"Ride west as fast as your horses can carry you," Jaime said to the men he took with them, supposedly for tracking. "Warn everyone, be it a highborn or a pig herder not to spare firewood for burning the corpses, and to stay in at night, next to fire. Let the old women remember the black stone, obsidian. It never had any use despite their pious bleating that the Seven endowed it with great powers. Now it may have. Whoever has it, best have it at hand, as a weapon. The time will show against what enemy."
"But my lord, ser," one of the man tried to object, "you told Ser Daven-"
"What I told Daven is no concern of yours. I can take on Ser Shadrich and a cowardly singer by myself, sword hand or not. I may yet slay the lying bard with his harp," Jaime said with coldness, remembering how Tom Sevenstrings was spying on his army, playing the Lannister songs, when Jaime addressed the small matter of bringing Riverrun back to the king's peace. He probably ran to what passed for Catelyn Stark since the Red Wedding, to report of the Kingslayer's latest crimes, as soon as he finished singing the Rains of Castamere. Failing to note a distinction that Jaime had only made threats, and not taken arms against the Tullys, honouring his word to Lady Catelyn.
"I wanted to go to Casterly Rock in person but I have seen it is my duty to return to the capital when we are done here, and someone has to go west. That someone are you. Now go! Before I change my mind and command you to hunt the white walkers in the mountain passes of the Vale."
Brienne didn't know what to make of Jaime's decision. They trotted alone from the High Heart back toward the weirwood caves buried deep in the riverlands where they nearly lost their lives, not seeing a sign of a living soul. The land looked only half alive, the daylight was dim and faint, the very air had a distinctly bluish hue. A bird cried in the distance, or perhaps a raven cawed, careless, announcing the end of the warm season, or of the time as they knew it.
"What are you up to?" she asked him, sick of pretending and lies, hers and his.
They could be honest to each other, they learned it after Harrenhal, they knew it before they reached King's Landing. They could do it again, if he truly didn't mind she betrayed him, which she still found extremely hard to believe.
"To spill out all my secrets to you, wench, I would have to be naked and nearing death in a bath tub, and the Bloody Mummers would have to take my other hand," said Jaime. "But I so prefer to guard all the limbs still in my possession. I am endeared to them."
"You want, and yet you don't want to go back to King's Landing," she guessed and hit her goal like an unpractised archer who accidentally feathered a moving target with deadly precision.
"There you have it," Jaime dismounted and walked forward, carefully examining traces of hooves on the half frozen soil. They may have belonged to Ser Shadrich, for all they knew.
"Or it may well be I just wanted some left hand sword practice with Brienne the Beauty, away from prying eyes. Lord Baelish would not let me talk to you so we had to take our leave!" he grinned so hard that the corners of his mouth curled upward in utmost amusement. "You'd make a much more pleasing training partner than the late Ser Ilyn Payne."
His last words were swallowed by the ground, as was he, easy smile and lithe body.
Honor whinnied in acknowledgment of the disappearance of his master and moved sideways towards a patch of still green, only slightly yellow grass, its persistent growth refusing to admit that the winter was well on its way.
Brienne had the presence of the mind to dismount before running after Jaime. She could glimpse an immobile shape at the bottom of a rather deep dark tunnel, some fifteen feet under ground. Pits, she thought distractedly, that is our destiny. Jaime's and mine. She almost expected to see a bear inside. The sides of the passage were slanted, but rather steep and smooth, so Jaime must have rolled down very fast. Only the Seven could see clearly what was down there and how he fared.
"My lord, are you hurt?" Brienne called into the darkness, which did not speak.
"Can you hear me?" she called out louder.
"Jaime!" Brienne screeched, her voice a long wail carried forward by the wind, all propriety and titles gone to dust.
"Brienne..." a familiar voice mocked her from the deep, and she recalled the exact manner of his eyes flashing green as he did so. "You finally remembered my name."
The first day of the ride to Harrenhal was unremarkable, and it made Mance happy. The players didn't rehearse nearly enough from all the trouble they ran into, and the capital was drawing closer with every step they made. It would take them at least two days to arrive to the cursed fortress of the Whents, providing that the blessing of the ghost of the High Heart was indeed with them and no monsters would hinder them on their way.
Mance had a black premonition about staying in Harrenhal. He clutched and readjusted his cloak over his broad bony shoulders trying to find strength in it, furtively asking the old gods for counsel where human wisdom failed. They crossed one of the many streams that day, and used it as a line of defence around the camp, enhancing its borders with a low fence of chopped wood and fallen sticks alike. Fires blazed behind it at regular spaces, rekindled at times by the guards on duty. Outside the perimeter the creek hummed merrily, in a blind hurry to reach the mighty Trident they had left far behind on their travels.
"I will not do it," Gendry said. "You told me you would go and look for Willow. You lied. Why should I help you make coin?"
"I sent Benjen after the search party. He is sneaky enough for a monk. If Lannister can find Ser Shadrich, he can find Willow. I even gave him my horse!" Mance greatly regretted parting with the strong brown beast that brought him out of Winterfell in circumstances he would never forget, but it was a necessary evil. He had called it Patience, to honour the new virtue he had learned during his predicament at the hands of the Boltons, father and son.
"I will not," Gendry repeated.
"The boy has sense," said Baelish, seated as close to Lady Stark as the propriety allowed, after Mance helped him to set the wagon for the night and generously tended the horses pulling it. None of the soldiers would do it for him, despite his asking. "We should cease this folly. Best go your way, singer, if you are in need of haste. The Lannister soldiers will see the rest of us safely to Harrenhal and further south."
Unexpected help came from Lady Stark and Mance admired Jon's sister for her quiet grace.
"Lord Baelish," she said with poise, "if I should disclose to Ser Daven your arrangement concerning my marriage to a new Targaryen pretender as opposed to my undying wish to return to the court of His Grace King Tommen as a ward of the crown, he may not be pleased."
"As if he would believe you. You can fancy yourself a player, but you've never been more than a pawn," Baelish dismissed her words.
Mance wondered what the words player and pawn meant to the southerners. The world he came from had trees, and more trees, frozen lakes and valleys, icicles and snow. Men plotted, and killed each other for gains, but the words to name it all where much simpler than the elaborate style the kneelers used to convey their own cruelty to each other without using sharp steel, stone or bone.
Lady Stark looked diminished and uncertain. But then she straightened the folds of her heavy travelling gown and stood up, searching with her calm blue gaze for the tangle of blonde curves owned by Ser Daven Lannister.
"I'll do it," said Gendry all of a sudden.
"Why now?" Mance asked, coming to the conclusion that he sometimes didn't understand people at all, despite having celebrated a fine share of name days already.
"Because he doesn't want us to," he pointed at Baelish. "And I like him less than I like you. It's a good enough reason for me."
"Wonderful," said the King-beyond-the-Wall, caressing the pommel of his longsword. The weapon was idle for more than a day and it was almost too much to hope that it would remain that way for a while longer. "If you please, Lady Stark, you have just been left alone for the first time with your husband to be after the ceremony of betrothal. I don't sing about the crowds in my show because we have no means to render the weddings and the great battles as they were. And also because I find that the most important things more often than not happen between people."
"Shouldn't there be a tourney, in Harrenhal?" Sansa wanted to know.
"Indeed, we will have to include some of that, and also a part of the battle on the Trident and another, less known but no less remarkable fight in Dorne, that happens at the very end of my tale. But let's think about scaling the Wall when we come close to it. Gendry, you begin. Think of Lady Sansa as a girl you would have chosen as your bride and you'll do fine."
Gendry stood in front of the wagon and measured Sansa. Their eyes were almost at a level but the boy's shoulders were much broader, and his face still too pale from the loss of blood, giving a haunted look to his dark blue eyes. Mance was certain that Gendry did not find in Sansa what he was looking for in women, but he still spoke bravely, as if the image of whatever girl he had in his mind illuminated his being like a candle, so that he would never walk in the darkness again.
"My lady, all the Seven Kingdoms speak of your beauty," said Robert Baratheon to Lyanna Stark. "But you are so much more than anyone could have told me."
"I ask of you, my lady, to give me a chance in all honesty, to earn your love. I would want nothing more in this world. For you I would abandon my titles and my lands. I would drown my hammer in the moat under the gates of Riverrun and be rid of it. I would sacrifice anything you ask of me if only I could hope that one day I could win your heart."
"My lord," Lyanna Stark answered with caution. "Your words are all well chosen and knightly, and pleading with fair maidens is fashionable these days. Never flatter me, never lie to me, and I may give you a chance you are asking for. But I cannot promise you my heart, for it beats wild in my chest and it has been sworn to freedom."
"I promise you, Lyanna," Robert said, "I will be truthful to you as no man has been to a woman. And I would give away my freedom so that you could keep yours."
"I will try to grant you the favour you seek, my lord, an opportunity to earn my love," Lyanna said. "Yet the only promise I can give you now is that I will uphold the honour of both your name and mine. So that no one can ever say, no matter what will come to pass, that the Lady Lyanna has brought any dishonour to the House Stark."
"Thank you, m'lady," Gendry finished reading, betraying his low upbringing in the last phrase. He blushed like a girl, when he was told to kiss Sansa's cheek in the end.
"Do you have more masks?" Sansa asked.
"No," Mance told her. "The others will have to play with the faces the gods gave them. Go ahead, my lady, you speak alone when he takes his leave of you.
And it was as if Lyanna Stark spoke again from the abyss of time, calm as a messenger of doom:
"Why, oh why does the freedom come at such a terrible price? When my father made me a match, I judged the man I have never seen based on the opinion of others, I who swore not to care about their opinion of me. I decided to hate my betrothed for his many sins people said he had committed. As I would have probably hated any man my father chose for me, because I would not accept the woman's lot in life. The undeserved burden, to be humble, to please, to do the bidding of others, seemingly with no will of her own.
Lord Robert Baratheon has never had an honest chance to win my heart, before we even met, for I was not willing to give it to anyone. But how could I ever tell him that? I met him and I am ashamed. For he is clearly nothing like the stories of him. He is young and fearless, and honest above all. Even if he did visit brothels with my brother Ned, they both seem more innocent than I am in matters of love.
For in my chase for freedom, I was caught. I was trapped. I judged myself above the weak feelings of the women, sighing after the brave knights that only exist in stories. The body, the senses, they betray you, people say. But much more treacherous is the wantonness of the mind, always yearning for something we cannot hope to have. It used to be freedom, for me. But now that I have met Lord Robert, his innocence has opened my eyes, blinded by the folly of thinking myself stronger and better than the others.
My heart has already been stolen away from me, without me being the wiser for it, and I cannot get it back. I do not want it back. Although I can never hope to have what my heart truly desires.
The gods have punished my pride.
And I wonder if they have made anyone strong enough to resist love."
"That was a magnificent rendering of your aunt, Lady Sansa," the Elder Brother said with respect. He returned to watch the reading with the Brother Gravedigger, after giving the seven blessings to all soldiers in the camp, no matter to whom they owed their allegiance. Mance realized that the manner in which the Brother Gravedigger persistently followed the Elder Brother reminded him of two men insignificant in appearance, who trod after a overly proud kneeler called Stannis wherever he went. It was back at the Wall when Mance Rayder had almost been burnt alive to please R'hllor. Jon told him that they were the King's sworn shields. Even if Stannis was king as much as Mance had been, and maybe even less. In any case, the tall rude monk was cutting a much better figure of a shield than the men serving Stannis, when he would be tirelessly strolling up and about the camp, like a walking boulder protecting his charge's skinny back.
"Lady Lyanna would not say the words better herself. Although we should never doubt the greatness of the gods as the singer made us think with his tale," admonished the Elder Brother.
Mance had to intervene: "Oh, I do not doubt their greatness. Only our ability to see it in the world."
"I didn't take you for a believer," commented the Gravedigger maliciously.
"'You were right. I am not one," said the King-beyond-the-Wall, unconsciously stroking his cloak. "I wonder what Robert Baratheon believed in, later on. He was a very unfortunate man."
"He was?" Gendry and Sansa asked together, Sansa with pure disbelief and Gendry with hidden hope that the late king of stags, known for drunkenness and debauchery, may have been a good man.
"As far as I know his story, Robert was merely too late to meet Lyanna. It was the year of false spring and the snows melted too slowly in the Vale where he was fostered. So he couldn't travel north to meet her when their parents arranged their marriage. If he met Lyanna before Rhaegar did, then perhaps Westeros would not be as we know it today," Mance said, and didn't regret a single bit that Rhaegar and Lyanna had died. For if they did not, he would never have become Jon's friend.
"Arrived too late?" the Gravedigger asked in a deep voice, suddenly concerned, as if Robert's failure was his own.
"Life is all wrong, brother," said Mance, forcing himself to forget the lively faces of the spearwives that had followed him to Winterfell. "We are so often simply at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Sansa walked out through the palisade and sat under a weeping willow next to the tiny river, thinking of Aunt Lyanna. The more she thought about her, the more she started viewing her aunt as if Lyanna had been both Sansa and Arya in one person, with their virtues and their weaknesses, a courteous lady and a sword fighter. No, she remembered, not a sword. Aunt Lyanna wielded a lance.
She looked around waiting for the Hound to come after her, unprepared for what she was going to say. The words like, "I went outside the camp because I know you think it's not safe so you will follow me", or plain, "I wanted to see you", did not sound good enough, and she was afraid they would make him angry. To say, "We didn't read together today and I missed you," sounded like an even more dangerous and slippery thing to say to him.
Yet she needed to see him, for no reason at all, and she was fairly certain that Petyr would not risk his skin by stepping outside the meager protection of the fire. So they might be able to have some peace.
Sansa was certain that no danger crept behind them that night, which smelled like the last breath of summer where they were camped. She could almost not wear a cloak and be comfortable. The grass was still green and small flies were buzzing over the water. Even a bird could be seen in the top of the willow, nestling free as Sansa was never going to be. It was not her lot. Not a woman's lot, she concluded, thinking of Aunt Lyanna again.
He did not tardy in pushing his large body through the small path, cracking the dry branches as he went.
And then the correct words came to her as soon as she saw him.
"Yes, I would let you kiss my hands without you wearing the mask. If that was what you had in mind yesterday," she said, offering him both her hands up high, her eyes looking down, not at him, never at him, waiting for a rude answer that was bound to come.
A curtain of lank black hair fell all over her forearms and his breath was so much warmer than when he wore a mask. She could see a missing ear and the burnt half of his face from a completely new angle, the naked truth of things that happened in life. Sansa inhaled the fading scent of the long summer, and involuntarily closed her eyes.
And opened them again because his lips traced a path to her elbows, and with her eyes closed all she could do was dream about how it would feel if he would lift her off the ground and kiss her as he did in Raventree, full on her lips, with no masks between them. She refused to acknowledge such thoughts because she still didn't know what he was to her and what she was supposed to do. And she needed some time to find out, without anyone telling her what that was.
"Sit with me," she said, willing her voice strong like Lyanna's. "The air is warm and it smells lovely. This could be the last moment of summer before the spring comes again."
"I thought you liked winter in your desolate lands," the mocking came but it didn't cut as sharp as usual, because his bulky figure sank down next to her in the damp grass, observing the water flowing as if it was the most interesting sight in the Seven Kingdoms.
"We say it's coming. We don't cry for it to come faster," she said and tossed a pebble into the stream like a little girl, swallowing a giggle in her mouth for he could get her joy all wrong, as was his wont.
"Shall I fetch someone pretty to keep you company? A knight of summer for the summer night," his voice reached the habitual levels of cruelty without being fuelled by wine.
"King Robert told my father to get me a dog when he made him kill my wolf. He said I was going to be happier for it," she said without thinking. "It's just that my father didn't live long enough to get me one."
"I can get you the blind dog from the wagon as well, a tough beast, that one," he offered, refusing to understand her meaning, as if she spoke Braavosi and not the Common Tongue.
Would that I was a pebble, she thought, then no one would tell me what to do. She wondered if that was how Aunt Lyanna had also felt.
But when Sandor Clegane told her what to do, it never felt half as bad as when the other people did. Not when she had been a hostage of Queen Cersei in the Red Keep. When she didn't deign him with an answer regarding the dog, he luckily did not make any new suggestions, and he didn't leave either.
Sansa followed his lead and stared at the restless course of water, grateful for a moment shared, curious about what was to come.
A skinny body pushed Brienne from behind and she slid with her unexpected attacker down the narrow passage under the ground, landing almost on top of Jaime, stopping her movement just on time. The newcomer was not so careful. He bounced further and fell squarely on the chest of the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, causing Brienne to stand up in rage and yank him off, discovering as she did it that she, at least, had not been hurt by the fall.
"Jaime," she called again, touching his shoulder armour.
"I'm glad that our friend here had the delicacy to push you in," Jaime said, "so that I can get back to my role of the saviour of innocent maidens. It wouldn't be fair to be rescued by one, would it?"
"Forgive me, m'lord, m'lady," interrupted the third man, "I am a brother of the Seven looking for a girl name Willow. I believe we can go faster back across this land, using these tunnels. They should all lead to the outlaws' caverns where you were held and further out to the inn. The inn where Willow worked with her late sister Jeyne. Not far away at all and 'tis the only one in these lands. Ser Shadrich will have to eat and sleep somewhere with the child he took."
"He's right," said Brienne. "I've been in that inn. That's where they patched my cheek before Lady Stoneheart decided to hang me."
An arm caught her for support, in an attempt to rise. A left one, for sure.
"My lady, my ankle suffered in this little incident. I will need help walking."
"Get rid of your precious armour, m'lord. No one will steal it here," counselled the monk. "It will not serve if we have to drag you and it will only slow us down."
Jaime started awkwardly peeling away his white armour without complaining. Brienne and the tiny monk worked with him to do it faster, and to save him the embarrassment. When they were done, the monk lit a candle, making the passage in the wilderness smell like a sept. Silent, he led the way forward, sure-footed like a shadowcat. Brienne pulled Jaime up, and held him fast around his middle, while his left arm hung loose across her shoulders for support. I could carry him, she thought and laughed inwardly. Yes, and then anybody who'd see us advancing in this gloom would think of me as a man and Jaime as a maiden fair.
Except that his body was as strong as her own and where his velvety red tunic touched her coarse brown one, the colours and the textures of the fabric melted together like two pieces of the same garment in the fragile candlelight.
The walk was not that long. The monk guided them alongside the grand opening in the caverns with the weirwood throne, avoiding to enter the hollow space around it. It had a look of menace to it when it was empty of the crowd. No fire burned in the pit. Brienne unconsciously pulled Jaime very close to herself as if she wanted to protect him from it now, although there was no real threat at all.
"Brienne," he said at that, hoarsely, and she blushed realizing what she did, "you may be a true knight, but they're also made of flesh and blood. As am I to my great misfortune."
Brienne didn't quite get the meaning of his latest taunt, and by his tone she wasn't sure that she wanted to, when a widening in the tunnel suddenly revealed a tree, then a yard, and finally a familiar shape of an inn built of wood and rough masonry. They walked for another minute under the evening sky, finding shelter in the growth around the building, until there was no place left to hide.
Opening their eyes wide, the three of them walked into the clearing and saw them all.
Ser Shadrich climbed up high in a tree, one of the oldest and the thickest he could find, more gnarled than his aged freckled face. The branch he held on to was shaking with his fear, and the air below it carried a peculiar scent, as if he may have done something in his breeches and not only of the liquid kind.
The boy dressed as a lord's squire, a proper little lord in truth, stood fearless in the middle of the clearing. He threatened the invisible enemy with a child sword drawn forward, small and probably not sharp at all. Young Lord Robert Arryn drooled from the left corner of his mouth and one of his eyes was running in the opposite direction from another. Had it not been for the bravery in his stance, Brienne's heart would have been moved with pity. Behind his back, he held firmly with his free skinny arm a mousy dirty girl, an orphan and a commoner, a head shorter than himself. The only thing the children had in common was a colour of their hair, dark brown, grown too long to be considered proper, and completely unkempt.
"I am a falcon," the little lord said with conviction, wiping the foam from his mouth. "I swore a solemn vow to protect the women and the children."
The door of the inn was shut behind them both, out of their reach, and the two fires were burning high on its flanks, illuminating the other worldly beauty of the night, glowing in the brilliance of freshly fallen snow. A good night to die in peace, Brienne thought for no reason at all.
"Look," Jaime whispered as the monk cautiously blew the candle out. The children did not see them, but the enemy did.
There were only three of them facing young Lord Arryn and they were once men. One was the archer who shot the Elder Brother and the other two looked like common thieves. Their eyes shone blue in the dark, not the Tully blue of Lady Catelyn and Lady Sansa, or the sunny blue of the waters of Tarth. Their eyes had the deadly colour of ice and they were unforgiving. Brienne noticed that the archer also had an imprint of the noose on his bare neck. So the good people here had the sense to hang him after all, she thought, not approving of what they did. But her thought sounded insolent like Jaime's, and she wondered what else she was going to become if she stayed for too long in his presence.
An arrow flew in her direction and she ducked, pushing the monk out of harm's way as well. The archer has less precision when dead, she thought grimly, unsheathing her sword. The monk carried a peasant axe and stood his ground when the brigands stormed upon them. She cut an arm but she could swear it reattached itself. She parried and sliced for what could have been hours or mere minutes, but the enemy was still there. And Jaime was not.
The alarm sounded in her head when she saw the corpses attacking her burning, burning, burning... Returning to the Stranger as the dead should.
The bony monk wiped his sweaty brow in the light of the fire. A pair of green eyes beneath the flaming corpses tossed a large burning branch far away, jumping on one leg. The dark green pupils moved forward to reach Brienne, and then they closed, and lost balance, falling quietly in the softness of the snow.
Little Lord Arryn came to her, holding a hand of a girl child.
"Is he a knight?" he asked. "He saved us all. That's what the knights do. He rolled himself in snow to reach the fire. They didn't see him."
"He is," she confirmed, lowering herself next to Jaime.
Brienne laid him on the monk's cloak that the servant of the Seven generously provided, despite shivering in his breeches in the knee-deep snow. It was too small for Jaime but it would have to do. His eyes remained closed, but he was breathing steadily and he seemed unharmed. He will wake up, he has to, it must be only the cold that made him weak, she told herself and observed him. The smooth red velvet of the tunic was scorched in many places, the left forearm and the chest under his neck singed in such a way that no blond hairs grew on those places. She opened the tunic further and pulled his left sleeve up, only to see that the golden procession of curls continued under it, and there were no wounds to be seen. As if he crawled into the fire and not only towards it. He could have gotten burnt, he was lucky, she thought.
Brienne didn't know what to do when the boy spoke.
"She is Willow. She didn't have time to go in with the others. She came home after the dark. And her sister wouldn't let me and Ser Shadrich sleep in the inn. The rich were not welcome among the orphans, she told me. And I am also an orphan, I told her, but she wouldn't listen to me."
"You were valiant, my lord. And your father will be happy to see you unharmed."
"He is not my father. I want Alayne back! But she is Sansa now, and she's my cousin, so I cannot marry her," the boy started to pout and Brienne who was at a loss what to do. Women like her were surely not meant to deal with children.
"Willow," Brienne said, "would your sister let us in for the night, please? Ser Jaime needs warmth and there may be more dead things in the wood."
At her words Ser Shadrich almost fell from the tree, hurling curses at the bloody winter, wights and the ladies who should birth suckling babes instead of being knights too stupid for their own good, when the door of the inn opened with a rattle.
Brienne gripped the black stone pendant around her neck, and faced the girl with the long raven black hair standing at the door. The noose had been around her neck as well, and she had been dead for awhile.