"And the mystery knight should win the tourney, defeating every challenger, and name the wolf maid the queen of love and beauty."
"She was," said Meera, "but that's a sadder story."
Ned wasn’t sure how it came to be that a five year old girl would have more power than the Lord of Winterfell, but every night at the hour of his daughter’s bedtime, he was required to set aside all other duties and report to Sansa’s room to tell her a story or she would not sleep and all of Winterfell would know of her displeasure. Cat’s stories would not do. Old Nan’s stories would not do. It had to be him. Though he would joke over the boldness of Sansa’s demands, the truth was he did not wish for those demands to ever change.
The only problem he had was finding new tales to tell. Sansa was a sweet girl, whose tastes ran towards knights and singers and true love. She wanted to dream of beautiful ladies being rescued and wooed by handsome lords. Ned’s boyhood fancies were so much plainer: a sharp sword and fine armor with which to defend the realm. And his own experiences with the sort of romantic fantasies Sansa craved did not have the happy endings his girl believed in.
So he repeated the few he knew and went to Cat during the day to get what stories he could from her to share with Sansa at night. He asked Old Nan and all his men who had daughters. Piece by piece, he assembled a collection of tales that made his daughter delight and coo and fall asleep with a smile upon her face.
Until the night came when it seemed that he had told Sansa every tale he’d gathered so many times that Sansa shook her head ‘no’ before he could get more than a few sentences in.
“You told that one two days ago, Daddy,” she insisted.
Ned believed her. Her mind was sharper for these things than his. Another try proved to be only five days from its last telling. Again and again and Sansa could date them all.
“It’s all right,” Sansa said as she smoothed her bedding out in front of her. She did not look up at Ned. “You can tell me an old one.”
But they were all old ones and Ned hated disappointing his daughter. He was no bard but surely he could try for her sake. “Perhaps I could make up a new one?”
“Oh, please, Daddy, please!” Sansa was grinning at him, blues eyes twinkling.
He had no power to deny her, only a doubt he’d be able to craft a story worthy of her.
He began with what he knew would please her. “There once was a fair maiden…”
“Was she a princess?”
“I suppose she could –”
“How beautiful was she? What color was her hair? Was it curly with ribbons? Were her eyes like jewels? Oh, she must have sung and played the harp too!”
Sansa stared at him eagerly, waiting to hear every last detail of this maiden’s beauty and virtue. Ned was overwhelmed. A handful of words into his story and he’d already lost its track. Visions of the women he’d known passed through his mind as he sought to find a suitable answer for Sansa, from his mother to Cat. Surely, Sansa would like to hear of a girl who looked like her, he thought but when he spoke, the descriptions that tumbled from his mouth were of another woman.
He didn’t realize what he was doing until the picture of Lyanna was complete and Sansa was giggling.
“She was a Stark!”
“Well…” Ned faltered. He could see Lya clearly. Though it was years from her death, he would never forget the face that showed itself in his dreams and nightmares. Hers, Brandon’s or their father’s.
“A Stark and a princess. Can I be a princess too?”
Ned reflexively said no, there hadn’t been a princess with the name Stark for three hundred years - not since Torrhen bent his knee – and there would not be one again.
Except that wasn’t true, was it? His sister’s willfulness had made him suspect. The presence of the Kingsguard had made that suspicion deepen. The sight of the babe had left no doubt. Wild as she was, Lyanna was not so that she would carry a bastard in her belly.
It was strange to him how he could both block out the memories of his sister’s last moments and yet always have them lingering under the surface, waiting for the slightest hint to send them, and the pain and regret inextricably tied to them, flooding forth . Some of it must have shown on his face because Sansa crawled out from her covers to put her hands on his cheeks.
Ned loved Sansa so. He loved all his children. Robb, his young lord, who was so much like his Tully mother but strove so hard to be Ned’s son. Arya, his wild wolf, who learned to yell before she could talk and run before she would walk. Bran, his sweet boy, who was already chasing after her and unlike to stop unless lured away by the sight of Robb testing out his small wooden sword.
And then there was Jon, a son that was not his son, but everyone, even poor Cat, thought was so like him in looks and demeanor. He was his mother’s child in the first and, Ned was coming to suspect, his father’s in the latter.
But Sansa…she was his little lady, pure and soft-hearted. She believed so strongly in all the things his life had made Ned come to regard with cynicism that he couldn’t bring himself to denounce those beliefs. She believed so strongly that she almost made him believe.
Ned took her hands in his. “Back in your bed, sweetling. Your story has just begun.”
Sansa scrambled back under her covers. “I don’t have to be a princess. But, maybe the maiden could be…”
“Yes, she was princess.” Ned did not regret these words when they were met with Sansa’s widening grin. “Or she came to be one. As the tale begins, she was a…” Ned was not quite willing to tell the entire truth. He could not. Truth, though, could be honored in spirit if not deed.
“She was not a Stark, though she had the look. Perhaps she was a distant relation. She was the daughter of a stable master ,” he finished. Lya had practically lived at the stables.
Sansa crinkled her nose. The stables were not the traditional haunt of a maiden fair, nor its occupants the traditional subjects of songs. Ned hurried to give Sansa the heroine she wished.
“The maiden was kind and gentle and sang beautifully.” That was a lie. For all the reasons Ned had loved his sister, Lyanna’s singing voice was not one. Gentle wasn’t always true either. The bruises and cuts she had left on her sparring partner Benjen had spoken to that.
It felt good to think of Lyanna like this. For so long, Ned had been consumed with how everything had ended, he hadn’t let himself think of what came before.
“She was also brave and loyal. She could ride the horses in her father’s stables better than anyone at the castle. She was deft with a blade too, when she could escape her father’s notice and practice with one.”
Sansa’s nose remained crinkled. “But she was still a lady, wasn’t she?”
“Oh, yes,” Ned laughed. He’d gotten carried away reminiscing. “Only she was a lady of a different sort. Her beauty and spirit made her the treasure of her family.”
“And the prince? He treasured her too?”
Ned thought so, hoped so. If there was any meaning to be found in all those that had died, let there at least be that. “He will, little one. All in good time. First they must meet.”
Ned smiled in spite of himself at Sansa’s serious nod. She knew how a story should go.
“One day her father took his children to…a fair. There were singers and mummers and a grand market where young maidens could find dresses and dolls and combs for their hair.”
Sansa was almost glowing. The heavens themselves could not contain a place she would more love to be. Back when he’d first heard word of Lord Whent’s tournament at Harrenhal, even his stoicism had lifted to let anticipation seep in. The knights of the Vale had spoken excitedly of the lists and Robert had been planning on how to spend his winnings at the melee from the moment he’d seen the amount. Ned had never planned to take part in any of that, but he’d looked forward to reuniting with his family to enjoy the spectacle.
Of course, the first thing Lya had done when they’d gotten together was to chase after the squires harassing Howland Reed with a tourney sword she’d taken from Brandon. At the time, Ned could not have thought of a better greeting. It remained his favorite memory of his sister.
“The maiden was browsing the market’s wares when she came across a group of boys gathered ‘round another young man. The young man’s clothes were not so fine as the boys’ and they taunted him for it. The maiden would not stand for such pettiness and she shamed the boys into leaving the young man alone.”
“Was the young man the prince is disguise?”
No, Ned thought, just an unassuming, unknown bannerman who would become one of my staunchest friends. Sansa’s suggestion though was a good one for the purpose of the story and for the purpose of disguising the truth. The tale of the Knight of the Laughing Tree was not told in Winterfell and Ned would not speak it now, even with its players masked.
“The maiden did not know who he was, for he thanked her and went on his way without giving his name. But he remembered her and her brave deed.”
“Did he give her a reward?”
A crown of winter roses.
That was another truth that could not be repeated. Yet in telling this tale and forcing himself to recall the tournament at Harrenhal to his eager, innocent daughter, Ned could feel the full warmth of these memories without the bitterness of knowing what they had led to creeping in. He’d been alarmed when Lyanna had confessed to being the mystery knight but only for a moment. The worry had worn away and all that had been left was pride. His little sister – bold, wild, so alive.
“He would, but not just yet. You see, to celebrate the fair there was a…contest.”
“Was it between the singers? They all sang their best songs. And some were sad and some were sweet and they were about love and knights and -”
Sansa might have continued through the night if Ned had not interrupted her with a deep laugh. “Who’s telling this story, little one?” he asked. She had the right of it again though. A contest of songs was suitable for the story and a far cry from tourney lists. He had given the maiden a beautiful singing voice. He could let her song stand in for Lya’s arms. Hadn’t Benjen once teased Lya that her voice was as piercing as a lance?
Still laughing, he told Sansa she had the instincts of a bard. “Yes, it was as you said. The mummers had set up a stage on which the singers could perform. A great crowd formed around them, dancing when the songs were lively and standing quietly, lost in their thoughts when they were plaintive.
“Anyone was welcome to enter the contest. The maiden was content to listen until she saw the boys who’d bothered the young man take the stage. They sang serviceably – a bawdy tune that earned laughs from the crowd. The maiden then decided she would sing next, lest the boys grow even fuller of themselves.”
“Did she sing a love song?”
“She sang a beautiful song, one aching of love and loss, and it brought the entire crowd to tears.” Ned could hear the music now, just as clear as it had been on that night of the feast of Harrenhal. Lya had not performed it but she had been moved by it more deeply than Ned had thought a song capable of moving her. Perhaps it was not the song, but the man singing it. When had that first spark been struck?
The echo of the song worked its will on Ned and if not for Sansa, he might have let himself drown a few moments more in its sadness. But it was for Sansa and truly, for all of his family, that he had to forge ever on.
“The crowd forgot all about those boys. They only wanted the maiden. They cried for her to sing again, but she would not for she did not wish to be as prideful as the boys.”
“But she won, didn’t she? She was the best!”
“That she was, but she departed the stage, leaving everyone to wonder who the beautiful maiden was.”
“But the prince knew who she was.”
Yes, he found out sooner than any of us, though he kept his silence while everyone else shouted for the knight. Small wonder Lya had been charmed.
“He did, but he sensed the maiden did not wish for attention and waited for a chance to speak to her alone.”
At this, Sansa leaned forward, all thoughts of sleep well out of her head. This was her favorite part of a story, the part where it truly began, when the man and the woman discovered a grand love between them. For Ned, it was the beginning of the end, when all the pure love and intentions found nothing but ash and ruin.
“But the prince did find her,” Sansa insisted. “He told her he was the prince and that he fell in love with her because of her song and that he wanted to marry her.”
“I believe that’s how it went,” Ned said in a soft voice.
“And she said she wanted to marry him too and be a princess!”
That was not the story told in the Seven Kingdoms but it was the one Benjen had told Ned. He’d known of the whole mess, from start to bitter end, and had donned the black in penance for not being able to stop any of it over Ned’s protests that there was nothing that could have been done. Lya had been as willful and stubborn as a mule. She’d rejected the vow their father had made for her. What words could any of her brothers have said to dissuade her? She could not have known, none of them ever could have dreamed, what had come of it.
Lyanna’s dreams had not been unlike Sansa’s hopes. It was Little Arya who had Lya’s looks and spirit but in this moment, Ned could see his sister in his other daughter as well. As Sansa waited for the rest of the story, all stars in her eyes, Ned indulged himself a fantasy in which her wishing, Lya’s wishing, could have been met with the happiness each of them deserved.
“Indeed, sweetling. The maiden loved her prince and wanted to be with him. Their love made them both restless and rash though and they could not wait for their families to approve of their betrothal.”
Sansa grinned to give her approval. Such a sweet girl. She doesn’t even know that hearts can break, does she?
“They left the fair behind to find a godswood. It was there, in front of a weirwood tree, that they swore their love and pledged to always be as one.”
“That’s how your gods do it, isn’t it?” Sansa asked. “It’s so romantic!”
That surprised Ned. He’d agreed with Cat to raise their children with both religions but in that regard, Sansa had been a Tully through and through. She liked the pretty leaves of the weirwood tree but that was where her interest in his gods ended. The Old Gods were unknowable and aloof. The order and promised comfort offered by the Seven held Sansa’s favor. There were times when Ned wished he could believe in that as well.
This was never truer than when Sansa decided the story was at an end. “They lived happily ever after!”
They died and thousands went with them.
“Not quite. There’s more of the story. They were married in the custom of the Old Gods and ran away to begin their lives together. In their happiness, though, they forgot the ones they’d left behind.”
“Oh,” Sansa sighed. “But their families were really happy for them, weren’t they? They could see how much they loved each other.”
Her family saw dishonor. His family saw treason and madness and in that seeing, turned what should have been a mere scandal into a calamity.
No. Sansa did not know hearts could break and Ned would not be the man to teach her.
“Their families were unsure of what happened but kept their calm. The maiden’s brothers set out to search for her and the prince’s family spread word of their disappearance. Soon, that word reached the lovers and they realized how foolish they’d been.”
“But they were in love…”
“They loved their families too and did not wish them to worry.”
Sansa could not argue with this turn of the story but it was clear she wished to. She looked at Ned in a pout. “But once they came back, everybody was happy and the maiden got to live in the prince’s castle.”
Ned was tempted to let Sansa have this ending. Ned had always wondered if it was the ending Lyanna had desired, to be a second wife kept in the confines of the Red Keep and courtly life. Had she given much thought to it beyond being with her love? Oh, surely she had believed her prince would indulge her. Rhaegar had been attracted to her because of her spirit; Ned refused to believe the man Lya had left everything behind for would ever wish to have it broken. And Jon… She would have had her boy beside her. Jon could be such a solemn lad. Would he have gone deeper into that nature with his father as his guide, or would he have followed Lyanna’s more vibrant example?
He could never know, but thinking on how to end his tale, Ned decided he did not want to know. This was his fancy. He could have it end in any way he cared too. Of Lya’s dreams and how far they reached, he had only her last request, the promise she had begged him to make. However heavy it weighed on his heart, not fulfilling it would have destroyed him. There was a rightness too, in having Jon here in Winterfell. There would only be even more rightness in having Lya here with him.
“The prince and the maiden’s love was deep and true but they also realized they had duties they could not ignore. They pledged to always keep the other in their hearts as they acknowledged the need to part -”
“So the prince returned to his castle, his time with the maiden a sweet dream that gave him warmth on the cold winter nights. And the maiden returned home to her family and the stables she loved.”
“But she was all alone!”
“Not quite. The prince’s love for her left her with a gift, a piece of him that grew in the maiden’s belly until nine moons had turned and gave her a sweet, cooing babe.”
That soothed Sansa. She’d been fascinated with her little sister and brother when they were born, always asking for a turn with them and singing softly to them as she held their tiny hands. Even now, Bran had not yet grown so big that Sansa wouldn’t try to hold him.
“Was it a boy or a girl?” she asked, likely already picturing the baby in precious gowns regardless of its sex.
“It was a boy, a darling boy with his mother’s smile. Whenever the babe was restless, the maiden would cradle him in her arms and sing to him the song that had won her the prince’s love. In that way, the prince was always with her and their child. The boy grew up strong and bright, the adoration of his mothers and his uncles and aunts. He’d spend his day happily playing alongside his cousins and at night, curl up beside his mother so she could tell him stories of true love.”
“Robb says those stories are stupid,” Sansa said, but that was the only qualm with the maiden’s fate she voiced. The tale done, she snuggled under her covers. “You’ll have to tell me that story again,” she said in a yawn.
Ned kissed her brow to bid her goodnight, suddenly as tired his daughter. “Ah, but now it’s an old story.” In truth, it had been a rare mood that had allowed Ned to share as he did. He was not sure he’d be able to speak of it again.
Still, he kept it in his thoughts as he bade Sansa goodnight and set out to check on the rest of the children. Arya was well asleep, sprawled across her bed and snoring lightly. Cat was with Bran, singing him a lullaby. His youngest had his usual restlessness and Cat paused only to tell Ned that perhaps they ought to consider hiring a singer if certain little boy was always going to fight going to sleep. She gladly resumed her song as Bran giggled.
Ned then came upon Old Nan shooing Robb towards his bed. She threatened him with her scariest tales and the nightmares they were sure to bring should he not heed her. Robb swore he was unafraid and stood defiant until Ned recalled the bad dreams Old Nan had brought him when he was a child. Robb eyes grew wide as he turned from Old Nan, stern and fearsome, and Ned, smiling. He turned and marched to his bedchamber, Old Nan on his heels with the beginning of a legend about the Others on her lips.
Lastly, Ned found his way to Jon’s room. Like Arya, he was already deep into his dreams. He’d kicked his blankets off the bed and as Ned picked it up to tuck him back in, he could hear Jon muttering softly, but not unhappily. These were good dreams he was having.
How much better would they be if it was his mother here instead? If Benjen’s guilt had not forced him to leave? If Cat could know the truth and have a nephew to love instead of a bastard to make her feel small?
Ned would never know. The story he had told Sansa was over and the wishes within it had been dead before he could ever give them life. Fancies were enjoyable for a moment, but dwelling in them overlong could only lead to misery.
But as Ned watched Jon sleep, as he laughed when Jon rolled over and once again shoved his covers aside, as he let the fierce love and protectiveness he had for his sister’s son engulf him, he could not help but to hope that the rest of this boy’s story would be as bright as Sansa’s tale.
It wouldn’t be, it couldn’t be, but Ned would try to tell it as best he could.