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The road up to Oldstones went twice around the hill before reaching the summit. Overgrown and stony, it would have been slow going even in the best of times, and last night’s snow had left it muddy as well. Snow in autumn in the riverlands, it’s unnatural, Merrett thought gloomily. It had not been much of a snow, true; just enough to blanket the ground for a night. Most of it had started melting away as soon as the sun came up. Still, Merrett took it for a bad omen. Between rains, floods, fire, and war, they had lost two harvests and a good part of a third. An early winter would mean famine all across the riverlands. A great many people would go hungry, and some of them would starve. Merrett only hoped he wouldn’t be one of them. I may, though. With my luck, I just may. I never did have any luck.  Beneath the castle ruins, the lower slopes of the hill were so thickly forested that half a hundred outlaws could well have been lurking there. They could be watching me even now. Merrett glanced about, and saw nothing but gorse, bracken, thistle, sedge, and blackberry bushes between the pines and grey-green sentinels. Elsewhere skeletal elm and ash and scrub oaks choked the ground like weeds. He saw no outlaws, but that meant little. Outlaws were better at hiding than honest men.  Merrett hated the woods, if truth be told, and he hated outlaws even more. “Outlaws stole my life,” he had been known to complain when in his cups. He was too often in his cups, his father said, often and loudly. Too true, he thought ruefully. You needed some sort of distinction in the Twins, else they were liable to forget you were alive, but a reputation as the biggest drinker in the castle had done little to enhance his prospects, he’d found. I once hoped to be the greatest knight who ever couched a lance. The gods took that away from me. Why shouldn’t I have a cup of wine from time to time? It helps my headaches. Besides, my wife is a shrew, my father despises me, my children are worthless. What do I have to stay sober for?  He was sober now, though. Well, he’d had two horns of ale when he broke his fast, and a small cup of red when he set out, but that was just to keep his head from pounding. Merrett could feel the headache building behind his eyes, and he knew that if he gave it half a chance he would soon feel as if he had a thunderstorm raging between his ears. Sometimes his headaches got so bad that it even hurt too much to weep. Then all he could do was rest on his bed in a dark room with a damp cloth over his eyes, and curse his luck and the nameless outlaw who had done this to him.  Just thinking about it made him anxious. He could no wise afford a headache now. If I bring Petyr back home safely, all my luck will change. He had the gold, all he needed to do was climb to the top of Oldstones, meet the bloody outlaws in the ruined castle, and make the exchange. A simple ransom. Even he could not muck it up... unless he got a headache, one so bad that it left him unable to ride. He was supposed to be at the ruins by sunset, not weeping in a huddle at the side of the road. Merrett rubbed two fingers against his temple. Once more around the hill, and there I am. When the message had come in and he had stepped forward to offer to carry the ransom, his father had squinted down and said, “You, Merrett?” and started laughing through his nose, that hideous heh heh heh laugh of his. Merrett practically had to beg before they’d give him the bloody bag of gold.  Something moved in the underbrush along the side of the road. Merrett reined up hard and reached for his sword, but it was only a squirrel. “Stupid,” he told himself, shoving the sword back in its scabbard without ever having gotten it out. “Outlaws don’t have tails. Bloody hell, Merrett, get hold of yourself.” His heart was thumping in his chest as if he were some green boy on his first campaign. As if this were the kingswood and it was the old Brotherhood I was going to face, not the lightning lord’s sorry lot of brigands. For a moment he was tempted to trot right back down the hill and find the nearest alehouse. That bag of gold would buy a lot of ale, enough for him to forget all about Petyr Pimple. Let them hang him, he brought this on himself. It’s no more than he deserves, wandering off with some bloody camp follower like a stag in rut.  His head had begun to pound; soft now, but he knew it would get worse. Merrett rubbed the bridge of his nose. He really had no right to think so ill of Petyr. I did the same myself when I was his age. In his case all it got him was a pox, but still, he shouldn’t condemn. Whores did have charms, especially if you had a face like Petyr’s. The poor lad had a wife, to be sure, but she was half the problem. Not only was she twice his age, but she was bedding his brother Walder too, if the talk was true. There was always lots of talk around the Twins, and only a little was ever true, but in this case Merrett believed it. Black Walder was a man who took what he wanted, even his brother’s wife. He’d had Edwyn’s wife too, that was common knowledge, Fair Walda had been known to slip into his bed from time to time, and some even said he’d known the seventh Lady Frey a deal better than he should have. Small wonder he refused to marry. Why buy a cow when there were udders all around begging to be milked?  Cursing under his breath, Merrett jammed his heels into his horse’s flanks and rode on up the hill. As tempting as it was to drink the gold away, he knew that if he didn’t come back with Petyr Pimple, he had as well not come back at all.  Lord Walder would soon turn two-and-ninety. His ears had started to go, his eyes were almost gone, and his gout was so bad that he had to be carried everywhere. He could not possibly last much longer, all his sons agreed. And when he goes, everything will change, and not for the better. His father was querulous and stubborn, with an iron will and a wasp’s tongue, but he did believe in taking care of his own. All of his own, even the ones who had displeased and disappointed him. Even the ones whose names he can’t remember, Once he was gone, though...  When Ser Stevron had been heir, that was one thing. The old man had been grooming Stevron for sixty years, and had pounded it into his head that blood was blood. But Stevron had died whilst campaigning with the Young Wolf in the west - “of waiting, no doubt,” Lame Lothar had quipped when the raven brought them the news - and his sons and grandsons were a different sort of Frey. Stevron’s son Ser Ryman stood to inherit now; a thick-witted, stubborn, greedy man. And after Ryman came his own sons, Edwyn and Black Walder, who were even worse. “Fortunately,” Lame Lothar once said, “they hate each other even more than they hate us.”  Merrett wasn’t certain that was fortunate at all, and for that matter Lothar himself might be more dangerous than either of them. Lord Walder had ordered the slaughter of the Starks at Roslin’s wedding, but it had been Lame Lothar who had plotted it out with Roose Bolton, all the way down to which songs would be played. Lothar was a very amusing fellow to get drunk with, but Merrett would never be so foolish as to turn his back on him. In the Twins, you learned early that only full blood siblings could be trusted, and them not very far.  It was like to be every son for himself when the old man died, and every daughter as well. The new Lord of the Crossing would doubtless keep on some of his uncles, nephews, and cousins at the Twins, the ones he happened to like or trust, or more likely the ones he thought would prove useful to him. The rest of us he’ll shove out to fend for ourselves.  The prospect worried Merrett more than words could say. He would be forty in less than three years, too old to take up the life of a hedge knight... even if he’d been a knight, which as it happened he wasn’t. He had no land, no wealth of his own. He owned the clothes on his back but not much else, not even the horse he was riding. He wasn’t clever enough to be a maester, pious enough to be a septon, or savage enough to be a sellsword. The gods gave me no gift but birth, and they stinted me there. What good was it to be the son of a rich and powerful House if you were the ninth son? When you took grandsons and great-grandsons into account, Merrett stood a better chance of being chosen High Septon than he did of inheriting the Twins.  I have no luck, he thought bitterly. I have never had any bloody luck. He was a big man, broad around the chest and shoulders if only of middling height. in the last ten years he had grown soft and fleshy, he knew, but when he’d been younger Merrett had been almost as robust as Ser Hosteen, his eldest full brother, who was commonly regarded as the strongest of Lord Walder Frey’s brood. As a boy he’d been packed off to Crakehall to serve his mother’s family as a page. When old Lord Sumner had made him a squire, everyone had assumed he would be Ser Merrett in no more than a few years, but the outlaws of the Kingswood Brotherhood had pissed on those plans. While his fellow squire Jaime Lannister was covering himself in glory, Merrett had first caught the pox from a camp follower, then managed to get captured by a woman, the one called the White Fawn. Lord Sumner had ransomed him back from the outlaws, but in the very next fight he’d been felled by a blow from a mace that had broken his helm and left him insensible for a fortnight. Everyone gave him up for dead, they told him later.  Merrett hadn’t died, but his fighting days were done. Even the lightest blow to his head brought on blinding pain and reduced him to tears. Under these circumstances knighthood was out of the question, Lord Sumner told him, not unkindly. He was sent back to the Twins to face Lord Walder’s poisonous disdain.  After that, Merrett’s luck had only grown worse. His father had managed to make a good marriage for him, somehow; he wed one of Lord Darry’s daughters, back when the Darrys stood high in King Aerys’s favor. But it seemed as if he no sooner had deflowered his bride than Aerys lost his throne. Unlike the Freys, the Darrys had been prominent Targaryen loyalists, which cost them half their lands, most of their wealth, and almost all their power. As for his lady wife, she found him a great disappointment from the first, and insisted on popping out nothing but girls for years; three live ones, a stillbirth, and one that died in infancy before she finally produced a son. His eldest daughter had turned out to be a slut, his second a glutton. When Ami was caught in the stables with no fewer than three grooms, he’d been forced to marry her off to a bloody hedge knight. That situation could not possibly get any worse, he’d thought... until Ser Pate decided he could win renown by defeating Ser Gregor Clegane. Ami had come running back a widow, to Merrett’s dismay and the undoubted delight of every stablehand in the Twins.  Merrett had dared to hope that his luck was finally changing when Roose Bolton chose to wed his Walda instead of one of her slimmer, comelier cousins. The Bolton alliance was important for House Frey and his daughter had helped secure it; he thought that must surely count for something. The old man had soon disabused him. “He picked her because she’s fat,” Lord Walder said. “You think Bolton gave a mummer’s fart that she was your whelp? Think he sat about thinking, ‘Heh, Merrett Muttonhead, that’s the very man I need for a good-father’? Your Walda’s a sow in silk, that’s why he picked her, and I’m not like to thank you for it. We’d have had the same alliance at half the price if your little porkling put down her spoon from time to time.”  The final humiliation had been delivered with a smile, when Lame Lothar had summoned him to discuss his role in Roslin’s wedding. “We must each play our part, according to our gifts,” his half-brother told him. “You shall have one task and one task only, Merrett, but I believe you are well suited to it. I want you to see to it that Greatjon Umber is so bloody drunk that he can hardly stand, let alone fight.”  And even that I failed at. He’d cozened the huge northman into drinking enough wine to kill any three normal men, yet after Roslin had been bedded the Greatjon still managed to snatch the sword of the first man to accost him and break his arm in the snatching. It had taken eight of them to get him into chains, and the effort had left two men wounded, one dead, and poor old Ser Leslyn Haigh short half a ear. When he couldn’t fight with his hands any longer, Umber had fought with his teeth.  Merrett paused a moment and closed his eyes. His head was throbbing like that bloody drum they’d played at the wedding, and for a moment it was all he could do to stay in the saddle. I have to go on, he told himself. If he could bring back Petyr Pimple, surely it would put him in Ser Ryman’s good graces. Petyr might be a whisker on the hapless side, but he wasn’t as cold as Edwyn, nor as hot as Black Walder. The boy will be grateful for my part, and his father will see that I’m loyal, a man worth having about.  But only if he was there by sunset with the gold. Merrett glanced at the sky. Right on time, He needed something to steady his hands. He pulled up the waterskin hung from his saddle, uncorked it, and took a long swallow. The wine was thick and sweet, so dark it was almost black, but gods it tasted good.  The curtain wall of Oldstones had once encircled the brow of the hill like the crown on a king’s head. Only the foundation remained, and a few waist-high piles of crumbling stone spotted with lichen. Merrett rode along the line of the wall until he came to th............
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