Brienne lifts her practice sword, its dull tip pointing at the sky, to signal the end of the lesson. She lifts her visor and surveys the lad, who lifts his sword so it mirrors hers.
He has worked hard, so Brienne allows herself a smile and a nod of approval at how firmly he holds up his sword. The lad’s breathing inside his helm is labored, but quieter by far than the cries of seagulls and the shrill calls of the cook lambasting some unwary servant across the yard.
“That’s enough for today, Tommen.” It has been nearly four years, yet still sometimes she has to bite her tongue lest she call him ‘your grace.’
Released by her words, Tommen’s practice sword hits the dirt with a thump. He struggles from his helm, a tangle of blond curls spilling, starts fumbling at the laces of his padded vest, until he notices Brienne’s scowl. It is one of her mild scowls – still the boy’s cheeks color at his lapse in discipline. He bundles the helm under his arm, bends to retrieve his sword. His mouth is set in a pout, and he is frowning at the churned dirt of Evenfall Hall’s practice yard between his feet and Brienne’s.
He looks like his father when he is displeased. Brienne swallows the pang in her breast which that thought conjures, clears her throat. Clears it again when the boy doesn’t look up at once.
She still sees him as a boy, but he is three-and-ten. His brother was a king at that age, dead at four-and-ten. When he was only ten, Tommen lost his throne, his wife, and his name. Escaped the only city he had ever known (his life) under cover of night and set sail for this island in the Narrow Sea, where the servants call him ‘m’lord’ to his face and ‘little lordling’ within his hearing. The Lady of Tarth calls him only by his given name, and all pretend not to know who he was and is.
“What is it, Tommen?” Brienne asks kindly when green eyes in a flushed face meet hers. For the first time, she notices golden down on his upper lip, how his padded vest has become tight across his shoulders, making Tommen’s shrug an ill-formed thing.
“‘S nothing.” He mangles his words like he has heard the servants do, so Brienne knows this is no mere moment born of sore muscles and sweat.
She cocks her head at the boy, grown taller but only as tall as her breastbone still. “Come,” she says after a moment, gestures briskly to the armory, leads the way. His feet whisper through the dust after her. It will be a dry Summer on Tarth after the long Winter.
In the armory, Brienne shoos away the servants who would help them, puts away her sword and helm, divests herself of her boiled leather without aid. Doesn’t turn to watch the lad do the same, but she hears the reassuring rustle and chink of metal and leather as Tommen stews in his mood and puts away his gear.
When they emerge from the armory to the yard filled with the warm, ruddy shadows of late afternoon, Tommen dawdles, wanting to be off nursing his mood yet unwilling to displease Brienne further.
“He is a good child, though the Stranger alone knows where he gets it from,” Jaime said of Tommen that day in the White Sword Tower, the last time Brienne spoke to him there, after the Riverlands and the Vale and the Battle for the North, resolved without either of them present. The world tumbled and righted itself, askew yet recognizable, leaving Jaime and Brienne to make their way without guidance and with precious few choices left to them.
Jaime’s smile was thin and sharp in the stone hush of the chamber, as he and Brienne stood by the table where brothers of the Kingsguard had met for years untold. Brienne refused to sit at the table, since she was not a Kingsguard, and Jaime called her stupid with honor yet honored her wish anyway.
“Tommen doesn’t get his kind nature from me, nor is he meek after his mother, nor kind after his grandsire,” Jaime talked on, words heaped upon words, while Brienne’s hands fought with each other behind her back. There was no space between them for her to offer him comfort, as she waited to hear why he wished to speak to her of Tommen, whom she had only met once, in the company of his uncle (his father, the Lord Commander of his Kingsguard) and one of the fat, spoiled royal cats.
Brienne spares Tommen further distress now, smiles and leads the way to the kitchen garden. Facing east, it is in deep shadow by this time of day. There they drink fresh water straight from the tin ladle which always sits by the wellhead, then sit on the bench by the garden wall, where the cook likes to disport herself while she shells peas and threatens dire retribution against lazy undercooks. Brienne can hear her shouting in the kitchen now. The servants give their lady and her ward some peace and quiet, all save the kitchen cat, striped belly swollen with unborn kittens, which drags itself up on the bench and invades Tommen’s lap, knowing it is always welcome there.
Brienne lets the lad fuss over the purring animal for a bit. Talking has never come easily to her. She reminds herself sternly that she is now the closest the lad has to a parent or a true friend, someone concerned for him for his own sake rather than the use to which he can be put.
“What ails you, Tommen?” Brienne asks at last, pitching her voice barely louder than the cat’s purring. “It may ease you to tell me.”
His fingers, no longer short and chubby, still in the cat’s fur for a moment, before he resumes scratching the tabby around the ears. Another shrug, quick as the flick of a horse’s tail. At least he doesn’t slur an evasion like a street urchin.
He is not her son, Brienne tells herself. He is not her blood. But he is her responsibility. She touches Tommen’s shoulder with the tips of her calloused fingers.
“The septon,” the lad says at last, ducking his head while his cheeks blaze, still mumbling a little. Brienne bites her tongue and refrains from scolding him for it, now that he is talking at last. “I was playing tag with…”
He thinks better of revealing his playmates’ names, but Brienne can guess well enough which stable and kitchen lads he is protecting. Not for the first time, she wonders how good a friend Podrick could have been to her ward, had he lived. Another ache which Brienne doesn’t like to let overwhelm her in the daytime, when people can see. She nods, even though Tommen isn’t looking at her, to show she’s listening.
“We ran through the sept, and I knocked over some candles. They weren’t lit! Septon Meryk came out and scolded us. Told me I was not fit to be the lady’s… your ward. He…”
His breath hitches, his nose is a red beacon. Brienne flexes her fingers, dares to lift Tommen’s chin slowly with her fingertips. His eyes are blurred, and she doesn’t bother to smile, no false assurance.
“What else did the septon say?”
“He called me an abomination. My friends all laughed and left me there, with him.”
Brienne doesn’t hide the grimace which contorts her face, the twitch of muscles pulling at the edges of the long-healed wound on her cheek. Tarth’s old septon died during the Golden Company’s raid, the same one which killed Brienne’s father. His replacement is a former sparrow, the seven-pointed star carved into his forehead concealed under his greying hair. He does not approve of Brienne, nor she of him, but Brienne’s people needed Evanfall Hall to have a septon, and so she makes do.
She strokes Tommen’s curls, fights the thought that she is petting the boy much as he is petting the cat in his lap. He is not Jaime, nor his late, cruel mother, nor Brienne’s true son. Her responsibility.
“He should not have said that,” Brienne says. “It was a stupid thing to say. Our septon is a very narrow man.” She feels wicked at saying it so bluntly, but the truth buoys her.
The truth goes clean over the miserable lad’s head. “It’s what they all think, isn’t it?” he asks, tears in his voice. “Everyone, even my friends. Because of my mother and f… father.”
Were it not so dangerous, Brienne would send Tommen out for fostering rather than reduce him to making friends with servants who turn on a whim, play with the lordling in their midst as easily as they laugh at him. The lad’s true name may be impossible to hide, but few on Tarth would dare displease their lady by openly challenging her lie that her adopted son is some Riverlands lord’s orphan. Tommen does not have a Riverlands accent, and he still suffers outbursts of immodest, kingly willfulness, especially when he is tired from sword practice or the cook serves boiled beets.
Right now, he is a child, worried and alone.
Brienne lifts her hand from Tommen’s hair, leans closer to the lad, where he sits hunched over the oblivious, purring cat. “Shall I tell you what I think?”
He looks up, curious, hopeful, yet unwilling to trust. He’s had all his hopes dashed before, too many times. Brienne remembers how that feels all too well.
“I think,” she says slowly, chewing over every word. “I think your mother and father loved each other when you were born. I think you can love someone in wrong ways and for the wrong reasons. I do not think any of that makes you… what Septon Meryk said.” She repeats, for good measure and in a fierce tone. “He is a narrow man. And a fool. And I shall write to the Citadel on the morrow and ask for a replacement.” What she should have done moons ago. If Tommen has had a difficult time of shedding the vestiges of his life as a king, a Baratheon, a Lannister, Brienne often finds herself ensnared to immobility between her chosen life as a warrior and her duties as a ruler.
Tommen is watching her, his head cocked so that his eyes, still misty with pained tears, affect a sideways slant in Brienne’s general direction. A wounded child, who will never shed his name or be free of his history.
“I entrusted you with my honor and my life once before, wench,” Jaime said that day in the Kingsguard’s quarters. “I would do so one more time, only this time it will be for life. Once I take the black on the morrow, I will no longer be allowed your protection or your companionship. But I would ask you to keep Tommen safe for me, so he may one day keep you safe in turn.”
The air went out of Brienne, and her hands froze behind her back, the right gripping the left. Of all the things Jaime could have asked and she would have done gladly, she had not anticipated this.
She took the burden willingly nonetheless. “Yes,” she said, her voice quaking despite her resolve. “Yes, Jaime. Of course I will.”
Jaime smiled at her then, a true smile, bright as daylight at Winter’s end. “I would kiss your hand, wench, but we are not such people who do that sort of thing. You would knock me down on my arse and embarrass me before my brothers, and I have vows to keep and others coming my way. Anyway,” he lowered his voice, though they were alone, “vows or no, I would not be satisfied with such a paltry gesture.”
Brienne did not trust herself to speak. So they stood in silence and looked out of a window at King’s Landing, with snow melting in its gutters and trickling off its roofs. Brienne could feel Jaime’s warmth all along her left side and up her arm to her shoulder. She did not dare turn her head to look at him – to ask or claim or hope for more than she was given.
Sometimes letters fly between Evenfall Hall and the Wall, but neither Jaime nor Brienne risk venturing too far beyond narrow, safe topics: Brienne’s ward’s health and progress with sword and lance, the trade across the Narrow Sea, the cost and slow pace of rebuilding efforts at the Wall. The odd vague jest in letters sent to Tarth, dutiful mentions of how much the recipient’s counsel is valued in letters sent to the Wall – that is the most they dare. Brienne wonders whether it would not be easier not to write at all, but where letters and the memories they stir up reopen unhealed wounds, silence would smother as surely as night follows day.
“Really?” Tommen asks, and Brienne shakes off the memories making her throat tight and her cheeks warm, and drags herself back to the present.
She runs through everything she said in her mind. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, I think Meryk needs to go. And I do not believe you are responsible for the choices your parents made, though others may think otherwise. You need only decide how you will carry what your parents gave you and make of it what you can, in your life.”
Tommen stares at her, his chin trembling.
On the ship which brought them to Tarth, Tommen asked, chin trembling in just the same way, whether he should call Brienne ‘mother.’ Brienne forbade it so vehemently that the lad burst into tears. She explained, blushing and fumbling and feeling on the verge of tears too, that he had a mother, though she was dead, and while he should not mention her before strangers, he could talk to Brienne about her or about his little wife, who’d abandoned him to his fate, if he wished. (Jaime did not ask this, but Brienne did not begrudge it either way.) Brienne would never usurp Cersei’s place in the lad’s troubled heart and memories, nor did she wish it.
Often she wonders what she could have been thinking to accept Jaime’s charge, as though she knew anything about little boys (she doesn’t want to think about Pod) or former kings (nor Renly). Brienne would never marry or have children of her own, not now. She is a few years too young to be Tommen’s mother, nearly too old to be his sister, all around too burdened by the memory of those she has lost or never had at all to make a proper substitute for all the people stolen from the lad. Yet whether Jaime knew it or not when he tasked her with Tommen’s safety, by giving the deposed boy king into her care Jaime lifted the burden of securing her father’s line from Brienne’s shoulders. Tommen will be the Lord of Tarth one day and enjoy whatever safety the island demesne can provide as well as whatever respect he can win for himself. Brienne will prepare him, train him, guide him, but his path will be his own. It is not much for an erstwhile king, but it is more than many can lay claim to in these rough-shod, patched-together days since the Winter War, lords’ halls and peasants’ hearths alike haunted by all those lost and gone. It is certainly more than Tommen’s mother and father, grandsire and uncle gained from their glittering, terrible lives, the stuff of songs and old women’s cautionary tales.
Tommen is still staring at Brienne, doesn’t blink for longer than can be comfortable. At last, he nods, a sharp jerk of his still-round chin, and ducks his head to pet the cat some more, murmuring to it, his thoughts his own. Brienne leans back against the warm garden wall, shifts her shoulders up and down, one then the other, to ease out the kinks and knots of sword practice. She doesn’t have to look at Tommen to know he is there, a solid presence by her side, while they sit untroubled by storm clouds for the nonce.