Sansa was, as always, radiantly lovely, but impending motherhood had imparted her with an effulgence that made her seem impossibly beautiful. Her skin glowed, her hair shone, her eyes sparkled, and Brienne felt a bit dazed as the other woman approached but still managed to extend her arms for an embrace.
"I'm so, so happy to see you again!" Sansa burbled as she enfolded herself into Brienne's arms. She smelled of sugar and lemons, as always, and the apprehension Brienne had been feeling to see her again just melted away. Whatever problems Sansa brought with her, she was Brienne's closest friend and it was wonderful to see her again.
"You look wonderful," she said when they drew back. "You're feeling well? Everything is going as it should? Your trip was uneventful? I hope you didn't have any problems, travel can be hard on an expecting woman—"
"Everything is perfect," Sansa replied with a laugh. "The men doted on me so much, I wasn't allowed to do a thing the whole time. I'm glad to be here at last, maybe I'll be able to cut my own food, now."
It was always a shock to encounter the tender side of Sandor Clegane, who looked as if he ate a barrel of nails for breakfast each morning, but the man looked at his wife as if the sun rose and set because of her. Brienne was sure she did not want that extreme of devotion aimed in her direction, but perhaps a lesser variation…?
"Sansa, you said your friend was striking, but you never told me she was glorious!" exclaimed a hearty male voice, and Brienne drew back in alarm, searching for whoever might have said such a ludicrous thing.
Down the hall, behind Sansa, a stranger had exited the parlor and stood there, apparently awestruck at the sight of Brienne. He had a wild bristle of red beard at his chin and a matching ginger shock on his head, and his gaze was wide with delight as he ran it over Brienne's substantial form.
"You needn't look so horrified," Sansa whispered as the man approached. "He's quite harmless and I assure you, his admiration is genuine. He is very honest and would not give empty flattery."
Brienne only had time to blink in surprise before he arrived before them.
"Tormund Giantsbane, ma'am," he said, pressing her hand between two big ruddy paws and gazing soulfully into her eyes. "I confess, at first I only came along with Sandor and his missus to keep them company and help if it were needed—"
"It wasn't," grumbled a deep voice that Brienne recognized as belonging to Sansa's husband. "Told you to stay back a dozen times."
"—but now I know how wise Sansa is, how right she was to sing your praises the whole trip south," Mr. Giantsbane concluded. "It would please me greatly if you'd walk out with me, ma'am."
Brienne flicked her gaze from him to Sansa, disbelief plain in her expression. Sansa only dimpled mischievously, and Brienne felt a tide of nostalgia for Dorne, much preferring to have been dodging Martells in Sunspear or even choking on clouds of dust in dingy little Ghost Hill.
Jaime, she thought with longing, and sighed.
"Before she agrees to anything," Sansa interjected, "she has yet to greet my Sandor and someone else who came with us."
She threaded her slim little arm through Brienne's thick, muscular one and drew her around Mr. Giantsbane and down the hall to the parlor.
Within the space was Sandor Clegane, his massive form dwarfing her father's wing chair by the fireplace, long legs stretched out and reaching halfway across the not-small room. He got to his feet at the women's entrance, though reluctantly— not one for polite gestures, was Sandor— and Brienne had drawn in a breath to welcome him when another man stood from the settee over by the pie-crust table.
"Is that— Jory?" she said, eyes widening with shock. Yes, it was Jory Cassel, second groundskeeper of Winterfell Estate. "What a surprise to find you here!" she exclaimed after a moment, going to him, hands outstretched.
He took her hands in his own. "A pleasant one, I hope," he said, smiling up at her; though not a short man, still he was no match for her height.
"Of course it is!" She had enjoyed their acquaintanceship warming to friendship in the last few years, spending quite a lot of time with him during her recent visits. She liked gardening; it was peaceful, and she enjoyed the outdoors. Jory had been excellent company when she felt the desire to have soil in her hands. "But what brings you here with Sansa and Sandor and Mr. Giantsbane? Surely there was no more need for help or protection with those two."
"Wasn't a need for it with just me alone," muttered Sandor. He swiped another cookie from the plate laden with them and tucked it, whole, into his mouth.
"No, I felt the need to see a bit of the world," Jory replied. "After you left Winterfell in the spring, it struck me that I've seen blessed little of the country… hadn't ever left the north but once, and that hadn't been for pleasure. I thought that perhaps the Cleganes wouldn't mind another in their little group, and hoped you wouldn't mind having me as a guest here, too."
"I don't mind at all!" Brienne said, smiling. At first she went to hide her teeth, as usual, but recalling how Jaime had told her not to be ashamed of herself, she thought Jory in his kindness would not be too repelled to see the state of them and let her hand drop. He seemed surprised but pleased, his own smile widening.
"Have you been here long?" she said then, her tone becoming more businesslike as she turned to face the rest of her guests. She began to unbutton her jacket. "I apologize for not being here when you arrived, but you anticipated me by several days. I thought I would have more time to make it back before you got here."
"We arrived yesterday," Sansa soothed, taking the jacket— snatched from her by Sandor and handed off to Old Aemma, who stood by with a disapproving expression— and smoothed down Brienne's wrinkled sleeve. "We couldn't go by ship— I have developed a crippling mal-de-mer the moment I step foot on a boat, I fear— so we took the train and it made excellent time, for once—"
She beamed at Old Aemma, unphased when the other woman merely glowered at her.
"—and your staff has been very welcoming and pleasant," Sansa concluded, and seemed to honestly think that was the case, that Old Aemma was thrilled to accommodate and tend to four additional people at short notice. She always saw the best of others. Brienne was very glad Sansa had Sandor to watch out for her, if Brienne could not. However naive she herself might be, Sansa was tenfold more so.
"Very good," said Brienne, catching Old Aemma's eye and giving her a severe look that said be polite and is there enough for dinner? and I hope you aired out the other guest rooms before putting Jory and Mr. Giantsbane in them.
Old Aemma's scowl replied I'd like to see you make me and just barely, if I get some fish from the market within the hour and of course, I'm not a savage.
"I hope you'll all excuse me for a brief while," Brienne told them. "I've just returned from a bit of a journey and need to make myself presentable."
"Don't bother on our account," boomed Mr. Giantsbane. "I like you windblown and dusty."
Brienne shot Sansa an incredulous look; Sansa only returned an impish grin that seemed, impossibly, to find him charming instead of peculiar and verging on inappropriate.
"You'll probably be more comfortable tidied up," said Jory with a sympathetic smile, kindly as always. Brienne realized in horror that he was aware of Mr. Giantsbane's purpose in accompanying them to Tarth and felt her cheeks bloom with heat.
She hastened to turn away. "Old Aemma will get you anything you need while I'm at it. Please excuse me."
"Of course!" Sansa said while Brienne shot Old Aemma one last warning glare and departed for her room.
It was at the top of the square tower by her choice. The vista was unparalleled anywhere on the island, making her feel as if she could survey the whole of her domain at the same time. For once, however, she did not pause to appreciate it, hurrying instead to strip off her traveling suit, wash off the worst of her journey, and re-dress. She had a moment's quandary of what to wear; ought she to put on something more appropriately feminine? Mr. Martell had responded favorably— too favorably— when she'd worn a skirt and frilly blouse…
…but Jaime had responded favorably regardless of whether she was in a skirt or her preferred trousers. She decided that if Mr. Giantsbane were offended by her wearing of masculine attire, he was not the husband for her, and stepped into a pair of gray britches, her tall and well-worn boots, and one of her father's old shirts. She conceded to a thick brown belt to cinch the waist, however, and swiped wet hands through her tumbled hair to tame it before giving it a hasty brushing and braiding. Soon, she was descending the many steps to rejoin her guests.
She found they had wandered out of the parlor onto the parapet ringing the exterior of that level of the castle and stood taking in the view. Sansa was tucked protectively into the circle of Sandor's big arm to shield her from, presumably, any bandits who might suddenly present themselves.
"I hope you have enjoyed your stay so far," Brienne said, "though I can't imagine what you've found to entertain yourselves." She offered a mildly deprecating smile. "We don't have much in the way of excitement here."
"That's part of the charm!" announced Mr. Giantsbane. "I usually spend most of my time trying to keep bears from eating me, so having nothing much to do is a rare treat!"
Brienne blinked. "Well," she said after a moment, "since we're at no risk of becoming a bear's dinner, we must find something else to divert us."
And she had no idea what that might be. Sansa's condition precluded her from engaging in a brisk— or even a not-so-brisk— hike around the mountain, or a swim in the bay's churning waters. They could make a trip into town, but the drive would take longer than the visitation of the shops, so small was Evenfall. That was sure to be boring to Sansa and vexing to the men.
"Didn't you say there was that thing you wanted to show me?" Jory asked her suddenly. "Last time you were at Winterfell?"
Brienne stared blankly at him until she realized he was offering her an escape, albeit only a brief one.
"I did, yes!" she exclaimed with gratitude. "If the rest of you will excuse us…?"
And she bolted down the stairs leading to the inner bailey, Jory hard on her heels if the sound of his close footsteps were any indication. She led him through the gate to the outer bailey, where the sheep were lazy and swaying in the late morning sunlight and the lambs played and tried to climb the low stone walls.
"Thank you!" she told him, a trifle breathless from their dash. "I knew he was coming with them but I didn't realize he would be so… so much."
Jory laughed. "It's been quite an experience, traveling here with him. He's not a bad sort, just… a lot."
Shyly, hesitantly, she continued, "Sansa wants me to marry him. And I can already tell that— that it would be impossible."
No need to tell him about Jaime. Jaime would be her very own secret, held close to her heart.
Jory nodded. "I could tell the moment I met him that he wouldn't suit you. That was the reason I joined them to come here, really."
Brienne frowned, puzzled. What did he mean?
"When I learned that Miss Sansa was bringing Tormund with them when they went south, specifically to introduce him to you, I didn't like it," said Jory. "I knew you wouldn't like it, either. So I figured if you were feeling pressured to marry, to have children, for Tarth, you should have a choice. For practical reasons, if not affectionate ones. So I thought you might consider an alternative."
She shielded her eyes from the sun and peered at him, trying to figure out his meaning, but he looked as he ever did, kind and pleasant and decent, with no hint of any explanation for his words.
"I have been in love with you for several years now," he said, and her mind juddered to a halt.
He smiled at her astonishment. "I must be very good at hiding it."
"You are," she agreed numbly. "Very good. I had no idea." She squinted at him in confusion. "Are you sure?"
"Quite sure," he said with a laugh. "It… crept up on me, I suppose you could say. I thought, at first, that I just liked you, admired you, respected you. That you were my valued friend. And then, when you were at Winterfell only a few months ago, I realized that never before have I wanted to kiss and hold my other friends. Just you." He gave her a rueful smile. "I'm slow to understand things, sometimes. I shouldn't have let you leave without telling you. I thought I'd have time, that I could just wait until you returned next year.
"But when Miss Sansa began making plans to travel here, and bring Tormund along… I knew, then, that my time had run out. The next time you came to Winterfell, you could be married to another man. I had to come as well. I couldn't let it go, let you go, without trying."
He turned his dark eyes up to her, and she saw the same lambent heat in them that she had seen in Jaime's.
"You don't love me, I know that. But you like me. And maybe someday you could find that you love me, too."
He wants me. Somehow, he actually wants me.
"I would be good to you, Brienne. I would be so good to you," he finished.
"I can't leave Tarth," was all she could think to say in reply. She couldn't give up her ancestral home, not even for the sake of marrying and having a family.
"I know. I would never ask you to. I'd come here."
"And leave the north?" Brienne was agog at the notion. If there were one thing, one place, that Jory adored, it was his snowy homeland.
"To have you as my wife? To build a life, a family, here with you?" Jory gazed searchingly at her. "It would be a happy exchange."
Brienne's head was awhirl, and he must have seen something of her confusion, because he gave her another rueful smile and stepped back to lean against the sheepfold wall.
"I know I've just said a lot. I'm sorry to have shocked you so much. I won't speak of it again, unless you bring it up first."
She nodded. "Th-thank you. I will need some time to think about it. To understand it. To… to believe it. I had no idea." She flashed him a wobbly grin. "You really are good at hiding it!"
"Every man has his talents," he said with good humor. "Mine isn't very useful, though."
"Brienne?" Sansa called from a distance, and their heads turned toward the sound of it. "Jory?"
"Seems like our reprieve is over," Brienne said, feeling awkward, unsure how to behave with him now that their dynamic had altered so dramatically.
"We'd best go back," Jory agreed, and when they made to return to the castle, he put out an elbow for her to take.
She swallowed, awash with the memory of walking beside Jaime in the same way. When she slid her arm through his, she was so much taller that her hand was practically tucked into his armpit. He gave no sign of dissatisfaction, however, so she lifted her chin and walked alongside.
But she wished he were Jaime, and hated herself for it.
Jory's revelation, while shocking, was not unwelcome. Tormund's attentions, however, were entirely unwelcome. He was a boisterous man, uncouth and crass, seeming unaware that his repellent jokes and comments were not landing with success upon the target at which he had aimed them.
"Our children would be a marvel of the world," he said for the third time after dinner, while they sat with coffee and tea and biscuits. He raked a lingering glance over Brienne from top to toe and back up again. "They would be enormous. Mon—"
"Monstrous. Yes. So you've said already. Twice," Brienne interrupted him, unconcerned by that point if she offended him or not. She'd only spent several hours with the man and already she longed to see the last of him; a lifetime at his side was guaranteed to end in murder. In comparison, Jory shone brighter and brighter, to her baffled confusion.
Suddenly, she was exhausted and desperate for her own bed for the first time in nearly a week. She put her teacup down on the table and stood. Chairs clattered as the men stood as well.
"I'm sorry, I know I'm a terrible hostess, but… I'm so tired from traveling this week. Would you mind awfully if I went to bed early?"
"Of course not," Sansa replied. "We were just about done in, too, when we arrived. We'll have plenty of time to catch up properly over the next few days."
She stretched up on tiptoe to press a kiss to Brienne's cheek, beaming happily. Brienne kissed her in return, adroitly sidestepping Tormund's attempt to get a kiss of his own, before nodding to Sandor and smiling at Jory. Gratefully, she hurried at last from the parlor.
Instead of entering her bedroom at the top of the tower, however, she slipped up the tiny circular staircase. Each tread was worn concave in the middle from a thousand years of feet climbing them just as she did. It was a clear night, the moon shining bright over the island, and warm. Romantic, even, if she had a man to share it with.
There are two men downstairs who would be more than pleased to share it, she thought, but the idea of either did not appeal. Tormund repulsed her on a variety of levels— if he used the word 'monstrous' again in relation to her or any children she might have, she'd not be responsible for her actions— and Jory's declaration had made her feel awkward and unsure.
She had no idea how to proceed with him. She did not want to lose his friendship, but if she were not able to forge a romantic attachment with him, she was lost as to how to interact with him. How did one behave with a man who cares for one, when one does not return the same level of his esteem? She was loath to hurt him, or make him feel rejected, but neither could she feign love when she did not feel it for him.
Though perhaps she could? With time, with exposure to him as a potential husband instead of merely as a friend? Perhaps if she'd ever entertained the concept of him as a lover, she would not now find it so sudden and bizarre and unlikely to think of him in that capacity. Perhaps over the duration of his stay at Evenfall Hall, she would be able to shift from their platonic rapport to one of love and attraction. If the way he had gazed at her, earlier, were any indication, it would be no conflict for him at all; the struggle would be all on her part.
Brienne barked out one of her loud, unladylike guffaws. Never in her life had she expected to be in such a quandary; it seemed an incomprehensible luxury, to be pursued by not one but two eligible gentlemen, and for at least one of them to genuinely seem to be in love with her. If anything, she'd thought she would be the one languishing for love, and the fellow inspiring it to be the one either oblivious or unreceptive to her desires. For it to be the other way around was— well, clearly not impossible, but… definitely unlikely, almost to that point.
And then there was Jaime. He did not love her, but she believed he had been attracted to her. Another curious and absurd thing that had somehow come to pass. There was no denying it; not even Brienne's incredulity, her dedicated conviction in her own lack of beauty, could overcome the knowledge of his want of her, nor of Jory's, nor even of Tormund's.
Three men, she thought, pressing hands cool from the tower's stone to her flushed cheeks. Three.
She went down to her room and readied for bed, glad to exchange her clothing for a loose sleeveless shift and crawl into bed. She dreaded what the next day would bring, though there was a persistent little niggle of eagerness she could not quite suppress.
Two suitors that day. Who knew what tomorrow might bring?