Ned rose to his feet before the weirwood tree, his joints popping audibly along the way. He was young, but kneeling in the cold on the packed ground took its toll.
He gave the frozen, weeping face in the trunk one last look before turning away. Before he reached the edge of the clearing, however, a loud crack sounded from his left. He stopped, startled, and then saw her face smiling at him through a V of branches.
She came around toward him, hands held secretively behind her, under her blue cloak. "I was waiting for you."
"Not long, I hope. What is it?"
She stopped before him, several inches shorter but her dark brown locks framing her face just as Ned's did. The chill air paled her, except for two bright spots high on her cheeks. "What were you praying for?" The inquisitive question startled him and must have shown, for she added, "Anything about me?" Lyanna pushed her arm through his, turning to walk together through the trees.
"Should I be praying for you?"
"My future's being decided," she said, a bright lightness to in her voice which Ned didn't trust. "Hasn't our lord father involved you at all yet in discussing where my hand will go?"
Ned's breath stopped for a moment. He felt her eyes on his face. "Is - are you certain?"
"What do you think he was doing, shut up with Lord Baratheon half the night before we left the Vale?"
Robert. Ned knew of his friend's feelings for his sister, but he had never thought (nor wanted to, whispered the part of him, loyal to his friend, he didn't want to acknowledge) anything serious might come out of it. Robert loved every girl with a pretty face.
"Robert kept making hints to me that 'something' will be done soon. I watched Lords Redwyne, Tyrell, and Hightower approach our lord father too," Lyanna continued. "All with sons or nephews or brothers eying and smiling and offering me flowers. Except for Lord Tarly, who probably means to ask my hand for himself. Wouldn't that make a nice alliance for Father, in case King Scab finally decides he can do without us?"
Ned shook his head. He knew his sister was fifteen and a woman flowered, but he didn't want to believe she was truly on the verge of leaving Winterfell forever. "I can't believe Father would be seriously considering anyone without informing you."
"All I have to say is, if he doesn't inform me by the time the announcement is made of where my hand has been sold, I may just cut it off and send it on alone." At last a steely note entered the false brightness.
Ned looked at her, alarmed. That tone was not acquainted with unfulfilled threats. "Don't talk like that. I'm sure nothing will be decided without your consent...though I hope you will consider what the family needs."
"Of course." Softly spoken, and she reached across with her left hand to hold his arm. "So, who would you have for me? Your good friend Robert? Rodrik Tyrell? Manfred Redwyne? Or what about a prince?"
"A prince?" Ned was confused.
"Oh, but Rhaegar is married. Nevermind." She went on before he had time to process the strange comment. "Have you given Robert your blessing?"
"No." The word slipped out, with a fervency he hadn't meant to reveal either.
Lyanna turned her head to scrutinize him, but she didn't pursue what lay behind his answer. Instead she continued, in her light voice, "Who would you have for me, Ned? I'm so curious. You know you're my favorite brother, you know me so well. To whom would you give me?"
Ned looked up, searching for sky among the crowded tree limbs weighed with snow. Lyanna always had a gift for tormenting him, even when she didn't mean to. "I don't know anyone to whom I would trust you. Who would be able to handle you. Who would make you happy. Is there anyone you love, Lyanna?"
She stopped suddenly, taking a couple steps back to lean against a wide old tree, drawing Ned with her. She looked up into his eyes, smiling inscrutably. It was a small smile, and Ned saw only sadness in it.
"I love you," she said.
He touched his forehead to hers. "And I love you. But I can't keep you in Winterfell, as much as I might wish to."
Lyanna reached up to gather his cloak and shirtfront in her hands, holding him tightly close. "I know. But Ned -" She stopped, lips still parted as though she waited for the words.
"What?" he whispered.
She slowly raised her eyes back to his. "I don't trust any of them. Only you." She tilted her head up, closing the small space between them to kiss him on the lips.
For perhaps a moment it was a chaste, sisterly kiss; then she pressed harder, insisting against his lips for more. Her eyes were closed, and Ned could see her expression and what she wanted. But he only felt shock; as soon as he recovered, he tried to pull away. But Lyanna whispered, "No," never opening her eyes, and reached up to push her hand through his hair, holding onto the side of his head. Her next kiss was more tentative, brief and experimental, and the next the same. When he still didn't react she half-opened her eyes to look at him, whispering, "Please, Ned." Her hand caressed his hair, soft and soothing and so familiar - and when it came down to it, Ned had never been able to resist Lyanna when she looked at him like that.
He kissed her back, hesitatingly - how much did she want? - but immediately she moaned in her throat, the sound all the more entrancing because he knew it had all the earnestness of inexperience. She slid her hand from his head to grip his shoulders with the length of her arm, and he found himself pressing against her, wanting closer. She gasped and squirmed against him, at the same time turning her head to kiss harder. He felt her tongue against his lips, and never consciously made the decision to open his mouth.
It went on for longer than he would have liked before he fully came to himself and broke apart, gasping and with his hands forcefully on her shoulders to keep her from him. What are wedoing, are we mad - you're my blood and it's a terrible thing, wrong in every way -
But she looked at him simply, without a trace of shame or defiance; only a hint of sadness again with resignation, not fighting the least against his hands - her lips swollen from his kissing - and all he could say was, "It isn't safe."
Then she smiled; not happily, but understandingly. "All right." She began to straighten, and he dropped his hands quickly, as though he had started it. Lyanna walked past him; after a few steps and he still hadn't moved, she looked back over her shoulder. "Come on, Ned, they'll be serving dinner soon."
Ned watched Lyanna cut her meat, ask their mother about the latest news from King's Landing, and tease Benjen as usual about the wild crush Maggy had on him. Halfway through dinner she finally made eye contact with him, as she took a sip from her wine goblet. Just a brief glance, a smile, and then she turned away again.
Ned found he had no choice except to act just as naturally as she was, but he was glad his family expected him to be quiet normally.
He had lain in bed for quite some time, no closer to sleep than when he first lay down, when his door creaked open. Lyanna's pale face appeared in the crack, and Ned sat up. A hundred different thoughts for what she might say ran though his mind - that she was sorry, it had been a fit of madness and she didn't mean for it to happen again, so he should forget it ever happened - but then she stepped inside, and he knew she would say none of those things. Lyanna wore only a thin white tunic, entirely unfitting for winter as it was cut to her knees and wide and loose over her shoulders. It clung to her in ways defying she was anything but a woman - and a cold one at that. She moved closer, into the moonlight from his window, and gods help him, Ned's own body betrayed him. His sister.
As she reached his bedside, he seized her by the wrist, stopping her. "Lyanna - it's a sin. It dishonors ourselves and brings shame to our family -"
"Oh, so it's only acceptable for the Targaryens?" She sat down by him, reaching for the edge of his furs.
"No, look where it's brought them, with Aerys -"
"Who would you have for me, Ned? Where would you send me?" She spoke quietly, drawing her knees beneath her to lean over him, touching his cheek and trailing her fingers down his neck, to his chest and inside his tunic.
He caught her hands, holding them together before him. She was so calm, and he felt himself nearly shaking with desperation - of what sort? - his heart pounding in his chest where she had reached. "We cannot do this. ...Even if we aren't caught now - you are a maiden, Lyanna; when you're married, whenever that is, your husband will expect a maidenhead. If you don't have one he'll hurl accusations at our entire house, the whole marriage will be ruined. It would destroy you for life."
She sighed out, sitting back on her heels. She gazed at him, composed and thoughtful, and finally said, "Well then, we'll leave my maidenhead out of it," and leaned forward again, this time with her whole body to press her lips to his.
Ned groaned, muffled though it was, raising his hands to push her away but once they took hold of her, he could only pull her tighter to him, stroking up her back. She shivered; he could feel the gooseflesh through her tunic, and he let go with one hand to pull the blankets and furs down to let her in. She straddled him, pressing her thin cold calves against the outside of his thighs, and sought his tongue again. Folding his arms over her, Ned pulled himself up to her; Lyanna released his mouth to plant a quick kiss on his cheek, then two more over his eyes. Her fingers dug into his hair, and he entangled his hands in hers as well (same texture, same color). Her cheeks were bright now, teeth bared in a grin and a wild intensity in her eyes - Ned barely had time to wonder if she had ever before seemed so possibly mad, when she dropped her head to kiss the skin just below his collarbone. Her teeth nipped him sharply, and he gasped, grabbing her upper arms. Lyanna giggled against him, then raised her head to look at him. She lifted her arms to circle his head, leaning her upper body more fully against his.
"Touch me, Ned."
He drew his hands up and down the slope of her back - he could have done that the rest of the night, feeling her waist and shoulder bones and legs spread over his, her breasts close against his chest, and he would have lost himself soon enough. But Lyanna sighed, impatient, and straightened up a little to reach for his hand and guide it down to the hem of her tunic, over the back of her thigh and close to her buttocks. "Please, Ned. Show me." She drew her knees up to lift her body and give him room.
With her hand on top of his, Ned moved his hand under her tunic. His fingers rode the hill of her buttock, earning a slow hiss and watching Lyanna's eyes half-close. He drew his hand over her hip to her belly, then cupped it to her ribs, moving upward. When he wrapped his fingers around her breast she shuddered, eyes completely closing as she whispered, "Oh, Ned," and the last of his doubts left.
He slid his thumb over her nipple, as hard as when she had entered his room, and watched her face in fascination. He moved his other hand underneath her tunic to take her other breast as well, squeezing them in unison down to the nipples, and she whimpered so loud he was afraid it could be heard outside.
"Shhh," he whispered, and she opened her eyes to smile at him, even as she was biting her lip.
"I can feel that." She moved her hips down, and with a jolt he realized he was upright, pressing between her thighs and perilously close to her center. "Not my maidenhead, remember?" Before he could respond, she tugged at his left shoulder, then rolled over to lie on her back beside him. "Over me."
As he rose up hesitantly, Lyanna pulled her tunic up over her body and her head, dropping it off the bed to the floor. She lay illuminated by the moonlight, pale and thin, suddenly looking young and girlish again. Ned could only stare, for a moment afraid to touch her, afraid again of what they were doing. But she reached out her hand toward him, as her other trailed down her abdomen, toward the dark brown thatch between her legs.
"Straddle me," she told him. "I want you to touch yourself, as I do too - and see if we can finish together." She smiled, for the first time almost shyly.
Ned crossed one knee over her legs and bent over close to her, pressing her between his arms and kissing her. He could feel her hand fluttering, already in motion and brushing against his left thigh. Her left hand grasped the material of his nightshirt, tugging it up toward his head and off. He broke the kiss to assist her, pulling it free, then moved down to kiss the top of her breast. He could not resist taking her nipple in his mouth, sucking it.
Lyanna moaned, "Ned," stretching her head back and her hand moving faster underneath him. His own hand found his manhood, the head of it bumping against her stomach. As he began pumping it, he realized with a start how close he already was to coming. He moved his head back to hers, groaning in her ear, "Lyanna - you're beautiful, oh Lyanna."
"Ned, I'm so wet - feel me."
As awkward as it was, Ned pressed his forehead into the pillows beside Lyanna's head, his right hand moving furiously over himself as he reached down with his left. His fingers brushed hers, as frantically moving as his own, and then lower where he felt what she meant - dripping wet, coating his fingers immediately, and she was whispering again, "Ned."
He came with a soft gasp, convulsing as he felt himself spatter over her belly and breasts. He hadn't finished before Lyanna cried out as well, her free hand digging fingernails into his upper arm as her body arched to touch him.
Then silence, but for their gasps slowing down, and Ned lay down slowly on his side next to her. He knew that he should feel guilty; this was when it should all come back to him, how terrible it was, but he was looking at Lyanna's face: her flushed cheeks, closed eyes and parted lips, and the only thing he felt was a desire to kiss them again, which he did.
What bothered Ned the most in the passing months was how little it troubled him to keep a secret of such enormity from his family. Some shameful part of him wanted to think it was Lyanna's gift; her power to make monstrous things thinkable, and wrong ones innocent.
All the same, he was never the one to approach her. She always caught him alone, sometimes coming to his room at night when he didn't expect it, or when Father and Brandon had left for a hunt during the day. Sometimes it was at less auspicious times, when it seemed they only had moments of privacy and she would turn the corner and press her body against him, take his hand up in hers and suck his fingers one at a time. There were close calls, but they never fazed Lyanna for long. She seemed to enjoy the danger; that was when Ned seriously wondered if she were touched with madness.
What drove her was clear, though. Their lord father had finally begun drawing Lyanna to his quarters to discuss marriages - particularly, Ned knew, with Robert. Afterwards Lyanna was always fiercely determined to find him.
Sometimes they did not need to worry about anyone finding them: Ned only held her, caressing her back or head as she whispered vehement, muffled things into his chest. Ned was glad they were muffled, and the only parts she made audible were when she lifted her head to whisper, half-mockingly, for the family, for the family. She did not weep, and if those moments and wild kisses with which Ned could hardly keep up, afforded her the serenity she kept in more public moments, Ned was glad to give it.
Then it was decided for certain that Lyanna would become Lady Baratheon.
The only announcement made was that the family would be traveling soon to meet the Baratheons at the Eyrie, but all the Starks knew what would be announced then.
Perhaps all those months with Ned had prepared Lyanna for that outcome. Ned went to her for the first time that night, and found her calmer than he ever expected. It enabled him to tell her what he intended.
"I'm sorry, Lyanna. You will always be my sister, but now that you are promised to Robert I can't act in his stead. It must end when we leave Winterfell."
She gave no sign of surprise or even recognition she had heard, but observed thoughtfully a moment later, "Robert will never keep to one bed. I hear he has gotten a child on some young girl in the Vale."
Something in Ned's chest tightened. "He loves you," he said helplessly. "You know that, Lyanna, and what he's done before the betrothal is of no consequence, he'll put it all aside. He's a good man. I know he'll love you with all his heart."
She smiled at him - so wide and easily that one who saw it would have assumed she was amused, but Ned saw how pain drove it. She spoke softly, more earnestly to him than he had heard in a long time. "Love is sweet, dearest Ned. But it cannot change a man's nature."
He could not answer her. He could no longer think of Robert.
She held his gaze for a long moment, then turned back to her window. Her next question was remote, with all the soft sweetness in her voice before gone. "So, you are giving me to Robert, then? He is your final choice?"
For a moment Ned's throat constricted; finally he said hoarsely, "He wasn't my choice, he was Father's. You know that, Lyanna."
"But you're giving me to him nonetheless." She did not look back at him.
Ned wanted to go forward, take her in his arms and kiss her face, make her shiver and wrap her arms around him and whisper his name over and over, as she had done the night before - but he couldn't bear it, and he couldn't do it to Robert, not anymore. He will love her.
Ned turned and left the room.
Long before they ever reached the Vale, Lord Rickard Stark received the summons to Lord Whent's tournament. There was nothing of a choice about it.
Lyanna had been frighteningly serene, submissive, even docile ever since the last time Ned had spoken to her in her room. She was just as serene and docile when she received Prince Rhaegar's victory wreath of blue roses, never glancing toward Elia Martell.
Afterwards, Ned dreamed that late that night he had heard her quiet steps as she passed him, with Rhaegar waiting outside. He always knew Rhaegar didn't take her; Lyanna wouldn't have let him, simple as that. Instead she walked past where he slept and, in his dream, she looked for just a moment toward him. "You gave me to Robert," she said. "But love is sweet, dearest Ned."