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Hold On To Your Heart

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Why? Why did you take them all? Lyanna kept asking the heart tree this question, begged the old gods for an answer that would never come. Could you not have left me just one brother? Even if he was crippled and needed me for the rest of his life-- why didn’t you leave me one?

She knew it was pointless to plead for a life lost. Had she not been so aggrieved, she would have cursed Brandon instead, cursed him for fighting instead of kneeling. What chance did they ever stand against three dragons? Yet Brandon insisted on fighting-- I’d rather die fighting than live on my knees, he had said, and Lyanna had wept over those words ever since.

They were gone, all of them. Brandon gone, Ned gone, Benjen gone. Benjen had only been six-and-ten, but he had insisted on joining the battle. “I’m a northman too,” he said. “I should stand and fight with the rest.” Well, forty thousand northmen walked into that battle and ten thousand had survived, the only ones who thought to surrender. Those were the numbers Maester Luwin had relayed to her. The battle took place only a few days prior; any day now, the dragons would be on her doorstep, and she would have to answer.

“Your grace?” A kindly man’s voice called from behind her. Lyanna turned in her kneeling position to look back at her caller. “Rhaegar Targaryen has arrived in the winter town.” Maester Luwin appeared as grave as she felt. The maester had not been in Winterfell long, but he felt keenly with House Stark. She did not doubt that he wept as she did when the terrible news had first arrived.

Lyanna nodded. As she rose, she wiped the tears from her eyes. She knew what she must do, and direwolves do not weep.

Her horse was saddled already by the time she reached the courtyard. It was filled with so many people-- refugees, the elderly, women, children, all of those who could not fight. They eyed her expectantly. What did they want her to say? Would could she say?

Just before she pulled herself onto the saddle, a hand grabs her arm. She turned to look into the lined faced of the aged Lord Karstark, nearly blind in both eyes.

“We will defend Winterfell, your grace, to the last man, woman, and child,” he said in his strong, proud voice. “You do not have to kneel to your brothers’ killers.”

Lyanna covered his arthritic hand with her slim one. Lord Karstark had lost every last one of his sons in battle. Stark and Karstark were one blood, he had reminded her. They would die together as they lived together. And so they did. “I know, my lord, but I want no more bloodshed,” she said softly. “We have lost enough, and it is my duty to protect you all. Let us find peace through a means that is not death.”

The old man nodded grimly and let her go. A different pair of hands helped onto her horse, the hands of Maege Mormont, who had stayed behind in Winterfell for the sake of her young daughters. Her eldest, Dacey, only six-and-ten, had died on the field with Brandon. The proud woman looked at her now with a glimmer in her eye. They all understood what she must do. They did not hold it against her.

The gates of Winterfell opened, and Lyanna rode forth alone. The dragons and their masters were in sight of Winterfell. It would not have taken very long at all to walk to them, but riding gave her courage. It gave her time to clear her head and steel her heart. Her people needed her to be strong, even in submission. She needed to be proud. She stopped about thirty paces before them, and dismounted.

She knew their names, even those of the dragons, though she had never laid eyes on them before. There was Daenerys Targaryen, the youngest of the three, and younger than her at six-and-ten. She was beautiful in black leather, silver hair in a plait down the center of her back, a crown of Valyrian steel on her fair head. Her dragon was named Vhagar, a beast with black scales and crimson eyes. Viserys Targaryen was on the other side of her, his silver hair tied back as he sported a cruel smirk. His dragon was named Meraxes, and it had scales the same color as its master’s hair, and black eyes.

Then there was the conqueror in the middle: Rhaegar Targaryen. Tall, handsome, and dressed in black armor with rubies in the shape of a three-headed dragon on the breastplate. He wore his long silver hair loose, and was crowned by a simple Valyrian steel circlet encrusted with rubies. His dragon was called Balerion. It was the largest of the three, with green scales and bronze eyes. All three dragons loomed behind their masters, their eyes focused on her with deadly intent. A direwolf would not sate their appetites, but they would eat her all the same.

Yet as Lyanna looked upon these beasts for the first time, she felt no fear. There was nothing these purple-eyed Targaryens and their fire-breathing monsters could do to her that would hurt more than what they had already done. Her brothers were gone from this world forever. She was alone. She could not be more alone. Even death would feel more full.

Lyanna walked towards them, a single woman dressed in a simple black gown, wrapped up in a white cloak with a direwolf stitched onto it. That was her only armor-- that, and the crown upon her head.

She stopped right before Rhaegar and looked into his purple eyes to search for something. Mercy, perhaps, or remorse. Yet his eyes revealed nothing but a strange sort of melancholy, a melancholy that was not for her. There was nothing left to do, and nothing left to say.

Lyanna Stark removed her crown and knelt.

She placed it at his feet, this ancient crown of iron, and tried not to weep anew. It had belonged to the Starks for thousands of years, and had been stolen from her in under a week.

“The North offers its surrender,” she said aloud, her voice strong enough to make her brothers proud.

“I accept its surrender,” Rhaegar said. His voice was clear and calm, almost musical. She hated it already. “Rise, Lyanna Stark.”

It stung not to be called queen, but she swallowed her useless pride for now. Pride would win her no concessions. But even so, she did not take Rhaegar’s hand when it was offered, and rose gracefully by herself.

“I regret the loss of life that accompanies this surrender,” the king said, not unkindly. Lyanna set her jaw, unwilling to believe he regretted it at all. “Your brothers fought valiantly-- but they should have kneeled.”

Never speak of my brothers to me, she wanted to say. Instead she holds her tongue.

“Nevertheless, I am not without mercy.” Lyanna nearly spit at his words. “Show me to your solar, and let us discuss the future of the North together.”

Parting with a glare, Lyanna returned to her horse and led the way back to Winterfell. Upon Rhaegar’s arrival those gathered in the courtyard remained standing tall, refusing to kneel. None of the dragon masters commented on this, but instead followed her into the solar, where Maester Luwin and her brother’s steward, Lord Beron Poole, stood in wait. Lyanna had difficulty calling this solar or any of Brandon’s men her own; it had only been three days. She didn’t have the time to get used to it. She feared she never would. I was not raised to rule Winterfell. It is not my right. She had no choice now. Now, she must rule, for as long as these Targaryens would allow her.

Lyanna stood off to the side as each dragon master took a chair. Then a fourth man entered, one that she did not know. He resembled them only faintly-- he was tall, with blond hair so dark it was almost brown, and violet eyes. He had darker skin, though, a bronze color where theirs was fair, and was broad and muscular while they were slim and lean. His nose appeared to have been broken more than once, and he wore his arm in a sling with a bloodied bandage at his shoulder. If the Targaryens were the sun, he was the moon hidden behind clouds. He did not burn nearly as bright. Yet he took a chair as well, comfortable among them.

Lyanna noted that they left the lord’s chair behind the desk for her. An empty courtesy. She lowered herself into it, and awaited their sentence.

“I have not spent very long in your country, Lyanna Stark, but I quickly came to realize a few things about your northmen,” Rhaegar began leaning forward. He appeared comfortable in his seat, when Lyanna wished him nothing but pain. “Foremost amongst my observations, is that they are as fierce as they are loyal.”

He was not wrong, but she would not open her mouth to agree.

“In fact, I am certain that if you had commanded it, those men, women, and children in the courtyard would have gladly defended this castle to their deaths. Am I wrong?”

“You are not,” Lyanna replied. Her people would never betray her.

“And how not?” Rhaegar continued, as if he had never asked her a question at all. “Starks have been their kings for thousands of years. Your forebears have ruled them in such a way that they have made these hard men love them. Despite how much fire was rained down upon them at the Trident, not one man retreated until all three Starks fell. Bravery and loyalty without compare.”

It makes Lyanna proud to hear it as much as it makes her sorrowful. No one should have had to die.

“I lost many men myself in this battle. Far more than I expected.” Rhaegar appeared grim as he reported this. “Tell me, what do you think would happen if I executed you?”

Lyanna did not let her alarm show. “The whole North would rise up,” she said, confident in her answer. “They would not let you know rest until you have killed them all.”

“That was the conclusion my siblings and I had reached as well. Tell me, why didn’t your brother kneel? Did he not hear of the other kingdoms’ fates?”

Lyanna set her jaw. “He did.”

“We conquered them all.”

“No, not all,” Lyanna said flatly. “You did not conquer Dorne.”

Brandon had taken heart in Dorne’s tale of defiance; Rhaegar, on the other hand, darkened. That smarts you, doesn’t it?

“We are not finished with Dorne,” he said, his voice betraying no emotions. “But we were prepared for the North, as you have seen.” He smiled a melancholy smile. “Yet as I said before, Lyanna Stark, I am not without mercy.” He straightened in his chair. “Here are the terms I offer you. You will remain in Winterfell, but not as a queen. This kingdom belongs to me now.” Never. Never. “You will receive the same terms as the other houses who bent the knee: you will give up your queenship, and remain Lyanna Stark, Lady of Winterfell, and Warden of the North.”

Warden? So I will still rule? Lyanna chanced a glance at Maester Luwin. He gave her a single solemn nod. If he felt comfortable enough to speak, he would tell her these were good terms. She would keep everything but her title. Just as well-- it was leagues better than losing the North.

“However,” he said, and Lyanna took pause in her relief, “I will keep a host of my men amongst you; no doubt the North has many widows now, and I have many single men.” Lyanna seethed silently at this. No northern woman would willingly marry a southerner. They were welcome to try, though. “You yourself are unwed, aren’t you my lady?”

Lyanna blinked. “I am.”

“‘I am, your grace’ ,” the one named Viserys barked suddenly. His lips were curled into a cruel grimace. “You are not speaking to your equal.”

“It’s alright, Viserys. I am certain she will learn in time.” Rhaegar’s lips quirked into a smile. “How old are you?”

“Eight-and-ten,” Lyanna answered with a mark of hesitation.

“Your grace,” Viserys hissed.

“I thought I had lost that title?” The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could think them through. She did not regret them, especially not as Viserys’s pale face turned an angry, blotchy red.

Rhaegar, to her surprise, laughed. “And she is as witty as she is young,” he said with far too much contentment. “There is one final thing. For my terms to stand, you must marry my half-brother, Arthur Dayne.”

Lyanna’s blood ran cold. “Half-brother?” She asked, blindsided.

“Me, my lady,” the darkest of the four said. Then it occurred to Lyanna who this was-- this was their bastard brother, the one they said was as terrible as any dragon on a field with his sword. They said he wielded a sword made of starlight and could not be killed. Lyanna doubted that. Any man could be killed.

They want to wed me to a bastard. It was more than just a way for them to exert power over the North-- it was a humiliation. They wished to hurt her pride. Lyanna’s blood boiled with rage, but she contained it despite how fervently she wished to climb over the desk and rip Rhaegar Targaryen’s throat out with her teeth.

“Of course, your children will be Starks in name,” Rhaegar said, seemingly oblivious to her shift in mood. “But they will have our blood.”

In different company, Lyanna would have retched. Under different circumstances, she would have outright refused. Yet, what could she do? What could she say? Lyanna chanced the question anyways.

“What if I do not agree to your terms?” She asked in as cool a voice as she could manage. She felt Maester Luwin’s gentle hand on her shoulder. Perhaps he saw how the back of her neck had turned crimson.

Rhaegar smiled a somber smile. “My lady, you cannot refuse. Unless you prefer your execution, and for every corner of the North to be filled with fire.”

He would sooner burn it all down than let us be free, she realized. She looked again to Luwin, and then to Lord Poole. Both men greeted her with grim frowns. Neither shook their heads.

If they felt free to speak, they would have urged her to accept. Despite her disgust, Lyanna knew it was a fair trade. She had heard of what happened to those who didn’t submit. House Gardener was gone, replaced with House Tyrell, their former stewards. House Baratheon was gone, replaced by House Connington. House Hoare was gone, replaced by House Tully. The other houses that submitted kept their lands, but lost their royalty. House Lannister had submitted and aided the Targaryens, and walked away with the greatest prize of all: a marriage for their daughter to Rhaegar Targaryen. Only Dorne remained unconquered. What Lyanna was receiving was more than fair. She would tolerate this bastard husband for the North’s sake, but she would not let them know she was humiliated.

Lyanna breathed in, then out. It helped to even her temper. “Very well. I accept your terms.” She glanced at Viserys, wondering if he would repeat ‘your grace’ again. He did not.

“Wonderful,” Rhaegar said, smiling true now. “One final matter; as a gesture of goodwill, we have recovered the bodies of your brothers, if you wish to have them interred.”

Lyanna could not hide her alarm this time. “Where are they? Take me to them.” She commanded, feeling herself tremble.

“They will not be easy to look at,” the young Daenerys spoke for the first time. Her voice was sweet and warm, but Lyanna was not fooled. She was as ruthless as her brothers no doubt; the fate of any lone girl caught between hard men.

“Nothing has been easy,” Lyanna admitted with more emotion than she was willing to betray.

They led her out to the courtyard again, where her people still stood tall. She would have to tell them, she realized, that they must kneel from now on, and not to her. Not now, though. She would do that after she had seen her brothers.

Rhaegar whispered commands to some men. They leave, disappearing into the sea of troops, and emerged shortly afterward with three bodies wrapped in bloodied white cloaks. Lyanna felt as if her heart that jumped into her throat. Already her eyes burned with tears unshed. I will not cry before them, she promised herself. I must be brave for my brothers, for all of us. Lyanna walked forward alone, pausing before one of the bodies. With a hand that would not stop trembling, she pulled back the cloak ever so slowly.

The sight that greeted her would be one she would never forget. It would have been generous to call it a body. In truth it was a length of charred meat, red and black and unknowable. Was it Brandon? Was is Ned? She did not know. It was shorter than Benjen, and yet it could have still been him.

Her breaths came short to her now, but she did not cry. She would not falter. She had to look upon them one more time. She moved to the second body, where a similar sight greeted her. Burnt beyond recognition-- that was her brothers now. She braced herself to pull back the cloak from the final body, proud at her restraint so far, but wishing so badly she could weep. I must be brave. I will not cry.

Brandon’s sleeping face greeted her. He was unburnt-- only bloodied, swollen, and purple. She bit back a gasp that she feared would turn into a sob. She pulled the cloak back further to reveal his chest, and the wound that killed him-- a wound that cut right through his heart. The dragons did not get you, dearest brother, she thought. You died by the sword, like you always knew you would. She could not keep herself from stroking his cold cheek. Warm tears clung to her eyelashes and blurred her vision, but she quickly wiped them away. Direwolves do not weep.

“Your eldest brother fought valiantly, and was the last to fall of your brothers,” Rhaegar informed her from a distance. “He cut down many of my men, and would have cut down many more, had Arthur not met him in battle.”

Lyanna’s mouth turned desert dry.

“He was not an easy man to kill, my lady,” Arthur Dayne said. He weakly lifted the arm in the sling. “I took a wound from him.”

They are not only marrying me to a bastard, Lyanna thought. They are marrying me to my brother’s killer.

A woman of weaker countenance would have fainted. A woman of her own countenance would have wept. Lyanna instead curled her hands into fists and stood as silent and steady as a statue against them.

They would see her rage long before they would ever see her sorrow.