"My lady, the water is cold."
Brienne stood on the river's shore and watched as Sansa, bent over with her skirts hiked up and her bare feet in the freezing water, scrubbed her head violently with a bar of lye soap she had borrowed from Podrick's pack. For the past three mornings she had washed her hair after breaking her fast and had managed to remove most of the brown dye, but the color had permeated the older, more porous ends of the long strands and was proving difficult to wash out. Now her hair was a curious sunset of auburn bleeding into brown, and her delicate hands were red and angry from the harshness of the soap and the never-ending cold.
They had recovered one of Baelish's horses to add to their three, and they'd scavenged what provisions and food they could, including a too-large pair of fur-lined gloves for Sansa, though her hands remained raw because of her daily determined ministrations. Podrick had taken some clothing from the men they'd killed, too, and had relieved Littlefinger of his boots, a fact which pleased Brienne as the boy seemed to have grown four inches in the short time she'd traveled with him. It was no wonder that Sansa had not recognized Lord Tyrion's squire at first; he must have looked a mere boy to Sansa the last time she'd set eyes on the lad. Now he was a man grown, and getting taller by the day, it seemed.
"My lady?" repeated Brienne, holding out a blanket. "You will fall ill. The water is freezing."
Sansa pretended not to hear her and rubbed her hands together around her hair as it hung beneath the flowing water. She muttered quietly to herself in her raspy, damaged voice, but Brienne couldn't make out the words.
She looked back at Podrick and Jaime breaking camp. The two had learned to work together efficiently without speaking, as men often do, and she sighed, wishing that it could be as easy for women. A splashing sound drew her gaze back to Sansa. She had squeezed the excess water from her hair and was returning to dry land, stomping through the water's edge as if it had offended her. She took the blanket from Brienne with a nod of thanks and wrapped it around her hair and shoulders. Together, the two walked back to where the men waited.
Podrick tended to the horses and prepared a meager lunch while Sansa sat on the dry grass watching Brienne and Jaime fight. They never missed a day's practice if they could help it because, as much as he had improved, the strength and dexterity of Jaime's left arm and hand would never match his right in battle. Fortunately, his reflexes were quick, and his body knew how to dodge and thrust, advance and retreat instinctively. Brienne became dimly aware of Sansa sitting very still, hands folded in her lap, while she and Jaime danced backward and forward, swinging their heavy wooden swords at each other. Jaime landed a savage blow to Brienne's ribcage that made her retreat quickly, hugging her elbow to the spot; even though they fought in boiled leather, there would be bruises later.
Focus, Brienne thought. Jaime was letting her regroup from the blow, though he shouldn't. She took a deep breath in through flared nostrils and centered her vision on her opponent; and as she exhaled slowly through pursed lips, her fear and rage opened up everything on the periphery. She welcomed this beautiful, familiar feeling, of sensing so much all around her, while honing a needle-like focus on the threat facing her. It was reassuring to sense her own greatness and to revel in her body's strength; these were the only times she loved her size and prowess and felt like she owned her gawky body.
She whipped her sword around and brought it crashing onto Jaime's left shoulder, his weakest point. He staggered backward, and she forced herself to continue to advance. No mercy, she thought, her mantra in battle. No mercy, she had to repeat, for it was Jaime. Jaime. His green eyes glinted hard in the flat light of the overcast day. With heaving chest and widened nostrils like those of a starving lion set to pounce, Jaime was terrifying to behold, and a thrill coursed through her loins as she realized that she loved it. Her smile escaped before she could do anything to stop it.
As she swung again, Jaime shifted his weight and thrust directly into the same spot he'd hit before, then slashed upward, point forward, into her armpit, sending a spasm of pain radiating through her whole right torso and into her arm. Brienne cried out and retreated, backstepping into the open space of their small battlefield. How could he be so strong?
She tried to lift her sword, but another spasm of pain forced her to lower it and retreat again. "Seven hells!" she spat, trying to raise the sword once more. He must have struck a nerve somehow, for her sluggish arm was not obeying her. "Damn it!" She dropped her sword and stood tall, breathing heavily, as Jaime discarded his own and came to her.
"Are you all right?" he asked, placing his hand on her injured side.
Her dagger was at his throat before he could even raise his eyes to hers. "Never lower your guard, Jaime," she said. "Even for a woman."
A slow smile spread across his face. "I fear it is too late for such remedial lessons. Would that you had been there to teach me when I was a boy."
"You would not have appreciated my … perspective then."
"I fear you are too right." Now he raised his eyes to hers, and she felt the familiar melting deep in her sex. Despite the pressure of her dagger on his skin, Jaime leaned in as if to kiss her, and she lowered the weapon. But while he'd distracted her, he'd raised his own dagger to her throat.
"Ah," said Brienne appreciatively. "Lesson learned."
"At last," he smirked. "You are a slow pupil."
Later, Brienne rode next to Sansa and tried to rub the sore spot in her ribs, but it was hard to reach through her boiled leather and armor. Much of her days with the Stark girl were spent in silence. It was just as well, for it was too cold for either one to do much except cling to her horse and tuck her cloak more closely around her. And Brienne, never eloquent, was used to being quiet. Besides, Sansa's voice was still recovering, and Brienne wondered if it would ever be the same. She couldn't blame her for wanting to keep mum; perhaps it pained her throat to speak. But today she found herself wishing that the girl would speak more, for the long days of riding brought far too much time to let her thoughts wander to Jaime.
He rode in front, and Brienne would find herself staring at his cloaked back, imagining the way his broad shoulders narrowed to his hips, and remembering how her hands – and the rest of her – thrummed whenever she ran them from his armpits to his buttocks, the better to press his hips closer. They had not disrobed during any of their desperate, silent trysts yet; it was too cold for that, and they had elected not to requisition Baelish's tents so they could continue to travel light and fast. So whenever it was Brienne's watch, Jaime would wake, too, and before long they would be huddled under her furs and groping at each other. It was not safe; someone could attack them in the night and they would have to struggle to throw off the furs and each other to reach their swords. Each night she vowed she would refuse his kisses. Yet each night she hungered for them and accepted them greedily.
Part of her figured she had to take what she could while he still wanted her, for surely this could not last. She was no prize for any man, even one missing a hand and a home.
"Winterfell will need rebuilding." Sansa's voice sounded like dry snow sliding off a tin roof. "Is it true that the wedding party has abandoned it?"
"Yes, my lady. Ramsay Snow has returned home." Brienne looked at the young woman riding by her side, her face hidden by her cloak's hood. "I am told that Lady Arya escaped, thank the gods, but I know not where she is now … if the girl was indeed your sister."
"Arya would never have agreed to such a marriage," rasped Sansa.
Brienne nodded in silence and hoped Sansa was right. She could barely see the girl's shiny, reddened nose peeking from the front of her hood. Her flat affect had not changed since they had rescued her, and Brienne could only wonder if she was still in shock; or perhaps this was merely her personality, or what had become of it since she had been made the pretty pawn of countless others in these endless war games. It was Sansa's curse to be beautiful, just as it was Brienne's to be ugly, and somehow they'd each had to navigate their lives based on others' perceptions of their countenances. It seemed so silly, and she felt an old, familiar anger welling in the pit of her stomach. Without quite realizing it, she touched the dressing on her cheek. Then she frowned at herself for worrying about the wound. It was healing, and that was all that mattered.
She glanced behind her at Podrick. He huddled miserably on his mount, peering occasionally to one side or the other. When she turned back to Sansa, she noticed snowflakes beginning to fall between them. They would have to find shelter soon, for they could not camp in snowfall.
"Who will help me rebuild it?"
"We will, my lady."
Sansa looked at her, not unkindly, but with an expression of general disenchantment. "I am grateful, Lady Brienne, but it will take more than the four of us to restore Winterfell to its former state. Even to a habitable state."
"Your bannermen – "
"Are dead, or wanted as traitors. As am I."
Brienne pressed her lips together and remained quiet for a while. "There are bannerwomen, too, and their children, who would be happy to be given a purpose again."
She prayed this wasn't too hopeful, but Sansa's silence seemed contemplative. There was no sound for a time but the clip-clopping of their horses' hooves on the hard path, and the occasional huff or nicker. Brienne's breath made puffs of vapor in front of her face. The snow fell harder.
"You chose not to remain at Tarth. Why?"
Brienne's brow furrowed. How best to explain her lot to someone who had been born with the form and demeanor of a good lady?
"My father wished me to marry and I did not."
She realized she was staring at Jaime's back again and forced her gaze into the trees. Then she began to try to formulate an answer to the question that would inevitably follow: why on earth would she not wish to marry?
But what Sansa said was, "I understand."
Brienne looked again at her companion, but she had turned her cloaked head away and now looked into the trees on her left. They rode in silence, and Brienne thought. Even with her beauty, perhaps the girl did understand. Life for women bartered off as chattel to the most suitable match must not be easy. Brienne had escaped it with her will, her sword, and her towering ugliness; but if she'd been born pretty, she would at best be the sequestered bride of some ancient, boring lord, and at worst she'd be saddled with a brute or a scoundrel; and then what would her life be like? Who would she be now? She felt ashamed of the simple opinion she had held of the lass, for how could one live through what Sansa had endured and not grow wiser, or jaded? The naïveté of Sansa's youth was long past, just as Brienne's own innocence had fled, of a necessity, at an early age.
"Someone once called me his little bird," said Sansa, still not turning to face Brienne. "Now I sound like an old crow."
Brienne did not know what to say to that.
"May I borrow your dagger?" Sansa had removed her hood and tucked her gloves into her belt. She held out her right hand; the fingers on the other still had a bandage wrapped around them.
Puzzled, Brienne guided her horse closer, slipped her dagger from its sheath, and presented it hilt-first. Sansa took it, grasped a hank of her hair, and began to saw through it with the dagger.
Brienne couldn't help crying out. "My lady!"
Jaime turned back then, and Brienne looked to him for guidance. His eyes widened and he uttered something that sounded like, "Ooof," before he faced forward again. Brienne couldn't blame him for wanting to stay out of this.
She turned back to Sansa.
"Your hair!" she hissed, aghast, not knowing what else to do. It was a glorious auburn from roots to chin, though the brown dye still permeated the rest of the length to varying degrees. Still, it was glossy and lustrous, the kind of hair Brienne could only dream of having; and it seemed a crime for a lady to cut it away. It was almost like watching someone chop off her own finger with a meat cleaver.
"This brown hair is not mine," rasped Sansa, who now hacked away at another handful of hair. Her horse, who was an agreeable sort, continued to amble ahead while Sansa sliced away section after section of her hair. She let every gossamer handful fall into the snow like hundreds of slender flower stems at a wedding.
Brienne was at a loss. She looked behind her at Podrick, who was staring at Sansa as if she were a ghost. He steered his horse around the piles of hair as he passed them. Brienne found that small action hopelessly sweet, though she could not quite say why.
When Sansa was finished she held out the dagger and whispered, "Thank you."
Brienne took it, staring at Sansa's uneven, chin-length hair until the girl raised her hood and replaced her gloves. She then took the horse's reins in hand and said, in a flat rasp, "I want to learn to fight. With my hands and with a sword and a dagger and whatever else you know. Will you teach me?"
Brienne looked ahead of her at Jaime's back, suddenly desperate to see his handsome face, his reassuring and infuriating cocky smile.
What else could she say? "Yes, my lady."
Night was falling when they found the miller's house. The family had been murdered some time ago and their bodies lay strewn across the frozen earth like abandoned rag dolls. It was impossible to tell which had been the parents and which had been the three grown children, for they looked alike, all black and bloated with a blanket of snow on top. Brienne saw skirts on two of the bodies and tried not to see anything more. The stench was dreadful, but they could not honor the dead with a burial tonight, not with the snow accumulating every hour by inches. Moreover, the ground was too hard to bury the bodies; come sunrise they would have to cover them with stones.
Podrick and Jaime led the horses to the empty barn to rub them down, feed them, and throw blankets over their backs while Sansa and Brienne carried the saddlebags indoors and brought fresh water from the river that bubbled beneath the miller's wheel. Though Brienne's arm had recovered from Jaime's sword thrust, her right side still ached, and she was grateful for the prospect of sleeping indoors and out of the wind that made her shiver with every gust.
The house, as the women entered it, harbored that unsettling quiet of a home grown empty and cold. It was relatively clean, thankfully, though every shelf and drawer had been ransacked. Brienne kicked a tin cup out of her path and saw Sansa startle at the noise as she carried her and Podrick's packs to a small bed in the corner of the room; the bedding in the other corner had been slashed apart. Podrick would sleep on the floor by Sansa's side, Brienne supposed, though she certainly wouldn't judge if they decided to share the bed. She lifted her eyes to a loft accessible by a ladder. Hopefully the mattress was not infested with vermin, for she and Jaime hadn't any other choice. She climbed and deposited their furs on top of the straw ticking and woolen blankets that the home's previous inhabitants would never use again.
When she descended, she retrieved a tinderbox and two squat candles from her pack and lit them, placing them together on a plate on the scrubbed table, and Sansa brought two oil lamps she'd found on the mantel above the stone fireplace. There was fresh, dry wood next to it, and with luck they'd soon have a fire going in the hearth; it was too cold to consider otherwise, though it would be safer not to send smoke into the sky. Perhaps the bandits and rogues are too cold to be out a-roaming tonight, Brienne thought wishfully as she washed her hands in a basin of frigid water. Two more bowls sat next to the fire; hopefully they'd have warm water for washing soon enough.
Before long a small fire blazed, and they found a clean pot to hang over it. Brienne was no cook, and during their travels they'd had to make do with minimal food of rather poor variety; but tonight the two managed to peel some potatoes and carrots, slice an onion, and set a stew heating.
The crackle and warmth of the fire were comforting, but Brienne once again found herself wishing that Sansa would speak. Were not women supposed to chatter? She chastised herself as soon as the thought entered her mind, for Sansa hadn't been a typical lady-at-court for a long while. Neither had Brienne. If the lass had once spoken pretty courtesies, Brienne suspected her desire to do so had vanished long ago. And then there was the matter of her wrecked voice.
A sudden realization struck Brienne like a fist to the breastplate: she would have to speak to Sansa. She was a woman, too, after all, and she could not allow her lack of experience with speaking in small pleasantries prevent her from offering some comfort to Lady Catelyn's daughter. She drew in a breath and let it out slowly. Then she reached into the bottom of her pack and brought out a small box she'd nearly forgotten she had.
"My lady?" she said as she placed her thumb and forefinger inside the nearly empty box. Sansa met her eyes just as Brienne drew her fingers out and smiled. "Salt!"
Sansa suddenly grinned, her clear eyes and straight teeth sparkling in the firelight, and again Brienne could only marvel at the girl's beauty. Even with her boyish, unkempt hair she was a vision, and Brienne felt a certain satisfaction that she was able to tempt a smile from her. Then Sansa laughed, taking the saltbox and tipping the rest of its meager contents into the stew, and Brienne's heart tightened for a moment. Never having known her mother, she often wondered what it was that mothers and daughters did together, what she might have learned from hers. Perhaps it was just this, sharing salt over a cooking pot and finding comfort in each other's company. She would never know, but this would certainly do, she decided.
"When would you like to start learning to defend yourself?" asked Brienne. She did not say to fight, for Sansa was too small. But she could defend, she was sure of it.
"Now. Tonight," said Sansa as she stirred the steaming soup with a wooden ladle. "I should have learned long ago, when – " She stopped abruptly and pressed her lips together in a shut-down sort of expression that Brienne thought looked altogether too much like her own.
"It is never too late, my lady," said Brienne. "We will begin tonight. Nothing physical yet, just … talking." She cleared her throat, trying to decide where to begin. "There is much I can tell you."
Sansa brought a wooden chair close to the fire while Brienne found a short footstool; this way they were nearly at eye level with each other. She began by teaching Sansa about the weaknesses that all men have – the groin, the eyes, the throat, the instep – and praised her for seeking out one of those weaknesses in Petyr Baelish, for it had enabled Jaime to find his opening. Sansa's face flushed, perhaps with pride, but Brienne continued and told her how her diminutive size would limit her in some ways but offer advantages in others: men would underestimate her. She stressed the need for extreme physical closeness during a conflict; Sansa would never have the reach or strength to fatally slice and thrust with a sword, but she could bury a dagger with ease.
Just then the door opened and Jaime entered, with Podrick close behind. Eddies of snow and a gust of bitter wind entered with them, and Podrick shut the door quickly and lowered the bar. The two approached the fire, removing their wet cloaks and hanging them on pegs next to the fireplace where they would drip and steam as they began to dry. Then they washed their hands and faces in the basins of water.
Jaime sat on the wooden floor at Brienne's feet and inhaled the savory cooking smells, closing his eyes for a satisfied moment as he unstrapped his golden hand and laid it beside him on the floor. "Hmm, perhaps it was worth freezing our noses off in that barn for this. What's in the pot?"
Brienne told him, and the blood flooded her cheeks as it always did when he turned his eyes to hers. He always made her feel as though she were the only person in the world when he looked at her, no matter how fleeting and seemingly insignificant the glance. Was that his doing, or her own pathetic yearnings? She had no way of knowing, for no one had ever graced her with such glances before. Once again she had the irrational thought that she would never tire of his gaze, and it was followed hastily by the thought that she would be without it soon enough. She was sure of it. Despite this absolute certainty, a hollow, insistent longing pooled between her legs.
"How far to Winterfell?" asked Sansa. She still would not quite meet Jaime's eyes when she spoke, despite Brienne's repeated assurances that they wanted nothing from Sansa but to return her safely to her home and, once there, to help her in any way they could.
"Perhaps another week," he replied, looking at Podrick, who nodded. Pod was the one who carried the maps, and he had developed real skill in reading distances and estimating risk. At least, so far.
Podrick had retrieved four tin bowls and spoons from the cooking pack and now ladled stew into them, passing the first one to Sansa. When the distribution was done and the pot replaced on the hearth, he took his bowl and settled at Sansa's feet, almost mirroring Jaime's position next to Brienne, sitting closer to Sansa than Brienne might have imagined at one time he would have; but the two young people seemed strangely comfortable with each other. They did not speak much, but Brienne noticed Sansa gravitated towards the boy whenever she could when they stopped for rest. She could not blame her. Her only other options for company were the Kingslayer and the strange, towering knighted lady. She knew Sansa did not trust Jaime in the least, but tolerated his presence because she had no choice but to rely on those who had killed her captor. And though her faith in Brienne seemed to be growing, Sansa had been manipulated too many times; surely she had no reason to believe that now would be any different. It was no surprise to Brienne that Sansa should cling hopefully to Podrick, with his earnest face and shy smiles.
The four were silent for a time; the only noises were the sounds of their eating and the crackle and pop of the fire. The hush created by the falling snow outside made every noise within the house seem louder. They each had a second helping of stew, then later passed around a water skin, finally letting their weariness settle into them as night fell.
Jaime placed his bowl on the floor and sighed contentedly, then wrapped his fingers around the back of Brienne's knee. She did not flinch, but her eyes widened and her body responded, low and insistent. Just like his kiss after killing Baelish and his flirtatious defeat of her during today's practice, his fingers squeezing her calf was hardly an appropriate gesture in mixed company; but Brienne was past caring. If she was to be called the Kingslayer's whore, she might as well enjoy some of the fruits of that title. She looked down at Jaime and they smiled at each other, and in that shared moment it was as if there emerged some unspoken agreement, as if they'd somehow declared themselves publicly with the touch of his hand, even though the only witnesses were an awkward squire and a traitor's daughter.
"Something has been troubling me," said Sansa finally to Podrick, who sat more upright as soon as he was addressed. She then turned her gaze toward Brienne, darting her eyes only briefly toward Jaime.
"What is it, my lady?" asked Brienne.
"Podrick told me earlier that you and he were traveling alone, searching for me."
"Indeed we were."
"I do not understand why Ser Jaime abandoned his oath to my mother." Her blue eyes glittered in the firelight, almost boring into Brienne so as not to look at the Kingslayer.
"I had duties in King's Landing, Lady Sansa," said Jaime, removing his hand from Brienne's calf, and there was an edge to his voice. "I entrusted my sword to Brienne so that she – "
"Yes, yes, I know, Brienne and Podrick told me the same," Sansa said, ignoring the thin line of Jaime's mouth as she spoke over him. "What I do not understand is why you decided suddenly to set aside your duties to the war and seek me out once more. Why you reunited with Lady Brienne."
They had rehearsed this excuse and Brienne spoke quickly, feeling a flush surge into her cheeks as she lied. "Ser Jaime and I had communicated by raven and agreed to meet at certain times and places to search for you together."
Sansa watched Podrick, whose eyes fixed on the floor while his cheeks turned quite red. "You are lying, Lady Brienne."
"I – my lady – " Brienne was unused to lying, and even less practiced in defending her lies as truths. She felt the redness deepening in her own cheeks, but still she forged ahead, even knowing already that the argument was lost. "Ser Jaime was determined that we should find you. I had two hands to his one, and we decided – "
"There is something missing from your story," said Sansa hotly, her damaged voice little more than a hiss in the quiet room. "I would hear the whole of it."
Silence confirmed her suspicion. Podrick looked miserable and guilty, as if he'd been the one who had decided not to tell Sansa about Stoneheart, the one who had determined that a letter sent by raven from Winterfell to the Brotherhood would suffice, because Sansa should not see the creature her mother had become.
Sansa stood. "If you truly wish to honor my mother, and to serve me as you say you do, you will tell me."
Jaime stood as well, and Brienne tensed, worrying that the conflict would escalate. But he stepped forward, speaking softly. "Your lady mother is … not dead."
To be continued …