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Never Give A Wench A Sword

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They were led into the throne room side by side, the smell of charred wood and the sight of snow falling through the broken structure all seemed to fade into unimportance at their entry. Their feet were chained; her hands were manacled, his lone hand was bound at his waist. Someone had seen to it they were bathed and given clean clothes, but her dress was plain and his clothes were ill-fitting and coarse.

Yet they walked the long length of the hall like gods come to mingle among men. Night threatened to choke the world, but they were dusted with sunlight, noble even in rags. Chins were held high, green eyes full of disdain stared forward, golden manes of almost identical shoulder length billowed out behind them in the wake of their passing.

She watched them as the rest of the audience did, her vantage perhaps better than most because of her height. If her presence was noted, there was no sign of it, but then she'd hidden herself behind one of the great pillars for that very reason. As they passed, she began to work her way through the crowd, quietly shadowing their steps even as the throng closed around them during their approach to the throne.

Seated on the iron throne, snow falling at her feet from a hole she'd burnt in the roof, the young silver haired dragon queen sat watching them silently. Arrayed around her were her allies and advisors, her bodyguards from foreign lands, a northman, an old man in white armor, and a dwarf.

When they reached the foot of the steps to the throne, Jaime and Cersei stopped as one, almost as though they were executing a carefully choreographed dance. From behind, Brienne pushed her way forward until she stood only a few feet behind them.

“Kingslayer,” the queen said from on high.

“Your grace,” Jaime answered with a barely perceptible tilt of his head.

Brienne had seen him give more reverential greetings to his laundress.

“You come to answer for your crimes.”

“I have come to see how well you like the throne,” Jaime said. “Do you sit easily, or do the swords of the vanquished tear at your flesh as they did your father's?”

Don't antagonize her, Brienne thought.

The queen gave the slightest shift at that, but then leaned forward as though her movement was intentional. “I was warned of your insolence. You will not speak of my father.”

“You wish to hear no tales of Aerys Targayen?” Jaime asked.

King Aerys,” the queen said.

Brienne was behind him and could not see his face, but she knew Jaime smiled at that. Knew it from the look on the queen's face. Knew it from the looks on the faces of those gathered at the foot of the throne who faced him. Knew it from the look on the face of the dwarf who was Jaime's brother.

King Aerys. The king I slew.” Jaime pointed with his golden hand to a place at the foot of the throne, almost as though he were pointing out a point of historical significance to a visitor. “Right there, I slew him. Your father. King Aerys Targaryen, second of his name. I slit his throat with my sword. I watched his life's blood gush forth and stain the floor. I sat upon that throne, where you sit now, to see who would come to claim it. I could have named your brother Viserys as king, but I chose to see him cast aside.”

It was as full and true a confession as the queen could hope for and Brienne saw the queen's eyes flash in triumph. Never mind that Jaime had spoken of it all with fondness, as one might the memory of a particularly warm summer day.

“Then by your own confession--”

“Your grace!” Brienne called out in a voice of command. It was a voice Jaime had taught her.

She stepped forward then, walking between the golden Lannister twins to approach the foot of the throne. Cersei glanced at her as their shoulders brushed. Jaime didn't look at her, but she heard him hiss, “Do not!”

“Your grace, I beg--”

“I can guess who you are,” the queen said, cutting Brienne off with a commanding tone of her own. “You must be the Maid of Tarth.”

“Yes, your grace.” Brienne gave a slight bow.

“Tarth has not yet sworn allegiance to me,” the queen said, “so why would I hear you?”

“For the sake of justice,” Brienne said, grateful her voice did not fail her.

Brienne.” Jaime's whisper was so faint she wondered if she only imagined it.

“Justice is what I am about here,” the queen said.

“Then allow Ser Jaime trial by combat,” Brienne said. “I will be his champion.”

“I refuse her,” Jaime said, sounding like the very sight of Brienne appalled him. “I'd rather die than have a woman as my champion.”

“You will die,” the queen said. “You do not deserve the privilege of trial by combat.”

Brienne's heart was pounding, dread pumping like black sludge through her veins. The queen had to listen, had to allow Brienne the chance to save him.

“Surely,” Brienne pleaded, “Ser Jaime deserves to be judged by the gods.”

“He has been judged guilty,” the queen said. “He will meet my dragons for the crime of slaying his king.”

There was so much finality in the statement that Brienne felt the strength begin to leave her body. The whole of the room seemed to release a collectively held breath.

She fell to her knees. “Your grace, I beg--”

“Remove her,” the queen said with a flick of her wrist.

Brienne let her head bow for a moment. Jaime's angry gaze was like a warm lash on the back of her neck. He would hate that she had done this, would hate that she had lowered herself, would hate that she valued his life above her own. She could not save him this time. She could not plunge Oathkeeper through Lady Catelyn's heart. She could not fling her torch in the face of a wight intent on tearing out his throat.

He would die.

It was on the tip of her tongue to speak of Aerys and the wildfire, but she knew Jaime had never meant to reveal Aerys's secrets and would be dishonored if she spoke of it.

He is lost. I have failed him. Just as she claimed, they will die together as they were born together. That was when the idea struck her.

“What of Queen Cersei?” Brienne asked, raising her chin to look at the young queen again.

Behind her, Brienne heard Cersei's chains rustle slightly at the sound of her own name. From Jaime there was only silence.

The dragon queen had frozen in place, staring down at Brienne. When her brows raised, the queen looked very young. “Cersei Lannister is accused of crimes against my people, my children,” the dragon queen said slowly.

“Will Queen Cersei be allowed trial by combat?” Brienne asked.

The dragon queen swallowed and looked up from Brienne's face and over her shoulders, first at Cersei, then at Jaime.

“They call you the Maid of Tarth, yet I have also heard you named the Kingslayer's whore,” the queen said.

At the side of the throne, Tyrion Lannister drew in a sharp breath and glanced at his queen out of the corner of his eye.

What does the Imp know of me? Brienne wondered.

“Men have named me many things,” Brienne answered. “I am also called Brienne the Beauty. Would your grace deem the name fitting?”

There were a few laughs scattered about the throne room.

“You are named his lover,” the queen said with deceptive softness, her eyes shrewd as she glanced at the three people at the foot of her throne. “Yet you would offer your life to protect the woman with whom he has made children?”

“I am named his lover? Look at me, your grace. Look at my face. Do you believe it to be true?”

There were more laughs this time and the queen, who had been so certain of herself a moment before, looked slightly unsure and leaned back on the throne and then jumped slightly, trying to hide a wince. Tyrion Lannister was staring daggers at Brienne now. Brienne tried to ignore him.

“Jaime Lannister was so quick to deny you as his own champion,” the queen said. “And yet he makes no protest when you offer to fight for his sister. I wonder that he does not offer to champion her himself in your place.”

He dares not, Brienne thought, for he knows I am more likely to win. Jaime would never allow her to die for him, but for Cersei...

She had known as soon as the dragon queen refused her request. This was one thing she could give him if she could not save his life. She could try to spare his beloved. And if she failed, what matter? What reason did she have to live another day?

“Will you offer Queen Cersei trial by combat?” Brienne asked again, sidestepping the question the queen wanted to ask.

The young queen blinked and nodded her assent. “Cersei Lannister, will you accept Brienne of Tarth as your champion? She will fight for you at dawn, if so.”

“Yes,” Cersei said.

“Return them to their cells,” the queen said.

Brienne bowed her head to the queen again in thanks. Behind her, she heard the clanking of their chains as they were turned and led from the throne room. She heard the whoosh of Jaime's breath as a guard landed a blow and knew he was trying to delay, knew he was looking back at her. With deliberate slowness, Brienne rose to her feet and only when she was sure they were nearly out of the hall did she turn around. Jaime tried to turn once more, briefly she saw his face in profile before his guard turned him and forced him from the hall.

Ser Addam Marbrand and Ser Hyle Hunt fell into step with her as she walked away from the throne through the crowd and left the hall.

“What in the seven hells do you think you're doing?” Hyle asked under his breath.

“What I must,” she said softly as they made their way toward the quarters they'd been given when they arrived the night before. “No more than he did on my behalf for you and Pod.”

“Lord Tyrion has ordered me to attend her grace along with Tytos Brax and Roland Crakehall,” Ser Addam said, adjusting the sling on his right arm as they climbed the steps to their tower rooms.

Brienne nodded. “You must bend the knee.” What choice did the men of the Westerlands have when ordered by the Lord of Casterly Rock? What choice did anyone have when the dragon queen refused to bestir herself until her justice had been served? Every able man was needed to continue to push through into the Neck, to fight back the Others. This delay was costing lives.

Jaime had been holding a firm line at the Trident and Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons had been a great help in a battle Brienne had been sure they would lose. Jaime had known he and Cersei would be captured, but no one had understood that the dragon queen would delay her campaign, delay her drive North, in order to vanquish Aegon and establish herself on the Iron Throne first.

She thought of Pod, imagining him tucked safely away in the small fisherman's hut on Tarth and was thankful he at least was far from this madness. Though he bore burdens of his own.

Brienne left the others and entered the small room she had been given. There were no fires, save in public spaces, for fuel had become too costly and scarce as the days grew ever shorter. She wrapped in her fur cloak and looked out her window down over the Red Keep, lost in thought as the afternoon sun sank into the West. Would this be Jaime's last sunset? She couldn't bear the thought. She needed to stay strong, to keep herself clear. This one last thing she must give him.

A knock sounded at her door.

“Enter,” she said.

She expected Hyle to walk in, to attempt again to dissuade her. But it was Tyrion Lannister who entered. She had heard that his nose was gone, but that was only half true, for the root of it remained, flanked on either side by the beginning and end of the slash that had disfigured him.

“My lady,” Tyrion said with a nod.

“Lord Tyrion,” Brienne countered.

“At last we meet,” Tyrion said, closing the door behind him.

“Yes.”

“Tell me, have you spent much time in my sister's company?” Tyrion asked as he perched himself on the lone chair in the room.

As much as I care to, she thought. Cersei bore Brienne no love and Brienne returned the sentiment, though they rarely spoke and had never exchanged harsh words. There were little barbs, of course, but they were mostly meant to incense Jaime and Brienne had learned to ignore them. Mostly.

“I know Queen Cersei but a little,” Brienne said.

“Strange then, your willingness to die for her,” Tyrion said, his tone belying his understanding of the situation.

Brienne had spoken to Cersei rarely, but her time sharing a camp with both the Lannister twins had taught her much about subtle wordplay and leading questions. She knew enough to know that the less she said the better off she was.

“She is a lady in distress,” Brienne said.

“You have caught the curiosity of the queen with your gallantry,” Tyrion said.

“A woman who fights as a man is always a curiosity,” she said.

“To be sure. But that is not why her interest is piqued,” Tyrion said. “She wonders what manner of love you bear my brother that you would face death to save his lover.”

“He has been my commander in battle--”

“Come, my lady,” Tyrion said with a tilt of his head and a smile. “Do you think we have not heard the songs? Are you Jaime's lover?”

“Do you know your brother so little?” she asked, a small smile playing about her lips. When Jaime spoke of Tyrion, it was always with a bitter wistfulness and she knew they had been close once. It was strange to think she may know him better than his own brother.

“I have decided I never knew him at all,” Tyrion said, an edge to his tone. “I admit I believed you were his lover until I saw you for myself.”

Brienne swallowed, her small moment of triumph lost to his cruelty. “He is not so changed as that,” she said softly.

“Well, take heart, even if you were unmarred and fair of face, I doubt you could turn his attentions from Cersei, no matter how well you love him. Not for long, anyway.”

She nodded carefully, a lump forming in her throat from feelings she'd been burying so long she wondered how they had the power to touch her at all. “That is true,” she said softly.

“You do admit that you love him, then?”

And Brienne realized she'd been a fool. He'd insulted her and wounded her and when she was too busy soothing her own hurt, he'd drawn the truth from her. “It is you who still loves him,” Brienne said, deflecting his blow.

Tyrion only smiled at that. “He has asked for you. The queen has granted you leave to go to him tonight, and to stay as long as you wish.”

I cannot face him. The thought came swift and sure.

“I must prepare myself for the morrow,” she said.

Tyrion gave her a long stare and blinked. “He has asked for no one since his surrender. Not me, not Cersei, not the queen, not even you--until now. And you would deny him? He will die two days hence.”

“We have nothing to say to one another,” she said.

Tyrion's eyes widened at that and he gave her a long, assessing look as the last of the sunlight faded from the sky.

“I asked the queen to spare him,” Tyrion said softly.

Brienne raised her eyes to his and saw in the scant light that each of his eyes was a different shade, only one was green like Jaime's.

“She refused you?” Brienne waited with bated breath, wondering if Tyrion could offer her some hope.

“Robert Baratheon is dead, Ned Stark is dead, my father is dead, Jon Arryn...the long list of those who wronged the Targaryens is filled with the names of the dead.”

“But Jaime lives,” Brienne said softly.

“But Jaime lives,” Tyrion agreed. “And at last she can exact the vengeance she has so long craved.”

“Thank you for trying to save him,” Brienne said.

His snort of derision chilled her and she knew she'd overstepped herself. It has never been my place to thank anyone on Jaime's behalf.

“Cersei does not deserve your sacrifice,” Tyrion told her, the dark making a shadow of his face, the cold adding a new bite to his tone.

“Will it be a sacrifice? Who will the queen name as her champion?”

Tyrion laughed. “The debate rages. Every new ally who wants to prove himself has offered to fight you. Every old ally who feels the sting of the queen's losses has offered to fight you. Barristan Selmy himself has offered to fight you.”

“Her father chose fire as his champion,” Brienne said, some of Jaime's tales taunting the edges of her memory with their horrors.

“The queen sees, perhaps, a way to make Jaime suffer in this,” Tyrion said, his words measured and careful.

“He would suffer to think your sister will join him in death, surely you have told your queen that.”

“Yes,” he said, “that much she already knew. But now hope is dangled before him and that can be a cruel thing.”

“Yes.”

“And she wonders if he will suffer doubly at your loss, though she notes that he made no attempt to stop you offering your life as Cersei's champion.”

My life is worth nothing compared to Cersei's. Not in his eyes.

“Nor should he. I am as capable a champion as Queen Cersei is like to find. Jaime knew as soon as he heard me speak, I'm sure. I am surprised he did not think to ask it of me himself.”

“I think I still know my brother well enough to know he wouldn't have asked that of you,” Tyrion said. “Will he suffer at your loss, my lady?”

She shrugged, but of course it was lost in the dark, so she was forced to answer. “No. No more than at the loss of any comrade at arms. No more than the loss of Ser Addam or Ser Ilyn.”

“Then this is indeed a tragic tale,” Tyrion said, and she heard the leading tone. He wanted to draw more truth from her. “You will offer your life that my worthless sister might live, in the hope that his burden might be eased in his final hours, and yet you mean nothing to him.”

“I am simply offering my blade to a lady in need.” She would give him nothing to use against her, or Jaime, or even Cersei.

“Why must the monstrously ugly throw their hearts at the feet of the beautiful?” Tyrion asked, and she wished she knew him well enough to judge if his tone was indeed sincere.

“I have never thrown my heart anywhere,” she said. It has only ever been torn from my grasp.

“Well, I will take my leave of you, my lady,” he said. She heard him stand. “Would that I could wish you good fortune on the morrow, but I do so hope you fail.”

“My lord, before you go,” she said, knowing she may never have a chance to have her words heard again, “it is said you have influence with the queen. She must continue her campaign to push the Others back. The North suffers.”

“She knows. But her forces were unprepared for the cold and she needs must re-group.”

“But, with her dragons alone she can take the men still at the Neck and press on. You ride one of her dragons, surely you could persuade her. My lord, your wife is at Winterfell. Utterly besieged.”

Tyrion sighed; it had a weary sound. “I know what you are telling me, Lady Brienne, but the queen must trust the men at her back. She refuses to be moved on this.”

“Do not let everything Jaime fought for turn to ash. Can you even guess what it took to hold their advance at the Trident? Have you any idea the sacrifices made? If you ever loved him, do not allow Jaime's last stand to have been in vain.”

“I will honor your plea, my lady,” Tyrion said, opening the door to reveal a sliver of light from a distant torch. “Is there anyone else whose cause you would take up in your last hours in this world?”

“Podrick Payne,” she blurted, her mind conjuring up her last image of Pod and his charges as their ship sailed out of port. “I have told him if he is ever desperate he should come to you and you will help him.”

“So it is true we have shared a squire,” Tyrion said. “I will of course help Pod if ever he has need.”

“I would have your vow, my lord, your vow that you will help him.”

Tyrion sighed. “I hear some unspoken intention in your request, my lady. But I vow to help Podrick Payne if ever he should come to me in need of help.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

Tyrion only shook his head and closed the door behind him.

Brienne looked back out her window to see the distant moon in the sky. Two days hence, Tyrion had said. Jaime would likely outlive her. The thought was comforting. She did not know how she could have watched him die.

Jaime had told her once, not long after they had hunted down and reclaimed Sansa from Ser Shaddrich and his men, that if they were attacked, Brienne and Pod must take Sansa and run, that Jaime and Ser Hyle would hold off their attackers long enough to let them get away.

“No, Jaime,” she had said, “I am the better fighter, it is I who must make the stand with Ser Hyle while you escape with Pod and Sansa.”

He had smiled and said, “No, the last defense must be the best, after the enemy is worn down. It is you who must stay with the girl.”

“Let us send Ser Hyle with Pod and Sansa,” she had said. “For I could not ride away and leave you to your death.”

Jaime had smiled sadly at her, searched her eyes for a moment, then looked away.

Brienne turned away from the window and went to lay on the small cot she had been given, wrapping tight in the furs, able to sleep easily in the cold now. She thought briefly of Jaime's request to see her. There were no words they could share which would not cause her pain.

Would he thank her? Or would he mock her attempt to champion his sister? She suspected he would only smile at her and call her a fool. He would already have guessed that it was for his sake she had taken up Cersei's cause. He knew why. He had known for some time. Her love for him sat between them like an empty chasm opened in the ground. They could move around it, talk around it, breathe around it, but forever it yawned between them ready to swallow them whole if they put a foot wrong.

It was the unspoken answer to every question she ever caught flickering in his eyes when she followed him from one hell to the next.

If this was to be her last night, she would rather spend it with her dream of Jaime than with the reality. She would rather close her eyes and imagine he was with her, that his hand soothed the tears from her cheeks, that he pressed his lips to hers and whispered that he always knew he could rely on her, that he had known she would fight for him to the very last.

If she closed her eyes very tightly, and kept her sobs at bay, she could just imagine him saying that he loved Cersei but that he cared for her as well. That he wanted them both alive equally. She never dared hope for more than equally, for her mind could never hold off the truth for long.

The sight of Cersei when she had first been driven from King's Landing and ridden to join them in the Riverlands would always bleed through into her dreams. The desperate mix of loathing and longing she had seen on his face would show itself and she would recall the stinging realization that all of his talk of his sister's wickedness had only been the voice of his pain.

Before then, Brienne's dreams had been wilder, freer, for she and Jaime were always together and she had felt as though she knew the very soul of him. How her hopes would dance when they shared a silent look of understanding when they were in a crowd, how her hopes would spin when he would jerk his head for her to follow him to some meeting or meal or fireside, how her hopes would fly when they fought side by side as though they shared one mind and one purpose.

She had always shared his tent when they were with armed men. It was safer, he'd said, and she never argued. After their first true battle against the Others, he had been restless on his bedroll in the night and had muttered that he could not rest. “Do you want to fuck?” he had asked her at last, and she'd been too shocked to do anything but gasp and punch his arm, sure it had been in jest. And he had laughed and made her think it was a joke. But it had happened again and again, half a dozen more times, twice he had been drunk, but the rest of the nights he had not been. He always laughed it off, always, until the last time he had asked. When she'd kept silent and given him no startled reply. He had laughed a bit at her silence and then had rolled over to sleep, but there had been something different to that moment and she had sworn that when next he asked she would have an answer.

But then Cersei had come. And though Cersei had her own tent, Brienne had never shared Jaime's tent again. He said nothing, but she felt it, had felt his hesitation as night had drawn in on them the day Cersei arrived. Brienne was welcome to share such intimacy with him no more. And so she had not. She had silently retrieved her bedroll and gone to Pia's tent.

And now it had come to this. She would save the woman he loved or die trying. But she would not regret it. Would not regret one moment she and Jaime had shared. She would not even regret dying for Cersei.

She woke well before dawn, for dawn grew later every day, and readied herself. Hyle came and helped her with her armor, cursing her for a fool all the while.

Ser Addam and Ser Ilyn followed them silently as they made their way to the well-traveled courtyard where the snow had been packed into an icy, pock-marked blanket on the ground.

A crowd had gathered about the edges of the courtyard. The dragon queen and her entourage watched from the side near the gate and beside them, in chains, were Jaime and Cersei. Foolishly, she'd hoped Jaime wouldn't be permitted to witness, but then she recalled what Tyrion had said of the queen wanting him to suffer.

Jaime met her gaze from across the courtyard. There was no mockery in his face, nor any sadness. He merely watched her, blinking occasionally, as though he looked at her but saw through her to a place a thousand leagues distant. She glanced briefly at Cersei's haughty face and thought she read a glimmer of fear there, but with Cersei it was always difficult to tell.

Brienne came to a stop before the dragon queen and gave her a respectful bow. “Your grace.”

“Lady Brienne,” the queen said. “I have chosen my champion.”

Behind the queen there was a stirring as Qyburn made his way forward. Then Brienne knew what she would face. Ser Robert Strong, they called him. Jaime had long ago named him monster and Brienne agreed, but he was useful against wights and the Others, so they never asked too many questions about what lay behind the helm or why Ser Robert never slept nor ate, accepting Cersei's bodyguard into their forces, an uneasy necessity.

“Thank you, your grace,” Brienne said, hoping no one noted her resignation.

Her gaze found Cersei briefly, to see the former queen sneering at Qyburn whose loyalty had very recently changed. Then Brienne's gaze met Jaime's and the look he gave her held only knowledge of her death.

She reached for her sword, drawing Oathkeeper forth, hoping the deep grey and red of its blade would catch the first rays of dawn and give her some brief memory of summer and warmth before the monster ended her.

It was not so great a loss, her life. Her father was dead, and all her family before him. Renly was dead. Lady Catelyn. A thousand soldiers who'd fought and died at her side. She would die before Jaime, the gift she gave herself, the coward's desperation that drove her forward to meet the great sword of a monster.

But she could not so much meet Ser Robert's sword blows as survive them, the heavy pounding clangs of his sword against Oathkeeper reverberating through her arms into her shoulders and making her very bones ache with each parry. There would be no tiring this foe, no waiting for fatigue to weaken him.

She tried to attack, whirling through a parry and wedging her sword into his side, right into the seam of his armor below his waist. But it did nothing to Ser Robert, he merely brought his elbow down against her shoulder when she failed to extricate her sword quickly enough.

He came at her again, the sweeping arcs of his attack seemed to cut even the cold in the air, creating waves of heat that buffeted her as he drove her back. She caught another of his blows and ducked under it as his sword point thunked the ground. Again she buried Oathkeeper in the seam at the waist of his armor and this time her blade bit deeper, nearly to the center of him.

Brienne heard the murmurs in the courtyard at her blow and as she struggled to dislodge her sword it dug even further into the trunk of Ser Robert's body, in a way which no mortal man could survive. But Ser Robert was unaffected. He lifted his sword from where she'd deflected it to the ground and sliced along her leg from ankle to thigh. She staggered under the ripping pain, but kept her grip on her hilt, pulling her sword free of his body, rolling between his legs and out the other side, trying to stand on a leg which refused to hold her. The blood ran and pooled in her shredded boot, and she knew when he came at her this time she would not be able to move quickly enough.

Ser Robert turned to her and she saw how his abdomen twisted further than it should have, only half connected to the rest of his body. When he swung for her again the force of his lunge twisted half his torso off his hip and sent him teetering off balance as she limped to the side, ineffectually landing a blow on his arm.

The crowd was shouting now. She heard some call him a wight. Heard some call it trickery. Ser Robert swung for her again, and this time his sword caught her breastplate, rending her armor--plate, then mail. Only the force of his blow driving her backward off her feet kept her from the brunt of the blow, his sword glancing off her breastbone rather than reaching into her heart itself.

But she was down now, heaving, bleeding, and she watched him lumber toward her, his sword raising above her throat. As he drove his sword point down toward her neck, she rolled, moving just in time. She brought herself to her knees, screaming at the pain in her leg and chest as she swung for the seam in the armor on the other side of his waist. All her weight and the last of her strength were behind the blow as she used her good leg to leverage her twisting lunge.

And with a pop, she rent him in two, his waist sliding forward off his lower body.

She fell to the ground beside him and barely noticed when his hand reached over for her throat, immediately cutting off her air. Somehow, she brought Oathkeeper up toward her face and, with her left hand on the bare blade, she cut off his hand at the wrist, Valyrian steel slicing her left hand to shreds as she did. The palm of her left hand streamed blood down onto her face and into her mouth as she pulled off his severed hand which, even disembodied, was now gripping her harder than ever. She rolled away from the two halves of his body. Hearing some part of him pulling closer to her again, she reached her knees and looked at Ser Robert's remaining hand as it pulled his torso toward her still. She raised her sword, ready to strike him.

“Enough!”

Brienne looked over to see that the dragon queen had spoken to Qyburn who called an order to Ser Robert. Suddenly the pieces of Ser Robert's body stilled and quieted. Brienne struggled to her feet, knowing she needed to prove herself the victor. Slowly, she limped over to stand before the queen.

“Your grace,” she said, her chin dipping dangerously low on her chest as she bowed her head in deference. She could see how the center of her breast plate had been torn like parchment. Could see her naked, bleeding flesh beneath. If her breasts were larger than the thickness of her palms, they would have been exposed.

“Free her,” the dragon queen said quietly.

Brienne looked over to see that Cersei had fallen to her knees, the strength having left her at this unexpected victory. Cersei's perfect white hands rubbed her wrists as she was released from her manacles. Carefully, Brienne did not lift her gaze from Cersei. Whatever was on Jaime's face, she did not wish to see it.

“Thank you, your grace,” Brienne said, turning back to look at the dragon queen. Even turning her head took effort, her movements sluggish. She knew she was losing too much blood.

“My lady, I am moved by what I have seen here today,” the dragon queen told her. “I would grant you a boon. You may champion the Kingslayer.”

Brienne's chin shot up. “Your grace?”

“No.” She heard Jaime say. “I refuse her.”

“Who else will champion their queen this morning?” The queen ignored Jaime and looked around at her gathered men.

Brienne was no fool. She could not have bested Pod at that moment. The old man in white armor who dropped to one knee before the queen claiming the right to avenge Aerys Targaryen might have seemed a fair opponent for one so injured as Brienne. Might have seemed, if one did not know him to be Ser Barristan Selmy.

The queen meant to make Jaime watch her die as Tyrion had hinted.

Brienne tried to step backward to face her new opponent, but had to catch herself, digging Oathkeeper's tip deeply into the ice on the ground to steady herself.

Ser Barristan gave her the slightest nod of respect. Whatever his thoughts about facing off against an injured woman, the determination in his eyes said he would not suffer the Kingslayer's champion to live. And with a flurry few great swordsmen still in their prime could match, Ser Barristan attacked.

He reminded her of Jaime--of the Jaime who had been, Jaime with his right hand. His speed and finesse were far superior to any she could muster. Even whole and able-bodied she would have done well to keep up with him, to give him a few minute's contest, but now, with one leg unreliable and her chest tearing with every movement of her arms, she was only a farce.

His blade bit into the bone of her already injured thigh and she could only release a raging scream, somehow still on her feet as she used her reach to punch her hilt into his face. She was a static target, still standing but unable to move. He caught her left forearm next and she swung at him blindly with her right arm, the flat of Oathkeeper's blade crunching into his hip and sending him stumbling back for a moment as she tried to bring both her hands back together on the hilt to meet his next half dozen blows which arrived swiftly as the beats of a raven's wings. Her parries grew ever slower to halt his thrusts and her left hand, flayed to the bone, was slick and sliding on Oathkeeper's hilt. Finally, Ser Barristan brushed aside a weak block and caught her on the side of her neck with his blade.

She only felt grateful for the warmth that was her blood running under her clothes and down to soak her shoulder. Surely it was nearly done. For a moment, she contemplated letting him take a killing stroke, but before the thought was half-formed her arms had moved of their own will, meeting the swing which would likely have taken her head. Ser Barristan stepped back and danced to her side, she tried to pivot, to follow him, he moved faster, his blade a whir she could scarce see to deflect. He switched directions and she pitched to the side, trying to follow him, to keep her blade between them.

She did not know if he stumbled as well, or if he made to switch direction again, but he swung a bit high, perhaps aiming for her neck and rather than using her blade, she caught the blow with the armor at her left elbow. And her right arm plunged Oathkeeper, with aim she could not recognize as her own, into the soft space under Ser Barristan's sword arm, right through his ribs and into his heart. The old man went limp and slid from her blade.

Brienne stared down at him in surprise. She heard the dragon queen gasp and turned to see the girl's face. The world tilted with her movement and again she planted Oathkeeper's tip in the ice to keep herself standing. She had to see it through, had to remain standing--to live--just long enough.

“Your grace...” Brienne knew she had spoken, heard the sound of her own voice, but was not sure how her lips had formed the words. “I...prevail?”

Brienne watched the dragon queen's face for what felt like an eternity.

“Release him,” the dragon queen said.

He would live.

With a sigh, Brienne collapsed. The icy ground was softer than she'd imagined and as she stared up at the morning sky, she did not even feel the cold. Ser Ilyn's face appeared above her, pressing something into the side of her neck. Someone moved her legs. Or perhaps she moved them herself.

Jaime appeared above her, and she saw the ice he frantically packed against her chest. His lips moved too slowly for the words he threw down at her.

stupid...pigheaded...ugly...cow...

Then her eyes closed and the world hushed.