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Life and Honor

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When Jaime Lannister had gone to kill the last pyromancers, corpses had been strewn through King's Landing's streets. Lannister soldiers, loyalists, northmen, and bystanders alike had festered in spring's wet heat, feeding insects and crows. They'd not been disposed of properly, and in the days since, their stench had worked its way into every stone of the Red Keep.

The odor suffused the throne room with particular potency, coating Jaime's tongue like a mouthful of worm-ridden apple. Yet the crowd treated the afternoon’s proceedings like a jousting match, murmuring among themselves, stirring to get a better view.

Jaime's hand itched for a sword. Surely they’d shut up and be still if the Kingslayer stabbed a few silent.

Lord Stark at least seemed disapproving, standing to Robert’s left with grim features, his eyes hard as flint. The observation made Jaime hate him less. He hadn’t seen anyone give a damn about right or wrong since poor Chelsted. Thinking of the former Hand worsened the throbbing in his skull, and Jaime dug his nails into his palms.

From Stark's side, Jon Arryn listened to Lord Tywin's platitudes with sharp interest, but Robert himself fidgeted on his throne, eyes scanning the room in a desultory manner. He doesn’t care. He fought this war for a pretty face and a cunt, and this now is only inconvenience.

Rhaegar’s oath when he left for the Trident, his promise to return and make changes, made a laughable contrast. But Jaime had no right to regret that Rhaegar hadn’t kept his word. He’d failed the prince in far worse a way.

A shudder ran through him, the room’s stink threatening to make him sick.

Most aggravating of the lot, Lord Tywin stood before the dais, so arrogant Jaime would’ve thought it’d been he who’d won the throne. Sunlight danced off his hair and his thick golden cloak, but his eyes remained shadowed. As if standing in a dream, Jaime could not focus on his father’s features, nor his voice. I do not know him. The two years they’d been apart contributed to the feeling, but it'd been the day they were reunited that'd made a true stranger of him.

“My assistance in the Sack should be sufficient,” Lord Tywin said, the words coming to Jaime as if from a distance, “but I’ve deigned to offer further proof of my commitment.”

“Go on,” Robert said.

His father gestured to the far end of the room. Two Lannister guards stepped forward. They held wrapped bundles, cradled like living children.

Jaime had resolved to go away inside for this part, but that first glimpse arrested him. Rhaenys Targaryen’s bare feet hung over the nearest man’s arms, splatters of blood along her calves and shins. He couldn’t see Aegon until the men placed the bodies at the base of the throne. Then the crimson fabric fell aside to make visible a mess of flesh and bone and brain.

Jaime’s stomach heaved, and his limbs grew so heavy it was all he could do to remain standing. He tried to hide within thoughts of Cersei, but his attention caught on Stark instead. The northman stepped toward the bodies, as if compelled to go to them. He refrained from doing so and retreated to the king’s side, where he whispered fiercely to Robert. 

“Is there a problem, Lord Stark?" Tywin said. 

It was Robert who answered. “None at all.”

Stark flinched. “No problem? Look at them." 

Stark directed the words at Robert, but Jaime refocused on the children. Tiny bodies wrapped in red. Jaime wore a tunic of the same shade. While his fate remained uncertain, his father thought it pretentious of him to wear white, so he’d chosen crimson instead. He wanted to rip the fabric from his shoulders. Anything to distance himself from what his father had done. But it was war. I should’ve known they’d be in danger. It wasn’t for my father to be merciful. It was for me to protect them.

Robert laughed. “Look at them? I have. What’s there to shout about?”

“They’re children.

“I see only dragonspawn.”

Jaime heard echoes of the patter of Rhaenys’s feet, Aegon’s infant giggling. “Ser,” he said once when he saw Jaime, jabbing a chubby finger toward him, as if he’d identified Jaime by name. Ser.” Elia laughed and said that was right, Jaime was indeed 'Ser.' The infant was so pleased he’d squealed in self-congratulations.

Robert is no better than Aerys. The thought clawed its way forth and spread through Jaime’s body like ice. Could nothing go as it should? He’d saved a city. Half a million people. Did fate not owe him some small mercy? Pressure built behind his eyes.

Robert was not finished. “You’d have me punish the Lannisters for giving us an easy victory? Sentence the boy for killing the Mad King? Raise a fuss about these ‘children?’ Is that what you’d like, Ned?”

Arryn stepped forward. “This isn't the place.” 

“There is no place,” Stark said. “I cannot reason with a man who rewards betrayal and smiles at the murder of children. It is best I leave King’s Landing.”

“Lord Tywin broke no oaths you and I didn’t ourselves. It was war.”

A beat of silence.

Stark turned and looked pointedly at Jaime.

Jaime was so fixated on the events playing out in front of him, he didn’t immediately realize he‘d been drawn into them. He stared stupidly, as if he still watched something happening to someone else. 

“Right,” Robert said. “The Kingslayer.”

A beat late, Jaime grasped he’d become the focus of this farce. Everyone in the room stared at him. Ignore it, he ordered himself. They’d be dead but for me. Their judgment means nothing. 

He smiled to prove it to them, to himself. The urge to weep threatened to become overpowering, and he swallowed hard. He hadn’t cried in years. He couldn’t here, not now. Not with all these eyes on him. He’d sooner die.

Robert looked Jaime over for a long time, while Jaime’s breath roared in his ears. Finally, the king said, “Maybe you’ve a point with this one. It wouldn’t do to set a precedent, letting a Kingsguard get away with killing the king. Fine. I’ll indulge your honor.”

Lord Tywin spluttered. “Your grace!”

“He’ll take the black," Robert announced.

Jaime’s smile curdled and threatened to fall.

Lord Tywin launched into frantic speech, genuine fear lacing his voice. His words came to Jaime as meaningless noise. Robert spoke over him. “You’ve another heir. If you’re not satisfied with that one, make more. The Kingslayer will go to the Wall. I need loyal men around me, and this one’s certainly not that.”

Lord Tywin stood so still it seemed movement would break him. The fury writ across his face made even Robert’s smirk fade, but no one spoke. Visibly, Tywin fought with himself.

He said, “I’ve an entire army at my grasp. I could-”

“No." The word was past Jaime‘s lips before he considered what it meant. But everyone heard, and he had no choice but to see the thing through. Jaime took a timid step. You are a knight, he reminded himself. His next step was bigger. As if seized by a spell, the rest of the room froze.

Jaime stopped on the steps before the throne, trembling as he knelt next to the corpses of the children he’d failed to protect. Rhaenys’s dead sunken eyes gaped up at him. Aegon didn’t have eyes. He didn’t have a face, nor much of a head. Probably it’d been mush on Gregor Clegane’s hands, smearing on Elia’s skin when he took her.

He fought the urge to vomit.

Pretend it’s a mummer’s farce, he ordered himself with dark amusement. A mummer’s farce, and his was the part of a gallant knight.

“There’s no need for your army,” Jaime told his father. “I accept my punishment. I’ll take the black.”

Robert preened as if this had worked out because of some genius of his, while Stark’s eyes shone with such shock Jaime wished to rip them from their sockets. This is your fault. If he hadn’t judged. If he’d not pushed Robert. If, if, if. But it was over. Jaime saw that in the easing of his father’s deathly stillness, his cool fury replaced with subtler anger, no doubt directed at Jaime. 

As if they’d be in this predicament if he’d let the children be.

This close to the corpses of the prince and princess, the smell was too much to bear. The pain in Jaime’s head threatened to split his skull. Or not quite, he thought hysterically, the exaggeration too relevant with the pieces of Prince Aegon two feet away.

“Is this acceptable?” Jaime made himself say. His eyes found Stark’s, whose mouth had come open. He’d taken a step back and appeared as if he’d been smacked in the face with a wooden board. “Why, Lord Stark, what’s that look about?" 

Stark shook his head a fraction. “Why would a man like you-” 

Jaime's tenuous control frayed. His voice burst out as a snarl. “You know nothing of the man I am, you self-righteous cunt.”

“Silence, Kingslayer,” Robert said. “No need to fight. I accept your offer." 

“This is preposterous,” Tywin cried, and Jaime swallowed the urge to yell at him too.

Robert, still injured from the Trident, had to shove himself off the throne with effort. When he did, he dwarfed those around him, towering even over Tywin.

“I’ll hear no more from you,” he said. “The boy has agreed. It is what it is. Get him out of here, and remove those as well." He jabbed a dismissive hand at the bodies. “I‘m sick of the stink." 

 

Jaime was led to a tower cell. It was to be guarded and locked from the outside. The slight to his honor grated, but was so low on his list of worries he spared it only a passing thought. 

For hours, he lay atop the bed and debated whether to come clean about the wildfire. That might fix things. But he could not forget the look on Robert’s face when he took in those bodies. Like Aerys, watching men burn.

He also couldn’t forget how sad Stark appeared as guards came forth to lead Jaime away. The man had assumed Jaime solely self-serving, caught up in a bid for Lannister power. Now here Jaime was, throwing his life away to prevent a war his father might well win. That look on Stark’s face held the slightest hint of doubt. A trace of, maybe I was wrong. It tasted too sweet to throw away by saying, “I didn’t mean it,” and proving to Stark that Jaime wasn’t a proper knight after all.

He’d see this through if only because he hoped that trace of doubt in Stark’s eyes would grow into outright regret, which would linger long as Jaime wasted away at the Wall. He wanted this to be a mark on Stark’s precious honor, something he’d feel conflicted about for the rest of his life.  

Cersei would never accept that reasoning. Even Tyrion would not like it. Probably they'd be right to doubt. But the prospect of troubling Stark in that way was too sweet, and the notion of staying in King's Landing too sour, to make him reconsider. 

He’d not slept properly for weeks, not since Rhaegar left and took the last of Jaime’s brothers with him. This night too, his troubles kept him awake, thoughts of his future a new horror to chase him from rest. When he did sleep, he dreamed of wildfire and woke sweat-soaked and trembling.

Lord Tywin visited the next morning. Upon his arrival, he stood before Jaime, frowning in silence for several long minutes.

“You’re a fool,” Tywin said finally.

He felt less like a stranger here, just the two of them speaking, but Jaime could not chase from his head how cold his father seemed to him the day before. He likewise could not banish the sight of the children, who were dead by his father’s orders. Deference, patience were gone, only weariness left. He could not even summon irritation.

“Did you come to insult me?” Jaime said.

“I’ve come to make clear the consequences of your actions.” Tywin then launched into a tirade he’d clearly spent the previous night preparing. Family name, family honor, House Lannister... On, and on, and on. I am leaving forever, and this is what you give me?

Will you miss me, father? Are you proud of me for surviving Aerys? Do you love me, your son, or only regret you’ll lose an heir?

He recalled his father once telling him one could not buy a horse with love, nor eat it, nor warm his halls. The memory made him wish to punch Lord Tywin, or strangle him until he begged. But he lacked the energy, so let his father’s words wash meaninglessly over him.

Eventually Lord Tywin crouched before Jaime and put a dry hand on his cheek. “This is no excuse for mediocrity. Even wasted at the Wall, you are a Lannister. Your future behavior reflects on the rest of us as much as your past actions. Do you understand?”

Jaime nodded mutely, though he was not sure he had the strength nor inclination to succeed in the Night’s Watch. I want only a quiet place alone with Cersei, away from the rest of the world.

Lord Tywin shook him.  "I'd think Aerys took your tongue like Payne's. Speak, Jaime.”

“I’m tired.”

"Tired?" His father gripped his face so hard Jaime thought he might leave marks. “What are our house words?”

“Hear me roar,” Jaime said, his voice hoarse.

“Do not forget.” With that, he strode off, leaving Jaime to stew in his misery alone. 

Chapter Text

Jaime's breath puffed past his lips, and his gloved hand cramped around the hilt of his sword. But the pesky northern chill didn’t slow him enough to give his opponents a chance. Jaremy Rykker backed away as Jaime rained blows upon him, fatigue making a mess of the other knight's typically solid guards.

Just as Jaime prepared to land a finishing strike, a pair of footsteps sounded behind him. Looks as though Massey One and Massey Two have found their feet.

He shoved his shield into Rykker to send him sprawling, then let momentum carry him through a pivot before he hoisted his sword to halt an overhead blow from Eldon Massey. A parry, and Jaime snuck his sword past Massey’s guard and into his sternum hard enough to fell him. Wallace Massey followed in his brother's wake, but an earlier blow to the calf slowed him. Jaime landed a riposte to his gut before the boy could attempt an attack.

In the corner of Jaime's eye, a recovered Ser Jaremy charged. His sword glanced Jaime's right arm but left an opening for Jaime to elbow him in the face. While Rykker tried to catch his balance, Jaime struck his wrist hard enough to send his sword clattering. A knee to the stomach sent him to the dirt.

Jaime faced the brothers.

“We yield,” Eldon Massey shouted. He was of age with Jaime, his brother three years younger, both squires.

Jaime spun to Ser Jaremy. “Yield?”

“Yield,” Ser Jaremy said, then added in a mutter, “Kingslayer.”

Ser Avry Sand grabbed Jaime by the arm before he could make him rue it. The old master-at-arms spun to face the crowd of recruits. “Anyone else want a go at the lad?”

He’d tested Jaime from the start, having confessed he had little to teach most of them and of the view throwing men at each other like pit fighters was a reasonable alternative. Recruits with combat experience normally would’ve been sworn in immediately, but most would be inducted as rangers, and Sand claimed the Lord Commander didn’t want some forty knights, squires, and soldiers—all of them southron, all new to the Wall—swamping the order at once.

“Most you lot will think you should be in charge,” Sand had said, “but not one of you knows a damn thing of the lands beyond the Wall. Nice and gradual, they want this, so you don’t all die, or your brothers don’t kill you themselves.”

Jaime thus spent the better part of his days doing work better fit for servants or commoners, and his mornings entertaining an insolent old bastard who probably hadn’t seen proper swordsmanship since taking the black.

No one had answered Sand’s question. “Are you all so craven? None of you wants a go at him?”

The other recruits looked at each other and glanced at Jaime, whispering among themselves. Jaime willed Sand to stop pushing and let him leave. Even his last days with Aerys, he’d not been so tired.

The Wall had been Lord Tywin’s choice punishment for Targaryen loyalists captured during the Sack. Robert insisted all prisoners travel north together for the sake of convenience, but the two dozen guards Tywin sent with Jaime made the journey tolerable. It was when they’d reached the Wall that problems arose.

The Lannister men had been meant to take the black as well, but Jaime sent them away. He didn’t need protecting, he’d thought, and they’d make him look weak. Within hours of their departure, he recognized his mistake. A Crabb pretended to run into Jaime at supper and dumped gruel all over him. Jaime punched him, only for five other recruits to join the brawl—all on the other man’s side.

Two days later, three had come for him while he slept. They’d not expected him to wake so quickly nor fiercely, and after he’d broken the jaw of the first, the other two ran. And the evening before, a drunk man cornered him, yelling about Tywin and Aerys and Jaime having a debt to pay. Jaime had been heading from the training yard to the armory, a blunted sword in hand from working out his misery on a pell. The man carried a knife, but Jaime knocked out all his teeth before he could use it, then broke his ribs and an arm, and his nose as well.

None of them had hurt him badly, but he was bruised and exhausted, sleep coming in brief, uneasy stretches. Hunger gnawed at him, for he’d had no appetite. Even standing still, the world shifted around him, and the sunlight hurt his eyes. Don’t push this, crow. Let me rest.

“Come on,” Sand said, clapping his hands together. “Will two of you take him at once? Three? I’ll let none of you leave until the Kingslayer is forced to yield. Uncontested victory does nothing for anyone. Any man who thinks himself unbeatable is a hindrance.”

Ser Jaremy had gotten to his feet. “Thorne, shall we try him together?”

Tightening his grip on his sword, Jaime found Ser Alliser in the crowd and sent a smirk his way, trying to scare the man into declining.

Thorne caught Jaime’s eye and gave a dry, cold smile. “Fine,” he said, stepping forward. “He looks tired. Maybe we can make him squeal.”

Jaime closed his eyes, willing his tired mind to focus when he opened them. Yet everything retained a look of unreality, and the sound of the wind, of Ser Alliser’s footsteps, came to him as if muffled by cotton.

“Go on, Thorne,” Jaime said.”Rykker. Let’s start this before I grow bored.”

They exchanged a glance, then charged.

Jaime disarmed Rykker again quickly, and outfought Thorne in another minute. But his breath came hard, and his motions were not so smooth as they should’ve been.

“Again,” Sand said.

This time they both men landed more hits on him than he did on either of them, and Jaime bested them only because those he did land were better placed. His ears rang by time he knocked Thorne’s sword from his hand.

“Keep at him,” growled Sand, though he had no need. Thorne’s face was red with fury, and Rykker’s eyes had begun to shine as if he’d scented weakening prey.

This time, Jaime could not fend them off; they slammed their blunted swords into him, hit him with fists and elbows. Jaime forced his sword to remain in his grasp, forced his body to continue moving, dancing just around any strike that would force him to concede defeat.

Battle fever came over him as if he fought to the death, distracting him from his trembling limbs and the nausea turning his gut. Every strike he took only stoked the flames, and soon the men in front of him no longer looked like themselves, but like Robert and Ned Stark.

 “I yield,” said Rykker eventually. Jaime barely heard, but he acknowledged that one fighter was out of the contest and focused his energy on Thorne, hacking and striking, breath coming out as snarls.

“Get down,” Jaime snapped.

Speaking was a mistake. It distracted him. Thorne brought his left arm around and slammed his shield into Jaime’s face. He swayed and fell, head landing hard against the ground. Groaning, he attempted to sit up, but the world spun. Sand came and stood over him and said, “You proud fucker. Is your head bleeding?”

Jaime lifted a hand to check. The back wasn’t.

“Nose is,” Jaime slurred. Some other wound too. Blood ran down his face, into his eyes. Not from the spar, he decided. He’d broken open a cut he’d gotten in his fight on the first day. That was just starting to heal.  

“Someone get Maester Aemon,” said Sand.

Jaime tried to sit again, and this time the spinning was worse. “I’m fine. I’m-” There were two of Sand. He rubbed his eyes. That’s not right.

“Lie down.”

“I haven’t yielded,” Jaime said, or he tried to say. His body preferred to follow Sand’s advice, and he found himself on the ground again, his breath rattling in his ears. He drifted in and out of consciousness, catching glimpses of Castle Black’s dark halls, hearing voices. Reality blurred with memory, and Aerys cried out as he died, and Robert said, “He’ll take the black,” and Rickard Stark screamed.

When he woke fully, his whole body ached, and pain flared through his skull and across his face. He jerked into a sitting position, eyes flashing side to side. The movement made the world go unsteady, and he put out a clumsy hand to brace himself.

“Don't move so quickly. You’re injured.”

Jaime jerked bodily away when he recognized the speaker, hissing when his head hit the wall behind his cot. The maester. No one ever called him his full name, but Jaime could guess. Bloodraven had been sent to the Walls ages ago, and a young Targaryen maester accompanied him. Even had those facts bled from his mind, he’d have recognized the purple eyes and Valyrian features, the shape of them not fully distorted by age.

“Calm yourself, boy,” said the man. He had a quiet voice, but a clear one.

“I’m not a boy,” Jaime managed. He noted a beady-eyed man hovering uneasily and tried to steady his breathing. At least there was a witness. Probably loyal to the old man, though.

“The majority of men are boys to me, and you're younger than most.” Aemon lowered himself to a chair near Jaime’s bed and released a weary sigh. “What did you expect to gain from letting yourself be beaten in that way?”

Jaime said nothing.

“You know who I am,” the maester said, a note of realization in the words.  

“Aemon Targaryen,” Jaime said. “Son of Maekar. Brother of Aegon the Unlikely, Daeron the Drunken, and Aerion Brightflame. Great-uncle to Aerys Targaryen, second of his name, king of the Andals and First Men. The last Targaryen king.” He swung his legs over the bed, using his hands to keep upright when the room moved with him. When he’d caught his breath, he said, “I’m leaving.”

“I’ve already set your nose, but you’ve a troubling gash over your eye,” Aemon said softly. “It’ll scar if I do not stitch it.”

“What do I care? That’s a dashing place for a scar.” Cersei would not like it, but anything was better than lingering. He staggered to his feet. “I’m no fool to let a Targaryen near my eye with a needle.”

“I gave up my house when I receive my chain. You need not fear.”

I’m not afraid. To prove it, Jaime set his mouth and sat. “Fine. Do as you please.”

“I ought to see if you’ve damaged your brain, and I was warned there may be bruised or broken ribs-”

“My brain is fine, and I’ve no pain in my ribs,” Jaime said coldly. He did. But the thought of those pale slender fingers poking at his head or crawling across his abdomen made him wish to vomit.

The maester looked at him for a long time, then nodded and turned to the other man. “Clydas. The needle, if you would?”

Jaime’s hands shook through the process, the man’s proximity causing him more discomfort than the tugging of the needle. When Aemon pulled the last stitch, he accepted a rag from Clydas to wash his hands, then sat back and said, “If any of your other injuries ail you, you need only say so. But you may leave if you believe you will be easier elsewhere. I advise you to rest the next day or two. No training, nor chores.”

Nodding dismissively, Jaime heaved himself up, bracing a hand on the wall so he didn’t sway overmuch. He made it three steps before the old man spoke again.

“Before you go,” he said, his voice lost like a child’s, “could you… could you at least tell me why? Why would you kill my brother’s poor grandson?”

Surely I’m hallucinating from the hit to the head. Jaime went through the family tree in his mind to ensure the man wasn’t somehow talking about Aegon. But no, it was Aerys of whom he asked the question. Poor Aerys.

Not even honorable Eddard Stark made the Mad King out to be a victim. Jaime wanted to say a hundred things, but he laughed instead. He laughed and laughed, so hard he thought his head would burst, as the maester grew pale with fury.

“Why would I kill him?” Jaime said, his fear gone. He laughed again. “Because I wanted to. I wanted to from the moment he gave me my cloak, and the longer I served him, the more I fantasized about it. He’d grown so feeble, I knew it wouldn’t be difficult, but it was even easier than I imagined. He shat himself! Not after he died, men can’t help that, but when he saw blood on my sword, and I told him it belonged to his Hand. He ran, and shat himself, and died like a butchered sow.”

The maester slumped in his chair, ancient body trembling.

“I’d do it again,” Jaime added. “A hundred, a thousand times, I’d do it again. Even knowing I’d get shipped off up here. It would be worth it. Just so I could see how his blood glistened on my sword.”

“And… and the children?”

That threatened to undo him, but he kept his smile plastered on his face. “I was too busy murdering poor Aerys to think a thing of them.”

“Stop.” This didn’t come from the maester, but his round little servant man. “You monstrous boy. Leave us.”

“Monstrous,” Jaime repeated, the word another bludgeon to the skull. He crossed the room steadily as he could. The man froze like trapped prey, and it was nothing for Jaime to put a hand on his fat throat. He squeezed to make a point. “If I was monster, I’d break your neck for that. Speak again, and maybe I will, you obsequious little shit.” He shoved the steward away and faced the maester again. “Are you crying? By the gods. I’ll leave you to mourn poor Aerys. It’s best I go before I’m made sick.”

“Have you no compassion?” the Targaryen called after him.

“Of course not,” Jaime said, laughing again. “Would I have taken such pleasure in the slaughter of a harmless innocent if I did?”

He staggered from the room, and with what energy he had left, slammed the door behind him.

 

It was a poor time to be a steward.

Granted, there weren’t good times to be a steward. The rangers or builders stumbled into something exciting every so often, but stewards knew no excitement. The closest Edd had come was the time he filled in as cook right after he got to the Wall. He’d not known stew could splatter so high.

Even that only proved exciting for a second. Perhaps two. Then it all came down and they’d made Edd wipe the floor and scrub the burned bits from the cauldron.

That’d been twenty years ago, and he’d not repeated the near-excitement since, for they’d ceased letting him in the kitchen. Make one mistake and never again. That's how it was at the Wall. Now he did all sorts of things. Bowen Marsh learned Edd's name and face some years ago, and if he saw something unappealing that needed doing, it seemed he thought to himself, now there’s a job for Edd and sought him out and put him to it.

At present, the Old Pomegranate had him informing new recruits of their chores, then ensuring they completed them to the impeccably high standards of the Night's Watch. It wouldn’t have been so bad except a war had just wrapped up, and a herd of those who’d fought on the wrong side had moseyed up north, along with small folk who’d lost their livelihood and needed somewhere to go.

That was a lot of men for Edd to keep track of. Most of them decent, yes. Others not so much.

Ser Alliser Thorne scowled at the barrels of crushed stone in front of him. "What’s the point of this?”

“You scatter the stones on the Wall. Keeps it from getting too slick. Elsewise we'd slide straight off." 

“This is stewards’ work.”  

“It’s recruits’ work, or the builders do it if we don’t have enough recruits. If it’s to do with the upkeep of the Wall, that’s the builders.”

Ser Alliser frowned at the winch-drawn cage into which he was to load the barrels. “The contraption, is it secure?”

“Hasn’t broke yet, and I don’t have the good fortune for a mishap to come up when you're in it.”

“You’d threaten me? I’ll have you know, I’m-” On and on he went about connections he once had that didn’t matter anymore. Edd felt bad for him and let him rattle off his speech.

“You still have to scatter the stone,” Edd said when it was done.

They locked eyes. Edd didn’t back down. The lordlings and knights tended not to lash out with violence, not at random brothers. They just talked a lot. It was the criminals you played nice with.  

Alliser muttered under his breath and turned to his task. Edd lingered to make sure he meant to complete it, then ambled to the nearest tower and huddled against the wall, out of the wind. He rubbed his hands together, waking cold-creaky fingers, and pulled out the parchment Bowen Marsh had given him.

It was a list of recruits paired with their duties for the day. Marsh liked lists. He was an odd man, the First Steward. He’d had a new list for Edd every day this week to make sure the flood of new recruits had a chance at all the chores. Never mind nine of ten of them would be rangers, and every high officer knew it.  

“Thorne,” Edd said aloud.

He found the name, then went to the name below it and walked off to see if Wendell Ulster was sharpening swords as scheduled.

Edd finished the last of the men, then reported to Marsh in his study off the Flint Barracks. The Old Pomegranate sat amid books and papers and empty ink wells, buried at his desk like a burrowing creature. He finished writing something in one of his books, then looked up and saw Edd and gave the queer frown folks wore when they looked up and saw Edd.

“All done.” Edd returned the list. Marsh kept them for reference. No doubt that contributed to the clutter. Edd would’ve thrown the lists away himself. Then again, he’d not have written the lists in the first place.

“No incidents?” said Bowen Marsh.

“Not a one.” Edd crept toward the door. Marsh liked details. He could ask a man questions left and right and take up half the night doing it, and Edd was hungry.

Marsh said, “No problems with the Kingslayer?”

Edd paused in his retreat. “Ser Someone or Another hit him in the noggin at training, and Maester Aemon told me to let him off duties for the day. I haven’t seen him.”

Marsh pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I believe he’s upset Maester Aemon," Edd went on, "though I don’t know if that’d qualify as a problem.”

“He’s trouble, that one.”  

“I disagree, m’lord. Maester Aemon is well behaved as old men go. Some of them lose their wits and get wild. My great uncle-”

Lannister is trouble. Fighting all the time."

“I couldn’t say a thing about that.” Edd tapped his hand against the door. “I expect you’ve lists to make, things to count. I’ll let myself out.”

He did so before Marsh could talk more of it. Edd had gotten behind on his work when he stopped to take a nap midmorning, so he’d skipped lunch. A bit of stew would do me well. Elric didn’t send stew splattering as Edd had, but he was such a poor cook it might be better if he did. The lad tries, Edd reminded himself.

When he got his meal, he said to Elric, “I bet this tastes better than it looks.”

It was the best he could do, though it made Elric give a grimace that told Edd he oughtn’t to have said a thing.

Edd took his stew, a piece of dark bread, and a mug of mulled cider, then searched the room. He'd always known where to sit before, for most the brothers sat in the same place each night. But the new recruits had scrambled it. It took a bit of looking before he found Dywen, Ulmer and Gared at the end of a table. Edd went to Ulmer and scooted him aside and sat to his right.

“I hate all these damn knights," Gared was saying. He scowled at the room at large. “Think they know everything.”

“They’ll get used to the Wall soon enough,” Ulmer said. “I’ve been watching training sessions. A few are fine swordsmen.”

Edd took a spoonful of his stew. It was too hot to taste. That was probably for the best.

“Qorgyle will give them command positions,” Gared went on. “Give it a few turns of the moon. We’ll have to take orders from these.”

Ulmer seemed not to hear him. “I saw the Kingslayer fight once. When I was with the Kingswood Brotherhood.”

“Seven help us all,” Dywen said.

Gared grunted agreement. “We don’t want to hear nothing about the Kingswood bloody Brother -”

“He was a child, but he near took the head off Big Belly Ben. Then Ser Arthur Dayne killed the Smiling Knight, and by then it was overI made a show of coming forward, and I said, ‘I’ll go to the Wall, good sers,’ and they bound me up to take me away. It wasn't the worst thing. The Smiling Knight had begun to—well, the Brotherhood had lost its way, and it seemed a fool thing to cling to a cause that’d lost its way.”

Ulmer took a swig of mead. “So you see, those knights were merciful. They aren't all bad.”

Gared took his own drink of mead. “None of this lot are a thing like Arthur Dayne.”

You know what Ser Arthur Dayne is like, Gared?” Dywen laughed with a clack of wooden teeth.

“I do,” Ulmer said. “Had a nice long chat with him after he bound me up, and I don’t know it’s fair to hold any of these folks to a standard like that. There’s not going to be another man like him."

“Why’d he have wasted his time talking to you?” said Gared. “That’s a lie if I’ve heard one.”  

“I haven’t told a lie my whole long life, I’ll have you know. Not a one."

They went at it for a while. Edd wasn’t much for arguing, so he held silent and finished his meal. No one was singing nor playing music this night, and he was tired from running about all day with Marsh’s list. It might be best I go to sleep. He’d have to get up early on the morrow and do the same thing he’d done all of today and the day before and so on.

Edd slipped from the table unnoticed. Once he gave his dirty dishes to the stewards assigned to wash them, he headed for the exit.

A hand on his wrist made him stop. Folks didn’t mess with Edd. He stayed out of everyone’s way, and probably they thought it was bad sport. He didn’t fear someone meant to get violent, but his heart gave a wrench even so.

“Whoever you are,” said Edd, “if you want something, wait until tomorrow or ask someone who isn’t me.”

“I’d owe you a favor.”

Edd turned slowly around. Clydas stood behind him, a round-headed man of about forty, a full head shorter than Edd. He wrung his hands in front of him. They were strange hands with small, thin fingers like insect legs.

Edd regarded him glumly, knowing already how this would go. “I’m not one for debts. I’d forget you owed me. It’s not worth it.”

“It’s only a small thing.”

Clydas always looked troubled or fearful. Edd knew not how he’d found himself at the Wall, but it wasn’t the place for such a man. The problem was, if a brother was too lazy to do something, or would find this or that task unpleasant, Edd would not be swayed to help. But Clydas sounded afraid, and that was a different matter.

“What is it, brother?” said Edd. 

Clydas gave his insect hands another wring. “The Kingslayer is on bedrest, and Maester Aemon wishes me to bring him a meal.”

"Why bring me into it?”

Clydas coughed. “This morning, I tried to defend Maester Aemon against the boy’s egregious behavior, and, well.” He turned pink. “He threatened to break my neck. I think he meant it. I’d rather not test the thing.”

“He didn't mean it," Edd said. "People don't mean such things unless they're talking to me." 

“You do well with the recruits. It won’t take long at all.”

Edd studied Clydas. He sensed if he did not agree, the man might ask one or two other people, then leave the task undone. Clydas didn’t care if the Kingslayer got his meal. Even Maester Aemon might not ask questions, decent-hearted though he was, based on his look when Edd consulted him that morning as to why the Kingslayer wasn’t at his watch.

Maybe the boy would come down for his own meal if he grew hungry enough, but if he was injured in the head, that would be dangerous. The former Targaryen men would jump on visible weakness. Then there were others at the Wall, brothers who’d been around longer, who whispered about golden curls and a pretty face and might give the boy a different kind of trouble. 

It’s not my business, Edd told himself. But he said, “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt.”

 

Darkness had nearly fallen, with only a sliver of sunlight left along the edge of the sky. And it was cold. It was always cold. They said summer had come the week before, but it wasn’t ever summer at the Wall.

Edd adjusted his grip on the bowl of stew and plate of food meant for Ser Jaime and quickened his pace.

He approached one of the older buildings. The Grey Keep. That’s where Clydas said the boy lurked. Few recruits chose that one, since it was useless as buildings went. Old and drafty, with mice. No one stayed there long. He suspected Ser Jaime was the only one in it. Probably that’s why the boy chose it. He'd kept his distance from everyone. Gared thought him arrogant. "Too good to eat with the rest of us, him and his golden shit," he'd said more than once. Edd thought he'd be arrogant too if folks looked at him like they did the boy. 

Edd shouldered open the door. “It’s Edd Tollett. The one who handles Bowen Marsh’s lists. Don’t go attacking me. I’ve got food for you.”

No answer. Something scuttled past Edd and disappeared into the keep.

“Just like home,” Edd murmured as he moseyed forward. Halfway down the first corridor, Edd gave another shout. “What room are you in? I don’t want to look all-“

A door immediately to his right opened, and firelight glinted off the golden sword suddenly leveled at Edd’s face. He couldn’t be surprised. He’d expected it really.

His eyes went crossed as he looked down the blade. “That’s no way to thank me for bringing you a meal, but that’s alright. Knew I wouldn't get thanks. Never get thanks." 

Edd watched the point of the sword as it lowered. When the blade was in a more reassuring place, he faced the boy lurking in the doorway. The size of the lad this close unsettled him. At the Wall, boys of seventeen oft looked more like children than men; most were scraggly creatures, all bony limbs. But this one had grown up with enough to eat and had probably been riding and swinging a sword since he could walk. He was far taller than Edd, with proper meat on his bones and enough breadth in his shoulders to grant force to his looming. 

The boy put a hand to his head and cautiously rolled out his neck. His eyes were like a cat’s, sharp and snide and aglow in the dimming light. They were dark with mottled bruising from a hit to the nose, and a line of stitches marred the skin near his left temple. The wounds lessened his majesty but made him look all the more frightening.

“Ah,” said the boy, “the gloomy steward.”

“The gloomy steward,” Edd agreed. He held up the food. “Probably it’s cold, but heat doesn’t improve it.”

The boy sheathed the sword and reached for the tray. He regarded the plate and bowl with narrowed eyes.

“No one around here’s subtle enough to poison it,” Edd said. “Not intentionally. Elric might by accident. That won’t cause much issue except making your bowels run too free. He snuck prunes into a chicken dish a few weeks past, and that caused all sorts of problems. Prunes aren’t poison, but it’s a close thing.” Edd nodded to the food. “No prunes there.”

“Er,” said the Kingslayer.

“I came as a favor to Clydas. You gave the man a scare. Shouldn’t have done that. He’s a jumpy one.”

“He implied-“ He stopped himself.

It wasn’t Edd’s place to give advice. You fended for yourself at the Wall, figured out your own way. The brothers disapproved if anyone made things easier on a recruit, especially a lordling. But Edd pitied the Kingslayer. Lord Tywin had sentenced many of the Targaryen loyalists personally, and the boy had killed their king on top of it. The entire class of recruits hated him. He really didn't have a chance. 

Carefully, Edd said, “Whatever Clydas said, he didn’t mean to be cruel. That’s not his way. You’d best ignore it.”

“My father says the more a rumor is repeated, the greater power it has. When people say certain things, if I do not stop them-“

“It’s not like that here. Anything about your past, that might be fun gossip for a day or two, but we put more stock into how a fellow behaves once he gets to the Wall. Going after Clydas, that’ll make problems. He helps Maester Aemon, and Maester Aemon helps everyone.”

The boy’s jaw ticked. He didn’t say a word.

“That’s my piece. Don’t want to make things gloomy, but men who can’t make allies in the Watch tend not to last long, and you with all those loyalists after you might be worse off. Wouldn’t be the grandest ending, the Kingslayer dead after a week at the Wall.”

He let that sit. When he still didn’t get a response, he decided he’d done more than was warranted and turned to leave.

The boy’s voice made him pause.

“Not Kingslayer,” he said. “My name is Jaime.”

Edd looked over his shoulder. In the soft light coming from his room, the boy looked young. Seventeen. Gods. Seventeen, and he killed a king. He might’ve looked like a king himself, crowned with golden curls, except he didn’t appear fully certain of his last comment, as if he thought Edd would ignore it outright. 

“Jaime,” Edd repeated. “Aye, I’ll remember that. I’d not get prickly about being called Kingslayer though. It’s got a ring to it, so I don’t think folks will let it go. There are worse things you could be called. Heroes in history go around calling themselves monsterslayer, or dragonslayer, and so on. It’s not so different. Things I’ve heard, it might be you’re all three, eh?”

The boy stared as if he couldn’t get his head around the comment. Then he smiled. A creaky smile, like it was hard for him. Boyish for all that. 

“Maybe." He paused. "Why-" He stopped. Then pushed through the question. "Why are you being decent?" 

"I haven't a reason not to be. S'all it is." He nodded to the food. "Best get to that before it freezes solid. G'night, Ser Jaime." 

The boy nodded, a touch of bewilderment to it. "Right. Good night." 

He finally went to the old Flint Barracks, where he shared a space with a dozen or so brothers. It got crowded, but the walls were sturdy, the fire warm, and those he roomed with weren’t bad as brothers went. It was a good place to return to compared to that awful old keep with the rats.

“You look troubled, brother.”

This was Dywen. He’d looked asleep but stirred when Edd came in. There wasn’t anyone else present.

Edd sat on his cot.

He thought of the boy with the ugly bruised eyes, that big cut on his forehead.

“Do you reckon,” said Edd, “the Kingslayer will last long here?”

Dywen clacked his wooden teeth. “Here? Oh no. I give him three rangings before someone makes sure he doesn’t survive. One of the recruits, or one of the others sick of all the fuss he’s caused.”

“Yes,” said Edd. “Yes, I thought as much.”

 

He reported to Bowen Marsh the next morning. The round fellow spent a long while detailing the day's new list, mentioning to Edd those tasks which required more attention. 

“Not one of those knights have mucked the stables properly,” Marsh said. “You have to stay and watch, perhaps show them how to do it. They might not know. It’s your responsibility, understand. If it doesn’t get done well enough, I’ll send you to do a better job tomorrow, yourself.”

“Yes, m’lord.”

“Go on then.”

"A moment, m'lord. I’ve a suggestion." 

Marsh stared at him with incomprehension, as if he could not fathom the notion Edd thought up an idea on his own. It wasn’t personally insulting. Marsh thought all sense in the world lived in his mind and all proper ideas must be born there. 

Edd scratched the back of his head. “Maybe not a suggestion. Really it was you who gave me the thought.”

Marsh nodded as if that made far more sense. “Of course, Tollett. What is it?”

“Well,” said Edd, “you was talking about all the trouble the Kingslayer has been. It seems to me, if he keeps making problems, someone might put an end to him to have done with it.”

“Yes?”

“I’m not one for counting, not like you, m’lord, but I hear there’s a lot of gold in Casterly Rock, and all us know there’s not much of anything at the Wall. It might be, if the Kingslayer doesn’t die, he'd develop interest in the Wall and write his father to send some gold up here." 

"This is obvious. What of it?" 

“It's plain he'll be a ranger, and most these new folks already know how to use a sword. What harm is there in passing him through the being-a-recruit bit and letting him take his oaths right away? Then you could ship him to Eastwatch or Shadow Tower, where he’d not cause such grief. Nor be at such risk of dying before the Watch can get his gold." 

Marsh frowned. “It would go against the agreed upon process to let him say his oaths so quickly. Yet, you are correct. As it happens, I’d been thinking the same thing since the boy started causing trouble. I’ve hinted at it, haven’t I?”

“All but said it aloud, m’lord. That’s how I came to the thought.”

“I’ll put it to the Lord Commander, but yes, yes, a practical solution to the thing. Very good.”

He said this last in a dismissive way, which might’ve bothered Edd if being dismissed from Bowen Marsh didn’t give him such relief.

As Edd left the room, he thought, that is my good thing for the year. He might have smiled had he not feared his reputation would suffer should someone see. But he allowed his expression to become less gloomy, if only for a fraction of a moment.

When Edd returned to the Flint barracks that night, the finest cloak he ever saw sat on his bed, along with a big skin of Dornish wine. On top was a note.

Gared and Dywen and Deaf Dick Follard were present, staring at the gifts.

“I’d have taken the wine,” Gared said, “but knowing your luck, it’s probably poison. I thought I shouldn’t chance it.”

“What’s the letters say?” Dywen said.

Edd picked up the note, half expecting a threat.

Instead, in a cramped, fairly awful hand was written:

A Lannister always pays his debts.

Edd blinked. “It’s a gift.”

“From who?”

“The Lord Commander,” he lied. “For a task I completed for him. A small thing. You see? The sun on the wine means it’s Dornish, and the Lord Commander is from Dorne. It’s too much for me to drink alone. You’d like some?”

That ended the questions quick enough, which was good. Things wouldn’t go well for Edd if it got out he’d helped the Kingslayer.

Even so.

The boy had thought to thank him. That said a lot. It justified Edd hadn’t entirely been a softhearted fool.

Now Ser Jaime would have a fair shake of it, wouldn’t have to constantly fight and fear his own brothers. Whatever happened next, it'd be in the boy's hands. 

 

For the second time in his life, Ser Jaime Lannister knelt in a sept to swear oaths by the Seven. Last time, he’d kept vigil the entire night, kneeling in a golden tunic at the Warrior’s feet, excited and earnest. Come morning, Arthur Dayne found him, magnificent in shining white, and smiled as he tapped Dawn to his shoulder.  

This time Jaime wore black, and a gruff old Mormont was the only one present, save a miserable septon who puttered about like a moving corpse. The latter walked through the dark sept, lighting candles before each of the Seven, his aging body slow as a plow horse with its legs cut off.

That morning, Jeor Mormont had found Jaime to inform him of the change in plans regarding his vows. Under orders to rest, he’d lain on the rickety cot in his cell, reading a letter from Cersei, which had been waiting at the Wall when he arrived. Amid scolding for his choice to join the Watch and expressions of grief at his fate, she'd informed him their father had secured a promise from Jon Arryn she would wed Robert.  

She’d expressed her anger at being joined to the man who sentenced Jaime to the Wall, but her thirst to become queen rang from every word. Since being sentenced, he’d debated fleeing to retrieve her so they could run away together. Her letter killed such thoughts. She seemed pleased about becoming queen, distaste for the king aside. And what could he give her? Life in exile? She would hate that.

He’d been so lost in his reading, the knock on his door made him fly to his feet. He reached for his sword, though after nearly stabbing Edd Tollett the night before, refrained from lifting it. He’d glared when he recognized the First Ranger, one of those honor-bound northern types who’d banished himself to the Watch for no reason but utter lack of sense.  

“I haven’t got chores today,” Jaime informed him, figuring he wished some message delivered or task complete.

“You’re swearing your vows this evening,” he’d said. “You’re to report to the sept at sundown.”

Jaime frowned, baffled. “The master-at-arms told us-”

“Lord Qorgyle plans to induct men gradually, yes,” Jeor Mormont said. “You happen to be the first.”

“After six days.” Jaime squinted. “What’s this? Truly? Do you mean to send me beyond the Wall right off and hope I get killed?”

“We hope to send you to a different castle,” Mormont corrected, “and away from the Targaryen men, so you do not get killed. Bowen Marsh claims he came up with the idea, but he mentioned input from Eddison Tollett. I imagine Tollett is where the whole of the credit should go.”

Jaime couldn’t hide his surprise at that. “Why would he care?”

“He’s a good man. I suppose he wished you to have a fair chance.” Mormont paused. “You’re going to the Shadow Tower on the morrow. You should enjoy it. The Gorge is a common route raiders take south of the Wall, so that castle’s rangers get to fight decently often. You will be a ranger, of course. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you.”

Even an occasional fight couldn’t redeem the Wall, but his breathing grew easier, a weight taken from his shoulders.

He’d be able to sleep without worrying about having his throat slit. That was something.

Once Mormont had gone, Jaime spent his day brooding and rereading Cersei’s letter, imagining the smooth curve of her wrist as she guided the quill across the page, how her eyes would’ve flashed as she wrote of her anger, and sparkled when she put to paper her dreams of being queen.

When evening drew near, he put on the finest of the endless wardrobe of black his father had sent with him, the lack of color leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. His hands itched to remove the items one by one and throw them in the fire.

I am doing this, Jaime realized as he clasped his cloak with a lion broach. I’m binding myself to the bloody Night’s Watch.

What would Ser Arthur think?

With Jaime’s things, his father had packed a skin of some expensive wine he’d meant for Jaime to give the Lord Commander. As Jaime would sooner bribe his way out of authority than into it, he’d not bothered. He had grabbed the wine before leaving his cell, as well as his spare outdoor cloak, made of thick wool soft as summer clouds. After scribbling a note, he’d taken his armful to the Flint barracks, where most the brothers slept. A lad showed him to Edd Tollett’s cot, and Jaime placed the things near his pillow, hoping none of the brigands that infested the Watch would be stupid enough to steal something obvious as a cloak.

I’ll ensure he’s wearing it before I leave tomorrow, thought Jaime presently, his eyes tracking the septon as the man moseyed from the Crone to the Stranger. If he isn’t, a threat or two ought to solve the problem in short order.

As the septon lit the candle before the Stranger, the crystal at the sept’s altar caught the evening’s tired light, sending a gentle glow across the dark form of the statue. When the septon stepped away, he turned sunken eyes to Jaime. “The gods are listening. Speak when you will, ser.”

He recalled Harrenhal, kneeling in the grass before the king’s pavilion while a massive crowd watched on. Ser Gerold had raised him once the oaths were said, and it’d been he who gave Jaime his white cloak. How the onlookers had cheered. He could still hear the admiration in their applause, could still see the smiling faces and recall his own blinding joy.

I do not want more vows. I do not want any of this.

The men’s eyes sat heavy on his face, waiting. He needed to get on with it.

“Night gathers, and now my watch begins,” Jaime made himself say. His voice cracked, and he fought the urge to turn on Mormont and the septon and chase them from the sept. Pressing a hand to the stitches itching on his temple, he plowed forward. “It shall not end until my death.”

They could make it sound less like something a torturer would say. He swallowed a bark of laughter.

“I shall take no wife,” he said. “Hold no lands, father no children.”

At that, the Maiden drew his gaze. He’d been told that line meant he couldn’t have any woman at all. It didn’t matter. With Cersei out of reach, he wouldn’t want a woman again.

“I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post.” His eyes moved to the Crone. If any of you exist, and care beyond wishing me to suffer, ensure I don’t grow old here, wouldn’t you?

“I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men.”

As if I know what that nonsense even means.

“I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.” My life is over, and I’ve got no honor, he thought to the gods, but have my pledge if you will, you miserable cunts.

Jeor Mormont said, “You knelt in disgrace. Rise as a man of the Night’s Watch, free of your past, untainted by dishonor.”

If it were so, they’d not be sending Jaime to another castle. The foolishness of Mormont’s statement drew a chuckle from him, and the First Ranger’s jaw ticked. When Jaime had received his white cloak from Ser Gerold, he’d felt different. A boy become a man, the Young Lion turned knight of the Kingsguard.

Now he only felt tired, and hungry, and his oaths pleased him only in that they meant he could leave Castle Black on the morrow.

Mormont let out a sigh, and Jaime saw on his face that he meant to make his best attempt at congratulations. Jaime stalled him with a sharp laugh. “I’m only marginally more pleased to be here than bent over a chopping block, and I’d sooner piss glass than stomach your false courtesies. Save them.” Jaime gave a cheerful false smile. “On the bright side, it’s so bloody cold here, I’ll likely freeze to death before the first winter is out. Then we’ll both be happy.”

He spun to leave before Mormont could reply, though the other man’s dislike wafted from him like a bad odor, following Jaime from the sept.

At least it wasn’t so bitter as the day I swore myself to Aerys, he thought, and laughed again as he strode into the cold night air.

Chapter Text

A thick rug covered much of the stone floor in Ser Denys Mallister's solar, and a hearty fire crackled in the hearth. The pine bookshelves and table suited the space well, as did the muted painting of Seagard that adorned the far wall. But for all the finery, Jaime thought, it’s no pleasanter than the dark chambers in the bowels of the Rock where Tyrion and I played hide and seek.

The room’s walls were dark, and the two small, high windows let in only dull light. They also contributed to a horrible draft. Even Jaime's wool and fur didn't keep out the cold.

Like his room, Ser Denys managed to be both regal and bleak. A graceful man with well-formed features, he nonetheless struck Jaime as a creature of the Wall. Something of the pallor of his skin, the hardness in his pale eyes. He wore only a doublet with a cloak of moderate thickness but showed no sign the temperature bothered him. Rather, he sat with casual ease and turned sipping wine into an exercise in elegance.

Once introductions were made and wine offered and refused, Ser Denys set his goblet aside and steepled his fingers on the tabletop. “Lord Commander Qorgyle tells me Castle Black did not agree with you.”

“Does it agree with anyone?” Jaime asked dryly. 

Mallister peered at Jaime from beneath thick brows. “I reference the trouble with the Targaryen loyalists.”

Trouble. That’s a word for it. Jaime didn’t bother responding. Mallister clearly already knew where he wanted the conversation to go.

The old knight took another drink of wine, getting not a drop on his impressive silver beard. “You’ve reason to be taciturn. When you reach the Wall, you are supposed to be free from your past. It’s the proper way of things.”

Do you believe that, or is this a poor attempt at a jest? Jaime had assumed he’d be lectured, perhaps threatened with punishment should his poor behavior continue. He kept his expression neutral. “If I've done nothing wrong, why the private meeting straight away? I don’t imagine that’s conventional.”

“It’s also unconventional for a knight of your stature to be assigned to the Shadow Tower. I do not agree with all your father has done, but he is a great man if not a good one, and your family is a great family.”

“Ser?”

“I faced three of your uncles at a tourney. Tygett when he was younger than you are now, then two on your mother’s side. All three were everything knights should be. Ser Tygett I remember well. Every bit a man at sixteen, and gracious in victory. You remind me of him. That look in your eye, perhaps. Like you want to fight the whole world and might win if you did.”

Jaime's throat swelled. He missed his uncle suddenly, fiercely. 

Ser Denys said, “Had you competed?" 

“At squire’s tourneys.”

“You’ve been a knight for two years.”

“After Harrenhal, Aerys cared little for tourneys.” And I was not allowed to compete at Harrenhal. If he had, he might've defeated Rhaegar. The whole world would've been different.

Ser Denys stroked his beard. "Ah." 

"You still haven’t said why I’m here." 

"I thought to ensure understand your situation. You’re the son of the wealthiest lord in Westeros. Your sister is soon to be queen-” Jaime tried not to cringe. “-and beyond your connections, you possess your own promising qualities.”

That was absurd enough to distract from the mention of Cersei. Jaime hooted. "Are there kings past the Wall who need killing?”

“You’re the youngest knight appointed to the Kingsguard,” Ser Denys said firmly. “One of the youngest men knighted in recent memory. You trained for two years with the greatest knights of our time. You stumbled, it’s true. But I need only look at you to grasp your potential. We have good men at the Shadow Tower, but our best are criminals, bastards, and peasants. They’ll play their role, but they aren’t destined to lead.”

I've heard this all before. “Has my father written you?” Jaime said. 

“Certainly not. It’s only logical. There’s no replacement for blood, birth and training, and there isn’t a man in Westeros who’s your equal in any of these. Soon you’ll be First Ranger or master-at-arms, and then you’ll be Lord Commander. To think, a leader of the Night's Watch, brother to the queen, perhaps uncle to the heir.”

The words were an iron collar fastened around his neck. 

“Lannisters are little liked by the Night’s Watch,” said Jaime, though he wished to scream. “My father makes no secret he thinks you crows a joke, and he’d sooner execute criminals than send them north.”

“Your presence will improve the relationship. You could be great, if only you act as befits a highborn-”

"Stop." Jaime was tired. He was cold. He’d spent the past days doing servant’s work at Castle Black, unable to sleep because he feared someone would kill him if he did. Now Ser Denys was trying to heap on his shoulders all the problems he’d joined the Kingsguard to escape.

“Ser-”

Jaime slammed his hands on the table. “I said STOP. I don’t care about any of this. What does it matter if I make the Night’s Watch respectable? It’s a glorified penal colony. I don’t care if every miserable carcass at the Wall freezes to death. I don’t care if I freeze to death. We’re the sewage of the Seven Kingdoms, sent north to die so decent people don’t have to stomach our stink. I’m here only because I have to be-“

“That’s not how I hear it."

Jaime snapped his mouth shut.

Mallister continued speaking. “Lord Stark writes you volunteered when it seemed your father might otherwise continue the war.”

Anger draining from him, Jaime slumped back into his chair. 

“I have been at the Wall a long time, Jaime Lannister. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that humans are complex creatures. Men who’ve lived good lives err once and end up here. I wonder if that’s not the case with you. You were knighted by the Sword of the Morning. I can’t imagine he’d have done so if he did not think you worthy.”

“I killed my king.”

“Soon after, you made a sacrifice befitting of any knight. It’s unfortunate a seventeen-year-old boy, and don’t bristle, I’m old enough to call you such, was placed in your position. It’s unfortunate you made the choice you did.” Is it, truly? “But it does not erase all that you were or might become.”

Jaime found his glare once more. “I’ve told you, I don’t want to become anything.”

“So you say. I will drop the matter for the time. I do advise you to better control your temper. You are a knight, ser. You must act like one.”

Damn all the gods.

“Does anyone here give a dusty fuck?”

“I do. I’m unimpressed with your language as well.”

“My…”

“Sit straighter, and stop glaring. I’ve one more matter to place before you, and I’ll not do it while you act like a child.”

Too dumbstruck to do otherwise, Jaime listened.

“Good.” Ser Denys looked him over and nodded as if pleased. “You’ll leave for your first ranging tomorrow. It’s best you get seasoning quickly, and it’ll ease the novelty of your presence.”

This was the most sensible thing he’d said thus far. Perhaps Jaime would stumble across a band of wildlings and get the chance to show his mettle. It’d be like the Kingswood Brotherhood all over again. 

“Very well,” Jaime said.

“It’ll be a routine scouting mission,” he went on, and Jaime deflated. So much for showing my mettle. “The terrain around Shadow Tower is tricky, and it’ll be to your benefit to get a feel for it. You’ll go out under the tutelage of our finest ranger.”

Jaime thought of the narrow Bridge of Skulls bleeding out into rocky highland and dark forest. A scouting mission with a guide would be for the best.

“I do warn you to think twice about anything Mance Rayder says,” Mallister added. “He has unconventional opinions about some matters.”

“Then why not send me with someone else?” Jaime said. 

“Mance is the most effective ranger we have. He’s retrieved stolen girls who'd been thought lost and worked out trade agreements with wildling bands. Just this year, he secured a truce with a clan that's troubled Bear Island for decades.”

“Has he got some special trick?”

The old knight leaned forward. “He’s half wildling himself."

A creature with the appearance of Gregor Clegane with a bushy beard and tangled mess of hair, dressed in black, burst into Jaime's mind.

“How the seven hells did that happen?”

“Take care with your blasphemy.” Ser Denys heaved a sigh. “There are drawbacks to the Watch’s oath of celibacy. Desperate men become indiscriminate. There’s the brothel in Molestown.” Ser Denys said this as if it was a vile thing. “But there are also wildling women. Rayder was fathered by a black brother who strayed. His mother was killed with several other raiders two or three years later, but the rangers couldn’t bring themselves to slay the child. They brought him to Castle Black, and he grew up with the Watch. Though he's been trained well, he remains... wild.”

“Wild,” Jaime repeated, the man in his imagination taking on a blood-thirsty air.

“Some of his notions…” A shake of the head. “I mean for him to instruct you in matters of ranging and survival only. Don’t bother yourself with the rest of his nonsense, though I’d not be too dismissive. He’s well liked, and you’d not want to make him an enemy." Ser Denys took a drink of wine. “If you’d like a measure of him, he oft spends afternoons at the training yard. The Lord Commander tells me you struggled to find a challenging opponent at Castle Black, but Mance may surprise you.”

“Right,” Jaime said. He doubted a wildling bastard would be a match for him, but perhaps he knew some barbarian fighting style that’d be tricky for a short while. “Mance Rayder, he’s called?" 

“Yes.”

“I’ll have a look.”

 

The Shadow Tower managed to be more unpleasant outside its walls than within. The wind howled, turning cold air cruel. Jaime pulled his wool cloak more closely around him as he fought the wind on his way to the training yard.

He slowed his steps, brows lifting as he made out the song of swords. When he rounded the castle’s main tower and came within sight of the yard, a smile tugged at his lips. The space was only a square of packed dirt between the armory and a set of barracks, but it was the liveliest place he’d seen at the Wall. Three pairs sparred at once, and a score of brothers watched, several armored and waiting their turn. The atmosphere reminded him of mornings training with the Kingsguard, or sessions with the other squires under Lord Crakehall.

The sight gave weight to Jeor Mormont’s assertion the castle saw a fair amount of fighting. Certainly there’d been no such environment at Castle Black, where aside from sessions with recruits, few men seemed to train at all. I may actually find some pleasure in this miserable place.

Upon scanning the spectators, Jaime noted two harmless seeming men, both clean-shaven, one with hair the color of muddied straw, the other’s darker and loose to his shoulders. They sat on a bench shoved against the side of the armory, talking amiably. And neither looks angry or like they fancy slitting their own throats. I might as well try my luck.

The younger of the two, the fair-haired one, noticed him first. He whispered something to his friend, who looked up as Jaime stopped beside their bench.

This one smiled a jester’s smile that brought to mind tales of Lann the Clever. “The Kingslayer? You must be!” His gaze was startlingly direct. “The rumors misled me. They made you out to be half a monster, but you’re only a pretty lordling.”

It’d been months since someone smiled at him. Jaime tried not to look pathetically surprised. “Now that’s not fair,” he said, keeping his tone imperious. Edd Tollett had been right that Jaime needed allies. Reacting poorly to a jape would be an awful start. “Pretty is too effeminate a term. I’m partial to majestic. On top of it, you’ve neglected to call me my lord. You expect me to stomach this?”

The man laughed, so free and easy it was startling in the stark windy yard. “I’ve never my lorded a man in my life. Jesting aside, what would you be called? I were you, I'd go with Kingslayer. It's a name with a story.”

Jaime recalled how Edd had put it, that from a perspective Kingslayer could be heroic. And this man asked. That made a difference.

“Do as you please. I cannot deny I killed a king.”

“What’re you here for, Kingslayer?” said the other. "Do you mean to watch or fight?" He couldn’t have been more than a few years Jaime’s senior, and his accent was lowborn, either Westerlands or Riverlands. When he spoke, he didn't quite meet Jaime's eye. Not as easy with bold speech as his friend, but brave enough to speak boldly even so. In its way, that was equally as commendable. 

“Ser Denys suggested I spar with a Mance Rayder," Jaime said. 

“Did he?" The first man looked past Jaime’s shoulder. "Blane, fetch Qhorin. He’d better suit.”

Blane inclined his head and slipped off.

“Mance isn't here?" said Jaime, not pleased to be shunted off on some other opponent. 

"I can't spy him among those men-" He pointed at the brothers watching or waiting, "-and you'd know if he was sparring. Don't get in a snit. Qhorin's a fierce foe." 

Blane returned with another man, this one red-faced, breath coming hard. Interrupted mid-fight. He stood tall as Jaime and had a humorless expression that contrasted unfavorably with the easy smile of the brother still seated. Even so, he was clearly a warrior; it was plain in everything from his flinty eyes, to his straight spine and the strength in his long limbs. If he thought anything of Jaime's name or reputation, it showed not on his face. Something of that unreadable quality reminded Jaime of Arthur or Rhaegar, though Qhorin's cloak was faded gray and clearly from the Wall's stores. A knight or prince, he was not. 

Qhorin examined Jaime wordlessly, then faced his smiling brother. “I'll indulge you this once, but you owe me." He frowned at Jaime. “Fetch armor and a sparring sword, and we'll see if you can fight."

Little as Jaime liked being ordered about, he knew better than to say as much. He did as bid, though glared over his shoulder to make his displeasure clear.

When he returned, the other matches had stopped. They wish to watch me. Gratifying as this should’ve been, he was aware of the coldness of his fingers, how sluggish the chill left him. It reassured him not at all that Qhorin seemed unconcerned, standing straight as a spear, waiting with his sword drawn and resting down.  

“You look worried,” said the ranger, the barest trace of a taunt in his voice. Not entirely carved from stone, are you?

“Only for your pride,” Jaime lied.

The other man smiled—then struck. But the game was common among swordsmen looking to score an early hit, and Jaime parried without difficulty. For a time, they exchanged blows, trying to find gaps in the other’s defense. The man’s style wasn’t refined, but he made up for it with brutal quickness and precision. Despite this and the handicap of the cold, Jaime had an advantage in speed and finesse. He soon gained ground, and Qhorin went on the defense, exchanging slashes and stabs for blocks and parries, equally as solid.

But he didn’t counter.

And he didn’t counter.

He had to know he’d get nowhere if he didn’t act. Now that Jaime had him wrong-footed, it was only a matter of time before his defenses broke down. He was too talented to be so stupid.

Jaime briefly backed off his own attack, giving himself a moment to turn the matter over in his head. Qhorin let him do so, not pressing. That certainly wasn't right. He's dragging out the match, Jaime realized. 

The likeliest reason came in a flash of comprehension. With barred teeth, Jaime struck Qhorin’s blade. When the man fell off balance parrying, Jaime slashed. Qhorin managed a riposte, but Jaime flicked the blade aside just enough to slam his own sword into the man’s sternum. He followed through with his shield to send him to one knee, earning a yield.

Panting, Jaime spun to the smiling man. He’d gotten into armor and had a blunted greatsword in hand. A greatsword of all things.

Standing and armored, he didn’t seem nearly as slender. His shoulders were deceptively broad, his posture fine as Qhorin's. He nonetheless appeared benign as a crow could, and he'd spoken in a manner that made Jaime assume him the bastard or younger son of a lord. He had a northern accent, but only a touch more pronounced than Ned Stark’s. A less likely wildling Jaime couldn’t imagine.

“Mance Rayder. That was-” Low, dirty, unjust. Jaime stopped himself. It’d been clever. And his instructors never let him complain about unfairness without asking if he planned his enemies to be fair during a fight.

Mance rolled his shoulders as if to get his blood flowing, the movement easy and vaguely threatening. “View it as a compliment. I usually take for granted I can thrash a lordling, but I knew less what to expect from you." 

Jaime marveled despite himself. “You spoke of disappointment I wasn’t monstrous. When Ser Denys said you had wildling blood, I expected something far more interesting.”

Qhorin climbed to his feet, mouth twisted. “This one’s wildling enough. Don’t be fooled in that.” His voice grew sharper. “You fight well, but you could’ve gotten me with that counter three times before you tried it. Next time, don’t wait to get desperate.”

“Don't give advice. Not until I've taught him a lesson or two." Mance pretended to swat Qhorin away with the flat of his sword. “Fly off, brother.”

Jaime didn’t wait for Qhorin to leave the yard. Even if he only snuck in a cheap hit to take Mance by surprise, it’d prove a point. He lunged.

Mance’s blade came up incredibly fast. Jaime’s sword locked with Mance’s, but Mance had the strength of two hands and shoved Jaime’s strike aside. 

The crow's eyes sparkled. “Perfect. Usually knights need to be trained out of thinking there are rules.”

Jaime backed away to let Qhorin clear out and give himself a moment to recover. Quickness had been the last thing he expected from a greatsword. Arthur had been quick with Dawn, but that was different.

Mance had no interest in letting him reorient himself. He was on him in an instant. Jaime managed a block, but the blow made cold-tender fingers scream. It was all he could do to keep his grip. Another slash followed, powerful as the first and quick as a snakebite. A failed block let Mance’s sword slam into Jaime’s side. That’ll bruise my whole bloody ribcage. Qhorin had been strong. Mance was vicious. His smile was gone, eyes flinty. Before Jaime could straighten, that greatsword came for him again. 

Jaime shoved the strike down with his shield. The wood cracked but held. Before Mance could get more momentum, Jaime tried to slip in a strike of his own. It didn't land, but the need to side-step interrupted Mance’s rhythm and let Jaime follow through with another blow, then another, gaining enough space to go on the offensive. A greatsword's biggest advantage one-on-one was keeping an opponent at a distance. After Jaime closed in, the fight should've been his. 

But Mance kept a fraction of a step ahead of Jaime’s strikes. The slippery bastard knew his sword wasn’t made to parry, knew he couldn't block well with Jaime so near. He compensated by moving constantly. Not amateurish attempts at seeming graceful, but purposeful motions so smooth Jaime didn't realize they'd happened until hits meant to send Mance sprawling glanced off an arm or shoulder. He should be sacrificing footing, shouldn’t have time for counterattacks at all. But Jaime couldn’t get him off balance, and Mance took advantage of every small opportunity to sneak in a slash, each brutal as the last. 

Sweat matted Jaime's hair beneath his helm and trickled down his neck, chilling him to the marrow. Mance would’ve spent his life in this cold. He’d have the advantage in endurance. I need to end this.

Jaime followed his next block with his shield, driving it into Mance’s side. The other man fell off balance, and Jaime struck with the shield again. Mance lost his grip on his sword, blade clattering to the ground. 

Yes.

Mance dropped like a stone, then rolled and disappeared. When Jaime turned, his half helm blocked his vision for a heartbeat. An arm snaked around his neck, and Mance used the whole of his weight to force Jaime to the ground. They landed hard, the impact jarring Jaime to stillness. Only for a breath, but a breath too long. Mance seized Jaime’s shield and used it to wrench his arm behind his back. A knee to the spine followed. Then Jaime was on his stomach, face shoved into the freezing dirt.

Mance’s boot came to rest between his shoulder blades.

Cheering sounded from the edges of the yard. 

“Yield?” Mance said.

He'd sooner have spat at Mance's feet. He hadn’t even been outfought. Jaime was better.

But Mance had been smarter. He'd moved too surely after dropping his sword to be recovering from a near-defeat. That final set of moves had been planned. The crow had seen a weakness when Jaime fought Qhorin, worked out how to counter it, and jumped on the opportunity when it presented itself.

“Yield.”

The weight left, and Mance released Jaime's arm.

A hand appeared in front of his face. Jaime knew how the game worked. He was supposed to smile, show he could take a loss, stomach being laughed at. That was the test as much as the sparring. The squires at Crakehall had done the same, as had the others of the Kingsguard. Gritting his teeth, he grasped Mance's hand and let the crow pull him to his feet. It hurt to stand. Now the heat of battle had faded, he could feel every blow he'd taken. 

Mance pulled off his helmet and ran a hand through sweat-damp hair, then regarded Jaime with an assessing gaze. “Not bad.”

"But not good enough." Jaime let his lips make a smile. “What did me in?”

“The helm gave you a blind spot.” He noticed an ill-fitting borrowed helm. Jaime was impressed despite himself, though he grew less so as Mance kept nattering. "You also use your shield strangely. You attack with it but forget it can be used as defense. Granted, you ought to start practicing without. They're a nuisance to carry on long rangings. If you’re truly ambitious, learn to use a shortsword or dagger alongside the sword.  

“And listen when you’re given advice. Qhorin told you not to wait to try a finishing blow, but you only thought, ‘I’ve got to end it now,’ when you realized I might win. That’s what you need to think the moment you engage. Weapons aren’t for fighting. They’re for killing. Fighting’s what happens when you don’t kill quick enough.”

Jaime bit his tongue so hard blood welled. “Who are you to instruct me?” he wanted to say. “To criticize a knight?”

But a memory came to him. He’d been training with Ser Barristan, having one of those days when the sword sung in his hand and everything went right. A glorious match ended with Jaime the easy victor. Jaime had thought, Now he will acknowledge I’m good enough.

Instead, Ser Barristan frowned at him. “When you practice without a misstep, it doesn’t mean you’re so skilled you’ve become perfect. It means you’ve ceased pushing your limits. If a knight stops learning, he cripples himself, no matter how talented he is.”

Alone in his tower cell, Jaime cursed Ser Barristan half a hundred ways, miserable with hurt and anger. Only when the sting eased did he acknowledge the other knight's point and commit the advice to memory, as he had all information his sworn brothers gifted him.

He forced his eyes to remain locked with Mance’s. I’ve more to learn, and Mance has done me a favor in pointing it out. It’d be folly to ignore all he’s said.

“What should I work on first?” Jaime said.

“Finishing your fights more quickly. You should try to end the match with every move you make. It’s fine to spar for fun or test technique, but only when you’ve shown you can do otherwise.” Mance found his smile again. “Have I rung your skull too hard, or shall we practice?”

Some of the spectators had returned to their conversations. Another two resumed a match. At the edge of the yard, Qhorin whispered to Blane, gesturing in a manner that suggested they discussed some piece of swordsmanship from Jaime and Mance’s bout. Blane caught Jaime watching and offered a nod of acknowledgment.

The passive approval gifted Jaime his first reprieve in weeks, the first moments he’d not feared a knife in the back should he let down his guard. He couldn’t imagine a more dreadful place, but he’d taken the first step in hollowing a space for himself in this frozen corner of the seventh hell.

A laugh burst from his throat in pure relief.

“Something funny, Kingslayer?” Mance said.

“I’m merely pleased to practice with a worthy foe.” He lifted his sword. “Let’s get to it. If I don’t soon stir myself, I’ll remain frozen where I stand.”

 

Mance sat cross-legged on a cushion near a hearth in the common hall, lute in his lap, plucking a tune as he sang “No Featherbed for Me.”

The Kingslayer had slipped off after his meal, looking dead on his feet. Perhaps from a good working over in the training yard, though he’d seemed tired already when he interrupted Mance’s chat with Blane. 

Weariness unfortunately hadn’t softened his blows. Mance’s whole body throbbed. For all his smiles and pretty words, the boy was ferocious as a free folk raider. Mance had suspected it might be so. He’d heard of House Lannister and its heavy history. Lord Tywin's heir hadn't been likely to be soft. He liked asking newcomers for stories and songs, and those from the Westerlands brought the same tune year after year.

His fingers changed pace mid-song, lyrics shifting on his tongue as his mind wandered a different path.

 

And who are you, the proud lord said,

that I must bow so low?

Only a cat of a different coat,

that's all the truth I know.

In a coat of gold or a coat of red,

a lion still has claws,

And mine are long and sharp, my lord,

as long and sharp as yours…

 

“Interesting choice.”

Mance stopped mid-song. Qhorin’s boots echoed on stone as he crossed the last distance to the hearth. He sat gracefully, cloak fanning around him.

“It’s a vile song if you know the tale behind it." One I can’t stomach. Mance's fingers fell to the pleasanter notes of “The Dornishman’s Wife," and he said, ”Have you caught the story?”

"Only pieces.”

“Two houses rebelled against House Lannister. Tywin Lannister burned the castle of the first lord, and one of his knights threw the three-year-old heir down a well. The second lord hid his family and all his men in his mines, but Tywin sealed the exits and dammed a river to flood the tunnels. Three hundred people were trapped inside, all killed. After, he burned that castle too. When another lord made trouble some years later, Tywin instructed a musician to play the man that tune. It cowed him in an instant.”

Qhorin thought on that a while, then said, “Do you think the Kingslayer’s cut of the same cloth? He forces his smiles, and there’s something angry in his eyes.”

Mance plucked the next lines of "The Dornishman's Wife." Brothers, my brothers, my days here are done... “I’d be angry if I left a castle full of gold and traded all the world’s glory for a cloak of black. If there’s something darker to that anger, accidents like to befall little loved brothers, with so many steep cliffs, and all the nasty raiders. But he seems more than his anger.”

“You admire the kingslaying,” Qhorin guessed.

“Shush. You’ll have Mallister over here clucking his tongue, and I'd know his reasons before I claim admiration. Perhaps he wished only to secure victory for his father.”

“Whatever his reasons, he broke his oaths.”

“Marvelously so.”

“You’re not to encourage him in such behavior.”

“Me? Never.”

He was no good at lying, not to Qhorin, not when the truth offered so much more amusement.

“I dread that you’re to go off alone with him. It's to be a short ranging?" 

“Mallister wants us to see if Orl's moving closer to the Wall. They set up camp not too far to the north. Makes the old man wary.”

“That woman’s with Orl. The one you’re… fond of.” Qhorin said this in a tone expected of a man who knew nothing of women, nor having fondness for them. Mance would’ve pitied him if the fool didn’t turn up his nose at the opportunity for remedy found beyond the Wall.

“It’s rude to stalk good folk when we could stroll up and talk. We’ll linger a night. Maybe I’ll find a lass for the Kingslayer. Might get his hackles down. Certainly there’ll be a woman willing. Or do you think he’d prefer a man? He swore celibacy oaths at fifteen. Something’s amiss in that.”

Qhorin didn’t smile. “There’s danger in teaching an oathbreaker to disregard his vows.”

“I know what I swore before the old gods, and I said not a word about giving up women altogether." 

"The high officers made it clear-" 

"Others take them all. Oh, don't give me that look. We've brothers who’d have the Kingslayer kill the first free folk he sees to make sure he’s got the stomach. There’s those who wouldn’t say, ‘Go on, find someone willing to take to bed,’ but who’d tell him to take who he wants by force if he likes. Hells, there's those who'd encourage him to rut on a warm corpse."  

“There’s a middle ground."

“That works for you. I like it less. And Mallister set this to me because my way makes me the better ranger.”

Qhorin was leagues ahead of the others, but he worked against the free folk, while Mance made allies of them. Some wouldn’t see past the black cloak and sent him on his way, and Mance was compelled to fight active raiders. But most helped him if he worked out the right things to say or proper gifts to give.

Qhorin growled. “I know that look. Anything I say will only push you further from reason. Just… be cautious. That boy’s already spoken with Ser Denys. He may cause you trouble if you act too friendly with the wildlings.” Under his breath, he added, “And if he takes to your ways, he may cause trouble for the rest of us.”

Mance resumed “The Rains of Castamere.” “I’m not worried about the boy giving me grief. He was careful not to make enemies this afternoon, and he’d know tattling to Mallister would win him no love. I trust that cleverness.”

“You call a boy who killed his king in the middle of the throne room clever?”

“Qhorin, brother. That’s the cleverest thing a kneeler could do.”

 

Jaime’s chest loosened further every minute he and Mance Rayder traveled from the Shadow Tower. He disliked taking pleasure in any aspect of his sentence, but there was something freeing in leaving the Seven Kingdoms. With a seven-hundred foot wall separating him from Robert’s domain, he almost believed he could escape his ghosts, if only briefly.

Mance whistled, the sound all that broke the day's stillness save their garrons' clopping hooves. The horses were homely, unimpressive creatures not fit for a knight. Yet no matter how Jaime had insisted his gelding would better suit, Mance claimed the woolly beasts were the only mounts worth taking beyond the Wall. His eyes had grown harder as Jaime pushed, and eventually he said, “Do what you like, lordling,” in a voice like ice. He means to give up on me, Jaime had realized.

Cold with dread, he'd backtracked gracefully and said he’d not mind a glorified pony. Mance’s anger had thawed in an instant. Jaime still wasn't pleased—though when their path brought them across the Bridge of Skulls, he admitted to himself the sturdy beast lent an agreeable impression of security to the crossing.

Once they'd reached the other side, Mance stopped his whistling to throw a grin Jaime’s way. “Not bad. Most baby lords need to be coaxed along the whole bridge.”

Jaime fought pride at praise for something any ranger would do regularly. It’s been too long since I’ve been granted kind words, and now they please me too much.

"Heights bother me little," he said. "I used to dive off the cliffs near Casterly Rock."

“I know a few tales of your Rock," said Mance cheerfully. As they guided their horses onto a stretch of rocky highland, he added, "It sounds a fascinating place. Haunted, by some accounts."

"Wasting away here, you've heard these tales?”

“The Watch gets recruits from all seven kingdoms. I hear more than you'd expect." Mance peered over at him. "Have you anything interesting to share? A song, a legend, even a tale from the Age of Heroes? Whatever you prefer."

Jaime cast his eyes around them. “Is it wise to play storyteller here? These lands look rife with places for wildlings to lurk." 

A snort. "We'll not be ambushed within sight of the Wall. Raiders coming south would’ve gone into the Gorge for cover, and any returning north would hurry through this stretch. " When Jaime still hesitated, he added, "I loathe unnecessary silence. If you don't speak, I will." 

Having no aversion to indulging him, Jaime fished for an interesting story. His mother used to tell he and Cersei tales of the Westerlands and House Lannister and the Rock. Gerion and Tyg had offered their own versions, often more wicked, and Lord Tywin preferred tellings that emphasized what it meant to be a Lannister. When Tyrion was young, Jaime shared his favorites. I’d forgotten that. They helped him sleep.

What was Tyrion to do now? Hearing what'd become of Jaime must've broken his heart. Jaime hadn't gotten a letter from him. He'd been at Castle Black so little time. Maybe something would come to the Shadow Tower. Certainly he'd write. Unless he's too hurt.

Jaime decided eventually it'd be appropriate to tell the Rock's story from the beginning. “Casterly Rock wasn’t always inhabited by Lannisters. Before us were the Casterlys. They're the ones who crafted it."

He eyed Mance to see if he'd heard this before. The other man motioned for him to continue.

"In the Age of Heroes, a warrior named Corlos lived in a village near Lannisport’s current location. Lions still roamed the Westerlands, and one made a home near the village and ate the villagers’ animals. Corlos resolved to stop the beast, so he took up a spear and waited for the lion to appear. In time it came to a field and ate a sheep, then vanished into the night. But Corlos saw it leave, and he trailed it to its den. After a valiant fight, he slew the lion and its mate. Only once they were dead did he notice two cubs huddled at the back of the cave.”

Jaime recalled two small bodies swathed in crimson, and he wanted to laugh himself sick. This had been one of the stories his mother told and his father never repeated. It'd also been among Jaime’s favorites, but he’d forgotten the ending until it loomed before him.

When he spoke to finish, his voice was soft.

“He spared them. Corlos spared the cubs, and the old gods were so pleased they sent a ray of sunlight into the cave. It lit up a vein of gold thick as a man’s waist. Corlos moved into the cave and fortified the entrance, and he started digging. His descendants dug as well, mining and carving halls and tunnels. Because Corlos’s father was called Caster, it was known as Casterly Rock.”

Jaime laughed, dreading to think what he’d do otherwise. “Just recently, my grandfather tracked down two lions and kept the miserable beasts caged in the bowels of the Rock. Gerion supposed they were the last lions in all the Westerlands, which makes a lovely bookend to the tale.”

“You admire Corlos?” Mance’s curiosity was so genuine it headed off the urge to snap a defensive response.

“I identified with him more than Lann the Clever. I suppose he seemed noble, which I thought myself to be.” Mance had the courtesy not to laugh, though Jaime wanted to dissolve into peals of it. He swallowed the impulse. “Gerion liked to say if I’d been in Lann’s place, I’d have stormed the Rock’s front gate with a sword. My brother, my sister, they’re clever. I’m…” He fished for a word, feeling foolish. “Straightforward."

“There are different ways to be clever, Jaime Lannister. Not all involve stealing castles in the dead of night.” When Jaime looked over, Mance looked as out of sorts as Jaime felt. The crow cleared his throat. “I hadn’t heard of Corlos.”

“Lann’s more romantic. His story has spread further, and his songs are sung more often.”

“For good reason. Lann is among my favorite heroes from the south.” This surprised Jaime not at all. He was surprised by the softness that came into Mance’s eyes. “But there’s much to be said for Corlos as well. I identify with the lions.”

I’d not thought of that. Jaime would’ve assumed Mance wouldn’t want to be reminded of his origins, that he’d be ashamed, or at least aware bringing it up would do him no favors. Wondering if he misunderstood, he spoke cautiously. “Ser Denys said you’d been brought to Castle Black after your mother was killed.”

Mance's smile sharpened. “Kill the monster, keep the cub alive. You chose a fine tale. Granted, I’ve something in common with those caged lions of your grandfather’s as well.” He cast his eyes around them and shook his head. “A foolish thing to say with free land all around us.”

“Not foolish,” said Jaime. “A cloak can be its own kind of cage.”

Mance peered at him for a long moment, eyes burning with curiosity but strangely unguarded at the same time. It seemed it'd been years since someone turned their eyes on Jaime to see instead of to make of his expressions what they liked, and he had to look away.

For a time, they rode in silence. It could not be peaceful silence in surroundings harsh as theirs. But the quiet was easy.

While it lasted. Jaime began itching to break it before a quarter hour had passed. It’d been too long since he could speak freely, and he’d never been one for silences.

Mance seemed his like in this, for he spoke first. “I ought to mention it while we’re a distance out. Mallister’s approach to this ranging isn't the best way to go. I'm tweaking his orders.”

A bad feeling came into Jaime’s gut. “What do you mean tweaking?”

“We’ll dine with the free folk and talk out some solution that works for us both.”

Jaime stopped his garron.

Mance spun his own mount. “They likely came south hunting. If I tell them they’re getting dangerous attention, they’ll know to leave. Isn’t that a cleaner solution than spying, telling Mallister they don’t look to be a threat, then for weeks sending patrols to watch them, risking someone will lash out and kill innocents?”

It sounded reasonable. It also sounded like something a ranger shouldn’t do. Disobedience came with all sorts of risks. Mallister could keep him from receiving letters or restrict the occasional shipments he'd been made to expect from his father. Even if Ser Denys didn't go that far, the old knight could choose the route Lord Crakehall preferred for unruly squires and give Jaime the worst chores. Not to mention how it’d look. They all think me an oathbreaker already.

“Our duty is to stop the wildlings. Not dine with them.”

Mance’s eyes burned, the change so abrupt Jaime fought a flinch. He’s no jolly bard, whatever he plays at.

“The Watch trades with the free folk. We exchange information with them. They're not our enemies.”

“Mallister would not approve.”

“What’s it to me whether that old fool approves?"

“Our oaths-”

“Tell us we’re to protect the realms of men. Sometimes that means killing raiders. Sometimes it means keeping the men beyond the Wall away from undiscerning brothers.”

“It might not break the oaths in letter, but certainly in meaning-”

“Kingslayer.” Mance coaxed his garron near enough to grab the neck of Jaime’s cloak. He did it with an air of calm Jaime didn't for a minute believe. “These people mean no harm, and they'll find trouble if we don’t speak with them. You talk of honor and oaths, but half the time men use those words to justify acting like idiots. Damn both and ask yourself what we should do. What is right?

The wind had picked up, and Jaime shivered as a gust cut through his layers of fur and wool and leather. But it wasn’t only the northern wind that chilled him.

The first person he’d met who thought as he did wasn’t a great knight, but a half-wildling bastard. I spent two years waiting for such words from proper brothers. Now this one gives them thoughtlessly over something so small. What does it mean that my notion of right clashes with the best knights in the Kingdoms, but fits with the ravings of a halfbreed crow? Am I so dishonorable?

Jaime grasped Mance’s wrist and shoved him away. The possibility wildlings could be hiding, watching them, made him laugh. They must appear ridiculous, two black-clad crows bickering among endless stretches of stone and snow.

“Is it so absurd,” Mance started, more danger coming into his voice. He wouldn’t be cowed, not like Jaime was by his brothers. If I told him to stop judging and listen to Mallister, I’d risk a fist to the face.

“I’m not laughing at you,” Jaime cut in. “Though it is absurd. Do you know Aerys liked to burn people? It's common knowledge, but I’m not certain what news reaches the Wall.”

“What-”

Jaime held up a hand to stop the question. “When he used wildfire, it'd melt skin from bone, sometimes before the person was fully dead. Innocent men, sometimes women and children. When I balked, my brothers chastised me for judging. We were to serve him. Only to serve. These are considered the best men in the Seven Kingdoms. You believe you’re right to think the opposite of them?”

Mance’s eyes pierced him. “I don't care they were knights or part of the Kingsguard or whatever it is makes you say they're great. No decent man would pat himself on the back for serving a monster.”

“Even should that monster burn you for doing otherwise?”

“I'd sooner burn than throw away all that I am.” Even on his garron, Mance could’ve been a knight or a lord. He commanded attention as well as Jaime’s Kingsguard brothers. “Part of you agrees. You ignored those knights in the end.”

He said it like Jaime had done something right. Perhaps that was why it felt such a small thing to respond.

“I did. Aerys went too far, so I slit his throat. I fancied I’d be praised for it, but I soon learned the folly of that.  A lord I knew found me. I’d been knighted saving his father’s life. He and his men looked at me like I was shit on their boots. Then Lord Stark came. The way he acted, you’d have thought I was the monster, not the man who killed him.”

Mance released a breath that shook with anger. On my behalf.

“Did they not accept your reasons?”

“I gave none. No one asked. No one cared. In any case, when Robert sentenced me, he acted in a manner that persuaded me silence was best.” He clenched his jaw and spoke through gritted teeth. “All you say is reasonable, but thinking your way is the reason I'm here. Why should I care about doing what’s right when this is what it’s gotten me?”

This time when Mance grabbed him, it was by the face instead of cloak. His gloved hand dug into Jaime's chin, forcing Jaime's eyes to his. “You talk like you hate yourself for following orders, but you were proud to kill the king. Is that not reason enough? Are you so weak you’d ignore that, to let ugly looks from a few lords break your will?”

Jaime broke away. He was sick of talking about things that left him raw, but he could not show weakness. He smiled to lessen the tension. “Ser Denys warned me you’d put ideas in my head.”

Mance said nothing for a long moment. Then he guided his garron a couple steps back, vehemence leaving his manner. “Mallister's not an idiot for all he can be a fool. If it makes a difference, I'll be the one who gets in trouble. Poor Ser Jaime wouldn’t veer from the knightly path unless he was led by the likes of me.” He shook his hair from his face. “You'll not make trouble about accompanying me to the free folk camp?"

“I’ll always make trouble, but I’ll keep it to the sort I expect you’ll like.” Jaime waved a hand vaguely. “I’d grow bored acting a good crow anyway. Take me to these free folk. I’ll play nice as I ever do.”

 

Their journey was too long to complete in one day. When the sky darkened, Mance guided Jaime to a cavern rangers often used for shelter, then sent the boy to gather firewood. They’d reached terrain with enough trees to make it a quick task, and Jaime soon returned and dropped the wood in a heap.

Mance nudged a stick with his boot. “Do I need to teach you to make a fire?” 

His eyes flashed. “I am a knight.”

“I‘ve met knights I’m shocked could make piss. Show me.”

Jaime looked skyward, but he kicked the extra logs aside and built a pile with smaller sticks. “Pleasant as I find the prospect of warmth,” he said, “won’t the smoke attract raiders?”

For all he’d questioned Mance’s insistence on the garrons, he wasn’t an awful listener. Once they ventured into trickier territory, he’d even solicited Mance’s advice. Mance had rewarded him with honest, useful answers. He did the same now. “When winter comes, the cold will kill you faster than any raider. If there’s a chance you’ll freeze otherwise, start a fire.”

With a dagger, Jaime scraped bark from a thin log into a heap atop his nest of sticks. “Supposedly it’s not winter." 

“Most our brothers wouldn‘t light one," Mance agreed. “But it’s a moonless night, and the darkness will hide smoke in the air. I make a rule of having a fire when I can. You might call it superstition.”

Jaime's answering smile was more amused than scornful, but his amusement held an edge. “You're too sensible for superstition. What are your reasons, truly?” 

When Mance was a child, Maester Aemon taught him to read and gave him access to Castle Black’s library. Mance had read hundreds of southron accounts of free folk. On top of it, he’d heard his brothers’ commentary his whole life. When he said, “The free folk do this,” Mance knew others interpreted it as, “Wildlings indulge in this foolish savagery.” So he rarely explained his thoughts on such matters, unwilling to waste his breath.

But he liked knowing where he stood with people, and he hadn’t worked out where his boundaries with the Kingslayer lie. When faced with someone with whom one often wished to say, “That’s exactly how I think,” it was easy to assume agreement were it didn’t exist. Mance preferred finding friction points, learning where rotten ice lurked.

More than that, he held a fool’s hope Jaime might listen. The boy’s recent experiences made him question all sorts of things: knighthood, the definition of honor, the very notion of a king. If Mance could find understanding in a brother instead of exasperated indulgence, it’d be here, where doubt burned away old certainties and cleared space for new growth. It'd be a good indication whether I'm right, how he reacts to honesty now. 

Jaime struck his flint, and a spark caught. As the boy coaxed it to life, Mance thought about fire, trying to frame a response. He wasn’t superstitious. But reasons weren’t always concrete things. Sometimes they came from gut feeling.

“Free folk have always burned their dead,” he said finally. “Most light fires when it’s not impractical. They worry about the Others, and sometimes I wonder if they’ve reason. The land beyond the Wall is strange. You’ll sense it on rangings far north.”

Jaime sat near the growing fire and extended his hands over the flames. “Others?”

“White Walkers.” The southron term appeared to spark recognition, so Mance continued, "Fire’s supposed to keep them away. Black brothers even recorded the advice in old ranger records.”

“You believe in White Walkers." 

“Is it so far-fetched? There’s magic beyond the Wall even now.”

“Magic.” Condescension crept into his voice.

Mance fished in his pack and pulled out a piece of dried meat. He offered it to Jaime. “Have some supper.”

“You’re trying to make me receptive to your madness,” said Jaime, though he took the meat.

“Aye, I'm shamelessly plying, but I hardly speak madness.” Mance reclined against the cavern wall. “Brothers usually believe in skinchangers at least. When Old Haggon still traded with Eastwatch, most the Watch accepted his warging as fact.” 

Jaime wrinkled his nose. “Skinchangers. Warging. I’ve heard of neither.”

It was like speaking with a child.

“Skinchangers are men who can slip into animals’ minds. With wargs, it’s dogs or wolves.”

“That isn’t possible.”

The seed of an idea took root. Mance grabbed a piece of meat and worked a bite with his teeth while he shaped the notion into something concrete. “Varamyr, he’s Haggon’s protégé. He’s got a lordship a week or so east of where Orl’s camp should be.” He spoke more confidently as his plans solidified. “We’ll take a detour after we speak with Orl. Varamyr isn’t shy about his abilities. They say he controls a snow bear now.”

Jaime stared at him. Not so easy to dismiss my claims when I’ve got proof lined up, is it?

“We can’t take a detour that’ll add two weeks to our ranging,” the boy said.

“Mallister knows to give me extra time. I do this now and then. Sometimes things come up, and this is a vital matter. I can’t have the prized recruit ignorant of what lies beyond the Wall. I bet my lute skinchangers exist.”

“What’d I do with a lute?”

“You’ll not get it, so it doesn’t matter.” Mance stretched his legs in front of him, considering what the lordling could offer. I’ve no desire for fine clothing nor jewels nor other lordly nonsense. He settled for practicality. “Me, I want boots like yours. If Varamyr is as I say, you’ll send for a pair.”

“Fine. I’ll indulge your madness.” Jaime burrowed into his cloak. “If nothing else, it’s prompted you to light a fire.”

Quiet settled between them. This was when Mance often sent recruits on absurd errands that didn’t need doing. Or he’d needle and ask probing questions. Mance settled for relaxing further as he gnawed his supper. He didn’t want to play games with the Kingslayer. He wanted to talk.

Jaime no doubt possessed a wealth of stories after years brushing elbows with figures like Arthur Dayne and Rhaegar Targaryen. And if Mance spoke, he knew he'd be taken seriously. Jaime had listened to him that morning after all. More than listened. He understood. Mance somewhat loved him for that understanding. “A cloak can be a cage." That’s what'd won him.

I’ve a mind to befriend a lordling green as summer grass. Qhorin would think it a riot. It was also dangerous. Free folk didn’t name their young until they survived two years. Most infants died, so it did no good getting attached before then. Mance took a similar approach with new brothers. Before they completed a few rangings and showed they could play nice with the other crows, he referred to them by nicknames and kept his distance. 

Mallister ensured that’d never been an option with Jaime. He’d pulled Mance aside the previous morning to emphasize Ser Jaime’s importance, and he'd included too many personal details. An anecdote of jousting with the boy's uncles, a few lines regarding a twin soon to be queen. Most damning, he’d argued Mance should not judge Jaime by Aerys. “Eddard Stark sent a raven after the king sentenced Ser Jaime,” the old knight said. “He writes that he stopped his father from restarting the war. I suspect he was not dishonorable so much as too young. Not yet a man grown when he received his cloak, and that court was no place for a boy.”

Such words painted a frustratingly human portrait. Mance had still resolved to keep the boy at an arm's length, but their earlier talk dashed that hope to pieces. A cloak can be a cage. Damn him.

Mance studied Jaime. The boy huddled within his layers, shivering as he chewed his supper. His expression was regal enough to border on a pout.

“I’ll have your cloak,” Mance decided. “You won’t freeze in this weather, and you need to get used to the cold.”

Jaime blinked without comprehension.

“The chill crippled you when we sparred,” Mance added. “The more you expose yourself, the faster you’ll grow accustomed.”

Jaime closed his mouth, now more irritated than nobly put out. Better.

Mance considered him further.

 “What?” Jaime snapped.

“You’ll get censure for wearing fine clothes, for that hair of yours, even for the way you talk. Laugh it off if you can. Fight back. Don’t change. Hold out, and your brothers will get used to you. But you’ll never gain their respect if you play to expectations. It’d be a lark if you tried. You’re too strongly what you are.”

“I wasn’t intending to change.” He frowned. “What am I?”

“A lord,” Mance said. “The Wall is the one place in Westeros commoners can supposedly rise on merit. It’s frustrating when one of your lot shows up and proves the high officers' hypocrisy. They’ll also assume you look down on them. That last thing is a big one. Don’t do it.”

“I’ve respected you.”

“I outwitted and outfought you soon as we met, and I’ve a tongue sharp as yours. But the Wall’s also got stuttering farmer’s get who’d not dare meet your eye. They’re your brothers too. If you want to stick up your nose at someone, wait for them to give offense. Most will. We’re not a likable lot.”

Jaime smiled knowingly. “I’ll think on it.”

“And don’t smile. If you want to scowl, scowl. Smirk if you want to smirk. If you don’t know how to respond, make your face blank.”

“What’s wrong with my smile?”

Was that hurt in his eyes? Half a jaded knight, half a vain man-child. There was always a catch.

“I’ve never seen your smile,” Mance amended. “I refer to that grin you put on when you’re bored or uncertain. It may make you appear clever, but our brothers won't give a shit. No one here will puzzle over your motivations. They’ll just get angry. This isn’t King’s Landing.”

“I worked that out from the lack of king,” Jaime snapped, gone sour. “What’ve I done to deserve a lecture? I agreed to go on your mad quest. I said I‘d dine with bloody free folk tomorrow-”

Mance held up a hand. “I’m making you less inconvenient to associate with.” 

A flush crept across Jaime’s face. “That is the most absurd-” He stopped and shook his head, then slumped against the wall with a groan. “You’ve no idea how backward that is. They’d think less of me for being a Lannister?”

“The free folk will take to you once it gets out you killed the king. They view your kind as foppish fools, and it‘ll impress them you’ve overcome your worse nature. If that helps.”

“It doesn’t.”

Perhaps I should end this chat. He hadn't hit rotten ice, but the conversation looked to be upsetting the boy, not just irritating him.

Mance polished off the last of his meal and wiped his hands on his trousers. “Your cloak,” he repeated. “It’ll make me a nice bed. Unless you’d prefer I coddle you? I’ll not push, but-“

Jaime unfastened the cloak and thrust it into Mance’s outstretched hand. “You’ll be lucky if you don’t disappear off a cliff tomorrow. Speaking in such a manner.”

“Like a commander to a subordinate?” Mance spread the cloak beneath him and curled up on the plush black wool, laying so his head rested on the soft part of his upper arm. “That’s how the Wall is structured, or how it’s supposed to be. In this, I’m playing by the rules.”

Jaime muttered under his breath.

“Take first watch. Half the night, or close as you can reckon. Fall asleep, and when I wake, I’ll chop off those golden curls and scatter them to the winds.”

“Touch my hair, and next time I’m on watch, I’ll cut off something of yours."

Mance pretended not to hear, turning into his arm to stifle a laugh.

The boy grumbled to himself, but when Mance looked through his lashes, his brow was furrowed, face twisted in consideration. Maybe he’ll do alright, Mance thought, and he turned away to catch a few hours of sleep.

 

Chapter Text

Jaime woke stiff with cold and fatigue. A rock dug oddly into his spine, and his face was a block of ice. Surreally he heard singing. A dream surely, he thought. Then he remembered Mance.

The wind whipping across the mouth of the cavern made it seem the ranger’s voice came from the stones and sky.

 

To ol'  Stark’s offer this poor bard replied:

“All that I want is your finest flower,

Your best winter rose is all that I need."

The Stark lord agreed and swore thus to me:

“A rose I will give you, a fine winter rose

The best rose I have is my gift to you."

 

Mance’s voice was not exceptional, but it held the easy-to-listen-to quality that worked in a good bard’s favor. A voice to act as a background to conversation and merriment, not overshadow it. Though why he’d sing of Starks, Jaime couldn’t imagine.

He dragged himself into a sitting position, wincing as his muscles voiced a protest. The previous day had been a trial. Haunting the Red Keep for two years wreaked havoc on his endurance, and the  march to the Wall lagged too much to fix the problem. Certainly it’d not prepared him for Mance’s carelessly brisk pace. To worsen matters, he’d made Jaime constantly scramble on and off his garron to show him paths and edible plants or places to hide or rest or look for hiding wildlings.

And it’d been cold.

The cold made everything awful.

Mance leaned against the cave’s entrance. He didn't wear the cloak he’d borrowed from Jaime nor even his own, but only the standard layers of wool and mail. If the chill bothered him, he showed it not. He must have ice for blood. 

Not inclined to move just yet, Jaime rested his head against the wall behind him and listened to the song. 

 

A fine rose Stark gave me, this singer agrees

But a flower he hid, a blossom much fairer,

His dear maiden daughter — his true finest rose.

What man would I be if I suffered the slight,

If I took less than Stark promised me?

I found the fair maiden, my fine winter rose.

I stole her dear heart with only a song

 

Jaime made a noise of surprise. Mance looked over, and when he noticed Jaime sitting up, let the last word fall away to the wind.

“Is that about Rhaegar?” Jaime said.

The details didn’t fit, but the Wall was so far from the rest of Westeros, rumors were unlikely to arrive intact. He wondered what’d become of that affair. When he left King’s Landing, Lyanna was still with Ser Arthur and the others. But I know how it’ll end, don’t I? Arthur won’t surrender. None of them will. They’ll die following Rhaegar’s orders. The only question is what’ll happen to the girl.

“I can see why’d you’d think of the prince.” Mance climbed to his feet and wandered back into the cave. “I hear he even gave the Stark girl roses. But this is a different tale. Bael the Bard wrote it hundreds of years ago.”

“I haven’t the foggiest notion who that is.”

“Bael was a free folk king. They sing his songs beyond the Wall.”

Now that was interesting.

“Wildlings have kings?”

Mance picked up his cloak and swept it over his shoulders. “They don’t have kings like you’d think. It’s no hereditary position, and most often there’s no king at all. Those that come to rule do so through a deft tongue and ready sword.” He fastened his scabbard opposite the dagger he must’ve kept on all night, continuing to speak as he did. “None made men kneel at their feet. They wouldn’t have won their title if they had. Usually the goal was to gather an army to march on the Wall, though it hasn't once amounted to anything. They’ve invade out of desperation after a hard winter, maybe frustration at being met with a Wall they can’t cross. I reckon Bael just didn’t like Stark. But none properly considered what’d happen after, and Northern armies stopped them every time.”

A wildling attack would be properly exciting, and it’d be a great lark if Jaime slayed a second king. That might even get a smile from Stark.

“Has this happened recently?”

“The last time was sixty years ago. Raymun Redbeard saw the Watch in decline, and he thought it a fair opportunity. The Starks rode north, and House Umber assisted. Redbeard didn’t have a prayer.”

“Where was the Watch?” An invasion would do Jaime no good if he wasn’t allowed to fight. 

“The Lord Commander didn’t know Redbeard's host climbed the Wall.” You’ve got to be jesting. “A band of black brothers did arrive when the battle finished. Lord Stark had them see to the dead.”

“Just like crows to miss the battle and come for the corpses.”

“My thoughts precisely.” Mance pulled Jaime’s cloak off the ground and handed it to him. “Wasn’t so cold without it, was it?”

“Merely a bit brisk,” Jaime lied. He pulled it over himself like a blanket, relaxing as the thick wool warmed him through. His mind returned to their task for the day, talk of kings giving way to more immediate concerns. “You’re still set on this… talking with the wildlings?”

“It’s not as scandalous as you make it sound. Certainly not Orl’s folk. Varamyr, your worries are founded.”

“Then why-”

“Don’t think on it now. He’ll not harm us if we’re reasonable, and he’s yet days away. Come now, stop lying about. I let you sleep late. We’ll have wasted the whole morning if we linger longer.”

This was not at all reassuring, but Mance was already seeing to the garrons.

Jaime staggered to his feet, biting back curses as he did. He was sure he’d do himself no favors stating he’d rather lay in the reasonably warm cavern until midday, so he clung to his pride and did his best to push his doubts and aches aside.

 

Mance seemed to think Jaime’s questions upon waking indicated an interest in wildling kings, and he rambled of them until their surroundings shifted from cliffs and rock to sparse pine forest. At that point, he admitted they ought not distract themselves.

“This is where ambushes become more likely. If someone attacks you, you’d best fight back meaning to kill. But stumble across a camp, and try to work out what they’re doing. Might be raiders. Or hunters or scouts or traders.”

“Sounds impractical.”

“You understand doing otherwise risks slaughtering innocents?”

I’d rather not risk my life over the thing. He didn’t say it. It wasn’t worth stoking Mance’s ire, nor was the sentiment a knightly one. 

They rode several hours before Mance slowed his pace. There were visible paths through the area, so well-used they’d certainly been there for years. Not narrow like game trails, but wide enough it was no matter for Jaime and Mance to ride horseback side by side.

“Are there maps of these roads?” Jaime said.

“Old ones at Castle Black, though they’d not be much use. The forest grows quickly, and the trails change faster than you’d think. There are tribes who settle for winter and cut away paths grown over in summer, or bands that leave their homes to go elsewhere in winter and only clear them when summer comes.”

“Then how does one learn what is where?”

“You pay attention,” Mance said, as if that was helpful at all.

Shortly after this exchange, an arrow flew by Jaime’s head and stuck in a tree trunk not a foot from his ear.

Jaime’s hand went to his sword.

Mance darted out an arm to catch his wrist. “A warning shot. Don’t draw your weapon. Someone will come out to talk.”

Jaime didn't move his hand, knowing he should follow orders but worried Mance had misread the situation and would get them killed.

“I don’t spook so easy,” Mance announced. “Come out. You’re scaring the boy.”

A scrappy creature with freckles and tangled brown hair appeared seemingly from nowhere, a girl of perhaps fourteen with a gap between her front teeth. She held a bow in one hand, a horn at her waist. Unlike Mance, she looked like Jaime might’ve imagined of a wildling, wearing fur leggings and a ragged sheepskin cloak. He’d have bet a limb her hair hadn’t seen a brush in its life. But she was also short and bony, and wholly unimpressive for it.

He let go of his sword. Perhaps not a threat after all.

“What’re you snooping about for, Mance?” she demanded, her accent all grumbly northerner.

Mance dismounted, gesturing for Jaime to do the same. The girl looked smaller when they all stood at the same level. Two of her could've gone into either of them.  

“I meant to talk to your father," Mance said. "Will you take us to him?” 

“S'pose he'd not mind having a talk.” She noted Jaime for the first time. “What the Other’s tit is this? He’s prettier than I am.”

Mance spoke before Jaime could think of a cutting reply. “Jaime, this is Eva. Chief Orl’s daughter, and as fine a hunter and tracker as you’ll meet. Treat her like… oh, like she's a respected knight.”

“I’m sure that’s the wrong comparison. She’s half a child and has teats besides. Though it’s not so certain from looking at her.”

 Eva squinted at Jaime like she studied a trapped specimen. "Talks funny too.”

I talk funny?”

“Eva, this crow’s called the Kingslayer. He slit the throat of the kneeler king. It’s why they shoved him off up here.”

She leaned back as if she now needed to take him in from another angle. “Truly? The king?”

Maybe she wasn’t so bad.

“He was cruel and deserved to die. So I killed him. King or no.”

She gave him a second look over. “If Mance likes you, and the rest is true, maybe you ain’t so bad. For a golden crow who talks like he’s got something shoved up his arse.” She set off walking, and Mance and Jaime fell in beside her, leading the garrons behind them. “Me da’s been thinking crows might come around. He’ll be pleased it’s not the mean ones.”

“You’re too far south, and it’s become clear you mean to stay.”

“We came this way for hunting, thought to stay a while and trade. Was s’posed to be a few weeks. But the Weeper’s making trouble where we was, squabbling with some other clan. The game is good enough it’s easiest to hunker a while. We hoped we was far enough out of the way it din’t bother no one.”

“A shame Mallister bothers easily.”

“Ain’t he dried up and died yet?”

“He knows Qhorin’s a likely replacement, and he’ll not die until someone of better blood comes along. Maybe now the Kingslayer’s around, he’ll cling on less stubbornly.”

Jaime grimaced. I’d throw myself in the Gorge if anyone tried to shove me in Mallister’s place.

Eva threw a skeptical look Jaime’s way. “What’s so special about him? S’nice to look at, but give him a few years. If he’s not dead he’ll have lost some teeth and froze off his ears and then he’ll just be another crow.”

The notion was so horrifying, it left Jaime at a rare loss for words.

“All his ancestors were lords and ladies for centuries on both sides. He’s well bred.”

“You make me sound like a prized horse.”

“S’ a silly way to look at the thing, too. Qhorin looked made o’ sterner stuff, when you last brought him round.”

“I sparred with Qhorin, and I thrashed him,” Jaime protested.

Eva perked up. “Truly?”

“Our brother took care to lengthen the match so I’d have time to pick out weaknesses,” Mance said. “He’d have been a tougher foe had he not been so cautious.”

“Beating him is something, even so. Bet you didn’t get Mance, though.”

“He tricked me,” Jaime muttered.

That made her laugh. “Crows is tricksy. That’s the point of ‘em. You’d better work on getting tricksy yourself, hatchling. Won’t last long elsewise.”

Jaime did not regret they reached the encampment before the conversation could continue. One moment it seemed they were surrounded by trees. The next, Eva stepped into a clearing a hundred yards across and filled with people.

There were probably fifty, give or take a dozen. Tents made of skins filled the space, but the clearing had taken on a semi-settled air, clothes hanging on a line, fire pits set up, an elk skin stretched to dry. A group of women butchered the meat on a broad flat stone further into the clearing. Little children and dogs ran about, and a group roughly the age of young squires – boys and girls both – practiced archery, shooting into a stump with a charcoal circle drawn on it.  

It was like a tiny town. In the middle of the forest, at the end of the earth.

“Da!” Eva said. “I brought crow for supper!”

Jaime’s step hitched.

Eva grinned at him. “Does we frighten you, baby crow?”

“Your face frightens me, certainly.”  

“Does it really?” she said, pleased. “I’ve been working on me scowl.”

For gods' sake.

A man wandered over. Orl, Jaime supposed. He was short but strongly-built, with a great beard gratifyingly proper for a wildling.

“I see the crows,” he said to his daughter, “but why’s it your still here? Mance knows his way. You spend all year begging for watch duty, now expect the trees to keep a lookout? Is that it? Take our guests’ horses to Bek, then get back to your post.”

She turned pink and muttered an apology. As she snatched the reigns of his garron, Jaime smirked at her, not inclined to be gracious after being called hatchling and baby crow. Not to mention the comment about losing my teeth.

She slugged his arm, and he flinched on instinct, though he could barely feel it through his mail.

“Eva,” her father scolded.

“He grabbed me arse.” She smiled sweetly and moseyed off with the garrons.

“You lying-” She was already gone, so Jaime faced Orl. “I didn’t touch her.”

Orl managed to look down at Jaime despite being likely a foot shorter. “Were you gonna call me daughter a liar?”

“It’s true! Why’d I want to grab her? There’s nothing to grab.” 

“Don’t think she’s becoming, is that it? You've got the look of a fancy lord about you. My girl isn’t good enough for your sort?”

“I’m a man of the Night’s Watch,” Jaime tried. “I have oaths.”

He spat at Jaime’s feet, but something in the twist of his mouth belied the thundering. He thinks this is funny.

“Fuck me backwards, I ain’t seen nothing so green this far north, not in all me life.” Orl looked at Mance. “What kind of place makes a child like this?”

Jaime gnashed his teeth.

“A castle built into a cliff by the sea,” Mance said, “with gold mines that’ve been worked hundreds of years and show no signs of running low. He’s even got a golden sword. Jaime, show him.”  

Jaime drew it, sensing he didn’t have much choice. The sword’s grip was fine chocolate leather, worn buttery soft, the pommel a lion’s head with ruby eyes. Of course the blade wasn’t true gold, but it’d not been used oft enough for the gilding to have worn away. I wonder how I’ll maintain it at the Wall. Mayhaps Tyg will know.

“I’ll be fucked.” Orl gave a low whistle. “Has it been used?”

“Yes.” Jaime twisted the blade so it better caught the light, recalling how red had run through gold. He sheathed it fluidly as he could. “To kill the king.”

“The one you kneelers go on about?” he said, as impressed as his daughter had been. At least these people know how to appreciate a good deed.

Jaime nodded as if it was nothing.

“Har. So you've bloodied your sword. That’s something, though you’ve still the look about you of a summer child.” To Mance, he said, “Suppose you're here to say we’re bothering the Watch.”

Mance inclined his head.

“We’ll talk of it later when we’re all gathered to eat," Orl said. "Watch your boy, and don’t go stirring anything up. I’ve scouts due back from the north I need to meet, and Arna’s reviewing goods we’ve got for trade.”

“I’ve items from the castle I’d barter. We’re drawing our ranging out, and I wish to exchange them for supplies.”

“You didn’t even know we were extending the ranging,” Jaime protested.

Mance rolled his eyes. “As I told you, things oft come up. I like to be prepared.”

“Does Mallister know-”

“Oh yes. We’ve had talks.” Mance regarded Orl with a light smile. “I’ve a skin of that wine you like.”

That brought a smile to his face. “Good man. Talk to Arna when you’ve the chance. She’ll sort you out.”

With that, he wandered off.

“Wait,” Jaime said. “Are we supposed to linger until he’s ready to talk?”

“Why not? It’s a pleasant place, and we’ll have somewhere warm to sleep." Mance set off walking.

 Jaime fell into step beside him. “Pleasant? The devil girl is the most insulting creature I’ve met, and her father treated me like a child.”

“You acted like one. Are you always so jumpy?" 

Only when mad crows bring me to wildling nests. “I feared he'd have me gutted for 'groping' his daughter." 

“Such things aren’t so strict beyond the Wall. Orl knew Eva meant it in fun. He’d not care even if one of his daughters did get a mind to lie with you, so long as you took care not to leave a bastard.”

Jaime pulled Mance to a stop. “You mean if he knew I bedded that girl, nothing would happen to her? And he’d not geld me?”

“Are you interested?” said Mance mildly.

“In the child?”

“I’ve been at Shadow Tower… oh, it’s been fourteen years. When I met Orl soon after, she was already walking about. You’re seven and ten? She’s your age, I’d wager. Maybe a year younger.” Mance’s smile was maddening.

Jaime’s ears heated. Now I’ve made Orl’s point for him. “How am I supposed to tell, the way she’s dressed? And no, I’m not interested.”

“I could point out men who’d not mind your company.”

“Do I look Dornish? I don’t want to bed a man. I don’t want to bed any stranger.” Even as he spoke, a cold feeling went through him. Cersei was in King’s Landing. Would he see her again, ever? When? He’d not betray her. He wouldn’t. But he’d not thought of all that meant. It’d just be keeping my vows. Ser Barristan and Ser Gerold have likely done so for decades.

As if that made the prospect less depressing.  

Mance leaned around to look him in the eye. He had the wits to see the honesty. “Not a bad way to go about it. But if you want to make anyone less of a stranger, it’s no big thing. Qorgyle himself used to go to Molestown when he was still up for it.”

Jaime dragged a hand down his face. “I suppose you’d have me keep that in mind when accounting for whatever you’ll be doing tonight?”

Mance wavered. “My doings tonight are no certain thing. Time stands still at Shadow Tower in many ways, but goes forward beyond the Wall. Some things, I can’t take for granted.” He looked off to the side, then focused on Jaime again. “Are you settled?”

“You’ve a woman to run off and talk with, haven’t you?”

“And you claim you’re not clever.”  

“Go. I’ll not slaughter innocents while you’re flirting.”

“I was more worried you’d incite someone to slaughter you, but that's reassuring, either way.” He offered a grin, then slipped off.

As Jaime had gathered, one of the elk-butchering women seemed to have been waiting for Jaime and Mance to finish talking. She detached herself from the others and walked briskly over, a perfectly plain wench with hair nearly black. Jaime hovered uncomfortably when she wrapped Mance in an easy embrace. He’d assumed Mance meant to find anyone willing and treat the affair as one would a visit to a brothel. But he was whispering to his… friend, and she wore a smile like the reunion warmed her through.

Jaime tried not to think of Cersei.

After a heartbeat, he realized people were staring. The children, it seemed even the dogs, had stopped to look at him. Other free folk going about tasks made a pretense of working, though a poor one at best.  

Someone tugged on his cloak, and Jaime jumped. But when he turned, he found only two small children peering up at him.

“Is yer sword gold for true?” said the elder. A boy, maybe five, with wild hair sticking up every which way.

“Where are your parents?” Jaime had a notion men of the Watch weren’t particularly liked by these people, that Mance was an exception. He didn’t want to push the thing. It’d also be a fine excuse to stop strange children from poking at me and touching me with grubby hands.

“What’s that to do with anything?” 

His counterpart, a red-haired girl still infant-chubby, ignored the question outright. “I want t’ see.”

Mance seemed to have decided Jaime was fine on his own, because he’d followed the woman to her elk-butchering friends. It would be childish to run over and demand assistance. And though several free folk glanced his way, none appeared concerned enough to extricate Jaime from the situation. They look amused, if anything.

Perhaps he’d seemed a bit too panicked when speaking with Orl, and stopping Mance for a frantic conversation in the middle of the camp, in hindsight, was not the most sophisticated thing he could’ve done. The onlookers probably expected him to make a further spectacle.

There wasn’t much for it.

“You can look, but don’t touch it. It’s sharp.”

“We’re not stupid,” the boy said. 

Jaime drew the blade a second time and held it out for inspection. The children craned their necks to better see, but kept their hands off. Realizing they couldn’t see the hilt and pommel, he knelt, then rested the blade across his hands and turned it so they could get a full view.

“Wha’s the aminal?” The girl pointed at the lion.

“A lion. They’re like shadow cats, but bigger, with golden fur and fangs long as your fingers.”

“Why’s it on yer sword?” said the boy.

“My father is a leader like Orl. He uses the lion as a symbol because lions are fierce and brave, and we want people to think we’re fierce and brave as well.”

The boy brightened as he understood. “Like the Frozen Shore clans. They take names after wolves n’ such.”

“Yes, just like that.” As if I’ve got any idea. “In fact, in the south, some people called me the Lion of Lannister, because they thought I did an alright job of acting lion-like.”

The girl squinted at him. “Ye don’ look like no gold shadow cat.”

Jaime sheathed the sword and faced the girl. He gave her a faux serious scowl. “What about now?”

She scrunched her nose. “Tha’s silly.”

Jaime tried another face and snarled. 

They both giggled.

Jaime's throat tightened. Now I’ve gone from missing Cersei to missing Tyrion. Never mind it’d been years since his brother was young enough to be amused by such nonsense play.

“I bet you two couldn’t do better.” If Jaime’s voice was hoarse, neither noticed.

The girl shook out her red mane and growled at Jaime like a rabid dog. He obediently flinched, and she took the opportunity to leap onto him and make another vaguely animal noise.

“My turn, my turn.” The boy made his own noise and ran in a circle.

A bad feeling rooted in Jaime’s mind, memories of Rhaenys and Aegon’s bodies threatening to overshadow the present. This is a horrific idea. At some point he was going to face wildlings as the enemy. Not to mention teaching their children to trust crows, even a little, was all sorts of wrong. I’m muddling my duties again.

“I got ‘m,” the girl said once she had Jaime pinned. She jabbed a chubby finger in his face. “Yer dead. Say it.”

“You win. I’m dead.”

“I wanna kill the crow.”

Jaime propped himself on his elbows and saw a number of the younger children had gathered to watch.

“Y’can’t sit,” the girl said. “Ye’s dead.”

“Maybe he’s a wight,” the newcomer said.

Jaime had a vague notion of wights from reading The Seven Pointed Star when Cersei stole his clothes and attended his sword lessons, and he had to suffer through hers with the septa. Sensing he might get outnumbered and mauled if he let this game take a certain turn, he snatched the redhead and her friend and dragged them to the ground. “Now you’re wights too.”

They looked momentarily put out by this, but when he released them, they remained by his side and faced the others. 

Jaime hauled himself to his feet. “Anyone who gets tackled becomes a wight, but wights are only down if we surrender. Last side standing wins.”

The boy who brought wights into it lifted his fist. “For the living!” he cried, and he launched himself at Jaime’s knees.

Jaime staggered but kept standing, noting most the other children hurried to follow the first. Time slowed like it usually did only in battle. His chest ached like a great scab had been torn off. He’d forgotten moments like this existed. Children who laughed without artifice. But the relief of it contrasted with the fear that’d come to him before. They’ll grow up, and I might be expected to kill them. They might try to kill me.

Dread came over him quick and burning as lightening, fueled by fear a cloak would tear him in two all over again.

The moment passed.

A girl latched onto his leg and joined the boy in trying to pull him down.

Jaime snatched them up. Both thrashed and laughed and yelled, “Die, wight, die.” Knowing from Tyrion they’d grow bored if he didn’t give them little victories, he let them work their way free. He was rewarded when both darted out of his reach and grins split their faces.

The tiny redhead appeared with a cry and threw her arms around the second girl, bringing her down. Jaime was startled into a bark of laughter. Proper laughter, without bitterness or irony. He shoved back thoughts of all the dangers in this, of what’d become of the last small children he’d known, of his brother trapped a thousand miles away with a father who hated him. It isn’t the time. Not now. I want this moment.

A boy climbed his back and yelled at him to get down and stay dead, and he stopped thinking and enjoyed himself as best he could.

 

They left Orl’s camp with the first light of dawn, and within an hour the land began to flatten around them.

As they rode, Mance thought about leaving the Wall. It was something he did sometimes. Not seriously. He knew life for most free folk was harsh and short. He’d not hear news from the south, nor new songs or stories. And his brothers would be lost to him. There’d be no playing his lute in the common hall, no bickering with Qhorin. No afternoons in the training yard, nor driving Mallister up the wall. His family was at the Wall. Aside from shadows he recalled of his mother, he’d never known anything else.

All the same, he thought about it. Leaving Orl's camp, it was all he could think about. 

Jaime didn’t seem to be in a pleasant mood either, though he’d gotten over his prickled pride enough to gain the admiration of most the free folk children. Little Ygritte had told him to steal her, volunteering to come south so she could be a lion. He’d even done well when negotiating with Orl, cajoling and charming the chief with dangerous ease. In the end, they’d promised the clan three months to arrange matters and move on. In exchange Orl swore any rangers could come to him for aid during that period, so long as they behaved themselves. Violence on either side would end the arrangement.

It’d been more than Mance thought they’d get, and he’d told Jaime honestly he’d been a help. That’d pleased him, though he tried to hide it. But he’d been growing more sour the longer they rode.  

“You’re grim,” Jaime said. 

“You’re not cheerful, yourself,” Mance said. “Ygritte’s crying didn’t get to you?”

“She’s three. She’ll forget me in a week. I’m only tired.” Jaime looked at him. “What of you? The woman… didn’t work out?”

“Worked out too well. Hazel is…” There weren’t words. Funny, sharp-tongued and sweet, but more than that as well. Mance let out his breath in a rush. “She wanted me to stay. She’d asked around it before, but said it outright this time.”

He ought not to have said it aloud. It was close enough to traitorous even Qhorin would’ve given him a long side-eye.

Jaime looked over at him, his hood up and hair partially obscuring his face. But when he spoke, his tone said more than any expression could've. “Why don’t you?” he said, like it was a viable choice. Not some sin Mance might succumb to were his blood to win out. But something reasonable.

“The Wall is my home,” Mance said. “I’d not give it up for a woman. One I don’t know I’d want if I had her. We’ve never spent more than a few hours together at a time. What’s that tell me, truly? Were I to desert, that’d be it. Everything gone, no turning back. I wouldn’t do it for an uncertainty.”

“Love isn’t certain?”

They were too far into the forest for kicking up noise to be wise, but Mance laughed at him all the same. It was the sort of thing a boy his age would say so seriously, like there was nothing more to it. That’s why you’d not look twice at a free folk woman. You fancy yourself a romantic, and there’s some southron lady you plan to long for until you die.

“Love’s a tricky word,” Mance told him. “People use it in all sorts of ways. When it means clinging to thoughts of a woman to keep warm on cold days, of singing songs and pining away, that’s the most uncertain thing there is. Just as well close your eyes and charge a distant enemy, glorying every step in the perfect strike you’ll deliver when you reach him. You’ll paint a false and pretty picture and land far off the mark, and the only certain thing is you’ll get hurt.

“I take care not to love like that, and as it’s the only way a man can love from the Wall, least the only way I can, I save such things for stories and songs and keep my own eyes open. It’s foolish and cruel to expect a woman to wait for me forever. Always I’ll be replaced, through the fault of no one but fate.”

 “You don’t know everything,” Jaime said, his voice a decent approximation of a growl.

“I don’t know much at all. I haven’t lived the most varied of lives.” There was an ache in admitting it. “I do know about pining, and how it does no good, no matter how knightly it’s said to be.”

“If you’re determined to natter, talk of something else. I have no stomach for this.”

There was a glint in his eyes. A wrong look that put Mance of a mind to hum “The Rains of Castamere.” Here’s the rotten ice. Though he wasn’t certain that was a proper phrase. Ice breaking was a passive thing. He sensed if he poked at Jaime and his pining, there’d be nothing passive about the boy’s reaction. The thought made him want to do it anyway. The strangeness of the response prompted curiosity.

But he was tired, and it wasn’t the place to bicker. Certainly not to fight outright, and a fight he’d be inviting if he said what he wished to say. Regardless, Mance wasn’t of mind to pry about someone else’s lost love with Hazel’s whisper still in his ear.

He knew, because it’d happened before, that now she’d asked, and he’d said no, made it clear never, she’d stop holding out. She’d have a partner with her when he saw her next, or will have gone to another clan to live with whoever might steal her. Mance would fade fast to her memory, a bleak figure lingering on the Wall.

No, I've no desire to fight, not over this.

He considered what might’ve come if he’d stolen Hazel. He still could. She’d give him an earful, but he could point the Kingslayer on his way and ride back and take her for himself. She’d put up enough of a fight to make it proper, but it’d be a token effort, and she’d let him win.

But he’d not leave. Not for a woman. That’d be a foolish thing, a mundane thing, like the dullest heroes in songs. Only soft-headed knights and jesters made grand gestures for love, and Mance was neither. I’m a crow. A clever, practical crow. One with a nest too cozy to abandon.

Even if it seems a fine idea, sometimes.

 

After several full days of travel, Jaime decided Orl had not been amiss in naming him a child of summer. He felt more wrung out each time they made camp and did an increasingly poor job hiding it. Sleep proved fleeting despite his exhaustion, a combination of a mind too heavy and uncomfortable surroundings. When he did sleep, he suspected he had nightmares, though he retained only impressions of them upon waking.

Once, he opened his eyes to find Mance watching him with a dark expression. The following hours passed without a reference to Jaime being soft or a boy or a lordling. To push Mance's behavior back to normalcy, Jaime rattled off complaints as they occurred to him. 

Because they’d brought supplies for only a brief ranging, they didn’t have enough food. Mance had traded for some from the free folk, but he’d been stingy about it. After the third day, he announced they’d need to hunt their own game, but they came across none, so ate only bitter berries that dried out Jaime’s mouth. Mance snared a hare the next day, but it didn’t feel like much split between them. 

Hunger made the ranging not a jot more pleasant.

They reached Varamyr's land early the seventh morning after leaving Orl's camp. Jaime wouldn’t say he was relieved, as Mance described the man well enough to make the promise of a meeting unpleasant. But he wanted a meal, and then he wished to return to the Wall. An irony that did not escape him.

Varamyr’s lordship was jarringly normal. Mance said the man took tribute from some dozen villages, and those they rode through looked much like poor peasant villages in the south. The buildings were shabby, but unlike the skin tents of Orl’s band, these were proper shacks with chimneys and the like. Some even had small gardens, and livestock and poultry in pens. The wildlings inevitably scattered when Mance and Jaime appeared, shoving children behind them. Only when Mance called a greeting did they relax, and then only marginally. Not liking his presence, but recognizing him and trusting he’d not hurt them.  

After the fifth village, when the whole thing had gotten tiring, Jaime fought with himself over whether it’d be childish to ask how much further they needed to travel. As if summoned by the thought, a shadowed form slunk from the trees and planted itself in their path.

Jaime’s garron cried out and reared with more energy than he’d have expected she could manage, and Jaime tightened his knees to remain seated. Even Mance’s horse, who’d struck Jaime as a particularly calm beast, drew back with a frightened noise.

The shadow cat did not advance, but remained planted where it stood. It must’ve weighed fourteen stone, its coat shimmering finely in the warm afternoon sun, black with barely visible stripes of white.

Mance shushed his horse with a comforting noise, then coaxed it a step further along the path. “I thought to speak with you. My brother and I ranged this way, and it occurred to me we’d not exchanged information for many months. I’ve come from Orl’s clan, and he’s told me of the Weeper’s latest doings.”

The cat stalked forward.

Jaime’s garron’s eyes rolled up into her head, her nostrils flaring. I know how you feel. “Shush, it’s alright.” He ran a gloved hand over her coat, dappled black and white and gray. “It won’t attack.” It bloody well better not.

“You need not worry about the boy,” Mance told the shadow cat. “He’s a good lad. Was awed when I spoke of your skills. He’d be honored to meet you.”

The creature tilted its head, took another step nearer. It looked straight at Jaime.

Jaime cleared his throat. “What Mance said. I’d be honored.”

It made a dismissive noise, then bounded off the way Mance and Jaime had been heading. Before it disappeared around a bend in the path, it stopped and waited.

“We’re to follow,” Mance said.

Madness. But Jaime coaxed his trembling garron alongside Mance’s, and the shadow cat resumed its easy walk. I’d not have thought it possible, but I preferred the escort to Orl’s camp.

Unless someone had trained a shadow cat incredibly well, it appeared skinchangers truly lived beyond the Wall. The notion made Mance’s nonsense about the fire less absurd. Still foolish, but overcautious, not blindly superstitious. There were other implications as well.  

“Are there other things like this?” Jaime asked.

“Giants and mammoths far to the north. I saw them only once when Qorgyle told me to range far as I could go and see what I could find. There are wise women who claim to see the future. Healers who heal unnaturally well. One woman told me she saw a child of the forest, but that I’ll grant may have been a tale. Direwolves roam near the Frostfangs.”

Jaime shook his head. He wished to write Tyrion of this, but was torn. Would his brother believe him? I hardly believe it myself.

He knew not what to make of it. But a flicker of interest had taken hold. Whatever Stark and Robert intended, they’d not sent him to rot at the end of the earth. It wasn’t home, nor did the thought ease the sting of being ripped from Tyrion and Cersei. Even so, it didn’t seem he’d wither of boredom. It may be there’s more of interest here than there’d been with Aerys.

Certainly more than had he married Lysa Tully and been shackled as Lord of the Rock.

The shadow cat soon slowed to a stop in front of Varamyr’s hall. It was by no means impressive, but it was the largest building Jaime had seen beyond the Wall. A moss and log structure, plastered together with mud. A round-faced young woman hovered in the doorway.

“M’lord would have me help with your mounts. He waits within.” Her eyes tracked the shadow cat still lingering nearby. She’s afraid of it.

“You’ve our thanks,” Mance said.

Jaime did not like how she eyed the cat. He worked his jaw, but a hard look from Mance had him holding his tongue. 

The inside of the hall smelled like dirt and mildew. It was low-ceilinged and cramped, most available space taken up by three tables lined with benches. A fire burned in the room’s center, casting strange shadows on the walls but warming the air. Jaime stifled a sigh of relief. I might even call the place cozy.

Then he spied the wolf curled in a corner. The beast looked up and caught his eye. Maybe cozy isn’t the word.  

Mance cleared his throat, and Jaime realized a man also occupied the room. He sat at the end of the furthest table. Though certainly a grown man, his bald head and strange pallor made it difficult to determine his exact age. He could’ve been only a little Jaime’s senior or just as easily double that.

And he was small. He reminded Jaime of Emmon Frey, who sometimes looked like a puppet Aunt Genna carried with her. But Emmon had been small in a hardy way, like a cockroach. Jaime would’ve bet good money Tyrion could’ve trounced Varamyr in a fight.

“Varamyr,” Mance said. “You honor us with your hospitality.”  

The little man waved a hand. “You must be tired after so long a journey. Will you have some bread? Stew? Some mead?”

“If you insist.” Mance sat, and Jaime followed his lead. He hesitated, uncertain if he should eat. But Mance broke off a piece of bread and took a mouthful right away, washing it down with a swallow of mead. Reassured, Jaime grabbed one of the still-steaming bowls of stew that'd been dished out for them. 

“Have some salt, boy.” Varamyr pushed it toward him.

“It’s a funny thing, your concern with guest right,” Mance said.  Jaime choked on a mouthful of stew. Wildlings are aware of guest right? And Jaime had gone along with it, when the look of that woman suggested Varamyr might benefit from a good thrashing. 

“You’d chide me for mistrusting you crows?”

“Not at all. I only mean it’s entertaining in the circumstances. There’s a tale that a king from whom Ser Jaime is descended visited the Wall with his son. The king offended the cook at the castle, so the man killed the prince and cut him to pieces and put him in a pie to serve the king.

“It's said the old gods turned the cook into a rat and cursed him so he could eat nothing but his own young. Mind you, he wasn’t punished for killing the Lannister boy, nor making a cannibal of the father. The worst of his sins was slaying a guest." Mance took another bite of bread. “You see, your gesture is emptier than you might like. Even ironic. But I’m sure sincere.”

Varamyr’s beady eyes fixed on Mance. “Every story you tell means a dozen things, crow. I’ve a mind to have your tongue and be done with it.”

Mance took a pointed drink of mead. “A shame you served us so quickly.”

Jaime noted a subtle shift in the air and turned his head. The wolf had wandered to the table. It brushed past him and went to Varamyr’s side.

“A shame indeed.” Varamyr faced Jaime. “Descended from kings? Is that one of the halfbreed’s lies, or the truth?”

Jaime set his spoon aside. “The truth. My family ruled for hundreds of years, but they were conquered three centuries ago by the line that ruled until recently. Until I killed the last of their kings.”

“Yet you’re here.”

“I sat briefly on the throne. It was not comfortable. Then other lords came, and were not pleased I killed the king and sent me to the Wall as punishment.”

The shrewdness in Varamyr’s expression made him look away. But his eyes rested on the wolf still lingering, watching, and that was no better. With the wolf, there was none of the intelligence that had been in the eyes of the shadow cat. Varamyr did not hold this creature so tightly, and only predatory coldness lived in its gaze.

“Does the boy speak the truth?” Varamyr said to Mance.

“Aye.”

“I’ve an interest in things south of the Wall,” Varamyr said. “Your tale intrigues me.”

“Strange,” Jaime murmured. "I’m developing an interest in things north of the Wall. We’ve no skinchangers in the south.”

A glance at Varamyr showed the comment pleased him. “There aren’t many here either. And we’re little loved by some.”

Jaime relaxed enough to take a drink of mead. It wasn’t any good, but he swallowed it down. “Is it rude to ask how you do it?”

Varamyr shrugged. “It’s a natural thing if you have the talent. Like breaking in a horse. Though you have to be careful. You put a bit of yourself into an animal, but you take some of the animal back. Spend too much time in a bird, and you stop caring for things of the ground. In an elk, or a deer, and it makes you craven.”

He seemed to be implying his own choices were wise beyond reproach, but the implication put a shiver down Jaime’s spine. This one likes predators. Territorial. Vicious, if provoked.

The thinly veiled warning of Mance’s story reverberated more pointedly.

Varamyr reclined. “I’ve questions for you as well, boy. And Mance, I want the word on the Weeper you promised. You’ll not stay the night - I’ve no use for crows milling about - so talk while you can, and I’ll see if I’ve something to say in return.”

                                                                                                               

Mance always felt as if he was taking a breath of fresh air when leaving Varamyr’s hall. The other man was clever, but his mind small and selfish. This encounter, he'd pressed Jaime for details about his childhood with a voyeur’s enthusiasm. The nature of the inquiries gave Mance the impression Varamyr wished he could slip into Jaime’s past skin and live his early years as a much loved lord.

Jaime opened his mouth as soon as they were outside, but Mance grabbed his forearm. The boy followed his gaze and noted the shadow cat lounging in the shadows of a tree.

The woman who’d taken their horses appeared again. “You’re ready to leave?”

“I’m afraid so,” Mance said. “I regret we couldn't find time to enjoy your lovely company.”

She did not smile but merely gestured for them to follow her. Once they retrieved the horses and were on their way, Jaime tried once more to speak.

Mance hushed him again. "Later." 

He did not let him talk until they stopped at the base of a broad old oak with big outgrown roots to protect them from the wind. As they set up camp, Mance moseyed the outskirts of the clearing, listening to the sound of birds and animals. They tended to be a touch too quiet if predators were near. Varamyr could control any of them as well should he wish it, but his pride usually kept him to grander creatures. Tonight there was no sign of anything amiss. 

When Mance returned, he sat at Jaime’s side.

“Say what you will.”  

“I owe you a pair of boots.”

“What more?”

“That woman didn’t want to be there.” He said it as if it was Mance’s fault.

Mance had expected this. He had an answer ready. “What could we do? People remain in his villages for a reason. War bands do not bother him, do not steal from him. He secures them better trading opportunities than his people would otherwise have. Killing him would only cause trouble.”

“We could’ve taken her to Orl-”

“And brought Varamyr’s snow bear and all the men in his villagers down on Orl’s clan?”

Jaime wrapped his cloak more tightly around him. “There’s nothing?”

“It’s a sensitive matter. There are many who’d find it unforgivable should we take free folk justice into our hands. They don’t care if we fight them, but interfering in their affairs would be an insult.”

Mance seated himself with his back to the tree, near Jaime. “I confess it’s another reason I thought it a fair idea to take you to him. Not all the free folk are like Orl, but the rest aren't only vicious raiders. Sometimes you run into thorny patches.”

“Everything seems to have thorny patches.” Jaime shut his eyes. “Life seems so simple, the way people talk about it when you’re young. Then you’ve got to actually live it, and it’s a great mess.”

“It’d be boring elsewise. So I tell myself.” Mance glanced at Jaime. “I’ve an inkling you lied through your teeth to everything Varamyr asked. Even so, I hope his questioning didn’t get to you. I apologize. I’d not realized he’d take an interest.”

“You worked out I was lying? I swore I was better than that.”

“You referenced fond memories of being hauled about in a carriage carried by peasants.”

“They do it in Essos and Dorne."

“I’d not be surprised they did it in Lannisport, but you’d not brag about it. If I recall, you didn’t want to take a garron because they were slow and clunky.”

That prompted a sheepish wince, charming in a jarringly boyish way. “I didn’t grasp the nature of the terrain. If I’d have known there’d be so many cliffs and trees, I’d have agreed straight off Dapple was the ideal mount for the job.”

“You can see the terrain from Shadow Tower.” Mance grasped the rest of what he’d said. “Jaime, it's a poor idea to name your horse. We leave them behind when we range into the mountains. They get shot during ambushes. They break legs. In winter, it's sometimes necessary to slaughter them and eat the meat." 

He winced. “I know, I know.”

“When she gets an arrow through her eye-”

“Mallister will let me keep her for my use if I-”

“Yes, that’ll win you friends-”

“Are we going to light a fire? I should fetch wood.”

Mance sagged onto his back as Jaime slipped away. “You’re an idiot.”

And I'm no better. The way lordlings came and went, bonding with Jaime was no more certain a thing than growing fond of a horse doomed to be killed. If he had any wits, he’d pull back now this ranging was nearly through and leave the fool to fate. But he didn’t have the heart, and he knew it.

He sat up and glared at the horse. He’d chosen the mount because her coat looked like white dirtied nearly black. With Jaime making a nuisance of himself insisting on a finer horse, Mance had thought it a suitable way to wring amusement from the situation. A shame Jaime only noticed the coloring to think up a stupid name.

“We’re both courting trouble,” Mance said aloud. But it wasn't his nature to dwell on grim thoughts, and after only a moment he began to hum the “The Dornishman’s Wife" to break the stillness of the night. 

 

The rest of their ranging passed quickly, though Mance had the sense Jaime disagreed. He looked ready to strangle something — Mance, probably — after their third meal in a row consisted of nuts and cooked roots.  

But Jaime‘s mood brightened considerably when they passed out of the trees and into the rocky land that meant Shadow Tower was within a day's ride. He even joined when Mance began a chorus of “Bael the Bard,” admitting a fondness for the part where everything goes sour for the Starks.

As soon as they rode in sight of the Wall, one of the watchers blew his horn, a single note, long and loud. Jaime looked relieved and crossed the Bridge of Skulls without a hesitation, and Mance forced himself to urge his garron along after. I’m returning home. This should be the easiest part.

Mance scowled when they rode into the yard to find Mallister waiting. He was as tall as Jaime and graceful in a way older men often were not. Almost always he took care to keep a pleasant expression, even when dealing with Mance. But today he wore a glare.

“You were supposed to be gone three days,” Mallister snapped. “At most four. How a routine ranging dragged out longer than a fortnight, I cannot for the life of me understand. Do you understand what would’ve become of us had Tywin Lannister’s son-”

“I dragged him into it,” Jaime said. “He mentioned skinchangers, and I insisted on meeting one.”

Mallister stepped back and regarded them both. Other brothers gathered as well, no doubt to see how the precious recruit had fared on a proper ranging.  

“We got news from Varamyr,” Mance said. “And worked out a treaty with Orl, which-”

“A treaty,” Mallister said.

Jaime nodded so earnestly it was all Mance could do not to fall over laughing. “I helped. It seemed the knightly thing.”

“Mance, I’ll have a talk with you later. Jaime, come with me. I wish to hear of your ranging in detail.”

“Mance was the commander, technically-”

“Never mind that. Come along.”

They disappeared in a flash. A steward came for Dapple and Mance’s horse, and Mance was left in the courtyard, feeling out of sorts the way he often did when he returned from rangings. Like his feet weren’t properly under him.

“You’ve lost weight in your face.” Qhorin, the mother hen. The ground grew surer, and Mance fought a smile as his old friend continued, “That should serve as a lesson against ranging eighteen days with supplies for three.”

“The boy talked too much and scared off all the game.” Mance scratched the back of his head. “But you’re right. I could do with a meal.”

He headed for the hall, though he knew it wouldn’t be that simple. His brothers followed he and Qhorin, allowing Mance to make small talk, but with mounting frustration at every mundane word that passed his lips. 

Mance knew how to work an audience. He talked around their curiosity until he had a bowl of stew and some mulled wine. Only when he seated himself did he bother to look at them properly.  

“I thought it was crows lived at the Wall,” said he, “not gossiping hens.”  

“I bet a week’s worth of watches you killed him and deserted so you’d not lose your head,” Ebben said. “I’m invested in knowing why that hasn’t happened.”

“Who’d you bet?”

Blane lifted a hand. “He didn’t snap when I called him Kingslayer. Figured he wasn’t so up himself you couldn’t stomach him.”

“You’re observant. That’s why I like you.” There were all sorts of reasons he was less fond of Ebben, but it wasn’t the time to get into them.  

Mance drank down a bit of broth.

“Mance,” Blane ventured. “I'd still like your thoughts.”

Qhorin snorted. “You don’t need to push him. You really think he won’t tell us all we need to know and then some?”

“I missed you dearly, brother.” All the wit in the world wasn’t a proper replacement for dear Qhorin’s sunny charm.

“Mance.” This from Ser Endrew, one of now three knights at the tower. He leaned forward, his interest a softer thing. “When you asked him for a story, which did he give you?”

Mance took a long drink of mulled wine, letting the taste calm him. Seeing he’d let the game go on long enough, Mance gave in. “Have you heard the tale of Corlos, son of Caster?”

“That one?” Blane said.

He was from the Westerlands. But of the rest, even Ser Endrew did not recognize it. So Mance shared the story as best he could remember. Surprise quelled curiosity, and for once, no one interrupted. 

In the silence that fell once the tale was told, Mance took a moment to resign himself to a period of scorn, the kind that inevitably accompanied the delivery of an unpopular opinion. Particularly as he imagined many who’d crowded the table hoped for an account of embarrassment and failure. 

He considered delicate phrasing, but not all his brothers grasped subtlety.

There was nothing for it.

“On the whole, I enjoyed Jaime's company. He’s got a livelier tongue than most you lot, and he has the potential to be a fine ranger. I’d count him as a friend.”

“A friend?” Qhorin said, breaking a beat of silence. He knew Mance well enough to know, free as he threw around the word brother, he spoke of friends less often.

"It happens we’ve a similar way of seeing some things.”

Protests rose up from some, though none overtly harsh. Mance was not necessarily trusted, but he was liked – respected, even. And most his brothers were less angry, more unsettled. They don’t know what to make of this. At least, those pricklier crows did not. Others showed only surprise. Ser Endrew appeared intrigued. Blane took it in stride, as he did most things.

Qhorin tried to hide his own thoughts, but Mance knew him too well.

“You doubt me?”

“I believe you completely. I’m less certain it’s a good thing.”

There was no insult in the words. Only Qhorin being himself. Mance waved it off. “Nag him as you would me. You’ll keep us both in line.” More seriously, in a lower voice, he urged, “Give him a chance.”

“If he’s your friend, he has an ally in me. You know that.”

Mance clapped him on the back. “It’s nice to hear all the same.”

“Are you going to tell us where you wandered off to on your ranging?” Ser Endrew cut in.

The last uneasiness brought on by returning to the Wall melted away. I’m home. Among brothers.

“I was getting to that part,” Mance said.

"Think he means for you to get to it today," Blane said.

Mance let himself be laughed at. When he reclaimed his brothers' attention, he began a suitably edited account of all that’d occurred.

 

It was strange, being back in Denys Mallister’s solar as if nothing had changed while he was gone. Not much had truly. I’ve only a different perspective of this Wall business. 

A different enough perspective the room felt warm and the fire homey, though he recalled perfectly how gloomy he’d found it before. It made him want to laugh. Scared him at the same time. After long enough with the Watch, would his perspective shift so much he became a stranger to himself?

Mallister wore a troubled look. “I confess I am not surprised, though I began losing sleep at the thought of what I’d put in a letter to your father should you remain gone much longer.”

Jaime lifted his brows. “I avoided getting myself killed solely because I feared you’d face such a burden.”

Mallister granted him what might’ve been a smile. “So you've stopped sulking. I thought ranging with Mance may help. He’s spent his life finding wonder here, and he shares it freely. For all his flaws, recruits often find their futures less bleak after talking with him a while.”

The old man has  surprised me again.

Mallister nodded to himself. “You comported yourself well? Mance claimed you helped with a treaty of some sort.”

“Mance laid out most the terms, and I charmed Orl and got him drinking too much. I didn’t know enough of the political situation to be much more use.”

“Wildlings aren’t consistent enough to be dealt with as you would men in the south. There’s no politics to learn. You did all you could.”

“But-“

“Tell me honestly, do you believe this Orl means to keep his word?”

“I do,” Jaime. “Actually-”

“Tell me, what did you think of them?”

Seeing he’d get nowhere pushing the previous point, Jaime answered the inquiry in a manner Mallister would better fathom. “We visited Varamyr. He was vile.”

“I’ve heard tales of that one. When I still ranged, it was Haggon the Watch dealt with. Is it not an unsettling ability?” I referred to the man’s character, but as you will. “What of the other group?”

“They were merely small folk,” he said, speaking carefully. “Obnoxious small folk, but-” He grasped for something less controversial. “Mance claims many of the raiders are more brutish.”

“A clear-minded way to look at the matter. You seem to have a reasonable notion of what you’re about. You didn’t bed any of the women?”

No. Why the assumption I want to bed a random wildling? Does it seem so badly I need it?” Why must they go on about this? As if I haven’t sworn vows. He allowed the rest of his brothers swore the same vows and seemed not to mind breaking them, but Jaime was more chivalrous than that. He'd remain faithful to Cersei and would be properly chaste. For the rest of his life. It was the honorable thing. Certainly. 

Mallister chuckled. “A satisfying response. It does happen, as I’ve said. I only wished to ensure you kept appropriate distance.”

He looked Jaime over a while longer, then gave a small approving smile. “I’ll speak with Mance about particulars, but you seem to have done well. Though in the future try to avoid detours, yes? Now, I imagine you'll want to eat and rest. To shave as well, perhaps?”

Jaime rubbed self-consciously at the bristle that covered his cheeks, rather inelegantly compared to Mallister's impeccable silver beard. Definitely a shave. If he wasn’t careful, he’d look like a wildling or one of the more unkempt crows. He also wasn’t certain he could grow a proper beard, and he could well imagine the comments he’d get should he try and fail.

“A good idea, yes.” Jaime recalled a matter. “There is one more thing.”

“I hope nothing serious.”

He scratched the back of his head. “How much gold must I give to keep my garron for personal use? I’ve become fond of her.”

Mallister looked at him in concern. “Ser Jaime, it's a poor idea to get too attached-"

“I haven’t named her or anything. I know better than that. I only thought her a sturdy mount, and a knight should not share a horse. That's all.”

The lie reassured the old knight, and he began deliberating aloud over how to approach the matter.

 

Once they got the business of the horses finished, Jaime headed for the common hall. Tired as he was, he wanted a meal before he slept. But he walked slowly, with misgiving. His reception at Shadow Tower hadn’t been as chilly as at Castle Black, but it hadn’t been friendly either.  

He also had a vague concern the friendship he and Mance had struck up wouldn’t count for much among the other crows. After all, Mance made it clear he’d do himself no favors associating with Jaime. He didn’t seem like the type to care, but Lord Tywin spoke often of how allies needed to be culled once they turned inconvenient. If there’s to be a culling, this would be the time.

He entered the hall with reluctance.

“Jaime.” Mance’s voice. “Darl made stew. Grab me a second bowl, if you’ve mind to get some yourself.”

Well, there’s that. He didn’t let himself smile. It’d been foolish to worry in the first place.

Jaime fetched the stew, too pleased by the warmth in Mance’s tone to be bothered at being ordered about like a servant. By time he got to the table, Mance had cleared a space at his side.

“I told you Mallister wouldn’t care about the side trip. Was I not correct?” Mance grabbed his bowl before Jaime could set it down. “I bet he complimented you.”

“Once or twice. He said nice things about you as well.”

“He does frequently. But always backhanded.”

For all Mance’s flaws…” Jaime mocked.

“Sounds about right.”  

“Mance says you met Varamyr,” cut in another crow. “It was cruel of him to take you to that one on your first ranging. He makes my skin crawl.”

“Blane, yes?” Jaime recalled the face belatedly. “He’s an awful, clever creature, isn’t he?”

“Bah, he’s nothing,” another cut in. “Wait until you meet the Weeper.”

“The way this one fights, he’d give the Weeper trouble.” That one was Qhorin. Jaime remembered his face well enough. “Now let him eat. He’s the one who had to suffer Mance’s poor planning.”

“It wasn’t the planning that was so poor,” Jaime muttered over a spoonful of stew. “If he’d have shut up long enough to stop scaring the game, we’d have done perfectly fine.”

Qhorin was afflicted with a coughing fit at that. Jaime went back to his stew, and it wasn't long before conversation resumed around him.

 

After his meal, Jaime bathed and napped. When he woke late in the afternoon, he went to the maester’s quarters.

The maester, a broad-shouldered man who looked more like a warrior than a scholar, smiled wryly upon recognizing him. After fumbling around on his desk for a moment, he produced a scroll.

“You’re here for this?”

Jaime snatched it before the words were out of the other man's mouth. “From the Rock?”

“The first from there since I've been at Shadow Tower. Would you like a quill and parchment to write a reply?”

Jaime barely remembered to mumble an expression of gratitude. He took the offered materials and hurried back to his cell, where he read his little brother’s letter by candlelight.  

It wasn’t so different from Cersei’s, though more childish. The anger was less restrained, the sorrow more openly expressed. He wrote nothing of himself or their family, which disappointed somewhat. But Jaime had the sense the missive had been written in a state of extreme emotion. There was a wrinkled section he feared came from dried tears.

He set the letter aside when he finished his second reread, not wishing to make that problem worse. When he'd wrangled his emotions, he ordered his thoughts to begin his reply. 

Little brother,

Things aren't so bad as you make them seem. I returned today from my first ranging, and you  can't imagine all that lies beyond the Wall. I drank with wildlings and broke bread with a skinchanger. You’ll not believe me, but I swear it’s true. I bet a pair of boots on it. You’ll have to have them sent north for me. I’ll see about measurements. Make sure they’re fine as any pair I'd have chosen for myself, or it'd be a debt improperly paid.

I need  a spare cloak as well. I gave my extra to a man called Edd.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I suppose you'd  want me to start at the beginning…

 

Chapter Text

Jaime hurried down the edge of the Gorge, clambering to find proper handholds. He’d stripped his gloves to better grip the rock, and his hands screamed every time he caught his weight against frigid stone. His breath came hard, heartbeat drumming in his head.

Stonesnake clung to the rock several yards above him. The smaller man could’ve outpaced Jaime, but with the two long cries of the hunting horn echoing in their ears, there’d been no need to clarify Jaime lead the way. He was the better fighter by far.

Further up, Dalbridge descended with more caution.“I see seven,” he shouted after them. “Shall I blow the horn for backup?”

“Those are poor odds,” Stonesnake said.

Jaime dropped to a broad ledge a short distance below, landing in a crouch. “Too true,” he called back. “They’re outnumbered, me to seven. Factor in the two of you, and it becomes unsporting.”

“That’s a no on the backup,” Stonesnake yelled to Dalbridge.

Jaime threw himself to the side, and with a wrench caught himself on a hold several feet down. His blood was hot, and life came into him as it did when he anticipated a fight.

He’d developed a liking for scrambling through the Gorge. Once a week, brothers descended to search for hiding wildlings and check for signs that raiders had come through unnoticed. Most despised the task, thinking it difficult, dangerous, and unpleasant. But Jaime had whittled away hours of his childhood playing on the cliffs near the Rock, and he'd taken to it quickly.

He made it another ten yards when Dalbridge called, “Be cautious, Kingslayer. I see the Crowkiller.”

There were names tossed around Shadow Tower. The Weeper. Harma Dogshead. Alfyn Crowkiller was one of the big ones.

“Don’t take him lightly," said Stonesnake. 

“I have it well in hand.”

Jaime flew through the rest of the climb, pushing past tiring arms. When he started Gorge duty, each trip left his muscles a quivering mess, but he’d built his endurance to a reasonable point. Still, he’d not yet regained the thoughtless ease with which he once scaled the Rock. A few more months, and I’ll be there.

He dropped the last few yards, landing hard at the base of the cliff. Pools of stagnant, half-frozen water lined a mostly dry riverbed. The bottom of the Gorge never fully flattened, so it was a hazardous collection of small drop-offs and boulders and years’ worth of bones, crow and raider alike. It little helped that in the mornings, it attracted blankets of fog.

The fog wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, but Dalbridge never would’ve identified Crowkiller if his eyes weren’t so keen. Jaime paused and searched, squinting at the far wall until he spotted the raiders a hundred yards off.

A look over his shoulder showed him Stonesnake would be down soon, Dalbridge not long after. He jogged toward the opposite wall, moving fast as he could over rocks, wincing when he stumbled on what looked to be a femur. 

When he reached the cliff face, Jaime launched himself off the ground and latched onto a handhold. Without a pack weighted with stolen goods, he had an easy advantage over the raiders. His height and reach only added to that. Within minutes, he approached the closest wildling. Between the fog and the man’s focus on moving upward, the man didn’t notice Jaime at all.

Jaime pulled level with him, several yards to his right. “Nice day for a climb, isn’t it?”

The man almost lost his grip. “Buggering fuck. Crows! Crows!”

He tried hurrying away, but Jaime quickly crossed the last distance between them. With his left hand, he grasped one of the spindly trees that grew in cracks in the rock, then drew a dagger with his right. He plunged it into the raider’s back, yanking it out quickly so he didn’t lose it when the man fell.

A noise above him drew his eye. One of the other wildlings kicked a flood of pebbles Jaime’s way. Jaime drew his arms over his head and shoved his face against the cliff face, gritting his teeth until the rocks passed. The culprit tried hurrying away, but Jaime made up the distance and grabbed his ankle.

A yank sent him into the Gorge.

Jaime pulled himself onto a narrow ledge and looked up. Five left. But not five raiders. Three raiders, two women in Westerosi dress. These climbed slowly, far more reluctantly. One of the raiders lingered below them, and Jaime gathered there was some threat implied. Dalbridge will take care of that. 

The final two raiders were ten yards ahead of him. The one further away had matted dark hair, a spear strapped to his back and a sword at his belt. He climbed without looking down or back, faster than the others. He’ll leave them if need be to spare his own hide. The nearer had put… herself—it was a bloody spearwife—between Jaime and the Crowkiller. Jaime had encountered spearwives several times on patrols, and he’d hesitated only the first. He’d have a scar from where her axe had gotten through his mail.

He found a hold and hauled himself up, blood racing, lips pulling into a smile. 

The spearwife didn’t try to outpace him. She’d evidently decided she ought to attack, and moved toward Jaime as he closed in on her. Just when he decided to reach for his dagger, she jumped from her perch and latched onto his back.

Jaime’s breath left him in a rush, fingers straining as he fought to keep his hold. 

Then she bit him in the neck.

More disgusted than pained, Jaime yelped, only with effort stifling the instinct to try bucking her off.

“If I let go, we both die,” he growled. Why am I reasoning with someone who’s biting me?

She pulled back long enough to speak. “If I spare you, I still die."

"Worked that out, did you?" Blood ran down his neck, hot but cooling as it pooled along his collar. Before she could sink her teeth in again, he butted her with the back of his head. She tangled a hand in his hair and shoved his face into the rock. His nose cracked, and his vision blurred.

He lost his hold. 

The descent wasn't a straight one, and together they tumbled and skittered hard against jagged rock. Just within his line of sight, the woman snatched a sickly tree trying to grow out of the cliff face. Jaime grabbed at her, fingers clasping her ankle. The tree jerked but held, swaying and groaning with their weight. Blood spurted from Jaime’s nose.

The spearwife kicked him with her free foot. Jaime latched onto part of the tree nearer its base, rocks scattering as the roots loosened.

Then the woman was gone. Stonesnake dangled from the cliff as if reclining, bloody dagger in hand. “Even in the middle of a fight, you’ve got women throwing themselves at you.” The other ranger got a better look at him. “Fuck me, what’d she do to your face?”

“She was jealous I'm prettier than she'd been.” A broken nose, a bit of scraped skin. It won’t scar. It bloody better not scar. “Did Dalbridge-”

“Got the fourth one.”

“The Crowkiller-”

“Is climbing off. You up for a chase?”

Jaime wiped the blood from his nose and took a moment to reorient himself. His cheek stung horribly, but he found what must’ve been a frightening smile. “It insults me you need to ask.”

He made his way off the tree and found a solid hold. This time, Stonesnake climbed at full speed, there being some danger of the Crowkiller slipping away. Jaime looked over his shoulder and noted Dalbridge helping the women down. At least the rescue turned out alright.

He still wanted the Crowkiller.

The bite in his neck burned in the cold, but it didn’t seem horrifically deep. Blood from his nose was more a nuisance than anything, though his whole face hurt. Could be worse. She could’ve gotten my teeth.

A deep breath, and he hurried after Stonesnake.

The Crowkiller was a fast climber. When Jaime looked up, he’d cleared the wall. Stonesnake disappeared after him moments later. You’re not such a good fighter that’s wise, brother.

Jaime pushed his pace to the point of recklessness, launching himself between handholds instead of only grasping those in reach, taking chances on places that looked somewhat safe instead of those he could be certain of. But his luck held, and he shoved himself onto the other side of the Gorge not long after his brother.

Alfyn had drawn his sword, a steel one Jaime would bet a limb came from a dead ranger. The raider fought like most black brothers fought, with no finesse, but experience and force. He and Stonesnake hammered each other with short, jerky strokes that were brutal to watch. Jaime hesitated, well aware of how a distraction could have the opposite effect he intended-

Stonesnake slipped on loose rock, feet coming out from under him. He turned away from the Crowkiller’s blade as he fell, but it raked across his back, cutting through cloak and mail. Flesh as well, judging by his cry.

Jaime jumped in before the raider could finish him off. Alfyn lifted his blade, but his block was weak, his stance poor enough even Jaime’s oddly angled strike threw him off balance.

The Crowkiller gathered himself and took in Jaime. He noted his sword.

“Gold,” Alfyn said, a smile splitting his face. “You’re the Kingslayer! I’ve looked forward to taking your blade since I heard-”

“In that case, I pray it meets expectations.” Jaime feinted, and the Crowkiller overcompensated an absurd amount. It was a simple matter to bring his sword back through and shove it into the wildling’s unguarded throat. You see, Mance? I can fight without drawing it out.

Alfyn fell to his knees, the same surprised look in his eyes as Aerys’s held when he died. He tried to speak, lifting a hand. Blood bubbled from his mouth.

Jaime tilted his sword so the wildling could better admire how it shone even in cloud-dimmed light, red twining with gold. “As fine as you hoped?”

The Crowkiller collapsed and was no more.

Jaime intended to wipe his blade on the Crowkiller’s cloak, but he stopped when he got a better look. It was fine black wool, and Jaime suspected it’d belonged to one of those lordlings he often heard about, who died early for inability to make allies of the other crows. He unclasped the cloak and cleaned his sword on the Crowkiller’s tunic instead. The gilding is wearing off. I’ll need to do something about that. He fastened the cloak over his shoulders, not having donned his own to avoid the inconvenience while climbing. Perhaps Stonesnake will want it now his has been slashed through.

Stonesnake had dragged himself to his knees, but when Jaime went to him, blood had dampened his back.

“We’ll walk back across the Bridge of Skulls,” Jaime said. “Borrow my shoulder.”

“Dalbridge will need help getting the girls out.”

“I’ll fetch them when I’ve got you to Mullin.”

Stonesnake grunted acceptance. Teeth gritted, he let Jaime help him along. Rangers had gathered by time they crossed the bridge, a watcher having no doubt spied them doing so. Jaime passed off Stonesnake and the reclaimed cloak before he faced the Gorge again. Mance climbed well, but he’d drawn watch duty and would be on the Wall. Most these others would be more hindrance than help.

He brushed off Blane’s halfhearted offer to assist—uneasy about heights, that one—and made the descent at a more measured pace.

Dalbridge knelt next to both women. One women, one girl, Jaime corrected. The latter had seen twelve years at most. The former had dark circles under her eyes, her face ashen. Someone had blackened her left eye.

“Folk from Flint lands,” Dalbridge said. “The raiders have been hitting them hard.”

“Can you climb back up?” Jaime said.

“I’ll try,” the woman said.

The girl only sat, trembling.

My body is going to remember all its hurts if you dawdle too much longer. Already, the Gorge looked further up than he recalled.

Jaime knelt in front of her. “What’s your name?”

She shook her head.

“It’s Lana,” said the other.

“That’s a pretty name.” Jaime wished the hits he’d taken had left less a mark. I’d make a better impression hale and unblemished. “How old are you, Lana?”

“Eleven.”

“I’ve got a brother about that age. He once wanted to climb with me, but his arms weren’t long enough. So I had him get on my shoulders and hold on tight, and we climbed together. He called it playing giant, because it made him feel bigger than he was. Do you want to play giant?” The story was a lie, but one that could’ve easily been a truth.

Lana peeked up, then immediately drew back.

Jaime kept his voice light. “I look beat up, I know. Can you look past the blood and bruises? I’m dashing beneath it all.”

She found his eyes, finally. “You’re just hurt. Like Sylvi.”

“I’m a knight too, even bloody and bruised. A proper one like in the songs.” More lies, or half lies. She’d not think me a proper knight if she knew I was the Kingslayer. No one in Westeros would. But it didn’t matter just then.

“I didn’t know there were knights at the Wall,” she said softly.

“People need protecting here too. Now, how about we play giant, you and me?”

“You won’t let me fall?”

“I swear it.” The words felt like they’d been scripted for him. It should’ve shamed him to indulge in such a show of chivalry, but he too much enjoyed how the bleakness in her eyes retreated. Like he’d restored her hope heroes existed when her past days must’ve made her doubt the matter entirely.

She reached for him, and he knelt so she could climb onto his back. When he straightened to his full height, she tightened her grip. “You are tall!”

“You see?” Jaime said. “Ready?”

She nodded. He felt her face move against his hair.

Jaime glanced at the woman. Sylvi. “Dalbridge will help you along as best he can, but I can come back if-”

“Go on, ser,” she said, a bit of fire coming into her voice. She held herself a touch straighter. “I’ll manage.”

 

The meal hall was a warm place that evening. Mallister broke out a store of summerwine to be shared among the brothers and only marred the gesture a little by reminding Jaime it wasn’t knightly to drink too much. Mance played his lute and proved he was poor at writing songs as he was good at remembering them, earning laughter as he fumbled out verses about Jaime’s encounter with the spear wife.

"When his brother felled her, his one lady love, the Lannister Lion, howled with grief- 

“I roar, you harebrained dullard,” Jaime cut in. “The house words are not hear me howl.”

A score of brothers had gathered on two benches around the largest of the hall’s three hearths. Most were friendlier with Mance or Qhorin than Jaime, but they’d somewhat allowed him into their fold, though it often wasn’t an easy fit. Conversation couldn’t quite flow freely, and understanding and experience differed in ways sometimes difficult to overcome. But this night even that strangeness retreated, smoothed over by summerwine.

At Jaime’s comment, Mance threw his head back and laughed, long and true. He’d had a bit too much wine. They all had.

“A roar and a howl aren’t so different,” Mance protested.

Dalbridge said, “A howl goes, AHOOOOOOOOOOO, and a roar goes, GRAAAA.”

“That’s not a satisfactory roar in the least.” Jaime attempted to show him, but he thought of Ygritte's little girl snarl and choked off laughing.

“What was that, Kingslayer?” Qhorin said. 

“He holds his drink like my baby sister,” Mullin declared. He’d spent the morning fixing up Stonesnake’s back and Jaime’s face and aching, bloodied hands. It made his comment easier to take in good humor.

“I am not drunk. I only became distracted by how ludicrous-”

“You use long words when you’re in your cups,” Mance said.

Stonesnake spoke up from where he leaned on the table, holding himself gingerly. “D’you think if I drink enough, I’d yammer on like a lord?”

Jaime remedied a rising blush with another drink of summerwine. “You were singing nice things about me, Mance. Why the hells did you stop?”

“Because they were shit songs,” Blane volunteered.

“And he ran out of lies,” Ser Endrew put in.

“I don’t tell lies. It’s bards’ truths cross my lips, and I’ll utter those til my dying breath.” Mance’s fingers danced across the lute. "But our hero fought his grief, and onward he went. He faced the feared Crowkiller-" 

Blane thumped his hand on the table. “Mance, d’you remember when we stumbled on Alfyn’s camp when he was taking a shit, and he came running into the clearing shoutin’ orders with his breeches at his ankles-”

“And his tiny prick out for all to see,” Mance finished, still plucking his lute strings.

“Size of my little toe. I bet his ma thought him a girl until he’d seen five years at least.”

“He was a formidable adversary,” Jaime said. “Ser Lewyn oft said it’s better to judge a man by the sword in his hand than the one between his legs. We ought to remember that, when determining how appreciable an opponent I faced."

“Kingslayer, you’re full of shit,” Mance said.

“Why would Ser Lewyn say such to you?” Stonesnake added. “Was it something the kind knight thought you needed to hear?”

Jaime snorted his next mouthful of wine. “Not at all. He told it to the rest of the Kingsguard when they grew insecure upon sharing a bathhouse with me.”

The thought was so absurd it earned a chorus of laughter, given easily courtesy of the wine.

Dalbridge clapped his back. “There’s a bawdy song waiting to be written. Mance-” He stopped and cursed. ”We have a guest.”

Jaime turned to look, the room moving strangely as he did. I have had too much to drink. He shook himself and tried to focus. When he did, his stomach twisted. “Fuck me, is that Lord Stark?”

“He’s got the colors,” Dalbridge said, “and the long face I recall from ol’ Rickard when he came hereabouts.”

It was Stark, talking with Mallister. In the firelight, air hazy from smoke, Jaime could just make out how awful the man looked. He must’ve lost half a stone since Jaime saw him in the throne room, and his arm was in a sling against his chest. It looks like he’s been through all seven hells.

Mallister pointed at Jaime. What have I done to deserve this? 

A hand on Jaime’s arm drew his attention. “Don’t pay him too much mind, Kingslayer,” Mance murmured. The last word was emphasized to make a point. Mance’s way of saying, I respect you for it. Ignore the dour lord.

Jaime stayed where he was, hoping he misinterpreted that Mallister had directed Stark his way. It was not to be. After but a moment, a shadow fell over him.

“Ser Jaime. I’d speak with you," said Stark, all business. 

“You’ve a talent for shit timing, haven’t you?”

“I have a message for you.”

That got his attention. “From Cersei?”

“The queen? No, I’m sorry.”

Jaime tried not to be upset. He’d struggled to keep meaningful correspondence with his sister. She wouldn’t care about the tales that fascinated Tyrion, and every time he imagined writing of the good he found at the Wall, he recalled the way she said, “Would you have me or a rock?” when she asked him to join the Kingsguard. Taking the black had been only half a choice, but suggesting he enjoyed his banishment might make her assume he picked the Wall over her. Instead he wrote only of how he missed her.

Three letters of that had become trite even to him.

Her responses had been brief and empty. He didn’t blame her, having grasped the difficulty of bridging the gulf between them. The possibility Stark came to Shadow Tower with a missive had kindled sputtering flames, which only made the disappointment worse.

Jaime tried to appear indifferent. “Certainly my father would sooner send a man north than deal through you. Robert? Gods forbid.”

“He is king now. You ought to use his title.”

“Will he come to the Wall and chastise me if I don’t?”

Barely audibly, he heard Qhorin whisper, “This is why you need to guard your tongue-”

“He was like this when we met,” Mance hissed back.

Jaime cleared his throat. “I’ve used all my guesses, Stark. What’s this about?”

“Ser Denys offered the use of his solar for a talk. You should come with me.” Stark’s eyes fell to Jaime’s goblet. He seemed to realize for the first time he’d interrupted a celebration, and a frown crossed his lips. “If you’re sober, that is.”

“It cannot wait?” This from Qhorin of all people. He kept his voice measured. “Jaime killed a notorious raider this morning.”

“May have saved my life,” Stonesnake said.

“Hauled a frightened girl from the bottom of the Gorge,” Mance added.

Stark looked between them, his brows drawn together. He cannot fathom that people actually like me.

Jaime pushed his wine away. “It’s fine. He’s sobered me enough, there’d be no more celebrating either way. When I kill the Weeper, I’ll fund us a feast.”

Mance’s eyes were dark. He looked straight at Stark. “It must be a private conversation?”

“I believe Ser Jaime would wish it,” Stark said.

Jaime almost argued otherwise, but he knew how it’d look. “You do not need to mother me, Mance. I’ve no fear of wolves.” He gave Stark a mock bow. “Let’s get this done with."

 

By time they reached Mallister’s solar, most the summerwine’s warmth had bled from him. Mallister's hearth was cold, so Jaime went to it and got a fire going, pleased for the small distraction.

Away from the crowd and the hazy hall, his thoughts had come more clearly. He gathered what Stark was likely about. The Northman left King’s Landing after Jaime’s sentence to break the siege at Storm’s End. That’d occurred while the Targaryen men were still on trial. When that was done, Stark would have desired to tie off the war’s final loose thread.

The fire stirred to life, and Jaime faced Stark. “The Kingsguard are dead. The last three. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Stark sat in Ser Denys’s usual spot. With so little light in the room, he could’ve been a ghost. “They fought well.”

“Tell me.”

“They hid in Dorne. I brought six of my best men. Six friends.” His voice lowered, grew almost inaudible with his rumbling accent. “The Kingsguard killed all but one."

Jaime said, “Your sister?”

Stark shook his head.

It’d been weeks since he recognized his brothers would likely die. The conformation chilled him all the same. And for what? Lyanna Stark died anyway. The girl who’d been at the war’s center. Thousands died for nothing. A waste.

“How was Arthur killed?” Jaime said. That made Stark hesitate. Jaime lowered his voice and made it dangerous, a trick he’d better learned since coming to the Wall. “I’ve a feeling you’re a shit liar. Be truthful. My opinion of you isn’t so high you need to worry about tarnishing it.”

Still, he said nothing.

Jaime considered the thing from another angle. “No, you fear what I’d think of Arthur. Don’t. I imagine it wasn’t a clean kill. You’d not have bested him otherwise.”

“He was going to kill me,” Ned said. “One of my friends trapped him in a net. Then stabbed him in the back.”

Jaime smiled bitterly. “I knew it’d be something like that. I can’t say I blame you. I’d have done worse for Cersei.” Though he disliked giving up the advantage his height gave him, Jaime seated himself across from Stark. “But you'd not have come here if that was all."

“My brother has come to join the Watch. I accompanied him to Castle Black. This was not much further out of the way.”

“Your brother?” Jaime thought of a purple face, lolling tongue and tear-filled eyes, hands grasping at a leather collar while Lord Rickard screamed. And the gagging. That awful gagging.

“Benjen.”

Of course. “I hope you’ve told Mallister there's to be a Stark at the Wall. He plans to make me Lord Commander, but having a wolf here ought to divert his attention to the proper place.”

Stark didn’t look pleased, but the way his face seemed, a smile might’ve shattered it. He’s got two dead siblings and a brother leaving forever, and a dead father and five dead friends. I gather that’s where the brittleness comes in.

Not wanting to be tricked into sympathy while made sentimental by drink, Jaime cast his eyes about. As he fished for a comment, another detail came to him. “You mentioned a message. Not from-” He didn’t dare voice the thought. It was understandable he’d suspect word from Cersei or his father, but he’d make a fool of himself grasping for acknowledgment from one of his dead brothers.

“A letter. On Arthur’s person.” From his cloak, Stark produced a roll of parchment.

Jaime’s mouth unhinged, and his hands trembled as he took the letter. The seal was broken, but Stark would’ve needed to open it to see the intended recipient. There was a splotch of blood on one corner. Jaime’s stomach turned. He’s truly dead. It seemed impossible. Like the Warrior had ceased to exist.

And he wrote me.

Equally as impossible. Arthur had been too busy, too worried, too everything to spare much thought for Jaime. Why would he do so after he heard of the kingslaying, and when he must’ve suspected his hours were limited? If there was ever a less likely time for Jaime to garner his notice, that would be it.

A thought occurred to him, and his eyes snapped to Stark’s. “If he’s only writing how angry he is, keep it. I’d not-”

“He isn’t,” said Stark, which meant nothing. If Arthur had written a long letter tearing apart Jaime’s actions, Stark would no doubt want Jaime to suffer through it.

Even so, a shred of hope prompted him to skim the words. Once he’d done so and gotten a better notion of the meaning, he wiped damp eyes and gave it a proper read.

 

Ser Jaime,

Robert searches for Lyanna. Ser Gerold does not wish to hide. I suppose he is right. We should not flee. But the matter is complicated. Ashara writes that Ned Stark has been sent to find us. If he’s the man I believe, hope may not be lost.

Rhaegar worries worried for the future. He spoke of a prince who is promised. The song of ice and fire. It sounds like madness. I imagine you rolling your eyes. Maybe it is mad, but Rhaegar obsessed over these things, lost himself in them. He mentioned signs. A long summer followed by darkness. Bleeding stars. A bleeding red star? One of those, perhaps. A sword, drawn from flame. Perhaps a flaming sword? He thought maybe Dawn was involved, but his musings ultimately took him other directions.

I don’t know how much I should write. If I include too much, I worry whether this will find its way to your hands.

Gerold thinks me a fool for writing you at all. Maybe I am. I never knew you. None of us did. We called you brother, but the timing was poor we handled your presence foolishly. You seemed so enamored with being a knight, it never occurred to us you’d break from what was knightly. I will not speak for the others, but I confess I gave no thought to your character beyond that. You seemed so straightforward. Arrogant, but earnest.

But Aerys is dead, and looking back, every word you spoke against him echoes in my ears. I do not know if hindsight alters my memory, but it seems now there were an abundance of signs I failed to acknowledge. If I missed that, what else escaped me? I heard what happened to Elia and her children at the order of your father.

Did you know?

Is there a monster under your smiles?

I write this despite these reservations, despite Gerold’s protests. Maybe in the hope you truly wanted to be a knight, that the earnestness was not false. Does the boy I knighted still exist? Did he ever exist?

What follows assumes this is the case, that you did not know what your father intended, that Aerys earned his death. If my faith is misplaced, it’ll give you a fine laugh, and it’ll be one more of many mistakes I’ve made.

Rumor says you’ve been sent to the Wall. That’s significant. It’s what drove me to write you. If Rhaegar was not entirely mad, you may still be able to fulfill your vows. You’ll know how when the time comes.  If events happen as they may, there is much I’d have you know. But any advice that comes to mind is empty. Should I write that it’s possible to redeem yourself? I wonder if it’s you who needs redemption. Perhaps the three of us

Sometimes I think I should’ve killed Aerys myself, or that Rhaegar should have arranged

I’m tired, Jaime. I doubt so many choices I’ve made. Gerold and Oswell have carefully tried not to put the blame for you at my feet, but I wonder if Aerys wasn’t my fault, for missing something when I knighted you.

If you're the man I hope you to be, I do not regret knighting you.

So much else I’d tell you requires a true conversation. I have questions. I want to look into your eyes to see if I can make out what is truth and what is lie. I want to ask you why you killed Aerys and see your face when you respond. I wish I’d taken the time for little things as well. What is your favorite song? Why did you join the Kingsguard and give up Casterly Rock? Maybe if I’d talked with you more, I would better know what to think of you now.

You liked the White Book. I remember that, and it gives me hope that you’d look up to such men. I admit I used to be as enamored of famous knights as you. (And unlike you, I was horrifically shy as a young man. Ser Barristan and Ser Gerold could tell endless stories of how I used to turn pink and stammer when they spoke to me.)

Who was your favorite knight in the White Book? I’ve a notion you may have liked Ser Duncan the Tall. Rhaegar told me he once faced a Trial of the Seven because he stood against Aerion Brightflame to protect a common woman.  Ser Duncan couldn't find men enough to fight the prince, and he rode past the stands begging a seventh to come forth, looking at all the knights who’d gathered—none of them willing to hold a member of the royal family accountable.

He asked, and asked, and finally he became so disgusted he yelled, “Are there no true knights among you?”

He was met with silence.

I used to think of that tale when I saw your face after witnessing something horrific. I saw those words in your eyes when you looked at us, as if expecting us to act. But the moment would fade, and your smiles would return, and I became convinced you were only frustrated.

Concerning Ser Duncan: a Targaryen prince volunteered to assist him and died in the trial. It isn’t in the White Book. It isn’t something people sing about. It touches on too many uncomfortable things. Rhaegar claimed the common folk for a time after called Ser Duncan the knight who remembered his vows for standing against a prince who’d hurt an innocent woman.

How would’ve the tale changed had he already had his white cloak? I suspect he would’ve taken the same action, even then. Maybe the rest of the world knows it too, and it’s why that of all the tales has been shunted aside, and is so rarely told.

Are you the true knight of all us? Or the lowest? I suppose it’s more complicated than either. I regret I never acted your brother properly enough to know.

I’m sorry. I meant only to write of the prophecy. It seems I’ve too much time, too many thoughts in my head. I am not afraid of death, but I fear I’ll be remembered only as a hero, and the possibility makes me sick when I sit here feeling like a fraud. These ramblings are as selfish as anything. A hope at least you will see this and know I doubted, and thought on these matters, and questioned.

Maybe that will give you reassurance.

Above all, remember that no matter how long the winter, spring will always come.

Live well, Ser Jaime.

 

Arthur’s been scratching at his letter all morning. I suppose it’d not hurt to add to it.

You might’ve shat on your cloak, but a proper shit can be bloody satisfying. Gods know you held it in long enough. I’d have liked to see the look on his face.

Granted, I’d have tried killing you had I been there. But I’d have regretted making the attempt. Partially because he deserved to die. Also because you’re the better swordsman, and I’d have taken a sword in the gut before Gerold finished you off.

Indulge Arthur and keep your eyes open at the Wall, alright?

And for gods' sake, keep this to yourself. I don’t want my honor going the way of yours, alright, Kingslayer?

Whent

 

For a time, Jaime forgot Stark, the Wall, all of it. His longing that things had not played out as they had was so powerful he could taste the world that hadn’t been. His eyes drifted shut, and he fancied Arthur had opened his mouth about any of this before it’d been too late.

Always when he went away inside, it’d been to thoughts of Cersei. This time, he lost himself imagining he sat across from Arthur to have the conversation he wrote he’d wanted. That Arthur asked about Aerys like he said he would have. The mere thought ravaged him through. Jaime would have explained he hadn’t known his father would kill Elia, kill the children. Arthur would’ve believed him, at least it seemed so from the letter.

But it's too late.

The pretense faltered, present returning. He noted Stark through tear-blurred eyes, but it didn’t matter. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to cry, as if when grief reached a certain point, the shame in acknowledging it fled. He bent at the waist, burying his head in his arms as if that'd keep him safe. 

He wanted them back. He wanted life to be what he’d dreamed when he was fifteen. I did want to be a knight. It wasn’t a lie.

After a long while, he straightened and wiped his eyes. His broken nose ran horribly, and his head ached.

And Stark was still there.

Jaime tried to make his voice casual, but it came out a hoarse mess. “Since it seems you read it anyway, I'll have you know I didn’t think my father would send Lorch and Clegane to Maegor’s Holdfast.” The admission came easily, perhaps because he wasn’t defending himself, but answering a question Arthur had raised. “How would I have known? I’d been hostage in the Red Keep for ages.”

Stark balked at that phrasing. Hostage. But he did not question it.

“You might’ve guessed.”

“You might’ve guessed your Robert would laugh over the bodies, but you hadn’t.”

“Robert didn’t have a history-”

Jaime waved him off. “I’m not in the mood to hear it. Tell me this. Have you any notion what Arthur was on about? The prince who was promised? Bleeding stars? Why would he care I’m at the Wall?”

“I do not know.”

Of course he didn’t. That tarnished the value of the letter somewhat. What was Jaime to do with that nonsense? Was Rhaegar mad as his father? Had he dragged Ser Arthur into his madness? The probability of it, the tragedy if this were the case, stole his breath.

Silence fell. With some of the emotion drained away, it threatened to become awkward.

Stark said, “You seem to have adjusted to the Wall.”

Jaime gave him a withering look. “Do you expect me to believe it’d please you were that the case? It’s supposed to be punishment, is it not?”

That chased Stark’s eyes to the floor. “I’m not blind to the injustice that you’ve shouldered the punishment not only for your own actions, but those of your father, Gregor Clegane, and Amory Lorch as well. I don’t regret you’ve been sentenced, but none of this was handled honorably.”

You mean, you’re guilty the affair has besmirched your honor? For once, he didn’t chase the obvious target. Arthur’s hope Jaime would find knightliness in himself was too fresh. More than that, Stark looked miserable enough, making him more so would be unsatisfying as challenging a cripple to a race.

But the longer Jaime dwelt on the fact Stark saw him cry, the less he liked it. I need to reassert how things stand between us. If making him guiltier will not do, I’ll just ruffle his feathers a bit.

“Since you say you care, the Wall does have its bright spots, few though they may be. Do you know, the wildlings are enamored with my king killing? It tickles them. Even the raiders have started to recognize me.”

“They’ve women called spearwives,” Jaime continued, warming to the subject. “A few weeks back, one taught me the neatest trick with a dagger. We’d stopped to do a bit of trading, and she struck up a conversation. She was one of those enjoyed the notion of kingslaying.”

“Ser.”

“Problem?”

“Your oaths-”

“Which am I breaking? Your house has a close enough relationship with the Wall, I’m sure you know the words.”

He waited for Stark to think it through. His face cooled. “Do not get clever about this, Ser Jaime. You have a duty to the king.”

“I’ve a duty to the realms of men.” Jaime smiled, not a false one. There was fun in this. “In fact, I’ve had a pleasant time fostering relations between wildings and the Seven Kingdoms. Just this morning, I got up close with a spearwife-”

“Ser Jaime,” Stark tried again.

“A fierce one, she was,” Jaime went on, undoing the top button of his tunic. He unwound the bandages Mullin had wound like a scarf about his neck. “I even got a keepsake from the encounter. Do you wish to see?”

“You aren’t supposed to-“

Jaime bared the raw mark on his throat.

Stark almost fell out of his chair, legs banging against the floor as he flinched away. “Shit.”

Jaime replaced the bandages, then stood and rolled up Arthur’s letter. His hands trembled with emotion, even still. But he clung to his lightness, let himself laugh. “You’re too easy.”

“Was that all-”

“I was honest until the end. You needn’t worry, even so. Mallister won’t let me go astray, not without nagging my every step. In the meanwhile, I’ve no compunctions about enjoying admiration north of the Wall. Gods know I won’t find any to the south.”

Stark frowned.

“Don’t think me pleased to be here. I miss my family dearly. But one must find bright spots when possible.” Jaime held the letter more tightly. “Have you said all you need to say?”

“It isn’t a joke,” Stark said. “Serving at the Wall.”

“I see running about in the south didn’t thaw you at all. A shame. Clinging to morality so rigidly will give you stomach trouble.” He lifted a corner of his mouth. “Perhaps it’s only a reunion with your wife you need. I spent the last two months with a flock of celibates, but I can honestly say I haven’t in my life seen a man more in need of a good lay.”

Stark’s face reddened.

Jaime headed for the door. Before he left, he paused. “I am… grateful, Stark. That you brought the letter to me. I’m sure it occurred to you to scatter it to the winds. So thank you.”

That startled him into gaping, properly shocked.

There’s an image that’ll warm me through these long days. With that thought, Jaime slipped away before the conversation could turn against him.

 

Ned hadn’t had a proper appetite in months, but he needed to eat. When he stirred himself from Ser Denys’s chambers, he trudged back to the meal hall.

The Wall wasn’t as he expected. His father visited a few times, but never with Ned. Perhaps he’d taken Brandon. Ned didn’t know. He’d been too far away. Had Benjen understood how dilapidated it was? The black brothers who’d met them at Castle Black had not been inviting. He’d told Benjen he could change his mind. It hadn’t surprised him when his brother refused.

The ghosts haunting Winterfell bothered Benjen more than all the stern faces at the Wall. It’d been plain to see. Ned felt the same. And Catelyn had yet to arrive from Riverrun. His gut hurt thinking about it. When she sees Jon

Already that lie withered his conscience. First, to Robert. Now to Jaime Lannister. But was it a lie to Jaime? He’d asked about the prince who was promised. Little doubting who Arthur meant, but if Ned thought the title product of a madman’s ravings, what was the harm in- Now you’re making excuses.

He nearly hadn’t delivered the letter at all. It was a risk. Ser Jaime may never hear of Jon. If he does, will he have paid enough mind to that part of the letter to make the connection?

What would he do if he did?

The answer, Ned knew all too well. It’d be the work of only a moment to send a raven to his sister. Robert claimed he’d tried shoving the wedding back, waiting for Lyanna. Jon Arryn hadn’t let him. Not with Tywin foaming at the mouth, rabid for appeasement. Cersei had already been installed in King’s Landing when Ned passed through, the wedding due to occur in a short time. Her hatred of Robert had been a visceral thing, but if she heard about a possible threat to the throne, she’d certainly go to him.

Ser Jaime will not figure it out. He may not write if he does. Depending on a Lannister’s honor was a gamble, but he’d made his choice.

Ned soon reached the Shadow Tower’s common hall. It was smaller than Castle Black’s, the ceiling lower, benches closer together. He didn’t spy Ser Jaime. It wasn’t surprising. He’d resumed his jests quickly enough, but his initial response to the letter made Ned suspect he’d need time to gather himself.

Conversation stalled when the brothers noticed Ned. The Watch was an honorable calling, but its men made him uneasy. In the bleak stone room, the cold eyes and grim faces held no welcome. I’ve been too long in the south. What should be familiar has become foreign.

Ser Denys waved Ned to his table, and with a second gesture sent a squire to retrieve a meal for him. Another man of the Watch sat beside him. One of those who’d been speaking with Ser Jaime. At least Ned thought so. It was hard to tell when they all wore black.

“I could have served myself," said Ned, having grown unaccustomed to being waited upon. He’d all but fled Winterfell upon returning home to find those who remained treated him like his father. Like a lord. I am a lord. 

“It is better you didn’t,” Ser Denys said. “The Warden of the North is responsible for the Wall in many ways. These men should look up to you. View you as a figure of power. They will not do so unless you act the part.”

The last thing he needed were lessons, but the old man seemed to mean well. Probably Ned should smile at him, but he could not manage. Instead, he gave a tired nod. "I know. My father used to say as much. I'm still adjusting to my new role.”

The second man butted in. “Is Jaime well? Mallister told me what news you meant to give him.”

Jaime. The familiarity threw Ned off guard. The man spoke well, was likely some variety of highborn, maybe from the cadet branch of a northern house or family to a chief of a mountain clan. Even so, Lord Tywin would little like a brother of the Watch referring to his former heir like an old friend. And that Jaime allows it, arrogant as he is. But had they not been drinking and singing together? Things were different at the Wall, Ned reminded himself. 

Ser Denys misinterpreted Ned’s surprise. “Upon being prodded, I informed Mance of the generalities of what you told me. I hope I did not err. I assumed it is already common knowledge elsewhere." 

The squire returned with stew and summerwine. Ned regarded him uncertainly. I wouldn’t thank a normal servant, but we’re to respect brothers of the Watch. His father once said it was best to treat black brothers as one would a southron knight, even those who looked unbecoming. It was better to err on the side of politeness, surely-

The squire slipped off, and Ned watched his back. Or I can fumble until the matter becomes moot. Father, Brandon, why have you left me to struggle at this? I don’t know what I’m doing.

He remembered Ser Denys. “You did not err. You're correct that it's already being talked of elsewhere." 

The third man, Mance he’d been called, leaned forward, meeting Ned’s eye boldly. “And Jaime?”

“Check your tone,” Ser Denys said.

Mance shot Ser Denys an expression of such profound incredulity it put Ned ill at ease. You speak to me of commanding authority, but you’ve men who look at you like that. But it was a different matter. They were supposedly brothers. And was that fondness in Ser Denys’s eyes? I know little of any of this.

Ned swirled his wine. “Ser Jaime was… saddened, as you would expect.”

“Did you leave him in the solar?”

“No, he left me.” Ned hesitated. It wasn’t his place. But he said, “He may have had matters to think over. Perhaps wait until he seeks you out.”

Mance studied him baldly. Unsure of how else to respond, but unwilling to look away, Ned studied him in return. The man must’ve been thirty or a little younger, but he looked as if he’d been at the Wall less time than most the others. Color remained in his face, and the beginnings of laugh lines framed his eyes.

Mance turned away to steal a cooked carrot from Ned’s plate.

Ser Denys choked.

“It may be you’re right,” Mance said. “I’ll let my brother be for a time.”

His brother. He refers to Ser Jaime.

Mance ate the carrot, his expression thoughtful. “I saw your father once, though at a distance. Never spoke with a Stark before. You’re about what I expected.”

“Mance,” Ser Denys said.

“What? There was no insult in that.”

“You’re being too bold. Find Ser Jaime. It may be Lord Stark has misjudged and he’d like  company.”

“I’ve been told otherwise, and I’ve the courtesy to believe our guest.” With a slight smile, Mance returned his attention to Ned. “Do you know any stories, Stark?”

“Lord, Mance,” Ser Denys said.

“Lord Mance! Much as I like the sound of that, I’ve sworn to hold no land nor titles. I suppose you may use it in an honorary way if you’d like, since you’re so emphatic about it.”

If this man was Jaime’s friend, Ned pitied Ser Denys, dealing with them both. Am I supposed to take offense? He’s not addressing me properly. What would my father do? He didn’t know. Brandon would’ve laughed and offered the man a drink. The ghost of a smile did wish to rise to Ned’s lips, but he didn’t have the energy. And it’d not be appropriate.

Ser Denys closed his eyes and appeared to begin counting down from a high number.

Mance pressed the matter. “You must have some tale to share.”

“What kind of tale do you want?” Ned tried to sound amiable but feared the man wanted to talk about the war.

“Something to do with House Stark, Winterfell, I’d prefer. If you’ve another, I’ll take it all the same.”

Odd, but better than a request to recount a recent battle. But Ned had never been one for stories, though Old Nan told them well and often. Benjen and Lyanna had been the two with a taste for them. Now Lyanna was dead because she ran off with a man who thought such tales real, and Benjen was disillusioned and guilt-stricken.

“What use would a story be?” Ned said, trying to be gracious.

“I’ve a fascination with House Stark. I would sincerely like to hear.”

He ’s sworn his life to live here in the cold. It’d not hurt to give him something. Be polite. Treat him like Father would, or like Brandon. He’s a member of an honorable organization.

Ned tried to find something of what Old Nan had told him. “The seventy-nine sentinels-”

“I’ve no care for that one, and you don’t either. I hear it in your voice. Choose another.”

Ned’s cheeks heated for no good reason. “A servant at Winterfell used to tell stories… There was one that unsettled me.” He cleared his throat. “Not long after Brandon the Builder completed the Wall, a fierce warrior was named the thirteenth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. No one’s sure who he was. Some say a Stark.”

“Go on,” Mance said, now smiling.

“It’s said he was fearless. Nan claimed that was his undoing. A man cannot know bravery if he does not know fear. He cannot value anything if he does not worry to lose it. You cannot… be a man, if you do not know what it is to be afraid.

“This warrior one night stood watch on the Wall, and beyond it he saw a woman with skin white as the moon and eyes like blue stars. The loveliest woman in the world. Against all warning from his brothers, against what any man of sense would know, he chased her, and caught her—or she let him catch her, Nan sometimes said. It might be he was the prey. The woman’s skin was ice cold, but he lie with her even so, and when he filled her with his seed she also stole his soul.”

Here at the Wall, in that dark cold room, the words felt too immediate. Too real, as if he might call forth such monsters by speaking of them. But it was as if he’d been put under a spell, and his words continued to tumble forth.

“The warrior took her back to the Nightfort, where he declared himself king and his bride queen. He put the Watch beneath his spell, and for thirteen years he ruled at the Wall. He was in league with the White Walkers, Nan said, and made them sacrifices, and committed other horrors never spoken of again, for they were too dark to let history keep.

“Finally Brandon the Breaker went to the king-beyond-the-Wall, because some evils go beyond the conflicts of men. They made an alliance and defeated the Night’s King and his corpse bride. Brandon struck the man’s identity forever from history, and all walls around the Watch’s keeps were torn down, and none rebuilt, so the northern armies could rise and take back the Watch should such a thing happen again.”

Only Ser Denys and Mance were close enough to hear him speak. When he finished, others in the room still talked among themselves. But it seemed silence fell, even so.

“I hadn’t heard it told with such detail,” said Mance softly. Foolishly Ned was disappointed he’d heard it at all. “And you told it well. Skin white as the moon and eyes like blue stars." He closed his eyes as he spoke, as if to better picture it. “I’ll remember that.”

“I think I stole that from Old Nan,” Ned admitted.

“As I just confessed I’d steal from you. It’s a trait of a good storyteller.” Mance’s smile returned, so easily Ned envied him for it. “You see, Lord Stark, that was not so trying.”

Ser Denys did a double-take, as if Mance had uttered an unforgivable oath. A ten minute conversation had geared Ned to guess the cause of his surprise. Curiosity reared its head, and he had to ask. “Why do I get the lord now?”

Some evils go beyond the conflicts of men. It was a worthy line.” He noticed something past Ned and got to his feet. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Ned turned. Ser Jaime had entered. It would’ve been difficult to see he’d been upset at all. All in black, hair loose, face beaten up, he looked strong and wild, a man who could not possibly know tears. He looks like the rest of them. Still distinguishable as good-looking despite bruises and a broken nose, but small things had changed. His cheeks were thinner, paler, wind-burnt, and his mannerisms and expressions had grown less cultivated. There’d been no passive aggressive court games. Has he changed so much since King's Landing, or had I missed something? What hope have I to understand him, when Arthur Dayne confessed he could not?

Mance went to him and whispered something. Ser Jaime whispered back, smiling in a strained way. He produced Arthur’s letter and handed it to Mance. Ned bit his tongue. Oswell did not want his honor impugned.

But as they passed him, Ned heard Ser Jaime say, “-ought to improve your opinion of those two at least. You see, they were not mindless.”

Who would've implied such men were mindless?

They rejoined the company they’d been in when Ned arrived. Jaime’s voice drifted to him as he told the others his former brothers had been killed, his tone low and serious. If any of them thought it absurd the Kingslayer should mourn men with every right to despise him, not one spoke.

“Arthur Dayne, dead?said a man. “I’d not have thought it possible.” The news spread in a flood of murmuring, discontent spreading with it. Even here, men had heroes it hurt to see fall. Only a few brothers gave Jaime direct expressions of sympathy, but others frowned or shook their heads.

Mance returned the letter to Jaime, who slipped it beneath his cloak. At least he’s not passing it around for all to see. He put a hand on Jaime’s arm and squeezed, then slipped past him and produced a lute from near the hearth. He plucked a thread of low notes, weaving them so deftly the usually light sound of the instrument took on a strange dark undercurrent.

The murmuring nearest Mance and Jaime’s table died down, and some of the brothers shushed those further away. A few responded with impatient scowls, clearly not caring of the thing one way or another, but something of the air in the room kept them from speaking out.

Mance sang a long, mournful, “Ooooooh” that reached every corner of the hall and every dark place the war had carved into Ned’s heart. There’d been a flicker of doubt over why he’d choose to sing at that of all moments, but it cleared with the beginning of the song. He means it to be a song of mourning.

Mance silenced his instrument and paused to let that first note settle, as if to give everyone the chance to stop and listen. As if anyone could ignore that polished mirror of a dying man’s wail.

When the quiet stretched close to breaking, Mance’s voice resonated once more, twining with the haunting harmony coaxed from his lute.

 

I am the last of the giants,

my people are gone from the earth.

The last of the great mountain giants,

who ruled all the world at my birth.

Oh the smallfolk have stolen my forests,

they've stolen my rivers and hills.

And they've built a great wall through my valleys,

and fished all the fish from my rills.

 

A few men looked around in confusion, not understanding the choice of lyrics.

Ned knew. He’d fought the three men and stood small before them—and felt as they fell that something vital had been extinguished. Some brightness that’d sputtered since the war began flickered its last when Arthur drew his final breath. Good men, all of them. Killed by a world that does not have room for honor.

Not just them, though. Great as they’d been, the cost of the war had been higher. Brandon, Lyanna, Father. Five dear friends who trusted me, who I led to their deaths

One of the other black brothers, a tall man with a dark braid, must’ve known the unfamiliar song. He added his voice—deeper, more resonant—to Mance’s, and Mance stopped bothering with the lute at all.

 

In stone halls they burn their great fires,

in stone halls they forge their sharp spears.

Whilst I walk alone in the mountains,

with no true companion but tears.

They hunt me with dogs in the daylight,

they hunt me with torches by night.

For these men who are small can never stand tall,

whilst giants still walk in the light.

Oooooooh, I am the last of the giants,

so learn well the words of my song.

For when I am gone the singing will fade,

and the silence shall last long and long

 

Mance paused only a breath before repeating the end, the second brother adding his voice a moment later. “For these men who are small can never stand tall-

Jaime sang, “Whilst giants still walk in the light.

A handful of others began to bellow along:

 

Oooooooh, I am the last of the giants,

so learn well the words of my song.

For when I am gone the singing will fade,

and the silence shall last long and long.

 

 The third time, the repeat began with the long, mournful note. By that point, they’d all gotten the idea, and most the room joined.

 

Oooooooh, I am the LAST of the giants,

so learn well the words of my song.

For when I am gone the singing will fade,

and the silence shall last long and long.  

 

A moment of quiet. Then in a softer voice, Jaime repeated, “For when I am gone the singing will fade, and the silence shall last long and long.

Ned closed his eyes, willing back tears. Ser Jaime’s eyes had become pink, but that was a different matter. He is among brothers, strange as it is to think. I am Warden of the North, and I cannot show softness to these men.

Ser Jaime broke away and strode to their table. “We’ve run out of summerwine, Ser Denys.”

“It seems it’s a night for it,” Ser Denys said, sighing.

“I’ll pay-”

“Don’t bother with the debts, just this once.”

Jaime grinned, and Ned would’ve thought him heartless if his eyes were not still moist. “We’ve more wine, brothers,” he called as he turned back to them. “Mance, let’s have another song.”

When the casks had been retrieved and broken open, the brothers settled back around the tables. Ned remained where he was, too enraptured by the strangeness to break away, but aware enough of his separation from the rest he didn’t try to bridge the gap. Mance sang a few more songs, but soon he said, “They grow sick of my playing. Let’s have stories, Kingslayer.”

Soon peripheral voices dulled and one rose about the others. For the better part of an hour, Ser Jaime spoke from personal experience of Aerys’s Kingsguard. His tales were initially those anyone from the south had heard, but quickly grew more personal, boyish embellishments finding their way in. The whole room held its breath, waiting for each new story, each memory, even shared jokes or moments at sword practice.

And when Jaime told of the encounter with the Kingswood Brotherhood, it seemed even the brothers' hearts ceased beating. Ned listened just as raptly, but a chill settled over him when the tale culminated in Arthur's fight with the Smiling Knight, how he offered to let the outlaw choose a second blade after Dawn destroyed his first. Yet he died from a stab in the back, in a fight with three to seven odds.

“The Smiling Knight looked at Arthur and said, ‘It is Dawn that I want,’” Jaime said, face flushed from drink. “Arthur… still perfectly polite, he said, ‘Then you shall have it.’ And soon the Smiling Knight was no more.”

Ned eventually dozed, the room warmer than he remembered and exhaustion catching up with him. One of Ser Denys’s squires stirred him and led him to a room, and Ned fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

He dreamed of the Tower of Joy, of the three giants who finished each other’s sentences.

“We swore a vow,” said Ser Gerold finally, sword drawn.

Ned’s friends surged forward, ready for battle.

“Now it ends,” Ned said. But it’s not my turn.

Arthur held Dawn, the blade bright as if it gave its own light. It shone off Arthur’s face, making plain the grief on his features. Though they stood as if to battle, when he found Ned’s eye, he sheathed the sword. All went dark and icy cold stole into him. Like a storm of watching eyes, blue rose petals glowed in the darkness.

“No,” the Sword of the Morning told him, voice resonating from every side. “Now it begins.”

 

Chapter Text

It was on a routine patrol Jaime and Mance found the four heads, all shoved onto spears, their eyes gouged out.

Jaime slid from Dapple’s back to confirm what he’d suspected at first glance. They belonged to the ranging party that’d left the day before. There was no blood nearby, no bodies. The men had been killed elsewhere, the heads dragged back and left on a patrol route for rangers to find. The Weeper’s work, so certainly Jaime didn’t bother stating as much.

“Bloody buggering fuck,” he said instead. 

"Well put." Mance had dismounted as well, his eyes grim. 

The ranging ought to have been a simple affair. A raven from House Norrey had brought news of stolen weapons and horses, those who owned them killed by raiders. Messages like that came frequently, and unless something uncommonly valuable had been taken, a patrol put in a token effort and returned after a week or two, typically empty-handed. We’ve gotten too predictable. The Weeper knew to wait for them.

Venturing closer, Jaime tilted the nearest head for a better look. His stomach turned when he placed the face. The brother had been new, just fourteen or fifteen. Jaime had tried helping him in the training yard his first day, but the boy had grown absurd when he worked out Jaime was a Lannister. His 'm'lord'ing and ‘s-sorry, ser'ing had been so excessive the other crows took to mock-groveling whenever Jaime entered a room. Hoping to put him at ease for both their sakes, Jaime eventually tried sharing an applecake he’d bribed Darl into making. The lad had only stammered an apology and fled the hall.

Blane had come over to explain. “As he sees it, lordlings don’t give folks like him sword lessons and sweets. They use swords for taking what they want and cutting those who displease them, and they grow fat on cakes while peasants starve. He fears he offended you, and you’re setting up a cruel joke.”

“How could he possibly have offended me?”

The other ranger grabbed the boy’s abandoned applecake and took a bite, grinning when Jaime failed to snatch it back. Darl made him pay exorbitantly for personal requests, and Jaime only parted with pastries to reward a brother small achievements or bribe his way out of Wall watches; Blane well knew what his steal was worth.

Once he swallowed his mouthful and had to face Jaime's question, his smile turned bitter. “With some lords, the lad wouldn’t need to do anything. Breathing improper, making eye contact, sneezing at a bad moment…”

“You never worried about that nonsense,” Jaime said.

“Sure I did. But I tried not to think on it, cause I've got more pride than sense. That one doesn’t care about pride. He’s a gentle creature far as I can tell. Probably wants to be left alone.”

A gentle creature who wants to be left alone, thought Jaime, staring at the severed head.

Needing to look elsewhere, he let his eyes drift north. The Frostfangs rose in the distance, the haunted forest a dark shape to the east, haloed by the dull morning sun. Between them stretched rocky land colored by hardy grass and blanketed in damp snow freshly fallen. Flakes still came down thick and wet, clumping in Jaime's hair and turning to water on his cheeks. There were no footprints. No sign of raiders at all.

When Jaime turned back to the heads, he noted the snow gathered along the empty eye sockets had begun to melt. It looks like they're crying.

“The boy’s name was Cleos,” said Jaime, finding the memory. “I’ve got a cousin by that name.”

“You’ve cousins enough, I’d be shocked there’s anyone in Westeros doesn’t share a name with one of them.” Mance regarded the head with a frown. “I half expect him to apologize for blocking your path.”

Jaime couldn’t help himself. “‘Sorry about the view, m’lord. I’d make my rottin’ brains less offensive, but s’not somethin’ I can help.”

“It’s good he died early, or I’d have cut out his tongue hearing much more of that.”

“Is that Arlan on the far right?”

“Yes, the one who bragged about killing his wife.”

“His new look suits him.”

Mance regarded the middle heads. “Don’t remember these two.”

“Myles liked asking me for stories about the Kingsguard. Can’t recall the other, though he’s got a startling nose. Too bad the Weeper didn't cut that off when he gouged the eyes.”

They stared at the heads, and snow fell around them, gathering in the folds of Jaime's cloak. He noted Dapple shifting to dislodge the flakes piling on her back, and he brushed them away. She thanked him with a nudge to the ribs. A corner of his mouth tugging upward, he rested an arm across her neck and bunched a hand in her thick coat.

Mance stirred himself first. “When you’re done taking comfort from your lady, we need to do something about these. Shall we burn them, or throw them in the Gorge for the animals?”

“I don’t like how flesh smells when it burns,” Jaime said. 

Mance gave him such a strained frown, Jaime felt mildly embarrassed for saying as much. “The Gorge it is.”

 

Later that morning, Jaime went to Mallister’s solar to share wine. The old knight insisted on doing so several times a week, and Jaime side-stepped the scorn the favoritism might’ve earned him by speaking on his brothers’ behalf if they had matters needed brought up. In any case, it was not such a chore. The talks could be quaintly pleasant, and playing to Mallister’s expectations in small things granted him freedom in larger matters, such as permission to write Casterly Rock more often than was strictly encouraged.

“You’ve something on your mind,” Ser Denys said when mulled wine was poured. He’d taken care to provide it after Jaime told him he preferred warm drinks to combat the chill of the Wall. “Are you still bothered by the morning's discovery?" 

Jaime took a deep drink, letting the spiced liquid heat his throat. “The Weeping Man can’t be far. He had to have left those heads just last night.”

“You desire permission to hunt him,” Mallister said.

“Why not? He’s a problem. He’s been a problem, and he’ll continue to be one if we don’t get rid of him. You’ve no other missions for me at the moment, and any men could cover my patrols.”

Mallister drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Are you asking to command a ranging?”

“I’ve barely been a year on the Wall, and I’m still unfamiliar with some of the lands beyond. Blane’s been here six years, and he’s still not-”

“You are a different matter.”

“I don’t want to lead.” In truth, Jaime wouldn’t mind commanding a ranging every now and again. But he feared if he bent at all, Mallister would start piling on additional responsibilities, and he’d be buried before he got his footing. As long as he held out on the small things, he’d not have to worry about Mallister’s plans for his future.

“So you say.” Mallister regarded him with a contemplative gaze. “I’ll let you chase the Weeper. You have a month. But I want you to go with Qhorin.”

Jaime had flown to his feet in excitement, but he sat at that, his face twisting. The few rangings he’d had with Qhorin had been like taking trips to Lannisport with Uncle Kevan. All business, dull lectures, and not nearly as interesting as those with Tyg or Gerion. While Jaime respected him highly, he was tedious at best.

“Mance would be better suited,” Jaime said, trying to keep his voice reasonable.

“He's had more than enough time to teach you what he knows. Qhorin has another perspective to offer, and he’ll pay more mind to establishing discipline.”

“Mance and I are remarkably successful.”

The old knight narrowed his eyes. “You’re also remarkably disobedient. You range twice as long as you’re ordered, take detours as you please, and according to any brothers who accompany you, spend more time in wildling villages than you ought. When I last sent the two of you chasing raiders, you went to the Frost Fangs looking for giants.”

“We brought back Lady Umber’s jewels, did we not?” Jaime didn’t mention they’d found giant bones. Mallister had been unimpressed when he offered that excuse the first time.

“You were gone six weeks when I’d given you half that.” Mallister took a deep drink. “You bring out the recklessness in each other. I’m willing to indulge it somewhat. As you say, you’re successful. But such flagrant disobedience is not acceptable, nor is it tenable.”

“But Qhorin?” He’d take half the fun from it.

As if reading Jaime’s mind, Mallister said, “Rangings are not meant to be fun. Of course, two isn’t enough to challenge the Weeper, but I’m hesitant to send another veteran with two of my best already due to leave. Take… Owen as well. He needs seasoning.”

“The Hornwood boy?” Jaime rubbed his temples. “No, no, no. He’s useless. Whoever made him a ranger should be beheaded for stupidity. He fears his own shadow, and he about brained himself with a sparring sword last week.”

Shaking his head, Mallister said, “The Hornwoods are allies of the Watch.”

That boy-”

“He’s older than you.”

“That boy,” Jaime repeated, lip curling, “would be a hindrance.”

“He needs experience. If he does not range, how will he learn?”

Thoughts of hunting the Weeper with Mance, perhaps detouring somewhere interesting, were replaced by following Qhorin’s stern orders while a frightened lordling bumbled along after them. He considered changing his mind, deciding the Weeper could wait. But the thought of the peasant boy’s gaping eye sockets stilled his tongue. If we wait, it might be that happens again. Best see to this now.

“Fine,” Jaime said. “I’ll indulge you, just this once.”

 

After seeing the ranging party off, Mance sent a steward to fetch Mallister. Technically he had the second highest command in the Shadow Tower, and though he found the prospect of keeping personal stewards or squires laughable, he had the right to make use of those loafing about. His authority didn't extend to letting him summon Mallister like a servant, but he suspected the old knight would come anyway, driven by concern over what could motivate Mance to seek him out. For his part, Mance would much rather chat in the common hall than speak over wine in Mallister's solar. He’d leave that nonsense for the Kingslayer.

When the steward was gone, Mance seated himself on a bench near the hall’s largest hearth, lute in hand. A few off-duty brothers diced in a far corner, and a steward cleaned the floors. Otherwise, the space was abandoned, most men going about their daily tasks. Mance wasn’t assigned such chores. He spent more weeks ranging in a year than most men did in four, so aside from the occasional Wall watch, his time in the castle was his own. 

To pass the wait, he played “The Winter Rose” with a slower pace and lower notes than he usually heard it. Sometimes the song wanted to come forth that way, though usually it was treated as a lullaby. When he found a harmony he liked, he added the words, picking up the lyrics mid-song to match the music.

 

In Winterfell's crypts I hid her away

My dear winter rose, my prettiest flower.

Stark scoured his castle but found not a trace

And under his nose, my lady grew lovely with child

 

For nine moons I lingered among bones of past Starks

Until my dear rose, she gave birth to a son

A son as fine, a son as strong, as any I'd  seen

I kissed our babe's brow, then said my farewells

Yes… I said my farewells, though it grieved me to go

For no castle for kneelers could be home to me

 

Yes, oh yes, this bard knows in his bones:

My home lies in free lands beyond the vast Wall

Lands wild and fierce, where we're  free men all

But often I dream in the dead of the night

Yes often I dream, night after long night,

Of all that I left, south of the Wall.

 

“I wish you wouldn’t sing that song.” Mallister had approached Mance’s bench, brow creased, though not so much so it made him look angry. If anything he seemed melancholy.

“My mother sang it to me,” said Mance, so it would not seem treasonous.

“You can’t possibly remember that.”

A smile on his lips, Mance set his lute aside. “I remembered the tune. A woman from White Tree caught me humming it and gave me the words. But you’re not here to discuss free folk music.”

Mallister lowered himself onto the bench across from Mance, adjusting his cloak so it fell easily behind him. “Why am I here, Mance? Do you resent that I kept you back this ranging?”

“Not this time, no. I care not for headhunting, glory seeking, nor revenge. The Kingslayer can have his fill of them.”

“Ser Jaime would not indulge in-” Mance snorted, and Mallister let his protest die. He cleared his throat. “He’d do us all a favor by taking care of the Weeper, and it is his duty.”

“You need not defend the boy. You know I think highly of him, jesting aside.” Before Mallister could say anything further, Mance added, “As I said, I’ve no desire to question your choice with this ranging. Rather, I wish to travel to Castle Black while my preferred sparring partners are away.”

Mallister leaned back, bushy brows lifting. “That is… a very reasonable request.” He could not hide his surprise that Mance could be reasonable. “I suppose it’s no matter to send you over instead of the usual Wall patrol, if foolish to waste you on such a task. May I know why? You must’ve been at Shadow Tower fifteen years, and you’ve expressed no desire to return to our sister castle.”

“I want to see Maester Aemon,” said Mance, but left it at that. He'd not say he was motivated largely by interest in wild speculation. For months, speaking with the maester hadn’t even occurred to him. He recalled the old man referencing a few points mentioned in Arthur Dayne’s letter to Jaime, but he'd not desired to learn more about it. The talk of prophecy and promised princes was nonsense.

But his long ranging with Jaime had given him reason to reconsider, and with Jaime and Qhorin due to be gone a full month, there seemed no better time to see if he might find something of interest in the madness.

Mance thought his explanation straightforward enough, but it put a frown on Mallister’s face. “You’d been close to Maester Aemon at one time, had you not?”

“He taught me to read.”

“Yet you’ve not gone to visit before?”

“I grew disenchanted with him. The old man missed his family, and increasingly often said things like, ‘Egg would’ve done that same thing,’ or, ‘Young Rhaegar enjoys music as well.’ Eventually, I felt he could not see me, except for how I was like someone else.”

To Mance’s bafflement, Mallister nodded along. “What I know of you, there’d not have been a surer way to earn your scorn.”

“It should not have angered me like it did, and I do not think it grew as bad as I saw it. But all my life, I felt those around me crafted windows of stained glass through which to view the halfbreed bastard, and inevitably they saw first their own designs and only a shadow of what I looked like.”

He ran a hand over the smooth wood of his lute. “Aemon’s chambers were always warm, and he’d put out pastries for me, and give me gentle words. I’ve known no sentiment, no softness all my life, except in those rooms. That he might’ve been looking through his own window, tinted black and red, was… unsettling.”

“So you left,” Mallister guessed.

“Aye, asked Qorgyle to transfer me to a castle that set longer rangings, with men who didn’t think they knew me. And I took care to make myself memorable enough, my brothers couldn’t help but see.”

Mallister studied him for a long moment. “Why’ve you chosen now to make amends?”

“No amends need making. Aemon did nothing except tweak my pride, and I didn’t so much as speak a harsh word. I came across an academic matter on which I’d like his input. That’s all.”

“Very well, then. Take a fortnight. I’ve some business with the Lord Commander and First Ranger you might also well take care of. And do travel at the base of the Wall. Look for fallen climbers or signs of raiders come through.”

“As you say.”

The old knight looked at him almost fondly. “You resented Maester Aemon, but I warrant it’s a sign of his stabilizing influence you turned out as well as you have. I know I am stern with you, but I must admit you’ve overcome your blood remarkably well.”

Mance’s flesh grew chilled and feverish at the same time, his chest so tight he could not immediately draw air to speak. You need not say anything at all, he told himself. What good is it to argue with a man who’d talk of overcoming blood in the same breath he says I’m stable because of a Targaryen’s influence?

For a moment, it’d felt like they spoke as equals. That was the worst thing.

Picking up his lute once more, Mance let his fingers make whatever notes they pleased to distract him from the roaring in his ears. A moment passed before he realized they’d resumed “A Winter Rose,” this time in the soft, lilting way he remembered from his earliest dreams.

“Leave me.”

“Mance,” said Mallister, a sigh in his voice. “You should not take it-”

“Not take it personally?” said Mance softly. “You insulted the blood in my veins. That was poorly done. Foolish as well, for I’ve made no secret my blood shames me not. A man of your breeding ought to consider such details.”

The other man’s face turned red, but he did not speak.

Mance took care to keep his voice even. “I’d like to stay here and play my music a while longer, Ser Denys. Do me the courtesy of taking yourself elsewhere.”

At that, Mallister looked as if he’d offer an apology, but Mance caught his eye and made no effort to hide the rage and hurt and frustration that wanted to burst forth in screams and curses. Mallister’s expression fractured, and for a moment he looked fragile as spun glass. Smart enough to recognize Mance wanted nothing to do with his apologies, but he clearly did not know how else to react. He could scarce protest Mance's reaction, for Mance had been nothing but polite. 

“Leave me, please,” Mance repeated, for it didn’t feel like begging. In this fight, courtesy was a surer weapon than castle-forged steel.

It did Mallister in. He rose, slow as if he’d aged ten years during their talk. With dignity—Mance would not deny him that—he walked away, and did not look back.

 

The ranging was unpleasant from the beginning. Snow turned to rain the first evening of their journey and continued three days after. Water soaked through Jaime’s cloak and drenched him through, chafing and pruning places that didn’t take well to chafing and pruning. Owen—who Jaime called Moose, for he was a lumbering, long-boned fellow suited to his house’s sigil—insisted frequently he’d die if they didn’t turn around. Far as Jaime could tell, Qhorin couldn’t experience discomfort, yet even he frowned each time he woke to see the clouds hadn’t retreated.

In such weather, fires were impossible. Jaime slept uneasily because of it. On his long ranging with Mance, they’d stayed at a village where a group of Hornfoots stopped to trade. Around the fire, Mance sat by Jaime and whispered a translation while one of the traders spoke in the Old Tongue. Kin of his had encountered wights, the man claimed, and only one escaped to tell the tale. Mance dismissed it as a story, but the next morning, he insisted they return to Shadow Tower, though they’d planned to range until they found giants. 

Jaime felt childish by being unmanned by a scary story, knowing Tyrion would laugh himself sick if he knew. But the haunted forest was a strange place in the dark, and it made it difficult to dismiss the Hornfoot’s tale as fiction.

His uneasy feeling crested the night of the fourth day. Qhorin had them camp in a dry space beneath the broad branches of a faceless weirwood, and Jaime spent hours watching the moonlit leaves stir in the wind, looking like thousands of bloody hands waving for notice. He felt he was being watched, though no matter how he squinted at the shadows, he could spy no trace of ice monsters. Even the usual forest creatures who moved about at night were silent, hiding from the rain. He spied only a single raven reclining in a nearby ironwood, and Moose trying to keep himself awake as lookout.

Only when the other ranger woke Qhorin for second watch did Jaime relax. There was something soothing in hearing the older man grumble at Moose to get some sleep, more so in watching through his lashes as Qhorin moved soundlessly to retrieve something from his saddlebags. He returned to his post and drew his blade to hone and polish. The shh of blade against stone pleased Jaime more than any song Mance could coax from his lute. There’s no one at the Wall who’d keep a surer watch, Jaime told himself. No one in the kingdoms.

“I feel your eyes on me, Kingslayer,” Qhorin murmured. “Settle your mind and sleep. I’ll not have you complaining you’re tired, on top of the boy’s bitching about the rain.”

The scolding eased his mind. He tucked his head against the trunk of the weirwood, and after a final look at his surroundings showed only the raven lurking in the dark, Jaime slept.

And he dreamt.

In a background of darkness, a fat boy said, “There are reavers in Old Town. Ser Jaime, we need help. Can Bran- Ser Jaime?” He looked into Jaime’s eyes, his own small and round in the broad moon of his face. “Oh, no. You’re too young. I’m not doing this right…”

“Who the hells are you?” Jaime said.

“I’m a steward, and-” He looked over his shoulder, and said quickly. “I’m… I’m scared. But it’s alright. I’m brave too. And, er, if we don’t see each other again-” He seemed to fish for something to say, and finally he blurted, “Everything is going to be fine. You’ve got Edd, and Jon, and-”

A door slammed, and another voice said, “The Crow’s Eye is here, piggy. We need to hurry.”

“Do you still have to call me- oh, never mind. I’m talking to Jaime, but he’s my age. Maybe Bran is doing something.”

“You’re standing around having a chat? Stop yammering at him and try something else. No, no, let me-”

A slender figure appeared in the edge of Jaime’s vision, but he and the fat boy faded, and the darkness unfolded into a forest clearing. It was night, but moonlight lit the space enough to make visible his surroundings. Jaime thought at first he wore a collar, then realized a child clung to his back, arms around his neck. He brought his arms back to support limp legs, turned to try to see. Before he could make him out, the person said in a boy’s voice, “Look around you.”

Jaime listened. The sky was filled with three dragons and loud with their cries, and direwolves circled him on all sides. A helmed man in a cloak of Targaryen colors lurked in the corner of his eye. When he turned to better see, he noticed crows in the trees, hundreds of them, motionless, waiting. His eyes returned to the Targaryen as the man stepped out from the sea of black. In the dim light, Jaime could not make out his face.

“Aerys? Rhaegar?” Jaime advanced, still holding the child on his back. “Come out, then. I’ve nothing to fear from you.”

“From me? No. But look behind you.”

“What-”

The king drew his blade and charged. Jaime moved too sluggishly to stop his strike, but the expected impact did not come. The man ran past him. Jaime whirled to see what he meant by the feint, only to be faced with a wall of dead, blue-eyed creatures looming behind him. Already they surrounded the man, grabbing his arms, his neck and legs, trying to pull him down as he swung his sword.

“Help, Jaime,” the man urged. “Fight.”

The dragons swept closer, one of green and one of black, a third of cream and gold spiraling low over the trees. Direwolves panted behind him. A warm body pressed against his legs, big as Dapple, but when Jaime turned, the silver wolf did not attack, but leapt into the fray.

“Jaime,” urged the boy on his back, “Jaime, do something.”

Why look to me? What am I to do? He was surrounded, and only a man, when it was monsters they faced. The boy made a frightened noise, and that stirred Jaime to action.

“Don’t let go,” said Jaime, and shifted the boy’s weight so he could draw his sword. In the same instant, a thousand crows took flight, and the darkness lessened. But the monsters pressed closer, smelling of cold and death. Icy hands clutched him, grabbing at his eyes, digging into his mouth. The chill splintered his bones and brought a scream to his lips, but the sound was stifled by dead fingers. The boy’s hold on his neck grew tighter, and the king fought through the hoard toward him.

“Jaime,” they repeated, boy and king both, pleas accompanied by the cawing of crows. “Jaime, Jaime.” The voices grew increasingly pressing, as if he could do a damn thing. The king extended a hand, grasped Jaime by the upper arm. “Jaime, Jaime.”

Jaime’s eyes flew open. He balked when he saw the speaker wore a black cloak. No, that’s not him. I’m not dreaming anymore. He thought it Mance, but he recalled they were not ranging together this time. It was Qhorin, his eyes dark with concern.

Jaime turned onto his side and emptied his stomach. Gasping, he collapsed onto the damp ground and looked up, then flinched when the raven in the ironwood caught his eye. His head smacked against the weirwood behind him, and he saw a flash of blue eyes, an ethereally beautiful face of bone white. His mouth opened to shout, but he swallowed the sound.

Scrambling onto his back, Jaime squinted through the trees until he found traces of sunlight filtering through the branches. It was morning, and the storm seemed to be through. The raven cawed, then flapped its wings, passing over Jaime before it disappeared into the forest.

In the quiet following his panic, Jaime gained the wits to look around him. Qhorin was on his knees. Moose hovered behind him, uncertain as a startled colt. Their stares turned his face red and hot.

“Moose,” Qhorin said, “go take a piss.”

“But I don’t-”

“Go.”

He fled.

Qhorin looked plainly at Jaime. “What did you dream?” The direct question surprised him. He and Qhorin rarely spoke one-on-one; Jaime had no patience for his gravity and silence, and Qhorin never sought him. Brothers they were, and allies, but not quite friends. I’d not have guessed he’d have patience for bad dreams.

Jaime wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Ser Denys’s nonsense about making me lead is getting into my head. The world was ending, and everyone thought I should do something about it.” The chorus of his name on desperate lips sent a shiver down his spine. Jaime, Jaime, Jaime. He wished he could go back into his dream and yell at them to leave him be.

Qhorin pressed a hand against the weirwood as if he wished he might glimpse what Jaime had seen. “I’ve never seen a man dream like that.”

Jaime ran his fingers through his hair, pushing through damp tangles. “You never struck me as superstitious.”

“Mance deems me a skeptic because I don’t accept every word from his lips. But I’ve ventured nearly as far beyond the Wall as he has, and further than you.” Qhorin’s eyes fixed hard on Jaime’s face, his lips twisting like the branches of an old oak. “I know strange things happen here sometimes. Your dream had that feeling about it.”

There was something comforting about how seriously Qhorin took a mad dream. Perhaps that’s what prompted Jaime to say, “I confess it scared me. But… it wasn’t real.”

Qhorin seemed not to know what to say, though he did not appear convinced. Before he could ask more questions, Moose poked his head through a break in the trees, still-damp clothing hanging off him, making him look like a drowned rat. “Can I be done now?”

The interruption was a relief.

“Yes,” said Jaime, climbing to his feet. “In fact, we were just getting ready to go.”

 

Upon reaching Castle Black, Mance was surprised to find it smaller than he remembered. He came through the gates, expecting a castle. Instead he found only a ramshackle collection of buildings that impressed him not at all. As a child, it’d seemed an entire world. It’d been his entire world. He supposed it appropriate it proved disappointing in hindsight.

Mance would be expected to report to the First Ranger eventually, but that could wait. He preferred to get his audience with Maester Aemon out of the way. Energy still buzzed through him from his long ride, and it seemed the best time to tackle a tricky encounter.

Shortly after Mance knocked on the door to the maester’s keep, Clydas answered, wringing his hands when he saw Mance, looking first at the sword and dagger at his belt, his mail and boiled leather. By the way his eyes widened, he noted Mance wore it all comfortably and little liked being faced with an armed ranger he knew not.

“Are you injured, brother?” he ventured.

“Not the least. I’ve come only to visit.” Mance shouldered past him into the warm chambers beyond. “Do you not know me? I’ll grant I wasn’t quite fifteen when we last spoke, a head shorter and thin as a spear.”

“I don’t- Little Mance!”

Mance laughed. “Now you have it. Is Maester Aemon in?”

“Yes, yes. I’ll fetch him.” Clydas found a smile. “You look well. I don’t mean to embarrass you, but it wasn’t unpleasant, having you about the castle all those years. Nothing can warm these cold halls, but a child’s laughter… it came close. Maester Aemon will be pleased to speak with you as well.” He disappeared down the short hall that led to Aemon’s bedchamber.

Mance wandered to the worktable and sat on top. His feet used to dangle off the ground, but now the boots Jaime gave him settled firmly on the wooden floor. After a short wait, Aemon appeared in his bed robe, a fur cloak thrown over thin shoulders. The snowy hair atop his head had all but fallen out, and a milky film had begun to cover his eyes. He’s going blind. Mance recalled how the old man loved books and felt a stab of pity.

Clydas guided him to a chair and ensured he was settled, then left at the maester’s request.

“Did I wake you?” Mance said.

Aemon started, head swiveling. Then a laugh burst from his lips, a hoarse one that seemed to be directed at himself. “Forgive me. I forgot to expect a man’s voice. You did wake me, yes, but it’s no matter. There are days it seems all I do is nap, then I’ll spend long nights thinking of the dead.” He beckoned with a withered hand. “Come here. My sight isn’t what it’d been. I’d have a proper look at you.”

Mance went to him. The old man framed his face with a dry palm. He squinted and moved Mance’s head, pale eyes trying to make out detail. Mance wondered what he sought. Imagined traces of some dead Targaryen? Evidence of wildling blood? Or was he interested only in marking how Mance had changed?

Aemon relaxed back into his chair. “You’ve a look like you laugh often. It’s good to see. The Wall so often makes men cold.”

Unsure what to make of that, Mance returned to the table and sat once more. “You do not mind I’ve come to talk? I confess I mean to discuss an unconventional matter. One that's more speculation than anything.”

“I mind not at all. I always did enjoy speaking with you, Mance.”

He speaks to me like we’re… old friends. Mance could no more respond to that than the maester's prior comment. Though he knew it made him seem callous, he brushed the soft remark aside and cut to his point. “You exchanged letters with Rhaegar, did you not?” 

That darkened the old man’s eyes. “I did. Until the end. Until…” A pause. “Your friend-”

“I’ve not come to speak of the Kingslayer.”

Aemon closed his eyes. “Ser Denys said he wears the title at your encouragement. I’d not wanted to bring it up-”

“Then don’t.”

“I’d know only one thing. Why would you give him the name like it’s a badge of honor?” He opened his eyes and looked earnestly at Mance. “Ser Jaime told me how he killed Aerys. Every detail. How he screamed, and…”

“He did this without prompting?”

“With very little. He guessed I was a Targaryen. My eyes, I suppose. Or the name.” The old man threaded his fingers together. “He needed stitches above his brow, but upon recognizing me insisted it wasn’t necessary. I reminded him I gave up my house after receiving my chain, that I would be fair with him. He let me do the stitches, but before he left, I had to ask why he’d kill poor Aerys, why he didn’t protect the children.”

Mance got off the table, agitation leading him to stalk the room. “I’ve a notion your only word on Aerys these past years has come from Rhaegar, and it seems he was not plain with you, or perhaps he lied to himself as well. I’ll only say the Mad King deserved it, and that Jaime didn't know what his father planned for Elia and the young prince and princess." 

Aemon stared in his direction, his certainty gone. “What don’t I know?”

“Answering that would require a full conversation, and I’m determined to speak of something else. That is, if you’ll indulge a friend of the Kingslayer.”

Maeseter Aemon closed his eyes again, and Mance was struck once more by how old he seemed. He stilled his pacing and leaned against the table, compelled to quiet himself.

Finally Aemon said, “Unless you’ve become a fool, you must have a reason for liking the boy. I’ll not scorn you for seeing something in him I couldn't. Tell me, what have you come to discuss?”

Mance was not fully sure, his curiosity general more than specific. He paused to order his thoughts. “You mentioned Rhaegar a handful of times alongside a… prophecy. Something of the prince that was promised. Do I remember correctly?”

The way Aemon frowned, Mance wondered if he’d not made a drastic misstep. But eventually he answered. “You do, though Rhaegar ceased believing the prophecy referred to himself. He suspected Aegon.”

“And this promised prince is supposed to end the second coming of the Long Night?”

“Possibly, though that is less clear. Some say he is meant to bring back dragons. But many have connected the prince with Azor Ahai from Essos, and Azor Ahai is thought to be related to Eldric Shadowchaser, Yin Tar, Neferion… among others. All these were warriors known for ending the Long Night, but it’s Azor Ahai who’s the most famous.”

“I don’t know that story,” Mance admitted.

“He's said to have been a famous warrior who conquered the darkness with Lightbringer, a blade of living fire.” Those failing eyes fixed on Mance as if the maester could see him down to his bones. “Why do you ask about this?”

“The free folk have been speaking of wights more and more, and I thought it strange they’d do so at the same time you seemed convinced a figure had come about to stop the Others.” This was true, and he felt it best to leave Jaime’s letter out of it.

“But it matters not,” said Aemon. “Rhaegar is dead, and his children…”

“I do not mean to salt fresh wounds.”

“You’ve done nothing wrong. I’d think of them even were you not here. Have you more questions?”

Mance found himself walking the room again, considering what Aemon had told him about Azor Ahai. Lightbringer. A blade of living fire. Why does that sound familiar?

“I recognized none of the heroes you listed, not Azor Ahai, nor the others,” he said. “They’re all foreign?”

“From Essos.”

“What of the last hero? I’d have thought the prince would’ve first looked closer to home.”

Maester Aemon opened his mouth, as if expecting there must be an obvious answer ready to burst to the tip of his tongue. Nothing seemed to come to him, however, and a smile that was almost sheepish crossed his lips. “I confess I barely know the story myself. Refresh an old man’s memory, and mayhaps I’ll find an answer.”

“It’s a long tale, but the heart of it is that the last hero met with the children of the forest. Afterward, he formed the Night’s Watch and with it won the Battle for the Dawn.”

Aemon lifted a hand to rest on his collar. “Sometimes even I forget I can learn new things, or relearn what I’ve forgotten. I suppose… there was nothing akin to Lightbringer? That is why Rhaegar wouldn’t have considered it. He may have found the story too different.”

Mance laughed. “Maester, the last hero in fact had three swords. His first froze and snapped, and it’s said he slayed the Others with a second blade of dragonsteel.” An odd addition, Mance realized, for there was no steel at all in Westeros at the time. A detail added late? A mistranslation from the Old Tongue? Where had I picked that up? As he thought on it, he recalled there were tellings that mentioned the second blade not at all.

“And the third sword?” Aemon said, when Mance did not immediately go on.

He put the oddity aside and let himself laugh again, delighted by how cleverly it all worked out. “I’ve already spoken of it.”

“Mance,” said he, a touch exasperated.

“The Night’s Watch. Has it been so long since you said your oaths? The light that brings the dawn. And you mentioned living fire. ‘I am the fire that burns against the cold.’ Then, the obvious one: I am the sword in the darkness.”

Aemon’s eyes went wide, and he sagged like all the breath had been pressed out of him. He takes this seriously, thought Mance, and stifled his smile, though he was still pleased he’d worked the thing out. The old man rallied blessedly quickly, and he said, “The oaths must’ve came from the Azor Ahai legend. You are right it cannot be coincidence.”

“Brother,” Mance said gently, “I’d wager Lightbringer came from our oaths. The Free Folk say the Long Night began here and spread-”

“The other stories claim the same.”

“Aye, everyone prefers to believe they’re the center of the world. I do as well, but with good reason. If men from the North crossed to Essos and talked of a flaming, light-bringing sword, it’d be natural to assume a weapon. It’s simple to work out how those other tales would come from that misunderstanding. The process doesn’t work cleanly the other way. You’d have to assume the oaths were created later in history, after the Long Night had ended, and were drafted for some reason from a foreign story.

“That would also mean the tale of the last hero evolved from that of Azor Ahai. As a self-titled bard, I don’t believe that’s true. The last hero’s greatest achievement came because he begged for help. His story centers on suffering, humility, and receiving aid: from his companions, then the children, then the Watch. Storytellers do not add such details. They deem them unheroic and cut them. It’s far likelier Azor Ahai came about as men simplified the last hero’s tale and made it more grand.”

Aemon did not speak for a long time, but Mance sensed their talk was not over. He walked the small room, coming eventually to a shelf of books on one wall. He noted a tome about dragons and ran a hand over the spine. Remembering the detail about dragonsteel, he resolved to go to the library to see if he could figure out why that’d come into his head. He had a fortnight, and gods forbid he spent all that time going over logistics with the high officers.

“And the prince that was promised?” Aemon said finally. “How does he fit?”

“It may be unwise to conflate your prince with these others. You believe he’s related to dragons, to House Targaryen. Those details do not fit the stories of the Long Night, and a prince, even a promised one, need not be a warrior.” Mance shrugged. “But I’d not say for certain. If you’re still determined to think on it, recall tales are rarely literal, and accounting for human influence—translation errors, agendas, misunderstandings, exaggeration—may work better than reading the thing as you would a maester’s writings.”

Aemon trembled in his chair, eyes growing distant once more. “Yes. That is something to think on, though perhaps too late.”

Arthur Dayne didn't think it was too late. He believed the prince that was promised is still relevant. Mance did not say it, for he thought Dayne stupid at best. When Jaime started from uneasy dreams or made comments about hating the smell of burning flesh, Mance despised the coward outright for following his mad prince and leaving a boy who idealized him to suffer under the king. Whatever promised prince the Kneeler of the Morning believed in did not warrant mention.

The old man’s gaze focused suddenly, and he sat up straight. “But I’ve been a fool. Mance, you said wildlings are speaking of wights? I was so caught up on the rest, I scarcely thought on it.”

The change of topic brought a frown to Mance’s face, as did the seriousness with which Aemon brought it up. It mattered more than Mance could say that he came back to it and did not dismiss it as nonsense. Yet I stand here, dismissing his prophecy in the same way. Does that make a hypocrite of me? Is it more logical to believe in wights? Does logic matter with such things?

“I don’t know it’s a matter of concern,” said Mance. “It’s only rumors, and most the free folk don’t fully believe them.”

Worry flickered across Aemon’s face. “Even so… Do you believe it important the Watch was so vital in the last hero’s story? There is magic in the Wall, otherwise it could not have been built. Is it not reasonable to suppose the Watch might have its own magic, wrapped somehow in the oaths?”

“Few of us care about our oaths. I confess I like only that they are general, so I might use them in my defense when Mallister yells at me. I doubt most men at the Shadow Tower even remember all the words. In the unlikely event there is basis to the stories the free folk tell, and the Others return, it might be best to hope the last hero’s story is only a story, not something anyone was supposed to remember.”

“That is that, then?”

“I’ll not dwell on it now, when I know so little.” Mance shook his head. “I haven’t let anyone know I’ve arrived, and I’ve business in the library as well.”

Aemon said softly, “How long are you to stay?”

“A fortnight.”

“Would you come back if you find the time? I’d talk with you about pleasanter things.”

Mance hesitated, not fully over old wounds, a touch scornful of this man who clung to the ruins of a house that’d deserved to fall—would that all the houses fell—and mourned a monster solely because they shared a name. But he’d listened, and he’s taken me seriously through this whole talk. No, more than that. At the end, he’d deferred to Mance.

“Yes,” Mance said. “I’ll come back, and we can talk.”

 

Though the Weeper could not be far ahead of them, they saw no sign of fire, nor tracks that could give them a better indication of where he’d gone. It became increasingly clear they’d not find the raider by tracking him.

Three days after the rain stopped, they discussed the matter around a fire coaxed by Qhorin from damp wood. He’d shot a grouse, and Jaime dressed it and got it frying in the cook pot with a slab of lard and dried spices. The sound of sizzling and scent of crisping meat made even grouse seem appetizing, and having a fire for the first time on the ranging gave the evening a pleasant feel.  

“Craster may know something,” Qhorin suggested.

Jaime poked at the fire with a stick. “I’ve been banned from his keep, if you recall.”

Blane and Stonesnake had dragged him there on a ranging, and Jaime caught the notice of one of Craster’s daughters. It’d been so long since a woman looked at him with shy glances and flushed cheeks, he encouraged her: shaking out his hair, smiling just so, sitting in a way that made him look dashing. One of the girl’s sisters nagged her for her distraction, and Jaime made mocking faces behind the older woman’s back, coaxing a sparkle into the girl's eye. Jaime saw so few women not covered by skins and furs, the sight had warmed him through. 

Then Craster noticed the direction of his gaze and hit him in the jaw. Jaime had slugged him back to heal hurt pride, and his brothers laughed themselves sick as they dragged him off, Craster chasing them with a hatchet. And of course, they told the tale to every brother at the Shadow Tower.

Qhorin pinched the bridge of his nose, as unimpressed with the reminder as he’d been when Stonesnake first shared the story. “You could apologize. Craster would accept.” If you bribe him as well, went without saying.

“He fucks his daughters and does gods know what with his sons. I’d sooner chop off my cock than play like I did wrong.”

“We could go back to the Wall,” tried Moose, though they’d ranged only a week. “It seems the Weeper’s escaped us.”

“Nonsense. There are other wildlings we can talk to.”

That earned a scoff from Qhorin. “Will they talk to us, or would they talk to Mance if he was here?”

“I know Orl’s clan, and he came this way when the treaty was up. Mance and I visited a short while back. They may be in the same spot.” Groups like Orl’s stayed in a place as long as it was useful to them. The clearing they’d claimed between the Antler and the Milkwater was one they supposedly came back to two or three times a summer because the land let them grow turnips and potatoes. It’d been more than a growing season since Jaime and Mance visited, but if nothing pushed the clan out, they’d have stretched their stay to plant again.

Qhorin failed to look pleased. “Mance took me to that man once when I was injured. His people helped me, yes. But groups like his have their own motivations, play by their own rules. Are you sure you know how they’ll react? We’re hunting one of their own.”

Jaime worked his throat. “If they recognize me, they won’t hurt me, won’t hurt us. I’m sure of it.” This was a boldfaced lie. It’d been all but impossible to convince Orl that first treaty was a good idea, he’d been so reluctant to help the Watch. Approaching him out of nowhere, asking favors, might well cause trouble. But Jaime didn’t want to return to the Shadow Tower empty-handed. He wanted the Weeper.

Qhorin studied him for a long time, so long Jaime almost thought he’d insist they turn around. But ultimately, the other ranger nodded. “Ser Denys wants you making more choices. I’ll give you this one. Let’s see if you’re worthy of his trust.”

Despite Qhorin’s supposed approval, neither of his brothers seemed confident in Jaime’s plan. Over the next days, Moose alternated between trying to talk Jaime into changing his mind and falling into withdrawn silence, morose the way new rangers got once exhaustion set in on long rangings. Qhorin did not question him again, in fact snapped at Moose for doing so, but he spent a lot of time thinking hard, and Jaime gathered the other man was fighting years of instinct to indulge him.

Jaime made up for their poor attitude by whistling and humming when he could. When he climbed a tree to spy ahead and spotted a bear moseying along the Milkwater, he earned a scolding from Qhorin by bursting into song once they resumed riding. “A bear there was, a bear, a bear! All black and brown-”

“Do you want to bring an ambush on us, you fool?”

Jaime gazed over imperiously from Dapple’s saddle, with all the dignity a knight could muster mounted upon what was more pony than horse. “Mance says it’s best to make noise after spying a bear. Unless cubs are around, they’ll leave you be so long as they know you’re coming.”

Qhorin clenched his jaw so tight Jaime could hear it.

Taking that as proof he was right, Jaime resumed his song. Dapple’s ears twitched cheerfully, and Jaime ruffled her forelock. At least you’re not so grim as these rest.

By time Qhorin found a well-traveled path two days later, it’d begun to drizzle once more. Jaime recognized the route from his last visit with Mance, and knowing Orl liked keeping eyes on the main approach to his camp, Jaime made a point of talking as he pleased. Like with bears, wildlings tended to be less violent if they weren’t startled. Midway through a recollection of his last letter from Tyrion, a cloaked figure stepped out of the trees. When she threw her hood back, Jaime caught a flash of red hair, wet and limp around a pale freckled face.

“Thought that was you, Kingslayer.”

Jaime slid off Dapple, but he kept a hand on his sword. “You. You’re…” She’d been off hunting during Jaime’s first visit, but he remembered her from his second. When a name did not come to him, he said, “Ygritte’s mother.”

“Edyth,” she reminded him, not at all impressed. She lifted a weirwood bow and moved closer, tilting her head to better see in the gray light. The woman was only a few years Jaime’s senior, and it unsettled him she already had a child some four years of age. Then, if I’d wed Lysa Tully, it might be I’d have a tiny red-haired child as well, only a little younger. Edyth examined Moose and Qhorin, eyes going cool when she did not spy Mance among them. “What d’you want? The treaty’s up. We don’t help crows for the good of it.”

“But you and I are good as family. Ygritte’s practically demanded I steal her.”

She spat at his feet and crossed her arms over her chest. “It was crows killed Ygritte’s father, so don’t go bringing her into it. I’ve no good feelings for you lot.”

Of bloody course.

“I wish only to speak with Orl." Jaime bent his head to better look her in the eye, offering a suggestive smile. “Please, milady? I’d be in your debt.”

“Don’t you use that voice. I’ve heared about your oaths. I’ll get nothing from you but a kiss to the hand.”

“I merely want to talk. It’ll hurt nothing.”

“Kingslayer…” she growled, the threat in her voice a hundred percent real.

“Before you answer-” He reached into one of Dapple’s saddle bags and pulled out his spare dagger, one with a lion on the pommel and rubies and gold etchings on the scabbard. Mallister got tetchy if Jaime wore too many Lannister colored things on his person, but he kept it with him should anything happen to the simpler black and silver affair he wore at his belt. “Don’t go killing crows with it.”

Edyth reached for the dagger, and he drew it back. “Swear to take us to Orl.”

“Aye, I’ll take you to speak with Orl. Doesn’t mean he’ll give you a thing.” She snatched it from him and turned it over in her hands. “Why’d you stand here flirting like a dimwit? You should’ve led with this.”

“Silly me, trying to charm a lady when I could give her a dagger instead.”

“That’s how you woo us proper women, north o’ the Wall.”

“I’ll stick with flirting. You spearwives do enough damage with what weapons you have. I’ve got scars. Three from thrice damned arrows.” He scowled at her bow. Wildlings weren’t as likely to scatter when charged as reasonable archers, and he’d had close-range shots part rings of mail and slip through boiled leather far enough to pierce flesh.

“Crows is s’posed to wear feathers,” said Edyth, sounding more amused than anything.

“One of them nicked my mount.”

“’m sorry your pony got a scratch.”

“My horse needed stitches,” said Jaime, though now that he’d gotten her cooperation, he minded the bickering not at all. After ranging through the gloom with his dour brothers, it was a welcome change.

It took them only a few minutes to reach the camp, but in that time, rain began falling in earnest. Jaime slumped in relief when Edyth led them into Orl’s big tent, warmed with a fire, the ground covered with woven mats, and furs atop those. The tent functioned as a hall of sorts, with hares cooking in one corner, and a group gathered at a low table, sitting on furs around it. Smoke from a fire filled the air, casting everything in a haze.

When Orl looked up and saw Jaime and the others, he stopped speaking mid-sentence and stared at them. Like Edyth, he noticeably searched for Mance. Upon noting his absence, the wildling’s expression darkened so much those around him turned to look as well. Moose yelped and hid behind Jaime, and Qhorin went tense as a bowstring, as if Jaime had led him to a pack of hungry direwolves.

“Edyth,” growled Orl.

“He gave me a dagger,” said she, and held it up with a pleased grin. “Says he wants to talk, and I figured it’d hurt nothing, letting him yammer a while. An’ Ygritte will like seeing him. Least if you don’t do away with them right off.”

“Do away with?” squeaked Moose.

Orl gestured sharply to those around him. “All o’ you, git. Looks like I’ve crows to see to. Edyth, you stay.”

Aside from those two, only Orl’s daughter remained, moving without being told to replace the role of the boy who’d been tending the hares. Eva caught Jaime’s eye and drew a corner of her mouth up in a smirk, he supposed amused he likely looked like something fished from the river.

Once the room had cleared, Jaime did his best to smile. “I’d have a piece of that bread. Maybe some salt.”

Orl ignored him and stood. “Kingslayer. Qhorin. I’ve met the two of you.” His eyes swept over Moose, and he didn’t acknowledge him. He returned his attention to Jaime. “I’ve not had Qhorin approach me without Mance pulling his leash, though I know he’s been more than a decade at the Wall. This was your idea?”

“Yes, but he’s in charge-“

“I’d sooner talk with you. I can see he’d rather not be here, but I don’t know what’s in that golden head o’ yours.”

Eva sat up, looking intently at Qhorin. “What should I do with him and the baby?”

“You’d have me leave Ser Jaime alone with you?” said Qhorin, his voice hard.

“Whatever I say to you will get back to your old commander,” said Orl scornfully. “I’d sooner talk plainly, and I reckon the Kingslayer’s good for that if nothing else. Edyth can take you-“ He frowned at his daughter when she opened her mouth to protest. “Gods be good, Eva. You fancy the grim one? Are you soft in the head? Fine, it’s no matter. You take them, find them work. I’ll not have them as guests. They ain’t friends.”

“Aye, da,” said Eva. “Watch the hares, cousin.”

Edyth shrugged off her bow and quiver and shook the water from her hair like a dog. “Don’t tell Ygritte this one’s here. It’d break her heart if we have to kill him.” 

Jaime chose to take that as a jape, and he turned to his brother. “You should be safe at least, if that one fancies-“

Qhorin spoke over him, as if Jaime had said not a word. “It seems we’ll see if I was right to trust you. I wish you luck, brother.” He grabbed Jaime’s shoulder and forced eye-contact, his gaze grave. Jaime’s heart climbed in his throat, a spike of cold going through him. If they’re hurt, it’s my fault.

He made himself look confident. “We’ll be fine,” Jaime told him, willing himself to believe it.

Qhorin squeezed Jaime’s arm awkwardly, as if he meant to offer comfort and wasn’t sure how.

When they were gone, Orl lowered himself to the floor and reclined, steepling his fingers over his belly. “Have a seat, will you?”

“Can I have bread now?” said Jaime as he sat.

“Not yet.” Orl’s frown deepened. “When I help crows, that becomes part of my reputation. There’s those who don’t like that. It’s not enough that Mance likes you. I put my neck out enough as is, doing him favors.”

Not the best start.

“Once, Mance came to you for the first time,” Jaime tried. “You listened to him. At least you didn’t kill him outright. And you let him come back, and started helping him. I’d start that kind of relationship. Not depending on Mance’s friendship with you. Building a new one.”

“Mance has our blood. It’s a different matter. He didn’t come to us wanting help for Watch business. He wanted to know us, because he felt it’d help him know himself. You? You want something.”

“I want information. But-”

“If you search only for a prettier way of saying what you jus’ said, save your breath. We’re not here for your convenience.”

“No. No, I know that…” Jaime fished for something he could say. Had he not spent his childhood learning to negotiate? He’d sat with his father and uncles to talk out such things, and his maester had drummed his head full of techniques, of examples of famous disputes, of nonsense he’d only swallowed because he knew Kevan or his father would test him on it later.

I can’t expect something for nothing, he reminded himself. The first, most basic rule. His eyes flicked from Orl to Edyth, the latter who watched him with blatant curiosity. He’d earned her cooperation with a dagger. He had his sword, but even if giving that up was an option, instinct told him bribery wouldn’t work on this larger matter.

Orl didn’t want to be used. That’s what it all came down to. Even a trade, a sword for information, implied Jaime could get what he wanted whenever he brought fancy weapons. Jaime still had the power. For wildlings, that’d make the arrangement untenable. I don’t want to use you, he could’ve said. I like you, I’ve dined with you. I’ve played games with your children. But that wasn’t enough. Edyth said it’d been a ranger who killed Ygritte’s father. Jaime bet most wildlings knew folks rangers had killed. He needed to make his word matter more than all that history.

“You’re not so foolish you came here with nothing?” Annoyance crept into Orl’s voice, and Jaime had to shove back fear and anger. Tyrion and Cersei were the clever ones, and of his new brothers, Mance- Mance thinks me clever. He says there are different kinds of cleverness. It’s one of the first things he told me… after I shared Corlos’s story, and gained a friend with a few words.

The thread of an idea took hold.

“No,” said Jaime. “I have a tale to tell. Relax. Have some mead.”

That curbed the man’s impatience, though it put suspicion in his eyes. “You’d have me indulge you a story?”

“What would it hurt?” Edyth said.

Orl studied him, less kindly than he had when Jaime had been there as the guest of a friend. But eventually he gestured acceptance. It was a battle not to show relief. Part of Jaime wanted to repeat what he’d done with Mance, to fish a story from those he remembered from childhood and establish his character by choosing well. That’d be a risk, though. Mance could read volumes into even a song. Most men didn’t think that way. Jaime needed something that directly addressed why he would make a good ally. Something straightforward, and something powerful.

Little as he liked it, there was only one thing that might do.

Jaime bunched trembling hands in the fabric of his cloak and took a breath to ground himself. Then he spoke.

“Every king who sits the Iron Throne is protected by seven of the greatest knights in the Seven Kingdoms. They swear off their houses, swear off marrying, all outside loyalties, and take oaths to do all the king says and die for him if need be. They wear white cloaks like men of the Watch wear black, and they’re as loved as us crows are scorned. Little boys, from peasants to princes, dream of wearing a white cloak. There’s no greater honor.” 

Two pairs of eyes fixed on him. Confused, both, but he’d caught their interest. They were more intrigued by the tale than his motivation for telling it.

Edyth said, “You… killed a king. Did you kill one of these men, too?”

Jaime stared at his black cloak. “I was one of them.”

That caught them. The last doubt melting, negotiations momentarily giving way to curiosity.

“You?” Orl said. “You’d not have been a man grown.”

“I was fifteen when King Aerys gave me the cloak,” Jaime agreed. “The youngest knight ever to serve, though I didn’t earn my place. The king envied my father and gave me the spot to anger him. Joining the Kingsguard meant I could not be my father’s heir, and he vastly preferred me to my siblings. In one blow, Aerys robbed my father and insulted our family. By time I understood, my vows were sworn, and there was nothing I could do. The position is for life.”

“Is that why you killed him?” said Orl, like that would’ve been reason aplenty.

“Not for that, no. I served him loyally for two years. I served him while he burned to death anyone who displeased him in any small way. He laughed at their screams, and if a death got him excited enough, he would visit his wife in the night and make her scream too. Her maids claimed she looked like a monster ravaged her, after. And I guarded him. Because I was sworn. Because my brothers, the other great knights, told me I should. I couldn’t write my family, not when my father was so distrusted. I couldn’t speak honestly. I couldn’t breathe…”

“Many did not like the king’s cruelty, and a number of lords rebelled against him. After several lost battles, the rebels sacked King’s Landing, the city where the king’s keep stands. Aerys did not take his impending loss well. There’s a substance called wildfire. It’s… bright, horrible green. It’ll burn even on water, and it’s hot enough to melt flesh from bone. Aerys planted caches of it all beneath the city. When he knew he would lose, he ordered one of his men to ignite these stores and burn King’s Landing and the half million people in it. The traitors want my city, he said, but I’ll give them naught but ashes. Let Robert be king over charred bones and cooked meat.

The scale only sunk in as Jaime spoke the words. He’d acted thoughtlessly when slaying Aerys and Rossart, as if on instinct, or perhaps only doing what he’d wanted to do for two years. Speaking of it in hindsight made him feel both too big for his skin and impossibly small.

“I killed his man, and then I killed him before he could order someone else to do it,” said Jaime, managing only a hoarse whisper. “I killed my king, and I broke every oath I swore. ‘Shat on my cloak,as one of my former brothers so elegantly put it. It’s why I was sent to the Wall.”

“You were punished?” blurted Edyth, all red-faced, teeth bared. “But if he-”

“I was sworn to him,” Jaime explained. “That meant I was to obey him in everything and protect him at all costs. I’m hated for failing to die in his defense, though I admit that’s not quite so mad as it seems. No one knows about the wildfire. I was never asked why I did it, and the new king wasn’t such a good man I wished to tell him.” Jaime looked past her. “Your hares are burning.”

She yelped and looked at them, skewered on sticks and perched over a brazier, the outsides charring. Cursing a storm, she scrambled to save the meat.

When she’d seen to that and was quiet once more, Orl said, “You did a fine thing, Kingslayer. I’ll give you that, but what’s this have to do with anything?”

“I was getting to that bit. Do you know what the oaths of the Night’s Watch are?”

Both exchanged a look, but they shook their heads.

“Night gathers, and now my watch begins,” he recited. “It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”

By the twin frowns they put on, they’d expected more about killing wildlings or keeping out intruders. He could see in their eyes they could not reconcile what they knew of the Watch with the words he’d given them.

Jaime said, “It’s the last line I best like. My life and honor. At the Wall, honor is another thing it’s admirable to give in defense of the realm, just as men are hailed for giving their lives in battle. By the standards of these oaths, I made the right choice in King’s Landing. There are not words, for how much that matters.”

He unfastened his cloak and swung it over his shoulders, then draped it across the table in front of him. It helped his point that it was finely made from the best wool and trimmed with sable. Even damp, it was a garment fit for a great warrior. Jaime ran a gloved hand along the fur at the neck, a smile playing at his lips, mocking, but that mockery directed at himself. I’ve grown sentimental about the bloody Night’s Watch. The boy I’d been three years ago would laugh himself sick. But the boy he’d been three years ago had been a naive child.

“This cloak means something to me,” said Jaime, and laughed when they both looked at him like he was mad. “Yes, I grasp that the Watch is objectionable in many ways, but it had a purpose once. We're supposed to be guardians, and not only for those under the king's rule. The Watch predates the Wall altogether. When the Watch was formed, the oaths written, there was no distinction between free folk and kneeler.”

Jaime met Orl’s eye. “I cannot account for my brothers, but I’ll not shy from serving in that spirit. I don’t want to use you. Only to do my duty. I’ll help northern lords who write to complain about raiders, but I’ll help you also. If there’s anything you’d like from the kingdoms, I can see about trading. If brothers of the Watch give you trouble, I’ll ensure they're held accountable. I’ll carry any concerns you have to Ser Denys, whatever that’s worth. Trust I will do right by this cloak, because I’ve been burned, and tainted, and choked by another.”

Orl leaned back, working his mouth.

Edyth had turned to stare at the hares, wiping at her cheek with one hand. When she caught him looking, she snapped, “I was thinking it’s sad you’re such a great fool. You might be a hero, but you can’t make the Watch worth a damn thing. It’s the kind o’ thing a child would believe.”

“Niece,” Orl murmured.

Jaime picked up his cloak and swept it back on, finding comfort in its weight. “I said the Watch isn’t worth much. But I’ll try to be.”

“You’re not enough.”

“I was enough to save King’s Landing, and there’s more people there than all beyond the Wall.” He found himself grinning, absurdly. “Did you call me a hero?”

“Don’t be pleased. A man can’t be a hero without being an idiot too, and you’re that aplenty.”

Orl took a long drink from a horn of mead. “Enough of this. You’ve my attention. What's it you want from us... Ser Jaime?" Jaime realized the man used the title Qhorin had. Does he suppose that's how I prefer to be addressed? Is he trying to be respectful, or is it coincidence

Much as he wanted to keep smiling at Edyth, Jaime recalled Qhorin's grave eyes and forced himself to become serious. “The Weeper killed four of my brothers. He left their heads for the Watch to find. I hoped to bring him to justice. If you know where we might find him-”

Orl held up a hand. “I can’t help you with that.” 

“You’re no friends of his,” Jaime protested. “He’s given you trouble as well. And the Watch wouldn’t be interfering in free folk affairs, because we’re hunting him for our own reasons. It’d work out for everyone.”

“Have bread and mead. Edyth, bring him a hare.”

Despite Orl’s refusal to help with the Weeper, Jaime relaxed. “Are we to be friends?”

“Aye. You’ve your own uses beyond what we get from Mance. That one dislikes duty on principle. He’ll help us in spite of his vows. There’s something more lasting, this notion you’d give us a hand because of them.”

Jaime spoke around a mouthful of bread. “Then why not help me now?”

Orl fell quiet for so long Jaime wondered if he should repeat the question. When the wildling did speak, he took evident care with his words. “You killed your king because he wanted to destroy a city. You don’t go hunting them for sport or nothing?”

“I confess I’ve tried hawking with kings in mind, but I fear I’ve caught only bustards.”

“We’re talking kings. I don’t care about no bastards.”

“Kings aren’t so common it’s seemed worthwhile,” Jaime amended. “What’s this to do with anything?”

“There’s a man lives ten days’ north o’ here. He came around not long ago with a big war band and a couple sons. Says he wants to make himself King-beyond-the-Wall. He’s a good sort, fair, and we said we’d not protest it if he got more support. He and the Weeper skirmished, and Tormund came out on top. The Weeping Man gave right in, said Tormund could call himself king as he pleased, so long as he didn’t meddle in the Weeper’s affairs.”

Orl scratched his beard. “Tormund passed back through and said as much, and that was good enough for us. Not too many rules we need to follow, but Tormund worked real hard to get the Weeper, and I wager it’s through the Weeper he got a hold hereabouts. He’d not be pleased if I went and mucked that up.”

Jaime stared.

“He’d be less pleased if you went and tried to off him,” Edyth added firmly.

“There’s… a king beyond the Wall?” said Jaime, still caught on that, his head tripping over the rest.

Orl and Edyth exchanged a glance.

“Tormund says there’s a second man calling himself as much as well, further west,” said Orl.

“Surely you’d not accept a king for no reason,” Jaime said. “I was given to understand free folk dislike them on principle.”

“Your kneeler kings, we hate.” Edyth let out a long breath. “But aye, we’re not so fond o’ any man lording over us. It’s just, people are scared, and these men promise protection.”

“Scared of what?”

“Don’t laugh us off,” said Orl, his eyes hard. “We laughed at first, brushed it away when the tales reached us. But they haven’t stopped. Nothing near here. It’s only far north, by the Thenn valley, but-”

“Tales of what?”

“Wights,” said Edyth, “and Others.”

Jaime wanted to pity them their silly fears. The logical part of him did. It’s madness, all of it. The Hornfoot with his story. The dream. Now this. But enough people believed in the madness, men had started accepting kings in a land that did not stomach them easily.

“The Watch wouldn’t do anything without proof,” said Jaime carefully.

“We didn’t expect it would,” Orl said. “But I thought you should know, if you’ve any mind at all t’ help us. Granted, I ain’t seen nothing of no wights. Neither has anyone I talked with. Maybe it is rumors, taken an unlikely hold. I can’t say.”

Jaime tried to return his focus to the matter at hand. “I should talk to this Tormund. About the Others. About the Weeper. Mayhaps I can negotiate. You said he’s fair?”

Orl and Edyth hesitated.

“What good would it do me to kill him now?” said Jaime. “None of my brothers have heard he considers himself King-beyond-the-Wall, so I’d get no credit for killing a second. He’d need to get far more infamous before I bothered.”

Orl drummed his fingers over his belly, thinking hard. Finally, he let out a whoosh of air. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Or if it hurt anyone, it’d be you. Alright, Kingslayer. I’ll prepare a party to escort you to Ruddy Hall.”

Chapter Text

When Jaime arranged to meet Tormund, he’d forgotten he didn't have the authority to do so. This became clear after Orl sent Edyth to fetch Jaime’s brothers. Moose made a dismayed noise when Jaime said they were to visit a wildling king.

Qhorin said, “No.”

Jaime explained Tormund might tell them about the Weeper, thinking that a better place to start than the wights. That didn’t move Qhorin, so he divulged the rest of it. When this made no impact, Jaime confessed it’d been wights attacking in his dream, earning frowns from the present wildlings but no concession from his brother. 

“I was told to teach you discipline, to range without detours, and return to the Shadow Tower within a month,” Qhorin said. “Would indulging you accomplish any of those things?” He looked between Jaime and the wildlings and added, “I also wonder that they’d take the Kingslayer to a king.”

“He’d better understand if you told it to him like you told it to us,” said Orl.

Jaime had sworn to keep his king’s secrets, and he didn’t want to risk word getting back to Robert. That hadn’t felt like it counted when he told the wildlings, for they cared little for things in the south and would quickly forget the tale. Qhorin and Moose were different.

But he didn’t want to waste the progress he’d made with Edyth and Orl.

Reluctantly, he recounted all he had earlier, not looking too closely at Qhorin as he did. When he ceased speaking of wildfire and talked of oaths instead, he cast his eyes away altogether, sure Qhorin would speak up to contradict him. But he did not, and Jaime finished by repeating what Orl had said of Tormund and the wights.

It does make a fine account, thought Jaime when he finished. Mance would love the symmetry. A poisoned white cloak exchanged for black, the first lost to save innocents from fire, the other gained perhaps to join a fight against ice. He’d say someone should make a song of it. 

Qhorin showed no such admiration. He said nothing for a drawn out minute, his face unreadable.

“I will think it over,” he said, and took his leave without another word. Moose scrambled after him.

Orl watched them go, bewildered. After a stretch, he broke the silence with a heavy sigh. “Don’t mind them. Might be now you got that one thinking, he’ll see sense. You’ll stay and dine and drink? Come here, to my right. If you’ll have it, I’d tell my clan of your valor.”

“Say what you like,” said Jaime wearily.

Men and women filtered into the tent until it was full. Orl had his wife pour Jaime mead, strong but sweet with spice. Another woman brought him a slice of honey tart with nuts on top, which complemented the mead well. By then, Edyth had returned with Ygritte, and Jaime invited the girl to sit by him and steal pieces of tart.

Orl repeated for his people much of Jaime’s story, though either he’d misunderstood specifics or thought the tale boring on its own, for it’d already changed significantly. As the alterations had Jaime defeating all six of the Kingsguard and walking through fire to slay the Mad King, he let the inaccuracy stand.

Once the tale was told, the free folks’ treatment of him gained a trace of respect, and Jaime earned further approval singing free folk songs he’d learned from Mance. By time Edyth had talked him into floundering through a tune in the Old Tongue, he’d ceased getting dark looks and received easy smiles in their stead.

But soon the setting grew disorienting, loud with children talking, chatter about births and romantic quarrels, domestic things that’d become foreign. The smoke and the heat and the mead didn’t help, and he’d gotten looks from women that made Cersei feel far too distant and his oaths naught but wind. When a pretty spearwife informed him a man’s cock would fall off if he didn’t use it, then offered to help him with the problem, Jaime slipped away, disconcerted he was tempted to do otherwise.

The next morning dawned clear and bright, warm as it ever was beyond the Wall. His brothers were nowhere in sight, and sick of the murky feeling traveling through mud gave him, Jaime slipped off to bathe in a nearby lake. Once he emerged shivering but clean, he started a fire and crawled back into his tunic, breeches and jerkin. He then shaved, cleaned his teeth, and brushed his hair before settling in to clean the rest of his gear.

He was working on his mail with a rough brush, wishing for a barrel of sand to scour it in—he’d not done so for too long, and it didn’t gleam as he liked—when Qhorin approached. He sat across form Jaime, lowering himself gracefully to the grass.

“We’ll go to Tormund,” he said.

Jaime lifted his brows. “Truly?”

“The circumstances warrant it.”

Too surprised to work out a response, Jaime scrubbed at a bloodstain on his mail. He must’ve missed it after some prior battle. Blood could be hard to see on the black.

Qhorin said, “That’s not to say you did not overstep your bounds. You must consider your brothers’ thoughts and defer to them when warranted. I’ll suggest you come ranging with me again, perhaps Ebben-”

“I mislike like Ebben’s tactics.”

“You don't wish to be under his command?”

“Gods no.”

“You’ll go with him next.”

I walked into that. Jaime gave up on the blood and turned his efforts to a spot of dried mud.

"If I were you,” said Jaime, “I’d not bother giving me advice. You understand Ser Denys is grooming me for some role you’ve certainly better earned?”

The wind stirred hair come loose from Qhorin’s long braid. The big ranger shook his head to get it out of his eyes, then said, “I am content in the role I have.”

“I say as much to Ser Denys, and he says I’m afraid of responsibility.”

“Our situations are not the same. A longsword is suited for one thing, an axe for another, and so on. The same is true of men. Insisting you’ve no future outside your current role is akin to an idle lord claiming his Valyrian steel blade is meant for cutting meat because he'd rather dine than fight.”

Jaime’s hands stilled over his mail. “You need not lie. You know I’m no leader.”

“I’ve told Ser Denys as much in the past,” said Qhorin, drawing from Jaime a frown. “Yesterday evening changed my mind. In the future, when you’ve more experience, I would not mind taking orders from you.”

Jaime could no more imagine ordering Qhorin about than Barristan Selmy. He gave a bewildered laugh. “I overstepped my authority and ruined the point of the ranging. What changed your mind? The wildfire?”

“Your reasons for killing the Mad King told me nothing of your character I’d not known. It’s the thought you put into the Watch’s purpose that impressed me.”

Impressed me. The praise sounded strange from a man Mance once claimed was carved from ironwood and given life by the children solely to aid the Watch. It’d been a jest, spoken in Qhorin’s hearing, but Jaime wouldn’t have been surprised if there was truth to it.

Jaime tried to keep his face blank. “That makes no sense. You don’t agree with my conclusions. I know you don’t. Mance treats the oaths similarly, and you scold him.” 

Qhorin gazed out at the lake. “I see traces of Mance in your words, yes. But you spoke also of duty. You said you would serve Orl. I suppose there’s knight enough in you to get the notion past your pride. Does that sound like Mance?”

“Well, no.” Jaime focused again on his mail, flicked away a fleck of mud. “What did you think of what I said? Of serving the North and wildlings both?”

“It’s something I must consider further. Certainly, I’ll not dismiss it.”

Jaime tried not to think of brothers in white, brothers Arthur admitted never listened to a word he said. He rubbed his thumb over a smudge, wiping it away. “And you suppose I can lead… because I’ve spent time worrying over the oaths?”

“It shows you care.” Qhorin turned gray eyes Jaime’s way. “A last thing. When I talked with Orl this morning, he insisted on sending an escort with us.”

“He mentioned that last night.”

“You take over the ranging. You’re better suited to deal with them, and to speak with Tormund.”

“Every weapon has its purpose?” asked Jaime dryly. “This time, you’ve got a point. I can’t imagine you getting on well with some wildling king.”

“We’re meant to talk with him, not get on with him. Remember that.” Qhorin stood. “Finish your preening. We’ll leave within the hour.”

“Aren’t I in charge? We’ll leave when I like." The other ranger gave him such a withering look, Jaime ruined his jape by grinning. “But I’m a thoughtful leader who respects the opinions of his underlings. An hour it is.”

 

The candle flickering on the table was reduced to a stub by time Mance turned the book’s last page. Eyes aching, he looked around to accustom himself to seeing at a distance. Dust, cobwebs and mice droppings covered the library’s every surface, and the items beneath were not well organized. Shelves filled most the space, built so close his arms threatened to brush them when he walked the aisles. Crammed among these were stacks of books placed wherever they fit, folios set out on tables, and boxes full of loose pages.

Mance had been trapped in the room since morning.

He wasn’t made for spending such time on words. He’d read as a boy because he liked knowing things, but he’d since realized he could learn more from stories than books and more from living than either. Yet it seemed some knowledge needed to be rescued from dusty tomes, and it was this type he presently desired. This is why Rhaegar went mad, Mance thought as he shoved several books and scrolls into one of the smaller boxes to haul from the vaults. No man should spend his days like this.

It was dark when he emerged from the wormways, but noise filtered from the common hall. An evening near the fire, playing his lute and sharing stories seemed a fine idea. He’d struck up a friendship with a former member of the Kingswood Brotherhood who knew a wealth of tales, and he’d like to gather more before he left on the morrow. But first, he had other business needed seeing to.

He trudged on to the rookery, not unwillingly. His tired mind would prefer mead and stories of outlaws, but he didn’t mind his talks with Aemon, not like he thought he might. Growing up, Mance had been too much a boy to sit still and listen to an old man talk. If he’d sought Aemon’s company, it was because he had something to tell him. Never the other way around. Hindsight proved that a waste. Aemon had lived nearly three of Mance’s lives. The sheer time he’d existed gave him much and more to say.

Mance found Aemon sitting at his table, wrapped in furs and listening while Clydas read aloud from a leather-bound book. The steward trailed off when Mance approached, and Aemon straightened and looked toward him.

“Mance.” Aemon smiled. “You were in the vaults. I smell dust.”

“You probably smell mice shit too.” Mance threw himself in an empty chair. “Damn things are everywhere. I got a few with my dagger, but that’ll hardly get rid of them.” When Clydas looked at him aghast, Mance said, “I wasn't picking them off for fun. They eat the books.”

Maester Aemon wasn’t the least deterred. “Aside from mice-slaying, what were you doing?”

Mance tipped his chair back and propped his feet on the table.

"Must you?" said Clydas.

"Aye, it's a physical need." To Aemon, Mance said, “As it happens, I was researching dragons. Thought you’d like that.”

That brightened Aemon’s eyes, boyish interest livening his wizened features. "Have you found anything?"

“Nothing much as information goes, though I’ve an observation to put before you. But first…” Mance dug a book from his box and set it on the table. “Barth’s Unnatural History. As I recall, you once told me very seriously to bring this to you if I ever stumbled across it.”

Aemon pulled the book to him with trembling fingers. Even Clydas went wide-eyed.

“Where was this?” Aemon said.

“Was in a stack under a few books about the children, shoved off in a corner. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’d been there when Baelor ordered all the copies burned, and no one bothered digging it out.”

“Did you read it?”

“A bit. To tell it true, I found it disappointing. As a child I’d believed it some cursed tome that’d teach me to spit fire if I found it. But it’s no different than any septon’s scratchings, page after page of a great many words to say a few small things.”

Aemon regarded Mance gently. “When you put it like that, I wonder if you’ve missed a calling in the Faith.”

That startled a laugh from him. “Wicked old man. I’ll not have any confidence left by time this trip is through.” Mance noted how Aemon still cradled the book. “Can you tear yourself from Barth for a moment longer? I did wish to speak of one other matter.”

“A book will always be there, but people come and go. Speak as you like.”

Mance returned his feet to the floor and braced his elbows on the table. “During one of our talks, I told you I’d thought it funny dragonsteel showed up in the Last Hero’s story.”

“I agreed it was odd, yes.”

“I couldn’t find much about where that ‘steel’ came from, though it’s possible the Valyrian freehold interacted with Westeros before the Long Night. The Battle for the Dawn would’ve occurred far more recently than anyone's said, and there’d be a strange absence of evidence. But far as I can tell, nothing from back then is certain."

Aemon nodded. “All history before the septons began their records is obscured by time. We can only draw fragmented assumptions based on histories written long after the events occurred.”

“I read a few maesters said the same, so I figured I'd get no more on the 'steel,' and I didn’t think the word’s first half warranted looking into. After all, you once told me dragons lived all over the world, long ago. There’s even a term for dragon in the Old Tongue. I decided investigating dragonsteel would get me nowhere, and looked into Others instead. This was six, seven days ago."

“You found nothing worth discussing in the meanwhile?”

“I found some, but I wanted to wait for something good." Mance grinned. “As it happens, dragonsteel came back into it. Twice in records of the Last Hero’s story, and a third mention in a list of things could hurt an Other.”

“There's a full list?"

“Is two and a half items a list? They don’t like fire, and dragonsteel and dragonglass kill them. Seeing that made me better note mentions of dragonglass, and I found a good dozen of those. The children used to give it to the Watch to fight Others.”

A soft smile lit Aemon's face. “Ancient northerners associated dragons with materials able to kill White Walkers.”

“Implying dragons had something to do with the Long Night,” admitted Mance. “Thinking on it, that’s not completely far-fetched. First Men swear by opposites when making certain oaths. Land and water. Bronze and iron. Ice and fire. If there are ice monsters, it’s natural there were monsters of fire also.”

That did something odd to the old man's expression. “Do the free folk have a song that uses those oaths?”

“No one would dare. They’re godly words. A man makes an oath like that, even singing a song, and he makes a pact he’s expected to sooner kill himself than break."

“Interesting," Aemon said, it seemed more to himself than Mance. 

Recognizing that tone to mean the maester verged on getting lost in thought, Mance got to his feet. “I don’t have much to add to that. Just figured you’d like to know there’s proper evidence for bringing your dragons into this.”

Aemon reached out and gently touched Mance's arm. "Thank you."

Mance looked away. “I’m leaving tomorrow. Mallister gave me a fortnight, and I’ll not ignore him this time. I miss the lands beyond the Wall. As is, I’ve had my fill of books for another fifteen years.”

“Then what are those you’re taking?" said Aemon, gesturing to the box. 

“The Kingslayer has interest in the doings of dead men so long as they carried swords. I thought he’d like them.”

Aemon had the grace to smile, though he still did not like when Mance talked of Jaime. "A thoughtful gesture."

"If I learn anything more, I’ll write you.”

That softened Aemon's eyes. "Please do. And Clydas, of course, will write if I find anything worthwhile in Barth.”

For no good reason, Mance recalled the look on Jaime’s face when he received some letter from his family. “Write even if you don’t. I’d not mind it.”

The old man blinked like he was fighting tears. He used to cherish letters from Rhaegar. Who is dead. And the subject matter would’ve been similar to what’d filled Mance’s exchanges with the maester over the past fortnight. The thought made him bristle.

Aemon grabbed his wrist and squeezed, and he said, "I would love to."

Mance huffed a sharp breath. You're far too sentimental you ancient bugger. He awkwardly freed his arm, grabbed his box, and gave a brisk farewell, too nonplussed to say anything more.

 

Orl sent six wildlings with them on small shaggy horses. Qhorin interacted with them civilly, but Moose tried not to even look at them. If any attempted drawing him into a conversation, he’d turn red, stammer, and draw behind Jaime or Qhorin.

For his part, Jaime found them pleasant, though undignified company. Most had a penchant for incorporating grabs and shoves and other such gestures into casual conversation, and they oft conversed in insults that made up for in creativity what they lacked in maturity. After snow fell on the third day, they threw it at each other like Jaime used to with Cersei. He tried to remain above the childish behavior, but Edyth dragged him into the snowball war by the fourth day, and he soon joined their wrestling and banter as well.

Orl had estimated it as a ten day ride, but Moose couldn’t keep a proper pace to save his life, and wildlings were not by nature organized nor urgent. Only one had been to Ruddy Hall personally, and travel slowed further due to continued disagreement over how to reach it. A fortnight thus passed before their party crested a hill, and Jaime glimpsed a wooden fence in the distance.

He drew Dapple to a halt to better admire it. He’d not seen a properly fenced village beyond the Wall. A few of Varamyr’s had low barriers to provide a semblance of deterrent to wolves, but this was meant to keep people out. It might be there’s something to this so-called king.

Edyth insisted on riding ahead with only a couple wildlings, so as not to spring three rangers on Tormund. The rest of their group thus waited on the hill, Dapple grazing on the hardy grass. Qhorin grew so grim Jaime supposed he feared a betrayal, or perhaps that Tormund would kill Edyth and send men out to hunt them down. But she and the others returned in good time.

“He ain’t pleased,” Edyth said, “but he’ll see you in his hall.”

Jaime frowned. “Why’d he not send men to guard us? Or take our weapons?”

“What king would he be if he did that? It’d not look right if he thought he couldn’t defend himself against a few crows, and it’d look worse if he made clear he din’t believe Orl that you meant no harm.” She spurred her horse forward, as if she could not put up with such nonsense a moment longer.

Jaime prompted Dapple to follow, knowing the others wouldn’t be far behind.

Two men guarded the outer fence, but neither said a word as the small band rode past. Within the walls, a good hundred small thatched-roof houses were scattered without much mind for order. There was a pen in the village center where swine were kept, and chickens and goats wandered freely alongside barking dogs, free folk moving among them as they went about their daily chores. Most stopped to stare, others slipping off trying not to garner notice, as if they thought Jaime or the others would lash out if looked at the wrong way. 

Ruddy Hall itself was a sturdy log construction with a thatched roof, and if not sprawling, the largest building he'd seen beyond-the-Wall. “Just you three and me,” Edyth said when they reached it, so they left the horses with the others and went inside.

There was a fire roaring in the hall’s center. In a cook space across the room, several women cut meat and vegetables for something Jaime hoped he’d get to eat. Moose made a dismayed noise, but when Jaime followed his gaze, he saw his brother had only espied salted haunches of meat hanging from the rafters.

“Those come from deer and elk,” Jaime said. “I see no moose, so you’ve no need to fear.”

Moose’s expression became pained. “Why do you think you’re funny?”

Ignoring him, Jaime continued his survey of the hall. There was the usual collection of mongrels wandering about, though the room's long benches had been all but emptied. In the space closest to the fire sat a man near as broad as he was tall with a great silver beard, with golden bands wrapped around massive arms, and wearing a dead ranger’s mail. That would be Tormund.

Beside him was a boy who couldn’t have been more than thirteen, though he wore black mail like his father, already showing traces of the lean strength common in raiders. Tormund spoke cheerfully with the lad, holding a roasted bird leg in one hand and waving it to make a point.

The boy whispered something, and Tormund set his meat aside and faced the crows now standing in his doorway.

“Here I’d hoped the girl was a liar,” he announced, more to the gods than anyone in particular. After muttering something else, he got to his feet and walked around the table, coming to a stop right in front of them. Jaime had been tempted to think him a crude creature, someone he’d sooner laugh at than fear or respect. But he moved well, and more of his bulk was muscle than Jaime’s initial glance warranted. If nothing else, he is a warrior.

Tormund regarded Moose first, looking him up and down. Finally he said, “Har!” and turned away to take in Qhorin. Jaime didn’t bother stifling a smirk.

Though the wildling’s face looked made for smiling, his expression became grim when he better saw Qhorin. “We’ve met. A man don’t forget a crow who wields a sword like you do. You took the head off one o’ my best men eight, nine years back. Killed two others.”

Qhorin hadn’t said a thing of this, must not have connected the name with the raider. But he showed no fear or surprise, only gazed calmly back. “You took out every other man in my ranging party."

“As you would’ve done with my men had the day gone differently. We both got blood on our hands. Long as you’re in my hall, you don’t shed more.”

With that, he went to Jaime.

“Your grace,” said Jaime.

Tormund gave a booming laugh. “Does it look like I’ve got grace? I’m Tormund Giantsbane, Speaker to Gods, Husband to Bears, Mead-king o’ Ruddy Hall. Those are my styles. Don’t go saying nothing about grace.” His smile flickered, and he looked Jaime up and down. “Just these last months I started hearing rumors o’ you.” Tormund lifted Jaime’s cloak by the fur trim. “Most sound like tall tales to me. I seen boys like you, and I’ve killed a few, and I haven’t been impressed with a one.”

“I’m not a boy," said Jaime mildly.

“Men like you, then.”

“There are no men like me. There's only me.” 

Tormund laughed so hard Jaime jumped, then gave him a great clap on the back. Just as Jaime recovered from that, the wildling grabbed him by the upper arms and shook him once, grinning. “Har! I like you, crow. Come on then, sit, I’ll not have it said Tormund Giantsbane doesn’t treat his guests right. Ada! Bring ‘em something to eat, whatever you scrounge up, so they’ll not be worried I’ll have all their spines out.”

Soon they were seated and a loaf of crusty bread brought over, horns of mead following. Tormund watched them all as they ate, introducing his son in the meanwhile. Toregg was reserved as Tormund was the opposite, only giving a short nod in greeting, then watching Jaime and Qhorin as if they were shadowcats come to dine.

When guest right had been established, Tormund polished off his chicken leg, then set the bone aside and settled back onto his bench. “Out with it. Why are you here?”

Jaime didn’t bother with the full story this time, instead focusing on the latter half, sharing with Tormund the oaths, then concluding as he had for Orl and Qhorin. The Watch wasn’t created to keep wildlings out, he told them, for it’d come before the Wall even existed.

“We heard you might know something of wights,” he finished. “They’d be a common enemy, and anything the Watch learns of them would also be to your benefit.”

With the back of his hand, Tormund wiped a trickle of grease from his beard. “You’ve said a lot of pretty words, crow. I even believe you mean it. If all crows was like you, I’d think you a fine lot. But that’s not so. Toregg, tell us what you heard of rangers when you was small.”

Toregg looked first at Jaime, then Qhorin, and finally Moose. “That I ought to behave or they’ll eat me,” he said, glancing at his father as if unsure that’s what he wanted. Tormund gestured him to go on. “That they’ll rape our girls and women, maybe even the boys. If I ever saw a man in black,” he said, “I was told to run, or if he caught me, stab him, and if I didn’t have nothing to stab with, bite hard as I could.”

Tormund looked seriously at Jaime. “Them tales don’t come from nowhere.”

“I’m not asking you to trust the whole Watch,” Jaime stressed.

“If someone points at a pile of mammoth shit and tells me there’s one piece o’ treasure inside, I’m not going to dig for it. I’d just get shit on my hands, and chances are whatever’s buried will be soiled by time I reach it. A few more years fighting us, a hard winter… assuming you aren’t killed, you might well come to think like any other crow.”

Jaime let out a slow breath, trying to hold his temper. “It would cost you nothing to share information.”

“If a raider loyal to Rattleshirt came to you saying such things, a man proud to be in his war band, how’d you respond?”

“It’s not the same. Even if the man himself did not participate in vile crimes, he’d be fighting alongside-” Jaime cut himself off, but it was too late. Buggering fuck.

“Go on.”

There was no point denying what they all knew. “Thieves, rapists, and murderers.”

 “I like you,” Tormund said, “but I’ll not talk nothing serious while you still smell o’ shit. You say you think them other crows are going about their crowing wrong. Might be you should fly back to your nest and see about cleaning, and come back when your words aren’t only wind.”

There’d be no ‘cleaning’ the Watch and surely Tormund knew it as well as Jaime. Gritting his teeth, Jaime searched for something to salvage the discussion. I’d be a fool to ask for the Weeper’s whereabouts; I’m hardly in a position to make requests. But I’ll not let him cast me off with my tail between my legs.

“Your point is fair,” said Jaime, dragging each word past his lips. “But be cautious in dismissing me entirely. You called yourself Speaker to Gods. The old gods, yes?”

“Course the old gods,” Tormund said cautiously. “What’s it to you?”

Edyth leaned forward, jumping in. “I forgot! Jaime knows to pay mind to the wights because he dreamed of them. Dreamed he was fighting them.” She nodded importantly. “He was sleeping under a weirwood.”

It’d been a poor gambit, and Jaime wasn’t sure if he should be gratified or disconcerted when Tormund’s expression actually changed, eyes brightening as interest took hold. “Is that so?”

“Yes.”

“Mother Mole lives under a heart tree,” Tormund told him. “She has visions, and people go to her from all over to hear what she’s got to say. I’ve gotten flashes, feelings, meself, ones helpful enough I earned that title you mentioned.” He regarded Jaime dubiously. “But I don’t know what the old gods would want with you. You from the south don't pay them no mind, do you?"

“No, I follow the Seven.” Poorly and faithlessly.

Tormund made a noise at that. “Are you even of the First Men?”

Gods, these questions.

“I’m not not of them,” Jaime said. “I’ve First Men and Andal ancestors both. Do the gods have a cut-off point?”

“I wondered if there was something special in your blood, is all."

“I'm not lying about the dream."

“No, no I don’t think you are. But if it’s not blood or belief in the gods, must be there’s something else. Seems it’s not for me to understand just yet.” Tormund shook himself, growing less intent, though his voice was still serious when he added, “I were you, I’d remind yourself which gods are strongest beyond the Wall. Particularly if the trees keep talking.” 

“Sure,” Jaime lied. If any tree talked to him again, he’d find an axe.

“So you know I follow my own advice,” Tormund went on, “you’re welcome in Ruddy Hall any time you please. Far be it from me to close me hall to one’s got the gods watching. I’ll still not listen if you come nattering about crow-business, but it’ll be a warm place to go when winter comes.”

That cooled his frustration, left bewilderment behind. 

Jaime made himself appear gracious. “You’ve my gratitude, Tormund Giantsbane.”

Tormund brushed off the formality and boomed for a horn of mead, and Jaime took his moment of distraction to look at Qhorin and Edyth. The former still stared levelly at Tormund, but Edyth caught Jaime’s eye and smiled. She’ll not go to her uncle saying I failed completely, and she’ll have something to tell the other free folk who came with us.

The knowledge offered cold consolation when Jaime had gotten nothing from the talk he’d wanted. But it was something.

 

Tormund invited them to stay that evening, insisting he’d accept any excuse for a feast. Jaime knew Qhorin would not want it and decided to at least make a pretense of being more mindful of his brothers' wishes. He thanked Tormund but declined, pleased when Qhorin caught his eye to show he noticed. 

Before their group departed, Tormund led Jaime away from the others, insisting he wanted to speak privately. Odd as it was, curiosity prompted Jaime to indulge him.

Once they stood off to the side of Ruddy Hall, near enough he could hear Edyth laughing about something, but too far to make out words, Tormund held out a bronze ring with a carved rune on its face. “My gift to you.”

A gift was one of the last things Jaime expected. He took the ring with a frown. “I hope you don’t think to court me.”

“Even if your parts were proper, I’d not have you. I prefer me bedmates with more hair and heft.” Well, that’s revolting. “There’s something not right about them curls o’ yours besides. S’ not natural they shine so after traveling so long. Whatever sorcery’s in that, it puts a shiver down my spine.”

“I use a brush,” Jaime said, to which Tormund only scoffed. Choosing not to acknowledge that, he pulled off his left glove to put the ring on.

Tormund made a noise of protest.

“That ain’t where that goes. It’s for your member.”

Jaime had to laugh. Am I turning into my grandfather? Getting trounced in negotiations, then making friends after? He did not feel insulted, however, and Tormund was not an easy man to be angry with.

He slid the ring on his smallest finger, the only one it properly fit. “I fear this is where it must go. I don't mean to embarrass you, but it seems your model for determining these things is a good deal smaller than the standard."

Tormund’s smile grew so big it threatened to split his face. “Har! I never met a man so full o’ shit it pours out every time he opens his mouth. Never met a man questioned the size o' me member either. The thought!”

Jaime studied the ring a moment, then slipped his glove back on over it. “In seriousness, what’s this about? What does the rune mean?”

“I’ve not learned to read the Old Tongue, ‘m afraid. Could mean anything. The ring itself is s’posed to be a gesture. When I said I’d not talk until the Watch wasn’t so rotten, you took it like I said not to return until the sun rose in the west. I saw it on your face. That ain’t so. See to your Watch. Make changes. Come back." Tormund grabbed Jaime’s hand and pressed his fingers around the ring so tightly his bones creaked. “Let this be a reminder. This isn’t our time, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be one. Just don’t turn to shit in the meanwhile.”

“I can’t do anything about the Watch. I’m just-”

“A green boy with summer blood, who’s not been at the Wall a single winter. I'm aware, and I’ve no great hope for your chances.” Tormund turned his head to properly look Jaime in the eye. “But you’re the one says there’s no men like you. Show me the truth of that.”

 

Five nights into their return journey, he and Edyth remained awake keeping watch. They’d stopped in a clearing near the Milkwater, the river gurgling just out of sight. Jaime had been attempting to carve  a piece of wood into a toy lion. It was something to do with his hands, and he hoped to please Edyth by giving it to Ygritte.

While he worked, he brooded over his talk with Tormund, foolish thought it was. Some of Jaime’s brothers weren’t pleasant, it was true, but a raider had no right to talk, certainly not one who meant to make himself king over other raiders worse than anyone at the Wall. He’s not fixing the problems with the free folk. Why should he expect me to fix the Watch?

Because he was the one with room to make demands, Jaime reminded himself, aware he'd been the one to go to Tormund asking for information. The king had held the upper hand, and he'd used it well. 

Jaime set the half-carved lion aside, lacking the concentration to carve and think at the same time. He rubbed his eyes and looked out into the forest.

He was not so bothered by the flaws in Tormund’s argument. More so by the ways in which he was right. The boy in him wished the northern houses who deemed the Watch an honorable calling were correct to do so. He did not want it to be something that was looked down upon.

But changing it would be a miserable task. One he did not want for himself.

One he could not stop thinking about.

Persuading the Watch it was supposed to protect the free folk would be nearly impossible. But he could start smaller. If anyone in command had any ambition whatsoever, they could turn up a hundred ways to better manage things. They’ve stopped trying to build or improve. They’re focused on staying afloat.

That was stupid, the same mindset as if some idiot was sparring to stay in a match without any intention to ever win it. It poisoned the Watch. Led them to beg for men, any men, without thought to potential usefulness. It meant they gave recruits brief, half-arsed training as if they didn’t care they’d used time and resources to bring them to the castle, clothe, feed and equip them.

And of equipment, it’d not hurt to write Father, see how willing he’d be to fund something better for the whole Watch. When Daemon Targaryen took over the City Watch in King’s Landing, he’d changed the tone of the whole organization by giving them better armaments, along with the famous gold cloaks.

Jaime was not particularly inclined to follow a Targaryen’s choices, but Daemon had always been among his favorites, skilled and dangerous, fearsome in every picture of him Jaime had come across, always with Dark Sister in hand, Caraxes in the background. And his thinking with the cloaks had been solid. It was no wonder most the crows seemed grim; they weren’t allowed to replace items from the stores unless they no longer functioned, so most skulked about looking like they were part of an organization in its death throes.

Jaime flexed his left hand, feeling the ring beneath his moleskin glove.

It’d be easy to discuss this with Ser Denys. Not the free folk or the oaths. But the rest, about mindset and equipment and so on. And the moment I do, I’ll as good as tell him I accept his mad plans for me. Is it truly worth it?  

Edyth put a hand on his arm. “Jaime, d’you hear that?”

At once his mind emptied, calm settling over him. He listened carefully, squinted into the darkness. The forest had gone too quiet, and he heard rustling, barely audible. Moonlight glinted off a flash of silver along the tree line.

He stood, hand on the hilt of his sword. “Ambush,” he hissed, loud enough to rouse the others. “Qhorin.” His respect for his brother increased a notch at how quickly the man was awake and on one knee, studying their surroundings. Jaime would’ve thought he’d been lying in wait of the warning. The other wildlings were nearly as quick. But Moose flew to his feet too fast, stumbling as he tried to catch his balance.

For a long moment, nothing happened.

Then, Moose screamed.

Jaime bared his teeth, ready to snap at him for being a coward. But when he spun on him, the boy—the man, thought Jaime, he’s older than I am—had been shoved to his knees, an arm around his neck, a stocky blond man behind him. Before Jaime could move, the Weeper dragged Moose back another yard and hauled him up to serve as a shield.

Edyth caught Jaime’s eye, but he shook his head. She’d not have the angle for a shot, and he wanted to speak with the raider anyway. 

“Have you something to say?” Jaime said. He nodded at Moose. “I assume he’d be dead if you’d not wished to talk.”

Moonlight shone off the Weeper’s eyes, and the way they watered, it looked like he was crying. “Aye, I’d talk,” he said. “I heard so much about you, it’d be a shame I’d not get to know you some before you die.”

“You recognize me so easily?” said Jaime lightly, casting his eyes around the trees as he spoke. He saw men now. Couldn’t say how many, but he wagered they were surrounded. A dozen men? A score?

“I’d sent men to talk with Tormund about matters south of the Wall, rumors o’ what you crows get up to. You remember I’d just made a trip your way?”

“I remember,” Jaime said hotly.  

“They come back to me saying you’d come to visitThe Kingslayer visiting a king. Except they said you was there with an escort from some traitor chief. Said it was a friendly seeming talk.” At that, he looked at Edyth, at the others. “Do you forget them are crows you’re with? Look at them.” He grabbed Moose by the hair and lifted his head, earning a whimper. “You want to fight for this? If you’ve any sense, you’d turn them weapons the other way.”

“They gave their word to protect us, and not one of them is disloyal, nor a coward,” Jaime said. There were those he’d not talked to enough to trust without doubt, but the more certain he was they were on his side, the more certain they’d be. And what good will that do them? They’re more hunters than warriors, weren’t sent to protect us. They aren’t even armored.

When none of the wildlings contested Jaime’s claim, the Weeper spat on the ground.

Jaime tried to refocus the conversation, hoping to stumble into something that might get the Weeper to drop Moose. “You tracked us because you think we went to Tormund looking for you.”

“I know the old fool never liked me. You know what he told my men? Told them I shouldn’t make a game of leaving heads. Said things got stickier for him if I got you crows too much aflutter. Am I supposed to trust him? Gives me a warning, and you, you he sends off with laughter.”

If he betrayed you, why the hells haven’t we hunted you down and attacked? But if the Weeper’s men had reached him so quickly after leaving Ruddy Hall, he hadn’t been lurking far off. It seemed he’d been close enough to get the wrong idea.

“We didn’t say a thing of you,” Jaime said.

“Not a thing?” The Weeper paused, letting that sit. “That upsets me. It seems my heads didn’t make a sufficient impression.”

He moved the knife to Moose’s eye socket, dug in, and cut. “Have I got your attention now?”

Jaime ignored his brother’s screaming and ran at the raider, drawing his blade as he did. There was no use hesitating over Moose’s fate. Clearly there wasn’t going to be a negotiation.

The Weeper jabbed his blade into Moose’s other eye to the hilt, far enough to reach the brain and make him slump in a heap. Jaime was almost to him when another raider cut him off—more men appearing alongside him, rushing out from the trees. Dodging a stab from the first man’s spear, Jaime shouldered the weapon’s shaft aside to stab the raider through the belly. Another spearman advanced before the other was dead, and Jaime cursed. Why do they have to have spears? Any idiot with a spear can be dangerous. They’re worse than bloody archers.

He had no wish to spend the battle chancing some halfwit with superior reach would land a lucky hit. Jaime side-stepped behind a narrow tree, and when the man chased, danced around the trunk, back to the fallen raider. He scooped up the dead man’s weapon with his left hand, sheathing his sword and getting the stolen spear up to block in the next motion, then sending the point into the wildling’s thigh. Jaime ripped it out and stabbed again, this time getting his throat. He caught sight of another man charging, blocked with the spear’s shaft, dodged back and to the side, then slid the spearhead through a gap in the raider’s haphazard plate.

Blood singing, Jaime spared a moment to take in his surroundings, time slowing as battle fever washed over him. The Weeper had retrieved his scythe and fought Qhorin with two other raiders. A spearwife from Orl’s camp was dead, as was a man called Uland. Edyth he couldn’t see. A raider with a flail charged a spearwife called Maga, trying to catch her from behind. Three long steps, and Jaime’s stolen spear was through the base of his spine. The raider screamed until Maga cut his throat with a bronze knife. Jaime yanked his weapon from the corpse and sprinted to help Qhorin.

The Weeper noticed Jaime’s approach and left the other fight to meet him halfway, scythe licking down so fast and strange Jaime missed his block. He moved enough to keep the blade from his neck, but it slammed into his upper arm. Mail and leather kept his limb attached, and Jaime was too gone in the heat of battle to note the blow beyond that.

He let the force of the strike spin him, pressing his back against the scythe’s shaft and pivoting into the Weeping Man. It put him in fine position for a finishing move, but Qhorin snapped, “Spear. Left,” and Jaime had to dance aside. A spearhead thrust past the place he’d been standing, nearly hitting the Weeper instead. The attacker pulled up awkwardly to avoid doing so, giving Jaime ample time to jab him through the back of the neck.

Jaime lifted his spear again and faced the Weeper. A spearman lunged, stealing Jaime’s attention. A step to the side and a quick stab were all it took to do him in, but the Weeper took the opportunity to slip away. A bearded man with a rusty shortsword rushed Jaime with a scream. Jaime faced him and extended his weapon to see if the raider would bother pulling up before he impaled himself. He did, halting at the last moment, staring at the spearhead inches from his chest as if he could not fathom how his sneak attack had gone awry. Before he recovered, Jaime got him through the ribcage.

Another man grunted, and Jaime turned in time to see Qhorin stepping away from a dead raider, the man half a step from Jaime’s back, bone knife falling from his hand, red in the moonlight.

He looked at Qhorin. “Where did he-behind you.”

Qhorin drew a dagger with his left hand, ducked the raider’s strike, and shoved it off-handed into the man's throat. “It’s only a scratch.”

Jaime tried to yank his spear back out of the dead man’s chest, but it was good and stuck. He drew his sword instead, then pressed his shoulder against Qhorin’s to give himself the chance to survey the clearing. It took a moment for him to find the Weeper watching the battle from several yards away, face wild with fury. When he saw Jaime watching him, the raider whistled long and loud, then turned to flee.

Jaime gave chase for several steps, but a voice cried, “Crow.”

He whirled in the direction of the shout. Gerek, one of Orl’s men, was down, a raider standing over him with a club. Cursing, Jaime ran at them. His blood was so up he snatched the raider by the hair, exposed his neck, and sliced clean through it, blood misting his face. He cast the head aside, only realizing when he did the boy it belonged to couldn’t have been more than fifteen. He’d have killed me just as quick, he reminded himself.

Jaime took in his surroundings. The Weeper had melted into the trees, it seemed the rest of his men with him. Edyth came over clutching her bow, and Gerek got uneasily to his feet, holding his side. When he noticed Jaime looking, he said, “Nothing broke. I owe you."

"Think nothing of it," said Jaime distractedly. 

Qhorin headed Jaime’s way, his movements slow. 

Jaime regarded him with a touch of amusement. “Your scratch is dripping blood."

Qhorin frowned at his right forearm. “It needs stitches.”

“Maga,” Jaime said, seeing her standing. “Build a fire.”

They’d had one—they’d built one every night; Jaime wondered if he should have argued, if that was how the Weeper had found them—but it’d been put out in the fight.

Normally asking a wildling to do something did next to no good, but the spearwife listened without question.

Qhorin had taken his cloak off. “My right shoulder’s wrenched out.”

Jaime grabbed his arm, minding the gash, and wrenched until he felt it pop back into place. As if they’d just exchanged a friendly handshake, Qhorin stepped back and regarded him evenly. “Any of that blood yours?”

“I don’t think so.” Jaime was sure aches would come later, but he’d not yet come down from the battle. His head and body did not feel connected. 

The horses had been tethered next to where he and Edyth were keeping watch. All were present, all alive. The raiders had likely hoped to steal them. Jaime pressed his forehead against Dapple’s flank, seeing her eyes wild, afraid. But after a moment, he stirred himself and dug through the saddlebags for what he needed.

He dumped wine into the cook pot and when the fire was started, propped it up over the heat. By time that was done, Edyth had cut all the fabric away from Qhorin’s wound, which gaped open across his right forearm like a bloody smile. Qhorin grimaced when Jaime washed his wound with the wine, but he only looked mildly irritated with the stitches. While Jaime worked, the others got everything into their saddle bags. There was a brief conversation about burning the bodies, but there were too many, and it’d attract too much notice.

Before they went, Jaime stood over Moose and took him in. He unclasped his sword belt and stole his cloak and his boots because they were nicer than most the Watch had. Someone would want them. 

“I did tell Ser Denys not to send you,” Jaime told the corpse. 

They traveled a short time to get away from the clearing. But the others seemed so weary, Jaime thought he would lose them if he pushed too far, and his arm had begun to bother him immensely where it’d met the Weeper’s scythe. When he found a rocky overhang that’d serve for the night, he announced they’d stop there.

“I’ll keep watch,” Jaime said, but Qhorin shook his head.

“You were on watch before. You haven’t slept.”

He removed his hat and shoved a hand through his hair, lips twisting when he realized what had been uncovered was matted with dried blood. “I’m not tired.”

Qhorin gave him a long look, then nodded to allow it. 

Jaime went to Edyth before she slept. She sat up when he approached, moving slow, her face pale, a bruise forming along her jaw. 

He got to one knee to look her better in the eye. “Three of your companions are dead. I’m sorry.”

“Don't think on it." With a sad smile, she brushed her fingers across his cheek. "Everything rotten about this is on the Weeper’s head.”

“Even so. They'd not have been here but for me."

“What’s that song Mance sings? All men must die…”

“…but I’ve tasted the Dornishman’s wife.”

“Live well so’s not to fear death. That’s something all free folk know. I’ll mourn and move on, as we do whenever death comes.” She grabbed his wrist and clutched it. “I am well, Ser Crow. Go to your watch.”

When Jaime left her, Qhorin was awake and sitting a short distance from the others. Jaime eased himself to the ground beside him. "That was a big group of fighters, and I saw only a few leave. He’ll not raid for a while, so that’s good.”

“But half a raider’s strength is in his reputation," Qhorin said. "The Weeper’s men might leave him, won’t trust him. He won’t be as feared.”

“I’d thought of that. When he recovers from this, he’ll have something to prove.”

“He’ll also have a grudge, more with you than me. You’re the one he went out of his way to speak with.”

“Should I try to track him?”

“Alone? Injured? I see how you hold your arm. There’s nothing you can do.”

Needing something to do with his hands, Jaime retrieved the half-carved lion from his bag. As he began work on a paw, he said, “You took that knife for me.”

“An accident. I didn’t notice him soon enough and had to lunge at a bad angle. The knife got me before my sword got him.”

“I'm grateful, regardless.” Maybe he was more tired than he thought, or perhaps feeling a touch closer to Qhorin after fighting at his side. He found himself saying, “It’s strange I barely know you. I knew more about Moose. If you’re to drag me on more rangings as you threaten, it’d make things pleasanter if I understood you a little.”

Qhorin looked up at the moon, light and shadow patterned across his face. “I’ve been at the Wall since I was a boy. Twelve, thirteen, or thereabouts.” He held up the edge of his worn cloak. “This is what I am. There’s little else to understand.” 

Carved from ironwood to serve the Watch, Jaime thought, but recalled how Qhorin had snorted and shook his head when he heard Mance say as much, hints of fondness for his brother in the reaction. There was something to him beyond slavery to duty, and thinking about it, Jaime found himself curious. 

“You make it more interesting by being stingy with information. That means there's something to tell.” Jaime paused. “Wait, were you sentenced for some crime? I’d thought you here for northern honor or some such, but I suppose I ought not press if you did something vile. I’ve been informed we’re not to ask.”

That almost made him smile. “I’m not northern, Kingslayer.”

“You see? I’d have sworn. You have the look of a Stark about you. Dark hair, grey eyes.” Jaime studied him a moment, then shrugged. “Suppose you haven’t got the long face. At least tell me where the devils you’re from.”

“Orkmont,” he said, making Jaime look to him to see if he was joking. But he seemed serious.

“Orkmont.” Jaime scrunched his nose. “But you’re intelligent. I mean-” He flushed. “Ser Denys likes you. How did you manage that?”

“I’m not sure if he knows. Didn’t come to the Wall straight from the Iron Islands.”

“Surely you’ll not leave it there. You didn't head out for a swim one day and stumble into the Frozen Shore. There must be some story."

"You spend too much time around Mance." But after a weighted pause, he gave in. “I left home when I was eleven or so and went to the island’s main harbor.”

“Why-”

“No questions,” said Qhorin, his tone leaving no room for argument. “After a few days, I heard a man say he planned to reave in the Stepstones. I told him to take me with. He tried to chase me off, and I threw a rock at his head. He changed his mind.” 

“He was scared of a child with a rock?”

“He liked that I threw it.”

“Of course he did.” Backwards, all of them. "What happened then?" 

"I had a rough ride on a longship. Had the worst chores, being I didn’t know a thing. The captain cut off a man’s head over a grudge and beat two others for supposed disrespect. An older boy tried teaching me to finger dance, but he lost half a hand and got sick with infection. They tried hacking off the arm with an axe, and he died overnight. Didn’t help that I couldn’t stand being on a boat. Only thing keeping me from getting sick was fear of what’d happen if I did.”

Jaime let out a shocked laugh. “How did you make it all the way to the Stepstones?”

“I didn’t. We docked in Oldtown for supplies, and I walked away. Figured if I stuck around, I’d either die or turn out like them. After a few months of making my own way, a city watchman caught me robbing some fat lord. I ended up in a dungeon."

"You robbed someone?" 

"I was hungry," he said, like that should've been obvious. "Eventually a black brother showed up to haul us off. When I got to the Wall, they gave me a sword, food, a warm place to sleep. I worked to earn it."

That was the most befuddling thing Jaime had ever heard, and for once he didn't have a comment to add. 

Qhorin finished, "I had a good reputation when Ser Denys took over at the Shadow Tower. He never asked where I was from. Most won’t if a brother doesn’t offer.” He said the last with a pointed look at Jaime. 

“Don’t make me out to be beastly for prying. I’d not have gotten a word from you had you not wished it.” Jaime leaned his head against the rock behind him. "Is this a secret?" 

"A few brothers know some, Mance more than I told you. I’m sure Ser Denys has heard rumors and ignored them. I’d not lie if he asked, but I don’t care enough to bring it up. You weren’t so wrong to think me northern. I’ve lived more years at the Wall than anywhere else.”

You aren’t stone after all, brother. “Your devotion isn’t all duty and sense of honor, is it? You take this seriously because this is your home. That’s why it upsets you when Mance takes the Watch for granted, and why you only decided I might be a suitable leader after you worked out I wasn’t the same.”

“Hadn’t thought on it that way, but you might be right.”

They didn’t talk further, but for once, Jaime didn’t feel the need to fill the silence. He resumed carving his lion, listening and looking up every now and again.

And side by side, they continued their watch.

 

Mance had expected tension when he reported to Mallister upon his return to the Shadow Tower, but the old knight was polite as ever. Either he’d decided the best course was to pretend their non-argument never happened, or it mattered significantly less to him than it had Mance. That was bothersome, more than bothersome, but Mance wasn’t about to act like he cared if Mallister didn’t.

For a time, Mance went back to training and patrolling, playing at civil with Mallister, practicing several songs of the Kingswood Brotherhood Ulmer had taught him. He took note when the deadline for his brothers’ return came and went, but initially thought little of it. All rangers were late on occasion. It was impossible to predict weather, a horse throwing a shoe or breaking a limb, and with all the rain it might’ve been some trails were impassable.

When a fortnight passed after they were due back, the first traces of unease burrowed into him. Mance fought with himself over asking Mallister’s permission to go looking, but it was still early. He’d not have worried at all if it wasn’t Qhorin. But his brother did not treat orders as arbitrary, and half the purpose of the ranging had been to force Jaime not to indulge in side-quests for his pleasure.

Fifty two days after the ranging began, Mance was slamming a weighted sword into a pell, trying not to think too hard over what’d become of his usual partners, when a long call from the horn brought him to stillness. He waited for a second note, vowing to kill any raiders who’d be nuisance enough to get him hoping. But silence stretched, five seconds, then ten. Mance made himself return to the armory and replace the practice gear, then jogged sedately as he could to the yard in front of the gate.

Mallister was already there. He caught Mance’s eye. “The watcher picked out Ser Jaime and Qhorin. Owen isn’t with them.”

“A shame,” said Mance, not bothering to say he’d forgotten a third person had gone at all.

When the gate opened, Mance hung back, leaning against the stables and looking for lost limbs or some other justification for lateness. But both seemed hale. First I’ll burn the books I’d meant to gift the Kingslayer, then I’ll work over Qhorin in the training yard until he can’t stand straight.

“Tell me you at least found the Weeper,” Mallister said once they were dismounted and standing before him. 

Jaime grimaced. “He found us, more like. We didn’t get him, but most his men are dead. He killed Moose.”

“Moose?”

“The Hornwood boy.” Jaime took off his hat and flipped his hair. “Qhorin got hurt, so we were slow getting back. Though we’d have been late anyway. We found something needed addressing.”

Mance came forward and offered Qhorin a dark look. “You’re getting soft if you let a green boy drag you off course. You were supposed to-”

“Teach him discipline,” Mallister finished, which made Mance feel dirty all over.

Qhorin had the gall to look amused, though he became serious when he caught Mance’s eye. “We had good reason.”

“You’ll tell me of that reason now,” Mallister cut in. “Come with me.”

Mance opened his mouth to insist he accompany them, but Qhorin shook his head. “After.”

His tone was such Mance didn’t argue. He intended to pester Jaime about it, but the boy made a face like he’d bitten something sour and said, “Qhorin insisted I report alongside him.”

Teeth gritted, Mance watched the three of them walk away, then stalked back to his cell to wait, assuming his brothers would look for him there first. Part of him wanted to hit them both for doing something apparently important while he was left behind, but he was too relieved to manage anything sharper than frustration.

It felt like an inordinately long time before he heard voices, loud enough they echoed up the staircase.

“-not break any oaths with the redhead.”

“I didn’t say you did.”

“You know he’s still prickly about Craster’s daughter. He thinks me some kind of lusty beast, and you, calling it inappropriate attachment-”

Qhorin threw open Mance’s door, glaring back at Jaime as he did. “I referred to the toy you gave her child. Emotional attachment.”

Well. They bonded.

“Others take your emotional attachment. If I’m going to suffer through a lecture on chastity, I want to bloody earn it.” Jaime dropped it as he entered the room, spinning from Qhorin and heading for Mance’s cot.

Mance grabbed his arm and yanked to keep him upright. “You’ve been in the forest for two months. I don’t want you stinking where I sleep. Specially not if you’ve been muddying that cloak with broken vows.”

“You know I did no such thing.” Jaime elbowed him hard enough to break a half-hearted grip, then threw himself onto the blanket and stretched out, eyes bright. “I’d kill for a nap. We rode fast after leaving Orl’s. Qhorin was tetchy we were so late, and-”

“You went to Orl’s? I’ve told you-”

“-it’s risky to go to free folk without my mother along. I heard. I thought the risk worth it, and it seems it was. I won him over.” Jaime pushed himself onto his elbows. “Made an alright impression on the king as well.”

“King,” echoed Mance, feeling like he’d taken a hit to the sternum.

Jaime sat up properly, and looking pleased with himself, he began to explain. Mance listened silently, eyeing Qhorin every so often to try to work out how he felt, though that was no more useful an endeavor than it’d ever been.

“Mallister… listened to all this?” asked Mance once Jaime had finished.

Jaime made a face. “We didn’t tell him half of it.”

“Yes we did,” Qhorin said.

“Yes, but we made it sound like we were just reporting what the wildlings were saying. If we insisted we believe it, when even most the free folk don’t, he’d make up his mind  we’re full of shit. We need evidence.”

But you told me. Mance slumped to the cot next to Jaime. Jaime who’d gotten an open invitation to a king’s hall and talked his way into Orl’s good graces. Envy had never plagued Mance the same way as pride, and though he resented he’d not been on the ranging, it pleased him Jaime sought to work with the free folk, pleased him Qhorin had let the boy try.

There were times, times like when Mallister failed to use his fool head, Mance swore he had no place at the Wall. For a moment, only a moment, he felt the opposite. Mance hadn’t needed to insist or argue his brothers believe the free folk, or take seriously their fears, because they had, without prompting. I’d not have guessed they would. Jaime maybe. Not Qhorin. 

From under his bed, Mance pulled out the leather bag of swiped books he’d hauled over from Castle black. “I suspect we’d have to chain a wight and drag it back to the Shadow Tower to convince Ser Denys, but I’ve something for you to think on in the meanwhile.” He grabbed his pages of notes off the top. “I went to Castle Black while you were gone. Did some research.”

“Because of the Hornfoots,” Jaime guessed, scowling because of it. “You buggering cunt. ‘It’s just a story-’”

“I thought it was. I changed my mind.” He reached into the bag and picked out a leather journal, then pitched it at Jaime. “This isn’t about wights, but it might help with that unchaste behavior Ser Denys is worried about. Lucamore the Lusty’s journal. He had a heartwarming change of perspective once his cock was off.”

Jaime flipped it open and let out a laugh when he saw it was what Mance claimed. “Why the hells did you grab this?”

“Figured it might catch your interest. There’s more. Some septon’s writings on another two Kingsguard come to the Wall. A few things from Bloodraven. Others on crows no one’s heard of.”

“It smells like dust,” said Jaime, though he started paging through it. Mance hadn’t expected a thank you; Jaime would give him some return gesture that’d stand-in for the words.

Qhorin cleared his throat. “You were saying about the Others?”

“I found a few things. Mostly fractured nonsense, a few stories. A prophecy-”

Jaime looked up from his book. “Arthur’s prophecy?”

“No one in any story I’ve heard has gotten anywhere thinking too much on prophecy,” Mance warned, “but there’s some things might be related. You’ll see.” He shoved Jaime over with his shoulder and patted the space beside him. “Qhorin, sit. I don’t like you hovering, and we've much to discuss."

Chapter Text

Winter was coming.

A raven from the Citadel had announced autumn several months prior, and lands Jaime had come to know grew unfamiliar with the change in season. Free folk moved, abandoning certain villages, settling in previously empty clearings. They hunted more often to build up stores, and predators did the same. Bears and shadowcats prowled increasingly often, and the howling of wolves seemed more frequent.

And by some perverse miracle, the weather worsened.

The blizzard had arrived when Jaime and Blane were two days out from the Shadow Tower. After several hours of squinting through air that seemed at times blank white, caps pulled down and scarves wrapped over their mouths, they scrambled into the cavern Mance showed Jaime on his first ranging. With wind screaming outside, Jaime tended the horses while Blane started a fire. Qhorin, the blessed, beautiful man had ordered rangers to stockpile wood in oft used shelters, so they wouldn’t need to fear running out unless the storm lasted a horrifically long time.

Blane finished his task first and had already slumped to the cave floor when Jaime joined him. Wordlessly they pulled off their snow-encrusted cloaks and set one atop the other, then shoved together and huddled underneath. Even under all his wool and fur, Jaime’s body hurt like tiny knives pierced every inch of flesh. For several minutes, they did little but shudder and tremble.

“Fuck all the gods,” Jaime said when he could speak. “I want to go home.”

“Autumn in the Westerlands was nice,” Blane agreed. “Remember the trees?”

“Gold and red,” Jaime said, laughing. “And the leaves would fall and swirl in the winds. Cersei and I made a game of catching them.”

“My sisters took huge armfuls and dumped them over my head.” Blane smiled, showing a missing front tooth, knocked out in a fight with a raider a year back. “And the storms. They’d get bad, but they was something to see. The Sunset Sea thrashed and roared like a living thing.”

Jaime could picture it. "I remember."

They slumped against each other and fell silent, energy for talk worn away. Even so, the quiet was a content one. The ranging had been blessedly successful, and Jaime had needed a good ranging. Not quite a year ago, Mallister had wrangled him into commanding a small party, sending him out with a stooped veteran with a mouth stained from sourleaf, and a reckless young poacher. A fortnight into their ranging, Jaime gave the latter permission to track a deer. Not long after he wandered off, a woman’s scream shuddered through the forest.

They found the boy dead—along with a free folk girl he’d seemingly come across foraging, another not much older crying over her sister's body. Neither girl could’ve been over fourteen. But a bow rested near enough the surviving girl to make clear the poacher was dead by her arrow, and the veteran brother had taken one look and put a hand on his sword. Jaime snapped at him to stand down, then walked the girl home and gave her village the poacher’s horse and equipment. When they’d left, the old ranger screamed at him, going on about the traitor Jaime was, spoiled and green and thinking he was too good to follow the rules.

Finally, Jaime lost his temper and punched him in the face. In response, the man drew his blade. So Jaime killed him.

He’d told Mallister the truth, convinced he’d been justified. But it’d not played out so cleanly. The old knight hadn’t let him range for weeks, Ned Stark sent a letter chastising him, and certain brothers stopped speaking with Jaime entirely. Qhorin’s vocal support meant nastier comments died down quickly (Mance’s defense being too biased to be helpful), but Jaime hadn’t commanded a ranging since, and Mallister no longer spoke of his future as First Ranger. Instead, he shared shining reports from Castle Black of dutiful Ben Stark to make Jaime’s inferiority clear. 

After nearly two years of the man acting like the sun shone out Jaime’s arse, the reversal had been painful. He began volunteering to range often as he could, for time spent at the Shadow Tower reminded him of how drastically he was failing at the task Tormund suggested for him. Even his father wouldn’t send supplies, claiming he saw no reason to bother until Jaime advanced himself to a position worthier of a Lannister.

This outing had been the first forward step he’d taken in the better part of a year. He’d been told to speak with Orl, then Tormund, getting from them whatever information he could before winter made reaching them more difficult. Mallister placed Jaime in charge of Blane—a friend who’d led several rangings of his own—to nudge him back toward a proper command role, and it’d worked for the best. The ranging had gone smoothly, even the blizzard some small success in that he and Blane had seen the signs early enough to avoid getting trapped in the open. Mayhaps now the old man will shut up about how great the baby Stark is.

There’d been a sole troublesome spot, but Mallister wouldn’t care about it even should Jaime tell him, and he had no intent to do so. Were he able, even Jaime would forget his talk with Tormund. The raider had pulled him aside shortly after he and Blane arrived, keen to say he’d gone to Mother Mole to ask after Jaime. Since the old gods had given him a dream, Tormund claimed, he figured she might’ve seen something of him. “Happens she did,” he’d said to Jaime, before sharing what the woods witch told him.

Jaime closed his eyes, too tired to dwell on such nonsense. Trees don’t talk, he told himself as he tried to sleep. There aren’t any old gods, and dreams are dreams. Eventually he did drift off, though it was too cold to sleep easy, and he woke often through the night.

For five days, the storm dragged on, the snow not falling hard, but gusts of wind kicking up so much fallen snow they couldnt see more than a few feet outside the cave’s entrance. When finally the shrieking quieted, they rushed from the cave and into a world dyed white, every inch of stone, every lichen covered or encrusted with snow. For a time they paused to take it in. It is not the Westerlands, but it could almost be beautiful here as well. But the cold remained fierce, and days of reduced rations left them hungry. Soon they prodded their garrons south, hurried along by the prospect of a warm meal.

When they rode through the Shadow Tower’s gate, Mallister appeared and forced them to see Mullin so he could check toes, fingers, ears and noses for damage from the cold. As the maester did so, Mallister lingered to question Blane and Jaime on the specifics of the ranging. Jaime watched him carefully for some sign of approval, but his expression remained unreadable. 

“Ser Jaime showed no concerning attachment to the wildlings?” the old knight asked Blane finally.

Jaime could’ve screamed. Truly?

“M’lord,” Blane tried.

“I gave away our patrol schedule, as well as my thoughts on the best approaches to the Shadow Tower,” Jaime cut in cheerfully. “This while bedding four spearwives at once. I planned to follow by fucking Tormund so hard I’d be known as Kingslayer twice over, but Blane was aware enough of my perverse affection for wildlings to head that off.”

Mallister stared at him. Rendered speechless by my lack of knightliness, I dare say. Over-chivalrous fool.

“The ranging went real well, ser,” Blane volunteered. “You’d be impressed how well Jaime’s learned the land, and we got all the information you wanted. Went straight there and back as well. Jaime and I was hoping it’d please you, m’lord.”

“There are times I’m not certain what should please me.” Mallister fixed his gaze on Jaime. “I’ll deal with your… attitude later. There’s another matter that requires your attention. When Maester Mullin is finished with you, wash and come straight to my solar, dressed well.”

“Can’t I eat?” Jaime protested. And why tell me to dress well? I always dress well.

“You’ll want to go to my solar first. You can eat after.”

“Tell me you’ve not called Stark here to have at me.”

Mallister stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I should. But no, it’s not that.”

Jaime opened his mouth to question him further, but Mallister held up a hand. “You’ll see soon enough. Can you exercise patience, if not propriety?”

You’d ask that, knowing me for three years? Unwilling to treat the question seriously, Jaime made a show smiling earnestly. “Aren’t I always the epitome of patience?”

Blane shoved a hand over his mouth in a poor attempt to cover a grin, but Mallister merely muttered something under his breath and walked away, exasperation evident in the set of his shoulders. You need not look so frustrated. Recall how we got along when you did not insist on questioning me?

When Mullin let them go, Blane headed for the common hall bragging of how soon he’d have a bowl of warm stew in front of him, and Jaime grudgingly went to his cell to retrieve a change of blacks. Once he’d gone to the bathhouse and scrubbed himself clean, he shook out his cloak and replaced his dirtied things in his room, then hacked the uneven ends of his hair and trimmed his beard.

He was rummaging through his wardrobe, searching for a suitable cloak, when a knock on his door startled him. Jaime opened it, expecting one of Ser Denys’s stewards. Instead, Mance slipped into his cell and closed the door behind him.

“You’re here to warn me about Stark,” Jaime said, noting his brother’s expression. “I knew Mallister had someone lurking.”

“What’s with you and Lord Stark? No, don’t answer. Someone is lurking, but it’s not Stark.” Mance wandered to the table near Jaime’s bed and flipped the cover on whichever old journal Jaime had been perusing when called off to range, then turned to face him. “How was the ranging?”

Jaime snatched the cloak of rich black velvet he’d been eyeing when Mance knocked. “Blane’s a better partner than those fools Mallister sent me out with the first time. He was even reasonable about the wildlngs.”

“Blane’s a good man. And your visit with the king?”

“Toss me that broach,” Jaime said. From the bedside table, Mance threw him the weirwood broach Ygritte had given him when he and Blane passed through, an oval carved with arbitrary whorls Edyth had helped her make. Jaime snatched it from the air, then addressed Mance’s question. “Tormund wouldn’t tell me anything, but he accidently let slip he’ll not expand further until winter’s through.”

Mance’s mouth twisted. “Has he done any expanding since you were there last time?”

“I’m not sure.” Jaime shrugged the cloak over his shoulders and fastened it with the broach. “I’ve the sense he cares more about Ruddy Hall than this king business.”

“You should give him a push.” Mance grabbed a corner of Jaime’s cloak that’d caught atop his left boot and tugged it straight. “If you want the Watch to deal with the free folk in any productive manner, it’ll be far easier if we can do so primarily through one man.”

Jaime fished a comb from the wooden chest where he kept such things. When he turned back to Mance, he said, “I’m sure Tormund knows what he’s doing. He’s more competent than I’ve made him out. Not just a blowhard like Robert. And it isn’t as if it matters at the moment.” He dragged the comb through his damp hair. “It may never matter. To climb in the Watch, I’d need to cease being friendly with the free folk. I’ve little inclination to do so.”

“No one’s going to let a Lannister go to waste,” Mance said. “Maybe you’ll get somewhere now you’ve led a ranging that didn’t go horribly wrong.”

Jaime picked his way through a tangle. “The man’s death wasn’t my fault.”

“Of course it wasn’t.” Mance threw himself back onto Jaime’s bed. His voice grew lighter, cautiously so. “All the problems it caused were. You should’ve said a raider killed him.” So you’ve said, half a hundred times. I’d think you wished to make a liar of me, brother.

“Qhorin tells me I should’ve been more mindful of who I was with, apologized to the girl, and left it at that.” Jaime moved onto another section of hair. “‘Allowances in honor must sometimes be made for the sake of common sense,’ was how he put it.”

“That also would’ve been reasonable,” Mance conceded, “though I’d argue harmful to your goal of winning the free folk.”

“There are days I swear the two of you mean pull me apart, you tug me so hard opposite ways. Leave it. The matter’s done.” Jaime set the comb aside and went to the looking glass he’d made Tyrion send him. Half watching Mance’s face, half focused on his reflection, he ran his fingers through his hair to get the curls to set properly. “Now tell me, who’s it Mallister means for me to meet?”

“Your brother,” Mance said.

That was unnecessarily vague. “Which brother?”

“The Lannister one. Waist high. Looks like a grumpkin.”

Jaime spun to face him, convinced it was a joke he didn’t understand. But Mance didn’t laugh or make some witty comment, only gazed seriously at Jaime as he waited for it to click. When it did, Jaime crossed the room and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Tyrion?”

Mance swatted Jaime’s hands off his shoulders. “No, the other waist high Lannister brother that looks like a grumpkin. Did the blizzard freeze your brain? Yes, Tyrion. He came up with your uncle Gerion. They arrived some ten days ago. Now wait a moment-”

Only the look on his brother’s face kept Jaime from striding off. “Wait for what? Why do you look so serious?”

“Maester Aemon grew so cut off from the rest of the world, he thought Aerys a victim,” Mance said. “Letters only get so much across, and you’ve been far away. Watch your expectations.”

“Has Tyrion said anything?” said Jaime, at once worried.

“Oh no. They get on well here. Your uncle brought his crew with, and he’s got a man can play the lute with him, who’s had proper-”

“Tyrion?”

Mance laughed. “Right. I’ve kept an eye on the little lord for you. Knocked out some bugger’s teeth for making a nasty comment. When he got scared after the blizzard came in, I dug out your spare gear and laid it in a pile, showed him how bundled up you’d be.”

“Did you really?” Jaime said, grinning at the thought—in a far better mood now Mance had gotten around to the truth.

“It’s disgusting all the extra things you’ve got. Such nice quality as well.”

“You stole something.”

A smile touched Mance’s lips. “I tried to bet Tyrion you’d not even notice what’s missing. He wouldn’t take me up on it.”

It was such a valid point Jaime didn’t press. “If you get on with him, I don’t understand the problem.”

“It’s-” The set of Mance’s face grew somber. “You’ll have to wrestle with the issue whether I find words for it or no. Go to him. I’ve kept you long enough.”

 

Sitting at Denys Mallister’s sturdy pine table, waiting to see his brother for the first time in five years, Tyrion Lannister tried to keep his hands from trembling. It is only Jaime, he told himself. I do not need to fear seeing Jaime.

But fear he did. He'd been battling the emotion since Ser Denys found him and Gerion finishing their midday meal and insisted they wait for Jaime in his solar.

"Why can't we see him straight off?" Gerion had demanded, clearly worried something had gone amiss. 

“He needs to debrief, and I want Mullin to ensure he's clear of frostbite," the old knight explained patiently. He'd hesitated, then added, “He’ll probably look quite savage as well. It’s better he have the chance to clean up before he sees you.”

Would a Jaime who could look savage have patience for a stunted dwarf? Tyrion wondered, staring at the tabletop and trying to imagine how his golden brother could look savage at all. The thought of it filled him with disquiet, and not for the first time, he doubted the wisdom of traveling to the Wall.  

Initially, he'd been thrilled when his uncle responded to all that’d happened by suggesting they visit Jaime. Unfortunately, the venture hadn't been what he expected. Even having taken the trip by sea, it’d been uncomfortable venturing above deck once they got past White Harbor, then intolerable as they approached Eastwatch. The ride west along the Wall was worse still, though they’d put him in a sled and bundled him until he was more wool and furs than dwarf. Then they’d arrived at the Shadow Tower only to be informed Jaime was ranging and wouldn’t be back for anywhere from one week to three, perhaps longer.

The wait hadn't been so bad as it might've been, he'd allow that. Ser Denys proved attentive and courteous. Maester Mullin let him borrow from his disappointing collection of books, and Stonesnake and Squire Dalbridge freely answered questions about Jaime, though with blatant exaggeration. Even Mance Rayder, who’d stolen Jaime and acted his brother in all the ways Tyrion had been too young, too small, too stunted to manage, cut off Tyrion’s determination to resent him by revealing he corresponded with someone who'd read An Unnatural History. Tyrion had filled many an hour questioning the man about Barth's writings. 

Despite all this, the days dragged, and Jaime's absence instilled in Tyrion a different fear than he felt waiting in Ser Denys's solar. A fear his brother would die ranging. He’d never thought on danger faced by brothers of the Watch, but after looking over the lands beyond the Wall, he couldn’t imagine disappearing into them for the two months Jaime’s round trip was supposed to take.

But a single blow from a watcher’s horn had announced Jaime's return, easing that foremost fear and leaving Tyrion with one far more subtle. It’d first come to him when he and Gery stopped in King’s Landing to visit Cersei and six month old Prince Steffon. When Cersei heard they planned to see Jaime, she’d grown so bleak Tyrion wondered if she’d ask to accompany them. Instead, she gave a mirthless laugh and said sadly, “Do you recall the horrible crows who’d come begging for scraps from our dungeons? Jaime and I used to tease such men. Now he’s become one of them. The golden brother we loved is dead, and you’re a child if you think otherwise. You seek to visit a ghost.”

Upon returning to the Laughing Lion, Tyrion had rummaged in his trunk for the stack of letters sent by Jaime over the last three years, one every few months, some twenty in all. Particularly in the most recent letters, Tyrion admitted he saw little of the Jaime that warmed his memories. Instead he wrote of raiders and dealings with wildlings and plans for the Watch, alongside anecdotes of men Tyrion did not know.

It was this fear, the worry his brother had become a stranger, that plagued Tyrion as they waited. He wished to ask his uncle if he worried as well, but to vocally doubt Jaime seemed sacrilegious, or unbrotherly at least. I owe him more than that. Jaime, who found time for me when the rest of my family didn’t. My big brother. He's the last person I should doubt. 

The door to the solar swung open, and Tyrion's gut clenched. But it was only Ser Denys, his face creased from more than simply age. With a weighty sigh, he lowered himself to the seat at the head of the table. “That boy,” he said, the words dripping with frustration.  

His tone made Gery laugh. “Can I ask what he’s done?”

“Picked up the filthiest language, to start,” Ser Denys said. “I can’t even blame that on Mance, for Ser Jaime’s worse than he is. I’d not speak ill of him behind his back, but I would not have you shocked. Four spearwives. Sodomy.”

Gery burst into laughter. “Mayhaps I should take the black. It sounds like my nephew’s having quite the time.”

Ser Denys was less amused. “His behavior worries me. He’s taken an interest in the affairs of the Watch, a genuine one, yet he’s damaging his chances of rising to a position where he can attempt changes. I have tried to make him see how heavily Benjen Stark is being favored, but he’ll not hear it.”

“Mance tells me he got in trouble over some wildling child," Gerion said. 

“A brother panicked and killed a girl of about twelve years. In response, the child’s sister fired an arrow through his heart. Jaime insisted on making amends to the girls’ village, though it might have been considered even, a life for a life. He and a veteran ranger fought over the matter, and the man eventually pulled his sword. At that point, Jaime had little choice to kill him. It wasn’t unreasonable, but the precedent it sets-”

A knock interrupted him. Tyrion went cold from head to toe. His hands still did not fully wish to still, so he clutched them in his lap, needing to stifle a wince when he realized how sweaty they were.

“Pardon me,” said Ser Denys, a smile tugging at his lips. He rose and went to answer. Tyrion bit his lip and leaned forward, tracking the old knight as he opened the door. The corridor was too dim for him to properly make out the figure in the doorway, but he looked tall. The thought nearly made Tyrion laugh, except he feared it’d come out hysterically and swallowed it down.

Then the black brother entered the room, and Ser Denys slipped away.

He does not look like Jaime, Tyrion noted, heart sinking. When they’d parted, Jaime had been taller than Cersei but similarly slender, alike in every possible way. He’d barely guess them siblings now, let alone twins. During their visit, Cersei had been radiant, colored just enough by the sun to highlight her golden hair. Jaime was pale and bearded, and he’d become so lean he bordered gaunt. A crow. Not a lion.

Despite his reservations, Tyrion got to his feet, fishing for an appropriate greeting. Before he settled on something, Jaime crossed the room in long steps, moving so fast and quiet it gave Tyrion a flash of unease. Then Jaime was on his knees, wrapping Tyrion in his arms. He’s strangling me, Tyrion thought, until he realized Jaime was laughing, the sound too deep. A man’s laugh, not a boy’s. Even that was different.

“Brother, you’ve gotten taller,” Jaime said, though Tyrion didn’t know how Jaime could tell while grappling him like they were northmen or peasants.

“Unfortunately, you have as well,” Tyrion managed. Jaime smelled like cold, he observed, and felt cold as well. It took effort to smile as he looked up at his big brother. “It doesn’t look like I’ve done much catching up.”

After giving the weak jest a chuckle, Jaime stood and grabbed Gery and clapped his back. Their uncle beamed as he returned the gesture, making some comment about Jaime’s beard Tyrion only half heard. He’s been writing, Tyrion reminded himself, but he struggled to attribute the voice from their letters to the man in front of him instead of the fifteen-year-old boy he’d always pictured when he thought Jaime.

“Not that I’m displeased to see you, but this was a poor time to come,” said Jaime, regarding them with sharp eyes. “Traveling in the north is dangerous this season. Winter is-” He caught himself and snapped his mouth shut, appearing troubled, like he’d just realized he might have reason for self-consciousness.

And Tyrion laughed.

“Jaime, I’m sorry,” he said, shoving a hand over his mouth, trying to stop. He couldn’t, and he laughed again, though he worried this strange Jaime would take it too seriously, never mind nothing he’d heard from the black brothers suggested as much. He finally got out, “What was that you were going to say?”

Jaime dragged a hand down his face, but his eyes danced. “Laugh if you will, but I’ve been hearing those words for months. I can’t leave for so much as a patrol without a warning to be cautious.” He grew serious. “There’s a reason for it. What if you’d been traveling between castles when that blizzard struck?”

“We’ve men with us, and your brothers have escorted us from place to place,” Gery said. “We would have been fine. I’d not have risked Tyrion if I thought it dangerous.”

“That speaks more of your ignorance than the lack of danger.” Jaime winced as soon as the words were out of his mouth. “I didn’t mean that.”

Their uncle tried to smile. “Yes you did. You’d been the most like me, you know. It drove your father mad. You’ve more of Tyg in you now, I think.” He paused, but kept silent. And Father, Tyrion filled in. Those words could’ve come from our father’s mouth.  

If Jaime noticed their uncle’s hesitation, he showed it not. “You still haven’t said why you’ve come.”

“Father told me he wanted me out of the Rock,” Tyrion offered in his lightest tone, like it didn’t bother him. “Our nuncle volunteered the use of his ship and suggested the Wall.”

“He made you leave?”

“Not permanently,” Tyrion said.

Gery added, “In my brother’s words, ‘Some time at the Wall would do the boy good. Then he’ll have an idea of where I’ll send him if he doesn’t stop behaving like your pathetic father.’ Your father, as if we didn’t share. I asked Tywin what fishmonger it was put his seed in Mother’s womb to sire him, and he kicked me out as well.”

Jaime slumped to the table and laughed again. “What did you do, little brother?”

“It’s in the past,” Gery said firmly. “An error in judgment. Your friend Addam has been knighted and spends time at the Rock. You know Tyg-”

“Is married to his aunt. That happened before I left.”

“Well he helped handle things, and it wasn’t as bad as it might’ve been.” That’s easy for you to say. But Tyrion couldn’t argue it could’ve been worse, harmless as the affair seemed at first. Out of lingering obligation to Jaime, Ser Addam had made a point of speaking with Tyrion on his visits. One day he suggested they ride through the villages and visit with the smallfolk, informing Tyrion it was what he did around Ashmark. “Common folk like to see the heir has interest,” he insisted.

“If the heir is a tall comely knight, I’m sure they do, but they’ll care nothing for me,” Tyrion argued. “I’m not certain I am the heir as is. Father doesn’t treat me as such.”

“He’ll have more reason to do so if you take initiative and act like it.” Addam lowered his voice like they spoke of the dead. “Your brother wouldn’t like to see you cooped up in the Rock for weeks on end. Surely you can venture forth for him.”

So he’d given in. After Tyrion had a lengthy conversation with a crofter’s daughter, Addam suggested they return in the future, claiming she’d seemed genuinely to like him. It’d been Tyrion who ruined it. After her father died, he’d tried giving her gold, then proposed marriage when she refused to take it. By that point, Addam had been months away at Ashemark, and Tyrion hadn’t thought a thing of slipping away to play husband and wife.

But Addam was called to Sarsfield to deal with outlaws, and when he stopped at the Rock after, he noticed something amiss. He found their cottage before they’d had a week together. It’d taken begging and Tysha’s tears, but the knight grudgingly agreed to go to Tyg instead of Tywin, and Tyrion’s uncle dissolved the marriage and sent Tysha away, supposedly for her own safety.

Afterward, he’d taken Tyrion to Tywin. “He will find out,” Tyg said, “and it’ll go better for you if we’re the ones to tell him.” While he trusted his uncle meant well, Tyrion wasn’t sure how the encounter could’ve gone worse. Between the threats, insults, and eventual demand to get out of his sight and go far, far away, Tyrion had finished the talk thinking he’d been booted permanently from the Rock. Only when Gery found him to suggest the trip did Tyrion realize all was not lost. Not all, but my wife is lost, and probably the chance for my father’s regard.

Jaime looked like he wanted to ask more questions, but after a hesitation, he turned his eyes longingly to the door. “Can we continue this in the common hall? I’ve spent the last seven weeks eating frozen salt beef.”

“It’d give me physical relief to see a meal in front of you,” Gery said. “You’re too thin.”

“You sound like Aunt Genna,” said Jaime, neck flushed. But he wasn’t so embarrassed he didn’t hurry for the corridor. As he trailed his brother and uncle, trying to ignore the way the cold made his legs ache, Tyrion tried to settle his thoughts. It’sonly Jaime, he told himself, yet part of him doubted. His brother was supposed to be perfect, everything Tyrion ought to have been. Everything Tyrion often wanted to be.

But Tyrion didn’t envy this Jaime, strange and haggard and content to live in the cold and gloom. He’d rather be a dwarf at Casterly Rock than this Jaime.

He didn’t know what to do with that.

 

Mance’s warning had been apt. Jaime had expected far too much.

Though his uncle appeared at ease, Tyrion remained quiet, seeming uncertain of himself in a way he’d never been, not around Jaime. Gerion had members of his crew with him as well, men Jaime didn’t know, several of whom congregated around the table to watch and whisper, as if Jaime was an exotic animal on display.

The attention made him too aware of how strange he must seem to them. Jaime struggled not to ignore conversation and devour his meal barbarically quickly, and he grew increasingly certain he laughed too loudly and spoke too plainly. When he uttered a complaint of spoiled lordlings that painted amusement across Gerion’s face, he had to bite his tongue to keep from shouting at him.

Tyrion made no comment.

Sick of it, Jaime got to his feet as soon as he finished his meal. “Walk with me, little brother. We haven’t spoken in years, and we’ve much and more to catch up on. I’ll show you my garron.”

Tyrion looked dubious as to the worth of such a venture, but he shoved himself off the bench. “If you insist.”

“You’ll not mind if we abandon you, nuncle?” Jaime said to Gerion.

His uncle looked between the two of them, a trace of worry in the set of his brow. But he found a smile. “Go on. Far be it from me to keep brothers apart.”

Once they were away from the common hall, quiet took hold. Jaime snuck glances at his brother as they walked. He hadn’t gotten any better to look at, but it was the lack of light in his eyes that troubled Jaime, the absence of the smile he’d always worn when Jaime went out of his way to spend time with him.

Dapple was napping upright when they came to her, though her eyes opened at the sound of footsteps. Jaime put a hand on her nose, earning a nicker and flick of the ears. At least you’re properly pleased to see me. 

A steward mucked a nearby stall, and Jaime called to him, “I’ll let you have an applecake if you take yourself elsewhere.”

The boy wandered from the stall and studied Jaime, then Tyrion. Wyl, he was called. The son of a tavern wench, seized for dumping hot soup on a lord who was inappropriate with his mother. He was only twelve, and he liked watching Jaime train, hovering at the edge of the yard and yelling, “You need to hit him harder, Kingslayer!” authoritatively as if he was master-at-arms.

The lad paused to consider Jaime’s offer, face scrunching as he worked out some way to be a shit about it. Finally he said, “I’d prefer a blueberry cake.”

Why am I not surprised? Jaime sighed. “If Darl is to make something new, I must needs write my aunt, and get instructions from the cook at the Rock, then read it to him so he knows what to do. He can’t just make blueberry cakes.”

“He could take the apples out,” Wyl said, as if he spoke to a small child, “and put in blueberries.”

“Have you had blueberry cakes? They’ve a different texture-“

“Fine, fine. Write your aunt. I’d like to get my shit-shoveling done, and if you’d have me set aside my work so you can loaf and chat, you ought to give me something special in return.”

“I’ll do it if you take my next Wall watch.” 

“Half your watch, and I get two cakes.”

“As you say.” Jaime held out a hand for him to shake.

Wyl beamed as he did. “My brothers back in Flea Bottom were stingier than you. Make it three cakes, and I’ll say you’re the best I’ve had.”

“Oh I’ll give you a third cake.”

“Now you’ve gone and made it sound like a threat. The two will be just fine, but that means Ralf’s still my favorite.”

Jaime took a threatening step toward him, and he ran off barking laughter.

When he turned back around, Tyrion’s face had gone blank.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Jaime said.

“I’m glad you get on so well with your brothers. It’s preferable than if I found you miserable.”

“You’re thinking too much into that use of brother.”

“It pleases me you’re happy,” Tyrion insisted, like Jaime was making something of nothing.

Jaime ignored him, not about to go back to playing court games after three years training himself out of it. “Come here. You like horses.” He paused. “You still do?”

“I never said I like horses. My pony made me happy because you gave it to me.” But he crept closer. Jaime snagged a bucket and overturned it for him, earning a sidelong look he couldn’t read, though Tyrion did climb atop it and give Dapple a pat. “I suppose I do have a soft spot for the creatures. Horses don’t care what you look like.”

That was too tricky to touch. Jaime reached for something else to say before the damnable silence could come back. He settled on, “How did you get to the Wall? There’s no place to dock in the west that doesn’t require hiking through mountains to get here, and taking a Lannister ship past the Iron Islands would be unwise.”

Tyrion brushed a hand along the edge of Dapple’s nose. “We went around Dorne.”

I suspected as much. “I assume you stopped in King’s Landing?”

“For a few days, yes.”

Jaime went to a bin in the corner and fished out a withering apple, holding it to his horse. She took it with a swish of her tail. As Jaime watched her munch, he said casually, “You saw Cersei’s son?”

His sister had written him of that development some months ago. It’d been the longest letter he’d gotten from her in some time. As if a few paragraphs of court gossip could make him feel better about Robert’s spawn growing inside her like a parasite.

“We did,” Tyrion said. “Prince Steffon. He looks like a little Robert, though with green eyes. A friendly infant. I quite liked him.”

Jaime didn’t bother acknowledging that. “How is she?”

“She doesn’t like Robert, but she fits well at court. It isn’t as though she shares with me her deepest secrets, so I can’t say more.”

“Did she say anything when she realized you were to visit me?” A message? A comment? A wish her duties as queen did not keep her from accompanying you?

Tyrion hopped off the overturned bucket. “I’m cold. We should go inside.”

That’s not good. Jaime got to one knee and grabbed him by the arm to keep him in place. “I’d sooner you tell me something unpleasant than let me remain ignorant.”

“She cried when we talked about you. She misses you. She said more than once she wished you were in King’s Landing, that she hated Robert for sending you way-”

“You are not making it better by talking around it,” Jaime snarled.

Tyrion shut his eyes. He is afraid of me. But Jaime could not apologize, because he needed to know. If scaring him into it was the way to get the words from his lips, so be it.

After a long silence, Tyrion took a trembling breath. In a halting voice, he informed Jaime their sister claimed he was dead, that he’d become another of the crows at which they used to poke fun. Jaime stared at his brother, his skin cold and heavy, as if he’d frozen from the outside. His fingers itched to rip it away, so he’d no longer be some creature his sister thought worthy of mockery.

“I’m going to sleep,” Jaime announced, though it was not yet evening.

“Jaime,” Tyrion ventured, but Jaime ignored him. He strode for his cell, two months of ranging catching up to him at once, exhaustion overtaking him so fiercely he could barely stand. He needed to sleep. That was all. He’d sleep, and when he woke up, his brother would not feel like a stranger, Cersei’s comments would make sense, and the world would be at rights.

 

Tyrion waddled back into the common hall, numb all over. The group that’d gathered while Jaime ate had dispersed. His uncle was off somewhere and most his crew as well, but Mance sat on a cushion near the room’s largest hearth, playing a simple tune on his lute, starting and restarting as he tweaked the positioning of his right hand.

He headed that direction. Upon noticing Tyrion’s approach, Mance smiled. “Lord Tyrion, I hope you found Dapple good company. She’s the closest to a good-sister you’ll ever have.”

“Jaime likes her,” Tyrion tried, not having been impressed. The garron was nothing like the magnificent destrier or the elegant palfreys Jaime rode in Tyrion’s memories.

“Surely you can do better than that? She survived this last blizzard. She’s a hardy animal.” Mance dismissed the topic with a wave of his hand and extended a leg, hooking his ankle around the foot of a nearby bench. He dragged it over with a thud, then pointed. “Sit. I’ll play you a song if you’d like.”

Tyrion climbed onto the bench. It was on the tip of his tongue to request “Seasons of My Love” to get lost in for a time, but he didn’t need to torture himself that way. He shook his head. “I meant to talk.”

“I supposed you’d say as much,” Mance said. “Your conversation with Jaime went poorly?”

Tyrion watched his fingers dancing across the lute strings in that same repetitive pattern, practicing more than playing. “I told him Cersei says our Jaime is dead.”

Mance plucked a few more notes. “You needn’t sound guilty. Jaime’s isolation shouldn’t be an excuse to feed him pleasant lies. It’s better you were honest with him.”

“Is Cersei right?” he blurted, hoping he’d not earn Mance’s ire for asking.

The black brother merely laughed. “Can I tell you a story?”

“If it’s relevant.”

“Perfectly so.” Mance’s eyes were bright. “You see, a former member of the Kingswood Brotherhood is at the Wall, and I once asked him about the Brotherhood’s last battle.”

“When Jaime was knighted,” Tyrion realized.

“Aye, now listen to this. When it went south for the outlaws, Ulmer lingered to cover his companions as they fled, planning to turn himself in when the survivors were away. He tells me he fired an arrow Jaime’s way to get him off Big Belly Ben, and he kept an eye on the boy to see if he’d chase while Ben escaped.”

Tyrion tried not to find it amusing Mance played the song of Big Belly Ben as he spoke, weaving the notes easily between his words. “Of course Jaime would chase.”

“He would’ve,” Mance said, “but the Smiling Knight had just finished his foe, and Jaime saw him. The most feared of the group, the most dangerous. And your brother yelled, ‘Casterly Rock!’ and ran toward the madman.”

Tyrion put a hand over his mouth to hold in a laugh.

“Ulmer says he’d never seen a man move so fast as Arthur Dayne when he noticed a squire charging an outlaw feared by grown men.” Mance stilled his fingers and looked Tyrion in the eye. “You know why Jaime’s killed more big name raiders in three years than I have in… oh, sixteen or seventeen?”

“He seeks them,” Tyrion whispered.

“You see? That daft boy who fancies himself a great hero isn’t dead. I put up with his nonsense every time we range together.”

He couldn’t accept it was that easy. “But he has changed. He cares about the Watch more than-” Me, “-our family. I’m losing my brother to a bunch of-” He stopped, most the descriptors that came to mind insulting to the man with whom he spoke.

“Bastards?” Mance filled in. “Commoners? Criminals? You are. He sees us every day, and he’ll be lucky if you ever visit again. Has your life not moved forward as well?”

Tyrion thought of Ser Addam coaxing him out riding, of Tysha and her kisses. He’d held the two children Genna had since Jaime left for King’s Landing, and by time he came back, Tyg would have a new son or daughter as well. All cousins Jaime likely would not meet.

“Oh.”

“Oh,” Mance agreed. “You two aren’t walking the same path any longer. Unless something changes, you’ll have only memories, rare visits, and letters when the Kingslayer can send them. Is that enough?”

He’d known this, but it was a different thing to have it stated so plainly, in a way that forced him to get his head around the issue. There’d been a part of him, he realized, that still expected Jaime’s sentence to eventually end, that didn’t believe he would truly remain gone the rest of Tyrion’s life. He promised he would come back. Before he left the last time, he knelt and kissed my forehead and said he would return.

Tyrion wrapped his arms around himself. “I don’t want it to have to be.”

“You needn’t sound like it’s the end of the world. You’ll not be alone at least. You have a big family.”

“A family that hates me.”

“Yes,” Mance said slowly, “that uncle of yours, going on a months’ long journey to this lovely destination for your sake. A hateful monster, that one.”

“I mean-“

“The aunt Jaime claims doted on all three of you? Pinching ears and kissing cheeks, and so on? Or your Uncle Tyg of whom you speak fondly? You’ve even mentioned your Uncle Kevan in a positive way.”

He does not understand. “My father has told me he should’ve drowned me when I was born, my sister has-”

“I’ve had brothers tell me they can’t fathom why my throat wasn’t cut with my whore mother’s,” Mance interrupted. “You can fight for respect, you can make yourself better than the fools who say such things, even ignore them if you prefer. But don’t pity yourself. You’ve little enough reason for that as is. Father and sister aside, you are lucky.” 

“Lucky?” Tyrion snapped. “Look at me.

“I am looking. I see the face of a boy who’d not have lived past his first hour if he’d been born north of the Wall, who might have been fortunate to find himself in a mummer’s show were he a commoner south of it. I see a boy with a powerful name, and enough to eat, who’s wearing clothes worth more coin than some men see in a year.”

Mance looked up at Tyrion from his position on the floor. “I see a boy who can read and write—and who can thus send letters to his brother who’s been sent away, when the families of less than a dozen men at the Shadow Tower can say the same.” He paused, then added flatly, “I see the luckiest dwarf in the world. Do I see wrong, Lord Tyrion?”

Tyrion’s hands trembled.

Mance coaxed a few light notes from his lute. “I’m not saying it’s wrong to miss Jaime or to wish events didn’t happen like they did. But missing and wishing won’t fix anything. There’s two things you can do regarding Jaime, short of taking the black yourself.”

“I’ll pass on that one,” Tyrion managed, hating how small his voice sounded. “You’d lose me in a snowbank.”

“Then you can accept you’ll have to share him, and write,” Mance told him, “or go the way of your sister, tell yourself he’s dead, grieve and move on. Do you understand?”

Tyrion wished to say Mance was wrong, that his words were lies, born from desire to keep Jaime for himself. But that was not so. The truth of the matter shuddered through him, aching and horrible.

Fighting tears, Tyrion nodded. “Yes. I understand perfectly.”

 

Jaime planned to linger in his cell the next morning, but Qhorin rapped on his door while it was still early and asked if he’d like to spar. Enticed by the prospect of hitting something, Jaime dragged himself from his bed and followed his brother outside.

He was less pleased when Qhorin insisted on beginning slow, telling Jaime, “Would you sooner regain control, or indulge its loss?”

“The latter, certainly,” Jaime said, but every time he tried to properly fight, Qhorin pointedly dropped his sword. Finally Jaime indulged him in a lengthy dance of testing moves and working on weaknesses rather than attempting to disarm each other. As they worked, time and thought fell away, the painful knot in Jaime’s chest loosening—until his head cleared, and he did cease wishing to throttle something.

When Jaime finally said, “Can we fight now?”, Qhorin answered with a proper blow. They quickly fell into a familiar pattern, engaging for as short a time as possible, trying to win in a strike or two or three at most, grappling and punching and throwing each other in the dirt if need be. They’d then disengage and do it again, and again and again.

The sun was fully risen before Qhorin said, “Enough,” and Jaime came back to himself. He staggered as he sucked in gulps of air, his forearms and wrists and hands ringing from cold and harsh blows, though he’d given better than he got. Cold as it was, the sunlight proved a nice change from blankets of snow clouds, and the way it glittered off the Wall, casting patterns in the layers of ice, drew Jaime’s eye. If Cersei saw this, would she still turn up her nose?

After a moment, Jaime tore himself away and headed with Qhorin for the armory. His ill mood had retreated enough civilized conversation did not feel beyond him, and he told his brother, “Tormund says I’m to inform you he likes Blane better. Try to contain your disappointment.”

Qhorin neglected to respond to that. “Does his invitation remain open in the future?”

“As far as I can tell,” Jaime said. “He still thinks the old gods have an eye on me.”

“Two years is a long time to remain convinced,” Qhorin said, a question in his voice.

Jaime did not immediately respond, holding his tongue as they stepped into the armory, the relative warmth a welcome relief. As he pulled off his helm and shucked the fur-lined cap he’d worn beneath, he considered how much he wished to say. Might as well give him the truth. It isn’t as if it means anything.

“He went to Mother Mole about me,” Jaime admitted. “The woods witch.”

Qhorin stopped midway through unstrapping a vambrace. “What did she tell him?”

“She claims the trees watch me and whisper things.” He kept his voice casual, like it bothered him not at all. “She’s seen a bear covered in my blood, and a dead thing taking me in its arms. She sees fire and blood in my future, a sister whose kisses are cold, and more crows than she can count. Foremost are two with three eyes, and a last with one of red and black.”

A frown touched Qhorin’s lips.

“This is how Tormund remembers it,” Jaime added. “He might’ve gotten it turned around.”

Even talking about matters that should’ve been laughable, Qhorin remained solemn as ever. “Tormund was loud, not stupid. If he bothered seeking the witch, he’d not have let himself bungle what she said.”

“It’s nonsense, even so.”

After a pause, Qhorin nodded. “Don’t think on it too much. You’ve heard Mance speak of prophecy. It’s never what it seems.”

“Precisely what I thought. Tell Mance of this if you like. I suspect he’d find it interesting the wildlings are gossiping about me.”

“Don’t you?”

“I’ve killed a lot of prominent raiders,” Jaime said, “and made a few important friends beyond the Wall. I’m the most interesting crow to grace the Watch in decades. Of course they’re talking about me.”

A chuckle crawled from Qhorin’s throat, though Jaime had been serious. “As you say, Kingslayer.” He rose. “Before I go, Ser Denys wished for me to address a matter.”

The words brought a scowl to his face. “I only made a jest. It’s nothing needs addressing.”

“It’s not the comment,” Qhorin said. “It’s your attitude that worries him. He’s given you the benefit of the doubt since you came to the Wall. But he questions you once, justifiably, and every criticism he gives becomes a personal attack?”

Jaime had too much else on his mind to defend himself. “I’ve got some punishment, haven’t I?”

“You’re to clean the armory. Wash and polish everything that needs it, set aside anything no longer suitable for practicing. Put it back in proper order. And scrub the floors.”

Jaime stared. “Today? But my uncle, and brother-”

“Can come talk while you work if you please.” His face went hot, and Qhorin said, “Ah. You’re embarrassed to be seen performing work that’s beneath you. If you’d prefer a different punishment, I could speak with Ser Denys. He and Mance are going over patrol schedules.”

Mance would be irritated with Jaime, and worse, he’d talk about it. All the respect Jaime had wrangled from his lowborn brothers would go to shit in an instant if it looked like he was putting on airs.

“I never said anything about the work being beneath me,” Jaime muttered. “You put that in my mouth. I’ll do the bloody cleaning.”

“Don’t sound so displeased,” said Qhorin, making to leave. “You need every lesson in humility you can get.”

“I hope the Others fuck you up the arse,” Jaime called after him. When he was alone, he cast a look around armory, not a large room, separated from the castle’s forge by a thin wall. But there were corners that appeared as if they hadn’t been cleaned since the building’s construction. With a curse, he hurried to fetch the supplies he’d need to clean the floors, hoping to get that part finished before his brother or uncle tracked him down.

He had no such luck. He’d just fished a dead mouse out from under a table when the door creaked open. Jaime looked up, grimy and on his knees, half-rotted mouse corpse in hand, and grimaced when he spied his uncle in the doorway, laughably out of place in the dim, dusty room. Graceful with fine features, skin colored from sunlight, his uncle would’ve stood out even were it not for his dress: a thick doublet embroidered with gold, and a lush cloak of cloth-of-gold, with diamonds and rubies winking from the clasp.

For a moment, Jaime could do naught but look at him, all his color filling Jaime with hunger as keen as that felt upon returning from his ranging. Mother used to say I was meant to wear gold, he recalled. Or was that Genna? “You’ve sunlight in your hair,” he recalled a woman saying, “and in your smile. It is fitting you robe yourself in it as well.”

If Gerion noted his stare, he was good enough to ignore it. “Your father would not be displeased to see you such,” he said, walking further into the armory, carefully avoiding a stretch of still damp stone. “He always thought you needed more discipline.”

“Are you sure this is what he had in mind?” Tearing his gaze from his uncle, Jaime threw the mouse into the nearest brazier. It crackled and burned and smelled like Rickard Stark. He grabbed his rag and returned to scrubbing.

“Please. Tywin doesn’t let momentary unpleasantness get in the way of results.” Gerion seated himself on a bench. “But I’ve not come to speak of your father. Your brother says he upset you.”

He’d spent the morning trying not to think on it too deeply, but now Gerion had placed the matter before him, Jaime had no desire to beat around it. “I’m losing my family, aren’t I?”

“Jaime,” Gerion said.

Jaime thrust the rag into his bucket to rinse of the dirt and dust, wrung the water out, and moved to the small space he had yet to finish. To the floor, he said, “Tyrion feels like a stranger. Cersei has decided I should be mourned. I have a nephew I’ll likely never meet, I suppose cousins I don’t even know about.” He shoved the rag harder against stone and asked his uncle, “Were you there when Cersei talked to Tyrion?”

“I was.”

“It hurt to hear,” Jaime informed him. “It still hurts. But do you know the worst thing? What kept me up half the night? It doesn’t hurt enough. We were supposed to be two halves of a whole, but I don’t feel incomplete. Wretched certainly, but only like someone said something hurtful. Not like my world is ending.”

“Your world isn’t what it had been,” Gerion said gently.

Jaime’s scrubbing grew desultory. “I begin to grasp that. If I don’t die, I’m still going to be here in fifty years. I’ll not have children, or… any woman, ever, and all anyone in the south will know of me is that the monstrous Kingslayer is lurking at the Wall. They’re going to sing songs, aren’t they? Like Lucamore Strong?”

Gerion turned away.

“They already do?” Jaime asked, voice strangled.

“It’s easy to fill absence with imagination,” Gerion said. “Singers can write anything, and with you so far away, who’s to contradict lies and exaggerations? No one dares perform such filth in the Westerlands, but the Dornish think it funny-” Jaime thought of Arthur, of Elia, and he wanted to be sick, “-and Robert is… partial as well, though Jon Arryn tries to keep him in check. I’m sorry, Jaime.”

Jaime attacked the floor with renewed vigor. “I wish I’d have married Lysa Tully.”

“Do you? Think on it, and answer me honestly.”

I’m drifting from my family. I’ll be all but forgotten by the next generation of my house. By everyone except singers looking to mock me. Cersei mocks me.

But the thought of never having met Mance or Qhorin, even Blane and some of the others, seemed in its own way painful as growing distant from his family in the south. Worse, he’d be a lesser person had he not served Aerys and come to the Wall. A weaker one, if nothing else.

He finished scrubbing and went outside to dump the bucket. When he returned, Gerion remained on the bench, legs extended in front of him, jarringly at ease for being so much finer than his surroundings.

“I don’t know,” Jaime told him. “If I could go back and do everything differently, it’d be a difficult choice. But if Robert sent a raven tomorrow and told me I could come back south? I’d refuse. The man I am now has little place below the Neck.”

Gerion stood and put an arm around him like he used to when Jaime was small, like Jaime wasn’t filthy or taller than him. “The man you are now is an impressive one. I’ve read writings by maesters that say few rangers venture more than fifty leagues beyond the Wall, but you must’ve been so far just this last ranging. You’re becoming an adventurer as befits a Lannister.”

Jaime stepped away, unwilling to be coddled like a child for overlong. He admitted, “I’d forgotten that part of our history.”

“Your father would have the kingdoms think us a house of tyrants, but we were known for being daring and charming before he decided he’d rather be known for killing children and exterminating families. It’s a blessing you’ve not followed him in that. The world needs more laughing crows than snarling lions.” He grabbed Jaime’s arm and caught his eye. “Remember that, nephew. Whatever anyone else tries to tell you.”

 

Tyrion spent much the morning in the common hall reading a book borrowed from Maester Mullin. He’d meant to go to Jaime as soon he learned he was off in the armory, but Gery headed him off and suggested he talk with him first. They still had not returned, and Tyrion supposed his uncle lingered either to help Jaime with his punishment, or at least speak with him while he worked.

Deciding he had no interest to linger in the hall all morning, Tyrion set his book aside, and after casting a gaze about the room, went to the gaunt-faced black brother that’d been with Jaime on the ranging. Blane, Tyrion recalled, and after fumbling through his memory matched the name with information from an old letter. Blane from a village near Feastfires, a poacher who’d left behind a mother and father, three sisters and a girl he’d hoped to wed.

He was alone, eating a bowl of porridge and it seemed lost in thought, though he found a smile for Tyrion when he drew near. “You need something, m’lord?”

“I wish to go atop the Wall to enjoy the view. If Jaime or my uncle return and worry over my absence, will you tell them where I’ve gone?”

“As you say. Don’t forget a scarf. The wind’ll freeze your nose off if your face isn’t covered properly.”

He was ugly enough with a nose; he had no interest to see what he’d look like without one. “I’ll be sure to remember,” Tyrion told Blane.

As he bundled himself for his excursion, Tyrion wondered if Tyg or Gery or Ser Addam would be willing to go for a short ride with him in the future. Feastfires wasn’t far from the Rock. I could have Blane dictate a letter to read to his family. Then I could record a reply and send that to Jaime. So his family would at least know he’s alive, and so he could know if they’re well.

He was relieved when he stepped outside to find the day not so frigid as most. The sun was out, and the wind reasonable. Even so, he tucked his cloak more closely about him as he stepped into the winch cage that’d take him to the top of the Wall. A pull of the bell rope, and within a minute it teetered upward, higher and higher until the Shadow Tower looked like a toy castle beneath him, the harsh northern wilderness sprawling to the south.

A ranger he didn’t know leaned on the winch when Tyrion stepped from the cage, but Stonesnake was the one holding it in place. The man grinned when he saw him. “I thought for a moment a grumpkin had snuck its way up again. They do that here sometimes.”

“The things Jaime’s written me, I never quite know if I should take such comments seriously,” Tyrion told him, earning a dry smile.

“Go far enough beyond the Wall, and it’s hard to tell what’s real or not,” Stonesnake agreed. “Going for a walk, little lord?”

“That was the plan.”

“So long as you don’t take a tumble off. Jaime would slice us in two.”

“Speaking as a half man, it’s not the worst he could do.”

That got him a guffaw from both men before they retreated to the warming shack. Tyrion made his way carefully along the Wall, keeping to places where the gravel  scattered to reduce slipping was freshest. Though the wind had seemed mild further down, so high up, he regretted thinking it reasonable. It tugged at his clothes, and he thought longingly of Tysha’s fingers tangling in his tunic and hair.

“I am the luckiest dwarf in the world,” Tyrion told himself. He’d turned Mance’s speech over in his head again and again, but it was the first time he’d tasted the words. They felt good on his tongue, even if they couldn’t fully drive off the sting of memory. There is strength in thinking yourself blessed instead of cursed, he realized.

Tyrion kept walking until he was far enough from the warming shack to feel alone, then went to the icy parapet running along the Wall’s northern edge, the raised ledge going up to his neck.

He’d ventured up several times before, but the view never failed to awe him. To the west, the Gorge cut a jagged line across snow and ice and rock, and behind it, the Frostfangs were just visible in the distance. Straight out, snow and ice and stone seemed to go on eternally, and in the east, the Haunted Forest lurked like a great blot of ink, dark and wild.

It looked like the end of the world, but Jaime had written there were wildlings on the other side who didn’t even know the Wall existed, who spoke none of the Common Tongue and did not recognize the name Westeros.

Thousands upon thousands of people, and that was the only land they knew.

Thousands of people, but likely no dwarfs.

“It’s a remarkable view, is it not?”

He hadn’t heard Jaime’s approach above the wind. Or perhaps he’d not have heard it either way, his brother had learned to move so quietly. Tyrion faced him as he came to a stop at his side, dressed to combat the cold, the layers making him massive as a bear.

“Do you know the Wall is one of Longstrider’s wonders made by man?” Tyrion said. “Justifiably. I’d not realized it would be so tall.”

“I still can’t fathom how they built it.” Jaime cleared his throat and pushed past the dissembling. “I shouldn’t have gotten angry with you. Forgive me?”

“Think nothing of it,” Tyrion said, wishing to put yesterday behind them.

Turning away, Jaime braced gloved hands against the parapet and leaned out so far Tyrion bit his tongue to keep from warning him back. It looked as if he wished to vault off, though not to fall. Something in Jaime’s eyes suggested he imagined flying instead.

But he stepped away and shot Tyrion a weary smile. “We should walk, brother. The cold is worse if you stay in one place.”

Tyrion fell into step next to him, and Jaime adopted the leisurely amble he’d always used with Tyrion. He didn’t think it was an intentional change from his usual long strides, suspected Jaime barely knew he did it. I’ve missed you, brother.

“What Cersei said,” Jaime ventured.

“I don’t agree. At least, I don’t agree you’re so drastically changed it’s fitting to think you dead.” Tyrion looked him over. “You are crowish, but I can’t complain. You were obnoxiously shiny before.”

A smile touched Jaime’s lips.

Tyrion said, “I talked to Mance about you.”

The smile faded. “That’s a concerning sentence if I’ve heard one.”

“Don’t fear. We shared all your secrets when you were still off ranging. This last talk was more serious.”

“What did he say?”

He had to force out the words. “That our relationship was never going to be like it’d been. That I’m going to have to share you with a bunch of crows, and we’ll live the rest of our lives far, far away from each other.”

Jaime stopped, and when Tyrion did as well, his brother got to one knee and grabbed his arm as if to keep him in place. Unlike his similar gesture the day before, he moved slowly, his eyes tired. “Whatever Mance said, I don’t want you to feel obligated-”

He stopped when Tyrion rolled his eyes.

Tyrion said, “You’re my big strong brother. I’ll keep you however I can.”

“Right,” said Jaime. “Of course.”

“Now that we’re talking,” Tyrion went on, “I meant to say Jon Arryn made sure to talk to Gery and I when we stopped in King’s Landing. He’s still wary of Father and determined to keep him pleased. In fact, he’s more determined to stay in our house’s good graces than ever. Robert’s proven an incurable spendthrift, and he’s burning through the treasury.”

Jaime gave the blank smile of someone who had no idea what was going on. “I don’t follow.”

“When Gery and I return to King’s Landing, we’re going to have a talk with the Hand. The Wall is a dreadful place, and it upsets us that a Lannister has to wither in such an environment, among brothers in tattered gear with whatever weapons can be scraped together. It’s disgraceful. It might even make us angry.”

Jaime’s smile sharpened as awareness came into his eyes. “Brother…”

“Arryn is fond of Ned Stark, so we’ll remind him how pleased his former ward will be, and it might be he’ll take it to Robert, or perhaps more usefully do something about it himself. I can’t promise anything, but it’s the best I can do for now.”

Seeing Jaime’s face, Tyrion added, “You can grapple me again if you’d like. I appreciate you’ve such fondness for me you can’t control yourself. It’s a shame our family in the south doesn’t do the same.”

His brother smiled and did embrace him, if with more formality than he had the first time. But after a moment, Jaime tightened his hold, burying his face in Tyrion’s shoulder. “I am sorry, little brother. I know I promised to come back. I was a fool. I thought the world was… far different than it is.”

Tyrion couldn’t say it was fine, or reassure him, or find any words at all. But it happened he didn’t need to. After a moment, Jaime released him and stood tall as ever. He didn’t look so haggard as Tyrion thought upon first seeing him, not then, the sun lighting his hair, shining off eyes green as grass in spring.

Jaime managed a smile. “Walk with me a while longer?”

Tyrion’s legs were beginning to cramp, the cold getting to him, but he nodded. "Yes. A short while longer.”

 

Jaime was preparing for a ranging when Mance found him, his saddlebags open as he filled them with the usual supplies: a spare dagger, an extra hat, thick wool socks and spare smallclothes, flint, needle and catgut for stitches if need be, bandages, and so on.

“If you want to escort them to Eastwatch, it isn’t too late to catch up,” said Mance from the doorway. “I’ll take the ranging.”

Jaime threw a pair of thick fur mitts into a bag. “I’m fine, truly.”

Traveling to Eastwatch with Tyrion and Gerion had been the original plan, but a raven from House Norrey had arrived the morning they were due to leave. Two families in the northern part of their lands, just along the Gift, had been killed, daughters taken. Mallister had volunteered to send someone else, but he’d not hidden he thought it a chance for Jaime to lead a ranging that didn’t only involve gathering information.

It was an opportunity, one Jaime did not wish to waste. More than that, he desperately needed the reaffirmation of what being a brother of the Watch meant.

The realm first.

Then the Watch.

House Lannister wasn’t supposed to play a part, and while that was impossible, he needed to keep such things in perspective. The more completely he believed his family wore black, surely, surely the sooner his chest would stop wrenching when he considered how distant he’d become from everything south of the Wall.

His brother and uncle had understood, though that didn’t make the farewell an easy one, not with all of them aware it might be the last time they saw each other. The journey between the Rock and the Wall was a long one, and as Tyrion aged and hopefully accrued more responsibility, throwing months into a visit would grow increasingly difficult.

Mance crept further into the room. “Are you… well? I haven’t got an idea what to say, so tell me to bugger off if you want." 

“Stay. Anything is better than being alone with my head right now.”

“I tried to get your uncle to take the black," said Mance. "Told him he could go to Eastwatch and sail all he liked. Wouldn’t do it.”

“Good,” Jaime said. “My brother needs him more than I do.” He couldn’t keep from sounding miserable about all of it.

Mance touched his arm. “I don’t want you killed by raiders or taken off guard by an autumn storm while you’re distracted longing for home. If you’d have me take the ranging-”

He stopped when Jaime shook his head.  

“I am sad, not insensible, and I need long for nothing.” Jaime looked Mance in the eye. “I am home.”

Chapter Text

Morning fog shrouded the forest behind Mormont Keep, tickling the snow-covered pines and dimming what sun would’ve otherwise slid between the trees. Aly squinted as she searched the haze for her sister, tightening her grip on the hilt of her sword.

Lyra leapt out from behind a log with a cry and whacked her good, but Aly shook off the blow and sent her sister on the defensive with a strike of her own. With a beastly cry, Lyra cast her sword aside and tried to rush past Aly to where Jory sat on a rock, watching them intently.

Aly swatted Lyra’s legs and sent her to the forest floor, earning a cheer from Jory. That wasn’t very smart, Aly thought, lifting her sword to finish the fight. Quick as a cat, Lyra darted out a hand and snatched her ankle from under her. Aly went down hard, and Jory’s cheering grew louder when Aly launched herself after Lyra and pinned her legs It took only a moment to haul her squirming sister closer and wrench her arms behind her back.

She took out the knife on her belt and pressed the flat of it to Lyra’s neck. “You’re dead, kraken.”

“What is dead my never die,” Lyra declared. Aly cuffed her on the head, but stood to let her up. Lyra rolled onto her back with a gleeful laugh.

“Good guys win?” Jory said. She climbed to chubby legs and toddled over.

“Aye,” Aly said. She picked up her littlest sister and planted a kiss on her forehead. “Lyron Greyjoy is no more.”

Lyra picked up her practice sword, then faced Aly. “I want to be Lyra Mormont again. You can be a Greyjoy this time.”

“That’s fair.” Aly set Jory back on her feet, then looked down at herself. Her breeches and coat and cloak were caked with snow and dirt on top of it, and she spared a moment to frown at them. Jorah would cluck his tongue if he saw. But it was no matter. Mother will just slap him upside the head, she told herself, then went to get her sword.

“You go back to the side,” Aly instructed Jory. “When I beat Lyra and run at you, what do you do?”

“Scream and bite and pull your hair.”

Aly tousled her hair. Just as she was about to send her off, a thud and a gurgle sounded from further in the trees. She blinked rapidly, thinking she misheard. But Lyra fell still as well, head swiveling.

They’d brought guards with them. House Mormont didn’t have many, but their mother insisted whenever they went out. Playing and chasing, they’d wandered a short ways. But not far. “Ben?” Aly called. “Harlan?”

Neither responded. Scarce daring to breathe, Aly squinted through trees and winter fog. They were close to the keep, of course they were—they’d been warned since childhood about going too far into the forest—but in that moment, it felt leagues away. Something moved in the distance, blurred shapes just visible through the thin trunks. When she listened, she made out rough voices as well.

Heartbeat thrashing in her skull, Aly took a jerky step back. “Lyra,” she heard herself say. “Take Jory, and get help. Mother. Guards. Someone.”

“But-”

Go,” Aly snapped, and for once her sister listened, taking Jory by the arm and yanking her after. Every muscle in Aly’s body ached to follow, but if she ran, the men would chase and catch them all.

Just as her sisters disappeared into the forest, the raiders stepped into the clearing, six of them manifesting gradually, as if they’d been born of fog. They wore furs and skins, and the one in front carried a scythe.

Aly lifted her stupid blunted sword. “Stop,” she said in a small voice, and they all laughed.

“It’s a child!” one chortled. “Come on, then little girl. Make us.”

She clutched her sword so hard her knuckles ached. “I’m not a little girl. I’m the heir to Bear Island.” The lie was the best she could do. The more important she made herself, the less likely they’d kill her, and the less likely they’d go after anyone else.

Breath loud in her ears, she waited for them to call her bluff and laugh, but not one did.

The man in front, the scythe one, examined her for a drawn out moment.

“I am,” Aly cried. She jabbed a tremoring finger at her chest, where she wore her house’s sigil. “You see! It’s a bear.” Don’t go chasing Lyra or Jory. Don’t go into the keep and hurt anyone there. You don’t need anyone else.

The scythe man wandered forward. He was crying, pink watery eyes fixed on her face. She wanted to cry herself, or to run. She thought of her house words. Here we stand. All she had to do was stand. Lyra and Jory will get help. Someone will come soon. Someone has to come.

“The Old Bear’s… granddaughter?” the man said.

Aly faltered, the hesitation an honest one, but he took it as confirmation.

He reached for her, and instinct made Aly swing her sword at him. He cursed and let go, and she swung at him again, but one of the other man snatched her from behind. Aly kicked and squirmed and screamed. Mother will come. Dacey will come. She threw an elbow and got free long enough to whirl and drive her sword into the man’s crotch, making him howl a nasty word.

Pain exploded through the back of her head, and she staggered, the forest spinning. 

“Grab her and hurry,” the scythe man growled. “We need to be gone before those little bitches come back with help.” Despite the urgency, he paused to take her in, stopping so he could better look at her face. His breath reeked. “The First Ranger’s blood, and daughter of a northern house!” he said, patting her cheek. “After this, no man beyond the Wall will doubt me again.”

Aly thrust her head forward and clamped down with her teeth, surprised by how easily they pierced his flesh, the skin of his jaw tearing, hot blood staining her lips. That got his smile gone quick enough. Two other raiders pulled her off him, and the crying man tore over and kicked her so hard it made her scream, but the sight of the monster in pain gave her strength enough to hold back tears as they hauled her up and dragged her into the fog-choked forest.

 

As Jaime and his brothers hiked the slight upward path toward Mormont Keep, following the fisherman who’d volunteered to show them the way, Jaime drank in Bear Island’s quaint peace. Fishermen’s shacks had lined the shore, but they gave way to a thick pine forest further inland, the trees weighted with snow. The tired afternoon sunlight made them shimmer.

“It’s a horrible thing,” the fisherman was saying. “Aly would help on the boats, an ornery critter. We all loved her.”

A crofter’s get called Edrick—who went by Ned, and seemed to think Jaime jesting when he insisted it was a stupid name—spoke up from Jaime’s side. “Don’t talk of her like she's dead. The Kingslayer just found two girls from Norrey lands, not five months ago. Lady Alysane mightn’t be lost for always.”

Jaime would've sooner Ned not mention that ranging at all. Proud of himself as he'd been for doing his duty instead seeing off his brother and uncle, he'd received no further satisfaction from the affair. The girls had been half-dead shadows when Jaime found them, badly beaten and repeatedly raped, with fingers missing from frostbite. They'd only shown positive emotion when he kept two of the raiders alive so they could each kill one personally. If Aly Mormont had met such a fate, even success would taste bitter. 

The fisherman seemed unconvinced by Ned's attempted reassurance, for he didn't bother responding.

They walked in silence until their guide pointed out the keep, obscured by the earthen palisade surrounding it. As the guard let them through the gate, Jaime noted a carving of a woman in a bearskin, an axe in one hand and suckling babe in the other. The North’s just as odd as the lands beyond the Wall, he thought, stifling a grin as he imagined how that image would go over at a southron castle.

Within the palisade, the castle was less than Jaime expected. A single log keep and only a handful of other buildings, none grander than those at the Shadow Tower. The guard left them in the keep’s front hall to let Lord Mormont know of their arrival, and once alone, Blane cast an unimpressed look around them.

“I’d give Ruddy Hall the edge,” he told Jaime. “It’s too bad. I hoped to have a night in a fine lordly keep before I die.”

A minor Wull called Cayn nodded agreement. “The Shadow Tower’s better than this. Bet Lord Mormont don’t even have his own bard.”

“We’re on a serious mission,” Jaime scolded half-heartedly. It was a mad mission, going to the Frozen Shore in winter, and jests were the best way to stomach such things. But this wasn’t the place. His brothers recognized as much, all three falling silent to wait. In good time, the guard returned and took them to Lord Mormont, who sat at the high seat in his drafty hall.

He could have been a wildling chief easily as a Westerosi lord, a well-built man, his sleeves pulled back to show strong hairy forearms. He wore his hair on the wrong side of his head, the sparse cover up top a contrast to his thick dark beard, and his dress was exceedingly practical, wool trousers, a green quilted doublet, and a cloak of gray fur. Likely he’d been with Stark’s host in King’s Landing, but if so, he’d been too obscure for Jaime to have noted, his rough-hewn face unfamiliar.

Jaime’s throat was dry as he led his brothers across the hall. When he stopped, he inclined his head to the lord of Bear Island and waited for the other man to speak. You’ll not judge me so far to the north, will you? Surely the songs my uncle spoke of have not touched this lonely place.

“Jaime Lannister,” Jorah Mormont said. No apparent judgment, but no ‘ser’ either.

“Jorah Mormont,” Jaime responded, showing no more or less respect than he’d been given. “I’m told Ser Denys wrote we might have need of your hospitality for a night. I hope that’s acceptable.”

Lord Mormont hesitated over a reply, scratching his beard. He doesn’t know what to make of me, Jaime realized, though he couldn’t blame him. If Jaime had been in Mormont’s place, a minor lord forced to host a Lannister heir turn crow, he’d have laughed in the man’s face. Jorah Mormont proved more lordly in this regard, for his voice was polite when he finally said, “Brothers of the Night’s Watch are always welcome… Ser Jaime. Certainly in these circumstances.”

The man’s eyes flickered over their small group, and Jaime said, “Have you something to add?”

“I’d have supposed there would be more than four of you,” he admitted. “The Frozen Shore is said to be dangerous. Surely you’d be safer in a larger party?”

“It’s not possible to carry provisions for how long we’re like to be gone,” Jaime said. “Fewer men means fewer mouths. As it is, our biggest enemy is the cold. Should that come for us, eight, or twelve, or half a hundred rangers would fight it no more effectively than four.”

“What of raiders? Lyra claims she saw at least eight.”

He fears for his young cousin. He does not mean to be insulting. “Eight untrained wildlings in poor armor, likely with inferior weapons. Rangers are always outnumbered. We’ve other advantages to make up for it.” Jaime caught his eye. “Where is your aunt? What I’ve heard of the woman, I’d expected she would be the one pressing me this way.”

That put a crease in Jorah Mormont’s brow. “She and Dacey went to the Northern Mountains. They’ve a group of men with them, and they mean to assist the Watch in the search there. Only my father’s insistence one place was likely a destination for the raiders as another kept Maege from taking on the Frozen Shore herself.”

“You don’t blame her, surely?” said Jaime, thinking of the carving on the gate.

Jorah regarded him as if some joke lurked in his words. “Of course I don’t. Mostly I fear for her. She’d would get herself killed sooner than give Aly up as lost.” His voice grew hoarse as he spoke, and he rubbed his hands over his temples. When he spoke again, his voice was distant. “You must be tired from your journey, all of you. I’ll have a man show you to your rooms. I hope you’ll sup with us this evening.”

Jaime thanked him and let a servant lead he and his brothers from the hall. Jaime’s room, though small and rustic, already had a fire in the hearth when Jaime entered, which made it more than acceptable. Before the servant could slip off, Jaime asked, “Have I the authority to request a hot bath? My father certainly wouldn’t let crows order his servants about, but I’m told northmen at least pretend to respect us.”

The young man looked at Jaime as if he’d pulled out whipped pies and begun to juggle. I’ve become half a peasant, haven’t I?

“I want a hot bath,” he ordered, and the man went straight to it.

When he’d gone, Jaime began to undress, shaking out his clothing as he did. Already he felt filthy and ill-groomed, the journey to the island half a ranging in itself. It’d taken eighteen days to reach the village in Northern Mountains where the Watch stowed the few boats they kept in the west. Then there’d been three days of rowing, broken by the occasional stretch of hauling the boat over ice, the hauling being possible in that the vessel was only a primitive hunk of wood with two sets of oars and far too little room. The venture had left Jaime sore and sweaty, and more of a mind to burn the boat than return to rowing on the morrow.

If Mance hadn’t claimed the Frostfangs were all but impassable in winter, Jaime would’ve insisted on going west through the Skirling Pass. And I could’ve brought Dapple. Now I’ve icy wastelands to cover, and not even a horse to carry my things.

The servant appeared with a metal tub, two serving girls hauling hot water. Though the first trip only half-filled the bath, Jaime got in, greedy for as much warmth as he could get, and had the flushing women pour the rest over him when they returned. The water was hot enough to bite as it fell over his shoulders, but it made no matter, so sweet was the change from the ache winter put in his bones.

He smiled at one of the girls as she passed him a stiff brush and chunk of lye soap, but his desire to play charming faded when she trailed a hand over his arm and asked if he’d like her to scrub his back.

“No need,” he said far too abruptly. “You may leave me now.”

They whispered to themselves as they left, and Jaime sunk into the already cooling water, wishing Tyrion hadn’t told him Cersei mourned him. It felt too much like permission to seek pleasure elsewhere. As if that made oathbreaking acceptable, or justified the temptation to chase a serving girl. Would that honor motivated half so strongly as love.

When he’d scrubbed himself clean, Jaime scrambled shivering back into his clothing, though he did away with the mail, boiled leather, cloak, and swordbelt for the nonce. He then lay like a dog on the bearskin in front of the hearth, the bed striking him as much too far from the flames. He’d not have another bath for two months at least, and this night was the last he was like to be warm in just as long.

He didn’t intend to nap, but drifted off watching the fire. He dreamed of Rhaegar standing over baby Aegon and playing a song Jaime did not know. A cloaked thief stole into the room and snatched the prince’s harp and with a laugh began a jarringly different tune. As he did, the two princes melted away, and the room as well. Jaime found himself in a sept at dawn’s first light, on bloodied knees before the Sword of the Morning. Somewhere close by, the thief continued his song, the notes loud in Jaime’s ears.

“All knights bleed,” Arthur informed him. “It’s the seal of our devotion.”

The music still playing, Jaime was knighted with Dawn. He bled again—and bled more still, red flowing freely, spreading from the place Dawn bit his shoulder, staining his tunic and dyeing crimson the gold lion embroidered over his heart.

He woke slowly, bleary-eyed, feeling as though he’d had the dream before. But the details eluded him once he opened his eyes, and a knock caused it to fall away entirely. It is not like with the wights, Jaime told himself, for he still remembered that dream, clear as if he’d lived it. He combed his hair into order with his fingers, then answered the door to find one of the serving girls calling him to supper.

It was a sign of how long Jaime had been at the Wall that the fare on offer in the hall impressed him: roast venison crusted in herbs and garlic, along with trenchers of onions in thick brown gravy, mashed turnips and cooked carrots, and winter berries drenched in cream. Tywin wouldn’t have served his own family such a simple meal, let alone guests, but Jaime’s mouth watered as he took in the spread.  

With them sat men Lord Mormont introduced as his steward, the head of what Jaime imagined to be a small household guard, and two girls, both in breeches in lieu of dresses: the youngest, Jory, a couple years younger than Ygritte, and wan, dull-eyed Lyra eight or nine. Jaime fielded introductions and filled his plate, but before he could dig into his meal, Lyra said to him, “Do you know who took Aly?”

Jaime’s tongue felt too big in his mouth. “We can’t be certain.”

She leaned forward. “Do you think-”

“Lyra,” Jorah interrupted.

The girl spoke over him. “Do raiders hurt people they take? They wouldn’t rape her, would they? She’s only eleven.”

He choked on a mouthful of turnip. Jorah began to get to his feet. “Lyra, maybe-”

“No,” she said in a dark, tight voice. “I know bad things happen. Let me have the truth.”

You do not want the truth. But Lord Mormont nodded reluctantly, and the girl turned dark, tired eyes to Jaime. He wished to lie to her, but Jorah would know. And what good would lies do her? We all grow up eventually.

With difficulty, he met Lyra’s gaze. “There are raiders who would not lay with one so young. There are those who’d not intentionally harm a child, and would take a girl only to make a point or build reputation. But there are others for whom none of that would matter, who are cruel or callous, and some who are evil.”

“Which do you think it is?” Lyra said, eyes wide.

“The letter we got said nothing else was missing. That means a raider came here only to take a girl from House Mormont, perhaps to anger the First Ranger or prove some point. That means she probably wasn’t stolen with rape as foremost motivation. I can’t say if that matters without knowing more of who the raider is.”

Tears gathered in her eyes. In a small voice, she said, “Where do you think they took her?”

I ought to be too hardened for some girl to gut me so. Chest aching, Jaime said, “We don’t know that either, Lady Lyra. I’m sorry.”

Lyra studied Jaime as if wishing to ask more, but instead she said, “You have to find her. She got taken protecting me and Jory.”

“How’s that?” Jaime said.

“Our guards wouldn’t answer when she called, and then we saw men in the trees. She told us to run, and she stayed so she wouldn’t chase us.” Lyra wrapped her arms around herself. “I shouldn’t have gone, but you don’t say no when Aly tells you something, and- and-”

“You did well,” Jaime tried. He didn’t know what else to say. What could he say, knowing some child did something like that? Jaime cleared his throat. “We’ll do what we can, but-”

“Swear to me,” Lyra snapped.

“Lyra,” Jorah tried.

Jaime closed his eyes and let out a heavy breath. “I swear I’ll find out what happened to her, and if I don’t die trying, I’ll come back and tell you, and bring her with me if she yet lives. That’s the best I can do.”

“Swear proper,” she said, the tears in her eyes brimming over.

“You can’t make him swear that,” said Jorah, making a face like he had a horrible headache. Jaime’s brothers watched him as well. He could not read Blane and Cayn’s eyes, but Ned looked at him with expectation.

“It’s fine,” Jaime told Jorah. He got slowly to his feet. Feeling foolish, he walked around the table, then got to one knee before her. “Lady Lyra, I’ve brothers looking for your sister as well. If they don’t do so before me, I will find out what became of her. If she’s alive, I’ll do all in my power to rescue her and return her to you. This I swear by my gods and yours, as a knight and a brother of the Night’s Watch.”

Lyra studied him for a long time, then nodded. “You can get up. I believe you.”

As Jaime returned to his seat, Ned gazed at him as if he’d stepped from a song, though Cayn seemed to be holding in laughter and Blane pretended to gag when Jaime caught his eye. He did not look at Lord Mormont, not wishing to see the doubt that surely lived in his eyes. His gaze returned to Lyra once more, and in his head he prayed to the Warrior he could keep his oath. Left hand clenching, the ring Tormund gave him pressing into his smallest finger, he sent a prayer to the old gods as well.

For the first time, ranging didn’t quite have to do with being a knight, nor making something honorable of himself. Genuinely, fervently, he ached to see Lyra Mormont’s face when Jaime brought her sister home.

 

Snow fell as they walked, fat white flakes Aly would’ve found pretty in other circumstances. But she was tired and in pain, and so cold she thought her bones would splinter and her skin crack like a frozen lake. For some three weeks, the only snow they’d come across manifested as harsh white that shut out sunlight and sky.

That’d been on the Frozen Shore. Five days ago they’d gotten to the foothills of the Frostfangs, and the previous day, they’d climbed into the mountains along a route he called the Skirling Pass.

The Weeper’s men had been uneasy about that. Winter wasn’t the time to be in the Frostfangs, they murmured. But the Weeper had planned well. The second day in the mountains, he’d dug out food and supplies he’d stored in a cavern, just as their last provisions threatened to run out. He knew all the paths and the best places for shelter, and the day before, when small men with painted faces and filed teeth came out of nowhere, the Weeping Man clearly know them, greeting them in the Old Tongue, smiling and easy.

The men took them into a dry, warm cavern, dark except for what light fire could manage, and gave them food. After, they drew maps with charcoal on the rock and talked long and intently with the Weeper, gesturing what Aly suspected were directions, or perhaps updates about the best way to continue east. That’s when she realized just how much he’d thought this through.

She wished she could’ve remained sleeping in the warm cave with the strange wildlings, but after far too little time, a raider woke her with a kick to the ribs and hauled her to her feet. That’d been hours ago, and they hadn’t taken a break since. She hurt everywhere. Her feet and legs from walking. Her hands and nose from cold, despite all the furs they’d given her. And her bones and muscles from the hitting and shoving and kicking.

It could be worse, she told herself as she picked up her feet, forcing one in front of the other, over and over. They hadn’t thought to check her for weapons, and she’d been too panicked to use her dagger when they first stole her away. She lie awake that first night, thinking whether she ought to kill the Weeper. But she knew she’d die if she did, so she kept it instead. Several days later, when one of them thought to rape her, she stabbed him through the belly. Only after did she realize they might kill her for that too.

They hadn’t. The Weeper had beaten her so badly he knocked out two teeth and took back the knife, but then he’d ignored her and slit the throat of the dying man and screamed at his men for being so careless. All of them watched her close after that, but they didn’t try touching her again. She thought a few of the raiders, who didn’t seem better or worse than most men, didn’t care to.

The Weeper was different, and she knew he’d have no objections. But he’d been careful of her since she bit him. He was being careful of everything. He wants this to all go perfect, and he’ll not give me extra reason to cause trouble. Not yet, when they traveled through dangerous terrain in awful weather. She couldn’t trust that to last.

“Where are we going?” Aly blurted, that fear for the future making her brave enough. She’d tried asking once and been told to shut up, then hit her when she wouldn’t.

The Weeper looked at her closely, and she looked away. It wasn’t good to keep his gaze. That made him angry.

“We’re going to see a king,” the Weeper told her. “Ulf the Grim.”

Uncle Jeor had written that there were Kings-beyond-the-Wall, but it shocked her even so. And he is called Grim. What must a man be, to have wildlings call him grim?

“And then what?” she asked.

The Weeping Man was in a good mood. He was sometimes, and he became engaging, so she could see why his men followed him. Usually she didn’t like it. When he got into a temper, face red, his eyes weeping, he looked like a monster and his badness made sense. It grew more difficult to understand when he behaved like a man. It made her want to ask why and how could he.

For now it meant he answered her questions. “I’ll give you to him,” he said with a sharp smile, “and everyone will know it was me who stole the First Ranger’s granddaughter. They’ll sing songs o’ me! Then I’ll make sure the Watch learns a king’s got you. And who d’you think they’ll send?”

Aly didn’t answer.

He kept talking. “If life is truly sweet, I’ll be there to kill him, but I’ll cry no tears if someone else claims the honor.” Yes you will. You always cry. “Ulf’s got hundreds of loyal men, and even the Kingslayer couldn’t overcome them numbers. No matter who sinks their blade in him, I’ll have my reputation back, and the boy will be dead. I’ll even make the journey to take his head to the Wall, it’ll look so fine on a spike.”

He spoke like a man with a grudge. Aly wanted to scream and cry. She had nothing to do with any of it. It wasn’t fair.

Would it matter if she told him Jaime Lannister wasn’t called the Kingslayer because he hunted kings? That he’d only killed the one and would be no likelier than any other ranger to go after another? He was even less likely than most, because he was southron and an oathbreaker and no doubt a useless ranger.

Telling him might matter, Aly decided bitterly. It might matter enough to make him kill me, if he thinks I won’t get him what he wants. Knowing so didn't make holding her tongue any easier. She didn’t know any ranger could help her if she got into the hands of a wildling king. The Watch didn’t have men enough for a proper attack, and the Weeper was right that no one ranger could overcome hundreds of men. What was surviving worth if she’d be trapped beyond the Wall all her life?

But Aly kept silent. If she died, she’d never go home. Never see her mother again, or Dacey or Lyra or Jory, or even cousin Jorah. She wanted to go back to them too desperately to risk dying. She’d follow the Weeper and let him give her to his king, and do whatever else she had to do. But I will get home, she swore to herself. I have to get home.

 

Sunset turned the snow-covered landscape orange as Jaime and his brothers settled in for the night. For ten days they’d trekked across the Frozen Shore, mostly crossing fields of bleak white wont to drive a man mad. The air oft grew so cold spit crackled when it hit the ground, and in the open terrain, shrilling wind sliced through them as they walked.

More than once, they’d rendered short days shorter upon noting someone's nose darkening or fingers or feet going numb. When that happened, they’d build a fire if possible, or huddle in a cave made of snow, piling atop each other, cloaks layered over them. That’s how they slept as well, burrowing like rodents.

But they also hiked past stands of spindly trees and through stretches of rolling land broken by patches of lichen, moss, and gold piper's grass. Once, they’d even found a field of bearberry. Not the magnificent shade of red the plants turned in autumn, but the pale green leaves still stunned after days of little but rock and snow. Ned insisted on searching for berries, whooping when he noted some still lingered on the plants. They saw so little life, Jaime didn’t blame him for delighting in proof something could survive.

This must be the most beautiful and horrible place in the world, Jaime mused, taking in how sunset lit the earth while the moon rose simultaneously across the sky. They’d made camp at the base of a hill, and when he’d finished his part, Jaime had trekked atop to see what the next day’s ranging would offer. Flat land again, nearly all white, but in the distance he made out stone coastline and an edge of dark sea.

Blane found him after a short while. “You warrant we’re too close to the water?” he said. The major clans moved periodically and kept relatively near the shore, where they could hunt walrus and seals. Lingering along the coast meant they chanced stumbling across an unfriendly group.

But they couldn’t venture too far inland. For familiarity’s sake and to keep out of enemy clans’ way, the Great Walrus kept a consistent migration pattern-and it was him they sought first, hoping he might've seen something or heard some rumor. The landmarks that identified his route tended to be near the sea, and if Jaime missed even one, he feared it’d destroy the tiny sense of orientation he’d retained from his last visit with Mance.

But we can find our way again merely by heading west until we meet the sea. There’s no fix for being murdered. “Might be we are. We’ll angle our path north on the morrow.” Jaime tore his gaze from the view and looked at Blane. “How’s morale?”

“Good as it’ll get,” Blane said dryly. “Might be our duty to die for the Mormont girl, but that doesn’t make the likelihood easier to stomach.”

“It’s not our duty to die for her.” Jaime’s breath fogged in the air, the moisture stinging his lips. “It’s our duty to survive to rescue her. There’s no honorable death on this mission. Dying is failure. I don’t want to fail.”

Blane tipped his head, facing Jaime. A tentative smile flickered across his lips, then built into a bark of laughter. “Seven hells, Jaime Lannister. You going to run for Lord Commander when Qorgyle kicks it? Keep talking like that, and I’d vote for you.”

Jaime cleared his throat. “Mallister decides where our votes go. I’m afraid that’s an empty threat.”

“Or a genuine compliment,” Blane suggested.

“I grow cold,” said Jaime, as if he’d not been cold since they left Bear Island. “We ought to return to the others.”

“You’re embarrassed,” Blane said, delighted. “A lordling who squirms when folks tell him he can lord!”

Jaime ignored him and headed down the hill, Blane laughing as he followed.

The burrow-liked cavern they’d dug themselves wasn’t warm, but it was bearable, particularly when skinny Edrick shoved himself between Jaime and Blane, turning like a child to hide his face against Jaime’s arm, and Cayn huddled against Jaime’s other side. Blane took first watch, Cayn second, so Jaime should’ve gotten a decent night’s sleep. But the wind woke him every so often, sneaking into dreams of King’s Landing as dying man’s wails and forcing him from sleep.

When he stirred again at dawn, he noted Cayn moving as well, sitting up with his head tilted, listening for something. Jaime opened his mouth to ask after the problem, but the sound reached him a moment later, barely audible over the wind.

Barking dogs.

There was no chance their path from the day before wouldn’t be found, even if he didn’t fear the dogs would sniff them out. Jaime shoved Edrick and Blane awake. “Up. On your feet. Grab your packs. We’ve guests.”

“We’re going to talk?” Cayn said.

“We’re going to make friends. I hope.” He waved the others along. “Stop staring and move. I’d rather we at least meet them when we’re on our feet, with some dignity.”

They managed to do so, though just barely, climbing from the snow cave just as the Frozen Shore men drew up.  Jaime prayed for walrus tusks, but he didn’t pick those out, nor did he spy reindeer antlers. Another group then, one he’d not heard of. He counted some dozen wildlings riding five large dog sleds, built like chariots, two or three men to a sled. Four monstrous dogs pulled each contraption, the beasts large as the Watch’s garrons.

Twelve was too many. In most circumstances he’d not fear, but the snow was too deep to maneuver quickly, and the wildlings had the dogs. Jaime didn’t know how long it’d take a direwolf-sized canine to kill a man in mail and leather once they had him down, but he suspected it’d be a slow death involving teeth in his face and neck.

The dogs slowed to a stop. Two women leapt off the sled nearest them, neither tall, but broad from the furs and sealskin they wore, hoods obscuring their faces and making it difficult to tell one from the other. They exchanged a few lines in the Old Tongue, then the one on the left turned to Jaime and said something in the same language.

“I don’t suppose you speak Common?” said Jaime with his brightest smile. He received a blank look, and the others on the sleds looked on with no more recognition. Jaime knew a very little of the language from Mance, including particular phrases meant to be used in situations like this. But that’d not get him far.

Might as well try something.

“We don't mean to harm you,” Jaime said, hoping all the words came out like Mance had taught him. Only once he spoke did he realize it’d been a stupid thing to say. With twenty monstrous dogs, the wildlings had no reason to fear. The women looked him over, then the one on the right asked a question. Jaime ran over the words in his head. “Why are we here?” he guessed, which was useless. She shot him a blank, impatient look.

“Jaime,” Ned said, his voice tight. Jaime didn’t need the warning. None of the wildlings staring them down appeared friendly, and all were armed with spears. Even the dogs had hackles up, ears back.

Jaime tried to think of the other lines he knew, but the only ones that came to mind were useless. Greetings and farewells, lyrics from songs. Four more of the wildlings had gotten off their sleds and wandered closer.

One of the women waved a hand and said something dismissive to him, then barked an order to her friends, her voice loud and harsh in the wind.

“I take it you didn’t make friends?” Blane said.

The charging spearmen served as answer enough. Jaime ducked and stabbed one in the belly. His mail blocked an attack from a second, and Jaime grabbed the spear with his left hand and ended his opponent with the right. By time he turned, Cayn was down, a wound steaming from his throat, and a disarmed Ned scrambled away from an advancing wildling.

Jaime snatched the woman’s braid, yanked her back, and took her head. Casting her body aside, he positioned himself in front of Ned, and Blane backed up so he and Jaime stood shoulder to shoulder, Blane with his bow drawn, two men down from his arrows. Smelling blood, several of the dogs growled, teeth bared.

We aren’t going to win this. I need to try something else.

“Trust me,” Jaime ordered his brothers.

“What-”

An attack from a spearman cut Blane off. Jaime stepped in and blocked the strike, ripped the spear from the man’s hands, and shoved the pommel of his sword into his face.

“Stop,” he snapped in the Old Tongue. He cast the spear behind him, then glared out at the wildlings, several having scrambled off their sleds to join the fight.

Then he sheathed his sword.

He didn’t know the words to say what he wished them to know, but sometimes words were not needed. He undid Ygritte’s broach with cold clumsy fingers, unhooking it from the cloak and grasping it tight in one hand. With the other, he cast the cloak from his shoulders and let it fall.

Ned made a noise, and without looking Jaime knew Blane was forcing him to keep his mouth shut. That’s something.

“We can-” He fished, fished for something he knew how to say. But he didn’t have the words. Instead, he knelt by one of the dead men, removed the thick fur he wore, and moving deliberately, put it around his shoulders. “Us,” he said. “With you.”

One of the men shook his head and ran at him. Jaime side-stepped the man’s first jab and drew his sword in his next motion. The warrior’s second strike caught his side, not piercing mail but sending him off balance. Jaime’s pack was so heavy, his legs so clumsy he went sprawling, sword falling to the snow.

Jaime grabbed the man by the leg and shoved him down as well, then drew his dagger and crawled atop him, shoving it through his eye and twisting. The wildling fell still. Jaime’s body didn’t wish to stand again, but he made it to his feet.

“Us,” Jaime growled. “With you.” They respected strength, Mance once told him. That in mind, Jaime forced his tired body to stand to its full height. Four of those left were women, and the men weren’t large; Jaime had inches over all of them, and he knew how big he looked in mail and armor.

A woman, he thought she was the one who’d killed Cayn, came toward him with her hands lifted like she approached a wild animal. She stopped not a yard away and held out a hand. Heart in his throat, Jaime gave her the dagger. When she kept watching, he drew the shortsword he carried on his right hip and handed that to her hilt first.

She nodded, then rifled through the snow until she produced his longsword. Her arms thus full, she returned to her sled and secured his things atop it. Two others took Ned and Blane’s weapons. As they did, the first woman retrieved Jaime’s discarded cloak, putting it around her own shoulders.

Upon returning to his side, she regarded him pointedly and spoke a word he managed to recognize.

“Mine.”

 

The sun was low by time they reached the village, a distance north and east from the coastline. A herd of reindeer loitered among the ice huts and spread outward, nosing and digging at the snow in search of lichen. An unsettling number of the enormous dogs also lazed about, watching fur-clad men and women move among them. Jaime spotted girls hardening spearpoints at a fire, and two men taught a class of furry pups to pull small loads, bribing them with pieces of meat.

The woman stopped the sled in the midst of all this and hauled Jaime off by the arm. She barked orders, and two men came forth with Blane and Ned. After dismissing her fellow clansmen, she led Jaime and his brothers to one of the larger snow buildings. They had to crawl to get inside, but stood after, the ceiling high enough Jaime could straighten with several inches left between his head and the ice. The space was warm and still, the wind blocked entirely, even the noise shut out. Skins and furs lined the floor, and in one corner, a small fire burned in a broad bowl filled with oil. 

An old woman sat cross-legged atop a pile of furs, sewing a thick coat with a needle of bone. It seemed she’d been speaking to two men with graying hair, but as Jaime took them in, the three quieted and stared at Jaime and his brothers with silent surprise. Undeterred, the spearwife shrugged off her hood and removed her hat, then crossed the room to speak rapidly to the old woman, incorporating the occasional sweeping gesture or jab of a finger in Jaime’s direction.

He hadn’t gotten a good look at her bundled as she’d been, and he was surprised to see she couldn’t have been eighteen, though the splatter of Cayn’s blood on her cheeks made her seem rather less youthful. Fair-haired but feral-looking, she had a broad, expressive mouth and dark eyes too large for her face. She reminds me of Robert, Jaime decided, though the two looked nothing alike. It was the excess of her, those open features, her big motions and loud voice.

Eventually, the old woman waved the men out, then bid Jaime, Blane, and Ned to come forward. “Let me see your faces,” she said.

Jaime stood straighter. “You know Common.”

“Some of us do. We trade, have contact with the east.” She snapped her fingers. “Off with your caps and hoods. I’d see who I speak with.”

They did so. As Jaime unwound his scarf, the damnable spearwife wandered closer, not bothering to hide her interest. His hands itched to bring the scarf back up, and he wished he’d been born ugly, or at least plain, when her eyes lit up and she smiled like she’d been promised a mule and received a destrier.

The old woman set aside her needlework and rose, moving easily though her face was creased, her hair white. She walked around them, taking them in like they were horses meant for purchase. Finally she stepped back and pointed at the girl. “My granddaughter. Silver Wolf. I am the Great Wolf, mother of clan. Head of family.” Wolves. Why wolves? She waited for him to nod, then went on,  “Your men are yours, and you are Silver’s, but Silver is mine—so you are mine as well.”

The degree to which his brothers were unimpressed at being Jaime’s became a tangible weight in the air. Jaime tried to keep his voice casual. “How’s it my brothers are… mine?”

“You were brought here by my granddaughter,” she said slowly. “And they were brought here by you. You see?” I see you’re all mad.

“Why precisely did she bring me here? I missed that part.”

“She stole you,” the Great Wolf said.

“No,” Jaime said, “no, no. It’s men who steal.”

“On Frozen Shore, is different. Anyone who wants takes, if they think they can keep. If you prove useful, you say vow before gods, become husband.” She needed to fish for the word. “You are betrothed.”

He squeezed his eyes shut. It’s not so bad. We’re not dead. I can work with this.

The woman kept speaking, and Jaime opened his eyes to hear the rest of it. “You are low in clan. New and soft. You do not get nice things.” She tugged at the arm of his quilted doublet. “Goes to better men. Furs, skins for you.”

“What better men?” Jaime snapped. “I guarantee I’m more competent than-”

She slapped him hard across the face. Jaime almost fell over, from shock if not the force of it. Blane reached out to hold him upright.

“You do not use that tone,” she said. “Do you know how to use dogs? Care for reindeer? Hunt walrus or seals or bears? Build snow house? Make clothing?”

Face flushed, Jaime glared at her silently.

She snorted. “You wave sword good. That is all. That is nothing.”

Jaime opened his mouth to make a clever comment about her granddaughter clearly having interest in his sword, but Blane spoke over him. “We understand. Right, Jaime?”

Through gritted teeth, Jaime said, “Yes. We understand.”

“Good. Do not fear. We make you less useless in time.” She thought for a moment. “Linger near those who know Common. They teach you to speak properly. You help hunt, and fish, and mend, and whatever else Silver Wolf says you do.”

Silver Wolf. That wrinkle again. Jaime glanced at the girl, who still watched, her brow furrowed as she tried to work out what they all were saying. To the Great Wolf, he said, “We’ll do all that we must. But I’d have you pass a message to my betrothed.”

The old woman narrowed her eyes, but gestured for him to speak.

“I’ve had free folk tell me a man can own a woman, or a man can own a knife, but he cannot own both. The same rule goes if a woman tries to own a man. If that girl touches me, I will cripple her the first chance I get. Make that clear to her, and emphasize the part about crippling. I’d not grant her a clean death. I’ll make her suffer a half life.”

The woman pressed her lips into an angry line. “You and your brothers would be killed. Is it worth it?”

“I don’t think it’ll come to that. I could be a useful warrior, a fine hunter. Mayhaps a good husband… eventually, if I’m treated well. She wants me. Would she throw away her health, her fine future husband, and the chance of sturdy golden-haired children, to indulge a bit of lust?”

He feared she’d slap him again, and the look in her eye said she was tempted. But she passed on the message. For a time, the two whispered back and forth, arguing, Silver Wolf stopping at one point to grant Jaime a hurt, baffled look that said clearly she couldn’t fathom why he wasn’t jumping on the chance to father her children. You have my brother’s blood on your face, woman, Jaime wanted to snap, but didn’t.

Eventually, she met Jaime’s eye and gave a stern nod. He sagged against the wall. “Thank you,” he said in the Old Tongue. Silver Wolf only shook her head in response.

 

The weeks that followed dragged endlessly. Work in the village proved tedious and endless, with the reindeer to tend and dogs to care for, and constant hunting trips to be made and animals butchered. Twice they left their huts of ice behind and moved the reindeer to new lands, where they labored to build new huts to last another fortnight or so.

But the exertion might’ve been bearable if not for the rest. Seven of some two hundred people in the camp spoke fluent Common. Even as Jaime struggled to learn the Old Tongue, he was talked over and ignored, and just as often laughed at like he was a lackwit. They might’ve chopped out his tongue all the good it did him, and stripped of his sword as well, he felt helpless as a child.

His betrothed did not help matters. Her elder brother, called Little Wolf though he was the tallest in the family, knew Common and informed Jaime she believed him impotent or castrated. When Jaime confronted her about it, she pulled a bone knife and pointed it at his crotch. He didn’t need to speak the Old Tongue to know she threatened to make the castration reality if he snapped at her again.

Jaime spat in her face.

She flew at him, knife slicing into the forearm he lifted to block. When he landed on his arse, not having expected the woman to jump him like an animal, she straddled him and landed a slash from his left shoulder to his sternum, though the small knife and his thick furs kept the wound from slicing into muscle. Even when he grabbed her arm and got the knife from her, she screamed and clawed and bit until got her in a choke-hold and held it until she fell unconscious.

He needed stitches for his arm, chest, and a split lip, and a cut over his left eye got infected and swelled so badly he couldn’t see. A wise woman sliced it open and coated the wound in stinking goop that burned like she’d set his flesh aflame, and he rather feared it'd scar. After, the Great Wolf took Jaime and Silver Wolf both to task, but though his supposed betrothed ceased questioning his manhood, she ordered him about far more freely, as if to prove she still could.

Blane fared better, far more suited to keeping his head down. He even laughed when Jaime asked if didn’t mind the work. “What do you think peasants do with their lives, Lord Lannister?” he’d said dryly. But even his frustration was plain, and the set of his mouth grew grimmer every day that passed with no miraculous plans for escape forthcoming.

Ned, only sixteen and thin as a reed, wilted. He’d known nothing but farming and unlike Blane, didn’t have hunting experience from poaching. He knew how to sew, but slowly, and though good-natured, was not a fast learner. After watching a boy sacrificed to some ice god after a hunting accident left him with an irreparably broken leg, Jaime began to fear they’d deem the lad useless and kill him as well.

“You’re not helping matters,” Blane told Jaime one evening while they dined on seal stew. “Seeing you miserable makes this seem hopeless. Shove your pride aside and stop sulking.”

Jaime lie awake that night, Silver Wolf to one side, his brothers to the other. Light from the fire danced along the hut’s walls, and the partially healed wounds on his chest and arm ached, that above his eye throbbing. Every inch of his body screamed for rest, but he could not sleep, Blane’s words turning in his head.

When dawn arrived, Jaime regarded Silver Wolf over their breakfast of salty fish and bitter tea. After mentally sifting through his negligible Old Tongue vocabulary, he cleared his throat for her attention. “We-” He didn’t know how to say ‘should.’ He backtracked and rephrased the sentence. “I want to be friends.”

She eyed him as if a shadowcat had made the offer with fangs showing. I make her uneasy, Jaime realized.

Of course he did. He’d threatened to maim her, and he’d not have minded choking her to death during their fight if he hadn’t feared retribution. She just as easily could’ve killed him if the wise woman hadn’t cured the infected gash over his eye, if her knife had better landed, or the other wounds she’d dealt had festered. Her clan viewed violence as an efficient form of problem-solving, but that didn’t erase the basic instinct to fear a threat.

“Friends,” she repeated in the Old Tongue. Her dark eyes slid over his face, a frown touching her lips. She said something he only half understood, and when he stared blankly, said as if she spoke to a child, “You. Me. No trust.”

“We make?” He tapped at the line of stitches still along the left half of his chest, then his still-swollen eyelid. “No more?”

She squinted at him, but nodded carefully. “No more.”

Jaime pulled Ned aside that evening. “We won’t be here forever.”

“It’s been a month,” Ned said wearily.

Jaime put a hand on his arm. “If Alysane Mormont still lives, she’s been out longer than you, and with no one to help her. You can survive a while longer. You’re a man of the Night’s Watch.”

“Am I?” he asked Jaime. “Are we?”

“Yes.” Jaime spoke softly to avoid being overheard, leaning closer so his eyes were inches from the boy’s. “I swore a vow to the Watch, and I swore one to Lyra Mormont. Do you think me an oathbreaker?

The question dared the boy to bring up Aerys, but he shook his head swiftly. “No, ser.”

“Good answer.” Jaime let him go. “If it takes two months, or five, or all winter, I will survive to learn what happened to the girl, and then I will return home.”

“And Blane? Me? Will we survive?”

“That’s not in my hands,” Jaime said. “You have to fight.”

“I’ll do my best, ser,” Ned said, wrenchingly earnest.

A clear line separated the sort of ranger who’d swear to do his best, and the sort who’d swear to live. The latter were oft arrogant and sometimes obnoxious, and always less likely to die.

Jaime forced a smile for Edrick the crofter’s son. “See that you do.”

 

Though he’d been making the same argument for the better part of an hour, Mance rallied himself for one more try. “We can make it to-”

“No we can’t,” Qhorin said wearily. “You’re marginally my superior. You would’ve ordered me to whatever village we can supposedly reach if you thought we’d make it.”

“You don’t understand how Craster is,” Mance insisted.

“We’d be risking death if we don’t stop.” The sun hadn’t been visible for the better part of the day, hidden behind stark white clouds, and the air got the feeling it did before the bad cold set in, a chill so fierce it could snatch a man’s life while he slept. Heavy snow was like to follow, and the stillness promised wind on top of it.

Mance was feeling too ornery to be reasonable. “I’d sooner die.”

Qhorin huffed and didn’t believe him. Truth be told, if it was only his life at risk, Mance would’ve kept walking. But he’d not get Qhorin killed out of pride.

It was a shame the storm had come in. Until the necessity for visiting Craster became clear, Mance had been enjoying their ranging. They rarely went out together, for sending the Shadow Tower’s highest ranking rangers on the same mission wasn’t efficient. But a missing lord’s daughter warranted measures stolen common girls didn’t.

Not that they’d had any luck finding the girl, for all that combined skill. Every village they visited said the same thing: they’d seen no raiders, no girl, nothing suspicious at all. So it’d gone from the Shadow Tower to the Fist of the First Men. Mance had expected as much. If a raider would’ve tried going through the Gorge or over the Wall, he and his party would’ve been caught. Patrols would’ve been too thick in the days after the girl was taken.

The raiders either still hid in the Northern Mountains or the Gift, waiting for a better opportunity, or they’d gone to the Frozen Shore. As Mance thought on the second possibility, his mood darkened further. Mallister never should’ve sent Jaime on that ranging. He shouldn’t have sent any ranger to the Frozen Shore in winter, or let Mance go if anyone.

Supposedly he didn’t want to waste Mance’s connections east of the Frostfangs, which far outnumbered Jaime’s, but Mance suspected the old man wanted Jaime in the likelier place to track the girl.

Jaime believed Denys Mallister had given up on him, but getting sent to the Wall had left him too quick to assume those in authority wouldn’t take his side. Mance wasn’t so blind. The old man feared Ben Stark would steal everything he wanted Jaime to have, and this was a chance to get his beloved protégé back on track. What better way to change the high officers' opinion than rescuing the likely future-Lord Commander’s niece?

But Mallister didn’t grasp the risk. The lords and knights never accepted that some threats couldn’t be talked down or outfought.

The trees thinned, and ahead Craster’s Keep became visible, squatting atop a pile of what was supposedly mud but looked like shit. Craster’s daughters bustled around the yard, herding animals inside, and chopping and hauling wood. One looked up as they approached, not more than twelve, and turned and shouted, “Crows! More crows!”

More?

Craster himself trampled out of his keep in a dirty sheepskin cloak, a great scowl on his face, one ear missing, his mouth twisted. He took in the two of them and cursed. “I suppose you’re searching for the Mormont chit as well.”

“We’ve brothers already here?” Qhorin said.

“Few of you from Castle Black,” Craster muttered, sneering at Qhorin. “I know you’re from the Shadow Tower.” His eyes turned to Mance. “Have we met?”

“Once,” said Mance lightly. “Think I was fourteen. I’ve not needed your hospitality since.” It’d been one of his first rangings from the short period before he transferred to the Shadow Tower. The experience had convinced him it wasn’t in his best interests to return.

How Craster recognized him after so long, Mance didn’t know. But his eyes narrowed, and he got such a nasty look on his face Mance wondered if he’d not bar him from entering. “The crow’s pet,” he said, and wrenched his scowl deeper. “You’ve not tired of being a slave? Though I hear so much of you and that golden lordling flying about, I wonder if that’s not why you linger.”

Mance made himself smile. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean.”

Craster gave a vile smirk, showing all his rotten teeth. “You even smile like a slave. Which of you fucks the other, I wonder?”

“We only want to stay until the storm is done,” Qhorin cut in, looking more put off than Mance had ever seen him.

“What do you mean to give me? I’ll not feed you for nothing. How’s about that sword, halfbreed?”

Only through force of will did Mance keep from taking his new greatsword from his back—to give Craster, unsheathed and through his belly. Tyrion had gifted the blade to him, sending it north with the gear wrestled from Robert by Jon Arryn. It’d been a gift to repay his advice, the grip soft leather of deep, rich crimson, pommel a white marble crow with rubies for eyes. Even the scabbard was fine, ebony bound in black leather, a crow with spread wings carved into the leather near the top.

It was one of the few things Mance owned not given him by the Watch, and the only thing not completely black. He had brothers whose lives mattered less to him than that sword.

“A day or two of shelter isn’t worth a sword,” Mance told Craster flatly. He reached into one of his saddlebags, rummaging until he produced the thick fur mitts brothers wore over their gloves if it grew cold enough to warrant it. He’d brought a pair to trade if need be. “They’re sable.”

Craster turned them over in his hands. “This is nicer than you crows usually have to offer.”

“The king has been generous,” Mance told him. A lie. Robert had sent what little he could get away with: caps, gloves, and boots, and only enough for the rangers. Worse, many of the fools didn’t accept the gifts, some insisting they had no need for ‘finery’, others thinking the king meant to gain more control over the Watch, or most laughably, that Jaime was trying to bribe his way to power.

“These will do.” Craster tucked the mitts into his cloak. “Don’t think I don’t know the lordling’s got something to do with this. I might have just one ear, but I hear things.” He sneered at them. “Stay through the storm, but don’t touch my women. I’m talking to you, bastard. I know what your kind is like.”

“Have to be especially careful with black blooded halfbreeds,” Mance agreed. “We... that is, men like me, just can’t help ourselves. But don’t fear. Qhorin will keep me in check.”

Craster spat at his feet. “Much more o’ that tongue, and I’ll yank it out.” With that, he turned and trampled back toward his keep. Mance followed, ignoring Qhorin’s attempts to catch his eye.

Inside, Craster’s keep smelled like dung. The floor was frozen dirt, and mongrels barked as they ran about the room. A naked girl of two or three chased one of them with childish laughter, but she ran too near Craster, and he grabbed her by the hair and sent her sprawling. “None of that shrieking. Find your bloody mother.”

Mance knelt to help her, only for Craster to whirl and yank him up by the arm. “You don’t touch my women, bastard.”

The girl scrambled away. An ache took hold in Mance’s skull. “That was a girl,” Mance said. “A child. I’d not been aware they counted.”

“They all count, and the dogs too.” Craster was close enough his foul breath turned Mance’s stomach. “A man never knows what might tempt a bastard.”

Your neck is tempting me. The promise of what pretty sounds you’ll make if I shove my dagger in it, and how warm your blood would feel on my hands. Mance stepped closer to Craster, all his ranging gear making him broad as the brawnier man, and with an inch or two that let him scowl down at the wildling. Curling his lip, Mance shouldered past him. Craster growled but let Mance go by.

As the mad bastard said, three black brothers were already present, seated at a rough-hewn bench shoved against a trestle table. Mance noted Benjen Stark first. When he’d visited Aemon, the boy had been tall and thin. Now he was taller and thinner, which alongside the long Stark face gave him some resemblance to a half-starved horse. Near him sat Ulmer and one of the knights that’d been loyal to House Targaryen, wearing a sable-trimmed cloak and a black embossed breastplate.

“I caught two more,” Craster announced. “Five bloody crows beneath my roof. You’re lucky I’m a godly man, to put up with this.” He made a disgusted noise. “I’ve business yet needs attending before the storm, but my wives are watching you. Any of you put a toe out of line, I’ll chop it off.” He trudged off, barking orders at his wives.

Qhorin grasped Mance’s arm and hissed in his ear, “I’d never known him to act like that. I’ll leave if you wish.”

“I’d have dragged us elsewhere if this wasn’t necessary,” Mance muttered. “I knew what I was getting into.”

Benjen Stark had the grace not to bring up Craster’s behavior, and he didn’t touch the comment about dogs either, though Mance knew brothers who’d have laughed right with the wilding. “We haven’t met,” he said to Mance, all lordly ease. “Not properly. I know you visited Castle Black a couple years ago. Mance, yes?”

“Aye. And you’re the Stark.”

“I remember you,” Ulmer volunteered. “You liked my stories.” He said it with pointed looks at his two brothers.  

“He doesn’t have to listen to them everyday,” the knight said. He nodded to Mance. “Ser Jaremy Rykker. It’s a pleasure to meet you properly. By all accounts, you’re the finest ranger at the Wall.” A backhanded compliment, spoken in a tone a man would use to tell a whore she’s the finest lady in Molestown.

Qhorin went to Castle Black every so often to talk with Lord Qorgyle, so Mance decided he didn’t need an introduction. Ignoring Rykker’s comment, he said, “Have you heard anything of Aly Mormont?”

“Not a word,” Ulmer confessed. “Though we did hear rumor of another king.”

“Beyond the two we know of?” Qhorin said.

Stark nodded. “Far as we can tell. The Thenn, a man by the Antler, and the one Ser Jaime keeps an eye on.” Keeps an eye on? Is that how Mallister explains it to his superiors, or is Stark making assumptions?

Ser Jaremy gave a bewildered shake of his head. “It’s strange they’re all showing up at once, isn’t it? I hear the Kingslayer supposes wildlings think the Others are coming back. I wonder what’d make them say as much.”

How do you walk and breathe at the same time? “I couldn’t imagine,” Mance said.

“Maester Aemon thinks we shouldn’t dismiss the rumors out of hand,” Ulmer said.

“Aemon is old,” Ser Jaremy argued, “and the dragons take such things too seriously. I knew a man who served as a court page a couple decades ago, and he claimed Aerys and Rhaella only wed because a lowborn wood’s witch said they should. Supposedly some child of their line was to be a savior of some sort.”

Qhorin tilted his head. “We’ve a man at the Shadow Tower who squired for Jaehaerys. He’s told stories of the witch.”

“Oh,” Mance said, snorting. “The woman he thinks might’ve been part child of the forest.”

“Whatever she was, it’s madness a prince would take her words to heart,” Rykker said. “And she was wrong, was she not? The last of that line is an exile in Essos, left with nothing.”

That made Mance think. If Rykker’s tale had any truth to it, the potential candidates for that prophecy Aemon claimed Rhaegar so dwelt upon would’ve been narrowed to Aegon or the king’s second son. Yet he gave Prince Aegon a single young Kingsguard, and left none at all for the other boy. While he kept three in Dorne. Guarding a girl in an isolated tower.

Had he thought her pregnant? But no matter how Mance twisted it in his head, he couldn’t imagine she’d had a child. Even at the Wall, they’d have heard of the bastard and whatever fate it met. It was almost disappointing. He’d not put stock in the prophecy itself, but he’d have enjoyed the parallels with Bael.

Benjen Stark said, “I agree with Ser Jaremy. I’ve some notion Aemon’s caught on the wood’s witch’s prophecy as well, and-” He worked his mouth, shaking his head. “He’s a fine maester, and wise. But this superstition is a madness in them.”

“You think Rhaegar took your sister because of the prophecy,” Mance guessed, earning a frown from every crow at the table, and such a cold look from Benjen he looked properly descended from the Kings of Winter, even with the horse face.

“I do,” he said darkly. “I’m sure you can see why I’m not inclined to start hunting for Others just yet.”

But you’re at the Wall willingly. Are you not so skeptical as you’d like to believe? Or is it something else that brought you here?

Craster chose that moment to return, shoving himself into the chair at the head of the table. “My women are preparing your supper. We’ll not give you much. It’s winter, and I need to look out for me and mine. But I’ll not leave you hungry neither.”

“We’re grateful,” Ser Jaremy said. “Truly.”

Never one to be distracted from duty, Qhorin said, “Craster, are you certain you haven’t heard anything that’d help us find Alysane Mormont?”

“I told these others, I don’t know a thing.”

“It doesn’t have to be about her specifically,” Mance said. “You don’t know any raiders who’ve been making plans, no one who might have a grudge against the First Ranger?”

“I know all the kinds o’ knowledge you might like, crow. Don’t go thinking me too stupid to know what’s useful and not.” Craster narrowed his eyes. “If it’s Bear Island the girl was taken from, seems likelier she’s west of the Frostfangs and probably dead.”

Likely, yes. And it’s just as likely Jaime and Blane will die chasing her.

Mance pushed the conversation forward. “What of this new king? Have you heard anything of him?”

“I’m a free man, and I’ve no use for any king. I ignore talk of them best as I can.”

“Some say kings are popping up because the Others are back,” Mance tried. “They say the people are worried, and want leadership and protection. Have you heard any of that?”

Craster made a noise half gag and half snort. “Makes me sick to get questions from you. Asking this and that like a proper crow. Did they have to teach you to serve, or is it your black blood makes it so easy for you?”

Benjen Stark spoke before Mance could summon a reply. “There’s nothing wrong with service, Craster.”

“Might be not,” Craster said. “My wives serve me, and that’s all good because it’s what’s proper. It’s serving the crows that makes this one wrong.” He regarded Mance with small dark eyes. “A man hears things. You know what happened to your mother?”

“Yes,” Mance said through gritted teeth.

“Fought and fought for you she did, and when the crows got her and held her down, then she begged. Now you kill spearwives yourself, make orphans o’ their children. Though at least they’ll grow up and fight back, instead of making brothers of murderers.” He laughed to himself. “But it might be you’re not so well-trained as you seem. You’re half living with the free folk already, as I hear it. How long before you cast off that cloak and show your bastard colors? Do you dream of making crows bleed?”

Mance’s breath roared in his ears, and his hands shook. He didn’t speak. Anything that came from his lips would end with someone dead.

“I’m dreaming of making a half crow bleed.”

He thought the words came from his own lips, only realizing after a heartbeat that Qhorin had spoke them.

Craster turned his squint on him. “What was that?”

“It was a threat,” Qhorin said in a voice like ice. “You haven’t fed us, haven’t given us drink. You’re not protected by guest right yet. And there’s five of us and only one of you… and a gaggle of women I’d not trust wouldn’t like to see you in your grave as much as I do.”

Craster got to his feet, more angry than afraid. “I’ve helped the Watch all my life, never turned a ranger away. You’re no fool to kill me, but I don’t know what I’d lose in being done with you. One more word, and I’ll have all o’ you out in the storm.”

Quick as lightning, Qhorin’s dagger stuck in the table an inch from Craster’s hand, making the man flinch so badly he fell back into his chair. Then Craster laughed, a low chuckle that sounded like horse shit hitting hard ground. “Was that supposed to scare me? You just gave me a weapon if I see fit to use it.”

“Aye,” Qhorin said. “Mance doesn’t like fighting unarmed men. You say one more word of my brother, and I pray he takes the opportunity to stab you through the neck. I guarantee he’d be successful. Recall he’s trained at arms his whole life, while the Watch wouldn’t take you, no matter how your mother pleaded. I suspect there was something vile about you even then, you daughter-raping half-crow bastard.”

Craster went deathly white, but he remained silent.

Qhorin said, “Better. You best call for food and make guests of us, or I’ll think you mean us harm.”

Craster’s hand twitched for the dagger.

“You truly want to die, bastard?” Qhorin said.

Mance had never seen a man so angry in all his life. He’s going to kill us all, he thought, though Craster was outnumbered, his wives silent and watching with wide eyes. One was clutching herself and holding in sobs. He thought another wore a smile.

After a long time, not a long time like in battle where the world slowed, but a proper accumulation of seconds on seconds—two, three minutes of Craster sitting with his hand extended for that knife—the wildling let his arm drop to the table with a thud. “Women,” he growled. “Our guests are hungry.”

“Our thanks." Qhorin leaned across the table and yanked out the knife, tapping a finger over the mark it left. “I apologize for that.” He slid the knife across the table, back to Craster. “An additional guest gift for the damage.”

“I’ll tell you where to put that bloody knife,” Craster growled, red faced, leaving it on the table. “None of you crows are to come back after this. You tell them birds at the Wall as much. I’ll not be mocked in my home, nor insulted with lies.”

“You will continue offering your hospitality to men of the Watch,” Qhorin said. “Otherwise we’ve no use for you, and I’ll have no reason not to pay back every insult you leveled on my brother with a kiss from my sword.”

Craster gritted his teeth, but when Qhorin kept silent, waiting, he eventually jerked his chin in a ghost of a nod.

The rest of the evening passed quietly, Craster torn between sulking and steaming, and the men from Castle Black clearly uncertain of where they stood. Qhorin made a show of eating and drinking as if nothing had gone amiss, but he kept his focus on Craster until the man left them to sleep, disappearing onto the loft he shared with his wives.

Unwilling to linger, Mance got up and retreated to a corner, shaking out his cloak and spreading it to sleep on. Qhorin followed only a minute later, moving silently.

“Do you want first or second watch?” Qhorin said. “It’d be unwise to trust guest right will keep us safe.”

Mance lay back and looked up at the ceiling. “You didn’t need to make an enemy of him. Did you suppose I’d lash out and kill him? I’m not so foolish. Or did you fear he was giving me ideas?”

Qhorin lowered himself to the ground and sat with his legs crossed, spine straight. “Go to sleep. I’ll keep watch first.”

“Don’t you ignore me.”

“Don’t you insult me,” Qhorin spat back.

“I’ve some right, haven’t I? You greet me after rangings like it’s a relief I come back. You think just as Craster does, that it’s but a matter of time before I slip off and make a proper wildling of myself.” As soon as he said it, he rolled away so Qhorin couldn’t see his face. “That wasn’t fair of me. You know me too well, and I’ve given you too little reason to be certain of me. Forget I spoke.”

Qhorin’s response was oddly quiet. “What would you have had me do?”

There’s nothing you could’ve done. The rangers from Castle Black had spent the evening side-eyeing Mance after Craster laid out the contradictions in his service to the Watch, doubt planted, distrust taking root. Mance liked even less having Craster’s vileness rubbed in all their faces. It made him feel rancid by association, like he needed to scour his skin with lye.

But that wasn’t Qhorin’s fault. He’d done everything Mance could’ve asked, far more than he’d have expected, ignoring duty and reason and honor. And the more Mance thought of it, the more it seemed as if Qhorin hadn’t acted for any particular reason at all. Anyone else, and it would’ve looked like a loss of temper. But Qhorin doesn’t lose his temper. He hasn’t once since I’ve known him.

He had, though.

Just now.

Mance rolled onto his belly, and pressed his cheek into his cloak, his throat thick. His body didn’t want to breathe properly.

“What you did was fine,” Mance said hoarsely. He called out all Craster’s lies to his face and called him daughter-raper on top of it. Mance’s chest felt too big, and he gave a strangled laugh. “Thank you.”

“I only used bastard as an insult to make him angry,” Qhorin added, still speaking so softly. As if that might be what had Mance upset.

“I gathered that,” said Mance. Deciding he’d had enough sentimentality, and that Qhorin might break if he showed much more emotion, Mance jammed his eyes shut and feigned sleep. He listened to Craster’s daughters moving about, and the dogs and swine, until he dozed off for true.

It was dark when whispering woke him. Peeling his eyes open, he squinted in the dim light until he made out a girl kneeling near him, in front of Qhorin. She must’ve been sixteen or seventeen, pretty enough, though unwashed and wearing ragged skins.  

“-castle as the Kingslayer,” she was saying. Truly? “He seemed… nice, when he was last here.” Truly? he thought again, wishing he could see Qhorin’s face. Gods, the only word less likely to describe Jaime than nice would be humble. “He smiled at me, and made faces about my nagging aunts.” She lowered her voice even further. “So you tell him for me, tell him to never come back.”

Mance frowned, amusement giving way to confusion. That’s not how I expected that to go.

Qhorin whispered, “I don’t understand.”

“Craster don’t like him,” she said. “Not like he don’t like you. It’s to do with his gods. Says the Kingslayer makes them angry.”

“The old gods?” Qhorin asked.

“Different ones.” When Qhorin tried to say more, she clamped a hand over his mouth, nearly startling Mance to laughter. “It don’t matter. But they’re cruel gods who take our sons. Tell the Kingslayer not to come back, never, never. You promise me.”

Qhorin inclined his head. She moved her hand so he could say it aloud. “I promise.”

She nodded, then disappeared back into the loft, quiet as a shadow. Mance stared after her, then looked at Qhorin, who felt eyes on him and found Mance’s gaze. He suspected the bewilderment on Qhorin’s features was mirrored in his own.

Craster hadn’t seen Jaime for over two years. Yet he’d remembered him. And he’d paid him close enough attention to know he and Mance were friends, to suspect Jaime was making contributions to the Watch. That hadn’t seemed odd initially, but hindsight made it more so. Why would Craster pay such mind to a random recruit?

More baffling, what gods did he worship, and why would they care about Jaime Lannister?

 

Jaime’s sixth week with the clan, an ice storm struck. They brought the dogs inside, cloistered themselves in the ice huts, and prayed to gods of ice and snow for the safety of the reindeer. There was no hunting, and as no one knew how long the storm would last, rations were halved. Much as he’d have preferred to remain in a corner with Blane and Ned, Jaime spent much of the days at Silver Wolf’s side, oft dragging Little Wolf to translate, determined to make headway in his mission of building trust.

The exercise proved fruitful. Silver shared tales of family members who blended together no matter how Jaime tried to keep them separate, of two other men she’d considered taking for her own—one who tried stealing her and botched it so thoroughly she stabbed him, the other killed seal hunting—and what passed for special moments like killing her first bear, or taking out three men in a fight with an Ice River clan.

“They eat human flesh,” she informed him through her brother, her lip curled. “Savages.”

How reassuring, Jaime thought. We could’ve been captured by them instead.

Occasionally, she turned the conversation to Jaime. She’d never seen the Wall nor traveled beyond the Frozen Shore at all. Much of what Jaime said thus struck her and Little Wolf as unbelievable. They refused to accept he’d grown up in a castle carved into a mountain, though he did convince them a city of half a million people existed. And they listened, enraptured, when he described fields of lush flowers and tree-filled orchards weighted with ripe fruit, seas warm enough to swim in, and men donning metal and fighting to entertain crowds.

“Why do the women not fight?” Little Wolf asked him.

“They are not trained,” Jaime said. “It’s said their only battlefield ought to be the birthing bed.”

When her brother translated, Silver Wolf’s face grew so exaggeratedly disgusted he might’ve figured he’d forced a spoonful of shit down her throat. Jaime laughed before he could help himself, and her brother did so as well. She growled threats at both of them, but in a tone that marked them as jests.

That night, she reached for him when they lay side by side in their furs. Jaime was tempted to roll away and feign sleep, but he made himself face her and meet her eye. She whispered, and he caught “why” and “no” and “want.”

He squirmed. His behavior bordered insulting, he knew, much as if he’d wed a southron woman and publicly declared he wouldn’t bed her. It’d been foolish of him to push in the first place, risking his brothers over the matter. And now she scared him less, he supposed he’d enjoy it. But even if fucking a near-stranger in a hut full of people appealed to anything but his cock, he couldn’t get past the fact she supposedly owned him.

Jaime barely understood the why of it himself, let alone knew how to put it in the Old Tongue. He found another truth, a more basic one. “I have…” A vow, an oath, a promise. All words he didn’t have. “I say to my gods-” He hadn’t worked out a polite term for it. “I tell my gods I will not fuck women.”

She scrunched her nose. “Why?”

“All crows say it. We have to.” He rubbed a hand over the healing gash on his brow. “I do not like for my words to be weak. You understand?”

“Yes,” she said, though her expression made it clear she didn’t quite.

“I need time. I need-” Jaime collapsed onto his back and looked at the ice above his head. “It is-” Complicated. Confusing. He was too tired to murder more sentences, and too aware that he sounded like a fool.

She put a hand on the side of his face, and he gritted his teeth to keep from tearing away. Her fingers trailed down his cheek, then rested against his neck, where his heart thudded too quickly. Jaime froze, and Silver Wolf pushed herself to one elbow and leaned over him, watching as she moved her hand to run a finger along his jaw.

“Fear,” she said, and he thought it was an order, until she tapped her hand along his jawbone and he realized she was identifying the emotion. Jaime looked away, but she caught his chin and turned his face so his eyes met hers. “Do not.” When he didn’t immediately speak, she said even more slowly, the words drawn out, “You do not need to fear. You understand?”

“I understand,” Jaime said softly.

Satisfied, she lie back down, her arm pressing against his.

That night, he slept well for the first time since he’d been stolen.

 

A fortnight later, Silver ordered Jaime to accompany her walrus hunting. Jaime left Ned with the Great Wolf, but Blane volunteered to come with, hunting trips being less monotonous than performing tasks around the village. They rode with Silver on one of the walrus-bone sleds. Getting used to the dogs was one of the first things they’d needed to do, and Jaime knew more or less which commands they followed, how to harness and unharness them, and how to calm the creatures.

He thought if he could get a sled of them harnessed, food packed, weapons stolen, and his brothers with him, he’d be able to lead four across the Frozen Shore. But sleeping in the same one-room space as the Great Wolf’s family, and the family’s dogs, made sneaking off impossible. The dogs and sleds were also treated as more valuable than most people. To steal them would invite pursuit, and that would invite being killed.

He thought of other possible routes of escape as they rode, the open land inviting speculation. But he’d spent two months chewing over the matter without luck. If they stole sufficient supplies to make it across the Frozen Shore, they stole enough to warrant being tracked down. That, assuming they could all three slip away in the first place.

We need permission to leave, Jaime knew. They need to let us go.

That, or they’d be stuck for months, until Mance came looking, or winter ended and the clan sent traders east, when Jaime could possibly talk them into one such party. If he had some way to know if Mance or Qhorin had found the girl, he could almost stomach that. As it was, they had a job they were failing at, and the likelihood of completing it successfully dwindled by the day. Do not dwell on it, he told himself.

If he thought too much about anything outside the present, he’d be lost.

That evening, they camped against a rocky ridge, and Silver sat with her shoulder against to Jaime’s and pointed out constellations with her brother’s help. She nearly split her face grinning when they stumbled across images they both knew. The Moonmaid and Shadowcat, they shared, and Mance had shown Jaime the Ice Dragon—but it wasn’t until she identified the Sword of the Morning that a smile stretched across his own lips.

Little Wolf groaned when Jaime and Silver Wolf threw him into the middle of an animated discussion, Jaime explaining Starfall and Dawn and the knights of House Dayne, and he and his betrothed trying to work out how that lore found its way to the Frozen Shore. Silver Wolf thought the First Men must’ve known the constellation before the Wall was built, while Jaime wondered if it hadn’t trickled over later on, the way the Common Tongue had in certain places.

“I’m going to sleep,” Little Wolf finally said, throwing his hands in the air, leaving them without a translator and effectively ending the chance for deep discussion.

Later, when they slept huddled for warmth, Jaime studied the spearwife tucked beside him, so close her hair brushed his cheek. He wondered what it would be like to lie with someone other than Cersei, and the line of thought nearly tore laughter from him. The woman killed Cayn. Stole Jaime. She’d attacked him with a knife.

But Jaime had killed clan kin of hers. If she’d not stolen him, he and his brothers would be dead. He’d choked her unconscious. They were even. That didn’t make it less ludicrous that he desired a queer-looking savage who’d stolen him because he proved his skill as a warrior killing her own people. It’s been six years since I had Cersei, Jaime consoled himself. I ought to be relieved I’m not tempted by the girl’s grandmother. Sighing, he turned away and moved closer to Blane.

Two days later, they reached the sea. While Little Wolf said they sometimes found walrus along the shore, they’d lurked on the ice floes both previous hunting trips Jaime had made, and they did this time as well. Hunters approached the ice with simple boats, from which they threw harpoons with inflated seal skins attached. The skins bobbed to the surface where the beasts sunk, so the kill didn’t get lost in the water.

Jaime liked little of life on the Frozen Shore, having no fondness for the freakish dogs, finding reindeer herding a dull mode of existence, and hating the more-common seal hunting, which involved sitting at holes in the ice and waiting for them to come out. But he deemed walrus hunting the most redeemable aspect of his extended detour. The harpoon throwing was fun, and he enjoyed how the beasts hauled their fat bodies off the ice floes and heaved themselves into the sea, where they became graceful and dangerous.

They killed three this day, one for each sled. Once the massive carcasses were hauled to shore, the party field dressed them. Several members sliced off the skins with particular care and washed them in the frigid salt water, while others gutted, sliced, then packed up the chunks of meat to haul back to the village. The ivory from the tusks was collected to make knives, and Jaime found himself chuckling when Silver Wolf took two of the tusks and held them against her hat, strutting around and laughing as she poked fun at the Great Walrus’s clan.

The butchering was completed with incredible efficiency, and the sun hadn't yet touched the western horizon by time they prepared to leave.

That was when the dogs stirred. One of the leads tipped its head back to bark, and others joined in.

Everyone stopped what they were doing.

“Attack,” Silver Wolf snapped at Jaime. She looked around, searching, and when Jaime did the same, he spied figures in the distance.

“Who are they?” Jaime demanded.

Silver Wolf growled. “Ice River men.”

The ones the savages deem savage. Lovely.

Blane looked Jaime’s way, and he knew what sort of questions ran through his brother’s head. If Silver died, would they be free to go? If they helped the Ice River men, was their a chance they’d have better luck with them? If so, what about Ned?

The thorny part was, Jaime had no grudge against the Ice River men. He didn’t even know why the attack was to take place. Silver Wolf’s clan could very well be the one in the wrong. It could be no one was in the wrong, and attacking each other was simply what the two clans did.

Killing men he didn’t care about, for reasons he knew not, struck him as mindless in a way battle never had, and he was baffled to realize he’d rather not fight at all. But he knew the names and faces of those from the Frozen Shore, had hunted and worked alongside them. Objectionable circumstances aside, he felt thoroughly on their side.

“With the Frozen Shore men,” Jaime ordered his brother, and they retrieved their spears.

The two sides rushed each other without preamble. Silver unharnessed the dogs from their sled, barking commands at them, then joining the fray herself. Growling, screaming and cursing broke the ever-present wail of the wind as warriors tore into each other with relish.

Like most free folk, however, neither group killed efficiently. Jaime picked off any Ice River men he could find, ending each quickly and cleanly. Blane remained only steps from his side, doing the same. “The one in the iron helm leads,” Jaime growled at Blane, when he was too tangled to make the kill personally. Blane charged the man, and when Jaime got the chance to look, he saw him shove his spear through the wildling’s throat.

Jaime finished one last warrior, then surveyed the battle. Only a few Ice River men remained, but neither side seemed to think surrender an option. Silver yanked a man to her and sliced him a crimson necklace, then shoved her foot into his back and kicked him as he gurgled his last breaths. Jaime looked away, and his eyes caught on her brother, engaging a warrior whom he clearly outmatched, laughing as he did, as if he played a grand game.

But Little Wolf had ceased minding his surroundings, and an Ice River man had gotten to his feet, holding a wound on his abdomen. Knowing better than to distract with a warning while a man was engaged, Jaime crossed the clearing, running over still warm bodies. His spear entered the small of the Ice River man’s back just as he lifted his weapon.

Little Wolf finished his foe, jumping when the body of the second man fell past him. His eyes widened when he noted Jaime yanking the spear from the corpse.

That ended it. Counting Blane and himself, seven still stood from the Frozen Shore, and some sixteen had died from the other side, dogs nosing the bodies, one with an arm in its mouth, survivors already rummaging for knives and gear. Little Wolf frowned at Jaime, working his jaw as if searching for something to say.

Finally Silver Wolf shouted something and pointed to the darkening sky. “Hurry, night is coming,” said the gesture. Little Wolf grabbed Blane and one of the other survivors and waved for them to pile the bodies, while Silver yelled to Jaime, "Help with dogs."

Jaime’s confidence with the creatures faltered upon seeing dead men with pieces ripped out of them, but he ordered the nearest ones to him in the Old Tongue. They lifted their heads and trotted over, their steps graceful despite their size. He helped Silver Wolf harness them, trying to ignore the blood splattering their muzzles. One of the younger beasts wagged its tail and panted cheerfully.

“This is why I prefer horses,” Jaime informed the creature. “Horses or cats.” It looked so proud of itself, Jaime gave it a pat on the head all the same. By time he was through, Little Wolf had set the bodies burning, flame taking hold of hair and clothing. Too tired to fight off his ghosts, Jaime kept his breathing shallow until they headed out and left the smell behind. 

He didn’t realize anything had changed until they returned to the temporary village. Silver Wolf and Little Wolf disappeared to tell their grandmother of the attack, and after checking on Ned’s welfare, Jaime let himself get dragged into unloading the sleds and storing the meat and gear. Only when that was finished did Silver appear with her brother and pull Jaime aside, walking him to the edge of the village, where they looked out over endless snowy plains spotted with reindeer.

“You and your brother fought well,” Little Wolf told him. “You saved my life.”

“You were sloppy,” Jaime said before he could bite it back.

The man only laughed. “Even so.” He adjusted one of his big fur gloves, looking uncertain. “I owe you.”

Jaime kept his face even. There were different kinds of debts, and he knew not how these people looked at such things. He could be speaking of something as small as a bowl of stew. He would not have pulled me aside for a bowl of stew, he told himself, yet shushed his thoughts, not wishing to hope.

“My sister says you still keep vows made as a crow,” Little Wolf said. “If you could, would you return to the Wall?”

Jaime looked out across the Frozen Shore. He missed the Shadow Tower like a physical ache. “Not to the Wall,” he made himself say. “We were on a ranging when you came across us.”

Silver tugged her brother’s arm, and he translated what Jaime had said. She frowned. “What for?”

“A girl,” Jaime said. “Taken from Bear Island. You know it?”

She nodded.

“We are-” Jaime switched to Common, looking at Little Wolf. “We’re meant to bring her home.”

“You should not,” Little Wolf said. “Stolen is stolen.”

“You or your sister would not like to be stolen by the Ice River clans, would you?” It was a guess, but a justified one when Little Wolf looked at him as if he’d said something vile. “That’s how Bear Island regards raiders. It isn’t as if she’d been taken by someone neutral, but a hated enemy.”

“She cannot rescue herself?”

“She is eleven.”

That put a proper frown on his face.

 Jaime looked at him, forgetting his resolution not to hope. “She might be dead already, but if my brothers and I could go, with a sled and only the bare amount of food-”

“We cannot give you a sled,” Little Wolf cut in. Jaime’s heart sunk, and he reeled, at once uncertain if he’d said too much, fearful he’d dashed his chances of getting anything at all. But the other man went on, “Sliver Wolf and I will take you and your brothers to the mountains. I have traded with men there. We will talk to them, and see if anyone knows anything of the girl. After, you search for girl or go to Wall, and we will return home.”

When Jaime only stared, not believing, Little Wolf went on, “Battle was close day before. Without you and other crow…” He shrugged. “I would be dead. We might all be dead. We might have lost dogs, sleds.”

“Your sister allows this?” Jaime said in a strained voice.

“Not my business,” he said, “but you have not pleased her as she intended. If you had wed, and sought to give her children, it would be different matter. But it is not so.”

Jaime turned to her, and she inclined her head, then said to her brother, who said to Jaime, “You do not mean to stay. If we do not take you, you will leave another way. My sister is no fool to cling to what she cannot keep.” He looked sternly at Jaime. No longer speaking Silver’s words, he said, “You are blind. She would be good wife.”

“I’d be breaking two promises if I stayed,” Jaime said. “What kind of husband is a man who cannot keep his word?”

First Men took such things more seriously than most knights, and neither argued the point.

Jaime soon left them to share the news with his brothers. He’d not realized how afraid he’d been until fear's absence left him giddy as a child. They were free. And though a miserable journey remained ahead of them, for the first time in over two months, they’d made progress toward getting home.

Chapter Text

Aly had spent the afternoon chopping wood. Her arms ached, and when she pulled off her gloves upon stepping into the hall, the tips of her fingers were discolored. Warmth returned with a prickly ache, which she did her best to ignore as she went to the cauldron of soup over one of the fires. She grabbed a bowl and served herself, then sat at the end of the room’s far corner table.

She searched for the Weeper but did not find him, and her eyes then drifted to Ulf the Grim. He and his closest men talked at the high table, the men and a few spearwives calling out jests and telling ribald stories, while Ulf remained silent.

Aly had wondered if Ulf would be like Torgold Tollett, an Andal warrior who’d been called Torgold the Grim because he rode into battle laughing. Instead he’d proven a dour man who took his role as king seriously. His eyes were pale gray, and in look and manner, he resembled Roose Bolton, whom she’d met when Mother took she and Dacey to Winterfell to meet Lord Eddard. Except Lord Bolton had seemed sly and clever. Ulf only thought he was sly and clever.

Even so, he was not so monstrous as the Weeping Man. He’d even temporarily rejected the Weeper’s suggestion he take Aly as his wife. “What use have I for a wife too young to whelp?” he’d said. “In the future, I will have her. For now let the girl kneel and cry and whatever it is such ladies do.”

He’d rewarded the Weeper, then called on a sister of his to take Aly away. He had two, and he placed her in their charge. They weren’t monsters either, and one had two daughters she was sweet with. But they treated Aly like a dog. “Come,” they would say, or, “Fetch me this,” or, “Chop wood here.” Sometimes she thought about protesting, but the words always died in her throat. Traveling with the Weeper had taught her there were worse things than being dismissed and ignored.

The Weeper himself remained nearby. He served a role like a household knight or mercenary, and would run off on business for Ulf occasionally, then return some weeks later, sometimes with heads or stolen goods. Ulf liked heads. He put them on spikes all around his village. Since it was winter, they froze instead of rotting.

Aly had resolved to be gone by time they thawed. If no one came for her, she’d leave when the heads started stinking. She wouldn’t risk any longer, fearing Ulf would decide she was old enough to wed if she got her moon’s blood. It might come before spring, and in that case, she’d leave before anyone found out. Either way, she’d probably die. But she didn’t want some wildling king to bind her to him and rape her and put children in her.

She finished the last of her soup and stood. It would’ve been nice to remain in the hall, but being around all the wildlings made her nervous. Instead she ventured into the cold.

The village was sprawling, but it consisted mainly of single-room huts placed without organization. Even after two months she sometimes got lost. But she’d learned the way to the ancient weirwood, and that’s where her feet took her. The clearing lie just past the edge of the village, and she went to distance herself from the wildlings as much as to talk to the gods. It made her feel less trapped.

Aly sat on a log near the heart tree and studied the face. It’s like the Weeper, she thought with amusement. Always red-eyed and crying, with bloodied hands. But this was a face that made her feel safe. There was comfort in knowing her sisters, or her mother, might be at the heart tree at Bear Island praying for her return, looking at the sad red face just like her.

It’d been Dacey who went to the godswood the most. She’d liked quiet. Their mother used to jest that she didn’t know where Dacey had come from, so tall and pretty, and a little shy. Aly imagined her big sister stood by her now, softly telling her to stay still. “You don’t always need to be doing something, or thinking about something, little She-Bear,” she’d say. “It’s good to slow down and listen, and see if the gods have anything to say.”

She listened.

And she heard crunching snow.

Aly turned from the tree and saw the Weeper drawing near. She wrapped her arms around herself, as if that would protect her.

He stopped before her, taking her in.

“I only wanted to pray,” Aly told him. “I know I’ll die if I run.”

The Weeping Man pressed his lips together, then nodded. “You’re not stupid,” he allowed. “But know it won’t be freezing to death if you scamper off. We’ll hunt you down, and I’ll make it hurt.”

“I know," Aly said. The Weeper took in the tree as well. There was something strange about that, this monster looking at a heart tree. She said, “Do you believe in the gods?”

He rubbed his eyes. “You’re a strange kneeler. Almost a proper wildling girl, now I think on it, except you listen too good.”

He is in one of his good moods, Aly decided. She wondered who he’d killed or raped or beat to make it so, but she remained silent. 

After a minute, he answered her question. “Might be I do. I don’t think on it much, but someone put faces on those trees. Why’d they do that without a reason?”

Aly wished she hadn’t asked the question. She didn't like that they had something in common.

Somehow he saw the thought on her face, and he laughed. Then he laughed again. She realized he wasn’t very old. He can’t be thirty. Maybe five and twenty. She wondered if he had a family, and thought of fleshy, pink-eyed brothers and sisters, and a mother and father, all crying and rubbing their eyes.

“Why’s it shock you so?” he said. “Way back when, the First Men killed before heart trees, or took the guts from their enemies and hang them in the branches. And a warlord could have for himself the new bride of any of those under him, and they’d not call it rape, but say the lord did the couple an honor. If there’s one o’ us who ought not claim these gods, it’s you, who’s gone soft, and lost all they’re about.”

No one ever said those things were what the gods wanted. It’s just what the First Men did. She did not want to argue with him. Not when they were alone, and away from the village, and any second he might beat her.

He’d warmed to this topic. “That look,” he said, glaring at her. “You think me the worst sort of man, don’t you? Do I make you sick inside?”

Aly looked away.

He laughed more. “Am I truly worse than your kneeler father, who makes men fish and farm, all of them toiling and toiling for him, not because he’s worth shit, but because of who his father was, and his father, and on and on? Your lords make war, and they have what women they want, take all the weapons and food for themselves. A kneeler can steal and kill as much as he likes, so long as he’s a lord, but everyone else gets crushed like insects. But free folk can have as much as we can keep.”

Jorah doesn’t like seeing people suffer. He doesn’t beat people. Some lords did. Mad King Aerys did. And sometimes Jorah drank too much and talked about the Sack of King’s Landing. “There’s a monster in every man,” he said once. But with the Weeper, it was more he was a monster, who might have a very tiny man in him.

The Weeper wasn’t done. “Do you know free folk like the bloody Kingslayer?”

Him again. Around the village, men rolled their eyes when the Weeping Man got going about the Kingslayer.

The raider stopped to wait for a response.

“I didn’t know,” Aly said.

“They do,” he insisted. “I didn’t understand, not til I went around asking questions, trying to work out what might undo him. Happens the kneeler king he killed was mad, mad and foolish. And the Kingslayer actually did something! He saw shit for shit. It almost took the sting out in losing to him, knowing he wasn’t the same idiot as the rest of you.”

“He broke a promise,” Aly said.

“To save a city, or so it’s said,” the Weeper said, laughter dripping from his voice. “Yet he was punished. You’re all small, blind little creatures, like rats. No one likes rats.” Rats aren’t blind. He grabbed her hair, and she cried out before she could stop herself. “Do you blame me for enjoying it when your kind squeals?”

He threw her to the ground, then swaggered off chortling to himself.

Aly climbed back onto the log and stayed by the heart tree for a long time, thinking over his words. When her mind grew tired of doing so, she turned in her head the raider’s claim that the Kingslayer had saved a city, and wondered what he’d misunderstood to give him that odd notion.

 

Over the past days, endless stretches of ice and snow had bled into hillier terrain, pine trees appearing increasingly often as the shape of the Frostfangs grew to the east. Their party had gotten properly into the foothills the day before, and now the jagged peaks loomed directly ahead, rimmed with low clouds and bathed in moonlight. Before and behind and above the mountains, a bowl of stars burned cold and steady in the winter sky.

In the valley below rested the first village Jaime had seen in nearly a month, a collection of sod-roofed huts nestled along the edge of the pine forest that bordered the clearing. Silver Wolf and her brother guided the dogs down the final gentle slope and brought them to a stop in front of the largest building.

Jaime staggered like an old man when he got off, legs stiff from cold and stillness. His beard was frozen around his mouth, and hoarfrost had gathered on his skins and fur, crackling when he moved.

But as he stomped his feet to chase off numbness, he reflected that it could’ve been far worse. Without the dogs and sleds, or Silver Wolf and her brother, he and his brothers certainly would’ve died. With them, the journey had been only highly unpleasant. When storms came, they built small snow huts and remained safe, and the supposedly mild winter meant food proved decently available. They caught fish after chopping holes in a frozen-over lake with a bone axe, snared the occasional rabbit, and once tracked and killed a bull elk that fed them for ten days.

Certain tricks also made a difference, like wearing shoes made for walking over snow to hunt or forage, or wringing extra meals from game by making broth the first day and saving the meat for the second. Particularly useful was the practice of keeping a smoldering coal alive in hardened reindeer flesh, as it simplified starting a fire when it grew too cold for a spark to want to catch.

Before they could approach the village hall, the skin flap over the entrance was peeled back, and an enormous man with a thick red beard emerged with a massive axe. As soon as he saw Little Wolf, he cast the weapon aside and approached with open arms.

“You mad bastard!” he said in the Old Tongue. He went to Little Wolf and wrapped him in a fierce embrace, clapping him hard on the back. Jaime didn’t catch all of his words, but he added something like, “I didn’t think you dog men wandered in winter. What’s stirred you to travel?”

“A debt,” Little Wolf said in the Common Tongue. “Those three are not of us. They’re rangers of the Night’s Watch.”

The man took in Jaime, Blane, and Ned with eyes the same blue as a clear winter sky. “You’re sure? Crows are supposed to wear black.”

“We took their blacks,” Little Wolf said. And kept them. They hadn’t even returned Jaime’s sword. Little Wolf went on, “Don't worry on it too much. They are good men. Jaime saved my life.” He pointed Jaime’s way, and the other wildling promptly gave him the same enthusiastic embrace he’d given Little Wolf, dislodging gathered snow and frost and probably Jaime's spine.

The man pulled back and looked Jaime over. “We haven’t much to spare this season, but let it not be said Stehr the Elder doesn’t treat his guests right. We’ll have stew and beets and mead, and then I want to hear of this life-saving, and what business brings you here in winter.” He went to Silver Wolf and smacked a kiss on her cheek, then clasped Blane’s arm and gave Ned a jolly pat on the head.

“Bring the dogs, bring the dogs,” he added as he headed for his hall. “We’ll not leave them in the cold.”

Inside, two great fires burned, and though the night's meal was finished, free folk crowed the space's two long tables. After Jaime and the rest had gotten out of their frost-covered outer layers and knocked off the ice, Stehr found them seats near one of the fires, and his buxom dark-haired wife volunteered to scrounge up food. Another woman brought mulled mead, along with tiny bowls of thin white liquid.

“To warm you up,” Stehr said.

Ned squinted at it. “What is it?”

“Goat's milk done up special. A few of those, and you'll grow a second pair of balls.”

Jaime had tried something like it with other free folk, but it’d smelled far less potent and been served in larger quantities. Having consumed seal blood, fermented birds, and walrus blubber, he tossed it back with only a small shudder. Ned gave a shake of his head and passed his to Jaime as well, and he downed the second. It was sour, but put heat back in his blood. Silver Wolf sniffed dubiously at hers, and Jaime laughed when she forced it down with an exaggerated grimace.

“One more?” Stehr asked Jaime.

“One more,” Jaime allowed, wishing to chase the chill from his bones. He drank that as well, and by time Stehr’s wife began setting out food, he felt as if he’d properly begun to thaw. As he and the others ate, Stehr introduced his wife as Dreya, then named his eight children, the eldest of whom was three and twenty and wed, with two daughters of his own. Jaime stopped bothering to remember names when he realized three of the sons had been born at once and looked perfectly alike.

Once everyone supposedly knew everyone else, Little Wolf told Stehr all that'd happened after Jaime and his brothers were captured. Only at the end did Jaime tear himself from his stew to include his part. “We must needs finish the ranging,” he said. “We were hoping you knew something.”

“What’s it you’re ranging for?”

Jaime spooned out the last of his third serving of stew and swallowed it down. “We seek a maid of one-and-ten, a girl from Bear Island, with hazel eyes and dark brown hair. She’d be traveling with raiders, mayhaps eight. Have you seen her?”

Stehr steepled his fingers and pressed them to his lips. “No,” he said, “no, no such girl. But I can help you even so. If a man did head east from the Frozen Shore, the Skirling Pass is the only route passable in winter. There’s cave dwellers there might’ve seen something.”

“The cave dwellers lie further to the north,” Jaime said.

Dreya chuckled. “You don’t know as much as you think, crow. You’ll find a group two days from the entrance to the pass, and slightly to the north. There is a waterfall, and a cave behind it.”

“Will they let us ask questions?” Blane said.

It was one of the triplets who responded. “They tend not to be too prickly, but you'd best make clear you mean them no harm.” The boy frowned. “They do not speak your tongue.”

A second triplet asked, “How well do you know the Old Tongue?”

Not well enough he’d trust himself to negotiate their safety with it, or ask questions, or understand directions. The plan had been for Silver Wolf and Little Wolf to turn back when they reached the mountains, and while that was perfectly reasonable, Jaime cast a hopeful grin at the latter.

“No,” Little Wolf said.

Jaime put a hand on Silver Wolf’s arm. She turned her eyes to him, visibly frustrated by her inability to understand.

“They know people who can help,” he told her in the Old Tongue. “They speak your tongue. Not mine. Come with us?”

A smile crossing her face, she turned to her brother. “Jaime needs help,” she said, his name strange shoved into the sentence. As far as he could tell, there was no ‘J’ nor ‘ee’ sound in the Old Tongue, and even though he’d taught her to say it properly, it lacked harmony with the rest of the words.

In Common, Dreya said, “The sleds won’t go through the mountain passes. We’ll keep them for you, but you must take the dogs. We can’t feed them.”

“I didn’t agree!” Little Wolf said.

Silver Wolf grabbed her brother’s arm, “If you go back, I help him alone.”

“Help him? You can’t speak to him.”

“I can a little.”

Little Wolf cursed. “We’ll get killed helping crows, and our clan kin will laugh at our memory.”

“They are friends.”

In response, Little Wolf demanded another serving of the goat’s milk and downed it at once.

Silver Wolf reclined onto the bench and shot Jaime a warm, self-satisfied grin that quickened his pulse. She isn’t even pretty. He returned the expression a beat late, then looked away. Blane caught his eye and lifted a brow. Jaime only shook his head.

That night, they slept in Stehr’s hall. Silver Wolf curled next to Isna and Kesuk, two of her dogs, the former with fur like soot coated snow, with a white face and belly and paws. Jaime hadn’t learned to tell them apart while still in the village, but with only eight, he managed better, and could identify Silver Wolf’s by name, though he’d not learned to do so with her brother’s.

He had the whole hall to sleep in, with space to go wherever he pleased. He went to her anyway, because it was what he’d done every night for three months. When she offered no protest, he seated himself next to the other two dogs: Navu, a beautiful bitch of pure white, and Lyuk, the youngest and largest, with a coat of black and ivory. Jaime scratched his ears and leaned against him, trusting him not to bite his throat out. He was gentler than the others.

“You like them now,” Silver Wolf said.

“I like cats and horses more.”

“You like to argue. If I said I like horses, you say you like dogs.”

“Maybe I like animals that will not eat me.”

With a laugh, she draped an arm around Isna, nuzzling the dog’s neck. “We teach them good. They don’t hurt men but if we say so.” They only hurt people if they’re ordered, Jaime figured she meant. He’d learned those commands. Bark. Attack. Hold.

She peered at him over Isna’s head. “It is good we do not part tomorrow. For weeks, you are always here. It will be not good when you leave.”

“Not good,” Jaime agreed, misliking that he did. Growing attached would do naught but threaten his vows. They’d part eventually, and then they wouldn’t see each other again. He’d been a blind fool with Cersei, thinking it chivalrous to long for someone he couldn’t have. Now he knew better. The only one doing any longing would be him, and even he’d stop eventually.

If it’d all end in nothing, what was the point?

Feigning tiredness, Jaime announced he meant to sleep and lie across the floor, pillowing his head on one arm. This was supposed to have been the easy part. When he’d rejected Lysa and the Rock, it’d seemed so simple. Even after being sent to the Wall, it’d been the loss of his sister he regretted, not the destruction of the possibility for anyone else.

He understood better now, it having become apparent that his conviction he’d never want any woman but Cersei had been a delusion. If he kept his vows, he wouldn’t lie with a woman again. If he ever loved, nothing would come of it but heartbreak. What kind of life was that?

It is not the time to think on this, Jaime told himself. He’d worry about Aly Mormont, and keeping his promise to Lyra. Then he’d return to the Wall, and Silver Wolf would be gone, and perhaps the rest would cease to matter.

 

Maege Mormont prowled Mallister’s solar like an angry bear, wearing leather and mail, brown hair threaded with silver left loose and wild.

“My lady,” Ser Denys tried. “The lands beyond the Wall are no place for-”

“No place for the green boys and common thieves you call rangers?” Maege cut in. “That’s plain to see. But we Bear Island women have lived in like conditions all our lives, and I’ve dyed my mace with raiders’ blood. You’ll let that one take me to this Tormund I’ve heard about, or Dacey and I will go ourselves. If anyone knows something, it’d be a so-called king.”

“Mance,” Ser Denys said, voice heavy with exasperation. “Talk to her.”

“Jaime might already be on your daughter’s trail, to start,” Mance tried. He said it convincingly as he could, trying to make himself believe it. They’d estimated eighty days as an upper limit for his ranging. Twenty-some days just to reach the Frozen Shore counting the trip through the northern mountains and the stretches of bay to cross. Twenty-some days to get back, so long as nothing happened to their boat. Leaving over a month to find and question the Great Walrus.

It’d been a hundred and thirty days since Jaime left the Shadow Tower.

Fifty too many.

“You’ve been asking permission to search for the Kingslayer this last fortnight,” Maege said to Mance. “The whole castle’s heard your shouting. You’d not be so concerned if you thought him in any condition to be looking for my daughter.”

“If he’s breathing, he’s looking for her.” Mance cast a baleful glare at Mallister. “And if you’ve heard me yelling, you know Ser Denys has tabled any search for Jaime, or your daughter, until spring.”

The maesters predicted winter would end within a few months, how short this cycle of seasons had been. When it did, the Frozen Shore would be hospitable enough to allow a proper search. The haunted forest would come alive again as well, wildlings traveling and trading in ways they did not in winter. 

Waiting was the rational course of action, one Mance would’ve agreed with in a heartbeat—if any part of him wished to handle this rationally.

“You accept that?” Maege said to Mance.

“Yes,” Mance ground out. This once, he had to. To do anything else would mean going beyond the Wall against orders. It’d mean desertion. He’d nearly done it. A few times after his fights with Ser Denys had grown particularly ugly, he’d stormed to his cell and paced the small room, feeling like a caged bird. But any number of things kept him from breaking free.

He couldn’t desert straight to the Frozen Shore. He had no boat. He could not row by himself. He’d have to try crossing the Frost Fangs, and to do so alone in winter was to die.

He didn’t want to abandon Tyrion, who’d been writing every fortnight for the last two months.

Also, there was Qhorin.

Maege fell still and regarded them both with weary brown eyes. She and her eldest daughter had spent two months scouring the Northern Mountains with men from Bear Island. When nothing came up, they’d stayed a time at Castle Black, eventually talking the First Ranger into taking them ranging to a few noted points, checking ground Stark had already covered in case there was anything new to report.

After that turned up nothing, they’d come to the Shadow Tower. Jaime was the last ranger looking, and they had questions about what he was supposed to be doing, what might’ve held him up, and so on. Since Mance could answer in more detail than Mallister, he’d been drafted into dealing with them.

But they’d long ago heard everything he had to say, and it seemed increasingly like they lingered so they did not have to return home. That’d feel like giving up, Mance had no doubt, and he suspected this was Maege’s final push.

“You don’t think you could get me and my daughter to this Tormund?” Maege said finally.

“I’ve never been to his village,” Mance said, “but it’s a month’s journey in better seasons. It’d be longer in winter. Even should we make it, Jaime alone has permission to call on him, and not for Watch business.”

“You talk with other wildlings.”

“I’ve spent years building those relationships.” Mance rubbed his temples. “Possibly, come spring I could try-”

“Spring is months away, at the earliest,” Maege said, coming nearer and bracing her hands on the pine table. She pinned Mance with her stare. “You’ve been writing the Lannisters. Does Tywin accept this- this lack of urgency?” She spat the last phrase as if angry she couldn’t think of a more insulting way to put it.

“Tywin has offered to send men north, and his brother Kevan with them as an adviser,” Mance said. “I told him if he had any men he truly didn’t like, and wished to see them freeze to death, us crows would be happy to pick the armor and weapons off their corpses. As for Kevan, if he survived the journey through the Northern Mountains in winter, his ignorance of the lands beyond the Wall would make him an excellent source of useless advice to lighten serious decision-making discussions.”

“I did not approve that,” Mallister said, like Maege gave a damn. “He is a grieving father-”

“You saw his letter. Pompous and full of shit. If he gives half a fuck about Jaime as a person, I’ve seen no evidence of it.” Mance looked at Maege. “We’ll not be cowed by Tywin Lannister and pushed into folly. In spring-”

“In spring,” she repeated scornfully.

“My lady,” Mallister tried.

Maege,” she said. “Maege. I don’t mind the title, but by the gods, the way you say it, the word comes attached with a demand to stay home, pick up a knitting needle, and act a proper woman. I’d almost stomach it if you could be bothered to act a proper man.” She gave her head a sharp shake. “Rayder,” she said to Mance, “you’d be out on the Frozen Shore if you had permission, I’ve no doubt. If it’s so, why’s it you talk at me to wait?”

“I’d be on the Frozen Shore, with permission, because concern for my brother would make me stupid,” Mance said. “It’d be nearly as risky to go to Tormund, and we’d probably learn nothing. Information among the free folk doesn’t travel quickly in winter. Their lives shrink. Travel grows difficult, and they stay in their villages. He’ll be more likely to know something if we wait.”

“If we wait-”

“If your daughter is alive, she’s likely reached whatever village she was meant to,” Mance said. “She’d be at risk from the cold, maybe starvation, the things any free folk would deal with, but her situation is likely stable. Anyone who went out of the way to take the First Ranger’s niece wouldn’t kill her from malice.”

“And aside from the risk of dying of cold or hunger, she’ll be safe from rape? From getting beaten? She’ll not be alone and frightened? I don’t only fear for her death, Rayder.”

“That doesn’t change my point. Going to Tormund now isn’t worth it. You’ll do your daughter no favors by getting killed, and you’ve two others-”

“Don’t,” Maege said, but her posture changed a moment later. She looked between the two of them with a lip curled. “You’d not be here if you didn’t think waiting was best,” she said finally.

“I wouldn’t be,” Mance said, not worried about Mallister. He’d threatened to desert more than once over the past weeks. The old man had given him leeway, not quite taking him seriously, but Mance suspected also empathizing with the urge to throw logic aside and do whatever was necessary to bring Jaime home.

Maege Mormont pressed her lips together. “We’ll revisit this in spring,” she said finally.

“You’ll return to Bear Island now?” Mallister said hopefully. It’d been a source of considerable stress for him, having the two women about. Dacey, all of sixteen, and pretty, though taller than Mance, had in particular made him worry. She’d made Mance worry as well, knowing what he did of his brothers. Both ladies walked around armed, and they kept trustworthy brothers with them most the time, but the Wall wasn’t a safe place for any woman.

Maege said, “We’ve no reason to stay if nothing will come of it. Rayder, walk me to the common hall.”

She did not like being followed by brothers, insisting she didn’t need protection, so he supposed she wished to talk to him. Mance stood at once.

“We will be sad to see you go,” Mallister attempted, clinging to his courtesies. Maege only snorted as she led Mance away.

In the corridor, she remained silent at first. After a minute, she gave a strained laugh. “I can’t go home,” she said. “I can’t. Don’t tell me there’s nothing I can do.”

He didn’t think she wanted a reply.

“You’ve been of the Watch a long time. Men have gone missing. How… do you stand not knowing?”

“I’ve not cared for any men who’ve gone missing,” Mance said. Before now. He stared straight ahead of them. “If Jaime doesn’t come back, I’ll not stand it. Come spring, I’ll search for him. If Mallister tells me to stop searching, I’ll leave.”

“I’d love to say something like that and mean it,” Maege Mormont said. “To promise to look for her until it kills me. Except I’ve daughters at home. But Aly-” She stopped, and when he looked at her, her face had crumpled. There were no tears in her eyes, but the expression was of a woman who’d just been hit in the midsection with a club, so hard guts burst and bones broke, leaving her to die slowly from her own body’s poisons.

When Mance was young, the Lord Commander had told him the full story of what’d happened with his mother, for Mance remembered only pieces that came to him sometimes in dreams. When Mance asked if she’d died well, Qorgyle had said she died pleading.

“Don’t look ashamed,” he’d said. “I’ve been here a long time. I have seen wildlings lose limbs, and get stabbed through by swords. I’ve seen them tortured. Most will swallow their own tongues before they beg. Yet she did. Not for herself, I’m told, but for you. Fear of harm coming to her child broke her, when little else those men might've done would’ve.”

Mance had never fully bought that reasoning, finding it difficult to equate loss of a child with something tangible like the cut of a sword. Seeing Maege Mormont’s face, he better grasped how a parent might find such a thing worse than torture.

He put a hand on her arm. “Think me full of shit,” he said, fishing the words from his arse, “but… don’t mourn yet. Jaime Lannister is difficult to kill as a cockroach, and if your daughter is alive, he’ll find her and bring her back.”

“Save your-”

“They’re not empty words.” Mance tightened his grip. “If they both live, he’ll bring her back,” he repeated. “If he doesn't return, I will keep an eye out for her whenever I go out. On my honor as a ranger.”

“You bloody hypocrite. You’re a ranger because they shoved you into a black cloak years ago and tied you up with vows. You said just now if the Kingslayer stays lost, you’ll have that cloak off the second your commander gives up the search, and what’s your promise worth then? Your duty doesn’t mean shit to you, and neither does my daughter.”

Mance let go of her, and the woman turned and left him in the hall. He stared after her, mouth open to offer a defense he didn’t have. She has the right of it, he thought. More so, the truth of her words stung, when every time he’d heard such words—and he’d heard them often—he agreed with pride. He, who sang songs of raiders and complained of the Watch with any wildling who’d listen.

Rayder, she’d called him, again and again. 

Rayder. Not Raider.

Certainly. 

“There is a difference,” he said to no one.

When he stirred himself and went to the hall, he did not see Maege. He found Dacey letting Ser Endrew try to charm her. The knight was a younger cousin of the lord of Tarth, and he’d fought with Robert at Summerhall before deciding he’d sooner ride north, too torn between vows to remain, finding it impossible to protect the innocent, serve the crown, and obey his liege lord all at once. Any of the dozens or hundreds of knights in Robert’s service would’ve faced the same predicament, yet not one other cared enough to do a thing about it.

“Do you know he’s related to Ser Duncan the Tall?” Dacey asked Mance, wearing a lady’s smile that was at odds with her breeches and leather. He suspected she was indulging the man, but the kindness in her eyes seemed genuine.

Mance had to laugh. “It happens I do. He used that to win the Kingslayer’s heart long before he made an attempt at yours. It’s his go-to for highborn maidens.” That got a laugh from Dacey, and Ser Endrew as well, but the jape tasted like ashes on his tongue. He could too well imagine the sour look Jaime would’ve gotten were he present.

“I’m a man of the Night’s Watch,” Ser Endrew said. “I’ve no designs on anyone’s heart.”

Dacey said, “How’d the talk with my mother go? She wouldn’t let me come. I think she worried I’d try to calm her if she started yelling.” 

“It sounds like you’re going back to Bear Island,” Mance said. “She didn’t yell much. Got angry though, then… upset. She stormed off.”

Dacey got to her feet. “I’ll talk to her. She’s been dreading this. Having to go home. It’s scary, you know? How empty it’ll be.” She tried to smile and didn’t manage. “You look like you took a punch to the face, Mance. Are you alright? If she got nasty, it’s because she’s hurting. She’s not cruel.”

“She didn’t say anything. I’m only tired.”

“Because you fear for Ser Jaime?”

“Your mother,” Mance reminded her.

Ser Endrew watched her go with a sad smile. “Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t foolhardy of me to swear these oaths. An odd lady to be sure, and better with a sword than most our men, but she’s got a good heart. Pretty too, isn’t she?”

“Rather young, and she’s too tall.” Mance glanced at him, the one man at the Shadow Tower taller than Jaime and Qhorin. “I suppose not for you.”

The knight brushed it off. “Are you well, Mance?”

“Well enough,” he said, and kept walking before Endrew could press him further. It was a cold day, too much so for most chores, so the hall was full. After some looking, he found Qhorin sitting near a hearth, sharpening his sword.

Mance kept his lute near that hearth, for there wasn’t a man in the castle who’d dare touch it. He took it from its case and sat by his brother. “I took Mallister’s side through a whole conversation. You ought to be pleased.”

“Mullin has a letter for you,” Qhorin said. “The Kingslayer’s aunt.”

“Why are all they all writing me? I’d written only Tyrion. I never volunteered to deal with the hoard of them. Gerion and Tywin. Now the damn aunt.”

“I assume they expect you’d be more honest. Ser Denys has reasons to understate the severity of this.”

Yes, but it’d not bother Mallister half so much.

Mance plucked a few notes on his lute, not addressing that further. He didn’t want to talk about grieving Lannisters. Eventually, he said, “Do you trust me?”

Qhorin scraped his stone over his sword. “I know you. I know when I can trust you, and when I should not.”  

“If I vowed to do something as a ranger of the Night’s Watch, would you trust that?”

“Not unless it lined up with something you’d do anyway. You don’t give a damn about the Watch.”

Mance tried to smile. “You don’t think me a good crow?”

“You’re a good man,” Qhorin said, “but a poor crow. You know this. You take care to make it so.”

“I’m the best ranger at the Wall,” Mance said.

“And the worst.”

Mance’s fingers stilled over his lute strings. You need not be so honest, brother. “The Watch has many flaws.”

“It has a purpose as well, one you don’t take seriously.”

Mance might’ve gone off to think about that were the circumstances different. But these past weeks, being alone had given him too much space to worry. He remained close to Qhorin instead, and without paying much mind to his choice, slipped into, “Last of the Giants.”

Qhorin stopped him, the grip on Mance’s arm rough. “Not that song,” he said. “Play something hopeful.”

“Do you have hope?” Mance said.

“As with you, I know when I can trust Jaime. I trust he’d not cling to foolish honor with a girl to save. I trust he’d do whatever he needed to survive, and if he got any lead at all, he’d follow it. It’s true, some things can’t be helped, and I’ve seen good men die in senseless ways. But I do not see the length of his absence as a reason to worry.”

“When will you worry?”

“When I see his corpse,” Qhorin said. He set his sword aside. ““Flowers of Spring,” you could play. I enjoy that one.” He said it quietly, voice distant like it sometimes got. Mance shook his head and began the song, and he prayed for spring.

At least in spring, he could do something. Maybe then, he’d be able to share his brother’s hope.

 

Silver Wolf smiled as she half walked, half scooted down the steep stretch of mountain pass, scree skittering as her feet disturbed loose rock. Jaime followed at her side, the two of them picking their way down together, offering support at tricky places. He wore a smile of his own, one that came easily.

A fortnight before, they’d reached terrain he recognized, and he’d begun to feel a proper ranger for the first time since getting captured. Now they were days from reaching a village he knew to the east of the Frostfangs. The prospect of getting out the mountains, and doing so alive, had all of them in decent spirits despite cold and exhaustion.

 It’d been their earlier meeting with the cave dwellers that turned their fortunes for the better. One of their women knew Mance from somewhere, and she’d asked after him when they revealed they were from the Watch. Upon determining Jaime was a close friend of his, the wildling talked the others into helping as best they could.

“So long as you kill the Weeper,” one had said, with Little Wolf translating.

“He threatens us, says we must help him,” another said. “As if we care for his woes.”

“The Weeper,” Jaime had repeated.

They’d gotten chatty after that. The Weeper had the girl, they said. He’d come through over two moons back. She’d been alive then, bruised but hale. He planned to take her east. He hadn’t said where.

Jaime supposed that meant all this was his fault, for ruining the Weeper without putting him down. It’d left the raider the opportunity to regroup and given him sufficient reason for a grudge. But he could make it right. Alysane Mormont had survived the Frozen Shore, and they knew where to begin looking for her. He’d not dared hope for either.

“We could help you with the rest of it,” Silver Wolf had suggested as they departed. She’d turned to her brother. “We come so far. Is it not sad to leave early?”

“It is sad we go so far from home,” Little Wolf returned.

Jaime swore the Watch would reimburse them in goods they could take back to their village come spring. “So long as your grandmother could spare you,” he’d said, trying to be fair.”

“She tells us to do what we like, and return when we return,” Silver Wolf told him. “If we do great deeds, that is more good.”

“How much will you give?” Little Wolf had said.

“I’m from the wealthiest family in the Seven Kingdoms,” Jaime said. “You’ll get as much as you can fit on your boat.”

He’d given in after that.

Presently, Silver Wolf reached a patch of flat ground and extended a hand to help Jaime past an icy spot. The others trailed further behind, the dogs spread out among them. The track had narrowed so they could only descend two at a time. While the upward stretches turned their legs to jelly and left them gasping, going down tended to be gruelingly slow.

The whole venture had been a massive pain. They’d wasted days backtracking, and several times needed to climb out of blocked passes, the dogs finding their own way through the snow-clogged terrain to meet up with them later. Once, they’d had to pick their way across a glacier. Jaime had foresaw the potential need and charmed a rope out of Stehr, and they’d tied themselves together in case the ice gave out and sent one of them into a crevice. Luck had been with them and it’d not happened.

That’d been the one mercy they had. Game had been scarce, the terrain brutal, and the sealskin boots they wore on the Frozen Shore, while ideal for plains of ice and snow, functioned poorly in the mountains. The soles were too thin and didn’t have enough grip, and they provided little stability. Aside from the scrapes and bruises Jaime had gotten falling and catching himself, his feet had hurt terribly from the start. His body ached, his limbs had ceased wanting to move, and he didn’t think he’d ever be warm again. But we’re nearly through.

“Day is done soon,” Silver Wolf told Jaime, pointing to the sky. There was no sun, only a thick cover of clouds, but the light had gone low. “You know place for camp?”

“Soon,” Jaime said. A narrow valley lie past the next bend. In summer, it held a meadow of stunning wildflowers and bushes heavy with berries. Those would be dead and buried, but an overhang lined the cliff that bordered the space. They’d find good shelter there.

When the others drew closer, Jaime called back that they would stop soon, then took the lead. They reached the clearing in good time. Ned got the fire started while Jaime and Silver Wolf unharnessed the dogs and built up snow walls along the overhang. Little Wolf, Blane, and several of the dogs wandered  to look for game, and by time the other chores were complete, they came back whooping, lugging a scrawny ram. Even Ned smiled at the sight.

“We’ll have good food for days,” he said, eyes bright. “By time we finish it, we’ll be out of the mountains.”

“And heading for the haunted forest,” Jaime reminded him.

“I don’t care if we go to the seventh hell, so long as it doesn’t have mountains,” Blane called over. “Jaime, get over here. We caught it, you can butcher.”

“What about Ned?” Jaime said.

“Do you want it to take all night?” Ned jested, his smile self-deprecating.

“You’ll not get better if you don’t practice,” Jaime informed him, but the boy had a point, and he grabbed a knife and got to the task. He wasn’t far into it when one of the dogs barked. Five had been dozing by the fire, but Kesuk and Navu sniffed about the small clearing. At the first bark, those sleeping sat up, ears perking.

Jaime looked around, reaching for a sword he didn’t have. Little Wolf scrambled to his feet, and Ned swiveling his head, mouth opened to form a question. Blane shushed him.

Kesuk took a step back, hackles raised.

A wolf emerged slowly from the trees. Jaime jumped for his spear, his hands slick from ram’s blood. The other dogs shot to their feet at once. More wolves appeared, surrounding them. No, direwolves. They were big as the dogs. He counted four, five. Before he could search for more, one of them leapt at Ned, who sat frozen and wide-eyed.

Jaime threw himself at the boy, landing on top of him with a grunt. The wolf’s paws thudded against his back, some three-hundred pounds crashing down at once. He brought his arms up around his ears and neck, and teeth meant for his face sunk into his furs instead, grabbing but not piercing skin.

Then the wolf was gone, rolling in the snow with one of the dogs, their snarls loud as thunderclaps. Jaime stood clumsily, grasping his spear in one hand, using the other to grab Ned by the collar and shove him toward the overhang. Isna, the dog was Isna, and the wolf a gray shadow. It got its teeth around her neck and closed massive jaws with a crunch.

Jaime shoved his spear into the wolf’s throat. It cried out and tore away, and Jaime lost his grip on the spear, slipping in the snow. He tried to catch himself but landed unevenly, ankle twisting as he fell backward. Before the wolf could pounce, Blane ran in front of him with a spear in hand.

Angry and in pain, the direwolf charged him. Blane kept his spear out and met it straight on, the shaft disappearing into its chest. Another wolf jumped at Blane’s other side and grabbed his arm in massive teeth, and Jaime staggered to his feet and tackled it, wrapping his arms around the beast’s neck while it snapped and snarled.

It shook Jaime off, and he landed hard on his back. A ball of snow smacked the wolf in the face, making it pause. The creature turned its head, and Ned threw more snow at it.

The wolf ran at him, but Lyuk was faster, bounding over with hackles up and teeth bared. The direwolf gave him one look before it backed away, then slunk off.

The rest were already gone. Outnumbered, outfought, the meal not worth it. Silver Wolf noticed Isna, and sprinted to her with a cry. Jaime noticed Blane on his knees and limped to his side, pressing his lips together when he noticed the furs around his upper arm torn, blood dying the snow red and fogging the air.

Blane gave a weak laugh. “Of all the fucking things. Direwolves.”

“You’ll be alright,” Jaime said. “There’s a village three days away. Less if we hurry. I’ll find something to bind it with.” They had no wine, nothing to clean the wound, and the skin was ravaged more than sliced, so stitches wouldn’t work. He tried not to let his worry show on his face.

Ned hurried to them. “It’s dead,” he said. “The one Blane speared. It’s sad, isn’t it?”

This is why you did so miserably on the Frozen Shore, Jaime did not say. But he couldn’t disagree. There was something pitiful about the massive beast sprawled across the ground. The only one that’d died, that he could see. Mance once told him wolves were smarter than most humans in that they’d run off sooner than die in a fight. It seemed direwolves were the same.

Jaime looked around and counted seven dogs, so it was only Isna who'd died. It could’ve been worse, he told himself, for what felt like the hundredth time since leaving Bear Island. The thought never felt convincing.

Little Wolf trudged over, seemingly unharmed. “We need to butcher wolf, finish the ram,” he said to Jaime.

“Not burn the wolf?” When dogs died on the Frozen Shore, they burned them as they would people. He’d supposed wolves would be the same, if only because the clan held them in such high esteem.

“Dogs are like kin,” he said. “Wolves animals. Valued animal, but animal. It is an insult to waste them.”

Dogs are kin. Yes, he could see that. Certainly Silver Wolf was crying as if family had died. He wondered if he should go to her, but Little Wolf didn’t seem inclined to do so. If it was appropriate, he would’ve been the first to her side.

“Help me butcher,” Little Wolf pressed.

Ned told Jaime he would stitch Blane’s arm, and trusting the lad could manage that much, Jaime assisted Little Wolf. The latter took care of the direwolf, leaving the fur for use, as well as removing all the claws. Leathern cords with wolves’ claws were their equivalent of the antler or walrus hats, and Jaime supposed there’d be some status in wearing massive direwolf claws instead.

After a time, Silver Wolf tore herself from Isna and built her a fire, and they paused in their tasks to watch the dog burn.

 

Their party made the rest of the journey quietly. Blane’s wound grew red and angry, and he remained drained of all color, and Jaime’s ankle had swollen and turned purple. He could put weight on it, but it hurt so fiercely after a day of walking, he lie awake at night with an arm pressed over his mouth, fighting the urge to curse or weep.

They reached the village after nightfall on the third day, Blane pale enough Jaime had not wished to wait until morning. The middle-aged woman who oversaw the village didn’t know Jaime until he introduced himself, but she remembered him once he’d done so. After Jaime gave a brief explanation of their presence, she fetched a wise woman to look at Blane’s arm. The others went to the hall to eat, but Jaime followed Blane to the wise woman’s home. He wished to hear what’d become of his brother’s injury, and also to see if she might do something for his ankle.

He waited on a fur in the small front room of the hut, which was divided by a skin curtain into a sleeping space and a back room to care for the sick or injured. Seated near the brazier in the room’s corner, he dozed as he waited, too tired to keep his eyes open. Footsteps startled him awake.

A woman stood in front of him, wearing a rich brown cloak, golden hair sprinkled with fresh-fallen snow. She must’ve been his age or a little younger, and something of her look and manner made him wonder if he wasn’t dreaming. She looks like the Maiden. Pretty in a soft way, with clear blue eyes and a smile that held a trace of shyness.

“Ser Jaime?” she said. “I was told you’ve an injury I might help with. I’m no healer, but I know a little.”

Ser? Free folk rarely bothered with the title. The few who knew he had it cared nothing for the concept of knighthood. Maybe this is a dream.

“Who are you?” Jaime said.

“Dalla.” A sparkle in her eye told him she well knew that wasn’t what he meant.

“You’ve a look like a lady about you, and you speak well,” Jaime said. “Certainly you haven’t always lived in this village, or I’d know you.”

She laughed lightly. “While trading with Eastwatch, I met a man who compared me to a wandering septon, but one who follows the old gods. That isn’t quite right, but it’s a simple explanation. Certainly I’m no lady.”

“You travel alone?”

“With a younger sister. It’s no great thing. We know these lands in ways you rangers do not.” She inclined her head. “Might I see your ankle?”

I’m not creative enough to dream this up, Jaime decided. “If you’re careful,” Jaime said. “It’s swollen badly.”

Dalla lowered herself near his feet and began undoing the laces on the boot. 

“To what end do you wander?” Jaime said, trying to make her seem more real. “I’ve been told the old gods don’t care for songs, and there are no verses or rules for their followers to learn.”

She worked the boot down carefully, jostling Jaime’s ankle not at all. “In a way, we’re meant to learn more than teach. Though I’m sought sometimes for counsel.” Her voice grew sheepish. “That’s not to say I’m so wise. My aunt was, though.”

“Your family does this?”

“Any women we choose to instruct do this.” Dalla got the boot off, the removed his stocking as well, fingers deft as a maester’s.

“I don’t think I’ve seen any women like you," Jaime said. 

“We’re very few. Many grow old and stop, or do so to have families. We do not need great numbers. We’ve no end goal, no great mission.”

Her hair was brushed and braided with a delicate hand, rich dark gold. He looked at the fire to counter the impulse to stare. “Then why bother?”

She traced a warm finger across the swollen part of his ankle. “Why do men in the south read and write books?” she said absently, focused on her task. “You have parchment and ink to remember songs and histories, stories and knowledge. We have only tongues and ears, and men are more wont to use the former than the latter. My sister and I, and the others, hear and listen and remember. We keep what knowledge we’re able from being lost.”

“That’s got nothing to do with gods,” Jaime told her.

Dalla drew her hand back and sat on her heels to address his comment. “Is it not sacrilege to let knowledge slip forgotten through our fingers, abandoned to time? We preserve it, and we share it. There’s little more godly than that, Jaime Lannister.”

“That’s a daft way to look at it.” She prodded his ankle, and he made a face. “Must you? That hurt.”

“Badly?”

“Rather.”

She wrapped a hand around his foot and moved it slightly. “This?”

“That too.”

Dalla worked her mouth. “I’d encourage you to remain off it-”

“What’s the bare minimum I can get away with?” Jaime cut in.

“A few days. It’ll be at least well enough you can travel. For now, a snow pack will lessen the swelling, and the wise woman may have something to help with the pain.” She reclined further, bracing her hands behind her. Her eyes caught the light and shadow of the fire and turned molten. “The boy, Edrick, says you seek a girl.”

Jaime straightened, hearing something in her tone. “You know where she is." 

“Walk with me, ser,” she said. “I will help you.”

“I can walk on my own.” But when she’d helped him replace his boot, she offered a shoulder, and he accepted it. He tried not to put overmuch weight on her, but he was more tired than he’d thought and leaned more than he should have. Even so, she did not falter.

Outside, they picked their way through the snow, her long cloak whispering as they walked. She took him to the edge of the forest, where rested a heart tree, not a large or small one, nor particularly old or young. A very average heart tree, with a gaping bloody mouth and sunken eyes.

Jaime rubbed his face. “What’s this have to do with Aly Mormont.”

“The Weeper has taken her to a king.” Dalla ran a hand along the trunk of the weirwood. “Not Tormund Giantsbane or the Magnar of Thenn, but a third. Now the Weeper has gotten the girl where he wants her, he begins to spread the word. He means it to be a trap. To attract-”

“The Kingslayer.” A slow smile stretched across his lips.

“Do not smile.” Dalla looked at him gravely. “Listen. You hear the leaves? The gods?”

There are no gods here. There are no gods anywhere. Snow fell, swirling around them. A raven quorked. The woman fixed her eyes on him, waiting.

Jaime studied the tree and tried to listen. Again the raven called out, and a gust rattled the branches and rustled a leaf loose, sending it spinning, waving like a bloody hand as it floated to the snow. A rustle of wings startled him, and the raven landed in the weirwood, its eyes like ink. Dark wings, dark words, he thought, though the raven carried no letter.

By some odd impulse, he said, “You mean to warn me.”

She gazed at the weirwood. “I am no woods witch, and I’ve no gift for prophecy. But my sister has dreamt of you. She could not remember what she saw, but she woke with tears in her eyes. Val does not cry.”

“You knew I’d be at this village,” Jaime said, drawing back.

“Brothers of yours have been looking for the girl in the forest, and it was mentioned you’d been sent west to search there. If you crossed the mountains, there were not so many places you could’ve come through.” Her skin was like porcelain in the light of the waning moon. “Some luck was involved, and waiting. Perhaps the gods as well, though I cannot say for sure.”

Jaime saw the sincerity in her eyes, and he turned away. “It doesn’t matter what may or may not happen,” he said. “Even if I believed in your gods, even if I took it as fact something will go wrong, I swore I’d do whatever I could to retrieve the girl. I mean to keep that vow.”

“Can you do something for me, Ser Jaime?” Dalla said softly.

The question screamed for a ribald response, but Jaime couldn't bring himself to be flippant. The moment seemed too fragile. His breath fogged the air when he let out a sigh. “What would you have of me?”

“The Watch was created with help from the children, those first vows formed to invoke the old gods. Say them here. They will be stronger.” When he hesitated, she said, “You have left your post. Now you return. Is it not appropriate?”

“What do you care about any of this?” Jaime asked her.

“I’ve spoken with Tormund,” she said. “I know all he knows. I know Mother Mole claims the old gods notice you.” When Jaime still hesitated, she said, “He gave you a ring. A reminder that you made a vow to restore the Watch… and to help our people. If nothing else, can you believe that last matters to me?”

Jaime stared at the tree. “I’ll indulge you. Just don’t perform any heathen sorcery on me.”

With a small smile, Dalla grasped his arm and tilted her head to find his eyes. “Who are you? Who comes before the gods?”

Her question only made sense for part of the vows, so it was those lines Jaime spoke. “I am the sword in the darkness,” he said. “I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers. I am the shield that guards the realms of men.”

“So you are.” She drew closer, smelling of snow and pine. The doeskin of her gloves was soft against his cheek as she coaxed him into lowering his head. She brushed soft lips over his forehead, then both of his cheeks, then his lips. He hadn’t been kissed since he was fifteen. He’d rather have gotten a proper one from Silver Wolf.

“Now you are a man of the Night’s Watch, in the eyes of all gods,” she told him.

Jaime said, “Did you marry me? Don’t most free folk wed in front of trees?”

“If it was a marriage, it was between you and the Night’s Watch.” Dalla looked less certain of herself now she’d gotten that nonsense done with, as if she was no longer sure what to do with him. She said simply, “Let me help you back to your brother. I’m sure you’d see how he fares.”

He decided he’d poked fun enough, and used her as a crutch to return to Blane. The wise woman had finished by time he showed up, and Blane rested on a cot, his eyes shut.

“I cleaned it as best I could,” the woman told him, “and applied a poultice of nettle, garlic, and mold, then bandaged it tightly. He ought not use that arm for a time.”

“How long is a time?” Jaime said.

“A fortnight. Longer.”

Blane shoved himself into a sitting position. “I’m fine,” he told Jaime.

Jaime waved to the woman. “Leave us.” To Dalla, who lingered with him, he said, “Would you go to the hall and fetch Ned?”

“You cannot order her about in that manner,” the wise woman said, direly offended. Dalla’s more important than she claims. But she was humble as well, for she nodded to Jaime’s request and slipped off. The wise woman shot Jaime a warning look, but left with her.

“I’m fine,” Blane repeated. His cheeks were pink, and he spoke with a slight slur. They’ve given him wine, or something else for pain. “Good as you, with that limp.”

“A sprained ankle is not a wolf bite,” Jaime said. “I want you back at the Wall. If that gets infected, they can take you to the senile Targaryen, and he’ll know how to fix it. I’d send Ned with you. He was too young for any of this.”

“You made a new friend,” Blane said. “She’s pretty.”

“She knows where the Weeper is.” Jaime let out a heavy breath. “I’m going to send the siblings with you as well. Ned isn’t a fighter, and you’re injured. I’d feel better if they were near.”

“Your wolf wife wants to finish this. She’ll not leave.”

“She’s not my wife. And the offer will give her the chance to back out honorably, should she wish.” If this all goes badly, the fewer people around, the better. “But you’re correct she’ll likely insist on coming. Her brother is practical minded, however, and I suspect I can convince him to help you. If Silver Wolf remains with me, you’re to ensure Mallister lets Little Wolf wait for her at the Shadow Tower until we return.

“Mallister-”

“Mance can deal with him.”

“Of course.” Blane had a pinched look on his face Jaime doubted was from the pain. “All this, and you’re not going to let me see it through. I saved you from a fucking wolf.”

“A man saved my grandfather from a lion once,” Jaime said. “Come to think of it-ah, Ned.”

The boy slipped into the room, appearing hesitant. It was a shame he’d gotten dragged into this. A bright lad, and a good ranger. But being the weak link for months had eaten at his confidence, and as he approached them, he looked as if he expected a scolding.

Jaime waved him nearer. “I need a witness.”

“Are you going to tell me something that makes me want to kill you?” Blane said.

“We were talking about my grandfather,” Jaime said.

“We were talking about how you’re not going to let me finish the fucking ranging.”

“We were talking about my grandfather, and how he knighted a man for saving him from a violent beast.”

Blane snapped his mouth shut.

“I don’t have a sword,” Jaime said, “but we’re all swords, according to our oaths. My hand will do.”

“You can’t knight me,” Blane said, turning red. “I didn’t do anything but stand there and hold out a spear.”

“How many men would’ve done that much? For that part, how many men would’ve trusted me when I apparently deserted to join a wildling clan? Or kept trusting me for nine weeks, when my  survival strategy was to make friends and fit in as well as I could? Hells, you did more in the battle with the Ice River men than I did against the Kingswood Brotherhood.”

Blane stared at him.

Jaime turned to Ned. “I’m not ignoring that you’ve done much of the same, and at a far younger age. Might be you’d deserve it as well after gaining a bit more experience. But you don’t keep the Seven, correct?”

“Aye, ser,” he said, sounding surprised Jaime would make the offer. “I follow the old gods.” 

“Then I’ll reward you some other way.”

“You needn’t-”

“We’ll work something out. Don’t think too much on it now.” Jaime studied Blane. “I’ll not make you kneel. No kneeling. No sword. I’m making a shoddy go of this. Is that alright?”

Blane nodded mutely. Jaime went to him, and he put hand on his shoulder. “Do you swear before the eyes of gods and men to defend those who cannot defend themselves, to protect the innocent, and to obey those with command over you… so long as they do not order you to engage in cruelty for its own sake, or stand by while cruelties are carried out?”

“I do,” Blane said.

“And do you swear to fight bravely, and do all you must to guard the realms of men, no matter how humble, contentious, or dangerous the task might be?”

“I do.”

“I then name you Ser Blane the Steadfast,” Jaime said. “A brother of the Night’s Watch, and a knight.”

Blane’s grin split his face. “You’re a bloody bastard,” he said. “Making it tough to hate you when you plan to send me away.”

Jaime moved his hand from Blane’s shoulder and clasped his forearm. “I know what I’m asking. I’d kill the man who asked me to leave this ranging now. But I need you to do this. We’ve been delayed too long and we shouldn’t wait longer, and our brothers likely mourn us.”

“I understand,” he allowed, “but I don’t like it.”

Jaime embraced him carefully. “Rest. I need to talk to our friends from the Frozen Shore, and I’ve some notion I might persuade Dalla into showing us where to go.”

 

Little Wolf didn’t like Jaime’s plan, but with coaxing, promised to see Blane and Ned to the Wall. Silver Wolf, as Blane had guessed, claimed she’d grown too invested in the venture not to see it through. For her part, Dalla took little convincing to agree she and her sister would accompany them, though they were to part when they neared the village.

“That fight isn’t ours,” she told him.

As he’d wanted naught but a guide, he saw not a problem with this.

When the pain in his ankle became manageable, Jaime thus set out with a spearwife, a wandering wise woman and her twelve-year-old sister, and three direwolf-sized dogs. They spoke most often in the Old Tongue, so Silver Wolf wouldn’t be excluded from conversation, with Val and Dalla offering Jaime words as needed.

Silver Wolf got on with Dalla particularly well, in the way those opposite in nature often did. Within days, the two developed a rhythm of conversation that was mostly Silver Wolf talking, with Dalla occasionally offering some input or observation that’d make Silver Wolf stop and think before continuing on.

Val liked Silver Wolf less, and didn’t take immediately to Jaime either. She was dubious of the former’s gods and likewise wasn’t shy about deeming knighthood the stupidest idea in existence and making noise about Jaime being a crow.

“It was Dalla dragged me into this,” she swore to Jaime the first day. “I don’t make a habit of helping your kind.” But it seemed many of her opinions were voiced on principle and not from deeply-rooted prejudice, for she soon ceased making comments about Silver Wolf and spoke freely with Jaime as if they’d been friends from the first.

“Who gave you that?” she asked one morning as they checked snares set up the night before. He’d taken from his coat the broach Ygritte had given him to turn in his hands, simply to remind himself he had it. That and his bronze ring were all he’d been allowed to keep when the Frozen Shore men took his things.

“A little girl,” Jaime said. “It doesn’t mean something embarrassing, does it?”

“It’s a luck charm,” said Val. “Given to family usually. There’s a protection in it too, for you. Any of the free folk who hold the old gods see that, and they’ll know someone beyond the Wall won’t take it well if you’re killed.”

Jaime laughed. “I’ve got a lot of family beyond the Wall, it seems.” He showed her the necklace Silver Wolf had given him, a leather cord with five of the direwolf claws strung onto it. Little Wolf had gifted two others to Blane and Ned.

Val looked less impressed by that, but they came to a trapped rabbit then, and their talk ended before she could pick an argument.

Several evenings later, Jaime remained awake keeping watch, and she sat directly to his side, combing out her hair.

“You’re some kind of priestess, yes?” Jaime said to her.

“No,” Val said. “I’m truly not.”

Jaime had stolen Lyuk for warmth, and he leaned against him, running his fingers through the dog’s thick fur. “But you supposedly hear the old gods.”

“We don’t hear them speak. But we’re not deaf to them, not like you crows.” Her cheeks were pink from cold, her hair shining gold. Her beauty and coloring lent her a certain similarity to Cersei, but not enough that he found it disconcerting. Their features were too different, her hair darker, and Val rough and playful and sharp-tongued in a way that reminded Jaime more of himself than his sister.

But she’s wiser than I’d been, he thought, and far less naive. That wasn’t difficult. He’d known little of the world before taking the black, and nearly nothing prior to joining the Kingsguard. Nine twelve-year-olds of ten would be more mature than he’d been at fifteen.

“Assuming your gods exist, do you suppose they want something of me?” he said.

Val separated a strand of her hair from the others, then another, and began to braid the sections with graceful fingers. “You’re from the south,” she said. “You don’t worship the old gods. Tormund says your blood isn’t special. I can’t imagine they want anything from you.”

“I’ve been trying to tell people that for three years.”

“I don’t mean you’re not important,” she said. “Only that it must be something you do that’s got their notice, not who you are. Time for trees is strange. The future is the present is the past. If you do something big in the future, that might make the old gods watch and whisper now.”

“Simplify it for the thick-headed crow.”

Val laughed quietly. “If you climbed a tree to scout ahead for us, and you saw something important, you’d call down so we’d know what’s coming. And even if we aren’t due to run into the important thing for a long time, we might whisper about it after we get back to walking. Then some other traveler might hear, and he might whisper too. And so on.”

“The trees… are scouting ahead,” Jaime said dryly. “And calling down to people like Mother Mole. Who yammered to Tormund, who’s spoken with you.”

“Maybe,” Val said.

Jaime scratched behind Lyuk’s ear. “What do you suppose I do?”

Val tied off her braid and turned a skeptical look his way. “What’s the fun in knowing?”

“I don’t know,” Jaime allowed. He squinted at the fire. “You say all this about your gods glimpsing my future. But Dalla said you had some dream that makes you think this ranging might be a mistake. Mightn’t I die within the fortnight?”

“Yes,” Val said. “Prophecy, sorcery, greensight, it’s never certain. Magic is what isn’t naturally possible, so inherently it’s unnatural. Natural things follow patterns. They make sense. Magic doesn’t.”

“Should I… do something?” Jaime said.

“Do whatever you like,” Val said. “The visions witches like Mother Mole see aren’t prophecy, quite. Not like the kind that’re repeated for a thousand years, about some hero who’ll for certain do this, this and this, and has red hair and a freckle on his arse. They’re glimpses of what does happen, passed along in strange tree language, so they can’t be fully understood.”

“A tree showed me killing wights. So I must survive-”

“Are you sure it was you, Ser Crow?” Val said. “Or it may be the wights meant something other than wights. They could’ve been some symbol. You see?”

“The trees might not be talking about me at all?” Jaime tried.

“Maybe not, but the more people work out the same things, the likelier there’s basis to it.” She waved him off. “Enough. Keep watch. Let me sleep.”

The days passed quickly, and even with his ankle pestering him, the journey progressed with uncommon ease. Whether through experience or some subtle magic, the sisters seemed to find the clearest paths, unlikely patches of berries, and good places for shelter.

Even Mance did not travel quite so deftly beyond the Wall. Jaime observed where he could, asking the occasional question, though they didn’t seem to have special tricks. Most the time, they merely told him they knew the lands better, or alternatively that they listened, or paid attention.

For a fortnight, the three of them traveled together before parting near a frozen over section of the Antler.

“We visited Ulf before he started calling himself king,” Val added. “His village isn’t large. Two hundred people or so, and he won’t be keeping an army nearby in winter.”

“We’ll meet again,” Dalla added with certainty. She embraced him. Val smiled and bowed her head, and together they disappeared wraith-like into the trees.

Jaime regarded Silver Wolf, who watched them go, looking as bemused as Jaime felt.

“They are odd,” Silver Wolf told Jaime. “Home is better.”

He thought of the Shadow Tower, and Mance and Qhorin. He’d stopped counting how many days it’d been since he was supposed to return. “Home is better,” he agreed, letting his breath out in a gust. He put a hand on Silver Wolf’s arm and regarded her seriously. “I will not be angry if you leave. Dalla, she says-”

“There is danger. I know. She told me.” Silver Wolf waved him off. “If she is right, you should not be with no help.”

“I owe you. This is too much.”

“This is clan helping clan,” she told him, reaching to press a hand over the wolf claws around his neck. “There is no debt.”

 

“Others fuck me. There’s a man makes me think I should kill me husband.”

Aly was sewing a shirt from a deer skin when the younger of Ulf’s sisters spoke up from where she rubbed fresh-caught elk meat with dried herbs and salt. Gerta seemed fond of her husband, but sometimes Aly couldn’t tell when the wildlings were jesting.

Truta, the elder sister, looked up from her sewing. “He’s got a woman with him.”

“I’ll kill her too.” Gerta paused. “Are those direwolves?”

Aly hadn’t cared much for the talk until then, but she looked up from the bench and craned her neck to see. Even at midday, the hall was full, the fires going and the air smoky. In winter, as much work as possible was inside work, and Ulf’s wildlings were of the mind that inside work ought to be done with music and talk and often mead. She had to sit up straight to see over Gerta’s rather large head.

“They’re dogs,” Aly said, though she’d never seen dogs such as those. Three of them, all big as ponies.

Truta said, “What do you know of it, kneeler?”

“Wolves aren’t that furry,” she said. “And wolves have longer legs and narrower heads, and they keep their tails low. Not curved over their backs.”

She'd never seen a wolf in person, but she’d read it once in a book. House Mormont didn’t keep many books, but they had a big one about the animals in the north, which Aly liked because whoever wrote it had meticulously illustrated every animal inside.

“She’s right,” Gerta said after thinking it over. “Wolves are more slender-like. Don’t them savage folk in the west have big dogs?”

Truta frowned. “Aye, that’s so. They shouldn’t be here in winter. Who’d come across the mountains in winter? You’d have to be mad.” 

Gerta coughed and looked at Aly.

“It wasn’t her choice, I weren’t being insulting. And it’s not so bad to call the Weeper mad, is it? Facts isn’t being insulting, it’s saying what is.”

“You oughtn’t say a thing of him, true or no. Ulf likes him now, he does. He’d not be pleased if we was talking about him behind his back.”

“Others take Ulf, and the Weeper too.”

As they bickered, Aly sat up tall and snuck another peek at the guests. Ulf had led them to the high table, so she could see them better, though the dogs had gotten lost among the people and benches. The woman was young, not much older than Dacey, and all she could see of the man was that he was big and had a beard and wild golden hair. But Gerta was standing and had probably gotten a better view.

The sisters made an effort at guessing what’d bring savages from the west across the mountains, then argued over whether the ones with the dogs were the cannibals. It got tiring after a while, and when Aly finished the shirt, which was to be for Ulf, she set it aside, then got up to stretch her legs and fetch warm cider.

She stopped when she rounded a bench to find the three dogs lying together near one of the walls, the crowd having extended out around them, giving the creatures a wide berth. They seemed bigger up close, and even napping they looked dangerous.

Before she could tear herself away, a voice said, “Would you like to get closer? They’ll not hurt you if I’m near.”

Slowly, Aly brought her eyes to the speaker. The savage man, although he didn’t talk like a savage, or even much like a wildling. Closer, she better saw why Gerta had gawked. He was taller than all but a few men in the village, and the hall seemed to shrink as she took him in, by virtue of all the space he occupied just in the way he stood. A thick gray fur hung over powerful shoulders, and he wore a long bone knife at his belt, the handle wrapped in dark leather.

He looked twice the wildling king Ulf did, twice as strong, twice as dangerous—and like his dogs, savagely beautiful.

“I wouldn’t want to bother you,” Aly said.

The man gave the slightest lift of his head and shoulders, a more elegant version of a shrug. “It’s no matter. Come with me.”

He limped as he walked. Just barely. She stared after him, wondering if it was riskier to deny him or keep his attention. There was no way to know, so she followed.

“Lyuk,” he said.

The biggest of the dogs lifted its massive head and gave it a tilt, waiting for some other command. The man said something in the Old Tongue, and the dog unfolded itself and trotted over. Standing, its eyes were on level with Aly’s.

“Impressive, aren’t they?” the man said. “Pet him if you like.”

Aly moved closer, and the dog moved his head to watch, but seemed only curious as Aly extended a hand and buried it in the fur near his shoulder. She wished she could tell Lyra and Dacey about this. This, they’d envy, she decided. They might not even believe her. She hadn’t known dogs could get half so big.

“You’re the Mormont girl,” the wildling said. “The king’s prize.”

Aly lowered her hand, but the dog did not move until the man said something in the Old Tongue, after which it trotted back to the others and curled up again.

“I’m Alysane Mormont,” she said.

“I’ve met the First Ranger,” the man said with a queer smile. “Oh, don’t look frightened. I’ve no grudge against him. I only thought to make conversation.” He studied her in a way that made her wonder otherwise, cat-green eyes glittering with fierce, unsettling satisfaction. “By any chance, is the Weeping Man about?”

“Are you and your… wife friends of his?” Aly said. 

His smile was like a knife. “Acquaintances, more like.”

“Ulf has him off hunting. I don’t know when he’ll be back.” She frowned at him. “Why are you here?”

“I’m a bard,” he said, a note of amusement in his voice. “I know stories and songs from all beyond the Wall, and I’ve come to perform for the king.”

“You don’t look like a bard,” Aly said before she could stop herself.

He only laughed. “What’s a bard supposed to look like?”

Before Aly could answer, the woman hurried over. She said something to him in the Old Tongue that sounded like a warning. He spoke defensively, but she slapped his arm and wrapped a hand around his wrist, tugging hard.

The man shot Aly an apologetic look. “She doesn’t think I should be talking to you. Jealousy, I suppose. Will you come to supper this evening? You’ll like the sort of songs I plan to sing.”

“If I didn’t come to supper, I wouldn’t get any food,” Aly said, confused. 

“Very good,” said the bard, as if she’d done him a favor, then let the woman pull him away.

That night, Aly seated herself nearer the high table than usual so she could keep track of what the wildling man was up to. While she dined on elk and pickled beets, he talked with Ulf, asking him about raids he’d been on and his plans as king, laughing and drinking as he coaxed from the usually silent raider tales of killed rangers and stolen goods and women he’d taken.

When that was through, Ulf asked if he meant to perform.

The wildling pointedly took a drink of his mead, then tore off a big piece of elk in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “My esteemed host, who has offered me sacred hospitality… I am a queer sort of bard. One who plays no instrument and lacks skill at sharing poems or stories. Yet I’m a fine performer, and with steel in hand, I create music that’d drive any player to envy, and poetry that makes hardened men weep. As for stories…”

His teeth flashed white when he smiled. “I’m more often in them, than the man telling them.”

“Is this a challenge?” the king said, looking amused. “You must be mad with arrogance. If you mattered, I’d have heard of you.” 

“Are you sure you haven’t?” he said. “I killed Alfyn Crowkiller when I was eight and ten, and Rattleshirt a year later—along with most of his band.”

Ulf’s amusement faded, but when he opened his mouth, words didn’t come out.

“I ended eight of the Weeper’s men when he ambushed me like a craven, and with my allies put him down so thoroughly he didn’t raid for three years. I’ve won the friendship of Tormund Giantsbane, and made allies of free folk from the Frozen Shore to the eastern branches of the Milkwater.”

His grin grew feral. “And before all of this, at seven and ten, I ended a line of kings three-hundred years old by cutting the throat of a monster in a crown.”

Ulf’s voice became a growl, his face red, a vein bulging in his forehead. “You’re here under a false name.”

“Even if that mattered, I told you my name is Jaime. It is. I’ve spoken no lies. My mother didn’t name me Kingslayer from the womb.”

“Deceiver.”

Yes. Sygerrik.” He laughed. “Like Bael the Bard. I’m here for a flower as well, but I’m not so sly as he. I offer a more direct challenge.” Ulf stood there, too angry to speak. Everyone else had fallen still, the hall more hushed than Aly had ever heard.

The man who thought he was the Kingslayer kept talking. “I’ll fight you for her. Just the two of us, in the village commons. I have no armor with me. I’ll not ask for any. You may choose my weapon, and whether I can have a shield. If I win, my lady and I can take Aly Mormont and leave.”

The king couldn’t refuse. Not in front of these people, not without losing his followers. Even Aly knew that. Despite this, he hesitated. “It’s the Weeper you seek.”

“He gave you the girl as a gift. She is yours. The Weeping Man is a separate matter, though I don’t blame you for trying to foist the fight onto him. It’s craven, to be sure, but I respect that you’re intelligent enough to know when you face a battle you cannot win.”

Hatred burned in Ulf’s eyes. “We fight tomorrow,” he said. “You fucking bastard.” He picked up his tankard and threw it, finding the control to heave it at the wall instead of at the head of…

The Kingslayer?

He couldn’t be, could he?

Never, not in all the Weeper’s talking, not in all of Ulf’s talking, had Aly imagined he would come. Her mother, she’d dreamed of, and Dacey, her uncle, any of a hundred nameless black brothers, but it’d never occurred to her the man who was supposed to show up would. She’d been certain he’d be slimy and soft, a tourney knight and no true ranger.

None of it made sense, not that he was here with some spearwife and her dogs, not that he’d found Aly, and meant to save her, like a knight in a song. But his hair was gold and his eyes were green, and now that she thought to consider it, he did talk like a lord.

Aly slipped from the hall and into the cold evening air, her head too full. She went to the hut she shared with Ulf’s family, and sat on her fur in the corner and pulled her legs close to her chest, burying her face in her knees. Don’t hope, she told herself. It’s a trick.

If it isn’t a trick, he’ll lose.

Something will go wrong.

It was still too early for any of the women to be back when someone pulled back the fur hanging over the hut’s doorway. The man… Jaime stepped inside, the big black and ivory dog with him. He gave an order to the dog in the Old Tongue, then looked around the hut carefully before he found Aly in the corner.

He moved closer, walking cautiously, still with the uneven gait from his limp. “Are you well?” he said.

Of course I am, she wanted to lie. She’d been pretending for months and months, and it should’ve been easy. But something inside her broke at the question, the first show of concern for her well-being since she’d been taken. At once, she was crying like a stupid baby. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I haven’t cried, I haven’t, not since the start. I-”

She couldn’t speak. It all crashed around her, how far from home she was, and the man she killed, and how lonely she’d been.

It didn’t matter he was southron then, or an oathbreaker. He was a ranger, one of Uncle Jeor’s men, and he meant to save her. She went to him and wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his coat. She feared he’d shove her away or say something mean, but his arms came gently around her.

That made her cry harder. “I’m sorry,” she said again, even as she clung to him. “I’m not weak. I promise.”

“You’re not weak,” he agreed, voice hoarse. “I didn’t dare dream you’d still be alive. Strong, clever girl.” He guided her away from him. “Look at me, Alysane Mormont. I know I’ve got a poor reputation, but I need you to trust me, and trust the woman with me. Can you do that?”

Just then, she’d have done anything for him. “Yes.”

“Good. You only have to be brave a little longer. Then you can go home.”

 

When the time for the fight arrived, the sun hung low in a sky of brisk blue, throwing light off snow and turning the morning surreally bright. Men had cleared most the snow from the commons, and it seemed every person in the village showed up to watch.

Ser Jaime had challenged, so for him it would be to the death. Ulf could surrender if Jaime offered him the chance.

If Ulf did so, his aspirations of kingship would be over, and the Weeper would likely kill him when he returned.

Aly tried not to dwell on what’d happen if Jaime lost, though she worried about his limp. It wasn’t bad. But she didn’t like all his disadvantages. He didn’t have armor, and they’d given him a bronze shortsword, ill-cared for and a shoddy weapon pitted against the steel longsword Ulf wielded. They didn’t let him have a shield either. It’s the worst Ulf can give him without looking dishonorable.

She stood between two of Ulf’s warriors at the end of the yard. It was laughable, her being dueled over by a king and a former Lannister heir. If she got home, Dacey would tease her for playing a southron damsel. But Lyra would be jealous. She liked stories about knights.

And a knight, Jaime Lannister certainly was. While Ulf’s men helped him into his armor, making a big show of it, Jaime bantered with his wildling woman, a smile on his face. The spearwife gave him a shove, then laughed loud and bright when he grabbed her mitten to kiss the back of her hand. She said something else, and he pulled her to him and kissed her properly, and the woman laughed so hard he had to break away.

With a chuckle, he walked out to the yard, flushed and grinning. He saw Aly watching and tossed her a kiss as well, and she shook her head at him. It didn’t dim his smile at all.

Ulf had been watching, but his face was blank as he took his place.

“You can still back out,” Jaime said.

“I’ll not lose the chance to decorate my hall with your severed head.”

“I see why you get on with the Weeper. Come on then. Try your best.”

Ulf charged. Jaime side-stepped and swatted him on the back. Ulf turned and swung. Jaime caught the blow on his shortsword, and the impact bit into the softer metal, leaving a visible mark. With a scowl, Jaime tried to strike, but when Ulf blocked, it damaged the sword again. 

Ulf smirked as Jaime stepped back. “You fight with the strength of many men, Ser Knight. All men say it, and I see it’s true. Stop this fight. Abandon the Watch, and serve me. You can keep your woman. If you want the girl, you can have her too.”

Jaime only gave him a long, silent look. 

“I have no quarrel with you,” Ulf said.

“A shame I cannot say the same. Any final words?”

“Fight me, and die.”

"Well that was ridiculous," said Jaime, laughing. 

Ulf swung at his head, but Jaime leapt to the side, taking care to land on his good foot. Shadowcat quick, he sliced the back of Ulf’s leg, then danced past the answering blow and landed a slash across Ulf’s forearm.

 The king cursed and redoubled his efforts. A clumsy swing sliced into Jaime’s shoulder. But when he tried to strike again, Jaime tied him up with a one-handed block, then reached with his left hand and grabbed Ulf’s sword near the hilt. Jaime gave his blade a sharp tug, and appearing utterly baffled, Ulf stumbled and lost his grip.

In a series of movements so fluid they looked magic, Jaime ripped the sword from Ulf, cast aside the bronze blade, and transferred the longsword to his right hand before leveling it at the king’s face. 

“Yield?” Jaime said.

Ulf spat.

Jaime cleaved his head from his shoulders.

After wiping the blade on Ulf’s coat, Jaime took off the king’s sword belt and put it around his hips, then sheathed the weapon casual as if he’d finished a round in the training yard.

Jaime’s wildling woman stepped forward, and she handed him a spear. Jaime shoved it into the man’s severed neck deep enough to make it stick, then  took the bleeding head to a pile of snow and stuck it in.

The woman jogged to Aly’s side and grabbed her by the arm. Trust her, Aly reminded herself, and followed her through the throng of agitated villagers. Two of her dogs were with her, and they parted the crowd well enough Aly could still see Jaime over her shoulder.

She heard perfectly well what he said next. “Show that to the Weeping Man when he returns,” he announced, “and tell him the Kingslayer sends his regards.”

Jaime met them with the third dog outside the gates, leaving the village in a growing fervor. But it seemed none intended to go back on the terms Jaime had set, for they were left to go in peace. They walked for a long time in silence, disappearing into the forest and leaving Aly’s prison like it was nothing at all.

It wasn’t nothing. They had a long way to travel yet.

Did he have supplies? Did he know where to find shelter?

He wouldn’t let them freeze to death now, would he?

“You shouldn’t have said that last part,” Aly found herself saying, though it was ungrateful, and she wanted to take the words back right when they came out. She couldn’t, though, so she told him, “Now the Weeper will chase us.”

“I want the Weeper to chase us,” Jaime said. “He’s killed brothers of mine. He killed one of them in front of me, while he cried. He hates me, and now I’ve bested him again. If I leave him alive, who’ll he take next time? One of your sisters? An Umber? I’m told Stark has an infant girl. Mayhaps he’ll decide stealing is inefficient, and take the child’s head from her shoulders and leave it in Winterfell’s yard for Lady Catelyn to find come morning.”

Aly couldn’t argue with that. She was angry anyway. She wanted him to rescue her first, to get her home before he worried about his duties as a ranger, or anyone else the Weeper might hurt. She was free now, she could taste it. Every step leading them from the village was a weight off her shoulders.

Surely it wasn’t evil to wish he’d not risk getting her captured again.

But the Weeper can’t hurt him, Aly told herself. No wildling could. He’d beaten Ulf with a shoddy sword and no shield, and he’d done it so easy it was almost sad, that a man who thought he could be king had died like that. The Weeper was a fool and fought with a scythe.

Jaime could beat him easy.

“I’ll not let him hurt you again,” Jaime told her. “I swear.”

He could not guarantee that. She nodded, but didn’t quite believe. He seemed too much like a proper hero, and Aly hadn’t ever put much stock in stories or songs.

 

They walked until nightfall. It was like being with the Weeper again, in that she had to consciously move her feet, the cold so fierce every step required effort. But Ser Jaime didn’t beat her. Sometimes he even asked if they needed to slow down.

She said no every time. It didn’t matter how tired she was. She wanted to get away quickly as possible.

Jaime took them to a broad hollowed tree where they were to spend the night. He had sleeping skins and packs hidden away, and the woman called Silver Wolf started a fire while Jaime put snow in a dented pot to melt for water. When that was done, the woman coaxed him out of his coat and looked at his right upper arm, which was bloody from the cut Ulf had given him.

He tried to wave her off, but she swatted him. Once they’d had their fill of the drinking water, she cut a strip off the bottom of her shirt and boiled it clean, then wrapped it tight around the wound.

“Who is she?” Aly asked Jaime later, when Silver Wolf busied herself dressing a hare she’d speared on the walk. Something else occurred to her. “How do you know her language?”

The question put light in his eyes. As they cooked the hare, Jaime told Aly how he’d ended up stolen by the woman and trapped at her village, and all the traveling they’d done since.

“So it was good we got captured, or we wouldn’t have found you,” he concluded. He paused. “Though if you were supposed to be bait, I suppose the Weeper would’ve gotten word to the Wall by spring.”

“It’s good you came now. I was going to try escaping when spring came. Or before, if I had my first moon’s blood before then. I thought Ulf might… steal me, properly, if I did.”

Jaime opened his mouth like he was going to ask something, then stopped himself.

“He didn’t touch me,” Aly said, guessing what he wanted to know. “One man tried, before we got to the village. I stabbed him. And the Weeper just beat me. He knocked out two teeth.” Not wanting a man who seemed physically perfect to strain himself searching for sympathy, she added, “They were crooked anyhow.”

He didn’t seem to know what to say to any of that. Finally, he settled on, “You’re very tough, my lady.” Then he smiled at her, a warm smile, and not the one he got when he was amused, or pleased with himself. It made him look less scary, even with the wild beard and dirty face. “Is that a common trait in Mormont ladies? Your younger sister was the same.” 

“Lyra?” Aly said, sitting up. “You met her?” It wouldn’t be Jory. She got shy around strangers and probably wouldn’t have talked to him at all.

“We stopped at Bear Island on the way to the Frozen Shore. Your mother and oldest sister had run off looking for you in the Northern Mountains. It was Lyra I talked to mostly. She’s got more balls than your uncle.” 

Aly nearly got teary-eyed again, but she stopped herself. “She’s a brat,” Aly said fondly. “How’s Jory?”

“Living, breathing, well fed? I paid more attention to the one wringing oaths from me. Wasn’t satisfied until I swore to bring you home or die trying.”

“Don’t die,” Aly said, troubled. “That seems…”

Jaime shrugged. “It’s my duty, and I don’t fear death.”

He said it like it was that simple. If oaths are so important to you, why did you kill Aerys? He’d even bragged about it to Ulf. She didn’t understand, but feared she might offend him by asking.

Then Silver Wolf said something to Jaime, and Jaime turned to speak with her, and her chance was gone.

The next morning, they headed out early and kept a good pace. When clouds came in around midday, Jaime began looking to the sky every so often with a bad look on his face. Each time, he’d say something in the Old Tongue to Silver Wolf, who’d reply with a dark expression of her own.  

“A blizzard is coming,” he told Aly when she asked. “It might be I don’t get the Weeper after all. Any wildling with sense would see that sky and hunker low, and our tracks will be gone by time the storm is through.”

“Will we find shelter?”

“On our trip east, we stayed in a good-sized cave. We should reach it in time.”

He said it with confidence, but kept them walking fast, even though his limp got worse as the air grew colder. Silver Wolf barked something, and the dogs drew closer, trotting beside them instead of wandering as they had been.

Quiet gripped the forest, but Aly felt the storm prickling her skin. Before long, the wind picked up, and within an hour, snow began to fall, lightly at first, but soon thick enough Aly couldn’t see ten feet in any direction.

“A half hour more,” Jaime said.

When the wind started gusting in earnest, Aly pulled her scarf around her face and focused on counting her footsteps. They kept to a barely-visible game trail that meandered through ancient trees, forest and path hardly distinguishable. Fallen trees and rocks occasionally jutted from the snow and turned the ground uneven, and Silver Wolf had to offer Jaime an arm when his ankle gave him trouble.

Jaime’s beard had frozen around his mouth by time he said, “Just around that bend.”

By then the wind gusted so bad it cut straight to her marrow. One more step, she told herself. One more.

Then the dogs launched into a chorus of barking, so loud and fierce Aly froze where she stood.

With a curse, Jaime grabbed her by the arm and pressed a dagger into her hand. Before Aly realized what was happening, he’d drawn his stolen sword. Silver Wolf snapped an order, and the dogs quieted, and for a moment, there was no sound but the wind. Then she heard horses. The storm made the noise strange, and it seemed to be coming from one direction, then the other.

The riders looked like ghosts when they appeared, moving shadow-like within the trees on small, sturdy mounts. As soon as Aly knew the threat was human, she moved closer to Jaime. It meant the Weeper was with them. He’d gotten back shortly after they left, and he’d tracked them down.

We have three dogs, she reminded herself. Three dogs, a spearwife, and a Jaime.

This time there was no taunting from any of the raiders. Silver Wolf barked orders at her dogs, and they charged at the uneasy garrons. While some ran, others came forward. The wind screamed, and when Jaime stabbed a charging wildling, he screamed too.

Jaime yanked the raider off the horse and finished him, and the horse bolted, disappearing to die in the storm. Aly pressed her back to a tree, holding the dagger. Should she do something? How could she possibly help? Another man cried out as a dog snarled, but stopped abruptly mid-scream.

In front of her, Jaime cut off a horse’s leg, then killed its rider and put the animal out of its misery. But another foe took him into the trees, and Aly could only see his back. Or she thought it was his back, for he and his opponent looked identical through the blowing snow.

She searched for Silver Wolf, and the woman had two men around her. One had a dog sinking its teeth into his arm. Silver Wolf speared him through the eye, but the other knocked her into the snow. I should help.

She’d almost forced herself to move when the Weeper emerged from the forest, clutching his scythe. He saw her, and Aly’s pride fled.

She screamed. 

Jaime was there in an instant, blood splattered across his face. Not his, she prayed. But his limp was bad, and he held his blade too low. She remembered the cut Ulf had given him, and a thrill of fear shot through her.

“I’ll have your fucking head,” the Weeper screamed at Jaime.

Then he charged.

Jaime braced his feet and blocked the blow and executed a perfect riposte, but the Weeper wore a ranger’s mail, and the tip of the blade raked across it but didn’t cut through. The scythe was so cumbersome, Jaime got in another blow before the Weeper could react, but Ulf’s sword must not have been perfectly sharp and only smacked him in the side.

Taking a step back, Jaime opened his mouth and shouted something, but the wind stole whatever he said. Another man emerged from the trees, and Aly yelled, “Left,” and whether he heard or only saw, Jaime turned and parried, and killed the man with a slice through the neck.

When Jaime was turned away, the Weeper slammed his shoulder into his back. Jaime stumbled, all his weight coming down hard on his bad ankle. His leg gave out, and he fell to his knees. The Weeper kicked Jaime’s right arm, and it was cold, so cold, he couldn’t have kept his grip. The kick sent the sword out of reach, buried in soft snow.

Aly ran at the Weeper, and stabbed at him as best she could. He saw her coming and dodged so it only glanced his arm, then grabbed her elbow and threw her to the ground. She rolled right way up just before Jaime Lannister threw himself bodily on top of her. What is he-

She only glimpsed the scythe before the blade raked across Jaime’s shoulders, biting through his furs and making him cry out.

With a grunt, Jaime brought himself to his knees, then turned so his back was to Aly, bracing his hands on either side of her, blood steaming as it seeped from his wound. He leaned to one side and tapped Aly’s wrist with his right hand. As she slipped him her dagger, he shouted again.

This time she heard. “Lyuk. Navu. Kesuk.”

The dogs.

A stab of hope went through her, but no dogs came. They were dead, or unable to hear over the wind.

The Weeper took Jaime in, and he smiled. “This is going to be sweet,” he said, and he lifted his scythe.

Jaime fell back against Aly, and it whistled over their heads. He tried to leap up before the Weeper could catch his momentum. But he was injured, and snow made the ground slick. By time he’d risen, the Weeper had already straightened. Even so, Jaime lunged desperately with the dagger, arm extending.

The Weeper’s scythe licked back around, the blade far too fast. It slowed only a little as it slashed through. He missed, Aly thought.

Then Jaime staggered, drawing in a loud breath.

He screamed. And Aly saw. She shoved a hand over her mouth, forcing back vomit. No, no, no.

The Weeper laughed as Jaime collapsed into the snow, screaming again when he landed on his slashed open back.

“Beg, and I might keep the girl alive for my pleasure,” the Weeper said.

“You will not. Have. Her.” Jaime moved away from the Weeper, and put himself in front of Aly, propping himself on his left hand and keeping her behind him. Blood pooled and crackled in the snow on his right side.

 The names of the dogs tore from his throat, louder this time, the cry fueled by agony.

“You’ve gone mad,” the Weeper decided, laughing.

Aly glimpsed a shadow through the trees. A garron? Through the snow, she could barely see. No, no. It's a dog. 

“Jaime,” she said. "Jaime, look." 

He turned his head, and he noticed. “LYUK,” he yelled. When the creature approached, Jaime cried out a word in the Old Tongue, and Lyuk leapt at the Weeper’s back, fangs tearing into his neck. The raider shouted, but it turned quickly to shrieking. Then he began to whimper, the sound mingling with the dog’s snarls as it sunk its fangs into the raider’s face and throat, biting and tearing until there was only a mess of bone and blood.

But after the Weeper fell silent, Jaime kept making awful noises. Tears freezing on her cheeks, Aly took the sheepskin cloak from her shoulders. Without its protection, the wind ripped through her like razors, but it didn’t matter.

She lifted the place Jaime’s right hand used to be, blood dripping onto her hands and breeches as she fumbled with frozen fingers to get the cloak around his wrist. Jaime grabbed at her with his left hand. “Leave,” he said. “Silver Wolf will-” He jammed his eyes shut and cut himself off, visibly biting back another scream. 

Ignoring him, Aly tried to cry for help. But the storm had come, and Aly couldn’t see and couldn’t hear anything but the wailing of the wind.

All she could do was sit and hold Jaime Lannister while he cried and he bled.

Chapter Text

Jaime Lannister passed in and out of consciousness as time crawled forward. Aly Mormont held him, his head in her lap. For a minute, he watched Lyuk gnaw at the Weeper’s face and wished for his mother.

Then he remembered the ranging. In the Old Tongue, he yelled, “Lyuk, get Silver Wolf. Fetch. Silver Wolf.” His voice came out between a whimper and a sob. “Silver Wolf.”

“It’s alright,” said Aly, thinking he shouted nonsense. “You’ll be alright.”

Jaime shut his eyes so he would not have to listen to her lie.

He woke to his body being jerked off the ground, a scream off his lips the moment reality snapped to focus. Silver Wolf had found them. She had his arm over her shoulder. Blood wept and steamed from a gash that’d ripped open the left side of her face from temple to jaw.

“We’re all going to die,” he tried to tell her, but he groaned instead.

Aly Mormont grabbed his other side, and Silver Wolf told Jaime, “Walk.”

He tried. Mostly they dragged him, Silver Wolf cursing and dripping more blood. Jaime cried and stumbled. Eventually, the world fell away again. When he next opened his eyes, he lie in the cave. It’d been close. Minutes away at most, if they’d dragged him there. He wept at the thought. If they’d moved a touch faster. Woken up earlier. If the Weeper had been a fraction slower.

Silver Wolf stoked a fire. They’d stayed there with Dalla and Val on the way to Ulf’s village, and left supplies for convenience when they passed back through. Little good that would do them.

“Kill me,” Jaime told Silver Wolf, but realized he was speaking the wrong language.

She came over and grabbed his left arm and dragged him toward the fire, looking like a monster with her face pale and the gaping wound and her nose discolored from cold. With trembling hands, she cut away his coat and shirt from the right elbow down.

“What are you doing?” Jaime said, again in the Common Tongue. 

“I’m sorry,” she said.

She thrust his arm into the fire, and darkness stole him again.

Jaime slept longer after that. When he next woke, the pain screaming through him came as a shock. He sobbed and roared until he gathered the control to gnash his teeth together and keep the noises inside. Silver Wolf crawled over to him. Her face had been swathed in strips of fabric. Stitches would not work, he supposed. Too much had been cut away. The wound was an infection waiting to happen. He did not say so.

She’d stitched his back at some point. He felt the catgut digging into inflamed flesh.

“Drink,” she ordered, and put a carved stone cup to his mouth, pouring in water, holding it there until it was down his throat.

“Aly,” Jaime said. He tried to sit up to see, but Silver Wolf held him in place.

“Sleeping. She is safe. Dogs too.” She looked over her shoulder. He followed her gaze. The storm still roared outside. “You rest. It is all you can do.”

“Leave me. When it’s done-”

“Sleep,” she ordered, and ignored him when he cursed at her.

The next time he opened his eyes, Silver Wolf had snared a rabbit and boiled the bones in their cook pot. She forced broth down his throat. The bandages on her face had turned red.

Aly went to his side and held his left hand. His only hand.

“Do you know ‘The Dornishman’s Wife?’” said Jaime.

“I think so.”

“Sing it for me.”

She was a stout, plain girl who looked more like a wildling than a lady, but she had a smooth, pretty voice, though she made the song too sad. Jaime closed his eyes and listened. When she finished, she sang another song and another, until he fell asleep once more.

After the storm ended, Silver Wolf insisted they needed to move. When Jaime asked where she planned to go, she did not respond. He didn’t bother noting which direction they traveled. It didn’t matter. He walked with his arm around her shoulder, and she carried most his weight, but every step was torture. His ankle still ached, the gash across his shoulders throbbed, and the ghost of his right hand burned.

Several slow days passed in this manner. Infection set in, and fever followed, and Jaime’s periods of consciousness grew less frequent. Sometimes he was not sure if he was conscious or not, for he began seeing things. Rhaenys ran laughing through the trees, and Aegon laughed as he watched Jaime from behind a log. Once, Silver Wolf wore Elia’s face, sad and full of judgment.

One day, when he was vaguely aware of trudging through the snow, his legs gave out. He slumped to the ground, and the world fell away. He dreamed he sat on the branch of an old, giant weirwood. A crow with an extra eye perched next to him. Together they watched a mummer’s show. A boy playing a knight fought a raider with a scythe.

The mummer’s knight tried to attack, and the scythe came down and cut the knight’s hand from his wrist. Jaime fell into the body of the actor, and he screamed. Everything grew dark, and the sun and stars melted away, and there was nothing but snow and darkness, the crow, and Jaime’s bleeding wrist.

Do not fear, the crow said. The strongest trees are rooted in the dark places of the earth.

“I don’t bloody care,” Jaime said.

The crow sat on his chest. What are your oaths?

Mance thought the oaths might be magic. Out of some dull hope they would save him, Jaime repeated for the crow the lines that seemed relevant. “I am the sword in the darkness. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn.” Nothing happened. “What was that supposed to do?” He laughed. “I don’t suppose it matters. I’ll wake up soon.”

You’ll die, said the crow. It would be best. The song is not yours, and you can’t even fly.

“I don’t want to die,” Jaime said. “Help me.”

Help yourself.

Jaime rolled onto his back, clutching his forearm. He became aware of himself, gaunt and scarred and bleeding, and he cried.

“All knights bleed,” said a familiar voice. A knight clad in white knelt next to him and hauled him up by the arm. The face beneath the helm was his own as it’d been at fifteen, young and beautiful, green eyes full of hope. A spike of envy ran through him, until blood bubbled from the Young Lion’s lips, and Jaime looked down and saw the sword run through the boy’s heart.

One-handed, Jaime drew the blade. It burned against his palm.

The boy gazed upon Jaime as if he’d stepped from a song, even as the light threatened to leave his eyes. He finished Ser Arthur’s line. “Blood is the seal of our devotion.”

Jaime reached for him. They touched hands, except Jaime did not have a hand. When the boy’s fingers grasped Jaime’s stump, blood seeped into his pristine white glove, eating it away. Soon the boy’s hand was gone also, and the white of his Kingsguard attire turned black. He wore no helm, and his eyes were older, but not lifeless.

I am looking into a mirror.

You see, the crow said, and landed on his shoulder. It met the eyes in his reflection. Was that so hard?

“I’m sick of this dream,” Jaime said.

You aren’t dreaming. Fly with me.

“You just said I can’t fly.”

You can with help. Its beak drilled into Jaime’s forehead, and his head jerked and swayed. A presence shoved into his head that should not be there. He screamed again, but the crow’s thin, reedy voice said, Do not fear. Focus. See.

“Stop,” Jaime said, but the bird did not stop. Together, they flew.

Silver Wolf clutched her legs to her chest as she kept watch, prayers to her gods on her lips as she trembled. Aly slept with her cloak clutched around her, tossing with a nightmare. North and to the west, Tormund knelt before a heart tree, face twisting as he heard something he couldn’t make out. At Orl’s camp, Ygritte squealed with laughter as she hit her mother with a snowball, then laughed harder when Edyth gave chase and tackled her to the ground.

Around every scene, blue eyes loomed in the trees, waiting.

The crow took him to the Shadow Tower. Mance played his lute and sang “The Night that Ended,” but it sounded like a different song, one Jaime had heard in another dream. Qhorin stood watch on the Wall, and with no one around, he bowed his head and stooped his shoulders. Looking north, he let grief sink into every line of his face.

At Winterfell, Ned Stark smiled at a tiny girl kissed by fire, while two boys ran in the yard. Catelyn Tully leaned over the wall walk, watching them with a face smooth and blank as porcelain. The dark-haired of the boys stopped with a hitch in his step and looked up and watched the crow take Jaime away. The world blended and bled, and they were at Casterly Rock, his uncle Tygett’s body laid out in a sept. Tyrion cried, and Jaime’s father sat with his face in shadow.

In King’s Landing, Robert spilled his seed in a whore and called her a dead woman’s name, and Cersei brushed out her hair, watching herself in the mirror. “Jaime?” she said, and stood, and called out again. “Jaime?” she repeated, but he could not answer. She picked up her brush and threw it at the glass, then bent over the shards and studied herself in the broken fragments. Green eyes peered back, dazzling as wildfire.

Across the narrow sea, in a house with a lemon tree and a red door, Viserys Targaryen stared out a window while a servant entertained a young girl pretending to be Aegon the Conqueror. In secret, Oberyn Martell spoke with Willem Darry, one man angry, the other steeped in sorrow.

“Get out of my head,” Jaime told the crow, for he felt his skull would burst. “I will die.”

You must see, it said. We must fly.

The rest of the world flew by in a grand sweep. Finally, the crow took him further north than Tormund’s village, further than he had ever ranged. Men in bronze armor knelt to a man they deemed a god, then blurred past before giving way to nothing. Ahead loomed a curtain of light, which scalded his eyes.

“Stop,” Jaime ordered. “This is too much.”

The crow cawed. Have you seen enough? Do you understand?

Below, men and women looked emptily at the sky, spires of ice piercing them. Laughter rang from that space, not the crow’s, but another laugh, and the face of one of the dreamers gazed at Jaime with one dark and one smiling eye. Jaime said, “Winter is coming. I suspected this. This is not my place. Take me back.”

I cannot, it said. You must do that yourself.

The crow tore itself from Jaime’s skull, and Jaime fell until the spires and ice and everything else faded away, leaving him in darkness. But that did not matter, for he was fire and light, and both were brightest in the dark. Crows grew visible around him, filling the branches of weirwoods. The crow with three eyes hopped from a branch and landed in his hair. It might be you’ll do. Have you got any corn?

“Get it yourself,” Jaime said.

Is that any way to thank me for my help?

Before Jaime could ask what it meant by that, the clearing grew brighter, light coming from the crows, and coming from Jaime. His eyes flew open, and he lie in a clearing, moonlight shimmering off snow. His hand throbbed, and the wound across his shoulders ached so fiercely he feared he’d rip in two.

Aly Mormont knelt in front of him. “Jaime. Are you awake?” She looked over her shoulder. “He’s awake.”

“She doesn’t understand you,” Jaime managed, his tongue sluggish. Dizziness stole his breath, but that passed quickly, the world settling around him with horrific clarity.

Silver Wolf moved slowly to come to him. Her eyes were hazy, her face flushed. Her bandages were nearly black with dried blood.  

“You slept five days,” she said unsteadily. “You should be dead.”

We’ll all be dead soon enough. As he had the thought, the three dogs barked. The trees rustled, and Jaime wondered if whoever found them would be kind enough to kill them quickly. Silver Wolf scrambled clumsily to her feet, and she moved with such strain, there was no chance of her beating any opponent worth a damn.

But when the figure came into the clearing, riding an elk, it wore the blacks of the Night’s Watch.

“Brother,” Jaime ventured with false confidence. He did not know any brothers who rode elk, nor who’d be so far into the haunted forest.

But the man said, “Brother,” in a tone of agreement. Ravens circled him. Several more perched on the elk’s antlers. When Silver Wolf moved toward him, Jaime caught her eye and shook his head. The ranger said, “My master wishes to speak with you.”

“The three-eyed crow?” guessed Jaime. This must be the ‘help.’

“In a sense, though the crow was not he alone, but something bigger.” Without prompting, the elk lowered itself, and the ranger got off. When no one moved to hurt him, he approached Jaime. “We’ve healers who can see to your wounds."

"And hers?" Jaime said.

"No. But I have supplies. I will give her aid. Come." He extended a handed to help Jaime up.

It was black and swollen.

“What are you?” said Jaime, tasting bile.

“A man long dead,” the ranger said, “but not a wight. You need not fear.”

This was another fever dream. He would come out of it any moment, he decided, and resigned himself to playing along until he did. He reached carefully with his left hand, and the ranger helped him up.

Silver Wolf’s eyes were about coming out of her head, and she looked at the ranger as if she’d liked to burn him. This seemed a reasonable response. But their situation could hardly get worse.

Despite the sureness of his supposed brother’s grip, Jaime could not make it more than a step, his legs weak as grass. Wordlessly, the ranger heaved Jaime off the ground and took him to his elk. He moved with a trace of difficulty, but less than he should have, considering he was no larger than Jaime. In a dead thing’s arms, Mother Mole had told Tormund. Jaime remembered about the three-eyed crow and blood and the bear, and he laughed. 

The dead man’s blank black eyes grew puzzled. Seemingly, he could not comprehend someone might find something funny in his unholy presence.

“You remind me of Eddard Stark,” Jaime said.

“I do not know him,” the ranger said. He heaved Jaime onto the elk’s back. There is no dignity in this, thought Jaime as he flopped like a fish, cursing as he wrenched himself into a better position to ride. But Jaime hadn’t wiped his own arse since he’d lost his hand. He had no dignity left.

The dead man climbed atop the beast in front of him, and Jaime said, “Am I to grab onto you?”

“If you must,” the ranger said.

“How romantic. This is a fine rescue. I might even swoon.” He grasped him, one-armed and awkward. The ranger did not smell like a corpse, but like winter, and the musty fabric of his ancient blacks.

“You trust him?” Silver Wolf asked, finding her voice. “He is wrong.” She said a word, and he thought it might mean monster.

“Do we have a choice?” Jaime said.

She let her shoulders sag. “As you say.”

 

“We’re going to be late,” said Ser Byam Flint as they trotted on their garrons through the the haunted forest. The knight had just been assigned to the Shadow Tower. He hailed from House Flint of Widow’s Watch, and had squired with Wyman Manderly in his youth. A third son with nowhere else to go, he’d competed in a few tourneys, did some wandering, then joined the Watch at two and twenty.

Mance told himself Ser Byam had been sent to the Shadow Tower because he was competent and enjoyed fighting. Not because Qorgyle meant to replace Jaime.

Likely, Mance was lying to himself. Jaime had been gone a hundred and eighty four days. A hundred and four more than expected. Even Tyrion had stopped writing.

“I’m often late,” Mance said. “Ser Denys knows to expect it.”

“He’ll not like that we visited wildlings.”

“He knows about Orl. Jaime set up an arrangement between he and the Watch three years ago.” Mance bulled over whatever Ser Byam planned to say next. “There’s a large heart tree somewhere around here that’ll give us shelter. There’s no sign of a coming storm, and we’ll be warm enough just getting out of the wind.”

“Warm enough,” he said dubiously. “Do you get properly cold? Doesn’t seem like you do.”

“It’s the wildling blood. I don’t get frostbite either.”

Ser Byam laughed, like Mance had meant to be funny.

They reached the heart tree. Mance slid from Dapple. He’d begun riding her every now and then. A teary-eyed stable boy had come to him saying Jaime ordered him not to let any ranger use her, but supposedly she was getting lonely. He’d begun crying properly, as if he had any right. “I-I don’t wanna disobey him, but he’d not like seeing her so sad. You take her, but be careful. I was sent here for murder, and I’ll hang you with your insides if you let her get hurt.”

Mance found this unlikely, but he’d let the horse be thrust upon him.

While Ser Byam made camp, Mance went to the heart tree and knelt in front of the face, touching his hand to one of the eyes. You have plans for him, you bastards. Don’t let him be dead.

“Do you follow the old gods?” Ser Byam said.

“Yes,” said Mance distractedly, trying to listen. There was a rustle. The wind. But the gods sent the wind, or so the free folk said. What does it matter if they do respond? I can’t understand it. Why give a tree a mouth, if not so it can speak?

Mance turned away and helped Ser Byam. When they were finished and sat together—not eating, for the detour to Orl’s camp had used their stores, and they’d come across no game that day—Ser Byam ventured, “Did… you ask Orl about Ser Jaime?”

“Yes,” Mance said shortly. “He knew nothing.”

Worse, Ygritte had run forth upon hearing a crow visited. Mance snapped at her for asking about Jaime, and she’d hit him with a fake sword she’d made. “That wasn’t knightly o’ you,” she’d said, Jaime’s influence screaming from her. She could’ve sent her sword through his gut, and it wouldn’t have hurt so much. He hadn’t told anyone at the village how long Jaime had been missing. In spring, he would. But he didn’t yet have the heart.

Ser Byam cleared his throat. “Ser Endrew says you were close.”

Are close,” Mance snapped. Feeling pathetic, he hunkered into his cloak and said, “Go to sleep. I’ll take first watch.”

Looking sadly at Mance, Ser Byam did as ordered.

Two days later, they reached the Wall. Mance was relieved to get rid of the knight, who was far too talkative. He hurried Dapple through the gates, and the obnoxious stable boy rushed forth to look over the garron, only relaxing when he saw she’d not been harmed.

“Some trust would’ve been nice,” said Mance, and the boy showed him the fig.

Mance scowled after him and headed for the common hall. They’d caught only a rabbit the last two days, and his gut ached and his skull pounded. He would brush off Ser Denys and speak to him after eating.

Qhorin appeared from the direction of the armory, making Mance stop mid-stride.

“What-”

His brother grabbed his arm and tugged him to an alcove between the main tower and an old building mainly used for storage.

“Are you going to kiss me?” Mance said. “I told you how long I expected I’d be gone. I didn't even-”

“Blane came back,” Qhorin said. He was smiling. “The Kingslayer’s alive.”

Mance broke free of Qhorin’s grasp solely to seize him by both arms. “Jaime- is he-”

“Not here.” Without prompting, Qhorin told the tale: the men’s capture, the mad trip across the Frozen Shore, then the Frostfangs. He concluded with Jaime disappearing with a spearwife and two other women to try slaying another king.

Mance slumped against the wall, his head spinning. “Why didn’t he just come back? He can’t- How does he expect to kill a king?”

“He told Blane he meant to challenge him to a duel.”

“Free folk do not fight duels,” Mance growled. He’s alive. That’s something. You thought he was dead, not twenty minutes ago. But if he found hope again, only for it to all be for nothing…

He tore away from Qhorin. “Where’s Blane?”

“In the meal hall. Mance-”

He strode off, brushing aside several brothers as he ran to the hall. The four dogs drew his eye first. Each was big as Dapple, sprawled in front of one of the fires. Blane sat near them, clean-shaven with his hair cut short, thinner than usual but not worryingly so. Jaime could be with him, if he wasn’t a fool.

The man next to Blane was of age with Jaime or slightly older, and though sitting, had to be nearly of height with Ser Endrew, with a thick beard and dark blond hair partially braided close to his skull, the rest left loose to his shoulders. He wore wolf claws around his neck, along with an amulet carved from bone, and another with fangs strung alongside charms of pale wood. He’d been given clothing from the Watch’s stores, though that helped him blend in not at all.

Ignoring him, Mance vaulted himself onto the bench next to Blane. “Did the Kingslayer say where he was going?”

Blane blinked rapidly. “Hello, Mance. I’m sure you thought me dead. It’s nice how pleased you are I’m back.”

“I’m glad you’re well. Knighted also, so Qhorin says. Is your arm healing?”

Blane managed a thin smile. “It is, but there’ll be scars. You oughta greet Little Wolf. He hasn’t seen many friendly faces.”

“Your brothers aren’t pleased I’m here,” the wildling said. He spoke with a noticeable accent, but fluently. “Blane tells me they will grow better with a commander to yell at them.”

Mance tried to make his face friendly. “I’ll yell if you please, but I don’t plan to be here overlong. Blane-”

“Jaime doesn’t want you chasing him. Either he’ll come back in time, or he’ll fail, and you’ll get yourself killed looking into it. He told me to say as much.”

“Why didn’t you go with him?” Mance said, turning to the wildling. “Blane was hurt. But-”

“He ordered me here.” Little Wolf held up his hands. “Bribed me to take his brothers to the Wall. I’d not have left my sister if he’d not pushed. He wanted Blane and Ned here, to tell you he was not dead.”

Unable to protest this, Mance looked back at Blane. “Do you know where he planned to go?”

“We were behind him,” Blane said. “The wise woman kept me at the village ten days. If you go out looking too long, you’ll miss him when he returns.”

“If,” Mance said. “If he returns.”

Blane’s eyes softened. “Get permission from Ser Denys. Then we’ll talk.”

“If you go out,” Little Wolf, “I come. For my sister.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Mance said shortly. “About you as well,” he added when Little Wolf opened his mouth. “But I advise you wait here. He’ll deny you on principle.”

“Don’t you want to eat?” Blane said, but Mance was already gone, heading for Mallister’s solar.

 

The ranger saw to Silver Wolf’s face the first night, while she trembled and cringed from his dead hands. If she survived, the whole left side of her face would be ruined. The slash pulled that eye in a funny shape, giving her an angry look, and it cut so deep that it’d heal raw and uneven.

When Jaime said so, she told him such scars were valued on the Frozen Shore, and was upset only because she’d no longer see perfectly out of her left eye.

Jaime received no treatment. Too many supplies were needed, the ranger said, and there was too much to be done. But he did give him a tonic for the pain. Jaime slept often and spent most the rest of the time insensible from fever, but he did not slip into another long sleep.

On the fourth evening, when Jaime remained awake and staring at the fire, Aly Mormont told him, “The Weeper said you’d saved a city.”

That tale had spread further than he would’ve liked, far enough Mance had asked him about it, though Jaime brushed him off. If Mance knew, everyone at the Wall would know, and then it’d be only a short while before it got to Robert. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Jaime told her tiredly.

“I’d believe anything you say,” said Aly, eyes wide and earnest.

 More than once, he’d asked himself,Would it have been so bad to let the Weeper kill her? What is one girl compared to my sword hand? Seeing that look made him understand. One girl was the difference between honor and dishonor, between being the man he hoped he could be, and the oathbreaker most of Westeros believed him.

He didn’t tell her of the wildfire, even so. He didn’t have the energy nor inclination.

“It’s in the past,” he said, then asked her to let him sleep.

Sometimes he tried to talk to the ranger, but the man ignored or evaded Jaime’s questions, until it became a game to pester him into a reaction.

“What’s beneath that scarf of yours?” Jaime would ask. “Is there anything? I’ve a strong stomach. I’d not mind seeing.” Or, “How long have you been dead?” or, “Can whatever magic’s keeping you moving get me a new hand?”

Only that last one had gotten a proper reply.

“No,” he said. “Your hand is gone.”

“Of course it is.”

They traveled seven days, and on the eighth came to a long rolling hill, covered in snow and rock and the stumps of dead trees. Though the sun remained high, the ranger drew the elk to a stop.

“Here,” the ranger said. From his elk, he looked down at Silver Wolf and Aly. “There is a cave shortly to the east where you will be safe. I will take you there when I have gotten him where he needs to go.” He repeated this in both Old Tongue and Common.

“How long will he be gone?” Aly said.

“Until he is healed enough to get you home.” When she asked for something more specific, he said, “Several weeks.”

That was too long. Jaime said, “I need to-”

“It’s fine,” Aly Mormont said. “We can wait.”

“Take Lyuk,” Silver Wolf said. She glared at the ranger. “I do not trust them. He will protect you.”

“Lyuk,” Jaime said in the Old Tongue. “To me.”

The ranger urged the elk forward, and the dog followed. Jaime noticed the weirwoods when they were halfway up the hill, and soon after spied a cleft in the rock. This more clearly became a cave with every step the elk took. When they drew near enough, the ranger stopped his mount. He dismounted before helping Jaime down.

“I leave you here,” he said. “The cave is warded, and the dead may not enter. You must walk.”

Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. Jaime looked back at Aly and Silver Wolf, waiting with the other two dogs.

“You will have a guide,” the ranger added.

“Very well,” Jaime said, sighing. Lyuk turned his head to peer at him with dark eyes, then continued forward, keeping pace with him. They’d gone only a few steps when glinting gold eyes appeared near the entrance to the cave.

An animal, Jaime thought. Then, A small girl.

He advanced slowly.

An illusion.

The creature stepped into the light, roughly of size with Tyrion, but slender and graceful, with skin dappled like a deer’s. She wore a cloak of leaves, and her hair was red and brown and gold, with leaves and flowers woven through it. Lyuk lowered his head and sniffed curiously, dispelling the notion Jaime’s fever addled brain had produced the sight.

“Come with me,” she said, her voice high and beautiful.

Imagine it’s a dream, and I need only play along.

With unsteady legs, he followed her. As they descended into the ground, weirwood roots wove through the earth, some thin as worms, others so thick they blocked entire pathways. It was warm in the caves, and the child carried a torch that made the way bright. For a time, they picked their way through paths so cramped and twisted they reminded him of the innards of an animal, winding entrails pressed in close. Infrequently, they stepped into larger high-ceilinged spaces, these with jagged rocks pointing fang-like from the ground and ceiling.

Bones littered the floor, skulls from animals, from men, and from what he imagined were dead children of the forest. He caught the sound of moving water, and occasionally glimpsed other sets of glowing eyes.

His head pounded with every step he took, as did his missing hand and the wound on his back. The fabric Silver Wolf had used to bandage his stump had long since soaked through with pus, and the stench burned his nostrils and made his head spin. But he did not let himself stop, the dead things providing motivation when his body begged him for rest.

They eventually stopped within a small chamber off a wide hall. The child of the forest helped Jaime onto a bed of woven roots, cushioned with leaves and pine needles and covered in a thick fur. There she left him, and he stared at the ceiling and wondered if he was dreaming this while lying in the snow, dying of fever.

The child soon reappeared with two others like her, a girl-looking one with a satchel upon her waist, and an auburn-haired male. Jaime scooted away from them. He’d hoped to get his wounds tended, but this was wrong, all of it. The strange caves, the alien creatures.

“What are you doing?” he asked. He eyed Lyuk, who hovered, ears perked as if waiting for the command to attack.

“We need to heal your wounds,” the first told him.

“Heal how?” Jaime demanded of the one with the satchel.

The first said, “Only I speak your language. The rest speak the true tongue alone.”

“Do you even know how to fix me? I’m likely built differently than you… deer people.”

“You need not doubt our capability. For thousands of years, we have learned the power that lie in plants and trees, and we remember also secrets of the bodies of animals, things you have forgotten about yourselves. Will you let us help you?”

I am not an animal. He said, “Just don’t cut off my arm.”

She gave her friends permission to begin. They needed to slice off his coat and shirt of reindeer skin with a blade, and even then it was excruciating wrestling both over his stump. When that was through, he slumped panting against the bed, breathing through gritted teeth.

One undid the fabric around his wrist. The stink was bad enough he gagged, and the sight far worse, pieces of skin charred from where Silver Wolf had seared it to stop the bleeding, other places red and angry, all of it oozing with pus.

The male offered him a bowl of greenish mush. Jaime did not take it.

The first child said, “It will numb you.”

“Will it make me sleep?”

“No,” she told him, and reluctantly he tipped the bowl to his mouth and swallowed. It tasted like incredibly strong tea, except thick and gritty, crushed bits of leaves and powder sticking into his tongue and coating the inside of his mouth. He finished it, and she passed him a skin of water to wash it down.

“What are your names?” Jaime said, having trouble keeping the three straight.

“They are too long for the human tongue.”

Too exhausted to worry about creativity, he decided to think of that one as Deer, and the one with the satchel as Satchel, and the male-looking one as Tully.

Satchel had begun to remove things from her satchel and set them out across a broad flat rock. He saw a bone needle and small sharp knives, and leaves and flowers and tiny bottles that appeared to have tinctures inside. Tully set up a cauldron over the fire and poured into it something from a large skin.

Jaime relaxed onto the bed as their odd concoction took hold. It worked well as any milk of the poppy, and soon he felt only a dull ache where his hand had been, and a slight itch on his back. A laugh burst from his lips, the lack of agony so glorious he could’ve sobbed in relief.

After a time, Satchel picked up a paring knife, small enough he didn’t much fear she’d cut more than she ought. She used it to slice away rotted and burned flesh, grasping the knife in an odd clawed hand. Tully moved behind him to see to the wound across his shoulders, but he felt only the occasional dull tug.

The liquid over the fire began to boil. Satchel scooped it into a stone bowl and poured it over his wrist, and Tully used another bowlful for his other wound. Upon receiving instructions from Satchel, Deer mashed leaves and other ingredients in a mortar. Jaime smelled garlic and recognized honey when she added a spoonful. Satchel followed this by putting in drops from the tinctures.

As Jaime watched them, his determination to remain conscious fled. He did not think Deer had lied about the concoction putting him to sleep, but it’d been far too long since he’d been warm and free from torment. He drifted off as Satchel began packing the poultice around his wrist.

He woke to a shocking absence of pain. Lyuk stood upon hearing him move, resting his massive head on the edge of the bed. Jaime shoved himself into a sitting position with his left hand. His stump been bandaged, and it looked far better cleaned and covered, though the abrupt stop of the limb remained horrific. Both wounds ached, but this hurt was so trivial, he barely noticed.

Deer sat in a corner, keeping watch over him.

“Why am I here?” Jaime said. His mouth was dry and tasted bitter.

“To speak with the last greenseer,” she said. “But you are too weak. You must rest first.”

“I have to finish my ranging.”

“You will not finish your ranging if you die. Your brother watches your companions. You need not fear.” She stood and came to him, and picked up a stone bowl in strange clawed hands. “Drink this. It will help ease the last of the fever.”

The last concoction worked so promisingly, he did so without question. This time, the mixture was smooth enough to drink properly, with no grit or pieces to linger in his mouth. It still tasted horrible.

“Water,” Jaime said, and she gave it to him. His head felt clearer after having something to drink, and he remembered Lyuk. “My dog needs food.”

“We’ve seen to it. Another singer will bring soup for you shortly.”

“Singer?

“You call us children… or deer people.” She said that like the name amused her. “We call ourselves those who sing the song of earth.

He wondered if it was worth asking questions to try to understand what was happening. How the children knew to help him. How they still existed. Why they cared about his fate. But thinking of it only hurt Jaime’s head, and all he wanted was to get his hand back and go home.

The impossibility of it all became too much. “Leave me,” he said. “I grow tired.”

She left, and he slept.

As promised, other children came with food. Soup the first day, but sometimes fish, or mushrooms, or goat cheese and milk, along with oats and heaps of dried fruit. Another child, this one he dubbed Blossom, came one morning to cut away his matted, bloody hair, which had become so disgusting he allowed it without protest. He was less certain about letting the child shave him, but like his hair, his beard had become a mess. When she offered, he allowed it with a nod.

The children’s medicines combated his fever and coaxed his wrist and the gash on his back into healing. Each morning, Satchel and Tully made him drink some tonic or another, and checked on his wounds, occasionally rubbing a new salve or applying a poultice. When he became better able to move, they brought soap and rags to wash him. Several days later, after what might’ve been a week—time passed oddly, and he slept in uneven stretches—Satchel decided she ought to get handsy with his stump and touched and poked at it without apparent motivation.

“I’m going to behead her if she doesn’t stop,” Jaime said when Deer visited to check on him. He’d tried placing the matter before Satchel, but she’d only scolded him in her sing-song voice.  

“It’s necessary,” Deer told him. “If it is not touched or handled, it will remain sensitive always.”

“I’d sooner forget it’s there,” Jaime said, to which the child asked how he planned to forget it if it troubled him constantly.

He kept silent after that.

Two days after this talk, Deer came to him and said, “You will meet the last greenseer now.”

She helped him into a thin tunic, and the caves were warm enough he felt only a slight chill when they stepped from his cozy chamber. The pathways looked worse without his injuries distracting him. The bones frightened him, and the dirt walls and white roots had an odd note of colorlessness, everything unnaturally black and white. Lyuk remained close, and Jaime reached out every now and again to reassure himself with the dog’s presence.

They came to a steep decline, which Jaime only barely managed to stumble down without falling. By time they reached the bottom, he was panting, his missing fingers throbbing in time with his heartbeat. A dark chasm stretched far as he could see, a narrow natural bridge spanning it.

“If you try to make me cross that,” Jaime said, “I will throw you in the water.”

Deer said, “Look behind you.”

Jaime let out a trembling breath, then did so.

The body in the nest of weirwood roots had little skin left, and that which remained was white as snow, except a birthmark the color of red wine. On closer inspection, Jaime realized the roots did not just cradle the thing, but grew through it. One shot into a thigh and came out a shoulder, and another poked snake-like from an empty eye-socket. The corpse had even begun growing leaves and mushrooms on its head and face.

The single red eye in his skull moved, and Jaime swallowed a cry as he jerked back.

“So you are he,” the being said, so softly. “Were I still a man, I would have hated you.”

“Who-” Jaime began. Then realized. The birthmark. The red eye. And he wore the blacks of a man of the Night’s Watch. His stomach dropped. “Bloodraven.”

“Once,” he said.

“I ended the house you spent most your life serving,” Jaime said hollowly, one hand trembling, the missing one aching. “Do you seek revenge?”

“When you have seen all I have seen, such things cease to matter.” His voice was dry, like wind through autumn leaves. “Houses, lords, wars, they are nothing. Everything is impermanent, and all that flourishes must fade.”

“I read something like that in The Seven Pointed Star, Jaime said. “It was you in my dream, wasn’t it?”

“Dream?” His eye fluttered shut, then back open. “I can watch your dreams and slip inside them. I can… send things. But I cannot know how they reach you, or what you see.”

“We flew,” Jaime said.

“Maybe we did.” The ranger was right. He’s barely aware of this, of me. As if to prove him wrong, Bloodraven’s eye focused on Jaime, and something human crossed his face. “I have watched you. I saw you born. I saw you grow. You… remind me of my brother. Daemon.”

The brother you killed. “Why pay any attention to me?”

“Not only you. There are many I watch.” A rattling breath. “We are not so different, you know.”

“The man you killed wasn’t quite a king,” Jaime said. And I had a far better reason than you.

“I speak… of the broken oath, and being sentenced by the king we helped to power.” Bloodraven moved his head, and whatever was left inside his skull scraped against the root going through his empty eye socket. “We also both loved our sister,” he added with ghastly amusement. “I’d rather I hadn’t. It… hurt.”

It ought to have troubled Jaime that the thing knew about Cersei, but the more Bloodraven spoke, the sadder a picture he made. Jaime drew closer. “That feels distant to me now. A memory. Is it love if you can move past it?”

Brynden Rivers laughed a ghastly laugh. “If a man is strong enough, he can move past any wound.” His eye went to Jaime’s stump. “The hand is gone, yet you live on, do you not? I lost a-” He had to think about it.

“An eye,” Jaime said.

“An eye. At first, I would… run into things, and reach for objects, and fail to grab them. The missing eye would ache. I could not ignore what I did not have.” His voice grew increasingly mournful as he spoke, as if he’d forgotten these things, that life, and only now remembered.

“Time passed,” the Lord Commander continued, “and seeing with one eye became what was normal, for me. So it will be with your hand. So it is with lost love. You will not regain what has been severed, and sometimes you will remember the absence, and the hurt. But you adapt. It is the nature of our kind.”

Jaime wiped at his face with his left forearm. I’m crying. Not for himself. For the man before him. Something of his state made Jaime’s missing hand seem a trivial thing. He had to ask, “Did you mean for this to happen? Did you desert intentionally to become a tree? Or-” He dared not say more with the child still present.

“I did not know,” he whispered. “But I do not regret it. I do… what I must. For the realm. Always.”

That sounded like the man in the histories.

It sounded like a Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.

“And what is it you’re doing?”

“Watching,” he said. “Waiting. In time, I will teach my successor.”

Jaime didn’t wish to think too deeply about that. “What of me?”

“I brought you here so your injuries might be tended, and so you could meet the children and better see how much man has forgotten.” He paused. “And to present you with a gift.”

At this, the child stepped forth. She went behind the man’s throne and retrieved something.

A sword.

Jaime knew what sword Bloodraven had wielded.

 “Is this a joke?” Jaime said. “I can’t use it.”  

“You had two hands. You lost one. The other should serve.”

“Only a bloody archer would think as much,” Jaime said, earning something like a smile. 

Despite his reservations, he took Dark Sister when the child offered it. The sheathe was too new to have been the one Brynden wore when he brought it to the cave. They fetched that for me. How long in advance had they known he would come?

The sword distracted him from thinking on it deeply. Jaime had to pin the sheath between his boots to pull it out. The leather around the hilt was new, velvety black. A ruby shone from the center of a golden crossguard, and he almost smiled. Red and gold. And black.

When he drew it, the sword’s lightness startled him. Yet it was not so light it felt flimsy or strange. Only right. The blade itself was a work of art, built for quickness and more elegant than any he’d seen. The metal was pale silver rippled through with black and shades of gray. It caught in the torchlight and seemed to burn.

The fifteen year old boy in him swooned.

Visenya used this blade to cut Aegon the Conqueror to convince him to create the Kingsguard.

Daemon Targaryen had lost Dark Sister in Aemond’s skull during the Dance of the Dragons, when he leapt from his dragon’s back and landed on the other man’s mount in midair and sent the blade through his eye.

Aemon the Dragonknight had wielded it.

“I’m holding Aemon the Dragonknight’s sword,” Jaime blurted before he could stop himself.

Bloodraven’s smile became more noticeable as such. “Yes,” he said. “It… historically has been a blade for those who love battle, and fancy themselves great warriors. Strange, that I ended up with it. It suits you better.”

Jaime frowned. “It would if I had a hand. This is no blade for a cripple. And it’s recognizable. No one’s going to let me keep a Targaryen sword.”

“You must have it. I will… help, with any problems that come up. But I see you grow weary. Tomorrow we will speak again.”

“Will I be allowed to leave?” Jaime asked. He’d not hesitate to stab himself in the belly if he thought he’d end up like Bloodraven.

“As soon as you are well enough,” Bloodraven promised. “Not so long those with you will worry.”

“Why could they not come?”

“The children had kept their secret for a reason, and as for me… sometimes ghosts are best left buried.”

Jaime studied him for a long while, then gave in. “As you say.”

The trip left Jaime tired and aching, but one of the healers fed him something that helped with the pain, and he remained awake long enough to draw Dark Sister a second time.

“Don’t watch,” he told Lyuk, who jumped on his bed and promptly stared at him as he tried walking through basic guards. But the movement hurt his back so much it told him nothing, except that he ought not be practicing yet. He grudgingly sheathed the blade.  

When Jaime went to Bloodraven the next day, the former Lord Commander began their talk with a lesson. “A man who is ignorant is also blind. I do not refer only to book learning. You must learn to always watch, and to see.”

“That’s redundant,” Jaime said, a corner of his mouth lifting as he lowered himself to the floor in front of the man’s odd throne. This isn’t what I expected.

“At tourneys, spectators watch the joust, and they see men on horses hitting one another with a lance,” Bloodraven said. “An observant knight will see when a man lifts his shield at the wrong moment, or does not sit his horse well enough, or strikes too high or low. Watching is passive. To see, you must engage with what is in front of you.”

“My father gave me lessons like this. Every lord gives their heir lessons like this. You could show me magic instead.”

Bloodraven laughed that whispering laugh of his. “This is more valuable. I suspect I might succeed where your father has failed.”

He was not wrong. The subject matter meant Brynden spoke often of his time as Hand and events of his past, seeking examples to illustrate points. As he did, ghosts of a personality crawled forth. A tale of a long-done tourney and failed rebellion, an affair including a glamor and dwarf spy, featured some dead man whom Rivers called Lord Butterbutt, which startled from Jaime his first laugh since battling the Weeper. And the man’s love for Daeron the Good colored every word he spoke of him. Those glimpses of a man who’d had a sense of humor, who’d loved his brother dearly, made his lessons easier to swallow than endless prattling from Casterly Rock’s maester or Lord Tywin.

Jaime had laughed aloud when it occurred to him a mostly dead man who was partly a tree showed more humor and emotion than his father. But when he thought on it further, it became less funny, and he pushed the comparison from his mind.

As days passed, Bloodraven revealed how he’d cobbled together knowledge enough to make men claim he watched the realms with a thousand eyes, not all of his techniques involving magic. He spoke of calculations, successes and mistakes, and detailed what he saw as his own shortcomings or things he’d have done differently.

Sometimes he brought up magic, though he taught Jaime nothing interesting. Instead, he yammered about consequences and how to spot tricks and glamors. Only once did he discuss what he did from his weirwood throne, merging with trees and children similarly imprisoned by roots, watching and learning.

Every now and again, he gave Jaime the chance to talk, though his contributions were trivial. He spoke of Cersei and all he'd given up for her, and how little it'd gotten him. He’d kept the secret for six years, and found relief in confessing to someone who might’ve once understood. But mostly, Jaime told him nonsense things, striving to find lightness in the dark caves, among the unsettling children.

When Jaime healed enough to practice with Dark Sister, he ranted for a quarter hour about his incompetence. “I’m worse than a child swinging a stick.”

“You are surprised? With your left hand, you’re inexperienced as a child swinging a stick. Your mind, your body, they only know the one way.”

“But I know what I should do.”

“Using a weapon is not about knowing,” he said. “It is about feel. You must relearn feeling. Think to your earliest lessons. Start again, and start slow.”

 “Will I ever be as good?” 

“I do not know. It does not matter. Your importance doesn’t lie in your ability to wield the sword.”

Abruptly, Jaime grew sick of veiled nonsense. “When can I leave?”

“Soon,” Brynden promised.

This did not prove empty dissembling. Some three days later, Deer came to him with deerskin breeches dyed black, a black wool tunic and soft leather coat, along with black leather boots and a wool cloak, with a cape of black wolf fur.

“Where did you get these?” Jaime said. The children had supposedly once been hunters, so in theory, they could’ve made them. He hoped it was so, for he didn’t like to think where else they might’ve come from.

“We had time to prepare for your visit,” she told him, which answered nothing. He fumbled as best he could to undress, able to manage that, more or less. But he needed assistance getting the new clothes on. He couldn’t lift his arms without straining his back, and his useless right arm was naught but a hindrance.

When finally he’d gotten the fur into place and the child tied his boots, he felt halfway like a ranger again, though the throbbing, empty place where his right hand should’ve been didn’t let him get away with the illusion for long.

The clothes fit well, which unsettled him further. Even if they had made them, how would they know-

It’s best not to think on it.

“One more lesson,” said Bloodraven, when Jaime had come to say farewell. “A man who behaves like he has power will command authority. If it appears one knows everything, and word travels saying it is so, many will believe it, even if it is not true. You may be crippled, but your behavior will impact what your missing hand means to others... Perception holds as much weight as fact. Sometimes it is perception that creates fact. ”

Jaime took in the man with his rotting face, yellow bone visible along his brow, near where the mushrooms grew. “Do you wish me to kill you? You’ve been helpful, and a Lannister always pays his debts.”

Bloodraven looked surprised, then longing. Jaime wondered if he’d say yes, and if Jaime did him the favor, whether the children would attack and keep him from leaving. “No,” he said finally, with resignation. “No, my brother. I have much yet to do. Go and live your life.”

The child helped him collect his things, and said nothing of the offer he’d made Bloodraven. As much as Jaime longed to go, leaving proved difficult. It felt as if he left a brother behind. He isn’t suffering, Jaime told himself. Only traces of Bloodraven remained, and those had come to the forefront only because of their talks. When Jaime was gone, he would lose himself all over again.

The thought reassured Jaime not at all. He left, even so.

After all, he had a ranging to finish.

 

Little Wolf sat his horse with all the grace of a pile of rocks, and seemed nearly as likely to tumble. Far as Mance could tell, he’d not ridden in his life.

House Lannister sent horses to the Wall every so often, so there were a few fine palfreys in the stables, along with two destriers that brave stewards sometimes took hunting south of the Wall or used for travel. Little Wolf had tried claiming for himself one of the latter, then spent a half hour after setting out thanking earnestly Mance for fighting him out of it. 

Mallister had not been pleased to send Mance so soon, and with a wildling, but he’d seemed equally determined to get Little Wolf and his dogs away from the Wall. As for Mance, he’d pulled him aside after agreeing to the ranging. “A month. Look me in the eye and swear it by your gods.”

“A month,” Mance promised, meaning it. A fortnight wasn’t enough time to get to the northmost branch of the Antler, where Blane said Jaime was heading, but if Jaime had made much progress south, they’d either run into one another, or Mance would come across wildlings who’d seen him. Mance wasn’t likely to make himself useful no matter what happened, but he’d settle for the illusion of action. He couldn’t stand more waiting.

Little Wolf shifted atop his garron. “One of your brothers asked me if I fucked my dogs. Why would a man fuck a dog? Another laughed because I call myself wolf. Mormonts call themselves bears. Jaime called himself a lion.”

“Aye,” Mance said, laughing. Much as he still worried, he was in a better mood this ranging. “It’s odd what they’ll pick at.”

Little Wolf teetered atop his garron and determinately straightened himself while his poor horse trudged forth in a long-suffering manner. Once he caught his balance, he said, “I thought I might ask if I stay at the Wall, after all this. Swear vows. Jaime speaks of fighting Others, and I might learn to use sword like him. But… I do not know. There would be little place for me. It is a matter to think on.”

Dismissing that as nonsense talk, Mance laughed. “You’d take orders from Mallister?”

“He is better than my grandmother. In clan, if one doesn’t do what he ought, and it is important, he is beaten, or sacrificed, or if it is very bad, exiled.” He gave a wry grin. “Jaime learned fast how that is. The Great Wolf gave him a good slap, and later, Silver Wolf got a knife to him. Then he ceased being unruly.” 

There were a dozen things to think on there, high among them Jaime being slapped by the man’s grandmother. But foremost, the matter of legitimate concern. “A knife.”

“A small one,” he said. “Though it got his pretty face- oh, don’t look like that. A cut over his eye got infected, and she might’ve bitten his lip? Something happened to it. He spat at her when she claimed he didn’t have a cock.”

“He was well?” Mance checked, knowing he shouldn’t laugh but very much wanting to do so.

“Eventually,” Little Wolf said. “He still did not take orders well, and he talked too much. Silver Wolf does not speak Common, and they made me translate. While I tried to shit. While I wished to eat. Once, Silver Wolf came to me while I was fucking. It was almost better when they were not friends.”

Mance let himself chuckle, picturing it far too clearly.

As it turned out, ranging with Little Wolf passed the time well. Mance knew less of the Frozen Shore men than he did of most free folk, and asked questions of them, their strange religion and how their clan functioned. They followed the Milkwater, stopping at a handful of villages along the way. Not all of them were willing to let Little Wolf remain with his dogs overnight, but they did answer Mance’s questions.

He received the same answer at all of them: no one had seen Jaime since winter began.

After exactly two weeks, they came to the final village Mance wished to check, roughly four days from the point the Antler’s separate tributaries merged into a single river. Ulf’s village was supposedly near the lake from whence the uppermost tributary flowed. This was close enough, Mance suspected this smaller village was under the king’s authority.

If something had happened, surely news would’ve traveled this far, at least.

When they passed the outermost buildings, free folk stopped to stare and whisper at the dogs. As Mance and Little Wolf approached the hall at the village’s center, word of their presence traveled. Just when Mance began to wonder if anyone would venture forth to speak to them, a girl poked her head from one of the buildings.

“It is you,” she said, looking suspiciously at Little Wolf. As if for good measure, she added, “Heathen.

Little Wolf stood straighter. “Priestess.”

“I’m not-”

“My sister-”

“Isn’t here,” the girl said. She ventured forth, dressed all in white, a broach with a face like a heart tree fastening a wool cloak about her shoulders. Mance blinked several times. She looked as he’d imagine of a daughter of the Night’s King and his corpse wife, her skin like ivory and long lashes framing eyes a cool, striking color that in the late day light rested between blue and gray.

“You’re one of those went off with Jaime,” Mance said.

Her eyes flashed to him. “Another crow?” She met his gaze, showing no hesitance in staring down a man over twice her age and size. “We left him some time ago. Just outside the king’s village.”

“My sister was with him?” Little Wolf pressed.

“Yes.” She drew her cloak closer to her, her breath fogging the air as she breathed. “Soren will want to see you. Then we can talk.”

Soren. Not that man Mance had known, but his son, if he remembered right. That didn’t worry him. If Val gave her approval, they ought not have a problem.

In the cramped hall, Soren Shieldbreaker sat near the back of the room, talking in a low voice with the men around him. The woman who must’ve been Val’s sister sat in the place that’d usually be reserved for the leader. Mance had never seen a lord hold court, but he thought this was what it would look like, an old woman sitting at her side, others waiting nearby for their turn to speak. He’d heard of such women. Druka, they were called in the Old Tongue. He’d only met one in all his years ranging, an elderly woman, when he’d been only fourteen.

His party had been ambushed and his brothers killed, and he’d limped off to a village to beg for help. The woman had given him a lute she’d traded for, telling him he had the hands of a musician. She knew how to play a little, and while he recovered, showed him fingerings and taught him a few simple songs. He’d still been at Castle Black, and it’d been the first time he came back late from a ranging. The First Ranger, a wizened Raven’s Tooth who’d come north with Bloodraven, had called him a dozen kinds of traitor and kept him at the castle a full month.

But he’d let Mance keep the lute.

Mance tried to glimpse this woman, but she faced to the side, and the head of the crone next to her obscured all but a braid of rich gold and the very edge of a shadowed profile.

“You,” Soren said, drawing Mance’s eye. “Halfbreed. I remember you coming before. And you’ve brought a…”

“I’m from the Frozen Shore,” Little Wolf said. “I am friends with Val and Dalla.”

Soren looked to Val, who lifted a shoulder in what was almost a shrug.

“Do you either of you know anything about the Kingslayer?” Mance had to ask.

The chief threw his head back and started laughing. “Yes, girl. Tell him about the fucking Kingslayer.”

A strange smile came to Val’s lips, though it did not sit there quite easily. “Dalla and I ran into a man from Ulf’s village a few days after we left Ser Jaime. He claimed Jaime pretended to be a bard to gain guest right. While the whole village dined, he challenged Ulf to a fight in such a way the king couldn’t refuse. Jaime fought him unarmored, without a shield, and with a poor weapon—and won, easily. He spiked the head, and told the villagers to show the Weeper when he returned from a hunt, and to give him his regards. When he left, he had both Silver Wolf and the girl with him.”

If Jaime was hale, Mance would write him a song for that. He’d even make it a good one.

“What of the man they were after?” Little Wolf said. “The crying man?”

“The Weeping Man got back the next morning and set out with horses and his war party soon as he heard what happened. A blizzard was in the air, and he struck out immediately, without gathering even extra supplies. He nor any of his men ever came back.”

That wasn’t damning. Jaime knew how to kill free folk in groups. Take the leader, and do it easily enough, and the rest scattered. With the dogs, he shouldn’t have had a problem even if the Weeper caught him before the storm hit.

There was the blizzard itself to consider, but Jaime knew not to let himself get caught.

Val looked like she wished to say more, but she glanced over her shoulder and fell silent. Her sister had separated herself from the crowd and approached. One of Little Wolf’s dogs lifted its head, and the woman smiled and greeted it by name in the Old Tongue, but her expression grew more serious as she came to a stop behind Val. The sisters’ coloring was identical and both were beautiful, but Dalla in a far subtler way; a lullaby, against the sweeping ballads brought to mind by Val’s proud stance and cool eyes.

“Little Wolf,” Dalla said. “Has something happened?”

Little Wolf tapped his fingers against the tabletop. “We’re trying to find out. There was a storm. Men wanted to kill Jaime and my sister. Do you know nothing definite?”

“We should speak somewhere quieter.” Dalla bowed to Soren. “Thank you for letting me use your hall. I’ll talk more tomorrow, but the high seat is yours as you need it this day.”

“For drinking and having a good bit o’ smoked fish, that’s what I’ll be needing it for,” Soren said sheepishly. “You put it to much better use.” He was bearded and broad-shouldered and far larger than she, but he spoke with the bashful respect lowborn lads gave Jaime when they realized he wouldn’t bite, like they couldn’t fathom they conversed with a Lannister on polite terms.

Dalla led them to one of the huts, which appeared to have been cleared for the sisters to use. Val went to the corner to stoke a fire, while Dalla lowered herself onto the furs that covered the floor. Mance followed suit, and Little Wolf after him. His dogs followed behind, two of them wandering to Dalla to greet her with what might’ve looked like friendliness on less savage creatures. She told them both to lie down, the Old Tongue falling off her lips so smooth and musical he half wished she’d keep using it.

Only one of the dogs listened, the other wandering back to Little Wolf.

“Ryn obeys poorly,” Little Wolf  said apologetically. “I spoiled him.” He repeated the command, and the dog did lie down, but with visible reluctance.

“Don’t worry,” said Dalla, laughing. “I have that problem with my traveling companion also.”

“You’re not funny.” Val gave her sister a shove as she sat next to her. “You wanted to indulge the heathen and the crow. Go on.”

Dalla smoothed the tunic she wore, rich white wool, belted with leather at the waist. “Mance, has Ser Jaime spoken to you of Tormund Giantsbane?”

“Yes,” Mance said.

“Of his ring?”

“And the mad mission to get the Watch to a place Tormund would be willing to work with us. Aye, I know it all.”

“It’s an admirable goal,” Dalla said. “The magic in the Wall is plain, but stories say there is also magic in the Watch and its oaths, that the children of the forest played a role in its creation. If there are men at the Wall who’ve not so forgotten their vows, the magic still lives in them, that would be invaluable. There are some free folk who’d as soon kill the men of the Watch, and tear down the Wall-”

“Most free folk, I’d say,” Val corrected.

“Most free folk live so far from the Wall, they scarce know the Watch exists, and do not care enough to hate it. Think before you speak, sister.” Dalla gazed seriously at Mance, her eyes the same odd shade as her sister’s. “We all have the same enemy. Should Ser Jaime succeed, that’s one less fight my people must face, one more ally to give us aid.”

“Beyond Jaime’s worth as a person,” said Val grudgingly, “what he means matters.”

“The very idea of him carries with it hope,” Dalla said. “A ranger who follows the vows as they’d been when the Wall was built.”

Val absently ran her hand across the back of the nearest dog. “We feared when we heard the Weeper went after him, and Dalla looked for him, in case he needed help. She would not let me do it.”

“Looked,” Mance repeated, Val having stressed the word oddly.

Dalla seemed oddly sheepish. “There is a drink that can be made from weirwood leaves and its sap-”

“And blood,” Val said.

Little Wolf had begun to look as if he wished to bolt from the room. Dalla noticed and gave an apologetic grimace. “We’re not in the habit of using such magic. It is… ill-advised, and addictive. The Horned Lord referred to sorcery as a sword without a hilt. But sometimes any weapon is better than none at all, even if using it carries a cost.”

“Where did the blood come from?” Mance asked, more curious than uneasy.

Dalla lifted her right hand. The cut bisecting her palm had been stitched, but it’d clearly been deep and would certainly scar. Mance didn’t ask why she’d not sliced a better place. She seemed convinced of a cost. If she’d not paid it sufficiently with discomfort or blood, like as not she figured it’d be exacted some other way.

“Does that satisfy you, crow?” she said. 

“It’s better than entrails in weirwood branches,” Mance said.

Little Wolf said, “What is it you… saw?”

“I didn’t see your sister, not specifically. I’m sorry.” Dalla couldn’t have known him more than a few days, but she sounded like she meant it. “There were other things I can’t interpret, or that I’d not share now.” She let her eyes flutter shut. “I did hear music, the loveliest song I’ve ever heard, but everything else was dark, when I reached this part, as if the whole world had bled away. Does he live?, I prayed to know, and I came to a dying white dragon curled around a dead weirwood, ravens perched around them both. The dragon had one red eye, and it was rotting. I could see its ribs, and bones but it still lived.

“It beckoned me closer, and craned its neck to press its head against mine. It wasn’t part of the dream, I’m certain, but… directing it. As soon as the dragon touched me, I saw Jaime in a queer dark garden, with stones instead of plants. It was a godswood, it must’ve been, but an odd one, and he was sweating like it was summer somewhere far warmer than these lands. His hair was shorter, and he'd shaved his beard, and-”

“He was older,” Mance said.

“Yes. I think that was true. It wasn’t like the rest of the dream. It wasn’t as strange.”

“Don’t smile yet, crow,” Val said. “She isn’t finished. It wasn’t just his beard he was without. Tell him, Dalla.”

Dalla touched Mance’s arm gently. With eyes full of sadness, she did as her sister bid.

 

The first days of Jaime’s absence dragged. Silver Wolf spent most her time out of the cave, exploring with her dogs. Her face did not hurt her so visibly, though it remained bandaged, and nothing short of agony seemed sufficient to keep her in one place.

Aly didn’t know where they stood with each other, so she initially remained behind. The ranger lingered nearby, though she could not always see him, and sometimes she went to him and tried to work out who he was. He gave no proper responses, and said little and less about what Jaime was doing. Only that there were healers who could help him, and that Aly ought not worry.

After the first week passed, restlessness made Aly follow when Silver Wolf went out. The woman glanced at her, but allowed her presence. Together, with the ranger hovering, they explored until they knew the miles around the cave well as anything. They kept some dozen snares set at a given time, and hunted and fished when needed. A few times they tried getting the ranger to translate conversations, but he only bothered for a few minutes before making himself scarce.

Silver Wolf inevitably cursed after him, loud and fierce, then attempted to talk anyway. Aly let her, finding that she liked the woman despite herself. With her face bandaged, filthy and thin and bloody, she looked just like the monstrous Frozen Shore wildlings Aly had been taught to fear. But Aly hadn’t been afraid of her since Lyuk brought her limping through snowstorm. She’d barely been able to keep herself upright, but didn’t linger over Jaime’s stump a moment. Only took his arm and gestured for Aly to take the other, and through sheer force of will got them to the cave.

When Jaime was feverish, he spoke to Silver Wolf in the Common Tongue, claiming her clan sacrificed a cripple and begging her to do the same with him. The suggestion seemed not to have crossed the woman’s mind. If they’d have died, they would have done so crawling south with their final breaths.

Aly couldn’t help but admire the woman, considering that. And as her face healed, she grew almost playful. One morning, she recruited Aly’s aid in teaching her dogs to spin in circles. Another day, they fought with snowballs, and once, Silver Wolf made a game of trying to steal the ranger’s scarf until he rode out of sight.

Busyness and decent company spurred time along at a decent clip. Aly grew so used to their routine that when Kesuk barked one morning to signal the ranger’s arrival, she nearly choked on her breakfast when Jaime approached the cave with him. He wore clean, fine blacks, and the way the dawn light fell over him, his hair shone gold as the sun. His face had better filled out, and he was so changed, so beautiful, Aly looked to see if his right hand had grown back.

It had not.

Silver Wolf shot to her feet and ran to him. “Jaime,” she said, then followed with something else. Jaime found a smile and embraced her, moving carefully but without visible discomfort. She’d stopped wearing the bandages, and when he pulled back, he took her in with grim eyes, lifting his hand and resting it gently over the still healing skin. She plowed over an attempted apology until he stopped trying.

Jaime gave a strained smile, and eventually murmured something and turned to Aly.

“She says you two got on well?” Jaime said.

Aly nodded, too shocked by his appearance to speak. Magic. It must’ve been magic.

He knelt before her. His eyes were green as grass in summer. “I owe you an apology, my lady. I lingered far too long, when I swore to get you home. There’ll be no more delays.”

Aly didn’t have words to say that he’d done enough, that if he needed to linger to get better, she would’ve stayed two, three times as long. You lost a hand for me. How could I complain?

She had to ask, “What was in the cave?”

 “A brother. Like the ranger, somewhat. And… healers.” He moved his stump as if to rub at his eye, then made a face and lowered it. “You’ve found food enough?”

“We didn’t have much to do except hunt and fish,” Aly said. “I’m well. I promise.”

Satisfied by that, he told them to gather their things. They left within the hour. The ranger came with them, though Jaime didn’t ride his elk any longer, even if it clearly exhausted him to trudge through the snow. He was better, but hadn’t regained his strength.

Whenever they stopped, Aly and Silver Wolf had to help him strip to the waist so they could tend his wounds. When he explained this was necessary, it'd been with a pink face, muttering to Silver Wolf in the Old Tongue. She’d snorted and rummaged in a pack he’d brought from the cave, briskly undid his bandages and washed his stump, then rubbed salve over it before doing the bandages again. Aly couldn't fathom why Jaime would be embarrassed. The charred, bloody flesh had been cut away, and any trace of infection erased. The scarring was obvious, but not unpleasant to look at. Even the stitches had been removed. 

The gash across his back likewise had healed cleanly. It stretched from his upper left shoulder to the bottom right of his ribcage, curved so Aly could see how the Weeper’s angle had shifted as he brought the scythe back up. But the messy, inflamed gouge was gone, only a fading puckered line left behind.

As Silver Wolf put something from a different jar on that wound, Jaime caught Aly’s eye and gave a strained smile. “That bad?”

“It isn’t bad.” Aly wrapped her arms around herself. “If you hadn't gotten in the way, that would've been my face.”

“Oh,” Jaime said, swallowing visibly. “That’s a way to look at it.”

When they reached terrain Jaime recognized, the ranger left them. None of them were displeased to see him go, and the journey went more quickly after he’d gone. The cold began to bite less, and snow to melt in places. Jaime traveled the paths as if he’d done so a hundred times, and eventually they no longer needed to tend his back. That meant they had only to get him out of his cloak and push back the sleeve of his coat, which was far easier than wrangling all his layers past his stump each night.

When he told them only a week remained before they reached the Wall, he grew solemn. Sometimes she caught him staring at Silver Wolf as if he’d rather slip off with her than face his brothers. Aly worried for him, but she aso longed to reach the Wall. The closer they got, the more certain she became something would happen and she wouldn’t make it after all. It felt impossible to think she’d truly get home.

They spent the last night in a cave even Aly could tell was frequented by rangers. Jaime requested they melt snow in a pot and asked them to help him wash, then told Silver Wolf to shave him and even his hair with her knife.

“Truly?” Aly said, amused.

He gave a half smile. “I’ll not greet my brothers looking like a cripple who might’ve keeled over had he been left out another week. Perception matters.”

When Silver Wolf was done, they shook out his outer layers, then washed his tunic and let it dry by the fire while he huddled beneath his coat. Silver Wolf eventually went to sleep, but Aly remained awake, too excited to rest.

“Are you scared to go back?” Aly said, seeing it on Jaime’s face.

“A little,” Jaime said. “When I reach that castle, I’ll still be unable to dress myself, or cut my own food. I don’t know I’ll be able to range. I can’t light a fire. I can’t climb a tree. I can’t use a sword. I’ve tried not to think about it. But I’ll have to face it now, won’t I?”

“There’s a man on Bear Island who lost his hand in an accident on his boat,” Aly said. “He lives by himself and cuts his own wood and must start his fires somehow. He’s grumpy, though. He threw an axe at Jorah once.” She made a face. “Although, Jorah fucked the man’s sister before she was to wed. It got out and caused problems. So maybe it wasn’t grumpiness.”

“Must not have been a good throw,” Jaime said. “Jorah was still walking around when I visited Bear Island.”

“It wasn’t the right kind of axe.”

Jaime laughed. “I should keep you with me. It’s a shame the men of the Watch are so beastly, elsewise you could be my squire.”

“I would like that,” Aly said. She would want to go home first. But she would enjoy squiring for Ser Jaime, and being part of the Night’s Watch so she could keep other girls from getting stolen.

When they got within sight of the Wall the next day, tears welled in Aly’s eyes. Jaime stopped and gave it a long, tired stare. Shaking his head, he turned to Silver Wolf and murmured something else to her. She kissed him, and he held her close and kissed back.

Aly looked away. She wondered if Jaime wished he could marry her. It seemed cruel that he might never see the woman again. I won’t see her again. She peeked over. They’d stopped kissing, but Jaime had buried his face in her neck. When he pulled away, it was with such difficulty she might've thought them stitched at the ribs, each inch of separation a tug at his bones. 

He put on a smile and turned his gaze back to the Wall. Wordlessly, he resumed walking, and Aly and Silver Wolf followed.

 

Mance tried to focus on the notes for “Flowers of Spring.” They’d gotten a white raven just that morning, the Wall was weeping, and he meant to be optimistic. The rest of the castle had become increasingly less so since Mance finished his ranging. He’d shared he heard rumors the king was dead and Aly Mormont rescued. That known, consensus had been reached that Jaime should’ve been back even before Mance.

He hadn’t given details. Jaime would want to tell those. And he’d shared Dalla’s vision only with Qhorin, though he thought Little Wolf had told Blane and Edrick something. No one else would believe it, and even Dalla had warned him it might not be what she supposed.

But Mance suspected it was.

Little Wolf’s outlook had improved at the news. If Jaime got back to the Wall alive, minus a hand, he wouldn’t do it alone. As there’d been no one else with him save a twelve-year-old girl, he’d concluded—likely, rightly—that his sister was alive to help.

Mance still wondered about Aly Mormont. He’d written Maege about what’d come up during his ranging, and knew it’d kill her to receive bad news after the renewed hope. Her death would also mean the past months would’ve been for nothing. The thought was harrowing.

Deciding “Flowers of Spring” was a trite song to play the first day of spring, Mance switched to “Seasons of My Love.”

“Thinking of that woman?” Little Wolf said, looking over from where he poked at his bean and bacon soup.

“Maybe so,” said Mance, playing on. The man had poked fun since they left Soren’s village. After time spent wandering, recovering from the shock of what Dalla had told him, he’d found her to ask other questions, these regarding the kings, the Others, dragons and magic. They’d spoken through sunrise, and Mance had dragged out their departure long enough Little Wolf threatened to leave without him.

He’d like to come across her again, but fortune would have to make it so. The lands beyond the Wall were vast, and she and her sister traveled too often to be tracked.

Little Wolf made a face at him. “She did not even carry a knife.”

“I’m sure she does while traveling,” said Mance.

Blane was seated across from them, sharpening his dagger. “I’d think a more reasonable response would be ‘why do I need a woman who carries a knife?’”

“If you’re talking free folk,” Mance said, “failing to do so would suggest impracticality. She must have one somewhere. She cut open her hand.”

Little Wolf pushed his empty bowl from him. “She could’ve borrowed one. Her sister had-”

The long cry of a watcher’s horn swept through the hall. Qhorin had been dozing and listening to Mance play, and his eyes flew open. The evening meal was just finishing, and the hall was full, but everyone fell silent, waiting for a second note.

There were no rangers out. If it was one blast…

The silence stretched for a second, then two and three.

Mance set his lute gently aside, then got up and ran. Little Wolf was only a step behind him, his giant dogs with him, one barking at the gradual uproar that’d shot through the hall. Outside, the last light of dusk cast shadows across the yard, lighting the Wall strange shades of orange and pink, as if it burned.  

The gate lurched up.

When Jaime stepped through, the Wall shrouded him in strange shadows, and evening mist swirled wraith-like around him. One of the massive dogs kept to his side, larger than any of Little Wolf’s, black save its mask and paws and belly. Two figures followed, and two more dogs. But as Jaime stepped into the last of the sun’s light, Mance’s eyes snapped back to him.  

He wore blacks, somehow, clean ones. He was clean, his hair cut short and beard shaven as Dalla had seen. He had more weight in his face than Blane had, and walked into the yard easy as if he’d been out for an afternoon patrol, and not most a winter.

And he wore a smile.

This was not what Mance had expected.

A murmur went up. “A ghost,” someone said, and that traveled and carried.

Mance shoved his way closer.

“I got the girl,” Jaime announced to Mallister, who’d reached him first. “I killed another king too.”

Was Dalla wrong?

Then Mance saw his sword. An unfamiliar one. Stolen from Ulf?

Worn on the wrong side.

Little Wolf had come forth to charge his sister. Everyone was talking. Qhorin must’ve been somewhere, but Mance could not see him. He gave his head a sharp shake and tore forward, elbowing someone out of the way.

“Jaime,” Mance said, but it got lost over Mallister saying something else.

“Can we ask questions elsewhere?” Jaime said, his voice carrying. “Food wouldn’t be amiss. I also want a letter sent to Aly’s family as soon as possible. On the morrow I mean to set out as part of Aly's escort to Bear Island. I swore to Lyra Mormont I’d see her home, and that journey isn’t yet finished.”

Blane stirred first. “I can tell Mullin to write them.”

“Take Silver Wolf with you. Find her a room. Ensure no one touches her, and her dogs are to remain with her.”

“Aye, ser,” Blane said, and went to it.

“You cannot go out again,” Ser Denys was saying. “You only just-”

 “Jaime,” Mance repeated, shouldering Mallister aside so he could reach him. Jaime had been standing so the fur he wore covered his right arm. Mance grasped his elbow and tugged so he could see. He’d known to expect it, had been trying to get his head around it since Dalla shared her vision. But the confirmation gutted him.

Jaime grabbed Mance’s arm with his left hand, drawing his eyes up. “Lovely to see you again, brother. An embrace would’ve been a preferred greeting.”

Mance felt his face crumple, helpless to hide his grief. But he did embrace him. “I thought you were dead, you fucking arse.”

Mallister made fish noises.

Mance pulled back. “How?”

“The Weeper got lucky,” Jaime said. “Lyuk ate his face.”

“Got lucky,” the girl repeated, drawing Mance’s attention to her. Mance would’ve expected traumatized silence. Instead when he looked, he found a miniature of Maege Mormont, stocky, plain-faced, and distinctly unimpressed by Jaime’s account of events. “He was unarmed, and he got between me and the Weeper.”

“”What-” Mance began.

“All at once, in Mallister’s solar,” Jaime said, putting his left hand gently on Mance’s arm, as if it was Mance who needed reassurance.

Qhorin had manifested, unreadable as ever. When he spoke, his voice was even. “Shouldn’t you go to Mullin?”

“Brother,” said Jaime, pulling him close and clapping him on the back with his… stump. “There, now I’ve made it so you needn’t strain your reputation with affection. Though tears of joy would not be amiss. And don’t worry about the stump. It’s healed.”

“By some wood’s witch?” Mallister cut in unsteadily. “I would prefer-”

Jaime pushed back the loose sleeve of his coat and carefully undid the bandages. Though fading lines remained where stitches must’ve been, the skin on the outside of the stump was smooth, healed as best one might expect. Mance drew closer, unsure if he should be relieved that it’d somehow, impossibly been fixed, or horrified by the absent hand.

As soon rape the Maiden, or render the Mother barren.

“I had it seen to two months ago,” Jaime said. “Mullin can look if you like, but it is not urgent. Come now. I thought you wished to talk. Aly has volunteered to assist with details.”

Men shouted questions and murmured to each other. Jaime made his way through the crowd, the dog clearing for him a path, Alysane Mormont tucked against his left side. Falling into step next to him, Mance grabbed his right elbow so his brother could not slip away entirely.

“Jaime-”

“I’m fine,” Jaime said. “I’ve plans to relearn to fight. I must relearn to fight, or I’d disgrace my new sword. Have you heard of Dark Sister?”

Mance yanked him to a stop. “You went ranging, and came back with a Valyrian steel sword?”

“What’s that to do with anything?” Jaime said, looking baffled.

 “Nothing,” Mance said, but it wasn’t nothing, and his mind was racing. “Where did you get the sword? The blacks?”

Jaime’s expression faltered. He glanced over his shoulder, then said more sharply, “We’ll speak in your cell later. I’d get the talk with Mallister out of the way first.”

You’re keeping composure by the skin of your teeth, aren’t you?  

Mance nodded, and Jaime resumed walking with all the confidence of a king.

They spent over an hour in Mallister’s solar: Mance, Qhorin, Mallister, Jaime and the girl. Mostly, Jaime went over what Mance already knew, whether from Blane and Little Wolf, or from Val and Dalla. He tried to brush over what’d happened with the Weeper, but Aly gave details where Jaime did not. Both spoke of Silver Wolf’s role in salvaging the situation, and for once, even Mallister had no protests to offer.

Of the rest of his healing, Jaime said nothing. “I was sworn to secrecy.”

“By the man who gave you Dark Sister?” Mallister said. “Did Lord Brynden… have children, possibly? Is it they who helped you?”

“Something like that.”

When Mallister finally dismissed them, he insisted Jaime go to Mullin, and suggested the maester check Aly as well. By time those two left, Mallister’s control had fractured, and his eyes were moist.

“Had my life gone differently,” he told Mance and Qhorin, “and I been able to sire sons, I’d have been proud were they half the man Ser Jaime is. Even accounting for the… wildness. He’ll not tell me if anything is amiss, I know that. But you two will help him?”

“You know we will,” Mance said.

“I should write Alysane’s family.” Ser Denys stroked his beard. “Mance, if you’d remind Jaime to write his- er, that is-”

“If he doesn’t want to write his brother left-handed, he can dictate to me,” Mance said. “But send a short message to the Rock tonight. Tyrion will want to know he’s back.”

Mallister briskly thanked them and got to it, leaving Mance and Qhorin to retreat to Mance’s cell to wait for Jaime.

Once they were alone, Mance lowered himself cross-legged on his bed, trying to keep his breathing even. “In the stories, do you know who helps rangers lost in the haunted forest?”

“Yes,” Qhorin said, sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, forearms braced on his knees. “Don’t press him. He said he will not tell.”

“He has a dragonsteel sword,” Mance said. “And the children aided him.”

“You don’t know that.”

Mance drummed his fingers against his leg. "Don’t you see how this looks? Val and Dalla claimed Jaime may be important for their people, because he’s a sign of hope. The details don’t matter. If people believe him a destined hero-” He noted Qhorin’s expression. “I know. He has enough to worry about. I’ll not say a word. Not until he’s had time to cope with the missing hand.”

“You’ll be patient with him,” Qhorin said.

“Brother, you wound me. I’m always patient." 

When Jaime came to them, his hair was wet, and he wore his own blacks. Mullin must have given him leave to stop with the bandages. This was apparent, for he’d donned a wool shirt with fitted sleeves and wore the right arm rolled back, leaving the stump plain to see. That wouldn’t be a thoughtless decision. He was making a point.

Jaime threw himself down next to Mance and braced his back against the Wall. “Don’t ask questions,” he said. “I’m going to try stabbing the next person who asks questions. I’ll probably miss, but I’ll give it an earnest effort.”

“Getting eaten by a dog was too good for him,” Mance said.

“Your swordsmanship will improve,” Qhorin added.

Jaime groaned theatrically. “Don’t say that so confidently. You haven’t seen how miserably I fail at day to day tasks. No, don't bother with reassurances. It’ll get better. I know that. That won’t make it less embarrassing in the present.”

Nothing Mance said regarding the stump could fix a damn thing, so he sidestepped the matter. “Little Wolf and Blane have struck up a friendship. Ser Blane, I should say. Ned had to tell that story. Blane feared Mallister wouldn’t believe him. Of course, Mallister knows you well enough to find it perfectly in character.”

Jaime looked over at him cautiously. “How has Little Wolf fared at the Wall?”

“We haven’t been here overlong. I took him ranging. Looking for you.”

His mouth flattened. “I told Blane, to tell you-”

“I ignored him. It was a useful trip. I ran into Val and Dalla, got all sorts of information. Dalla dreamed a white dragon with a single red eye showed her a bit of your future. Funny, you’d come back here with Dark Sister- Don’t look at me like that. I’m not asking questions. Just making conversation.”

“Your conversation’s tedious as ever. I should’ve left Aly at the gate and absconded with Silver Wolf.”

“Did you love the woman?” Qhorin asked, serious and concerned.

“I might’ve come to, with time,” Jaime said. “Don’t look so mournful. I’m fine.” Qhorin didn’t look mournful. He looked like Qhorin. Jaime glanced at the door. “I should eat. Eating sounds good. Mullin took Aly to eat. You’ll both like her.”

“If you-”

“Mance.” Jaime was already standing. “I’ve no intention of hiding. Come. Play your lute. I’ll pester Mallister for wine. We should be celebrating. I once promised a feast should I kill the Weeper. That’ll wait until we return from Bear Island, but we can have a preliminary celebration in the meanwhile.”

Mance got to his feet and stepped in front of him. “Look me in the eye and say this isn’t all bluster. I’ll thrash you if you intend to treat this like a joke.”

“You’d thrash a cripple?” Jaime said.

Mance gave his best smile. “I could hardly thrash you if you weren’t crippled. It’s a necessary advantage.”

Lip curling, Jaime said, “It is not all bluster. I’ve had over two months to get my head around this. Silver Wolf and Aly were gifted with most my sulking. But if ever I wish to throw a tantrum, I shall come to you, so you might see I’m treating my maiming with proper gravity. I swear it on my honor as a knight.”

Laughing, Mance grabbed him in another embrace, and this time didn’t immediately let go. “I missed you. All these other crows are far too serious. Then Ser Denys tried sending me out with some other fucking knight-”

“There’s nothing wrong with Ser Byam,” Qhorin said.

“That’s the bloody problem. Didn’t complain about the garrons, didn’t threaten me once, no sulking or pouting-”

“I never pouted,” said Jaime, pouting.

“You’re doing that on purpose, and it doesn’t work anymore. You look too fearsome.” Mance headed for the door. “Since you’ve sworn on your knightly honor to be reasonable, I’ll let you have your celebration. Let’s see about acquiring wine.”

“I hope you’ll sing songs of my glory,” Jaime said.

“Do they have to be good songs?” Mance said. 

“Not if we have enough wine.”

As they headed together into the corridor, Mance gave another laugh, the reality of Jaime’s presence only just sinking in. They’d deal with the missing hand. That only mattered so much. My brother is home, thought Mance, and breathed easily for the first time in months. 

 

“Little Wolf says you did live in a castle high as the Wall, filled with gold.”

Jaime had been sitting in the yard behind the Mormonts’ log keep, watching the seven Frozen Shore dogs gnaw on raw elk bones they’d been given. He glanced over as Silver Wolf lowered herself to the log beside him, close enough her left forearm brushed his right. Close enough all he could see of her face was the scar, a shallow valley that pulled and twisted the skin around it.

There was no use apologizing. She didn’t see it as something to be upset about. He found a smile. “It’s three times high as the Wall, and so big there were parts of it I hadn’t seen. I did tell you.”

“I wish I could see,” she said wistfully.

“You don’t want to meet my father,” Jaime said.

“He is insulting like the men at the Wall?”

“Worse.”

She gave a strained smile at that, though seemed to find it more expected than upsetting.

For a while, they sat in silence. But it was a nicer one than he’d had in some time. Jaime had nearly needed to beg to get permission to travel to Bear Island, but wheedling from Aly persuaded Mallister to allow it. The old commander had written ahead, and Lady Maege and Dacey had met their party off the coast of the Gift, some ten days’ travel through the mountains south of the Wall.

The trip was worth it simply to see the look on Maege’s face when she lay eyes on Aly. But after several minutes passed where the three of them held each other and didn’t say anything, Maege had come to Jaime and shocked him with a hug. “Supposedly this was your duty,” she’d said,  jerking her head at his stump. “But I know what men of the Watch are more often like. There’s not one who’d have blamed you for letting her die. When that thing gives you trouble, if it helps at all, know it means everything to us.”

Dacey had kissed him on the cheek and gave him a hooded cloak of black bear fur. When they boarded a fishing boat to go to Bear Island, Aly found Jaime to tell him her sister had killed the bear and made the cloak herself. “It’s more important to her than anything.”

“Should I give it back?” Jaime had said.

She’d slugged him. “You’d better not. It’s a gift. I only told you so you’d know what you’ve got.”

Upon reaching Bear Island, Lyra and Jory did their best to strangle their sister, and Jorah ruffled her hair. But they’d turned to Jaime soon enough. Embarrassingly, Lyra had knitted him something like a wool sock and told him it was to keep his stump warm since he couldn’t wear a glove.

“Jorah said I ought not give it to you,” Lyra confessed, “but I don’t see why not. It’s useful, isn’t it? And I needed to give you something.” She’d looked up at him with big, admiring eyes. “You kept your promise.”

Even Jorah had given a gift, of a sort. “If you ever have need of me,” he’d said, “I promise you I will give it as best I can, if only you ask. I am in your debt, ser.”

Aly had found him a hand axe and given him that, on top of everything else.

Even Jaime gave him a fried cake filled with nuts and honey and swore she’d watched the cook make it herself. Mance had come with—he was being clingy, in a way Jaime did not mind—and the girl chased him off when he tried talking Jaime into sharing.

There’d been gifts for Silver Wolf too. A knife. Furs. A spear with a steel point.

“As long as she doesn’t use them to come back and kill anyone,” Maege said bluntly.

Little Wolf had looked baffled. “Our tribe doesn’t raid to the south. It isn’t worth the-” He’d shut his mouth, seeing the look on her face. But Jorah had invited them to the celebratory feast with the rest, said not a word about the dogs, and volunteered the use of a ship to get them to Lorn Point on the morrow. Considering how relations stood between Bear Island and men of the Frozen Shore, such treatment approached miraculous.

After nine months beyond the Wall, it seemed like a dream. The embracing, children laughing, a proper feast. Since he’d set foot in the keep, Lyra had taken to seizing him by the waist and saying nice things at random, and once he heard her chastise Jory for not acting grateful enough. Maege had offered to make her stop, but he didn’t mind. He’d needed a break, though. Space to settle his thoughts.

“My brother wants to join the Night’s Watch,” Silver Wolf said into the quiet air. “He means to see me to our village, then travel east with trading party and come to the Wall.”

Jaime’s mouth fell open. He cleared his throat. “Say it slowly. I misunderstood.”

“The Long Night draws near,” she said. “Dalla said the Night’s Watch was made to fight the Others. She says it will be important. She says you will be important.”

“That’s-”

“True,” Silver Wolf said.  “The dead ranger would not have saved you if you were not. You were healed like magic.”

“It wasn’t magic,” said Jaime, though he didn’t know one way or another.

“It was something. My brother is in the right. It is best for our people to have someone close to you, to help. To give counsel. Maybe to remind your brothers to fight with us, instead of against us.”

Jaime didn’t want to argue with her over this. “It will not be easy for him.”

“Life is not easy. He will cope.” She watched the dogs. “Take Lyuk. You are short one hand. He will protect you until you learn to fight again. He can carry things and find game, and he is already your friend.”

His throat tightened. “Your dogs are like your kin. I could not.”

She put her hand on his neck, over the direwolf claws she’d given him. “We are kin. Family. It is right you have him. All that looms, it might be you need him.”

Jaime sighed and rested his head against hers, needing the gesture. Words were wind, and thank you was not enough.

The next day, she and her brother departed, Little Wolf swearing to return, to Mance’s utter bafflement. Lyuk watched them go from Jaime’s side. Even when the fishing boat disappeared north, Jaime lingered on the dock, looking out over the Sunset Sea. Aly remained beside him after the others had drifted away.

“You’re leaving soon too,” she said.

“Later this day.”

She gave Lyuk a pet, lowering her eyes as if the task required focus. “Can I write?”

The wind whispered across the water, a gentle breeze that stirred his hair and cloak, and carried with it the smell of spring. Jaime kept his eyes on the waves. “I rarely have much to say. My life is the Watch, more or less. You’ll find it dull.”

“I don’t want to write so I’m entertained,” Aly said, offended. “I want to write so I know how you're faring, and what you’re doing. I don’t want to never hear from you again. I like you. We’re friends, aren’t we?”

He tried to clench his sword hand, and a spike of pain lanced up his arm. “Maybe we are. Write if it please you. My responses may be unreadable.”

“It’ll be good practice.”

That threatened to get a smile from him. “I’ve a lot I’ll need to practice, it seems. Stonesnake was nattering at me about ways I could still climb walls with enough footholds or places to wedge my stump. Mullin about brained him with a goblet for putting it in my head.”

“Are you going to try?” Aly said.

“Mullin says the stump isn’t healed well enough. In the future, I may, if only to know for certain I can’t do it.”

She looked up at him, her nose scrunched. “I bet you could.”

“If I said I’d jump into the ocean to try breathing underwater, you'd think I could do that too.”

That got a blush from her, and stubbornly she said, “I heard once there were mermen near Lannisport. It’s possible you have magic in your blood. It isn’t so far-fetched. And you’re very brave. Go on, jump in. You’ll see.”

He reached out with his right arm, then faltered. Aly caught his eye, and he put it around her shoulders. “Are you sure you don’t want to squire for me? You’ve a good attitude, and a sense of humor under all that gruffness. I’d let you take Lyuk around so you don’t end up like Danny Flint.”

Aly gave him a sad smile. “I’ll miss you too.”

They remained on the docks a while longer. But soon Lyra ran to them breathlessly, saying Jaime ought to come back to the keep if he wished to eat before he left, cheerful, willowy Dacey trailing behind as escort, wearing a sword on her belt. She smiled sweetly when he caught her eye.

Jaime looked north to the Frozen Shore one last time, then let Lyra grab his left hand, his only hand, as she pulled him toward her home.

Chapter Text

Mance sat cross-legged on a bench near the armory, lute in hand, working on the song he’d struggled over for the past five months. He'd come up with the idea shortly after returning Aly Mormont to Bear Island, but hadn't settled on so much as a note since. 

A composer, he was not.

It didn't matter, for he was in no hurry to finish. Doing so would only complicate matters he'd sooner keep simple. Better to take my time and make it perfect. 

In the yard before him, swords sang sweetly as his lute. Spring had gripped the Wall, an unseasonably warm one, and men had begun sparring more often as the cold winds lost their edge. In the corner nearest Mance, Ser Endrew watched Little Wolf and Jaime train, occasionally offering a correction or scolding poor form.

The two made an intriguing sight. Little Wolf wore his hair oddly and had kept his necklaces, but was dressed in fine blacks, given him by Jaime. He’d been hunting and fighting since he first drew breath, and aside from difficult winter months, eating more meat in a year than most peasants saw in their lives. His spine was straight, his shoulders broad, and he moved well. And Jaime was Jaime, just as fearsome, nearly as big, and physically gifted to an improbable extent.

But Little Wolf had not wielded a sword until a month prior, and Jaime’s skill with his left hand left much to be desired. As a drill, Ser Endrew had them attempting to meet one another blow for blow, over and over, doing so as long as they could without disrupting their rhythm. It was almost amusing, two big warriors working at a squire’s exercise, but they turned it improbably brutal. Were any of the strikes to land, the other would sport dented armor, and a bruise for weeks.

Mance plucked a string of notes, frowned, and tried something different. He didn’t like the second attempt either. He stilled his fingers and closed his eyes, thinking through tunes similar to what he desired. Before he had time to consider the matter properly, someone sunk to the bench beside him. Quiet. Graceful. Qhorin is ranging…

He peeled his eyes open and gave a startled laugh. “Are you here to train, Mallister? I’ll be your partner.”

The old knight smiled. “Kind as it is for you to offer, I’m content to leave the fighting to younger men.” He wore a sable-trimmed cloak, clasped with a silver eagle. The way his pale eyes and silver beard brightened his blacks, he looked more like a lord than a brother of the Watch. Those eyes took in the yard, and the creases in his face deepened when he recognized Jaime’s opponent. “Why aren’t you working with Ser Jaime?”  

“I did this morning. I do every morning. Most evenings too.” Mance fingered a few more notes. “I don’t see what issue you take with Little Wolf. I were you, I’d worry more about the brother who’s been helping Darl in the kitchen. He says he burned a seven-pointed star into his skin for every septa he’s raped. Do you know how many burn scars he’s got?”

“I've no love for that man either, but I fear Jaime’s wildling friend might begin a trend.”

“Of strong warriors coming to the Wall? Gods forbid.”

Mallister’s eyes flashed. “We’ll get nowhere talking of this. Why isn’t Jaime wearing his hand?”

We’ll get nowhere talking of it because you have no argument. Mance forced himself to let it go. “The hand is dead weight. A finely shaped piece of his father’s shit.”

 “He could use a shield with it.”

Most black brothers had stopped noticing or caring about Jaime’s stump after a fortnight, and hadn’t thought a thing of Jaime walking around with it bound in leather, or wearing the sleeve Lyra had made him. But Mallister couldn’t fathom Jaime's dislike of the golden hand.

Mance plucked a few more notes. “Jaime has deemed it inconvenient to wear the hand ranging. Why practice with a shield when he won’t typically fight with one?” When Mallister seemed dissatisfied, he added, “What’s useful for a knight isn't necessarily so for a ranger. We’ll do battle one in every ten rangings, maybe, and fights last only minutes, out of days or weeks of travel. You know this.”  

The old man pressed his lips together. “At least he’s decided against a hook. There’s no elegance to a hook.”

“There’s no elegance to a stump either. But he feared a hook would be cumbersome, and catch on things in fights.”

“Yes. Well.” A draft swept through the yard, stirring the knight’s silvering beard, and he pulled his cloak more tightly about him. “Are they nearly done?”

“You walked here to speak with him personally, on your own two feet? Is your steward off buggering a horse?”

Mallister rubbed at his mouth. “I desired to see how his training progresses. When I ask, he merely insults himself.”

True, unfortunately. “If you wish to speak with him before sundown, you’d best interrupt. It’s difficult to say when he’ll stop.”

Mallister raised his voice only slightly, but it carried. “Ser Jaime. Would you come here?”

Graceful as he’d ever been, Jaime broke off from Little Wolf, the other man’s sword going just past his shoulder. He spun on a heel, and his mouth pressed into a thin line when he saw he’d been interrupted by someone he couldn’t ignore. He started over.

Little Wolf showed no sign of following, but Mallister added, far too pointedly, “Only you, ser.”

The wildling’s face darkened. But he put his back pointedly to Ser Denys and made a show of engaging Ser Endrew in conversation. In the month since he’d arrived at the Wall, the man had spent most his time biting his tongue or turning away. Mance had told him the first day getting into fights would only cause him trouble, and he’d taken it to heart, acting every inch the proper ranger.

It’d worked to an extent. Men had begun growing used to him. But the subtle exclusions wouldn’t go away. Mance knew that better than anyone.

Jaime’s jaw was hard, his eyes harder when he stopped before the bench. “Have your courtesies finally gone to rot, or is this some great secret my brother cannot know?”

“There is no discourtesy in a commander giving an order. You’ve grown overdefensive of that man.”

“He is here because of me. If he’s disrespected, it would be ungallant of me to let it lie.” Jaime tapped his blunted sword restlessly against his foot, eyes flickering back to the yard, then meeting Mallister’s gaze with reluctance. “What’s it you want?”

“I received a letter from the Lord Commander. He leaves for a visit to Winterfell in a week’s time to speak with Lord Stark of the Watch’s future, and he would have you two accompany him.”

“Me?” Mance said.

Jaime stilled the sword, his brows drawing low. “Has he gone mad?”

“Yes, Mance. You. And it was not a request, ser.”

“Stark mislikes me. I mislike him. Lyuk would have to come, and a high lord’s castle isn’t the place for such a savage beast.”

“Savage beast?” said Mance. Perhaps because his massiveness left him at ease with life, Lyuk was gentle as a kitten when Jaime didn’t order him to be otherwise. Stupid also, though Jaime took it personally if anyone said as much.

“It is not a request,” Mallister repeated.

Jaime rolled his shoulders and looked to the east. After a breath, he gave a long exhale. “Very well. Is that all?”  

Ser Denys dismissed him, and Jaime gave Mance a strained smile before returning to the yard.  

Assured that Jaime’s reservations went no deeper than expected aversion, Mance stretched his legs before him and returned to playing his lute. To Mallister, he said, “Is this when you warn me to behave?”

“Do not make light of this. The Lord Commander is ill. Depending on who replaces him, Ser Jaime’s ability to tolerate Lord Stark might be significant. Watch him. Smooth things over if need be.”

There was little doubting what he meant. A new Lord Commander would be able to choose the heads of each order, including First Ranger, making changes if desired. Should Jeor Mormont be elected and leave the role open, a replacement would be requisite. Mallister thought Jaime a destined fit for the post, but any trouble on this visit would destroy any chance Jaime might have. And he doesn't have much in the first place. That spot has been Benjen Stark's since he swore his oaths. 

Not unduly concerned over any of this, Mance gave Mallister his most troublesome grin. “You’re asking a lowborn wildling bastard to… make sure the former Lannister heir, an anointed knight, behaves properly in a lord’s castle?”

“You’ve some crude skill at diplomacy, and-”

“You’re a sentence away from choking on your foot," said Mance, smile sharpening. “Have you considered I might not wish Jaime to wriggle his way into becoming First Ranger? Were he to do so-”

“He would be stationed at Castle Black. I am aware, and I like it no more than you.” Mallister stood. “But personal attachment is not to stand in the way of duty, and he’d further your own goals as much as anything." 

Mance laughed. "Are you telling me to cast him off, alone and astray, for personal gain? No, don't protest it. That was a jest. Your scheming here is harmless and well-meant, but I'll have no part in it. If Jaime truly, genuinely cannot behave himself at Winterfell, consider that means he's not the proper choice. Let him earn or fail to earn his own post." 

"He has earned it," Mallister insisted. "But he can be emotional." 

"It's what I value in him most dearly," said Mance, and pointedly returned to his lute playing. He waited for Mallister to give a lecture or an order, but the old man did neither, instead making a single worried sound before he walked off. 

Lifting his gaze, Mance noted Jaime and Little Wolf had resumed their practice. Frustration made Jaime's movements sloppy, and Ser Endrew circled the pair, barking corrections. "Feet, Jaime. Kingslayer, keep your elbow up. I said mind your feet." For a moment, Mance watched them, his chest heavy. Shaking himself, he returned his focus to his lute, searching once more for the proper notes to begin his brother’s song.

 

The Wall has more moods than Mad King Aerys, brothers of the Watch often said. Jaime hated the phrase, because he’d found the Wall a redeeming feature of the bitter north since first glimpsing it. He loathed having the magnificent structure associated with a man whose mention still made his skin crawl.

But as Castle Black’s worn towers drew closer, Jaime decided the saying was appropriate this once. At the Shadow Tower, the sunset lit the Wall until it disappeared beyond the western horizon. Here, leagues of hills and subtle turns in the land kept direct light distant. Riding directly beneath it, close enough to see the pockmarks and dirt worn into the outermost layer of ice, the structure appeared as if it was made of smoke and ash.

 “We could desert,” Mance offered, likely seeing something in Jaime's expression.

Jaime wished he wouldn’t jest. Spending so much time beyond the Wall had made life at the Shadow Tower stifling. Much as he valued having his brothers back, he'd oft recall endless sky and shimmering trees, falling asleep next to Silver Wolf, Dalla and Val’s gentle bickering, even Aly’s gruff conversation, and his cramped dark cell and responsibilities and expectations would choke him.

He tipped his head back, taking in the stars appearing across the darkling sky. He’d overheard Dalla tell Silver Wolf of wildlings who lived in the northeast, who believed the stars spirits that watched over them, and considered clear nights times of great luck. Jaime imagined the whole sky alive, a guardian spirit for every pinprick of light. It was a pretty thought. 

“We ought not desert,” Jaime replied, far too late. Mance laughed at him, and Jaime let himself smile. “You needn’t worry, truly. I’d only been lost in thought.”

“Is that why you look so strained?”

I will be fine. I’ve an ally this time. Jaime caught Mance’s eye and tried to give him a reassuring look. Whether it worked, he could not say.

As they rode past Castle Black’s out buildings, Lyuk keeping close to their horses, the last fingers of sunlight illuminated places Jaime had barely learned and mostly forgotten. Nearly five years it’d been since he’d stumbled through a miserable week in this castle. A lifetime ago, but recent enough, he recalled the hurt and anger that’d threatened to drown him.

He glanced at his stump, and wondered if that boy would be happy with the man he’d become.

Judging by the time, the evening meal would have just begun or was likely to begin soon. Only a few men lingered between buildings, and those paid Lyuk more mind than Jaime or Mance. After stabling their horses, Mance headed toward the common hall. Supposing he ought to follow, Jaime whistled Lyuk to heel, and fell into step at his brother’s side.

When they entered, the hall was filled with crows hunched over their meals. Actual, proper crows with wings nested in the rafters, watching with glimmering eyes as Jaime and Mance retrieved their chicken and roasted onions.

“We shouldn’t need to report to anyone,” Mance said as he led Jaime through rows of tables. He carried Jaime’s mead along with his own, holding the cups between his fingers, by the rims. “Anyone who cares should realize we’re here soon enough.”

He was not wrong. As Mance set his plate at the end of a mostly empty table, Jeor Mormont walked briskly toward them. Jaime awkwardly put down his own plate, balancing it as best he could with the stump. He murmured for Lyuk to stand down just before the man came to a stop.

Despite being bearded and bald, Mormont shared a similarity to his younger sister, something in his features, or mayhaps how he moved, like he expected everyone else to get out of his way. “Ser Jaime,” he said. “I hear you’ve been showered with gifts already, but I’ve been waiting to personally thank you.”

I’ve gotten reports the past four years how irresponsible, disobedient, and dangerous you all think I am. Don’t thank me because it worked out in your favor this time. Jaime gave a sharp smile. “I only did my duty.”

Mormont’s lips pulled into a frown as he took Jaime in more carefully. After a pause, he turned his attention to Lyuk, who'd lowered himself to the floor and panted up at them. “When your wildling friend came to say his vows, he brought two such beasts. They’re impressive creatures. This is the one that ate the bastard?”

“I object to that use of bastard,” Mance offered. He’d seated himself and was cutting into a piece of chicken.

“He didn’t eat him,” Jaime said. “But yes, he killed the Weeper.”

"Stop by the kitchens when you’ve finished your meal, and have the cooks get him his own bird. I’d ask if you’d rather dine at the Lord Commander’s table, but I suspect neither of you would take pleasure in that.” He lifted the edge of Jaime’s cloak. “Dacey’s gift?”  

“It is.”

“Maege wrote me when she made that thing. Fourteen, and she’d been hunting with my daft son. I don’t know what the hells he was doing, but they came upon a big sow that decided they were too close to its cubs. It got on top of Jorah, as I understand it, and she ran over and got it in the throat with her sword. Skinned the thing and made the cloak herself.”

Jaime cleared his throat. “Aly threatened me if I refused it.”

“Of course she did. I was only saying.” Mormont regarded him brusquely. “The way my sister wrote of you, I'd hoped you had ceased to be troublesome. But you’ve men not pleased with you, bringing that wildling to the Wall.”

“I didn’t bring him. He wished to come.”

“Because of you. I don’t know what to think of it.”

As if that was an acceptable way to end a conversation, he gave Jaime a last, long look, then walked off abruptly as he’d shown up.

“You were far more gracious when it was the women thanking you,” Mance observed.

Jaime ignored him and took a seat. Men were staring. Dozens of them. It made the room feel too small. He thought of Mance’s suggestion of desertion. He wouldn’t. But slipping to the Frozen Shore and finding Silver Wolf seemed a fine prospect. The few kisses he’d stolen had been far too brief. Sometimes he swore he wanted her more since he’d returned than when they were together.  

Sensing Mance’s eyes on him, he stirred himself to eat, but kept on his line of thought. Mance had led a ranging to Stehr’s village to leave with him supplies that the party coming east with Little Wolf could haul back, and he’d included for Silver Wolf a spear with a shaft fashioned from a goldenheart tree. It would’ve been a fine thing to see her face when she got it.

Mance was saying something.

“What was that?” Jaime said.

“Were you going to speak with Maester Aemon?” Mance spoke carefully, like he thought Jaime would start at the mere suggestion. “You’d mentioned you wished to do so.”

Ah. Right. The old man had written Mance, looking for answers about Jaime’s recovery of Dark Sister. Jaime had made Mance dissemble, but on the way to the castle, he’d mentioned a desire to resolve the matter. He craned his neck, looking half-heartedly. “I don’t see him.”

“Check his rooms, maybe?”

Jaime frowned at his plate. He had half a piece of chicken left, but it was tough enough, cutting it one-handed was proving a pain. And people were still watching him. He set down his fork and shoved his hand through his hair. “I’ll think on it. I’m going to train presently. Go sit with Ulmer, or some other of your friends here.”

Mance’s eyebrows drew together, and he leaned closer to Jaime. “I’ll talk to Aemon if you’d rather.”

“I’m fine. Truly. But I’ve gotten less swordplay in than usual these past days.”

He didn’t wait for his brother to reply, calling Lyuk and walking with him into the night. The cold air kissed his cheeks when they exited the hall, and he reached with his right hand to pet his dog. Only stump brushed his fur, but to Lyuk, it made no difference. 

Jaime’s eyes drifted shut. He let Lyuk lead him and listened and breathed, enjoying the smell of woodsmoke drifting from the hall. After several breaths, his heartbeat steadied, and he opened his eyes and went to the training yard. Once he ensured he was alone, he slid Dark Sister from her sheathe. Even on a cloudy night, her blade caught light from flickering torches and rippled like living fire.

Like he was learning his first lessons all over again, Jaime practiced stepping and footwork, and when that grew unbearably dull, worked on strikes and cuts. Again and again, the same movements, trying to make them feel natural, while his missing right hand ached to use Dark Sister properly.

He’d just begun indulging in more complex combinations when a bark from Lyuk froze him in place. He was on edge enough he half expected an attack, and could not keep a smile off his lips when he realized it was not so. “You’ve kept the cloak.”

“It’s far too fine for me,” said Eddison Tollett as he drew nearer. “But it’s warm, so I wear it. I do wish I still had the wine.”

Grinning more fully, Jaime sheathed Dark Sister. “What’s it I can do for you?”

Edd scratched the back of his head. “Oh, I don’t want anything. I only thought to see if you were still in one piece.” He grimaced. “Well that just slipped out. Usually when a fellow says that, it’s with the assumption nothing’s gone missing.”

He had to laugh. “I’m surprised you’re all in one piece. Isn’t it you who’s supposed to have the bad luck?”

“If you go out trying to be heroic, you can’t blame luck. The gods aren’t kind to heroes.” Edd nodded sagely. “Me, I avoid heroics when I can. Maester Aemon has me cleaning the library now. That’s enough excitement for me. Your friend left dead mice lying about. Aemon told me as much when I suggested there might be a ghost. If a man’s going to kill mice, he ought to pick them up and make stew.”

“You never ate mice meat,” Jaime said.

“I suppose not. I was the youngest. I only got the tail. There’s no meat on the tail. Didn’t get mice often anyway. That was only on feast days.”

Jaime had no notion if this was true or some strange joke. Best not ask. He peered slightly past Edd’s shoulder. “I’d not sell yourself too short on heroics, anyhow. You helped me.”

Edd blinked. “I didn’t do anything.”

“If I hadn’t been sent to the Shadow Tower... Well, I've reason to be grateful.” He studied the stars. “Answer truly. I’ll not get angry with you. You… heard a wildling has taken the black, somewhat because of me?”

“There’s been talk," said Edd, frowning at the subject change. 

“Does it bother you?”

Edd’s forehead wrinkled as he thought this over. “No, no, I don’t suppose so. It seems silly to pretend we’ve got standards.”

“What about working with the wildlings, north of the Wall?”

“I wouldn’t do it, personally, but that’s because they’d kill me. If you can manage it without getting killed, I don’t care much, one way or the other.”

That was likely as much as Jaime could expect from any of them. “How many men at Castle Black agree with that?”

Edd sucked his teeth. “As to that, I’m wary to guess. But there’s good men uneasy, hearing all the working with wildlings you do. Bringing the fellow to the Wall didn't help.”

He’d thought it was so, but the confirmation pleased him not. He pinched the bridge of his nose and held in a sigh. “It grows late, and I’ve something else I must attend to. Wish me luck.”

“I’ve spent all my life wishing for luck,” said Edd. “It’s best you give up on it, and manage as best you can without.”

Bolstered by the talk, Jaime left Edd with some confidence. But his steps dragged as he approached the rookery. When he noticed, he scolded himself and crossed the last of the distance in long strides.

“He’s a harmless old man,” Jaime told Lyuk. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

Unless he decides to poison me.

Jaime took a deep breath and knocked.

The hunched steward answered. He had whatever the Weeper had, that made his eyes pink and watery. Jaime’s missing hand tried to clench, and his throat went dry. He forced himself to keep the man’s gaze. “I want to see Maester Aemon.”

The man—Clydas, Mance calls him Clydas—stared at him with those damn eyes.

Jaime rested his stump against Lyuk’s back. “I… apologize for the last time we met.” You were worse than me, but it’d be poor form to say as much. Now stop looking at me.

“He’s-” He cleared his throat. “He’s in the rookery.”

“I’ll go to him. Watch Lyuk for me.”

“Ly-” When he saw the dog, the word cut off in a yelp. “Mother have mercy.”

“He’s friendly. Lyuk, say hello.” It was a command Blane had taught him in an effort to get the brothers more at ease around him. But when Lyuk obediently nuzzled Clydas’s hand, the man only whimpered and backed away.

Lyuk tried again, appearing troubled by the lack of positive response. He was the kind of stupid that, upon failing at something, liked to go back and try again and again. That was alright. The last few months, Jaime had spent a lot of time repeating things without apparent results. He could sympathize.

“Is he angry?” Clydas said, staring at Lyuk, who wagged his tail.

“If he was angry, he’d have eaten you.” Jaime brushed past him into the warm rooms, Lyuk trotting behind. “I’ve taught him ‘sit’ and ‘lay down’ in Common, but you must say them with authority. He’ll not understand if you stammer.”

Clydas tried to stammer some response, but Jaime had no patience to indulge him. He told Lyuk to stay, then went to the ladder leading up to the rookery. Of course, the old man would put himself at the other end of a bloody ladder. Sometimes the simple things that’d become difficult made Jaime wish to bash his head against a wall.

Scowling, he stepped onto the highest rung he could reach, then made his way awkwardly up the rest. The fabled Kingslayer. Bane of raiders, fearsome warrior, conqueror of ladders. I am truly on my way to being a legendary hero.

He heaved himself into the rookery with an utter absence of elegance, though he managed to be quiet about it, and since the maester could not see well, escaped with his pride intact.

Aemon turned his head. “Ser Jaime.”

 “How’d you figure that?” said Jaime, climbing to his feet.

“I heard you speaking to Clydas. Come here. Can you carry my bucket for me? I hate to need help with something so simple, but I am getting old, and lugging it about wearies me.”

 Letting out a heavy breath, Jaime went to him and took the bucket. It was filled with raw, bloody meat. “Mance has written you about Dark Sister. You’ve not stated definitively whether you're content that I have it.”

Aemon grasped a piece of meat with a withered hand, then threw it into one of the cages. “I have been told your father has wanted a Valyrian steel sword for years.”

Jaime tightened his grip on the bucket. “When Brynden Rivers swore his oaths, he gave up his allegiance to House Targaryen. Is it not reasonable to think the blade in his possession became the Watch’s as well? It’s not a Targaryen sword, maester.”

With pale, disconcerting eyes, Aemon stared at him. “Are you claiming it would not become a Lannister sword, were you to keep it?”

“Yes.” This surprised Aemon. Jaime went on, “My father has written me about it. I give vague responses, because he’s dangerous when refused. But I don’t plan him to have it. Knowing that, might I have your permission to keep the sword?”

For a time, Aemon focused on feeding the birds. Jaime watched them, and they watched him back. He wondered if Bloodraven was seeing this. He never had worked out just how much the man saw, or how he saw all that he did. Thinking about it too much made his head hurt. But he’d alluded to skinchanging, and he had to be spying somehow.

“You’re saying… you will leave the sword to the Watch.” Aemon’s hands trembled, and he paused in feeding the ravens. “But my family has nothing left. If Viserys, across the Narrow Sea-”

“Viserys doesn’t need a Valyrian steel sword. Westeros would be better off were he not to have one. It’d only help rally people to his side, and I’d slice open my own belly before doing anything that might bring fire and blood upon Westeros again.”

Checking his tone, Jaime went on, “You and Mance speak of Others, and suppose they can be killed by Valyrian steel. This blade is invaluable to the Watch. It was gifted to me for a reason. I will use it for that reason, and not for- whatever dastardly, kingslaying deeds you suppose-”

“I do not think you would misuse it,” Aemon cut in softly. 

This threw him off guard so much he needed a moment to rally himself. “Well, I will put it to good use, and when I die, it will remain here.”

Aemon’s voice lowered further. “Where… exactly, did you find that sword? Can you answer me that?”

“I didn’t find it. I was gifted it. As for the giver, some ghosts are better left buried. His words, not mine." Jaime rubbed at his eyes with his right forearm. “Can I have your blessing?”

He'd not push this so, but the last thing he wished was to counter accusations he’d stolen what belonged to some old man, or to House Blackwood, or gods forbid, the crown. The more men at the Wall who complained, the likelier some idiot would bring Robert into it.

The moment stretched, taut and ringing.

Jaime wearied of this conversation. He’d been weary of it before it began. “Would it be easier for you if I apologized for my behavior when we last met? Or will we get nowhere unless I repent of killing Aerys? I’ll not. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Aemon’s whole face twisted. “More so… than losing your hand for the girl?”

“More so than that. Is it Aerys, then? You have not gotten over him?” Jaime turned. “I don’t need your approval. I can’t fathom why I thought-”

“You have it,” Aemon cut in. He spoke to Jaime’s back. “I… I had a dream, ser, before you returned to the Wall. I knew you would have the sword, and..." He stopped there. "Do you believe me?”

Bloodraven’s doing, Jaime did not doubt. He had promised to help.

“I told myself it could not be so. But.” Aemon took a rattling breath. “I will defend your right to keep the sword to any who’d suggest you should not.”

Slowly, Jaime looked back. Sincerity was a struggle, but he found a little. “You have my thanks.”

Aemon's eyes were sad. "I ask only that you use it well." 

 

The last morning of their journey had dawned cloudy and cool, but the sky cleared by midday, and only a gentle breeze stirred the air. A day had never seemed so fine, Mance had thought, until they rounded a bend, and Winterfell came into view.

The castle’s enormity chased from his mind all else, be it thoughts of the day’s warmth, or the uncommon blue of the sky or the wealth of lush northern grasses. He’d read of Winterfell and seen drawings, but hadn’t predicted the shock of immense granite walls jutting from warm earth.  

He unsuccessfully fought a grimace, and Jaime laughed. “I hoped you’d be awed, so I might tease you. Now I dread to know what you’d think of Casterly Rock.”

“I’d think it absurd and excessive. Kneeler lords are ridiculous.”

“Careful.” Jaime shot a look over his shoulder. They’d ridden out ahead, but the rest of the party was not far behind. “Should our brothers overhear this talk of kneelers, they might grow uneasy.”

He spoke it like a jest, but there was sad fact to it. Ser Glendon of Eastwatch, nor Thoren Smallwood had cracked a smile since leaving Castle Black, and Ser Mallador Locke called Mance ‘halfbreed’ to his face. Despite being likable enough, Duncan Liddle and Ronnel Harclay, being from the mountain clans, distrusted wildlings on principle, as did Bowen Marsh, come to help Lord Qorgyle in his talks.

Their views weren’t unlike those held by many Shadow Tower brothers, but a good portion of those men trusted Jaime and Mance enough to agree to disagree. These crows from other castles saw only the difference in opinion. It’d made the journey trying, at best.

Too soon, they reached Winterfell's northern gate, then were swallowed by those great walls. While one of his fellows went to tell Stark of their arrival, a fat guard led their party further into the castle. They passed an expansive glass building—surely the gardens, from which a long dead Lord Stark plucked Bael’s rose—and the godswood, and several old keeps and towers. Finally, the guard halted them in a courtyard so bounded by buildings and walls, a look up afforded a view of more stone than sky.

In short order, stable boys came for their horses. The lads kept their eyes low and spoke only murmured “m’lords.” Most the men didn’t spare them a glance, but Jaime sent his off with a coin, and a sharp-tongued jest that set the boy laughing as he walked away.

That drew from Mance a smile, but he adopted a more neutral expression when they entered the Great Hall. Direwolf banners hung from the walls, but mostly the room was empty, the vast space occupied most notably by the table on the dais at its far end. Behind it sat Stark, along with a wrinkled maester, a red-haired boy, and Lady Catelyn. He’d not seen a southron lady before, and found this one a strange, fragile-seeming creature. Lovely, but like a piece of art in a pretty dress.

When their group stopped before the table, Mance positioned himself to the side, so he didn’t feel so much like the Starks looked down on him. Bad enough he was being herded about within a flock of crows.

Qorgyle stopped directly before Lord Stark. “Thank you for having us, my lord.”

Stark hadn’t much changed since Mance last saw him, though he’d grown less gaunt. Average of size and in look, he lacked his brother’s coltish build, but shared his long face. “Men of the Night’s Watch are always welcome at Winterfell,” he said. “You must be weary after-”

“So long a journey, yes, and dirty also,” said Qorgyle. “Your father had that same speech memorized, but it’s welcome to hear nonetheless. Are we staying at the guest house again? I like the springs below it, and at present, would murder for a soak. My bones ache. My head aches. My feet ache. Pray you die before you get old, Lord Stark, or you can’t travel anywhere without paying for it.”

Lord Stark shifted in his seat. After a pause, he said only, “Then I will… give you leave to enjoy the springs, my lord. But we look forward to seeing you again this evening.”

Mance tried to catch Jaime’s eye, to share amusement at the folly. But Jaime was petting Lyuk and looking solemnly at some point past the Starks’ heads.

Qorgyle bowed, then turned and beckoned the Stark guard to lead them away. Harclay murmured something about introductions, and the old man said, loudly enough Stark likely heard, “They don’t bloody care who you are. One crow’s as good as any other. I don’t know who’s who half the time.”

“Has he gone senile?” Jaime murmured.

“He’s always been like this,” said Mance dryly.

Once they returned to the yard, Jaime grabbed Mance’s arm to halt him. Keeping his voice low, he said, “I’m sick of these people. Come to the training yard with me. I want to hit something.”

Mance knew better than to suggest Jaime clear the air with Ned Stark, and assented with a shrug. He couldn’t recall where any of the buildings had been, but Jaime walked with such certainty, he’d clearly picked out the armory on the way in. Once they were partially armored, Mance helping Jaime with straps and clasps, they grabbed blunted swords and headed for the courtyard.

A quintain had been set up, and members of House Stark’s guard took turns riding at it. Jaime’s step faltered, and he gazed at the spectacle with such desire it was painful to see. Mance bit his tongue so hard he tasted blood, trying to keep his expression even.

“There’s space to spar there,” Mance said, and walked that direction.

The man presently charging saw Lyuk midway through his approach, missed entirely, and nearly fell from his mount.

“I could wield a lance, I think,” Jaime told Mance in a low voice. “Certainly better than that. Of course I couldn’t compete in any tourneys. My shield would be on the wrong side.”

“Brothers of the Watch don’t compete in tourneys.”

“Maybe they should. For coin, and to encourage boys to take the black.” His eyes returned to the men waiting their turn. “Other brothers, I mean. Not me.”

“Take it up with the high officers. I’ve heard worse ideas. And if you’re determined to ride about on horseback like a performing monkey, put a shield in your golden hand and compete in a melee.”

“And have my face staved in? I am a ranger, not a tourney knight.” He said it far more sadly than Mance would’ve. Then, nothing was so sweet as that which seemed impossible. To Mance’s relief, Jaime lifted his blade, and said, “But we meant to fight. Let’s cease wasting our breath with talk of tourneys.”

He punctuated the statement with a thrust, and Mance relaxed as he swatted it aside.

As had become their pattern, Mance let Jaime land hits if he executed a move well, and dealt finishing blows only when he made a glaring mistake. When Jaime struggled with something, Mance made him practice countering it, and when he grew predictable, he forced him to vary his strikes. The watching and thinking gave Mance a certain kind of challenge, and slowed him enough to keep the bouts interesting.  

They kept it up for the better part of an hour, until Mance held up his hand, needing to catch his breath. Only then did he notice the three spectators. Two boys, bundled up in quilted armor and holding wooden swords, and a stout man with thick dark whiskers and broad shoulders.

Mance tipped his head, and Jaime caught the motion and turned to see. He removed his half-helm and brushed sweat from his face with his stump. His eyes flitted over the group. “Are we in the way?”

“Not at all,” the man said. “I’m Ser Rodrik. The lads’ master-at-arms. They wanted to watch.”

Jaime cast his eyes aside. His ears turned red, without good reason. Mance hadn't outdone him so obviously those boys would've thought their fights anything but even. 

“Of course. You’re Lord… Robb, I believe,” Jaime said, regarding the red-haired boy. He frowned at the Stark-looking child, and Mance swore recognition crossed his face. But he said, “I don’t know you.”  

The boy must’ve been of age with Robb Stark, five or six, but his gray eyes were grave. If he wasn’t shy, being faced with two black brothers made him so. He looked like he’d prefer nothing more than to melt into a puddle. When he spoke, his voice came softly. “I’m Jon Snow.”

“You’re… brothers?” Jaime said.

The boys nodded.

Mance nearly laughed. A bastard. I’d not have thought Stark had it in him.

The heir drew closer to Jaime. “Did you really live months and months with wildlings?”

Wonder colored his voice. It visibly took Jaime aback, and even Mance found it curious. That look on his face, the fact he approached at all, suggested people had been speaking of Jaime around Winterfell, flatteringly enough two children had picked up on it.

“A little over two months.” Jaime’s voice came out flat. “But I traveled with others for much longer.”

The bastard spoke next. “Robb says you have a direwolf.”

“I have a dog. He’s napping.” With his stump, Jaime pointed to the shady place where Lyuk had put himself.

“A direwolf dog,” the heir decided. “Can we meet him?”

Jaime tapped his fingers on his sword’s hilt and frowned at the boys, lips pressed together. Finally, he said, “If it’s alright with Ser Rodrik. And if you’re not obnoxious. The dog is friendly, but tug anything, or try riding him, and I make no promises.”

Apparently seeing this as a jape, the boys eagerly faced Ser Rodrik. Upon studying Jaime’s face and deciding the dog posed no true threat, the knight gestured for them to go.

Mance kicked his sword with the inside of his boot, wondering if he shouldn’t just slip away.

Ser Rodrik said, “I got my knighthood in Robert’s Rebellion. Was at King’s Landing for the Sack.”

That was almost interesting.

“You saw Jaime?” Mance assumed that's why the man brought it up. 

“I was there when Lord Stark entered the throne room the first time. Your Ser Jaime sat on the Iron Throne, the Mad King sprawled in front of him, sword covered in blood. He smiled and laughed, and I thought, There’s never been a worse knight.

His gaze grew distant. “I didn’t see him sentenced, but my brother did. Ser Jaime’s only a year older than his son. He came to me after, and he said, ‘That poor boy.’ I thought him mad.” His eyes refocused, settling on Jaime as he crossed the yard, the boys following him like baby ducks. “Martyn was the cleverer of us two. He’d think it was something, all the lad’s done at the Wall.”

“Your brother is... dead?”

“Lord Stark took him south to Dorne, to rescue the Lady Lyanna.” He rubbed at his chest. “It was a good death. I suppose there’s a kind of honor, in dying by Dawn.”

 Kneelers are ridiculous. “You’ve my condolences. That… whole skirmish was so wasteful. I can’t fathom it. The war was done. The prince and king dead. Surely the Kingsguard knew Lord Stark would do his sister no harm.”

“No doubt the prince ordered them to fight,” Rodrik said sadly. “As for why, there’s no accounting for the choices of a madman.”

It did seem mad. Senseless. Contradictory. The details in Arthur’s letter, and those he’d gotten from Ser Jaremy and Benjen, made it even more so. And the best explanation Mance had thought up, at Craster’s, had seemed incredibly unlikely.

Across the yard, Jaime leaned against the building that’d been shading Lyuk, his face impassive. With the dog so close, head nearly level with theirs, even laying down, the boys’ easiness had faded. They stood side by side, Robb grasping Jon’s arm as the latter extended a hand for Lyuk to sniff. They exchanged smiles when he did so.

Mance tilted his head. “I don’t intend rudeness, but is it not odd, for a bastard and trueborn heir to be so close?”

“Lord Stark insists I treat them the same,” said Ser Rodrik, shrugging. “And Jon is a good lad.”

“Lord Stark must’ve loved his mother very much.” Seeing Ser Rodrik’s face, Mance smiled mildly. “I’m a singer, and it seems romantic, is all. It has the makings of an intriguing tale.”

“A singer,” echoed Ser Rodrik, taking a half step back.

He laughed. “Have you something against singers?”

“Not if they’re women. But a man isn’t right in the head if he’d sooner put a harp in his hand than a sword.”

Mance lifted his chin, smile tightening. “You’d doubt the worth of a song? Who did Lord Tywin send to quell House Farman? He needed only one musician, to deliver a threat potent as an army.”

“That worked only because it carried meaning given earlier by swords.”  

“That’s the point. A brief song captured the Reyne-Tarbeck Revolt in a few notes. Music is powerful because it concentrates reality in a resonant way.” Mance glanced at Jaime, then let his gaze skitter away. I’m doing nothing wrong. It’s only a song. He worked his throat. “Anyway, you saw me fight. I can do both.”

Rodrik eyed Mance's sword thoughtfully. “Might be it’s not so bad, if you fight also. But there’s something of singers, in the character. They’re all a little mad.”

He said it like a jape, a peace offering. But Mance recalled Rhaegar, starting a war for a prophecy. He tried not to think of the thread of an idea that’d tugged at him since Jaime’s return, with his dragonsteel sword and his dog. Nor would he dwell on his newest strange suspicion, which might well be born of hearing too many tales.

He clutched his sword, and did his best to keep his voice light. “Aye, Ser Rodrick. I fear that might be so.”

 

Jaime poked at the remnants of his cream-tossed berries, too full to eat more, but too agitated to keep still. Lady Catelyn had hosted a feast to honor the Lord Commander’s rare visit. Most of Stark’s household appeared to be present, and a finer meal served than Jaime had touched in years. Too fine a meal. He’d left several dishes unfinished, and only picked at most, and still his stomach turned.  

The smoky air made the room more uncomfortable, as did the stifling food smells. But the heat bothered him most. For close to five years, warmth had meant a caress of sunlight on his face to fight a cool breeze, or sitting near a fire while a chill prickled at the side facing away. Something precious and delicate. In Winterfell, the very walls emanated heat, and its pervasiveness threatened to smother him. My blood froze beyond the Wall, and now I am melting.

Qorgyle’s honor guard had been invited to sit at a table just below that of the Starks, but Jaime had chosen a place further back. Now, most those in the room had gotten up and begun moving around, the meal finished. Even Mance had left to sit nearer the high table. He’d brought his lute to practice on the journey, and Lord Stark had delighted him by recalling his song for the Kingsguard and requesting he play. 

Presently, Jon Snow and Robb Stark, who remembered no singers visiting Winterfell, had crowded Mance’s bench, asking if he knew songs about this or that hero they liked. Inevitably, Mance did, and they smiled like it was magic.

It’d be the perfect time to try making nice with some of his brothers, thought Jaime. Or to talk with Lord Stark, and mayhaps ask what he’d told his children to put mad notions in their heads. Move. Get up. Do something. You’re not some bloody brooding Stark.

His right hand throbbed.

Putting his spoon aside, Jaime stood. Some madness seized him, perhaps an attempt to find justification for his poor mood. Or was it hope he sought?

He went to the high table before he could think on it more deeply. Little Sansa had been spirited away by a maid when she threatened to fall asleep, the maester and other members of the household had wandered off, and Lord Stark left to talk with Qorgyle. But Lady Catelyn remained, speaking with a man Jaime thought to be Stark’s steward.

She’d grown more beautiful since Jaime last saw her, full-breasted and fair of face. He’d refrained from approaching her thus far, recalling Cersei’s attitude toward his black cloak and not wishing to see scorn in the face of another southron woman. But when he stopped before her, she did not look scornful. Only curious.

“Lady Catelyn,” said Jaime. “Am I interrupting?”

“Not at all,” she said. “We  were only discussing household business.”

“A very Lady of the North thing to do during a feast. Would a dance not be more appropriate?” Refuse me. The Kingslayer. The one-handed crow.

She looked surprised, but got to her feet with what might’ve been a proper smile. “I’d be glad to. Vayon, I hope you do not mind.”

“Not all, my lady,” he said. “The accounts can wait.”

Jaime offered his left arm, which Catelyn took without hesitation. Though she wore modest blue wool, the south clung to her sweetly as feather-light perfume, in her smell, her smooth skin, the shine of her hair. He thought of his mother, of Aunt Genna and Cersei. That isn’t my life anymore. I should not miss it. I should be content.  

He found a smile that held some rusty courtesy. “I’ll be a poorer dancer than I’d been at Riverrun. I haven’t gotten much practice as of late.”

Her eyes were the color of a smooth pond, and sparkled in the firelight. “Given the circumstances, I can certainly look past it. We don’t dance much at Winterfell either. Your… friend is the first singer we’ve had here since last summer.”

"My castle is fortunate in that, at least.” Though of late, much of Mance’s practice had been strange. Jaime suspected he was trying to write a song, but he misliked being asked about it. Some singer’s foible, no doubt.

They came to space cleared at the end of the hall. No one else was dancing, but as it went at feasts, if one couple started, others would likely follow. Jaime stooped his head to better see Catelyn's face as he rested his stump over her hip, and she met his gaze and held it without letting her expression change.

It seemed she’d not give him reason to be angry.

For several breaths, they danced in silence. Through the sleeve he’d pinned over his stump, she was warm. His right hand buzzed, trying to convince him it was still there, though he could feel otherwise. He better liked how she felt under his left hand, the wool of her dress soft, her body hot and alive beneath his palm. Whenever he’d touched Silver Wolf, it’d been through sealskin and fur. What would Silver Wolf think of a woman like Catelyn? What would Catelyn think of Silver Wolf?

The latter musing dampened what’d threatened to become desire.

“How did you find your first northern winter, my lady?” Jaime said finally. His feet moved in the proper steps, recalling the motions more easily than he'd expected.

“Better than you found yours, I imagine,” Catelyn said. “You showed impressive valor.”

Yes. I’m quite heroic. Or he had been. He’d never heard of a hero having only one hand. He didn’t feel heroic, fumbling to get dressed, constantly training with little to show for it. It’d been a joke, Stark's sons pressing him for stories, looking at him like they had.

“I only did my duty,” Jaime said.

“False modesty doesn’t suit you, ser. Maege Mormont wrote Ned. Her daughter did as well.”

“Aly is biased.” She did write wonderful letters, though. Each included a short, blunt recitation of anything she’d found interesting in her life, a list of questions she meant Jaime to answer fully, and as an inevitable conclusion, Take care of yourself.

“She wrote-” Catelyn’s face changed. She’d been playing a court lady until that point, all perfect courtesy. But her eyes darted away, and she clutched him too tightly, for only a moment. “She wrote you made that raider chase you, when you could’ve gotten away.”

Jaime’s smile faltered.  

“You feared he’d seek revenge,” she went on. “And come south. Perhaps to Winterfell to hurt Sansa.”

He didn’t recall saying as much, and chose not to respond.

Catelyn squeezed his arm. “Hearing such things, I cannot but be reassured, knowing you’re at the Wall.”

“I’m only one person. There are hundreds of men in the Watch.”  

“Yes,” she said, “but no others like you.”

No other cripples who don’t know what side they should be on? He’d been reading Arthur’s letter often lately, but never had he thought he’d so relate to his final sentiment, that he feared he’d been seen only as a hero, when he’d not felt it at all.

Before he could summon a reply, the dance ended. As he’d expected, others had risen to take part, and Jaime caught several pairs of eyes on him. Mostly lowborn women, maidservants, or daughters or sisters of Stark’s guards or staff. He returned Catelyn to the high table and kissed her hand, considering asking one of those others for a dance. 

“Ser Jaime.”

Stark.

Jaime faced him, taking care to keep his features even. Though he stood several inches taller than him and was quite a bit bigger, he felt seventeen and half a boy all over again. “My lord.”

Stark worked his throat, looking like a man ready to jump off a cliff. “You seem to get on well with my wife, and I have been meaning to speak with you." 

"And?" Jaime prompted, when Stark did not immediately say more.

"Would you join my family for breakfast on the morrow?”

Gods be good. It made sense, perhaps. Knowing that Maege and Aly had written, Stark no doubt had some skewed notion that the wholesome north had changed Jaime for the better. Or maybe it was pity. But Jaime couldn’t get his head around the offer, despite seeing some logic to it. 

The room seemed to grow warmer. “I’d be honored,” he managed. Before getting Stark’s response, he retreated more or less casually, struggling to keep his expression neutral.

At once sick of the feast, and the hall, and the smoke, Jaime decided he didn't want to dance again after all. He ignored hopeful glances, whistled for Lyuk, and strode outside.

Snow fell in giant flakes and had been for some time. Jaime tested a pile on the ground, and it proved damp enough to form one-handed. He threw a snowball for Lyuk to catch, but the dog jumped too high and far, and ended up running into it with his chest instead. When he landed, he wagged his tail, assuming he’d done just the proper thing.

Earnest, and thick-skulled, but good at hunting and killing. He’s me, since I could walk. Until I lost my hand.

“I’m being bitter,” Jaime told Lyuk. “I shouldn’t be. I’ve no right.”

He was being recognized, was he not? Ned Stark’s children admired him. Lady Catelyn had looked at him like a hero. An entire northern house had offered him some gift or another.

But the pleasure of his success had faded, eroding every time he knocked over a cup of wine, or fell to the dirt working with Stonesnake. It faded further when he did every exercise Ser Endrew put to him, running, swinging a war hammer until his arm turned to jelly, wrestling, failing at climbing, and drilling himself long as he could stand—only to pick up a sword, and wield it clumsily as a squire.

That initial satisfaction had long fled. He could recapture it in fits and starts, in letters from Aly, mostly. But the missing hand was ever present. 

Jaime strode past several towers and keeps. Most men were at the feast, and his boots were the first to disturb the snow-covered yards as he cut a path to the godswood. When he reached the gate, he fumbled with the latch, then slipped within.

Oaks and ironwoods grew close overhead, branches weighted with damp snow. It was so dark he could hardly see, but the moon must have lurked behind the clouds, brightening the sky and reflecting off snow, filling the air with just enough light he could pick his way through the branches and twisted roots.

The path ended before a small pool, which caught light from the lavender sky and stretched before him, glassy and black. Lyuk leapt its breadth in one stride and landed before a heart tree, the white bark ghostly in the dark.

Jaime made his way around the pool, then removed his cloak and lie it across the damp snow and leaves. When he sat, Lyuk sprawled beside him, warm and heavy, resting his massive head in Jaime’s lap.

A slow wind picked up, and the leaves rustled. A smile tripped across his lips, and finally, he could breathe deeply. 

Resting on his cloak, he dozed, and he dreamed he sat on the branch of an old, giant weirwood. A boy perched next to him, legs dangling in open air. He looked like Robb Stark. But instead of admiration, he regarded Jaime with genuine affection.   

“Ser Jaime?” he said, in wonderment. He smiled, so guileless and sweet, Jaime smiled back.

Then he was gone, vanished at once, as if he'd never been there at all. 

Jaime peeled his eyes open, and was in the godswood. He tried to remember if he’d had his right hand in the dream, to know if it was real.

He could not recall.

For only a moment, it’d not seemed important.

 

The next morning, a servant took Jaime to Stark’s solar. It was an intimate setting for a meal, and casual. In another lifetime, Genna would sometimes host Jaime and Cersei, or Jaime and Tyrion, in the solar off the apartments she shared with her husband.

But it was to be a family meal, was it not? Only with Jaime roped into it. Because Stark wishes to talk. Gods help me.

When he entered the room, the Starks were all present, except Jon Snow. Lady Sansa, roughly two years of age, sat upon her father’s lap, and gave Jaime a toothy smile. Jaime smiled back. A maidservant hovered, likely to remove the girl once introductions were given, so she’d not make all sorts of mess eating.

Courtesies were made and dispensed with, and Sansa introduced. With encouragement from her mother, she gave Jaime a ladylike wave with a chubby hand. “You are pret-ty.”

Catelyn laughed, and that got amusement even from Stark, though Robb went red with secondhand embarrassment. “Ser Jaime is not pretty,” he told his sister. “He’s a knight.”

“He isn’t,” Sansa insisted, knowing she disagreed, but not quite nailing the counterargument.

Needless to say, Robb was pleased when the maidservant soon made Sansa scarce, though the girl protested the whole way out the door. Once she was gone, servants brought in the food.

Either Lady Catelyn had taken Jaime’s missing hand into consideration, or she chose fortunately, for she served honey cakes and fruit, bacon and fried finger-fish—all things that could be eaten one-handed. He suspected the former, for his cutlery was also placed on the left side of his plate. It irked him, the thought of her thinking about his stump and letting it impact her choice of meal.

That’s stupid. You’d only be angrier if you had to fight with a thick piece of gammon. He felt further coddled when a servant began putting things on his plate, never mind that was what highborn households did. But he’d forgotten how to be served, and had to bite his tongue against saying he could do it himself, sitting on his fingers to keep from helping the man along.

When everything was plated, Robb said, “You didn’t bring your direwolf dog.”

“He’s just a dog,” Jaime said, “and he doesn’t do well in small rooms. He doesn’t know he’s got a back end, and he’d have every plate knocked off the table in minutes.”

Robb told his father, “His dog ate someone’s face.”

Jaime choked on a bite of honey cake. I might’ve been a touch too free with my answers yesterday. “He isn’t dangerous,” Jaime said quickly. “He only did that because I told him to.”

And that sounds even worse. 

“Don't worry,” Robb said. “It was the man who sliced his hand off.”

Jaime had to put his fork down and shove his hand over his mouth to hold in laughter at the looks on the Starks’ faces.

“Robb,” Lord Stark said, voice strained. Catelyn went so pale he feared she'd keel over.

“What?” Robb said, wide-eyed.

“You’re fine.” A laugh escaped Jaime’s throat, then another. Lord nor Lady Stark seemed quite sure what to say, which was twice as bothersome as a child's harmless bluntness.

Encouraged by Jaime’s response, Robb kept talking. “I told Old Nan about your stories. She says the children of the forest must’ve saved you.”

Smiling, Jaime picked up his fork and speared a berry. “I’ve brothers who think the same. But I can’t tell you one way nor the other. I was sworn to keep it a secret. Mance, though, he’d say storytellers are wiser than any maester.”

Stark’s eyes softened like he thought it a jape, but Catelyn appeared to genuinely wonder if he was serious. Jaime made note of that, but didn’t have time to say much else, because Robb got talking about how he agreed with Mance, and how Mance definitely was smarter than Maester Luwin, because he knew every song ever, and Luwin only knew boring things.

Jaime didn’t mind the chatter. He need not bother with false courtesies when speaking with a child, and so long as Robb spoke, Jaime didn’t have to talk with the boy’s father.   

Far too quickly, they emptied their plates, and Lady Stark reminded Robb he had lessons with his maester.

The boy stopped in front of Jaime before he went. “Will you train today? Jon and I wanna watch again.”

Jaime’s swordsmanship was hardly worthy of spectators at present. But he couldn’t say no outright. “Find me when you’re done with your maester, and I’ll give you two a lesson.”

Grinning, Robb gave an earnest thank-you, then hurried from the room. Stark whispered to his wife, and she nodded and got up as well. As Catelyn passed Jaime, she said, “I hope we’ve the chance to speak more before you go. It’s been pleasant, seeing a face from the south.”

“Agreed, my lady,” said Jaime, though his own sentiments were rather more tangled.

Then she left, and he was alone with Stark.

Conversation dried up. Stark stared at the plates spread across the table and looked to the door, as if considering whether to request someone take care of them. Instead, he settled further into his seat. “Robb’s admiration is not misplaced. What you did for Alysane Mormont is exceptional.”

There was no pity in his eyes. Jaime hadn’t expected there to be. But the approval pleased him little. The Weeper had taught him there was no healing certain wounds. Like losing Cersei, like losing a hand, the two times he’d faced Stark in King’s Landing had caused permanent damage.

He’d learned to live with the injury. But there was no regaining what’d been lost.

When Jaime remained silent, Stark braced his elbows on his thighs, head falling forward like a tired old man’s. “I’m told you are a good man. Disobedient, but honorable and dutiful. You swore an oath to Lyra Mormont, her mother tells me, and lost a hand to fulfill it." 

We're having this conversation, then. 

"Go on," Jaime said. "You're leading into something." 

“Why would you kill Aerys?”

Jaime’s hands twitched, if the right only in his head. He could’ve stabbed Stark then, could’ve torn him to pieces. He shut his eyes and swallowed his spite.

“You ask now?” he said softly.

Stark rubbed his temples. “What was I supposed to think that day? You sat on the throne, with your sword unsheathed, across your lap, and-“

“Denying guest right,” Jaime whispered. “A claim, and a warning. Men scarce do those things in the south. It wasn’t intentional.”

“You smiled,” said Stark, voice growing lower.  

“Only when I saw the way you looked at me. I’d taken off my white armor, but I gather you failed to note that.”

“Of course I noticed. I’ll not forget how you glittered. If you didn’t want it to look like you abandoned your king for your family, that was a poor way to do it.”

“I meant to distance myself from my oaths. I forgot to take off the cloak.”

It sounded stupid when he said it. This all sounded stupid.

They’d been so young, so blind, he wondered they’d both found the throne room properly twice in a row. But Jaime had been the one punished for that folly. He was scorned in the south. He’d lost his family. He’d lost a hand. And Stark was seen as a hero and a good man, and had his castle and a wife and three children.

Jaime finished his cup of wine and set it aside. Stark wasn’t forgiven, and nothing was forgotten. But he’d spent five months battling bitterness. He’d not give that foe reinforcements. “It’s in the past. Forget it, and don't speak of it further.”

“Was there a reason?” Stark pressed.

“There’d been a hundred reasons before the end, as I’m sure you’re aware. It baffles me you’d call me a good man, and think it contradictory I killed a monster. If anything, the number of times I did nothing ought to put you off more than the one time I acted. Was I a good man, standing there, watching people die?”

Stark looked away.

“I wasn’t,” Jaime said. “No matter what my brothers told me, no matter what any honorable men claim. Does it not make you angry? Picturing me in my pretty white cloak, trying to hide in pleasant thoughts while your brother strangled himself and your father roasted? Dozens could charge me with standing, and watching. That was my sin.

“Maybe something at the end pushed me over the edge. Maybe not. That’s not the point. It was never the point.” He stared Stark down. “But I said to forget it. Are we done?”

Stark didn’t answer, so evidently deep in thought, Jaime couldn't doubt he truly engaged with the questions placed before him. When his eyes refocused, he leaned forward in a way that suggested the conversation was not finished. “The wildling who joined the Watch. How does he fare?”

The inquiry startled from him a dark laugh. “Is this some sort of game?”

“Do I seem like a man who plays games? I’m only curious.”

Jaime shook his head and found himself answering honestly. “He’s displeased he’s treated like an idiot or a monster, but taking it better than I would.”

“You know a lot of wildlings?” Stark said.

Where are you going with this? What do you want? “I properly know a handful. I’ve met hundreds.”

“You’ve been further beyond the Wall than Benjen.”

"Do you keep track of me, or do people send you this information unwarranted?”

“The latter." Even he sounded like he thought it was a bit much. "I got three different accounts of that last ranging.”

“I’d not put too much stock in those letters. Ser Denys understands less than he thinks, and Maege and Aly are biased.”

“With reason.” Stark nodded to the stump.  “How do you fare, after that? I imagine you’ve had a difficult few months.”

Jaime blinked rapidly, dizziness sweeping over him.

Another question he didn't know how to handle. 

Understandably, his brothers gave him little such sympathy. If he failed or fumbled or knocked things over, he received suggestions for doing better, or reassurance that he merely needed to get used to doing things left-handed. It was as if they supposed some future point existed where everything would be fine again, and all he had to do was grit his teeth and reach it. It was a practical way to view the matter, and as a rule, men of the Watch favored practicality over sentiment.

But why would Stark ask after his welfare? Did he think to make up for his role in Jaime’s sentencing? Was it fair to hate him for that? None of this made sense. And horrifyingly, the acknowledgment that Jaime might be struggling, the seemingly genuine concern, threatened to undo him.

He wanted to say half a hundred things, things that’d only make Mance worry. The way Stark looked presently, Jaime wondered if he’d not find understanding, and he wanted it so badly, he nearly broke.

It wasn’t the absent hand that truly bothered him, he yearned to tell Stark. He could cope with that. But the Weeper’s scythe had made him bleed in other ways, and those wounds remained open. He’d done everything right. He’d tried, in the Night’s Watch. He’d saved women, and killed raiders. He’d kept bloody celibacy oaths since he was fifteen.

But a moment of overconfidence, an instant of bad luck, and he ended up maimed. This, after being punished for saving a city.

“If I keep doing the right thing,” he wished to demand, “how long before I’m a scarred shell who makes good choices? Or will the wrong choices eventually seem sweeter?”

He’d explain it'd been years since he feared he'd fail to act the perfect knight. Why would he, brave and strong as he was? But he wasn’t the Warrior. He was a man. A cripple. He had limits, and limbs left to loose. Children of the forest, a tree man, a wildling king, his own brothers, now bloody Stark, expected heroism from him. And for the first time, he wasn't confident he could deliver.

“You called me a good man, and you’ve let your sons think the same," he would conclude. "But I’m tired, and I only have so much to give.”

But Stark hadn’t earned that confession.

Jaime swallowed the words, and reminded himself he was in a lord’s castle, where such inquiries were made solely out of courtesy. Stark likely hadn't expected an honest answer anyway. 

“I’m fine.” Jaime smiled. “I was getting bored fighting raiders with my right hand, and competition in the training yard had been slow. The challenge has livened things up.”

“I am sorry, even so,” Stark said evenly. “It may be small consolation, but Winterfell knows what you’ve done, and Lady Mormont has written the mountain clans who helped search. Serving in the Night’s Watch might be a comparatively thankless endeavor, but that does not mean the north is not grateful.”

“I thank you for that,” Jaime said, evenly as he was able. “Might I go now? Mance will be wondering about me.”

There was no judgment in those eyes, this time. But Jaime feared they saw right through him. For a long breath, Stark held his gaze.

Finally, he nodded.

“Go ahead.”

Quickly as pride allowed, Jaime escaped into the corridor.

 

Mance wondered why any sane man would chase a position of authority when this was what it amounted to. He hadn’t planned to attend any of Qorgyle’s talks with Stark, but curiosity had seized him, bolstered by emerging awareness he should attempt to give a damn.

It’d taken only a request to Qorgyle to acquire permission to attend, as he had the third highest rank of any man at Winterfell. And he’d needed but five minutes in the first meeting to see a great deal of the Watch’s problem was absence of imagination. Qorgyle had settled into a speech he must’ve had memorized, and Bowen Marsh—the only other brother attending—subsequently produced a pile of papers, from which he’d endlessly recited numbers without context.

That'd been it. The whole damn meeting. 

Mance took notes after that first day. Every time his quill scratched across parchment, Bowen Marsh glanced up slowly, with disapproval, as if he thought Mance doodled insulting pictures. He’d meant to hold his tongue and restrain himself to taking notes, and pass those to Jaime, who could do with them what he pleased. 

But Marsh had been talking the last half hour, and Mance was going to murder him if he went on another minute.

“Why are we here?” Mance said, interrupting Marsh mid-sentence. “Why did we come to Winterfell?”

Marsh stopped talking, then looked pityingly at Mance. “What part is beyond you?”

“All of it. Qorgyle, what’s this visit about? You wanted to talk to Lord Stark. We’ve been talking to the poor man three days, and I’m surprised he’s not burned us at the stake.”

The Lord Commander chuckled, but when Mance gave him a proper glare, he focused quick enough. “I am old, and ill, and I want to arrange certain affairs before my Watch ends.”

“Which affairs? Give me three things.” Mance set aside the parchment he’d been writing on and took another leaf. The other men looked at him like he'd grown a second head. But he’d spent his adult life strolling into wildling villages and making friendly with men who wanted to hate him. What was that, compared to a lord, an old man, and a walking pomegranate? 

“My successor will pick new heads of each order-” Qorgyle began. 

“If he thinks it necessary,” Marsh said. 

“Aye,” Qorgyle said, “and he will likely prefer to do so in a way that doesn’t displease Lord Stark. I would gather his opinion on potential candidates, in case that’s something the next Lord Commander would like to take into consideration.”

Mance wrote it. “What else?”

“Ways to reverse the Watch’s decline, with which Winterfell might assist us,” Qorgyle said. “It would be easier for a new Lord Commander to make changes than for me to do so, after so long. I’d record suggestions, I might leave for my successor to consider.”

Nice that you’ve found ambition when you get to pass the work off to someone else. But he wrote it down. “Third thing.”

“I’d have Lord Stark’s opinion on some of the questions that’ve recently been raised about our dealings with wildlings.”

Mance added that. “I pick my teeth with the bones of the man who strays from these three topics in the next half hour.”

Marsh frowned. “We need longer than-”

“We do not,” Mance said. “If we don’t finish by then, we break up and come back tomorrow. Put your papers away, Bowen. We don’t have enough supplies. We’re getting less and less. We need more. Stark knows that, we all know that. You don’t need to prove it. Succession, then. What’re your thoughts, Lord Stark?”

It was difficult to tell, but Mance fancied the man looked grateful.

As Stark began to speak, Mance studied him, working for a proper sketch of his character. He certainly put Jaime in knots. His brother had been muttering about him since their breakfast, though from what Mance could make out, Stark had acted the precise way Jaime spent years wishing he would.

And of course, Jon Snow made him interesting. But Mance had done no more looking into that. If he found proper evidence, he’d be obligated to tell Jaime, and certainly Aemon. That’d muddy waters better kept clear.

As the meeting progressed, Mance jotted notes, these less opinionated and more straightforward than those he’d been making for his brother. He stayed out of the conversation, however, aware his input would derail matters entirely.

But when the third point came up, Qorgyle bid him to pitch in. “I’m sure you’ve something to say. You’ve strong opinions on this.”

Biased opinions,” Bowen Marsh said.

“As opposed to… unbiased opinions?” Mance said. Marsh made a choking sound, and Mance gave a mild smile. “I did say we’d only have a half hour. Our time’s almost up. It’s best I not get started.”

Stark tapped his hand on the table for their attention. “I’d hear what you have to say. You’re… half wildling?” He said it like he wasn’t sure he should bring it up.

“Yes,” Mance said, lifting his brows.

“He’s lived his whole life as a brother of the Watch,” Qorgyle assured Stark. “Doesn’t even remember before.”

The opportunity was too good.

“I remember some,” said Mance.

Marsh cleared his throat. “Let’s-”

“Lord Stark, may I speak?”

“I did request it.”

Mance reclined in his seat, lowering his hands to the chair's arms. He tightened his jaw. “I remember my mother, the day the rangers killed her."

Stark frowned at that. He'd not been told the full story. 

Good. 

“Gods, Mance,” said Qorgyle, sighing.

“Go on,” Stark said.

“She tried to hide me under a bush. Kicked me into it with her boot. A branch dug into my arm and cut through flesh.” Mance pulled his sleeve back to show a scar on his forearm. “I must’ve made too much noise, because black brothers soon hauled me out, screaming.”

“Truly-” Marsh began.

Mance spoke over him. “It looked like she wore a red scarf, the way the blood flowed when they cut her throat. And after, the crows yelled at each other. About me, I wager. We stood among some dozen bodies, and the snow was red.” He gave a dry smile. “Then, maybe they deserved it. They were raiders. At least, the rangers who killed them assumed as much.”  

“How old were you?” Stark said. 

“Sansa’s age.”

“Why would raiders have a child that age with them?”

Mance let his eyes go sad. “I’ve wondered that myself." 

This was actually getting to him. Mance would even think the man angry.

“When did you take your oaths?” Stark said.

“When I was old enough to memorize the words. About the same age as your sons.”

Mance could see Stark imagining little Jon and Robb swearing themselves to the Watch, and how much he disliked that thought. The younger man turned cold gray eyes to Qorgyle. “Tell me this isn’t common.”  

“No,” said the Lord Commander. “As you’ve established, raiding parties don’t often bring children so close to the Wall, certainly none so young. And it was different, because the rangers knew the brother who’d been with the woman, and knew she told it true that he was fathered by a crow-”

Stark’s expression turned to ice. “They’d have killed him otherwise?”

“Well, that’s hard to say,” Qorgyle said, coughing. “It rarely happens like that. Mance is the only brother of the Watch wildling born, except the new one, and that one came and swore his vows of his own will.”

And I hadn’t?

Stark caught the implication. His face reddened, and he looked ready to push further.

But that’d give Marsh and Qorgyle time to talk him down, and Mance had no more to give without making himself seem too much a victim. Best leave him to reflect on this, while his emotions are hot.

Mance got to his feet abruptly, as if he was uncomfortable. “We’re done, it looks like.” He passed to Marsh the parchment he’d been writing on. “Copy this and give it to Lord Stark when you’re through. The Lord Commander can keep the original.” He bowed to Stark, gave a strained farewell, and took his leave.

Only through force of will did he refrain from smiling until he left the room.  

 

Mance found Jaime in the godswood, walking through guards with Dark Sister while Lyuk watched. Jaime had spent long stretches of time there the last few days, but Mance didn’t dare ask if he’d begun following the old gods. It’d get Jaime defensive, and he’d certainly out of his way to prove it wasn’t so.

Mance had his lute with him, and he sat atop a flat smooth stone and began a simple song. “Where are your Starklings?”

Jaime sheathed the sword and seated himself on a felled log. “At lessons. I still can’t fathom that Stark allows their... fondness. If a man I misliked did something admirable, I’d certainly not let my children know.”

“Lord Stark doesn’t mislike you.”

“Well, no. But we’re antagonistic.”

“No, you're antagonistic. I dare say he's contrite.”

Scowling, Jaime brushed sweaty hair from his forehead. “Your meeting with poor, contrite Stark finished quickly. Did you burn Bowen Marsh’s lists?”

Mance played the beginning of one of Bael’s ballads. “Nothing so extreme. I merely stated the meeting would end in thirty minutes, and threatened to kill anyone who got off topic. Have you been here all morning?”

“You make it sound as if I spend all my hours sulking among the trees. I sparred with Jory Cassel for over an hour. Then Lady Catelyn took me about the glass gardens with Vayon Poole, and answered questions of mine.”

The mention of Lady Catelyn made him frown. “It baffles me you like that woman.”

“I don’t know if like is the word. It’s complicated.” Jaime peered at Mance. “You’ve something to put before me. I see it on your face.”

Mance plucked a few pleasant notes. “To start, if Stark ever asks about my mother, I remember more than I’ve implied.”

Jaime laughed. “A few days in a castle, and already you’re a liar. I dread to think what’d happen to you in King’s Landing.”

“I never lied. I told a bard’s truth.” Mance kept the tune going, light and soft. “Reality is oft so stripped of meaning, of symbolism and clear emotion, fact becomes its own kind of lie. The tale needed color and elaboration to find life enough for accuracy.”

“You’re full of shit.” Jaime gave a slight smile. “What more did you discuss?”

“We talked of Lord Qorgyle's successor, and appointments he might make." 

Jaime's smile died. “If you tell me anyone put forth my name as a legitimate candidate, I’ll desert and have fair-haired warrior children with Silver Wolf.”

You should. We could ignore all this prophecy nonsense, all your worry about oaths. And you might stop looking north like you forgot some piece of yourself beyond the Wall.

It was difficult, letting the comment stay a joke.

“You weren’t mentioned as Lord Commander,” Mance assured him.

Jaime picked up the implication. “I don’t want to be First Ranger either. First implies some degree of superiority. Is there a Last Ranger to be appointed? That’s the job for me.”

“You’re twice as competent as most brothers, even one-handed, and with Valyrian steel and that dog of yours, little less dangerous than you were before. And becoming an officer makes the missing hand less important, rather than more.”

Jaime stared mulishly at Mance. “It’d mean I would go to Castle Black.”

“Aye,” Mance said. “I’m biased enough in that, I said not a word in your favor.”

“You should’ve said I’m cruel, irresponsible, and you hate me horribly.”

“Next time anyone asks, I’ll be sure to do so.” He ran his thumb over the wood of his lute. “Qorgyle mentioned there’s been fear picking someone other than Benjen might alienate Winterfell, and that picking you especially, considering your history with Lord Stark, could cause problems.”

Jaime nodded. “That’s a wise and reasonable concern.”  

A year ago, he had nearly come around to wanting the job. But Mance could see why he’d wish to remain at the Shadow Tower now, and it was a poor time for him to be burdened with more responsibility. But he could do good things with the role. 

"Don't get too excited." Mance watched the wind carry ripples across the water. “Stark said you might be good for the Watch. He wouldn’t give a definite recommendation, but he believes you’d do the role justice, should you be chosen." 

"Are you jesting? No, of course not." Jaime shook his head minutely. “It’s nice to know giving up my family, languishing in the frigid north, and getting my hand lopped off have made me acceptable to Lord Eddard. He tried asking me about Aerys earlier. As if-” He gnashed his teeth. “What right does he have, to say 'I was wrong,’ and act like it was some trivial misunderstanding?”

“You’ve said you’d rather be here than in the south."

“Because of you. Because of me. Not because of anything he did. What am I supposed to do with this approval? Should I forgive him? Have I any right to be angry?  I ought to be gracious, I suppose. I’m a knight. I…”

“You needn’t always care what you ought to be,” Mance said gently. “I loathe men who always do what they ought. Don’t make me reconsider our friendship.”

Jaime didn’t quite smile, nor did his tension leave him. But he shut his mouth, and seemed less ready to fly into a rant. 

Mance watched him for a while, and listened to the forest and the rustle of the leaves. The rustle that meant the gods were watching.

After a moment, Mance let his fingers move.

Jaime looked at him and gave half a shake of his head, that he’d punctuate their conversation with lute practice. But he knew Mance well enough not to take offense, nor feel the need to ask questions.

Maybe it was the gods, or maybe Jaime’s sincerity still lingering on his face. But this time, when Mance played, the notes that filled the air didn’t feel wrong. When he hit the first false note, he went back, tried a few things, and stumbled into one that sounded right. Then did it again, and again.

He did not finish more than a brief string of notes. He refused to do more than that at once. But when he played them through in order, without stopping for tweaks, the music—sad, and sweet and strong—seemed to settle over every inch of the godswood, and into the air they breathed.

This is right, he thought, and played the notes again, to be sure. When he glanced up, intending to gauge Jaime’s response, his eyes caught instead on the face of the weirwood.

And he swore it stared back.

Chapter Text

A sun-warmed breeze stirred Jaime’s cloak as he led Dapple into Orl’s current encampment, Lyuk trotting at his side, Ser Byam and his mount a step behind. The weather had warmed enough for planting, and Jaime could see rye, beets and potatoes growing in small plots, afternoon light haloing golden stalks and emerald leaves.

A true smile played at his lips, rusty and fragile. A white raven had come to the Wall days before they departed, but learning of summer’s arrival wasn’t half so sweet as seeing it reflected in the land.

“Kingslayer!”

And that greeting is sweeter still.

“Oh,” Ser Byam said, stepping back. “That… girl.”

Jaime spun as Ygritte ran to meet him. It’d been a year and a half since he’d seen her, and she’d grown, all skinny limbs and wild hair. Her smile showed two missing teeth.

As she drew to a stop, he put a hand on Dark Sister’s hilt. “Careful. I’d rather unfamiliar spearwives not come at me so quickly.”

“I’ll gut you if you forgot me,” she growled. When he still stared blankly, she said, “I’m Ygritte.”

“Nonsense.” Jaime put his hand out at his waist. “Ygritte was this high, with a chubby face-”

Ygritte’s scowl turned to a grin, but she kicked him nonetheless. “Are all crows so stupid? Your Mance is. He came by brooding last year, and we worried you’d died. We didn’t know better until traders told us you killed Ulf.” She noticed Lyuk. “That beast ain’t natural.”

“He’s from the Frozen Shore.”

“They worship stupid gods on the Frozen Shore. I bet he’s got a demon in him.”

“He’s converted to the old gods. Won’t even piss on a heart tree.”

“You’re not funny. You ought-” She saw the stump and cried out, snatching his right arm to study frantically, as if the missing hand hid somewhere beneath his blacks.

“The Weeper cut it off.” Jaime tried to smile. “You’d not known that bit?”

No. Gods.” Ygritte clutched the arm more tightly, and in a small voice said, “Can you still fight?”  

“Well enough.”

“Can you hunt?”

“I killed a grouse with a hand axe one time.”

The look of near panic bled from her face, and she nodded as if that made it alright. “Oh, oh, good. That’s not so sad then.” She rallied quickly. “Can you feel it? I knew a woman who got her arm bitten off by a bear. She said she could feel the missing arm.” Without giving him time to answer, she knocked her knuckles against the end of his wrist. “Does that hurt?”

“No,” Jaime said. “And I do feel the hand sometimes. Less than I used to.”

“Did this happen rescuing the kneeler girl?” she demanded. When he inclined his head, she cursed. “You should’ve left her. Getting stolen by some arse like the Weeper is just a cost o’ being free.”

Byam concealed his disapproval poorly, but Jaime knew enough free folk not to be surprised. He tugged Ygritte’s hair. “Not everything that comes from freedom is good. The freest men are monstrous, unrestricted by laws, sympathy or sense. They do whatever they want, and don’t care if others are hurt.”

She slapped his hand away. “You’re talking like a kneeler.”

“I bet there are free folk who think the same. What of your mother? She’s tied to you, to Orl, to Eva and your clan and her duties. Would she not be freer if she cast it all aside?”

“She’s a child,” Ser Byam said. “Do you expect her to understand-”

“Oh shut up, you yammering ball sack. I understand well enough.” Ygritte glared at Jaime. “You’re squawking like a crow. Did the Weeper cut off your cock too?”

This time when he tugged her hair, it was hard enough she squealed like a startled cat. “I am a crow. A kneeler too. You ought not be so dismissive. It makes you sound like the black brothers who spit on wildlings for no good reason.” He held up his stump to halt her protest. “Is Orl about? I’m meant to speak with him.”

Ygritte scrunched her nose at him. Jaime mimicked her expression and leaned down so his face wasn’t a foot from hers, and she broke with a grin. “Aye, I know where he’s at. C’mon, then. Kneeler.”

After leaving their horses to pasture with those that belonged to the village, they found Orl speaking with a few women near one of the potato plots. Edyth was with him, and she smiled toothily when she saw Jaime, though her pleasure turned to bafflement upon taking in Lyuk, and horror when she saw the missing hand.

“Dear gods,” Orl said.

“He’s fine,” Ygritte said. “He can still fight and hunt. He told me so.”

Orl came over to have his look. “How?”

“The Weeper got lucky.”

“Is he dead too?” Edyth said softly. “Those who told us you’d killed Ulf said he rode off and didn’t return, but they didn’t know what’d become of him.”

“Lyuk got him.” Jaime patted the dog atop his head. “We’re in something of a hurry this day. Do you have time to talk, Orl?”

The wildling nodded, and he led Jaime and Ser Byam to his tent, Edyth snatching Ygritte to keep her from following.  

“Ser Byam was here with Mance,” Jaime offered once they’d settled, the chief having served them ale, and Lyuk curled in a corner for a nap.

“Were you?” Orl regarded Byam directly for the first time, but showed no recognition. “You all look alike. Might be I remember you a little.” Dismissal clear, he turned back to Jaime. “I wondered when you’d drop by. There was a while we feared you’d not return at all. Mance got in a tussle with Ygritte, he was so out of sorts when he was last here.”

“So I hear.”

“I wager you’re after information?”

Jaime took a deep drink of his ale. “Black brothers were trading with free folk near Eastwatch, and they heard a rumor some war leader swept in after Ulf’s death to win the villages he'd controlled. Ser Denys wished me to see if you knew anything of it.” He gazed steadily at Orl. “I can’t fathom Tormund let that happen. He should've been after those lands soon as he heard no one would stop him.”

“Tormund,” Orl said, “is a strong leader, who felt an obligation to our people to seek kingship. But he’s no conqueror. He’s been focusing on already loyal groups in the north who've been having trouble. Hunting parties disappearing. Strange attacks. Thenns or Others or just the cold, I never did hear.” Orl scowled. “Now he’s got the Thenns in the northwest, and Ivar Blessedbow in the east.”

“Thenns?” Ser Byam said. "Others?"

“Rumors,” Jaime told him, waving his stump. He gestured to Orl. “Tell me about this Ivar. I take it he favors an axe?”

Orl ignored the jape. “He hails from a village not far from the remains of Hardhome, and it's said he likes warning free folk to mistrust friendly-seeming crows. He claims if we want to stay free, we'd be better off with him, than someone soft like Tormund. He wants you dead, too.”

“Me?”

“Aye. He’s promised horses, women, and weapons to the man who takes your head. And his bed, for any woman who might do so.”

“He made a prize of getting to fuck him? He sounds like a special kind of cunt.”

“As I hear it, he’s comely enough, the offer isn’t a fool’s one.” Orl set his ale aside and rested his hands over his belly. “He isn’t only vanity and hot air, ‘m afraid. I can’t say this for certain, but there’s rumor those who put up too much of a fight end up on strange ships, and he walks away with shiny weapons and pretty things. He’s a bow of gold, they say, hailing from lands that’ve not known winter, and he dons foreign armor.”

“Slavers,” Jaime said. “He’s allied himself with slavers.” 

“That’s what’s said. Couldn’t say if it’s true. I can’t fathom free folk following such a man.”

If they’re desperate, they might. Jaime could see it. Others in the north, supposedly crows scheming to the south. It’d be easy to argue that enemies were closing in, proper free folk ought to stick together, and those who wouldn’t cooperate didn’t deserve to be free in the first place.

Orl wasn’t finished. “Don't be flippant about seeking him. Ulf was isolated. It was winter. You tricked him. Ivar is expanding. He’ll have an army, and far better weapons.”

“Yes,” Jaime murmured. “I’ll take the matter to the Watch and do what I can, but so long as your kings only squabble with each other, and do not try to pass the Wall, the high officials won’t act.”

“That may be best. As many people as would be grateful for help would resent interference.” Orl cleared his throat. “What of you, Kingslayer? Have you news of the Watch?”

Jaime knocked back the last of his ale. “The Lord Commander is all but dead. When I left, he wasn’t eating nor getting out of bed. Once he breathes his last, it’s likeliest Jeor Mormont or Denys Mallister will be elected.”

“You sound upset. You don’t approve?”

“Mallister will make me First Ranger, and Mormont has also threatened to do so.”

Orl laughed, sudden and free. “It’d be a miserable thing, trying to keep a flock of crows in line,” he agreed, “but that’d be a victory for the free folk. Forgive me for saying as much, but I’ll be hoping you’re chosen.”

I ought to wish for it as well. But he wasn’t ready to leave the Shadow Tower. It’d been only nine months since he’d settled in after returning Aly to Bear Island. He felt like a child taking his first shaky steps, and feared any day he’d be asked to break into a run.

After a brief pause, Orl said, “And have you had more dreams, ser?”

“Dreams?” Ser Byam said.

Jaime turned away so Orl could not see his face. He’d sooner not think of the dreams. The longer he considered them, the more troubling they seemed. He suspected the children and Bloodraven had sent his first one, and Bloodraven had admitted to giving him the second. Mance said he’d all but shown up in person for Dalla. And if Mother Mole got her visions from a weirwood, they likely stemmed from the same source.

He misliked how intentional it all felt. He’d not have believed Orl about the Others if he’d not dreamt of them, so wouldn’t have gone to Tormund—and never would’ve faced the Weeper that first time, thus wouldn’t have faced him the second. But he didn’t know whether Bloodraven and the children in the trees retained enough individuality to plot in that way. Perhaps fate was already written, and the dreams came forth naturally, to coax men into following a determined path.

It was best not to dwell on it, or draw attention to the dreams, until he worked it out one way or the other.

“They’re not important,” Jaime told Ser Byam. To Orl, he said, “I’ve seen nothing more. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t mind it, lad. I was only curious.” He climbed to his feet. “Before you head off, there’s a last thing. I’d been waiting for you or Mance to come back around.”

He went to a small oak chest in the back of the tent, and from it produced a leather pouch. “Eva got stolen by a man in the east. He gave me dragonglass as a guest gift when I dropped by on them. I spread a few among my warriors, but this is for the Watch, as payment to you. There’s not many, but it might be they’ll help.”

Jaime didn’t bother saying he suspected his sword could kill Others. He’d give them to a handful of brothers. He nodded, genuinely grateful. “You’ve my thanks.”

“You’re sure you won’t stay the night?” Orl said.

“No,” Jaime said regretfully. “It’d be irresponsible to delay. I must needs return to Wall, to see how this First Ranger business plays out.”

 

The Lord Commander was dead. That became apparent soon as Jaime and Ser Byam rode through the Shadow Tower’s gate. He saw it in the stares milling brothers gave him, though he couldn’t initially tell whether the election had yet to occur and they wondered over his fate, or if the long looks were a response to him either being chosen or passed over as First Ranger.

When Wyl the stable boy rushed forth with a grin, Jaime feared he had his answer.

“That old fool died?” Jaime said.

“Aye, ser,” Wyl said. “A week after you left. Ser Denys took some brothers off for the election, and they returned a few days ago.” He trembled with excitement. “You’ll never guess-”

Mance strode into the yard, his cloak flapping behind him. “Mormont won,” he said. “He made you First Ranger. Bugger off, lad.”

“Don’t you tell me-”

“I’ve the authority to have you cleaning chamber pots until next spring,” Mance said.

With an impressive scowl, Wyl took Dapple and slunk away. Ser Byam appeared ready to give congratulations, took in Jaime’s face, and offered only a half smile before leaving also.

As they retreated, Mance drew closer to Jaime. “It was a close thing. Ser Denys took me to Castle Black with him. Mormont asked my thoughts after he was elected. He must’ve still been undecided.”

Jaime let out a heavy breath, a shudder going through him. “I’m a vain cripple with an obedience problem. It shouldn’t have been difficult to decide him the other way. No, no, that was ungracious. I ought to have expected this. What thinks Qhorin?”

“He’s proud of you, though he’ll not say as much.” Mance grasped Jaime by the arms. “I know the timing is poor, but you are a fine leader.”

I don’t fear I lack the ability. But I’m sick of sacrifice.

“Of course I am. Is Ser Denys pleased?”

“Immensely so. He wants to speak with you.”

Jaime clucked his tongue for Lyuk to come to heel, and he started walking.

Mance fell into step beside him. “I expected you'd have more to say. Are you well?”

“Naturally. This hardly compares to losing a hand.” Jaime glanced at Mance. “You needn’t hover like a mother hen. I know the way.”

“Jaime…”

“Find Wyl. There’s a pouch in my saddlebags that’d be of interest to you. Orl gifted us dragonglass daggers. Give one to Qhorin and Little Wolf, and- do you think Blane would accept one?”

“From you, he’d accept a hot poker down his throat. At least tell me what Orl had to say.”

I have a bounty on my head. The king in the east hasn’t only scooped up Ulf’s lands, but has gained support preaching against crows. He works with slavers. Tormund is shoved between that bastard and disciplined, well-armed Thenns, and he’s off worrying about internal affairs instead of pressing his claim.

“We’ll speak when I’m through with Mallister.” Jaime stopped and clapped Mance on the back, so he’d cease looking so uneasy. “Don't frown so deeply. You remind me of my father. I’m well. Getting appointed First Ranger is an honor. I may shy from responsibility, but I’m not blind to that.”

Mance’s face darkened. “Remember when you returned to the Wall after rescuing Aly, and you swore on your honor as a knight you’d tell me if you struggled?" 

“Then I must not be struggling.”

After studying Jaime for a long moment, Mance pressed his lips into a thin line and stepped away. “As you say.”

Jaime watched him go, biting his tongue. Only when Mance disappeared into the stables did he stir himself and resume walking toward the main tower. A few brothers congratulated him as he passed, and Jaime tipped his head or made some witty reply, though the words tasted like ashes.

When he entered Mallister’s solar with Lyuk, the old knight looked up from a letter and offered a smile of such fatherly pride, Jaime nearly turned and walked out. Why are you pleased? You disagree with most of what I do.

Keeping his face impassive, Jaime threw himself into one of the chairs. “Don’t smile. I’m going to make all sorts of dubious changes. You’ll dread every raven that comes from Castle Black.”

“I will not,” Ser Denys said softly.

Weary and short on words, Jaime looked about the solar one last time. It’d changed little since he first saw it over five years before, though two months back, Mallister had briefly removed the painting of Seagard. This had come after he chided Little Wolf for keeping artifacts of the Frozen Shore, and Mance brought up his lingering attachment to House Mallister. For a fortnight, there’d been no eagle pin nor picture, and Little Wolf had worn his hair loose and went about free of any marker of his people.

It hadn’t lasted. Little Wolf showed up at an evening meal with his necklaces, and a rope of braids twined down the middle of his skull, the sides of his head shaved in a way that marked penance for weakness. Mallister had said nothing, and the next day, Wallace Massey reported that he’d put the painting back up, and he wore the eagle pin once more. Mance had been in a good mood for days, treating it as a victory for small personal freedoms.

I do not want to leave this place, these people. 

Ser Denys cleared his throat. “How went your ranging?”

Relieved by the question, Jaime forced himself to forget his worries long enough to speak of the new would-be king and the slavers, but Ser Denys was all but dismissive, declaring it a problem for the wildlings, not the Watch. Jaime did not protest. He was now First Ranger. He could look into the matter as he saw fit.

When that was settled, Ser Denys said, “I fear I mean to be a touch sentimental. I pray you’ll bear with me.”

“Ser,” Jaime began, but it did no good.

“When I first came to the Wall, I was bitter for a time,” he said. “Seeing what many of the brothers were like, the bleak lands beyond, and the general nature of the Watch, I oft feared the world to be a dark place, senseless and full of terrors. I wondered at the point of being a knight, when reality seemed to laugh at the principles knighthood espoused.”

Jaime had been fishing for a way to interrupt him and put a stop to his nonsense. But at that, his eyes snapped to the older man’s.

Mallister stroked his beard. “Eventually, I decided knighthood would only be without worth should I give up on it so easily. If I resolutely acted the knight, I told myself, it would mean something. I further hoped setting a high standard for my own behavior would inspire others to do the same. It’s not been a wasted effort. I like to think I offer some semblance of torchlight to these dark halls.”

“Ser?”

“The ideal of knighthood, I have thus concluded,” Mallister went on, “is to act in a way that lets those around us believe the world is not so grim a place, that good men exist, and that living honorably is not the purview of naive fools.”

Mallister’s pale eyes warmed. “In the sense I described, you've excelled incredibly. If I’ve brought torchlight to the Shadow Tower, you have brought the sun. I don’t doubt you’ll do the same at Castle Black.”

Jaime only barely refrained from offering some protest. He wished the words felt truer, but they were still pleasant to hear. At the same time, they baffled him. He’d assumed Mallister clung to his hopes for Jaime because of his title and breeding. With his father, with Ser Gerold, when he’d veered from their expectations, they’d turned from him. It’d not occurred to Jaime that his disagreements with Ser Denys did not signify the same.

He fought a flicker of guilt, that he’d kept a margin of distance between them based on that misapprehension.

Mallister coughed. “That is not to say I’ll accept absurdity from you. Exercise temperance, ser.”

Jaime forced himself from his chair, and he went to Ser Denys and put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re one of the truest knights I’ve met. I regret I’ll no longer serve under you.”

Before anything ridiculous could fall from his lips, he called for his dog and took his leave.

Knowing he ought to do so, Jaime went to the common hall next. Mance had put himself near a hearth and practiced his lute. He looked up and caught Jaime’s eye, but before Jaime could go to him, Blane strode over and embraced him in a rather wildling-like manner, and other men followed to clap him on the back or offer encouragement or make jests.

Little Wolf shook him so hard it jarred his teeth. “You have been made leader of the rangers. I am pleased at your good fortune.”

“Yes. I’m very fortunate.”

Little Wolf knelt and put his arms around Lyuk, who greeted him with a lick to the cheek. In the Old Tongue, he told him, “Take care of the Jaime. Be fierce, and kill his enemies quickly.”

“This doesn’t make me ‘the Jaime.’”

“Of course it does. You are First Ranger. First is like chief, or best.” Little Wolf stood. “Do not let this make you arrogant, like you were before my people fixed you. If you think to act a fool, imagine my grandmother is near to give a scold, or my sister, to cut you with a knife.”

He spluttered. “I wasn’t fixed. Just…”

“Humbled,” Blane offered.

“Cowed by a tiny old woman,” said Edrick.

Jaime scowled at both of them. “I begin to see why my father sends impertinent peasants to the mines.” He grabbed Edrick to put him in a headlock, but the boy didn’t turn it into a mock fight as would some of the brothers. He was too busy laughing.

Eventually, Jaime let himself be herded to a bench. Stonesnake perched beside him and offered suggestions on how to keep up climbing practice, while Ser Endrew warned him against sabotaging his progress with a sword by trying to show off. Qhorin brought him mulled wine and handed it over with a slight smile, which startled Blane into choking on his drink.

Jaime set the wine aside and grasped Qhorin’s arm. “It should’ve been you, brother.”

“We’ve had this talk.”

“He’s had this talk with all of us,” Dalbridge put in.

“Certain men play certain roles, the way different weapons have a unique purpose,” Stonesnake finished.

“And evidently, you’re Valyrian steel,” Ser Endrew added. “I don’t know how else you’d have pulled Dark Sister from your arse mid-ranging.”

“That makes perfect sense,” said Mullin. “Gold comes from Tywin’s backside, Valyrian steel from the Kingslayer’s. A family trait. I studied this sort of thing at the Citadel.”

Even Jaime laughed at that.

The fervor soon died down, congratulations waning, brothers drifting off to their own business. Mance had remained in the corner with his lute through all of this, not one for letting his voice be diluted by a crowd. When the opportunity arose, Jaime picked up his wine and excused himself, breaking off to go to him.

Mance played the still-unfinished song he’d been working on for months. It’d shaped up impressively, more so than Jaime expected, and even Ser Denys had complimented it. The tune jarred between loud and soft, fast and slow, the notes alternating high and low. But the dissonance seemed intentional, and the melody deceptively simple, something easy to sing or hum.

Feeling overlarge in his ranging gear, Jaime lowered himself to the floor across from Mance, remaining silent as the music wound through a darker section and drew to a stopping point. When the last notes faded, without prompting, Jaime launched into a summary of all Orl had told him. It was simpler than addressing the terse ending of their last talk, and blessedly unrelated to Jaime’s appointment as First Ranger. Mance didn’t call him out on it, listening without changing his expression.

“Mallister was going to write Eastwatch about the slavers,” Jaime concluded. “I suppose they’ll try to keep Ivar’s men from getting weapons, though they’re so undermanned, success is unlikely.” He shook his head. “The bounty, I don’t fear.”

“Don’t ignore it entirely,” Mance warned, but he didn’t linger on the matter. “I would ignore Tormund’s predicament. It’s not our place to help, and Orl might be imagining the worst. If you’re truly concerned, send me scouting that way, so we at least know the truth of the matter.”

The reminder of Jaime’s newfound authority shattered the illusion of normal conversation. Turning away, he cast his eyes to the brothers eating and dicing and talking at the tables around the cramped dark hall. I’m going to leave, and everything here will remain the same.

He ought to bathe, to dress in clean blacks, to eat. He wished also to sleep. Ranging tired him now as it’d not before. Things that’d been thoughtlessly easy with two hands oft required more time, focus and effort with only the one. But he wasn’t ready to leave just yet.

Mance plucked a few discordant notes. “You’re putting too much pressure on yourself, brother. You needn’t be the greatest First Ranger the Watch has ever known.”

“But-”

“Don’t. Forget the free folk. Forget what happened with whoever gave you Dark Sister. Forget anything Val or Dalla told you. For now, imagine none of it matters, and that no one expects anything of you save our brothers.”

“Forget the free folk,” Jaime repeated.

“For now, yes. You’ll do nothing for them until you gain your brothers’ trust.” Firelight warmed Mance’s dark eyes. “Make friends, and get to know your men. For the first months, focus on that. Does that help? Two things. You can handle two things.”

He swallowed. “You needn’t mother me.”

“It’s brothering.” Mance waved him off. “Go bathe. I’ll fetch you food. Then return and drink with our brothers, or sleep if you prefer. But do not remain here getting tangled in your fears.”

I’ll miss you brother. Jaime climbed to his feet, then rested his stump on Mance’s shoulder. He considered offering more words, but nothing seemed to suit. He doubted he’d come up with anything fitting on the morrow either. It’d do no good to make a big farewell of his departure, regardless. He’d be three days’ ride away. He could visit. Mance could think up reasons to come east.

“Thank you,” he said finally, insufficiently.

Mance’s smile fell, and he let Jaime see this wasn’t easy for him. He lowered his eyes to his lute. “Remember the story of the Night’s King? In which the ideal warrior, the man without doubt or fear, thought himself above the limits of men, and ended up the monster?”

“I can't fathom why that's relevant.”

“You needn't always be well," Mance said quietly. "It's unnatural never to falter, and there's no shame in struggling.”

Throat thick, Jaime gave a strained smile to show he’d heard, then walked away.

As he left, Mance began to play his lute once more, then to sing. Jaime recognized, “Farewell, My Brother.” He stopped outside the hall’s entrance to listen to the whole song, taking care to keep his face blank in case anyone should see. When the music faded, he could not help but linger, and only with effort stirred himself to leave his brothers behind.

 

When Jaime arrived at Castle Black, the Wall did not shine nor shimmer, but looked like a massive chunk of graying ice. Dark clouds pressed low over the buildings, and wind tore through the yard. It was midday, and brothers hurried about, busy with various tasks. Two boys with the wide-eyed, drawn faces of new recruits froze when Jaime passed, whether to stare at him or Lyuk, he knew not.

Mayhaps they find me impressive, he told himself dubiously. Wishing to get to Castle Black quickly as possible, having much and more to do, he’d ridden a white destrier Wyl had named Dunk, leaving Dapple with the stewards hauling his supplies. Atop the magnificent horse, he did cut a fine figure. From the left side, anyway. 

Jaime vaulted from Dunk’s back and led him toward the stables. Before he was halfway there, a young brother hurried forth.

“I was t’ keep watch for you,” the crow said. “I can take your horse. Lord Mormont would see you at once. He’s in the Lord Commander’s tower, m’lord.”

“I’m not your lord.” Jaime didn’t worry about commanding authority by insisting on the title. He’d always had some natural ability to make men follow him. “Jaime is fine, or Ser Jaime, or Kingslayer if you’d please. What’s your name?”

The steward blinked up at him. “Lew, ser.”

“This is Dunk,” Jaime said. “More men should be bringing my garron this evening or early on the morrow. Give her an extra apple when she comes, would you? I brought this lunk so I might travel more quickly, and I’m afraid Dapple’s not pleased with me.”

That earned him a slight smile. “Aye, m’-” He blinked. “Ser Jaime.” His eyes darted to Lyuk. “Do you want me to do anything with that one?”

“He stays with me.”

When Jaime entered the Lord Commander’s rooms, it was evident Jeor Mormont had only just moved in. Several crates were shoved in corners, and a few articles that must’ve been Qorgyle’s, such as a portrait of a young Dornishwoman, remained here and there. When Mormont’s steward led Jaime to his solar, the Old Bear had a table full of letters before him and appeared to be sorting them out. A great raven supervised from the highest of a set of shelves.

Upon seeing Jaime, Mormont cast a letter aside as though he’d been waiting for the excuse. “My predecessor grew unable to deal with his duties near the end, and fell behind,” he said. “I’ve dozens of things to do, and I’m cleaning up after him as well. I should’ve removed my name and let your Ser Denys handle this. He seems the sort to better like such tasks.”

“You’ve my sympathies,” said Jaime, but failed to manage sincerity.

Mormont pressed his lips together. “Come, sit. I was warned you might not like this choice.”

Jaime did as bid, Lyuk trotting along to plop at his feet. Reminding himself complaints would do him no favors, he made his face softer. “It is not that I mislike the choice. But I have only just been adjusting to this-” He lifted his stump. “-and another change, so soon after, makes me uneasy. It’s no matter. Inconvenience is part of duty.”

“Inconvenience,” repeated Mormont with gruff approval. “The moment I was elected, I had men muttering at me, why they deserved this or that position. But you see this as a sacrifice. It speaks to your good sense.”

I have good sense now. I’ve never been accused of that before. “Why have you called me here?”

The Old Bear tugged at his shaggy beard. “To offer a warning. You must step softly. Ben Stark is well loved, and most brothers, until recently, took it for granted he would become First Ranger. After you returned with Aly, many became insistent it must be so. You spent too much time with wildlings, they say. You had a relationship with one-”

“I didn’t,” Jaime said.

Mormont stopped to study him.

Jaime added, “I haven’t broken a vow since joining the Watch.”

He scrubbed a hand across his face. “Well, not everyone believes as much. Then the woman’s brother came to the Wall. The fervor’s settled over that, but few men have forgotten. I’d not worry you unnecessarily. But be aware that you’ve a degree of opposition.”

Jaime reached below the table to scratch Lyuk behind the ear. It’s no big thing. I’ll deal with it. I expected it. Taking care to keep his voice level, he said, “Why not choose Stark, if he’s so popular?”

“You’ve ranged three times as far and have connections from Lorn Point, through the Frostfangs, and past the Fist of the First Men. You speak the wildling’s language. You survived nearly an entire winter beyond the Wall. Benjen has done all he’s been asked, but you have accomplished far more.”

Not a debt, then. Nor anything to do with his father or his wealth. His new position might be a dubious prize, but he’d come by it honestly. That was something.

“Have you anything more you want from me this instant?” Jaime said.

“Not at the moment,” Mormont said. “If you desire a full set of rooms, there are apartments on the second floor of this tower that’ve been empty for some time, and others atop the Silent Tower I vacated recently. But many of our knights reside there, and I can’t promise they’ll be welcoming.”

“Here will suit. I’ll also have need of stewards, two at least. My handwriting leaves much to be desired, and there’ll be other tasks with which I’ll need assistance. Is that acceptable?”

“It is, ser.” Mormont gave him a long look. “I’d not have appointed you had I not believed you could handle it. I’ll thus not wish you luck. How much my sister likes you, you no doubt have mettle enough to get by on that alone.”

 

Upon leaving the Lord Commander’s Tower, Jaime went looking for Dolorous Edd. It was a simple place to begin. Lyuk kept close to his side as he crossed the grounds, panting in a way that marked agitation. Jaime did not know if the stares were getting under the dog’s skin, or if he felt Jaime's unease. Trying to calm him, Jaime patted his back and made his own breaths deeper.

“Everything will be fine,” he murmured. “You needn’t fear.”

For lack of better idea, Jaime went to the common hall first. He did not find Edd, but after a moment's search, recognized Ulmer, formerly of the Kingswood Brotherhood. Mance liked Ulmer. I’ll begin here. If I spend too much time wandering like I haven’t any notion what I’m doing, men will think me a fool.

The outlaw sat with his back to the fire, speaking with a brother with both ears missing. That one saw Jaime first and gave him a frown over Ulmer’s shoulder, his expression twisting further when he saw Lyuk at Jaime’s side.

Jaime caught his eye, but didn’t bother returning the stare. No doubt seeing his friend’s face, Ulmer turned just as Jaime straddled the bench a few feet away. So close, his face jarred a memory of the outlaw with his wrists bound, speaking to Arthur. He’d seemed dark and frightening at the time. But he was only a graying man, slightly stooped with plain features and an open expression. 

Lyuk plopped to the floor and extended his neck to rest his head on Jaime’s leg. Jaime scratched his ear, but fixed his gaze on the black brothers. “I pray I’m not interrupting.”

If Ulmer held a grudge, he showed it not. “Not at all. It gave us all a bit of a shock, knowing you'd be First Ranger. But it's good you're here to say what's what."

He better smoothed the sleeve he wore over his stump. “We’ve met. I don’t know if you recall it. You shot arrows at me.”

“Certainly! Didn’t do much good, all the armor you knights wear. I hope there’s no ill feelings.”

“No ill feelings,” Jaime promised. He looked at Ulmer’s friend. “You, I don’t know.”

The man grumbled something.

"Gared," Ulmer offered. "That's his name. He's a ranger too.”

He likes me not. Jaime would drive himself mad attempting to coax approval from every man who thought ill of him, and too much pandering would make him look weak or insincere. He’d let the men get to better know him, and if dislike lingered where he thought he could ease it, he would tackle it then.

For now, he acknowledged Gared with a subtle nod, then regarded Ulmer once more. “Do you know Dolorous Edd?”

“Everyone knows Edd. Are you looking for him?”

“Aye.”

Ulmer thought about it. "I bet he'd be in the pantry, in the kitchens, counting supplies. He does that every week."

Jaime thanked him, then made his way through the hall and to the kitchens adjacent to it. The brothers working as cooks glanced at him, but said nothing as he headed for the pantry. There were no doubt far larger storerooms around the castle, but the cool, dark space held reasonable quantities of various staples: a barrel of apples, a host of pickled foods, a basket of eggs, slabs of cheese, and rows of earthenware crocks. Sausages were strung on a wall, and haunches of meat hung from the ceiling.

Amid it all, Dolorous Edd sat on a small stool, using a squat crate as a desk, huddled in a circle of lamplight. He looked up at Jaime’s entrance, and his eyes widened when recognition dawned.

"You’ve arrived then, my lord?" Edd said glumly. "You ought to have stayed away, and I don't say as much because I'm displeased to see you. There are brothers who aren't happy you're to give them orders."

“I’ve been told.” Jaime found a wedge of cheese and took the dagger from his belt. He sliced off a chunk the size of his fist.

“I’d not eat all that, or you’ll not move your bowels for a week,” Edd told him.

Jaime took a big bite, then tossed the rest to Lyuk. “It’s not for me, and that’s nothing for a dog his size. He munches whole birds as if snacking on finger fish.”

Edd finished a line of writing, then replaced the quill carefully in the inkwell. “I do hope you’ve just come for food, and not because you want something of me. There’s bread stored over there, or-”

Jaime wiped his dagger on a cloth sack and sheathed it. "I've received permission to take on a steward or two. I’d prefer you be one of them.”  

“I fear being your steward would entail a great deal of work, and that it would put me in the middle of an unfriendly situation. I’ve nothing against you, but-”

"Please,” Jaime said. 

"Now, I'm not so soft I'll be swayed by that,” said Edd, visibly swayed.

"I've rooms all to myself in the Lord Commander's Tower. If you worked for me, you'd get your own chamber, in one of the nicest buildings at Castle Black.”

Edd pressed his lips together, but he kept silent.

"I'd gift my steward all that he please, and would provide him coin and resources to use at his own discretion."

"Are you bribing me?"

“Shamelessly.”

Edd hunkered in on himself, looking even more morose than usual. “I’ll do it. You needn’t bother with the bribe. But I’m a poor choice. Whatever you’d have me do for you, it’s like to go wrong.”

“I’m sure it won’t.” Jaime sagged, unable to hide his relief. No matter what else happened, one thing had gone right. “Finish here. I’ve another stop to make. When you’re done, I want to talk. My chambers are on the second floor of the Lord Commander’s tower.”

"This is a poor way to pay a debt.”

“I’ll even it out,” Jaime promised. “Trust me.”

“Why not? I hear you’re good for trust. But if anyone tries to stab me for this, I’ll blame you as I die.”

“Your optimism cheers me.” Jaime picked up an apple and took a bite. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Bowen Marsh spends his days?”

“I’m sorry, ser, I’m afraid I must be going deaf. Who’s it you want to see?”

“The First Steward. Red, round, looks like a pomegranate.”

“His rooms are off the Flint Barracks,” said Edd, grimacing. “I don’t know why you want him. He isn’t good for much but counting. And lists. But lists are just rows of things that’ve been counted. It’s him who put me to this duty, because I can write, and know my numbers. I told my septon such lessons wouldn’t do me any good, but he forced them on me even so. I should’ve known better. Never trust a septon.”

Jaime smiled. “It happens I’ve a need for counts and lists.”

Edd gave a great, shuddering sigh. “You ought to have told me you’d gone mad before I accepted your offer. Well, go on then. I hope… you’re successful.”

He thanked Edd one last time, bid him farewell, then headed the direction he’d been pointed, munching his apple as he went, Lyuk trotting behind.

Jaime had been unimpressed with Bowen Marsh on their trip to Winterfell. He’d not been the most offensive of the group, but while harmless enough, he seemed a banal, unexceptional sort who would spend his life doing strictly as he ought.

But he had information Jaime wanted. After all, to be ignorant was to be blind, and his father and Bloodraven had both made clear the importance of knowledge.

Jaime found him in a windowless room illuminated by lantern light, and filled to bursting with shelves and boxes. Amid this was a heavy oak table weighted by Marsh’s writings. The space was scarce large enough for Jaime to maneuver within, and he was forced to leave Lyuk outside. A single wag of the dog’s tail would send half the papers in the room aflutter.

At Jaime’s entrance, Marsh peered up from a leatherbound tome and blinked as if he did not see properly. “Ser Jaime.”

“My lord. Have you a moment to speak?”

He coughed, then nodded and put on a mask of courtesy. “Yes, yes, it’s no problem at all.”

Jaime wandered closer. “I’d like a list of all the rangers currently in the Watch. Do you have such a thing?”

Marsh’s eyes sharpened at the mention of lists, and the suspicion on his face fled once he understood Jaime’s presence. “Naturally, ser.”

“Have you one for just Castle Black?”

“The castles are marked, so you’ll be able to tell. Let me show you.” Marsh went and pulled a heavy book from one of the shelves, then flipped it open to a marked page. When he placed it on his desk, Jaime saw it featured rows of names in cramped but neat writing, their assigned castle listed one row over. A handful of the brothers had been marked with an ‘x’ to denote they’d died. A few had other brief details, and several came with warnings, such as for a man who killed his whole family, or another who stabbed an infant because its crying vexed him.

“Some of these men are vile,” Jaime said.

“It is the nature of the Watch,” Marsh said.

“Is it?” With his stump, Jaime turned to the previous page and saw more of the same. “Is it law that we’re obligated to accept every criminal the lords thrust on us?”

“Obligation doesn’t matter. We need the men.”

Jaime pointed to the name of a brother who’d raped and killed his own mother. “This badly?”

Marsh put his lips together, then said, “I will ask Maester Aemon.” He fished a paper from the sea on his desk and scribbled himself a note. “How long will you need the book?”

“I’d like the information on hand always. Is there someone literate who might copy sections for me?”

Edd could, but Jaime had better uses for Edd.

Another nod from Marsh. “I’ll send a man to your rooms as soon as possible. Where are you staying?”

Jaime told him, then said, “Have you lists of the stock in the armory? The gear in the stores?”

Marsh fetched those, not written in books, but on loose scraps of parchment. “These are the most recent.”

“What of yearly amounts? I’d like to look at trends.” Or have Edd do it for me. That’d work far better.

“We do counts monthly.”

“Perfect.” Edd may accept my bribes after all.

When the pile of supply counts was added to the stack, Jaime said, “Have you Lord Mormont’s former ranging schedules, or will I need to go back-”

Marsh pointed. “That box in the corner.”

Jaime retrieved the wooden box, nudging it up with his foot, then wrangling it into a position where he could brace his stump beneath it. He propped it on an empty corner of Marsh’s desk and added the other materials to its top.

Peering over it, he gave Marsh his brightest smile. “I offer my sincere thanks. This will be remarkably useful.”

“It is only my duty,” Marsh said, but Jaime fancied he looked pleased. “Is that all?”

“One last matter.” Jaime shook the dust from his hand. “It is not my place, and I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but at Winterfell, I toured the glass gardens with Lady Catelyn. Would something similar be viable at Castle Black? Mance took note of the numbers you showed Lord Stark, and it seems much of the coin lords donate goes into bolstering the food stores. If we could continue growing things even in fall and winter, that’d leave more resources for other supplies.” 

“But Rayder claimed he didn’t-” Shaking his head, Marsh drew his brows together. “I could look into it. We would need funds.”

Jaime tapped his fingers against the edge of the box. “My father once told me he’d be more willing to donate to the Watch when I came into a position better suited for a Lannister. Get me an amount, and I’ll write Casterly Rock and see what being made First Ranger is worth.”

“Of course, ser,” Marsh said.

He gave Marsh one last smile, then maneuvered the box into his arms. “You’ll have to get the door.”

Marsh hurried to do so, and Jaime left him looking as if he’d been clubbed by something heavy.

Soon as he saw Jaime emerge, Lyuk barked and bounded over. Jaime greeted him with a grimace. “I’ll not get any credit for the gardens should they go through, will I?”

Lyuk wagged his tail.

“Yes, you be optimistic. I lack the energy.”

Jaime headed for the Lord Commander’s Tower, setting the box on the ground to open the door, then fumbling to lift it again. At the Shadow Tower, such things had ceased bothering him, but here, the clumsiness seemed twice as noticeable. He had to refrain from looking over his shoulder to see if anyone saw. A First Ranger should not be a cripple.

He chastised himself for the foolish self pity and climbed the staircase until he reached his new apartments.

Above anything, Jaime desired a nap, but that would not do. Instead, he took a slow tour of the rooms. He had his own solar, or something that’d serve as the rough equivalent of one, a bedchamber larger than his previous cell, and a small room for bathing, so he might wash without going to bathhouse the brothers shared. The rooms were cramped, but the solar and bedchamber both had small windows, and the main hearth was promisingly large.

“You need a bed,” Jaime told Lyuk. “Elsewise you’ll try to share, and I’ll be the first black brother to die crushed by massive dog.”

He had a vague idea of what he wished to do next, but dirt from the three-day ride between castles clung to him. A wash would help with making a positive impression, and time to gather my thoughts would be welcome.

He located a young steward and gave him a gold dragon to fetch water for a bath. Bribing brothers to obey him wouldn’t be tenable, but he didn’t wish to look like an entitled tyrant. The brother, who introduced himself as Ty, jumped on the task soon as Jaime flashed his gold.

Ty, he thought, returning to his rooms. Likes gold, has half a Lannister name. The stable boy was Lew. Fair-haired. A gap between his front teeth. Ty. Lew. And Gared. I met Gared, who has no ears.

Jaime got a fire going while Ty retrieved the water. It’d been one of the first things he learned to do one-handed, by holding his knife handle in his mouth and using his left hand to strike with the flint. By time he was finished, the steward Marsh had promised showed up, a wrinkled old man who looked frightened when Jaime opened the door.

“And what’re you called?” Jaime said.

“Lewys, ser.”

Lew and Lewys. Of course.

Jaime put him near the hearth and told him what he’d like copied. Ty soon returned with the water, which was steaming, but by time he finished a second trip to fill the tub, it’d grown lukewarm. That was an inevitability at the Wall, and he brought with him a towel and chunk of lye soap, which proved him promisingly competent. Jaime gave him a silver stag.

“Find Lew in the stables, and bring up my saddlebags,” Jaime said.

“Yes, m’lord,” he said, and got to it, no doubt hoping for more coin should he come back quickly.

Jaime had just settled into the tub when Edd arrived. “My lord.”

Stifling the urge to chase him off, Jaime sunk more deeply into the water. “Come here.”

Edd moseyed over. His eyes fell to Jaime’s right arm, hanging over the edge of the tub, but he only said, “I fear to ask why you’ve got Lewys making lists.”

“It’s nothing to worry over. For now, I only wish to talk.” He idly ran his thumb over the soap. “The Old Bear says I’m misliked by certain brothers. He mentioned my thoughts on wildlings as one reason. Is there more?”

Edd hesitated.

Jaime said, “You needn’t tell me who’s saying what, but my job will be easier if I know what ill opinions I must counter.”

“Well.” Edd picked at a thread on his shirt. “There’s men who warrant you don't know how to follow rules. You killed a king you were meant to protect, and you had that habit of ranging twice as long as you were ordered. And rangers ought to stop wildlings, but you make friends of them. That’s what they say.”

The water had already begun to cool, but Jaime couldn’t stir himself to wash, his attention fixed on Edd. “Go on.”

“Some brothers doubt your loyalty.”

“Why?” Jaime said tiredly.

“It’s to do with the wildlings. Your closest friend is part wildling and sings wildling songs and lies with wildling women. You have a wildling dog. The necklace you wear is wildling. They say you wear a ring from a wildling king.”

“I lost a hand serving the Watch. What more do they want?”

Edd sighed. "Some brothers claim you were japing around, looking for glory, when you rescued the girl. That it wasn’t a sacrifice, but the first time you faced a consequence for doing as you pleased. They’d have it that all you did was get captured by wildlings, kill an ill-trained savage, lose a fight, and get crippled. You only got back to the Wall through luck, they say, and ought not be praised for it. You didn’t earn nothing, just got maimed saving the right girl.”

The cooling water leeched into Jaime’s bones. “How many men think this?”

“A good number agree with the first part, about you not following rules,” said Edd, his tone sullen, “but it’s only a handful who dismiss that ranging that way.”

“Can you tell me Ben Stark’s thoughts? I’ll not hold it against him. But his opinion is important.”

Edd was either gullible or did trust Jaime, for he answered without hesitation. “He’s not said anything mean-spirited, but I’ve the notion he feels you’ve ignored orders and did a lot that’s improper for a ranger, and got rewarded for it.”

“While he did everything right and got passed over,” Jaime said.

“Aye. He tries hard and cares a lot, that one. And he and Lord Mormont are close, or were close, before all this.”

“You like him.” It was clear in his voice.

Edd nodded.

I am tired of this. “See if Ty’s returned with my things. There are clean blacks in my bags. Bring them here in a few minutes.”  

When Edd was gone, Jaime let the soap slip through his fingers and lie motionless in the cold water, letting the chill bite his skin. He’d admit to being disobedient and occasionally a fool, and he had needed a miracle to get Aly back to the Wall. Being judged on those things irked him only slightly. It was the assumption of poor intentions that took him off guard. At the Shadow Tower, most brothers took for granted he was a decent person. Some even teased him for it. 

But naturally, there were men at Castle Black who powerfully disliked him because of Aerys, or because Tywin had sentenced them. And they’d have made friends over the years, and spread their assumptions. Others no doubt believed him morally dubious for wishing to cooperate with wildlings, and let that color their opinion of his character.

It’s nonsense, all of it. I know who I am.

When Jaime stood, his limbs felt numb and clumsy, and he dried himself with significant distraction. Just as he finished, Edd returned with his blacks. “Do you-”

“I can dress myself.” Jaime took the breeches he’d gotten from the children and stepped into them. “I want to speak with all the rangers, soon as possible, but I’d discuss a few things with you first.”

“I’m no good at advice. You’d be better off putting me to use starting fires, or drawing your baths, or bringing you breakfast.”

With a touch of difficulty, Jaime did up his laces. “You underestimate yourself. I find you quite observant.” You saw me, after all.

“As you say. I’m sure you’ll soon come to your senses soon enough.”

Jaime studied the tunic Edd had brought, frowning. “I’ve a simpler one. Mayhaps I ought to wear that. The velvet might make me seem a touch foppish at first look.”

“Don’t ask me,” said Dolorous Edd. “I’m lucky I put everything on facing the proper way every morning. Sometimes I don’t. Or I’ll by accident put on stockings with holes, and go about with cold toes the whole long day.”

“I do think the simple one. It’s the knights who’re likeliest to dislike me deeply, but little things might prompt the lowborn brothers to lower their hackles.”

He brushed past Edd, back into his bedchamber. Lyuk had taken over his featherbed and lie on his back, his legs eschew in the air, head lolling to one side. After giving his belly a pat, Jaime knelt before the saddlebags laid out in front of the bed. After a brief search, he recovered the wool tunic he’d sought, replacing the finer velvet within. As he straightened and turned, Edd looked away a touch too quickly.

“I don’t mind that you stare,” said Jaime, rolling his shoulders, the motion pulling slightly at the scar tissue. He gave a dark smile. “That scar, I wear with honor. It was meant for Aly Mormont’s face.” Another consequence of my japing around, looking for glory.

“The Weeper, ser?”

He shrugged on the tunic, then gave Edd a nod before turning away to find a pin to secure his sleeve. Once he’d done so and got it fastened, he ran his hand through his hair and took a deep breath. “Right then. We’ve matters to discuss. That business I mentioned of speaking to the rangers. A few potential changes.” He twisted his mouth. “And I warrant Ben Stark needs to be dealt with.”

“Dealt with,” Edd repeated.

“He’s a danger at the moment. I can’t not address that.” Jaime frowned deeply, a bad taste in his mouth as he considered the most efficient means to clear up the problem. Maybe I’ve misjudged the matter, and could employ a more palatable solution.

He’d worry about that later. He’d address his men first. If none of his detractors killed him in violent disapproval, he’d see what could be done about the younger of the surviving Stark brothers.

 

Donal Noye hammered the finishing touches on a new sword, one of his stewards shifting the blade with a gloved hand as Noye barked orders. The forge was hot as a lit fire’s hearth and smelled of smoke and sulfur, a furnace blazing in the corner. Benjen Stark sat near the big spinning grindstone, turning it as he sharpened the blades of stewards' axes that’d gone dull.

It was work typically assigned to recruits, but he liked the repetitive motion, the methodical whir of metal on stone. Sweat beaded on his brow, and upon finishing the axe, he stopped to wipe it away with the back of his sleeve. When he glanced up, Noye was waving the steward aside, the blade finished for the moment, though it still needed fullers, quenching, and a guard.

Benjen picked up another axe, but Noye spoke before he could begin sharpening it. “You've been here most the afternoon. I’d have thought you’d be curious about the First Ranger.”

“I’ve seen him before.” Jaime Lannister was difficult to miss. When he’d come through on his way to Winterfell, with his bear cloak and his dog, he’d drawn every eye in the common hall.

Noye sat heavily on an oak bench. “You’re still upset you didn’t get the spot?”

“No,” Benjen snapped, offended. “I know I wasn’t entitled to it. Men work for their place in the Watch. I’m young, and haven’t been here so long I’d earned anything… But he hasn’t either.”

“Jeor Mormont thinks otherwise,” Noye said. “Your brother too.”

“I love Ned, but I wish you’d not call him my brother. My brothers wear black.” The distinction was only fair. Since fostering at the Vale, Ned had only had one brother. Benjen’s siblings, the ones who’d actually been around, were dead. Brandon dead while the Kingslayer watched, Lyanna swept off and imprisoned by his brothers. But Ned forgets so easily.

“And you don’t trust either man’s judgment?”

“Lord Mormont has reason to be grateful, and Ned feels guilty.” Benjen turned the axe in his hands. “I haven’t spoken against the Kingslayer once. It might be I don’t want to pander to him, but I’m not… sulking, or whatever you imagine I’m doing.”

“I don’t fear you’re sulking, boy. I’m worried you’re hurting.”

Before Benjen could respond to that, Edd Tollett wandered through the armory and stopped in front of them, clutching a piece of paper in his hands.

“The Kingslayer wants all the rangers in the Shieldhall,” Edd told him. “He means to make a speech.”

Benjen blinked. “Does he have you running his chores?”

“I wish,” Edd said glumly. “He expects far more of me than that. It's the head injury, I think. I know he's gotten at least one. At least he’s given me mine own room. There’s a window. I’ve never had a proper window.” He clapped his hands. “Well, up you get. I’ve a few more men to find. There’s two-hundred rangers at the castle. Two-hundred and seven, actually.” He held up the paper. “He had Lewys make me a list.”

Having no choice, Benjen followed Edd from the armory. “Why you?” he had to ask.

Edd looked uncomfortable. “I did him a favor a few years back, and now he thinks more highly of me than he should. He’ll realize his mistake soon enough and find someone better to put in the room with the window.”

“Has he told you anything he’s got planned?”

“We talked for an hour on his plans,” Edd said miserably. “He wanted my advice. He isn’t doing much right off, but he means to put in a rule so rangers can’t go past the Wall unless they’re properly competent. If it’s not so, they’ll be kept back to train until he's satisfied. And all rangers have to work at archery or swordplay every day now. I’m to keep track of it.”

“The men won’t like that,” said Benjen, once he’d gotten over the oddity of Dolorous Edd acting as adviser to a Lannister.

“He’s numbers telling him we’re losing more rangers a year than we get. He wants to reduce deaths.”

That was difficult to argue with.

Edd left him to seek more men, and Benjen walked alone into the Shieldhall. He guessed it was chosen because it was the only building large enough to hold two hundred men, save the common hall, which Ser Jaime could hardly take over for a speech.

Torches flickered along the walls, though darkness might’ve done the space a favor. It was empty aside from the brothers already gathered, with no benches nor tables, only a sagging platform at one end where officers might’ve once sat above their fellows. Cobwebs dripped from worm-eaten rafters stained black with smoke, and a dozen faded gray shields clung to one wall. After the warm forge, the chill made Benjen regret he’d not worn a thicker cloak.

He looked toward the front of the room, but Ser Jaime was not yet present. Tearing his eyes away, Benjen found Duncan Liddle and Ronnel Harclay. They hailed from opposing mountain clans who did not like one another, and to hear tell, had spent their first years in the Watch at each other’s throats. But they’d saved each other’s lives on a ranging shortly before Benjen came to the Wall, and he’d not known them to be anything but inseparable.

“I can’t fathom what he’d talk to us about,” Duncan told Benjen. “He never had much to say on the way to Winterfell.”

Ronnel nodded his agreement. “Not to anyone except Mance Rayder. I’m sure-”

“Don’t,” said Benjen. “I’m sick of hearing about Jaime Lannister. Good or bad.” At first Benjen hadn’t minded the ranting that followed Ser Jaime’s appointment and appreciated that so many brothers clearly would’ve preferred him. But it’d gotten pointless and tiring after the first days, the arguments ridiculous more often than not.

Duncan and Ronnel exchanged a glance, but moved their talk to another subject. Normally Benjen would've joined in, but his head was too full, and his attention focused on watching for the Kingslayer.

It was evident when Jaime Lannister entered, because the men in the room’s center parted for him as he cut through the crowd. The savage-looking dog trotted at his side, panting so that his teeth showed. Benjen suspected the beast more than contributed to the brothers' willingness to get out of the way.

Ser Jaime climbed gracefully onto the platform, then faced the crowd and waited. He ought to have looked small standing alone above them, but he could’ve been a king speaking on a throne room’s dais. From so far away, Benjen could not make out his expression, and the torches did not help. Light and shadow flickered across the Kingslayer’s face and eyes, reflecting off the ruby on Dark Sister’s crossguard.

The men were so interested in hearing what he had to say, for any of a dozen reasons, they quieted. Benjen tried to imagine himself in the Kingslayer’s place, two hundred men looking up at him. If he’d been made First Ranger, he would not have done this. He wouldn’t have needed to. The men knew him. He’d have no impression to make. And I’d sooner have my tongue out than address so many men at once.

"I’ve not met most of you," Ser Jaime said, "though you’ve been placed in my charge. I thought it best you see my face, and hear me talk, so you’ve some notion of who’s commanding you.”

Benjen was surprised by the crispness, the relative lack of volume with which he spoke. All he’d heard of the man, he thought he’d be of the mold of Robert, or a less honorable Brandon, with a battlefield voice, deep and booming. He ought to have known better. Was Lann the Clever not known for his silver tongue?

Someone, Benjen could not see who, said, “We know who you are, Kingslayer.”

Ser Jaime shook his head, firelight dancing across the sharp planes of his face. “You know my name. Anything more than that is assumption. A good deal of it is nonsense.” He smiled like a wolf, his teeth straight and white. “Such as the notion that I mean to have our men embrace wildling raiders as friends.”

Murmurs broke out, but the Kingslayer merely stood and waited. Eventually, several of the brothers silenced the rest so the speech might go on.

“I slew Alfyn Crowkiller and Rattleshirt, and most their men,” Jaime Lannister said. “I earned the Weeper’s enmity leading a fight in which the majority of his war band died. I defeated Ulf, claimant for the title King-beyond-the-Wall, in single combat, took his head, and mounted it on a spike in his village. And the Weeper was killed by my order, if not by my… hand.”

A few men laughed, and when Jaime looked almost sheepishly at his stump, that encouraged a few more.

When the room quieted, the Kingslayer said, “I’ll not ask you to embrace anyone who’ll return the gesture with a knife to the belly. I’m no fool. But I have sworn to serve and protect the realms of men. Have I missed a line that exempts those beyond the Wall? Is it actually, I am the shield that guards the realms of certain men?” Several brothers tried to speak. He lifted his hand to silence them. “If you’ve a concern, we’ll discuss it privately. I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I intend to keep this brief, and starting a squabble wouldn’t be conducive to that.”

He waited, but the prospect of a drawn out meeting quieted the protests.

Ser Jaime continued, “I will confess from the beginning that I’ll expect things from you. I considered speaking of duty or oaths or stories of great heroes in the Watch of old to offer motivation, but it occurred to me that would be insulting. Most of us don’t give a dusty fuck. Few of our number are here out of desperate urge to wear black. We’re at the Wall because we committed some crime, or fought on the wrong side of a war, or were accused of something we didn’t do. Others joined in search of food or shelter. Even those who volunteered out of sense of honor are not exempt from the harsh realities of living so far north.

“Many of us are unwanted. Outcasts, or bad men, or damaged men, and if it was not so when we arrived, the Wall has made us hard men also. Most of what we do is forgotten. The south treats our order like a cesspool, where they might dump their shit when convenient. I don’t expect valiant, bright-eyed men, eager to do right. After all, the world hasn’t done right by us.”

The Kingslayer let the statement hang, and when he spoke again, he sounded almost sincere. Like he wasn’t giving a speech, but making a confession.

“But we’ve sworn our lives to the Night’s Watch, willingly or no, joyfully or with misery,” he said. “We are bound to the Wall, and bound to each other. In light of that, I’ll ask for effort, and some attempt at respectability. Many in the south would think me naive for holding men of the Watch to any standard. I intend to prove them wrong.”

He lingered as the last word faded, then slowly stepped down from the platform. That put life back into the room, noise surging forth at once.

“Do you believe him?” Ronnel said, moving nearer to Benjen to be heard above the din.

“He wasn’t talking off the top of his head. He had a goal, and he intentionally chose his points to get what he wanted.” Benjen craned his neck to find Jaime, locating him next to Bannen and Dywen, already deep in conversation. Both were good men, both visibly pleased. Benjen admitted, “But I think he meant what he said.”

Ronnel gave a thin smile. “There’s those who’ll think it’s worse that he does. That was targeted for smallfolk or criminals, or-”

“Outcasts, or bad men, or damaged men,” Duncan finished. “In other words, most the Watch.”

But those who didn’t see themselves that way were likely to take offense, maybe even to grow uneasy. The First Ranger had just showed where his sympathies lie. It was jarring, that a Lannister would take that route. Except, most of it applied to him, Benjen supposed. He was one of the criminals, an oathbreaker, and a cripple. It had been a pretty speech…

At once weary, Benjen made to leave the room. Before he could do so, a hand on his arm stopped him. His stomach dropped when he saw Edd’s long face.

“Ser Jaime wants you to meet him in the training yard,” Edd said. “He’s not had his sparring practice today, and he’d fight you, once he’s done here.”

Training yard? Sparring practice?

“Is that an order?” said Benjen.

“I couldn’t say. ‘I need to take Stark’s measure,’ Ser Jaime told me. ‘Stop him before he slips off. Tell him I want to spar.’ That’s what he said, word for word. Interpret it how you please.”

Shaking his head, Benjen said, “If he means to take my measure, mayhaps I’ll impress him more by staying away. He’s never followed his superiors. It might be he’d think poorly of me for obeying. Or does he expect me to do what he couldn't, and listen?”

Edd gave a sigh. “I’ve heard little of his adventuring about since he was new to the Wall. He’s quite matured, I think, and if he’s argued over orders recently, I gather it’s because of moral qualms. I’d do as you ought, Benjen. If you don’t, there’s brothers who’ll follow your example, and I’ll be in the middle of whatever fighting starts up.”

In the end, Benjen did go to the armory and don armor, feeling half a fool. It was a trick, no doubt. The Kingslayer wouldn’t show up, or he’d find some way to criticize the way Benjen followed the order. Maybe Edd was confused, too. It was such an odd request. After he’d dressed, Ben sat on a bench near the brazier and let the fire warm his face, wondering how long he should give him. Fifteen minutes? A half hour? Donal Noye glanced at him from back near the forge, but offered no comment.

It couldn’t have been five minutes before the door to the armory opened, and the Kingslayer brushed his way in. It’d started snowing on Benjen’s walk from the Shieldhall, and flakes shone in the man’s golden hair and across his cloak. He stopped and braced his back against the door, then squinted in the dim light, casting a dark look around the armory. His face didn’t change when he found Benjen, but he stared at him a moment too long. He hadn’t expected me to come. Was he trying to get me in trouble?

“Stark.” His voice was hoarse from his speech. In a practiced motion, he unclasped his cloak one-handed. “I hope you’re not put out by my request. I’ve heard much and more about you, yet we’ve not met. I thought this the least dull way to rectify that.”

Benjen glanced up at him. “I’m no great swordsman.”

“It’s no matter. There’s other things to learn from a bout, and I can’t promise overmuch skill either.” Ser Jaime shouldered off the fur cloak, and Benjen noticed he had a golden hand pinned with his stump to his side. Once he'd laid his cloak across a bench, he grabbed the hand and used it to beckon Benjen closer. “Help me put this on so I can hold a shield. I’ll need aid with the armor as well.”

There was a test here, Benjen was sure. He got off his bench and went to the Kingslayer, who was undoing the pin on the sleeve of his tunic. Benjen wondered why he didn’t wear the hand all the time, but he feared asking might anger him.

“You’re liked in this castle,” said the Kingslayer, lifting his eyes. They were an odd shade of green, like a cat’s.

“They’re used to me here,” Benjen said.

The Kingslayer set the pin aside and rolled back the sleeve, then put on the hand. After taking a moment to adjust it, he extended his arm. “Just fasten the straps.”

Hesitantly, Benjen drew close enough to do as asked. Ser Jaime wasn’t more than an inch or two taller than he was, but had to be two or three stone heavier. Lord Rickard used to promise him he’d fill out eventually, like Brandon or Ned, but he’d only gotten taller, and leaner with the height. Jaime had little in the way of bulk, but standing near him, Benjen felt like some green squire.

“Ser Denys has spoken often of how you impressed the high officers,” Ser Jaime said. “It’s more than men having grown comfortable with you.”

Benjen bent over the golden hand. “I’d not know.”

“They all complained of me in the same breath they complimented you. I’m not ignorant of that. I thought this position would be yours from the moment you showed up at the Wall.”

There was no safe way to reply to that. I’m not made for these games, Benjen reflected as he tightened the first leather strap. Why can’t he just say what he means?

“I never wanted it,” Jaime said, as if that made it better. Benjen made to secure the strap, but Jaime shook his head. “Tighter. Elsewise it’ll fall off.”

He did as requested.

“Better,” Ser Jaime said.

Say something, fool. He’s going to think you're stupid.

“I’m not resentful,” said Benjen, moving onto the next strap. It wasn’t a lie. He did not like House Lannister. He’d not liked how Jaime had behaved since getting to the Wall. He didn't think he deserved to be First Ranger. But those opinions were separate from his hurt over being passed over by Jeor Mormont.

“But you don’t like me?” Jaime guessed.

Benjen finished and withdrew his hands. “I do not know you.”

Without responding, Ser Jaime armored himself. Despite his claim he’d need help, he only requested assistance to fasten the pieces along his left arm. Once that was done, Jaime grabbed a shield and strapped it on, manipulating the fingers of the false hand to hold it. Then he grabbed a blunted sword and said, “Shall we, Stark?”

The Kingslayer’s massive dog was chasing snowflakes when they reached the yard. “He’s got no pride,” Jaime said, looking on disgustedly. But his voice was fond when he waved the dog off, saying something in the Old Tongue that prompted it to lie off to the side. The language fell strange and harsh from his lips, a reminder of one of many reasons Benjen was uneasy the man was now First Ranger.

“Ready?” Ser Jaime said.

No. Brandon and Lyanna had been the fighters in the family. Benjen had always been clumsy with a sword, and had only with effort gained passable skill. But he was no craven. He nodded, and the Kingslayer rushed him.

The force of his first blow sent Benjen staggering. He brought up his shield to intercept the next cut, then slipped aside before Ser Jaime could hit again. He meant to give himself space to recover, but when he lifted his sword to parry so he might retreat, he instinctively moved to catch a blade coming from his left.

A left-handed swordsman struck from the right. The Kingslayer brought his blade down on the outside of Benjen’s guard, sending his sword further the direction it’d already been going, then trapped the weapon with his shield to leave Benjen's right side exposed. Ser Jaime slammed his sword's pommel into Benjen's face once, then twice. An attempt to retreat ended with his feet tangling beneath him, and Benjen fell to the dirt.

“Get up, stupid,” he imagined Lya saying. “Hurry, hurry.”

He scrambled to stand, blocking a cut just as it came through. The force put him back on his arse, and he rolled out of the way of another strike, then stumbled to his feet. As he frantically blocked a third blow, it occurred to him there wasn’t anything graceful nor skilled about Ser Jaime’s attacks, but each one fell hard as Noye’s hammer to an anvil, and all from the wrong direction.

What have I got to lose? he thought, and ran at the Kingslayer, catching the knight’s sword against his shield, then dropping his own blade to try wrangling him to the ground.

Tackling a brick wall would’ve been more successful. Ser Jaime stayed standing, shoved Benjen off with his shield, then leveled his sword at his neck.

“You’re too slow, Ben,” said Lya, laughing.

Ser Jaime didn’t bother making him yield, but lowered his blade and stepped away. “How are you with a bow?”

“Fair,” said Benjen breathlessly.

“It’s what’s in your head that makes men think you an exceptional ranger,” Jaime concluded. There was an implied, it clearly isn’t your fighting ability.

“They don’t just think it. I am a good ranger.”

Snow had begun falling in earnest, swirling through the air. Jaime Lannister studied Benjen a long moment, then turned from him, his expression colored with distaste. He tucked his sword under his right arm and retrieved Benjen’s blade. Barely looking at him, he handed it back.

“When I first got to this castle, I scarce slept an entire week,” the Kingslayer said. “I feared I’d be attacked. I was attacked, more than once. The Wall isn’t a kind place, and I was hated horribly.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I can’t go back to that,” he said bitterly. “I couldn’t bear it. Sometimes, already, I…” He stopped and restarted. “Having your support would help. You don’t act like you hate me. You don’t seem angry, nor like to indulge in any acts of petty revenge. I doubt you’ll stab me while I sleep.”

“Kingslayer?” Benjen prompted.

He grimaced. “From now on, you’re my immediate second at the castle. Regarding any minor issues, you speak with my voice. I’ll consult you in my plans, and replace your typical chores with affairs related to managing the order of rangers. If I’m ranging, you’re in charge here, so long as you don’t shit on whatever I’m doing at a given time.”

Benjen stared at him. “I hardly agree with you on anything.”

“I rather assumed that.” Ser Jaime laughed without humor. “You don’t like me either, whatever you say of it. It’s no matter. If there’s something I want done, and I can’t convince you, I’d run into trouble forcing it on the Watch. If you want nicer rooms, I’m handing out cells in the Lord Commander’s Tower. I haven't got permission yet, but I don’t expect it’ll be an issue.”  

“You know nothing about me.”

“Jeor Mormont does,” he said, “and thinks highly of you, as does Eddison Tollett. You’ve been with the Watch nearly as long as I have, and haven’t had half the missteps.”  

“I haven’t had any missteps,” Benjen said, “while you’ve misstepped halfway to Dorne.”

“Do you want the position, or not?” 

Pride told him he shouldn’t take it. This was cold consolation, salt rubbed in an open wound. But he’d hate himself for refusing. “I want it.”

“Good. Later, I’ve some business in the east to put before you.” Ser Jaime lifted his blade. “For the nonce, we’d best keep practicing. You realize you just got thrashed by a cripple?”

“You want to practice now?” Benjen said, lifting his head to take in the falling snow.   

“It’s summer. We’d best train while we can.” His smile grew a hint mocking. “Winter is coming, is it not?”

 

Chapter Text

The day was drear and wet, a drizzle having hung over Castle Black for hours. Jaime minded little, hood pulled over his head and his cloak warm, but Edd had huddled in on himself, his manner more glum than usual. They hovered near the training yard, tucked against the armory, Jaime attempting to pick out recruits who might make suitable rangers.

“You ought to talk to the glassblower,” Edd was saying. “He yelled at Pate and Spotted Pate earlier, and Spare Boot nearly went after him with his wood leg. This was a poor idea. A poor, poor idea. The little fat man is no better.”

“The glazier?”

Edd nodded. “I like me a bit of honey glaze on a warm roll. It’s a shame a glazier doesn’t have more to do with honey. If I was getting the gold Lord Tywin offered them, I’d put on a smile and be cheerful about the work.”

“Our brothers ought to grow thicker skins. They only need stomach the men until they’ve picked up the proper skills, and the glass gardens are done, and-” That wasn’t the problem and Jaime knew it. The Myrish men were helpful as Ser Alliser, sharp tongued and thinking themselves above the job despite the pay Tywin had given them.

It wasn’t his place to interfere. That’d be Yarwyck’s, or Mormont’s. But master craftsmen from Myr didn’t care about the First Builder of the Night’s Watch, or a former minor northern lord. Jaime’s name carried more weight.

“Ser?” Edd pressed.

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Jaime, sighing.

Hoping to discourage further talk, Jaime refocused on the yard. As he did, Thorne grabbed the arm of one of the recruits and snapped something at him. The boy shrunk away, fear apparent even through the rain. He needed to grow a spine, truly. But Jaime recalled Moose fumbling about, tripping on his own feet. Competence had seemed such a natural thing, it’d been easy to blame Owen Hornwood for lacking it. As if skill were a matter of will or effort.

“Again?” said Edd, reading the look on his face.

“He’s not giving the lad a chance,” Jaime said with apology, already walking away.

As he emerged from the shadows, every recruit in the yard fell still. His feet came down heavy in the puddle-strewn dirt, his steps slow, each one made with intent.

When Jaime stopped before Thorne, the recruit backed away, colt skittish. Around Jaime, the newest ones often were. Whether the fault lie with the kingslaying, or his house and family, or rumors of his dealings with wildlings, he could not say. Mayhaps they just didn’t like the look of him. He didn’t hold it against them. Their fear wasn’t malicious nor self-righteous, but an instinctive response to something they deemed dangerous.

Jaime threw his hood back to ensure Thorne might see his face. “Is there a problem?” 

Lip curled, Thorne jabbed a finger at a practice blade that lie on the ground. “The Flea keeps dropping his sword.”

“I’m sorry, m’lord,” said the recruit. “It won’t happen again.”

Jaime knelt, rainwater soaking the knee of his breeches as he clasped the sword in his gloved hand. Still kneeling, he balanced the blade over his stump and held it out to the boy, looking into his eyes. “I dropped my sword often when I started retraining with my left hand. It’s impossible to have the proper wrist strength, starting out. The fault isn’t yours.”

The boy snatched the sword away, his lips moving, but no sound coming forth.

Idly, Jaime stood, rolling his shoulders so his cloak would fall more evenly. In his own time, he met Thorne’s eye, feigning indifference to the smaller man’s presence. “Why?” he said.

“Why not?” Thorne spat back, mouth twisting. “It baffles me that Tywin Lannister’s son has such love for peasants, bastards, and churls. Whatever problem with his seed produced your monstrous brother made you just as wrong. But no one sees it, for everything amiss with you is inside your thick skull.”

Staring into Thorne’s crow-black eyes, Jaime made his face cold, as if the chill water rolling across his cheeks had seeped into him.

Thorne stepped away, a cord in his neck straining. “I’ve other filth to teach. If you want to woo the lad, go on, Kingslayer.”

Once he was gone, yelling at his charges to return to work, Jaime turned to the recruit and studied him through the gloom. Thorne had called him lad, and he was small, but at least fifteen judging by his features. Old enough that being treated like a child would smart as much as Thorne’s names and insults.

“What’re you called?” Jaime asked him.

He stood straighter and made an effort to hide the trembling in his hands. “Fulk, m’lord. Though Thorne- that is, Ser Alliser, calls me the Flea.”

Jaime had stopped protesting the ‘my lord’ing. It was too pervasive.

“Jaime Lannister,” he said, no doubt unnecessarily. “It’s best we not get into all the names Ser Alliser calls me.”

“I’ll get better with the sword,” Fulk said. “I’m a quick learner.”

“You can’t learn if you’re not taught.”

“Isn’t that what this is?” he said, looking around.

“Have you learned to hold a sword? The proper footwork? Any guards?” When Fulk only stared, Jaime said, “Show me your grip.” 

Fulk did so. It was wrong.

“You see? You haven’t been taught a thing.” Jaime showed him the proper way to do it and continued to work him through the basics. Once Thorne’s lesson broke up, several other recruits drifted over, trying to be subtle about listening in. Two men Jaime had worked with before were bolder and asked if he might check their progress. Jaime looked at the sky, which had grown darker behind the clouds. He’d nearly finished his duties for the day, but had been hoping for a warm supper and extra sleep.

He flexed his left hand beneath his glove, feeling the ring Tormund had gifted him. With a weary breath, he waved over the four recruits who’d been hovering and told Fulk to show them the gist of what they’d been over. The two others, he set sparring and lingered to watch and offer corrections.

They kept at it until the rain began to fall too hard for it to be productive. Upon dismissing the group, Jaime headed for Marsh’s rooms, certain he’d kept at least some of them from their work, and having promised Fulk he’d get him out of his late watch, since he’d spent so much of his day’s off time at sword work.

The First Steward was not pleased. “You are undermining Ser Alliser's authority.”

"I can't undermine what doesn't exist.”

“Yes, well. It is not my concern.” Marsh looked up from his papers. “You’d best be off. Maester Aemon wants you. Your father sent a letter.”

Leaving him, Jaime went with speed to the rooms beneath the rookery, his haste more from bewilderment than interest. His father hadn't sent an unprompted letter since Jaime had taken the black. Even when the Greyjoys attacked Lannisport some months before, it’d been Tyrion who wrote. He might’ve feared grave news from that conflict, but Jorah Mormont had only just sent word to his father that Pyke was taken, the war over. But what else might it be? 

Jaime thudded on the door to the maester’s rooms until Clydas answered. “My lord.” The steward looked past him. “Is your beast with you?”

“Last I knew, he was helping Small Paul.” Jaime had taken the big simpleton as his second personal steward, for he got on with Lyuk marvelously well. He did simple chores, such as keeping Jaime’s fires lit or drawing water for baths, and when he went about his other tasks, let Lyuk haul things behind him on a cart. Jaime stepped past Clydas. “I thought you’d been getting on with him better.”

“His muzzle was bloody when I saw him the other day.”

“He does most his own hunting. It was likely a hare or a bird. He only devoured a small child the once.”

“You mock me.”

“That’s japing, brother, not mockery. You’re meant to laugh too.” Jaime’s cloak and boots dripped on the floor as he went to Aemon. The maester was putting leaves and things in a mortar, his bad eyes slowing but not stopping his efforts.

Face not changing, the old man said, “Your letter is there, just to my right.”

So he’d not make the ink run, Jaime took off his wet glove with his teeth and tucked it in his belt. He then picked up the sealed parchment by its edge. Having the maester’s ear for the nonce, he said, “I spent the last hour doing Alliser Thorne’s job.”

Aemon fumbled, fingers searching in the direction of a stone pestle. “This, again?”

“I have to retrain every other recruit who's made a ranger. It's absurd.” Jaime used his stump to roll the pestle into the old man’s reach. Worn fingers grasped it. Jaime went on, “Lord Mormont is no help. Ser Alliser is an anointed knight, he tells me, as if that means anything.”

“Have you an idea for someone who might replace him?”

“Dunk,” suggested Jaime. When Aemon frowned at him, he clarified, “My destrier.”

Giving a grudging laugh, Aemon began working the pestle with smooth turns of his wrist. “If Ser Alliser is replaced, everyone will know it is your doing, and they will speak of how fully you have Lord Mormont’s ear. The other knights and highborn brothers with positions of command may grow uneasy. Some might write their families and say Jaime Lannister is upending the order of the Night’s Watch.”

“You mean putting it to rights."

“Few lords would agree.” Aemon’s voice grew almost gentle. “Lord Mormont knows what Ser Alliser is, but he wants you to have space enough to worry about other matters, and focus on your intended reforms. His inaction contains an element of protection.”

“I can take care of myself,” Jaime said. “The recruits cannot. How am I meant to make something of these men if they’re treated like nothing from the moment they arrive?”

Aemon set his pestle aside. “I will think on the matter, but it can sit for one night. It is late, and I grow weary. When I am finished here, I mean to retire.”

The reminder of the hour stirred Jaime to depart, offering Clydas a halfhearted apology for the water he’d tracked into the rooms. He jogged from the low keep and to the Lord Commander’s tower, bending over his letter to protect it from the rain. When he slipped into his apartments, Lyuk was curled on the featherbed, the nest of blankets Jaime had made for him empty not a yard away. He looked up at Jaime’s arrival, wagged his tail twice, then promptly went back to sleep.

Would that Jaime could do the same. But the door to his solar was cracked open, firelight and voices coming from within. And he ought to read his father’s letter, though likely it’d contain nothing worth knowing. Setting the parchment aside, Jaime removed his cloak and lay it out to dry, then grabbed the missive and shouldered his way into his solar.

Within, Edd nursed a mug of cider while sorting through what looked like old lists of which rangers attended weapons training. Near him, Stark sat with his feet up, poring over ranging schedules. A heel of black bread, four peeled boiled eggs, a hunk of cheese and cup of ale sat before the last open chair. Jaime caught Edd’s eye and nodded his thanks, and the steward gave a shrug as if to write it off as nothing.

Benjen Stark, Jaime looked upon with less pleasure. “Why are you here? You just got back from a ranging. You ought to be sleeping. Or bathing. Or bothering someone else.”

“I got back this morning. I have slept. I’ve bathed too.” Benjen looked up at him. “And you told me you wished to talk. If I’m bothering you, it’s at your request.”

I’ve not yet gotten his report, Jaime recalled. Rykker had been talking at him when Stark first came back, and Jaime told him they’d speak later. He tossed his letter atop the table, then slumped into his chair. “Right then. What’d Eva have to say? Blessedbow nicked his finger and died of infection?”

Stark brought his feet to the floor. “I still can’t fathom that you think this man matters. The slaving should be stopped, that’s true, but keeping track of these things isn’t worth seeking information from questionable spearwives, and-”

“Back one day, and already I want you gone.” Jaime bit off a chunk of bread, then washed it down with the ale. He motioned for Stark to continue. “Report what Eva told you, without commentary, in as few words as possible.”

Stark’s eyes narrowed, but he did as requested. “Blessedbow had been through personally. He spoke to Eva’s chief, and the man was fearful enough about rumors of slavers, he promised fighters should they be needed. You’re to stay away in the future.”

Eva now lived just south of the Antler, on a straight path north from Castle Black. Likely as not, Ivar Blessedbow had met with most leaders east of that point. Word of the bounty on Jaime’s head would’ve thus spread through that area, and it’d be a risk assuming aid from any free folk who might’ve spoken with Blessedbow first. It’s become a danger to range through most the forest, and my second remains unconcerned. 

Benjen braced his elbows on the table. “Is Rayder back from his last trip north?”

That lowered Jaime’s mood further. “I got a letter from him some ten days ago. Thenns are moving from their valley. It looks like war.”

“Not our problem,” Benjen said pointedly. “At least Blessedbow is going after you personally. That’s questionably something we might worry over. But these Thenns supposedly hail from so far away, I wonder if they even exist. They could well be mad rumor, like talk of the Others.”

“Mance says he’s seen Thenns.”

“Mance says a lot of things.”

Not in the mood to let their talk escalate to an argument, Jaime said, “Have you anything more to say of your ranging?” When Stark shook his head, Jaime ate another egg, then wiped his hand and grabbed his father’s letter, pinning it with his stump and breaking the seal.

He grimaced upon reading the first paragraph. “My father had a Greyjoy wrapped up at Casterly Rock and convinced Robert to let him send the man to the Wall. That’s rather cruel.”

“I’d have thought that quite tame, as punishment for rebellion goes,” said Edd.

“It’s ridiculously lenient,” Jaime agreed. “I mean it’s cruel to inflict a Greyjoy on us. It isn’t as if he cares about the Watch. He’s using my presence here to justify punishing House Greyjoy in the only way he can. I feel exploited.”

“A Greyjoy would be good at Eastwatch,” Stark tried.

“This says he started drinking soon as they let him out of the dungeons and hasn’t stopped since.” Jaime waved off Stark’s attempt to say more of it and continued through the letter, mouth drawing into a grave line as he reached the end.

“Jaime?” Edd said.

“The king has ordered a tourney be held outside Lannisport in celebration of the victory,” said Jaime numbly. “My father has some notion he’s seen black brothers recruit at tourneys before, and suggests I attend. Gerion is willing to sail to the village south of the Gift, with the little natural harbor where we keep our boats, and meet me.”

“You’ve spoken of competing at tourneys to recruit and raise coin,” Edd offered cautiously.

“I’ve not gotten Mormont to approve of using time to train men for that. This would be a bad place to begin with that endeavor, regardless. It’s a large affair, with the king present, and… the queen coming. I’d experiment with competition on a smaller scale." Jaime rubbed his forehead. “But I ought to see what he wants, and… and it would be a good time to recruit. There’s worth in going.” Part of him also simply wanted to. He’d have thought any urge to return south had long faded, but when the prospect arose, he couldn’t fathom rejecting it. It is foolish, he told himself. You’ll not like what you find. That is not your place.

“Would you have me come with?” said Edd without enthusiasm.

“No, I-” He’d been going to say he could go by himself, but it’d be dangerous to hike alone through the northern mountains to reach the place he’d meet his uncle. I’d also like some black brother by my side, so I’m not entirely away from those who know me. He pursed his lips as he considered candidates. Mance would be miserable at a southron castle, having high lords look down at him. Qhorin did not like traveling by boat, and it was no time to bring an ironman to Lannisport…

"Stark will accompany me.”

Me?” 

“I’ve only been here eight months. If I leave for two or three months, and you do your job, and don’t make any changes, the things I’ve implemented are going to smooth out to your credit. Any problems you run into will be placed at my feet, and any successes will be deemed yours. All while it looks like I’m having fun at a tourney and scheming with my unpopular father.”

Benjen Stark gave a hollow laugh. “I’ll go on a long ranging if you like. But Starks do not fare well below the Neck.”

“Neither do kingslayers,” Jaime protested. “It’d be an ordeal for any lowborn brothers, and most the highborn ones do not like me. You even know the king.”

"To my regret. At Harrenhal, he had Richard Lonmouth pick me up and lock me in a room because I’d not leave him alone with Lyanna. I spent four hours trapped in the dark. At Harrenhal. There were bats.”

It should’ve been funny, but Jaime couldn’t laugh. “Forget I brought that into it. The rest of my argument is sound.”

“Except the part where I leave, when my job is to be here if you aren’t.”

“In this instance, that’s problematic. Edd knows his duties, and I shall send Qhorin east while we’re away. He can manage men as well as you.” Jaime faced Edd. “Qhorin cannot read, but he’ll pick things up quick enough. He’s twice as intelligent as I.”

“Not difficult,” Stark muttered.

Jaime finished the rest of his meal and got to his feet. “I must inform the glassmakers I’ll have my father’s ear soon, and make some vague threat about the state of their careers should I give him a poor report. Stark, make Edd a list of things that’ll need doing whilst we’re away. Edd, write my father that I’m coming and bringing a Stark.”

“Shouldn’t you ask Mormont for permission?” Stark said.

It’s always permission with you, isn’t it? “I’ll see him on my way back from the glassmakers." 

Jaime managed to say the last dismissively, but as he stepped from the solar, his face faltered.

“What am I doing?” he asked Lyuk in the Old Tongue. “There’s nothing there for me but heartache.”

Without opening his eyes, Lyuk groaned and rolled onto his back, away from the noise attempting to disrupt his sleep.

Jaime shook himself. If he refused, that’d mean fear of disapproval, of how he’d be seen, still held power over him. It was better to go and prove to himself none of that mattered. He’d stay a week, no longer, then return north and get on with his life, leaving the rest properly behind. And this time when I depart, thought Jaime, I can do so on my own terms, knowing I won’t be coming back.  

 

A thunderstorm had set upon the Shadow Tower, the wind gusting so hard the grates on the windows protested, and the shrieking slipped through the building’s stones and made its way, muffled, to the common hall. The thunderclaps were considerably louder, and the two dogs Little Wolf had brought with him to the Wall crowded their owner like pony-sized infants, ears back and eyes wide.

Mance had seated himself in his place by the fire, intending to spend the evening keeping warm and playing his lute, but the heat of the hearth wearied him, and his fingers kept still. He’d been ranging often of late, scouting missions all of them, Jaime keen to keep track of what went on beyond the Wall. He minded it not, but there’d been relief in spending the last fortnight at the Shadow Tower. Time to catch his breath, and indulge in small comforts as he did at present, dozing, a thick fur soft beneath him, and a cup of mulled wine at hand, hot and rich with spice.

Soft footsteps approached. Qhorin, Mance knew, though his eyes had drifted shut. He and Jaime felt similar, both taking up space in a way that contrasted oddly with ranger-quiet movements. But it wasn’t Jaime anymore, ever.

An exaggeration, Mance told himself, lifting his eyelids as he moved aside to make room for his brother on the fur. Jaime would be arriving that evening, or early on the morrow, should the storm make him seek shelter at Sentinel Stand or Greyguard. Arriving, and leaving soon after. He was to go south and Qhorin east, while Mance would likely be left with a ranging to the north. Would that they could remain in the same place for once, if only for a short while. 

Once he’d sat, Qhorin said, “You have been weary since your last ranging.” Storm gray eyes slid to Mance’s face. “If Jaime sends you out too often, you need only tell him.”

There was a prod for explanation in that. I know it is not that, Qhorin’s face said, so tell me what is truly wrong. Mance had to laugh, but he did take the unasked question seriously, letting his fingers dance across his lute strings as he worked out an answer. Still and patient, Qhorin waited, listening.

When his thoughts were in order, Mance stopped playing and said, “Maester Aemon wrote me after news of Lannisport’s burning reached the Wall. He tried speaking to Jaime of it, circumstance perhaps drawing sympathy from him. But he said Jaime was not unduly upset. Did you grieve Orkmont’s fall?”

Firelight hid Qhorin’s eyes in pools of shadow. “No.”

“I’d thought not.” Plucking a lute string, Mance said, “You and Jaime have changed from who you’d been, and are far from the places you’d left. You’ve both found home here. Me, I have always had two places, two homes. I spend as much time in one as the other.”

The lines around Qhorin’s mouth deepened. “War is touching one of those places. People you care about are in danger.”

“Not only people. A people. I care about them all.”

“I understand.”

“You do,” Mance said. “I know.”

“It keeps you awake, worrying?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes it’s other things. Sometimes I sleep well. Nothing is wrong. It’s as natural to hear of war and worry as it is to take a wound and bleed. This will heal and scar, and I’ll be well again.” He shifted his lute and reached for his wine, the spices tickling his tongue when he drank. By time he set it down, Qhorin had relaxed, his concern eased for the time.

After they’d sat a while in companionable silence, Wyl the stableboy came to them with Edrick called Ned at his side. The latter had filled out over the past year and almost looked a proper ranger. At four and ten, Wyl remained a scrawny shit who took joy in making brief exchanges vexing.

“You know scary stories,” Wyl said.

It was the least offensive thing to come out of his mouth since Mance had known him. Grinning, he said, “Do I?”

“It’s an evening for them,” Ned said. “My elder sister used to tell such tales on nights like this.” He sounded a touch sheepish, being a man grown and asking for stories. As if I don’t do the same with any recruit who might have something interesting to share.

“Why’s it look like you’re both settling in for an argument?” said Mance with a laugh. “Have I ever needed an excuse to call attention to myself? Put out some of the torches and find me an audience.”

Wyl hurried off to do so. Ned lingered long enough to give Mance a crooked grin and say, “Thank you, brother,” before he followed at a more subdued pace.

Blane soon came over with Little Wolf and his dogs, and others quickly followed. Once anyone who wished to listen was settled, and the torches in his half of the room snuffed out, Mance voiced an offer for requests. Mad Axe came first, then the Night’s King. After, he chose his own tale and told them of Gendel and Gorne, and how Gendel’s descendants remained lost beneath the Wall and ate anyone who came upon them.

As he spoke, his brothers drank wine or mead or ale and grew more responsive for it. Even those who remained fully sober listened more intently as the evening went on, swept up by the atmosphere. More crows trickled over little by little, the group of listeners gradually taking over the hall. When the hour grew late and the torches and main fire burned low, Mance drained the last of his wine, and after deliberation, settled on the story of the thing that came in the night.

“This happened when the Nightfort was fully staffed,” Mance said. “All its buildings were whole, and hundreds of brothers lived there, as did the high officers. And when recruits came to the Wall, they sent them there instead of Castle Black. Once, a group of boys arrived-”

“Once?” Wyl said. “How long ago is once?”

“It’s impossible to tell,” Mance said. “Before the Andals came and brought their writing, few records were kept. It could’ve been two thousand years ago, or four thousand, or it could’ve happened right after the Wall was built, while magic flowed free as the Milkwater in the lands beyond the Wall.”

He lifted a brow, waiting for Wyl to ask another question. But he nodded and gestured for Mance to go on.

With solemn dignity, Mance returned to the story. “Shortly after this group of recruits came to the Nightfort, the youngest, an orphan of ten, woke one night to make water. But he was young and small, and the castle was large. He got lost, and as he wandered the corridors, he heard someone approach. ‘Brother,’ he cried, thinking himself saved, and ran to the sound. But when he turned the corner, he saw-”

Mance cut himself off abruptly, paused for a long moment, then gave a shrug. “Well, that’s the trick of it. No one knows what he saw. But it scared him so horribly he turned and ran and ran, until finally he made it back to his room. He told the Lord Commander the next day, but the man thought him only frightened of the grim Wall, and dismissed the report.

“It happened again, the next time when a noble squire of six and ten spied something upon returning to his room from a late watch. But when he went to the Lord Commander, his report differed from what the first boy had told him. The Lord Commander thought the boys were playing a jape, and he dismissed all the squire said.”

Mance lowered his voice as he continued. “A third boy, a brave young bastard, believed his brothers, and he struck out to find what troubled them, meaning to put an end to it. He armed himself with a fine blade and donned mail and a helm, and wandered the Nightfort’s dark halls, meaning to slay the mysterious monster. At midnight's approach, he heard the barest whisper of movement, and turned, drawing his blade… but he dropped it, and fled. He went to the Lord Commander just like the others.”

“And wasn’t believed,” Ned filled in. “You’d think the commander would know better by then.”

“If men are certain something is or isn’t true,” said Mance, “words aren’t enough to convince them otherwise. Would you have believed in the giant dogs of the Frozen Shore before you saw them for yourself?”

Little Wolf looked amused by that, as if a world without massive dogs was silly as one without snow or sky. But the other brothers nodded, for Mance had spoken true.

He paused to see if another interruption would come, and when the quiet held, went on, “Finally, a last boy thought, these fools must be playing a game. He disapproved of such trickery, so he decided he would investigate. He went out at night to see what the recruits were about. He tiptoed through the empty corridors, and like the others, he heard that odd noise.”

A gust shook the tower, and one of the younger stewards jumped. Mance caught movement near the common hall’s door, and it took effort not to leap up and leave the story half told.

“When midnight drew near,” Mance continued, “the boy felt something horribly amiss. The wind blew and the air chilled his bones, and his heart thrummed in his ears. He smelled a horrible, rancid smell. Like a man who’s been dead and left to rot. Then the noise came, growing closer, and closer… and he turned, and saw it, and ran. When he reported it, the look on his face was such he was believed. Yet when the Lord Commander sent his men to look into it, none of them found evidence of any ghost or monster, and the matter was briefly forgotten.”

“Within a few weeks, the first boy was found in a broken heap in the yard, as if he’d been pushed from a high tower. A steward discovered the squire in the common hall, hanging from the rafters. And they came across the bastard with his belly slit open, his entrails spilling out of him.”

“And the last boy?” Wyl ventured.

“He went mad. He heard things that were not there, and talked and muttered to himself. He would not bathe, nor cut his hair nor nails, and he screamed and screamed if he became upset. For the rest of his life, he withered and withered, until finally his heart gave out, and he died in his bed before he turned twenty. For a time, that seemed to be the end of it... Until a century later, brothers at the Nightfort began to see the thing again… with four boys shambling behind it, bound up in chains. And they wander still, as you'll hear from any brother who's stayed at the castle while traveling the base of the Wall.”

No one spoke for a long moment. The light had fallen so low, the room remained breathless until one of Little Wolf’s dogs caught scent of Lyuk and bounded over gracelessly, the arrival of an old friend a temporary distraction from the storm.

Jaime trudged into the hall, looking like a thing that came in the night, pale, and drenched with rain. Several of the brothers started, and Ser Denys leapt to his feet rather too quickly.

“Ser Jaime.” He tugged his beard. “I’d not heard you come in. Wallace, get the First Ranger mulled wine. And someone light the torches.”

“Fetch some wine for Stark too,” Jaime said. “He’s off getting dry clothes. I meant to report my arrival and follow his example, but I know better than to interrupt one of Mance’s tales.”

“When you enter a room unannounced in the middle of a horror story, you must make some frightening noise at the end,” Mance chided him. “Slam a door or trudge your feet or order your dog to howl.”

“I’d thought it a shame I didn’t have a chain with me, but those other things are a bit weak, are they not? They’d have seemed silly, and stolen the horror from your tale.” Jaime embraced Mance, heedless of the water, the smell of ice and wind-stirred dust clinging to him. “I’ve not heard your stories in too long. I’ll begin to forget them.” 

“You might share them at Castle Black,” said Mance, stepping back, his shirt damp, a trickle of water from Jaime’s hair painting his cheek. He shrugged up his shoulder to wipe it away. “You’ve a good voice for stories. And it'll help you remember.”

Other brothers came forth to greet Jaime, cutting short his response. Little Wolf wrapped him in an embrace that ought to have wrung all the water from him, and Blane followed in a not dissimilar matter. He and the wildling spent most their time together, and it showed.

“If you wish to come, say the word,” Jaime said, grasping Blane by the upper right arm. “I’ll think of some excuse to send you near Feastfires.”

With a strained laugh, Blane said, “I’d best stay north. My family wouldn’t know what to do with me, and I’d not know what to do with myself. It’d only rip open healed wounds.”

“If a man is dead, burn him,” Little Wolf said in a tone of agreement. “There is no use keeping him about to poke at and prod.”

A hard smile came into Jaime’s eyes like ice beneath meltwater. “Would that I could burn my dead. Unfortunately, it seems they insist upon rising to seize me.” He inhaled, then let the breath wither away. “But if I linger in these wet things, I might end up a wight myself. I’ll return shortly.”

“That is not how wights work,” Little Wolf called after him, and Jaime chuckled as he left.

Benjen Stark came into the hall shortly after, mouth working when he found the wine waiting for him, as if he knew Jaime had remembered to request it for him, and was mildly irritated by the fact. Mance had returned to his place and resumed playing his lute, though Qhorin departed and greeted Stark rather more warmly than Mance appreciated. He didn't dislike the younger man, who seemed to be useful to Jaime if nothing else. But Jaime said he was wary of Mance.

He couldn’t help but wonder if it was because of Craster. Ulmer had brushed off the encounter readily enough. Had Stark? Or had he taken Craster's words to heart? The thought troubled Mance more than it should've.

Jaime soon returned, grabbing his wine, then detaching himself from the proper dutiful rangers. Mance shut his eyes to hear him approach, solely for the satisfaction of thinking, this time, it’s him.

He didn’t bother scooting aside. Jaime sat forcefully, putting out his right elbow to make his own space, yet minding the lute. He’d put on one of his older tunics, thick wool worn to gray, and left the right sleeve open, loose over the missing hand. Likely in preparation for his visit south, he’d had his hair trimmed more neatly than was his wont, and several inches shorter than it’d been of late.

“You’ve spent two years growing that out,” Mance said.

“We’ve a steward who was a barber, who did it,” Jaime said, his mouth twisting. “It seemed important not to look like I did when I left. Clearly I’ll not, either way. But this was intentional. Something I could control.”

The sentiment, Mance appreciated. It charmed him that Jaime placed weight on such things. But he less liked the lack of ease in his brother’s voice. Mance studied him more closely and noted the tension in the set of his mouth. “You are anxious.”

Jaime took a drink of his wine. “If this had been before the Weeper, I’d have had an easier time of it. I might’ve gone south and won the joust and the melee, and-” He stopped abruptly, flushing to the tips of his ears.

And been cheered, and liked, Mance filled in. The comment was absently spoken, the kind of what-if that meant nothing at all, but it dug under Mance’s skin.

“You’d have broken your vows. I will win no glory. You recall?”

Jaime’s shoulders drew taut. “I know. It was daft. Forget I spoke.”

“And what would putting a few men to the dirt prove? Even now, if by some miracle you put on your golden hand and won the melee, no one would care. They do not doubt your ability, but your character.”

“I know.”

“You are not a hurt seventeen-year-old boy.” Mance’s voice grew lower, sharper. “You should not want to prove anything, to impress anyone. You’re better than that.”

The tension drained from Jaime’s posture, shoulders loosening, head tilting back. “I’m afraid, even so. You told me it was monstrous not to have fear. Now here I am.”

“It’s foolish to fear this, to fear them.”

“Enough. I have orders for you.”

Jaime’s voice came out so tiredly, Mance fought the urge to argue. “Go on.”

Drawing a breath, Jaime said, “I want you to go to Ruddy Hall. I need to know what’s happening, what Tormund’s chances are, what he knows of the Thenns, so I can decide what to do next. You should be able to talk your way into receiving guest right.”

It was likely Tormund would not be at Ruddy Hall, that he’d gone off fighting. Mance would manage either way. He nodded. “Who would you have me bring?”

“Little Wolf. The journey won’t bother him. And Ser Byam has proven tolerant of free folk and is one of our better fighters. Are they suitable?”

“Good enough.”

They lingered next to each other. Mance knew he ought to let the matter go, but Jaime’s worry irked him so much, he had to say, “You are who you are. Do you regret that?”

Jaime’s eyes lifted, the ice in them softer, cracking. “No,” he said softly.

Moving a hand to Jaime’s forearm, clutching it tightly, Mance said, “Then never, never act like it.”

 

Sweat ran down Jaime's face as he and Gerion did their best to spar within the limited space on the Laughing Lion’s deck. The edge of the ship pressed against Jaime’s back, but he put the full of his weight into shoving his uncle’s sword aside, making space enough to kick out with his right foot. Boot connected with shin, and Gerion stumbled. Jaime elbowed him in the ribs, then deflected his weakened cut hard enough to knock the blade from his hand. 

Gerion regarded the dropped weapon with a wry smile. “I did better that time.”

“Better,” Jaime told him. “Not well. I have one hand. Once you had me cornered, it ought to have been common sense to hold a block and-”

“Enough of that. I’ve no good reason to keep my skills sharp. Indifference has made a failed tourney knight of me, and even your father knows not to press me into his battles.” Gerion kicked his sword aside, then seated himself on a crate, groaning. “I think you broke my ribs. This is why men spar in armor.”

“You’d not be taking those great gasping breaths if your ribs were broken, nuncle.” Jaime put his sword near his uncle’s, then found a spot of direct sunlight to stand in, stretching languorously as the gentle warmth soaked into his blacks, easing tired muscles. The summer air felt luxurious, merely moving in it satisfying as sprawling across a silk-clad featherbed.

But Jaime's eyes soon drifted to the green-gray sea. Sending a casual glance his uncle’s way, he said, “An hour?”

“An hour,” Gerion agreed. “Your dog will be pleased the trip is through.”

They’d kept Lyuk below deck where horses would’ve been otherwise stored. Gerion had fastened open the doors to the stalls so he could wander as he pleased, but the space was limited.

Stark would no doubt be as relieved as Lyuk for their voyage to end. Twenty days of travel to meet Gerion, then a fortnight on the ship, had strained their tolerance for one another. They could get on civilly for brief stretches, but always some matter of disagreement arose and dashed tentative peace to bits. One talk had ended with Jaime pushing him overboard. Stark had played like he couldn’t swim, and Jaime had made a fool of himself jumping in after him.

At least once we reach the Rock, we might have space between us, thought Jaime, still smarting at the memory.

“What of you?” Gerion ventured, growing hesitant. “Are you pleased we’re nearly-” Jaime saw home on his lips. He stopped himself, and amended, “Are you pleased we’re nearly to the Rock?”

“I will be glad to see Tyrion,” Jaime said.

Gerion laughed, so easy it was almost childlike. At least matters with him have been straightforward. When they’d reunited, Gerion had looked upon him and said, “Gods, I pray you’re not such a grim, scary bastard as you look,” and it’d been natural as breathing to respond with laughter. He’d been delighted with Lyuk and managed to get on Stark’s good side, and had been so free and charming that it’d been a small thing to befriend him anew.

Only Tyrion?” Gerion goaded. “You must wish to see your aunt at least. Or do you fear she’ll pinch your ear and threaten your immense dignity?”

“I- Of course. I’d spoken lightly.” Jaime shoved his sweat-soaked hair out of his eyes, his right arm trying to make its own aimless gesture. He lowered it, keeping it motionless at his side. Gerion, his eyes on his men moving about the ship, and on the sky, and the sea, did not notice. Jaime murmured an excuse and slipped away to change into fresh things.

After washing as best he could in the basin in his cabin, Jaime sorted through the assortment of garments he’d brought. Tunics of linen and silk and velvet, breeches of several fits and fabrics. He had a small wooden box of various ornaments, rings, a few gifts he’d picked up over the years from brothers or free folk. All of it seemed poorly suited to a visit to the Rock, the blacks too black, the trinkets absurd for a cripple to indulge in.

Chastising himself, he put on the breeches closest to him and donned a light linen tunic, folding the right sleeve neatly to his elbow and pinning it there rather than securing the fabric over the stump. The missing fingers buzzed as Jaime’s eyes clung to the empty space, and he summoned the memory of Mance’s fingers digging into his arm, the look on his face when he realized Jaime was afraid. As if it was an insult to myself to worry.

When Jaime returned to the deck, Benjen stood near the ship’s edge, and Gerion had disappeared somewhere, likely to help the crew guide her to port. In the distance, Casterly Rock loomed, jutting out of the dark water, thrice the size of the Wall and larger across than many towns. They were far enough out, Jaime could just barely see the shape of Lannisport in its shadow.

He approached Stark, who wore a silk tunic and a silver chain about his neck. He’d shaven and cleaned his hair, and with some wonderment, Jaime realized he could believe the younger man spent a war playing Lord of Winterfell.

Upon noticing Jaime, Benjen said, “I was told it looks like a lion. But it’s just a giant rock.”

“Don’t make me push you in again,” said Jaime, letting himself laugh.

“A poor threat, seeing as you’d immediately leap in and rescue me.”

“I didn’t want to be blamed for your death. That’s why I did it.”

“No,” said Benjen Stark, blue-gray eyes sliding to him. “You were afraid.”

Sunlight warmed Jaime’s face.

“It wasn’t a jape, exactly,” Stark said. “It wasn’t a test either. I knew you’d jump in. That was the point. So I’d not be the only one the ship had to stop for, and who’d get fished out soaking wet.” 

Jaime searched for some clever reply, but the sun on the sea dizzied him, and he couldn’t find the concentration for wit. He breathed in, tasting wind and warmth and salt. Cersei sometimes used to pretend like Stark had, acting as if she was upset or hurt or troubled. But they’d always been tests. I passed every one.

His exhale came too loudly, a dark, withering sound.

“Don’t worry over it,” Jaime said. Stark must’ve heard he meant it, for he didn’t push.

Lannisport fast grew more visible, and as it did, so did the damage from the ironmen’s flames. Even months later, even at sea, Jaime could smell smoke and ash. Though repairs had no doubt begun, the docks looked like a dark bruise against the cityscape, a harsh contrast to the fine walls that separated the city proper from the harbor. The Lannister ships which had once anchored along the docks were gone, replaced by unfamiliar vessels, among them several boasting the stag of House Baratheon, black on yellow.

As the ship arced around the city, Jaime’s gaze spanned out. The walls hid most the buildings, but Lannisport’s size remained plain. With the tourney a few days hence, pavilions colored the hills beyond and rendered the sight finer still. A laugh burst from Jaime’s lips when he recognized his own wonder.

I forgot the beauty here.

But no, that wasn’t so. He’d grown up with it, blinded to it.

Jaime’s mouth dried as the Laughing Lion approached Casterly Rock’s private port and the cliff face shut out the sun. He chanced a glance at Stark, whose mouth was shut for once, his eyes wide as the Rock’s size became more readily apparent. Jaime feared his own expression was embarrassingly similar. Another thing I’d been so used to, I’d never quite seen it.

The sway of the ship’s stop startled him, and Jaime took a long, deep breath to steady himself. I am who I am.

When Lyuk was set free, he bounded in sweeping circles that made those nearby cry out or jump. Jaime had to grin, but his nerves returned as they set up the path toward the Lion’s Mouth. It seemed the ship’s approach had been spotted, for Tyrion waited for them at the entrance, a guardsman with him. As Jaime slowed to a stop, Lyuk rushed to his side, tongue lolling and tail cheerful.

“Is your dog going to eat me?” Tyrion said with a wavering smile.

 “Only if he mistakes you for a grumpkin.” Jaime knelt before Tyrion and brushed a kiss across both his cheeks. “Little brother.”

Tyrion took him in, mismatched eyes blinking too fast. “I feared you dead, you daft, heroic fool.”

“None of that." Jaime embraced Tyrion briefly, then kissed him a third time atop his head. "I got a sword and a dog and a cloak, and Aly Mormont is grateful a maid as they come. You should see the letters she writes me.” 

“You lost your hand.”

“Where’d you get that idea? It’s detached, not lost. I know precisely where it’d be, though I’m sure animals have taken care of it by now. Unless the Others scooped it up to borrow for a wight. Mance fears that might be so.”

Gerion chuckled, and Benjen gave a proper laugh. Tyrion merely looked ill.  

Jaime stood to his full height and seized Benjen to pull him forth. “This is Stark. He’s my brother, recall, and ought to be treated like it while he’s here.”

“Naturally,” Tyrion said, eyes flicking over Benjen in a perfunctory way, though his gaze was shrewd enough. “I’d say men of the Night’s Watch are always welcome at Casterly Rock, but this is the first time that’s held true.”

“At least you are honest, my lord,” Stark said, perfectly courteous, but without warmth.

Once the introduction was through, Tyrion’s face took on a strange, unreadable look Jaime had not seen on him. “We'd best be going. Father wishes to speak with you immediately.”

Jaime wanted nothing less, but he'd expected as much. He nodded his assent.

The family’s personal rooms lie in the upper levels of the Rock, over a league from the Lion’s Mouth. To accommodate this, the castle had stables near that main entrance, and Tyrion had horses brought forth to take them through the long corridors. Stark looked at his gelding bemusedly, not understanding.

“The Rock is two leagues long, and over two-thousand feet high,” Tyrion told him. “It’d take half an hour to reach the proper level if we didn’t ride.”

“Right,” breathed Stark. “Foolish of me for failing to grasp that, really.”

On entering the castle, Jaime found the lower levels reminded him disconcertingly of Bloodraven’s caves. The halls were better lit and free of skeletons, but the winding paths and dim light brought to mind that odd place. The similarity faded as they wound up broad pathways to the Rock’s center, where greater care had been taken to make the space look more castle than cavern. Torches flickered along every path, and the walls were smoother, some gilded or whitewashed, tapestries hung along others.

The magnitude of the castle threatened to dazzle him, yet it was the minor memories that proved most overwhelming. He could recall how the scent of his mother’s perfume lingered along a corridor that led to a garden where she gathered with her ladies. Cersei’s rooms lie around a corner further along, and the ghost of her laughter washed over him, the white of her smile, and patter of her feet across the stones as they played a game of chase.

Tyrion eventually stopped them at a fork between two corridors. “Uncle, take Benjen to the spare chambers near Jaime’s and see that he is well settled.”

Gerion tipped his head and with good humor did as bid. Tyrion then ordered the guard with them to take their horses. “We can walk from here.”

When Jaime was left alone with his brother and his dog, he regarded the former. “Jaime’s chambers, you said. My old ones?”

"That’s where you’ll be staying," Tyrion said carefully. "They haven’t been touched.”

Jaime took a step back, his stomach rolling into a knot. “Has our father-” Lost his wits, he meant to say, before he reminded himself voices echoed in the Rock. A shiver went down his spine. “You ought to have them. They’re meant for the-” He stopped himself again, aware he threatened to tread straight into a great muddle. But he wanted to know. “He’s not made you his heir, officially, has he?”

Tyrion looked very small in that moment. He cast his eyes aside. “I will be. Genna is on my side, and Gerion, though that isn’t worth much. And Cersei.”

“Cersei,” Jaime repeated.

“We’ve been getting on better.” Tyrion did not quite look at him. “I’d not thought it a wise thing to tell you.”

“You could’ve.” He reminded himself he’d only be here a week. There was no use to get tangled in all of this. Let them live their lives. He took in their surroundings. “We’re going to Lord Tywin’s solar?”

Tyrion nodded, and Jaime resumed walking.

Clearing his throat, Tyrion said, “Cersei wants to speak with you when you’re through with Father.”

Jaime reached for Lyuk, settling his hand along his back. “Why?”

“Must there be a why? You’re twins. You’ve not seen one another for eight years.”

“She mourned me. I was dead to her.”

“You’re not still upset about that?" Tyrion said, like he was soothing an uneasy animal to a more amenable state. “It’s been three years since I told you as much.”

Jaime stopped. “I stated a fact. Don't twist my words." And don't condescend to me either. "You want me to speak with Cersei. Why?”

Tyrion’s eyes skittered away, lips parting soundlessly. "She’s our sister,” he said after a pause. “It isn't right that you don’t get along.”

A lie, at the very least a deflection. Less than a half hour into his visit, Jaime was being drawn into affairs he didn't understand, that shouldn't involve him in the least. Worse that it was Tyrion who refused to be plain, and over some trivial thing. Would a straightforward explanation be so difficult? would have liked one proper conversation before this nonsense came into it. 

“Brother," said Jaime, "I am in charge of over three-hundred often dangerous men who like to try lying to me, and who would bury me if I let them get away with it. I'm not so thick-skulled as you seem to think. I'll talk to her, don't worry over that. But I would've either way." 

This sent Tyrion a step back, gaze falling. "Jaime. Don't look at me like that. Matters here are... complicated." 

Probably they were. Jaime couldn't care. The exchange left a bad taste in his mouth, made him feel wrong-footed. Tired.  

“I’d sooner not look at you at all,” Jaime said wearily. “Say where Cersei is, and leave me. I can find my own way.”

Hurt flashed across Tyrion’s face, but Jaime kept his expression closed. After a beat of strained silence, his brother told him where Cersei would be waiting, then tore his eyes away and waddled off.

When Jaime reached Lord Tywin’s rooms, a servant escorted him through the small entrance hall and to a side door that led to the solar. Jaime must’ve been in the room at some point during his childhood, but not often, and upon entering, he found the space unfamiliar. It was dominated by a mahogany table with thick legs that had lion's heads carved into the bottoms. The chairs were velvet embroidered with gold, and a crimson rug covered the floor, muffling his steps. Two small windows had been formed into the far wall and covered with gilded grates, but it seemed clouds had overtaken the sun, for only weak gray light slanted through them.

He blinked twice, then in the midst of it all, located his father at the table’s head. His missing hand flexed when he saw Genna was with him, already standing, moving closer. She’d gotten fat, where she’d been shapely when Jaime left, and her face was older, wrinkles around her eyes. She did not ask for an embrace or pinch his ear as she once would have, but stopped a yard away and took him in with watering eyes.

He’d thought it would be so. Gerion knew nothing.

“Aunt,” Jaime said, taking care not to be too familiar. Lyuk peered at her, his tail swishing. Calm down, Jaime willed him, pressing his stump into the dog’s fur. She wants no earnest greeting from you. All she’d see are your claws and your teeth.

After staring at Jaime for far too long, Genna held out a hand. Refraining from grasping at it like a desperate fool, Jaime kissed the back formally, then released her fingers and stepped away.

Genna’s hands fluttered in an uncertain manner. “You’ve grown,” she said, her voice strange. She looked down, then lifted her gaze to study his face. “What happened there?” She motioned to her own eye to clarify her meaning.

“I displeased my betrothed,” said Jaime.

“That wildling woman.”

Jaime could not interpret that, and chose not to speak.

“Are you finished?” Lord Tywin’s voice made Genna jump, like she’d forgotten he was there.

Genna made an aborted gesture, eyes still on Jaime’s face, before she said, “Yes, yes. Quite finished.” After giving Jaime a final glance, she turned away and sat.

Jaime walked to the table, looking across it to take in his father. He had shaved his head, and that alongside his golden whiskers made him seem so severe he was displeasing to look at. No discernible feeling showed in his eyes nor on his face. This surprised Jaime not at all.

Looking upon his son for the first time in six years, Tywin Lannister said, “You are not wearing your hand.” You’re not wearing your hair.

“It chafes.” Jaime examined the new lines on his father’s face, the harsh planes of his features. “I was made First Ranger. You might have begun by acknowledging that.”

“There was an election for Lord Commander. You could’ve been a candidate if you didn’t insist on this foolishness with the wildlings. Have you taken leave of your senses, or is this part of some scheme I’m unaware of?”

“I never would’ve been a candidate. Denys Mallister had two hundred votes to put to the man he chose, Cotter Pyke nearly as many. Neither would’ve selected me, no matter what I did. Nor would have most those at Castle Black.”

Lord Tywin pressed his lips together. “I’d have an answer to my question.”

“My investment in the welfare of the free folk is genuine,” said Jaime, aware honesty would do him no favors, but thinking he might find a sort of power in it. Instead, watching disdain root itself in his father's eyes, he recalled how he and Cersei used to play near the cages of his grandfather’s lions. Cersei liked shoving her whole arm within to pet them, and Jaime would scramble to pull her back. With anger driven by desperate fear, he would think,What is wrong with her, that she would do that?

He presently felt like demanding the same of himself.

“What possessed you to take up this, of all causes?” said Tywin coolly.

No answer Jaime gave could please his father, not short of an outright lie. What would Mance do?

Ignoring the dryness in his throat, Jaime gave a hard smile. “Why am I here? I am content in the north, and I’ve made no effort to hide it. It's odd you'd call me south now, in light of that.”

“Answering a question with a question does not make you clever.”

“Trying to keep this conversation amiable does. What could I possibly gain by fighting with you?" Jaime lightened his voice and tried again to redirect the conversation. “Did you wish to confirm I possess Dark Sister? Is that your purpose?”

This time, he hit the mark. Tywin’s eyes went immediately to the sword, pulled from his irritation. “Show me.”

Jaime drew it, shades of silver and gray rippling in the room’s bleak light.

Lord Tywin rose, the bait too sweet to ignore. Heart echoing in his ears, Jaime set Dark Sister on the table, and his father grasped it with a greedy hand. Standing corpse-still, Jaime kept his face empty as Tywin studied the sword, shifting it carefully as he took it in from all angles.

Tywin made a noise that was almost a laugh. “A Targaryen blade, in the hands of a Lannister. It is fitting. I almost wish you’d have left Aerys alive.” His eyes gleamed. “How did you come by it? None of the absurdities you’ve fed your commanders, nor told Tyrion.”

“Lord Bloodraven had gone missing on a ranging. I found him. Remarkably well-preserved.”

Genna grimaced, but Tywin accepted the explanation with a brisk nod. He presented the sword to Jaime two handed. Jaime reclaimed it with care, fancying the hilt felt cold where his father touched it.

“You’ve not told me why I’m at this tourney.” Jaime sheathed Dark Sister, keeping his eyes low. “Tyrion has turned sixteen recently. Have you brought me so I might attend a feast where he’s declared your heir?”

That approached sticking his arm in the lion’s cage again, but a corner of Tywin’s mouth lifted. “I have heard enough. You still choose your causes poorly, but you do not lack cleverness, whatever you play at, and you’ve done well as First Ranger. You may go.” He paused. “There will be a feast tonight for your arrival.”

“In my honor? No, you mustn’t. Make it for Stark and me both, as a gesture to men of the Night’s Watch. Do not single me out.” 

“Yes,” Tywin said slowly, “it would come across better. You’re correct.”

That wasn't what Jaime meant, but there was no use protesting. Avoiding his aunt's eye, Jaime turned and left, Lyuk crowding close as if he too could not wait to get out. I think I lost, Jaime thought, for he still couldn't say why he'd been invited to the tourney at all. He didn't suppose it’d gone so badly, however, though he did wish Genna had pinched his ear. That was a boy’s grievance, not worth thinking on. It’d been eight years since they’d parted. She probably would’ve stopped by now anyway.

Jaime sooner would have retreated to his chambers, but he’d not run from speaking with Cersei. When he strode from one of the lesser exits of the Rock, the guard stopped him roughly, though he was going out instead of in, Lyuk perhaps putting fear into him. He gave a brisk apology upon seeing Jaime's face, but offered no further respect nor recognition. I have become a stranger here. 

The path Jaime sought cut into the face of a cliff north of the Rock and led to a narrow beach after a brief stroll. As children, he and Cersei used to swim there, or sneak off and fight with wooden swords. He kept his movements unhurried, enjoying the breeze sweeping off the sea, the smell of flowers and chirping of songbirds.

When finally he rounded the side of the cliff, Cersei came into view, facing the waves. Her long hair fell loose around her shoulders, and eight years had added pleasant curves to her slender frame. Her gown was red silk and shone like an open wound. She is beautiful. More so than she had been.

She turned and saw him, but remained where she stood, making Jaime come to her. When he closed the last yards between them, Jaime searched her face, paying mind to his own reactions. But she struck him only as a lovely stranger. 

"Why should you wish to speak with a ghost?" said Jaime, smiling thinly. 

Cersei wrapped her arms around herself like the question chilled her. Yet she did not answer, instead glancing at Lyuk. “Did you need to bring that beast?"

“He doesn’t know the Rock. I’d sooner not leave him alone here.”

“It’s a dumb animal. What does that matter?” She faced him more fully and ran her eyes over his features. A diamond the size of a robin’s egg sat at the hollow of her throat, and as sunlight broke through the clouds, it danced across the pendant like a heartbeat. As if it was relevant, Cersei added, “Tyrion claims some savage woman gave it to you.”

"Tyrion claims truly." Jaime ordered Lyuk to be at ease, and Lyuk tilted his head, like he must’ve misheard. When Jaime repeated the command, the dog wandered off, stopping eventually to sniff at the waves lapping against the shore.

Cersei’s features twisted unkindly when Jaime spoke the Old Tongue. "I'd known you thought yourself a crow. But a wildling? Where is my Jaime? What happened to my twin?"

“How fares your son?” said Jaime, wishing to speak of something simpler.

The question proved a misstep. Cersei gave a harsh laugh. “Well enough, I’m sure. Oh, do not look at me so. He’s a… a little Robert, who grew for nine moons inside me, then tore me apart clawing his way out. Before the birth, I thought I might love him. Then he came out looking like that brute.”

“That’s not the child’s fault,” Jaime murmured.

“I cannot help what I feel. If you wish, tell the Imp to show him to you. You might give the child an amusing scare, dressed all in black, with that ghastly stump.” Cersei shook her head, her hair stirring. “I had the right of it, before. You are a stranger.”

“It sounds as if you are getting on better with Tyrion.”

Cersei looked at him with irritation. “You overstate things. We are useful to one another.”

You’re all mad.

Down shore, Lyuk had determined these waters weren’t so cold as those he was accustomed to and leapt in. Jaime watched, not trusting the fool to work out how to swim, but after some faltering, he got the motion down and began to paddle about.

For a time, he focused on the dog and the sea, perturbed by the conversation and by his sister. He’d supposed he had been naive and over-romantic, driven from Cersei by circumstance. But this interaction, something of Cersei’s behavior, put a bad feeling in him, like a rat skittering across his skin.

He debated with himself, then reluctantly faced her. “When you told me to join the Kingsguard-“ She looked panicked, but he went on, “where did we meet?”

“What does it matter? Some inn off Weasel Alley?” She waved a hand. “A mistake. As far as I’m concerned, it never happened, and you’d best forget as well.” As if just realizing the potential consequences, she added, “No one would believe you if you got it in your head to speak of it.”

“I’m not going to blackmail you,” Jaime said shortly, and she granted him a slight nod. Turning back to the waves, Jaime asked, “Are we done here?”

“It’s not some act, is it? Your Wall business? You actually care.”

“Yes."

She laughed, not kindly. “You must’ve lost your wits serving Aerys, or frozen them off at the Wall. Go on. Leave. It unsettles me to speak with you.”

Jaime kept his breathing steady as he returned to his rooms, a dripping Lyuk trotting behind. It would not be so bad, he thought, except he’d not lain with anyone else, and if he kept his vows, would not be with anyone in the future. There was something bitter, something wrenching, in that.

Do not think on it. Nothing has changed. It’s been eight years.

It was a mistake. It never happened. Just like Cersei said.

Jaime entered his old bedchamber and nearly turned and walked out. Servants must’ve been in to clean, but Tyrion had not exaggerated when he said nothing had been touched. The space felt it belonged to a dead person; the same coverings were on the bed, the same Myrish rug on the floor, a tapestry on the far wall of great Lannister knights of old, even a blunted practice blade left in one corner. Head fit to burst, Jaime checked his closet and found a rainbow of colors still present.

Someone moved behind him, and startled, he drew Dark Sister. He bit back a cry at meeting his own eyes, his first thought of a ghost, as if his fifteen-year-old self had lingered for vengeance on the stranger who’d taken his place.

It’s a mirror, you idiot. No wonder your siblings think you stupid.

Noting Jaime’s upset, Lyuk bounded over, took in the mirror, then touched his nose to the other dog’s before he realized it was only an image. He lost interest and went to make Jaime’s featherbed smell like wet fur. Jaime’s impulse was to retreat after him, but he sheathed his blade and approached his reflection, taking in the solemn eyes. I look like Arthur. Like Rhaegar.

Jaime backed away, shaking his head. He didn’t want to putter about dour with grief, weighted by great mysterious burdens. But even as he had the thought, a consuming urge to rest and retreat cut through him, a force like he imagined had driven Rhaegar to Summerhall. I could bring Mance, and he would sing my songs for me.

The notion was all wrong. Mance would not let Jaime feed his own sorrows that way. He’d tell him to get over himself, and offer help should he prove unable to do so alone.

A knock on his door made him jump. Then it opened, Stark strolling in without bothering to wait. “I thought I’d heard you come back. They put me in fine rooms down the hall. They're pretty enough, but I feel like I’m in a dungeon.” He noticed the mirror and gave a startled laugh. “You’re standing there looking at yourself! Is that what you do in your free time?”

The relief he felt at his brother’s presence was absurd.

“Of course it is,” Jaime said, breaking away. “It’s no different than another man appreciating a work of art.”

Stark laughed again, his eyes bright with mirth. “Might you tear yourself away and direct me to a library or training yard or somewhere else I won’t feel I’m soon to be executed?"

Jaime could’ve kissed him. “We’ll train.”

“I figured that’s how it’d be,” said Stark, giving an exaggerated sigh. “A few extra bruises shan’t hurt. I’ve only been covered in them for eight months. You would think- Why are you staring at me?”

Because I do not think I dislike you, and I do not think you dislike me. We disagree on matters, but I know you better than I know anyone in this castle.

“No reason,” said Jaime, smiling lightly.

“But-”

“Are we going to spar, or not?” said Jaime. Not waiting for a response, he called for Lyuk and herded Benjen Stark into the corridor, finding relief in the thud of his door as it closed, shutting the room and the mirror and his sorrows behind him.

 

Ser Barristan Selmy stood with his back to the wall, hand on his sword hilt, several yards to the right of his king’s chair. Past the high table, Casterly Rock’s Great Hall stretched before him. Torches lined the walls and candles glittered across every table, but the windowless room seemed more a great dim cavern than a place for festivities.

Cavern or not, the space was as fine as any in the Seven Kingdoms. Its tables were not trestle tables as stood in most halls, meant to be taken down and restored as needed, but monstrous works of art with carved legs and rivers of crimson silk spread atop. Each was weighted with suckling pig and vegetables in thick gravy, soups, and great bowls of fruit. The high table was finer yet, covered in cloth of gold, and every plate atop it gilded.

The gold, the profusion of torches, the absence of windows or any semblance of fresh air, threatened to be distracting. Breathing deeply, Ser Barristan forced himself to look across the breadth of the table. In some halls, the king and queen would be seated above all others, with only the castle’s lord and lady next to them. At Casterly Rock, Robert sat near the center, the queen to his left, but around them—equal to them—were Lannisters. Tywin, his eldest two siblings with their spouses, Gerion, and the Imp. Prince Steffon sat near the latter, making faces at his uncle.

Then there were the black brothers. Both had been put to the king’s right. Oft that would be the lord’s place, but it was no surprise Tywin had used the excuse of honoring guests to distance himself from the king. It was Benjen Stark at Robert’s side this night, Ser Jaime between Stark and the youngest of his uncles. Beneath the table, Ser Jaime’s beast lie curled, pale eyes glinting, watching Ser Barristan from the space between the black brothers’ chairs. Two seats down, its tail swished against Gerion Lannister’s boot.

How difficult would it be to slay such a creature should Ser Jaime lose control of it? The fur is thick, the flesh likely so also. It’d not be able to hurt me in armor. But the king and queen are vulnerable. Robert should have insisted it be taken away.

“-going to Lannisport on the morrow,” Ser Jaime was telling his uncle, voice cutting into Ser Barristan’s musings. “There might be men displaced by the fires, mayhaps orphans. Good men who’d be willing to go north.”

“The lords would have more to give.”

“Who’d part with their resources at the Kingslayer’s behest, in the shadow of his father’s gold-filled castle? I’ll leave Stark to speak with them. I’d supposed you might accompany me to the city. We could stop and meet your Joy.”

“I’ve told Briony of your adventures. She’d be delighted-”

Robert, speaking to Benjen, drowned him out. “Did Ned ever tell you about that time we visited the whorehouse in Gulltown? I was just reminding him of it. Gods, it was fine seeing him again, fighting together like the old days.” He took a long drink of wine. “Would that all the kingdoms would rebel, so your brother and I could put them down, one by one. You’ve got his eyes, you know.”

“My eyes are blue.” The meal hadn’t gone on more than ten minutes, but already Benjen Stark sounded tired. Doing battle alongside Ned Stark had made Robert Baratheon seem awake for the first time since Selmy had been in his service, and Eddard’s departure had hurt the king anew. It seemed Robert was latching onto his brother as a salve.

“Well, I can see your eyes are blue, can’t I? I mean the look in them, and the shape.” Robert gave a great sigh, which held wistfulness that seemed strange coming from such a large man. He emptied his goblet, and by time he set it down, had reclaimed his good humor. “But we were speaking of whores.”

Benjen Stark reached for his own goblet and drained it. As he moved to pour himself more, he said, “I haven’t much interest in whores.”

“You are like Ned! He didn’t either. Which brothel-”

“Gulltown,” said Stark.

“Gulltown! One of the wenches was from White Harbor, and Ned sat there talking about Lord- the White Harbor lord, with some half-dressed whore, biggest tits you’ve ever seen-”

Barristan Selmy tuned him out as best he could, letting the words slide over him. Despite himself, his gaze drifted to his former sworn brother, settling there for the first time that evening. For the f