In another life, the Maid of Tarth would be home, on her island, waiting for the ravens to bring news of the Dragon Queen’s rebellion. In an even stranger one, perhaps, she would be waiting for news of her husband and son as they pledged to fight for Queen Cersei; Brienne’s yearning to fight on the battlefield now replaced by bitterness at her position. But in this life, she was thirty-six years old; knighted and riding beside her squire as they rode through the open gates of King’s Landing.
They both halted their procession; gazing in horror as the once glorious city fell before their eyes. Brienne’s time in King’s Landing had been minimal; her knowledge of these streets and skyline paltry. But even she could spot the crater where the Sept of Baelor had once stood. The market stalls and brothels burning as two queens vied for the throne. The people they had sworn to protect screaming and begging for their lives as two forces from across the sea battled on Westerosi soil.
“By all the Gods,” Podrick whispered; his voice swallowed by the roar of a dragon.
“There are no Gods here, Podrick. Not today.” Drawing in a shallow breath, Brienne pressed her heels into the flank of her horse. “We need to head for the Red Keep.”
Together they pushed forward through the ash and snow. In truth, Brienne had not intended to witness this battle. Had intended to wait out the last war in Winterfell, in the company of the two girls – now young women – she had sworn to protect. But then news had come that Queen Daenerys’ forces were advancing on the capital. Arya, wanting to cross one last name off her list, had fled in the middle of the night. Jaime – Ser Jaime – had…he’d left too. Brienne had hoped never to set foot in King’s Landing again. But once more, she had come to the capital to bring one of Lady Stark’s daughters home.
As they passed what had once been the Great Sept, Brienne whispered a prayer under her breath. For Ser Loras, who had deserved to die with a sword in his hand. For Lady Margaery, who had shown kindness to wayward daughters stuck in the capital. For herself. For Podrick. For Arya’s God of Death to keep her in this realm until Brienne had a chance to bring her home.
And one last prayer. For Jaime to finally find peace.
Peace was finally possible.
The Kingslayer sat atop the Iron Throne; wine from the Queen’s goblet slowly spreading across the floor. Jaime stared at the goblet, at the hand that held it; daring it, wishing it, to move. Hoping and fearing in equal measure that Cersei Lannister, first of her name, would strike him down and end his pain. When it grew too much to bear, Jaime’s gaze shifted to the large doors at the other end of the throne room. Who would be first, he thought. The servants had fled; Clegane had struck down most of the Queensguard. Perhaps it would be Daenerys Targaryen, the Last Dragon, coming to claim what Jaime had stolen from her years before. Maybe Stark’s bastard son.
No, no, it won’t be him. He’s far too loyal to his Queen.
It was quiet in the throne room. Just the drip of wine from Cersei’s goblet; the thump of his golden hand against the iron throne. Every now and then he could hear a shout or scream, but it all was happening far, far away from the Red Keep. Earlier, Jaime had seen smoke rise from the city, and his legs had given out from underneath him. Too late, too late, too late. But no. No wildfire. Not now; not then. Just burning and screaming and dragon fire all in the name of their new Queen. Jaime had, once again, saved the people of King’s Landing from an unimaginable death. But he could not save them from this Targaryen and her forces. That was for the Gods, and Jaime had long since stopped believing in those. The Warrior had abandoned him the moment he’d slipped poison into the wine. The Maiden was up North, keeping young wolves safe in the last days of winter.
But, as he was lost in thoughts of snow and sapphires, the doors to the throne room opened. In swept the Maiden; the last vestiges of winter and the promise of an unyielding summer.
Jaime drew in a shaky breath as he took her in. She wore the blue armour he’d gifted her in this very place; the sword (Oathkeeper, how many oaths had he broken now) and squire with her, too. The Maid of Tarth; no longer a Maiden. No, no, no, he’d had to ruin her. Bring her into the dirt with him; take something for himself, want something for himself. He’d thought himself the Warrior, and she the Maiden. But he had been wrong. Brienne was the Warrior: strong and brave and just. Jaime was the Stranger: death followed him; clung to him. You would have died, too, had I not answered their prayers.
Brienne didn’t see him at first. Perhaps she was haunted by the discovery of Qyburn’s body; a spectre of their time at Harrenhal. But then her gaze swept across the throne room, halting as she saw the body of their Queen, a Lannister cloak draped across her still form. Then, finally, him atop the iron throne. A muscle twitched in her cheek. “Ser Jaime.”
Ser Jaime. It could have been worse. Kingslayer could have fallen from her lips like it had in the earliest days of their acquaintance when they had not known one another; before they had grown to…before they had grown on one another. He supposed it would be Queenslayer, now. Kinslayer. Never again Jaime. “Ser Brienne. Podrick.”
“The Queen is dead.”
Jaime did not possess the energy for flippancy as his sister’s body laid between them. Instead, he offered a simple nod. “She is.”
The next words from her lips caught him by surprise. “Where is Lady Arya?”
Jaime was about to tell her. That he had no idea where Arya Stark was; as he had no idea then, he had little clue now. But one look into Brienne’s eyes – no longer the warmth of a summer sea, but the cold hardness of her island’s moniker – held his tongue. She won’t believe me, Jaime realised. No one will ever believe me. His loyalty to Cersei was a known truth: he had committed a number of heinous crimes in the name of love; had stood by and let her do the same under that very banner. He expected to see hate in Brienne’s eyes. Disgust, even, after his actions at Winterfell. But no. Even now, after everything he’d done, she looked at him with pity.
“Podrick.” Brienne’s gaze snapped towards her squire. “Circumstances have changed. You need to find Jon Snow or Ser Davos. Perhaps even Lord Tyrion. They must know that the Queen is dead.”
“As you wish, Ser. Will you—”
“—I’ll be fine. But go, now, before the fighting escalates even further.”
Podrick Payne, his dark eyes holding no such pity for Jaime’s position, left the room in search of someone from their side. The Queen was dead; long live the Queen. Jaime had spent most of his life believing he could not live in a world without Cersei; unable to be without her. But, in truth, the only time he’d ever truly lived was in the company of the woman in front of him.
It was, perhaps, fitting that he would spend his last few moments on this earth in the presence of the person he loved most.
Love did not fade. Not after heartbreak; not even after death.
She’d seen that with Lady Stark. She saw it now with Ser Jaime as he kept watch over the body of his Queen. Of course, death was an inevitability – and when you hurt as many people as Cersei had, there would be more than a few calling for your head. Poison, however, seemed an unlikely choice for Arya. The few stories she had shared from her journey back to Winterfell spoke of bloody and brutal revenge. In truth, Brienne had expected to arrive at King’s Landing to find Cersei’s severed head above a spike; justice for the former Lord Stark.
Poison seemed almost a kindness.
It was then that Brienne took stock of Jaime Lannister. He was a shadow of the man she had seen in Winterfell: a golden lion in the soft firelight of her chambers; his gaze soft as he looked upon her. Dark circles hung underneath his eyes; sweat beading upon his brow. A second goblet of wine remained untouched by the foot of the iron throne. There was blood upon his cuff, and Brienne imagined she would find blood on the blade of Widow’s Wail. Her sword’s sister. His sister. Oh, Jaime.
“Lady Arya didn’t kill Cersei, did she?”
His voice was hoarse, as if he had not spoken for some time. “She had every right to.”
“That’s not what I asked.” Brienne swallowed. “Daenerys’ forces will come, and they will want your head. Tell me the truth, and I will stand in your favour.”
Jaime barked out a laugh. “And you would, wouldn’t you? Stupid, noble…” He trailed off, rubbing his brow with his left hand. “What does it matter of the truth? Cersei is dead; Daenerys wins the day. My head will decorate the castle walls, no matter the truth.”
Brienne crossed the distance between herself and Jaime. Climbed the steps towards the throne and knelt in front of him. She took his hand with hers and held it tight. She could not save the boy who had murdered his king to save a city. But, perhaps, she could save the man who had done the same. “I want to hear your side, Jaime. Please.”
She watched as Jaime looked towards the doors where she had found Qyburn’s corpse. And then, to his beloved sister. He drew in a stuttered breath.
“I made it to the capital unnoticed. The city was bracing for war, a war they would win. Between the raven at Winterfell and my arrival, things had…changed. Daenerys had lost another dragon; Cersei had executed a number of her men. The Golden Company were ready and waiting to fight; they hadn’t spent days battling the dead or riding south.” Jaime bowed his head. “When I made it inside the Red Keep, I was greeted with open arms. But things had deteriorated in my absence. Cersei had lost the babe; thought Sansa had poisoned her. One of the few remaining handmaidens confided her doubts that there ever was a child. Within days, it was as if I was living my life over again.” He gritted his teeth. “Do you recall what I said a lifetime ago, about Aerys and wildfire?”
Brienne gave a single nod. “I remember.”
“Daenerys may be Aerys’ daughter, but Cersei learned at his heel. Qyburn, her Master of Horrors, planted caches of them under the city. Houses and brothels; taverns and the docks. But not here, though.” Jaime’s laugh was strained. “She had no desire to die. Just watch everything else burn.”
In their time at Winterfell together, Jaime had often spoken of his unease with Queen Daenerys after the battle he had witnessed. Brienne could not fathom the betrayal to have his sister repeat the sins that had haunted him for half a lifetime.
“She was waiting for the right time to destroy them all. When Daenerys and her forces were in the city; when Jon Snow and his men joined them. But then Yara Greyjoy burned her uncle’s fleet – no loss there. Clegane arrived soon after and cut down any man in golden armour to get to what’s left of his brother. Cersei’s victory was quickly slipping through her fingers. And then she got word of another arrival in King’s Landing.”
Jaime met her gaze, and in that moment, Brienne was left with no uncertainty as to who. “Jaime—"
“She asked me to bring her your head. To prove my loyalty. As if everything else I’ve ever done for her, as if riding back here in the fucking first place, wasn’t enough. She’s questioned it before. With Sansa. And a thousand other times. And I realised, then, that it would be your head, and then Arya’s, and then Sansa’s.” Jaime’s gaze settled on the Lannister cloak, and the body underneath. “She told Qyburn to prepare the Wildfire. Burn them all. Burn every traitor; burn everyone who would stand against me.”
He closed his eyes. When he opened them, Jaime stared at her. At her sword. Oathkeeper. “I knew, then, that there was no world in which the man I want to be and the woman that she’s become could co-exist together. So, I did what was required of any knight. I killed Qyburn first. Outside, so she couldn’t see. There was a vial of poison on him, in case he was captured, and I took that from his belt. Found some wine and two goblets.”
Brienne squeezed his hand; Jaime’s story nearing its end. “Daenerys would have burnt her alive. Arya would have butchered her. I’m sure the bards will sing songs of the Queen who was poisoned like her son, like her daughter. I didn’t want her to be in pain; I just wanted it to stop.” Jaime shook. “I came back in here with the wine. I told her that I’d sent men to find you; that I’d kill you in front of her. That I wanted to watch the city burn with her. She took a goblet and toasted to our victory. To a legacy that will last a thousand years.” He hung his head. “The Mad Queen and the Kingslayer. A legacy of death.”
Jaime rose suddenly from the iron throne. He took the goblet by his feet, and for a single moment, Brienne feared he would drink, too. But he just tipped the wine onto the floor; the red pooling like blood atop the stone. Jaime tossed the goblet, let out an unnatural scream, and collapsed against the stone steps. After another anguished cry, Brienne reached for him. She held him without forethought; pressing her arm around his back and allowing his head to rest upon her shoulder. His golden hand was unable to find purchase on her sleeve, and Jaime sagged into her arms.
After what felt like an age, he spoke once again. “You are truly better than I have ever deserved, Brienne.” His forehead pressed to hers. “Surely you must hate me.”
“You’ve hated yourself more than enough for the both of us.”
A shadow of a smile crossed Jaime’s face. She felt his fingertips linger on the line of her jaw; Brienne swallowing at the gentleness of his touch. “I’m glad I got to see you one last time. Although, I’d remember those eyes to the grave.” He sighed and sunk into their embrace. “They can come now. I always wanted it to be this way.”
Brienne didn’t pull away. Just held Jaime in her arms and savoured the thought of what could have been, if only they’d had more time. There had never been enough. Not until now. Neither could foresee what was to come: the falling of two Queens; the ascension of a third. Neither could entertain the thought of their wounds healing, of a fresh start. For they were the lovers of winter, and spring would be the making of them both.