She comes out a squalling, red faced thing, and Lyarra Stark is as she is in every other aspect of her life - relentless.
"Give her to me," she gasps, orders, even though she still thinks she may die yet because oh, the pain was surely not this terrible with Brandon, the Maester doesn't even consider not complying when he sees the steely look in her eyes.
"Hello," she says to the little baby, her second child, her first girl, who clenches her tiny fists with her tiny fingernails, her eyes stormy and wisps of hair dark. In answer the babe mewled and Lyarra feels so joyous, so victorious she thinks her heart may have burst.
She had been thinking of Lyanna for a daughter, but it didn't fit. Neither did any other pretty, limp name. This daughter of the north was made of sterner stuff.
"Eddara," she said, after a moment "as strong as a mountain, my lovely one."
Brandon is enamoured by Dara - as the babe had been nicknamed not a day after her entrance to the world - the moment he meets her, his big grey eyes widening as he stares down at her squashed features.
"She's small," he notes, with all the surety a four year old can have.
"Aye," Lord Rickard says, looking down at his daughter. He had been hoping for a son, but a daughter will do just as well "that's why she needs you."
"Me?" Brandon says in wonder. He's never been needed before, not really. All the smallfolk need his father to hear their grievances, and he needs mother to tuck him into bed, and Old Nan to tell him stories, and their Master-at-arms to teach him how to fight. But nobody has ever needed him.
"Yes, Brandon. Can I trust you with her?"
Brandon nods his head so hard he feels like it may fall off. Then his arms are full of baby sister, who looks at him with her large inquisitive eyes.
She blinks once, and then starts screaming.
In later years, Brandon pinpoints this as the moment he fell in love.
Dara grows into knobbled knees and a bleeding heart and a plain face that her father tuts over (southern ambitions, southern ambitions) and her mother makes her wash it three times a day, because if she must insist with playing with swords, she will do it with a clean face, because cleanliness is godliness.
She is fascinated by the Old Gods, and has been from a young age, sitting cross legged and still in front of the weirwood in a way Brandon couldn't do in a million years, just watching the carved face watching her until the blood red leaves fall and she threads them through her coarse, dark hair like a garland.
Lyarra calls her 'my lovely one', even when Lyanna is born, more lovely than Dara will ever be, with soft hair and fair skin that doesn't purple as easily as Dara's own does, with plump lips where Dara's are thinner and chapped. The only clue they're related is the colour of their hair and the colour of their eyes, and even that is doubted sometimes - Dara's eyes are always an oncoming storm, whereas Lyanna's are as light as a calm day.
Brandon makes Lyanna garlands for her hair made out of winter roses, and she looks so lovely Dara's heart hurts.
Dara has always known she isn't pretty, but until Lyanna, she hadn't wanted to be. More than anything she wants the way her father looks at Lyanna - it's like he's saying finally, a proper daughter.
He's never really cared what Dara did - her face was her failure, and therefore it didn't matter if she could sew (she couldn't) or curtesy (she could, after hours of practicing for a kind word that never came) or dance (she knew the fun songs that Brandon taught her, the ones with jumping and clapping, but she wasn't much good). He had been assured by Maester Luwin she knew how to run a household, and that was all a girl with a plain face really needed to know.
Lyanna with her delicate skin and pretty face and lustrous hair can't go outside and mar her pale skin with freckles like Dara does. She must sew and dance and play the harp and sing if possible. She cannot possibly go outside and rabble with the heir and what some had begun to jokingly refer to as 'the spare', who practiced at swords whenever they wanted.
Lyanna, being a Stark, did not like this at all.
She detested sewing and while she enjoyed dancing, she hated learning the intricate steps, the harp was a foreign concept to her and her singing voice was a little scratchy, but ah well, she was a pretty little thing.
She adored riding, Brandon often joking she was half a horse herself, and begged to play with swords whenever she could. Dara felt like screaming at her, no, no, mine!
It wasn't fair, she thought in bed, curled under her furs. Lyanna got to be pretty, why couldn't she be happy with that? But she had to steal Brandon for rides so Dara was all alone with a father who didn't know what do with his horsefaced daughter, a mother so heavy with child she couldn't get out of bed and a weirwood tree which never seemed to grant any prayers.
(pretty, pretty, pretty, make me pretty please, give me Lya's face, make father love me, pretty, pretty)
At seven years old, Dara saw Lya was taking everything, not just her father, but Brandon who always swore he liked her best, he had all but left. Lyanna's only five, she shouldn't be able to steal, but she was, she was, she was the pretty one and Lya gets what Lya wants.
(Dara once wanted a dolls house, and begged and begged for months. Father told her she spent all her time outside, so she wouldn't use it. Lya asked for a dolls house because she'd seen Dara asking and it arrived three moons before her nameday. She barely touched it.)
"Mother?" She asks in her too reedy voice, compared to Lya's lilting chimes.
"Ah," her mother's voice wafts from her bed, where she can barely move, seven moons bloated with babe "my lovely one." The endearment still sent a shiver through Dara - her mother was still hers, hers, the only thing Lyanna let her keep. Her mother is the only one who thinks her lovely, not even Brandon has ever called her lovely. Maybe her mother can't see what the rest of them can, and Dara loves her all the more for it.
Dara approaches, having been careful to scrub her face beforehand, so her cheeks were rosy and every single one of her freckles was shown. Mother loved her best this way, she knew, as the woman in question ran a gentle hand down the side of her daughters face.
"What is wrong, love? Tell me." Lyarra Stark hadn't changed, demanding and aware of things she shouldn't have been.
When Dara told her tale, she had the strangest feeling Lyarra already knew.
"Well, lovely one," she said after a few moments, by which time tears were washing down Dara's cheeks "I think I know the course we must pursue. Leave it all to me, love."
Two nights later father announced Brandon, a boy of eleven, was to be squiring at Barrowton and Dara would be going to the Vale to get to know her betrothed - Elbert Arryn.
Dara had known she'd have to marry at some point, and the Arryns were better than she knew her father had expected, but she didn't care about her betrothal.
She was getting away from pretty, perfect Lya.
That night she was out picking the best of the winter roses to present to her mother in the morn. When given them, she swore her mother glowed.
"Thank you, Dara. They are almost as lovely as you."
Dara felt like glowing herself at that.
The Eyrie was very windy, and very high.
Dara had just arrived, very annoyed at having to coming in a wheelhouse instead of riding like she wished. Her father hadn't come with her, instead choosing to escort Brandon to his new home.
It wasn't like she was the important one after all.
Her mother had kissed her brow from the bed, looking ready to pop, threading her hand through her hair and placing one of the winter roses Dara herself had collected behind her ear, now with the thorns removed. Dara thought it felt too smooth, too easy, but she pressed it between the pages of her book about Aegon and Visenya and Rhaenys anyway, a perfect bloom with all the harsh edges removed.
"Oh, lovely one..." She had breathed, and then nothing else.
Lya hadn't really understood, but kissed her on the cheek with a smack of her lips and Dara had heard her begin to cry as the wheelhouse left the gates of Winterfell.
Free, free, free.
From the Eyrie, Dara felt like she could soar.
She had been at the Eyrie not even a week when she met Robert Baratheon. She knew he was Jon Arryn's ward, as new to this sky high castle as she was.
She had been in the armoury, wondering if there was a sword light enough for her to carry, when a figure appeared in the doorway.
Spinning reflexively, her eyes widened at the sight of the tall, broad, dark haired youth blotting out the sun.
His brow furrowed.
"Who are you?" He asked, focusing on her surprised face.
"I'm Eddara Stark." She said, using her full name, trying to stand a little straighter.
A moment passed, and a grin cracked his face in two. He was like Brandon - handsome and he knew it. "M'names Robert." He told her, not bothering with a surname. He probably thought - correctly - that she knew who he was.
"Robert who?" She asked, raising an eyebrow cheekily, before she could stop herself. She knew, of course she knew this was Robert Baratheon, but she wanted to wipe that smug look off of his face. What had gotten into her?
Now it was his turn to look surprised, before his face went blank. Her heart beat quicker in her chest.
"You don't know who I am?"
"Nope." she lied, popping the 'p'.
"You're from the North, aren't you?" He said "My father said you live in a wilderness. That you're half savages."
"It's nicer than the south." She shot back, and it was. She missed Winterfell, and Brandon, and mother, and the weirwood, and even Lyanna a little. But she could like it here.
"Put away your claws!" He laughed, and after a tense moment Dara laughed with him. "Eddara's a handful. I'm going to call you Ned."
Her heart dropped, and her cheeks flamed "That's a boy's name! I'm not a boy, I'm not!"
"Never said you were!" He protested as her eyes began to fill with tears against her will "It's just easier to say."
"Okay." She said quietly.
He grinned at her fully then, again. She supposed he wasn’t too bad after all. "Okay."
The day after Ned's (as she had come to be called by, well, everyone) eighth nameday, the raven came.
She had gained a brother, called Benjen, and lost a mother.
(Oh, my lovely one...)
Ned cried all night, and not even Robert, who had become her first and firmest friend at the Eyrie, could stop her tears. In the end, the older boy just held her as she sobbed into his shoulder.
Jon Arryn left her well alone and gave her a fortnight off lessons (here, she actually had to go and do things with a septa, which had never happened before, somebody cared where she was and what she did).
It didn't bring her mother back. Only the darkness could do that.
At night her mother sang to her, and called her 'lovely one' and Ned always woke up with wet eyes.
After five years in the Eyrie, some days forgetting her gender when she laughed along with Robert and the rest, at age thirteen, she flowered.
When she woke in the bloody bed, she almost died. There was only one thing for it.
"Robert?" She hissed as she entered her best friend's room without knocking.
The lump under the bedsheets grunted.
"Robert!" She growled. The lump stilled for a moment before emerging, and Robert Baratheon looked at her with wide blue eyes.
"Ned?" He said drowsily "what time is it?"
"I need your help." She told him.
"Later..." He groaned, collapsing back into the bed.
"No!" She cried a bit too loudly, before slapping her hands over her mouth.
"What can't wait?" Robert asked, voice muffled from his pillow.
"I flowered!" She whisper shouted.
His eyes popped open at that.
"Ned, why the hell-" then his eyes grew wide in comprehension. "That means you can marry-"
"Exactly!" She half screeched.
Elbert Arryn was cold and much older, well, not much older, about Brandon’s age, with a wandering eye and no interest in his betrothed. Ned had absolutely no desire to spend a second married to him longer than necessary. Brandon said he liked him, and Ned can pinpoint the moment she stopped seeing her older brother through rose tinted glasses.
"Shit, Ned, what do you need-" now Robert was actually out of bed, clumsily pulling his shoes on as quick as possible.
"I already changed of of my nightdress and hid it in the washing. It's properly covered so nobody can think it’s mine, just someone else’s. The mattress is ruined, we need to burn it or-"
"No, no, too much attention, we have to flip it and change the sheets-"
"Do you know how to change sheets?" Ned asked.
Robert shrugged "We'll figure it out."
And they did.
Finding clean rags was harder, but Robert was surprisingly grown up about the whole thing. When she asked him afterward, he simply smiled at her and put his arm around her shoulder as he was so prone to doing.
"I can't let you marry that dick, can I? Fate worse than death, that. I swear, if I were a woman, I'd off myself. You deserve better."
"I'll have to marry him sometime, Robert. You can't stop it."
He got a very determined look on his face at that "Just watch me."
Ned almost believed he could do it, then.
Ned was five-and-ten and Robert was six-and-ten when Lord Rickard announced Lyanna and Robert were to wed when she flowered.
(Lyanna was, true to form, still stealing everything.)
Robert was biting his lip when she found him, in their cubby hole nobody had ever found yet.
"Is she nice?" He asked, running a hand through his coal black hair "Your sister?"
"I barely know her." she told him truthfully "But she's very pretty."
Robert stood up fast at that, and began pacing. "I don't want pretty, I want-" he cut himself off, looking at her face desperately; as if from his eyes alone she could understand.
Then he let out a great sigh and sat "Gods," he groaned "I hope she's like you or I'll go mad."
Ned smiled a bit at that. Nobody had ever wanted Lyanna to be like her - it was always the other way around.
The tourney at Harrenhal was both a chance for Robert to meet Lyanna and Ned to see her family for the first time in years.
It had been almost a decade she realized - she was still faking not flowering, and Elbert Arryn became even more impatient as the years went by - he didn’t have a bastard yet, but it was only a matter of time. Ned really didn't care about him, but she cared about her pride, the sick little thing she cradled to her chest at night.
It had been almost a decade, and she knew Brandon the moment she saw him.
He was a man grown now, engaged to Catelyn Tully of Riverrun (southern ambitions, southern ambitions) but he still had the glint of mischief in his grey eyes, his hair was still wild and his smile still sharp.
She approached from behind and clapped her hands over his eyes, being forced to stand on her tiptoes like she was with Robert, even though she was not a short woman, lean and full of sinew from training with Robert when she should have been sewing "Guess who?" She giggled, his very presence making her feel like a child again.
His smile grew even wider at her voice, but she couldn't see that. Or the arms that shot back and gripped into her sides so she screeched and loosened her grip, so he could spin round.
"Hello Dara!" Brandon boomed, before sweeping her into a hug that felt like her bones were being crushed.
"Brandon!" She cried, while getting a good view of the ground from over her big brother's shoulder.
He set her down gently in comparison, beaming down at her.
"I missed you." She told him.
"I missed you more." He said stubbornly "You must never leave me again."
"I don't think that's possible, Bran."
He scowled at the childhood nickname "Quieter, quieter! Someone might hear."
Benjen, her littlest brother, was a pup - eight years old and chattering excitedly about everyone and everything, wanting to hold her hand whenever he could and showing her everything he could. He exhausted her a little, but she still liked him plenty. She couldn’t help feel she failed her mother by not knowing him before now.
She met Lyanna half a day later, because she had apparently been out riding. She was pretty, beautiful in fact. The years had only made her even more beautiful, and Ned found her jealousy roaring up again, but she swallowed it down.
"Dara!" She cried, picking up her skirts and jogging to her sisters side, hugging her as Brandon had done, rambunctiously.
"Lya." Ned embraced her, sounding warmer than she felt. Perfect Lyanna with her perfect face and perfect life.
She didn't hate her, but she wanted to be her. She thought eight years would be enough to make the feelings of inadequacy go away. She had been sadly mistaken.
She ended up sitting next to Brandon and Robert, Brandon on her left and Robert on her right, Lyanna next to Robert.
They seemed to be ignoring one another, and Ned couldn't understand why, on paper they were kindred spirits.
Instead Robert chatted with her, Brandon talked to Catelyn and Lyanna nattered with one of her friends that Ned vaguely remembered from Winterfell.
"I'm entering the melee." Robert told her proudly. She had expected it, considering how long he had been practicing with the war hammer. It had resulted in several broken bones for his fellow squires, and sore feet for Robert himself when he dropped it in the first few moons. Now however, he could wield it like it weighed no more than a feather.
"You'll win." She said matter of factly.
"That's the point, Ned."
"Ned?" Brandon asked, breaking his conversation with his betrothed to look questioningly at her. The red head raised an eyebrow as well, smiling.
"A nickname," Robert said before Ned could "I came up with it years ago. It just stuck. Better than Eddara anyway."
"Is not." Brandon sulked, mostly for show, Ned knew. "We call her Dara."
Robert grinned at him, some sort of challenge Ned couldn't quite read "Well I call her Ned."
They stared at each other for longer than usual before Ned coughed in an exaggerated manner.
"Still here..." She mumbled.
"Sorry old girl," Robert said, another of his multitude of nicknames for her, bumping her shoulder with his.
Brandon said nothing, instead turning back to Catelyn call-me-Cat Tully who looked as confused as Ned felt.
Robert won the melee wearing Lyanna's favour - grudgingly requested, grudgingly given and grudgingly worn.
Her and Elbert had exchanged about ten words in eight years, so it was a surprise when he asked her to dance.
But she did, thankfully knowing this one song, and they twirled awkwardly in silence, her being very vigilant where she placed her feet. He and Brandon seemed to be getting on better than Brandon and Robert, so that was something. She couldn't understand what Brandon saw in him - regardless, they both were now expected at Brandon and Cat's wedding whenever it happened instead of just her.
She didn't want to spend the rest of her life with him.
But she was a woman, and what say did she have?
The song ended, thankfully, and she went to run off the floor, when she was tapped on the shoulder.
She turned, expecting some boring lesser son who wanted to dance with the less attractive daughter of a great house, when instead she was faced with Robert, grinning.
"No." She said.
"Yes." He beamed.
She huffed, fighting down the impulse to stamp on his foot to get him to leave her alone "Robert, no. You're engaged to Lyanna."
"And we have danced. It was almost as awkward as you and Arryn, neither of us liked it, and she is currently dancing with some Lannister going by hair. Let's dance."
"I'm a terrible dancer and you know it."
But he was already pulling her onto the dance floor, and the band began.
"I hate you," she hissed, before stamping on his foot.
He winced but soldiered on "No you don't."
"Probably." He mused. Then he grinned so like he had all those years before in the armoury.
They danced three more times, and she trod on his feet about ten times, and they talked the whole time.
"You cow!" The shoe missed Ned's head by a centimeter. She barely ducked in time.
"What in the seven hells-" she started, before having to duck another flying object.
"Gods, you whore! Is that why Elbert Arryn doesn't want to marry you? Because you've let Robert Baratheon have your maidenhead?" Lyanna stood in the Stark apartments, ranting, her usually beautiful face twisted into his sneer as she hurled abuse at her older sister.
"How dare you." Ned growled, quietly. Her hands were in fists by her sides.
Lyanna floundered a bit at this lack of reaction. "I saw you, everyone saw you!" She shouted, tears running down her plump, rosy cheeks "You danced three times, you never dance! And the way you looked at each other - so obvious it was sickening, you fucking whore-"
Lyanna made to hurtle another object at Ned's head, but Ned had a vice like grip around her wrist before she could grab something else.
"He is my best friend, you little bitch." For a moment Ned wondered if the ceiling would collapse: she dared speak against Lya, dared insult Lya, dared use one of Robert’s curses, but father wasn't here, Brandon wasn't here. It was just them two. "I danced with him because he asked and he is my best friend. You had no problem dancing with every man in that hall, and nobody is calling you a whore. I know you can barely even stand each other so what is this about?"
Lyanna whimpered as her bones ground together, but she wasn't weak and she wouldn't cry. She was a Stark, she could be brave. "He's my betrothed and you can't steal him like you steal everything else."
Ned's eyes almost bulge out of her head.
"What?" She cries, dropping Lyanna's wrist, allowing the other girl to cradle it gingerly.
"You heard me." Lyanna spat, fierce despite her injury "Father only treats me like a broodmare, mother always preferred you, you think I don't remember but I do, Brandon always talks about you, how strong you are even when he hasn't seen you for years, gods, Benjen's the only person who doesn't fawn over you and that's because he hadn't met you before this weekend! You take everything, I won't let you take my betrothed as well!" She panted for air after her rant, waiting for a response.
Ned swallowed. For a moment she considered letting Lyanna know why she left Winterfell all those years before, considered saying how Lyanna had made her feel, how Robert was the sole thing that was hers before Lyanna took him - that he was hers first. But she said none of that - perhaps because she knew she would never be Lyanna, and it wouldn’t change the past.
Perhaps because she was just tired, so damn tired of being on the defensive.
Ned remembered her septa’s words (a lady’s courtesy is her armour) and stood by them.
"I'm sorry you feel like that, Lady Stark.” Ned said coolly, all cold courtesy “I will leave." Lyanna looked dumbstruck, and Ned didn’t give her the chance to say anything more, sweeping out the door and feeling more like a lady than she had in years. Lyanna starts to call after her, but the shouts of her name soon fade, the winding corridors of Harrenhal like a maze, blocking out all noise.
Ned didn't cry until she was well away, until she was sure Lyanna wouldn't be able to hear. Until she was sure no one could hear.
Then she slid down the wall, the broken skeleton of Harrenhal, and wept like her heart was breaking. Mayhaps it was.
After an eternity, an hour, a minute, strong arms guided her up and helped her to a chair, which she hunched over into.
"My lady?" The voice wasn't Robert's, or Brandon's, but it instead belonged to Elbert Arryn.
She managed to look up, his brown- eyes concerned and his brow furrowed as he looked at her. "Is all well?"
Ned tried to laugh but instead cried harder. She burrowed into his side, ignoring the fact she barely knew him, this man she was to marry.
"Shh, shh." He hushed her, rubbing circles into her back. His auburn hair was fine and soft beneath her fingers. Guilt flooded through her like an ocean. She was promised to him and was making him wait for forever.
Maybe Lyanna was right. She was selfish.
"Elbert," she struggled to say his name, but managed "I'm sorry. You don't deserve-"
He smiled tightly down at her "Robert Baratheon has made it quite clear I am the undeserving one."
"I'm sorry." She said again, lamely.
"Me too." He told her, and it was only then she realized she was gripping his hand.
"I didn't, I haven't, not with anyone." She babbled.
"I know, I know. Hush now, can you do that for me sweetling?” He never said that he hadn’t either, and she was glad he hadn’t lied. She nodded meekly. She hated how small he made her feel though, how childish and stupid.
"I've, I've bled." She tells him in a whisper. She realizes what she's admitted a moment too late, the secret can't be taken back.
He smiles then, not as well as Robert does, but kindly. A bit like Jon Arryn does. She wonders how badly she could have misjudged him. Maybe he had changed and she just hadn’t been looking. Maybe it would all be alright.
"Would you mind terribly marrying me?"
She shakes her head no, but her heart thumps yes to the tune of Robert Baratheon's name.
They're to be married in a week. It's too quick and her father and Jon Arryn are too eager and she's terrified.
She doesn't speak to Lyanna again, not even when Rhaegar Targaryen crowns her Queen of Love and Beauty, she's too scared. It only occurs to her later that Lyanna might be scared too, but by then the damage is done.
Robert doesn't seem to know whether to be angrier about her marriage or Lyanna's crowning.
"I told you I'd stop it," he tells her as seamstresses are poking her with needles to measure her for a wedding dress "I told you, I promised. Don't you trust me?"
She shakes her head sadly. She hadn't told anyone what Lyanna said to her. "I do, I do. I just- Robert I think it's time we grow up."
"And growing up involves chaining yourself to a man who won't love you enough for the rest of your life?"
She almost cries then. She steps off the pedestal and the seamstresses file out as she takes Robert's confused face in her hands "Robert, no one is ever going to love me 'enough'. I will take what I can get."
"No, no..." He rips away from her "You deserve better."
"There is no one better." She says helplessly "He's the heir to a great house-"
"I am the Lord of a great house!" Robert roars suddenly. They don’t usually talk about it, the Lordship he inherited when he watched his father and mother die from afar in Shipbreaker’s bay. She's so used to his rages that she doesn't even flinch.
"What about me? I love you, I love you the way he should love you-”
She feels sick.
Lyanna was right.
The world spins, a bitterness clawing up the back of her throat.
"No, no- Robert..." She says weakly, as he crowds her, his hands a vice on her back.
"I love you." He looks her right in the eyes when he says it, and there isn't a shred of dishonesty in the blue depths, and Ned feels like she could die, "I love you and I want to be with you. C'mon Ned, let's run away-"
"No." She breathes, wrenching herself away "I am to be married in a week Robert, and you are to marry Lyanna-"
"I don't want her, I don't love her-"
"Well learn Robert!" She screams "She's prettier than me-"
"Rubbish." He announces "She's daintier than you, and some people confuse that for beauty, like Rhaegar fucking Targaryen. You're strong and whole and so wonderful I feel like my heart will burst-"
"Stop it, stop it!" She cries. She had dreamed of him saying these things once. Maybe some part of her still did (stupid, stupid, of course it still did) and it was just the Gods trying to be good. This is not what she wanted. This is everything she wanted. They stare at each other, and Ned can see her whole world crumbling down. "She's my sister."
He turns and opens the door, and looks back just once "She's not you."
The door slams and Ned is alone again.
The king insists on coming to her wedding, and she can feel his eyes sharp and cutting on her back, can almost feel his terrible, long fingernails ripping the skin apart. She wonders how the Queen can stand it.
There's no weirwood tree at Harrenhal, so she marries in a sept and tells herself it's just as good. It's not.
She's wearing a white gown, with myrish lace sleeves and her shoulders uncovered, her black hair tumbling down her back to contrast with the dress, grey details around the bottom.
Ned thinks this is probably the prettiest she'll ever be but the thought brings her no joy.
Even as she says her vows she can see Robert in the front row with her family, murder in his eyes, his hands clenched white.
Elbert Arryn smiles as he drapes his cloak around her.
She is an Arryn now (as high as honour) and the Eyrie is her home, but she longs for Winterfell, wants to see Storm's End for the first time, doesn't want this.
But she is a wife now, as trapped as the Queen, as trapped as Elia Martell, as trapped as her mother once was.
The wedding feast is lavish, originally planned to be the last day's feast, bigger than anything Ned would have ever wanted for herself.
She's glad it's over, until she remembers what comes after.
"Bedding! Bedding!" Is being chanted and goosebumps steal over her skin.
Elbert is laughing, but of course it isn't a horror for him.
Her sleeves are ripped off first, and some guests begin to paw at her skirts, when she is lifted quite suddenly, and her feet dangle above the ground. There's a few groans and complaints but whoever is carrying her is imposing enough to make sure there's no protestations.
She knows Brandon said he wasn't going to take part, that he didn't want to see his little sister naked as the day she was born, which in theory is fine as she doesn't really want him to see her either, but she wishes he was there, as that meant the person carrying her had to be-
Robert sets her down once they're out of the hall. She's lost her shoes along the way, and the cobblestones are cool beneath her bare feet.
They don't say anything. Just look at one another, before he steps behind her and deftly undoes her dress buttons so she's down to a slip.
She thinks of Mya Stone, with her fine black strands of hair, back at the Vale a little bitterly - of course he's good at this. Then she remembers the love in his eyes when he looked at the little girl quite by accident - she imagines their children, dark haired and blue eyed, freckled and strong-
No, no. Stop, stop. It’s too late.
She can’t picture her and Elbert’s children. Just fuzzy shapes that take no solid form flitting before her eyes.
Then his arm is beneath her legs and back and she's being carried again. She thinks a little giddily that she must weigh nothing compared to his war hammer.
Somewhere in the distance she can hear giggling, and knows Elbert will be waiting.
Ned is not the first woman to be afraid on her wedding night, and she won't be the last.
Finally, Robert sets her down, his hands skimming down the sides of her slip as he does so.
She shivers and their gaze doesn't break until she opens the door and enters the bed chamber.
It hurts, but Elbert tries to be kind (all he is is kind, he smiles kindly, laughs kindly, touches her kindly, like a father not a husband and she knows she should be grateful, but she wants a storm, she wants ripping winds, she wants lightning and firm hands, roughness and biting kisses, she wants, she wants-) and she is grateful.
She's glad when it's over, her maiden’s blood on the sheets and his seed in her belly.
The next morning everyone leaves, not all at once, the Royal family first, then the rest trickling out.
Robert is staying at the Eyrie still, and she realizes she's going to have to see him every single day until he gets his knighthood.
Once the thought would have filled her with joy, but now it fills her with dread.
(What about me? I love you, I love you the way he should love you-)
Lyanna embraces her when they leave, but stiffly, paler than Ned's ever seen her. Brandon is quieter too, but a quiet Brandon is almost a normal man, so he still spins her round. Benjen still doesn't know her well, but he knows her better and hugs her as hard as he can.
This is the last time she ever sees her older brother, but of course she doesn't know it then.
Elbert Arryn does not want his lady wife playing with swords with the squires.
"Is that alright, my love?" He asks. No, no, she doesn't know what to do with herself, she's not a different person than she was before her marriage. She is not his love. She is not his.
"Of course." She says, her smile so fake it's a wonder he can't see it.
They haven't slept together since their wedding night.
She still talks to Robert - she couldn't not, she does love him, and he does love her, and they can't just stop. They do just talk, only talk. She's feels less than she's ever been, wearing gowns and her hair in styles Elbert likes, as he runs his hand through her dark locks all the time.
"This isn't you." Robert said one time, angry and unable to do anything, pacing like he always does. He's started sending Lyanna letters, and tries to hide it. The rational side of her knows it's good, but her heart bleeds everytime she sees so much as a feather that tumbles out of the parchment Robert opens guiltily at breakfast. Lyanna is a magpie, she thinks spitefully, not a wolf. But, neither is she. Not anymore. Maybe not ever.
"No, it's not." She agrees, and doesn't say anything else, mending her husband's shirt as carefully as she can. Her stitches are clumsy but Elbert never notices, or never mentions it.
They haven't slept together since their wedding night, and it's enough apparently.
She misses her moon blood three times before she tells him just to be sure, knowing her mother suffered more miscarriages than she had children.
Elbert's face breaks into a smile and he kisses her softly, says thank you quietly and it feels so wrong.
(Robert would roar with joy, spin her round until she was dizzy, kiss her so hard she had to grip tight to him to stay upright, tell everyone he came across from a lord to a chamber maid, oh gods, she wants a storm, a stag, with thundering hooves, not a bird with light wings that can’t be heard)
She tells Robert next, and it's not his child, so he doesn't act like that.
He breathes, once, twice, then looks at her barely showing stomach with contempt like he looked at Rhaegar Targaryen with at Harrenhal, a black cloud shadowing his face.
Then he says "You should be having my babes, you should. You know it."
"In another life, perhaps." She swallows. The words almost get caught in her throat.
"In this life, if I can help it." He replies, steely determination glinting in his eyes.
If she hadn't known him so well, she would have thought he was going to kill her husband.
The raven comes in the middle of the night.
Elbert shakes her awake, his eyes pitying. She hears Robert before she sees him, ranting and red faced.
He stops when he sees her, still in her nightgown, hair in a braid, stomach seven months round.
"Ned," it's like a sob, and he strides over.
"Shhh," she says as she strokes his hair automatically as he bends down to bury his face in her shoulder. She looks sharply at Elbert "What happened?" She demands.
"Rhaegar Targaryen." Jon Arryn said from the side of the room.
Lyanna is gone, Benjen is apparently hysterical, Brandon is thought to be heading to King's Landing to demand her immediate return and Rhaegar Targaryen's private parts, considering he was supposed to be at his wedding by now and her father has ordered her to Winterfell as soon as she gives birth. The Eyrie is impregnable, but Ned knows her father - he trusts his own walls better than any others.
She recognizes it as the lockdown it is.
"I'll call the banners," Robert is muttering "kidnapping bastard."
"We don't know it was a kidnap." Ned says, almost unable to believe what came out of her mouth until it had happened.
He looks sharply at her "Of course it was a kidnap."
Ned's hands shake. She can't be scared of Robert, can she? Not her Robert, not the same Robert that taught her how to swing a sword and helped to hide her flowering when they were so young. No, of course not, it's just the shock.
"Of course." She says faintly.
Rhaegar Targaryen didn't seem the kind to kidnap, that's all. And Lyanna seemed the kind that longed for freedom as desperately as she had once done.
My dearest Benjen,
Try not to be afraid. I'll be with you as soon as I can be, the babe is due in a month or two and then it will take little more than a fortnight to get to Winterfell. I'm stuck on names - mayhaps you could suggest one? Lya will be back home as soon as possible, and Brandon too. Elbert is going to fetch him for us, so he won’t miss his own wedding. Soon we'll have the lovely Catelyn as our good sister, won't that be exciting?
All my love,
She didn't believe a word she wrote, but she needed to pretend, for Benjen who was stuck in Winterfell with a most likely wrathful Lord Rickard, for Brandon who may be riding to imprisonment or worse (they call him the Mad King for a reason), for Lya who may or may not be dead already, raped already (free already).
But most of all, she's pretending for her babe, who kicks inside her with strong legs. For him most of all.
Elbert is long past the bloody gate when her waters break.
She's in a meeting with Jon and Robert, meetings that have begun to feel more and more like war councils, as no news continues to come from King's Landing. There should have been something, Brandon and Elbert and their friends would have arrived.
They've tried to get her to retire to her room several times, but she can rest later. Her pack is in danger right now.
Jon is explaining the issue of the Freys - their tolls are often too high a price, so they must find another way across the river if they are to march-
Ned cries out, her hand snapping out to grip onto Robert's shoulder as pain rips through her abdomen, wetness pooling on the floor.
"Ned!" Robert's face swims in front of her eyes, and she can feel his hand firm on her back, the fingers curling a bit too close to be proper "C'mon, old girl, what's wrong?"
"Baby..." She croaks out, as another contraction rolls through her "Robert, Robert, gods, the baby's coming right now."
"MAESTER!" Robert roars so loud she's surprised the foundations don't shake. At the same time he's hefting her into his arms, painfully reminiscent of her wedding night.
Sometime as they're racing through corridors all the roof decorations blur together, Ned has to squeeze her eyes shut. Everything's moving, the baby and the world and roof panels.
Everything's changing, and she doesn't want it to.
Ned has screamed for so long that her voice is beginning to go raw.
She doesn’t know how long she had been here, ripping out her own vocal chords as her insides are being ripped apart.
The babe is kicking and squirming inside her, drumming out a beat on her ribs, and they say something’s wrong, something like a breach, a breach? The Eyrie’s impregnable, any fool knows that-
Ned releases another howl.
Maybe she’s still a wolf after all.
She gives birth finally in the early hours of the morning, the next day. The midwives tell her how well she’s doing, and just a bit more, just a little bit more until she has her babe, and in the hours of blinding pain since her waters broke, she’s been able to almost feel her babe in her arms so many times that it spurs her on, the idea that that moment being further away than necessary is intolerable.
His head crests first, and that’s half the miracle of it, because they had managed to turn him over in the womb, and if the babe had been born feet fist it could have all been over, the midwife tells her seriously later. They both could have died.
Her son is clearly an Arryn, sharing Elbert’s flame red hair, already a little curly. But she fancies that there’s something of her in his face, in the shape of his wide blue eyes. Ned knows, of course, that all babes have blue eyes to start with, but she hopes they stay. They’re so striking, and beautiful, and everything her own grey ones and Elbert’s brown ones are not.
Ned had never known love, not truly, until she held her son in her arms.
She loved Robert, but that love paled to the adoration and devotion that she felt whenever she thought of her son. Her first son.
Ned marvelled over him, his tiny fingers and tinier nails, his plump little toes and long auburn eyelashes, the softness of his cheeks and the chubbiness of his little legs.
She called him Robb, and despite how tense he was, Robert had smiled, and even held him.
“Well done, old girl. He’s a fine little lad,” Robert had said, as quiet as he ever spoke “Not quite as good as Mya, but-”
Ned may or may not have smacked him for that.
The second raven comes three days after Robb’s birth. She’s nursing, and his hungry little mouth is tugging at her breast. She’s been waiting for news for what feels like years, not wanting to leave the Eyrie until she gets word of what has occurred in King’s Landing.
In the end, she doesn’t even have to ask.
Robert’s face says it all.
She locks herself in her rooms, her grip on Robb so tight he keeps bawling, which is good, because if he’s crying he’s breathing, and if he’s breathing he’s alive, and if he’s alive then she’s not all alone, her pack, where did her pack go-
Lyanna god knows where. Benjen alone in Winterfell. Her father burned to a crisp and Brandon in a shallow grave. Gods, gods (the lone wolf dies, the lone wolf dies). She almost smacks herself when she realizes she hadn’t even thought of Elbert, Elbert who was dead too. Robb had no father, she had no husband. But he wasn’t a wolf.
She was a wolf; and they were a dying breed.
“He wants my son,” she says, sweeping out the door of her chambers after a day, like she hadn’t been in self imposed seclusion for grief “He will not have my son.”
“My lady-” Bronze Yohn Royce stepped forward (it really was a war council now - all it takes is the heir apparent to the Eyrie being murdered and his son being threatened to spur the Vale into action) “your son is now the heir to the Eyrie, none of us will allow any harm to befall him. We have sworn a vow.”
“Good,” she says, meeting the eyes of every man in the hall, one by one “and, my Lord Paramounts of the Vale, let me tell you this. If even a hair on his hair is harmed, if I believe you have broken your oath, I will see you dead. As dead as Rhaegar Targaryen will be - this is my promise to you.”
For a moment no one speaks, and then, Bronze Yohn Royce takes his sword and slices his palm open, the blood welling up immediately “I solemnly vow, on behalf of the House Royce of Runestone, that none of my blood shall harm your blood, only serve and protect.”
Ned recognised this oath, impossibly old, from the time of the First Men. She suddenly remembered with startling clarity that the Royces too were blood of the First Men. She held out her hand for Bronze Yohn’s sword.
Then, focusing on not wincing, she slid the blade across her palm, perhaps too harshly as the blood dripped onto the stone floor. Gasps rang around the room. It must’ve looked to those who knew only Andal traditions that the Lady of the Eyrie had gone mad.
“My lord, I will remember your oath in wind and snow, in darkness and doom, in sunlight and cloud, in light and prosperity. I will remember this and so shall my blood. We shall remember, and so shall our souls, our blood, our legacies.” she placed her hand on the calloused, bloody palm of the Lord of Runestone.
Their eyes locked, and he bent his head. After about ten seconds, they parted and stepped away, finally breaking eye contact.
“What an earth was that?” one of the Lord’s squires asked, quicky earning himself a clout on the ear, but still asking the question everyone else wished to know the answer to.
“That,” answer Bronze Yohn “was me and my house putting our necks on the line for your good behaviour. If anything happens to anyone of Lady Arryn’s blood, you will be answering to me.”
There were several audible gulps around the room.
Jon Arryn finally stepped in, calling attention back to the maps in the centre of the room “So, if we march here-”
Whilst everyone was reluctantly turning back to the plans, Robert slipped from Jon’s side to Ned’s, and wrapped a piece of linen softly around her bleeding hand, with more gentleness than many would have thought he was capable of.
A few days later, Ned has made up her mind on her course of action. Her father ordered her home to Winterfell. Her father is dead.
The hardest part of the plan is Robb.
She knows she cannot take him with her, if she intends to go through with her plan, and she does intend to go through with her plan, but it tugs at her heartstrings everytime he looks at her with those large eyes, and she wonders how she can abandon him.
It’s like he knows she plans on leaving him.
Not for too long, she vows to herself, not forever.
Yohn’s wife is a gentle woman, who stutters more than she speaks but is impossibly gentle with all five of her children, and is still nursing her youngest.
“Your husband swore me an oath,” Ned reminds her, as the shy woman’s eyes widen in fear as she realizes what exactly Ned is asking of her “No one could fault you for this; you could only be faulted for refusing.”
When she still doesn’t seem convinced, Ned throws her pride out the window and drops to her knees before the timid woman who lets out a shocked gasp at the Lady of the Eyrie kneeling like a supplicant before her “If not for the oath, my lady, then for my son. For the love a mother bears her children. Please, my lady. You are my last hope.”
And that, in the end, is what does it.
The night she is due to leave, Robb is quiet as an angel. He just watches her, with his big, now steel blue, eyes.
Ned knows, logically, her baby cannot know she is leaving tonight.
And yet - her baby must know she is leaving tonight.
She ends up never putting him down for around two hours, even though he isn’t fussing. Robert calls her a mother hen, and Jon looks on with his too-kind eyes, and Yohn Royce nods at her when their eyes meet.
When Ned puts him down, he grips onto her finger tightly, with all the strength there must be in his tiny body.
“I love you,” Ned whispers against his soft, sweet-smelling skin, thankful she sent the maid away so they could have their moment together, even if she would be the only one to remember “Forgive me.”
In the early hours, a small party passes through the Bloody Gate. To an observer, they would appear to be of little consequence, and not even worth remembering.
But there were no observers, Ned had made sure of that, so by the time that her absence is discovered, as well as the absence of some of the Vale’s household knights and second sons hungry for glory, it’s too late.
“Where to first, my lady?”
Howland Reed was one of the few people she was absolutely certain would aid their cause. She had been right.
The little man had been a devoted friend to both Brandon, Lyanna and herself at Harrenhal where they had met, and he had immediately called the men she had requested to Greywater Watch as soon as he had read her missive.
He was also the only one not to protest her being on the expedition, let alone leading it. Mark Ryswell even left - saying he would not betray her position or plans, but also would not follow what he called a ‘doomed’ expedition.
William Dustin complained the loudest, but finally she told him that he could follow her and go sit at home with his new wife, like Mark had done. His eyes searched her for one long moment, as if seeing whether or not she meant it, before nodding sullenly. None of the others wanted to miss out on the search.
The next thing to debate, after the wasted days of the Northern lords and heirs arguing over her leadership, was where the hell Rhaegar Targaryen would have taken Lyanna.
“We already know she’s not in the Crownlands,” said Howland “and unless he’s an idiot as well as a kidnapper, he won’t have taken her to the Vale, the Stormlands or kept her in the North.”
“The Targaryens and Tywin Lannister fell out last year,” Martyn Cassel says “So she won’t be in the Westerlands either, and even if they were still allies, Rhaegar’d be a fool to think Tywin wouldn’t take advantage of having such an important piece in his lands, especially since all of Westeros knows he wanted his daughter to be queen.”
“Iron Islands are too remote and unsafe,” Ethan Glover said “Rhaegar wouldn’t know them well enough, and we’d have caught him leaving as the only way there’s by ship.”
“What about the Riverlands?” Ned asked.
Theo Wull shook his head, slowly “Too dangerous. There’s no deserted areas, and they’re on our side considering the Lady Catelyn was Brand-”
He cut himself off suddenly. Ned tried hard not to react, but even the reminder of her older brother sent a lance of pain and heartache through her chest. “Yes,” she said finally, battling to keep her voice even “Not there.”
“So... the Reach or Dorne.” Martyn finished.
“He’d be mad to take her to Dorne,” Theo said “His wife’s brothers would rip her to shreds if they’d known she was there.”
“So we head to the Reach,” Ned said “Then where?”
“Oldtown’s too busy,” Howland says, “and Highgarden’s too obvious. What about the Arbor?”
“They’re known for being particularly staunch Targaryen loyalists,” Ethan said slowly “If I were Rhaegar, that’s where I’d go.”
And so, they were decided.
By the time Ned and her party arrives at the Arbor, the Redwyne’s offshore island, the civil war is unfolding so rapidly it feels as if there’s a battle every other day. To her relief, Robert is winning.
There are, of course, a few losses, but the Mad King doesn’t even seem to realize the rebellion is an actual threat so isn’t mounting the full royal strength against the rebels, or perhaps isn’t capable of doing so, and that means the only actual defeat Robert suffers is at the hand of Randyll Tarly.
Ned’s party comes to the site just before the battle, and leaves when they hear trumpets approaching from either side of Ashford field where they set up camp. She only realizes later how close she was (very), and wonders whether Robert was there (yes), and whether he was still angry (probably).
Of course, Robert was known to hold onto anger for a while - once he got it out of his system, he was fine, but it had been months and by now he was probably at melting point. Who knows, it might be helping the war effort.
Everyone talked of how she, rather unflatteringly nicknamed ‘the second missing Stark’, had gone off to search for her sister and abandoned Robert and her son in the process. Apparently Robert had been worried, then angry, and had been alternating between the two ever since. They said his fury had helped him combat his troublesome bannermen.
Paxter Redwyne, like his liege lord and everybody in the Reach who is anyone, is off besieging Storm’s End ever since Robert had been forced to retreat from the Stormlands, so it’s embarrassingly easy to get into the Arbor discreetly.
Ned, as a child of the North and a ward of the Vale, is really not used to heat whatsoever. The Arbor is painfully hot, and none of her companions are well versed in dealing with humidity either.
They spend a pain-filled two months combing every inch of the island, in which time Ned’s milk runs dry, and finally have to admit defeat “Where,” Martyn said whilst pacing, his shirt unlaced at the top to allow his skin to breathe “if not here?”
“Perhaps,” Ned says slowly “Rhaegar was counting on us discounting Dorne.”
“No,” says William “Surely not. Nobody sane would take a gamble that big.”
“Rhaegar’s not sane,” Martyn mutters.
“Arthur Dayne is a Dornishman too, and Starfall is far from Sunspear, far enough and secluded enough.” Howland comments.
“Not Starfall,” Ned says, quickly “But somewhere near. She couldn’t be hidden at Starfall, not for this long, but I’d bet my life that Arthur Dayne knows the landscape of his home well enough to know where people don’t tend to go.”
“How fucking hot is Dorne?” Theo rasps from the floor.
“Hotter than this,” William grimaces.
Theo makes a defeated noise that is a cross between a whimper and a groan, and throws an arm over his sunburned face. Ned disregards this, filled with new hope.
Martyn is shaking his head behind them as they set out to collect Ethan and inform him of the new plan, and Ned hears him say louder than he must have meant “Fucking insane. The bloody lot of them.”
If Ned had hated the Reach, she hates Dorne more.
She feels as if every inch of her body is caked in grit and dirt and sand - it is behind her eyelids, under her smallclothes, between her toes and raw on her skin. The air burns when she breathes, and she feels as if she is turning to liquid on the inside. On the fifth day in the impossibly hot land, Ned cuts her hair off, leaving just enough to shield her neck from the hot southron sun, but nothing else.
Ned tries so very hard not to remember how much Robert loved her hair, how Robb used to tug on any escaping strands as she laid him down for his afternoon nap, even Elbert, Elbert used to play with the ends.
She knows that Lyanna will not be at Starfall, but she makes the party visit regardless, remembering fondly the graceful, beautiful woman from Harrenhal that Brandon danced with, the same one that smiled comfortingly at her wedding, and tied up the back of her dress when Lyanna wouldn’t come to do it for her.
Starfall is beautiful, and so is the sea below it, rocky and white and blue, which rushes beneath the balconies.
Ashara greets their company with open arms, kissing Ned on both cheeks and hugging all the men as if they are long lost friends. Her face is glowing with vitality, and it is not hard to understand why - her stomach is swelled round, and Ashara keeps on rubbing it, a smile constantly pasted across her face.
When Theo asks if she had gotten married politely, she laughs.
“No, no,” Ashara says in her strange, exotic accent, dimples appearing in her cheeks “I am just excited for the babe. It has been so lonely here.”
Ned remembers, suddenly, that things are different for bastards and women in Dorne.
“How far along are you?” Ned is the one to break the silence that has struck the rest of the party dumb, as Ashara does not seem to notice or to care, and Ned feels envy at her happiness.
“The maester says eight moons, but I say seven,” Ashara tells her as they walk towards the beautiful castle that was once home to the Sword of the Morning himself, and the other woman links her arm with Ned “I am sure you must be missing your own child.”
Ned nods, and swallows thickly, trying not to think too hard of her baby that she had to leave behind “He- he is always in my thoughts.”
The men are directed to their chambers, and it seems to Ned that Ashara’s assessment of Starfall’s emptiness was entirely correct, as they had more than enough for each member of the party to have their own spacious room. Ashara leads Ned to her chamber herself, their arms still linked together.
“Now,” says Ashara as she is laying out scores of dresses on the bed for Ned to try, as though Ned is a doll for her to dress up, in her breeches, loose shirt and hard boots, explaining they are her own that she can no longer fit into thanks to the baby “tell me why you come to Dorne.”
“I am looking for my sister.” Ned replies. At that, Ashara looks at her with pity in her eyes. “The same sister that would not assist on your wedding day?”
“Yes,” Ned says honestly, knowing how strange it must appear to Ashara “She is the only sister I have.”
“You search for a girl that does not want to be found.” Ashara tells her, taking a seat next to Ned on her silk covered bed.
Ned swallows, trying not to react to the fear that had plagued her the entire time - it was not a kidnap but an escape. “Have you seen her?”
Ashara thins her lips, and shakes her head. “I hear things though - sometimes, sometimes it helps to have a brother in the Kingsguard.”
“Please,” Ned puts her hand over Ashara’s own “she is my family, of which I have little left.”
For an age, Ashara looks into her eyes, before nodding “I do this for you, not your sister.”
Ned puts her forehead to the other woman’s, and realizes too late there are tears cascading down her cheeks “Thank you,” she whispers, and she realizes she’s never meant it as much as she does right now.
The directions Ashara gives them are clear, to the point, and easy to follow. It does not, however, make the journey any easier. Ned finds herself longing for her home, and snow, even a simple breeze, countless times every hour.
Ned doesn’t know exactly how long the journey takes - sometimes it feels as if they have been trekking for years, and they have to bury half their horses that have died of dehydration.
There are a mass of rumours they hear every time they stop, and it’s difficult to separate the truth from the exaggerations - Robert is dead, Rhaegar is dead, the Mad King burned all the rebels, the rebels burned the Mad King, the Targaryens are all dead, the Baratheons and Arryns are vanquished, the Trident was a bloody battle, the Trident was not the battle place, Tywin Lannister has marched for the capital to defend the Red Keep, to sack the Red Keep, Storm’s End is holding against the siege, Storm’s End has opened its gates, the Kingsguard are scattered, the Kingsguard are at Rhaegar’s side, the Kingsguard are dead, the children are slain, but nobody knows whose children.
(Not my child, Ned prays when she hears the last rumour, not mine, please, please)
Later, the rumours become clearer, at least a few do: Rhaegar is dead on the Trident. The rebels have won. The Mad King is dead, by the hand of his own kingsguard, Jaime Lannister.
Ned remembers the golden youth from Harrenhal, and although she knows his honour is lost, and possibly his life, she cannot help but smile.
The Targaryens are toppled, and some of the children are dead, but not all, but still nobody knows whose. The Queen and her only surviving son have fled to Dragonstone. Elia Martell is dead, that is all anyone in Dorne really wanted to talk about, with rage in their eyes and murder on their lips.
After an eternity of heat and burning sand and a cloudless sky that goes on forever, they come to the Tower of Joy. Ned had almost cried when she had heard the name.
They know it is the tower, because there are three soldiers, clad all in white, with white cloaks and silver swords congregated outside the entrance. There is a single window at the top, and Ned knows, feels it in her very soul, that that is where Lyanna is.
Gerold Hightower, Oswell Whent and Arthur Dayne had all been conspicuously absent from the Trident, that was something all the rumours had agreed on. And here they were, under the glaring Dornish sun.
Ser Arthur Dayne was the first to speak, his voice clear and with the same inflections as Ashara’s “I received a message from mine sister, but I had hoped she had been mistaken.”
“No mistake, ser.” Ned answered him “We did not come for you. We come for my sister, please, allow me to take her home. The war is lost. Rhaegar and Aerys both dead, the latter by your sworn brother. Put down your swords, sers.”
“The kingsguard do not yield,” Old ser Gerold Hightower told her, “We swore a vow, my lady. We do not forsake it like our false brothers do.”
“To a dead king,” Ned pleads “A dead prince. Queen Rhaella and Viserys have fled to Dragonstone, they will need you there. Please sers, I have come only for my sister.”
“Yet we are here,” Said the final knight, Oswell Whent “And we will not abandon our duty.”
Ned’s men moved to her side “Now it begins,” said Ser Arthur, donning his helm, and unsheathing his legendary Sword of the Morning “My lady, none of us wish to bring harm to you. Stand aside. You have a son. The Kingsguard are not butchers.”
“No,” Ned said, fingering her own thin blade by her side that she had never carried before this journey had begun, “You are not. But I may be one yet. Now, it ends.”
It was six against three, but many would not have counted her as one of the combatants. Theo was the first to fall to Oswell Whent’s sword, but he was quickly avenged by Martyn Cassel. Ser Arthur took down Ethan and William with just one movement, cutting their guts wide open, losing only his helm in the act.
A redness took over Ned’s vision then, at the same moment as Gerold Hightower and Howland Reed locked swords, Ser Arthur killed Martyn with a thrust through the brave man’s back, and then came for her.
She realized in a moment he was not going hard on her - his blows were slower than usual, while her arms shook after holding off a few of his hard passes. Was he waiting for Howland’s death to stop? To spare her and call it mercy, whilst the ground around her was littered with the bodies of her friends?
In the end, it was luck that saved her and Howland both. Later, Howland told her that he had found a chink in Ser Gerold’s armour, and hit him in the heart. The old knight had let out a single, dying cry, that had distracted Arthur, who turned to see his brother fall, and raised his sword to Howland, the man’s killer.
Howland had sworn he’d seen his death in the Dornishman’s eyes, but it had not come to pass. As Arthur Dayne, no longer going easy, had begun to advance on the crannogman, Ned had acted purely on instinct, no thought solidifying her actions.
Because Arthur Dayne was not a stupid man - a stupid man would have paid attention to a woman that had barely been able to lift castle forged steel against him, but Arthur Dayne was no fool - no, all the Sword of the Morning’s focus had been on Howland.
That was his undoing.
The very top of Ser Arthur’s scalp was cut clean off in a single stroke - he was taller than her, and Ned’s arms had shook so badly when she had to raise the sword high. For a terrible moment he just stopped, and stood, before Dawn tumbled out of his grasp, and the man himself fell, face down and unmoving.
Ned dropped her own sword, and looked at her hands, bloody and covered in the pulp of his brain. Grey matter was spread about the finest knight the Seven Kingdoms had ever seen and Ned felt light and dizzy and sick.
Howland too dropped his spear, staring at the corpse between the two of them, like he couldn’t believe it. Neither could Ned.
“Dara...? Dara!” The cry was faint, but in the silence surrounding the battle which moments before had been raging, it was all that Ned could hear.
Ned finds Lyanna at the top of the tower, in a room smelling of rotting roses and blood. Her sister looks so much older than when Ned had last laid eyes upon her, her hair matted and skin blistered, brow drenched in sweat.
But life seems to enter her when she sees Ned, and in a room full of withered winter roses, that any fool should know could never survive in Dorne, and Ned finds herself at her little sister’s side in an instant.
“Dara,” Lyanna says as tears begin to track down her cheeks, and she raises a shaking hand to Ned’s face “Is it you? Can it be you? Please, please, I’m so- so sorry-”
“Shh, shh,” Ned says automatically, dropping to her knees so Lya’s head can be buried in her shoulder “No more tears. I’m here, I’m here.”
“Dara, Dara,” Lyanna says in a broken, rasping voice “I never meant, I just wanted, I was afraid, I was so afraid, I thought he was my friend, I thought he just wanted to help, I never meant, forgive me, please, Dara, Brandon, Father, I never meant-”
Ned takes Lya’s face, Lya’s face which is still so beautiful even now, and kisses every inch of it “I know, sweetling, I know you never meant for any of this. You were so young, and he took advantage, and none of this is on you. Do you hear me, sweetling? You are blameless, you are an innocent, Rhaegar is the one to blame-”
“But I asked,” Lyanna says, breathlessly, still crying “I wanted to get away from my marriage, from father, I wanted to be free like you, and all I got was trapped, he touched me, he used me, all he wanted was another child, I’m so sorry-”
“You are not to blame,” Ned tells her again, and strokes her tangled, matted hair. “None of this is your doing.”
Lyanna cries for several minutes then, her body shaking with the depth of her forgiveness. When she next looks at Ned, her eyes are still red rimmed but no more tears are pouring forth “Ned, you need to know, they say there’s too much blood-”
“Blood?” Ned says, alarmed. Lya nods, and points with a shaking finger at her own body, which is covered by thick blankets. Ned should have noticed how wrong that would be in this heat, but as she peels them back, Lyanna begins to shake like it is not so hot that the very air vibrates.
The blood is thick, and not drying, and as Ned takes the final layer off, Lyanna’s nightdress is covered in it, dyed from Stark grey to Targaryen red, along with the sheets, and the smell is terrible. It’s all over her sister’s skin too - cracked in some places, congealed in others, and from just between her thighs it is pumping out like there’s an endless supply.
“The babe,” Lyanna says, in a shaking, rasping voice “Came out wrong. The wetnurse from Starfall was no midwife, but she said the baby was coming out in a breach somehow. Feet first. I think she knew this would happen.”
Something that feels like a roaring in Ned’s ears starts steadily growing, and her vision tunnels on Lyanna’s ruined body “She tried, she did, she tried to turn it around but it wasn’t enough, she wasn’t strong enough, and I was so weak, and the sers didn’t know what to do, and all the blood-”
Ned is crying now too, and takes Lyanna’s hand, clenches it as hard as she can “You’re not going to die,” she tells her, but Lyanna’s head lolls suddenly to the side like she can no longer keep it aloft. “You’re not-”
“I’m going to die,” Lyanna tells her, chin wobbling “I am going to die and it can’t be stopped, but my babe, Dara, you must look after my babe-”
“Where? Where is it?” Ned asks, now sobbing so hard her vision swims.
“The next room,” Lyanna gasps “With Wylla. She’s good, she had milk, from Starfall, please, look after my boy-”
“Yes,” Ned says “Of course, Lya, you need not ask-”
“I do,” Lya says, voice catching as her eyes begin to flutter, and they both know now she has so little time left and Ned feels like part of her heart is dying “Because I need a promise. Robert, you must hide him from Robert, he can never know he’s mine and Rhaegar’s, he can’t know-”
“Sweetling,” Ned says, trying to find the words “What will I say? How will I hide it from him? He’s fought a war for you-”
“You’ve been gone so long, Dara. And my boy, my Jon, his name is Jon, Dara, like the Stark king, but like Jon Arryn too, he’s so very Stark, my little boy, you could say, you could lie, he and Robb-”
Ned doesn’t want to understand what she asking, but she does. “Lyanna, please, don’t die-” she says instead of a response.
Lya’s grip on her hand tightens, but it’s still so terribly weak “Promise me, Dara. Promise me. Please, my babe, please. I heard, they didn’t want me to hear but I heard, Robert called Rhaegar’s others dragonspawn when they were laid dead at his feet-”
Ned feels violently ill, as she remembers the rumours. The children, dead.
“Promise me,” Lyanna cries, weaker than before, fear in her eyes, breathing quickly and shallowly “Promise me, Dara. Please, my little boy, my little baby, my little Jon, he’s just an innocent, promise me, Dara, it’s not his fault-”
Ned nods, slowly then quicker, and tries not to think of the consequences, and brings Lyanna’s hand up to her lips and kisses it “I promise, Lya. I promise.”
It was then the fear went out of her sister’s eyes, and her breaths slowed, then stopped. Suddenly, Ned was hand in hand with a corpse.
She didn’t let go of her hand for an age, despite Howland trying to separate them several times - in the end what brought Ned out of her trance was a newborn’s cry through the thick sandstone walls from the next room.
Ned and Howland are the only two of their party to return to Starfall, dead or alive, as they are unable to take their bodies and Lyanna’s and the babe and Wylla with so few horses and supplies.
Ashara does not come out to greet them this time - instead, they are ushered in by servants, who tell them lady is out the back. Ned tells Howland to wait, because she knows this news is hers to break, and hers alone.
She finds her hunched over in the garden, dressed in a simple white shift, which would be improper anywhere else in Westeros. In Dorne, however, it is practical, and her hair is as black as night, as black as her sister’s son’s own small, wispy curls, and Ned knows something is terribly wrong even before she calls out the Dornishwoman’s name.
Ashara turns, revealing what she was bent over: a mound of packed dirt, recently overturned, the right size for a baby. Her stomach is flat now, and Ashara’s eyes are rimmed red with tears.
“I’m so sorry,” is all that Ned can say, and she knows Ashara has already recognised the sword strapped to her back by the inhuman noise that tears itself out of her throat.
“No, no, no...” Ashara repeats, tears rising in her violet eyes, but she reaches out for Dawn once Ned had unsheathed it. “Fucking Rhaegar Targaryen,” the woman swears, curses, and beats her hands against her own skin “even beyond the grave he’s led my brother down a path of no return.”
“It was quick,” Ned tries to tell her, but Ashara seems to barely hear, still staring at the milkglass blade that her brother had died carrying “I- I’m so, so sorry.”
“Gone,” Ashara breathes “Gone, gone-”
Ned barely catches her as her legs buckle and the woman falls to the ground, tearing at her gown and hair in her grief.
For the rest of their stay, Ashara is everything a hostess should be, attentive and hospitable, but Ned knows something in the older woman has died, perhaps with her brother, or Elia, or her babe. But the lady was broken now, there was no mistaking it.
She spends all her time in the sept or by the grave when she is not required at meals, and Ned sees nearly all the candles lit before the Stranger, a few flickering by the Warrior and the Mother.
Ashara does not appear to be the same woman, the light in her eyes seems to have been snuffed out, and Ned begins to dream that instead of Arthur Dayne, she killed Ashara instead, but the woman now with only half a head always fell down to her knees, not on her front like her brother, bent over two graves - her babe’s, the girl that she never got the chance to name, and Ned sees Lyanna’s next to it - never mind Lyanna’s body is being carried in a carriage, back to Winterfell, to Father and Brandon and the Kings of Winter, it was hers, Ned knew.
There was a wreath of dead winter roses on it.
Ned does not want to intrude on Ashara’s grief, and knows that as much as she had wished it, the two of them can now never be close friends, not now that Arthur’s life is on her conscience. Ned tries to tell her that it was her, but Ashara changes the subject or simply walks away.
They leave quickly, and Ned’s last memory of the famous beauty Ashara Dayne is from the horses, as she looks back one final time: her features are undetailed, but she buries her head in her hands just as she disappears into the distance.
When Ned hears of her suicide, she is sorry, so sorry, but she is not surprised.
Ned arrives in King’s Landing to find it being rebuilt - the dragon carvings are being torn dorn, stag antlers already taking shape, and it is only then that Ned knows for sure what has happened, that she can finally trust the news that she has been hearing for weeks.
Robert is king. She can scarcely imagine the boy she grew up with with a crown upon his head, yet at the same time it is better that than any other fate - it was victory or death, Ned had known for a while, and the part of her that still will not curl up and die, the part that makes her weak at the knees when she sees a man of Robert’s height, is so terribly relieved she thinks she could fly.
They are already speaking of a new queen wherever Ned goes, Lyanna, they whisper, the girl that began it all, but Ned is one of the few that knows her sister is not an option, not anymore. Cersei Lannister, others say, the Light of West, the Kingslayer’s sister, the Great Lion’s daughter. Ned has never met her, but she knows she is beautiful, and she knows she is coming to the capital, like every other eligible, highborn maiden in the land. Tyrell, Estermont, Westerling, Fossoway, Frey, Dondarrion, Glover, Mormont, Hightower - only a few of the sigils Ned has seen on the road.
Ned knows that it has been so long since they have seen one another than Robert will all have forgotten about the love he professed for her at Harrenhal, because he is not the sort to love for so long without contact, it is not in his nature. He will have been thinking of Lyanna, of camp followers, of women that tell him how wonderful he is.
It is no true betrayal, she tells herself, as she rocks Jon to sleep in her arms, not compared to what she has said she will do, what she has promised.
She knows that she will be lonely for the rest of her life once she tells the lie - women do not have bastards, especially daughters of great houses, and despite her name no man will come near her, including Robert, Robert who now is King of the Seven Kingdoms, the First Men, of the Rhoynar and the Andals, dear Robert who she knows will never think kindly of her again.
Did she know? Ned wonders, for the thousandth time. Did Lyanna know what this would do to me when she made me promise?
It matters little now - Lyanna is dead, her son is now Ned’s son, and Robert is king.
Ned and Howland arrive at the Red Keep a month after the sack, making slow progress with Lyanna’s body and babe in tow.
She now knows that her sister was right to make her promise, Tywin Lannister’s gifts of fealty to Robert the Targaryen children’s ruined bodies, the girl cut into half a hundred times, the boy’s skull shattered. Ned wonders why the man still breathes: surely Robert had not forgotten Rhaenys and Mya were the same age, as were Robb and Aegon? But perhaps that rumour has not yet reached her.
“You’re safe with me,” she told Jon, who would not understand her words, the night she heard, but wriggled in her arms, unknowing that half the world meant him harm.
They are greeted by a face Ned vaguely recognises - Varys the spymaster has kept his bald head although how is half a miracle, and the war seems to have left no strain on him at all, his hands are still as soft as a highborn lady’s, and he still giggles as infuriatingly as he did at her wedding, when he had been the one whispering in the Mad King’s ear of daggers in the dark.
“My lady,” he fawns over her like she is somebody of import, a fine maiden instead of a half dead widow, kissing her rough knuckles with his petal like lips “We are so very glad that you have come to no harm. The king shall be delighted.”
“Where is Robert?” Ned asks, shifting Jon’s weight as her arm begins to go dead.
“I am unsure,” Varys says, seemingly uninterested in the new monarch, instead his beady eyes focusing on the babe in her arms “And who is this?”
“His name is Jon,” Ned tells him reluctantly, aware that this man could ruin everything if he scented even the slightest thing amiss “He is only a moon and a half old, so I would ask you did not disturb his slumber, which does not come often.”
“Oh,” Varys says, eyes still resting on the little, Stark-faced boy “I quite understand. I was quite fond of a few children once, but no longer. They have gone beyond my grasp, like children so often do.”
Ned knows that they are no longer speaking of Jon.
“Especially,” the spymaster says, after a beat “In this place. Keep him close.”
“May I have some chambers for myself and my friend?” Ned requests, gesturing to Howland who stands behind her, silent as the grave, replying to Varys’ warning with a nod of her head. She did not trust him, but it would not hurt to be vigilant. “We have had a long and trying journey.”
“Of course, my lady,” Varys says as if nothing would please him more, and gestures over a harried looking servant “See the Lord and Lady to separate chambers in the holdfast, generous ones,” he tells him.
“Thank you,” Ned tells him, and Varys bows his head.
“I am your faithful servant,” he says, his words honeyed in such a way that Ned’s skin crawl beneath her travelling clothes. “The king shall know of your arrival, I do not think you shall be kept waiting long.”
“They said,” the voice that she has not heard in so many months echoes around the throne room, and she knows it is the very same throne room that her father and Brandon died in “they said you were travelling with a newborn babe. A newborn babe that looks like you.”
Robert’s face is frozen, his huge body tense, and Ned tries to remind herself that this has to be done, she promised Lyanna, even as her heart sings at the sight of him, whole and alive and healthy and as tall and strong as she remembers. Victory sits well on his shoulders, Ned thinks. Jon squirms in her arms, looking so Stark it must be impossible for Robert not to jump to conclusions, conclusions she must convince the world are correct.
“Tell me,” he says, finally “tell me it’s not yours.”
“It’s not mine.” Ned says, automatically, before biting her own tongue so hard she draws blood. That was not what she was supposed to say. That was not what Robert was supposed to believe.
“Whose?” his voice is still small, but less breakable now. She never meant for this, but she promised Lya, she promised that she’d never let him know-
“Brandon’s.” she says, and guilt, thick and heavy and aching, fills her body faster than the speed of an avalanche. “He... he and...”
“Ashara.” Robert breathes “That’s why you went to Starfall.” He then lets out a little, nervous, relieved laugh. He would not be laughing, not if he knew the truth.
“I went to return Arthur’s sword,” she insists, but it sounds weak even to her own ears. It is so believable that Robert is making his own incorrect conclusions before she has come up with her own lies.
Ashara had been pregnant; everybody had known that, Ned had seen it with her own eyes. That was why she left court. Some could say, if Brandon were the father, that was why she left court mere days after his murder. They could say that she’d thrown herself off the cliff, not only at the loss of her brother, but the loss of her child too.
Ned remembers the room none of the servants stepped foot into when Ned visited the second time, the one with the all the locks on the door and the dust. Maybe, Ned thinks of the little mound of dirt the lady had been kneeling next to, when Ned arrived for the second time, it was almost the truth.
Ashara did not deserve the lie, not by half, but she was not here.
Ned wonders what she has become, to allow Robert, to allow the world, to believe such a lie about the woman that had been so kind and welcoming to them all. It left a sickness in Ned’s stomach, and she knew deep in her heart she’d never be forgiven for this sin.
“It’s just like you,” Robert said, sounding happier now with his own version of events “I remember when you didn’t put Robb down for hours. Soft spot for babes, you have, Ned.”
“I do not wish for her to be dishonoured,” Ned heard herself saying, “Please keep the truth of Jon’s mother to yourself, for his sake. For mine. For her, most of all.”
Robert nods, and steps closer to her, before laying a gentle hand on Jon’s little forehead, four of his fingers almost engulfing the baby’s entire, tiny, Stark face. Ned thinks that if he wanted he could crush his little brain with just a clench of his fist. “Mayhaps this is what our babes will look like.”
Ned looks up sharply at him. “Robert, the Lannisters-”
Cersei Lannister would expect a crown, she knew that, as would Tywin Lannister so he could place it upon his daughter’s head.
“Fuck the Lannisters.” he growls.
“Tywin Lannister has already killed two babes, what is a few more, a woman-” she begins, frantic worry suddenly filling her body. Robert is not supposed to still want her the way he did, it has been over a year, and he had been courting Lyanna, Lyanna whose bones are outside, Lyanna whose bones she said she would bring to Winterfell.
“Let him fucking try,” Robert snaps, and Ned is relieved to see him take his hand away from Jon, not wanting Robert in close range to any babe while he is in one of his rages. “I am king, and he is not the Hand anymore. He did not fight in this war, and he still wants his son alive.”
“I’m not a maid,” Ned breathes “Robb is more than proof of that, I am a widow Robert, not a maiden like a new king deserves, and I cannot leave Ben alone in Winterfell-”
“You are a highborn woman who has proven herself fertile.” Robert says, stepping closer to her “Choose anyone you want to go to Winterfell in your place - either of my brothers, although Renly’s a little young yet, any fucking lord you want to honour, even a knight or just a plain old northman, just-“ he swallows his words, before continuing “Just stay with me.”
“The Faith,” Ned begins again, but some kind of light giddiness is beginning to spread throughout her body “they’ll never like a queen that doesn’t worship their gods.”
“And what are they going to about it?” Robert says “Our children will. I can plant you a Weirwood, ten, in the kingswood, the godswood, as many as you like. And Robb can come and learn ruling from the king and his great-uncle the Hand until he can be fostered in the Vale with an old, noble house - perhaps the Royces, they are First Men like you, or the Waynwoods, and Jon can stay or go, I’ll legitimize him if you think that would be best, whatever you want, and you can have as many northerners at court as you want, and I won’t do anything to hurt you and I’ll never fucking leave you or try and change you-”
At that point, Robert has to stop speaking as Ned has eased Jon into the arms of a passing maidservant whilst he was speaking and thrown herself at the new king, kissing him for the first time like they have done it a thousand thousand times before.
Robert does not take long to snap himself out of his shocked stupor, bending town to pick her up so that her legs wind around his middle and kissing her back with the same desperate ferocity. Ned barely hears him ordering all the servants away and demanding privacy, so caught up in the feeling of finally finally finally that rushes through her body at his touch.
Cersei Lannister, like Ned had predicted, is not pleased to have been beaten to the punch.
She is painfully lovely to look upon, and Ned feels like a kitchen drab next to her, with her golden curls, red lips and catlike green eyes. She does a good show of graciousness, yes, curtseying low and looking up through her eyelashes, but her chest is thrown out and there’s poison in her gaze whenever it flits over Ned, with her still growing hair that was shorn so ungracefully and plain face.
Cersei Lannister must think that Robert will take one look at her, compare the Light of West to the woman he is now betrothed to, and change his mind at once.
The courtier’s seem to think the same, except Varys who seems utterly unsurprised, and even Ned worried, but Robert doesn’t seem to see anyone else like he did back in the Vale, when she was not his, not truly.
His eyes only seem to see her, and every moment they are alone he kisses her like he has never imagined he could have her.
He wants to get married as quickly as possible, so the seamstresses are working through the night to make her wedding dress fit for the queen of the Seven Kingdoms. When Ned tells him it’s not necessary, Robert shakes her off, saying “I waited long enough to have you. I won’t wait a moment longer than I have to.”
She tries not to be effortlessly won over by that.
She fails miserably.
In the end, Ned and Robert wed on a burning summer’s day, and some clever chamber maids have done Ned’s hair up in coils with some trickery and horse hair the same shade of black as her own, so nobody could tell it wasn’t as long as ladies usually had it if they hadn’t seen her previously.
The dress is stark white at the top, and is grey at the bottom, the blend of the two making the dress appear as if it ripples like water every time she takes a step. She holds a bouquet of yellow roses, not blue ones, and doesn’t mind a bit.
Ned enters the Great Sept of Baelor and feels every eye turn to her - the other Northern girl that bewitched the new king the moment he laid eyes upon her - and her stoic mask breaks when she remembers what Robert had said in response to the accusation of witch craft: “Lady Stark bewitched me many years before this one,”.
He stands at the end, and Ned intends to make him remember his promise of another ceremony in the godswood, as although there are no weirwoods there, not yet anyway, it will feel more holy for her instead of the blank seven faces staring down at her, with her marriage vows being officiated by Howland, the only other worshipper of the Old Gods present who was allowed to do as such as he has been to the Isle of the Faces, instead of a fat old septon who stinks of perfumes from one side of the church to the other.
But now she is here, and Robert is waiting, so she puts one foot in front of the other, a smile breaking out on her face as one does on his a second before - it must be strange, she thinks, for the lords and ladies of the Crownlands and the rest of the South, to see a royal bride smile so on her wedding day.
Rhaella was said to have been crying when she wed her brother, and Elia was blank faced and dutiful when walking to Rhaegar. Ned wonders if she will be hated for not being like them, not even a little.
She reaches the end of the aisle, passes off her bouquet to a waiting lady and mounts the podium Robert stands on, feeling as if she will burst with happiness.
“In the sight of the Seven,” the fat high septon begins, gesturing them to place their hands on top of each other’s and turn towards one another. Robert is so handsome in the dying light of the day, the ceremony taking place at dusk, his hands warmer than her own, and his blue eyes shine like two identical oceans. She has to tilt her head up to look him full in the face, and his neck is bent down to do the same to her “I hereby seal these two souls, King Robert of the House Baratheon, first of his name, and Eddara of the House Stark, binding them as one for eternity. Look upon one another and say the words.”
“Father.” she and Robert begin together, still smiling, and even though the words are not her words, Ned knows this is what she has been waiting for “Smith. Warrior. Mother. Maiden. Crone. Stranger.”
They both pause then, and Robert starts before she does by a moment “I am hers and she is mine-”
“I am his and he is mine-” Robert runs his thumb over the top of her hand.
“From this day until my last day.”
The procession from the Sept, first to the Godswood for the second ceremony, then back to the Red Keep is a blur to Ned, whose head still spins at the kiss Robert had given her, hands pressing into her back, and she decides that this wedding is so much better than her first they are incomparable, in truth.
Ned feels a sense of strong déjà vu when the chants for the bedding begin.
Robert looks over to her, concern etched in the lines of his face, because he will not be able to protect her this time, but she nods at him once, telling him it’s alright, because she is not the same woman she was three years before.
She loses the sleeves to her gown first, the flimsy things tearing off as they are made no thicker than a fingernail, then her uppermost skirt goes. Ned manages to outrun many of them at this point, laughing as she does so, before being caught by a green apple Fossoway, who spins her around in jest once so her bare legs, covered only by her slip, fly out and her shoes disappear. She isn’t sorry to see them go as they made her arches ache awfully.
It is not a horror if she doesn’t allow it to be, she realizes and giggles with the rest of them, seeing them as tipsy yet gallant men, a better gathering than those at Harrenhal, as they carry her to her bedchamber. Somewhere along the way she loses the front of her dress and slip, so she arrives in her corset and smallclothes.
Ned waves goodbye to the men that brought her there as the door slams, and climbs on top of the bed to wait for her husband, the thought sending a shiver through her body.
Robert, in the end, is only a few minutes late, and arrives with only a scrap of fabric to cover his modesty from the rest of the world.
As he turns from where he closed the door from the noblewomen frantic to have one last look at the new king in a state of undress, his eyes widen to the size of saucers as he sees her lain on their marriage bed, hands tucked beneath her head, hair undone and horsehair gone, chest straining against the corset she has kept on for him to take off.
“Are you real?” he asks as he stalks towards her, eyes dark with lust.
“Come over here,” Ned tells him, the wine she’s drunk spurring her on to spread her thighs a little, making him gasp like all his air has been stolen “and find out.”
“It’s just,” Robert breathes “it would be a mighty shame if this was but a dream, and I wake to find this is all in my head, and you are still a married woman and I am still denied you. Cruel, in fact. I don’t think I could bear it, never again.”
Ned reaches out for his hand, which dwarfs her own, and presses it to her collarbone, where he’d be able to feel her heart hammering “Do I feel real to you?”
“Yes,” he growls, and picks her up as if she is as light as a feather in one fluid moment “I have dreamed, for so many damned years, of this, of you, I’ve dreamed of-”
With her legs wrapped around his sides, Ned places a fingers over his lips and immediately silences him, in a way nobody else in the world could manage “Show me what you’ve dreamed, don’t tell me.”
Robert is more than happy to comply.
“Ned,” he whispers, when it is over, after an eternity, “my Ned.”
“Yours,” she agrees, the air between them fragile although it is clear their bodies are not, the calm before yet another storm just settling “Your Ned.”
(She had wanted a storm, she had wanted ripping winds, she had wanted lightning and firm hands, roughness and biting kisses, and she received all the she desired and more.)
The day after the wedding, Howland leaves for Winterfell, with Lyanna’s bones and orders to appoint Vayon Poole as Regent and steward of Winterfell until Benjen reaches his majority, and to give her and Brandon both statues in the crypts. They were not king and queen of winter, but she is the Queen of the whole bloody Seven Kingdoms, so that must be enough.
With it goes a long, long letter to her little brother, to try and explain it all. It asks for forgiveness that Ned is unsure she deserves. Ned knows her sister is nothing more than bones and rotting flesh now, but she still watches the carriage go and go and go until it disappears over the horizon and is out of sight.
The day after that one, Yohn Royce arrives after summons from Jon Arryn. His little wife and children stayed at home, and for one terrible moment Ned thinks that Robb remains in the Vale, her son still apart from her.
But, from the carriage carrying House Royce’s offerings to the crown, a little figure, knee height, with red curls the colour of the setting sun, stumbles out with a nurse, holding his little hand.
Ned does not mean to run, queens do not run, but she has only been a queen for two days, if that, and Robert did not marry her so she would be proper. So although she gets a lot of sidelong looks as she hurtles towards the little boy, nobody says a word.
She skids to a stop in front of them, the dust following just settling and she knows she has ruined the dress she is wearing, but as Robert was probably going to tear it off her anyway she doesn’t feel too bad.
Ned knows it has been so long, almost two years, since she last saw her son, and she tries to tell herself it’s okay if he doesn’t remember her, she’ll make it through and they’ll make new memories, but the overwhelming relief she feels when Robb cries “Mummy! Mummy!” Mummy!” at the top of his little lungs is indescribable.
“Hello, darling,” she breathes as she picks him up and spins him round, swearing to herself she’d never let go again if she didn’t have to “Look how big you are! You’re as big as me now!”
She only realizes later she’s been crying.
“And this,” she tells Robb, who is perched on her hip, “is Jon.” The wetnurse curtseys from the corner and leaves the room at Ned’s gesture.
Robb peers into the crib at the young baby and scrunches his mouth up into a small ball.
“Little.” Robb says very seriously.
“Yes,” Ned says, brushing his fringe out of his eyes, and tells herself to cut it at some point “But he’s your cousin, darling. Family. Part of our pack, although I know you haven’t met anyone else yet. But our pack is going to grow soon again, even though it’s quite small right now.”
“Fam’my.” Robb nods, before burying his head in her shoulder.
Ned sighs and fondly brushes both of their smooth cheeks with a finger, before taking Robb back to her rooms, which it appears will soon become solely Robb’s considering the amount of time she spends in Robert’s rooms. Soon, she’ll move Jon so they share, but Jon isn’t quite out of the ‘screaming the castle down in the middle of the night’ phase and it would be good if Robb did manage to get some sleep.
I don’t know what to think about any of this. I need time to think. I’m sorry. I put Lya down in the crypts with Brandon’s statue, and father’s. She’s the only one of them with bones. I do love you, but I don’t think I’m ready for... all of this. Thank you for Vayon Poole. He does everything, and it’s helpful because I wasn’t ready. I’m still not. I do love you. I know I’ve said that already, but you have to know that. Give my love to Jon and Robb.
The Stark in Winterfell
The Queen of the Seven Kingdom folds over the letter, and kisses her brother’s signature in his messy handwriting.
Ned falls pregnant four moons after she and Robert’s wedding, and she tells Robb first though she knows she really should tell her husband, the king, before anyone else.
“Pack?” he asks and Ned nods, joyously. She feels as if her happiness will rip her apart.
“Growing in mummy’s tummy,” she says “Just there.”
The little boy touches the bump with the tip of his index finger, before a large smile splits across his face. “Pack,” he says again.
The pack survives, Ned hears her father’s voice echoing in her mind, and runs her hand through Robb’s curls, the pack survives.
And that was all that seemed to matter just then.
The future would be hard - Ned was a queen to a conquerer who won his throne rather than inheriting it, and had to produce an heir for both the Kingdoms and Winterfell in case anything happened to Benjen. Robert was haunted by the war, not like normal men were, but in the way that he missed it, something Ned knew she’d never really be able to understand. She was hiding the last Targaryen beneath her husband’s nose, and didn’t know a single thing about ruling.
But the pack had survived. And that had to be good enough, at least for now.