They are a little less than a sennight from King’s Landing when a horse approaches the camp just as the evening’s fires are being laid. Those on guard at the edge of the camp barely have time to react before the horse and rider thunder into the centre, and Brienne has her sword half-drawn before she realises—
“Halt!” she commands, raising her hand so others do not— "It is Ser Jaime."
His hand—the golden one, though he wears a glove—pushes back the hood of his cloak. She does not know what to do with the sensation that runs through her at the sight, familiarity and fear knotted together.
He nods, then dismounts sloppily and the fear rises.
"Lady Brienne. I thank you," he says. One hand rests on his horse, the other holds his cloak tight. "I'm afraid I come bearing bad news."
They cannot have this conversation here, whatever it is. Perhaps it is not on her to have it at all, and yet...
"Come," she says, "to my tent."
He shakes his head, does not move. Her hand is still on her sword, and she forces herself to release it. He will not harm her.
“The Queen—” he hesitates, swallows. The entire camp is watching. “Cersei will not send her men.”
Brienne glances around; some are surprised, some are not. It does not matter. None have more authority than her, with Daenerys and Jon Snow and half the group further ahead.
Jaime nods, gives a wry grin that feels false. “Quite.”
“And you…” She does not know what to say; she cannot give him her pity, not here. Cannot tell whether he knew, or why he has come.
“She has…” he grimaces, his face pale. Whatever his reasons, it is a betrayal to be here, and yet he has come. “She had sent for the Golden Company. Euron Greyjoy has already sailed.”
Brienne nods. “Come to my tent,” she repeats. “We can speak more of it there.”
It will be safer there. She cannot shake the feeling there is something wrong; wrong in the way he holds himself, in the way he sways, in the way he lifts his hand from his horse and steps forward and—
She catches him before he falls, his cloak falling open to reveal—
“Tend to the horse,” she snaps. “Podrick, with me.”
“Lady Brienne—” Jaime protests, weakly, as she begins to move.
She’s thankful Sansa had sent her south with a tent and cot even as Brienne had sworn she would be fine. It is the work of only a moment to drag Jaime towards it, lower him gently onto the cot and pull the cloak aside once more to see the slash in his leather armour, the fabric beneath red-brown with old blood.
“Pod, water,” she says. She doesn’t ask what happened, is not certain she wishes to know. She undresses Jaime hastily, with no more than a grunt in protest from him when she jerks him particularly harshly. Pod brings water and cloth, and says he will see what else he might procure.
The wound is shallow, and old. It is clear Jaime had attempted to stitch and bind it, with limited supplies.
"I left in haste," he says, when she lingers too long looking. His eyes are half-closed in exhaustion. "I did not have time to prepare."
She shakes her head and dips her cloth into the water. "You reopened this riding," she scolds.
"I had no choice.”
“Jaime…” she begins, and wishes she could swallow back his name, hide all that its use reveals.
“I had no choice,” he repeats, and falls unconscious.
She doesn’t know how long she sits on the edge of the cot, watching him. Waiting. Jaime’s pulse is steady beneath her fingers, and she suspects that blood loss has exhausted him but there is no real danger. Yet her hand lingers, every heartbeat, every rise and fall of his chest a reassurance. She studies the lines of his face for signs of pain, or rousing. Checks the wound again and again. She should speak to the others in the camp, double the number on guard in case trouble has followed Jaime here, leave him to be tended by someone with a neater hand and more patience.
When someone pushes aside the tent flaps, she is still there.
Brienne turns to see Podrick, bearing supplies. A jar of ointment, more cloth, needle and thread.
“Put it on the table,” she says. It’s a small thing, and does not sit well on uneven ground, but Podrick manages to move the bowl of water and place the rest without upending anything. When he is done, he stands straight, shifts his weight. Worried, and trying not to show it.
“Alive,” she says. Her voice wobbles.
“Sandor has put more guards out,” Podrick says, gently earnest. “And sent a message ahead that we may be delayed.”
She dips her cloth into the water again, cleans the last of the dried blood from the wound. Threads the needle, then holds it over the candle flame for a moment. “Thank you.”
Jaime stirs as the needle pierces his skin, and she gives a soft murmur and checks his pulse again. Still steady. Places stitch after stitch as gently as she can; she had never mastered embroidery, the fabric too thin and changeable, but she has done this often enough, pieced together flesh well enough to heal.
Podrick stays, and says nothing as she sews the wound shut, covers it in ointment, wraps linen strips around Jaime's torso. She knows he is there, but she pays him little mind until she is done. He offers her one of her own shirts when she is, one with laces down the full length, and Brienne redresses Jaime, smoothing the fabric and knotting the laces. Then she turns to Podrick.
His brow is furrowed with worry, and it is a strange thing. “Did he say how he—”
“No.” She cannot think of that.
Podrick nods. “I will bring you some soup,” he says quietly.
Another nod. Another look of worry. “Of course.”
It was assassins on the King’s Road, three of them. He’d defeated them all and dragged the bodies off the road, all while bleeding. Had dealt with the wound and pushed as hard as he could, the motion forever pulling at it and causing it to bleed anew.
“You might have…” Brienne begins, stops. “It’s stitched well now. You ought to have sent a raven.”
“And risk it not arriving?” he says. Even by yellow candlelight his colour is better, now that he has slept and eaten. It’s late; the camp is quiet, those heading north willing to trust Brienne even if they do not trust a Lannister.
"You might not have arrived, if we were a day further ahead." She wrings out the bloody cloth for something to do, stares into the swirling browns of the water rather than the man before her. "It was foolish."
"There's been nowhere safe," he says. "Even if I had wanted…"
There is still water on the cloth when her hand tightens, droplets making a soft pattering sound as they hit the bowl. "Your sister."
He nods. "After she swore… I began to gather my men, intending to ride north within two days."
To mobilise an army so quickly… The cloth drops and she turns to look at him. He's watching her intently, as if trying to determine whether she believes him. Of course she does. Of course.
"I am Ser again?"
She thinks he is teasing her, but she cannot…
"Always.” It is not quite a smile that she gives him. “Where are your men, if…"
Jaime shakes his head. "She never intended to send us. She'd rather the armies exhaust themselves before they come south, so she may pick over the bones."
It is so "If the dead win…."
Jaime grimaces. "Yes. Well… It does not matter. I could not bring them north.”
“I am sorry.”
It is a silly thing, this pity, weightless in the face of the grief he must feel, but it is all she can give.
“She threatened to have me killed, when I confronted her,” Jaime says, too easily. She cannot understand how he can be so flippant, but perhaps he must be. “When she did not… I should have believed her. Instead, the men she sent after me had the advantage and… There was nowhere I could safely send a raven from. What lords are not loyal to her? What maester with a rookery could withstand her wrath? No, my only hope was to reach you—your camp."
She nods. “Are we in danger, do you think?”
“I’ll double back, take another route.” He sits up, as if he intends to ride this moment. “If I seem to be headed west, she will have no reason to pursue you.”
“You’re in no condition to ride,” Brienne says. Brusque, impartial. “You need rest, a few days at least, and you should not be alone if she is likely to send more men.”
“I cannot stay here.”
“No,” she agrees. Stands and fetches a spare bedroll, lays it out next to the cot. “But you can sleep for the night.”
It is only when the candle is snuffed out and she has settled on the ground that he speaks again, good night, Brienne, a soft whisper he might not even intend for her to hear but which lingers long after he begins to snore.
In the morning, it is decided that Jaime will return to an abandoned homestead an hour's ride back along the road to recover. She tries not to think where he will go once he does; it will be a few days, a week at most, and then they will….
When he approaches the horses, he seems surprised to find her waiting to ride with him.
"If you are not killed outright, you know much about our camp," she says, checking the girth on her saddle for the third time. It seems safer, somehow, than to say she will not leave him alone and unguarded.
"I assure you, Lady Brienne, I would not betray you." He is quiet, and sombre, and it aches. Where is the man who takes nothing seriously?
"I did not think you would," she replies, curt, "I am concerned you would suffer for the refusal. Mount."
He does, and Brienne spares a final moment to speak with Pod before mounting her own horse and setting off. They keep to a slow walk, a concession to Jaime’s injury, and ride side by side so she might notice if he weakens. He’s stubborn though, staying mounted through sheer force of will; she can see it when they arrive at the small homestead and he nearly slumps off his horse.
“Go inside,” Brienne says, taking the reins. “See if there is wood for a fire.”
There is a small stable around the back, in good enough repair she can untack the horses and leave them safely, and when they are secured she carries the bags into the house. It’s one room, with a large hearth on one wall and some furniture left behind. Jaime is seated at the table, looking pale with his shirt unlaced, and Brienne strides across the packed-dirt floor.
He shakes his head. “No. It held. I am just….”
Her hands flutter, useless, so she keeps moving, kneels before the hearth to check that it will do. There is some wood stacked beside it—not much, a day or two worth at most and she will have to remedy that soon—and she pulls out her flint and tinder, and lays the fire. The house carries a chill.
Rising, she inspects the rest of the house—the bed still bears a straw mattress and is large enough for two, there is a hole in the roof thatch but it is not large enough to cause problems. Then she heads outside, finds the well and hauls in water. Lays snares in the hopes of catching small game. Busies herself while not wandering far from the house, never out of sight lest someone come upon them. It is coming onto evening when she returns inside, making a stew over the fire with supplies they have bought. She has not spoken with Jaime, not truly, but it is not a silence that can last.
"You have delayed your return to Lady Sansa," he remarks, his spoon halfway to his mouth.
There is much unsaid in the observation. Too much, perhaps, and so she parries.
He arches an eyebrow. "I hadn’t realised. You have done well."
"Accept the compliment, Lady Brienne, because you will not get one for this meal."
It would be an insult, save the fondness in his eyes. They are… friends of a sort, and friends are allowed such luxuries. She smiles.
The next days are all much the same: Brienne tends to the chores, Jaime chafes at the restrictions forced upon him, and they speak of anything but what they will do when he has healed. He asks her of Tarth, and she speaks of the mountains and meadows alive with wildflowers on a spring day. He offers her tales of tourneys in turn, always with a wry smile. She tells him of Stannis, of Sansa and Arya and Podrick; he does not speak of Cersei, only the devastation she has caused. They do not discuss what waits for Brienne in the North, or what Jaime will do when the time comes to leave this small cottage, this small reprieve.
On the morning of the fifth day, men approach; Brienne ensures her cloak is drawn close enough her sword is obscured—there is no point in full armour here, not when it will reveal more than it will protect—and strides across the yard to greet them.
She will kill them if she must, the memory of mercy for a farmer and the price paid impossible to forget, but she speaks with them, chooses to believe they are merely travelling to the next town; when she returns to the cottage, Jaime stands by the door, an indecipherable expression on his face.
"You are the most…" he begins, then shakes his head. "That is what a knight ought to do, and yet I know not one in twenty who might."
"That is their fault, not my virtue," she replies, remembering how she would have drawn her sword if they'd asked after Jaime, or seemed too curious. "But we should keep watches tonight."
Jaime shakes his head. "No, I am well enough. We should leave this place."
She knows why her heart pangs at this parting; it does not grow easier each time, but harder. But still she nods, and heads to the stables to prepare the horses while Jaime packs their belongings.
"Where will you go?" she asks, once they are on the road.
He looks… surprised, perhaps, or chagrined. "North," he says, "if you will have me. I am not the fighter I once was, but I made a vow."
Her hands tighten on her reins, but she nods. Death waits for them both there, and some part of her wishes to tell him no, to tell him to choose cowardice, but she will not. They ride in silence for several moments, and she feels him watching her. The winter wind bites at her face as she keeps looking to the road.
"Brienne," he finally says, "I thought perhaps, if I should live to see the spring, I might like to see wildflowers."
It is an offer and a promise all at once, and more than she had dared to expect. She turns in her saddle to face him.
"So should I," she says. "So should I."