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W I N T E R F E L L

 

Lady Stark walked steadily toward the godswood, her thick woollen dress skimming the cobbles. It was a deep, rich purple, to enhance the stunning colour of her eyes, and embellished with embroidered wolves tussling, snarling and howling. Although it was summer still, she wore thick layers and a fur trim; Northmen could not possibly understand how chilled to the bone she felt, each time she stepped beyond the warmth of Winterfell’s solid walls.

She smiled demurely at all who she met long her path, pleased when they first dipped their heads with deference, but met her eyes with crinkled, toothy grins of their own. It was no secret she was well loved here. Over the years, she had given thanks to the gods for blessing her with the privilege of a husband she loved, and loved her in return, and a household that respected them both.

Steeling herself for the interesting news she was about to impart, Ashara entered the godswood, and marched determinedly toward her lord husband: the Quiet Wolf, Ned Stark.

 

 T H E  R E D  K E E P

 

Sansa watched her brothers spar with amusement. Though he was the younger, Bran was superior to Robin in every manner conceivable. What an awful trick the Seven had played, making petulant Robin Arryn their father’s heir, when they could have had sweet, dutiful Bran instead.

But it was not Sansa’s place to say a word; she had grown up in the nest of treachery that was King’s Landing, and she knew better than to let her real feelings show. Instead of sneering or laughing at her inept and foul-tempered eldest brother, Sansa sat placidly with her friends, Princess Mrycella and the Lady Rosamund, and added delicate stitches to her needlework.

“Oh, Sansa,” Mrycella mewed, like the sweet kitten that she was; “Your work is always so pretty!”

Sansa flushed, grateful the awful Queen Cersei had chosen not to accompany them today. Myrcella was always more confident and cheerful when her overbearing mother was not around.

“Thank you, Princess,” Sansa beamed, “Your work is lovely too- such bold, fierce lions!”

Sansa herself would never dream of sewing row after row of her mother’s sigil, without thought for her father’s. She swallowed the lump of distaste in her throat, for Cersei’s complete lack of deference to the Baratheon line. King Robert was a fat drunk, but he was the King, and she should have encouraged her daughter to proudly remind everyone of her Baratheon lineage. Alas, Cersei was too proud, and her children did not understand how their efforts to please her looked to the rest of the court.

Sansa’s own work was beautiful; a shining eagle, gripping flowers in its sharp beak and talons.

 

W I N T E R F E L L

G o d s w o o d

 

“A match between our Houses?” Ned repeated bluntly, surprised but not truly aghast.

Ashara laughed at the clear lack of enthusiasm upon his face. All these years of her chiding him to be less blatant about his emotions had done little to make a difference when he was truly shocked.

“Oh, my love,” she sighed, taking a seat beside him beneath the regal heart tree, “Robb is almost of age. He is beyond ready to seek a betrothal, but it will not be with this Arryn girl.”

“Ashara-” he began, suddenly stoic, resigned, as he was whenever he had accepted something for the sake of honour. She fought the urge to roll her eyes. Men could be so difficult.

“Robb is your heir. And the future Lord of Winterfell will not have a Southron for a bride. We cannot allow that pattern to be sewn. Not unless you want each of your bannermen to curse us daily, for letting Southron sensibilities further encroach upon the North,” she said, a sentiment they had discussed before, though never with such urgency.

Her sweet husband had once tried to build her a Sept. A Sept, in the seat of the North. As soon as she learnt of it, Ashara had requested the few stones that had already been laid to be uprooted, and used to build a nice stone bench in the godswood instead. She was content to pray in the confines of her room. She had her girlhood copy of the Seven Pointed Star, what would she need a Sept for?

“If Jon Arryn wants a husband for his daughter, they are of course welcome to sup at our halls and find one- but it will not be Robb. I warned you we needed to arrange alliances,” she continued, trying to keep the judgement from her tone.

“Aye,” Ned admitted, “But my sons and daughters are not chattel to be traded. I saw what such maneuvers did to…. Brandon. I will not repeat my Father’s choices.”

“No indeed,” Ashara leaned forward to gently place her small hand on her husband’s arm. Ned smiled at her, not broadly or effusively, like some lords would, bragging about their affection tastelessly. Instead it was a small, genuine smile, of trust and true devotion, and her heart fluttered, still taken with it, even after all these years.

“Which is why I have invited a few select girls more suited to the position, to Winterfell. Handmaids, for our daughters. We will find a bride for your son among them, my lord; whichever girl turns Robb's head the most.”

T H E  R E D  K E E P

T o w e r   o f   t h e   H a n d

 

Sansa surveyed her best dresses as carefully and critically as she could. She did not know what to expect of the North; she had heard fearsome tales of brutality and barbaric behaviour. But what foolish girls of the court said, could rarely be trusted. Her lord father spoke of Ned Stark fondly; a dutiful young man, honourable and kind, and not akin to Robert Baratheon in any manner. Such a man would surely produce sons that were not as awful as Joffrey, at least. Sansa was not sorry to be leaving for the North, she only wished Father could accompany them. Mother and her brothers were all coming, but Father’s duties as Hand could not be abandoned because his only daughter needed a husband worthy of her.

Robb Stark was the heir to Winterfell. He was said to be handsome, and a good swordsman, with dark curls and purple eyes like his Dayne mother, but little else could be garnered of him. Sansa had been dedicated to learning all she could about the Houses, customs and families in the North, since the moment Father had told her of his intention to have her become the future Lady of Winterfell.

But it had been difficult to garner real information. The Northmen were not like any other Houses in all of Westeros; they kept to the old ways of the First Men, their mysterious tree gods, and did not boast or promote themselves. They did not attend tourneys, to show off their skills and their wares. All Sansa had learnt was the barest bones of information, about the House she hoped to call her own.

Eddard Stark was the Warden of the North, and the Lord of Winterfell, which was the largest castle in the North, and the oldest in Westeros. He had five children; Robb and Jon, who were non-identical twins, Elia, Arya and Rickon. After Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, the Starks had taken in his remaining heir, Theon. Ned Stark called his hostage his ‘ward’, which Sansa took to mean he cared for the child. So that meant six children she must make love her, plus the gorgeous, gracious Lady Ashara, formerly of House Dayne. If she had any hope of gaining respect from the North, she had to work out who held the most sway, and befriend them all.

Sansa would certainly not gain respect by turning up in the coldest region in Westeros with dresses fit for the heat of the capital. Determined not to cry at setting aside such pretty things, Sansa began to divide her clothes. Anything too ostentatious had to go. Rose pink, sunny yellow, emerald green and fire orange; pile upon pile of lace, silk, and cotton dresses were heaped to one side. The sky blue of her Father’s House was acceptable, as was the deep blue and blood red of her Tully heritage. Black and yellow for her allegiance to House Baratheon, plum and lilac purple close enough to align with the Daynes, and silver for House Stark; because she had no dresses in dour shades of grey. She had commissioned woollen ones, of course, but for now, that would have to do. Sansa allowed herself a moment to bemoan the loss of such fine garments, before a placid mask of indifference settled upon her lovely face.

She called for her handmaids, and let the girls pick whatever gowns they wished. Sansa giggled at their delighted faces, as the girls began to twitter in glee, and tussle over the nicest ones. Let them have their fun; they was little and less of it to be found in the capital of the Seven Kingdoms.

Silently, Sansa prayed that Winterfell would be as dull and boring as cruel Queen Cersei declared it was. A simple household, full of honourable people, oh what a joy that would be. Unlikely, but she let herself dream for one afternoon, and a more pleasant dream she could not imagine.

 

W I N T E R F E L L

L a d y   S t a r k ' s   S o l a r

 

Jon shifted nervously beneath her gaze, and Ashara resisted the urge to sigh and smack his fidgeting fingers.

“Sweetling,” she began, privately taking note that her son was really too old for such sweet words, though she was determined to never stop using them, “I have a dishonourable task for you.”

Jon blanched, horrified, before remembering that he had been tasked with such things before, and they had been thrilling in the end; teaching his sisters to wield a bow, for example, and taking Rickon to explore the First Keep. He sighed, his initial alarm clearly mollified by those memories.

Ashara chuckled, and wrapped her second son in her arms. A part of her had wanted to hate the babe her husband had returned from war with; a boy of her husband’s blood but not her own. Then she had taken one look at him, she who had been a handmaid to Princess Elia Martell, and seen at once who he was and why Ned was pretending to have fathered him.

“I have two boys,” she had declared, plucking the babe from Ned’s grip, “Twin boys, though their faces do not match exactly. Robb, your heir, and….”

“Jon,” Ned had croaked in disbelief.

“Jon, who you will settle a castle upon. Moat Cailin is the largest ruin is it not? Properly restored and outfitted, it could rival White Harbour in glory- the gateway to the North!”

Ned had stared at her uselessly, until she sighed, sympathetic to his grief, but frustrated nonetheless.

“I bounced Rhaegar’s children upon my knee, lord husband, I saw their little faces smile and cry and crinkle in confusion,” she had whispered, gratified to see his skin turn pale, “And I will not have questions and confusion follow this babe about because he has no mother. Your men and servants love you. They will keep your faith, if you ask it.”

Now, Ashara saw that same apprehension in Jon Stark’s grey eyes, as he awaited her instructions.

“A pretty little fledgeling is fluttering North to perch in our den, my darling,” she said softly, waiting for the light of understanding to filter into his dark grey eyes.

“Aye, Mother,” Jon nodded, “Father says she might be a bride for Robb?”

“I’d smother her in her sleep, before I let her sit beside your brother,” Ashara chuckled gutterally, only half jesting. “No, sweetling, she is to be your’s. Your’s or Cley Cerwyn’s or Domeric Bolton’s, I care not.”

“But not Robb’s,” Jon confirmed, clearly bemused; but he nodded nethertheless, used to placing his faith in the loving woman he believed to be his mother. Ashara warmly squeezed his calloused sword hand between both of her own.

“They tell me she is beautiful, like her Tully mother. A scion of two Great Houses; as are you. Let us hope it will be a wonderful match, hmm?”

Jon swallowed thickly, before squaring his shoulders decisively. “Yes, Mother.”


K I N G ' S   L A N D I N G

H a r b o u r

 

Myrcella sobbed when Sansa said goodbye at the Harbour. The Hand of the King’s children leaving the Capital was a grand event; there was great fanfare as they had ridden through the streets, Sansa confined to the litter with her lady mother and Bran. Robin rode astride his palfrey, flanked on all sides by their Vale guardsmen, as her eldest brother was a craven, and like to make a fuss at the slightest issue. At least this way it would be more difficult for the crowds of smallfolk to see him shame their House with his tantrums.

But thankfully, Robin had not made a scene today. Instead it was Mrycella who had clutched onto Sansa with clawed hands, ignoring her own horrid brother’s disgusted scoffs. Sansa had extricated herself gently, with false regret at their parting. Curtseying to the Queen had never been so satisfying before, as Sansa fought back the urge to smirk. Mrycella was sweet-natured; but the meanest sprinkle of sugar was not enough transform a mountain of sour lemons into wonderful cakes, and the court of King's Landing was drowning in bitter fruit.

If the gods are true and just, I will never set foot in this chamberpot of a city again, Sansa prayed.

Mother did not share her sentiments. She was happy to leave the Capital for a time, but she did not agree with Father’s choice of House for her daughter.

“The eldest and only daughter of House Arryn should be married into the Vale, or perhaps the Riverlands. Renly Baratheon is still unwed…” Mother sighed sadly as they settled into their cabins. “You are more suited to the sunny South, my sweet summer child. I fear the North will not to be your liking.”

Sansa smiled stiffly, aware that her mother was only thinking of her wellbeing. “Nothing is settled yet, Mother. Officially, we are only going to visit the Starks, and foster Robin.”

Privately, Sansa vowed she would do all in her power to never leave the North, if the Starks would consent to keep her. Joffrey had spoken more than once of the terrible things he would do to her, if she was his bride. The further she could get from that monster, the better. Some poor girl would suffer at his hand- but it would not be her, not if she had any say at all. Sansa would be forgotten quickly by court, in the distant and disinterested North, and that suited her just fine.

Sansa Stark, the Lady of Winterfell, had a fine ring to it. I will make them love me, she vowed again as the ship began to pitch in earnest, rolling over the waves to take her to her new home.

Chapter Text

 

W I N T E R F E L L

L a d y   S t a r k ' s   S o l a r

 

The boy was licentious and fickle, and on more than one occasion, Ashara had wanted to smack his foul mouth for the filth that casually spouted from it. But she had refrained, because she was a Dayne of Starfall, a Stark of Winterfell, and uncouth green boys did not warrant her ire.

Still, she could not deny she was furious.

“Recklessness, escalating stupidity, will not be tolerated in this household.” She stated firmly, “My lord husband and I have allowed you the freedoms, education and status your lineage deserves. But this behaviour- whoring and drinking to excess, it will not be allowed to continue. I cannot sanction your continued presence in this household amongst my children, if you refuse to be a good example for them, on how a lord should behave.”

Theon glared at her mulishly, no doubt cursing her in his mind. Amused, Ashara matched his black look with one of her own. The boy was being petulant and willful, and thought he was the only one who had ever suffered.

“Which is why I have found a bride for you.” She continued, and saw him stiffen in shock. “Not what you expected, my lord?”

Theon gaped at her. “My lady-”

Ashara held up a single hand, until his hanging mouth closed again.

“Sera Umber is the youngest daughter of the Greatjon. As you know, House Umber is one of the largest, most prestigious Houses in the North. But their ancestors have had more trouble with wildlings than Greyjoys. She comes with a sizeable dowry, and Ned and I have chosen a keep for you. She and her sister will be joining us shortly, as companions for Elia and Arya. You will court her, charm her, and wed her at the year’s end.”

Theon’s jaw clenched, and she allowed her gaze to soften, becoming motherly and sympathetic. She knew it was humiliating, to be ordered into a match without seeing the person in question.

“What Umbers lack in beauty, they make up for in strength.” She confided, in an effort to lessen the blow, “Only the toughest of their House have survived their close proximity to the Wall. Do you wish to return to Pyke someday with sickly heirs, or none at all?”

His eyes turned darker as he calculated his answer. “No, my lady.”

“I did not believe so.” Ashara replied.

Her eldest sons’ closest friend scuffed his boot against the floor, still uncertain, arms clasped tightly behind his back. Theon was brash and bold, until he was confronted by his behaviour. Then he was as sullen as Jon, when her boy was in one of his melancholy moods.

“You still have questions?”

He swallowed, eyes darting about her solar, before gathering his courage to look at her again.

“What of the boy?”

Ashara sighed heavily.

“Would you have me separate a babe from his mother? No. You will send a quarterly stipend to her for upkeep, gifts for his nameday and the like. Visit him when you will. When he reaches the age of five, we’ll foster him in Winterfell, train him as a guardsman. When he comes of age, you may send for him, or he will remain here and be pledged to House Stark. The choice is yours.”

He took the time to think over her offer; before frowning, deeply dissatisfied with something.

“I agree to your terms, my lady, but I have one request to make.” Theon petitioned her, his sea green eyes big and wistful. At moments such as these, Ashara could see why women were charmed by the lone kraken in the North.

She gracefully indicated with her hand for him to make his request.

“Bastards in the North are called Snow.” He swallowed thickly, “There must be a hundred Snowflakes fluttering about. But I’m Ironborn. My son should be called Pyke.”

Ashara pressed her lips together, startled by his insight. The babe would grow, and then be fostered in Winterfell; there would likely be rumours that the boy was Ned’s, despite her husband’s denials. Theon’s request would make all their lives easier.

“An excellent suggestion,” she declared, aware that a youth’s pride can only be knocked so far before they became beastly in the effort to reap some of it back.

Theon’s shoulders slumped in relief.

“Run along now, Theon,” she said firmly, “And remember all that I have said. A betrothal is not a marriage before the old or drowned or Seven gods. It can be snapped like kindling.”

“Aye, my lady,” he murmured, before bowing deeply, and skittering off.

Ashara had been worried for many years that just this circumstance would occur, with the way the boy revelled in his misery; drowning his sorrows in teats and wine. His friendship with her boys was not enough, to counter the coolness with which Northmen generally treated him. She had tried to instill some different values in Theon, while knowing as a Dayne and Dornishwoman, she knew little enough about the North herself.

Lady Stark had forged friendships and goodwill among the smallfolk, and not relied on her husband to defend the North solely in the manner to which he was accustomed. Being a stoic Northman, raised by an honourable Arryn, Ned's views on the gathering of useful information, and allies, was quite different from her own. Ned might not approve, but could not deny the results of her tactics. It had been her little darlings that relayed the news of a miller woman, known to have lain with Theon, who had been delivered of a second son. A woman whose husband had been rough with her, ever after. Ashara knew at once what must have occured. But she required confirmation before she could take prudent steps.

Naturally, she had ridden to the mill at Acorn Water, to see for herself. The miller's wife was almost of an age with her, comely and curvy. And the babe of three was undeniably not of her husband’s stock. On confrontation with the Lady of Winterfell, the frightened woman had broken down and confessed. Ashara knew immediately what she must do, and so she did it; reassuring the tearful woman her babe would be provided for, without removing him from her care until he was old enough. On her return to Winterfell, Ned was very displeased with his headstrong wife. He disliked her riding out, with only Jory and a handful of guardsmen to see to her safety. But ultimately, Ned left the matter in her hands, when she reminded him how she had taken Jon to her breast.

The dutiful, sensible boy Jon had grown to be was not entirely her work; but the North’s acceptance of him was. Ashara had been the one to silence those few who had termed him 'bastard' when Jon shared Robb’s cradle; feeding him from her own breast, and casting aside all attempts to alter her mind. Outside the North, not even her father knew that Jon had not been of her womb. She would not be responsible for the death of a babe, especially not the only child of Ned’s poor, misguided sister.

Arthur and Ned would have fought to the death at the Tower of Joy, had Ned been any other man. But the young Lord Stark was husband to the Sword of the Morning’s sister. Arthur had forsaken his vow to Rhaegar, and set his swords aside. Athur had prevented his Lord Commander, Ser Gerold Hightower from interfering, when Ned rushed to his dying sister's side. Rhaegar had decreed his Kingsguard must ensure Lyanna and the babe's safety, preventing any plot to snatch the child away or murder them. But Arthur had argued that Rhaegar’s new heir must be taken North, to be with his kin. Their Prince was dead, and so too was the prophecy Rheagar had stived to inaugurate.

For this choice, Gerold had damned Arthur for an oathbreaker. And both men had bled out from the terrible wounds they inflicted upon one another, in the hot sands of her homeland.

When Ned had told Ashara these terrible truths, she made a vow of her own; she would do anything in her power to ensure the choice her brother made was not in vain. Jon would have a good life. A castle worthy of his status, and a wife equal to his names: the secret one and the one proclaimed.

 

B L A C K W A T E R   B A Y

 

Sansa had been lucky to travel with her lord father to several distant castles as a child, when the Lord Hand went about the Crown’s business. But she had never been to Riverrun before, nor met Mother’s family who lived there. Once King’s Landing had begin to fade into the surf, she felt the fear she usually carried about her stomach begin to dissipate, and a smile spread across her lips. She was to be free of the Queen and her wretched son, at least for a time.

Hoster Tully, her grandfather, and her Uncle Edmure, would be waiting to greet them. Perhaps the Blackfish, Brynden Tully might also be there! Ser Brynden often fought in tourneys, and Sansa always cheered for him. He might be coarse and grumbly, but her great uncle had a good heart and was a true knight, who upheld his vows. He and her grandfather had bad blood between them, she knew, but that was not her concern. On the other face of the coin, Sansa was exceedingly glad Aunt Lysa was not accompanying them. Uncle Stannis had suggested she might wish to go, but her sour Aunt had refused, and had returned to Dragonstone instead.

Though Mother tried to hide it, Sansa knew she was relieved. Aunt Lysa was an irritable, erratic woman, prone to fits of paranoia that scared them all. She had lost several babes, and had only two left; Shireen and Steffon. Poor cousin Shireen had been afflicted with Greyscale, and though she had survived, she was confined to Dragonstone because court would not have her. And Steffon was a small, sickly boy, who frequently wet his breeches. It was a sad state of affairs for the Baratheons of Dragonstone, with a waspish mother and a joyless father.

Mother had hoped Stannis would let Steffon accompany them, and allow the boy to foster in Riverrun, but he was too young to really serve any household with pride, and Stannis had to decline on those grounds. So their household consisted of Vale men and distant relations, none of whom were of any note. All save Ethan Arryn, her distant cousin and an Arryn of Gulltown, who was half in love with her. Sansa could not help but adore him, despite his lack of decorum. Being of the uncouth cadet branch, that all Arryns of note were supposed to scorn, Sansa was not supposed to have affection for him. But Sansa knew that was foolish. The Rebellion had nearly wiped out their House. Her caring lady mother had dutifully provided her lord father the heirs the Eryie so desperately needed, but they were not in a position to push away relatives willingly.

Sansa cared not that they had a reputation for low cunning. As a girl, when Ethan and his brothers had travelled from Gulltown for trade, she had spied the falcon perched on a rock, so similar to her own sigil. She had immediately abandoned her Septa to scurry over and introduce herself.

Petyr and Symon Arryn were rouges, there could be little doubt, but they made her laugh, and weren’t too horrid to Robin. But Ethan, the youngest of the three, was her favourite. Much to her parent’s chagrin, Sansa had befriended him, and they kept up a correspondence. He taught her about boats and seafaring trade, and she taught him how to ingratiate himself at court. His brothers thought it tremendously amusing, but eventually Ethan had taken permanent residence in King’s Landing, having secured several trading commissions for the Crown for his family, due to her lessons.

Despite her friendship with her cousin, Sansa had been careful to keep her reputation unsullied. She was aware how quickly a highborn girl could be cast out of favour of the court. Though she had never relished being under Cersei’s scrutiny, as a highborn girl with unimpeachable conduct, Sansa afforded herself and her family some measure of protection. Not everyone at court was vile however. Ser Barristan Selmy for example, was easily her favourite of the Kingsguard, whom she saw frequently when he watched over Mrycella. There were a few others Sansa would also miss. But she was loath to leave Ethan behind, and so she had not.

When Father had first spoken to her of a possibility of matching her to the Starks, the first thing she had done was send a raven to her cousin, and beg him to attend upon her. Ethan had gladly petitioned Father to be her sworn shield. Father had protested, but had been swayed eventually. So at least Sansa had one man in her household that she trusted with her life.

Ethan supped with Bran and Robin, charming them with his tales of sea monsters he had felled on his travels to and from King’s Landing. Mother shook her head with fondness, charmed despite herself.

“Sansa, you have a terribly soft heart, adopting strays,” Catelyn Arryn chided, “See that it does not become a habit. Ethan is a good man, but you cannot expect every lowly waif to fall at your feet in adoration.”

“Yes, mother,” Sansa agreed, “I know it. I will be careful.”

Somehow, she did not think her mother was convinced.

 

W I N T E R F E L L

L a d y   S t a r k ' s   S o l a r

 

Ashara sat with her daughters in her solar, a tray of apple tarts and sweetmeats between them as she spoke to her girls.

“You are Starks of Winterfell and you carry the blood of the Daynes, and Old Valyria with it,” she said, “I expect you to conduct yourselves properly. But wolves do not shy away from confrontation, and stars do not allow any other to shine brighter in their presence, do you understand me?”

“Yes, lady mother,” her girls said at once.

After Robb was born, and Ned finally returned to her, Ashara had lost two babes; one bled on her sheets, and another was born without life. She had despaired of having another, but Elia had come to her, a balm for all her pain, much as her counterpart had been. She had soothed the ache in Ashara’s heart, though her lost babes would never be forgotten, the sting was eased by Elia, with her long, mouse brown curls and haunting purple eyes. Aside from her eyes, she was all Stark, and Arya even more so. Ashara could not be prouder of her girls; though they squabbled like cats, they were also very close. Dainty and beautiful, but fierce and fearless. More courageous than she had been, at their age. Ashara wished she had the chance to be close with her own sister, but alas Allyria was too far removed in age for them to be close, though they exchanged letters.

Elia was excellent with the spear, which was an unusual choice of weapon for a Northwoman, whereas Arya was more invested in her sword. Both girls loved the bow, however, and were very competitive. Between the two of them and Theon, someone was always being loudly challenged to some feat of arms, every other day it seemed. Elia had been fascinated by Ashara’s stories of Dornishmen, and Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper. She had begged and begged for a spear, and eventually Ashara had sent Hallis Mollen to the Neck, to find a crannogwoman to teach her girls. Arya was not as enthusiastic as her sister - she insisted on swordplay with her brothers - but she too had a grasp of the basics.

So Ashara well knew how her next words would pain her daughters.

“You are not fools, girls. You know I have invited several young ladies from across the North to attend upon you. Do not let my next words leave this room.”

Elia looked wary, whereas Arya seemed determined, nodding her head stoically, always so strong.

“Those girls are not your friends. They are not your allies. They are tools, and tools can cut and rend and tear, just as they can mend and assist. Used properly, a tool can rescue you from despair, can help you build and aid you in your darkest hour. In the wrong hands, a tool can be deadlier than the worst plague.”

Elia swallowed thickly, but Arya frowned deeply, confused.

“They will have been sent here with agendas that are not their own. Their parents, brothers and Houses want different things from us, things we will have to try and find out, without simply asking, for they will be offended if we accuse them of being false. You will need to set aside much of your arms training, to befriend these girls and learn the content of the characters."

Arya nodded then, understanding better with the clarification. “What do they want? To steal from us?”

“In a sense, sweetling,” Ashara agreed, “They may want to alter the laws governing trade and taxation in their region, or to better their Houses in other ways. But they are women. So what are they more likely to want?”

“To marry our brothers.” Elia said immediately, to which Arya gagged, mockingly.

Ashara did not suppress a giggle at her youngest daughter’s obvious disgust. Many girls were the same at her young age, not knowing what all the fuss was about.

“Thankfully, they are in luck.” Ashara laughed, “Your brother Robb is in need of a Northern bride, and so now I freely admit what I want from you, is to watch these girls. They are the daughters of noble Houses. They deserve to be treated with respect. But they are not to be trusted, simply for that. Any one of these girls might one day rule the North at your brother’s side.”

“And she needs to be worthy,” Elia finished, understanding completely.

“How will we know which girl is best?” Arya demanded.

“It is not about the best girl in our eyes,” Ashara shook her head, her long black tresses bouncing regally, “Robb will have the ultimate decision. But we must ensure that if any are entirely unsuitable, for any reason, that your brother does not make a grave mistake.”

“So, if they are wanton harlots, or treacherous vixens, then we should threaten to expose them, to prevent them from using Robb's affection to sully our House.” Elia finished, more bluntly than Ashara might have termed it, but she nodded nethertheless.

“You are my girls; I trust your judgement in this before any other. I know you will use your eyes and ears to discover the truth.”

Her girls nodded seriously, and Ashara spared a few more minutes to let the gravity of their task take hold, before she pushed the tray of sweet treats before them, and smiled fondly, the way only a mother could.

 

B A Y  O F  C R A B S

 

“Reckon you’re going to be happy, with this Northern dolt?” Ethan asked, as they stood at the bow, watching the dark waves ripple underneath the cloudless, star scattered sky.

“Shhh,” Sansa hissed, sending her cousin a glare, “We are not free of the Crown’s influence just yet. I don’t want anyone to have cause to return me to King’s Landing, mistakenly believing I am not pleased with this match.”

Ethan rolled his warm brown eyes skyward. He had fair brown hair, a nose that was crooked from being broken too many times, and a silly moustache that Sansa teased him about whenever she felt the need to laugh. He was several years her senior, a man grown, and at times he treated her like a silly little girl, which irked her to no end.

“He best keep his hands to himself,” Ethan muttered, and Sansa was reminded why she cared for him.

“I do not fear the Stark boy; not when I know you will be looking over me,” Sansa replied, pleased when she saw how he straightened in stance, determined to live up to her faith in him. Men’s pride was an easy thing to manipulate.

“Mayhaps I ought to look for a wife of my own, when you’re wed.” He said, staring out at the wine-dark sea.

Sansa reached out one soft hand to squeeze his wrist. “I think that sounds like a splendid idea.”

If circumstances were different, Ethan would have been a good match. But they were not different. Sansa was the daughter of a Great House, and she knew her duty. She would not have it said that the only daughter of Lord Jon Arryn, Hand of the King, was a girl without honour.

Chapter Text

  

 

 

W I N T E R F E L L

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.

 

 

 

W I N T E R F E L L

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.

 

 

 

W I N T E R F E L L

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.

 

 

W I N T E R F E L L

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.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 B A Y   O F   C R A B S

Far above their heads, gliding through the unbroken azure sky in the Crow’s Nest, the ship’s watch called out that Maidenpool was in sight. Sansa’s heart leapt with nervous excitement, and she hurried to the front of the ship to get a closer look. It took great effort not to squeeze her fingers together too tightly, nor tap them absently on the thick, sturdy wood of the ship. Ethan and Bran were hot on her heels, and they stood crowded together, peering to catch sight of a speck of salmon pink. The ship had made excellent time. They had been skirting close to the craggy shoreline of the Bay of Crabs for hours, all throughout the night. The mid morn weather was pleasant and bright; a crisp, early autumn day.

“How can we be so close already?” Bran moaned, dreadfully disappointed that their tenure aboard The Whispering Maiden was coming to a close.

Though Sansa had been on a ship before, Bran had not, and he had relished the opportunity. In truth, both of her brothers had enjoyed the journey immensely; a rare instance of shared passion. The gruff crewmen had entertained them both. They were full of embellished tales of their adventures: clashing with pirates when crossing the Narrow Sea, and trading with the squat hairy men of Ib. The sailors whispered of krakens and merlings, and the colourful ports of distant shores. One man swore the sirens of the Three Sisters could entice a man to shatter their ship upon the rocks with their unnatural songs alone. Mother had been most displeased at that.

Lady Catelyn Arryn immediately despised anyone who spoke badly of the Riverlands or the Vale of Arryn. She considered it a personal slight on her heritage, regardless of the intention or reasoning behind their words. Sansa herself did not approve of thoughtless speech. But privately, she often thought her mother’s reaction to unsavoury behaviour was superfluous. Why should an Arryn defend the Sistermen? The Three Sisters islands were the bastards of the Vale, and it was widely known that any Sisterman would sooner slit the throat of their liege lords, than offer them guest right. They had not earned fealty from the their family. Though her lady mother was gracious, Lady Arryn had moments of irrational bitterness.

“The winds were favourable, little lord. He Who Dwells Beneath the Waves and his Chil'en was watchin' over us,” beamed one of the sailors, as he coiled up a rope a few feet from them. He was a bronzed-skinned man, with a lilting accent that betrayed his Essosi origins.

Intrigued at his words, Bran frowned, looking up to Sansa for guidance. But she knew little about gods, outside of the Seven and the Old gods of the Forest. Septa Mordane had guided her on the Seven, naturally, and reluctantly described the old gods. In preparation for going North, Sansa had done her best to read further on the ancient religion of the First Men. But she had not thought to widen that research. Bran’s big brown eyes begged her to ask, so she straightened her spine and did so.

“Is that a sea god of whom you speak, ser?” she enquired politely.

He was no knight, but Sansa always remembered her courtesies.

The old sailor grinned back at her indulgently. His mouth was missing almost half his teeth, and his stubbled chin held more hair than his head. But his eyes were clear and bright, and he did not leer at her. She had caught lust in the eyes of some of the men at court.

Behind her, Ethan snorted, at the man’s low birth or Sansa’s lack of knowledge, she did not know. But she stomped on his toes to express her displeasure, nethertheless. Ignoring his grunt of pain, Sansa nodded encouragingly at the greybeard.

“The only gods a sailor needs live in’t waves beneath ‘is feet, rollin’ in saltwater and bubbles ‘pon the surface, my lord,” the sailor began, “He Who Dwells Beneath the Waves has many Chil'ren; you know the Merling King, yes? Who has the head and chest of a man, an’ tail of a fish? Tha’s’is eldest son. E'es many sons, yes, yes- and girls too, none more beautiful than the Moon-Pale Maiden-”

Suddenly, Sansa found herself swept aside. Ethan charged in front of her, his hand on the pommel of his sword, his other arm braced protectively over her and Bran.

“Speak true, you vile cur! You talk of the Drowned God of the Ironborn,” he spat, voice thick with disgust, “The god of cutthroats and rapers.”

Bran let out a squeak of fear, clutching onto Sansa’s skirts. She felt her mouth fall open, appalled that Ethan would voice such thoughts aloud. Did the ignorant man not know that Ned Stark had an Ironborn for a ward? They were so close to their first destination, and yet Ethan chose this course of action? Sansa was mortified as the elderly sailor dropped his carefully coiled rope in fright.

But before any more rash actions could be taken, Mother appeared on the deck, Robin close by.

Robin relished any chance to see bloodshed. He hooted and hollered whenever a knight fell in the melee, or was injured in the lists. His sharp little face lit up in glee at the tense scene, face swivelling between Ethan clutching the hilt of his sword, and the bristling sailor, whose companions had all tensed, glaring at the young highborn challenging one of their own. 

“What is the meaning of this?” Mother demanded, “What has this creature done?”

She strode  forward, the train of her dark blue travelling dress dragging across the wooden floor of the ship; it was too long, Sansa thought, suddenly fixated. It would get muddied when they rode from Riverrun to the Neck. Mother would need to pin it at the hem, and she should have done so already. Why had she not done so?

“This pirate-” Ethan snarled, but Sansa gathered her wits before any more damage could be done. Pushing his muscled arm forward with both hands, she freed herself from his well-meaning grip.

“Mother, this is a misunderstanding,” she said firmly, “This sailor was merely explaining to Bran how his gods have ensured our swift passage, from King’s Landing to Maidenpool.”

Mother glared at the grizzled deckhand, before turning her steely eye upon Ethan.

“And you took umbrage with this man’s gods?” Her tone was stern, but Sansa did not know whether her lady mother was praising Ethan’s choice to defend the Faith, or reprimanding him.

Mother was generally not very tolerant of other gods, but she also detested brash action.

Ironborn gods, my lady,” Ethan clarified, relishing the sharp change in Mother when began to scrutinise the elderly sailor, whose only crime had been to try and charm Bran with a sweet tale.

Silently, Sansa fumed at her sworn shield. The old man was apologising profusely, and Mother clearly did not see the threat that Ethan did. She held up her hand for silence, rigid and controlled, every inch a lady.

“In future, I suggest you have a care how you speak, ser,” Mother said firmly, before beckoning her children close.

Lady Arryn spoke with the imperious confidence of a highborn lady, who had been deferred to all her life. It worked now as it always had; Bran wriggled out first, scampering to Mother’s side immediately, whilst Robin pouted, disappointed at the lack of fighting. But Sansa did not move, still dissatisfied.

“We shall have no more said about it;” Mother reiterated, her tongue sharpening, “Come along, Sansa, we must gather our belongings.”

Sansa had no choice but to obey.

She followed her lady mother and the children, as they all traipsed below deck. Robin moaning all the while that Ethan should have duelled the man. Sansa hoped that their mother would take the opportunity to remind Robin that a castle-trained swordsman should never pick fights with the smallfolk, for their advantage was too great. But Mother only bid them to pack up their belongings, and refused to hear a word more, when Sansa opened her mouth in protest.

 

M A I D E N P O O L

 

The pretty pink walls of Maidenpool, streaked with clear quartz burning in the sun, were as lovely as Mother had described. The Harbour was bustling with Rivermen going about their business. Townsfolk were buying bushels of vegetables, clams and whelks. Fisherfolk in roughly-hewn tunics deposited their wares on land, whilst greedy gulls circled above, hoping to snatch a morsel. Rich merchants oversaw the transfer of their cargo, clad in exotic fur-lined silks. Bronzed, seasoned sailors were joyfully reuniting with their families, returning home from Dorne or the Crownlands or perhaps even Essos. Sansa took in the sight of an unfamiliar harbour with giddy delight, barely able to believe she was rid of the pervasive filth of King’s Landing at long last.

The Mooton standard was not difficult to spy; a bright red salmon on a white field, fluttering wildly in the breeze. The tressure surrounding the salmon should have been gold, Sansa knew, but instead it was stitched in yellow, a far cheaper alternative. Cersei Lannister would have thrown a fit if anything baring the golden lion of her House was not appropriately adorned. But House Mooton were far from the wealth of the ruling House of the West. Despite their ownership of a small port, Sansa knew House Mooton was not at all a grand one. Lord William Mooton had backed the Targaryen claim to the throne during the war, against their leige lord, her grandsire, Hoster Tully. As a consequence, House Mooton had been stripped of their wealth and influence. Father never granted them the Crown’s commissions.

Lady Arryn had always been strict about her children learning their history. Since arranging for their son and heir to be fostered in Winterfell, her parents had tailored Sansa’s lessons with gusto. Despite Father’s written words to Lord Stark, the purpose of the trip North was not merely to continue the bonds of friendship between Houses Arryn and Stark through fostering Robin. Father sought to place his eldest daughter in the seat of the North, because he loved Ned Stark as a son, and trusted him. Father had made sure Sansa knew pertinant facts about the Houses along the road.

House Mooton welcomed them with much deference, the skitterish old lord bowing deeply, his two daughters smiling nervously by his side. They were terrified, Sansa noticed with mouting horror. Naturally, they would be nervous to host their leige lord's daughter, yet it clearly went beyond embarassment at their minimal means. The war had ended over a decade ago, and yet their fear continued to run deep. For the first time, the stories of Robert's Rebellion seemed real and tangible. Sansa noted that Mother led them in taking bread and salt with strict adherence to rigid ceremony.

They were set to remain in Maidenpool for only a few nights, before they continued on to Harrenhal; but they could not leave until they were joined by two ladies-in-waiting for Sansa. Girls sent from the Vale, to be her allies in the North. There were no highborn girls in the court of King's Landing that she wished to invite, but Father had written to Bronze Yohn Royce, and Lord Corwyn Breakstone. Soon, she would be joined by Ysilla Royce and Perra Breakstone. Sansa could only pray they would be kind and helpful girls, who would not try to steal her unofficial betrothed.

Only Ethan noticed her wan smile as they settled into their temporary quarters; Bran was too excited about exploring a new keep to notice how frazzled Sansa had become, now that the excitement had worn off. She could not hold Bran's continued enjoyment against him, however. She was too accustomed to watching over him.

Sansa had even alighted the ship while holding onto Bran’s clammy hand. As a boy of seven, Bran should have been tucked safely close to Mother’s skirts. Not being led by his sister who was not yet of age. Bran was Mother’s youngest son, after all. But Robin was always a jealous boy, and he would not willingly relinquish his grasp on Mother’s attention. Sansa suspected that was part of why Father had chosen to foster Robin so far away: to prevent Mother the temptation of snatching him back at the slightest provocation.

As the future Lord of the Eyrie, Robin could just as easily have been sent to Ironoaks or Runestone, to learn what Vale men expected from their liege lord. Or he might have been placed in Riverrun with his Tully kin, to better learn why family, duty and honour were so essential. Mother had pushed for all of these options, above the Warden of the North. But her requests had been denied at every turn, and Sansa was still burning with curiosity over it.

Sansa only knew this, for she had heard her parents arguing furiously over Father’s choices, frequently. Sansa had not actually seen her lady mother press her lips closed so firmly they curdled bloodless white, as her lord had denied each of her suggestions. She had not seen her lord father’s wrinked, aged hands attempt to curl into painful fists, as he leaned heavily on his imposing ebony desk. Because Sansa was never in attendance, when Lord and Lady Arryn exchanged harsh words. Sansa had been able to hear each terse word clearly, nethertheless. Because Sansa knew exactly where to stand, to hear it all.

Most people did not know that the Tower of the Hand had multitudes of hidden nooks and passages. Most were installed under paranoid Targaryen rule, but they had been used to the advantage of countless others. And Sansa had discovered most of them, having lived in the Tower all her life. Sansa had never seen fit to share that knowledge with anyone, save for sweet Bran. There was no one else she trusted enough, not even Ethan.

Father would have done something foolish if she were to tell him, like alert King Robert or block up the passages. Mother would tell Sansa to put it out of her mind, believing such matters were beneath a young lady, and make her promise never to use them. And despite their acrimonious moments, Mother would also tell Father. But even as a young girl Sansa knew that their lives might one day rely on those secret tunnels, and so she said nothing, to either of them.

Bran, who loved to climb and run about, challenging monsters to duels, and wanted nothing more than to be a chivalrous knight of the Vale, perhaps even the Kingsguard, was the only one Sansa knew would never betray her secrets. Cousin Ethan she trusted with her life, and much of her confidence, but not all. Like all young men, he thought he knew best. He could not be trusted to always consider what Sansa herself wanted, before acting.

When Sansa was young, she enjoyed read books of poetry and history. Even better was to have them read to her, in Mother’s soft, warm voice. When she slept, she dreamed of a fair knight that might vanquish all manner of beasts; snarks and grumpkins, tigers and lions, then offer his hand to her. Together they would gallop away on the King’s Road: North, South or West; but never East. For reasons she knew not, they never rode to the shining castle of her forebears. But as she grew, Sansa began to question the truth of those pretty songs, of fair maidens and strong, gallant knights.

She began to wonder how a bitter, bloody war could have become immortalised in the words of men as a Dance of Dragons. She met many young Sers at court and tourneys, and from them she learnt that many knights were lying cheats, and cruel more oft than not. How men would do anything for coin or position or to bed the woman they desired. Sansa began to understand she could not rely on a man, any man, to save her.

Each new morn when Sansa woke, in her lavish room in a beautiful tower, she gradually began to see what no one saw fit to tell her: that no matter how a cage gleams in the light of the sun, a gaol is still a gaol. And in King’s Landing, there was no freedom from the rude, vainglorious, liars. Men and women at court were treacherous; be they servants, foreigners, Westerosi nobles, or lords and ladies from the Greatest Houses - all the way up to King Robert, First of his Name, and his cruel son, Prince Joffrey of Houses Lannister and Baratheon.

Not a one of them, could Sansa place her trust in. When she travelled with the court to Greenstone and Estermont, Sansa began to understand her scope had not been wide enough. House Lannister’s golden-headed sons dominated the Red Keep, but their influence was felt all across the South. Nowhere was safe from the influence of the cold-hearted Queen Cersei, or the drunkard lecher King. She began to despair that she would spend her life surrounded by wicked, sinful creatures, or worse, become one herself. How could she ever hope to ascend to the Seven Heavens, if she turned a blind eye to misdeeds? But each time she spoke of such things with her parents, they implored her to be quiet, to stop being silly, to remember she was an Arryn of the Vale, that maintaining her own personal Honour was enough.

Before Bran was born, Sansa had spent her girlhood with few friends to comfort her, and parents who were oft busy with their vital work on behalf of the Crown. The highborn girls of court could not be trusted to keep her faith, and nor could the handmaidens that her parents picked out for her. And so a girl who could not trust her companions, became a girl who learnt to entertain herself.

Sansa knew which passages could lead her safely out of the Red Keep: and which ended in ruins. She and Bran had explored them all. She knew which parts of the walls could be moved, so that secrets could be overheard, and which portraits of Hands long dead hand tiny panels hidden behind them, which curious eyes could look through. In this way, she had learnt Father’s plans for her, before he had seen fit to actually tell her. She could prepare her responses, and gave nothing of her inner nerves or excitement away, when he suggested Robb Stark as a match.

Sansa had already known she would never marry for love. She was always prepared to do her duty, and marry for the security and betterment of House Arryn. Mother had at first favoured Ser Roland Waynwood for her. He was an anointed knight and the son of Ser Morton, who was the heir to House Waynwood of Ironoaks. House Waynwood were their sworn bannermen, wealthy and well-bred. Sansa knew she would never want for anything, as Lady Waynwood.

Ser Roland was undeniably handsome, tall and strong. Sansa had seen him from afar at tourneys; he was skilled with the lance, but no match for the bigger brutes like the Mountain that Rides. But what dissuaded Sansa from thinking him a good match, was Ser Roland’s pomposity; his insistence on ceremony, and long, officious introductions. Such men flaunted their wealth and good fortune sinfully, and the Seven would not approve of his vanity. Mother bid her to dance with him, and his arrogance shone through clearly to Sansa. A man like Ser Roland would likely waste time and money on frivolous belongings and ceremonies. Should he ever go to war, he would fight with honour and grace, and likely die very quickly, when someone more clever stabbed him in the back. Sansa craved, more than anything else, a stable home. She did not want a fool, but nor did she want a vicious idiot, like Prince Joffrey.

Thankfully, her lord father thought the match wasteful; House Waynwood were already loyal and would stand behind House Arryn. And he said Sansa was beautiful enough to make a match with another Great House, which Mother agreed with wholeheartedly.

Free to consider grander options, Mother thought Sansa would do well as Lady Baratheon of Storm’s End. A beautiful young lady for a handsome lord, and a brother of the King, no less! Renly was well loved by court; a generous, kindly man who doted on his friends and was always courteous. Sansa was not opposed to that match, though she did not quite like the way he smirked at her. Something about his affectionate airs was exceedingly false. Still, a betrothal between them would have flaunted the friendship between Houses Baratheon and Arryn... But Father had been furious with Mother, at the suggestion they might wed their only daughter to a deviant. Sansa did not know what that word meant at first, but as she listened to her parents argue, she quickly gathered that Lord Renly would not be capable of siring an heir upon her. And if he could not father heirs, Father said, what was the point of wasting their precious daughter on him? Mother had no argument for that, and so she had relented.

Weeks passed, and Sansa noticed that Septa Mordane had begun to speak more frequently of the Reach. She drilled Sansa on her knowledge of the noble Houses and their contributions to the Kingdom, their sigils and how they came about, and asked her if she should like to see Highgarden someday. Sansa nodded demurely and answered her questions without enthusiasm, and waited to see which man her parents would argue over.

Father was not as opposed to Ser Willas Tyrell as he was to Ser Roland or Lord Baratheon. Ser Willas was the heir to a Great House with a wonderful castle, and an over-abundance of wealth. Sansa knew he was a cripple, with a lame leg due to an accident at a tourney, but Ser Willas was also reknowned for being erudite, and breeding the finest hawks and horseflesh in the Seven Kingdoms. Such a man would surely be interesting to converse with, and the ladies of court who had met him said he was kind. A small seed of hope grew in Sansa’s breast. For a short time, she began to wonder if even Father could not disapprove of that match.

But House Tyrell were not influential at court. She knew it due to their allegiance with the Mad King over King Robert. Once Sansa knew her parents were considering Lord Willas seriously, she spent a long afternoon in the Great Library, reading through different accounts of their involvement during Robert’s Rebellion. She wondered if the son of a man who had spent months feasting, whilst Uncle Stannis and Lord Baratheon and all their men almost starved to death, emerging from Storm’s End as ‘living skeletons’, could be anything other than a monster. Chilled to the bone, Sansa had pushed the book away from her in disgust.

And the next time Septa Mordane asked her opinion, Sansa gave it... unabridged.

 

W I N T E R F E L L

C o u r t y a r d

 

“Jyana!” Ashara cried out, not in the least interested in moderating her voice, or keeping up the pretence of ceremony, when the little crannogwoman hopped down from the back of a pony. She enveloped the smaller woman in her arms, and Jyana returned the embrace; they clung together as sisters might.

The Lady of Greywater Watch was not just the wife of one of her husband’s bannermen, she was Ashara’s close, personal friend. When the first stirrings of war had erupted across the land like an outbreak of greyscale, Ned and Ashara had not long been wed. Terrified for her safety, Ned had sent her to Winterfell, knowing that Starfall was no longer an option. Her father was pledged to House Martell, who were married into the Crown; Ashara could not demand he divide his loyalties, and Ned did not ask her to attempt it.

Along the way to Ned’s distant home, an intriguing, gigantic keep that Ashara had only seen in her mind’s eye, she realised she was with child. Travelling so far was no longer possible. But Ashara knew and trusted Lord Howland, who was fighting alongside Ned on the battlefield. She knew how fiercely loyal the Reeds were to House Stark. As the wife of their new liege lord, Ashara used her authority over the men Ned had sent along with her, to alter their course. Their task had been to see her safely to Winterfell, and they were reluctant to go against Ned’s orders. Especially to remain in the treacherous Neck, which only the crannogmen knew how to navigate. But when she revealed the pregnancy, they had reluctantly agreed that Greywater Watch was their only option. They had not ventured too close to the murky marshlands, before they were approached by the lithe, curious crannogmen, armed with their tridents and spears.

Before Ashara had a chance to even introduce herself, her faith in House Reed was vindicated. The supposedly hostile and crude crannogmen immediately bowed to her. From this motley group, a tiny woman stepped forward, and introduced herself as Jyana Greengood, Lord Howland’s intended. She presented Ashara and her company with three long, tapered row boats, and offered them passage to Greywater. With no rigmarole, Jyana calmly led the way to Ashara’s sanctuary.

During the tumultuous moons which followed, dark wings carried word of the bloody battles and torment raging across Westeros. But there were no ravens in Greywater Watch; and the floating keep constantly shifted course, so no that no one could find them. All the while, Ned’s precious babe swelled beneath Ashara’s breast. Prior her arrival in the Neck, Ashara had never met, nor heard of the Lady Jyana. But in that terrible time, when Ashara had so desperately needed a friend, Jyana Greengood had welcomed her with open arms. She had soothed Ashara’s worries with soft words of comfort, and pushed her away from despair, with hard words of truth. Throughout those darkest of days, the diminutive crannogwoman had kept Ashara sane, and her unborn babe safe.

It was not long before Ashara came to see Greywater as the most wonderful keep in the Seven Kingdoms. What could be more magical than a floating stronghold, that none save crannogmen could find? What more loyal bannermen could there be, anywhere? Other Northmen might look down upon the ‘frog-eating bog-dwellers’ of the Neck, but Ashara knew better. They kept her and little Robb safe until Ned could return to them. They said not one word in disapproval when Ashara accepted Jon as her own. Any man who desparaged the crannogmen, was no friend of her’s. And Ashara was not afraid to show her preference.

“Oh, systir,” Jyana beamed, when the two women eventually broke their embrace. “How lovely you look. You have always shone as bright as the eye of Issdreki on a cloudless night. Fitting for the Hvítr Stjarna of Dorne, and yet…?”

The elder woman broke off with an indulgent, knowing grin. “A mǫgr?”

“Hush!” Ashara admonished, though very few Northmen spoke the Old Tongue anymore, with a quiet giggle. “Can a woman not keep her secrets?”

Jyana blinked, “But you are pleased, Ashara. I feel the happiness pouring from you in waves.”

She had obediently lowered her voice.

Ashara had learnt a little of the Old Tongue from her time in the Neck, but even Ned, who took pains to visit his bannermen and value their contributions to the North, did not know much of it. Their children knew more than the two of them combined: Uttara, who tutored the girls in the art of spear-fighting, spoke only rudamentary Common Tongue, and so they had little choice. The boys had soon grown sick of their sisters excluding them, and demanded explainations.

Jon in particular insisted on being instructed, since he would one day reside in the Neck as a lord. He needs must communicate efficiently with his people. (Theon and Robb had just wanted to be vulgar without being chasitised for it, and had moaned endlessly, when they were confined indoors for an extra four hours per sennight.)

But the courtyard was filled to the brim with curious men, eyeing the diminutive crannogmen untying their packs. And Ashara never revealed any a single thing without weighing its consequence first. Thankfully, Ned was distrated by the Greatjon, who was loudly jesting with Harrion Karstark. The two smaller men wobbled and frowned each time the boistrous Lord of Last Hearth elbowed them or clapped them on back.

“Of course,” Ashara reassured her friend, “But we can speak of it later.”

They linked arms, as a girl about a year Robb’s junior approached. She was dressed like her mother, in roughly-hewn furs and leathers, with a quiver of arrows on her back and a bow slung across her shoulders. Ashara had met Jyana’s daughter when the family travelled to see Moat Cailin; a small, pinched-faced girl, with green, feline eyes and a teasing smile. She bowed as Ned joined them, placing his large hand gently on Ashara’s back.

“Thank you for this opportunity, Lord and Lady Stark,” Meera spoke confidently, her voice unwavering. She knelt in the muddy earth, and lifted the bow from over her shoulders, placing it on the ground with care. Ashara could not help the surprised grin that graced her lips, nor the way her brows sprung high. Meera calmly proceeded to take a dagger from the folds of her clothing, and lay it beside her bow.

“Nothing would be a greater honour, than to serve House Stark, and protect your children from any that might seek to harm them. I swear to serve you loyally, until my dying breath. I swear it by earth and water.” Meera’s words were solemn; something ancient, that chilled Ashara to the bone. An icy breath raised the hairs on the back of her neck, as she fought to remain stoic.

“I swear it by bronze and iron; I swear it by ice and fire,” Meera finished, her moss green eyes burrowing into Ned, before flickering to Ashara then back again.

The girl was deathly serious. Out of the corner of her eye, Ashara saw Ned was watching her, waiting for her opinion. Jyana dug her nails into Ashara’s arm, clinging like the lizard-lion of her sigil, and Ashara knew the die was cast. She nodded, stiff and sharp, ignoring the spluttering of Harrion Karstark as Ned accepted Meera’s oath, before holding out a hand to help the girl to her feet.

When she had invited Meera to be a companion to Arya and Elia, this is not what she had expected. But Ashara realised she should have anticipated that crannogmen and women would not conform to her plans. She could not be mad at them for it. Her daughters could do far worse than a female protector. Uttara had unfortunately already made it clear she would return to the Neck, when she was satisfied with the girls' progress. Though Meera Reed was only young, the girl was clearly determined. Ashara saw no reason why a feal bannerman's daughter could not be useful.

As Jyana had so excitedly mentioned, she was indeed with child. Ned and the children did not yet know about the new babe. It was too early to even ask Maester Luwin to confirm it, though it seemed Jyana could tell. And another woman trained in arms was reassuring. For whatever reason, Jon Arryn was agitated enough to send all three of his children North; something had made the old lecher nervous. But Ashara pasted on a smile, and pretended all was well. In the privacy of her solar, she would share her fears, and her joy with Jyana.

Ashara did not wish to detract from Theon's courtship of Sera, which was going well, by sharing her news. The girl had quickly dropped all pretense of being a well-mannered lady, demanding they go for long rides together in the wolfswood. Ned and the Greatjon granted them permission, so long as they were accompanied by chaperones; though by all accounts, those unlucky guards were often left behind in a cloud of dust. Sera wanted tours of Wintertown, for Theon to teach her to shoot arrows (though she was suspiciously proficient for an untrained archer) and to dance with her every eve, whether or not there was music playing.

The contrast with Arrana Umber was most comical; she was a quiet, studious girl, who had asked Ashara to teach her to weave, and spent a vast amount of time in the Maester's tower, reading. If she had been raised in the Light of the Seven, Ashara would have suspected the girl was intending to become a Septa. But since that option was barred to her, Ashara prayed the girl would find a gentle husband. She had briefly considered pushing Arrana toward Benjen, but upon further reflection, decided Benjen was too gruff, and would scare her out of her wits.

Alys Karkstark and Lyra Mormont seemed promising. The latter had arrived with her mother and eldest sister, who was too old for Robb and her mother's heir besides. But Lyra had challenged Robb to a duel minutes after meeting him, and after accepting, Alys had cheered for her, causing Robb to strive to impress them both.

It would not be long before the Arryn girl arrived. But the timely blessing of the Targaryen girl's wedding would delay her. They had enough time. Now that Meera was here, the board was finally set.

Chapter Text

 

R I V E R R U N

 

The Targaryen girl was not as foretold. By the way vicious rumours circulated about her, Sansa had at least expected some shaking sickness, or deformed limbs. But though she was short in stature, the girl was no cripple. She had a sweet smile and the legendary long silver-white hair and purple eyes of her House. Pretty indeed, though perhaps a little simple-minded. But to her credit, she certainly responded well to Sansa’s courtesies. They exchanged pleasantries and sat together at the Arryn’s introductory feast at Riverrun, the seat of power in the Riverlands. But the Targaryen girl could never be Sansa’s true friend, for all that they were about to become kin.

Sansa had listened to her parents speak many a time of King Robert’s reluctance to let Lady Daenerys live. She knew that no friend of Daenerys would ever be able to garner favour from House Baratheon. Though Sansa herself might find a sanctuary in Winterfell, her parents still had to reside in King’s Landing, so long as her lord father was Hand of the King. And the Hand of the King’s daughter could never be seen to shelter or befriend the enemy. In this, Sansa knew her duty well; she simpered and smiled, and said nothing of importance. She danced with Uncle Edmure and his friends, whilst Ethan glowered at any man that attempted to be over-familiar. Though she thought him bull-headed, Sansa felt much safer with him at her back, keeping the unwed Riverlords sons a decent distance away.

Lady Daenerys had been rescued as a babe by Sansa’s brave cousin, Ser Oswell. Formerly of the Mad King’s Kingsguard, now stripped of his position and returned to House Whent. After the death of his fellow Kingsguard in the war (save for Ser Jaime and Ser Barristan), King Robert had bid him to go to Dragonstone with Uncle Stannis. To bargain with Mad King’s Queen, on behalf of the new King, to prove his loyalty to the Crown. Or so the story went.

But Queen Rhaella had died in childbed, bringing Lady Daenerys into the world. Ser Oswell and Uncle Stannis had no choice but to return to King’s Landing with the two young Targaryens, the last of their House, and no former Queen for King Robert to shame.

Sansa had heard awful whispers of the fate of Prince Rhaegar’s wife and children, so she had not been too shocked when word came to her lord father that the former Prince Viserys had died of a ‘fever’. He had been shipped to Oldtown to take up the duties of an acolyte before she was born, but died before he could forge his maester’s chain. Sansa could remember being horrified to overhear that her lord father thought Viserys’ death was ‘probably for the best’ because ‘keeping him from being ensnared in the briars was proving an irritant’.

As she grew and became more aware of the darkness of the known world, Sansa questioned the King’s decision to let the last Targaryens live, even brought low as they had been. Why had he done so? What did he gain from keeping them? King Robert was not a merciful man, she had learnt, watching him laugh at bloodsport and hearing her lord father lament the duties the King forced him to proceed with, when the King remembered that he was not merely supposed to drink and grasp at women. The histories found in the Great Library claimed King Robert was merciful and kind for allowing the last Targaryens to live, cursed by their foul blood though they were. Sansa took it to mean that King Robert had been persuaded that he could not rely on the goodwill of House Tyrell and the Dornish, if he were to execute the two remaining scions of the Dragon Conqueror. But it was all settled long before Sansa’s birth; all that remained were her Father’s weary whispers.

Viserys had died from a 'fever', but the babe Daenerys had lived and thrived in the Riverlands. She was older than Sansa, but almost seemed younger, sweet and sheltered as she had been. Lady Daenerys’ first years had been spent at Harrenhal with Ser Oswell, and a contingent of Baratheon men, who were there for her ‘protection’. But they had no doubt been instructed to kill her, if anyone attempted to rescue her. Sansa knew the sons and daughters of those Baratheon men-at-arms, because they had been hostages in the Red Keep. Politely treated, some even doted on, but hostages just the same.

Sansa’s path had momentarily crossed with the Targaryen girl, because Lady Daenerys had been fostered in Riverrun for most of her life. She was betrothed by the King’s decree to Edmure Tully as a child. Sansa had heard Father speak of it; it made perfect political sense. The girl was highborn, despite her cursed blood, and the supporters of House Targaryen would claim any match too low was invalid. But House Tully was perfect, for they were not descended from Kings, but still very powerful. As Lord Paramounts of the Riverlands, Tullys were reasonably wealthy without the opulence and greed of the dangerous House Lannister. The Tullys had fertile lands, but unlike House Tyrell of the Reach, they were loyal to House Baratheon through pledge and marriage. Hoster Tully’s two daughters had been tied to the rebel alliance between Houses Arryn and Baratheon, after all. The Targaryen girl needed to be close enough to keep eyes upon, so the North was unsuitable, and Dorne too, being the seat of the Targaryen’s most staunch supporters. All that left was the Vale and the Stormlands, but father would never tie his House to the polluted blood of the Targaryens, and nor would the Baratheons, though they had a little dragonblood already. The Targaryen girl could never be seen to be rewarded, so marriage to the King’s brother was out of the question.

Now that Daenerys had flowered, the marriage had finally come to pass. As she was only a Lady from a deposed House, it was with little fanfare. She had only ever been a lady, from a dead House, after all. Sansa shuddered, watching the wedding take place in the splendid Sept of Riverrun. Lady Daenerys looked beautiful in a charcoal grey dress, slashed at the shoulders to reveal her pale arms beneath, embellished with tiny red beads at her throat and waist. But Sansa could think of nothing but how awful it would be, to be utterly alone in the world, without kin and allies, with no seat or people to stand for her. Lady Daenerys blushed deeply when Uncle Edmure kissed her. The couple were obviously close from her long fostering in Riverrun, yet Sansa felt a deep well of pity in her heart.

House Targaryen would be forgotten at last, though in truth it was long buried. Standards displaying the infamous three-headed dragon were forbidden, as was the utterance of their bizarre words. All depictions of dragons were frowned upon, so much so that almost all of them in the Seven Kingdoms had been destroyed or melted down, and reforged into something more favourable.

As the wedding revelries got underway, Sansa took upon herself the duty of seeing Bran to bed, when the talk turned lewd and the drink began to flow liberally. Ethan followed her stoically. His brow was deeply furrowed in disapproval at the Riverlords, who were too lax in their manners once the wine was uncorked. He stood without the door, as Sansa helped Bran into his sleeping shirt. She was aided by the meek Lady Perra of House Breakstone, her new companion. Once Bran was tucked a-bed, the petite girl politely took her leave, bobbing into a low curtsey. She was very conscientious and aware of the vast difference between them, haling from a low masterly House in the Vale.

Cracking open Bran’s favourite volume of tales, Sansa snuggled onto the bed beside her favourite brother to read aloud about Knights of the Realm. Bran was obsessed with Knights, and none more than the Kingsguard. He thought they were all wonderful, with their unblemished white cloaks and their shining golden armour. Currently, they were recounting the life of Ser Barristan the Bold, Sansa’s favourite of the Kingsguard, because Bran deserved to be influenced by the best.

“Why is her cloak plain?” Bran asked suddenly, when Sansa sat beside him, reading from the collection of tales.

“Whose cloak, sweetling?” Sansa asked, startled out of her recount of the defiance of Duskendale.

“Lady Daen- Day- Dan-ahrs,” said Bran, stumbling over the silly Targaryen name.

“Because her House is dead and gone,” Sansa whispered, unable to suppress another shiver. The last Targaryen must be so lonely.

What would Sansa do, without Bran and Ethan, Mother and Father, Uncle Stannis, even shrill Aunt Lysa and petulant Robin? To be without her family, her ancestral seat and all reminders of her House, would be awful beyond comprehension.

“But she must have a sigil, and-”

“Hush, Bran,” Sansa interjected swiftly, conscious that they were no longer encased in the Tower.

“Her House was defeated by King Robert himself.” She reminded her sweet brother, “She is lucky that a future Lord Paramount will have her, and do you know why?”

Bran shook his head, wide-eyed. It was not often that Sansa was sharp with him.

“Because in the sight of gods and men, she is an abomination. The Targaryens wed brothers and sisters to one another for centuries, polluting their line with weakness and madness. She is the last of them, but with any luck our Tully blood will cleanse the madness out.”

Bran considered her words solemnly for a long moment, regarding her with his warm brown eyes, so like their father’s.

“What if it doesn’t?” said Bran, serious for a boy of seven.

What could she say? Sansa could not tell him what had befallen Prince Rhaegar’s children, not yet. Perhaps the gods would be kind, and there might never be a need.

“We must pray to the Seven that it does,” Sansa whispered, before cracking open the tome to continue the story.

She had no desire to tell Bran what she had overheard their lord father tell Uncle Stannis- that the Targaryen girl and her issue would be ‘dealt with’ in the same manner that Viserys was, if the madness was apparent in them.

 

 

 

W I N T E R F E L L

 

Ashara had no great love of embroidery, but she could not deny the usefulness of a sewing circle. Gwyn Whitehill sat on her left, silent and obedient as usual, carefully threading pale cotton for her Northern flowers, in a pattern of a rock garden. On her right, Jyana had taken pride of place, eschewing the ordinary tasks of adorning clothing or embroidering kerchiefs, to instead mend her daughter’s leathers. Arya had begged to be exempted, which Ashara had allowed while knowing full well her daughter would be in the yard with the boys and Sera, who had simply failed to materialise. Arrana sat at Gwyn’s side. The two girls occasionally exchanged thread, sharing quiet conversation. Whilst Alys Karstark, Lyra Mormont, her daughter Elia, and Mariah Cassel chattered exuberantly amongst themselves. Gwyn and Mariah were close friends, but they knew their duty, and instead of twittering to each other, did not stray from their appointed tasks within the room.

In her lap Ashara carried a tiny tunic, which she was ostensibly mending for Rickon. But in fact was altering to be suitable for the new babe. She had high hopes this one would live. Of the six children she had carried, she had only lost two. Her fingers were reddened from repeatedly jabbing herself with the needle, but no word of discomfort passed her lips. Ashara caught Mariah’s eye, and knowing her mind well, the girl jumped up, uncovering the refreshments of cold meats, cheese and fruit, and began distributing plates.

Lady Mariah had been kept secret from House Stark until the Greyjoy rebellion. Once Ned had ridden to war with many of their men, there was little entertainment to be found, to assuage the worries of the women and children left at home. Gossip was all they could do. Whereupon Ashara’s darlings had come to her in Ned’s absence, to tell her of their suspicions.

Lady Barbrey, the widow of William Dustin, had a girl in her employ with whom she favoured above all others. A little slip of a child, too young to be a handmaid, yet granted the position regardless. A bastard daughter was of no real consequence; aside from the rumours that the girl was Brandon Stark’s.

Even so, it would have made no difference. Save for the pertinent fact that Lady Dustin held a festering grudge against Ned. Since he had failed to return her husband’s bones from Dorne, House Dustin’s loyalty to House Stark was begrudging at the least. Ashara had no doubt they would hold to House Stark in times of peace upon the mainland. But should war spill into the North, she feared they would be difficult to wrangle. It was not outside the realms of possibility that Lady Dustin intended to plot against House Stark, by raising the little girl to an advantageous marriage elsewhere.

Ashara used her influence as Robb’s advisor to invite House Dustin to Winterfell, making it plain that it was not a request. They arrived with Lady Barbrey’s Ryswell kin in tow. Ashara used her many wiles to work upon the households, charming and disarming them in turn. House Ryswell could not hope to stand against the might of Winterfell, when the entire North was united in war against the Iron Islands, and would House Dustin truly fight against their liege lords over the bastard girl of their dead lord’s widow? Ashara did not believe so, and her belief was vindicated when Lady Dustin conceded. Though Lady Dustin was not keen to part with the girl, Ashara was persuasive and well loved.

Some might have thought Lady Stark crazed, for almost provoking a battle, when their fighting men had left to wage war upon the Ironborn. But Ashara knew what a mother wanted most of all. Stability and a place for her child. Though it could not be definitively said that the girl was Brandon’s, for he had died without acknowledging her, Mariah had the Stark look. Even as a young girl, she had a long face, dark hair and slate grey eyes. And Mariah was of the right age, almost five years Robb’s senior. Ashara swore to the Ryswells that Ned would acknowledge the girl as a Snow, promising she would always have a place in Winterfell. Though Lady Barbrey denied the truth for weeks, eventually her stony facade was worn away. Ashara was the Mother incarnate when the older woman admitted the truth, the font of mercy. True to her word, Ashara granted Mariah Snow a place at their home and hearth, in perpetuity. Ned was baffled to meet her on his return from Pyke, but quickly took to the well-mannered girl.

Unfortunately, Brandon’s daughter grew to be a pretty thing. Too pretty to be fostered in Winterfell and unspoken for. As the years passed, Robb grew enamoured with his older cousin. Unlike Jeyne, Mariah Snow was almost a woman grown, and had noble blood on both sides. Theon took liberties and Robb lashed out at him for it, leading to brooding on both sides. Ashara quickly saw the tragedy just waiting to befall them.

House Stark could not betrothe its son and heir to a bastard, but especially not one from their own line. It would encourage mercenary behaviour in unwedded girls across the North, seeking a tie with House Stark, as had no doubt been Lady Barbrey’s intention, all those years past. It would infuriate their bannermen, and endanger them all. But a wedding is what Robb would demand, if Mariah let him into her bed. The girl was poised and demure, but Ashara knew better than to trust a meek outer appearance. Lady Stark knew she must take action, before another bastard was born into House Stark.

There weren’t too many Houses in the North low enough to consider wedding a bastard. The Northmen were prideful, and Mariah was the last in succession, beyond Ned and Benjen’s trueborn sons and daughters. The Northern lords wanted matches for those children, not Brandon Stark’s by-blow. Jon could have wed her, if Ashara had allowed Ned to claim him as a bastard, but that ship had sailed, and could not be floated now. Robb and Jon might have come to blows with more than tourney swords, had Mariah been betrothed to the younger twin.

Ashara had promised Lady Dustin a good match for her girl. She had hoped to have more years, to persuade a second or third son of a truly noble, yet less prestigious House, to take Mariah. Once she realised what folly it was to have the pretty girl within Robb’s grasp and unbetrothed - Robb who had inherited too much of the wolf-blood, and was always keen to prove himself a true Stark, despite his ‘dainty Dayne’ looks - Ashara stopped her overtures to Houses Tallhart, Lake, Cerwyn and Wull. Robb would only ride out after her. Better not to separate them, but to watch Mariah fall for a man grown, whilst Robb was still a boy.

The Cassels were on hand. They had been installed in Winterfell for generations, and were unlikely ever leave, fealty was in their blood and bone and breath. Poor Rodrick had suffered the loss of his wife and babes, leaving young Beth as his only issue. His nephew Jory their only kin, and his heir. Beth would be wed into another House (Rodrick spoke of House Tuttle with hope), but Jory would remain.

Jory was a good man, the Captain of Ned’s guards, honourable and handsome, though still quite green but with a gentle heart. Ned was dubious of the match- Mariah carried the blood of the Starks, after all, and the Cassels were rather low. But Ashara reminded him that this way at least Mariah would always be in Winterfell, and perhaps one of their children might marry back into House Stark in the future. Thus mollified, Ashara approached Jory, who fell over himself in thanks, proclaiming himself unworthy, but eager to take the girl just the same. Their wedding was joyful, but Robb pouted for months after the betrothal was announced. Ashara had fretted constantly in that time that he might act rashly and disgrace them all. But Robb was still Ned’s son, after all, and would not dishonour a girl wedded and bedded. Thus the door to that particular dishonour was closed. It broke his heart, but it was a love unmatched and unsuitable, and such is the way of life for a highborn. Ashara felt little guilt over it, except for when she caught Robb staring at ‘Riah’, as he always called her, with hopeless wistfulness.

Robert Baratheon had been happy to legitimise the girl, so that she could be wed as a Stark before the heart tree. She flowered at fifteen, and wed Jory some months after. Ashara had supplied the girl with moon tea for two years beyond that, to save her the danger of having babes too young. It was their secret however, held between Ashara, Luwin and Mariah only. In this way, she bound the girl to her alone, knowing Northmen were much more affronted by such practicalities than any in the South.

After two years, Ashara deemed it safe, and young Lady Cassel agreed immediately, thrilled by the idea of a babe of her own. A bonnie girl arrived after less than a twelve-month, and was named Branda for her grandsire. Little Branda had recently celebrated her first name day, and looked the image of her proud father, who enjoyed showing her off at every opportunity (despite his worried wife’s frequent admonishments to be careful). Branda slept in the nursery beside Rickon often, though she had her own small room adjoining her parent’s apartment. Being the Captain of the guards afforded Jory a nicer set of rooms than most Winterfell servants, below the family rooms. But they were still in service to House Stark, and they did not forget it.

“There’s nettle cheese, Aunt Ashara, I know it’s your favourite,” young Mariah smiled, presenting a plate already made up to Ashara, who had not realised how familished she was.

Babes always made her ravenous. But she had not anticipated such hunger so early on, usually displaying the more prominent symptom of dizziness first. Still, her moonblood had not come, her teats were starting to swell, and she was nauseous. There was no mistake.

“Thank you, child,” Ashara replied, setting her embroidery aside to take up the plate. Mariah was a good girl, and eternally grateful for her position.

But Ashara kept a certain distance and detachment from her, and not for any nonsense about bastards being untrustworthy. But because she had a claim to Winterfell, weak as it was, that others might seek to exploit without her knowledge. Mariah was not a wiley one, but that did not mean she was incapable of being manipulated by her sour kin.

Therefore, although Mariah was afforded the respect of a highborn, and named a lady, she did not sit beside the Starks at the high table, and was never referred to as one. Nethertheless, she clearly had the blood of the wolf. Ashara was always careful, and did not speak freely in front of Mariah. Her mother was still the head of House Dustin, after all.

“An attentive húnn,” Jyana commented with a raise of her brow, when Mariah moved out of earshot.

Ashara said nothing, smiling enigmatically as she bit into her divine, gods-blessed cheese.

“Still grappling with threads, systir ?” Jyana asked meaningfully, her eyes flickering about the room, over the assembled girls, as they squabbled and laughed about trivial matters over their food.

Ashara hummed in agreement, her smile never faltering. After taking luncheon, Ashara found she could no longer stand the continued sewing. She dismissed the girls and linked arms with Jyana so they could walk together, gracefully gliding along the covered walkway above the courtyard, to watch the progress down below. Ned was in his solar at this hour, and though Ashara longed for his company, she was mollified by the attentions of her closest friend.

Jyana was pleased to see Meera sparring with Robb, her spear against his sword. The two children were close in age, and seemingly evenly matched. Alys Karstark appeared in the courtyard below, flush from having hurried from the sewing circle, and the clever girl immediately began chanting Meera’s name. Her feigned indifference was working well upon Robb, chipping away at his confidence. Peeved at her apparent disregard, Robb began fighting more ferociously. Meera matched him blow for blow, dancing out of his way with footwork familiar to Uttara and Elia’s, whenever they fought.

“Would that I could convince Meera to set aside her oath and wed Robb,” Ashara lamented, “You’ve done a wonderful job with her, Ana.”

Jyana flushed at the praise, her thin lips spread even thinner by a broad smile. “She is so like her faðir. The spear was never my weapon, but I am proud to say she learnt ǫrvar at my knee.”

“I should have liked to learn, I think,” Ashara said, before throwing aside the idle thoughts. She did not have time for daydreams. But before she could move on, Jyana spoke.

“Meera was not meant to be a great lady, I do not think,” Jyana whispered, her voice smooth and deep with wisdom beyond her years, “She is of the crannogs; a creature fleet of foot and hard of heart. Her love for her family and her duty is strong, but when I dream I do not see children at her breast.”

“And I? What do you see of me?”

Jyana wrenched her eyes away from the thump of a dulled blade against scaled armour, and met Ashara’s haunting purple eyes with her own mossy green look.

“I see snow,” she said softly, “Snow and ice.”

For a long moment, Ashara did not breathe, staring into the eyes of her dear friend. Then she forced herself to relax, pressing the tension out of her muscles and resting lazily against the barrier above the courtyard.

“Well, Winter is Coming, as Ned is so fond of warning me,” she said playfully, ignoring the breath of icy fear lifting the hairs at her nape.

But Jyana said nothing more, returning her critical eye to the bout below.

 

 

 

T H E    N E C K

T h e   K i n g ' s   R o a d

 

 

Sansa was glad to be on her way. Though Riverrun was beautiful, she could not allow herself to fall under the enchantment of the rushing Forks of the Trident, the lush green forests and beautiful flowers. This is not for you, she scolded herself. Put it out of your mind.

The Riverlands were lovely in times of peace, but their central location was decimated in times of war. If Joffrey wanted her, she would not be waiting like a freshly plucked flower, ready to have its petals scattered by the wind. No, if the vicious cub wanted to swipe at her, she must be far from the reach of its claws. Nothing but the North would do.

The Neck was unlike anything Sansa had ever seen. Mother had warned them to be careful, terrified of the lizard-lions and swamp-dwellers both. But Sansa was enchanted by the moss and mist; the eerie quiet of the unseen crannogmen hidden in the Reeds.

“Isn’t Greywater Watch our next destination?” asked Lady Ysilla, baffled when the order came to halt but not dismount. The King’s Road had disappeared.

“Now we wait,” said Ser Vardis Egen, the genial and aged Captain of their guards.

Sansa peered out into the gloom, her heart beating wildly with anticipation. Though it was not yet midday, the sky was dark with thick clouds. Their horses nuzzled at the sodden grasses, and though the mud was thick, it was not yet saturated with water.

“What are we waiting for ?” Robin demanded, the usual surly thread of a whine hanging in his voice, and Sansa jumped at the chance to reply before anyone else did.

“The crannogmen are the only ones who can navigate the Neck,” Sansa said firmly, “Only they know the secrets of the water-ways. They live on houses on stilts, and travel on mossy crannogs. Greywater Watch is a keep upon a giant crannog itself- it floats along the water and only crannogmen know how to find it.”

She heard a few of her father’s men scoff, and saw fear on the faces of others, but Ethan seemed suitably intrigued, and Robin’s eyes gleamed.

“You are well-informed, my lady,” said a polite voice from among the stunted trees, deep with the thick accent of the North.

It belonged to a small man with a great big black beard. He was dressed in curious leathers and mail; clearly the hide and scales of a beast, rather than links of metal. In his hand he carried a spear, and he was flanked by six other men, clad in similarly unusual clothing. Sansa beamed, pleased to meet the first of her potential future bannermen, and also at the auspicious number of men. Seven companions were blessed by the gods of her Faith.

“Who are you?” snapped Ser Marwyn, another of their guards. He was tall and thin, with flame-red hair more akin to carrots, than Sansa’s more muted wine-red.

“We are of swamp and crannog, stone and water, mist and fog,” said the little man ominously, “we will allow passage to none but the friends of House Stark. Though you are welcome to tread our marshes alone, if you dare.”

None of his companions said a word, staring up at Sansa and the rest of the household, fearlessly. Though they were outnumbered and unmounted, they had melted out of the fog like shadowcats, lithe and menacing. And Sansa did not doubt they would disappear again as quickly, if they found them wanting. It was madness to navigate the Neck without help from the crannogmen; they would have to go back, and procure passage to White Harbour. Surely, these crannogmen knew to expect them? Lord Stark had replied to Father’s letter with simple but courtly words.

When Mother spoke up in reply, her voice was confident and assured. But Sansa could tell she was tense and frightened by the odd little crannogmen, as her grip upon the reins of her horse was strong, and her face was pinched and hard.

“I am Lady Catelyn of House Arryn, wife to Lord Jon Arryn, Lord of the Eryie, Warden of the East, and Hand of the King,” Mother stated formally, “we are expected in Winterfell.”

She offered no reason as to why.

The crannogman with the bushy beard stared impassively at her, unmoved by her words. The horses of the Vale twitched and shifted, treading their hooves nervously. They did not like the eerie stillness of the Neck. Sansa ran a hand over the mane of her bay mare, hoping to sooth her. The mare’s ears twitched, but she showed no other signs of bolting, of which Sansa was extremely grateful. She was not an especially confident rider. Sansa hadn’t had much chance of practicing, as most of her journeys around King’s Landing, she had undertaken either by litter or wheelhouse.

At long length the crannogman nodded, bowing deeply and stiffly, entirely silent. He said no words of welcome, and Sansa’s heart sank. It had been many years since her lord father had seen Ned Stark in person. Had House Stark fallen out of love with House Arryn? She did not want to believe it so.

When at last he stood up, it was with a pale, wry smile. “Welcome, Lady Arryn, to the Neck. Your boats await.”

Sansa released a long exhale, slumping a little in relief, but careful to keep her expression stoic. She alighted from her mare, only when Ser Vardis bid her to. Ethan kept close, holding her hand as she clambered into the boat, which was long and thin, curiously shallow. How long the journey took, Sansa could not have said, so mesmerised was she by the still and silent swamp. Mother could not keep the distaste from her face, but Bran’s eyes were wide as saucers, and even Robin was gaping in awe. Ethan sat tense at her side, his bow at the ready, in case of lizard-lions. But none were forthcoming, and they glided through the reeds without issue.

She could not help but pout in disappointment, when they were not invited into the mysterious floating Greywater Watch, but instead alighted their boats onto dry land. They were presented with fresh horses, hardy Northern drays, a far cry from the sleek palfreys and destriers of the Vale, and a younger guide, who proclaimed himself as Torghen Marsh. He promised they would be reunited with their own horses, once the flooding along the southern end of the King’s Road cleared, and they could be lead through. He too was tiny, lanky and quiet, but he led them along the causeway with ease and confidence, where they made camp for the night, surrounded by large torches. But Sansa could not sleep. She was enchanted by the gigantic flowers, the likes of which she had never seen nor heard of, and the sight of the stars above the murky, fungus-covered trees. No lizard-lions were seen nor caught, though many men claimed to have seen them slithering about in the darkness.

In the morn, most were shaken and ill at ease, desperate for the safety of open ground, though they refused to admit it. So their days continued, until it seemed like they would never leave the endless, winding single road through the Neck, invisible to anyone but the reticent crannogmen.

By the final day, Robin was in a horrendous mood, shrieking and shouting, despite Mother’s attempts of placating him. Sansa rode beside Ethan and Bran, and did her best to block him out.

“Here we leave you,” Torghen Marsh proclaimed promptly, as soon as the causeway opened into a wider clearing, afore the huge, intimidating, glittering black rock of a keep.

“Wait-” Mother called, but the little men were already gone, disappearing into the swamps, following a track only they could see.

The knights and men-at-arms cursed, but Sansa stared up at the castle in awe. It was wild and rugged; an ancient gatehouse and wall of glittering black stone, vast and thick, but sleek and shiny, as though it had retained every inch of rainwater that had ever fallen upon it. It shone from the mist like a gigantic, squat jewel. Every crevice where stones met seemed home to some form of lichen or fungus or ghostskin, giving the whole structure an overgrown air, but Sansa did not believe it abandoned. A keep was visible beyond the thick wall, just poking up higher than the crenellations of the wall. The wall stretched out into the dim shadows on either side, betraying that there was no path but onwards. Everyone knew that Moat Cailin lay directly on the King’s Road, but all of Sansa’s books had said the ancient stronghold was a ruin. Not for the first time, she lamented the South’s lack of interest in the truth.

It was surrounded by delicate pale purple and blood red flowers, all along the base of the wall, some with vines creeping and stretching up it, like something magical, from a half-forgotten song. They were more plants Sansa had no name for, and she wondered what they were called, and who lived here. This must be Moat Cailin. Clearly it was impossible to go around, for any save the crannogmen, but there was no need. The portcullis was open, gaping like an empty maw.

“Fucking bog-dwellers,” Ethan swore, unsheathing his sword, glaring around as he searched for an ambush or other threats.

He had not long spoken before a retinue of men appeared at the gate, and began to march sedately out from the stronghold, flying Stark colours. An honour guard, as in the South. Sansa had not anticipated such, and flushed embarrassed, when she considered the state of her hair, braided in complex plaits that were frazzled from the humidity and coming undone. She was not ready to meet her future betrothed.

Sansa straightened in her saddle, lamenting the long days she had spent riding, sleeping in tents without chance to beauty herself, and the shabby state of her cloak. But she held herself firm with dignity, determined to impress nethertheless. The scrape of steel on scabbards surrounded her, as her lord father’s men hastily re-sheathed their swords. But Sansa had no interest in them; her eyes were glued to the young lord that rode at the front of the retinue, directly toward their party. He was one of the few men astride a horse, the rest were marching, in the confident, lithe way she had become accustomed to in crannogmen.

The young lord was of age with her, with brown hair so dark it was almost black, just long enough to hang round his ears in a tempest of curls. His eyes might have been a deep plum, but in the gloom of the Neck, they looked grey. And he was handsome, more handsome than Ethan by a league, and Sansa felt her traitorous heart flutter with glee. She forced herself to remain sensible, knowing that a fair face could hide a foul heart. But oh, how she hoped it would not be the case this time! The stranger was clad in a black jerkin, bearing the head of a snarling grey direwolf scattered with diamonds so it glittered even in the low light. The sigil of House Stark bold across his chest, and he was flanked on both sides by grizzled men proudly bearing the standard of the leaping wolf on white-and-green.

When he spoke, his voice was deep and wonderful, polite and courteous. But his words when they registered, were an icy stab of disappointment to Sansa.

“Welcome to the North, my lords and ladies. I am Jon of House Stark, Lord of Moat Cailin and Steward of the Causeway. It would be my honour to escort you to my keep, where hot baths, warm rooms, meat and mead and all manner of refreshments await you.”

His smile was broad and genuine, and Sansa felt her family and fellow travellers sigh and smile, glad to be greeted with civility at last: but all Sansa could hear was the rush of blood pounding in her ears, and it sounded like Jon, Jon, Jon...

Chapter Text

M O A T   C A I L I N

G u e s t   C h a m b e r s

 

Sansa luxuriated in her bath, rubbing orange oil into her muscles, and lemon soap through her hair, until the tang of citrus had scrubbed away all the murky filth of travel. The meek servants of House Stark of Moat Cailin assisted her dutifully, under the watchful eye of Perra Breakstone. The Northern girls were quiet as the grave, occasionally murmuring to one another in their guttural, ancient tongue. They offered bland smiles to Sansa. But she did not gain the impression they were displeased with her, merely deferential.

Sansa had never heard the Old Tongue spoken before. Naturally, it was spoken by those with strong First Men blood, and that was lacking in the South. Thousands of years of intermarriage with those who spoke the Common Tongue had washed it out of daily use, until it was only a half-remembered curiosity there. The strange, susurrus sounds peaked her interest, the moment Sansa heard them. Could this language difference be the reason the crannogmen who had escorted them through the Neck, were so reluctant to interact with her party? Because they did not have a decent enough grasp of the Common Tongue? It seemed too incredible to be true, and yet all Sansa had learnt of the Northmen seemed to support her theory.

The Northmen were fiercely proud of their ancient traditions. The majority of their habits and customs had not changed in thousands of years. Weathering the many invaders from Essos - from the Andals to the dragonriders of House Targaryen. All the books said the North was the only Kingdom which kept to the old ways of the First Men. Sansa knew there were precious few Houses which worshiped the Seven north of the Trident.

As the servants patted her dry, Sansa could barely keep her eyes open. The warm of her bath had lulled her almost to sleep. But the night was young, and it was essential she attended the welcoming feast with a bounce in her step, to accentuate her youthful vigour. Her heavy, wet hair was rubbed with a towel to get as much moisture out as possible, before Mother came in to brush it until it gleamed. Lady Arryn wished to plait it onto Sansa’s crown, in a complex style currently favoured by the court of King’s Landing. But they were not in King’s Landing anymore. Thus, Sansa could not allow it. She needed to make a good impact on Lord Jon Stark and his household, and clinging to her former customs was not the way to do so.

Sansa instead requested three modest braids, that were then woven into one, to hang over her left shoulder. When her hair was done, Sansa was helped into a grey woollen shift, then a delicate pale blue dress; piles of lace and silk. The neckline plunged a little lower than proprietary demanded, but Mother had already approved of it. And Lady Arryn was well-known for being very modest. Sansa trusted her judgement in this.

The bodice and sleeves of Sansa's dress were covered in thick embroidery; pretty renditions of the blue winter roses that the North was known for. Sansa wanted to make a good impression. But she could not help but flaunt her wealth in some respects. Mother had reminded her that men did not long for what they already had; they craved something new. She said Sansa was unlike any woman Robb Stark had ever laid eyes upon, and it was vital that he and his advisors knew it. Therefore, Sansa's dress was stunning, emphasising the bright blue of her Tully eyes. She wanted all their eyes upon her, and her alone. It was vital that the Northmen saw how poised and beautiful she was, and reported well of her to the heir to Winterfell.

For that was surely the reason Jon Stark had been asked to escort their party to Winterfell. He was too young to rule this enigmatic seat yet. Sansa did not believe he was yet installed in this keep, despite his obvious familiarity with it. He had escorted her to her warm and well-lit guest chamber with all courtesy, despite his strong Northern accent. She had been worried she would not understand him with ease, but to her relief, that was not the case.

Sansa reasoned that Lord Jon must have been sent by his family, to form an impression of her, so that Lord Robb knew what to do to impress her. In some ways it was a sweet thought. Lord Robb verily wanted to know how to please Sansa and her household. But in other ways, it was very intimidating. Robb Stark would have a distinct advantage he could use to charm her, whereas Sansa might not know the truth of him until it was too late. She would have to remain vigilant, no matter how charming he seemed.

Because Sansa knew she had no other choice but to proceed; the way home was barred to her. Father would be furious, if she could not secure a match with House Stark, despite his kindly nature. Jon Arryn might be genial, but he had a core of steel when bargaining. Sansa knew she had no choice, but to make a brilliant impression on this young Lord Jon. So that he could report back to his family on the nature of the lady she was, in turn. Sansa could only pray to the Seven, that Jon Stark would be honest, and amenable to her charms. Because if he soiled her reputation to his brother, she might never scrub the stain out.

 

 

W I N T E R F E L L

G r e a t   H a l l 

 

Ashara missed Jon, the way she imagined a soldier, wounded in battle, missed a limb. Since the day he rode out on his fearsome grey charger, she had found herself bereft, despite her many other children and responsibilities.

Each night when they dined, the girls Ashara had invited to Winterfell had been asked to sit at the top table, in a steady rotation. Their brothers or fathers joined them, the men gratified by their liege lord’s attention. Ned did his job impeccably well, listening to their woes or war stories, commiserating and congratulating in turn. Ashara’s job was to charm the womenfolk, and keep a beady eye upon the children. When Jon was present, all this was acceptable. But now that he was gone, Ashara found herself easily irritated by the boisterous chatter of Ned's bannermen. Ashara’s eyes roamed across the crowded table, fruitlessly seeking out her second son. Though she knew it was useless, she could not seem to stop herself from doing so.

Robb too, was miserable. She saw it in every twitch of his fingers or lips, though he tried to hide it. He was currently staring intently into the eyes of Lyra Mormont, as the girl attempted to make him laugh. But Robb's smile did not light up his eyes. He was valiantly remaining polite, but Ashara knew he was bored. It was in the slump of his shoulders, and the frequent crease upon his brow. Lately, the men-at-arms on night watch had spoken of Robb’s restlessness. Apparently, her eldest had taken to wandering the crenellations beneath the stars, staring out toward the South wistfully. Normally, Robb would be able to distract himself from Jon's absence, by japing with Theon or Mariah. But Theon was to distracted by his new betrothed to be overly affectionate toward him. And Mariah had her hands full caring for her babe, when she was not caring for their guests.

Ashara made a private note to herself to suggest that Robb should organise a hunt. It would be a chance to get out from underneath the responsibilities of his position, and a true distraction. As she mused on this, considering their stockpile of meat and what would be a nice addition, Ned caught hold of Ashara’s hand. He gave it a reassuring squeeze, before pressing a gentle kiss to her cool cheek.

“Are you well, my love?” he asked softly, his rumbling voice a balm to her.

“Yes indeed, husband,” she lied, mindful of their guests.

Their bannermen would be offended if Ashara appeared inattentive, or miserable in their company. The North needed a strong Lady Stark, not a weak woman missing her babe. Still, she was relieved for the chance to excuse herself, when Mariah approached the table, and leaned in close. The girl whispered to Ashara that Rickon was unable to settle. Robb interjected immediately.

“Riah, where have you been? I saved you an apple tart.” He called out uncouthly across the table, without even the pretense of hiding their familiarity.

Ashara had not even yet responded to her niece-by-law’s request for aid. She glanced at Robb and saw his smile was broad and warm. Mariah stepped back and stood up to her full height, answering with a demure, sweet smile of her own.

“Thank you, Robb,” she trilled sweetly. But the girl made no move from her lady’s side, knowing her place, even if she forgot to address her cousin with the respect his position deserved.

Robb however, was under no such restriction. As the future Lord of Winterfell, he often flaunted his position and privileges. He could not help himself. Robb had a good heart, but he was arrogant with the folly of youth, as all young lords-to-be were. Ashara only had the heart to discourage him when he was being especially pompous, which was thankfully very rare. So she kept her faith when Robb immediately abandoned Lyra, in favour of presenting the aforementioned dessert to his cousin. Ashara merely sighed, fond and exasperated all at once. Robb eagerly skirted around the table and held out the treat to Mariah. It had been folded neatly in a handkerchief. The scrap of cloth was embroidered with Robb’s initials, and a sloppy direwolf- Elia’s work, no doubt.

The Lady of Winterfell watched her son hand over the gift, blatantly taking the opportunity to caress Mariah’s hand. Swallowing thickly, Ashara made a careful assessment of the table. Most of their guests were unbothered by the exchange. But Lyra was frowning, puzzled to find herself suddenly bereft. She exchanged a confused look with her elder sister. Dacey Mormont shrugged her shoulders whilst her sister was watching. But when Lyra turned her frown toward her sweetmeats, Ashara saw the heir to Bear Island's jaw clench, the look in her eyes dark and knowing. Further down the table, Harrion Karstark also seemed to be watching their part of the table attentively. Alarmed, Ashara glared up at her eldest son, until Robb at last caught her eye. Then she jerked her head subtly but meaningfully, indicating his empty seat. It was all she could do to rectify the situation without making a scene and drawing more unwanted attention.

Unrepentant, Robb threw his mother a wolfish grin. But he consented to returning to the table - with a noticeable spring in his step. Yes indeed, a hunt was needed. A man needed blood- or bed-sport to clear his head, and the sooner Robb regained his senses, the better. Mayhaps Ashara ought to send him on an excursion to Castle Cerwyn, taking some of their guests… Benjen could do with the company, she mused.

Making her excuses to Ned and their guests, Ashara accompanied Mariah back to the nursery. The girl had demurely tucked Robb's gift into the folds of her dress: kerchief and all. Ashara wondered if it would be madness to have a serving girl steal the kerchief back. Surely that would set the maid's tongues wagging. But equally worrying, was the thought of Mariah treasuring anything with Robb’s initials sewn upon it. She couldn’t be allowed to walk the castle with such items in her possession.

But it was just as likely, that a case of mother’s stomach was making Ashara irrational. The girl was long wedded and bedded, and Robb knew his duty. Lady Stark felt she was being paranoid, suspecting them of misconduct. She knew that paranoia would make her cruel, if she was not careful. Ashara scolded herself harshly as they made their way through the castle. She was not a jealous Targaryen queen; she would let the girl keep her trinkets.

In the nursery, Rickon was quiet. But he was sitting up in his cradle, his fingers stuffed in his mouth, cheeks red from recent crying. His tears had dried, but the maids rocking the cradle seemed to have lost hope of soothing him to sleep. They obediently stepped aside, when Ashara entered the room with Mariah close behind. When he caught sight of his mother, Rickon immediately thrust out his wet and sticky hands.

“Mama,” he wailed, heartbroken and keen. Little Branda lay beside him, fast asleep. But her tiny fingers twitched at her cousin's voice, a warning that she would wake again if Rickon could not be settled.

“Oh, sweetling,” Ashara cooed, crossing to room in quick strides to reach him, “Whatever is the matter?”

She scooped Rickon up into her warm embrace, her heart settling at the smell of her soft, darling babe. The weight of him was a familiar comfort. Ashara gently patted his round rump as she traversed the room. Rickon’s tiny hands curled tightly into the velvet at her throat, clinging to her for reassurance. Rickon babbled nonsensically in his mother's ear, allowing himself to be soothed by first her murmuring, followed by her high, clear voice as she sang a languid lullaby. Even when Rickon was fast asleep in her arms, Ashara did not relinquish her hold. She prefered instead to take the babe back to her rarely-used private chamber, and the bed she rarely slept in. Ashara commonly spent her nights in Ned’s arms. Unless one of them was ill, or she was in childbed, they slept under the same furs.

But on rare instances, when Ashara wished to sleep curled about her children, she indicated thus to her lord husband by settling a babe in her bed. Ned had always been gentle and kind, from the moment he set eyes upon her. He had never forced his rights upon his lady wife, not once. He would not be offended that Ashara needed to draw comfort by sleeping close to her little one this night.

The maids obediently followed Lady Stark to her chambers. All save for Mariah and Old Nan, who remained in the nursery with plump little Branda, at Ashara’s request. With Rickon safe in her arms, Ashara climbed into her bed, still fully dressed. She tucked Rickon into her breast, before covering them both with soft furs. Meanwhile, the maids set about lighting the fire and giving the room a brisk clean. The room was warm because of the water pumped through the stone from the hot springs, but Ashara perferred the comforting caress of a naked flame. As Lady Stark curled up about her youngest son, she pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead, inhaling his baby scent. Oh, how she wished she could keep him this small and delicate forever.

Each of her children was a blessing; but the march of time was not. She just wanted to keep them safe in her arms, always. But it was folly to hold on too tight. The gods had plans for them all, that none could hope to unravel. But Ashara wished she could try, if only to know ahead of time when they would most need her support. As that was not an option, Ashara was forced to rely on her own instincts and judgement, and hope it would be enough.

 

 

M O A T   C A I L I N

G r e a t   H a l l

 

His dark eyes had tracked Sansa’s progress about the room. Up close, they were indeed a dark grey, flecked with the smallest shimmer of violent, no doubt inhereted from his mother. Lord Jon had bowed stiffly to her before they took their seats. He was confident but reticent, like all Northmen were shaping up to be. Still dressed in his regalia, Jon had removed his cloak, but retained his leathers. The intimidating, snarling beast of House Stark shined out in the low lighting of the room, decorated as it was with shimmering diamonds. She was impressed with his ability to wield the room, like a man twice his age. He must have had a lot of practice and preparation for his role. His parents were to be commended, for eqipping him with the skills he needed to take command of a large seat, at such a young age.

The large feasting hall was not as impressive as the rooms in the Red Keep, but Sansa had anticipated such. Her books had promised the Northmen would be frugal. But she was pleasantly surprised by the rich adornments of the intricate tapestries which kept out the chill, the thick rugs, and rich furs upon her guest bed. In her chambers, there hung a pretty scene from a tale Sansa did not know; a warrior with a head of thick red hair kneeling before his lady-love. The maiden was dressed in the blue-grey of House Stark, with a blue winter rose in her hand. It was what had given Sansa confidence in her resolve to wear this particular dress, which Lord Jon seemed to appreciate, given the way his eyes had roved over her exposed throat, and the delicate stitching across the bodice.

The food was exquisite. After long days of camp food, Sansa was thrilled by the offerings of pigeon and beet pie, parships and carrots in honeyed sauce, followed by suckling pig stuffed with mushrooms and roasted onions in gravy. All washed down with refreshing nettle tea. The summerwine flowed for the older guests, but Sansa did not partake, wishing to keep her wits. For dessert, there were applecakes; which were not her preferred choice, but pleasant all the same. She had nothing to complain about, even if she were bold enough to. She complimented the cooks with all courtesy.

“I must be permitted to have the pigeon pie at least once every sennight ser,” she said, firmly. The Northmen were rumoured to despise affectation, and she did not want to seem false in her praise. “For I have never tasted a combination that so agreed with me, before now.”

Jon blinked at her dubiously, before his face creased with a tentative smile. “Oh, aye? But they tell me the South has a lot of… delicacies on offer.”

“It does,” Sansa confirmed, with a wrinkle of her nose, to let him know she was not impressed by it. “Far too much time is wasted on frivolities, in King’s Landing. And yet, they have not managed to master how to make such splendid pie, even with all their coin.”

Dark eyes considered her with more interest after that, she noted. Had she overstepped, with her quick dismissal of her home? But Jon seemed intrigued. He turned his whole body to face her, as he asked after their journey, polite and attentive. His smiles were gentle, and his attention did not waver from Sansa, even when others were speaking. The attention was flattering but unnerving.

Sansa’s palms grew clammy, as she tried to understand his obvious regard. She was meant for his brother, not him. Jon was handsome, but he was not the heir to the North. Was he testing her resolve? He must be. To see if she remained a lady under pressure, or if her honour had been compromised. She wanted to resent him, for not trusting her honour as an Arryn of the Vale, but that was foolish pride talking. King Robert was a magnificent warrior in his day, but now he was a resentful drunk. Queen Cersei was beautiful, but she was rotten to the core. Jon was clever to use his own observation to determine her character, and not simply accept her on her pretty face and the words of others.

She was surprised when musicians took up their instruments. Guests were not expected to dance the first night after a long journey, in the South. But when fiddler, three men with pipes and a lyre-player began to play, the tune was melancholy and slow. Lord Jon Stark held out an expectant hand.

“May I have this dance, my lady?” he asked courteously, his gentle grey eyes crinkling at the corners when she accepted.

His fingers were warm, and calloused from swordplay. His stance was strong and tall. She was pleased with his gentle hold of her, the way in which he confidently led her through the slow song, followed by another, a lively jig she knew well. It was a popular tune in the Riverlands, that she had danced with Uncle Edmure and Ethan, at the former’s wedding. For some reason, Sansa had not expected the Northmen to enjoy the same music. That seemed foolish to her now, especially considering Moat Cailin’s close proximity to the Riverlands.

From the corner of her eyeline, she saw Ethan was dancing with Ysilla. As Jon turned her swiftly, well-versed in the steps of the dance, Sansa noted Bran was watching her with tired eyes, vibrating with excitement. He was thrilled with the new castle to explore, and all the new people, determined to stay up, despite his frequent need to yawn. Robin, she could not see. Sansa offered a quick, silent prayer to the Seven that he was not shaming them. They needed to make an excellent impression, if she was to gain the trust of the North.

One of Lord Jon’s household had bowed gallantly to Mother, and was now leading her across the boards. When she caught Sansa’s eye, she dipped her head in a swift, approving nod. Sansa felt a burst of warmth in her stomach. Pride. It was unseemly to gloat, but she could not help revelling, just for a moment, in her success. Jon was impressed with her, and Mother was pleased. The hurdles that she faced no longer seemed so steep. The board was set, and first pieces had tumbled before her charm. She was one step closer to a life outside of King’s Landing, and it felt glorious.

 

 

W I N T E R F E L L

L a d y ' s   C h a m b e r s

 

Ashara had not intended to fall asleep, but when she woke, uncomfortable in her heavy velvet dress, she was swiftly aware many hours must have passed. The fire was banked low, its embers glowing like fat rubies, sunk into the mud of the Trident. She shivered, her longing to be assured of Jon’s safety increased ten-fold. She regretted now, her emphatic insistence that he be granted Moat Cailin. It was too far. If only Roose Bolton had a daughter, not a son. Then Jon might have been the future Lord of the Dreadfort.

Ned pressed a kiss to her sleep warmed cheek, as she stretched, grumpy as a pup because she foolishly fell asleep in her dress.

“My apologies, wife. I did not mean to wake you,” Ned whispered, brushing her dark locks away from her face with his huge, calloused hands.

“Hmm,” Ashara wiggled out from underneath Rickon’s weight, to press a chaste kiss to Ned’s chin. “I am glad of it, Ned. Help me out of this infernal dress?”

His look darkened with lust.

“Gladly, my love,” he rumbled.

Ashara could not stop herself from throwing him a coy smirk. Whereas other men’s lusty looks were easy to mock and scorn, because she had no interest in them, Ned never failed to stoke a fire in her. He was good for her, the way that sun and rain were good for the harvest; wholly, unequivocally, with no ulterior motive. Ned was honest and open. If she was the North Star, he was her moon, bright and bold, and above all, reliable. They clashed sometimes, her insistence of acting upon her opinions, before waiting for his judgement a frequent source of contention. But he loved her, even when he was furious with her. She did not doubt it. She never had.

His fingers were gentle as he unlaced her dress, so careful with her, despite knowing how much she could endure. She loved him for his gentleness, even as she hungered for his hands to pin her down and take her roughly, as was his right.

In the low light of the chamber, the gloom kept at bay by only a few scant torches, candles and the dying fire, Ashara stood before her lord husband, bare as her name day, though with considerably more scars on her body since then. Ned caressed them softly; the pale spider’s lines on her hips, thighs and stomach from baring his children. With a secretive smile, Ashara lifted his large left paw from her hip to settle low on her stomach. It was just beginning to swell. Even in the low light, she saw Ned’s countenance lighten from lust to awe and wonder, as he met her violet gaze.

“Truly?” whispered Ned, his voice thick with unexpressed emotion.

Ashara peppered his whiskery cheeks with kisses, before taking his grizzled face between her pale, delicate hands.

“Truly, my love,” she managed to murmur, before Ned consumed her lips with his loving kisses.

 

 

W I N T E R F E L L

C r y p t s

 

The crypts of Winterfell were one of the only places in the North that Ashara felt estranged from. They were cool and damp, a dark, ancient place, haunted by the Starks of Ages past. And no matter how many children she gave Ned, she was not of the North, not truly. Still, Ned had allowed the bones of their lost children to be interred there, in tiny, engraved tombs, so it was here she must come to pay her respects. The space dug out for their final resting place was behind the empty plinth, where Ned's statue would one day stand, when he departed this world. She shivered in her thick, wool and velvet dress, tucking the furs of her cloak closer about her neck. Each time Ashara was confronted with the loss of her children, it burnt her heart anew. She did not want to contemplate a world without Ned in it.

After paying her respects to her lost babes, Ashara moved further into the crypts to where Elia stood, gazing up at the lone female statue in the crypts, of her Aunt Lyanna.

"Father never talks about her," Elia said softly, as Ashara came to stand at her side. She delicately brushed a stray curl back from her daughter's face.

"No indeed," she replied, "And well you know why, my little she-wolf."

"Because the pain is too great?" murmured her eldest daughter, well used to Ashara's thoughts upon the matter.

"Because the pain is too great," she confirmed, staring up at the statue of the woman who had helped tear the Seven Kingdoms to shreds- but had also sacrificed her life, bringing little Jon into the world and Ashara's heart. She sighed, morose, her longing for her son only magnified at each reminder of him.

They stood in silence for a while longer. At length, Lady Stark roused herself from her melancholic thoughts. She encouraged Elia to turn and face her, with a gentle tap upon her daughter's shoulder.

She waited patiently while the girl gathered her thoughts.

"Arrana is still Robb's least favourite," Elia confirmed, "And I think he is growing bored with Lyra. He enjoys sparring with her, and Meera, but they're less charming than Alys. I think he will pick Alys."

Ashara hummed in response, used to these reports. Elia had been singing variations on the same theme for weeks, and yet Robb had still not approached his parents about arranging a match. What was he waiting for? By contrast, Theon had dutifully proposed to Sera in the godswood and been accepted. They had since been caught several times, in embraces too heated to be acceptable. But thankfully, Theon seemed to understand where the line was drawn. Their kisses had been relatively chaste, compared to his usual behaviour, so the incidents merely brought laughter to the Northern lords, and gossip amongst the servants about the spirited nature of youth.

Ned and the Greatjon had spent three days discussing the dowry, and the keep they had agreed upon, going over the suggestions that had already been made by raven and ironing out the finer details. Then, at long last, Ned had written to Pyke. He did not seek permission to arrange a match for Theon. But rather a confirmation of acknowledgement, of the boy's blood and inheritance. As usual, Balon's reply was curt and cold. But no matter. Ashara and Ned would see that Theon had a place in the North, always. Even if his birth family were reluctant to acknowledge him, and Robert Baratheon still laboured under the misconception House Stark would execute Theon, if Balon acted against the Crown. What they didn't tell those vicious, vile men, could fill a library.

"Robb spends a lot of time with Riah," Elia said suddenly, quickly, as though desperate to throw the words out and away from her.

Ashara was dragged from her musings with a jolt, her stomach suddenly composed of liquid. Only long experience of being a  highborn lady and mother kept her face carefully blank of expression.

"Does he?" Ashara smiled mildly, "Well, such things are natural: she is his only cousin elder in age."

Even in the gloom, Ashara could see her daughter's face turn mulish.

"No, Mother," she insisted, "They meet in secret sometimes; in the godswood, and glass gardens."

"Do they? Being alone outside is not a crime, child." said Ashara breezily, "Those are both beautiful places to walk through, when the roses are in bloom-"

"I saw them kiss!"

Ashara felt her heart skip a beat, furious and thrilled all at once, to have the confirmation of her poisonous thoughts. Quick and silent as a shadowcat, she dropped to her knees, and took hold of Elia's face in both of her hands. Her daughter was panting, eyes wide and frightened and confused. She was a child; a puzzled, sweet child, her loyalties torn between keeping faith with her beloved brother or caring mother.

"Keep your voice low, little one," Ashara whispered, "Now tell me true; what manner of kiss? When was this?"

Elia's eyes flickered across her mother's face, unsure. But when she spoke, Ashara did not believe her words sounded as a lie of any kind.

"Two days ago. Upon the cheek."

"Only the cheek?" Ashara confirmed.

Elia nodded. The braided crown of her curly brown hair bobbing up and down with the movement.

"They were playing in the godswood. Monsters and maidens." She clarified, "Robb lifted Riah into his arms and kissed her upon the cheek, after he saved her."

"I see," Lady Stark hummed, for she did. In the eye of her mind, she saw Robb using any chance to remain close to Mariah; even children's games he had long grown out of playing. She saw Jory grow furious with his lord's son; laughing when Robb was struck by a heavy tourney sword in the courtyard. Hanging back when Robb rode recklessly through the wolfswood, telling the other guards to let the boy have his fun. Turning a blind eye, when an arrow hit too close to Robb's feet. Leaving Robb to bleed out in the snow, when one finally hit its mark.

Oh, my poor, stupid, love-struck, fool of a boy, she thought, you will rain death down upon yourself, with storm clouds of your own making.

In the dim, half-light, Ashara looked up at the statue of Jon's other mother. A wolf-blooded girl, dead at six-and-ten, because she followed her heart and did not do her duty. They did not even have Brandon's bones to bury. Mariah's own father was a pile of ash, because he rode South and told a King to hand over his son and heir for execution. Wolves; they were quick to snarl, but easy enough to skin when they separated from their pack.

That will not be my child, Ashara vowed, a solemn promise to every god she knew.

Robb could hate her all she wished. But she while she had breath in her lungs, Lady Ashara of House Stark would do anything in her power to save her children from such painful fates... Anything at all.

Chapter Text

 

W I N T E R F E L L

L a d y ' s   C h a m b e r

 

Ashara knelt in her seldom-used room, and placed a small idol of the Mother in front of her. She kept wooden figures of the Seven on her mantle, six facing outward, their boldly carved lines proud and fierce. Only the Stranger was turned away, to face the wall, and rarely did she consent to touch his cold representative.

Opening her cracked and creased copy of the Seven Pointed Star, Ashara found the passages relating to the Mother aspect, and recited her wisdom aloud. A font of mercy… could Ashara ever be thought as such? In this life, perhaps it was not the first word that would spring to mind.

She placed a hand on her belly and prayed for the health of her unborn child, that he or she would be lusty and loud, therefore more likely to live. She prayed for Jon, separated from her by many miles and tasked with a mission he might not yet be ready for. Then she prayed for her other children; for Robb to know sense, for Elia to continue to be brave, for Arya to find a place in this world, despite her lack of grace, and for Rickon to flourish in his studies. She prayed for Theon’s marriage to be blessed with love and children, and at last for herself, to survive the birth of this one.

No woman could take for granted that she would live to see her babe grown. Ashara knew this, having watched her mother die in the childbed, and knowing more that suffered the same. Men had armour when they went to war, but a woman’s battle was in the bedchamber, and all the armour she had was her prayers.

After kneeling in supplication and offering the goddess her devotion, Ashara struggled to her feet. Her ankles were already giving her issue. It was what she liked least about being with child; the indignity of not being able to function under her own power without help. She struggled up to sit on the bed, and lifted each foot in turn, rotating each in both directions. The circular motions brought feeling back into her toes, and she sighed to know the swelling would be a continual issue from hereon.

But she could not complain, for it was worth it, to bring another child into Winterfell, to be cherished by all. Ashara knew she was far luckier than many mothers. There was perhaps no one else left alive who knew how frequently poor Elia had begged the gods for her womb to quicken again. Until she left for the North, Ashara had been her companion in all things, including kneeling on bended knee in the Great Sept of Baelor before the gigantic statue of the Mother.

When word had come to the Neck, of the sack of King’s Landing by the Lannister forces, Ashara had wept bitterly. Elia had been her lady; her Princess. She was gracious, kind and good. Elia did not deserve to suffer such horrors, all for the whims of her foolish husband. But such is the fate of women; they go where their fathers bid, and cast their lot in with their husbands. Whether they approve or agree with them matters not, in the end.

Ashara had helped tend to the Princess of Dorne, after the birth of little Aegon, who had unintentionally caused such strife when coming into the world. Both births had been difficult on Elia, and she had not been overly robust to begin with. She was a sweet young woman, but none would have called her thick-skinned. Insults wounded her deeply, and she never recovered from her husband’s lack of enthusiasm in her, after they were betrothed.

The Princess’ health only continued to wane under her husband’s continued inattention. At times, Rhaegar’s apathy was such that Ashara suspected he barely cared whether or not he woke in the morn. Ashara had wanted to rage at him for not caring, for being lost in his misery, when he had a warm wife and sweet babes that needed him. But she could see it would be of little use. Rhaegar was touched by the gods, or so it was whispered, and mortal cares did not cling to him in the same way they did to others. Whatever the cause of his melancholy, he did not see fit to bring many into his confidence, which was perhaps a sound strategy, in the court of the Mad King. His only friends were her own brother Arthur, Ser Barristan, and his mother; all others he kept at a distance.

When Ashara pestered Arthur to make the Prince see reason, and be more mindful of his wife’s feelings, her brother would only grimace. He claimed it was not his place, to intervene in the sacred bond between a man and his wife. Ashara could have clawed his eyes out for that. They had fought over it, in hushed voices, her tall, agile brother easily avoiding the swipe of her fists.

“My Prince trusts me, because I do not abuse that trust by offering up impertinent judgement on his private affairs,” Arthur had told her once, his cornflower blue eyes hard as the steel he wielded with both hands.

But he was still her brother. Still the man who as a boy had thrown a dagger at her feet when they were children, to skewer an asp which had slithered along the train of her dress. Saving her life. When action needed to be taken, Arthur would do it, but only within the bounds of his honour. Arthur's gaze could not remain cold for long; sandstone is permeable, after all, and absorbs the heat of the sun.

“If he asks for my counsel, I will give it, remembering your words,” he had said, “This is the only promise I can give you on this matter, Ash.”

He was the only one to term her such. It had been their mother’s affectionate pet name for Ashara, originally. When the two people to use it had both died, Ashara permitted no other the privilege. Not even her Ned, though the name would have been welcome in his gruff baritone. No, it symbolised the girl she no longer was and the dreams Ash could never see realised. And so Ashara had set that name aside, for she was a woman grown in spirit and logic.

If only men were capable of setting aside their boyhood notions so easily. Perhaps Rhaegar would have lived, if he could only shake off whatever had ensnared him so. If it were only Elia that he could not bring himself to love, perhaps Ashara would have hated him more. But Rhaegar could rarely muster so much as a smile for anyone. His wife was not alone in that regard. That Elia failed to drag him from his melancholy was no fault of her own. But the burden lay heavy on the Princess’ shoulders regardless, and no kind words from her friends could soothe the ache in her heart. That he could not bring himself to love her was Elia’s flaw, in her eyes, and nothing Ashara did, could suck that poison out. Instead, it leaked into every aspect of the Prince and Princess' life together; they were not united in court, and allowed men such as Varys the Spider to weasel their way between them.

But their's was not the only unhappy marriage in Westeros, however. Ash had hoped that Prince Rhaegar would come to care for Elia, in time. That he might one day respect her for her wise counsel, and the careful manner in which she raised his children. But Ash had been young, and not yet exposed to war, nor the pain of childbed, and the agonising love a mother has for her children. How that love could afflict the mind, and make shadows into lurking threats. Ash had been naive, and it was Ashara alone who suffered for it. Of the noble ladies who had been Elia’s closest friends, only she had survived the Rebellion.

Highborn men and women did not often have the luxury of marrying for love. Most were bound for the security of their House, or more mercenary reasons. It had ever been so. Even in Dorne, where most were more free with their affections. In many ways, Ashara saw the wisdom in that method. Offending bannermen, or frittering away the riches of a House on an unsuitable match, would be foolish in the extreme. She was lucky that her lord father felt secure enough in his alliances, to allow her to follow where her heart sang out to be. Lord Dayne had seen what inbreeding had done to the Targaryens. Great dragonriders reduced to pitiful wretches or brooding dreamers, who refused to take the necessary steps to save the realm from their volitile father. Worried that the frequency with which House Dayne had intermarried with their closest neighbours, he had urged Ashara to find a suitor from further afield.

She was quite certain her lord father had meant the Reach or Stormlands. But despite scowling, at the thought of her wasting her beauty on a second son from the North, he had allowed the match without too much bluster. Ashara was forever grateful to him, though he would never know how much. Her Father had survived the war only to keel over in his own Hall. The maesters called it a seizure of the heart.

A brother and her father lost to her all within a few moons. If she did not have darling little Robb, and later Jon to dote upon, Ashara was not sure her heart could have taken the strain. Would her love for Ned alone have filled the aching chasm which opened within her, when word came of their deaths? She could only hope it would have been, and be thankful in her prayers that she had not had cause to find out.

Smoothing a hand over the thickly embroidered silk at her stomach, Ashara considered Elia’s plight with fresh eyes. As a woman with many babes, perhaps now she could understand why two was not enough.

After the birth of Aegon, when Elia had been so ill, the Grand Maester had suspected she would not survive another child. Ashara had seen how uneasy that made her Princess. But she could not understand it at the time, why Elia was so worried that two heirs would not be enough. The gods had seen fit to give her only two children, but they were hale, and bonny. Ashara, young and naive as she was, could never have imagined what Rhaegar was prepared to do to have another.

When Jon was small, a babe with no parents, no House, and no chance of survival, Ashara could not deny she had entertained, however briefly, raising him into a warrior. A hidden Prince who could one day overthrow Robert Baratheon; that loud, preposterous Lord of Storm’s End who had ridiculously become their King. A man Ash had never paid much attention to, well knowing his kind… a man who had laughed over the bodies of the sweet babes that Ashara had once bounced upon her knee. How could she let such a savage man be rewarded with the Kingdom, for their deaths? But should she then have rejected Ned, her beloved Ned, for that self-same reason? Ned was not the one who slew Aegon and Rhaenys.

Ned had not known about it until far after the fact, and he would never have countenanced it. Ned was certainly not the reason why Elia’s children had still been present in the Red Keep, when Tywin Lannister’s forces sacked the city. That fell upon Mad King Aerys himself. He had refused to send Rhaegar’s wife to Dragonstone with Rhaella and Viserys, over some crazed belief that Dorne had risen against him. But Ned had not smiled at the deaths of Elia’s children, nor had he failed to punish the savage beasts who had done the deed. Those crimes lay at Robert’s feet alone. And perhaps Jon Arryn’s, for he had ever been the power behind the Baratheon dynasty, and he would never have allowed Robert to spurn the hand of friendship from Tywin Lannister.

Ashara did not shy away from her own failings. As she smoothed a hand over where her newest babe slumbered, she did not fail to recognise that she had once considered raising a babe to be her champion. A boy with a mission to overthrow the usurper, and restore the fallen House to which her dear friend had been wed into. But after mere days of being Jon’s mother, she knew she could not raise him like a lamb for the slaughter; a boy-king for other men to rally round and force onto the battlefield so that others could benefit from his bloody pain. Only a monster could look into the grey eyes of that sweet babe and offer him up as such.

When they arrived first in Winterfell, Ashara had taken Jon into the godswood, alone. With the babe in her arms, she knelt before the heart tree of the gods which had never been her’s. There she had sworn to protect Jon from all the evils of realm, and guide him as though he were her own. She vowed she would never lead him into temptation, nor offer him false promises, nor ever use him gain revenge on her enemies. Jon would not be her hostage; he would be her son. In return, she begged the gods to watch over him and Robb, and any other children she might give Ned and the North. She made a bargain with Ned’s gods.

“They are Northern children. They belong here, and they belong to you. So you must do your duty by them. Keep them safe when I cannot. Watch over them. Save them from threats in the dark and hidden schemes. Let them grow into warriors and leaders, wise and well-loved by their people. Do this for me, and I promise that my children, Ned’s children: Robb and Jon and all that come after them, will never know the Light of the Faith as I have known it. They will keep to your ways, and spread them. They will be the voice your silent trees need, to battle against fire and axes and the indifference of the South. So do I swear.”

She had been kneeling in the dirt, whispering to a white tree with blood-red leaves. Jon had been squirming in her arms, staring up at her with big trusting eyes, already in love with her; already convinced she was his mother. Ashara had felt the breath of the ancient ones on the back of her neck; heard their hissing voices in the shaking of the leaves. She knew they had accepted her vow.

It was the first and only time she prayed to the gods of Ned’s forefathers.

 

 

W I N T E R F E L L

L o r d   S t a r k ' s   S o l a r

 

Viserys Targaryen had lived long enough to die of a mysterious fever at the citadel. His mother Rhaella had died giving life to one last daughter, Lady Daenerys, who had ultimately been betrothed to Hoster Tully’s heir, no doubt after a long debate between men. It was difficult for Ashara to care about another of the Mad King’s babes. The young Lady had always been so far away from her. The girl babe was still on Dragonstone, at that time Ashara was first confronted with Lyanna Stark’s son.

But Jon had been right there, wiggling in Ned’s arms. He looked so like Robb, with his soft dark hair, and big bold eyes. But his were grey instead of purple, and the shape of his head was more like Ned’s - the long oval face of a Northman. Whereas Robb, her precious, perfect little Robb, had a more heart-shaped face, and her delicate chin.  But side by side, they could be brothers, she thought.

Her own brother Arthur had died for Jon, and she could not let his sacrifice be tarnished, by not protecting the child he had forsaken his sacred vows to save. Ned explained that while Ser Oswell had watched on in horror, Arthur and Ser Gerold had butchered one another. But not before the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard had cut down Lord Dustin, and deeply wounded Ethan Glover. Were it not for Arthur’s sacrifice, no doubt more of Ned’s most loyal companions would have died that day.

Ned had been sickened to ask his men to swear to uphold a lie, but he had allowed Ashara to persuade him in the end. The men that fought beside him and later buried Lyanna Stark were loyal to their bones. And they had loved the wild wolf girl. They would not betray Jon to the mercy of Robert Baratheon. Not when they had listened to the dying pleas of his mother, and she had apologised for the loss of their friends in the battles, and begged for the life of her babe.

Ashara had not thought she would ever be forced to ask Ned to call upon those companions again, but she knew the scandal would rock House Stark if she did not. So she steeled her spine, and made her way to her lord husband’s solar. Hallis Mollen was standing guard without. If he was surprised to see her, he gave no indication, merely stepping aside to allow her entry.

At the familiar sound of her steps, Ned looked up from his ledger with surprise, his quill dangling from his fingertips. Rarely did Ashara interfere directly with his working hours. She knew how busy Ned was. And his burdens were increased manifold, by the advent of the Arryn’s arrival. Jon had sent word via raven; they had set off along the King’s Road, and would be pitching in tents until they reached a tavern. But as long as he was adhering to the plans they had discussed, a detour would prevent them from arriving as quickly as they otherwise might have.

But there were many men already in Winterfell, and Ned was forced to mediate between them all, whilst overseeing the continued upkeep of the North. Ashara usually adhered to her duties and her schemes without input from Ned. Until by night they lay in their chambers, and spoke of their progress in the hour of the wolf.

“I am sorry to disturb you, my love,” Ashara said softly, “but it cannot wait.”

“The children-?” Ned blanched, halfway out of his seat, before she could stay his panic.

Once she had convinced him all was well for the moment, Ned settled back heavily in his chair, regarding her with studious attention.

“I must ask something of you, and you shall not like it,” she said.

Ashara carefully skirted around her husband’s huge, heavy oak desk. She preferred to daintily hop up upon it, rather than sink into the uncomfortable chair across from it. Rarely was the empty chair occupied by anyone. Those that were unfortunate enough to be called before their liege lord in private were usually in for a scolding, and were thus required to stand.

Ned reached for her immediately. He first pressed soft hands about her middle, as if to reassure himself of the life still growing there. Then Ned brushed his hands over her lap, offering her a smile of reassurance that she attempted to return. His warm hands upon her knees grounded her, though they also made her feel like a girl again.

“This is a rare thing,” Ned chuckled, hoping to lighten the mood, “My wife coming to me with a request! Often, you have a found a way to have the matter done, before I hear a whisper of it.”

When Ashara did not laugh at his teasing, his face grew grave. Ned sat up higher, running worried grey eyes across her beautiful face. The serious look upon his own features made him seem ten years older than he was in truth. Slowly, Ashara reached out a single hand, and smoothed it down from the crown of his head to the tip of his bristly chin.

“I have loved you so long, I cannot remember what it feels like not to,” she said, her eyes darkening as she considered the joys and sorrows of their life together. “You have made me so very content, my love.”

“And you, I.” Ned was quick to reply, his brow furrowed with confusion, and no small fear. As though she might announce she was no longer content, and wished to follow the steps of Lady Mellario, and return to the home of her forefathers.

He licked his lips, a nervous dart of pink tongue. When she said nothing more, Ned leaned closer, grasping both of his wife’s hands with his own. Then he winced and let go, for they were like two tiny pieces of the Wall. Ashara laughed, and rubbed her cold palms together to warm them a little, before joining their hands once more. Her dainty fingers were tiny and child-like in comparison to her husband’s broad, calloused skin.

“Are you unwell, my love? Or... unhappy? When you were heavy with Arya, you were unhappy until I procured oranges from Braavos, do you recall?”

At that sweet memory, Ashara’s lips finally consented to turn up, into a ghostly, dim smile.

“I do recall such a bounty. Crate upon crate from White Harbour! I thought the poor drays were going to keel and die from the weight of those carts.” She said wistfully, reminded of less fraught times, “You have been too good to me, husband.”

Ned immediately shook his head in denial. “I have only done my best to give you all that you deserve. And I will continue to do all in my power to keep you in the manner you deserve to be kept.”

“I know it,” Ashara murmured, “You have given me all I could ever have wished for and more. But I am not heartsick for a want of happiness Ned; I am unhappy because Robb is not fit to be your heir.”

Ned stared up at her in shock, his mouth falling clean open. She had never maligned one of their children so damningly. Robb was her pride and joy; all the children were, in truth, but Robb was their heir. He was the pinnacle of their pride, the culmination of their efforts to raise an honourable generation of new Starks. Ned knew how she spoilt and fussed over her children, barely able to contain herself sometimes. He knew Ashara would not say such a hard statement lightly, and yet he shook his head in disbelief.

“Not fit-”

“Oh, I do not doubt his skill in the yard. He attends well his lessons on military strategy, can ride and hunt and charm all men with tales of his prowess, well I know it.” Ashara huffed, unimpressed.

Ned said nothing, preferring to wait and see what possible complaint she could muster. He doubted her, she knew. Thought it was Mother’s Stomach, making her lose her wits.

“But Robb clearly needs to be confined with Maester Luwin, with several tomes on the hideous ends that befell men who do not respect their bannermen’s needs.”

Ned gaped at her for a long moment, caught unaware and unable to formulate a responce. At length, he shook himself out of his bemusement.

“If Robb has given grave offence to one of my lords, I will see him punished for it accordingly,” Ned said grimly, seeming to have reached an incorrect conclusion of his own. Ashara wondered what he suspected; a harmless prank that caused real offence, perhaps? It was likely far from the truth.

“Tell me plain what he has done, and I will see reparations made.”

Ashara scoffed theatrically. “Would that it were so simple, my lord. But there is only one solution to this issue, Ned. And I fear in your mercy, you will choose a lesser measure, thus damning your son to long, agonising death.”

“Ashara-!” Ned started, leaping to his feet again. Ready to fell any beast that had the gall to menace his children. And in that moment she loved deeply him for it, despite the lack of caution it showed. Again she placated her husband, until Lord Stark reluctantly slumped back into his seat.

“Who dares to threaten my son?” he asked, in a voice like the rumble of thunder in a darkening sky.

At last Ashara knew he was prepared to listen. She had him, and he would understand the gravity of her words. He must. So she told him everything.