She will never be a great beauty, or a great wit, or a great seductress. These are things that she has become used to, and cast aside. She is intelligent, this she knows, and capable in a way that her lady mother could not commend enough, when she still walked the halls of Storm’s End. She does not have many friends, but those few she has are truer than most, and she has a talent for tapestry that even her grandmother lauds - she finds the repetition soothing, and enjoys the clarity of mind that develops as one works the loom.
She does not like dancing. She finds it confusing, sometimes, because people so often do not keep to the correct steps, and the press of bodies is so claustrophobic. She is not often at her ease in the company of others, and she knows that this causes consternation in her effusive, sociable betrothed.
At least Brandon is well used to her by now. They have known one another for so many years that even he, who cannot keep himself from any fine-eyed woman with a welcoming smile, has learned not to mind most of her peculiarities. She thinks that they will get along well, when the time comes, so long as he does not flaunt his inevitable infidelity.
She does not like that he will break his vows to her, but she also does not mind that he will not come to her bed for pleasure as often as he apparently desires it - her lady mother told her what happens in the marriage bed, and while she is sure that Brandon will go out of his way to ensure she does not hate it, she cannot imagine ever loving it as he obviously does.
Elenei of old was so fair, so lovely, that Durran Godsgrief fought the sea and the winds to have her.
Elenei of now, daughter of House Baratheon and favourite grandchild of her grandmother, finds the whole business more than a little excessive.
“It’s supposed to be hugely romantic,” Grandmother Rhaelle agrees, her Blackwood hair half turned to Targaryen milky-white with age, but her Blackwood eyes still as dark and sharp as they ever have been. They are working the loom together, as they often do in the early afternoons, between Elenei’s lessons with her dancing master and her lessons with Maester Creylen. “But I’ve always thought that love, real love, is something that must be carefully nurtured in order for it to grow true. Grand gestures are all well and good, but they will not keep you warm on a cold winter’s night, my darling.”
Despite this, the tapestry they weave is of Durran and Elenei, of Storm’s End standing eternal and golden against the rage of the sea god and the goddess of the winds. It will be magnificent when it is complete, and it is Grandmother’s gift to Elenei. She will bring it with her to Winterfell, when she weds Brandon, to hang in her solar so that she will always have some piece of her home with her.
“Do you think Brandon and I might come to love one another, Grandmother?” she asks. “As you and Grandfather did?”
Grandfather Ormund died before Elenei was even born, but Grandmother speaks and Father spoke of him so often and with such abiding love that Elenei feels as though she knew him. She loves Grandfather Eldon, and likes to think that she might have been even closer to Grandfather Ormund, who held Grandmother’s heart so wholly in his hands.
“I think you could come to be happy in one another,” Grandmother says practically. “I make no predictions as to your young man’s heart, little one, for that is a fool’s game. But I think he is a more sensible boy than he has shown so far, and he will not treat you ill. There is much more in that than there is in this grand notion of love in which people put such stock.”
Elenei lays her head against Grandmother’s shoulder and sighs. Life would be so much easier if she did not have to marry at all, but she supposes there are worse fates than to be Brandon’s Lady of Winterfell. Even Elenei, who puts little stock in such things, is slightly pleased to have such a handsome husband-to-be.
The Starks are to come to Storm’s End for Elenei and Brandon’s wedding - Grandmother insisted, and since she has not objected at all to Robert’s still living away in the Eyrie, Lord Stark has given in on this.
There is an alliance. Elenei, who sits so close at Grandmother’s side, sees it better than anyone else. Lord Stark and Lord Arryn and, nominally, Lord Baratheon - doubtless Father brokered it initially, but it is Grandmother who has held the reins since the Windproud shattered, and so it is on her word that the Starks decamp from Winterfell.
Robert deigns to descend from the Eyrie, and arrives three days before the main body of the Starks with his foster-brother, soon Elenei’s goodbrother, in tow. Grandmother reaches up with her delicate birch walking stick and smacks Robert across the back of the head for how entirely he ignores Elenei and little Renly in Ned Stark’s favour, and curdles all his ebullience with a few well-placed comments about how welcome Catelyn Tully will feel when eventually she comes to Storm's End, if Ned Stark is also in residence.
Ned offers Elenei halting, uncertain welcome to his family, and presents her with a simple silver bangle chased with gently sweeping shapes that he tells her are winter winds.
“It belonged to my mother,” he says, “and I believe she would be pleased to accept you as her gooddaughter, my lady, had the gods seen fit to leave her with us.”
Robert, smelling more than a little of wine, carefully lays a long necklace of gold and pearls and jet around her neck, and smiles tearfully as he settles it correctly over her simple black gown with a strangely paternal air.
“It was Mother’s,” he says. “She wore it the day she married Father, and I think it would be a fine compliment to your maiden’s cloak, don’t you?”
Robert is so often thoughtless that Elenei finds herself moved by this more than by anything else save Grandmother’s tapestry, and accepts his furious embrace without a single word of complaint as thanks.
Brandon bows low to her once he has dismounted, and smiles in the charming way he usually reserves for women he seeks to bed.
How strange to think that he will be bedding her within the week. She suddenly understands why Grandmother commissioned so many new nightgowns for her.
“That will have to wait until after the wedding, Stark!” Robert booms, the massive weight of his arm settling unexpectedly around her shoulders - displeasure flashes over Brandon’s face, and Elenei wonders at that. Is he as irked as she is that they did not even have a chance to greet one another properly? Bad enough that she has been left with Renly clinging to her fingers without Robert pushing in where he is not wanted.
Storm’s End feels very, very small whenever Robert is in residence, Elenei has found.
“I’m sure, Lord Baratheon,” Brandon says coolly. “My lady, I am glad to see you in such good health - shall we?”
He manoeuvres her away from her brothers and onto his arm so deftly that she smiles, hiding it behind her hand, and then they are away toward the castle. The winds are up today, so she bullied Robert into greeting the Starks within, but it would have been a breach indeed to let them ride into an empty courtyard.
Brandon’s sister is pouting, frowning about herself as though unimpressed, and Elenei finds herself bristling. How fine can Winterfell truly be, that Lyanna Stark feels able to look down so haughtily on Storm’s End?
“Don’t mind Lya,” Brandon says, low and private. “Father refused her a sword again while we were at Riverrun, and her beloved betrothed laughed at her displeasure - now there is a house I will not wish to visit for a year or two after their marriage.”
Elenei met Edmure Tully when she went with Robert to visit pretty Catelyn, and he was just so very boyish. She would have thought such a temperament would have suited Lady Lyanna, but Brandon had written that Lya thought Edmure beneath her consideration.
Lya has a great many opinions, from what Elenei has seen of her, and no fear of airing them. Elenei firmly believes that there is nothing but dishonour in dishonesty, but growing up at Grandmother’s elbow has also taught her something of tact. Mayhap the lack of mother or grandmother for so much of her life has spared Lyanna Stark such lessons.
“Don’t mind her,” Brandon says again, a pleading edge on his deep voice. “I know how little you like her, Elenei, but she is just spoiled. She will grow out of it, I promise.”
“You spoil her more than anyone,” Elenei grumbles, but cannot find fault with him for it. She has been just as spoiled by Grandmother as Lyanna has by Brandon, after all. “Come inside, we have mulled wine and spicecakes, and the wind won’t trouble us there.”
“They say Bran the Builder helped Durran Godsgrief build this castle,” Brandon says as they cross the threshold. “I quite like the idea of our Houses having been tied together since the Age of Heroes, don’t you?”
Somehow, he is her dearest friend. When he says sentimental things like that, she wonders how such a thing can be true.
“So that’s fucking,” she says, and Brandon howls with laughter beside her in their marriage bed. “Well! What would you like me to say, husband? You know I have no use for soft words.”
“I would have you remain precisely yourself, wife,” Brandon says, leaning up on his elbow to grin down at her. “For if you did start speaking in soft words, I should start hunting out the grumkins who had replaced you with some strange creature who had your form but not your mind.”
“Do you mind that I have no soft words?” she asks, bold as she usually only is with Grandmother. “It was one thing before we were wed, but now-”
He takes her hand in his, where it is lying over the covers, and looks at her thoughtfully.
“You and I never expected to marry for love,” he says, “and we are different enough that we never even dared to hope for friendship, but I like to think that we have found it with one another. You are blunt, and I am a wanderer, but we have each made our peace with the other, and I think we might get along well enough.”
He lifts her hand and kisses her knuckles then, grinning that roguish grin of his, and she rolls her eyes at how obvious his seduction is.
That sets him off laughing again, and she supposes that being married might not be so terrible after all.
Cousin Rhaegar sends for them as soon as they arrive at Harrenhal, and Elenei is a great deal happier to speak with Princess Elia than she is to bow to her cousin and her father’s. The King looks to have gone entirely mad, and she has never forgotten how Cousin Rhaegar had suggested she throw over Brandon to marry him, when she was fourteen and felt ugly.
“We were so pleased to hear your news, Princess,” Brandon says as he rises from his bow before Elia, who is holding out her hands to Elenei as though they are bosom friends. Elenei has admired Princess Elia from the day she came to King’s Landing, and thinks that court would be a finer place by far if more of the ladies emulated the Princess’ manner. “We wish to offer our congratulations, both from ourselves and from our Houses.”
Lord Stark is away back to Winterfell, Lyanna spared having to accompany him only by Brandon’s intervention, and they are here, at Harrenhal, presented to the royal family by dint of Elenei’s blood. It all feels very high and mighty, and she longs passionately for the quiet of Grandmother’s loom room away at home in Storm’s End.
Brandon’s arm is tense under her hand, and that is not helping. He wants to be gone from here, she knows, out enjoying the revels, but Elenei’s grandmother is the daughter of a King, and so they must do their duty to the man currently wearing the crown.
Princess Elia’s hands settle on the swell of her belly, only barely showing under the soft lines of her gown, and she smiles in a gracious way that Elenei could never hope to emulate.
“I am grateful for your well-wishes, my lord,” she says, and Elenei knows it to be true. She knows how terribly Princess Rhaenys’ birth affected Elia, and has condescended to visit the sept to offer prayers to gods she is not sure she believes in for a woman she hopes is her friend. The world would be worse off, if it lost Elia Martell.
Cousin Rhaegar watches, and Elenei wonders why. He is always watching something, and she has never understood what it is he seeks to find.
Elenei recognises the spurs on the Knight of the Laughing Tree’s boots - she gave them to Brandon as a wedding gift, and he had complained only that morning that they had disappeared from among his things. It is foolish of Lyanna to wear them, marked with a wolf’s head as they are, and so Elenei wanders down into the godswood.
She knows from Brandon’s letters that his sister loves their gods as fiercely as she dislikes Edmure Tully. It seems a logical step.
Sure enough, Lyanna appears with that blasted, smiling shield on her arm, and near jumps out of her skin when she catches sight of Elenei. It was cruel, perhaps, to tuck herself into the shadows, dressed all in black and grey as she is, but she needed to be sure before she said a word. Brandon would never forgive her, otherwise.
“You burn the shield,” she says, handing over a tinderbox. “You burn it now. You never claim your efforts here.”
“I have done no harm-”
“The King is looking for you,” Elenei says sharply. “You do not know him, but I do. My grandmother is his aunt. My father was his closest companion. I know him. If he finds you, he will not stop with killing just you, and I will not allow you to endanger either your family or mine.”
Brandon rises that night, after they’ve whispered to one another for hours about the terrible things that may yet still happen if anyone finds out what Lyanna has done, and Elenei rolls her eyes.
“If you could,” she says, “I would be grateful if you washed away Lady Ashara’s perfume before you return, my lord.”
The look he gives her feels the same as his laughter, which makes her roll her eyes again.
“Even if I were departing for an assignation - which I am not, thank you ever so much,” he says, “it would not be to Lady Ashara’s rooms.”
“You are so sure?”
“Well,” he says, sitting back on the edge of their bed, “she is my brother’s fancy, not mine, and it would be intolerably cruel to deny them their budding romance when I have one of my own to tend, don’t you think?”
Elenei has never blushed in her life, and is not about to start now. Instead, she shakes her head and settles down to sleep, which sets Brandon off into a round of quiet laughter.
She is not quite so asleep as he thinks when he bows to kiss her temple and whispers “Shan’t be long, wife - I only wish to be sure the brats are still abed.”
Yes, she thinks. They can make a fine marriage, particularly if everything keeps going as well as it has so far.