"Good morning," Sansa Stark said. Her rosy pink robe fluttered around her as she padded across the warm stone floor to where Brienne stood. She could hardly help smiling as she regarded the beautiful creature she had returned to her family. Sansa was more graceful, gentle, and fair than Brienne could ever hope to be. She was built to be a lady.
"Good morning, my lady," Brienne said. "How did you sleep?"
Sansa floated to a stop before her and took her hand. "Oh Brienne! I've not been so happy in all my life. I'm home with Bran and Rickon! Winterfell is whole again. There is not a thing in the world that could disturb my rest."
"I'm glad to hear it," Brienne replied, pulling her broad hand away from Sansa's tiny one. "I know you were not happy away."
Sansa's dark, arched brows knit just the slightest bit. "But something is troubling you."
The Maid of Tarth nodded . "My father has arranged a marriage for me. I am to return to King's Landing as quickly as I can."
"How wonderful!" Sansa said. "There is not news that could be better. A husband is everything I've ever dreamed of having." She paused. "A proper one anyway."
Brienne forced a smile. With my mail and my sword I have been happy enough. "Of course, my lady. I came to tell you before the rest of the castle woke. I left a letter for your brothers, but I must hasten on my way."
Sansa grabbed her hands again as she made to back away. "Surely you can wait a moment! I've just had a letter from Margery Tyrell about everything that is going on in King's Landing. You must be informed before you return. I will not have the woman who served me so well going into that mess without a little knowledge!"
Determined, Sansa strode over to her writing desk, pulling Brienne in her gossamer wake. She snatched up a piece of parchment covered in neat, curling script. "Here we have it!" She freed Brienne, but bid her sit on the bed.
Hopeless of escaping Sansa's gossip, she planted herself on the edge of the fur coverlet.
"Margery writes that her family is well," Sansa said excitedly. "Her lord father is negotiating her marriage to a fine Dornish princeling. Oh here! She says her brother, the handsome Loras, is to be wed in six fortnight's time." She turned to Brienne. "Have you ever had the pleasure of meeting Loras Tyrell? He's beautiful! His hair is rich and chestnut, his skin is perfect and fair, and his eyes...I could have melted within them for their blueness. He's not terribly tall, though."
Brienne tried to look pleased, but the more Sansa described Loras Tyrell's beauty, the more dread filled the pit of her stomach. Wayland Tarth, her lord father, had explained the monetary needs of House Tyrell. "They are without gold to keep their roses...or their good name." But, the only thing Wayland Tarth was seeking was an alliance with a powerful family that would elevate the status of his own. Brienne's dowry of all the sapphire and diamond mines on Tarth would easily buy that good name for her. She bit her tongue.
"She says that Cersei Lannister," Sansa continued, "that terrible creature, has named her uncle as Hand, but she will remain Regent. What right has she to rule when she does it with spite and single-mindedness?"
Brienne nodded solemnly, but her thoughts easily strayed from the Queen Regent. She dwelt on the picture of Loras Tyrell standing next to her before a septon. He would hardly come up to her collarbone. She could almost see the sniggering faces of the slender ladies of Cersei Lannister's court among the witnesses.
Sansa continued to comment on the goings on between tailors, dressmakers, and the noble families at King's Landing. The inconvenience of not having Myrish lace for three weeks or what tedious company the Hightowers had been was no concern to Brienne. She couldn't fathom how Sansa could read letters full of such rubbish every day.
"She regrets to say that she came across Lord Lannister as she passed through the yard the day before she sent the letter," Sansa said. "She comments on his reclusive behavior over the past few months. 'He has hardly attended social functions or seen any guests. He spends most of his time training with a group of common boys who fight backwards.'"
"Backwards?" Brienne said. "What would Tywin Lannister want with common boys?"
"Oh dear, no!" Sansa laughed. "Tywin Lannister is dead and entombed beneath Castlery Rock. Jamie Lannister is the lord of the house now."
Brienne's breath stopped. All the worries of her marriage scattered from her mind, leaving only her memories of the Kingslayer. She had been sitting in the baths at Harrenhall. A heavy layer of fog covered the dimly lit chamber. The padding of bare feet echoed against vaulted ceilings as Jamie materialized from the haze. He wore nothing but the fresh bandages on the stump of his right hand. His body was lithe, but heavily muscled. The gentle contours fitted together perfectly, much unlike the hodgepodge of Brienne's form. His feet arched gracefully; he walked with perfect balance and poise. His spun-gold ringlets fell over his bare shoulders. The curls around his groin were as golden as the mane on his head. Brienne tried to avoid it, but she stared at him even as her cheeks burned. He cast her an odd look, making her sink into the water to cover her ungainly body. At that, he rolled his eyes and slipped into the water.
"Brienne?" Sansa said. "Is something the matter?"
"No," she breathed. "Nothing."
"Margery says that he is training to use to his left hand as his sword hand," Sansa said. "And he is learning as much from the boys who naturally fight that way as they are learning from him. There are rumors that they are going to be his elite guard when their training is done."
"He was never the type to remain idle or helpless for very long."
"I only had the pleasure of meeting him once," said Sansa, her courtier's face hiding her disdain. "He seemed terribly self-absorbed and cruel to anyone but his family and Robert Baratheon."
Brienne shrugged. "Perhaps things have changed."
Sansa beamed. "When things are not what they seem, they are always the greater when their true nature is uncovered."
"Such as a kingslayer?" Brienne said, looking at the ground.
Sansa knelt at her feet. "You did not kill him. His soul has never blamed you." She sighed. "To forgive is the true measure of love," she said, rising slowly and bringing Brienne to her feet. "Forgive yourself and you will understand."
Brienne bowed her head. Sansa most often spoke as a child, but sometimes the things she knew were more fitting of a woman with twice her years. Brienne unbuckled the plain leather belt that bore the battered scabbard of the sword she bought at a tiny market in Duckensdale. She handed it to Sansa.
"My lady, although I leave you now, I will never be gone from you service should you need me. As proof of my loyalty I give you the blade that defended you on our journey."
Sansa's eyes widened. "I-I have no need of a sword."
Brienne smiled. "It is not for you to use, my lady. It will be my weapon if I should ever return to your service."
"You will have no blade to protect you on your return to King's Landing," she protested, trying to push the scabbard back into Brienne's hands. "How could I ever send you away without arms if you are to travel alone... which I am sure you will?"
"I have another sword," Brienne said, quiet.
Unaware of quavering in her Lady Protector's voice, Sansa said, "Of course! How silly of me to think you did not." She held the scabbard close to her like a beloved child's toy. "I will have it mounted on the wall so that I might think of you every day and remember to thank you in my prayers."
Brienne mustered a smile and bowed. "Thank you, my lady. It has been an honor serving you."
Sansa ran up and kissed her cheek before she stood to her full height. "Gather your own belongings, dear Brienne. I will have your saddlebags packed with provisions and what money you'll need."
"I do not need money. Much of what I had still remains."
"Then all you need do is go to the stables and your horse will be saddled and ready."
She went from Sansa's chamber to her own. She would miss the water-warmed walls of Winterfell Castle, which had become a sanctuary for her. Now she had to return to the world of southern lords and ladies, lies and gossip. Her marriage arrangement weighed heavily on her, but she avoided thinking of it as she gathered a few changes of clothes and the more formal garments Sansa had had made for her. She placed them in a leather pack and slung it over her shoulders. Over it all she wore her oilskin and fur cloak.
Hidden under her bed was Oathkeeper, the long, thin-bladed Valyrian steel sword given to her as a token to begin her quest. On it she swore that she would find Sansa Stark and return her safely to her family. She had kept the oath, her oath to Jamie Lannister. The bejeweled scabbard and blade were worth more than her entire dowry (save the mines), possibly more than Cersei Lannister's when she married Robert Baratheon.
Brienne slowly drew the sword. The steel hummed as blue and red light danced across it, making it seem almost violet. She swung it in practiced arcs around her. It was lighter than any other sword she had ever carried. The scabbard weighed far more than the blade did. Almost sadly, she slid it back into its casing and tucked it under her arm. For the first time, she was going to carry it in the open, even if that was only from her chamber to the stable.
Hardly anyone passed her as she made her way to the yard. The sound of hammering reached her ears as soon as she stepped out of the warmth of the castle. She went by the greenhouse, glancing for a moment at the towering figure that stood a head taller than her. The Hound worked in his shirtsleeves. Even in the biting cold he was pouring sweat. He took no notice of the hooded figure that crossed the snowy yard and went into the stables.
The building still smelled of new wood and stone, but the heat of half a hundred horses gave the place a pleasant feel. Brienne strode down the stall block until she reached the box of the big mare that had carried her from King's Landing. Nessel—as Brienne had come to call her—was a bastard form of her true name, Lioness. She was a warhorse, now seven years old, bred from the finest stock in the Seven Kingdoms. She stood over eighteen hands high at the shoulder with a palomino coat and a thick white mane and tail. Her ears pricked when she spotted Brienne.
"Good morning," the lady knight said, stroking a hand down her wide face. She was already saddled, her blanket folded into quarters and used as a pad. Two large bags stuffed with food and the brushes that had been used on the mare that morning were lashed to the sides of the saddle. A bedroll was strapped to the cantle. Brienne slid Oathkeeper into it and then slipped Nessel's bridle on. They walked out of the stable together, both blinking when the wave of cold struck them.
Brienne mounted and settled her cloak over her bags and bedroll to ward off the snow that had begun to fall. Nessel pawed the ground restlessly, eager to return to the warmth of her birthplace in the south. "Come on then," Brienne said as she bumped the horse's sides with her heels. Nessel jumped into a gallop. Brienne didn't try to slow her, although their pace would never last long. Winterfell became a blur as they raced past. A few hands went up, but she never saw to whom they belonged. The landscape soon became barren and white, the trees around the castle long gone. Nessel began to slow and Brienne sat deeper in her saddle, prepared for a long road ahead.
She had bathed hours before the rising of the sun. She ate sparingly, picking at the fruit and bread on her plate. Her warm wine went untouched. She paced her chamber restlessly, naked as her name day, her body steaming in the morning air.
She and Nessel had ridden hard for three fortnights. They stopped at inns more often than not to relieve the chill in their bones, using the gold and silver given them by Jamie Lannister. Once they shared a fire with five hedge knights who spent most of the time comparing their sisters to Brienne. The comparisons were not always flattering. Another time, Brienne had set up a camp of her own and a long-faced slip of a girl carrying a short sword that she sharpened constantly had bedded down with her. She had thin brown hair, and rode a leggy blue roan mare with black legs. They parted ways in the morning. The girl continued to ride north while Brienne went south.
It was a warm day when she and Nessel reached Wildberry Catch, a tiny farming village where knights had often stayed during the great tourneys of the Targaryens. It was only a quarter of a day's ride from King's Landing. Brienne claimed a large room with a bed wide enough to sleep seven. Nessel was fed a large scoop of homegrown grain and almost a full bale of hay.
Brienne now stood before the beaten bronze mirror, starting at someone she hardly knew. Her straw-colored hair, which Sansa had brushed and cleaned twice daily, fell past her shoulder blades. Her face was plain as ever, displaying fairly blunt bones and ugly freckles. She looked down at her feet, long and flat. They never fit well into anything but boots or sandals; slippers that ladies often wore made her look like she had small boats attached to her ankles. Her legs were unnaturally long, but the muscles were lean and defined. She was at least a half a hand taller than many of the men she knew and a head, sometimes two, taller than all the women. She would never be beautiful, and Loras Tyrell would never truly want to be married to her.
The light was starting to show outside the window. Brienne sighed, gave herself one last look in the bronze, and crossed over to her pack. She removed the finer clothes; a pair of leather trousers, a white shirt with ballooning sleeves, black thigh boots, and a long, red bodice with laces up the back. Sansa told her that it fitted to her form like a glove, making her wide hips transition into her middle smoothly. She had refused to take any of the gowns that had been tailored to fit. They looked well enough, but Brienne chose the bodice and trousers because they were more like the knight's clothes she wore when she last stood before the Kingslayer.
More terrifying than facing her husband-to-be was seeing the new Lord of Lannister. He had had six-and-twenty years when she last saw him, but now it was she who had that number. He was one and thirty, a man worthy of lordship. She had constructed a picture of Loras Tyrell many times in her mind, but no matter how handsome he was his face was always replaced by Jamie's. He was the perfect model of a lord, stately and aloof. She only feared that his rashness would get him into trouble at court. Perhaps that is why he stays clear of it.
Brienne summoned a maid to help her lace the bodice. A petite girl with dark hair appeared and quickly set to work. Brienne welcomed the pressure of the laces; it helped keep her back from aching in the saddle. King's Landing was close; she had decided that getting there earlier would give her less time to mull over what Jamie would say when she suddenly appeared.
"You look very well, m'lady," the little maid said. "I wish I was 'alf so tall as you. Tall ladies always get their way. Men are always thinkin' I don't matter or that they don't 'ave to listen to what I say."
Brienne regarded the girl sternly. "But you much more beautiful than I."
The maid shook her head violently. "Oh no, m'lady. My da says a girl wit a faerie dusting like you've got is much prettier than a plain one."
Brienne laughed. She had never heard freckles call 'faerie dust' before. The maid was beaming at her. "I wish you could tell that to everyone at court," she said to her.
"They don't ha' to know about it, m'lady. All you ha' to do is remember you've got the luck of faeries wit you."
"I will," Brienne replied. She fiddled with a bit of her hair, biting her lip.
"M'lady has such lovely thick hair," the maid said. "Would you like me to braid it for you? I know a special way that would become you very well." Brienne didn't bother to protest, although she wanted to be gone from the inn as soon as possible. She had to get her things settled in a room at the castle. Her father had assured her the Tyrells were keeping accommodations for her in their wing of the Keep. She wished to have time to settle the things she brought with her and arrange for some other clothes to be made before she could be presented to her betrothed in another three fortnights.
"There now, m'lady," the maid said, stepping back. "Tell me what you think of it."
Brienne looked at herself in the bronze and blinked in surprise. Her hair was swept back from her face gracefully and collected into an intricate braid with at least six different sections down her back. It was simple, but becoming.
"Do you often braid hair?" she asked the maid.
"I do m' own most often, but I love to do it dearly. I can do half a hundred other things with it if you don't care for this 'ne."
"No, this will do perfectly," Brienne assured her. A thought struck her. "Is this your family's inn?"
The girl frowned. "No, m'lady. I just work here." She put her hands on her hips. "And for a dreadful low wage, but don't go tellin' the owner tha'."
Brienne grinned. "What do you say to two silvers a week if you come to dress my hair and manage my house...well, it's not really a house, but a room perhaps?"
"Two silvers a week, m'lady? That's two month's work here!"
"Are you willing to take care of a household?" Brienne asked, amused by the maid's wonder. "Can you read and write?"
"Aye for both, m'lady, although the second very ill," she replied.
Brienne reached into her pack and drew out a book she had traded for one of Nessel's brushes on the road. She opened it to the first page. "What does this say?"
The maid leaned closer to the neat block lettering. "'It was beyond the c-count of the years...when giants walked...the land of the S-S-Seven Kingdoms."
"That's well enough," Brienne said, smiling. "You will only have a read orders and notes from me. I will handle my figures."
"Readin' may not be great for me, m'lady, but I can do nothin' like I can do figures," the maid said, lifting her chin a bit. "Numbers is easier for me to understand."
"Very well then. You can also handle my figures, but that will add an extra silver a week I should think."
"Oh, m'lady!" the girl cried, falling to her knees and kissing Brienne's hand. "You are the kindest, fairest maid to e'er grace Wildberry Catch."
"I am only in need of an effective woman to keep my things in order." She stopped, but her voice continued in her head: until I am married. "I expect you to do everything you can to serve me well. I will not stand with flirtations with court boys, or disobedience."
"I'd not think o' doin' anythin' against m'lady's wishes," she said, bowing her head as if taking an oath. "I swear to ask you afore doin' something that you haven' told me to."
Brienne raised her; she stood only up to her chest. "Very well then...uh, I do not know your name."
"It's Cersei, m'lady," she said. "My ma saw the Queen Regent when she first came to marry King Robert and threw a flower to her. It caught in her horse's mane so she decided to name me after the beautiful young queen."
Brienne tried not to smile as she imagined what Jamie Lannister would say if he discovered that a common maid's name was the same as his sister's.
"How old are you?" she asked.
"Four and ten, m'lady."
Too young to be interested in men, but not too young to have men interested in her. Brienne nodded, knowing that she would have to keep the girl close to her until she arranged a marriage for her in two or three years. "Very well, Cersei. Today I must ride for King's Landing, but when I am settled enough I will send a page with a horse for you." She pulled the Tarth crest ring from her finger and handed it to the girl. "This will be your proof to the innkeeper that you are now in my service." She pulled out three silvers. The maid's eyes widened. "If there are any accounts you must settle these will surely cover them."
The girl curtseyed low. "All m' thanks, m'lady. I'll have m' things ready when you call."
"I hope it will be tomorrow, Cersei," Brienne said, "but I can't guarantee anything."
The girl nodded. "I am patient, m'lady. My ma taught me well."
Brienne smiled. "I have no doubt of that." With another curtsey, the maid disappeared through the door. Brienne was pleased. She hated telling tailors her dress size a hundred times and then having them look at her like she was an ogre. Having Cersei would remove at least that problem.
Brienne gathered her things and set out for the stables. The sun was over the horizon and the morning mists had burned away. She brushed and saddled Nessel herself. She flipped a copper to a ragged stable boy who looked as though he needed its worth in bread. He bowed and scampered away.
The tail end of the Kingsroad was the best kept. It was wide and grass-less as it led into the capital. The noise of King's Landing could be heard for a league before it actually came into sight. The sun was blazing behind the Red Keep and the surrounding markets. Brienne sighed. It was a welcoming sight, but she was tempted to wheel Nessel around and gallop back north.
The mare pricked her ears at the sound of hoofs thundering against the road. Brienne nudged her with her heels and she sidestepped over to make room for a large party of lightly armed men that raced toward the city gates. They bore the crest of the yellow rose on a red field. Highgarden. The Tyrells.
At their head was a fine boned white stallion with a dished face. Astride him was a small man with fair skin, chestnut hair, and blue eyes. The party raced by. None of the riders cast a backward glance.
Her heart hammering in her chest, Brienne urged Nessel into a canter. They moved swiftly through the Lion's Gate, which was manned by the city guard. A few waved and whistled and tried to offer prices for Nessel, a thousand gold dragons too short. The mare's shoes clopped sharply against the flat stones that paved the streets of King's Landing.
"Fine apples!" a little boy was yelling. "Fine apples for a fine horse and a fine lady!" Brienne reigned up next to the child. It was the first time a commoner had looked on her and not seen a man. She paid him for three of his apples; she fed them to Nessel.
No matter how much Brienne wanted to canter to the Keep, she walked her mount past inns of the Singing Ass, Merry Maiden, and Drunken Fish, armorers, smiths, and dressmakers. She bought a pair of doeskin gloves to replace her worn ones, a loaf of bread that she gave to a blind man, and a peacock feather quill that she would give to Cersei when she arrived. Ahead, the gates of the Red Keep loomed. Four goldcloak guards stood at the doors.
Brienne called her name and title to them and then said, "I have come to call upon Lord Mace Tyrell and his noble family."
"You awful big for a lady, ain't you?" asked a bearded guard, spitting black mucus on the street.
"Mind your tongue, Bors!" a younger man hissed. He looked up at Brienne. "I remember this lady. She looks much more her part now than when she rode here in armor before. I was but a page those, what, five years ago."
Brienne racked her brains for a name of a page she had known. "Lorkin is your family title if I am not mistaken, guard," she said praying that she had guessed correctly.
"Yes, my lady!" he cried, bowing. "Tobias Lorkin at your service."
"If you would be so kind as to open the gate, Tobias Lorkin."
"Of course, my lady," he said. He hollered a few words; five archers appeared over the gate as the other guards and Tobias pushed the tall wooden doors open.
Brienne rode through, but halted next to the young guard. "There was a time when these gates were left open and that passage beyond them did not involve archers. What has happened here?"
Tobias Lorkin looked uncomfortable, but said, "The people are displeased with the Queen Regent and King Tommen, my lady, and these are her orders."
Brienne tossed him a silver. "Thank you, Tobias Lorkin. I will not forget you." The guard bowed, and returned to his task as his companions closed the gates.
The yard was busy with pages and stable boys as they went about their business carrying their knights' gear or wheeling carts full of horse manure. A skinny boy with curly blond hair cropped short trotted up to Brienne. "Take your horse, my lady?"
"No," she said. "But can you carry a message?" The boy grinned and nodded. "Find the Lord Mace Tyrell and tell him that Lady Brienne of Tarth is arrived. Do you understand?"
"Yes, my lady," he said. He spit the message back word for word. Brienne sent him on his way. As she was dismounting, a wiry man with short white hair appeared from the stables. He bowed.
"We have been expecting you, my lady," he said in a raspy voice. "Lord Tyrell's master of house informed us of your coming. A stall has been prepared for your horse." He cast a look at Nessel, as if he could see how much she had cost.
Brienne thanked him stiffly. He nodded and took Nessel's reins himself. "She is a beautiful creature, my lady," he said, still looking at the mare. "Your lord father must have paid a fortune for her."
She frowned. "How do you that we didn't raise her?"
The Master of Horse smiled. "I never forget a Lannister warhorse. Although this mare's name escapes me, I know her stock. The Lannisters breed only golden warhorses and snow white riding horses. This one is unmistakably one of theirs."
"Lioness was a gift."
The Master's jaw dropped. He looked up at Nessel, who pricked her ears at him. "Are you positive that Lioness is her name?" Brienne nodded. "My Lord Lannister lied to me then," the Master growled. "He told me he sold her."
"Tywin Lannister?" Brienne asked, annoyed at not knowing which Lord Lannister he was referring to.
"Lord Jamie," the Master replied curtly. "I was distraught when she disappeared. She would have carried him fearlessly into battle. She is a horse unmatched."
"Lord Lannister was kind enough to give to her me for a quest," Brienne snapped.
"I meant no offense, my lady," the Master of Horse said, bowing his head. "I am pleased to see that Lioness has been well cared for."
"And she has," Brienne replied, pulling off her riding gloves. "I expect to find my things in my chamber tonight." The Master bowed again and led Nessel toward the barn. Brienne suddenly remembered Oathkeeper. She jogged up to the mare and drew it from her bedroll.
The Master of Horse raised his brows at the elaborate sword. "Another gift of favor from Lord Lannister, my lady?"
"A gift to seal a promise," she growled The man was prying and it was irritating her.
The Master of Horse inclined his head and strode away. Brienne glared after him, but on an impulse, she slid the scabbard through her belt and wore Oathkeeper on her hip.
When Nessel had disappeared, the yard went quiet, except for the ring of steel from the training yard adjacent to the stables. Brienne rested her hand on Oathkeeper's sapphire pommel and strode through to where a large number of pages were standing against the fence of a sanded arena. Across from them was a small pack of squires in fencing garb. The pages were cheering a large, grizzled knight in a doublet, breeches, and heavy boots. The squires were silent, but one or two of them would smile when the knight's opponent met a blow or landed one.
The fighters moved too fast and were too far away for Brienne to make out their faces, but she saw that the second man wore only loose trousers and a sweat soaked white shirt. His feet were bare. The grizzled knight hacked away at the other's blade and shield while he backed up and took it.
"Ser Baryan is going to destroy him!" one of the pages cried. Brienne took a few steps closer, watching the arcs and cuts of the blades. She gripped Oathkeeper more tightly. She pushed in next to a pair of boys.
"Why won't he fight back, the coward?" one boy demanded.
"He's got no spine!" another agreed.
Brienne watched the combatants. The smaller man was obviously the superior fighter, but he chose to remain on the defensive. The careful placement of his feet allowed him to deflect the hard blows without suffering much damage. He ducked to avoid a blow. Ser Baryan kicked sand into his face.
"Foul!" the squires yelled. The pages cheered.
The other knight backed up several steps. Baryan pursued him in short, powerful strides. The smaller man took a tiny step forward, making the thicker man stop short.
"Now!" Brienne yelled. The smaller man threw himself forward, landing a blow on Baryan's blade that echoed across the yard. The tourney sword snapped. The grizzled knight tripped over his own feet and crashed to the ground.
The pages groaned. The squires remained silent, but smiled. Brienne watched as the big man lay on his back in the sand. The other finally lowered his shield from his face as he held his blade against his opponent's throat. Brienne almost bit her tongue as she slammed her mouth closed. Although she knew exactly what the smaller man had been planning, she had ignored the fact that he fought with his left hand.
Jamie Lannister tossed his sword down and helped Ser Baryan to his feet. They shook hands, grinning at each other. Whatever they said made the squires laugh. Brienne couldn't help smiling as she watched the boys gaze up at Jamie reverently. She hardly noticed as the pages around her trickled back to their chores.
The squires helped Ser Baryan over the fence, clapping him on the back and taking the pieces of his broken sword. He spoke animatedly to them, reenacting some of the attacks and defenses he had used. Jamie laughed with them as he unlashed his shield. A golden cuff covered the stump of his right hand. He dropped his battered shield by the fence and went back to the arena to collect his sword.
Brienne watched his catlike grace as he stooped to pick up the dulled blade. As he stood, he looked toward the far end of the fence, where only she now stood. Her chest got tight as he looked at her. Jamie didn't move. He only stared at her, as she did him.
A tall squire jumped the fence and went to Jamie, but the Kingslayer only handed his blade to the boy, without looking at him. He bowed and backed away. The other squires and Ser Baryan were looking between Jamie and Brienne as well, but Lannister ignored them. He took a hesitant step forward, then broke into a trot as he came toward her. He stopped at the fence; it separated them.
Brienne could sense him as his eyes traced her form. Breathing deeply to fight the heat rising in her cheeks, she brazenly looked him over as well. His golden curls were wet with sweat and clung to his soaked shirt and face. Beneath the thin muslin, he was still built as beautifully as ever, all lithe muscle. His face did not hold the boyish joviality of five years past. His countenance had hardened and become more kingly than ever. The lines around his mouth were more defined, but did not take away from his appearance.
"You broke your nose," Brienne said.
Jamie blinked at her, but ran two fingers down his long nose. There was a slight kink in the middle of the bridge. "It unfortunately collided with my hand four years ago, when I was learning to fight again," he said, holding up his cuff.
Brienne tried to imagine Jamie struggling to work a sword with his left hand, making a false move and bashing his face with the cuff, but it played out comically in her mind. Without thinking, she burst out laughing. The Lannister raised an eyebrow at her, but laughed as well.
"Forgive me," Brienne managed to say. "That was cruel of me."
Jamie looked at her through half-closed eyes. "You never were the kindest, most cordial woman of my acquaintance. But I think that's why you are the finest of them." As he put his hand over hers, Brienne thought someone kicked her in the stomach. She had to fight the swimming in her gut before she could think again.
She rolled her eyes and pulled her hands away. "We're not in court, Kingslayer. Your flattery means nothing to me."
To her surprise, Jamie smiled. "I was worried my wench had all but disappeared. Perhaps your fire had burned itself out."
"Five years is a long time to go without you to stoke it, but I managed."
"Ha! I knew I would find you in there somewhere, wench. This Lady Brienne seemed a waste of my time."
"I wouldn't want to disappoint you," she said, mocking him, but the words echoed in her head. The recurring dream of her travels rushed back.
She was standing guard outside Renly Baratheon's tent with her hand on the pommel of Oathkeeper, although she never had the blade when she served the king's brother. Upon hearing a strangled cry from inside she charged through the canvas flaps just in time to see a terrible black shadow killing the man she loved. She tried to draw Oathkeeper, but it was stuck in its jeweled scabbard. Tears poured down her face as she watched Renly die. When the shadow released him, she fell to her knees at his side. She cradled his body against hers. When she looked down at his face again it was Jamie's. Sansa Stark stood at the entrance to the tent. She said, "You failed him. He will be disappointed in you."
Brienne had always woken up in a cold sweat, the words on her own lips. More than once, Sandor Clegane had shaken her awake, saying that she was screaming. The dreams had stopped when Sansa was delivered safely to Winterfell. Brienne had tried to forget them.
Jamie was staring at her. "You haven't yet, wench. You haven't yet."
"Lord Lannister," said Ser Baryan, suddenly appearing at Jamie's side. "The squires wish to know if they are dismissed from the rest of practice because your wife is here." He winked at Brienne jokingly.
Jamie chuckled. "Tell them that they are to come present themselves before Lady Knight Brienne of Tarth."
The knight nodded and loped back to where the squires were standing. Brienne hopped over the fence and shot Jamie a wry look. "Your flattery means nothing to me, Kingslayer."
He put his hands up. "I don't flatter with the truth." He looked her up and down again, sobering. "Take off your cloak."
"I want them to see that you're a woman," he said, baring his teeth in a grin.
"Would you prefer it if I just stripped?" Brienne snapped as she removed her cloak and tossed it onto the fence. Jamie didn't reply immediately. The Maid of Tarth could have kicked herself for wearing a shirt that followed the low neckline of the bodice. She had hardly noticed that the girl, Cersei, had put the thing on from the bottom up, making the tops of her oh-so-meager breasts show. Her breathing finally failed to banish the blush from her face.
"No," Jamie said. "No man will mistake you for one of his kind again." Brienne tried to muster the courage to look at him, but could not. She turned her attention on the boys jogging toward her. The squires formed a straight line across from their training master.
"Good day, Lady Brienne of Tarth," they chorused, some looking a bit sheepish. She nodded to them.
Jamie said, "Now, which one of you is going to apologize for being a fool and presuming that Lady Brienne was my wife?"
She held her laughter as they boys stared at Jamie, mortified. He kept his face stern as a small boy with a round face stepped forward. "It was I that suggested it, my lord," he said slowly. "I apologize for being a fool and calling the Lady Knight your wife."
Jamie turned to Brienne. "Is this penance enough for you, my lady?"
She took a step forward and raised her brows at the squire. "I believe that the best way for him to serve his punishment is to face me in combat." With a flourish, she drew Oathkeeper. The boys stared at the Valyrian steel of the blade.
"Bring Master Pip his weapon!" Jamie cried, glancing slyly at Brienne. She winked at him.
In a moment, a tourney sword was produced and handed to the boy, Pip. His hands trembled as he grasped it, but his form was true.
"Prepare yourself, young master," Brienne warned, her face set like stone. She held Oathkeeper at middle guard; the boy followed suit. With a badly hidden grin, Brienne jumped forward and brought her blade down. Pip yelped and flung the tourney sword up to block the blow. Oathkeeper slid down the plain steel, causing a shower of sparks to erupt, but hardly a hit to her opponent's sword. Brienne's master at arms had taught her the trick when she was fifteen.
The squires drew in their breaths as one. As the sparks disappeared, Pip was left in a wide stance with his eyes closed. Brienne stood back from him, having already planted Oathkeeper's tip in the sand. It was a moment before the boys and the two knights began to laugh.
"Open your eyes, young Pip," Brienne said. "You are not dead."
The boy lifted one lid at a time, his face still contorted. When he saw Brienne standing across from him with a huge grin on her face, the sword fell from his hands, hitting the sand with a thunk. She extended her hand to the boy. He took it hesitantly, but his grip tightened quickly.
"Well fought, young master, well fought!" cried Ser Baryan, his thumbs hooked in his belt. "It takes courage to face a seasoned warrior."
"Even if she only means to show off," Jamie added.
Brienne patted Pip on the back and sent him to join his brothers. Some of the boys asked if he had pissed himself. He puffed out his chest and pointed to his dry trousers.
"Pip is a strong fighter," Jamie Lannister said, stepping up beside Brienne. "He has good instincts, but sometimes he waits too long for an opening."
"That may cost him a hand someday," Brienne said, meeting Jamie's eyes. "You'd best teach him otherwise." He stared at her. She had not meant it as a challenge, but she feared he took it that way.
"Lady Brienne!" called a deep voice from behind them. Tarth and Lannister turned quickly to see the grandly dressed Mace Tyrell and a few of his household standing against the fence.
Jamie glared at them. "What the in the Seven Hells do they want?"
Brienne said, "They're my hosts," skirting around the purpose of her coming.
"Then be off with you," Lannister said. He bowed, retreating. "Just mind where you sit among roses, or you may find thorns in your arse." He flashed a grin and strode over to where his squires waited.
"Lady Brienne," said Mace Tyrell, "we feared the wolves had taken you from the King's very yard, but I see that it is the lions that have ensnared you."
"Ser–Lord Lannister was a traveling companion of mine five years ago," Brienne said, trying to dismiss the threats in the Tyrell's voice. "I had the...honor of facing him in combat."
"Surely that was while he remained a whole man," said the biting voice of the handsome youth behind Mace. Loras Tyrell shone in his green garb, lined with roses embroidered in gold. His countenance was glowing in the midday sunlight; the rays brought out reds in his chestnut hair. Although he smiled, his eyes flashed mockingly. "Lord Jamie's hand was a terrible loss to the art of swordsmanship."
Brienne had never heard such condescending words from anyone. Loras's arrogance was startling, but somehow not a surprise.
"He will hardly be able to fight the same way again," he continued, his petite nose lifted. "It is a pity to see him reduced."
Jamie 'reduced' has just beaten the master at arms, a man twice his size and strength. "In Tarth we often say, 'what does not kill a man only strengthens him,'" Brienne said. "Ser–Lord Lannister is still a formidable enemy."
Loras scowled. "Perhaps I will have the honor of fighting him again someday."
"It would be a great contest to watch," Brienne said. "I must ensure that I am present if ever it takes place."
Loras did not reply directly, but Brienne could have sworn she heard him mutter, "You'll not leave your sapphire-studded prison once we're married."
"Enough of this chatter," Margeary Tyrell said, appearing from the small pack of roses. She was as lovely as her brother, only her shape had half a hundred more curves. Brienne sighed inwardly. "I should think that Lady Brienne is tired from her journey and would like to rest and eat," the young queen continued. "My dear cousin Megga will show you to your chambers." A slight girl with big teeth appeared and bobbed a curtsey.
"Your Grace is kind and thoughtful," Brienne said, although she was grateful to escape the cruel blue eyes of Loras Tyrell.
Margeary smiled, but beneath her guise was a shadow. "It is the least I can do for the woman I will soon have the honor of calling my sister."
Brienne knew her expression gave her away, but she could not ignore the dread in the pit of her stomach. She said nothing to the queen as she followed the tiny Megga out of the yard and into the Red Keep. As they passed through the last archway, the lady knight caught a glimpse of Jamie Lannister. He was leaning on his sword as his squires drilled. His gaze followed her into the castle.