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JAIME
Jaime was the first to spy the inn. The main building hugged the south shore where the river bent, its long low wings outstretched along the water as if to embrace travelers sailing downstream. The lower story was grey stone, the upper whitewashed wood, the roof slate. He could see stables as well, and an arbor heavy with vines. “No smoke from the chimneys,” he pointed out as they approached. “Nor lights in the windows.”  “The inn was still open when last I passed this way,” said Ser Cleos Frey. “They brewed a fine ale. Perhaps there is still some to be had in the cellars.”  “There may be people,” Brienne said. “Hiding. Or dead.”  “Frightened of a few corpses, wench?” Jaime said.  She glared at him. “My name is -”  “- Brienne, yes. Wouldn’t you like to sleep in a bed for a night, Brienne? We’d be safer than on the open river, and it might be prudent to find what’s happened here.”  She gave no answer, but after a moment she pushed at the tiller to angle the skiff in toward the weathered wooden dock. Ser Cleos scrambled to take down the sail. When they bumped softly against the pier, he climbed out to tie them up. Jaime clambered after him, made awkward by his chains.  At the end of the dock, a flaking shingle swung from an iron post, painted with the likeness of a king upon his knees, his hands pressed together in the gesture of fealty. Jaime took one look and laughed aloud. “We could not have found a better inn.”  “Is this some special place?” the wench asked, suspicious.  Ser Cleos answered. “This is the Inn of the Kneeling Man, my lady. It stands upon the very spot where the last King in the North knelt before Aegon the Conqueror to offer his submission. That’s him on the sign, I suppose.”  “Torrhen had brought his power south after the fall of the two kings on the Field of Fire,” said Jaime, “but when he saw Aegon’s dragon and the size of his host, he chose the path of wisdom and bent his frozen knees.” He stopped at the sound of a horse’s whinny. “Horses in the stable. One at least.” And one is all I need to put the wench behind me. “Let’s see who’s home, shall we?” Without waiting for an answer, Jaime went clinking down the dock, put a shoulder to the door, shoved it open...  ... and found himself eye to eye with a loaded crossbow. Standing behind it was a chunky boy of fifteen. “Lion, fish, or wolf?” the lad demanded.  “We were hoping for capon.” Jaime heard his companions entering behind him. “The crossbow is a coward’s weapon.”  “It’ll put a bolt through your heart all the same.”  “Perhaps. But before you can wind it again my cousin here will spill your entrails on the floor.”  “Don’t be scaring the lad, now,” Ser Cleos said.  “We mean no harm,” the wench said. “And we have coin to pay for food and drink.” She dug a silver piece from her pouch.  The boy looked suspiciously at the coin, and then at Jaime’s manacles. “Why’s this one in irons?”  “Killed some crossbowmen,” said Jaime. “Do you have ale?”  “Yes.” The boy lowered the crossbow an inch. “Undo your swordbelts and let them fall, and might be we’ll feed you.” He edged around to peer through the thick, diamond-shaped windowpanes and see if any more of them were outside. “That’s a Tully sail.”  “We come from Riverrun.” Brienne undid the clasp on her belt and let it clatter to the floor. Ser Cleos followed suit.  A sallow man with a pocked doughy face stepped through the cellar door, holding a butcher’s heavy cleaver. “Three, are you? We got horsemeat enough for three, The horse was old and tough, but the meat’s still fresh.”  “Is there bread?” asked Brienne.  “Hardbread and stale oatcakes.”  Jaime grinned. “Now there’s an honest innkeep. They’ll all serve you stale bread and stringy meat, but most don’t own up to it so freely.”  “I’m no innkeep. I buried him out back, with his women.”  “Did you kill them?”  “Would I tell you if I did?” The man spat. “Likely it were wolves’ work, or maybe lions, what’s the difference? The wife and I found them dead. The way we see it, the place is ours now.”  “Where is this wife of yours?” Ser Cleos asked.  The man gave him a suspicious squint. “And why would you be wanting to know that? She’s not here... no more’n you three will be, unless I like the taste of your silver.”  Brienne tossed the coin to him. He caught it in the air, bit it, and tucked it away.  “She’s got more,” the boy with the crossbow announced.  “So she does. Boy, go down and find me some onions.”  The lad raised the crossbow to his shoulder, gave them one last sullen look, and vanished into the cellar.  “Your son?” Ser Cleos asked.  “Just a boy the wife and me took in. We had two sons, but the lions killed one and the other died of the flux. The boy lost his mother to the Bloody Mummers. These days, a man needs someone to keep watch while he sleeps.” He waved the cleaver at the tables. “Might as well sit.”  The hearth was cold, but Jaime picked the chair nearest the ashes and stretched out his long legs under the table. The clink of his chains accompanied his every movement. An irritating sound. Before this is done, I’ll wrap these chains around the wench’s throat, see how she likes them then.  The man who wasn’t an innkeep charred three huge horse steaks and fried the onions in bacon grease, which almost made up for the stale oatcakes. Jaime and Cleos drank ale, Brienne a cup of cider. The boy kept his distance, perching atop the cider barrel with his crossbow across his knees, cocked and loaded. The cook drew a tankard of ale and sat with them. “What news from Riverrun?” he asked Ser Cleos, taking him for their leader.  Ser Cleos glanced at Brienne before answering. “Lord Hoster is failing, but his son holds the fords of the Red Fork against the Lannisters. There have been battles.”  “Battles everywhere. Where are you bound, ser?”  “King’s Landing.” Ser Cleos wiped grease off his lips.  Their host snorted. “Then you’re three fools. Last I heard, King Stannis was outside the city walls. They say he has a hundred thousand men and a magic sword.”  Jaime’s hands wrapped around the chain that bound his wrists, and he twisted it taut, wishing for the strength to snap it in two. Then I’d show Stannis where to sheathe his magic sword.  “I’d stay well clear of that kingsroad, if I were you,” the man went on. “it’s worse than bad, I hear. Wolves and lions both, and bands of broken men preying on anyone they can catch.”  “Vermin,” declared Ser Cleos with contempt. “Such would never dare to trouble armed men.”  “Begging your pardon, ser, but I see one armed man, traveling with a woman and a prisoner in chains.”  Brienne gave the cook a dark look. The wench does hate being reminded that she’s a wench, Jaime reflected, twisting at the chains again. The links were cold and hard against his flesh, the iron implacable. The manacles had chafed his wrists raw.  “I mean to follow the Trident to the sea,” the wench told their host. “We’ll find mounts at Maidenpool and ride by way of Duskendale and Rosby. That should keep us well away from the worst of the fighting.”  Their host shook his head. “You’ll never reach Maidenpool by river. Not thirty miles from here a couple boats burned and sank, and the channel’s been silting up around them. There’s a nest of outlaws there preying on anyone tries to come by, and more of the same downriver around the Skipping Stones and Red Deer Island. And the lightning lord’s been seen in these parts as well. He crosses the river wherever he likes, riding this way and that way, never still.”  “And who is this lightning lord?” demanded Ser Cleos Frey.  “Lord Beric, as it please you, ser. They call him that ‘cause he strikes so sudden, like lightning from a clear sky. It’s said he cannot die.”  They all die when you shove a sword through them, Jaime thought. “Does Thoros of Myr still ride with him?”  “Aye. The red wizard. I’ve heard tell he has strange powers.”  Well, he had the power to match Robert Baratheon drink for drink, and there were few enough who could say that. Jaime had once heard Thoros tell the king that he became a red priest because the robes hid the winestains so well. Robert had laughed so hard he’d spit ale all over Cersei’s silken mantle. “Far be it from me to make objection,” he said, “but perhaps the Trident is not our safest course.”  “I’d say that’s so,” their cook agreed. “Even if you get past Red Deer island and don’t meet up with Lord Beric and the red wizard, there’s still the ruby ford before you. Last I heard, it was the Leech Lord’s wolves held the ford, but that was some time past. By now it could be lions again, or Lord Beric, or anyone.”  “Or no one,” Brienne suggested.  “If m’lady cares to wager her skin on that I won’t stop her... but if I was you, I’d leave this here river, cut overland. If you stay off the main roads and shelter under the trees of a night, hidden as it were... well, I still wouldn’t want to go with you, but you might stand a mummer’s chance.”  The big wench was looking doubtful. “We would need horses.”  “There are horses here,” Jaime pointed out. “I heard one in the stable.”  “Aye, there are,” said the innkeep, who wasn’t an innkeep. “Three of them, as it happens, but they’re not for sale.”  Jaime had to laugh. “Of course not. But you’ll show them to us anyway.”  Brienne scowled, but the man who wasn’t an innkeep met her eyes without blinking, and after a moment, reluctantly, she said, “Show me,” and they all rose from the table.  The stables had not been mucked out in a long while, from the smell of them. Hundreds of fat black flies swarmed amongst the straw, buzzing from stall to stall and crawling over the mounds of horse dung that lay everywhere, but there were only the three horses to be seen. They made an unlikely trio; a lumbering brown plow horse, an ancient white gelding blind in one eye, and a knight’s palfrey, dapple grey and spirited. “They’re not for sale at any price,” their alleged owner announced.  “How did you come by these horses?” Brienne wanted to know.  “The dray was stabled here when the wife and me come on the inn,” the man said, “along with the one you just ate. The gelding come wandering up one night, and the boy caught the palfrey running free, still saddled and bridled. Here, I’ll show you.”  The saddle he showed them was decorated with silver inlay. The saddlecloth had originally been checkered pink and black, but now it was mostly brown. Jaime did not recognize the original colors, but he recognized bloodstains easily enough. “Well, her owner won’t be coming to claim her anytime soon.” He examined the palfrey’s legs, counted the gelding’s teeth. “Give him a gold piece for the grey, if he’ll include the saddle,” he advised Brienne. “A silver for the plow horse. He ought to pay us for taking the white off his hands.”  “Don’t speak discourteously of your horse, ser.” The wench opened the purse Lady Catelyn had given her and took out three golden coins. “I will pay you a dragon for each.”  He blinked and reached for the gold, then hesitated and drew his hand back. “I don’t know. I can’t ride no golden dragon if I need to get away. Nor eat one if I’m hungry.”  “You can have our skiff as well,” she said. “Sail up the river or down, as you like.”  “Let me have a taste ol that gold.” The man took one of the coins from her palm and bit it. “Hm. Real enough, I’d say. Three dragons and the skiff?”  “He’s robbing you blind, wench,” Jaime said amiably.  “I’ll want provisions too,” Brienne told their host, ignoring Jaime. “Whatever you have that you can spare.”  “There’s more oatcakes.” The man scooped the other two dragons from her palm and jingled them in his fist, smiling at the sound they made. “Aye, and smoked salt fish, but that will cost you silver. My beds will be costing as well. You’ll be wanting to stay the night.”  “No,” Brienne said at once.  The man frowned at her. “Woman, you don’t want to go riding at night through strange country on horses you don’t know. You’re like to blunder into some bog or break your horse’s leg.”  “The moon will be bright tonight,” Brienne said. “We’ll have no trouble finding our way.”  Their host chewed on that. “If you don’t have the silver, might be some coppers would buy you them beds, and a coverlet or two to keep you warm. It’s not like I’m turning travelers away, if you get my meaning.”  “That sounds more than fair,” said Ser Cleos.  “The coverlets is fresh washed, too. My wife saw to that before she had to go off. Not a flea to be found neither, you have my word on that.” He jingled the coins again, smiling.  Ser Cleos was plainly tempted. “A proper bed would do us all good, my lady,” he said to Brienne. “We’d make better time on the morrow once refreshed.” He looked to his cousin for support.  “No, coz, the wench is right. We have promises to keep, and long leagues before us. We ought ride on.”  “But,” said Cleos, “you said yourself -  “Then.” When I thought the inn deserted. “Now I have a full belly, and a moonlight ride will be just the thing.” He smiled for the wench. “But unless you mean to throw me over the back of that plow horse like a sack of flour, someone had best do something about these irons. It’s difficult to ride with your ankles chained together.”  Brienne frowned at the chain. The man who wasn’t an innkeep rubbed his jaw. “There’s a smithy round back of the stable.”  “Show me,” Brienne said.  “Yes,” said Jaime, “and the sooner the better. There’s far too much horse shit about here for my taste. I would hate to step in it.” He gave the wench a sharp look, wondering if she was bright enough to take his meaning.  He hoped she might strike the irons off his wrists as well, but Brienne was still suspicious. She split the ankle chain in the center with a halfdozen sharp blows from the smith’s hammer delivered to the blunt end of a steel chisel. When he suggested that she break the wrist chain as well, she ignored him.  “............
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