That morning, the sun rose as a canopy of gold, bright and sweeping across the once blue sky. As it filtered through the window, Arya turned her face to the sleeping man beside her.
Once, six years ago, in a foggy city with grey skies a plague faced man told her of the price one who served in the House of Black and White had to pay. The price is you, he said. The price is all you have and all you ever hope to have. You will be no one’s daughter, no one’s wife, no one’s mother. The girl who had been Arry, Weasel, Nan, Squab, Cat of the Canals, and Arya Horseface, thought it to be an easy sacrifice to make. What use did that girl with the hole for a heart have for a husband and children?
But then she found Jon again and the boy who’d wipe her tears and listen to her fears became the man that filled the hole the deaths of Father and Mother and Robb created in her heart. He did it with his love, and kindness - just as he always had.
Looking at Jon as he slept on what was now their bed, she realised how steep that price truly was . To have paid it would have been to miss out on this - waking up next to him, watching the man the world called the Last Hero, sleep, peacefully with his arms around her . The woman he chose. Though there was no doubt there were others who offered themselves to him.
They’d not done this before. Even when they were children and she sought refuge in his bed, in the morning, she’d find herself back in her own. When they met once again as man and woman, one would sneak out of the other’s rooms like a thief in the night, leaving the other to wake up to a cold, empty bed.
Not so this morning. She couldn’t do it this morning, he’d slept with his arm wrapped well around her, nor did she want to if she was honest with herself.
“Good morning,” he rasped, when he finally woke, not making a move to release his hold on her.
Instead of replying, she nuzzled her nose against his, bumping it in their own secret form of affection.
“I told you,” he said, with beaming eyes.
She couldn’t help but return his smile. Tilting her head and drawing her brows together in confusion, “Told me what?” she asked.
“That night at the stream. In the Wolfswood. When I first asked you to marry me. I told you I’d have you for a bride,” he grinned impishly. “I also told you I’d never break a promise to you, so here we are.”
My husband, she whimpered. So intense was the surge of emotion that came over her at the thought. It was only then that she realised she’d been staring at him sidelong and starry-eyed. She was rendered speechless by a few words. What was she a love-sick maid of seventeen? Well..yes.
“Do you remember what else I told you that night?” he questioned.
She shook her head at him in question.
“I told you,” he whispered, moving himself above her, “that I wanted to…” he kissed her jaw, “lay you on my bed as my wife.”
Before he could kiss her again she put her hand on his lips. “You also told me you didn’t want to have me on a hard rock, Jon, and you did have me on the hard rock,” she teased him, laughing.
He didn’t smile or laugh at her joke. He merely looked fixedly at her, the woman underneath him. So piercing was his gaze that she felt feverish.
“I love you,” she uttered suddenly, unsure when the words escaped her. Judging by his stiffened posture and searching eyes, he was just as taken aback by her outburst. Usually, he was the one who spoke of how he felt. After all those years in the House of Black and White, speaking of her feelings felt foreign to her. Loving a man as a woman does, and being as open with Jon as he was with her felt unfamiliar. Yet as she lay beneath him, it felt natural. “I love you,” she repeated again to the stunned man with shiny grey eyes above her. It felt right to say it. “I love you,” she said again. This time his shaky, slow smile built into a look of welcome delight and she felt as if a dam had burst within her.
“You talk about how I loved a sullen bastard. You loved an ugly little girl who never quite fit in. And here we are.” For good measure, she couldn’t help it, she added, “Woman and husband.”
As a chuckle escaped him, a teardrop fell on her cheek. He placed his forehead against hers, making space for himself between her splayed legs.
“I love you,” she said a fourth time. This time both their eyes were closed. “Snow, Stark, Targaryen, bastard, Lord Commander, King.” She cupped his face between her hands.“You’ve worn as many names and identities as I have,” she told her husband. “We were meant to be you and I.”
She felt him relax into her touch, and slowly, tentatively, with eyes still closed, he placed his lips on hers. They’d lain together plenty of times, but what they did this morning felt like the beginning of something new.
When they were done, he lay his head upon her belly. Tracing her scars with his fingers, while she ran her fingers through his hair.
“I want pups of our own Arya,” he said, in a voice so small she almost didn’t hear it. He looked up to her then.
“Well, I’m out of moon tea,” she admitted.
For some reason that made him smile. “Good,” he grinned. “When this council is over and we get married again, I’m taking you from Winterfell to somewhere only we’ll know and I won’t bring you back until I’m sure you’re with child.”
She found herself giggling. “Why?” she asked. And he told her. He told her of the dream that felt too out of reach for a bastard boy up on the Wall.
“What if I can’t..have children?” she asked him, worried that she might never be able to give him what he wanted.
“You will,” he promised her, fiercely. “Ghost and Nymeria waited for your return. I’m sure we’ll have our own litter.”
“And if we don’t?”
“Then we don’t.”
He helped her get dressed for the council, all in garb that he bought her. A square shaped tunic, fitted breeches and a skirt - clothes that she felt most comfortable in. To top it off, he cloaked her, in their wedding cloak. In the light of day she saw the clasp had one white wolf and one grey one. Ghost and Nymeria. Not House Stark. Just their other halves bound together, just as they now were.
Next to his gift, her silver ring with their names, in the fashion of Lorath, seemed insignificant, though he would not stop playing with it with a smile on his face for the rest of the day.
As they broke their fast with their family before the council, Arya couldn’t see anyone else but him.
After they ate, they made their way to the already packed hall. They waited outside, for the great oak and ironwood door to open, for their arrival to be heralded.
Uncle Brynden, Lord Howland Reed and Osha had gone in before them. Outside, it was just them. The five Starks. Bran and Meera, Jon and her and Rickon. A contingent of their household guards stood behind them.
Jon held the handles of Bran’s wheeled chair, while Rickon looked the lord next to them. The two men and boy of her life. She had never felt so proud. And next to her, her goodsister.
“So…” Meera intoned leaning over to her, “I hear congratulations are in order.”
When Arya turned to face her, Meera had a twinkle in her eyes and a barely concealed smirk on her lips.
She looked over at Bran who had the exact same look on his face as his wife.
“If I never go near another weirwood. I want you to know this is why,” Arya bit back.
“Bran didn’t see it,” Meera said in defense of her husband, “you can blame your... husband,” she added with teasing. “So…” she whispered, wiggling her eyebrows, “How was the consummation?”
“What?” she grimaced in feigned offence, “Your brother got me pregnant somewhere between that cave of his and this castle.”
Meera felt like a sister more than Sansa ever had. She shared Arya’s sense of humour, loved a fight just as much and never backed down from a challenge. And as they laughed together outside the closed door of Winterfell’s Great Hall, Arya was glad she joined their family.
The Great Hall was fuller than Arya had ever seen it before. The great oak doors that led to the inner yard were all wide open, with crowds outside arduously straining to hear what was said inside. Maester Elric was already upon his seat on the dais and above, in the gallery were more grey garbed maesters than Arya had ever seen in her life. They were no doubt there to write about the North’s historic council.
The Children of the Forest, Black Knife, Ash and Snowylocks sat near the high table with Lord Howland, Uncle Brynden and Osha. Not far from them, were the free folk representatives: The Weeper, Tormund, Val, and the Skagosi chieftains among others.
Everywhere she looked there was a sea of hopeful northmen. On the Karstarks’ table Arya spotted the Sand Snakes. They sat by the window outside which Wun Wun sat to watch the proceedings. Their faces still sported a look of marvel at what Bran had brought together. Underneath that look however, she saw a look she knew well. One she sported for years herself and did just last night; the look of an unquenched thirst for vengeance. Whatever the source of their hunger for retribution, she saw that it didn’t extend to their family. They seemed playful if nothing else whenever they spoke to Jon. She’d have to speak to them properly soon to get the true measure of them.
“I welcome you to our fires,” Bran said confidently, “and offer you meat and mead in honour of our friendship.”
“I thank you for coming all this way,” he added with a strength in his voice that belied how young he was, how young they all were.
He looked so much like Robb once did that it made her heart ache in longing for the brother they lost. His looks were entirely their mother’s but the steel in the voice of the lord that spoke belonged to their father.
“I’ve heard it said before,” he continued, “that when there was a Stark in Winterfell, a maiden girl could walk the kingsroad in her name-day gown and still go unmolested, and travelers could find fire, bread, and salt at many an inn and holdfast. But the nights grew colder and the doors closed. So much of what we have all suffered during the wars was the result of a failure of leadership.”
“We regret that we were unable to step up in your hour of need. We were no more than children ourselves but that was no excuse. Our father raised us all to know Winter is Coming. When it came we were unprepared,” her brother lamented.
It was Lord Manderly who raised his hand, standing too onerous for him, “None of us were prepared, my lord. Much less, children like you were.”
Her brother nodded at him in acknowledgement of his kind words.
“We feel your pain and we mourn your losses as you do ours,” Bran went on. “While we were unable to grant you the safety you deserved and were owed by House Stark, there are Starks in Winterfell once more and we hope to return the faith you have put in our name.” Her brother turned to her, prompting her to continue their thanks.
Arya stood. “There would be no Starks in Winterfell today if you, northmen and free folk alike, did not bleed to return this castle to us,” she said in recognition of their sacrifices.
“You fought two wars behind a Stark in Jon,” she announced proudly, turning her eyes to the man she married. She sent him a secret smile, almost forgetting there was anyone else in that Hall. “The castle we have returned to is not the castle Bran tells me he left. Jon rebuilt this place and he made it a home for us, with all of you. You remained loyal to our father even after his death. For that we thank you. Now, we owe it to you to step into his shoes and to serve you as you served his memory.”
The crowd cheers with bellows of Ned Stark thrown out from the crowd.
Next to speak was Rickon who began his thanks in the Common Tongue before switching into a flurry of the Old Tongue that had the free folk, and Jon, in smiles.
Bran followed Rickon with his own attempt at the Old Tongue, one that he found funny himself. He spoke of the gratefulness of House Stark to the free folk for standing with Jon, and his personal gratitude to the Crowl and the Skagosi for looking after Rickon. “But above all, I’d like to thank the woman who entered our home as a prisoner, and became a stand-in mother for both Rickon and I.” As he said that, looking directly at Osha, Arya saw a tear escape the eye of the woman her two brothers took into their hearts.
“Long ago,” he said of the free folk and the Starks, “our people fought ugly wars. Today, we sit here, sharing meat and mead and the old way between us. From this day, I declare you our people as you have made us yours. You need no welcome to Winterfell from me, but I welcome you anyway, into our home and into our hearts.”
Tormund and the Weeper answered his welcome with tales about how Jon Snow once took his enemies as friends. Arya looked with pride to the man she loved. The man all these people loved and looked to as their hero.
Turning to the Children, her brother explained the long history between the First Men and the Children. He spoke of the Pact, the agreement he wanted to revive and the lands he wished to grant the people who fought alongside man to defeat the Others.
“And last, but not least,” Bran smiled, “I would like to thank my lady wife, Lady Meera of House Reed, for being my companion for the last six years.” He then kissed his wife’s hand in gratitude to cheers from his people.
When they quited, Lord Brandon spoke once more. “A man who had no idea who I was, once told me, when I escaped the sacking of Winterfell, things were different when there was a Stark in Winterfell. He agonised that the old wolf was dead and that the young one went south to play the game of thrones, leaving the North to ghosts. It was my friend Jojen Reed, who reminded us that the wolves would come again. Now we have. And it is my vow to you that once again a maiden girl will be able to walk the King’s Road in her name day gown and travelers will be able to find meat and mead in many a holdfast and inn.”
Her brother was given his loudest cheers at that.
“Now,” he pronounced, inviting her to take the lead, “we will present our plans to make that happen for you.”
She detailed the natural riches of the North and the ways they’d exploit them to rebuild.
She spoke of how ample their wool industry was and how by virtue of that they could sell their goods to undercut The Reach’s sale of textiles at least insofar as wool was concerned. They were also unrivalled when it came to the production of fur and pelts. That seemed to please many of their lords.
“But what is truly worth its weight in gold,” she continued, “is our lumber. From the Wolfswood to the Haunted Forest, Bear Island to the Gift, we have an abundance of pine trees, oak trees, ironwoods, and sentinels throughout our land. Pine trees that make excellent masts and oaks that make resilient hulls.” She learned that from all the time she spent selling clams and cockles near the shipyards. The Kindly Man didn’t mind what three things she learned each time she went back to the House of Black and White so she tried to learn as many different things as possible.
“We also have plenty of land to set aside for ship-building and a population that has ample experience in sailing, making and repairing boats, in places like Bear Island and the Bay of Seals.” Arya noticed Lord Manderly’s calculating smile and Lady Mormont’s understanding that her people’s expertise was to bring its own rewards.
“Our neighbours in the Free Cities are seafarers, my lords,” she explained. “Braavos most of all.” Arya remembered the Arsenal which was capable of building a warship a day. “They are hungry for wood and there is no kingdom in Westeros that could rival us.” She learned from Jon that The Stormlands currently produced the most lumber but even they could not rival a fully productive North.
At that, Jon thanked the free folk who had volunteered mammoths to the task of transporting the lumber until the canals were built. This too was gladly received by their people, especially when they heard of Arya’s connections with the Sealord’s Palace and the Iron Bank’s invitation for business to Jon.
As they spoke of that, Arya tried to push back the feeling of foreboding that fell over her heart when she thought of all the ways they could find themselves caught between the queen’s desire for war and the Iron Bank’s unwavering pursuit to get their due. The Iron Bank’s pursual of their goals was why, she learned much later, she escaped punishment for killing of Raff the Sweetling. The Iron Bank used the death of Mercy, a poor young Braavosi girl, at the hands of a foreigner, Raff the Sweetling, as a means to expel Cersei’s Master of Coin, Harys Swyft, from Braavos. All because they wanted to fell Tommen’s reign. All these years later, the knowledge that, from half a world away, she played her own small part in Cersei’s fall still tickled Arya. She just hoped that this queen’s opinions were as malleable to good reason as Jon said. Otherwise an even worse fall awaited her. Cersei merely threatened to withhold payment. She did not threaten war.
“We also have stone in plenty,” Jon explained, “which will be central to rebuilding castles and holdfasts throughout the kingdom.”
”In addition to that,” she said, looking at the chiefs of the mountain clans, “the North is rich in silver. We could use the silver we mine to start our own Silver Bank in White Harbor.” Lord Manderly had shown her the Old Mint there and some of their silver stores. She praised him for all he did for their people and their economy.
“However, while we are rich in resources we are poor in coin. For that reason we will need to reach out to the Iron Bank of Braavos to offer them a share in our bank in return for their investment.” This was Jon’s suggestion, she looked at him with a grateful smile which he returned with a look of pride, and barely hidden hunger that was inappropriate for a Hall so full. She felt herself flush and had to clear her throat to return to her speech.
When she finished, Bran took over once more to set out their plans to solve the issues that would hold back their development.
The first was the vastness of their land. He shared more widely this time their plans to connect the North through a system of canals that would not only boost trade but speed up travel.
“A well connected North - allows us to serve you better,” he pledged. “When we are done, from the Northern Mountains to the Neck, you will all be able to travel easily to Winterfell to share your grievances with us.”
As he detailed the routes, Arya looked at the map to see how Barrowton and The Rills, the centre of the wool and horse-breeding regions, sat at the heart of their new canal systems. She basked in the knowledge that the woman who hated her parents would never see a single copper of the riches that would pass through those lands.
Bran also announced the establishment of a new town in Torrhen’s Square in addition to the new town they’d previously discussed at the mouth of the Saltspear. Torrhen’s Square was to be another hub of their canal system and the town was a benefaction to House Tallhart after Bran rejected their proposal for her hand.
Bran also declared Ser Davos the new castellan of Moat Cailin, their customs point for overland trade. Everyone laughed once Bran spoke of how well the role suited a smuggler, all while Jon praised the man’s loyalty to his previous king and Jon himself.
Bran also promised to continue the Stark tradition of providing for Winter Town and declared the establishment of new underground winter towns based on the Mole’s Town model. The Children knew how to build underground cities and would help them develop them. It was Meera’s idea to create winter schools within these towns so that their people could learn while they were unable to till the fields.
Winter is coming, was ingrained into all of them but none more so than the Lord Commander and King who had to see his people through that season.
She looked at him, sat upon the polished stone throne of the Kings of Winter. With the snarling direwolves on either side of him, she wondered whether when her father said she would marry a king, he knew it would be this one.
So lost was she in the movement of his lips, and his commanding presence that she missed most of his speech about importing Myrish glass and establishing storehouses for grain and barns for livestock throughout winter.
Next, he spoke of their plans to protect their West Coast from the Ironborn through a new navy.
To this end, Lord Manderly and Lady Mormont, promised their people who were experts in seafaring to the task of training fishermen to become sailors.
Then Bran set out their intention to create a new Western port that would better connect them to the west coast of Westeros. In doing this, he announced new lordships and the betrothals that would form new alliances, including those between Ser Davos’ two sons and Northern families.
In this vein, he also announced marriages between the free folk and northmen families whose expertise lay in farming. That would help them revitalise The Gift.
Not only was it great land for farming, it was perfect for the free folk’s elk and reindeer herds.
“The foundation of the new land we wish to build was laid by my cousin and brother,” Bran said, turning to Jon, “When he married our cousin Alys Karstark to Sigorn Thenn. To celebrate the North we wish to build, and bid good riddance to what we sought to destroy, we intend to grant The Dreadfort and all of its attendant lands and incomes to House Thenn.”
He then went on to name the new lords of many of the old castles along the Wall. The ghost castles as Old Nan used to say. When they were children Bran knew them all by name. He could name them from east to west and west to east without thinking. So much so that even Uncle Benjen said Bran knew them better than him.
The attendant lands of these castles, Bran said, would come with a duty to always keep an eye out for a threat beyond the Wall. Something that the Children would help them with. Some of the former black brothers who settled in the North after the War for the Dawn offered up the expertise they developed in the Night’s Watch’s orders of the builders, miners and woodsmen as widely sought craftsmen.
Bran also announced his plans to foster closer relationships between their youngest generation by fostering a number of future lordlings at Winterfell, including Mance Rayder’s son Aemon Steelsong; a gesture that was widely welcomed by the free folk who saw Bran to be closely tied to the ways of the First Men.
As he spoke, she marvelled at the look of pride on their uncle’s face. One of the two last links they had to their mother.
One problem that still plagued them however was their small population. Though their lands were bigger than all of the other kingdoms they had fewer people than most.
To this effect, Jon recommended that they give lands to second and third sons of noble families as well as to men who proved their worth regardless of their birth. Men, who like he once had, would have had to seek to make their own way in the world without an inheritance to fall back on. He knew this would create a new Northern solidarity. To encourage people to move to the North they would also open this up the offer to second sons in the Vale and the Riverlands - lands they shared ties of kinship with. The condition would be that those sons married into Northern families. And to strengthen their Northern solidarity, preference would be given to sons of families who descended from the First Men.
When they had more money, he said, they would also offer small folk families that wanted to settle in the North a stipend to encourage their settlement.
When they were done sharing their vision for their homeland, their people exploded into cheers so loud the five Starks soared to new heights of emotion.
One by one, their lords and ladies, reaffirmed their fealty and allegiance to House Stark.
Variations of this is why there must always be a Stark of Winterfell were repeated by each lord as they revowed their loyalty to the Starks of Winterfell.
When Lord Howland Reed stood, the Hall quieted to hear the words of Ned Stark’s friend.
“My lord,” he said in his gentle voice, “we swore our swords and spears and arrows to your command on the condition that you grant mercy to our weak, help to our helpless, and justice to all. Do that, and we promised to never fail you. Your grandfather and father fulfilled that promise. It is why we rode south with your father. It is why the North rose to follow Robb to war and rose again to rescue Lady Arya from the Boltons. Today you, and before you Jon,” Lord Howland knew Jon preferred the name he grew up with to the name Aemon, “have all proved yourselves to be loyal to the path your forefathers set.”
Lord Howland then bent the knee. “And for that, I swear by earth and water, bronze and iron, ice and fire, to never fail you.”
Arya looked to see Bran’s eyes shiny with tears. She wished her father and mother were here to see what their little boy had achieved.
When everyone sat down once again, he began his closing speech. Part of which was the announcement of Jon and Arya’s upcoming nuptials.
“Last night,” he said confidently, “we saw the coming together of Lord Robett Glover and Lady Marna Dustin. In the coming days we will celebrate many more weddings including those of Lord Umber and Lady Cerwyn.” The Umber men whooped loudly.
“...our beloved kin Lord Harrion Karstark to his lady, Lady Allyria Dayne of Starfall and the wedding of Lady Jorelle Mormont to the Sword of the Morning, Lord Edric Dayne of Starfall.” Both the free folk and the northmen cheered at that, though the Dornish were not much quieter.
“And lastly,” Bran said with a pride that made her feel like she could fly, “I am delighted to announce the upcoming marriage between my sister, Arya, and my cousin, my brother, Jon, named Aemon by his parents.”
The applause and hoots of their people faded into nothingness when Jon stood up to pull her into his arms, placing his lips on her forehead.
As she closed her eyes, she remembered that night at the stream when he promised her he would make her his bride. Now he had.
Somewhere in the distance, she heard Bran close his council with “May your winters be short, your summers bountiful, and our dream of spring everlasting.”