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Three weeks into their delightful slog across Westeros, during yet another charming day of shitting in the woods, eating half-raw squirrel, and trudging his feet bloody, the single most dour and uninteresting woman Jaime had ever met in all of Westeros stopped in the middle of a field, drew a deep breath, and said, “When I was seven, my aunt came to visit with her son. My father told me that as the daughter of the house, it was my duty to show hospitality to my guests and to be gracious to them. I wanted to make him proud. So for three weeks, I let my cousin follow me around and talk to me about spiders.”

“Spiders?” Jaime said, mildly interested. It was the most she’d volunteered in the entire time.

“He was five years old. It was all he wanted to talk about. He’d describe them to me. He’d talk about how they ate by sucking the life out of their prey alive. He’d catch them and bring them to me and want me to hold them. One of them bit me and my hand swelled to the size of a melon. He told me spiders fall into our mouths from the ceilings while we sleep.”

“He sounds truly charming,” Jaime said. “It must run in the family.”

“And in all my life,” she went on, as if he hadn’t spoken, “I’ve never, ever, met anyone as annoying as him. Until you.

“Did you just call me annoying?” Jaime said, in more than a little indignation.

She glared at him. “He talked about spiders. You talk about your cock. It’s not interesting to anybody but you!” Then she shoved him hard along down the field.

“I do not talk about my cock!” he snapped over his shoulder.

“You haven’t gone a single hour without thrusting it at me one way or another. I suppose once in a while you’ve talked about someone else’s cock. It’s all the same.”

“It certainly isn’t,” Jaime said.

“It is as far as I’m concerned.” She gave a loud snort. “I wonder what you’d do if I ever took you up on it. No one who goes on and on about what a great fighter they are knows what they’re doing. You’d probably shriek like a maiden. Maybe next time you wag it at me, I’ll find out.

He turned round to give her a put-on expression of shock. “How scandalous. Aren’t you a maiden?”

“Yes, but I might be overcome with desire,” she said. “At least to hear you squeal.”

“That’s not very knightly of you,” he said. “But if called upon to serve, my lady, I suppose I’d have to—rise heroically to the occasion.”

She closed her eyes and breathed in and out once very deeply, then made a murderously sharp gesture to him to keep marching. He smirked a little and turned around, strolling onward. “I didn’t know that I’d been having such an effect,” he added, cheerily. “You’ve given me fresh cause to hope. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to try—”

“Right, that’s it,” she said, shoved him around by the shoulder, and hooked his legs out from under him with one expert sweep of her foot. Even as he was going down, she whipped the rope around the trunk of a tree a couple of feet away and caught the other end as it swung back. As he hit the ground, she yanked so his manacled arms were stretched taut along the ground, and then promptly sank down right across his hips, pinning his thighs with her feet. Her weight kept him down against his instinctive lurch to get his legs up. She shoved his tunic up and out of the way, and very deliberately put her hand on his loose waistband. “Go on,” she said, deadly. “Say one more thing.”

He stared up at her, dazed, his ears still ringing with the impact. Seven, she was fucking strong. It hadn’t actually occurred to him she could just dump him on the ground and take him, manacles or not, but he couldn’t move, and if she just yanked down his trousers and flipped up the skirt of her armor, she could get his cock into her with barely any effort. Assuming he was hard at the time, which he—was, unfortunately. His mouth was dry.

“You should do it whether I ask or not,” he said, a little desperately. “If you were loyal to Catelyn Stark, you’d do it.”

She stared at him in blank confusion. “What?”

“Do you have any idea what my father would give you if you brought me in with my child in your belly? Anything. He’d give you Sansa, Arya, peace terms for the King in the North. Or just gold and jewels, if that’s your vice,” Jaime said. His heart was pounding. “It’s going to be another three months to get to King’s Landing. Fuck me a few times a week and your chances would be quite high—”

Her face was going bewildered and slightly disgusted, roughly as if he’d brought out an exceptionally large and hairy spider and tried to shove it in her hands. “I wouldn’t give you or your father a mange-ridden dog that followed me in the street, much less a child of my body,” she said. It didn’t even come out as an insult, she just said it as if it were an obvious statement.

“Well, that does seem to put a damper on your plans of enjoying my services,” he said. “What were you planning to do if you got with child?”

“I wasn’t planning on it at all!” she said, her voice rising despairingly. “All I want is for you to shut up for five minutes.

He glared up at her. “I’ve spent an entire year chained up in a hole in the ground, sitting in my own shit. I haven’t been bathed once. There’s vermin living in my rags and the crust on my skin. They fed me when they thought of it. I had to put my hands down my pants at night to keep my fingers from freezing off. Occasionally someone would come by and kick me or hit me in the head with a rock. And do you know what the worst of it, the absolute worst thing, was? Other than that, no one ever talked to me. I’m bored.

He meant it to sound like a joke, just another excuse for why he was going to keep prodding her and teasing her, only instead it came out with a pathetic desperate edge, like a small child whining. And appallingly, she heard it; he could see in her face that she did, as if he’d just yanked down his own pants and exposed himself to her naked and soft and vulnerable. His stomach tightened into a knot.

Then she sank back on her heels, shook her head to herself in a beleaguered way, and got up off him. She pulled the rope back from around the tree and just said, “All right, get up,” and nothing more, giving up completely. She didn’t even yank the rope, just stood there waiting, without even looking at him. There wasn’t a hint of a smirk.

It was crude and unmannerly, and the most gracious thing anyone had done for him in at least a year and possibly longer. It was awful: her homely mulish face dull and weary, as if the one thing she couldn’t fight was someone utterly at her mercy, even though she had to be bored, too, an ugly maiden who’d surely been taunted by jeering men not for a year but for all her life, more bored than being followed around by spiders, and Catelyn Stark saying she’s a truer knight than you’ll ever be suddenly seemed much less funny and more like someone pronouncing his doom.

He climbed back up to his feet slowly. She gestured for him to walk onward, and he started off in silence, hearing only his own breath in his own ears and her trudging on behind him, words trying to get out from behind his clenched teeth until finally he said from between them, “Is there anything you would talk about?” She only blinked at him when he looked back. “Have you ever been to King’s Landing before?” he tried.

“No,” she said after a moment, sounding a little puzzled. Then she added, “I’d never been off Tarth before I joined Renly.”

He stopped and turned to stare at her. “Do you even know how to get there?” he demanded.

“Yes, I can read a map! Most of the roads and rivers go to King’s Landing anyway.”

“So you’ve spent your entire life on one small rock, and now suddenly you’re wandering all over Westeros?” Jaime said.

“My duty was there, now it’s here,” she said, frowning at him out of those shining-clear blue eyes, as if that was just that. It made him want to strangle her.

He turned to face forward again and tried not talking for another two minutes, and then he couldn’t bear it anymore and said, “Do you even have a market on Tarth?”

“Traders from Essos usually stop in on their way to or from Storm’s End,” she said. After a moment she added, “We keep the duties very low, so it’s worth their while, even though we haven’t much.”

“What do you have?” he said. “Fish, I’ve had smoked fish from Tarth. Marble, am I remembering that right?”

 “Yes. That’s all,” she said. “We have goats, but their wool is too coarse for mainland tastes.”

“What do you do all day? Hunting? Is there any wild game?”

“Mountain goats,” she said. “We don’t really hunt them, it’s not worth it. I like to follow them in the mountains, though, just to walk. They find odd ways to go. There’s lakes to swim in. We patrol the coast for smugglers and pirates.”

“That sounds reasonably exciting,” Jaime said. “Do you get many?”

“Two or three bands a year,” she said. “There’s good places along the coast to hide, and it’s in striking distance of the trade routes.”

“What sort of weapons do they use?”

They managed to pass the rest of the day talking mostly about fighting pirates: she’d been in a dozen ship-to-ship actions, more than he had, even if it was smaller boats. Her tongue even loosened up a little over the hours: he wasn’t having to drag every sentence out of her with questions by the time they stopped for the night. “I’ll make the fire, if you leave me a long enough lead,” he said.

He meant it at the time, but she said, “Sorry, still not an idiot,” and firmly pushed him against a tree and bound him securely up to it. He had to swallow three separate clever remarks when she knelt to tie the knots down by his ankles, which put her blond head right near his groin: all of a sudden the only thing he could think about was when she’d knocked him down and pinned him and threatened to just take him.

And then she went hunting, leaving him there with absolutely nothing whatsoever to do or think about except her holding him down and using him over his protests, sliding wet and hot onto his straining, mindlessly eager cock, riding him while he struggled to resist until he couldn’t anymore, until he was finally overcome and spilled in her and filled her belly with that Lannister child he’d told her his father would do anything to have, and oh, Seven, he couldn’t even reach his cock, but he could push up against one of the coils of the rope if he got on his toes, although it was a frustratingly inadequate tease: he couldn’t bring himself off, only make it worse.

She was gone for what felt like an hour, and he was chafed and sore and still hard when she got back, saw that the ropes had shifted—because he’d been writhing in them—and said exasperated, “You’re going to give yourself rope burns. I know how to tie a man up; you’re not getting loose in less than five hours.”

He’d noticed that, only somewhat differently: that the way she was tying him, he could have gotten loose in five hours or so. “I’m meant to be able to get loose in five hours?”

She was untying the rope briskly, leaving him picketed to the tree on the end of the long line. “I could fall and break my leg or get killed by a bear or a wild boar. I don’t want you to starve to death tied to a tree.”

“Why not?” he said, eyeing her.

She stood up and looked him in the face. “I’d thought there was some chance you’d actually keep your word to Lady Catelyn if you made it to King’s Landing, even if I don’t,” she said. “Is there?”

He stared back at her with rising outrage. When he’d given that promise, he’d privately planned on finding some way to escape from his captor and make it home on his own, free of obligation. He’d been reasonably sure of finding an opportunity to get loose in the first two days, which hadn’t happened; and then in the first week, which also hadn’t happened; and as of earlier today, he’d started to have the uncomfortable suspicion that when he did try, he was very likely going to end up flattened on the ground with the wind knocked out of him again. But it still hadn’t occurred to him to consider it a promise he’d have to keep even if he did somehow manage to slit her throat. And certainly it hadn’t occurred to him that she’d been deliberately thinking of how to keep him alive, even if she died, just for the faint hope that he might—behave like a man of honor, and send two frightened girls home to their mother only because he’d given his word. 

“We Lannisters do always pay our debts,” he said through gritted teeth again. The debt he’d actually had in mind to pay back was a year of starving in chains and covered in shit, except now he found he couldn’t stop remembering that Catelyn Stark had opened the door of that pen her son had put him in, and sent him out of a camp full of men ready to murder him, on that same faint hope.

Except not quite. Catelyn Stark had done it on the hope of—the woman who’d already knelt down to start the fire, a small skinned rabbit waiting on a skewer. And he knew, from the last three weeks, that she’d give him an equal share to eat, even if it wasn’t enough to fill either of their bellies; and then she’d let him lie down and sleep half the night before she tied him upright sitting to a tree so she could sleep herself. She’d already killed three Stark men to save his life, and she wasn’t Robb Stark’s mother; she wouldn’t be forgiven the treason of stealing the Kingslayer out of his camp, even if by some miracle she ever made it back out of the lion’s jaws she was marching straight into, and it was becoming grotesquely clear that Catelyn Stark hadn’t just been a woman made foolish by desperation, thrashing after an impossible chance of saving her children.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked, in faint hope. There was some chance there was a comfortingly sordid reward in it for her.

“I swore to serve Lady Catelyn.”

“Yes, but why?” he said. “You’re the daughter of a lord, the heiress to Tarth. What are you even doing in the middle of this war?”

She paused, and without looking up said quietly, “I’m not going to marry and have children, so my father needs to choose one of his knights to inherit. It’ll be easier for him if I’m not there. And I thought…I could do some other good in the world, if I couldn’t do that.”

She seemed to mean it, outrageously. What the hell business did she have roaming around the world earnestly trying to do good and keep her vows and her honor like some storybook knight. It was—a bad joke, and he wanted to laugh; he had been laughing, for the last three weeks, and suddenly he couldn’t anymore. It was incredibly irritating. He seethed in silence the rest of the evening. When the rabbit was ready, she handed him half.

#

She trained several times a week: tied him up and took her sword and went somewhere behind his back to drill for an hour or so. He’d gotten used to it, but it was two days later when she did it again, and they’d been talking most of the time; she’d talked about Tarth, and he’d told her about Casterly Rock, and there had been enough of a wistful note in her voice when they spoke of his swordmasters that when she started to tie him up, he said, “Let me watch. I’ll give you advice.”

“And then you’ll know what I can do,” she said. “No, sorry.”

He raised his manacled hands pointedly. “These are rather heavy, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“You’ve told me at least twelve times that you’re the fourth-best swordsman in Westeros—”

“No, I said I’m one of the four best,” he said, reproachfully.

“Fine,” she said. “Either that’s just talk, in which case I don’t want your advice, or it’s true, in which case I’d rather have all the advantage I can get.”

“That’s not very sporting of you,” he said, grumbling, as she shoved him back against the tree.

She gave him an incredulous look. “I’m trying to save Lady Catelyn’s daughters, and you think I care about being sporting? It’s not a game!”

“Ow,” he said, as she yanked the rope tight. “On the other hand, you said yourself you haven’t had a chance to train with a really good master. Don’t you think it’s worth the risk to improve your skills?”

She paused, obviously tempted, and for a moment he enjoyed an exultant glow of victory, and then she sighed and said, “Maybe when we’re closer,” with that wistfulness back in her voice, and finished tying him securely.

“You know, what exactly do you think is going to happen when we reach King’s Landing?” he asked loudly, over his shoulder, hearing her grunts and the whistling of her sword-strokes. He wanted to watch, damn her. Actually, what he really wanted was to fight; he hadn’t held a sword in his hand for a year, and he missed it more than wine and sex and silk sheets. Possibly not more than bathing, but it was close. Certainly he’d have had no trouble choosing between a bath and a sword if the two had been put in front of him at that moment, although to be fair, that would be because he’d make the bath his, too, in very short order. “The whole city’s full of Lannister soldiers. All I need to do is yell and you’ll be surrounded.”

“And I’ll have a knife at your throat,” she said, “so I’ll tell those men surrounding me to go get your father, and offer to let you go at the crossing of the Red Fork if he gives me Sansa and Arya, and lets us leave again.”

“And what if he says no?” Jaime said. “Are you going to slit my throat in cold blood? If you do, you’ll be a month dying. Never make a threat you won’t keep.”

She was silent a moment, her sword still, and then she said finally, low, “You’re right, I suppose. So yes. I’ll slit your throat if he says no.” He tried to crane his head around to glare at her and couldn’t, so he had to settle for just scowling off into the air. “I’m sorry,” she added. “I don’t like the idea. But I don’t see any other way to get the girls back.” Then she asked, “Would he say no? With his son in front of his face after a year? It’s a more than fair exchange.”

“No,” Jaime said sullenly. “He’ll try to bribe you to let me go then and there.”

“That, I’d believe,” she said.

“And once I’m back in his hands, he’ll put a bounty of a thousand gold dragons on your head, for saying no and putting a knife at my throat,” Jaime said.

“I’ll have to consider it an honor he thinks I’m worth so much,” she said, and went back to her drill.

Jaime sat glowering at the air. “Do you think Robb Stark is going to reward you for this?” he said, unable to resist, even though he already knew better. “You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t send your head to my father and take the gold.”

“I’ll take my chances,” she said, without even slowing down.

“Maybe we’ll make it five thousand,” Jaime said bitterly. “You could have all the bounty hunters in Westeros after you.”

“Men who’ll murder a woman for your money,” she said, in contempt. “I’ll be glad to kill as many of them as I can before one of them does bring you my head.”

He had a sudden startlingly clear vision of standing by his father’s desk as some grinning butcher pulled her half-rotting head out of a bag, those blue eyes clouded over and the fair skin gone grey, and realized in a sensation of mounting violence that he’d have to tell his father not to—except worse than that, because his father would insist on it; Lannisters always pay our debts, he’d say, so Jaime would have to beg him, and then his father was going to stare at him as if he’d lost his mind and ask why, and there wasn’t going to be a single explanation he could even give that wouldn’t sound as if he had lost his mind. Because she was ready to slit my throat, because she wouldn’t take your bribes, because she wouldn’t fuck me, every single one the babbling of an idiot. He let his head thump back against the trunk of the tree. It echoed hollowly.

She finally untied him from the old pine twenty minutes later and started them off on the day’s slog. After they’d run into those Stark men, she’d decided to take them away from the river and into harder country, sacrificing speed for safety. Now they were somewhere in the foothills east of Hornvale, grey granite outcrops jutting from the ground; no country for farming, and even the trees were scarce. By the end of each day’s march, his legs and feet ached from the uneven stony ground underfoot, but they hadn’t seen a sign of another person in days. Because no sensible person would have wanted to be anywhere nearby. “So what did happen to poor old Renly?” Jaime asked her idly, as she nudged him along up a slope that was full of loose scree just asking to cut through his thinning boot leather. They had to walk sideways the entire time, and he didn’t have any urge to take it quickly. “I don’t see how an assassin got past your guard,” he added. He tried to make it mocking, but it didn’t quite make it.

She didn’t notice; when he glanced back, her face was hard with lingering rage. “Stannis Baratheon murdered him with blood magic,” she said savagely.

“With what?” Jaime said.

“I was in his tent,” she said. “I was helping him take his armor off. There was no one there but me and Lady Catelyn.” Her mouth worked. “He was offering her honorable terms. To recognize Robb as King in the North, if he gave his support to win Renly the Iron Throne.”

Jaime barely swallowed just as well he’s dead then. Things were bad enough as they were; he didn’t really want to think what would have happened if Renly and Robb Stark had come at them in a coordinated onslaught. But that didn’t seem very politic to say under the circumstances.

“Then—a shadow entered the tent,” she went on. “A shadow that looked just like Stannis. My sword went right through it. But it had a sword too. It put it through Renly’s heart. He—died in my arms. There was nothing I could do.” She finished very low.

Jaime glanced back down the slope at her for a moment: her straw-stack mop bowed, and her face still wounded. It sounded mad, except she was so far from fanciful, the story was almost more believable than the idea that she’d made it up. On the other hand, the whole idea that she’d been serving Renly of all people with this much devotion did argue for her being a lunatic anyway. “And then you went off with Catelyn Stark right after? Just because she was there?”

“She saved my life. Two of Renly’s guards heard me scream and came in. All they saw was me holding his body and no one else there. I had to kill them. But I would just have stayed there if Lady Catelyn hadn’t persuaded me to leave with her—”

“Wait,” Jaime said. “You killed two of Renly’s personal guards?”

“They thought I’d done it, they attacked me,” she said, as if that was the open question.

He stopped at the flattened top of the hill and turned around to frown at her. “How exactly did you end up in Renly’s Kingsguard in the first place?” he said, with rising wariness. When she’d first said it, a couple of weeks ago, he’d assumed Renly had done it more or less for some sort of stupid joke.

“He held a melee at Bitterbridge,” she said. “He promised a boon to the victor. I won, so I asked him for a place in—”

“You won a melee,” Jaime repeated. “Who was the final contender?”

“Loras Tyrell.”

“You did not beat Loras Tyrell.”

She stiffened, but almost at once she made a small flicking gesture of her hand, as if casting her own anger away, and just sighed. “Believe me or don’t. It doesn’t matter. Keep moving,” she added.

“How did you beat Loras Tyrell?” Jaime demanded indignantly, not moving an inch. Loras was good; Jaime was stronger than he was, but Loras had an edge in speed, and his sword work was fantastically good; he always knew where his blade was, every position controlled—

“He thinks too much about his sword,” she said.

“What?” Jaime said.

She shrugged. “I used a flail. He fought the weapon, not me. He managed to get it wrapped around his blade and levered it out of my hands. But he left his whole front wide open to do it. So I tackled him and shoved up his helm and held a knife between his eyes. He had to yield.”

Jaime turned his back on her and started down the far side of the slope in seething rage. It was obscene. This lumbering oafish joke of a woman who was dragging him around Westeros on a rope like a yearling calf, telling him as if it wasn’t anything remarkable how she’d beat the shit out of Loras Tyrell.

Going down the loose slope was even harder than coming up; it took their concentration for the better part of the next hour. They both slipped more than once, and one time Jaime skidded off his feet entirely and pulled her with him, which should have been a promising opportunity, except he was too busy sliding down a mountain, and then to make things even more irritating, she ended up managing to stop herself first, going to her knees, and hauled him to a stop. It only added to his already healthy sulk. When they finally got to the bottom and found a cold stream to soak their bruises in, she asked him, “Is he a good friend of yours?”

He looked up from the unpleasant contemplation of his bare feet—appallingly filthy, with cracked toenails; the freshly burst blisters added grotesque blotches of pink and shriveled dead skin—in some incredulity. “Loras Tyrell?

She’d torn her trousers and scraped the skin off half her leg from knee to shin, an ugly looking wound. She wasn’t a whimperer, though, he had to give her that; she had just taken the trousers off and was washing out the dirt. Alas, her shirt came down past her hips, so there wasn’t anything more enticing on display than her pale thighs, which he was fairly sure were thicker around than his own; if her legs hadn’t been a league and a half long, they would have been monstrous. “Why are you so upset, then?”

“I’m certainly not upset on his behalf,” Jaime said. “He’s a smirking flower.”

She sat up and gave him an exasperated look. “I haven’t heard you talk about a single person at court without sneering. Do you have any friends?”

“Do you?” He eyed her up and down as insultingly as possible.

“No, but that’s me,” she said.   

He blinked. “What?”

“People don’t want to be friends with me.”  

“I can’t imagine why not,” he said. “You’re so charming and warm.”

But none of the rudeness was landing; in fact she shook her head a little, as if she was only impatient. “That’s what I mean. I’ve no gift for it, and I don’t fit. But people must want to be your friend.”

“Do you find me so likable? I’m flattered.”

“You don’t want me to like you,” she said, frowning. “You work at it. You’re clever, it’s not as though you couldn’t be charming instead of rude, if you wanted. I’m your enemy, so why would you want? But you live at court, there must be pleasant people about. Renly wrote ten letters every morning to his friends.”

“I don’t like bootlickers the way Renly did,” Jaime said, feeling obscurely annoyed.

“Who do you take your meals with, then?”

“My family,” Jaime said.

“And only them? So people are either your family or they’re bootlickers?”

“Not at all,” Jaime said. “There’s a great many people who hate me, too. My family’s been one of the most powerful houses in Westeros for decades. It breeds resentment.” She didn’t say anything, but she was frowning in a vaguely doubtful and puzzled way, as if she had any business talking. “Really, no friends ever?” he prodded back.

She shrugged. “I was friends with the son of my father’s master of hounds when I was small, we’d play in the woods together, but…” She trailed off.

“He tried to get into your trousers?” Jaime finished for her.

“What? No! But he was small. The other boys would pick on him when they had a chance. That’s why he’d play with a girl. Then I grew six inches the year I turned eleven, and one day after that I came on three of the boys beating him, and…I knocked them all down.”

“I’m guessing he wasn’t particularly grateful,” Jaime said.

“No.” She sighed a little. “I had some friends among the girls, too. We didn’t have much to talk about, but they knew they could come to me if any of the boys bothered them. But they all married and left. Then I started to go on patrol, and it was easier for the men if I was the lord’s daughter and led them. So I couldn’t be their friend. I do have my father,” she added. “Are you close to yours?”

“I…don’t think anyone’s close to my father,” Jaime said. “Not since my mother died, at any rate. Maybe my uncle.”

She finished rinsing her knee, then took needle and thread out of her pack and mended the large hole in her trousers quickly, with big coarse stitches nothing like the work he’d seen some of Cersei’s women do. She put them back on and said, “All right, let’s get going.”

“You did just throw me down a mountain,” he said, reproachfully. He tried to persuade himself he was doing it to tease her and not because he ached all over and would have been glad to just sit for several hours.

“It’s barely mid-morning, and anyway there’s no game around here,” she said. “If we stop here, we’ll sleep hungry, and who knows what chance for anything tomorrow.”

Irritatingly, she was right: the slope led downwards still, although more gradually, and there was a bit more greenery in the distance, clustered around the silver line of a wider stream, but even that wasn’t anything very promising for hunting, low and scrubby. And another set of foothills beyond that. He sighed and took his numbed feet out of the water and did his best to dry them off with the end of his ragged cloak before he pulled his boots back on. He thought at least they were done with the subject, but it wasn’t five minutes of walking again before she said, “So why are you upset over my winning the melee?”

“You’re as tenacious as a rat-killer, aren’t you,” Jaime said.

“I don’t understand how it can possibly matter to you. It’s not like I beat you.” Then she paused, and he scowled at the horizon when she said slowly, “Is Loras one of those three men you think would have a chance against you?”

“Not much of one,” Jaime said, sullenly.

“But—” she stopped and didn’t go on until finally he said, “What?”

“He didn’t feel very dangerous, to me,” she said. “He was good, but it was just—dancing.”

“He’s very good,” Jaime said, through his teeth. “He’s beaten me in two tourneys.”

He was ready for her to say something insulting, the riposte already on his tongue, but instead she said, “You must not have cared very much. You aren’t a dancer.”

He darted a glance back at her, frowning. “You’ve never seen me fight, how would you know?”

She snorted. “I’ve been around you for a month, and you’ve wanted to kill me the entire time. I don’t need to have my head bitten off by a lion to know it’s dangerous.”

“You flatter me, my lady,” he said, and then discovered to his strong indignation that actually he meant it; he was pleased she thought he was dangerous, as though her opinion of him mattered. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a spar? Just to make sure for yourself,” he added, mostly in desperation.

She only sighed. But a minute later she said suddenly, “Would you?

He blinked and turned around, alert; had he gotten her? “What?”

But she was just frowning at him from the other end of the rope. “You keep asking me to give you a fight. Is it because you hope I’ve turned stupid since the last time you asked, or would you do it, in my place? Just untie me and give me a sword and let me have a go at you?”

“Well, I would win,” he said, coolly.  

“Even if you did, what good would it do you? If you won, you’d be just where you started. I don’t need to kill you, I need to take you to King’s Landing. So what would the point be?”

“To know who’s better,” he said. She only looked baffled. “You don’t think it matters to know who you can beat, and who you can’t?”

“But you can’t know that,” she said. “It only matters if you do beat them, when you have to, and you can’t find that out beforehand, no matter how many ‘fair fights’ you have. No one worries about being fair if it’s important.”

“I watched Arthur Dayne fight the Smiling Knight, and he stood back and let the man get another blade when his first broke.”

“He was an idiot, then.”

“What?” Jaime stared at her.

“Caring about his pride more than about stopping a murderer? And isn’t he the one who helped Rhaegar carry off Lyanna Stark?” she demanded. “That’s admirable, in your eyes?”

He found there was something stopping up his breath, like a rag shoved down into his throat. “He had taken an oath.”

“Then he’d have done better to break it and take her home,” she said flatly. “It’s not an excuse to do monstrous things!”

“And yet you seem to object to me,” he managed, dizzied.

She gawked at him. “King Aerys was a defenseless old man you were sworn to protect, and you stabbed him in the back with the Lannister army at the gates of the Red Keep to make it easier for your father to seize power! It’s not the same thing!”

“A defenseless old man?” Jaime said. A wild, half-frayed laugh escaped him. “That defenseless old man was about to burn down King’s Landing. All of it, do you understand? He had wildfire caches planted everywhere under the city. The last order he gave was to fire the entire city with everyone in it.” She was staring at him with her eyes as wide and shocked as a doe. “Do you think I’m lying? I could give you my oath that I’m not, but—well.”

He turned away from her and started walking on down the slope. The rope to his wrists went taut before she started moving again, after him, in silence. She didn’t say a word for hours, even as they trudged endlessly along over the hard ground, featureless scenery dragging past. The narrow stream gurgled alongside them like the landscape itself was whispering behind his back, mocking. It started to drive him mad after a while; he didn’t want to be the one to speak first, but he felt her at his back and he wanted to prod her, to jab something out of her, even if it was just you’re lying. But she didn’t say anything and he didn’t say anything.

Early that afternoon, their little stream finally met the wider one, silvery fish visible in the water, and she said, “We’ll stop here to eat,” in a low voice. She tied him and got her net. She still didn’t speak, and he watched her, savage and brooding, until she got four fish and put them on a stick over a fire, and without looking up from it said, “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

It was somehow worse than being called a liar. He didn’t know why it was worse, but it was. His belly was knotted with rage; he wanted to lunge at her and tear out her throat. “Who should I have told?” he snarled. “Ned Stark, perhaps, when he came to the throne room? Do you think he wanted to hear what I had to say? As though he was any less of a traitor to his king just because he did it with an army instead of a sword.”

He glared at her, murderous, but she didn’t look up from the cooking to see his fury; her face in profile was still—wounded, as if she just couldn’t understand. “How could he do such a thing?” she said softly. “Even if he was mad, how could he? Just—burn a whole city? With little children—”

“He was going to burn his own grandchildren, why would he care about anyone else’s?” Jaime said, deliberately brutal, wanting to make her look at him again; when she finally did, it felt like triumph to add, “There were caches everywhere. Under the keep itself. He didn’t care. He wanted to—burn them all,” and to watch the horror climbing in her face: yes, my fine lady, the world not so clean and bright as you’d like it to be, he thought at her, viciously. She lowered her head and looked miserable, and he drew a deep satisfied breath: first blood, at last.

“That’s why I killed him,” he said. “Before that…I tried to convince him not to let my father’s army through the city gates. He didn’t listen to me. After the city was sacked, I tried to persuade him to surrender. He told me to go bring him my own father’s head. Would you have done that for Renly, I wonder? Surely not. You’re close to your father. I do apologize,” he added, with mock gentleness, and it worked: she looked up at him again, in confusion. “I think I must be disappointing you. I realize it’s not as satisfying if I’m not a proper villain.”

But she stared at him, her face going bewildered. “Not—not a proper villain? What, because you’ve done one good thing?” she said, and as he stared back at her she suddenly stood up. “I don’t understand you!” she burst out. “You speak as though you care, as though you’re proud of having had a good reason, but—everything since then—you’ve behaved exactly as though you hadn’t! You don’t tell anyone, you—commit adultery with your sister, you try to murder a ten year old child to keep your bastards in the line of succession—”

“In the line of succession?” Jaime said, surging up to his own feet, glaring at her. “What exactly do you think Robert Baratheon would have done to my children, if he’d known? Their heads would have gone on pikes right next to me and my sister, the instant he found out, and he’d have believed his dear friend Ned in a heartbeat. He’d have been glad for the excuse; how he hated us all. Blond-haired Lannisters with their smug, satisfied faces, he called us—”

“I don’t believe it!” she broke in furiously. “I don’t know what the king would have done, I didn’t know him, but Lady Catelyn would not have stood by while three small children were put to death in her hall for your crime. I didn’t know the king, but I do know her, and she wouldn’t. She’d have put her own body before them, and I believe her husband would have done the same!”

“And would she have put her children’s bodies before them?” Jaime said savagely. “You’re right, you didn’t know Robert. He wouldn’t have let Ned Stark or anyone else get in his way. Do you know he ordered the murder of the Targareyn girl, the baby born at the end of the war, all the way over in Essos? Just because she married some Dothraki horse lord. He’d have taken his own sword and butchered Joffrey and Tommen and Myrcella right in front of my face before he had me put on the block—”

“So why didn’t you leave?” she shouted at him. “Why didn’t you leave ages ago!”

“What?” He halted.

“Why didn’t you take your sister and go, as soon as you knew she was carrying your child? Did you care that much about seeing your son on the throne? Why didn’t you just—take her jewels, run, go to Essos, anywhere that people wouldn’t care who you were—”

“I wanted to!” he roared at her, and she halted, staring, and in his head Cersei was saying don’t be a fool, Jaime, you think there’s anywhere we could go that he wouldn’t find us, and then I’d have to watch you die before he killed me, killed our child, and he wanted to repeat those words, he wanted to put them in front of himself like armor, only instead he had the words he’d said himself, we’ll change our names and dye our hair, he’ll forget us the instant he has another woman in his bed, we’ll go even further east, we’ll go to Qarth, anywhere, and the dismissive turn of Cersei’s head, her answer, You want me to wander homeless across the world and end my days in some foreign land, so far away they won’t even know our tongue, while that fat slug takes another queen and smirks at how he’s chased us off? No. He won’t know, he’ll never know, and neither will anyone else unless we’re stupid about it, so stop behaving like a fool, and he jerked away from Brienne’s wide startled face, sick to his stomach as if he were going to vomit up sixteen years of terror swallowed, and Cersei was looking at him across the tower, the tilt of her head asking well? what are you waiting for? with the boy’s chest under his hand, heart beating like a rabbit: the thing he’d done for love, for his sister. For his sister, who wanted to be queen, who wanted to see her son on the throne.

He sat back down and didn’t look across the fire. The fish was cooked—almost burnt, really. The smell of char came to his nose when Brienne broke the stick and handed him half with two fish on it. “I don’t want any,” he said shortly. His stomach still felt as though it would turn over in an instant.

She paused, and then she said, “Take it, and eat as we go. You’ll lie awake hungry tonight otherwise.” Then she got up.

It was, grotesquely, good advice. He choked it down in small bites as he walked. “I rather think we’ll be lying awake wet instead,” he said, with a kind of spiteful satisfaction, when they crested the next scrubby hill and paused looking at the clouds gathering in the distance, a massing grey wall of rain coming their way. She sighed, looking around at the barrens all around them, and then she squinted and he spotted what she was looking at: the ruins of some small tower in the distance, pale against the darkening sky.

The tower was all that remained of a small keep: no roof left, and barely a half turn of wall standing. But it felt familiar: most of the early Andal keeps had followed the same pattern. “Look in the east corner,” he said, jerking his chin, and when she scraped away moss and dirt she found the first narrow turn of the spiral steps going down, and ten minutes of work cleared them enough to climb down into the old cellars below, just as the first ominous rumble of thunder came overhead.

The rain started pattering almost on their heels, a remarkably comfortable sound when it was coming on a roof of stone overhead; Jaime hadn’t slept inside in a year. Even when they’d been encamped by a keep, he’d been left outside in his pen. It even felt warm; he thought that was just an illusion, and then she struck a small torch with her flint and steel and held it up, and he saw the light reflecting off a stone door at the back, its edges and threshold dewed with moisture, and he was up instantly; he nearly towed her off her feet as he dragged it open and stood in almost transcendent wonder looking into the bathing chamber: solid stone, with the basin up at the top bubbling and frothing steaming water over the lip and down into the bigger pool, and he could have wept.

He turned to her and held out his wrists. “Take them off.” She stared at him as if he’d lost his mind. “Don’t be heartless. I swear I’ll let you put them back on after,” but she wasn’t going to say yes, he could see it in her face, and he couldn’t endure going into that glorious tub in his filthy rags, he couldn’t. “Please,” he ground out, hating it, hating her, and she said, “I’m not taking off the manacles!” and he could have strangled her with his bare hands, but then she added, “I’ll rip the shoulder seams and sew your clothes back on you in the morning,” so fine, she could live.

He sank on his knees and let her cut the seams along his shoulders with her dagger, and then he shoved the wretched clothes straight down off him and climbed into the tub and nearly moaned aloud; it was hot, it was so magnificently hot, and he plunged his head under the surface and came out again gasping. He just soaked in it in a stupor for ten minutes, and then sat up to do some serious scrubbing—the brushes had rotted, but there was an old stone scraper still on the ledge, and he was more than happy to take a good quarter inch off the surface at the moment. “Are you really just going to sit there and watch me?” he asked her: she’d sat down in the middle of the floor.

“I’ll bathe after,” she said.

“You’re the one who threatened to ravish me; if I don’t mind, why should you?” he said. “Just because you’re doomed to die a maiden doesn’t mean you need to be a prude.”

“I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t leap at the chance to get in with you.”

“Was that a joke? Wonders really never cease,” he said. “Oh, come on. I need my back scraped.”

She sighed deeply. “No.”

“I promise I won’t strangle you. What would I do, go wandering off naked and manacled?”

“Sewing’s not that hard, you’d manage,” she said. “No. I don’t know how many times I have to explain to you that I’m not an idiot before you’ll believe me.” She gave a small snort. “You’ve been babbling at me for a month and haven’t convinced me you are one.”

He glared at her. The hot water had loosened the caked-on filth just enough for him to really feel it now. His back itched maddeningly. “So tie me up,” he said. “Come on, I can’t reach.”

She gave another great sigh and got up for the rope. She didn’t settle for tying him to just one thing; there were heavy rings set in the wall of the tub, and she made him spread-eagle his arms as far as the manacles allowed so she could tie both his wrists to different ones, very securely. On top of it, after she got in the tub herself, she also hobbled him around his knees immediately. And then, while he was still complaining, she took the scraper, put one hand on his shoulder to brace herself, and stripped an entire year’s worth of grime off his back in one firm just-barely-painful stroke. He immediately had to stop talking, suddenly and intensely aware that she was naked right behind him, and if he’d been loose, he wouldn’t have strangled her, he’d have turned and pulled her phenomenally long legs around his waist and fucked her.

She scraped another three-inch stripe off him, and he had to swallow a groan. The next one he couldn’t swallow; his cock was jutting out fiercely, the head bobbing above the surface of the water, and he hoped she wasn’t looking, but she probably was; Seven knew he’d have been looking if he could, and then he involuntarily craned his head a bit and did manage a peek of her, fair skin almost glimmering in the torchlight and through the water, a dark rose nipple against the skin, barely any breast to speak of, and dark blonde hair at her cunt. He squeezed his eyes shut as she took another strip off; he wasn’t going to beg her, and she wasn’t going to do it anyway, but oh, if she did.

“You could have made me marry you at knifepoint, I suppose,” he said, a little breathlessly.

“What?” she said, incredulously, pausing.

“If you’d gotten a child off me,” he said, in helpful tones. “During the ravishing bit.”

“You think I’d want to marry you?” she said, very much as if no one in their right mind would have.

“Is that another joke? You’d be lady of Casterly Rock, the richest woman in Westeros, a member of the ruling family of the Seven Kingdoms—”

She gave a spurting—giggle behind him, as if he’d said something ridiculous. “So you’re a good bargain at market, are you?”

“What about to have a name for the child, then?” he said, feeling vaguely defensive. 

“The name would be Tarth,” she said firmly. “I’d take it home and raise it as my heir.”

“My father wouldn’t stand for it. We could have one for you and one for me, I suppose.”

“Twins don’t come on command,” she said.

“One after the other, then.”

“Is this meant to be going on?” she said, faintly marveling tones.

“Well, once you’d vanquished me, what would the point be in stopping?” he said, and the scraper wobbled on his back and she stepped back from him and just burst into laughter, and he glared at the wall and fought desperately not to find any part of his own mortification funny, but he couldn’t manage it, and he put his forehead against the damp stone and just let the laughter come up out of his belly to join hers. 

She caught her breath and finished scraping him with another four firm strokes, each one delicious, and then he had to hang there listening to her scrub herself, making his neck ache as he tried to get a few more stolen glimpses, hands running up a length of pale thigh, her soft sigh of pleasure as she submerged all the way, irresistibly inviting him to imagine her making that noise as she sank down onto his cock, straddling his hips in the tub, oh gods. He tugged uselessly and plaintively against the ropes, just trying them, without hope. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to try it?” he said. “Come on, you must be curious. You could even keep me tied up.”

“Are you going to start that again?” she said, with a yawning stretch. She finally heaved herself up and out of the tub, picked up her sword, and then—walked around right in front of him and untied his wrists, her glistening wet body right there in front of his face, the nipples peaked into tiny starburst nubs by the air. She used her left hand on the knots, the sword held ready in her right, so it took some time; he couldn’t drag his eyes away from the dark wet bush of her hair, trickles running down and trailing around the hard muscles of her thighs as if someone had put his mouth on her and she was so wet she’d leaked down her legs. He wanted to put his mouth on her, he wanted to be buried between those thighs, he wanted to lick the water off her cunt until it was only her left, slick and slippery and ready.

And then she said, a warning, “Stay in the tub until I’m dry and dressed again,” and sat down on the floor next to the tub with her sword to wait, so he couldn’t even grab hold of his own cock and bring himself off.

“Do we have to leave?” he asked the next morning, not entirely joking, looking wistfully back at the bubbling water. “We could just stay here for the winter. You’d go out and hunt and leave me to mind the place—”

“And all the children we’d be having, of course,” she said, still mirthful, as if she had no idea she was one single, tiny mistake away from being dragged to the ground and fucked until she was with child. She’d tied him again for the night once he’d gotten out of the tub, wrists and ankles, securely, and by morning he would gladly have killed at least ten men for the chance to get his cock into her. “Come on; it’s a beautiful day, I want to cover as much ground as we can.”

He wasn’t really that sorry to get moving. It was a beautiful day, bright and clear, blue sky that made even the dull grey stony hills more alive. He was clean, clean and clean and clean; she’d even let him wash his clothes after he’d finished bathing. After he’d scrubbed them, she’d dunked them in the scalding hot basin and fished them out again with her sword, then he’d wrung them out and they were dry by morning, and also free of vermin; he was happier than he’d ever been in silk and velvet. All right, he was still in chains, but it was two months more to King’s Landing, and she had to make a mistake at some point.

He sang a little as they walked that morning, and she even joined in; she had a good voice, clear and carrying, and he made up words when they couldn’t remember them, and occasionally even made her laugh. They made good time. The countryside went for miles all around them, empty to the horizon in every direction. The rope grew taut at one point and he paused and turned to find her caught on the crest of one hill, just looking far-away smiling, the sky reflected in her eyes. For a moment she might have been—something made in marble, all untouchable clean lines just asking for him to make her sweaty and sticky and gasping, and it was suddenly an effort not to just grab the rope and reel her in, ready sword or not.

He didn’t sing the rest of the day or talk very much. He’d gotten more or less used to the occasional impulse crossing his mind, and he’d been putting it down to having been away from Cersei for a year, but suddenly he couldn’t stop thinking about it, about getting on Brienne, a steady simmering heat in his belly that didn’t want to cool. They halted to eat in the afternoon by another stream running out of the mountains, probably heading to meet the Blackwater Rush, and he looked at it longingly. If they followed it, and they could find a boat when they got to the open river—it wouldn’t be two months more; it would be two weeks more, and he’d be home, and safe. Assuming she would agree to take a boat out in the open through Lannister-held territory. Which—she wouldn’t. Because she wasn’t an idiot.

Jaime scowled at her head and noticed she had it raised, gone alert. When he listened, he heard it too, the clopping of a horse’s hooves on hard stone, and when he stood up, he saw the rider in the far distance, coming out from between two hills and heading into their very gully: a big man, very big, with a child sitting on the withers in front of him.

Jaime swallowed suddenly, his heart pounding. “A man with a child? Not a soldier, then. He might be able to tell us if there’s anyone else around here,” he said, trying to sound as though he didn’t care very much. He had no fucking idea what the Hound was doing roaming the wilds out here, and less where he’d picked up a child of all things, but not even Brienne could be stupid enough to try and fight him.

Unfortunately, he was right about that; she shook her head, already picking up the rope and untying it quickly from around the tree she’d picketed him to. “He looks dangerous. I’m not taking a chance on him recognizing you. You’ve done too many bloody tourneys.”

He grimaced to himself, thought about shouting, and stretched his neck up again to judge the distance—if he blew his chance too soon, and the Hound didn’t hear him—then he squinted. “Wait a minute,” he said slowly, baffled. “That’s not just some child. That’s—Arya Stark.” 

“What?” Brienne stared at him, and then turned and looked back at the rider. “What would she be doing out here? With one man?”

“Being kidnapped, it seems,” Jaime said.

After a moment, Brienne’s jaw firmed up, and she turned and shoved him down sitting to the ground and tied him back up again, securely. Then she drew her sword and waited. The clopping hooves came closer, closer; Jaime tensing with anticipation, and then the horse came around the turn of the gully and Brienne said in that clear, carrying voice, “Hold there.”

“Yeah? Who the fuck says?” the Hound said, reining in.

“My name is Brienne of Tarth—” she began.

“Sandor!” Jaime said sharply, and the Hound looked and stared at him. “Cut me loose.”

Brienne shot a startled look round at him, and then jerked back towards the Hound, bringing her sword up into guard position. The Hound went on staring at him without moving, then looked at her. “What the fuck are you doing with the Kingslayer?”

“Taking him to King’s Landing to exchange for Sansa and Arya Stark,” Brienne said, her sword level. “I’m sworn to the service of Lady Catelyn Stark—”

“They don’t have me!” Arya said. “I’m Arya! You’re really from my mother?”

“I am,” Brienne said, her eyes never leaving the Hound.

“Is there something you’re waiting for?” Jaime said to the Hound. “Cut me loose.”

“Fuck off,” the Hound said flatly. “I’m done working for fucking Lannisters.”

Jaime stared at him. “The hell you are. You’re in Joffrey’s Kingsguard!”

“Fuck Joffrey, and fuck you,” the Hound said.

Brienne darted a look back over her shoulder at him again, almost reproachful, damn her, then looked back at Arya. “Arya, is this man helping you, or hurting you?”

“Hurting me!” Arya said instantly.

“The fuck I am!” the Hound said. “I’m taking her to her damn mother.”

“He’s only taking me to sell me!” Arya said. “If someone else offers him more money, he’ll take it! Help me!”

“Shut up, little girl,” the Hound said. “You can do whatever the fuck you want with the Kingslayer,” he added to Brienne. “If you’re dumb enough to ride into King’s Landing with him and think you’re coming back out alive, that’s your business. I’m taking this one to the Twins for Edmure’s wedding. Her mother wants her, she’s going to get her. Now get the fuck out of my way.”

“Help me!” Arya said. “He’s a murderer, he killed my friend Mycah, don’t leave me with him!” so obviously an angry child that it didn’t actually occur to Jaime that Brienne was going to—throw away her fucking life on it, until she was swinging the sword and slashing the horse’s throat, and it and the Hound were going down with a yell. Arya jumped clear and had run around behind Brienne before the Hound got up to his feet, and she stood there with her hands clenched like a little dog hiding behind a big one, staring at him with wide, viciously intent eyes.

Brienne pulled her dagger from her belt and passed it back to Arya hilt first. “If he kills me, cut Ser Jaime loose,” she said. “He’s given your mother his word to see you and Sansa returned to her in safety. There’s a chance he’ll keep it.”

“You’d hand her right back to the Lannisters instead of letting me take her home?” the Hound said, drawing his sword. “Dumb bitch like you deserves to die.”

He swung overhead at her, a massive two-handed blow, and Jaime felt his entire gut drop out from under him until she deflected the blow off her sword at an angle, making the blade slide to the ground, kicked the Hound directly in the balls, and smashed the hilt of her sword into his face as he bent grunting.

And she still didn’t have a chance, she didn’t have a chance, he was half a head taller than her, his shoulders were wide as the fucking Red Fork, but she darted away down the gully—pulling him after her, so when he chased her, she could stop on ground she’d chosen, right in front of a narrower section where he couldn’t extend fully to either side, but she could. He snarled and swung up at her from below instead, but she smashed the blade aside and swung for his head, forcing him to dodge, then punched him in the face with her left hand as he leaned towards it. It was beautiful, she was beautiful, she was going to die, right in front of Jaime’s face.

“Cut me loose!” he snarled to Arya. “He’s going to cut her to pieces, do you understand?”

“She’s going to kill him, and then I hope she kills you, too,” Arya spat at him, without ever looking away from the fight.

The Hound shoved past the narrow place in the gully, advancing. Brienne had already fallen back; she grabbed the gully wall and climbed up fast, just ahead of his lunge, and turning slashed down at his hand.

“Nngh!” the Hound said, jerking it back, blood bright on his arm, and then he grabbed the wall and jumped up after her and charged—

Jaime lurched against the ropes, uselessly. But Brienne met the charge, parried one stroke, parried another, whirled round and cut at the Hound’s knees, astonishingly fast; he had to jump back, his sword still too wide to parry, and she turned right back on herself and scored a deep hit along his thigh, a red mouth opening.

“Fucking cunt!” he snarled, and kicked her in the belly with his booted foot, the brutal blow knocking her right over the edge and tumbling back down into the gully. He jumped down after her as she picked herself up and staggered splashing backwards through the stream. She was so close that Jaime could hear her breath coming in ragged gulping heaves; her mouth was split, the whole right side already swollen and purpled, blood trickling; she spat blood on the ground as the Hound came down after her.

“Brienne!” Jaime shouted desperately. “Damn you, cut me loose,” but she couldn’t have, even if she’d wanted to; the Hound was already swinging at her again. But they were on open and level ground now, full range, and—and—she was better. The Hound always relied heavily on his massive reach, but her reach was almost as long as his, and her footwork was brilliant; she moved in and out of range so fucking fast, and she kept turning his blows with enough time to strike back. She was carving him like a roast; she got another deep one in the meat of his upper arm, another two light ones on his thigh, and any second now, any second she’d find the opening, if only—

A wordless sound broke straight out of Jaime’s lungs as the Hound snarled and just bulled his way into her guard and grabbed her by the throat and threw her bodily down; he was—he was on her, slamming a mailed fist into her face and grabbing her head with both hands as if he was going to just—rip it off, and Jaime howled, “No!” uselessly, and then she screamed and smashed the Hound in the head with a rock she’d grabbed off the ground, smashed him with it a second time, beating him back enough to open up some room, and then she brought out her second sword, the shorter blade, and cut the entire top of his face off from the upper jaw to the eyeballs and into the skull.

The Hound howled gargling blood and punched her one more time before he fell onto her, dead, and she collapsed limply beneath him. Jaime stared, panting against the ropes, shocked blank. “She did it!” Arya shrieked. “She did it! She killed him!” in utter bloodthirsty joy, and Jaime turned towards her and snarled, “Shut up, you stupid girl, and cut me loose.”

She whirled and came up to him with the dagger in her hands, pointed at his belly. “Maybe I’ll cut you up instead,” she hissed. “Maybe I’ll cut your head off and send it to Joffrey. Maybe he won’t like it so much when someone’s doing it to his father.”

“And what are you planning to do with her?” Jaime said through his teeth, jerking his head towards Brienne. “Are you going to carry her? Tell me, Arya Stark, do you think your father would have approved of you throwing away the life of your mother’s bannerwoman just because Sandor Clegane was mean to you? He was taking you to your mother! If he walked away from the Kingsguard, he couldn’t have sold you to anyone else; my father’s probably put a price on his head. But it wasn’t good enough, so you decided to make her fight for your damned entertainment. Now cut me loose.”

“If I cut you loose, you’ll probably just kill her!” Arya said. “And take me back to your evil cunt sister and your evil cunt bastard!” and she jabbed the dagger right at his belly. He managed to catch her wrist in his left hand. He squeezed the dagger loose into his right, and he had the rope cut an instant later, shedding the pieces and ducking out of them. Arya kicked him hard in the shin, struggling wildly, but he couldn’t have cared in the least; he dragged her over to Brienne with him. He heaved the Hound’s bloody corpse off her with his foot; she coughed a little, underneath it, her eyes opening blurry for an instant before they closed again, and he dragged Arya close to his face and hissed at her, “Run and I’ll spank you,” before he shoved the dagger into his waistband and bent down to heave Brienne up from the ground.

He could barely manage it, staggering under her dead weight in his manacled arms. “Pick up her swords,” he snapped at Arya. “She’s put them in the service of your house; it’s the least you can do,” and he carried Brienne back over to the stream, to a sheltered place under a tree, and lay her back down. He hoped like hell she could walk tomorrow, because otherwise he’d have to sling her over his shoulders like carrying a calf.

Arya had stayed by the Hound’s body, watching him. After he lay Brienne down, she finally bent down and got the swords and brought them over to Brienne’s other side, never taking her eyes off him. Jaime ignored her and got a clean rag out of Brienne’s small pack and washed the blood from her face; her eyes opened again while he was working, turning to look up at him in confusion, and he told her, “It’s all right, rest.” Her lips moved, trying to shape the name Arya, and he gritted his teeth and said grudgingly, “She’s safe with me,” and Brienne—closed her eyes again at once, as if she believed him. So she was an idiot, after all. Her poor cheek was badly torn, and he was desperately afraid her skull had been cracked; there was a large darkening bruise all over the right side of her forehead, and big angry fingerprint marks on her throat and face. She had cracked ribs, too; she might be bleeding inside.

He couldn’t do anything about it, so he washed the blood from her face, and pillowed her head with the pack. The Hound’s horse had been carrying a jug of spirits of wine; he managed to stir her enough to make her take a few good swallows, and then he sat and watched her breathe. After she’d done it for long enough that he couldn’t keep expecting it to stop, he sat back and looked around. Arya was still sitting on Brienne’s other side; he followed her gaze to the Hound’s corpse, still lying there improbably dead with the flies starting to buzz, and they both just sat there looking at it.

Finally, Jaime got up and went to him. He didn’t want to ruin the sword, but the Hound had a decent dagger in his belt. Jaime wedged it against the place where the chain joined the manacles. “Come over here,” he told Arya. “Get a rock and hammer down on the hilt.”

“Why should I help you?” she said.

“You’re in the middle of the wilderness all alone except for a badly injured woman. If I wanted to hurt you, I wouldn’t even have to bother going anywhere near you. I could just walk away,” Jaime said. “Now get over here and help me get these chains off, so the next man or beast who comes along doesn’t just kill us all.”

The girl still eyed him murderously, but she picked up the rock and bashed the hilt down until the dagger went through and the iron link cracked. He rolled his arm around his shoulder, then had her do the same on the other side. The actual cuffs would have to wait until he found a smith, since he didn’t want to risk carving through a vein or a tendon, but at least he could move, now. The Hound’s mail shirt was so big that Jaime was sure he looked like a child swimming in a shift two years too big, but it was far better than nothing, and with a little work he managed to get most of the plate strapped on, too.

“Take that net and see if you can get some fish,” he said, jerking his head towards it. “Spread it across the river, down to the bottom—”

“I’m not an idiot! I know how to fish with a net!” Arya said, glaring at him. “Why don’t you do it?”

“One of us needs to catch dinner, and one of us needs to bury these two corpses, so nothing comes out tonight to make us dinner,” Jaime said. “I’d just as soon sit by the river, if you really want to try it the other way round.”

She eyed him up and down, broodingly. “We could burn them,” she said after a moment.

“And make a very large and interesting beacon for anyone in fifty miles around to see,” Jaime said. “Are you really planning to argue with everything I tell you to do? This is going to get very tedious if so, since you’re ten years old and don’t know what you’re doing.”

“I’m twelve, and you murdered my father!” she said.

“I was rotting in a pen in your brother’s camp a thousand miles from King’s Landing when your father died.”

“And I suppose you’d have saved him, if you’d been there,” she threw at him.

“Of course I’d have saved him,” Jaime said. “And so would my father, my brother, my uncle, and any better than halfwitted lord in our service, if they’d been there, and for that matter, I don’t understand what even Joffrey was thinking, killing him was so unbelievably stupid. He was worth a thousand times more alive. We’re going to lose the entire North, now, unless your brother conveniently falls over dead, and possibly even if so. Now will you please go get some fish?”

She glared at him one more time, just on principle apparently, and then went and got the net. Once he saw she wasn’t lying about knowing how to use it, he rolled the Hound’s corpse over to the loosest part of the gully wall, piled rocks over it, and used the spoiled dagger to hack apart some of the packed dirt and stone and spill it down over the body. After that, there was no help for it: he just had to carry rocks until he’d covered the entire dead horse; there wasn’t any moving the thing, at least not for him. He felt mortifyingly exhausted by the time he was done; he’d lost a shocking amount of strength in his arms, sitting in the pen all these months, and his hands trembled when he’d finished. He finally washed them off in the stream and went to build their fire; the sun was going down, and it was cold. He went to Brienne’s side; she was still breathing steadily, asleep. He kept his hand on her wrist, feeling the life beating through the skin, staring down at her bruised and battered face, until Arya said, “Is she all right?” warily, and he jerked back to himself and took his hand away.

“She’s sleeping easily,” he said. Arya had put the fish on sticks, and even made a small rack to hang them on, over the fire, at a good height; she had been on hunting trips before, clearly. They both ate ravenously, and then he took a bit over to Brienne and tried to tempt her into swallowing, but though she roused a little, she shook her head, minutely, and murmured, “It’ll come up. I’ll try in the morning.”

He nodded, and then she settled back into sleep. Arya came and looked down at her, then at him. “Why aren’t you killing her? It’s not because you gave your word. You don’t care about that. Do you want to fuck her? I’ll stab you if you try.”

He raised his head and stared at her in wide outrage. She’d gotten hold of Brienne’s dagger again and was looking at him as coldly as if—she could look straight into his head, where he’d spent half the day thinking longingly about fucking Brienne. “I don’t fuck unconscious women,” he said through his teeth. “Lie down between her and the tree and go to sleep. Before I accidentally drop you in the stream.”

In the morning, Brienne was able to sit up, grimacing a bit. She kept down a swallow of spirits, and then a few bites of fish, and then some of the waybread from the Hound’s saddlebags. Afterwards she took a deep breath and gestured to him to help her up. “Are you sure?” he said.

“We can’t stay here,” she said. “Those corpses are going to attract jackals and wolves. Let’s at least get out of the gully. I’ll see how far I can manage.”

She walked slowly and carefully, but steadily. A few times she put a hand out for support, and once leaned on him heavily for five minutes with her eyes shut, breathing steadily in the way that meant she was trying to keep from vomiting. He held her up, his arms around her, not moving at all, in a confusion of worry and odd satisfaction: she hadn’t hesitated in the least; she’d just put herself in his hands.

Arya took it upon herself to make up for Brienne’s lack of suspicion: she stood staring at Jaime with her eyes dark and her hand on the dagger in her belt the entire time. Jaime barely restrained himself from making faces at her: vicious little creature, nearly getting Brienne killed. It wasn’t until two days later when he vaguely drifted awake and heard Brienne saying gently, “Arya, you have every right to be angry with Ser Jaime, and with anyone of House Lannister. They have given your family just cause. But your mother chose you and Sansa over blood vengeance. She chose life over death, for you and for him. I know you grieve your father. But I ask you to honor your mother’s choice and help me and Ser Jaime fulfill the promise we both made: to take him to King’s Landing, and exchange him for you and your sister. He’s keeping his word as a man of honor should, even to his enemies, even when he can’t be held to it. It doesn’t erase what he and his kin have done to hurt you. But it does matter.”

Arya was silent a long time, while Jaime stared into the dark, strangely feeling as though he was waiting on a sentence to be passed, and then finally she said, low, “All right. We’ll let him go. For Sansa.”

“Thank you,” Brienne said quietly, and Jaime had to make an effort to control his breath.

After another pause, Arya added, “I’m sorry I made you fight the Hound. Were you scared?”

“You should always be scared,” Brienne said. “If you’re not, it’s because losing doesn’t matter, and then you shouldn’t fight in the first place. But I’m not sorry I fought him. I know that I’m going to do my best to get you to safety. Maybe he would have, too. But you were right to be wary of a man who deserted his place and was only taking you for money. If I’d lost, your chances wouldn’t have been any worse: he’d still have done whatever he meant to do. Now, I hope, they’re better. That was worth fighting for.”

In the morning, Arya stopped behaving like an angry terrier. They reached the river that day, and there was enough coin between Brienne’s purse and the Hound’s to buy passage on a boat heading for King’s Landing. No one looked twice at them together: a man and his wife and daughter, traveling to the capital, armed for safety; his cuffs were hidden beneath the too-long sleeves of the mail shirt. Occasionally someone did take a second glance at Brienne, startled, noticing she was a woman, but when they saw she was with him, they stopped staring, especially when he looked hard back at men who’d clearly thought about smiling, or making a smart remark.

They got off the boat at Parleton, four miles outside King’s Landing, the town where the final terms of the peace had been negotiated after Robert’s Rebellion; a stream ran across the northern edge of town, and a small road crossed the bridge there and went northeast to meet the Kingsroad, the road that ran all the way to Winterfell. There was a maester in the town who kept a handful of ravens, including one for the Red Keep, to warn of anyone important coming through. Jaime wrote to his father with the terms: he was to come to the bridge with Sansa, three horses, and a purse of a hundred dragons in mixed coin. Jaime had put the horses and the purse into the terms himself; Brienne was rapidly improving, but she was still moving a bit stiffly, and he wanted her sleeping in beds on the way back to Winterfell, at least when there were beds to be had, instead of on the ground. She’d be annoyed at being given the money, but he didn’t care.

He wanted—to go home. He wanted the cuffs off his wrists, and he wanted to eat a decent meal, and he wanted to be scrubbed clean three times over, and he wanted to sleep in his own bed, and he wanted to fuck Cersei in hers. He wanted to sit at table with his family again, and to put on his armor and his sword, and to be himself again, behind the doors of his citadel. He wanted those things with a hunger that only grew more painfully vivid when he looked out the window and saw the distant towers of the Red Keep, faintly visible on this clear day, like an artist working in thin watercolors. But once upon a time, those things had been everything he’d wanted, and now he wanted something else, too, only it wasn’t something he had words for.

He didn’t want to go on sleeping on the ground, cold and footsore and weary. He didn’t want to keep eating thin scrabbled meals; he didn’t want to keep trudging through the wilderness. He didn’t want the constant shadow of Ned Stark’s ghost sitting at his side by the fire, reflected in the lost look in Arya’s eyes when she stared at the flames. He didn’t want any of it; there wasn’t a single thing he’d liked about the last two months of his life, only there was a strange ache in his chest when he thought of it becoming part of the past, like a boat slipping out to sea.

Like the whole North was going. It had only ever been bound to the rest of the realm by fire and blood, and there were no more dragons left. The war would end, soon. When the last tethers were flung off, when Arya and Sansa were given back, Catelyn Stark’s choice would become Robb Stark’s choice, too. The King in the North would sign a treaty that made formal the truth everyone already knew, and he’d go back where he belonged, and winter would come and raise a wall of snow and ice between his realm and theirs. And Brienne would be on the other side of that wall. She might have been born in a southern kingdom, but it wasn’t an accident she’d ended up in service to the Starks. There was steel in her soul, cold and winter-bright. Ned Stark would have liked her instantly, Jaime was half-angrily sure. Ned Stark, who’d looked at him across the corpse of a king, and hadn’t asked for his side of the story: if he’d ever met Brienne, he would have looked her in the face, and they wouldn’t have said more than three words to one another, and still he’d have been glad to know she was looking after his daughters.

And that’s what she was going to do. And Jaime was going to look after his family, his family that he loved, so he’d cross the bridge and then he’d turn around and watch the three of them ride away, and chances were he’d never see Brienne of Tarth again.

He rubbed his hands over his face, and he folded the letter once, and gave it to the maester. He didn’t go downstairs to wait. He just stood at the window and watched the raven go winging towards the city until the black speck finally went too small to see, then kept standing there looking at the spires for two hours, three, until black wings shaped themselves back out of the sky, and then he watched the raven get bigger and bigger until it landed, cawing, and the maester gave him a rolled letter in his father’s hand, brief, saying only, The terms are accepted. I will arrive in two hours’ time.

It was an odd sensation, seeing his father ride up on the other side of the bridge: a door opening. Tyrion had come with him, too, perched a little awkwardly; he hated to ride, but he’d done it, and Jaime swallowed a hard lump at the sight of the two of them. Sansa was on a horse between them: she’d grown since he’d last seen her, to a woman’s height, but her face was still a wide and soft-cheeked girl’s, and when she saw Arya standing at Brienne’s side, she lurched a little in her saddle, a yearning motion. Her face was very pale, and her hands worked over the reins of her horse. She threw a darting, scared look at his father, who gestured. She climbed down; a groom took the reins of her horse and came over the bridge with it and two more, along with the purse. Brienne only looked puzzled when the man held it out to her, along with the reins, and then she turned and frowned at Jaime.

“Have some consideration for Sansa,” Jaime said. “She’s probably never slept on the ground a day in her life.” Brienne just gave him a look of exasperation. “It’ll get you north quicker, and the less time you spend on the road, the safer you’ll be. It’s part of my promise.”

  She sighed one last time, then gave a nod, and took the purse and the reins. She tied the horses up as the groom retreated. On the other side of the bridge, Tyrion was bending from the saddle and saying something quietly to Sansa, who was just staring up at him, still flicking an occasional frightened-bird look up at his father, and then Tywin gave a sharp jerk of his chin to her. Jaime swallowed. He turned to Brienne. He didn’t ever study what to say in advance; he’d never had to. Words came to him as easily as swordplay, light and cruel and teasing, sharp words like claws; only suddenly there weren’t any in his mouth. She looked him in the face, and she wasn’t smiling. She only inclined her head a little, and said, “Goodbye, Ser Jaime.”

The words still didn’t come. He only looked at her for one more moment, and then he turned and walked away, and every step was—terrible and wonderful, all at the same time. Sansa Stark was coming slowly towards him from the other end. She looked at his face as she passed him, her own expression strange and still afraid, as if she thought there was some trick; and then she looked to the other end of the bridge and her face crumpled and she picked up the skirts of her gown and ran to Arya and went to her knees and put her arms around her, bursting into sobs loud enough that he heard them at his back, the rest of the way across.

His father was watching him come with vivid, intense satisfaction on his face; Jaime smiled, around the knot in his throat. “Hello, Father,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”

“Yes,” his father said. “We’ve been trying to find you for some time. Come.” He turned his mount and beckoned. The groom brought another horse, one of his own, with his own saddle on it, and Jaime caught it and pulled himself up. “We’ll ride straight to the keep. It won’t take long: I’ve ordered our way cleared. You must be tired.”

“You have no idea,” Jaime said, taking a deep breath, and nudged his horse along. He turned towards Tyrion, expecting a greeting, or at least a smile, but Tyrion’s head was bent over his reins, and his mouth was downturned, bleak. Jaime frowned at him, and Tyrion looked up and—had to force a smile.

“It’s very good to have you back,” he said.

“At a bargain price, even,” Jaime said, staring at him, and Tyrion’s face clenched up, a flare of some misery crossing his face, and Jaime turned in the saddle to look back at the three figures, already getting small, the size of dolls. On the other side of the bridge, Sansa had stood up and was wiping tears from her cheeks. Arya was gesturing to Brienne, smiling, and Brienne was smiling also, quietly, nodding reassurance. But Sansa’s face didn’t illuminate; she looked up at Brienne, and for a moment there was only a stillness in her face, and then it crumpled. She turned to Arya, and—he couldn’t see Sansa’s face, but Arya’s smile was going, sliding off into utter blankness, and a cold knot tied itself in Jaime’s stomach.

“I don’t expect it to cost anything whatsoever,” his father said. Jaime turned slowly and watched him nod to the knight captain as they reached the double line of Lannister soldiers. “Wait here for them, with half your men. Escort them courteously. The rest will accompany us.”

Wait for them?” Jaime said.

His father nudged his horse onward, a thin, amused smile on his mouth as their mounts walked on. “They haven’t anywhere to go.”

“They’re going back to their mother,” Jaime said. It came out as a question.   

“Their mother’s in the ground. I expect they’ll prefer to come back to King’s Landing instead,” Tywin said, and Jaime stared at him.

“Robb Stark, his wife, his mother, and most of his bannermen were killed last week,” Tyrion said, on his other side. “At Lord Edmure’s wedding to Roslin Frey,” and Jaime gripped the reins bloodlessly tight, trying to breathe. “The raven only came to us five days ago. We—guessed you hadn’t heard yet, when we got the terms.”

“No,” Jaime said. “No. We hadn’t heard yet.” He looked back once more. Brienne had put her arms around the girls, drawing them in against her shoulders, and he couldn’t see her face, because she’d bowed her head over theirs, as if she’d make a shelter of her own body around them.

It didn’t take long to reach the Red Keep: a twenty minute ride. Fifteen minutes with the castle smiths took the cuffs off his wrists; ten with the barber took the beard off his face and trimmed his matted hair short. They held up a mirror when they were done, and he stared in it and more or less recognized a man he’d been a year ago, except he wasn’t smiling anymore. An earnest young squire was waiting in his rooms, the armor of the Kingsguard laid out, white cloak pristine. Jaime looked down at it and shook his head. The boy brought out his hunting armor instead, mail and leather, not gaudy, and helped him into it.

Jaime left his room and stood just outside the door, looking down the familiar corridor. He knew every stone of the way to Cersei’s room. He’d walked it in the dark, so many times. He wanted to go there now; he wanted it more than breath. He turned instead and went the other way, back to the Tower of the Hand, and climbed up to the office; his father was at work again already, but the aide opened the door to him at once, and he was beckoned in.

Tywin sat back as he came in the room, taking him in, up and down, and then his eyes went to Jaime’s face. “I thought I’d have to talk you out of the Kingsguard armor.” 

Jaime took a deep breath and said, “I can’t take it with me.”

His father stilled. “Are you going somewhere?” he said after a moment.

“The Stark girls haven’t come back yet, have they.”

It wasn’t really a question, and his father didn’t answer it. His mouth had gone hard. “That,” he said, a bite in the word, “is their choice.”

“When Catelyn Stark betrayed her son and let me go in exchange for two little girls, I promised her that I’d see her daughters to safety,” Jaime said. “They…don’t seem very safe to me.”

Father didn’t look away from his face. “Then you will go and get them and bring them back here. They will be safe, and—”

“No,” Jaime said. “I won’t.” He tried to smile a little. “They might be safe here, but Arya would stab us all in our beds in a week.” His father’s face stayed rigidly hard, and Jaime swallowed and said softly, “I’m sorry.”

“If this is your way of saying that you disapprove—”  

“No,” Jaime said. “You’ve saved our house, and you’ve preserved the realm. Joffrey’s throne is secure. Cersei, and Myrcella, and Tommen, and Tyrion—our whole family is safe. I wasn’t here to protect them when I should have been, and you were, and you did. I’m not going to judge how you did it. But—Sansa’s not safe, and Arya’s not safe, and I promised they would be. I’m here, alive, because I made that promise, and Catelyn Stark trusted me for it. I owe a debt. And I’m going to pay it.”

His father lowered his head and glared at the top of his desk. “Where do you plan to take them?”

“Their aunt’s in the Vale,” Jaime said. “To her, I suppose. And hope she doesn’t throw me off the Eyrie.”

He turned, and his father said, “Wait.”

The sword was heavy on Jaime’s hip when he left the office. It didn’t go with his hunting armor, but the hilt of it felt alive under his hand, as if the lion’s head might roar at any moment. He’d felt better the instant he’d put it on. It wasn’t a sword meant for guarding a peaceful throne room. It was meant to go out into the world and do some good, and so it seemed was he, improbably enough.

He went back down from the tower to the stables; he’d sent the squire to have his horse saddled and made ready. He paused when he got outside: Tyrion was standing there in the courtyard, looking into the distance, and at the sounds of his footsteps he turned around. Jaime stopped and swallowed, and tried to smile at him. Tyrion stared up at him and then said, “You’re really—going.” He sounded almost blank.

“How did you know?”

“Varys told me you’d ordered your horse saddled,” Tyrion said. “And—I saw your face when you looked back at them. But I didn’t entirely believe it, to be honest. Jaime, are you sure about this?”

“Oddly enough, yes,” Jaime said. Tyrion nodded a little bit, and then he held out a bulging purse, heavy enough to drag down a belt when Jaime took it. “I already arranged a purse.”  

“Yes, but you’re probably ten times as expensive as both Stark girls put together, so take it anyway,” Tyrion said. “It’s not actually very much, only what I could put my hands on quickly. I had to borrow most of it from Varys. But if you have a chance to send bills to me, I’ll see they get paid. I’d—be glad to have some idea where you are.”

“I’ll do my best to spend extravagant amounts on credit,” Jaime said, a tightness in his throat. “Tyrion, will you—” He stopped for a moment. “I know you and Cersei haven’t been close,” he said softly. “But—look after her and the children for me. And tell her that I couldn’t say goodbye to her. Because I couldn’t have gone if she’d asked me to stay.”

“Get out of here before I go fetch her myself, then,” Tyrion said, his voice roughening. Jaime knelt down, and Tyrion stepped in and embraced him, a hand on the back of his head, pressing like the benediction before his vigil; Jaime breathed out and kissed his cheek, then stood up.

The captain and half his company were still waiting uncertainly in Parleton, by an empty bridge. Jaime dismissed them back to the Keep, after they told him that Brienne and the girls had taken the road north, not that he’d had much doubt: she’d be taking them to the Eyrie too. He nudged his mount into a trot, but he didn’t press it too hard. The horses had all been good, but Brienne wasn’t going to put Sansa through a full day’s riding, not her first time in the saddle in a year. He’d catch up.

In the end, he found them after only three hours; they’d already stopped in a clearing for Sansa to rest. Brienne was building a fire; she stood when she heard his horse, hand going to her sword-hilt, and then she was just looking up at him—in surprise, at first, and then—with something different, when he dismounted, and tied his horse with hers. “Sit down and rest,” he said. “You’re still not well. I’ll take care of the fire.”

She didn’t say anything at all. She only looked at him, her eyes red but still brilliant as stars, and the smallest fragile start to a smile on her mouth: not happiness, because she was too unhappy, but—approval, and he knew she was proud of him for coming. She went to the girls, who were sitting huddled together beneath a tree, and sat with them. He finished building the fire. He’d stopped to buy a sack of meat pies from the guesthouse two miles back, and he put them on stones to warm up; when they were ready, he said, “Come and eat something,” and Arya and Brienne coaxed Sansa along, although she still eyed him sidelong.

It took them almost two months of travel to get to the Eyrie. Sansa stopped being wary of him soon enough. They traded her gown for three plain dresses, he wrapped the golden hilt of his sword with cloth, and the magical alchemy took place once more: they became a family, husband and wife and two girls, without telling anyone a single lie. It was the world telling them instead, everyone they met, and they couldn’t fight off the entire world; soon it was true.

Sansa and Arya clung together for the first few days, and then got into the same squabble several days in a row when they had to camp outside, because Sansa hated to leave the camp and Arya got angry at her for not doing her fair share of gathering firewood and foraging, and on the third day of them snapping at each other, Jaime abruptly stood up in irritation and said, “All right, that’s enough.” He turned to Arya. “Do you mind going into the woods? Do you want to sit in camp instead?”

She eyed him from under a frowning, lowered brow. “No, but—”

“Then do the work you can do for your family and stop complaining,” he said, and turned to Sansa, whose little smirk fell off when he told her, “And stop saying what you can’t do, and find work you can,” and he could actually hear his father’s voice coming out of his own mouth, as if Tywin had walked into the clearing to deliver a lecture and then leave. On the other side of the fire, Brienne was fighting down a smile as Arya slunk out of the clearing, and a minute later, Sansa said, “Is there anything that needs mending?” and was sitting by the fire sewing up the ragged edges of their blankets when Arya came back carrying a load of sticks for the fire.

Each night they camped, they tucked the girls into a sheltered corner, and if there wasn’t one, they made one out of fallen logs and rocks. He and Brienne slept back to back across the opening, their swords by their sides. But the days were getting colder, and one night the ground underneath them had a lingering chill that didn’t go away. It was painful to climb up off the hard ground in the morning: he almost felt like the forty-year-old man he had somehow become, appallingly. When they passed an alehouse at the noon hour the next day, they stopped to eat and to warm themselves. The food was good in the way of any hot fresh meal cooked in a real oven instead of singed over a campfire, and the taproom had a roaring fire going. Sansa drowsed off with her head against his shoulder, and without thinking Jaime put an arm around her to keep her from falling. Arya had already curled up on the bench and pillowed her head in Brienne’s lap. Brienne smiled at him wryly across the table, and they sat for two hours talking softly without getting up, so the girls could get a little more rest from the cold, and the innkeeper’s wife came by and smiled at them and put a little more bread on the table before them.

A woman was sitting in the corner of the house sewing while they were there. When they finally rose from the table to go, abruptly Sansa went over and spoke to her, and then came back and said, “There’s a weaver just down the lane. If we bought some cloth, I could make us cloaks,” a little tentatively. “It’s only going to get colder.”

She had sewing in her hands every minute after that, when she was sitting, and only a few days later she said, “Arya, let me see if this fits,” and held up a cloak for her, a good length, stopping at the knee with slits in the sides for arms to come out, and Arya tried it on and said a bit gruffly, “It’s good. Thanks.”

They passed a man going south with a load of cured furs a week later, and Jaime bought some from him when Sansa asked, even though it seemed a waste of money, because he thought he understood: she wanted the cloaks to remind her of home. But when she gave him a Northern cloak of his own, big and heavy and swinging, the collar tight with fur, it was at least twice as warm as any other cloak he’d ever had. “Does the fur really make it that much warmer?” he said, baffled.

“I lined them, and there’s enough fabric that it hangs closed on its own: that’s the most important,” Sansa said. “But the fur keeps the heat from getting away round your neck.”

“What’d you think it was for?” Arya said.

“Just to look shaggy and imposing, actually,” Jaime said.

“Well, it’s for that, too,” Sansa said, with a snicker. “The boys always wanted an extra layer to make their shoulders look bigger.” Her face fell a little, after she said it, and Arya bent her head, too, and Jaime swallowed and said, “Let me have an extra one, too, then. If any bears come along, I can pretend to be a relation,” and they both rolled their eyes at him, which was better than weeping, at least.

Brienne had been improving steadily: every day on the Kingsroad she stretched and lifted rocks each day after they camped, and that evening, when she was done, she got her swords and asked him if he’d spar. Ten minutes into it, Jaime realized in enormous dismay that he needed to be lifting rocks every day himself, and twelve minutes into it, she realized it, and gave him a narrow look that said oh, I’d have had you, so much for all that nonsense of it not mattering. He frowned back at her, trying to make it look as if he was just pausing and breathing steadily instead of panting for breath, and then Arya said suddenly, “I bet she could beat you, too,” in tones of starry-eyed revelation, and bounded up and asked Brienne, “Will you teach me?”

When they lay down for the night afterwards back to back, under the warm weight of both their cloaks, Brienne gave a little glad sigh just before she relaxed into sleep. He knew it wasn’t gloating; she was only happy to be well again, but he was irritated anyway, because she would have had him. He couldn’t help seeing it in his head, how the fight would have gone, and how it would have ended: in the humiliation of being knocked down at her feet, disarmed, her looking down at him with a conqueror’s satisfaction and her blade at his throat before she tied him up again.

And then, obviously, she’d have punished him for it; her blood would have been up, and she couldn’t kill him, she needed him alive, so she’d have—he shut his eyes tight and unlaced himself and slid his hand down into his pants and around his cock, his mouth dry—she’d have made him service her, his mouth between her thighs with the naked blade of her sword resting on his shoulder as a reminder of his defeat, and when she was wet, she’d have pushed him onto his back and made him take himself out for her, and maybe she’d have ordered him to—to stroke himself hard, make himself ready for her use and her pleasure, lying at her feet with the tip of the sword kissing the hollow of his throat—

His breath was coming a little too quick, even though he’d opened his mouth to breathe, and Brienne shifted a little bit against him. A shudder ran through his entire body. “Are you all right?” she murmured, drowsily, and he stopped and said with an effort, “Yes, just—a cramp,” and slid his hand back out of his pants carefully with the strong sensation that the world was out to torment him.

They were only a week’s ride from the Eyrie, sitting in a dark corner of another alehouse, when a carriage and a party of horsemen drew up outside. The innkeeper quickly came round to shoo the rest of his customers to the worse tables to make room. Jaime traded a quick look with Brienne, and as others took seats at their table, they took it as an excuse to shift Sansa and Arya to the inside, against the wall. The girls both drew up their hoods and leaned against the wall, pretending to be asleep. He put his own head down as if he was drunk or drowsing, and he didn’t need to raise it to recognize Littlefinger’s voice. Next to him, Sansa had stiffened; when he reached out under the table, she took hold of his hand and gripped as tight as she could, her own cold and clenched. She huddled down even smaller.

They didn’t move all the while Littlefinger and his men were there. Brienne ordered more food and ale when the serving girl came by, to keep her from complaining about them taking up room in the crowded inn. It wasn’t very long; Littlefinger left after two hours, going on to the Eyrie himself, and when he was gone, Jaime straightened and looked at Sansa’s pale face, and what he wanted to do was ride on down the road, find Littlefinger, and carve his entrails out; instead he looked at Brienne and said flatly, “Not the Eyrie.”

 Brienne was looking at Sansa’s face, her own hard, and nodded.

“But—where else can we go?” Sansa whispered, very softly.

“We could go to Castle Black,” Arya said. “Jon’s there.”

“The Wall’s no place for the two of you,” Jaime said.

“No,” Brienne agreed, and then she looked at the girls. “We’ll go to Tarth. My father will give you sanctuary.”

“Brienne,” he said, that night, “your father can’t protect them.” The girls were asleep, breathing evenly under the coverlet on their bed.

Brienne paused, looking up from cleaning her boots. “You think they’ll be in danger?”

“The Wall’s not the real problem,” Jaime said. “We can’t risk taking Sansa that close to the Boltons. All the Stark men are dead, and that means Sansa’s the heir to Winterfell. If the Boltons get her, if any northern lord gets her, they become the Starks. Kings in the north, in a generation or two: killing Robb Stark only postponed the inevitable. The Eyrie’s probably the only castle in the world where she’d be safe without an entire army to protect her.”

Brienne was silent. Then she said slowly, “Then we have to hide her instead.” She looked up. “Right now, everyone thinks we’re on our way to the Eyrie, because it’s the obvious place. If we backtrack—”

“You want to give people a sighting.”

“Yes. At the crossroads inn. And then we turn off the high road and slip into the countryside, get to the coast, and take ship from the Bay of Crabs.”

“What about that boy?” Jaime said. “Arya’s friend, the cook. He recognized us when we came through.”

“All the better,” Brienne said. “He’ll be the one to tell people it’s us.”

“You want to trust a fat little boy with the girls’ lives?” Jaime said.

Brienne frowned at him. “He’s Arya’s friend. He’ll keep the secret. And he doesn’t need to know where we’re going, just that he should tell people he thought we were going on to the Eyrie.”

Jaime nodded, a bit reluctantly. “Once we get to Tarth, though—people will recognize you, surely.”

“There’s a back way into Evenfall, from the gardens,” Brienne said. “I can get in and talk to my father without anyone else seeing me. There’s an old ruin we visited together once, up in the mountains—a keep from the early Andals. We’ll go there, and my father can quietly send us a few loyal men to help rebuild it, some supplies. No one will know we’re there except the local shepherds and farmers, and I don’t believe they’ll betray us.”

It worked well. Jaime walked into the crossroads inn with the cloak flung off over his shoulder, the gold hilt showing under his hand, and said sharply to the serving wench, “A private room, and a woman to serve,” and when Sansa came in, her hair braided and up, standing very straight under her heavy Northern cloak, the innkeeper bobbed a curtsey and showed her upstairs at once, the whole room watching avidly. He told the innkeeper to send the bills to his brother, doubled for the pains of waiting for the money.

“Your brother, m’lord?” she said.

He frowned at her as if she was slow. “My brother. Tyrion Lannister,” he said, and her eyes darted to the lion’s head and she curtseyed again hastily, saying, “Of course, m’lord!”

He felt a pang, writing the letter of credit, when he added, We’re traveling slow as turtles, for Sansa’s sake, but even so another four weeks from here should see us to the Eyrie, and then he sent it away to lie to Tyrion for him, and to Father; with any luck they wouldn’t seriously set Varys on his trail for two months or so. Enough time to disappear.

The next day, they rode back east with as much noise as Jaime could arrange by being loud and imperious in the courtyard, and after two hours, when they reached stony ground, they turned their horses off and rode straight into the woods, picking a path among the trees and bramble until the road to the Vale disappeared completely behind them. They stayed in the woods and didn’t come out into cleared ground the whole day, avoiding anything larger than a deer track, and camped on the far side of a large rock spar with the horses tied close, giving them a hot mash of grain to keep them quiet.

Jaime roused in the middle of the night with them uneasy and snorting, though, and as he rubbed his face, they were starting to give anxious huffs and snorts, jerking on their ropes; he and Brienne came to their feet at once, swords coming out, as a shadow moved among the trees, long and slinking. He heard Sansa draw a sharp frightened breath behind him. “Stay low and down in the hollow,” Jaime said sharply, and Brienne bent and threw another branch on the fire, making the flames leap; there was a low growling noise beyond the edge of the brush, and then a shadow emerged from the trees, a shape straight out of his last year’s nightmares: a direwolf even bigger than Robb Stark’s beast had been. He brought his sword up, his heart pounding, and from behind him Arya said suddenly, “Nymeria?”

She pushed out from between him and Brienne, and when he would’ve reached for her, she put her hand on his arm. “No,” she said. “Lower your swords. It’s all right,” and then she stepped forward and said, “Nymeria, it’s me, girl.” She was going closer to the jaws, big enough to take her whole face off in a single bite, her hand raised. “I missed you,” she said, softly. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” The direwolf took a step into the light, and then another—and for all its size, Jaime realized it wasn’t even full-grown, a little gangly yet and thin, and then the monster put its wet nose into Arya’s outstretched hand, and then snuffled over her face and licked her chin with an enormous pink tongue lolling out between the teeth as Arya threw her arms around its neck and buried her face into the fur.

Sansa had been staying back in the hollow, tense and watching. Arya lifted her face out and turned and held a hand out to her. “She’s ours, now,” she said. “Both of ours. Because Lady died instead of her,” and Sansa slowly got up and came out, slipping between Jaime and Brienne to go up to it. The direwolf bared its teeth, but Arya spoke to it, stroking its side, and after a moment Sansa put out her hand, and the wolf sniffed it, and then licked it, briefly, once, and then both of them were hugging it tight.

They gave it the remains of their rabbit stew, meant for tomorrow’s breakfast; it licked out the pot and crunched the bones like twigs breaking underfoot. It eyed the horses wistfully, but after a little coaxing settled down to sleep in the hollow between the two girls. Jaime was painfully glad he slept on the outside. Even so, he couldn’t sleep for a long time, hearing its rough shaggy breath going. The horses whuffed nervously, voicing his feelings. Robb’s wolf had prowled among the cages at night sometimes, in camp: a warning against escape attempts. His cage had been apart from the rest. He’d hear its breathing first, raspy, then the soft pad of its feet when it came close, and sometimes closer still, and the hot breath would come through the bars against the back of his neck and he’d be sweating even in the chill, his hands opening and closing uselessly in their bindings, trying not to shake, almost feeling the teeth already in his flesh.

Brienne stirred behind him and murmured, “All right?” groggily.

“Yes,” he said, and made himself shut his eyes and listen to her breathing instead, feeling it through her back and into his own, until he fell asleep.

They reached the coast the next morning and rode along it until they found a modest village with more than a few decent boats in harbor. Jaime went in with his Northern cloak and a week’s beard and traded the four horses and most of his remaining gold for a modest skiff that Brienne had approved. He stocked it with a very large number of chickens. “What on earth,” Brienne said, startled, coming aboard past the squawking, but Jaime had no intention of discovering a hundred miles from shore that direwolves didn’t like fish.

Two weeks’ sailing put them on the shore of Tarth, with the sun rising over water so blue it didn’t seem the sky ended; it had just spilled onto the ocean. Brienne waited until evening and then slipped into the castle; she was back out in two hours, a very big man with her, tall and broad-shouldered, Brienne’s blue eyes above his beard, and he came and put his hands on the girls’ shoulders, looking them steadily in their faces, and said, “I am Selwyn Tarth. I met your father once, many years ago. He was a good man. You are welcome guests here, and whatever I can do for you will be done.”

They rode up into the mountains for three straight days, the air getting clear and thin and sharp. Their cloaks were more than welcome, cold air frosting the tips of the fur. It wasn’t easy to reach the keep: the paths had been made by goats, not men or horses, and more than once they had to get down to lead their mounts. But the direwolf forged ahead, leaving tracks for them to follow where the trail vanished, and there was decent game, even if most of it was small: Brienne had given Arya a bow, and she and Nymeria took enough rabbits and birds to feed all of them. And then they finally climbed a last ridge and stopped, looking across a sheltered valley approach at the keep: a couple of small towers and reasonable chunks of the walls still standing; it had been built into the cliff face on two sides, and a stream ran down through it.

There was barely a room in livable condition except the cellars—but there was a bathing room down there, and though it didn’t have a hot spring, it had an oven, and the pipes were still good. Jaime instantly started it going and carried water from the courtyard well while it heated. He was thinking the entire time about Brienne’s body, glistening wet, and wondering in something between excitement and alarm what she’d do when he touched her—and it was going to be when, not if; he couldn’t possibly restrain himself for more than ten minutes with her naked body in his reach—would she let him, would she—and then he came back with a final bucket for the steaming tub and halted in dismay because Sansa and Arya were both already naked and in the tub with Brienne, and when he tried to complain about having his bath stolen, the two of them just laughed and told him to stop being a Southern prude and just get in too. “Everyone wants a soak, in winter,” Sansa said. “It’s not like you can do it one at a time.” He did after all manage to find the restraint not to lunge at Brienne in the tub in front of them, but he wasn’t at all happy about it.

Then they all agreed it only made sense to share the one decent bedchamber, and when he tried to complain about that, on the grounds that he was tired of sleeping on the floor, Arya just snorted and said “You and Brienne can have the bed, if you’re so old.” So he was going to spend the night lying in bed with Brienne in arm’s length, and he thought maybe he could just roll over and put himself between her legs and murmur in her ear, “Can I?” and maybe she’d let him, maybe in the warm dark with his mouth at her ear and his breath skating over her neck, she would let him bunch her shift up around her hips and slide right in, if he moved on her well enough, if he stirred her, and they could be quiet, they could be so quiet, he’d cover her mouth with kisses and swallow her cries of pleasure and work her with small agonizingly slow thrusts until she came, so the bed wouldn’t even creak.

Only that night, when he was lying on his side, looking at Brienne in the dark, and he whispered, “Brienne,” softly, she mumbled something and rolled over onto him, and the bed creaked so loudly that Nymeria made an inquiring whine and Arya sat bolt upright and looked around. He lay there frozen completely, and by the time they lay back down again, Brienne had snuggled in warm and heavy against his body with the bone of her hip pressed just short of painfully hard into his cock, and turned into a dead weight pinning him down. He lay staring up at the canopy, and then sighed out deeply, put his arm around her, and just went to sleep.

Two days later, four of Selwyn’s men, older and steady, half-retired, showed up with axes and picks and shovels and sacks of grain. In a couple of months, they had the place more or less rebuilt. Arya hunted for them, and one of the men had brought his wife and his mother to cook and clean; Sansa sewed fresh mattress covers and sheets and blankets. They fixed the glassgarden over the bathing room, and started vegetables growing; they repaired the bread oven and lugged more grain and dried fish up from the small town down the other side of the mountain, where no one knew or cared who any of them were.

When the place was in decent shape, Jaime went out with Arya and Nymeria. They managed to get one of the truly monstrous goats that roamed the mountains, and he lugged it back for a celebratory feast: twelve around the table, all of them and Joss and Marga’s baby. They and Joss’s mother were going to stay; the other three men were going home in the morning, now that the bulk of the work was done.

They cleaned up, and everyone gathered back around the table with mugs of hot wine to tell stories and sing. Jaime wanted some air after a little while; he climbed out onto the roof, and from there went up the narrow stone stair cut into the cliff, to the top of the ridge. The wind was bitter, but he had his cloak, and the view was magnificent: stars flung like jewels from one end of the earth to another, curving, over the black glossy depths of the sea, and the few golden lights of Eastport visible down on the coast. Brienne climbed up beside him a few minutes later, and they stood looking at the stars together, and she sighed deeply and said softly, “I don’t think anyone’s going to find us here.”

“No,” he said, agreeing, satisfied: they’d made an eyrie of their own for the girls, a sheltered nest for them to grow up in, and even if someone had known they were somewhere in the mountains, he wouldn’t have bet on them actually hunting out the place.

Then Brienne said, gently, meaningfully, “The girls are safe,” and he stood in perfect blankness, understanding only then that—she was opening the door before him. The girls were safe and would be safe, with Brienne here to watch over them; she would give her life to that work, the good work that Catelyn Stark had left unfinished in the world. But he hadn’t promised to do that. He’d promised a fair exchange: his freedom for their safety, so now it was time for him go, in honor, his promise kept. Go back to his family; back to Cersei, and the children that weren’t quite his, and the gilded halls of the Red Keep, where he wouldn’t need a cloak as heavy as armor to keep his fingers from going numb, even in winter; where the only good work in the world for him to do was to stand watch over his son, his mad and cruel son, who was going to be a very bad king.

He shut his eyes, and then he said, “Brienne,” a plea, asking. “Brienne, would you—” He put out his hand, and looked at her: the moon hadn’t risen yet, but he could see her face by starlight, and she looked at him in a slowly dawning, half-puzzled way. “Jaime,” she said, her eyes wide, as if it hadn’t—occurred to her, this whole bloody time, months, while he’d been burning for her, lying awake next to her with two girls in the room—

But he forgave her, because she was so surprised she let him take her in his arms and kiss her, and then she had her arms around him and was kissing him frantically; he wrapped his cloak over her shoulders and put his hands underneath; she wasn’t in armor for once, only a woolen dress over hose, and he pulled her body against him and could feel the heat of her next to his skin. He groaned and desperately tried to think of any way he could possibly fuck her without them falling down the mountainside or freezing their thighs to the rock, and then she said, “We’ll have our own bedroom tomorrow,” and she meant they should probably go back down to the farewell feast and wait for one more night.

“No!” he said, savagely. “Absolutely not,” and pulled her with him down the stairs—they did nearly fall down the mountainside—and back to the hall, and said, “Right, there’s enough men and women: we need a Seven, to witness, since there isn’t a septon,” and Sansa instantly gave a yelp of happiness and was up and running to Brienne, hugging her, and after a lot of noise they worked themselves out: Sansa as the Maiden, Marga and old Lara as the Mother and the Crone, Joss as the Father; Soric, who’d done most of the tricky carpentry, as the Smith, and Oren, who was retired from the coast patrol, as the Warrior. Arya said, “I’ll stand as the Stranger,” and got her bow, putting herself in between the two rows, and Nymeria even left the massive thigh bone she’d been gnawing by the fire and padded to her side and sat down on her haunches to supervise.

Jaime turned and faced Brienne before them all, and held her hands in his, and Sansa wrapped their hands with a ribbon she’d embroidered, and they swore to one another; and afterwards, Jaime took his wife to the master room, with the new bed in it still smelling like freshly cut wood, and fell into her arms with everyone still cheering them outside.

#

Tyrion was about to get up from the council table when Varys glanced at him: just a brief flickering of his eyes, but it made Tyrion slow down, so the rest of the small council had left the chamber before him; and Father saw them both waiting, and waited himself, a small jerk to the aide on the door to close it when the rest had gone. “Well?” he said.

“My lord, I have…heard a little song,” Varys said. “I don’t wish to raise expectations. It’s very faint, and scarcely more than a whistle. But it comes from Tarth.”

Tyrion stiffened, and saw his father’s lips tighten. “Five years ago,” Tywin said, “you said you’d put people in every town and keep on the entire island, with no results.”

“I had,” Varys said. “And I left a few behind. Three weeks ago, there was an ironborn raid on Eastport, a small trading town on the east coast, near the mountains. These occur with some regularity; the unique feature in this case was its failure. Nine raiders were killed, and six more fled. A remarkable victory. My little bird flew to Eastport and asked questions. The local gossip reported that the ironborn were slain almost entirely by three: an archer, a girl with dark hair, perhaps sixteen years of age, a tall woman that two different people thought was Lord Selwyn’s daughter, and—a man, golden-haired, with a sword whose hilt was gold.”

He drew a small map case from a pocket, took out the map and stood to unroll it on the table. Tyrion leaned over: Eastport town was a small knot on the eastern edge of the island. “There is no keep or manor near Eastport. My bird flew in circles for a long time and found nothing more, heard nothing more. But in the ancient annals of the Storm Kings, I found a brief mention that a beacon was occasionally lit at a keep called Midnight’s Watch to warn of raiders coming from the east. A keep which once stood…here.” He touched the map delicately at a point in the mountains, not far from the town. “It was abandoned long ago. But not, so far as I can tell from the histories, destroyed.”

Tywin’s face was hard, looking down at it. “Good,” he said, and then looked at Tyrion. “Go get him.”

“Just like that?”

His father looked glinting and irritated. “Go and find your brother,” he said through his teeth, “and if he has difficulty remembering his duty to his family, make clear to him that Sansa and Arya Stark’s safety was promised in exchange for his freedom, not given as a gift.”

“All right, but what is the point exactly?” Tyrion said. “Yes, if you threaten to come and take the Stark girls, I expect Jaime will come home, but what do you think you’re going to get out of him after you’ve gotten him that way? If he wanted to come home, he would have.”

“So you think your brother wants to be living in a half-ruined keep in the mountains of Tarth, do you?” Tywin said. “Undoubtedly they’ve preyed on his guilt. There’s no man to take care of them, and he’s been persuaded to consider himself responsible.”

“That seems unlikely,” Tyrion said.

“More unlikely than his running after them in the first place?” Tywin said.

That was a reasonably good point, except for how it inconveniently led to Tyrion trudging three days into a frozen mountain wilderness and up a track clearly for wild goats and not human beings; it was not by any means his idea of a pleasant excursion. He’d given up and gotten off the horse because he didn’t trust the thing not to shuffle him off and straight down the cliff wall, but now his boots were soaked through and his feet half-frozen, and the ten men of his escort were all grumbling. If Jaime had decided to martyr himself in this godforsaken wilderness, Tyrion devoutly hoped at least he had provided himself with a large fire and a decent bathing room.

He was beginning to doubt the whole thing, though—the slog was just too miserable for words. Even Jaime on a horse couldn’t have managed the track in less than two days, generously. Two days from the nearest town, living alone in a tiny ancient keep with the two Stark girls and their ugly caretaker, barely ever leaving, only a handful of servants at most—the secret could never have been kept from Varys this long otherwise. And all of this for five years? It was an excess of noble sacrifice, no matter what sting of obligation Catelyn Stark had managed to plant under Jaime’s skin, and he couldn’t possibly be doing this to himself—except just as soon as Tyrion had settled in his own head that the trip was all for nothing, they trudged around a cliff corner and he heard Jaime’s voice, carrying beautifully over a field, saying, “Keep that blade up above your waist.”

Tyrion stopped walking and stared across a snowy field to a courtyard in front of a small stone keep, where Jaime was apparently teaching swordplay to Arya Stark and three very small children with wooden swords.

After several moments of staring, Tyrion finally told Bronn, “Wait here with the men.”

“I don’t know, think you can take ‘em without us?” Bronn said. “That one on the right looks pretty vicious.” The one on the right, who couldn’t have been more than three years old, was doing his best to whack the ankles of his only somewhat larger neighbor.

“I’ll muster the courage to face them on my own. There’s no need to overwhelm them with sheer numbers just yet.” Tyrion set off across the field. He’d never imagined Jaime trying to teach anyone how to fight, much less babes just barely out of arms, but he seemed to be considerably more patient about it than Tyrion would have expected. Arya wasn’t really in the lesson; she was drilling on her own, with a rapier, and as he approached she was the one who sighted him.

“Jaime,” she said, sharply, and Jaime turned, dropping the wooden sword he’d been using and reaching for the gold-hilted blade at his waist, and then he halted, and stared. “Tyrion?”

“Yes, yes, hail and well met,” Tyrion said. “Lovely weather, isn’t it?”

“What are you doing here?” Jaime said, as if that was a question he had any right asking anyone else. Tyrion frowned at him censoriously, and the ankle-whacker, staring at him with enormous eyes, breathed out, “A grumkin!” with so much desperate hope in his—her?—piping voice that it was almost a shame when Jaime said, “No, Catelyn, this—this is your uncle Tyrion,” and, “I’m her what?” Tyrion said, staring at Jaime, and then looked at the girl, who blinked back. 

“Why does Cat get an uncle!” one of the other children said indignantly.  

“He’s your uncle, too, knotbrain,” Arya said, roughly tousling his—very golden head, identical to the other boy’s, and Tyrion gawked at them both and then back at Jaime in flat indignation. “You’ve been missing for five years and you’ve produced three children?

Jaime had the grace to look vaguely awkward, and then he said, “Five.”

“What?” Tyrion said.

“Sel and Alton are too little for swords, they can’t even walk yet,” the other boy said dismissively, speaking from his ancient peak of—he couldn’t be five, and he was already the size of a healthy seven year old; were they just simply massive? Apparently so—“But where did they come from?” Tyrion said, helplessly.

“I’m married to Brienne,” Jaime said, in what might actually have been a smug tone.

“Who?” Tyrion said.

Jaime frowned at him. “Lady Brienne!” he said, as if he was vaguely offended that Tyrion didn’t know the name of the random bride he’d somehow dug up for himself on this island in the back end of—

“Wait,” Tyrion said. “Wait, are you talking about that absolutely enormous—ly tall woman with the blond hair,” he hastily edited, seeing the light of battle igniting in Jaime’s eye, “the one who kept you prisoner all that—you married her? And—” he started to feel rising indignation, “are you telling me that you’ve had two sets of twins—”

“And me!” Cat said loudly.

And her!” Tyrion added, in outrage, “in five years—”

“It just sort of—keeps happening,” Jaime said, sounding vaguely defensive.

“It keeps happening because you can’t leave Brienne alone for ten minutes!” Arya said, severely, and Jaime managed to simultaneously look guilty and also faintly dreamy-eyed, as though the mere thought of his mountain-sized woman overcame him with delight.

The soldiers had to pitch tents against the walls, poor bastards, but the keep wasn’t as desolate a ruin as Tyrion had imagined; it was quite snug, actually, the walls mended and plastered, with large embroidered hangings in the great hall, and there was indeed a good bathing room. There was good bread served at the table, a simple but reasonably tasty stew, and even some decent wine, not very exciting but decent. And if it had been the total misery Tyrion had envisioned, he was increasingly and bewilderingly certain that Jaime wouldn’t actually have noticed, because he was too busy being climbed on by children, and when he wasn’t, he was gazing besottedly at his wife, who was exactly as ludicrously big as Tyrion had remembered. She didn’t look as if she’d been particularly incommoded by producing five offspring in as many years; in fact, she didn’t look as if she’d be incommoded by anything short of a decently sized army. Which she was well on her way to having.

By silent and mutual agreement, through the end of dinner, they talked only about the keep, the children, and the preparations for winter: they had a little herd of goats going, and reasonable stores of grain and dried meat and fish, with a glassgarden to boot. It all became rather agonizing before the end. Tyrion had seen Jaime truly happy on a handful of occasions: generally after he’d finished winning a hard match, or most memorably when he’d ridden back into King’s Landing fresh from the Greyjoy Rebellion, having killed some remarkable number of people in the Siege of Pyke. But not like this; not contented, as if he was happy from one moment to the next, on and on and on.

The children were packed off to bed after the meal; the servants cleared. Sansa led Tyrion into the master chamber: it was a pleasant room for sitting, with a few decently comfortable chairs around the hearth and a large bed, rough-hewn but with handsome bedcurtains and coverlet. There was an enormous dog curled by the fire with a bone, presumably some sort of local breed, since things from Tarth seemed to come in improbably large sizes. Sansa sat beside it with her sewing, and Arya put herself on the other side of the fire and sat down on the hearth with a stack of feathers she was cutting up for arrow fletching.

Jaime came back in, unburdened of the three children that had been draped over him when he’d gone upstairs, and sat down on the bench at the end of the bed and heeled off his boots. Brienne came into the room a couple of minutes later and sat next to him; they traded a single glance, and then he turned to Tyrion and said abruptly, “All right, let’s have it.”

“I’m not sure what it is anymore, actually,” Tyrion said after a moment. “It’s just as well Father did send me; if he’d sent some flunky, the poor man would be even more at sea. I’m here to get you, of course,” he added, and saw Jaime’s jaw tighten, “but the reason I’m here to get you is so you can be married off to some noblewoman to start producing Lannister children. Since you’re already doing it as fast as humanly possible, it seems rather counterproductive to interrupt. So—make me an offer.”

“What?” Jaime frowned at him.

“Make me an offer,” Tyrion said. “I’m sorry. I know you’re happy here, I know you’re all happy here,” he added, sparing a look of apology for Sansa, who had put her sewing down in her lap and was watching him with her face gone cool and unreadable back behind her my-one-true-love mask. “I hate that I’m going to spoil it. But it’s done. You have the future of House Lannister tucked into those beds upstairs, and even if Father were willing to let you play householder and raise them in a cozy little keep on the edge of the world, someone else would come for them, and you can’t protect them here once people know where they are. You know you can’t.” And Jaime did know it, of course; he knew it perfectly well, that was written on his face like letters inked in gold, and he also knew the perfectly obvious answer, and he wasn’t saying it, so Tyrion had to; he swallowed and said, “Casterly Rock is—”

“We’re not taking Sansa and Arya to Casterly Rock,” Brienne said instantly, cool and quiet and utterly unyielding.

“So: make me an offer,” Tyrion said. “If it’s even vaguely reasonable, I’ll take it back to Father and sell it to him as hard as I possibly can; I promise you,” speaking to Jaime, urgently, because he couldn’t bear being the one who had to put that look on Jaime’s face: it wasn’t fair. “Name any castle in the Westerlands; Father will kick any of our bannermen out for you in a heartbeat—”

“Winterfell,” Sansa said.

Tyrion paused, blinking, and turned.

Winterfell,” Sansa said again, with a bite in her voice. “My brothers are dead. It’s mine by right now. Give us a Lannister army, to take it back from the traitor who betrayed Robb, who helped your father murder our brother and mother. And Ser Jaime to be Warden in the North until there’s a Stark to hold it again, and his children fostered with us to heal the breach between House Lannister and House Stark, and make a true peace with the North.”

Jaime and Brienne were staring at her as if she’d just suddenly jumped up and started snarling, which to be fair, she more or less had; but Arya had straightened in the corner and was looking at her with a sudden bright ferocity in her face. Even the dog at her feet had lifted its head, its ears pointed forward and tongue lolling—and it wasn’t a dog after all: it was a direwolf, teeth gleaming amid frosted fur.

After a moment, Jaime swallowed and looked at him. “Well,” he said. “That sounds—vaguely reasonable, wouldn’t you say?”

“Vaguely, yes,” Tyrion said, still eyeing Sansa a little warily, the sharp gleam in her clear eyes and in Arya’s: there was more than one wolf in the room.

The entire experience had roughly the quality of having been slammed on the head with a heavy blunt object; but Tyrion reflected, as he climbed the endless fucking stairs of the tower of the Hand—Father couldn’t enjoy climbing them himself, he just had to like making others climb them so much that it outweighed the pain in his own knees, which was some sort of explanation for, well, their entire lives—that at least there was the one silver lining common to those very situations, which was that in them, you often got a turn to hit someone else over the head.

“He’s not with you,” Father said, without looking up from the desk.

“No, he’s not,” Tyrion said. He went to the tray of wine at the side of the room.

“You require fortification before telling me? Is he dead?” Father still didn’t look up, even when he asked it, but there was a fixed tightness in his face, and he’d stopped writing.

“No, and no,” Tyrion said, pouring the glass. He carried it over to the desk and slid it across. Tywin sat back in his chair, glanced at it, and then back at him. Tyrion hauled himself up into a chair opposite, sat back and laced his fingers over his belly and said, “He’s married the Lord of Tarth’s daughter. The one who brought him here to exchange for the girls.”

Tywin shifted in his chair, his hands and mouth closing with anger; he looked away, his eyes fixing on the papers in front of him but actually unseeing: contemplating violence, most likely. “That grotesquely large woman parading around in armor? How old is she?”

“Thirty—five, now, I think?” Tyrion said.

Tywin jerked his head in a hard nod. “Any sign of a child?”

Ah, the pleasure of pulling back for the swing. “Yes,” Tyrion said, and let fly. “Five extremely loud, healthy, and energetic signs,” and sighed with inward enjoyment as Father’s head slowly came up, looking at him. “Twin boys, a girl, then another pair of boys, in that order. They’re trying not to have them quite so fast, only it seems they’ve spent all their willpower on endless sword training and don’t have any left over for not fucking all the time.”

Tywin sat perfectly still. Then he took the glass of wine and drank half of it and put it down, and kept sitting for several minutes. His mouth moved a little, and he blinked a few times, his face somehow wavering, and Tyrion had a moment of unwilling feeling: grudgingly he got up and went and got himself another glass of wine and came back and raised it. “To House Lannister. Which is now—twice the size it used to be.”

It gave him something of a species of revenge after all: Father actually almost broke. He put his clenched fist over his mouth and leaned on it, unable to speak, and then he reached for his glass and polished the rest of it off. Then he got up and went to the window and stood there with his hands clasped behind his back for several minutes. He finally took a deep breath. “They can’t stay there.”

“No,” Tyrion said. “A point I made, and which was acknowledged. But Sansa and Arya won’t put themselves back in Lannister hands, and Brienne and Jaime won’t leave them. Fortunately, they’ve come up with a solution. And all it takes is, well, giving Jaime the Lannister armies and letting him go bring the Boltons to heel, the way you’ve been increasingly ready to do for the last two years.”

Tywin paused and turned, frowning. “Winterfell,” he said flatly.

“Yes. Winterfell restored to Sansa Stark, in her own right. Jaime appointed Warden of the North, until there’s a Stark who can take the job, and his children formally fostered at Winterfell to mend the breach between House Lannister and House Stark.” Tyrion gave a flick of his eyebrows. “And who even knows. We might manage to keep the North in the realm after all.”

# End