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What Loves You Back

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Once upon a time, there was a young lord who lived with his sister and his little brother. They lived in a very grand palace at the top of a cliff looking over the sea.

Each morning, he would train and talk with his father’s soldiers, training with the sword until his arm no longer felt complete when he was not holding it. The knights who instructed him told him stories of honorable knights defending the defenseless, and he began to see himself as shield and sword against all trouble for them. When he was being trained, the people who lived in the village would encourage him. He would, in turn, speak with them, eat with them, train their sons, and fluster their daughters. These were his people, and he wanted to protect them as an honorable knight.

The young lord would play with his younger brother in the afternoons, taking him to the seashore to pick up shells, holding the reins of his brother’s pony as he learned to ride in the summer sun. His brother would always be little, and some people made fun of him. The young lord made sure to always try to protect him from cruel words and loneliness. This was his beloved brother, and he wanted to protect him as a loving brother.

The young lord would climb the rocks each evening and watch the setting sun paint the sea in gold, pink, indigo, orange, and yellow. In this way, he felt peace in his soul. This was his land, and he wanted to protect it.

His father, the lord of the land, was an imposing man. He wanted to see his son lead the land someday. So he told the young lord that he could not be a warrior like he wanted. He forced his son into lessons he didn’t want, and took away his favorite sword until he could dance and do other lordly things that his father approved of.

The young lord hated these lessons. He wasn’t stupid, but his eyes had trouble reading, and his head ached when his tutors tried to get him to memorize names and understand issues of money. He would rather be out leading his troop, would rather leave the lordly lessons to his younger brother, who was much better at it.

He wasn’t comfortable with his father’s ambition for power, nor was he comfortable with his place in those schemes.

When he complained to his father, though, the lord of the land looked at him gravely, then put a hand to his face.

“I love you,” he said, in a voice that was made of iron and marble, and all the hardest and coldest things in the world. “If you love me, you’ll do this.”

The young lord sighed. He hated it, but it was worth it to know that his father loved him, and that taking the lessons made his father happy. Besides, if his father didn’t love him, then who was he?

He grew up into a warrior of unparalleled skill, but of middling lordly skills, at best.

His sister, on the other hand, had grown up into a lady of unparalleled beauty, but with a cold and wicked heart. She was set to wed the prince of the realm and become the queen someday, but she wanted her brother with her.

Weeping, she implored him to come with her and serve as the prince’s guard. In that way, he could stay near her, she said. It was a faraway court, miles from their home. She wanted someone with her, to keep her company, to ease her loneliness, to take care of her.

The young lord wasn’t comfortable with the covetous look in her eyes when she said this, nor was he comfortable with his sister’s plans to drag him into her web of power plays and ambition.

The young lord complained to his sister then. He asked how he was supposed to be lord of the land and not be in the land, but a guard at her side. He would be protecting someone, true, but not the people of the land. Just one person.

She looked at him impatiently, then, tears drying instantly on her cheek. She steadied herself, though, and raised up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek softly.

“I love you,” she said, in a voice that was made of snake’s tongues and rat’s tails, and all the most ambitious and untrustworthy things in the world. “If you love me, you’ll do this.”

The young lord sighed. He hated it, hated to disappoint his father, to leave behind his lands, but it was worth it to know that his sister was happy, wasn’t it? Besides, if his sister didn’t love him, then who was he?

It wasn’t all bad. He enjoyed being a knight, enjoyed hunting down outlaws and dispensing justice in the name of the king. He wasn’t protecting the prince – he was protecting the prince’s father – the king.

A king who was unworthy of anyone’s protection. He was a cold and heartless man, who cared nothing for his people, and was horrible to his lovely wife. He looked at the world with suspicion, viewed every kind act with a cynical eye.

But the young lord could do nothing but keep his vow to protect the terrible king. And he wondered at the price for his sister and father’s love.

A few years passed, and the kingdom became weary of the king’s outrages on its people, and rose up in rebellion. The young lord’s father rose up in rebellion with other lords in the land, along with the prince. Only the young lord and a few other knights were left to protect the terrible king.

The young lord’s father was at the gates of the king’s city, ready to overthrow the king. The young lord knelt before the king and begged him to surrender the city, to protect the king, his wife, and the king’s other children.

The king sneered at him, violet eyes ablaze, and sent him away to watch from the walls. The young lord saw his father and the soldiers from his lands enter the city to try and keep the people safe. He recognized the banners of his great friends, he recognized the banner of the man who had taught him swordplay, he saw his father’s banner. He knew his younger brother might be there as well.

He could also see the people of the city crouched down in their homes, sweating and afraid for their lives, afraid for their city. The young lord knew many of them, too – the fat baker who sold him his morning bread, a sweet old woman who knitted him gloves to keep his hands warm, the crowds of children who followed his horse and begged to see his sword, to watch him practice at arms against other knights.

The young lord knew they were in danger.

So he went back to the terrible king, knowing that his own life could be forfeit, and begged him to surrender the city, to let him take the queen and her children to safety. To let the city and all who lived there remain safe and unharmed.

But the terrible king only laughed, and directed an evil sorcerer to do his will. He screamed “Burn them all!” and told the sorcerer to burn the entire city, to kill all who lived there, to kill the soldiers, the folk who lived there, the queen and her children.

Once more, the young lord fell to his knees and begged the king to stay his hand for all the love he bore his people.

The king merely sneered at him, with eyes aflame in madness. “I love you,” the king said, in a voice made of fire and blood, and all the most wicked and mad things in the world. “And as I love you, I expect you to burn this city to the ground and bring me your father’s head.”

The young lord sobbed. All his life, his purposes had been at odds with what the people who loved him wanted. And he’d sworn his life to doing whatever the king asked of him.

But this….this he could not do.

He pulled his sword from his waist, and, moving swiftly, killed the sorcerer before he could burn down the city. With blood dripping from his sword, he turned then to the king, who, horrified, had climbed onto his throne to protect himself.

“But you love me,” he screamed. “You are sworn to me!”

“Yes,” said the young lord. “But I am sworn to many things at a crossroads here. I cannot keep them all.”

And with that, he swiftly slew the terrible king, then laid his body to rest at the foot of the throne. Then he sat and waited for justice to find him.

So torn apart was he by killing the man he swore to protect, he was not there to protect the queen and her children, who were slain by terrible men looking for favor.

But the city itself was protected, as were the soldiers.

The young lord was not slain or imprisoned for breaking his vows, but he knew that he could not tell anyone of what the terrible king had planned to do, lest they try to find the sorcerer’s weapon themselves.

So he was kept as a Kingsguard, but given a terrible name – “Kingslayer.” When the good people of the city - the people he’d sworn to protect – looked at him, they did so with terror and anger. The only reason this man was allowed to live despite his terrible crime, they whispered, is because of his father.

When the men he’d looked up to on the training grounds looked at him, they did so with disdain and dislike. Perhaps he had committed a crime, perhaps not. But to them, he was an honorless man who could be trusted with nothing.

The young lord no longer believed in honor, the dream he’d once treasured. He saw a world of wickedness wherever he went. Kindnesses were few, and even love must be repaid in some way. And if he’d followed honor to its demands, he would have let an entire city die for one man. Honor, therefore, was a silly dream that he’d had as a boy, and was no use to him now.

The prince had been slain by another, so the young lord’s sister wed the new king. As queen, she sought her own ambitions, and used her brother as a tool for her wickedness. His father was raised up in the land, and was known as one of the most powerful and rich in existence.

The young lord, however, had ceased to care much about anything. He did things for love of his sister and father that would have made him tremble with horror years ago. But he could never satisfy those who loved him, so what was the point in caring about life?

Sometimes he went back home to his lands. He smelled the crisp salt air, watched the sunset paint the sea in a rainbow of colors, spent afternoons with his brother, spoke with the people of his lands. But he took joy in none of it. Everything was grey, everyone was dull, and every time he tried to find that joy, it only made him bitter.

But then one day, he was captured by the enemy in a rebellion. His sister’s schemes had begun to catch up with her, and after murdering her husband, she asked the young lord to fight those who rose up in rebellion against her and against her wickedness.

He sat in prison, wishing that he was back with the people he loved, and who loved him. It was dark and smelly, and he could hardly move. This went on for months, and he began to long for the love of his family, who didn’t seem in a hurry to get him out of there. He also longed for the sunsets of his land, for the kindness of his people, for the honor that he once thought he possessed. It was the first time he had really thought about those latter things in a long time.

Outside his prison cell, however, the war went on. His sister had captured the rebel leader’s own sister, keeping her hostage in the city. The leader’s mother begged her son to trade the young lord for his sister, but the rebel would not. He knew if the young lord could control his armies again, the rebels would lose.

So the rebel’s mother came in secret to the young lord’s prison cell. She told the young lord that she intended to trade him for her daughter’s safety. The young lord sneered at this, and asked how she intended to bring her daughter safely back, or why he wouldn’t just run away.

The rebel’s mother replied that she hardly knew, but that she knew her daughter loved her, and was waiting for someone she loved to come and rescue her.

The young lord was moved by this. He knew what it was to love and for someone who loved you to expect something. He asked how she intended to send him back to the city.

The rebel’s mother called forward a warrior to escort him there secretly, and bring her daughter home. This wasn’t an ordinary warrior, no. This was a lady of the sea, who trained with the sword and mace, who fought wickedness with the purest of intentions. Cruel japes and mocking words could not keep her from seeking out justice for even the smallest of smallfolk. She was the most honorable and brave warrior in the land.

So naturally, she wasn’t impressed by the young lord. That was okay, he wasn’t much impressed with her, either. Instead, he mocked her for fun. He’d had so little of it, sitting in his prison.

So both the warrior and the young lord swore an oath, kneeling on the cold, hard earth. They swore to the rebel’s mother that they would return her daughter safely to her and to their lands. The warrior did not believe that the young lord would keep his oath – he was, after all, the Kingslayer.

But the young lord was far too thrilled with the world around him to bother with her suspicion. He hadn’t seen the stars in a months, nor felt the crisp wind on his skin, and each thrilled him to the depths of his soul. The warm touch of sunlight on his skin was like a cup of strong wine. His limbs, so long restrained, now stretched and moved about, and he felt stronger. And from the moment he knelt with the warrior before the rebel’s mother and swore on his honor, he felt his soul awaken.

He felt more like the boy he had been than he had in years.

Unfortunately for the warrior who was leading him back to the city, he also acted like it. Taunting, juvenile, he sought every opportunity to get under her skin. She was naïve, and he decided to teach her that the world was a terrible place and she could expect little in return for her belief in honor.

But the warrior was steadfast. She kept him safe, even though he mocked her relentlessly. She endured hunger and danger for the sake of fulfilling the oath to the rebel’s mother.

And then, one day, as they travelled south through the wilderness towards the city, they came across three young women who had been killed by soldiers of the rebel army. The women had done nothing, and as they were smallfolk, could expect almost nothing in terms of justice. But the warrior found the soldiers, who readily admitted to killing them.

“You are dishonorable murderers,” the warrior told them, in a voice as strong as steel and low and sweet as honey on a spoon. “Their lives had meaning, had value. And you killed them for what? Sport?”

She enacted justice for the women, executing two murderers with the swiftness of a lightning strike, then saving a slower death for the cruelest of the three. Nor did she stop there, taking a murderer’s shovel and giving the women a proper burial.

This impressed the young lord. He had stopped believing in honor, but the warrior clearly had not, and was ready to die to see justice fulfilled and honor upheld. He didn’t tell the warrior, but he respected her greatly after this. He also greatly enjoyed seeing her swordplay.

They continued traveling south, and one day were overtaken by a group of bandits, and taken captive. The young lord sneered at the bandits, but the warrior was afraid that they would make it impossible for her to exchange the lord for the rebel’s sister.

Between the two of them, the young lord would command a much higher ransom. He knew that he would be safe. The warrior, however, knew that she was likely to be hurt by them. The young lord tried to comfort her, tried to tell her not to fight back. She finally mocked him right back, telling him that she would always fight someone trying to hurt her.

Some of the bandits then took her away to be hurt. The young lord remembered all those times when he had had to be silent when the wicked king abused his wife and subjects. He remembered how seriously the warrior took her vow, how she stood up for justice for the dead girls. The warrior needed someone to stand up for her.

He screamed then, threats of violence and promises of ransom. He screamed until they stopped trying to hurt the warrior and returned her to his side.

But the young lord’s high-handed ways had offended the bandits. He would be returned and ransomed alive, they decided, but not in one piece.

They seized him, pushed him down atop a log, then held down each of his limbs. The young lord knew something bad was coming. He thought back in his head to those evenings by the sea, the colors of the sunset, to the feel of the breeze. He tried to feel the love of his father and sister, but they were phantoms who deserted him.

He looked up then, into the starry blue eyes of the warrior, holding onto her gaze with all the desperation of a drowning man. She never looked away, knowing that it was the only comfort she could grant him.

She held on as they removed his hand with a heavy blow like lightning.

He lived. Often he wished he had not.

The pain was a constant, encompassing weight, wrenching the breath from his lungs, making him scream and cry like a newborn babe. But if he hadn’t wept at that, he would have wept at the knowledge that he was helpless as a babe.

He passed the rest of their journey to the bandit’s lair in a haze of fever and sorrow. The bandits had knowingly removed the hand he held his sword with. They spared his life, but thought to reduce him to a crippled nothing.

The young lord decided to beat them at their game and tried to die in the warrior’s arms as she held him atop the horse. But the warrior knew what he was about. She chided him, bidding him stay stalwart and true, to live on and fight, to take revenge.

She tended his wound, battled his fever, did what she could to keep him clean on their journey. The warrior chided their captors for his mistreatment, begged them to help the young lord find a maester for the care of his stump.

One morning, as they were nearly there, she whispered to the young lord that she was sworn to keep him safe and return him to the city, and she would do it. He began to sneer dazedly, but was caught off-guard by her next words.

“Something must keep you going – do not let this setback keep you from the people and the things you love. I swear by the things I love – the colors of the sunrise, the breeze on my face, the steel of my sword, the people of my isle, my honor. If I live, I will carry you to the city, if needed.”

In response, he fainted against her shoulder.

At the bandit’s lair, the two of them found the bandits in service to a local lord. This one was interested in ransom, and therefore had the young lord brought to a maester for treatment. He was then sent to the baths, where the warrior was already bathing. He insisted that if she was going to keep him alive, she should probably be in the bath with him.

He began to pick up the old line of mockery, but the warrior was in no mood. She was confused about why he had saved her from the bandits’ cruelty, when it might have served him more to see her die. She could not understand why a man who would kill his own king would sacrifice a hand to save her.

And so, weakened by fever, and wanting one person in the world to know the truth, he finally told someone the true story of what had happened in the throne room, of the king’s cruelty, of his intent to slaughter innocents by the thousands. He told her of the wicked green wildfire still kept in the city.

Overcome by heat and fever, he passed out, but not before begging her to call him by his real name, not the cruel nickname he’d been given. Not by Kingslayer.

The young lord healed enough to travel, and would be sent south to the city. The warrior would be kept at the lair for ransom back to her father.

When he bid her farewell, acknowledging his debt to her, she asked only that he release the rebel’s sister home to her mother. She then bade him farewell by his real name, the first time she’d uttered it in his presence.

It was like the setting sun on the ocean, the wind in his hair, the approval of the common folk, the laughter of his little brother, to hear his name on her lips.

And then they took him away.

He followed without joy. He should have been, he knew. He should have been waving his handless stump in excitement at the thought of being able to rejoin his family.

Again and again though, his thoughts drifted back to the warrior.

They stopped to sleep in a grove of sacred weirwoods, and the young lord rested his weary head against one.

He slept. He drifted through blackness as deep as night, chased by faceless monsters, found himself naked and at their mercy.

His father appeared to him in cloth of gold, eyes full of judgement at the sight of the young lord standing there without a sword, helpless to his enemies. A sword was strapped at his father’s side, and he had one in each hand.

“Help me, Father,” he cried. “I need a sword. I have done things for love of you. Do this for love of me.”

His father simply shook his head. “I have need of you. When did I ever say I loved you?”

The older man turned and walked into the blackness.

His sister appeared to him, robed in scarlet, calculation in every movement. She, too, had a sword at her waist, and one in each hand.

“Help me, sister!” he cried out, hearing the faceless monsters creep closer. “I need a sword. I have done so many things for love of you. Do this for love of me.”

His sister tilted her head, considered, then smirked. “I had many needs for you. When did I ever say I loved you?”

She, too, turned on her heel and followed their father into the blackness.

“You had a sword when you plunged it into my back,” came the hated voice of the wicked king from behind him. “A shame you do not still carry it.” The young lord spun in place and saw the dead king, flanked by the brothers of the kingsguard. They all had swords to spare, but looking at him with such judgment and disappointment, he already knew that he could expect no help from them.

They left as one.

The young lord was alone. He closed his eyes and rallied his courage to face the coming monsters with no help, no way to defend himself.

But when he opened them, there was the warrior. She, too, was naked and defenseless.

“A sword, ser!” she cried. “Please, give me a sword.”

He was about to tell her he had none to give, when his hand touched his heart. As if by magic, a sword, strong and true, appeared in his hand.

He did not hesitate.

The young lord tossed it to her, and she caught it easily. When her hand clasped about it, the blade burst into flames. The warrior touched her own heart in turn, and tossed it to him. His sword-hand closed around it, and it, too, burst into flames.

Immediately, the warrior was at his side, her sword lifted to defend him from the threat in the dark.

And with that, the young lord awoke, gasping for breath.

He roused the men escorting him to the city, and ordered them to break camp, to return to the lair immediately. He had a sudden terror of what might happened to the warrior alone with the bandits.

They made it back to the lair by midday. As he had feared, when the bandits realized that the bribes the young lord had promised from the warrior’s father would not be coming, they decided to entertain themselves.

They had thrown the warrior into a pit with an angry, hungry bear. When the young lord saw the sword in her hand, he relaxed. With a sword, she would be able to defend herself.

But the warrior seemed to be reluctant to get too close, when the logical thing would have been to attack swiftly. A hollow defensive strike, a claw raking across her collarbone, and the young lord realized that she had been given a wooden sword.

He ran up to the bandit leader, threatening and promising whatever he could to get the warrior out of the pit. But the bandit spat at his feet, swearing that he would not let the warrior go, declaring to the young lord if he wanted the warrior so much, he could go get her.

So he did.

The young lord, still a bit feverish, lacking a weapon or a sword hand to wield it with, jumped into the pit. He had no plan, no sword was going to magically appear when he touched his heart. Yet he could no more stop himself than he could regrow his hand.

The warrior looked at him incredulously when he dropped from above. She protested when he tried to get her to stand behind him. And in truth, he could provide little help but as a distraction for the bear.

The real help was from the men escorting him to the city. They fired arrows at the bear, and lowered ropes to help the young lord and the warrior up.

As they rode away from that hateful place, into the glow of an early sunset, the warrior finally turned to the young lord to thank him. In her thanks, however, there was a question. Why had he turned back?

“I dreamed of you,” he said simply. And they journeyed on.

They had nearly reached the city when word reached them that the rebel and his mother had been treacherously slain by their allies. The warrior grieved at this, and the young lord tried, clumsily, to comfort her.

More word reached them on the road, and the young lord received word that his nephew (a cruel and heartless lad) had been slain on his wedding day. The young lord was not terribly grieved by this, but the warrior tried to comfort him. Also clumsily.

When they finally returned to the city, however, the young lord found the castle torn apart by suspicion and treachery. His sister (who had always hated their brother) accused his younger brother of the murder of her son.

His greeting by father and sister was perfunctory at best. They expressed happiness to see him alive, but were doubtful of his ability to lead the Kingsguard, or do anything else, given the loss of his hand. The sister also pronounced suspicion upon the warrior, since the young lord had been reluctant to follow her schemes since his return to the city.

The young lord marked this, but busied himself with leading the guard for his younger nephew, and attending the defense of his younger brother. As the rebel’s sister had disappeared soon after the death of the king, she was a suspect.

This worried the warrior to no end, and she asked the young lord if there was any word where the girl had gotten to. He told her not, but pulled her aside one day and gifted her with a new set of armor, a horse, supplies, and a powerful sword, telling her that she would need them to go and find the rebel’s sister, to bring her to safety, far away from his own sister.

He also sent with her a young lad, once his brother’s squire, to be squire to the warrior and assist her on her quest. The squire was little more than a boy, but had already proven himself loyal and dependable. He was also in danger if the lord’s sister decided to bring down vengeance on anyone with friendly ties to the brother.

And with that, they rode away in search of the rebel’s sister. The young lord watched them go with regret in his eyes, wishing with every fiber of his being that he could go with them. But his brother needed him, and he would not fail him.

A farce of a trial ensued, and the younger brother was found guilty of murder, sentenced to death. The young lord begged his father to relent, to show mercy to his own son. The lord was more concerned with having a male heir to pass his land on to.

“I love you,” the lord told his elder son, in a voice of steel and lightning bolts. “But if you love me, you’ll leave the kingsguard and marry a highborn woman. And if you do, I will show mercy to your brother, and send him into exile.

The young lord sighed. “I love my brother,” he replied. “And for love of him, I will do this. But not for love of you.”

When his father merely shrugged and pronounced a deal was made, the young lord knew then that his father did not actually love him. It was a painful blow.

So he renounced the kingsguard, but went to his brother’s prison cell that evening, letting him escape, allowing him to live life on his own terms. His brother did so, but not before murdering their father.

Grieved, the young lord sought comfort in the thought that the warrior was traveling north, safely away from the dangers of the city. Usually, when grieved and looking for a place to let his mind wander, he went back to the lands of his birth, to sunset, with the wind in his hair and the sound of the city settling for the night.

Now, he thought of the warrior riding north with her new squire, chasing down leads on the rebel’s sister, bright and tall and brimming with honor. Protecting the people she loved and the innocent people she encountered. He envied her a bit. He was not certain what he loved, or what loved him.

Months passed, and he observed his sister now in power. Every move she made was focused on increasing her own power – not on shoring up her son’s rule. He thought of speaking up, but realized his word carried little weight with her in this arena.

The young lord focused his own attention on strengthening his army, preparing them to move north to put out rebellions and strengthen his nephew’s rule. But then one day, his sister made a foolish alliance with a radical group of septons, and the young lord could take it no longer. He decided to try something different this time.

“I love you,” he told his sister. “If you love me, you must break this alliance. It will lead to ruin for your son. Help your son, and return with me to our lands. We will secure his rule.”

His sister simply laughed, a laugh full of cold wind and mountains of snow. “Leave the strategic decisions to me, brother,” she replied scornfully. “Of the two of us, I do believe I am the most like our father. Go and lead the armies north.”

The young lord stared at his sister for a long time. “Yes, I do believe that is the truth,” he said, and left to do her bidding.

At least on the road, enacting justice for the people of the land, the young lord felt a little more like himself. He was once more that young boy, determined to save the oppressed, to deal out justice to those who would terrorize the smallfolk.

He had been on the road with his armies for several months when a raven arrived from the city. It was a note from his sister, begging for his help. The radical septons had taken over the city and imprisoned his sister, put her on trial.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” she wrote, in the desperate tone of an aurochs surrounded by direwolves. “If you love me, ride at once and save me.”

The young lord looked at the note for a long moment, seeing his sister for what she was. He then gave the note as kindling to the campfire.

To his great surprise, not long after that, the warrior turned up at his battle tent, escorted by his camp guards. She did not look hale, though – her arm was broken and clumsily bound, there were rope burns scalded into her neck. A festering bite mark marred the lovely sun-kissed skin of her cheek. Her beautiful starry eyes were overbright with fever. Her journey had clearly not been as kind as he had prayed.

The warrior greeted him, and he tried to take her to his maester to get her wounds treated. She refused him, and said that she needed him to come with her, alone, to secure the release of the rebel’s sister.

She did not even have to promise him love, and he would do it.

But as soon as they were out of the camp’s earshot, and he was trying to ask the warrior more about her travels, her shoulders slumped, and she stopped in her tracks.

“I cannot do it,” she said, in a strangled whisper, collapsing to her knees. “I cannot, my lord.”

“I will help you,” the lord replied. “Whatever I can do, I will. You have only to ask.”

“I do not know where the daughter is, ser. My squire and I were set upon by bandits led by the dead lady – the one whom we both knelt to. I known not what magic has been drawn upon, but she is a walking corpse bent on revenge. She offered me a choice – my death or yours. I was fine with my own death.” She pointed to the terrible rope burns on her neck.

“But then they threatened to kill my squire,” she sobbed. “I could not condemn him to death. But I cannot condemn you, either.”

The young lord closed his eyes, and then joined her, kneeling on the ground, and taking her hand.

“I did tell you, you had only to ask,” he repeated. “Where shall we go? Where is their camp?”

The warrior shook her head stubbornly. “No,” she said. “I will not ask this of you. I cannot ask such a terrible thing from a stranger, let alone from someone I….” She gasped a little as she said this, and would not meet his eyes.

She unstrapped the beautiful sword from her waist and pushed it at him. “I am not worthy of your regard, nor of the faith you have put in me. I would ask that you rescue Pod and another knight they have captured. I will accept whatever punishment you deem fit.”

The young lord thought about what others had demanded he do for love through the years as he knelt on the frozen earth with the warrior. He thought about all that he had sacrificed, and all that had been reawakened since he met the warrior. He thought about all the warrior had said, and all that she had not. He thought of honor, of knighthood, and of all the times he had been asked to do something for love.

He thought of the feelings the warrior had stirred inside his soul, and what he now recognized them as.

He looked at the warrior, miserable on the ground, and he saw what she wouldn’t ask of him, despite the fact that he loved her.

Then he put his hand over hers. It was the first time he’d touched her since they left the city, and he marveled at her warmth, at the light in him that sparked at the touch of her skin.

“Perhaps no one understands your predicament more than I,” he said. “Let us return to my camp briefly, and then we shall go and rescue the innocent.”

She looked bewildered, but followed him back to the camp. All the way, he asked her to describe what she could of the bandits’ hideout, of their numbers and fighting strength. He gave orders to his men, then found a chain for her to bind him with. He also gave orders for the men to conceal small red beads in the laces of his boots.

They then set out on foot from the camp, him following in her wake through the dried grasses and muddy earth. They had reached a forestline when the warrior said she needed to chain him. They stopped, as if for a break, and she lightly clouted him over the head before binding his arms with a chain.

Once, she had led him south on a chain like a beast. Now, she led him north on a chain with another purpose. He pretended outrage, betrayal, shouted terrible things at the warrior and winced when he knew they hit the mark. Sometimes he kicked, making sure to bump the laces of his shoes against those who pushed him onward.

Yet this did the trick.

The bandits melted from the shadows of the forest, laughing and sneering at the warrior and the young lord alike. She, too, was bound and forced to travel beside him. He frowned at the terrible name they gave to her, remembered his own terrible name. Sometimes he kicked and struggled, making sure to bump the laces of his shoes against those who pushed him onward.

They wound through the woods, on and on until they came to the bandits’ lair, where the dead rebel’s mother waited, murder in her rotten eyes. She ordered the warrior unbound, and returned her sword to her.

The young lord stalled as much as he could, asking questions and telling stories. But the dead rebel’s mother finally grew tired of his chatter and rasped an order for the warrior to kill the young lord. The warrior refused.

So the bandits brought out the squire and the knight and strung some rope up from a nearby tree, before forming nooses and putting them round their necks.

“Choose!” the dead woman rasped.

With no choice left now, the warrior took her blade in hand. As she approached the young lord, though, both their attentions were caught by the shadow of a hawk flying above them.

The young lord smiled.

The warrior then pressed a secret catch on the chain, releasing the lord’s bonds. He bellowed, calling out the soldiers who had secretly followed them and the trail of red beads he had left behind. They swarmed the entrance of the cave like ants, swords flashing and armor crashing.

The warrior tossed a spare sword to the lord and dashed over to her squire and the knight, cutting them free of the rope, then executing their would-be executioners for good measure. She then turned back to the young lord, who was engaged in fighting off bandits who weren’t occupied with his soldiers.

The trouble was, he wasn’t exactly back at his peak since training with his left hand. Four bandits had him surrounded, and took hold of each limb. They were holding him still, though, as the dead rebel’s mother approached, dagger in hand, ready to put it through the young lord’s heart.

She was stopped, though, when the warrior put her sword through the dead woman’s neck, knocking it clean off of her shoulders, sending her back once more to the Stranger.

The warrior then set to work on the bandits that held the lord, forcing them to drop his limbs to defend against her sword. She slashed, attacking two and attempting to hold off the blows of the other two who thought to just kill the young lord now that they had him.

She had just killed the fourth when a snake of a bandit snuck up and stuck a dagger in her side. He did not last long – the warrior’s squire saw to that. She fell forward into the lord’s arms, and he kept her there, attempting to stanch the blood, keeping her safe as the bandits fell, one by one, to the soldiers’ swords.

Once his men won the day and secured the place, the young lord directed them to find him a cart or carriage. They bound the warrior’s side as best they could, and took off back to camp, taking her to a maester. The young lord clasped her hand the entire way, begging her to stay with him.

They returned to the camp and the maester was able to stanch the worst of it, working with all his skills and might to repair the damage to her side. He set the bones in her arm to rights, with a sound that made the squire wince. He rubbed salve on the rope burns about her neck, and the knight that was with them touched his own in sympathy. He cut away putrid flesh on her cheek, cleaning it with boiled wine, and putting a poultice bandage over it, then giving her a potion for her fever, all while the young lord held onto her hand.

The maester told the young lord that the warrior would best recover on a nearby island, run by a holy order of brothers who kept mostly to a code of silence. She slept on, having fallen asleep once wounded.

So the young lord left things in command with his second for a time. It did not hurt to have his army mopping up the remnants of the rogue bandits, and he would not leave the warrior to a strange person’s care.

They traveled as gently as possible, then rowed to the island where the brothers met them. They were kind enough, and knew exactly what to do for the warrior’s care. They moved her to a hut in the island and began tending to her wounds in peace and quiet.

The trouble came when night fell, and the brothers asked the young lord to vacate to the men’s huts a distance away. The young lord said that he would do no such thing. He intended to stay by the warrior’s side at least until she awakened.

The brothers nodded in sympathy, but the Elder Brother reminded the young lord that he was a guest on their island, and by their tradition, women and men who were unwed did not sleep under the same roof. The young lord smiled at them with all the fierceness of a lion, and asked which of them intended to throw him out. Softening, he told them a slight lie, that he was betrothed to her, and that he did not intend to sleep until she awoke, so technically, he was breaking no custom.

The brothers eyed his sword and reluctantly agreed. One stayed in the room with them, and the young lord promptly ignored him and sat by the warrior’s side, bathing her brow and softly singing the old song about the bear and the maiden.

He watched her all through the night, taking care to remain on good terms with the brothers. Her fever mercifully broke at the darkest hour, and he wiped away the sweat on her face and neck that gleamed in the moonlight, a gladder and more beautiful sight than he’d seen in ages.

Morning broke, and the young lord looked out the window to the east. He could see the sunrise painting the eastern sea in warm shades of pink, orange, and scarlet, and it moved him. He could feel the fresh breeze stir his hair, and dry the tears on his cheek. He could hear the brothers talking softly, fixing a tray of bread and honey for him, remarking on the devotion of the couple.

And then a voice, deeper and sweeter than any balladeer’s song, pulled him from his contemplation.

“It is a beautiful morning, is it not?”

He looked down to see the warrior watching him, her pretty blue eyes soft and sleepy.

“It is indeed, now that you have joined it,” he replied, lifting her hand to his lips to kiss.

The warrior snorted a bit, wincing at the pain in her cheek, her arm, her neck, her side. “You need not use pretty words to heal a wounded warrior.”

“I speak true words,” the young lord replied. “I have always loved the sunsets of my homelands, the favorite part of my day. I loved them most because they painted the sea in such wild colors.

“But this morning, I looked out at a beautiful morning, and thought how empty all that beauty would be if you were not here to share it.”

The warrior was quiet then, struck by the sincerity of such impassioned words.

In an undertone, he added, “I did speak false words to the brothers that live here, though. I told them you were my betrothed, otherwise I do not think they would have let me stay the night here.”

Before she could scold him, a brother bustled in with a tray and saw the two of them, talking intimately, her hand in his. He chided the young lord with a furrowed brow for not immediately calling the brothers to check on her, and signaled to his fellow brothers to bring the man in.

The maester asked her a number of questions, then fed her a good helping of broth and a bit of milk of the poppy. The warrior protested a bit, until she saw her squire and knew he was safe. The young lad came in with eyes as round as coins. He touched her unbroken arm softly, thanked her in a whisper of a voice for returning to his rescue.

She took the lad’s face in her hand, thumbing away his tears, and pulling him close when he broke down in sobs. The warrior stroked his hair like a mother, assuring him that the danger had passed.

The young lord then took the warrior’s hand in his own as she fought sleep briefly before relenting. He was then encouraged by the brothers to seek out his own rest, which he did, with orders to rouse him if the warrior woke.

He woke some time later at the squire’s approach. The young lord asked the squire to tell him of the deadly encounter with the rebel mother. With many hems and haws, and a few stutters, the squire managed to tell him of a struggle to find information on the rebel’s sister, swordplay lessons for the squire, much travel and travail, an orphanage rescue, then a capture, then a terrible choice offered to the warrior.

“The dead lady told her that she would either bring back your head, or be hung from the tree,” the squire said, eyes far away, looking at a terrifying sight. “She refused – the warrior, not the dead lady, and said she’d rather die than betray you. Then she threatened to hang me – the dead lady, not the warrior, my lord – and the warrior wept and agreed.”

The young lord should have trusted, but he’d been pulled around by his nose too much in the past to not be a little careful. He thanked the squire and sent him off to train with his sword.

He would wait until she no longer needed milk of the poppy. But his mind was made up.

Days passed, and the young lord passed the time by helping to train the squire. He visited the warrior, attempting to give her a bit of privacy and space to heal, but also the knowledge that she was important to him.

The warrior was soon walking about, and an examination by the maester proved that the infection from her cheek wound was gone, her arm was healing well, and most importantly, the stab wound was healing neatly. It was understood privately between the two of them that, as his betrothed, they must leave together. Any irritation at his lie was eclipsed by the reason for it.

To help build her strength, the young lord took her on walks. The brothers forbade swordplay until they could be certain her wound would not tear, so this had to substitute. They settled for making their way along the beach, avoiding the mudflats as much as possible.

The young lord attempted skipping rocks with his left hand, laughing at his failure. The warrior tried, with slightly more success, given her broken arm.

“You shall train me up then, my lady,” he laughed. “My swordplay shall be mediocre, but my rock-skipping shall be superb.” There was no bitterness in his voice, only a gentle mocking of himself.

The wind rose, and the young lord unbuttoned his cape, draping it awkwardly across her shoulders. It was a loaded gesture, and they both knew it. But he simply returned to sitting at her side, and she nodded her thanks.

“When will you return to your army?” she asked, in a voice as tenuous as dew on a spider’s web. “They must be eager to be off and serving the King’s justice.”

“Eager to be rid of me already?” he asked, mockery souring his words like vinegar.

“No,” the warrior said quickly, then pressed a hand over her lips, as if she’d just revealed her unclothed glory to him accidentally.

He looked at her then, all seriousness and sobriety. Would she? Could she?

“This sort of thing is usually arranged by one’s parents,” he began, then trailed off.

The warrior looked confused.

“I…I shall always have trouble taking off my shirt with just one hand. The laces, in particular, give me trouble.”

The warrior furrowed her brow. “I suppose your squire could assist you. Do parents normally arrange for one in your family?”

The young lord sighed in frustration. “No, my lady. I am trying to say something important and bungling it badly.”

“Speak plainly, then,” she replied. “You know how I regard you. You will not lose that for a lack of pretty words.”

“I know that, and I am grateful for your regard. Still, some things deserve finely-crafted words.” The young lord looked around for guidance.

At that moment, the clouds in the western sky parted, the setting sun burning its way through a veil of mist, and setting the waters of the bay on fire with reds, purples, pinks, oranges, indigo, and blue. The wind picked up again, and they huddled more tightly together under his cloak.

He turned to look at her again, and his heart stilled in his chest. The warrior’s face, bandaged and bruised, was bathed in that warm glow, and she looked oddly content.

In this light, she could be the companion of his heart.

“Sunsets on the water are dear to me,” he began, and she looked at him, surprised at his formal tone. “So is the wind in my hair, the salt on my lips, the love and trust of the smallfolk, the sound of my brother’s laughter. I hate the thought of being parted from any of them.”

The warrior nodded, a bit bemused.

“I would add you to this list, my lady. I know our roads will lead us apart in the weeks to come, but I would…I would ask for some promise that you would share in all of these with me.”

“I…I am happy to grant any request you have of me,” the warrior replied, clearly still confused. “I admit I don’t understand what you ask.”

“Life taught me some hard lessons,” he answered. “There were those I loved who claimed they loved me in return, and in order to prove it, I had to do things I hated. I had to be someone I was not. With you, I am myself again. I am the knight who fights on the side of justice, who is true to honor. You reawakened a part of me I never thought to know again.

“I have learned that you must love what and whom you love, and not what loves you back. You must not fall prey to those who would demand terrible things from love. We…we may not choose whom we love, but we can choose how to act upon it.”

Realizing that he was babbling like a brook and still had not come to the crucial question.

“Marry me. Make me your husband,” he asked, in a voice as strong and as gentle as a lion’s purr. “Let me share in your sunrises, and you may share in my sunsets.”

It took a little more convincing, but with some time to consider, the warrior assented. They spoke at length of their plans – once she healed enough, the warrior intended to continue her search for the rebel’s daughter. The young lord knew that he needed to go back to the city and perhaps farther, retrieve his nephew and niece to keep them safe from their mother’s schemes for power.

They asked the Elder Brother to wed them when the warrior was healed, and from that day, the Quiet Isle on which they lived seemed to be charged with new life. It was clear to everyone that the brothers rarely were able to witness a wedding.

They wed two weeks later, when the brothers said the warrior was healed, when her arm was mostly mended, when the young lord had been able to summon his bannermen to witness. The bride wore trousers and a sword at her waist, the young lord (who was really not so young anymore) draped a soldier’s cloak across her shoulders, rather than the maiden’s cloak of his family.

But the brothers were enthused, if mostly silent, the bannermen loud and ribald. They showered the bride with late-season flowers of red, orange, and purple, and the septon bound their hands.

A brief wedding supper of honey, bread, roasted carrots and a thick crab stew, the new couple retired to their own hut.

“I never expected to marry,” he said into the silence, the exclamation sounding loud and obnoxious. The warrior looked at him curiously.

“I knew I would have to marry someday,” she replied. “I never expected to actually like the man.”

The young lord paused at that. “I know you appreciate plain speech, my lady, so I will lay my feelings at your feet. When I pledged my love to you, I meant it.”

He took her hand. “But your feelings may not match mine. I bring a great deal of grief with me. And until they do…until sharing my bed is something you desire…until…”

The warrior looked at him curiously, eyes wide and color high. “Until?”

“Until you are as weak with desire as I.”

The warrior nodded, with a secret smile curling her plump lips. “I can bear both the grief and the desire, if you can with me. I’m strong enough. Are you?”

And he took her in his arms and kissed her. He thrilled at the sparkling blues of her eyes, like the stars in the night sky, shuddered at the touch of her hands across his skin, gentle and strong as the wind. Each kiss from her mouth was a cup of strong wine that he drank and drank, thirsting yet for more. His arms, short a hand but still strong, wound around her like ivy, and she wound around him, both finding the security and love that they had always sought.

“He yearned for everything at once, for her kisses, for her touch, for the miles of strong legs to be wrapped around him at last. He began untying the shirt at her neck, to lift it up and delve to the treasures below-“

“Husband, I am not sure that they need to know that part of the story.”

Jaime turned to see his wife leaning against the doorframe, an eyebrow raised. A week had passed since the twins’ birth, and she had recovered a good deal of her strength, to his immense relief. Childbirth had been a battle in which he could only offer support, not with a sword, but with the comfort of his hand and stump.

Between the contractions that cramped her belly and hips, he noted that she was less likely to break a bone by squeezing his stump than the small bones of a hand. When she was able to speak again, Brienne had commanded one of the birthing attendants to fetch her morningstar so that she could take up her husband’s challenge.

But a boy and a girl had slipped into the world at dawn, hair flaxen like their mother’s, features sharp like their father’s. And Jaime had the immense joy of being the one to welcome them.

“All right, then,” he said gamely, to the infants that slept in their crib. “To sum up, your mother and father spent nights on the Quiet Isle that forced the brothers to rename the island and regret their vows. Then your father went to retrieve his niece and nephew, and your mother went with her squire to retrieve the Ladies Sansa and Arya. They succeeded, and had to lead armies against the Dead and the living. At the end of it all, they took their little family home to Tarth and made you two.”

Brienne slipped to his left side, leaning against him slightly. He wrapped his arm around her warm, solid frame, marveling as always at her resilience.

“That said, the loving and the wedding and the bedding were the most enjoyable part of the story, so perhaps that is why I linger on it.” He squeezed her waist.

She gave him a half-smile, but her gaze lingered. “It seemed to be not the most straightforward telling.”

“It is not the most straightforward tale, and I know not how to make it simpler. Each part of our lives requires another six explanations as to how we arrived there. I’ve had word from my brother that fifteen maesters have been working on a tome of the War of the Five Kingdoms, and everything that happened after. From what he says, they’ve been stalled on the sixth volume for months. You and I might never move past Pennytree.”

“You forgot Ser Hyle in the telling.”

“He is easy to forget.”

She hummed a sound of amusement, wrapping her own arm around his waist. “I think you are practicing.”

Jaime swallowed. He could rarely hide anything from her – indeed it was a pleasure to have someone he did not have to conceal things from.

“I’ve removed some of the complications, and the more difficult parts to explain…” he broke off, looking sadly at their twins. “They will learn someday, and I will not let them be shamed by a lack of knowledge of their father’s misdeeds. If I practice, it is because that will be the most complicated defense I’ve ever used. More complicated than any fight against the Dead.”

“You misunderstand me,” she broke in, leaning her head against his, keeping him from turning away. “It is wise. Ease into it, like a hot bath. And of course, the story will change as they grow older. They’ll know more of the tale as they grow ready for it. I will have my own to tell them, of course, my own truths.”

Their son wrinkled his brow and cried out in sleep, and Brienne leant down to smooth a freckled finger across his brow, the comfort of his mother’s touch soon soothing him back to sleep.

“It will also depend on the other children,” she murmured, heedful of waking their infants. “What you decide you want to tell them, how you decide you want to tell them. Tell me so that I might practice with you. I would not have you alone in this.”

Jaime turned abruptly, wrapping his other arm about her, drawing her to his chest and looking up into her eyes.

“Would that you were a month or two from childbed,” he whispered huskily into her ear. “When you say things like that, it is all I can do to keep my hands from you. Brienne, Brienne, I love you.”

She dropped her head down slightly, and would have joined him in a kiss – until the clatter of footsteps down the hall warned them of the imminent arrival of the rest of the family. Pod and Myrcella arrived with wooden swords, bruises on their ankles from sparring.

Tommen carried a book in one hand and Ser Pounce in the other. He wrinkled his nose. “Uncle, you and Aunt Brienne are always kissing.”

“It’s love, Tommen,” he replied, lips moving against his wife’s cheek as he turned to see them arrive. “I love your Aunt Brienne, and I would spend the day kissing her if I could.” Tommen made a face, but Myrcella whacked him in the ankle with a sword.

“Uncle!”

“Quiet, please,” Brienne said, and Jaime watched as the three of them immediately became more aware of where they were. Pod led the way bravely, rewarded by Brienne reaching out to wipe a smear of dirt from his cheek, then cup it in her callused hand.

Myrcella came forward to stare at the sleeping twins. “Baby Sun and Moon of Tarth. I think they’re already bigger than they were yesterday.” She stood just slightly taller than Brienne’s waist, and her aunt put an arm around his eldest daughter’s shoulders. Their shared scars had eased the water of awkwardness about Brienne and his children, turning it into wine of communion.

“They’ve grown,” agreed Pod, who had himself put at least a foot and a half on since Jaime had met him. “Are twins usually smaller than other newborns?”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Jaime, stepping around the topic lightly. “These are the first newborn twins I’ve ever met. What do you think, young Maester Tommen?”

Tommen shrugged, coming forward to stare at the babies. “I think they probably make more noise.”

Jaime laughed, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You certainly made a lot of noise when you were born. I loved you no less for it.”

“You were there when I was born?” Tommen asked, peeping up at him curiously.

Jaime steeled himself. “I was. You as well, Myrcella. Kingsguard are on guard when the queen gives birth.”

He was walking around the truth a bit, but working his way up to that one would take a while. He’d get there. Someday. Ease into it, like Brienne said.

“Lord Selwyn asked everyone to join him on the terrace for an evening meal,” Pod said, formal and earnest. Just as Jaime had been at that age.

“What do you think, husband?” Brienne murmured, her starry eyes shining. “Shall we introduce our new children to the sunset?”

In reply, he kissed the side of her head, then found two padded baskets. Unlatching the crib door, he carefully picked up his youngest daughter, tucking her carefully into the basket held by Brienne. Her eyelids blinked open – starry blue eyes greeted him, still startled by this world around her.

Pod smiled and exchanged the basket with his lady, holding the occupied basket with delicacy. Jaime lifted his son up next, grateful that he did not wiggle overmuch. Also that he had his mother’s eyes as well.

“I’ll pick up the story on the terrace. Where you interrupted, wife.” Jaime grinned up at her soured expression as she tucked a light blanket around the babe.

“But babies can’t understand stories!” Tommen protested, as Brienne took the basket for the short walk to the terrace.

“No, but they need to hear them nonetheless,” Jaime replied. “They need the stories as soon as their ears can hear. They need what we’ve learned.”

“What did you learn, husband?” Brienne prompted softly. Sunset began to shine through a window, landing on her face, on the faces of his family as they looked back at him.

“You are what you love, not what loves you back,” he said. “You should not remold yourself to fit the scabbard of the person who says they love you. Reveal what you actually are, and the right people will love you for it.”

And they went out onto the terrace together, to enjoy a sunset over the isle of Tarth, the young lord, the warrior, the squire, and the family they made together.

The End.