her ear. “These aren’t guards.”
She turns her face abruptly and examines them. Under the snow and furs, they are armored more finely than guards. They look closer to the Vale Knights, in the same colors, but for their helms.
Their helmets bear an ornament at the edge of the face plate, just where their ears would be. Small wings. Knights of the Winged Brotherhood? Have they already won their places through the tourney that has just begun? They should be there still, what are they doing guarding two prisoners?
They are both so absorbed in looking at the riders behind them that when the wagon stops abruptly they both fall over to one side, Jaime clanging his head painfully against the metal bars.
He swears and rubs at it, but by the time he straightens and looks up ahead, the pain is forgotten.
Standing in the road is Lady Sansa, and beside her at a quite-familiar distance is another well-familiar figure. Sandor Clegane stands at her shoulder, looking rather more like a bodyguard than a prisoner.
Sansa lifts a hand to the driver.
“Thank you Sers,” she says. “Please release them now.”
The knights dismount their horses obediently, saying, "yes my lady."
“I told you we would be rescued,” Brienne says with some relief and none of the smugness that Jaime is sure he would have shown in her place.
The winged knights open the back of the wagon and loose their bonds. Further down the road come riding Ser Hyle and Podrick Payne, leading Brienne and Jamie's mounts behind them.
Sandor stays close at Sansa’s side. He looks up and down the road, one hand on his sword, looking much more a knight than Jaime has ever seen him.
“Lady Sansa, again I offer you my service –” Brienne begins to say formally.
Jaime cuts her off, motioning down at the man working on the manacles around his ankles. “Let’s do that part when we aren’t in the middle of an escape. You will be coming with us, Lady Sansa?”
“It happens that I have use for knights where I am going, after all.” Sansa looks around them a little anxiously. “Three is a start.”
“Four,” Brienne says, looking at Ser Hyle, who nods only a little bit reluctantly. “And five, when Pod is ready.”
“A maiden with five sworn knights is a great improvement over Lady Harry with knights sworn to her husband, you’ll see,” Jaime tries to assure her.
“We all shall see,” she says. She looks a little bit frightened. “But first I must be away from here. And–.”
A boy in a fine cape and a fur hat emerges from a bush. He rushes to Sansa’s side and throws his arms around her waist. “Lady Alayne! Can I stop hiding now? I’m tired of the bushes, it’s filthy in there.”
“Oh no. Is that who I think it is?” Jaime is getting a sinking feeling that their little party is about to get rather larger.
Sansa looks up at them both appealingly. “Lord Robert would be in danger if I left. You’re right, Littlefinger will dispense with him eventually, and if I left and his plans changed… he would dispatch Sweetrobin like he did my Aunt Lysa. If we bring the boy with us then his sworn swords will come along.”
Sweetrobin looks back and forth between them. “Of course I’m coming with you! You would not go away and leave me, would you?”
Brienne perks up. “Have you sworn your blades to the little Lord?” she asks the Winged Knights, who nod with an excess of solemnity. Like any newly knighted youngsters they take their position most seriously.
This grows far too complicated, Jaime worries. “Brienne, we can’t… Smuggling the Stark girl north is one thing, but the Lord of the Vale? Littlefinger would have pursued us for Sansa, but all of the Vale will pursue us for the heir to the Eyrie. This is a very bad idea.”
Brienne looks at him, and then she turns and looks at Hyle Hunt, and at The Hound, and at the children, Sansa and Robin and Podrick, and the two green Knights as well, and somehow they are all looking to her for direction. She falters only a moment, and then lifts her chin resolutely.
“If the young Lord needs help then I cannot abandon him. He will come with us to the North, him and his men. Ser Hyle, do we have our camp packed?”
“Yes,” the hedge knight assures her, “and we have your armor and your sword as well. And his. All is ready for the road.”
“Let us be off then, before anyone realizes we are gone.” She turns to Sansa. “Where does this road lead us?”
The two ladies confer together. Clegane, in the meantime, unhitches the horses from the wagon, and then with one great heave overturns it all on his own, leaves it blocking the steep road on its side. He informs the driver that he has been accosted and the prisoners taken and he should run back to the jail and let them know.
“Good thing you suffered no injuries in the attack besides a blackened eye,” Sandor says, and punches the man in the face.
The man agrees, clutching his eye and cowering a little before the imposing bulk of him. “How many of you were there?”
“Too many to count,” Jaime suggests. “Walk slowly.”
The driver staggers back in the direction of the encampment, and the wagon horses are fitted to ride with new bags.
Jaime buckles a saddle to one of them. “This is your idea?”
“Hers mostly,” Sandor says. “She didn't want to trust you, but the escape route was plotted long ago and the bags packed. Those two knights were already in place, she selected them herself. Tourney was just a cover. She must have been thinking on this for awhile.”
“You’d mentioned you met the girl in King’s Landing, but I didn’t realize you were… close. Lucky thing for us.”
Clegane glares at him without a word.
Jaime laughs and mounts his horse. “Let’s be off. I don’t fancy revisiting that dungeon.”
It’s a hard ride away from the Gates of the Moon. Sansa has chosen an obscure route least likely to encounter Vale Knights and other witnesses, a trail ill-used and not well cared for. Down is a lot harder than up when there is snow and ice to contend with, so they cannot go very fast, and that means they cannot stop to rest. The horses pick their way down and slide anxiously on the frozen path and require much coaxing and reassurance. The Winged Knights break their trail, Sansa and Sweetrobin follow on her horse, and the rest follow for the rest of that day, through the night, and into the next day.
There will be a lot of people after them once the Vale realizes Lord Robert Arryn is missing, and once Littlefinger knows Sansa has fallen into Jaime Lannister's hands. Fortunately the falling snow will obscure their trail, but only so long as they stay well ahead of their pursuers.
Eventually the youngest members of their party are falling asleep on their horses. Sansa holds Sweetrobin in place and looks not so steady herself. Pod weaves back and forth on his mount, and at one point Jaime pulls alongside and snatches the boy off his horse before he can fall from it, settling him on his own mount for the next hour. They have to set camp then, for a few hours at least, in an obscure spot not visible from their trail, and set out again at first light.
Brienne takes down Sweetrobin from Sansa’s arms, lays him on the ground gently, and starts building a tent around him. Podrick, yawning, begins working on a cookfire, Sansa offering him encouragement.
Jaime settles down next to Sandor nearby.
“So how did you convince her of us?” he asks the Hound at an undertone. "If she was so skeptical."
“Told her you were too busy bickering to plot and scheme. You’re exactly what you appear to be – moron lovebirds on a knightly quest to bring her home. Unreasonably sincere.”
Jaime eyes him. "Why did you speak for us in the first place? You might have had a head start leaving us in a dungeon."
"Crossed my mind." Sandor smirks. "I've had about enough of Lannisters, it's true. But you're not much like the other ones."
Jaime is surprised. "How so?"
He nods at Brienne. "You're following her around. Those other cunts would have laughed in her face, she tried to tell them what to do. Ugly bitch like that talking to you golden lions."
"You watch your tongue," Jaime snarls at him in a low and threatening tone.
He laughs at that, and actually seems pleased. "See, I'm an ugly cuss myself. King's Landing, I was like furniture to you lot, except when you needed me to bite someone. None of them ever looked me in the face except her." He nods shortly at Lady Sansa, a short distance away. "She's a good girl. And so's your lady. Reminded me of her, actually. Kind-hearted girl, except she looks like me and not a sweet little bird. That's a mean trick to play on a maid."
Jaime frowns at that too. He cannot imagine Brienne looking like Sansa. He does not much like the thought. She would not be Brienne then.
"Anyway, I saw how you tended her on the Isle. That cunt Joffrey would rather die than be married to a woman like that, and his bitch mother would have spit nails about it. But you didn't care about your reputation or your House or any of it and married her anyway. If you'd do that, I figure you must be different."
He sighs a little. "I doubt you'll convince Sansa of that. After all my house has done, what happened to her mother... and Bran..."
Sandor shrugs. "She knows I killed the butcher's boy for playing at swords with Joffrey. I've done your family's dirty work a good long while, and it wasn't pretty. But it seems by now Lady Sansa will take what she can get."
"Or she likes you."
"... Or that." Sandor stands up. "You'd better straighten things out with that wife of yours. Tell her you love her. You're making everyone miserable."
Jaime throws up his hands. "Didn't I marry her? It should be up to her now. I shouldn't have to tell her anything."
"Tell her anyway. Tell her a lot. You wouldn't understand, but -- well, it's hard to believe, with faces like ours, that someone might care. It could take some convincing."
He wanders off then, setting his own lean-to and a tent for Sansa close beside it. The big man has fallen into the role of the lady's protector very quickly, and rarely takes his eyes off her.
There's a tale there for certain, and not near its ending from the look of it.
Jaime sits awhile longer, lost in his own thoughts. The mention of his House disquiets him. It's true enough, the other Lannisters would eat his new wife alive. Not that he has contemplated any of their reactions to her. He has carefully kept them apart in his mind, Brienne and his family, and the thought of their interaction makes him deeply uncomfortable.
If they would stay with Sansa, and go North, they may not encounter any of them for some time. But he cannot avoid that forever, and he does have Tommen to consider. And Marcella in Dorne. Would Brienne come with him, to see to his children? She has children to look after here now. She seems to be collecting them.
He watches Brienne putting the finishing touches on Sweetrobin's tent, moving most slowly and quietly so as not to wake him. There is something motherly in her, he has seen it with Pod as well. Or perhaps it is just kindness, as Sandor said.
And you want to put her in the lion's den? Have you lost your senses?
He sighs again, and rubs at his beard tiredly. He probably has.
When Brienne finishes she comes to stand over him with a long sigh, as though she has been delaying this conversation herself.
Jaime nods to Sansa and Podrick working on the cookfire. “Three of them now. Are we running an orphanage for children of noble houses?”
“You are not,” Brienne emphasizes. “You are parting ways with us.”
She crosses her arms in front of her.
“Am I?” He says it flatly.
“Ser,” she tells him patiently, like she is speaking to one of the children. “You cannot swear your sword to House Stark. They are the enemies of your own House. You would never be able to return to your home at Casterly Rock, or to King's Landing. Or to your sister.”
Oh. Jaime freezes in place. He has not explained that to her either, that it is over between he and his sister. He assumed she would know it already. He has been away for months and months without sending her word. Did Brienne not notice that his twin had declared him dead with apparently no struggle, no search, no mourning? For gods’ sake, he married someone else!
But he has been away from her longer than this, and with Brienne in the Riverlands, and he had gone back to her then. Cersei was married to Robert, and they had carried on just the same. Of course she expects that of him now.
Brienne is still explaining his situation to him. “You have responsibilities, and so do I. You must return and serve your King. I will see Sansa safely home, and our oath to Lady Catelyn fulfilled. There is no reason for you to stay, Ser.”
He has no argument against it. They found Sansa. There is truly no reason for him not to go back to King’s Landing now.
He stands and catches at her arm, trying to make her look at him. “I swore an Oath to you as well. From that day until my last. I meant it.”
“I will not hold you to it.” Brienne does not meet his eyes. “Go back to Cersei.”
That lands like a punch.
Reeling from it, he lets her go.
“Then I’ll leave now.”
Brienne starts to say something, but he no longer wants to hear her. Jaime turns away.
“You’re right. I’ve been away from my duties too long. I must return to my command and my King.”
Jaime finds his way to his horse, and begins the process of repacking his belongings onto it. Fortunately he had not yet started setting up his own tent. Perhaps he knew this was coming. Somewhere nearby, Brienne is saying that he should stay until the morning, but he pretends not to hear her. If she wants him gone, he will go now. Why drag it out? He has delayed this long enough.
She would send him back to Cersei. He would not want to go back to Cersei even if she begged for him; he burnt her letter and followed Brienne instead. But now Brienne wants to send him back, to Cersei who never really wanted him in the first place. This is his life, following one person and another who don't want him.
“My lord,” Sansa calls out questioningly from the cookfire. “Where are you going?”
“I apologize, my lady, but I will not be offering you my services.” Jaime unfastens the lead from the post and pats his horse on the nose. “I’ll be returning to Casterly Rock instead. But don’t worry, I have no intention of telling anyone I was even in the Vale. I will not reveal your plans.”
“No!” Podrick Payne speaks up quite suddenly, pausing with the flint still in midair over the kindling to appeal to Brienne. “My lady, don’t let him leave!”
“Hush.” Sansa quiets him. “I think this must be worked out between them.”
Jaime turns back to the cookfire briefly. To his surprise, young Podrick looks quite upset. “Please my lord, don’t leave us.”
Pod is sniffling. Sansa has put an arm about him comfortingly, even though she met him not more than a day ago.
“We can’t let this happen,” the boy says. "Ser Jaime should stay with us."
“I’m sure we will be all right without him,” she says reassuringly.
“Yes but… would he be all right?” Pod stops to blow his nose against his sleeve.
Jaime turns back to his horse. He tightens the straps a little more. There is really nothing else to be done but mount and ride away. In a moment he will do just that.
"Let him go," Ser Hyle puts in disdainfully, coming out of his own tent. "He's the one who got us recognized in the Vale. Do you think he'll fare any better in the North? For his good and ours, let the Lannister go back to the South."
Brienne is still hovering beside him anxiously. "I did not mean immediately, Ser. Please stay until the morrow at least. Don't ride away in the dark."
He takes one last look at her. Her dirty blonde hair is plastered to her face from snow and sweat, but he can still see her incredible blue eyes peeking out through it. They are unaccountably watery just now.
"I'll head south," he tells her. "Your hedge knight is right. Littlefinger will locate me easily. They will believe you are with me, and send their forces in the wrong direction. If I set out now, I can be spotted in Gulltown tomorrow, while you ride for the Fingers."
She looks concerned. "Do not let yourself be seen. If they capture you..."
He laughs. "I'll ride fast."
"Which way will you go? Let us plan the safest route..."
"I'm not your problem anymore." He gestures back to the camp. "Worry about them."
He can still hear Podrick sniveling. They both turn to look at him, Brienne and Jaime. The poor lad sounds faintly miserable, speaking into Sansa’s shoulder.
"I know Ser Jaime can be… off-putting. He says awful things. But he treats people fairly, and he was kind to me."
Brienne looks at him questioningly, hearing that. He looks up at her just to frown back. Yes, it’s possible, wench, that I treated the boy decently.
"When my lady was ill he snuck me in to see her. He wasn’t supposed to, because I’m not her family. But he said I was close enough, and that no one had let him in to see his own mother on her deathbed and it was wrong to keep me away, because my lady would want me there. He said the rules are stupid.”
“They are stupid,” Jaime mutters. He lets his arms fall to his sides.
“And I was no good at all when I did see her, because she was suffering so and she didn’t seem to know we were even there and all I could do was cry. I just blubbered like a baby and he didn’t tell me to hush or stop weeping or leave."
Brienne slips her hand into his, without taking her eyes off them.
"He just sat with her on the bed and kind of petted her hair and said ‘Pod’s here, Podrick came to see you' while I held onto her hand and cried and he never said a word about it. He let me stay as long as I wanted.”
Podrick pushes back from the girl and looks up at her.
“I just don’t understand, Lady Sansa. They love each other. Why will they not…?”
Brienne startles, her hand pulling back, would have slipped away had he not grabbed and held it tightly.
“It’s complicated,” they can hear Sansa saying. “I do not know them but… I know what the world is like. I know it is difficult to love when people have been cruel. You forget there are good things in the world, that they can happen to you. I’m trying to remember that myself.”
He looks back at Brienne and she is struggling to master her expression.
They love each other. Podrick thinks so anyway. Well, what else does he have to lose? He’s already leaving. Jaime squeezes her hand.
"I would stay at your side if I could," he says quietly. "If you would allow me."
"I don't think I can." She hangs her head heavily. "I have asked too much of you already."
"You've never asked a thing of me. I rather wish you would."
It strikes him then that perhaps that's the problem. To ask for something you have to have some hope you will get it. And when you are accustomed to getting nothing, even a little loyalty is a pleasant surprise. It would be a risk, wanting more than that. They will both soak it up like sunlight and never think to ask for more.
He is still holding on to her hand. As much out of anxiety as tenderness. He may have to take the risk.
“If we will part ways here then at least be honest with me. You said your fondest dream came true, and it was a mistake. What did you mean?"
She looks so very forlorn she would give a lost puppy in the rain a good contest. She shakes her head just a little, and does not say.
He prompts her gently. "My marrying you. That was the mistake, right?”
“No, my lord,” she speaks up. “That was a good thing, a kind thing, and one I am grateful for. But I know that it was under the condition that I was going to die. And then I didn’t. And now you are stuck with me.”
Jaime breathes out sharply at that, as though he has been kicked in the stomach. In a flash he recalls those long nights when he had sat at her side and listened to her hoarse breathing as though it were the music of angels, dreading its ceasing.
“You cannot think… you could not possibly think that I would regret that you survived.”
Her face is downcast, and he can barely hear her words. “Maybe you are too kind to think so, Ser."
"I am not kind, damn you! Don’t you know me at all?” At once he has forgotten to lower his voice, and surely everyone at camp can hear them now, even the two winged knights in their tents. “I am a unreservedly selfish man, wench. I’ve never done a single thing that wasn’t to my benefit, or at least intended to be. I married you because I wanted to, I wanted to do it, and I wanted you to live, for gods sake, not to die!”
Brienne looks equally startled. “That doesn’t make sense. You couldn’t have wanted to marry me.”
“Why in blazes not?”
“Because no one has.” Her face turns downwards until her hair hangs in front of it, hiding her from his eyes. “No one ever could.”
Thoroughly exasperated with her, Jaime drops the horse’s lead and gestures at the camp. “You have got to be the thickest woman in Westeros. You have two men right here who would be thrilled to be your husband, and if the other one isn’t he’s a thundering fool.”
“Leave me out of this,” Sandor says from somewhere behind him. They’ve forgotten he was there.
“Shut up,” Jaime snaps at him without turning. “And Pod loves you like a mother. You acquire followers everywhere you go and had the whole of the Quiet Isle praying to save your life. These green knights followed you at a moment's notice and Lady Sansa trusted you with her life after meeting you but once. What more evidence do you need? You are the most beloved woman I have ever met.’
“The mirror is all the evidence I need,” she says dully, as though reciting something from long ago.
“Then we are all liars, all of us here, and everyone who has ever cared for you. And there will be more of us, you know. There’s bound to be. You, Brienne of Tarth, are going to go on slaying men’s hearts all across Westeros and they will offer you their Houses and volunteer to keep your castle and you’ll just ride onwards rescuing maidens and righting wrongs and leaving broken hearts in your wake. Yes, and you might have one of them someday, if he convinces you he is sincere. Maybe another knight as pure and virtuous as you, with a spotless reputation. Him you’ll believe. But I tell you, that one, he might love you better, but he will not love you more. He could not love you more than I do.”
It is terribly, horrifyingly quiet after that, as though everyone in a five-mile radius heard him and holds their breath. Well, he cannot undo it now. He barrels on.
“I know I am no knight out of song – not even a bawdy tavern song. If I rate a song someday it will likely be as a villian. But listen: I would be a good husband to you. No man could be more devoted or more faithful. You know I would not abandon you in the worst of times, because we have been through them already. You would never want for anything. All I have would be yours.”
Brienne’s blue eyes are wide with shock. “Jaime…”
“I only ask you to keep me as your husband. I would not ask you to keep my castle or cease your adventuring or be anything other than you are. You would be exactly the same. Just be it with me.”
Brienne closes her eyes. She puts a hand to his horse’s flank as if for balance and leaves it there, solid between them. Jaime covers her hand with his, and holds his breath.
They stand there for some time before she speaks, and the camp is silent around them.
“Stay,” she says softly.
Jaime unpacks his horse.
Podrick collects him in the dark of night, when everyone else is settled in their tents and shelters. He peers into Jaime's tent where he lies staring at the ceiling and beckons to him. "She wants to see you."
He crawls out of the tiny enclosure. The rest of the camp is dead quiet, asleep or pretending to be. He had been tempted to go to her on his own, but decided to wait. To give Brienne time to think it through.
Podrick waits for him. The boy is sharing a tent with Sweetrobin, or he was. Podrick was patient enough with him when the boy whined at him over supper. But though they are of an age, the young lord is not nearly so mature as the squire. The princeling did nothing but weep for his mother, Podrick says, and crawl into Sansa's tent.
"It must be wonderful to have a mother," Pod says matter-of-factly, "if you would weep so much to lose one."
Jaime stretches himself, standing outside his tent. He recalls the young squire weeping quite a lot on the Quiet Isle. "You have Lady Brienne, and that is not so different."
Podrick is quite pleased with that response, and beams as he leads the way to Brienne's tent. "You think so?"
Jaime hesitates outside her tent. Stay. He's not entirely sure she meant stay the night or stay for good. She could tell him the former.
"Are you nervous, my lord?"
He sounds surprised. Well, he's no more surprised than Jaime is.
"I suppose I am. As you'll learn someday, there are few things more nerve-wracking than this." He touches the boy's shoulder. "You're a good lad, Podrick."
Pod grins as he eases away. "I'm glad you'll be staying, my lord."
We shall see.
He looks into her tent. Brienne is seated on a blanket, out of her armor. The small tent only just covers her head even when she slouches, and her wide shoulders stick out of the sides. She has her knees pulled up to her chest like a shield against him.
“My lord.” She takes a deep breath. "Tell me, do they truly believe you dead? Your house? Your sister?"
He stays crouched at the opening. "I don't know what they think. They wasted no time announcing it, and I have not corrected them." Jaime thinks on that a bit more. There is a question under that question, he suspects. "We're not together anymore. Cersei and I. It was over between us before I left King's Landing."
Brienne examines him closely. "Truly?"
"I swear it. Finished for good and all." He eases himself into the tent, letting the flap close behind him. He could tell her all the details, about the affairs, and the manipulations, and the wildfire, but he really does not want to discuss Cersei with Brienne. "I was lingering in the Riverlands because we couldn't stand the sight of each other any more."
She looks dubious, but clearly she will not question him further.
"My lady," he goes on, "to be perfectly honest, from the day you appeared in my tent, I have hardly thought of anyone or anything else. That life is over for me now. I'm glad of it."
Her mouth sets itself defiantly. Her eyes flash with something that is not anger, not exactly.
“Then if you are willing, then take your rights as a husband.”
Take your…? Startled, Jaime begins to laugh. “Well, I have heard more appalling seductions, but not many.”
She’s blushing most furiously. The bright red flushing on her cheeks extends to her chest and disappears into her tunic. She may actually burst into flames this time.
Brienne bites her lip, and she is surely not doing it to entice him but it works all the same.
“You offered to stay married, and that is how it can be done,” she explains quite matter-of-factly. "The year ends tomorrow."
“That’s between us. It doesn’t have to be now.”
“I would have it be. To settle matters.”
“And no other reason?” He rubs his beard. “I must say, settling matters, it is not the most stimulating circumstance.”
This is a lie. He is already most eager right now, his blood heated and pulse quickened. But he wants to be sure that she feels the same.
“I don’t know anything about stimulating.” Brienne shifts uncomfortably. “If you don’t wish to–”.
He comes nearer, crawling over the blankets until he can sit beside her. “I do wish it. I spoke the vow. You know what I want.”
“I do not,” she says tightly. “I have known all my life I would be no one’s wife. You must know it too. You know you are a beautiful man, and I am hideous.”
“Beautiful?” He snorts. “Maybe once. When I was young, and a swordsman, and a knight. Now I am aging, and a cripple, and nothing.”
He interrupts her. Leans closer. "You are not hideous to me. Not to me.”
Brienne’s breath catches painfully, she looks about to burst into tears. Her chest heaves. “You said that you would not touch me.”
“Not unless you wanted me to, Brienne,” he tells her forcefully. “Only that. So I ask you again: do you want this? Do you want me?”
She stares at the fabric of the tent as though it is the most fascinating thing she has ever seen.
“You want me,” he says again, more insistently this time.
She bites her lower lip again, until she releases it reddened and swollen. He cannot take his eyes from it.
“I know well the value of my maidenhead. It has been promised to more than one man and turned down, and more than one man has threatened to take it from me by violence. Ser Hyle has offered to relieve me of it in exchange for Tarth. But only you, Ser, has valued my virtue enough to defend it, and you are the only one I would willingly give it to.”
He reaches over and brushes his thumb against her plump lower lip, thinking what a tragedy it is for such lips to go unkissed, what a terrible waste. He will happily rectify that, but he must be sure. She is so tense and nervous and he must be sure.
“Say it.” He breathes the words, barely above a whisper. “Say you want me to take you to bed.”
She whispers back, “I do, Ser.”
That’s good enough. No sooner has she said it then he is on her, sealing her lips with kisses, clutching her to him fiercely.
Again she softens against him, turns liquid in his arms. His tongue finds hers; he feels the jolt go through her at the discovery. Then she is trying it again, and then again, pulling at the collar of his shirt eagerly.
The kissing alone is heavenly. Long, dizzying kisses, hot and sweet. Her lips are full and soft and he loves to worry at them with his teeth for the little sounds she makes in response. He would have quite happily kissed her like this all night, if she preferred. But things are progressing all on their own. Their lips negotiate and their bodies follow. Pushing and pulling, straining against each other.
They part only reluctantly, to catch their breath. Even the air between them is heated.
“Must you call me Ser? Even now?” He buries his fingers in the hair at the back of her head.
She touches his face in return, trailing her fingers lightly in his beard. “What shall I call you?”
“My lord, perhaps. Darling? Sweetling? Try them on.” He pulls her close and barely brushes his lips against hers, again and again. “Jaime will do, in a pinch.”
She hums it into his mouth. Nothing in words, but an endearment still.
“Wench,” he murmurs. “Woman. Wife.”
“Husband,” she breathes in response.
It gives him a little shiver of pleasure, that word in her mouth.
She uncovers herself reluctantly, shame-faced, eyes downcast. He is startled by her fear, and touched that she would reveal herself anyway. It makes him want to hold her very tightly. Instead he traces the spray of freckles down her arm with eager appreciation. “It has been too long since I saw these last. I have had to imagine them all myself. Very tiring. There are so many to remember.”
“My freckles?” Brienne makes a face. “I always called them pox.”
“I must be most beautiful then.” She sounds most terrible then, her rich contralto voice flat and self-loathing.
That he does not like at all. “I like your freckles. I should like to kiss them. All of them.”
He makes a good start, lips visiting all down one arm and up the other, until she melts into his arms. His hand presses the skin of her bare back and she lays her head on his shoulder and he holds onto her until she stops quivering and her hands are exploring the muscles of his forearms in tender appreciation. He lets her pull the shirt over his head, smoothing down his unruly hair afterwards. When he holds her after that, skin to skin, the touch is so heated they might both catch fire despite the cold outside.
There is not room in the tent for the both of them without one lying atop the other. It is easier for him to lie back in the other direction and pull her on top of him.
“I am not too heavy?” she whispers anxiously, holding herself up with her arms.
“I am not an old man quite yet, woman. Come here.”
She falls down on him, and he cradles her eagerly. She is a most pleasant weight, substantial and muscular and yet yielding.
Their kisses grow hungry, and more hurried. She sets about trying to remove his trousers. He frustrates her efforts gently, fending off her insistent hands, and she gets her own trousers open instead.
She thinks I will change my mind, it strikes him suddenly. Well, he does not want to leave her in quite so much suspense. In a quick shift of weight he has rolled her over and under him, and he’s grinding his hardness against her until she gasps.
She cannot mistake his intention now, but he would slow things down. He sits up over her and caresses her body, acquainting himself with every bruise, every scar. He has seen them before, on the Isle, but not touched. Not the way he wanted. He traces the marks reverently, visiting most lingeringly a crisp faint line along her thigh. He made this scar, he thinks, when they crossed swords so long ago. Her skin remembers.
When he replaces his fingers with his lips she makes a small hungry sound in her throat that sends a thrill rippling all through him.
He looks up at her from her lap, grinning. “All of this, and you so unfriendly to me earlier. I was sure you liked me not at all.”
She frowns only a little. “And you are so vexing, ser. If you did not make a joke of me I would not need to defend myself.”
“I think we are no good in the daylight,” he says, laughing, kissing her stomach. “The joke is never you, sweet girl. It’s me, it’s always me.”
Her hands are in his hair while his lips are exploring her, fingers caressing his scalp pleasantly. When his mouth finds her breast she pulls at it, perhaps involuntarily. It sends a stab of longing through him almost painful in its intensity. He will endure that as long as he can stand, lathing her nipple with his tongue, for the way she writhes beneath him. The sounds she makes are a sweet torment. If his hand was not already occupied holding him up he would alleviate the pressure himself, but as it is he has to make do with grinding himself against her muscular thigh.
She puts one hand over her mouth then, stifling her moans.
“Dont quiet yourself,” he insists, sliding back up to kiss her mouth. “I will not slink around ashamed. If you will be mine I would have all the world know it.”
She smiles shyly and all the motley features of her face arrange themselves into a dazzling whole. No one who ever saw that smile could think her ugly. Maybe no one else has seen this smile, maybe it is only for him.
“If I will truly be yours,” she murmurs back, “I will be truly proud of it. It was only the thought that you would not want me that I was sorry for.”
He goes on kissing her long neck, murmuring, “I want you, I want you.” Leans his pelvis into hers, between the cradle of her long legs, fevered. He follows the line of those scars around her throat, tracing the marks with his lips.
“I wasn’t honest with you, my lord,” he hears her confess. “The choice was noose or sword, not right or wrong. I didn’t care if it was right. I would rather have died than harm you.”
Any inclination he had to take things slow crumbles in a moment; he has to have her right away. He pushes himself up onto his right elbow and fumbles with his trousers, urgency overpowering him.
Moments later he is sinking into her, slowly as he can stand it. Her eyes are wide below him, they swallow everything in his view. If he could manage it he would like it to be his last view in this world, her blue eyes. He could look at them forever.
“Are you all right… my sweet?” He pants, holding himself still with some effort. “Gods, you feel so good.”
“I am well my lord.” She looks gloriously flushed, only a twinge of discomfort showing around her eyes. He kisses her tenderly there, waiting for the tension to pass.
When it eases he moves a little, a slow stroke that makes him shiver from head to heel. Her eyes squeeze painfully shut, but the low moan she releases says there is pleasure too.
He waits again, leaning on his stump, and brushes the hair out of her face tenderly.
Brienne opens her eyes, looks at him with something like awe. She holds his gaze and she says slowly, “I am yours, and you are mine.”
The wedding vow she couldn’t say on the Quiet Isle. He goes utterly still, staring into her face in the dim light.
She looks at him steadily, as confident and sure as she ever is.
“From this day, until the end of my days.”
He collapses onto her, her legs wrapped around him, and groans into her neck. Then he starts to move his hips more firmly, driving into her in a steady rhythm. She clutches at him more and more strongly, fingers digging into his back, pleading for more of him. Before long he’s pounding into her frantically, all caution forgotten, and it is the purest heaven he has ever known.
“I love you,” he whispers fervently, again and again. It is not so potent as a wedding vow, but it has a similar effect on her. She gasps, and clings to him, and trembles. He tries desperately to stay inside this moment as long as he can, which is perfect and beautiful and full of love, until he finally bursts. His release is intense, enormous, it goes on and on and she blazes around him and they burn together.
After, when he is flat on his back and panting, a lazy grin stretched across his face, he pulls her in to lay across his chest and he thinks: my wife. Really my wife. For the rest of our lives.
“This does not make me Lady Lannister,” she says into his chest.
“Doesn’t it?” He presses his lips to her hair. He could take offense, and the instinct twitches like a missing limb. But she said the vow, and she is his. Any dark thoughts are distant just now. “Well, to be honest I am not overfond of that name myself just now. I will not argue the point.”
“But I shall tell everyone we meet that you are my wife. Innkeepers, barmaids, people we pass on the road. This astonishing lady is my wife, Brienne of Tarth.”
“I suppose I will have to get used to that,” she says, but she is smiling.
“We will have to find you moon tea soon.” He drapes his arms over her. “And don’t mistake me, I only would not get you with child when you are still recovering. And we have to get the Stark girl somewhere safe.”
“We do,” she says, sounding sleepy and relaxed. “After, perhaps, we could discuss it.”
They can discuss it. It’s a possibility. He sees in a flash the image of Brienne big with his child and his pulse quickens at it.
“I will have to marry you again, I think,” he murmurs.
Much more deliberately this time he reverses their position, so that he is atop her again. He trails kisses down her neck, and she shifts slowly, baring him her shoulder.
“Are you not satisfied, Ser?” A little bit anxious, and a little bit sly. It delights him.
“I would satisfy you again.” His hand drifts below her stomach, and she gasps. “I can do a great many more things with my tongue than speak.”
He shows her.
Only hours later he is waking wrapped all around her, their legs entangled under the blanket. Around them the camp is stirring, and surely all are aware of Brienne’s choice. They could hardly have missed it, they were not restrained in their enthusiasm and it is a small camp.
He smiles at that, against her skin. No more secrets, no more shame. They are truly married now, and he will never have to share her, nor will he part from her fearing he will never know what has become of her. Their future is a shared one now, whatever happens from here.
One flesh, one heart, one soul, now and forever.
Forever. It is a nice fiction, and he is too cynical to believe it entirely. The seven kingdoms are crumbling around him and they have responsibilities that may pull them apart. There will be dangers in the North, and he will be a lion walking into a den of wolves. But they are married now, and so long as he draws breath it will be so. Even if they are separated, she will be somewhere in the world, and his wife, and wonderful. The rest will be more bearable for that.
“I love you,” she whispers to him, and her fingers comb gently through his hair. “I think I didn’t say that. I have loved you for a long time.”
Happiness takes some practice, it seems. Already it is easier to simply feel good and not take some offense or say something to ruin it. The impulse is there, but just now he is simply, truly happy, and the feeling is so large that it crowds out the rest.
It is something strange and new, but he thinks he could get used to it. Someday, perhaps, he will not even remember why it had been so difficult simply to look up into her beautiful blue eyes and tell her, in complete sincerity, “With all of my heart, I love you.”
His wife smiles back at him. No tears, no reluctance or doubt this time. Perhaps she is learning too. They will learn this happiness together.