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JAIME
Raventree Hall was old. Moss grew thick between its ancient stones, spiderwebbing up its walls like the veins in a crone’s legs. Two huge towers flanked the castle’s main gate, and smaller ones defended every angle of its walls. All were square. Drum towers and half-moons held up better against catapults, since thrown stones were more apt to deflect off a curved wall, but Raventree predated that particular bit of builder’s wisdom.

The castle dominated the broad fertile valley that maps and men alike called Blackwood Vale. A vale it was, beyond a doubt, but no wood had grown here for several thousand years, be it black or brown or green. Once, yes, but axes had long since cleared the trees away. Homes and mills and holdfasts had risen where once the oaks stood tall. The ground was bare and muddy, and dotted here and there with drifts of melting snow.

Inside the castle walls, however, a bit of the forest still remained. House Blackwood kept the old gods, and worshiped as the First Men had in the days before the Andals came to Westeros. Some of the trees in their godswood were said to be as old as Raventree’s square towers, especially the heart tree, a weirwood of colossal size whose upper branches could be seen from leagues away, like bony fingers scratching at the sky.

As Jaime Lannister and his escort wound through the rolling hills into the vale, little remained of the fields and farms and orchards that had once surrounded Raventree—only mud and ashes, and here and there the blackened shells of homes and mills. Weeds and thorns and nettles grew in that wasteland, but nothing that could be called a crop. Everywhere Jaime looked he saw his father’s hand, even in the bones they sometimes glimpsed beside the road. Most were sheep bones, but there were horses too, and cattle, and now and again a human skull, or a headless skeleton with weeds poking up through its rib cage.

No great hosts encircled Raventree, as Riverrun had been encircled. This siege was a more intimate affair, the latest step in a dance that went back many centuries. At best Jonos Bracken had five hundred men about the castle. Jaime saw no siege towers, no battering rams, no catapults. Bracken did not mean to break the gates of Raventree nor storm its high, thick walls. With no prospect of relief in sight, he was content to starve his rival out. No doubt there had been sorties and skirmishes at the start of the siege, and arrows flying back and forth; half a year into it, everyone was too tired for such nonsense. Boredom and routine had taken over, the enemies of discipline.

Past time this was ended, thought Jaime Lannister. With Riverrun now safely in Lannister hands, Raventree was the remnant of the Young Wolf’s short-lived kingdom. Once it yielded, his work along the Trident would be done, and he would be free to return to King’s Landing. To the king, he told himself, but another part of him whispered, to Cersei.

He would have to face her, he supposed. Assuming the High Septon had not put her to death by the time he got back to the city. “Come at once,” she had written, in the letter he’d had Peck burn at Riverrun. “Help me. Save me. I need you now as I have never needed you before. I love you. I love you. I love you. Come at once.” Her need was real enough, Jaime did not doubt. As for the rest … she’s been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and Moon Boy for all I know … Even if he had gone back, he could not hope to save her. She was guilty of every treason laid against her, and he was short a sword hand.

When the column came trotting from the fields, the sentries stared at them with more curiosity than fear. No one sounded the alarm, which suited Jaime well enough. Lord Bracken’s pavilion did not prove difficult to find. It was the largest in the camp, and the best sited; sitting atop a low rise beside a stream, it commanded a clear view of two of Raventree’s gates.

The tent was brown, like the standard flapping from its center pole, where the red stallion of House Bracken reared upon its gold escutcheon. Jaime gave the order to dismount and told his men that they might mingle if they liked. “Not you two,” he said to his banner-bearers. “Stay close. This will not keep me long.” Jaime vaulted down off Honor and strode to Bracken’s tent, his sword rattling in its scabbard.

The guards outside the tent flap exchanged an anxious look at his approach. “My lord,” said one. “Shall we announce you?”

“I’ll announce myself.” Jaime pushed aside the flap with his golden hand and ducked inside.

They were well and truly at it when he entered, so intent on their rutting that neither took any note of his arrival. The woman had her eyes closed. Her hands clutched the coarse brown hair on Bracken’s back. She gasped every time he drove into her. His lordship’s head was buried in her breasts, his hands locked around her hips. Jaime cleared his throat. “Lord Jonos.”

The woman’s eyes flew open, and she gave a startled shriek. Jonos Bracken rolled off her, grabbed for his scabbard, and came up with naked steel in hand, cursing. “Seven bloody hells,” he started, “who dares—” Then he saw Jaime’s white cloak and golden breastplate. His swordpoint dropped. “Lannister?”

“I am sorry to disturb you at your pleasure, my lord,” said Jaime, with a half-smile, “but I am in some haste. May we talk?”

“Talk. Aye.” Lord Jonos sheathed his sword. He was not quite so tall as Jaime, but he was heavier, with thick shoulders and arms that would have made a blacksmith envious. Brown stubble covered his cheeks and chin. His eyes were brown as well, the anger in them poorly hidden. “You took me unawares, my lord. I was not told of your coming.”

“And I seem to have prevented yours.” Jaime smiled at the woman in the bed. She had one hand over her left breast and the other between her legs, which left her right breast exposed. Her nipples were darker than Cersei’s and thrice the size. When she felt Jaime’s gaze she covered her right nipple, but that revealed her mound. “Are all camp followers so modest?” he wondered. “If a man wants to sell his turnips, he needs to set them out.”

“You been looking at my turnips since you came in, ser.” The woman found the blanket and pulled it up high enough to cover herself to the waist, then raised one hand to push her hair back from her eyes. “And they’re not for sale, neither.”

Jaime gave a shrug. “My apologies if I mistook you for something you’re not. My little brother has known a hundred whores, I’m sure, but I’ve only ever bedded one.”

“She’s a prize of war.” Bracken retrieved his breeches from the floor and shook them out. “She belonged to one of Blackwood’s sworn swords till I split his head in two. Put your hands down, woman. My lord of Lannister wants a proper look at those teats.”

Jaime ignored that. “You are putting those breeches on backwards, my lord,” he told Bracken. As Jonos cursed, the woman slipped off the bed to snatch up her scattered clothing, her fingers fluttering nervously between her breasts and cleft as she bent and turned and reached. Her efforts to conceal herself were oddly provocative, far more so than if she’d simply gone about the business naked. “Do you have a name, woman?” he asked her.

“My mother named me Hildy, ser.” She pulled a soiled shift down over her head and shook her hair out. Her face was almost as dirty as her feet and she had enough hair between her legs to pass for Bracken’s sister, but there was something appealing about her all the same. That pug nose, her shaggy mane of hair … or the way she did a little curtsy after she had stepped into her skirt. “Have you seen my other shoe, m’lord?”

The question seemed to vex Lord Bracken. “Am I a bloody handmaid, to fetch you shoes? Go barefoot if you must. Just go.”

“Does that mean m’lord won’t be taking me home with him, to pray with his little wife?” Laughing, Hildy gave Jaime a brazen look. “Do you have a little wife, ser?”

No, I have a sister. “What color is my cloak?”

“White,” she said, “but your hand is solid gold. I like that in a man. And what is it you like in a woman, m’lord?”

“Innocence.”

“In a woman, I said. Not a daughter.”

He thought of Myrcella. I will need to tell her too. The Dornishmen might not like that. Doran Martell had betrothed her to his son in the belief that she was Robert’s blood. Knots and tangles, Jaime thought, wishing he could cut through all of it with one swift stroke of his sword. “I have sworn a vow,” he told Hildy wearily.

“No turnips for you, then,” the girl said, saucily.

“Get out,” Lord Jonos roared at her.

She did. But as she slipped past Jaime, clutching one shoe and a pile of her clothes, she reached down and gave his cock a squeeze through his breeches. “Hildy,” she reminded him, before she darted half-clothed from the tent.

Hildy, Jaime mused. “And how fares your lady wife?” he asked Lord Jonos when the girl was gone.

“How would I know? Ask her septon. When your father burned our castle, she decided the gods were punishing us. Now all she does is pray.” Jonos had finally gotten his breeches turned the right way round and was lacing them up the front. “What brings you here, my lord? The Blackfish? We heard how he escaped.”

“Did you?” Jaime settled on a camp stool. “From the man himself, perchance?”

“Ser Brynden knows better than to come running to me. I am fond of the man, I won’t deny that. That won’t stop me clapping him in chains if he shows his face near me or mine. He knows I’ve bent the knee. He should have done the same, but he always was a stubborn one. His brother could have told you that.”

“Tytos Blackwood has not bent the knee,” Jaime pointed out. “Might the Blackfish seek refuge at Raventree?”

“He might seek it, but to find it he’d need to get past my siege lines, and last I heard he hadn’t grown wings. Tytos will be needing refuge himself before much longer. They’re down to rats and roots in there. He’ll yield before the next full moon.”

“He’ll yield before the sun goes down. I mean to offer him terms and accept him back into the king’s peace.”

“I see.” Lord Jonos shrugged into a brown woolen tunic with the red stallion of Bracken embroidered on the front. “Will my lord take a horn of ale?”

“No, but don’t go dry on my account.”

Bracken filled a horn for himself, drank half of it, and wiped his mouth. “You spoke of terms. What sort of terms?”

“The usual sort. Lord Blackwood shall be required to confess his treason and abjure his allegiance to the Starks and Tullys. He will swear solemnly before gods and men to henceforth remain a leal vassal of Harrenhal and the Iron Throne, and I will give him pardon in the king’s name. We will take a pot or two of gold, of course. The price of rebellion. I’ll claim a hostage as well, to ensure that Raventree does not rise again.”

“His daughter,” suggested Bracken. “Blackwood has six sons, but only the one daughter. He dotes on her. A snot-nosed little creature, couldn’t be more than seven.”

“Young, but she might serve.”

Lord Jonos drained the last of his ale and tossed the horn aside. “What of the lands and castles we were promised?”

“What lands were these?”

“The east bank of the Widow’s Wash, from Crossbow Ridge to Rutting Meadow, and all the islands in the stream. Grindcorn Mill and Lord’s Mill, the ruins of Muddy Hall, the Ravishment, Battle Valley, Oldforge, the villages of Buckle, Blackbuckle, Cairns, and Claypool, and the market town at Mudgrave. Waspwood, Lorgen’s Wood, Greenhill, and Barba’s Teats. Missy’s Teats, the Blackwoods call them, but they were Barba’s first. Honeytree and all the hives. Here, I’ve marked them out if my lord would like a look.” He rooted about on a table and produced a parchment map.

Jaime took it with his good hand, but he had to use the gold to open it and hold it flat. “This is a deal of land,” he observed. “You will be increasing your domains by a quarter.”

Bracken’s mouth set stubbornly. “All these lands belonged to Stone Hedge once. The Blackwoods stole them from us.”

“What about this village here, between the Teats?” Jaime tapped the map with a gilded knuckle.

“Pennytree. That was ours once too, but it’s been a royal fief for a hundred years. Leave that out. We ask only for the lands stolen by the Blackwoods. Your lord father promised to restore them to us if we would subdue Lord Tytos for him.”

“Yet as I was riding up, I saw Tully banners flying from the castle walls, and the direwolf of Stark as well. That would seem to suggest that Lord Tytos has not been subdued.”

“We’ve driven him and his from the field and penned them up inside Raventree. Give me sufficient men to storm his walls, my lord, and I will subdue the whole lot of them to their graves.”

“If I gave you sufficient men, they would be doing the subduing, not you. In which case I should reward myself.” Jaime let the map roll up again. “I’ll keep this if I might.”

“The map is yours. The lands are ours. It’s said that a Lannister always pays his debts. We fought for you.”

“Not half as long as you fought against us.”

“The king has pardoned us for that. I lost my nephew to your swords, and my natural son. Your Mountain stole my harvest and burned everything he could not carry off. He put my castle to the torch and raped one of my daughters. I will have recompense.”

“The Mountain’s dead, as is my father,” Jaime told him, “and some might say your head was recompense enough. You did declare for Stark, and kept faith with him until Lord Walder killed him.”

“Murdered him, and a dozen good men of my own blood.” Lord Jonos turned his head and spat. “Aye, I kept faith with the Young Wolf. As I’ll keep faith with you, so long as you treat me fair. I bent the knee because I saw no sense in dying for the dead nor shedding Bracken blood in a lost cause.”

“A prudent man.” Though some might say that Lord Blackwood has been more honorable. “You’ll get your lands. Some of them, at least. Since you partly subdued the Blackwoods.”

That seemed to satisfy Lord Jonos. “We will be content with whatever portion my lord thinks fair. If I may offer you some counsel, though, it does not serve to be too gentle with these Blackwoods. Treachery runs in their blood. Before the Andals came to Westeros, House Bracken ruled this river. We were kings and the Blackwoods were our vassals, but they betrayed us and usurped the crown. Every Blackwood is born a turncloak. You would do well to remember that when you are making terms.”

“Oh, I shall,” Jaime promised.

When he rode from Bracken’s siege camp to the gates of Raventree, Peck went before him with a peace banner. Before they reached the castle, twenty pairs of eyes were watching them from the gatehouse ramparts. He drew Honor to a halt at the edge of the moat, a deep trench lined with stone, its green waters choked by scum. Jaime was about to command Ser Kennos to sound the Horn of Herrock when the drawbridge began to descend.

Lord Tytos Blackwood met him in the outer ward, mounted on a destrier as gaunt as himself. Very tall and very thin, the Lord of Raventree had a hook nose, long hair, and a ragged salt-and-pepper beard that showed more salt than pepper. In silver inlay on the breastplate of his burnished scarlet armor was a white tree bare and dead, surrounded by a flock of onyx ravens taking flight. A cloak of raven feathers fluttered from his shoulders.

“Lord Tytos,” Jaime said.

“Ser.”

“Thank you for allowing me to enter.”

“I will not say that you are welcome. Nor will I deny that I have hoped that you might come. You are here for my sword.”

“I am here to make an end of this. Your men have fought valiantly, but your war is lost. Are you prepared to yield?”

“To the king. Not to Jonos Bracken.”

“I understand.”

Blackwood hesitated a moment. “Is it your wish that I dismount and kneel before you here and now?”

A hundred eyes were looking on. “The wind is cold and the yard is muddy,” said Jaime. “You can do your kneeling on the carpet in your solar once we’ve agreed on terms.”

“That is chivalrous of you,” said Lord Tytos. “Come, ser. My hall might lack for food, but never for courtesy.”

Blackwood’s solar was on the second floor of a cavernous timber keep. There was a fire burning in the hearth when they entered. The room was large and airy, with great beams of dark oak supporting the high ceiling. Woolen tapestries covered the walls, and a pair of wide latticework doors looked out upon the godswood. Through their thick, diamond-shaped panes of yellow glass Jaime glimpsed the gnarled limbs of the tree from which the castle took its name. It was a weirwood ancient and colossal, ten times the size of the one in the Stone Garden at Casterly Rock. This tree was bare and dead, though.

“The Brackens poisoned it,” said his host. “For a thousand years it has not shown a leaf. In another thousand it will have turned to stone, the maesters say. Weirwoods never rot.”

“And the ravens?” asked Jaime. “Where are they?”

“They come at dusk and roost all night. Hundreds of them. ............
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