Author's Note: This COMPLETED story has six chapters, to be posted once weekly. It is a continuation of my one-shot The Wrong Things for the Right Reasons, but can be read on its own. Heartfelt thanks to my beta, mrstater! Any mistakes you see are mine. Thanks for reading!
It was Sansa.
A small, secret smile crept up one side of Podrick's face.
She was here – Sansa Stark – Lady Sansa – here, within shouting distance, standing alone atop a sloping hill, with the light slanting and golden as if meant for her alone and not the twittering birds of morning or the swaying soldier pines or the damp, dead grass beneath her boots. She had lifted her skirts to descend the hill a short distance, as if she wished to be out of the eyesight of her captors as they packed up their camp and prepared to travel again. Here, at last, was she – Lady Sansa, the loveliest creature Podrick figured he'd ever seen, even lovelier now than he'd remembered. He watched, mesmerized, as she brushed her long, sleek hair, dyed brown, and her pale skin appeared, in contrast, perhaps even more luminous against her dark locks, her lips more red, her eyes a blue to rival the sky as it welcomed the rising sun. She looked out toward the sunrise, her gaze following a bird in flight, her expression inscrutable and yet somehow perfect.
But over his elation, Podrick's throat felt strangled and his heart hammered, for he knew that, in order to rescue Lady Sansa, they would need to kill, he and Ser Jaime and Ser – Lady – Brienne. He shivered. But no matter. He would master his fear, for finally they had found her, the lady he had been determined to find while seeking – pretending to seek? – his former master, Lord Tyrion. Sansa. Lady Sansa. My lady. The name repeated itself in his mind in a hundred different tones of voice. He hid his hapless smile before his companions saw it, for it would never do if they knew how he'd dreamt of this moment.
"It is she," he whispered as gruffly as he could, glancing to his right; and Brienne, lying flat on her stomach on the grass next to him, nodded. She darted her eyes toward Jaime and he grinned at her, which made her flush, as his smiles always did.
After Sansa disappeared over the rise, the three silently and awkwardly crept backward on their elbows and knees until they were well hidden within the copse of trees at the edge of the forest once more, and then they stole back to their small camp, where their horses nibbled on the apples they'd left for them.
"We will track them today and attack tonight," said Jaime as he rummaged one-handed through his saddlebag for a slice of salt beef, which he bit into and began to chew laboriously. "We've followed them for two days and we've finally seen the lass. The time is now."
"We still do not know their number," said Brienne.
"We have a sense – "
"But we do not know," she insisted, giving the Kingslayer a stare that would have withered Podrick instantly had it been directed at him. Nevertheless, when she broke the gaze, she unsheathed Oathkeeper and began to oil it as if she were preparing for battle. Jaime chewed and glared at her, annoyed, until she spoke again. "We are three. How many can you kill, Jaime? Even counting the sword training you did with Ser Ilyn and now with me – "
"You needn't remind me," he muttered, rotating his left shoulder, which seemed to pain him daily, now that his weaker limb had of necessity become his dominant one. He swallowed and reflected for a moment. "Three?"
Brienne paused mid-stroke, oiled cloth in hand, and raised her eyebrow at him.
"I am being conservative," he said, bristling. "I could reliably slay four attackers quickly, when I had my hand. Perhaps more."
She began her slow oiling of her weapon again. "I believe you," she said at last, though whether she was referring to his boast of his former prowess or his speculation about his current ability, Podrick could not say.
Jaime scowled at her, then turned his back and stalked off deeper into the forest. During his absence, Podrick knew he would sharpen his words for the next round of argument. He wasn't certain why the Kingslayer seemed so rattled by Lady Brienne, but this wasn't the first time he'd wandered away during one of their many discussions. Ser Jaime held his tongue more than any man Podrick had seen in his short life, and he wondered if the knight had always behaved in this manner or if he'd somehow cultivated his restraint. Or perhaps there was something about Ser – Lady – Brienne that confused and confounded people; Podrick certainly felt even more tongue-tied than usual in her presence, even though she'd been nothing but kind to him.
While his two elders fumed separately, he busied himself by retrieving a few more apples for their horses. He did not like these uncomfortable silences between his lord and lady. What was more, he did not understand their intimacy. Every night during Podrick's watch, even the very first night after the three had escaped their hangings and fled the Brotherhood together, Jaime would curl himself around Brienne, his left arm draped possessively over her waist, with his knees tucked behind hers and his nose buried between her shoulder blades. He would sleep soundly thus, though Brienne's eyes would remain wide and blinking in the night. Podrick tried not to see, but the two did not attempt to hide their sleeping arrangement from him. It was not his place to ask, or even to wonder; yet wonder he did. How could he not? He felt so dreadfully alone, now that Brienne had her errant knight.
Mostly, what he wondered was if he would ever find himself curled around a lady like that.
"How many men can you slay, Podrick?"
The question yanked him from his reverie and he blushed as if she had read his thoughts on his face. He rubbed an apple against his doublet to wipe the dirt from it, and continued the motion unconsciously as he considered.
He'd never pondered how many men he could slay at once. He'd only had to kill one at a time during the Battle of the Blackwater. Then he'd killed the two who guarded Brienne and Jaime as they languished in the old stable, awaiting their hanging by Lady Stoneheart the following morning; but those had been alone keeping watch during a silent snowfall as the Brotherhood slept in a nearby farmhouse. They'd been isolated enough not to expect an attack, certainly not an ambush executed by one of their prisoners, a mere lad who was supposedly under the watch of their fellows in the farmhouse.
"Erm, three, perhaps, Ser. My lady."
"Three might be generous, but I hope you are right. Four would be better."
Podrick swallowed. "Yes, Ser. My lady."
Then, as if she'd guessed the unspoken question in his mind, "I might manage three. Four or five, perhaps, with luck and the Warrior at my back."
Podrick's eyes widened a bit. Five men? But then again, Brienne was no ordinary lady. In strength and skill, she was more like the Kingslayer than any man Podrick had ever seen. She, like Ser Jaime, was likely being conservative when she initially said she could slay three men.
The morning was cold, and the breath of Jaime's horse warmed Podrick's hand as it took the apple from his palm. Its name was Honor, which Podrick could only hope was a jape. He shivered, considering how his own honor had slowly twisted into something other than what he'd imagined as a boy. And yet, hadn't he only done what he would hope any squire would do for him?
Brienne had sharpened her weapon yesterday, but now she inspected it for nicks and dull spots again. "There may be eight men, or as many as thirteen, accompanying Lord Baelish and Lady Sansa."
"But the closer we allow Baelish to Ser Harrold, the more likely a receiving party will ride out to meet them." Jaime had returned, with his next argument at the ready. "Bronze Yohn's information has been true thus far. He said nine men. With a surprise attack, we three can take nine men. But if we wait until Petyr Baelish runs into Harry's envoys, we might expect twenty more."
Brienne sheathed Oathkeeper and rose. She stood two inches taller than the Kingslayer, but somehow Jaime never seemed diminutive next to her, and Podrick wondered again how a man could achieve something that defied the laws of the physical, and with so little effort, it seemed. He watched the couple from the corner of his eye as their argument continued wordlessly. But Jaime was beginning to cock another grin at Brienne, and she was beginning to flush, so he knew the argument was at a close. Jaime had won this time.
"We attack tonight," said Brienne, as if she had made the decision in the first place, and turned to attend to her horse.
Jaime looked at Podrick and winked.
They had to allow some distance between themselves and their quarry before they began to follow, so it was decided that they would continue Podrick's training after breaking their fast. Today it was to be Ser Jaime against him. Podrick didn't know whom he dreaded fighting more, the lord or the lady, for both frightened him. Each knight moved like a wild cat, Brienne with the sleek and relaxed prowess of one playing with a mouse and Jaime with the fierce and unpredictable pounce of a hungry one.
Knees flexed, body turned, elbows up, eyes open. Brienne's mantra played itself in his mind as Jaime advanced, and Podrick reflexively parried the sudden blow. Jaime smiled and Podrick felt his heart swell, just for a second, before two more slashes forced him to step backward quickly to regain his footing; but he'd lost any advantage he might have had in that moment of pride.
"Where is your mind?" asked Jaime briskly, still advancing. "I'm going to kill you, lad."
And he attacked again, his left arm slicing and thrusting so rapidly that it was all Podrick could do to remain facing forward as he parried and retreated. Then, somehow, he managed to hit Jaime's left shoulder with the flat of the blade of his practice sword, and Jaime winced with a quick intake of breath.
"I'm sorry, my lord," said Podrick, lowering his sword.
"Never apologize!" snapped Jaime. "And never lower your sword! I'm trying to kill you, don't ever forget that! You will show me no mercy."
Podrick shut his mouth at once; but then his opponent was upon him again, forcing Podrick back into position, and it seemed that the shoulder pain drove Jaime harder into the fight. Their swords clacked and scraped through the crisp morning air, and Podrick tried to bring his mind to the here and now, not on pleasing his teacher, so that he could let his body fight, as Brienne kept insisting that it would do if he'd just let go. And he'd done it before; he'd saved Lord Tyrion, and then he'd rescued Jaime and Brienne. He could do this.
Somehow he rounded a tree and dealt Jaime two fast slashes that landed at the backs of his opponent's knees, and Jaime dropped his sword. "Yes. Like that," he said, panting. "You've disabled me." He dropped to his knees and looked up at the boy. "Now finish it."
Podrick stared. Was he to kill a wounded man?
"Better to end my suffering," said Jaime, not unkindly.
So Podrick raised the sword, placed the tip at Jaime's heart, and nudged. Jaime fell backward into the snowy grass, clutching his chest and overacting.
Podrick smiled as he gathered the swords and began to pack up.
A scythe of a moon cast nary a shadow, which suited Podrick fine. But he was astonished that no one else could hear the thundering of his heart; it seemed if it beat any harder his veins would burst and the whole of his body would explode in a gruesome fountain. These things happened in stories but never in real life, he reminded himself, as his throat throbbed along with the pounding of his pulse. His eyes bulged and strained to see Brienne ahead as they crept up the hill that abutted one side of Lord Baelish's evening camp. Behind him, Jaime was as silent as shade, even with shield and armor.
The last few hours since dusk had passed in a strange fashion. Time seemed somehow impossibly slow and irretrievably quick, just as it had during the Battle of the Blackwater and on the night he'd killed those two Brotherhood guards. He knew their plan by heart, but so many things could go awry during the rescue. I could die tonight, a frightened part of his mind kept saying. But a braver part always answered, as Brienne had taught him, So could many others.
However, it was Sansa who kept his feet moving forward. Sansa, and knowing that he could never fail Brienne or Jaime and live with himself afterward.
The three fanned out as they neared the crest of the hill where Baelish, Sansa, and their retinue slept. And then luck smiled on them when the man on watch climbed the crest and accidentally met Brienne. He inhaled to yell, but Brienne's dagger silenced him with a violent slash to the throat. She caught him as he fell, supporting him almost gently under his arms and lowering him to the ground. She relieved him of his dagger, inserting it into another sheath on her sword belt, but left his sword lying on the moss, where it had fallen from his surprised hand. Crouching now, she looked in Jaime's direction, and Podrick saw his shadowy form nod.
Podrick waited, hidden, as he was told to do, while the two descended silently into the sleeping camp. He could see them now by the light of a dying campfire, around which four men slept. Four more inside the tents, Podrick thought hopefully. Then Petyr Baelish and Sansa. Brienne and Jaime moved like mirror images of each other, each long and muscular, jaws set, with pale hair and piercing eyes. Brienne had replaced her own bloody dagger in its sheath, and Oathkeeper was like an extension of her own arm. Jaime's sword was less impressive, and held in his left hand it might have seemed awkward not too long ago; but tonight his arm looked strong and steady. Podrick almost felt sorry for the sleepers around the fire; he would not want to wake to the points of their steel. Better to die in their sleep. And some would.
Podrick was gripping his sword too hard and forced himself to relax his hand a bit, as Jaime had instructed. Save your strength however you can, he'd said. Save it for when it matters.
Just as Podrick loosened his grip, Jaime and Brienne simultaneously buried their swords into two of the sleeping men, and Podrick had the surreal thought that Brienne seemed made for this, made for killing. Her body was all fluid motion, and again he was reminded of a great cat. Nothing in her movements bespoke any ungainliness or inelegance; she was beauty and poetry, death and destruction.
Jaime was much the same, but if Brienne's actions were a weird sort of poetry, smooth and lyrical, his were prose. He was quick and unpredictable, but deadly precise, even with his left hand; and as he pivoted to attack one of the sleeping men awakened by the deaths of his companions, his two rapid slashes across the man's chest and face seemed the final words of a gruesome and gory edict. He joined Brienne to take down the other man who had leapt to his feet, a longsword in his hands. Together they quickly dispatched him; but the alarm had been raised, and now five more men emerged from two small tents, swords in hand. The largest pavilion's door flaps remained closed.
All this happened in the time it took for Podrick to rise cautiously to his feet.
He'd been instructed to wait above until he had a sense of the number of Baelish's cortege, and he was not to descend into the fray until and unless it was apparent that Jaime and Brienne were in trouble. Then he would ambush from behind. But it had happened so quickly. The two were already outnumbered, and the shouts rang out sharply in the cold night air. Podrick tried to keep one eye on the largest pavilion, for if Baelish escaped now with Sansa on horseback, they might never catch up to them.
All for naught, he thought dizzily as he careened down the hill. Brienne had her back against a tree and was swinging Oathkeeper at two – no, three attackers. Jaime battled two men on the other side of the fire. A shape that might have been two figures huddled together emerged from the pavilion. No, Podrick thought.
He sheathed his sword and ran for the horses.
When he reached the beasts beyond the campfire, he whipped out his dagger – for there was no time to unhitch them – and cut the tethers that tied them to their trees and wagons, slapping them one after another on the flank to send them on their way. There must have been nine or ten, though he didn't take the time to count. Those that seemed reticent to depart he pricked on the rump with the tip of his dagger. Then he whirled and ran back to the campfire, seeking Baelish and Sansa.
As he neared the camp, Podrick saw that Brienne had killed one of her three attackers, and the other two had her well and truly cornered between two wagons. Jaime had just finished off his second foe, and he turned to face Brienne's assailants, his eyes wild and bloodshot with fury. He sank his sword into the back of the neck of the man closest to him. Brienne kicked out hard at the knee of the man bearing down on her. She was able then to emerge from between the wagons and put enough distance between her and her assailant so that she could swing her sword, which she did. The blow landed across that man's collarbone and brought him to a swift end.
The two figures that had emerged from the pavilion had tried to edge around the fighting toward the horses. Seeing the animals were gone, they instead ran up the hill, the taller one pulling the shorter one by the hand.
"Halt!" shouted Podrick. He bolted across the camp, leaping over the dying fire, and ran up the hill on a diagonal, praying that he wouldn't twist an ankle in the dark. Luck was with him, and he planted himself above the two, his sword at the ready.
Jaime and Brienne approached from behind, their swords still dripping blood. A sudden silence fell upon the camp, the only sound the ragged breathing of Jaime, Brienne, and Podrick. At last the taller figure removed his hood, and Petyr Baelish greeted Podrick. His smile was like a knife, his words even sharper.
"You do realize – Podrick, isn't it? – that I will not let you take her alive."
Swifter than lightning, Baelish grasped his captive's arm with one hand, pulled her in front of him, and with the other pressed a dagger to her throat.
Sansa's hood fell back, and her pale skin glowed in the moonlight, her eyes showing their whites as they darted from Podrick's face to Brienne's and Jaime's. Her mouth worked, but no sound came forth. Podrick's heart thrummed like a hummingbird's, though his arms remained steady as they held his sword. But Baelish's thumb pressed into the flesh of the front of Sansa's neck, and Podrick wondered if she could breathe; meanwhile, the dagger dug into the vulnerable skin under her jaw. Her hands gripped her captor's forearm for balance, but she did not struggle; any move would have invited bloodshed. He stepped to one side and backward across the hill, keeping his eyes on Podrick to his right and acknowledging Jaime and Brienne, now on his left.
"Ah, Ser Jaime, of the missing hand! Come to retrieve your missing brother's missing wife. How noble."
"Release Sansa," said Jaime, his voice deadly calm, "and we may let you live."
"A generous offer from someone who has nothing with which to bargain," said Baelish. "Of all of us, I have the only gold piece." He squeezed his captive's throat between his thumb and the hilt of the dagger until she winced and dug her fingers into his wrist. "We all know that Sansa is worth nothing to you dead, and you will kill me regardless. So I must press this dagger to her throat until you give me a horse to carry us on our merry way."
Brienne's voice was low and rough. "Your escape is not part of our plan."
"Have we met? I'm certain I would have remembered a woman of your … impressive stature." Baelish let his eyes travel up and down Brienne's armored body.
"She is the Lady Brienne of Tarth, and a knight besides," said Jaime, "and you would do well to keep your eyes where they belong."
Baelish's eyes narrowed and his smile flickered in interest. "My eyes only wish to rest upon my daughter's wedding frock, as you must know, seeing as you've met us on our way to the home of her betrothed."
"Sansa is not your daughter," said Brienne, advancing slowly, "and there will be no wedding."
Baelish continued to retreat. "Were you ever a blushing bride, my lady?" he asked with a smirk. "Surely you would not deny Sansa a second chance at love? Rumor has it that her first marriage was not, shall we say, a success."
By now the two stood on flat ground, near the campfire. Podrick, Brienne, and Jaime surrounded them in a semicircle.
"I swore an oath to her lady mother," said Brienne. "I intend to bring her home."
At Brienne's words, Sansa's eyes widened and one hand fell to her heart. Her fingers grasped blindly at her cloak.
"Catelyn Stark is dead." Baelish almost spat the words, his voice thick. "The Starks are no more. That family of traitors has been eliminated. Because of the love I bore her mother, I am providing Sansa with a new identity and a future she could not hope to have as long as the Queen Regent sits the Iron Throne."
"Selfless to the last," said Jaime with a laugh. "Every word that oozes from your mouth is bitter poison."
"Some say medicine tastes like poison," retorted Baelish. "All the same, you're better off swallowing it."
"You will swallow steel before we're done," said Jaime, stepping forward.
"And Sansa," said Baelish, "will taste my dagger."
Sansa's eyes briefly squeezed shut as the blade dug in behind her ear. A thin, dark line of blood began to run down her white neck.
"It appears we are at a bit of an impasse," Baelish went on. "Podrick, my good fellow, won't you run and get one of your horses for me? Then we can call an end to this little game."
Sansa looked at Podrick then, her eyes pleading silently; and he felt somehow utterly responsible for her. Did she remember him from King's Landing? It didn't matter. He didn't know if he could save her life, but he could keep Littlefinger talking. He spoke without taking his eyes off her, without thinking, and was surprised by how loud his voice sounded to his own ears, and how quickly the words flew from his lips. "If I were Lady Sansa, I would have stabbed you in your sleep."
Baelish barked a laugh. "He speaks! Lad, I confess, I never knew you had a voice. If you didn't sound like a bleating sheep, I might – "
But Podrick never found out what Baelish might do, for he was cut off by his own scream as Sansa thrust her cloak pin into his left eye.
As Baelish released Sansa's arm, clasping his hand to his ruined eye socket, she gripped the knife hand and twisted out from under his arm, then backed toward Podrick, tripping over her cloak as she did so. Podrick caught her awkwardly and helped her right herself. She coughed and clutched her throat, but apart from that she seemed unharmed. By the time she was on her feet and Podrick had turned, sword raised, Jaime had the point of his steel under Baelish's chin.
Littlefinger held both hands to the side and let his dagger drop to the ground, his bloody eye socket dripping and horrific. He was forced to stand on tiptoe to keep the sword from piercing his skin. He'd stopped screaming and now panted, his voice adding a high-pitched stridor of fear as the air ripped in and out of his throat. The two men stared into each other's faces, Jaime's mismatched hands steadily supporting his sword, Baelish's fingers trembling as he silently implored his assailant. Brienne held him by the back of his collar like a kitten, her own steel wrapped across his chest in a broad mockery of how he'd held Sansa a moment ago.
"Ser Jaime," he said. "Lady Brienne. Might we discuss this like civilized – "
"Be quiet and take your medicine," said Jaime, and he plunged his sword upward.
Podrick stepped in front of Sansa; a lady shouldn't have to witness such a gruesome end, no matter that the man was her captor. But she stepped aside quickly to see the blade's position – through the soft flesh under Baelish's chin, into the underbelly of the tongue, piercing the soft palate inside his mouth and the brain within his skull, and emerging bloody through the top of his head.
For a second, Podrick forgot about Sansa and felt bile rise in his throat. He managed to swallow it; it wouldn't do to be sick in front of a lady, particularly not one so lovely and gentle. Well, he'd thought her gentle until she'd stabbed Baelish in the eye, but she was still lovely. He suddenly realized that he had his arm across Sansa's chest to prevent her from getting closer to the bloody scene in front of them. He lowered his arm and took a step away from her. She pulled her cloak together in front of her to keep out the wind. A mockingbird cloak pin lay on the ground next to Baelish's feet.
Brienne braced Baelish's body so that Jaime could retrieve his weapon. In the cold silence of the snowy woods, the blatant sound of steel slipping through flesh and bone was like nothing Podrick had ever heard, or wanted to hear again. He'd seen men killed, seen them hanged, the most recent one being Ser Hyle Hunt mere weeks ago, when Brienne did not return quickly enough to the Brotherhood with Jaime as prisoner; but he'd never witnessed so closely, for so prolonged a time and without the distraction of other battle, anything as repugnant as this death. Brienne lowered Littlefinger to the ground, her mouth a grim line. Jaime watched her with a sort of fire in his eyes.
"Hold this," he told her, and presented his sword hilt-first. Brienne hesitated, looking confused as she still held her own sword, but then took it from him. "This is something I've never had the opportunity to do right after battle. How about you?"
He shook off his shield, grabbed her roughly around the waist (was that a squeak that escaped the lady's throat?), and covered her mouth hungrily with his. Brienne held the two swords in her hands loosely, like bouquets of flowers that she was in danger of dropping should she swoon; and Podrick did wonder if she would indeed faint, with her eyes closed and knees half-buckled as she surrendered herself to Jaime's embrace, though the Kingslayer had her pressed tightly against him. This kiss, with their open mouths and their tongues and their bloody, dripping swords and her leg creeping up his, was far worse than improper; it was bizarre and primal and far more intimate than anything Podrick had ever witnessed so close-up. And it was doing strange things to him, things that didn't feel improper at all, that, in fact, felt quite nice; and so he shifted his gaze to Sansa.
She was pale, but her face was utterly blank, her pale eyes like shutters on an empty house.
"Are – are you all right, my lady?"
Sansa still stared at Baelish's face. "Is he really dead?" she croaked. She coughed again, a hacking, pitiful sound, and rubbed her throat; Baelish must have hurt her as he held her neck. She looked curiously at her bloody fingers as she pulled her hand away; she seemed only to realize just now that he'd nicked the skin of her neck with his dagger. Next she shifted her gaze to her other fingers, the ones that had struggled against Baelish's weapon when she'd escaped his grasp, and saw blood there, too. Slowly, like a dandelion seed drifting in the wind, she lowered to her knees.
Podrick dropped his sword and rushed to her side and helped her to sit on the cold ground.
"You are injured, my lady," he said, taking her hand in his to examine it. There was a slash across all four fingers, but fortunately the wounds did not run deep, probably because Baelish had already released his firm grip on her because of his own injury. "I will make a bandage for you when we return to our camp." Then, knowing it was unseemly for a squire to be so forward, he released her, balling his hands into fists in his own lap.
Sansa looked into Podrick's face as if seeing him for the first time. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but her eyes became misty. It made Podrick extremely nervous so he kept speaking.
"It was clever of you to stab him, my lady. This gash could have been much deeper, but you must have … distracted him with your cloak pin."
Sansa gave a breathy laugh, the tears in her eyes disappearing at once. "It's the first clever thing I've done in … well, in as long as I can remember." Her voice was little more than a scratchy whisper. "Thank you for suggesting it."
"I?" said Podrick, looking wide-eyed into Sansa's face. "But I – how – "
"You said if you were me you would have stabbed him while he slept." Sansa had to pause for a long moment while she coughed, and when she continued her voice was rough. "I realized I had my hand on my cloak pin, and it had come undone. You must have seen it. Were you not giving me a hint? It was very shrewd of you. Are you a knight?"
It was as he expected: Sansa did not remember meeting him at King's Landing. "No, my lady. Still a squire." Sansa's eyes narrowed. "I mean, I am a squire. I was squire to Lord Tyrion and now I serve Lady Brienne."
Recognition crept slowly across Sansa's face – she was still Lord Tyrion's wife, after all – and Podrick felt a flush radiate inside his chest, which would soon turn his cheeks pink. To hide his traitorous face, he turned and nodded in the direction of Brienne, who had at last disentangled herself, red-faced and disheveled, from that outrageous kiss to approach her companions, with an equally red-faced but pleased-looking Jaime on her heels.
"Why is the Kingslayer— ?" Sansa quickly whispered, but then the two were upon them and she stopped.
"Lady Sansa of House Stark," said Brienne, coming to kneel in front of her. She laid Oathkeeper on the ground in front of her. Jaime stood behind her, his own sword at his side. "I am Brienne of Tarth. As I pledged myself to your mother, Lady Catelyn, I now pledge myself to your service and offer you my protection. I will take you home, if that is your wish. I will give my life for yours if it comes to that. I swear it by the old gods and the new."
Sansa's eyes grew wider as Brienne spoke, and then she rose shakily to her feet. Podrick stood at once to steady her, if need be.
"I am sorry," rasped Sansa. "My mother is dead. How can it be that you – " But she could not continue as another coughing fit overtook her.
Brienne waited until Sansa had recovered, then told her quickly how she had come to be in Catelyn Stark's service after the death of Renly. Sansa then gazed meaningfully at Jaime, and Brienne recounted the tale of how their two fates had become entwined at Catelyn's order. She did not tell the young woman about Lady Stoneheart.
"Ser Jaime," said Sansa at last. "You were fighting against my brother Robb when you were captured. Why should I believe that you are here to help me? Why should I believe that any of you – " She began to cough again and seemed angry that she could not speak.
"My lady, my story of redemption is a long and meandering one, and hardly worthy of a campfire tale," said Jaime, "but suffice it to say, I made an oath to Catelyn Stark and I intend to keep it."
"As you've kept all your other oaths, no doubt," said Sansa, raising her chin.
Jaime became somber. "The ones that mattered, yes."
"Are you still of the Kingsguard?"
He hesitated. "That is … doubtful."
"Then to whom have you pledged yourself?"
"Why, to the Lady Brienne, of course."
Brienne shifted on her knees to look behind her at Jaime. He winked at her, though his face remained sober. When she turned back to face Sansa, her cheeks were red.
"You can trust Ser Jaime with your life, as I do," said Brienne seriously. "No one believed in him less than I did, and I have been proven quite wrong. Repeatedly." This last she said almost under her breath.
Sansa was silent for a long while as she regarded the two knights before her. She looked at Podrick as if hoping he had something to add that would make this inexplicable scene make sense to her.
At last she said, "It seems I have no choice but to take you at your word. Lady Brienne – or shall I call you Ser?"
"As you prefer, my lady," said Brienne.
"Lady Brienne, I accept your pledge of service and protection. Ser Jaime, I expect no less from you. And Podrick …"
He looked at Sansa expectantly.
"Thank you." She turned away from them and did not see the grin that spread across Podrick's face.
Brienne stood, and she and Jaime began discussing how they would spend the rest of the night, and what their next steps would be in the morning. Podrick could not hear everything, but the word "Winterfell" rang through the crisp night air several times. While they spoke, Sansa made her way to the trunk of a soldier pine. She reached out for it with her uninjured hand, leaned against it, and slid down until she was on her knees again. Podrick ran to her.
Sansa was shaking from her hair to her heels.
"Oh," Podrick said. "Oh. My lady."
He looked desperately at Brienne, then at Jaime, but they were too engrossed in discussion to pay him any mind. He looked back at Sansa, who was very pale indeed. He took her cold, shaking hands in his and massaged them. Then when she began to tip to one side, he caught her in his arms. He had heard of ladies fainting from sudden distress, and had seen men suffering from shock after the Battle of the Blackwater. He himself had vomited, after what he'd done there, and then again after rescuing Jaime and Brienne from the Brotherhood. He understood that a person's body sometimes couldn't keep pace with the changes it faced. So he held Sansa, and would continue to hold her, until she woke up.
To be continued …