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A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action Please

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“I’m sorry, Ser Hyle, my lord, but on the Quiet Isle men and women do not sleep under the same roof unless they are wed. Unless any of you have very recently married the lady, you need to leave her for the night. Brother Narbert will show you to your sleeping quarters, if you have forgotten where they are.”

“No, I remember.” Hyle sighed theatrically, clapped his hands on his legs, and stood up. “Well lads, we must go.” He spared a final glance for Brienne, who looked small and pale beneath her furs, and then reassured himself that she was receiving far better care than any of them could give her on the road. He had to fairly drag Pod out the door, so much did he want to stay with his mistress, and was several steps down the stone path before realizing that Lannister wasn’t with them. Hyle turned to see him exit the cottage with great reluctance, and then sit on the ground only a few feet from its door, staring intently in the direction from which he had come.

“Oy, Lannister!” He turned his head but made no move to rise. “The septry is just down this road. Beds, with blankets and everything, I promise. You needn’t sleep on the ground tonight.” Hyle congratulated himself on his ability to be polite to a pampered shit like Jaime Lannister. What did a man like that know other than featherbeds and satin sheets?

“Thank you, Ser Hyle, but I assure you I’m quite comfortable here.” His cloak was still attached to his shoulders, but he spread out its lower section and curled his legs on top of it. “See?”

The man was maddening. What’s more, now that Pod had been given the idea, there was no chance that he would leave for the septry with Hyle. Sure enough, before he could blink, Pod had slipped from his grasp and raced back to the cottage, plopping down right next to him. Lannister gamely shifted so the boy could find space on his cloak rather than sitting on the cold ground, and Pod beamed up at him before yawning so widely his face looked like to split in half. Within moments he was sprawled on Lannister’s lap like a half-empty sack of flour, leaving the man nonplussed.

Podrick had been his only companion since Brienne had left to fetch Lannister — in truth longer than that, as she had been insensate for days before they met Stoneheart. With no warning, Hyle found himself stomping back to the cottage to throw himself on the ground next to Lannister and the child. His body protested at its rough treatment but he stifled everything other than a slight groan as his bruises settled into the dirt.

Lannister looked preoccupied but his tone was solicitous. “Ser Hyle, don’t you want to sleep somewhere more comfortable tonight? You don't need to stay with me.”

Hyle scowled and Lannister was taken aback. “No, I...if you’re all here, I’ll stay too. I don’t need luxurious accommodations to sleep. What we’ve all been through in the past weeks...even this field is a palace in comparison. No, you needn’t concern yourself on my behalf, Lannister. I am quite as hardy as you are, I promise you.”

Lannister shrugged and resumed his vigil. They all sat in silence as brothers filed in and out of Brienne’s cottage, unable to enter but unwilling to leave. Her soft cries drifted out of the open door, her words much the same as when last she was so ill. Her two traveling companions were well-used to this and had no reaction, but Hyle found a perverse pleasure in watching Lannister’s face as she plaintively moaned his name. He looked distinctly agitated. As well he should be.

“Kingslayer’s. Whore.” Hyle spoke softly but deliberately, causing Lannister to jerk his head around and fix him with a murderous glare. How fitting, from a murderer.

“What did you call her?” His voice was equally quiet but caused Podrick to sit up straight and dart his eyes back and forth between the two men.

“Oh, I called her nothing, Lannister. It’s everyone else that should concern you. Yes, I’m afraid your shining reputation has taken quite the hit of late. Everyone in that accursed brotherhood, Former Lady Stark included, believed you two to have acted with great — ahem — dishonor.”

“Lady Brienne is incapable of dishonor.” He paused and winced at his own words. Clearly, he didn’t feel their truth as strongly as he had before Brienne’s trap. “At any rate, I have never lain with her.” He looked Hyle straight in the eyes, impressing upon him how seriously he was taking the matter.

It was all too funny. Hyle burst out laughing. “Of course you haven’t! Only a fool could think otherwise. What could a creature like the Maid of Tarth have to tempt a golden lion?” Lannister was silent, an unreadable look on his face. “Besides, even if you had lost all of your faculties and powers of discernment, the girl is locked up tighter than the Iron Bank. I think she must want to die a maid, despite repeated offers to the contrary.”

His gaze sharpened. “What offers?”

This required a certain...delicacy. “I only — well, that is...she’s a young woman who has traveled far from home. Surely she must have had overtures from someone. Men at war will do strange things.”

“I know better than most what strange things men at war will do.” His words were like shards of ice.

“Well, then you shouldn’t be surprised,” Hyle said shortly. He heard Lannister’s sharp intake of breath, no doubt preparing for something dramatic and overblown, but his rant was cut off by Podrick. Ah, seven bless Pod, loyal and true.

“Do you mean when you asked her to marry you, Ser Hyle?” Then again...

Hyle expected Lannister to scoff, or laugh, or maybe on an off chance be angry, but he merely sighed and tilted his eyes heavenward, shaking his head ruefully. He looked back at Hyle. “So, you’ve planned to marry Lady Brienne too?”

“ ‘Too’? Who else has?”

“More men than you might think.” What a strange conversation. How hard had they walloped his head? “What is it about her that you love, Ser Hyle?”

Love? He felt oddly hot. All eyes were on him. He feigned nonchalance. “I’m only a hedge knight. The lady is sole heir to her father’s island. I could do much worse.” Lannister nodded begrudgingly. “Besides, I — ” he wet his lips, “she...would not be...unkind. Or unfaithful.”

Lannister held his gaze for a long moment, then settled back onto his cloak, oddly rigid. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right.” He chewed his lip, then spoke all in a rush. “So you are betrothed, then?”

“No! No, she...she refused me.” Lannister let out a long slow breath and asked him nothing further. He is as sullen and quiet as she is. No wonder the girl liked him. They were alike as two peas in a pod: The Gloomy Mutes.

While they were sitting, the flow of brothers in and out of the cottage had slowed to a trickle. One last man in a robe crept out and softly closed the door behind him, coming over to speak before heading to sleep himself. “My lord, Ser Hyle, you needn’t sit out here in the cold all night. She is well cared-for, I assure you, and though our septry is simple, it’s better than frozen dirt.”

“Thank you, brother, but we are perfectly happy here, and will sleep easier knowing that the lady still lives.” It wasn’t even a lie, Hyle reflected bemusedly. He did feel calmer when Brienne was near. It was probably the breadth of her shoulders.

The brother stopped in his tracks. “I know my colleague has told you already, but I wish to make our position perfectly clear — no one shall sleep beneath her roof with her if not married. She lies quietly, for now. We have bandaged her as best we could and given her milk of the poppy, and she needs rest. I won’t have you disturbing her.” He looked at them sternly. “I’ve left her alone, but will come back to check on her. Further disruption and scandal, slights to her reputation — these are the last things that girl needs right now. She deserves some peace.”

They muttered their assent, Lannister even more reluctantly than Pod, and the brother went down the path on which Hyle had set forth just a short time ago. I suppose he is allowed to sleep in a bed...Of course, he didn’t have some woebegone washed-up knight mooning over a hut to make him look bad.

The washed-up knight tensed and half-rose as the brother disappeared from view, clearly planning to hop up and sneak into the cottage at the nearest opportunity.

The man was irrepressible. “Oh, for pity’s sake! Leave her alone!” Lannister glowered. “He’s right, you know. She doesn’t need you sullying her good name, such as it is, any more than you already have. The girl can’t help it if she calls for you in her sleep — there’s no need to make her suffer for it when she wakes.”

Lannister looked like he might strike him, but then sank back down onto his cloak, resigned. “Did they truly call her my whore?” He asked quietly.

“Why would I lie? Of course they did.” Hyle took pity on him. “Don’t look so glum, it’s hardly the worst thing they could have called her. You are at least...somewhat comely.”

Lannister raised one brow and sent him a bored look that said he knew he was much more than ‘somewhat comely’. Twat.

Still, he should try to be civil. One never knew when connections might prove valuable. “It’s hardly your fault that you were taken in by her lies. Women are a mystery to us all, at times.” Of course Brienne hardly counted as a woman in that regard (and many others) — she was as opaque as a pane of glass — but he didn't know her like Hyle did.

Lannister rolled his eyes but said nothing for several moments, fidgeting with his shirt. “Of course I knew she was lying!” He burst out finally. “Brienne doesn’t have a deceitful bone in her body. My horse could tell a better lie than her.”

Hyle looked at him blandly. Some people made a fuss over the silliest things. Why the upset if he had already known?

“I just didn’t know how she was lying. I would never have dreamed...even had someone told me, I would have said that she would sooner chop her own hand off than betray a — a friend.”

More than just her hand. Hyle felt briefly sorry for Lannister as he watched the man forlornly fiddle with the hem of his jerkin, but his pity was soon pushed out by the memories of other, worse sights. The Maid of Tarth, dizzy with fever and pleading to a dead woman who called her Oathbreaker. A child of twelve, twitching as outlaws choked the life from him. Hyle’s world slowly fading into blur and darkness as he dangled at the end of a rope.

All because of him, Ser Jaime Sisterfucking Lannister. “Oh, shut up! Do you ever stop whining?”

Lannister was astonished at his outburst. “You dare to — ”

“Are you alive now?”

“Yes,” he bit out.

“And why do you think that is? Your left-handed sword skills? The benevolence of mad dead Lady Stark?”

Lannister was silent.

“If you are alive now, and you’re certainly irritating enough to be, it is because of one thing and one thing only — Brienne of Tarth willed it. Certainly no one else was championing your cause.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t deign to lend me your aid.”

“I wouldn’t, but I was hardly in a position to lend anything to anyone, save my person as a quintain.” He felt Lannister’s gaze touch upon his split lip and broken nose.

“So the brotherhood beat you both,” he murmured. “That explains her injuries as well. Although hers are worse...her cheek. What did they do to her cheek? They wouldn’t let me see.”

Hyle sighed wearily. “The brotherhood did nothing to her cheek. They barely touched her.” Except to hang her. “She was already injured when they found us. It happened when she was defending an inn full of children from men who were even worse...the Riverlands are a nightmare. I was inside and didn’t know, at first — she challenged seven men by herself. Killed one, and was mauled by a second by the time I got there.”

Lannister was pale. “What were their names? Did you get any of their names?” he demanded.

“I don’t know all of them, but I believe the one she killed was called...Rorge? Gorge? And the one that got her, well. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to remember ‘Biter’. Not after what he did to her face.”

Lannister looked...guilty? Well, he should feel guilty. None of them would have been on that foolish quest if he hadn’t sent Brienne straight into the seven hells armed with a jeweled sword and a stamped note. “I looked for the Brave Companions when patrolling the Riverlands, but of most of them I found no sign. I knew they must be wreaking havoc somewhere, but not how to hunt them down and stop them.” He glanced at Hyle. “You know of our history with these men?”

“Some, not all.”

“They captured us and kept us until we were loosed by Roose Bolton to return to King's Landing. They would have taken her by force, had I not spun them a tale about Tarth and its sapphire mines.” Hyle sat up straighter at that and Lannister waved him off. “A lie, of course.” He was quiet for a moment. “I have them to thank for this,” he added as an afterthought, and held up his golden stump.

“Ahh, I had wondered. I know you Lannisters are fond of gold, but…”

Lannister barked out a laugh. “Not quite that much, I’m afraid. Although my father…” he trailed off and lapsed into silence.

Waves broke on the distant shore. The wind buffeted and swirled through the twisted trees growing out of the rocks at their backs. Podrick laid back down to snuffle in his sleep and burrow deeper into Lannister’s arm hollow.

A strained voice startled Hyle out of his doze. “Why is it, then, that Brienne agreed to bring me to my doom? If she was not beaten? She was willing to sacrifice herself for a pack of strangers but when threatened, didn’t hesitate to trick me into being killed?” Hyle sighed deeply, rolling his eyes, and Lannister continued stubbornly, “I know, I know, you said she eventually saved my life, but I don’t understand why she was so willing to relinquish it in the first place. She is...not the woman I thought I knew. To give up so easily.”

Oh, for the love of the Seven. “They didn’t just threaten her! They hanged her. They hanged all of us! Did you truly not notice the burns on her neck?”

Lannister was stricken. “I — she had so many other wounds...she must have hidden them from me...”

“Oh, of course she did! We have to protect precious Ser Jaime, defender of innocents, light of the world, at all costs!”

“What are you talking about, Hunt?”

“They gave her a choice! They dragged her before that evil dead thing and told her to kill you. She pleaded and begged and told them you were a changed man, that you had nothing to do with the Red Wedding, that you had protected her and saved her and sent her on a quest to rescue Sansa Stark, and that you didn’t deserve to die. Everyone there saw how much she loved you, it’s no wonder they thought she was your bedmate.” He spared a second to shoot another accusing glare at Lannister, who sat dumbfounded. “They laughed at her piteousness, and told her to choose between killing you and getting hanged herself. She refused to choose, so we were all three strung up, right outside that accursed cave. Look here if you doubt it, although again, why I’d make it up is beyond me.”

Hyle unbuttoned his jerkin enough to show the marks on his neck, then pointed to the sleeping boy slumped on Lannister’s lap, whose own scars peeked out over his collar. “There lies the true savior of Brienne of Tarth. Were it not for him, she would have gone straight to her grave rather than betray you. But I saw her face as she watched him choke. He’s the closest she has to a child of her own. How could she let him die when she had the power to save him?”

Lannister looked down at Podrick in surprise. After a pause, he reached his hand out to give him several hesitant pats on the head.

“He worships her. You know she has never married and may never get another.” Hyle watched him closely.

Lannister’s voice was hoarse. “Brienne has always...taken her oaths seriously.”

“Oh, piss on that!” At his look of incredulity, Hyle conceded, “Of course she has, that’s who she is, but you forget, Lannister — I was in Renly’s camp. I saw her haunt his steps and yearn for any scrap of affection. If he wouldn’t accept her love in the way she hungered for, she could give it by dying for him, and would have happily done so had he not beaten her to the grave. And then you came along and gave her the chance to try it again!”

“I never — I would never have asked — how could she — ”

“I suppose you handsome lords are all the same, with so many women fawning over you at every moment that you can’t keep them straight in your mind. Someone probably offers to fall on their sword for your worthless sake three times a week. You have a great love in every castle between here and Dorne.” Lannister just shook his head mechanically. “I thought she said you knew her! How shocked can you be?”

“No. No one has ever...no.” His voice was oddly thick.

“Can you truly be angry that she loves you only second-best compared to her child? You’re still far above everyone else...me, for one,” he added bitterly.

Lannister cleared his throat. “I’m sorry,” he croaked.

Hyle nearly fell over in shock. “You’re what?”

“I’m sorry. I had no idea...I should never have sent her on this mission alone. I wanted to keep her safe and King’s Landing was dangerous, and I chose to stay there to protect my brother and my s — the king, but it was my vow and I should have gone myself. I gave her everything I could think of to protect her without arousing my sister’s suspicion, which would have endangered her further. I knew she cared about her oath to Catelyn Stark, and by extension her daughters, but not that she would…"

"Well, she did, and more's the pity too, because I imagine she has about a good as chance with you as she does with Renly Baratheon's buggering corpse." After his maudlin display Hyle half-expected the man to contradict him, but instead Lannister only bowed his head in silence and slammed his fist into his leg. Eventually, he lifted his left hand to wipe at his eyes and then cradle his forehead, sighing raggedly.

The movement jostled Pod, who sat up blearily and looked startled to see his cloakmate’s flushed cheeks and trembling fingers.

“What happened, ser?”

“Nothing, Podrick. Ser Jaime and I were just discussing gentlemanly behavior.” Hyle chuckled darkly at his own joke.

Lannister forced a smile into his voice. “Yes, go back to sleep. Ser Hyle has been dispensing his...invaluable advice on Lady Brienne’s heart and the proper treatment thereof.”

“Oh.” Pod turned to Hyle. “So you told him about the bet?”

Lannister’s head snapped up. “What bet?”

Shit. Hyle cocked his head, hoping he looked bored or uncaring. “Hmm?”

“What bet, Hunt?”

“What was that?” This wouldn’t work for much longer.

Lannister took a moment to deliberately turn his entire torso. “It sounds as though you’re afraid to tell me something, Hunt.”

“You wish, Lannister.”

He leaned forward more closely, carefully pushing Pod aside and behind him with his arm. “What did you bet on?”

How bad could it be? “It was in Renly’s camp.” Lannister was silent, waiting for him to continue. “I — we — several of the other men, and me, we...bet on the Lady Brienne. Or rather, on ourselves. On who could first convince her to...” he took one look at Lannister’s face and trailed off.

Lannister spoke evenly enough. “Convince her to...?” He waved his hand beckoningly and waited for Hyle to interject, but was met only with silence. “To...win a fight? Field-dress a hare? Pick out a posy?”

“Ah...no.”

“Well then, out with it, Hunt! I’d love to hear more about your rules for treating Lady Brienne with respect.”

“We sought...the...pleasure of her company. Well, such as it would be. With one such as she.” Hyle withered under the incredulous gaze of the other man, who was staring and seemingly waiting for Hyle to speak further and (hopefully) explain that it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. Instead, Hyle stayed quiet, his look of guilt surely incriminating him more than any words ever could.

The air hung still for a moment.

Lannister turned his gaze away abruptly to look at his golden hand, idly polishing it with a scrap of his cloak. Hyle was bewildered. Of all the responses he had expected, boredom wasn’t one of them.

“I don’t understand, ser.” Podrick spoke from behind Lannister’s shoulder, looking troubled.

“Don’t worry, child. Here, I have a task for you — do you remember how to get to the septry by yourself?” The boy nodded. “Can you go and fetch a skin of water for Ser Hyle? He seems quite parched.” Lannister peered more closely at Hyle’s face, and held his gaze while he spoke. “And some clean strips of cloth? I fear his wounds may have reopened.”

Hyle patted his face as he heard Pod get up and run down the path. “I don't feel anything. Are you sure?”

Lannister waited to respond until the sound of footsteps was gone, then finally broke their eye contact, relaxing and leaning back. “It’s best to be prepared. What were you saying about your wager?”

“We — I — courted her. Gave her gifts. Told her sweet things.”

“Oh? What sort of gifts?” Hyle watched him methodically swipe fabric around the gilded digits and across his burnished palm. He used a fingernail from one hand to pick dirt out from under the mother-of-pearl nails on the other.

“Different things. Flowers, sweetbreads. One man played her love songs on a lute, another sent his squire to clean her chainmail.”

“And you?”

“I...gave her a book, an illuminated book with tales of knights. Brienne likes romance and songs. And I offered to spar with her.” Hyle paused. “She beat me, of course.”

“Of course she did.” Lannister smiled. “Those sound like very persuasive gifts. You must know Lady Brienne quite well to have such a good idea of what would make her happy. How...ingenious it is of you, to provide them to her in such a novel way.”

Hyle searched for a suitable reply and failed.

“So tell me...which of you was the victor?” The question hovered in the air like a wasp, ready to strike.

He gulped. “No one! Nobody won, the wager was discovered and all revealed before...before anyone could prevail. So...no harm done.”

“Did Lady Brienne feel that no harm had been done?”

“I — I couldn’t say. The lady rarely grants me her confidence.”

“How very curious.”

“In any case...Randyll Tarly somehow found out about it and put a stop to it. Although I can’t fathom why. He holds no love for her. But that was the end of it.” Hyle sat in suspense, inexplicably awaiting judgment. What did an incestuous oathbreaker have to hold over him?

Lannister regarded his hand pensively, turning it first one way and then the other. Presently, he looked up. “Oh, are you done? Is there no more to your sordid tale?”

Hyle inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes, that’s all of it. So you see, it was really not so bad as it sounds. At least, not my part in it.”

“You did not touch her without her permission?” His voice was soft but held an ominous note.

“No! No, I swear it, no.” Lannister nodded encouragingly. “And even if I had — ” Hyle cut himself off, scrambling, “ — that is, never without her permission, of course, but if she had, if we had...she was not just a warm crevice and a sack of gold, to me.” Could he die from awkward tension? “Not like some of the other men, I mean...I’m practically Baelor the Blessed compared to Ben Bushy or Owen Inchfield.”

“Men you allowed to court her freely without warning her of the danger to her person.”

“I — yes, but I was going to win. I should have won! I would have won, were it not stopped.”

“And what would you have done if you had?” So soft.

Hyle had never listened to Septon Meribald’s teachings, but now felt intimately acquainted with each of the seven hells. “Do you — do you mean…?”

Lannister leaned forward, his eyes sharp, mouth set in a thin line. “No, Hunt. I’m not asking what you planned to do with whatever sad excuse you have for a cock.”

Hyle sputtered. “Then, what — ”

“I’m asking, what were your plans for after? You said she was more than...more than just a warm body and some gold. What unfortunate plans did you have for her?”

“I...I already told you. Earlier. I was going to marry her.” Hyle cringed at the plaintive, pleading note in his voice.

“You don’t need to bed her to do that. The boy said you’ve already proposed several times since he’s met you.”

“Yes, and she always said no.”

An owl hooted in the distance. Leaves of grass rubbed against each other. Hyle scrunched his eyes shut for several moments, and then opened one to chance a peek at Lannister, not sure what to expect. He was looking at his golden hand again. It gleamed in the moonlight.

“So. You merely planned to sleep with the lady under false pretenses, and then count on the fact that her reputation would be ruined in order to trap her in a marriage that she didn’t want?”

“Oh, come now, worse happens to highborn women every day! It’s hardly my fault if she didn’t know I was the best she could expect, with a face like that — ”

Hyle was aware of a rush of wind, a strange effulgence, and then a great crunching noise and all was darkness.

 


 

When he came to, there was a ringing in his ears and voices sounded very far away. Pod had come back; he could hear his chirping alternating with Lannister’s deeper rumbles. Hyle propped himself up on his elbows, waiting for his head to stop spinning.

“ — served my brother?”

That was right. Pod had squired for the Imp, for all the good it had done him — the brotherhood had nearly killed him for it. That was what you got for serving Lannisters. Hyle could not have cared less what they were talking about. He leaned over to listen more carefully.

“I hear you saved his life.”

“Y-yes, ser. At the Blackwater.”

“You must be very brave,” Lannister said gravely. Hyle heard muffled sounds of protest, but Lannister spoke over them. “And you have kept your mistress safe, as well. Truly, I am deeply in your debt.” The boy was silent. “What’s wrong, lad? I know you've been scared, but we’ll take care of you now, I swear it. I will, and so will Lady Brienne when her health improves.”

He heard a murmured “Ser Hyle”.

Lannister was skeptical. “Has he really done that much to help you?”

Pod spoke more loudly now. “Yes! He stayed with me with the brotherhood, when they — and he fought for us with the Bloody Mummers, and — ”

Hyle had been leaning further and further in their direction, and suddenly overbalanced and fell over onto his bruised ribs, causing a coughing fit.

Pod rushed over and Hyle felt a grimy hand dabbing at his jawline. “Ser Hyle? Ser Hyle, are you all right? Ser Jaime said you tripped and fell!” Hyle squinted and saw Lannister’s shoulders shaking. Ass.

“I’m — I’ll be fine, Podrick,” Hyle wheezed. “You needn’t worry.” Not that he would, most likely. Pod had clearly chosen an allegiance to the flashiest man in the group.

Pod stared at Hyle for a moment, then came at him all in a rush and nearly tackled him with his embrace. “I was so worried about you, ser!” And then he was crying and soaking Hyle’s collar, leaving him the most confused he had been all evening. Lannister looked equally perplexed.

Hyle smoothed the boy’s hair. “It’s all right, Pod. We’re all safe now. Nobody else is going to die.” He only sobbed harder at that. Hyle, at a loss, thought back over the past several days, and Podrick’s stolid calmness throughout, even as he was snatched, threatened, and hanged. Everyone had a breaking point, he supposed, and the boy’s was long past due.

Hyle held him for a time, and then, with Lannister’s help, coaxed him to drink some water. Soon Pod was sitting quietly again, emitting only the occasional sniffle. Lannister looked as relieved as Hyle felt — what did they know about comforting children?

“We will need to finish our discussion some other time, Hunt,” Lannister said evenly, though holding his gaze for longer than was strictly necessary.

“I don’t know what else there is to say about it — I’ve told you everything that happened.”

“That may be, but I haven’t finished telling you.” In spite of himself, Hyle shivered. “But for now...I would not upset the boy any further. And I would speak with the lady, to seek her input on the matter.”

Hyle snorted. “I suppose she should deal with her problems by herself, lest you think her weak.”

Lannister looked puzzled. “Needing help or protection doesn’t make someone weak, Hunt. Didn’t you say Lady Brienne had protected you several times? That doesn’t make you less of a man.”

“I’m touched, Lannister — you think of me as very manly, do you?”

“Not really Hunt, no, but not for that reason,” he answered, deadpan. “Oh, don’t look at me like that — what claim do you have to heroism? What have you done with your small life, other than harass a woman you thought unattractive and later try to trap her into marriage?”

“In total? Not much. But relating to Lady Brienne, I think I have you beat.” Hyle paused for effect. “You sent her into the wilderness alone. When I learned of her quest, I quit my posting and went with her.”

Lannister flinched as if struck, and Hyle pressed his advantage. “I knew that it could end in misery and death for me — and I was right to fear it — but I set aside all worries for my personal safety in order to give her the best hope of survival. Because I cared for her. Er, her quest, that is.” Lannister gave him a long, measuring, look, and Hyle felt oddly exposed.

The men sat in charged silence. After a time, Lannister spoke again, almost casually. “I jumped into a bearpit.”

Podrick perked up and stared, openmouthed, at his seatmate.

Oh, Seven. “Yes, we heard rumors of that when stationed at Maidenpool. I always assume that stories spread by the smallfolk have no more relation to the truth than a merling has in common with a cow. Tell me, which of your reputed brave deeds actually happened?” Hopefully not too many of them.

“Why don’t you ask me about what you’ve heard and I’ll tell you if it’s true or not?” Lannister drawled, looking entirely too pleased with himself.

Before Hyle could say anything, Pod piped up. “Was there really a bear?”

“There was.”

“A live bear?”.

“Yes! Well...at first.”

“Did you kill a bear, Ser Jaime?”

“I did not.”

Podrick let out a soft gasp. “My lady ser killed the bear!”

“Your lady fought bravely and skillfully, as she always does.” Pod gave him a look of pure delight, which Lannister returned with an indulgent grin. And did he...ruffle his hair? Gods. “But in truth, she didn’t kill the bear either.”

Hyle couldn’t help himself. “Why not?” Lannister turned to him and cocked an eyebrow questioningly. “That is...good steel should be a match for any bear. Did she — did she not have a sword?”

“She did, but it was blunted.” Podrick’s cry of outrage mirrored Hyle’s own feelings on the matter. Lannister continued, “The Goat of Harrenhal had claimed her as a prize and wanted a show to amuse himself and his men. And he wanted to get back at her for biting off his ear rather than succumbing to his advances. So when her father wrote back offering a ransom that was perfectly respectable for a knight, but less than the mountain of sapphires that he had envisioned, well…” The others groaned.

“So your lie first saved her, but then it condemned her.”

Lannister looked abashed. “It did. When I discovered her in the pit — surrounded by jeering men waiting to watch her die — I offered to pay whatever ransom the goat wanted. Gold, sapphires, anything. He refused, and said that if I wanted her, I should go get her.”

“And did you?” Podrick was fairly quivering with anticipation.

“I did.” The boy sighed in delight.

“You did what? You did want her, or you did get her?” Hyle pressed.

Lannister smiled knowingly. “I jumped into the pit, and managed to tackle Brienne and straddle her so that I stood between her and the bear. Luckily, the men who were tasked with my safety took exception to the idea of my being eaten before my father could pay my ransom, and slew it.”

“Is that what you planned?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t think to discuss things with my captors before jumping in. It worked out rather well, but I confess I didn’t know beforehand.”

Hyle gaped. The man was mad.

Pod was enthralled. “You saved her!”

“Of course! Don’t you know, Pod? It’s the duty of true knights to rescue fair maidens.” Lannister held Hyle’s gaze over the boy’s head and nodded slightly. “As Ser Hyle has already shown you.”

Hyle sat back, oddly mollified. Then another thought flew into his head, unbidden. “Is it true that she fought the bear naked?”

Lannister looked at him strangely. “You are not the first to ask me that.”

Hyle chuckled. “I’m not surprised.”

“How do you mean?” His voice was smooth like honey.

“Well, I mean...you can see why it would be a memorable detail. Enticing, or hu-humorous.”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t. Pray, explain it to me.”

Hyle felt as though he were walking along the ridge of a roof, with multiple chances for escape but none without grievous bodily harm.

After a pregnant pause, Lannister continued. “The Lady Brienne wore a dress. Entirely proper, though it wasn’t so pretty once the bear was finished with it.”

“So...so you haven’t seen her naked.” This felt oddly important to establish.

This time, Lannister smirked. He smirked, damn him.

Hyle seethed. “I offered to kill you.” He looked up at that, almost lazily. “To save her life. All of our lives, really.” Lannister’s face split into a beatific smile. He said nothing as he gazed at Hyle, still smiling, holding his eyes for several seconds longer than Hyle was strictly comfortable with. Was that a winter chill in the air? “Surely — surely you can’t blame me for that.”

“Not at all," Lannister purred.

“I may not be as bloodthirsty as you, Kingslayer, but I won’t hesitate to hurt a man if it means protecting the lady. Whether it be from marauding hordes, or dead things walking, or...or something,” Hyle trailed off awkwardly.

“Or something,” he agreed, still smiling.

“Well I’m...glad you agree, then,” Hyle finished awkwardly. Lannister’s grin was full of knives, and Hyle found one last reserve of pique. “Not that you’d be able to do much about it either way, what with being busy shielding the king from rogue cups of wine and stray cats.”

Pod looked lost. “What?”

Lannister looked away at last to take pity on the boy. “Ser Hyle is referring to my position in the Kingsguard, I assume. With his usual tact and grace. As much as I care about your quest, I can’t compromise my duty to the king, and will need to return to him soon. My life is not my own. I am supposed to be his chief defender.”

Pod turned to Hyle. “But he isn’t! You said!”

Damn. Hyle had been saving that juicy morsel for a final, killing, blow. Oh well, now was as good a time as any.

Lannister looked from one to the other in confusion. “Surely you’re not denying that I am Lord Commander of the Kingsguard? I understand my reputation is fearsome, but I thought that, at least, was well-known even by people who hate me...part of why they hate me, really.”

“No more.” Lannister still looked blank. “The brothers received a raven. Your sister has dismissed all members of the Kingsguard save its newest member, a Ser Robert Strong, and replaced them with new knights recruited by her Master of Whisperers.”

“I know no Robert Strong.” Lannister sounded vexed. Excellent.

“Nor I, but that hardly signifies. Face it, Lannister, they’ve all forgotten you. You’re too old and too broken to be a worthy defender of the crown anymore — if you ever were. And your sister seems equally unbothered by your absence, by how quickly she replaced you.”

Hyle hoped his taunt about the Queen would deliver a particular sting, but Lannister appeared not even to notice. “I’ve been a member of the Kingsguard for almost twenty years.”

Hyle clapped him on the back. “Ah well, all good things must come to an end, eh, old boy? Guess you’ll have to find a new life plan — if you can think of anything.”

A faint moan sounded from inside the cottage. Jaime.

Their eyes met. Lannister’s narrowed almost imperceptibly, and then he sprang to his feet and strode towards the door with great purpose, his cloak billowing behind him like he was some absurd hero from a song. The door was jerked open and he on the other side of it before Hyle could utter a word of protest, and as it swung shut again he thought he heard a voice say “I’m here, Brienne” and an answering murmur.

The door slam rang in Hyle’s ears with an air of finality. He sat, quite still, only his mouth working soundlessly. Visions of blue waters and marble danced in his head and then dissolved, slipping from his grasp.

And was there the faintest hint of...sadness? Surely not. His designs had been purely selfish. It would be unfortunate to lose such an easy prospect as the Maid of Tarth, but Hyle was young yet. He still had plenty of time to seek service with another lord, and make a marriage that would make him richer than Brienne ever could have. He cheered at the prospect, heartened by the idea of finally beating her at something, albeit a contest in which she had never known she was competing.

“Isn’t Ser Jaime the lord of Casterly Rock now?” Pod asked conversationally.

Hyle let out a breath through gritted teeth.

“Since he would have relinquished his claim to join the Kingsguard, but now they’ve kicked him out, and his father’s dead? I expect he’ll have a lot of responsibilities. But he would probably always welcome knights pledging their service — I could ask him, if you feel too uncomfortable doing it yourself?”

Podrick looked far too happy. What did he have to be happy about? He bounced up and made as if to reopen the cottage door — to recommend him as a retainer, Hyle supposed glumly — but paused to peer in through a crack between the boards. His eyes widened.

Pod crept back to his spot, intent on being as quiet as possible. “I’ll ask him later.” He stretched out, yawning, and rolled closer to cuddle into Hyle. “You should try to get some sleep as well, ser. We’re all safe and sound tonight. It’s been a very good day. What more could we ask for?”

Hyle sighed again and draped his arm over Podrick, resigned. What, indeed.