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Though his fever lingered stubbornly, the stump was healing clean, and Qyburn said his arm was no longer in danger. Jaime was anxious to be gone, to put Harrenhal, the Bloody Mummers, and Brienne of Tarth all behind him. A real woman waited for him in the Red Keep. “I am sending Qyburn with you, to look after you on the way to King’s Landing,” Roose Bolton said on the mom of their departure. “He has a fond hope that your father will force the Citadel to give him back his chain, in gratitude.”  “We all have fond hopes. If he grows me back a hand, my father will make him Grand Maester.”  Steelshanks Walton commanded Jaime’s escort; blunt, brusque, brutal, at heart a simple soldier. Jaime had served with his sort all his life. Men like Walton would kill at their lord’s command, rape when their blood was up after battle, and plunder wherever they could, but once the war was done they would go back to their homes, trade their spears for hoes, wed their neighbors’ daughters, and raise a pack of squalling children. Such men obeyed without question, but the deep malignant cruelty of the Brave Companions was not a part of their nature.  Both parties left Harrenhal the same morning, beneath a cold grey sky that promised rain. Ser Aenys Frey had marched three days before, striking northeast for the kingsroad. Bolton meant to follow him. “The Trident is in flood,” he told Jaime. “Even at the ruby ford, the crossing will be difficult. You will give my warm regards to your father?”  “So long as you give mine to Robb Stark.”  “That I shall.”  Some Brave Companions had gathered in the yard to watch them leave. Jaime trotted over to where they stood. “Zollo. How kind of you to see me off. Pyg. Timeon. Will you miss me? No last jest to share, Shagwell? To lighten my way down the road? And Rorge, did you come to kiss me goodbye?”  “Bugger off, cripple,” said Rorge.  “If you insist. Rest assured, though, I will be back. A Lannister always pays his debts.” Jaime wheeled his horse around and rejoined Steelshanks Walton and his two hundred.  Lord Bolton had accoutered him as a knight, preferring to ignore the missing hand that made such warlike garb a travesty. Jaime rode with sword and dagger on his belt, shield and helm hung from his saddle, chainmail under a dark brown surcoat. He was not such a fool as to show the lion of Lannister on his arms, though, nor the plain white blazon that was his right as a Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard. He found an old shield in the armory, battered and splintered, the chipped paint still showing most of the great black bat of House Lothston upon a field of silver and gold. The Lothstons held Harrenhal before the Whents and had been a powerful family in their day, but they had died out ages ago, so no one was likely to object to him bearing their arms. He would be no one’s cousin, no one’s enemy, no one’s sworn sword... in sum, no one.  They left through Harrenhal’s smaller eastern gate, and took their leave of Roose Bolton and his host six miles farther on, turning south to follow along the lake road for a time. Walton meant to avoid the kingsroad as long as he could, preferring the farmer’s tracks and game trails near the Gods Eye.  “The kingsroad would be faster.” Jaime was anxious to return to Cersei as quickly as he could. if they made haste, he might even arrive in time for Joffrey’s wedding.  “I want no trouble,” said Steelshanks. “Gods know who we’d meet along that kingsroad.”  “No one you need fear, surely? You have two hundred men.”  “Aye. But others might have more. M’lord said to bring you safe to your lord father, and that’s what I mean to do.”  I have come this way before, Jaime reflected a few miles further on, when they passed a deserted mill beside the lake. Weeds now grew where once the miller’s daughter had smiled shyly at him, and the miller himself had shouted out, “The tourney’s back the other way, ser.” As if I had not known.  King Aerys made a great show of Jaime’s investiture. He said his vows before the king’s pavilion, kneeling on the green grass in white armor while half the realm looked on. When Ser Gerold Hightower raised him up and put the white cloak about his shoulders, a roar went up that Jaime still remembered, all these years later. But that very night Aerys had turned sour, declaring that he had no need of seven Kingsguard here at Harrenhal. Jaime was commanded to return to King’s Landing to guard the queen and little Prince Viserys, who’d remained behind. Even when the White Bull offered to take that duty himself, so Jaime might compete in Lord Whent’s tourney, Aerys had refused. “He’ll win no glory here,” the king had said. “He’s mine now, not Tywin’s. He’ll serve as I see fit. I am the king. I rule, and he’ll obey.”  That was the first time that Jaime understood. It was not his skill with sword and lance that had won him his white cloak, nor any feats of valor he’d performed against the Kingswood Brotherhood. Aerys had chosen him to spite his father, to rob Lord Tywin of his heir.  Even now, all these years later, the thought was bitter. And that day, as he’d ridden south in his new white cloak to guard an empty castle, it had been almost too much to stomach. He would have ripped the cloak off then and there if he could have, but it was too late. He had said the words whilst half the realm looked on, and a Kingsguard served for life.  Qyburn fell in beside him. “Is your hand troubling you?”  “The lack of my hand is troubling me.” The mornings were the hardest. In his dreams Jaime was a whole man, and each dawn he would lie half-awake and feel his fingers move. It was a nightmare, some part of him would whisper, refusing to believe even now, only a nightmare. But then he would open his eyes.  “I understand you had a visitor last night,” said Qyburn. “I trust that you enjoyed her?”  Jaime gave him a cool look. “She did not say who sent her.”  The maester smiled modestly. “Your fever was largely gone, and I thought you might enjoy a bit of exercise. Pia is quite skilled, would you not agree? And so... willing.”  She had been that, certainly. She had slipped in his door and out of her clothes so quickly that Jaime had thought he was still dreaming.  It hadn’t been until the woman slid in under his blankets and put his good hand on her breast that he roused. She was a pretty little thing, too. “I was a slip of a girl when you came for Lord Whent’s tourney and the king gave you your cloak,” she confessed. “You were so handsome all in white, and everyone said what a brave knight you were. Sometimes when I’m with some man, I close my eyes and pretend it’s you on top of me, with your smooth skin and gold curls. I never truly thought I’d have you, though.”  Sending her away had not been easy after that, but Jaime had done it all the same. I have a woman, he reminded himself. “Do you send girls to everyone you leech?” he asked Qyburn.  “More often Lord Vargo sends them to me. He likes me to examine them, before... well, suffice it to say that once he loved unwisely, and he has no wish to do so again. But have no fear, Pia is quite healthy. As is your maid of Tarth.”  Jaime gave him a sharp look. “Brienne?”  “Yes. A strong girl, that one. And her maidenhead is still intact. As of last night, at least.” Qyburn gave a chuckle.  “He sent you to examine her?”  “To be sure. He is... fastidious, shall we say?”  “Does this concern the ransom?” Jaime asked. “Does her father require proof she is still maiden?”  “You have not heard?” Qyburn gave a shrug. “We had a bird from Lord Selwyn. In answer to mine. The Evenstar offers three hundred dragons for his daughter’s safe return. I had told Lord Vargo there were no sapphires on Tarth, but he will not listen. He is convinced the Evenstar intends to cheat him.”  “Three hundred dragons is a fair ransom for a knight. The goat should take what he can get.”  “The goat is Lord of Harrenhal, and the Lord of Harrenhal does not haggle.”  The news irritated him, though he supposed he should have seen it coming. The lie spared you awhile, wench. Be grateful for that much. “If her maidenhead’s as hard as the rest of her, the goat will break his cock off trying to get in,” he jested. Brienne was tough enough to survive a few rapes, Jaime judged, though if she resisted too vigorously Vargo Hoat might start lopping off her hands and feet. And if he does, why should I care? I might still have a hand if she had let me have my cousin’s sword without getting stupid. He had almost taken off her leg himself with that first stroke of his, but after that she had given him more than he wanted. Hoat may not know how freakish strong she is. He had best be careful, or she’ll snap that skinny neck of his, and wouldn’t that be sweet?  Qyburn’s companionship was wearing on him. Jaime trotted toward the head of the column. A round little tick of a northman name of Nage went before Steelshanks with the peace banner; a rainbow-striped flag with seven long tails, on a staff topped by a seven-pointed star. “Shouldn’t you northmen have a different sort of peace banner?” he asked Walton. “What are the Seven to you?”  “Southron gods,” the man said, “but it’s a southron peace we need, to get you safe to your father.”  My father. Jaime wondered whether Lord Tywin had received the goat’s demand for ransom, with or without his rotted hand. What is a swordsman worth without his sword hand? Half the gold in Casterly Rock?  Three hundred dragons? Or nothing? His father had never been unduly swayed by sentiment. Tywin Lannister’s own father Lord Tytos had once imprisoned an unruly bannerman, Lord Tarbeck. The redoubtable Lady Tarbeck responded by capturing three Lannisters, including young Stafford, whose sister was betrothed to cousin Tywin. “Send back my lord and love, or these three shall answer for any harm that comes him,” she had written to Casterly Rock. Young Tywin suggested his father oblige by sending back Lord Tarbeck in three pieces. Lord Tytos was a gentler sort of lion, however, so Lady Tarbeck won a few more years for her muttonheaded lord, and Stafford wed and bred and blundered on till Oxcross. But Tywin Lannister endured, eternal as Casterly Rock. And now you have a cripple for a son as well as a dwarf, my lord. How you will hate that...  The road led them through a burned village. It must have been a year or more since the place had been put to torch. The hovels stood blackened and roofless, but weeds were growing waist high in all the surrounding fields. Steelshanks called a halt to allow them to water the horses. I know this place too, Jaime thought as he waited by the well. There had been a small inn where only a few foundation stones and a chimney now stood, and he had gone in for a cup of ale. A dark-eyed serving wench brought him cheese and apples, but the innkeep had refused his coin. “It’s an honor to have a knight of the Kingsguard under my roof, ser,” the man had said. “It’s a tale I’ll tell my grandchildren.” Jaime looked at the chimney poking out of the weeds and wondered whether he had ever gotten those grandchildren. Did he tell them the Kingslayer once drank his ale and ate his cheese and apples, or was he ashamed to admit he fed the likes of me? Not that he would ever know; whoever burned the inn had likely killed the grandchildren as well. He could feel his phantom fingers clench. When Steelshanks said that perhaps they should have a fire and a bit of food, Jaime shook his head. “I mislike this place. We’ll ride on.”  By evenfall they had left the lake to follow a rutted track through a wood of oak and elm. Jaime’s stump was throbbing dully when Steelshanks decided to make camp. Qyburn had brought a skin of dreamwine, thankfully. While Walton set the watches, Jaime stretched out near the fire and propped a rolled-up bearskin against a stump as a pillow for his head. The wench would have told him he had to eat before he slept, to keep his strength up, but he was more tired than hungry. He closed his eyes, and hoped to dream of Cersei. The fever dreams were all so vivid...  Naked and alone he stood, surrounded by enemies, with stone walls all around him pressing close. The Rock, he knew. He could feel the immense weight of it above his head. He was home. He was home and whole.  He held his right hand up and flexed his fingers to feel the strength in them. it felt as good as sex. As good as swordplay. Four fingers and a thumb. He had dreamed that he was maimed, but it wasn’t so. Relief made him dizzy. My hand, my good hand. Nothing could hurt him so long as he was whole.  Around him stood a dozen tall dark figures in cowled robes that hid their faces. In their hands were spears. “Who are you?” he demanded of them. “What business do you have in Casterly Rock?”  They gave no answer, only prodded him with the points of their spears. He had no choice but to descend. Down a twisting passageway he went, narrow steps carved from the living rock, down and down. I must go up, he told himself. Up, not down. Why am I going down? Below the earth his doom awaited, he knew with the certainty of dream; something dark and terrible lurked there, something that wanted him. Jaime tried to halt, but their spears prodded him on. If only I had my sword, nothing could harm me.  The steps ended abruptly on echoing darkness. Jaime had the sense of vast space before him. He jerked to a halt, teetering on the edge of nothingness. A spearpoint jabbed at the small of the back, shoving him into the abyss. He shouted, but the fall was short. He landed on his hands and knees, upon soft sand and shallow water. There were watery caverns deep below Casterly Rock, but this one was strange to him. “What place is this?”  “Your place.” The voice echoed; it was a hundred voices, a thousand, the voices of all the Lannisters since Lann the Clever, who’d lived at the dawn of days. But most of all it was his father’s voice, and beside Lord Tywin stood his sister, pale and beautiful, a torch burning in her hand. Joffrey was there as well, the son they’d made together, and behind them a dozen more dark shapes with golden hair.  “Sister, why has Father brought us here?”  “Us? This is your place, Brother. This is your darkness.” Her torch was the only light in the cavern. Her torch was the only light in the world. She turned to go.  “Stay with me,” Jaime pleaded. “Don’t leave me here alone.” But they were leaving. “Don’t leave me in the dark!” Something terrible lived down here. “Give me a sword, at least.”  “I gave you a sword,” Lord Tywin said.  It was at his feet. Jaime groped under the water until his hand closed upon the hilt. Nothing can hurt me so long as I have a sword. As he raised the sword a finger of pale flame flickered at the point and crept up along the edge, stopping a hand’s breath from the hilt. The fire took on the color of the steel itself so it burned with a silvery-blue light, and the gloom pulled back. Crouching, listening, Jaime moved in a circle, ready for anything that might come out of the darkness. The water flowed into his boots, ankle deep and bitterly cold. Beware the water, he told himself. There may be creatures living in it, hidden deeps...  From behind came a great splash. Jaime whirled toward the sound... but the faint light revealed only Brienne of Tarth, her hands bound in heavy chains. “I swore to keep you safe,” the wench said stubbornly. “I swore an oath.” Naked, she raised her hands to Jaime. “Ser. Please. If you would be so good.”  The steel links parted like silk. “A sword,” Brienne begged, and there it was, scabbard, belt, and all. She buckled it around her thick waist. The light was so dim that Jaime could scarcely see her, though they stood a scant few feet apart. In this light she could almost be a beauty, he thought. in this light she could almost be a knight. Brienne’s sword took flame as well, burning silvery blue. The darkness retreated a little more.  “The flames will burn so long as you live,” he heard Cersei call. “When they die, so must you.”  “Sister!” he shouted. “Stay with me. Stay!” There was no reply but the soft sound of retreating footsteps.  Brienne moved her longsword back and forth, watching the silvery flames shift and shimmer. Beneath her feet, a reflection of the burning blade shone on the surface of the flat black water. She was as tall and strong as he remembered, yet it seemed to Jaime that she had more of a woman’s shape now.  “Do they keep a bear down here?” Brienne was moving, slow and wary, sword to hand; step, turn, and listen. Each step made a little splash. “A cave lion? Direwolves? Some bear? Tell me, Jaime. What lives here? What lives in the darkness?”  “Doom.” No bear, he knew. No lion. “Only doom.”  In the cool silvery-blue light of the swords, the big wench looked pale and fierce. “I mislike this place.”  “I’m not fond of it myself.” Their blades made a little island of light, but all around them stretched a sea of darkness, unending. “My feet ar............
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