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another love

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C o u r t y a r d


When the Umbers arrived, the Greatjon’s booming voice announced their presence almost before the clattering of hooves did. The Stark household gathered in the courtyard to greet them. Ned stood stiffly beside Ashara, in his best cloak, the one Ashara always insisted he wore at ceremonies such as this. Ned could be full of vim and vigour, would laugh heartily and dance for set after set, when the mood took him. But he was a formal man, and when there were rituals to be observed, he was solemn and serious. So Ashara had made him a cloak befitting of his most sacred duties.

Ned’s best cloak was a rich black and grey wolf pelt, over dark grey wool. A gigantic, perfectly stitched, snarling direwolf covered the back, comprised of silver thread and a few small diamonds to decorate, which make it shimmer in the sun. Ashara had made the piece herself, though embroidery was not her favourite way to spend her time. But she would allow no other woman to cloak her husband. Of the feminine arts, she preferred to weave on the loom, play music, dance and sing. Of these, her best talent was dancing, and so Ashara pressed any excuse to tread the boards.

Her favourite possession was none of the dresses or jewels that made her shine as she glided about a room. It was the silver high harp Ned had gifted her for her name day. Two years after he returned from the Rebellion, he had commissioned it from the silversmiths in White Harbour, a Guild under House Manderley's sponsorship. Though she was not overly fond of the Manderlys, Ashara could not fault their dedication to House Stark; the instrument was exquisite.

Arya wasn’t interested in learning to play the high harp, but Elia consented to lessons with her mother. And after much mumbling into his collar, Jon had asked for a turn as well. There were not many instances when Ashara was reminded that Jon was not her boy; but any time she saw him carefully pluck the strings of that grand instrument, she became a young girl, watching Rhaegar charm smallfolk and highborn alike. How odd it was to see that foolish, indecisive Prince, reflected in her boy.

Ned might not be so mystically handsome, with his dark hair and traditionally Northern looks, but Ashara counted herself blessed by the Seven that he had plucked up the courage to speak to her Father. Should the Rebellion have broken out, and they not already wed, she shuddered to imagine what horrid man she might have ended up with, in her Father’s duty to align with the Targaryen loyalists… But that was a life gone now, a path forever broken by the gods, as surely as the Children had smashed the Arm to stop more of her ancestor’s countrymen streaming through Dorne.

The old gods and the new had shined down upon them: in blessing Ashara with a man who loved her, a man she had been enamoured with from the first, and had come to love deeply in turn, for his calm, steadfast devotion. A man who put duty to his House above his own whims, but never ceased to indulge her. As always, Ned greeted their guests with decorum, as if the Greatjon were not roaring like a bull moose, slapping her lord husband on the shoulder so hard that Ned staggered, before the Lord of Last Hearth remembered his manners and bowed deeply.

“The gods have blessed House Stark!” He bellowed, “Look at those strapping lads! Those pretty girls!”

Ashara’s smile was mostly genuine. The Greatjon could be unpredictable, offended by the strangest of things, but when he was jolly, he wanted all to share in his joy.

“Welcome to Winterfell, Lord Jon,” she said warmly, “We are most pleased to see you. It’s been far too long.”

“No man would disagree, that any distance between chances to look upon your fair face, is too long a time, my dear Lady Stark,” replied the giant man, with cheeks that were too ruddy to be from the summer breeze alone.

Ashara knew she was beautiful; some whispered she was the most beautiful woman in Westeros, though most laid that accolade at Cersei Lannister’s feet. Still, it was one thing for foppish knights to fawn over Ashara when she was flush with the bloom of youth. It was quite another thing altogether for gruff, coarse men of the North to still beam at her, as though was in actuality a fallen star. It never ceased to amuse her how hardened, war-forged men could be tamed by a pretty girl’s smile.

Ned cleared his throat, sending the Greatjon a suspicious look. Ned was generally a sensible man, but whenever men were too familiar with her, he became very wary.

“You know my boys; Robb and Jon.” Ned steered Lord Umber to move his focus away from his wife, and onto their twins.

“Aye!” the Greatjon roared, “The Twin Winter Wolves! Well met, lads.”

Her boys preened at their epithet, whilst trying to pretend they weren’t.

“And this is our ward, Theon Greyjoy, heir to the Iron Islands.” Ashara cut in, patting the boy on the shoulder, before Ned could go down the line of the children, as though they were greeting King Robert Baratheon himself.

Rickon and Arya weren’t even present; the babe still asleep, safely tucked up in the nursery, whilst Arya was gods knew where- no doubt watching the unfolding proceedings from somewhere with a strategic advantage. She had a keen eye, and was often overlooked because of her insistence on wearing breeches. Ashara only pressed her little she-wolf to dress as a lady at feasts, which her handmaids found bizarre and unladylike.

Theon stepped forward, a determined look on his face. Jon and Robb were barely containing their glee. She’d had a strong word with the twins that morning. Having received a rider telling them to expect the Umbers that afternoon, Ashara knew it was necessary. Mostly to reminded them not to pull silly japes on Theon at this moment, or do anything to undermine him to the Umbers. Ashara was not a stern mother, but she knew where the line in the sand was drawn.

Though they excelled in their studies, her three eldest boys were incorrigible; if they weren’t causing trouble amongst themselves, they were teasing her girls, drinking ale in the First Keep or sneaking out to ride in the wolfswood. It was not surprising that Ashara often forgot that Jon was not actually Robb’s twin. They did everything together. At any given time, they were either the greatest of friends or the bitterest of rivals. Depending on the sun’s position in the sky, it sometimes seemed. Together with Theon, they had frequent bouts of pretending to be sensible, but they never lasted.

When they were truly angry, they lashed out in their own ways. Jon would throw sulking fits and decline to speak to anyone, Theon would ride to Wintertown alone and lose himself in a tavern or whorehouse, and Robb would pitch himself into his duties, becoming haughty and short with everyone. Then, sure as the dawn chorus, they were the greatest of friends again. Bound in blood and oath and honour to love one another before all others. Until someone fell asleep prematurely and woke to find their eyebrows had been shaved off, that is. (Jon had screamed so shrilly Ashara had thought he was being murdered by wildlings, and Ned had charged, half-naked, through the castle with his greatsword Ice, ready to fell them. He had been most displeased to have been dragged away from his wife's arms over such nonsense.)

Ashara was happy to let the boys of Winterfell have their fun, so long as they remembered their duties and debt to House Stark, when it was necessary. Now was one such time. She stung the twins with a sharp look, lest they forget their place. But besides looking far too pleased with themselves, Robb and Jon remained quiet.

The Greatjon thrust out his chin, looking Theon over with a squinted, flinty look.

“Aye,” he said, far quieter than usual, but he didn’t seem offended by Theon’s strong stance, thick, glossy hair and smart, dark green doublet.

“Sera!” He boomed, “What are you waiting for girl, a perfumed invitation?”

From amongst the Umber rabble, a girl of thankfully average height stalked forward. She had long, dark brown hair woven in a series of braids, plaited and hanging past her left shoulder, tied together with a sloppy orange ribbon. She looked wary, but not furious, which was a good start. Her riding cloak was the deep, bloody orange of her sigil, her maroon dress cinched by a brown leather belt. It suited her pale, heavily-freckled skin tone very well.

Ashara had heard rumours that of the two Umber girls, Sera had a dark, wild Northern beauty, rough-hewn, the kind of untamed spirit that was a grand challenge for any man. By contrast, the eldest girl, Arrana, had a sweet but plain face and was tall for a lady. But nothing else of note was said about her. Ashara was gratified to see Theon gawk at her choice. Sera might not be the kind of beauty praised at the King’s court, but her dark eyes glittered with mischief, and her jaw was strong. And if those dark, glittering eyes told any truths at all, she would think of new ways to keep Theon occupied, as time advanced.

“Shut your mouth, lest you want to snack on flies,” the girl snapped, before softening her words with a salacious smirk and a deep curtsey. She had an ample bosom.

“M-my lady,” Theon stammered, before getting a hold of himself. “If a few flies are sacrificed, I consider that a worthwhile exchange.”

He stuck his elbow out, suddenly the graceful boy who made Jeyne Poole blush almost daily, “May I escort you to your guest chambers?”

Ashara smirked openly, gratified that her many ravens had been worthwhile. She directed Elia and Mariah Cassel to seek out the other Umber girl, with a gentle tilt of her head. Sahara herself allowed the boisterous Greatjon to escort her into the keep, despite Ned’s glare at the uncouth lord’s back. A jealous Ned resulted in babes, and Ashara was absolutely ready to have another.

Not that Ned was inattentive to her- they slept in the same bed every night, and made good use of it. But whenever Ned spied other men’s eyes on her, he remembered he was a wolf, not a falcon. She fully intended on enjoying that beast betwixt her legs again. Sometimes, her Ned was too gentle, in his determination to show her that Northmen were not brutes, and she enjoyed goading him into making her howl.





O u t s i d e   t h e   A r m o u r y


Ashara had arranged for a feast that evening, once their guests had washed off the dirt of travel and rested their aching bones. That gave her ample opportunity to seek out her boys again, once the Greatjon had thanked her profusely for his grand apartment in the guest house. She left Ned to talk with the man in private. No doubt her lord husband would subtly threaten his bannerman to leave his lady wife alone, if the Greatjon intended to go home with all his teeth.

Predictably, Robb and Jon were teasing Theon about his ‘new lady love’, though their japes dried up when they caught sight of her.

“Mother-” Robb began, contrite.

“Leave Theon be, you beastly child,” Ashara smirked, reaching out to smooth down an unruly curl of his hair. “Don’t you have duties to attend to?”

“Nay, Mother, Father wants us on hand, should the Umbers require anything.”

“Hmm,” Ashara paused, to give herself a moment to fabricate a task for her heir. “Well, sweetling, I require you to liberate a tray of apple tarts from Gage, then to free Rickon from the clutches of sleep, and meet me in my solar. I can’t be associated with the subterfuge, but nethertheless I demand results!”

Robb rolled his eyes, bouncing onto the tip of his feet to press a kiss to her pale cheek. “As you wish Mother. But if I am discovered, I won’t hesitate to betray your involvement in the scheme!”

“Knave! I suppose Theon should accompany you then, so there’s less chance of being named, for he’s lighter on his feet.” She mused. “Whilst you rescue Rickon, Theon can plunder the kitchen.”

Theon puffed up like a proud pigeon at the praise, immediately garnering a shove in the chest. Whilst he rocked back on his heels, Robb used his advantage to scurry away. Laughing and jostling one another, Theon and Robb chased each other across the courtyard and inside the stone walls, to their separate tasks. Dropping her saccharine smile, Ashara turned to her second son, bending at the waist to kiss his forehead softly.

“Are you well, sweetling?”

Jon seemed startled at her concern, but Ashara had seen the look of longing on his face when Sera had swept by with Theon. As Lord Stark’s eldest son, Robb had escorted Arrana through the keep, leaving Jon to befriend the Umber guardsmen.

Of the three boys, Jon was the only one who would not be a Lord Paramount someday. But he would be the Lord of Moat Cailin soon, when he came of age. Ned had followed Ashara’s suggestion, and begun the long, arduous work of restoring Moat Cailin, a year after he returned from Robert's Rebellion. It had taken years of toil, the work interrupted by winter and the Greyjoy Rebellion, but the castle was once more a true Gateway to the North. Jon was still too young to be installed there permanently, and they were loathe to part with their son until they had to, but as a family, they had travelled to see the completed work.

The crannogmen had redirected the swamp away from where the wooden keep of the First Men had rotted away, so new foundations could be laid, with help from the Flints of Flint’s Finger. Huge granite boulders had been dragged down from the Flint Cliffs, then shaped by masons, and a squat, sturdy new keep had been built. Stone rubble had been dredged up from the bog surrounding The Children’s Tower. The howling, open crenellations were closed and fixed, and warmth restored to the outpost. The crannog and Flint clansmen had lashed the Drunkard’s Tower with thick ropes, to drag it to a more suitable lean. (Though it was still tipsy, it was no longer so deep in its cups.) The defensive walls of the Gatehouse Tower had been extended, so that they reached the Drunkard’s Tower, and its gaping ceiling had been ripped out and replaced with high wooden arches and thick stone.

Jon’s Keep, safely sandwiched behind the new wall, was warm and welcoming. Ashara and the servants of Winterfell had woven a great tapestry, that hung in what would one day be Jon’s hall. Other wall hangings had been found in Winterfell, plus furs and carpets, chairs and tables, closets, kitchenware…. It had taken a decade, but the seat of Moat Cailin was now worthy of a true King of Winter. The towers were still coated with ghostskin, the surrounding marshes a ghostly death trap of lizard-lions and treacherous swamps, but the reclusive, quiet crannogmen had been attentive and kind. Lady Jyana Reed had planted lady’s tresses, goat’s beard and false spirea around the Gateshouse Tower and Jon’s Keep: white, pale blue and purples of all shades. Blooms that thrived in marshes, low light and thick water. Seedlings and babes that had sprouted into riots of pastel and rich wine-red flowers.

Lord Reed had helped Ned to choose a household for Jon. Clever crannogmen, who knew how to navigate the treacherous waters and cultivate the plants that grew there. Sturdy Flint clansmen and Barrowmen from the plains for guards and servants both. Mimulan Greengood had been chosen as castellan. He was an uncle of Lady Jyana: a quiet, stocky greybeard, who carried a bronze sword and spear, and spoke only in the Old Tongue.

Jon had cried with happiness when he had first seen it, but Robb had been mullish for weeks afterward. The heir to Winterfell could not decide whether he was immensely jealous over the freedom Jon would have once he was installed there, or miserable at the reminder that Jon would live so far from home. Ashara often wondered how they would raise the funds to provide something of equal magnitude for Rickon. It was just another piece she must juggle.

“Remember what I told you, of our little fledgling friend?” Ashara prompted Jon quietly, and she drew their arms together, tucking her son close to her dark grey skirts.

“Aye, Mother,” Jon nodded, solemn and serious, as though she hadn’t just seen him pretend to swoon, in a supposed impression of Theon.

“Well, what do you think of the Umber girls?” Ashara sighed. The boys were never as quick to follow her meaning as her girls.

Jon frowned deeply, perplexed. “They seemed very… nice? Pretty.”

“Good. Dance with them and smile, but remember which girl matters most.”

“The fledgling?”

“Yes, indeed.” She beamed, wide and unhindered, before smoothing back Jon’s dark curls, and pressing another soft kiss to his forehead. Jon had been a quiet babe, a good boy; despite his rambunctiousness, he was so very easy to love.

“Come along, darling boy, let’s go to my solar and hope your brothers don’t break anything, on returning from their urgent quests.”

“All we can do is pray,” Jon murmured, before he could no longer keep up the act, and laughed brightly.





G r e a t   H a l l


Ashara surveyed the crowded hall, a demure quirk of genuine amusement dancing on her lips. Ned had been worried, when she first arrived in the North, that his bannermen would frighten her. Northmen when in a rabble could be alarming. But no more than her father’s vicious bannermen; men whom she had charmed as a child with no more than a sweet look. She had been determined not to shame her Father’s belief in her. She would not falter at a few wary looks.

Lord Alaric Dayne had been reluctant to accept Ned’s suit at first, sure that his daughter could never be happy in the ‘frigid North, deprived of sun and laughter both’. But Ned’s clear affection for Ashara had won him over in the end. Arthur too, had been shocked by her choice. But Ned’s reputation as a honourable, good man had preceded him, so Arthur did not give her betrothed as much grievance as she had expected. Determined not to get lost in bittersweet memories, Ashara pushed them aside. The past is written, the ink is dry.

When musicians began to play, the tunes were merry ones. But even in these times of peace, Northern feasts were never as extravagant as Southron delights. Yet Ashara found them more truthful for it. The hall was filled with gruff, hard men, men whose families had endured snow and starvation, and yet they toasted and celebrated together, and praised her sweet children.

Ned swept her into his arms, leading her through a quick jig with sure feet. When the time came for them to swap partners, Ned neatly sidestepped the Whitehill boy who attempted to come between them, lifting Ashara clean off the ground to spin her about, before planting his lady wife firmly out of reach.

“My, you are covetous tonight, lord husband,” Ashara teased, enjoying the wicked gleam in Ned’s eye.

“No man may touch my wife,” he growled, too lowly to be heard over the quaffing of ale and thumping of feet, “Least of all that fourth-born fool.”

The Whitehill boy had to settle for leading his sister Gwyn for the dance instead, as Theon was refusing to relinquish Sera, Jeyne was blushing furiously in Robb’s arms, and Jon had gallantly extended a hand to Arrana. Elia was graceful, even dwarfed in the Greatjon’s arms. Whereas Arya was scowling up at Jory so bleakly, Ashara winced in sympathy for the captain of the guard’s feet, knowing Arya would have her revenge for being expected to dance.

Gwyn Whitehill was a comely, kind girl, heartbroken and unable to hide it. Unusually for Northern girls, her hair was pale blonde, the colour of wheat. She shone beside her arrogant younger brother Gryff, despite the low lighting.

The entire North knew how Gwyn had fallen in love with that whoremongering brawler, Asher Forrester. And Gwyn’s greedy pig of a Father had almost started a bloody civil war over it, instead of allowing his only daughter to settle the bad blood between their families the sensible way. Had Ashara been able to make countermoves, before Ned been called in to settle the issue, she would have encouraged the match.

But the young lovers had hidden their affections too well, so Ashara had not learnt of the affair until it was too late. Lord Ludd Whitehill was a vicious cur, so instead of marriage in prevention of a war, young Asher had been driven from the North entire, lest he be assassinated by some catspaw. The girl was still intact, which was a blessing for poor Gwyn. Northmen were generally much more furious about these things than their women. Maege Mormont had recently had another daughter with a ‘bear’, and none had batted an eyelid at the babe being named Lyanna Mormont.

Asher Forrester was supposedly was a sellsword in Essos, now. Ashara prayed to the Warrior the idiot boy was alive, and not a slave in some gods-forsaken fighting pit. Gwyn’s invitation to Winterfell was the only real measure of comfort Ashara could offer the girl. Better to be safe out of her father and elder brothers’ sight. Gwyn was polite and quiet, but her soft smiles always seemed bittersweet. She had settled well into Winterfell last year, befriending Elia and Jeyne and Beth, despite being of age with Theon. But Arya wasn’t fond of her, because Gwyn showed no interest in sparring. She did enjoy poetry and singing, and she had a sweet, clear voice. Robb and Jon both thought her beautiful, but if they had any real interest in her, they’d hidden it well.

House Whitehill was from one of the few Houses in the North that worshiped the Seven. Ashara had listened carefully whenever they sewed together, for any attempts of conversion. But Gwyn was too busy embroidering flowers and smiling bravely, to promote the Seven Pointed Star. Ashara could verily admit to Ned she was pleased they would not have to call Ludd Whitehill kin. The crudest vassal House of the Boltons, were not her first choice for alliances, warmongering and vain as they were.




G r e a t   H a l l


Needing a break from the festivities, Ashara pressed a kiss to Ned’s cheek before seated herself primly at the closest table. She poured herself a large cup of summerwine to quench her thirst. In Ashara's absence, Ned led Elia about, their dainty daughter giggling sweetly as she was spun about.

“Well met, goodsister,” came a familiar, scratchy voice.

Benjen slid into the empty seat beside her upon the bench, offering her a subdued grimace of a grin.

“Ah, Ben,” Ashara sighed, pressing herself closer, “Will you not dance?”

Benjen’s eyes flickered about the dim room, where most were deep in their cups, roaring and toasting and bragging of their feats of prowess. For a joyous moment, Ashara allowed herself to hope, before his expression became shuttered once more.

“Nay, not this eve,” he eventually declined flippantly, as though there had been any chance of another answer passing his chapped lips.

Wine making her bold, Ashara fixed him with a glare. “Jonelle would be sick of heart-”

“Do not-!” Benjen snapped, before remembering himself. He struggled to find the words to express the sentiment he wished, before simply settling on; “Forgive me.”

After returning from Robert’s Rebellion, Benjen had attempted to flee his grief and Winterfell both, for the Wall. But Ashara would not have it; a mourning boy could not be allowed to sign his life away, no matter how many times he insisted that Starks had manned the Wall since the Age of Heroes. Sometimes she thought that Ned had fallen in love with her anew, for preventing his only remaining sibling from leaving Winterfell.

So Ned had brokered the betrothal between Benjen and Jonelle, to prevent Benjen from attempting to flee again. Lord Medger Cerwyn had been reluctant to give the hand of his only child away, but Ned would not be swayed, and after many long talks in Ned’s solar between the three men, the terms were agreed upon. At only a day’s ride, Castle Cerwyn was the perfect solution to Benjen's strange belief he was somehow superfluous to House Stark, because Ned had a new wife and two small heirs. Benjen's betrothal allowed the two wolves enough distance to grow more comfortable with their respective mates, but still kept them close enough to each other that the entire pack was protected. Fostering Benjen with his future in laws, had allowed him and Jonelle to grow up together. Perhaps their love had never been as ferocious as Ashara and Ned’s, but it had deepened over time, and when they had wed in Winterfell’s godswood, the celebrations had lasted for days.

Homely Jonelle had been devastated when Benjen rode to war only two years later, to fight alongside Ned and quash Balon Greyjoy’s ridiculous rebellion. She had been heavy with their first child at the time, but it did not take long for the combined might of the North, Westerlands and Robert Baratheon’s forces to swat Balon like the flea he was. Benjen returned home to Castle Cerwyn to be greeted with his new daughter, named Lyanna for his much missed sister. And Ned had returned home to Winterfell and presented Ashara with her new son, the furious and frightened little Theon. But now Jonelle was gone, perished from a birthing fever, and Benjen was spending more time at Winterfell than was prudent. At least he had brought two of the children this time. Though they missed their mother greatly, pretty Lyanna and plump, mild-mannered Walton were thrilled to play with their cousins.

Swallowing thickly, Ashara patted Benjen on the shoulder gently. Until at length he unstiffened once more, leaning back against the table with a sigh. He was looking in the direction of the dancers, but his eyes did not see them.

“Children thrive under a mother’s love,” Ashara tried again, softly, mindful of his grief.

Her only living goodbrother winced, but said nothing, content to drink deeply of his ale.

Jonelle had given Benjen three babes in total, each as sweet as their mother. Lyanna was two years younger than Arya, and currently beginning to flag, being led slowly through the set by an indulgent Cerwyn guardsman, Torrhen Lake. Chubby Walton Stark was Rickon’s elder by only a year, so he was tucked up beside his cousin in the nursery, the two babes already firm friends.

But Benjen’s youngest son, Osric, was too small to leave Castle Cerwyn, despite the close distance of the two strongholds. Since Jonelle had died from a fever not long after birthing him, Benjen had been shirking his duties as a father to wallow in Winterfell’s godswood. Ashara had been tolerant thus far. But her patience was coming to an end. Soon she would have Ned take Benjen by the ear, and lash him over his horse, if he refused to leave willingly. A babe could not be held responsible for the death of his mother; it was the risk all wedded women took, to ensure the legacy of their House. None could escape the judgement of the gods, and the Mother had seen fit to tuck Jonelle into her warm hold. Neglecting her children to revel in wanton grief, would not bring Jonelle back.

At the time of her betrothal to Benjen, Jonelle had been Medger’s only heir. Therefore Castle Cerwyn would have become Benjen’s seat upon Medger’s death, starting a new cadet branch of House Stark. Just as the Karstarks of Karhold began. House Cerwyn may not have been as ancient as House Stark, but the old lord still had his pride, so he had remarried to prevent such a circumstance. Lord Cerwyn's second wife had died of a chill, but not before bearing him a son and heir, little Cley, who was of age with Elia. It was of no matter when Jonelle still breathed; Cley adored his homely sister, and would never have cast her out. The boy got along well enough with his goodbrother Benjen, also. But a man’s pride was a strange thing. Without Jonelle at his side, Benjen seemed to have taken it into his stubborn head, that he had outstayed his welcome at Castle Cerwyn.

He was adrift, pacing between keeps like a caged beast, eager to roam free. And Ashara had a horrible feeling Benjen’s old desire to run to the Wall had reared its ugly head. Now that he was a man grown, Ned would not be able to prevent it. But Benjen was a fool if he underestimated what Ashara would do, for love of her husband. Ned needed Benjen close, not freezing his nose off at the Wall. Ashara could feel some darkness stirring, tributaries of schemes and intrigues whose wellspring could be anywhere, burbling their malice, but she would ensure that Ned, and House Stark, had the support they needed to weather the deluge. Some bitter taste lingered on the wind; whispers of terrors unknown. With falcons set to dig their sharp talons into the den in the coming moons, the pack could not afford to lose a grown and grizzled wolf, whose fangs had already tasted blood. Her boys were strong, but they were pups still.

Ashara of Houses Dayne and Stark, swore by all the gods; old and new, that she would not abide dissention or desertion amongst their ranks.