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Stone Heart

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She is only a child when she is cursed, the hooded figure’s rasping breath filling the cave where she’d gone in search of Galladon. She feels the change, a stretching, horrible feeling, the lank hair that refuses to stay in a plait writhing and twisting, but does not understand what is happening. Not until she finds Gal.

His mouth is still parted to greet her when the stone takes him.

Her father does not blame her. He sees her coming in the mirror kept by the door, sees the distress on her face, and calls for her to close her eyes. She complies, feels his work-roughened fingers trace her face. Hears the warning hiss from her hair.

“Brienne,” he says, so gently. “You found Lady Stoneheart.”

She shakes her head, feels her tears burn down her cheeks. Lady Stoneheart was a legend, nothing more. A once-woman warped by her desire for revenge, turning Tarths into monsters for generations.

“Sweetling,” he says. “It can be broken. I promise you. Your mother…”

“It’s not true.”

“It is,” he says. “Your mother saved me, and one day… One day you will allow love to save you.”

“But Gal--”

“Your brother loves you. I love you. But it must be new love.”

“No,” Brienne says, already certain. “I will never risk another life.”

Her father sighs, sadly, and she wishes desperately that she could open her eyes and see him. She feels his arms wrap around her, his lips press a kiss to her forehead.

“There is a cottage, high in the mountains,” he says. “We will leave in the morn.”

***

They bind her eyes with cloths, leave her behind when her father must travel to the nearest village for supplies. She grows. Becomes accustomed to the snakes of her hair, her only companions. Sometimes her father gently suggests that she meet other people, but does not press her when she declines.

One day, he does not return from the village. She feels the evening come upon her, the crickets singing and the cool dew calming the snakes until the curl against her head and sleep, and she worries. Worries all night and into the morning, when she hears hoofbeats approaching, too quickly to be the old cart horse her father had brought with him. She only has time to throw a scarf over her head and rush to the door before the horse is upon her.

“I seek the daughter of Selwyn Tarth!” calls a voice.

“I am she,” she says; beneath the scarf the snakes coil and twist, awakened by the danger.

“My name is Jaime, and I come from the village. Your father has taken a fall,” he says. He is coming nearer, and she steps back. “Will you come to him?”

Of course, Brienne’s heart screams, but imagines the entire village turned to stone. Shakes her head.

“I cannot leave the animals,” she says. “Is it serious?”

“A broken leg, nothing more. I shall come again tomorrow.”

***

He returns most days to tell her of her father’s progress--a fever has come upon him, and just as suddenly his fever has broken, he is walking once more, he should be well enough to return by the turn of the moon.

The day the horse comes not with a pretty canter but a slow plod, she knows what Jaime has come to say. Her father is dead, and her heart turns to stone before she even reaches the door.

***

Jaime comes once a fortnight with supplies from the village. A kindness to a blind neighbour, he says, but every time he lingers for hours afterwards. They talk. She likes him, despite her best efforts not to. He is funny and sharp and kind, but not too kind. He laughs at her jokes, and brings her chicks in the spring. Plants heavily-scented flowers outside the cabin’s door, so she may smell them through the long summer days. Does not question why her blindness requires her eyes be covered.

And then one evening, when autumn’s first tendrils are circling the mountains and they are sitting by the creek that runs alongside the cabin, dangling their feet into its cool water, he touches her blindfold so gently.

“Allow me to see,” he says. “Please.”

“Jaime--”

“Your father told me the truth, before he died,” he says. “You are not blind.”

“No.”

“And yet you hide from me.”

She hides from everyone, for their own safety. She will not apologise for that.

“Ask me tomorrow,” she says.

***

He is there early the next day.

“Allow me to see,” he repeats. Pleading, not demanding.

She removes the scarf. Feels his hand reach up, feels the snakes coil around his fingers tenderly.

He laughs softly. “And the blindfold?”

She shakes her head. “Ask me tomorrow.”

***

He is there by dawn.

“Allow me to see,” he says once more. He stands so close that she can feel his body. She has never seen his face, she realises, does not know what he looks like. Imagines seeing him only as stone, eternally youthful and cold.

Her fingers tremble as she reaches for the ties, and then she shakes her head.

“Ask me tomorrow.”

***

He comes before the cockerel crows. She is not certain he really left.

“Brienne,” he says this time. Runs his fingers over her snakes, laughing as they nibble his fingertips. She loves him, in that moment, knows it for certain, and it makes it so easy to unknot the cloth, allow it to fall.

He freezes, and for a moment she thinks-- But then he smiles, a brilliant, blinding beam of fondness, and kisses her softly.

“Why, Brienne,” he says, a teasing lilt to his voice, “you have beautiful eyes.”