Jaime Lannister walked toward the edge of the Brotherhood's camp, considering how it was that Brienne's virtue managed to remain unquestioned after 10 months of her openly sharing a tent with a grown man.
Then again, when the maid looked like Brienne, and the man was missing his sword hand, he supposed neither of them were going to be viewed as particularly susceptible to temptations of that kind. The reality, of course, was neither so humbling, nor so simple.
Since they had begun fighting and traveling with the Brotherhood Without Banners, they had taken to situating themselves on the edge of the camp, as far out of the way as possible. The Brotherhood was a great deal changed for the better. Indeed, it had become almost honorable under Ser Brynden Tully's leadership. But, although he and Brienne had (somewhat miraculously) reached a level of mutual respect and understanding with the Blackfish, they both still found it difficult to blend in with the rest of the company.
It was easier for a woman like Brienne and a man like him to go about their business unnoticed if they kept to the periphery. They were comfortable there, and if they pitched their tent near the young blacksmith's forge, their proximity to the fires allowed them to benefit from the added warmth.
The future Lady of Tarth was cleaning her armor and an interesting array of weapons, her face intent and serious as always. He smiled to himself as he approached, carrying a shirt and a tunic that he had just retrieved from one of the seamstresses. He opened his mouth to tease her by way of a greeting, when a quick darting movement in the woods nearby caught his attention.
"Brienne," he whispered, scanning the woods. Nothing. "The woods." She looked up and put aside her task.
"What—" Brienne cut off her question as the source of the movement he'd seen began to emerge slowly from the trees.
Jaime froze, suddenly overwhelmed with feelings of recognition and disbelief as it became clear that the person walking to the edge of the trees was a young woman. A dark-haired young woman, with unmistakable features. Was this how Brienne felt the first time she saw Renly's features reborn in the blacksmith?
He had not been surprised by anything in a very, very long time. Longer still since he'd last looked at anyone in awe. He abhorred cliché, but he couldn't help it: for a moment, he truly felt as though he was staring at a ghost. And for once, it was not of the haunting variety. A white walker or a mammoth appearing in their camp could not have shocked him more.
To be sure, he had not loved Lyanna Stark as Brienne had loved Renly — he had been too infatuated with Cersei back then to be attracted to any other girl — but he had admired her just the same. He had never seen a girl who could turn men's heads away from his sister, and he respected her for it, all the more because she did not seem to be aware of it herself. Even Rhaegar's head had been turned, and that was no mean feat.
He had not known Lyanna Stark very well or for very long, but he remembered her vividly. Her person had been branded into his memory somehow, although he had not thought of her in quite some time. She'd been beautiful in a way he never thought a Northern girl could be. Quite the opposite of Cersei in every way, with her dark hair and easy approachability.
She had intelligent grey eyes that were more inclined to amusement than scorn — but, when provoked, they had been one of the few things that could give her brother Brandon pause.
Her figure was lithe and feminine like Cersei's, but in the North she had learned a kind of grace that his sister never quite managed to achieve, even when she became queen. Not that he had minded Cersei's gracelessness when he was fucking her all through their adolescence. Or most of their adulthood. In the end, though, he had come to mind it very much indeed.
Cersei had shown off her assets from an early age, as girls did in the South, but Ned Stark's beloved sister had always been modestly, almost conservatively dressed. And yet, to look at her, you never noticed, never would have thought her prude or uptight.
Lyanna never seemed burdened with insecurity as Cersei had always been. Burdened with something, he could tell, but never insecurity. She had an air of strength and self-reliance about her that had astonished him. He had never thought to appreciate those traits in a woman before. But they suited Lyanna Stark. She was cleverer than all her brothers put together, more patient than Brandon, and more lively than the quiet Ned. And gods, but that girl could ride...
The first time he had seen Lyanna Stark, she had borrowed her brother Brandon's horse and ridden him hard through forest and field at Harrenhal. It was much too large a mount for her, but she handled him with ease, flushed and smiling as she approached him and his father to pay her respects. Even Lord Tywin had been impressed with her, Jaime could tell, though his grim and formidable father would never have admitted it.
It struck him at the time that she looked as natural on a horse as he felt with a sword in his hand. But now she won't ever ride again, just as I won't ever wield a blade properly.
There'd been whispers that she grew up practicing swords with her brothers, and more than once he'd heard that she was as good a shot with a weirwood bow as any Northern man.
If he was honest, he had never truly believed that she'd been kidnapped by Rhaegar. Not only because he knew Rhaegar better than most people, and knew what kind of man he was, but also because he couldn't help suspecting that she had gone willingly, though he had no idea why she should. Somehow, he could not bring himself to believe that Lyanna Stark would have allowed herself to be kidnapped, even by the dragon prince.
As these recollections gathered in his mind, it occurred to him that the young woman in front of him — or was she a hallucination? — couldn't possibly be Lyanna. Not because he knew Lyanna Stark to be dead (which, of course, he did), but because of her eyes.
There was a steeliness, a sort of contained fury, to this girl's gaze that he'd never seen in Lyanna's eyes, though they were the same rich stormy color, set within the same face, and framed by the same dark, windblown hair.
Her simple tunic was violet, an odd color for a Stark of Winterfell, and although it hugged her body closely, the shape was such that it seemed more likely the result of limited materials than a design meant to flatter. In peacetime she would have been all long limbs and lean muscle; but it was wartime, and even Lannisters did not eat regular meals. She was skinny in a way that made good men want to protect young ladies and wrap blankets around them. And yet, there was something about her that made him quite certain that she didn't need — or want — protecting. Skinny, but strong.
That, in itself, was nothing out of the ordinary. What intrigued him was the equally skinny sword, a Braavosi blade, by the look of it, hanging at her hip. Highborn ladies did not carry swords; even Lyanna Stark had not. Brienne did, of course, but that wasn't the same. Had the honorable Ned Stark fathered more than just the one bastard?
It was a hilarious thought but, no, he did not actually believe that Ned Stark had fathered a second bastard. Or a first, for that matter.
Jaime knew Sansa Stark, whose features overwhelmingly favored the Tullys, and this was not she. There had been no confirmed word of the younger Stark sister since Ser Ilyn Payne had beheaded her father — only rumored sightings of her with the Hound near Saltpans and the Twins — and she had long been presumed dead. Though, that had not stopped Roose Bolton from marrying his bastard to an imposter.
Arya. Arya was her name. What was she, nine, ten years old when her father was named Hand of the King? How in Seven Hells could she have escaped from King's Landing? Surely a girl that young could not have evaded capture and survived so long without a father or brothers to protect her. And yet...
And yet. Here she was, very much alive and very much a Stark, looking directly at him. For someone so skinny and so young, her eyes had a clarity and directness to them that he found unsettling... and not a little captivating.
He could feel Brienne next to him, fidgeting noisily as only an armored amazon could. He would have smiled, but for some reason he thought the she-wolf in front of him would not appreciate it. Still, given how much his own disposition had changed since the start of the war, he wanted her to know that he meant her no harm. He simply gazed back, eyebrows raised slightly in question.
He saw the light of recognition in her expression as she noticed him, followed by shock as she noticed his absent hand. When most people saw it, they flinched or cringed with disgust, and he could almost feel himself being lowered in their estimation.
But not this girl, not Arya Stark, if it really is her. She only registered surprise and then something like awe mixed with curiosity. She's trying to work out how it possibly could have happened, who could have done it. Jaime felt oddly pleased at her reaction.
But then her eyes caught sight of someone or something else, her gaze shifted, and his maimed right arm was forgotten as she stared intently past him. She looked like she might laugh and weep at the same time.
After a moment, she turned abruptly and walked away in the opposite direction, her frame exuding uneasiness in a way that suddenly made her seem several years younger. It soon became clear why.
"Arya." Well, that answers that question. She didn't turn around, and started to walk faster. The blacksmith shed his apron as he walked after her.
Jaime was willing to bet all the gold in Casterly Rock that the blacksmith was one of Robert Baratheon's numerous bastards. Given his youth, it was no small wonder that Brienne had mistaken him for Renly; there was clearly Baratheon blood running through the boy's veins. Hidden depths, too, no doubt. Wartime or not, it wasn't every day that you saw a bastard blacksmith presume to call a highborn lady by her given name. And yet he does not seem presumptuous...
"Arya, wait." His voice broke slightly, and she stopped, but did not turn around. The blacksmith briefly broke into a jog, and slowed as he came up behind her. Jaime could see his shoulders rise and fall, as if he was taking a deep breath, to prepare himself. For a while neither one of them moved.
After a few moments, the blacksmith gently put a hand on her shoulder. Arya flinched ever so slightly, but caught herself and stilled. Slowly, the boy put his other hand on her other shoulder, and gently began to turn her around to face him. As he did, her shoulders began to tremble, and then shake slightly, as if she were not quite succeeding at holding back tears.
Jaime stole a look at Brienne, and found her to be quite as transfixed as he was, although no one else in their camp seemed to notice the scene unfolding in front of them.
He turned back to see the boy lift Arya Stark's face up to meet his own. Jaime had seen him working in the forge and even talked to him about his work a few times. He knew his steel, and had a talent for adapting armor or a blade to your unique specifications, while somehow also making it feel lighter to wear. Gendry, his name was. A Waters, born in King's Landing. He'd seen the brute force with which Gendry hammered steel into fine tools of warfare, a strength he no doubt inherited from his royal father, and was amazed at how tenderly he held her face in his hands now.
In that instant, it struck Jaime that Cersei had never loved him at all — and that he had never loved her either. He had no way of knowing whether the blacksmith and the Stark girl were in love with each other, but he had just seen more tenderness and vulnerability in one moment of theirs than he and his twin sister had shown each other in their entire lives.
He was abruptly broken out of his thoughts as the blacksmith barked some exclamation of surprise. So much for tenderness. Arya Stark had sucker-punched him and was now pummeling his chest and abdomen with furious little fists. Jaime watched in wonder as Gendry made no move to defend or extract himself; he simply took it. Almost as if he felt he deserved it.
The roles of the fathers are reversed in the children. Jaime almost smiled, recalling how Ned Stark had so often withstood Robert's blustery verbal assaults just as stoically as the blacksmith now withstood Arya's physical one.
Gendry endured the body blows for several minutes, until at last she began to tire herself out, finally crumpling against him, her shoulders beginning to shake once more. Jaime considered that her quiet sobs may have been the result of hunger and exhaustion as much as emotion.
Gendry enveloped her in his arms, his larger, more muscular frame dwarfing her own. Jaime wondered if he could be so patient in the same situation. For Arya Stark, or Brienne, perhaps. Certainly for Myrcella. But not Cersei. Not anymore.
A nudge from Brienne caused him to look up at her. "Jaime," she said in a half-whisper, with a slight nod toward the edge of their camp where Arya had first appeared.
His eyes widened when he saw why: a monstrous wolf — a direwolf, bloody hell — was wandering into the camp, sniffing and searching. They watched in tense silence as the beast peered back at them, caught a scent, and trotted calmly toward Arya and Gendry, who were still huddled in an embrace.
As the direwolf approached them, Arya stiffened slightly, as if sensing its presence, and turned her head to face it. Her entire person seemed somehow bolstered by the sight of it, and Jaime noticed Gendry put an arm protectively around her waist, even as a smile slowly spread across her face. If the young blacksmith felt any fear on his own account, he did not show it.
"Nymeria!" she greeted the direwolf cheerfully. Seven hells, it's her pet. The one that bit Joffrey.
Nymeria walked right up to them, greeting each one with calm but unmistakable affection. Gendry shook his head and smiled in disbelief, though it was unclear whether his reaction was directed at girl or beast. Jaime and Brienne both glanced around the camp, and then shared a look of confusion, as if looking to each other for confirmation that the entire camp had indeed somehow failed to notice the arrival of Arya Stark and her direwolf. Which, of course, it had.
Jaime could not help marveling at the fact that a chil— no, a young lady, now — had managed to elude capture (and worse) for so long, first at the hands of his sister and the gold cloaks, and later at the hands of his formidable father, and even the Mountain. How caught up in his own pride and destructive infatuation must he have been to have overlooked such a remarkable girl before?
He cringed to think of it. Then chuckled when he recalled that, at one point during his captivity, his own safety had depended entirely on the mistaken assumption that Arya was being held captive in King's Landing. At Brienne's inquiring look, he explained as much.
"What a farce we were, the whole lot of us," he concluded, shaking his head, his expression filled with equal parts humor and disgust.
"It was rather less amusing at the time, as I recall," she reminded him, slightly chastened. Brienne and her oaths, so very serious. He smiled.
"Let's go find some dinner."