The bitter cold swatted at his face like the low brittle branches of dead trees, whilst riding at a full gallop through a thicket. With his only hand, he reached up and pulled the hood of his cloak over his head. He wrapped his red woolen scarf about his face until only the blue of his eyes shown. With at least one hundred leagues left to travel until he reached Winterfell, his thoughts were his only companions and the memories of his misdeeds, regardless of his regrets, clung to him beneath his cloak. Memories gave way to emotions. Emotions fell short of his expectations. Expectations led to dread that his promise—his oath to support the King in the North, not only severed any bonds to his name but also to his queen.
Regardless of the many years since his last journey to Winterfell, the damage done there remained. A boy he'd nearly killed was left a cripple. A boy whose existence was forever changed, simply because he disobeyed his mother and saw something no boy should ever see. A boy who stood for the last time in his life as a witness to a betrayal so sinister, that the players stole something even more precious than his legs; his innocence. The Gods' mercy had spared his life and left the boy's vision clean but word of the now young man's third eye, told he now saw everything. Jaime was certain he now remembered everything as well, and blaming a child had never, nor did it still, release him from his crime.
His regrets did not allow him to lay blame on Cersei. From the night she seduced him as a teenager and convinced him to join the Kingsguard to be ever near to her, pushing a precocious child from a window was the least of his crimes. The largest was allowing her manipulation and control to day by day, strip away his honor and replace it with puppet strings. This burden he carried was of his own making. To lay blame elsewhere would falsely absolve him of guilt but the price would come at the admission that he'd of his own free will, sacrificed himself at the altar of her selfish desires.
Only one person had ever seen him laid bare. Bloody, battered and weak, without a will to live, without his sword hand or even a sword to hold in it. Only one, and she was now less than one hundred leagues away.
The white wind blew harder and the air grew colder, and yet knowing he had at least one person who believed him still capable of summoning the better of himself to the surface when duty called, carried him on. Perhaps, Tyrion would as well. Tyrion might defend him to the Dragon Queen and King Snow. However, even his own brother had never seen him in the darkest depths of his life. Only Brienne of Tarth knew the truth and by nightfall, he'd be able to see himself again at last in her warm blue eyes before the long night covered Westeros once more.
Winterfell was under the siege of a blizzard. The graying sky had turned to black an hour earlier than only the day before. Any preparations Lady Sansa had made would have to suffice through the long night. They were out of time. Jon had arrived just before the worst of the storm reached their lands, accompanied by his queen and her envoy. There was barely time for greetings, let alone reunions but setting sight on Arya, gave Jon a renewed hope that having all of the surviving Stark children in Winterfell was an omen of good fortune.
Daenerys' armies were coming on foot as well as horseback from Kings Landing, and Jon feared the storm would slow them down considerably, if not completely stop them for the night. "They'll be fine," Daenerys said, when Jon relayed his concerns to her as the storm strengthened. "As will my dragons." A private meeting between Jon, Tyrion and Daenerys was underway in Jon's chamber. A strategy was building but tension filled the room with awkward glances and an unspoken chill veiled their exchanges.
"Lady Brienne, Podrick and several others just arrived through the gates. I'm sure you're right that our army will arrive soon but we'll see what the night brings." Jon paced as he spoke.
"We're meeting with the lords in the hall in one hour. I'll leave you two to sort out your topics of discussion," Tyrion said, as he turned to leave.
"I believe we'd value your input," Daenerys said.
"As I told you, had I known of King Snow's plan to bend the knee prior to him actually bending it, perhaps we could have developed a plan with which we could have presented a more diplomatic solution…for the time being. Rallying troops who despise me and calling banner-men who'd see me hanged rather than leading a charge is not one of my strengths. "
"And what my lord, would you have suggested?" Jon asked with a sneer.
"Oh, I don't know but perhaps including your only northern supporters in your decision, to make them feel more informed on the reasons for your decision? You do realize there is the strong possibility that King Snow's true motivation for bending his knee will be called into question…don't you? If I may make a suggestion," Tyrion said, strutting to the door. "It would be that you avoid making eye contact with each other during this meeting. Wolves and bears can smell more than just fear." Tyrion exited the room.
"He's right you know," Daenerys said, crossing the room towards Jon.
"I know how I feel and what you did for us. I told you, they will come to see you for what you are…"
Daenerys interrupted him, "What, a usurper? A foreign invader, who's come to steal away your kingdom and demand fealty from your people?"
"No. You know what I'm speaking of. You saved our lives—all of our lives. That's worth more to me than misguided opinions on who kneels to whom. Besides, what difference will any of this make unless we defeat the Night King?"
"Yes, I do understand but they don't, and we no longer have time to prove it. The only way we can prove why we're all here is marching on the wall as we speak."
"What would you have me do? Deny you? Deny what's happened between us because I won't do that." Jon gazed upon her face—the face he believed he'd loved since he first saw her.
"Yes. That's exactly what I'd have you do." Daenerys said, looking deeply into Jon's dark eyes. "We need to set our hearts aside and pray when this all ends, they'll be room for us together in the world—in the new world. Right now, our people need us to lead them."
"I'll not deny my love for you nor pretend for anyone. There isn't a world large enough for me to hide in where no one would see it. There will be a place for us when this is all over and we will defeat the dead if for no other reason than to build that world together," Jon said, pulling Daenerys to his chest and kissing her deeply. "The gods brought us together for a purpose. Not to lose and certainly not to die."
After one long last kiss, Jon released her and walked heavily towards the door.
"Where are you going?" Daenerys asked.
"To see my father."
When Brienne, Podrick, Ser Sandor and their Dothraki envoy arrived at the gates, they were quickly brought inside to the great hall and supplied with warm mead and cold eyes. Brienne had barely spoken on their journey to anyone but Podrick and quickly rushed to Lady Sansa's chambers for reassurance of her safety. Lady Sansa opened the door and invited Brienne in immediately.
Arya stood like a silent shadow near the hearth as Sansa spoke. "Lady Brienne. We're thankful you have all returned safely. I apologize for sending you so abruptly."
"Thank you my Lady. No apologies necessary. I'm just relieved to find you both safe and well."
"Brienne, please sit and warm yourself. We've something important to tell you," Lady Sansa said, waiving Brienne to the chair opposite where Arya stood.
Once Brienne was seated, Sansa spoke, "Lord Baelish is dead. We held trial and he was found guilty of murder and treason. You see, as much as my sister and I appreciated your honor and protection, we've both learned quite a lot about how to survive. We offer you our deepest thanks and gratitude. Our experiences combined with the strength we drew from being here together, allowed us to see him for what he truly was and gave us the foresight to end his reign of treachery."
Brienne was speechless for a moment. She inhaled deeply, filled with pride. "I hope you will still allow me to serve you my ladies," she said as she stood and bowed.
"Eternally, Lady Brienne. I can think of no one else we'd rather have in our service."
"I can think of no one else to spar with who wouldn't somehow end up dead," Arya smiled.
A knock came at the chamber door. It was Podrick.
"Yes, Podrick?" Lady Brienne asked.
"Someone is at the gate my Lady and he's asking for you," Podrick replied in a whisper.
"My ladies," Brienne bowed and followed Podrick. The storm was letting up quite a bit now and the half-moon gave the torch lights a much needed hand in lighting their way through the courtyard.
"Lady Brienne, this half frozen street rat claims he knows you," said one of the guards at the gate.
Just then, the rider raised his eyes into the glowing reflection of the freshly fallen snow. She knew those eyes immediately and her own grew wide in surprise. "Let him in! Immediately," she shouted and ordered Podrick to see the man through and find him somewhere to dry off and warm himself.
"Yes my Lady," Podrick answered, taking the horse by the bit and pulling it, along with it's now slumped over rider, into the stables. "The castle rooms are filling quickly my Lady. Shall I put him in my chamber?" Podrick gave her a look of knowing.
"Yes. See him there," Brienne answered.
Just then, the man slid down from his horse and stepped slowly towards her.
"Ser Jaime. It appears you've forgotten your army," Brienne said.
"Cersei lied. I have no army to bring. Once I gather my strength I'll leave for the Riverlands to enlist our remaining garrisons there to fight with us. I had to come here first and warn Queen Daenerys and King Snow." His voice was dry and raspy and his eyelashes and brows were white with ice crystals.
"Go with Podrick. I'll find the King and relay what you've told me. I wouldn't look for a warm reception, regardless of your loyalty to this fight. Without your army, I don't see how any one man can be an asset to this cause…even you."
"I understand," he said and turned to follow Podrick.
"Ser Jaime?" Brienne said. He turned and looked back at her over his hunched shoulder. "Thank you for keeping your word. It is incredibly brave and honorable."
He nodded once and said, "Fuck loyalty."
"What?" Brienne cringed at him.
"Your words. You were right." He said and walked on.
Brienne hadn't much time before the meeting in the great hall. King Snow was nowhere in sight so she found herself at the chamber door of Lord Tyrion.
"Lady Brienne, do come in," Tyrion said, waving her into the room. "To what do I owe the honor of your visit?" Tyrion poured himself a glass of wine and offered her one, to which she declined.
"Your brother has fulfilled his oath to join us in the fight against the dead."
"Well of course he has. I was there too, remember?" he said, with a hint of sarcasm and a grin.
"He's here. He arrived only minutes ago."
"Jaime is here in Winterfell?" Tyrion's eyes were alit with what appeared to be awe. "Well where is he? It's going to get rather crowded here very shortly. I'll need to speak with Lady Sansa immediately to sort provisions and provide…"
"Lord Tyrion, Ser Jaime has come alone. He has no army at his back nor your sister, the Queen's support."
"I beg your pardon? That's impossible. My sister…"
"Lied," Brienne said in her most stern tone. "They're not coming. I've had Podrick lodge Ser Jaime in his chamber. I suggest you go to him immediately before the meeting. He may have more to impart that we hadn't time to discuss." Lady Brienne turned to the chamber door and waved Tyrion out, then took the lead, escorting him to his brother. However, the crowd was already gathering and there was no time to relay whatever information Jaime had to the King before the meeting in the hall. He'd have to save this regrettable information until their small council meeting afterwards.
The great hall was filled to capacity. All the northern lords and ladies, clad in their heavy furs, were gathered shoulder to shoulder and seated tightly as they awaited their King to address them and appraise the dire circumstances that had brought them together on this night. Sansa now sat to the left of center at the head table, facing the room, with Bran to her right. The hall was loud with the voices of grumbling and boisterous opinion until Lady Arya spoke, quieting them as the King, Queen Daenerys and Lord Tyrion entered the room.
"My Lords and Ladies of the North and our gracious allies as well." Jon said, choosing to stand before them.
"Allies? None of us recall any discussion or agreement on swearing fealty to this foreign queen and her hoard of savages," called out Lord Glover, to the groaning cheers of the room.
"Silence!" shouted Arya. "Your King is speaking."
"With respect my lord, the time for bickering over fealty is done. We are out of time. You all know I've pledged loyalty to Queen Daenerys Targaryen and if we survive this great war and win, should you all denounce me and un-name me as your King so be it. But now, right now we are here because of her. We all want to live through the long night and there's no way any of us will live to see the dawn without her, her armies and yes, her dragons. Your loyalty isn't to me, or the Queen or even the North now. Your loyalty is to the realm and protecting all life as we know it from extinction. There are only a handful of us here who know what's coming for us. The wall has been breached. They've resurrected the dragon and the Nights King has used it to destroy the wall at Eastwatch. Bran saw this and relayed this information to me moments before we gathered."
"The wall cannot fall!" shouted several voices in the crowd.
"I assure you I've seen it. The wall at Eastwatch is no more," Bran added, looking up at Jon.
Danaerys swallowed hard, keeping her composure yet looking to Jon with pleading eyes. Tyrion stepped forward. "Please, listen to your King. He has seen them. He has fought them, along with these brave souls you see before you. We must pull together, regardless of our houses or promises, for we have no promise of life once these things reach us. If what Brandon says is true, we'll be lucky to have a week before they're upon us," Tyrion said. He too looked to Jon for assurance. Jon nodded.
"The game is over. We stand together or we fall and die together," Jon said, turning to leave.
"Jon Snow is our King and he's the only King I'll follow. If the King calls us to fight together, we fight, together. However, let it be known that if we defeat the army of the dead, we shall have no one other than the King we chose. The north shall remain independent in the realm to house Mormont. Now, lead on King Snow. We are with you and always will be," LyAnna Mormont said as she rose and turned to leave. "Bear Island will be ready."
"I wish to speak before we go," Daenerys said, stepping forward. "You do not know me. You know only my family's shame and the legacy of my father, the Mad King. When this war is over, I hope you will all come to know me for who I am, not where I came from. I came here to save the north, along with all of you. I am not your enemy." The room was silent. This time, Jon swallowed hard and led them all from the great hall with Daenreys at his side.
"Podrick, will you excuse Lady Brienne and I for a bit. I believe we have some air to clear," Jaime said, upon Tyrion's exit from Podrick's chamber.
Podrick gave Brienne a glance, requesting her permission to leave to which she nodded. "Pod, find Lady Sansa and offer her your services in whatever capacity she requires in order to get the armies settled for the night."
"Yes my Lady," he said and bowed to them both as he departed.
A long silence filled the room for several moments, until they both began to speak at once.
"I've left her."
"Why did you come?"
"I'll answer your question first," Jaime answered, stepping backwards and sitting down on Podrick's bunk. "You said, 'fuck loyalty.'"
"I only meant…"
"No, you were right. At least where Cersei was concerned, you were. I didn't know she was lying. I swear to you I did not know." He bowed his head and shook it slowly as Brienne stood as a statue and allowed him to finish. "She conspired behind my back with Euron Grayjoy to ferry the Golden Company from Essos. He wasn't leaving for Pyke. She lied to us all that she'd send our armies here to fight with the North and Queen Daenerys. I've been nothing but a fool and a pawn to her since we were children. She's used me and out of some twisted Lannister loyalty, I let her. My whole life I let her." His voice trailed off as he leaned forward on his thighs and put his head in his hands.
"You told your brother then?" she asked quietly, to which he only nodded. "He loves you, you know. I don't claim to know him very well but I do know that if my brother had done for me what you did for him when he was sentenced to die…"
"I'm going to have to speak to Jon Snow and Daenerys. My only hope is that I'll be able to convince our army in the Riverlands to join the fight," he said, raising his head and then rising to his feet.
"I'm not sure now is a good time Ser Jaime. The small council is meeting to plot our course of defense against the dead. Besides, I'm certain Lord Tyrion will speak on your behalf. Simply by virtue of your appearance here alone, knowing King Snow and the Targaryen Queen, they'll be grateful to have such a seasoned and capable soldier such as yourself on their fighting side."
Jaime walked slowly towards Brienne as she still stood with her back inches from the closed door of the chamber. "They'll have you to thank for my being here," he said, almost in a whisper.
"I'm sure the betrayal you endured, as well as your honor, brought you. I had nothing to do with it," Brienne said, turning her eyes away and down, shying from Jaime's.
"My honor you say. My honor has been to know you, Lady Brienne, and my thanks to you for leading me here stands true." He lifted her chin with his left hand and tilted his head to meet her eyes again. "Do you know why I gave you that sword?"
"Yes," she whispered, stepping to the hearth. She gazed into the fire and rested her hand on the lion head pommel. "Of course I remember."
"You remember what I told you when I gave it to you but you don't know the true meaning behind it," Jaime said, stepping around her and again, meeting her face to face.
"I saw no other meaning in your gesture." Her eyes shot up and met his, her pale face now alit completely by the fire's glow.
"How could you have seen it? How could you have known it? If you could see yourself as I see you, as others do…"
"I know what others see," she sniped through her teeth, glaring at him.
"I don't believe you do, Brienne." He half smiled.
"My entire life I've known and no one including you, who has bitten their tongue to stifle their opinion of either my appearance or my loyalty. A beast of a woman wasn't it?" She paused. "They see a sword whose devotion to her vocation is her only value. That's all they've ever seen or need to see—are we finished here because I'm certain that my honorable presence is required somewhere right now," she growled and spun away, heading for the door, when she felt Jaime's hand on her arm.
"Please, let me finish or I may never again have the chance. Not that I haven't watched every chance to speak to you as it came and passed by." His voice trailed off.
Brienne stopped and glanced down at his hand resting on her arm. She did not speak and she allowed him to finish his thought as she struggled not to tremble.
"While we were together for those weeks on our way back to King's Landing, no matter how badly I behaved or treated you, you never wavered in your duty to see it through. I envied you, at least at first but during that time something changed in me. I still can't explain it clearly enough that I believe I could make you understand but you did this. You saw something in me that I'd forgotten was there." Frustration swelled in his tone. "Can you look at me? Can you give me that, Brienne?"
She at last turned and faced him again but his hand was no longer resting on her arm. He reached down and took her hand in his and pulled it to his chest. "Cersei said you loved me. She said she could see it in your eyes when she thanked you for bringing me back to King's Landing that day at Joffrey's wedding feast. Tell me now, was it love or was she wrong?"
"We shouldn't speak of such things at a time like this," Brienne whispered, glancing at Jaime's hand, still clutching hers and pulling her ever closer to him but she didn't pull away.
"Why not? Why not now? When shall we speak of them then? Tomorrow? Because we might not be here tomorrow," Jaime shouted in a whisper.
"Why are you doing this? You're treading on precarious ground."
"Please…just answer the question," Jaime insisted.
"Do you love me?"
"You haven't found your honor. You're cruel. I was wrong about you Jaime Lannister. I can't believe I ever trusted you or believed there was any semblance of honor buried beneath that blond hair and bullshit. Let me go! How dare you ask…" Brienne's words had barely escaped her mouth when Jaime pushed his lips to hers, still holding her hand pressed tightly against his heart. She didn't kiss him back for the first few seconds but he was unrelenting and not letting go of her hand. When that second did arrive, she succumbed to his affection with instinctual passion. Jaime at last released her hand and although she was still covered in armor, he wrapped her in a tight embrace before at last, ending the kiss.
"Answer me," he whispered, "please?" His eyes roamed her face, searching for the answer until his glance rested on her blue eyes that were now filling with tears. "Never mind," he said, and kissed her again. This time, her hands slid up and over his shoulders until her long fingers slid into his hair.
"Why are you crying?" Jaime breathed into her ear and then wiped a fallen tear from her cheek.
"Before I walked into this room, I didn't care if I lived or died as long as I was protecting those girls and doing my duty." She sniffled. "Now, I'm afraid. I fear everything because I've crossed into the unknown."
"Yes but I'm holding your hand as you cross."
"I really have to go," she insisted.
"Please, don't," Jaime whispered, stroking her cheek as he kissed her again with more passionate intent than any kiss of his life. "Stay with me," he pleaded, leaving kiss and after kiss on her cheeks and lips.
"I can't," she whimpered, as he persisted until a soft knock came at the door.
Brienne quickly swiped her tears away as she pulled herself reluctantly from Jaime's embrace. She glanced back at his brooding expression and frowned through her blushed cheeks as she opened the door.
"My Lady, I've received orders from Lady Sansa. We ride at first light for the Vale per the King's orders.
"Everyone?" she asked, wide eyed with shock.
"No my Lady. You are to escort Lady Sansa and Lady Arya, along with several others and a garrison of soldiers to the Vale. King Snow believes they'll be safer there." Podrick stood still and appeared to be awaiting a response.
"Is there anything else, Pod?"
"Will my lady be returning to her chamber soon? If I'm no longer required, I'd like to get some sleep. I believe we'll be needing it."
Jaime cleared his throat and stepped into the doorway behind Brienne. "Podrick, why don't you take Lady Brienne's chamber for tonight. She and I still have quite a bit to discuss." Jaime winked, unbeknown to Brienne.
"But then where will Lady Brienne sleep? Oh, yes my Lord. Oh…yes, of course m' Lord," Podrick's eyes widened and a tight lipped grin grew on his face.
"Podrick?" Brienne said, lowering one eyebrow as Podrick bowed several times and sped away. "Do you think he…"
Jaime closed the door and latched it. "You're leaving at first light."
"Apparently I am." She lowered her head and turned again for the door. "This is madness."
"And where do you think you're going?" Jaime smiled a coy yet devilish smile.
"Poor Pod. He must think the worst of me," Brienne sighed.
"He seemed rather agreeable to this arrangement. I've never seen anyone so disappointed smile like that," Jaime purred as he stepped to her and began to unbuckle Oathkeeper from her waist.
"Don't be afraid," Jaime whispered through his most deep and unrelenting kiss so far and yet his hand trembled when it skimmed the smooth bare surface of Brienne's shoulder, and down the full length of her arm. "I know you're still a maid."
"I'm not afraid of you and I'm not the one who's trembling," she replied, now more relaxed and engaged in their passionate affections. "What are you afraid of?" she asked, pulling her lips away from his and taking his face in her hands.
"Oh, I assure you my darling woman," he whispered as they stood pressed together in nothing more than the golden glow of the fire, "my fear isn't making love to you. I've been here in my thoughts more times than I can count."
"Then what is it?" Her blue eyes sparkled and a slight smile thinned her lips.
"I've never been with anyone else. Do you understand?" His expression changed from confident lover to wounded boy. He swallowed hard and brushed the back of his hand down her cheek.
"Jaime Lannister, don't worry. No one will believe this ever happened or remember us when this is all over anyway," Brienne smiled and led him to the bed, pulling him down with her as she lay.
He took his time with her. He'd seen her tall, well carved naked body before but it came to his memories more as a dream than reality. He was sick with fever and pain at the time and when she stood before him in the bath, towering over him like some pale, marble statue, her form manifested in his mind like a Goddess. He remembered the wet, flat patch of blond hair where her smooth inner thighs met and the slight shadow beneath her small and delicate breasts, as if he were gazing up at her in the clouds. He'd savor every edge and curve of her. By first light, he'd commit all of her to his memory and draw her from that hazy dream into reality. He delighted in the pleasure of transforming marble into tender flesh beneath his hand.
He'd never been more alive than this night—and he wanted to fight and live more now than ever if only to find a new world when the dawn came. As he lay, cradling this divine woman in his arms, watching the dying fire throw soft shadows around the chamber, he guarded himself from thoughts of his past life still existing after this war or of his unborn child. He couldn't control the visions of a life he'd never had; marriage, a home of his own and children he could name…Lannister.
He slid quietly from the bed and tended that fire. He couldn't let it go out. He bore the unfamiliar chill and placed the wood, then stoked it until it roared yellow and hot again. As the room brightened, he turned and gazed at her pale smooth face. She was more beautiful than any woman he'd ever seen in his eyes, as if he was seeing her for the first time. The urge to kiss that face again overtook him as he knew he would never again have the chance. Nor could he control the urge to wake Brienne and make love to her again for quite possibly, the last time.