I can give you a son, she says, I can give you Winterfell. Her eyes are aglow with faith and Stannis listens because she has never broken a sworn oath. He listens and lets his doubts be driven away by the strength of her belief.
He slips out of the forge, glistening and sullen like a newborn.
In winter, the meaning of words like duty, justice, honour skitter away to hide until spring. In war, names like Baratheon, Stark, Waters, Snow are worth less than the papers they are scribbled on, the papers that take one away to leave another. In the end, he only agrees to come because another child died during the cold night and they are running out - out of food, out of fuel, out of lives. He sees the bare logic, solid in front of him like a meal. What good is a blacksmith without a fire; a knight without anyone left to protect?
She meets the Baratheon bannermen midway in the Vale, and who could say if it was a rescue thwarted or the rescue of a rescue. The Kingslayer they capture; the Beauty they bound; the muddy brown hair they shear, wait patiently for the Stark to reveal herself to the North via her Tully features. The fake bastard-prince weds the fake-bastard princess and saves the kingdom. It is almost a song.
But not quite.
What is left out:
The laughter, the stares, the snickers. they can put a paper crown on a bastard’s head but there is no soap in Westeros strong enough to wash the mud out of a peasant’s tongue He tries to recall if eavesdropping was unbecoming of a prince or not, is unable to. she will whelp three - the first cold as a fish, the second bloodthirsty as a wolf, the third stupid as a bull, and not a true stag any of them. He blackens a squire’s eye for that, and the whispers stop. For a time.
They do not think to tell him the supplies never make it to the inn. The roads are too icy, the horses and men too precious. He does not ask because he could not bear to confirm what he already knows.
She tries to draw him out like she did with Sweet Robin. But he is not a sickly little boy looking for a mother. Nevertheless she tries to teach him. During these lessons, thoughts of Arya frequently rise in her mind, unbidden. He is as impossible as Arya ever was. Maybe worse. Worse, she decides. At least Arya spoke back. At least Arya tried before giving up.
He grows to hate the sound of his own voice. The sound of all voices: arch highborns; mealy-mouthed stewards; courteous frightened boys in another life he might have alternately tolerated and cared for from an affectionate, brotherly distance. Even hers after a while. He wants her endless patience to crack. He wants to crack. He speaks less and less. Takes the words of mockery, envy, pity clouding around him spoken and unspoken, slams his hammer onto them until only silence and metal remain: irons, steels, and coppers.
Another return. Another girl on a horse, riding through the winds and snows of winter as only Northern girls could. Sparring in the dark. No squires looking on and pointing out the mistakes of his form in the dark. No shame in the dark. No faces, no names, no titles. When she makes him yield and gets too close, he pushes her aside. When she does not ask why, he answers anyway. “I am promised to another.” He walks away.
On their wedding night his eyes are tightly squeezed shut. She gently combs her fingers through his hair. In the dark he could be anybody. They begin.
Arya, he says. It is barely even a whisper, but she hears him. They finish.
He rolls away from her. She turns her back to him.
Duty completed. Justice served. Honour kept.
When they meet furious and hurried in the Godswood, he does not say, this is not how it is supposed to go. She never cared for songs and he never learned any. He wishes the same is true of his lady wife, but at least she knows how it would end.