Actions

Work Header

Bequeathed from Pale Estates

Chapter Text

Chapter 1 - 297 A.C.

 It was sleeting in the Wolfswood.

 A low, mournful frozen mist wasn't so much falling from the sky as merely slowly gliding downward to soak the mosses and lichen clinging to the rocks and braken of the forest floor and dust the needles of the evergreens with a persistent frost. By midday it would turn into a heavy, aggressive, cold rain but at that moment it was merely an icy drizzle that was assaulting the cloaks of the five figures moving methodically through the underbrush. None of them paid the weather much attention though, for what was a little sleet to a Northerner?

"Bloody, damn annoying," Fat Tom muttered in aggravation.

 Lyarra Snow bit her tongue as she exchanged a look with Robb through the spindly branches of a stunted hawthorn shrub. There were times when being a bastard was a blessing and they usually came when being a woman was a curse. In this case, Lady Stark wouldn't allow either of her daughters out in such foul weather for such a flimsy reason as checking over the traps that Bran was being taught to set. Lyarra was not her daughter, however and Lord Stark thought it a fine thing that Lyarra wished to go with her elder and younger brothers while Robb taught Bran about the traditions of their people.

 "Brandon taught me to set traps much the same way and your Uncle Benjen afterward." Lord Stark had smiled, before his storm-gray eyes grew mournful with the thought of his murdered siblings. "Your Aunt Lyanna went as well. I see no harm in you doing the same, Lyarra. My grandmother was a Flint, from the mountains and she's the one who taught Brandon."

 Lyanna Stark was entirely too much of a specter in Lyarra's life for her to want to dwell on her aunt. She knew her resemblance to the girl whose kidnapping and rape at the hands of Prince Rhaegar had toppled a dynasty and left her own family in bloody and burnt tatters was… exceptional. Everyone in Winterfell who'd been alive in the days that Lyanna Stark had been a wild presence in the castle said so but Lyanna had never cared for the comparisons. Her aunt had been a Stark, through and through, and Lyarra would never have that honor. Not to mention the fact that it wasn't hard to connect her beloved aunt's death with the pained looks her father gave her; it certainly wasn't her mother he was seeing in his bastard's face. Everyone always said that, it mattered not who Ned Stark's illicit love had been because she hadn't contributed anything to her daughter's makeup.

 "Watch your step, Tom!" Robb called out over his shoulder after casting her a blue-eyed wink.

 Without fail, Fat Tom promptly came to attention at the concerned call from his liege lord's heir. It mattered not that the concern was for him; it was an automatic response. It was also an unfortunate one given that the man's bulk and the slick rocks they were all walking across meant that fast movements were unwise. Fat Tom's weight shifted and there was nothing he could do to prevent his feet sliding out from underneath him. The guard fell to the damp, chill ground in a great clattering of chainmail, boiled leather and the jangling of his mail coif.

 "Are you alright?" Bran called out, concerned, from where he stood by Mad Garth.

 Mad Garth was one of Winterfell's younger guards. He'd only just reached at nine-and-ten years and his face was still fresh and youthful beneath the gray ringmail of his coif. He was a quiet, serious young man who had two younger sisters in the laundry, whose care was entirely his own due to a fire at his parents' cottage in Wintertown. Given that he talked little, barley smiled and seemed the furthest thing from mad of any man she'd seen, Lyarra couldn't help but be curious about how he had come by the name.

 "You found it!" Lyarra grinned, her breath puffing in the air.

 Bran gave her a bright smile in response and nodded as he lifted his prize into the air. It was a large hare, its fur a patchy grayish-brown but its size considerable. Lyarra happily noted that rabbit stew would likely be on the menu in short order and it was a favorite of Rickon's. Perhaps it would convince the baby of the Stark Clan to have a little pity on them at dinner this evening. For the last three days Rickon had been so ornery about eating his vegetables that, by the time they'd passed the toddler from lap to lap around the family to get him to eat his share, all of his siblings' dinner had grown cold.

 "Well done, Bran!" Robb worked his way out of the bushes and helped Fat Tom to his feet, careful of the line of animals hanging over his own shoulder as he helped Fat Tom up.

 Their combined traps had left them with a very nice haul. Lyarra had brought in a red fox and several fat squirrels with her traps, not to mention three marmots. Robb however, had exceeded them both and was carrying home two silver foxes, three hares, and a ptarmigan.

 Not that Lyarra was too surprised by this. The rule was that you had to make your own traps and Bran was only just learning how to construct them. Lyarra didn't have the time or easy access to the Wolfswood to devote herself to tracking and study where to set her snares most effectively. Robb, on the other hand, had the most freedom once his responsibilities had been discharged, though that in and of itself ate up most of his time.

 "I'll trade you the red fox and a new pair of gloves for your fox pelts." Lyarra offered after she and Robb had properly made over Bran's triumph at catching such a large hare with one of his first snares. They turned back to where Ilys, another guard, waited with their horses perhaps a quarter mile away, where the underbrush wasn't so thick.

 Her brother shot her a look and Lyarra smiled hopefully in his direction, summoning up the expression specifically because he'd been complaining that she never smiled anymore again earlier that morning. Robb bit his lip and looked down at the red fox she was carrying and at the silver-tipped, luxuriant, black fur of his own catch. Undoubtedly he was thinking that he didn't need to emphasize his own Tully coloring by wearing anything with red fox fur on it but Robb's mother had recently gifted him a fine new cloak as it was and the red fox's hide could be gifted to Lady Stark as a thank you and one she would definitely appreciate.

 "I've gloves enough." Robb replied and Lyarra rolled her eyes.

 Robb Stark lost his gloves constantly. She, the servants, Lady Stark, and their siblings were always finding his gloves left in some room in the castle and returning them to him. Every few months he ended up wearing odd, mismatched pairs because he'd creatively misplaced too many. Robb always needed more gloves and Lyarra made sure her expression said that they both knew this as clearly as possible.

 "Really." Robb narrowed his eyes back at her before grinning. "I'll trade them both for the red fox and that falcon carving you've got sitting on your table, waiting to be painted."

 Lyarra blinked and then narrowed her eyes. Robb grinned back at her openly. Finally she huffed out a breath and answered.

 "Fine but I'm not painting it." She relented. "It would take too long and painted it's worth more than two fox pelts."

 "I've three more matching pelts in my room." Robb replied, looking hopeful. "For them, I want it painted."

 "Deal." Lyarra quickly accepted, eagerly thinking of making herself a new cloak with the fox furs laid richly over the shoulders.

 She had the heavy black wool for it and she had plainer furs to line its length with. Winter had to be coming soon after a summer that had lasted pretty much the length of her life, and Lyarra wanted to be ready for it. Not to mention the fact that Lyarra's current daily use cloak was one she'd had for quite a while, merely lengthened by the addition of a thick strip of fabric and more rabbit fur across the bottom. There was nothing wrong with that cloak of course, but Lady Stark had sewn new cloaks for all of her children and Lyarra had reached the age where the Lady of Winterfell could justify no longer having her maids sew any clothing her her husband's bastard.

 "Your father is a good man and will see you as well married as can be expected." Lady Stark's words, spoken to her on her twelfth birthday, had not left Lyarra's mind since the cold conversation had frosted its way across Lady Stark's solar. "However, you are a bastard. Neither a firstborn son nor a lord will wed you and you will not be expected to run a large household, nor should you be so above your station as to wish for one. You needs must learn to measure, cut and sew your own dresses and balance a household budget frugally. Coddling you now will only make your tasks harder, Lyarra."

 "Is this where you come to look for rocks to color paint with?"

 "What?" Bran spoke up at that point, jarring Lyarra from her thoughts and turning her focus to explaining.

 "Oh, yes, Bran. I don't look for rocks though, at least not usually. There are a lot of plants and different kinds of earth and clay around the dry riverbed that I use to make my paints. I crush chalk for white paint if I can't get good white clay but I get the chalk from White Harbor. There are no deposits of chalk near Winterfell."

 Bran's interest in painting, carving or drawing was limited. His interest in almost everything else was very developed and Lyarra had no problem indulging her well-read younger brother by answering his questions about how she made her paints. She appreciated Winterfell's library as well, and it had been a safe haven to her many times over the years when visiting bannermen forced Lyarra out of the Great Hall, lest her existence embarrass Lady Stark more than usual or her bastardy offend their guests.

 The discussion of paints held Bran's attention all the way back to the horses, where Bran's love for his pony and riding overtook his need to know everything there was to know. Robb had become occupied discussing how guard rotations were managed with Fat Tom and Lyarra was almost relieved to hear the servant who met them at the stables tell Bran and Robb that their mother wished to speak with them. There were hours of daylight left and if she started painting that falcon now, then she wouldn't have to waste her candle allotment on it later. 


 Lyarra's room was in the family wing, down a side corridor and just a little removed from her father's trueborn children. It was a good room though, large and well-lit by windows overlooking the courtyard. Northern light poured in from them, illuminating the landscape of the airy space.

The room was rectangular with three large windows across one long wall, the lone door in one short wall and a large fireplace set opposite the well-fitted windows with their thick curtains and heavy shutters inside and out. A single large bed had begun its life with a large slab-like headboard and four thick, unornamented, square pillars supporting its heavy canopy. It was a simple bed no longer, though it had become a rather eccentric one thanks to the purely random way that its four posts had been covered in elaborate carvings in ever increasing skill.

 All people practiced carpentry but it was a skill especially prized in the North. Lyarra had begun whittling when she was little, simply because her father did it and whatever Robb was being taught by Lord Stark, Lyarra wanted to learn too. Robb had many responsibilities and a lack of interest in artistic past times. Lyarra though had loved to draw from the first moment a slate and stick of charcoal had been pressed into her hands by Maester Luwin and the old maester had been quick to notice and cultivate her skill. With only a certain amount of parchment allotted to Lyarra for her studies and her pleasure, Lyarra had soon started hoarding it and using it with great care. It was only natural that she shift to a material that was far more readily available and far cheaper in the North, like wood.

As such, the longer of the two tables lined up beneath the windows of her quarters featured tightly sealed jars of paint, powdered pigment in jars of its own, bottles of water, oil and other solvents and impeccably clean brushes standing bristles-up in a tall wooden cup carved to look like a tower half-tumbled down. Neat stacks and rolls of parchment were held in place by a small army of wood carvings.

 Looking out of place amidst the deleterious of an industrious life was a sturdy white glazed pitcher filled with snowdrops, blue moss-creepers, star ferns and other flowers. Lyarra had to smile at it, as she recognized her father's handiwork. Ned Stark might have been too busy to see his natural born child today but he'd made time to let her know he was still thinking of her.

 The carvings ran the gamut from practical and complete (a range of polished and oiled bowls and spoons waiting to make their way down to the kitchen), to fanciful and unfinished. Robb's falcon was the later. Carved from pale ash as tall as a man's arm from elbow to fingertips, the fierce bird appeared to be perched on a little spire of rock with its wings mantled over its head against the rain. Lyarra had been particularly proud of that piece, because you could almost see its feathers ruffling in the wind and she'd included tiny little globes in the carving that she would paint as water beaded on its feathers.

 There were two large cloths presses pushed against the wall furthest from the door and next to a large screen. Lyarra had carved the lid of her chest with a direwolf bringing down a stag. The deep polish on the dark wood of the chest made the knotwork and sinuous shapes and designs on the chest's corners and sides stand out hauntingly. The other chest was made of a warm, red-gold maple and Lyarra had carved as sleeping lioness into its lid; it had been the first time she'd gifted someone outside her family with any of her carvings. Theon, though there longer, had been gifted with the second: an ironwood cracken the size of a walnut that she knew he carried with him as a good luck charm.

 Lyarra wasn't surprised that the temporary "guest" in her quarters who'd long become permanent wasn't present. Theon was caught between ward and hostage, so he lacked responsibilities of any kind and was usually left to his own devices. The Greyjoy heir would have likely gone out trapping with them but Lyarra knew he confined to his quarters as punishment and would be for two days yet. She resolved to get her hands on an extra portion of whatever would be served as desert at dinner, and sneak it to Theon at the first opportunity. It was the least that she could do, as Theon's punishment had been earned for Lyarra's sake.

 Lyarra supposed that, in another life, she might have disliked the cocky squid. He had many qualities she didn't like; he was mocking, his morals were often variable depending on what the situation got him and he was sly in a way Lyarra had been raised to dislike. Just as Lyarra had spent most of her life inseparable from Robb however, she'd found herself falling into a friendship with Theon as well. Yes, it had started because she'd hit him hard enough with her wooden sword to put his wrist in a splint and sling only a few weeks after the Ironborn came to Winterfell but it had settled into something better since, as had Theon in general in Lyarra's opinion.

 Greyjoy was not only Robb's best friend, barring Lyarra but Theon served to give Robb some much needed levity in life. Likewise, Robb grounded Theon by giving him loyalty and responsibility and an assurance of home and safety when his life was otherwise certain to be forfeit if his father stepped out of line. Lyarra wasn't sure that she necessarily gave Theon anything but she certainly didn't take anything away from him. Perhaps, she supposed, she offered him a sister and a view of her sex he wouldn't have otherwise had. He had grown up amidst salt wives who were not better than slaves and wouldn't have imagined otherwise as the Ironborn raised their sons and daughters apart.

 Lyarra tended too much towards introspection and melancholy according to most of her family but Theon had been with the family since before she turned seven. She didn't feel the need to analyze his place deeply. If she was family but no Stark, why not Theon? After all, if Robb had taken one of the guardsmen from House Forrester to task for speaking disrespectfully about his bastard sister, it would create a situation their Lord Father would have had to handle that could spiral out of control and into resentment amongst one of their bannermen.

 If Theon beat the shit out of the human spittle that had been telling everyone in the training yard about how bastard women were easier than whores and twice as gullible when it came to lies of love between the sheets then it was just an incident that called for an apology and punishment. Their father didn't have to find out the reason why the scuffle had taken place. Robb could tell Lord Forrester the full of it, leaving the man embarrassed but also indebted to his Lord's heir for not shaming him publicly for his men's poor discipline. With saved face came greater loyalty and a chance to remind everyone that Robb looked like a Tully but was definitely a Stark. He would tolerate no disrespect but he'd deal with it fairly, honorably and practically.

 Lyarra knew that she had Theon's influence to thank for the latter. Theon could be hot-headed but he was a man grown now. Having spent most of his life in a position that was luxurious, kind but constantly tinged with the danger of Ice falling on his neck should his father revolt again had taught the Ironborn to look at situations realistically. If Robb's oath to personally intervene to save Theon hadn't earned the fosterling's eternal loyalty, then his plan to do it by having Theon symbolically renounce his name so that the Greyjoy heir was still "killed" by Lord Stark to fulfill his own oath to King Robert, had done so.

 Lyarra shook her head to drive the memories away and blew out a breath. She walked past the small bookshelf that held the few books that stayed in her room and reached out to retrieve the more comfortable of the room's two seats. The other was a small stool and Lyarra grinned as she moved the better chair under her "desk" and positioned the stool in front of the smaller table. That table was covered with several sewing and yarn baskets, neatly hemmed and folded muslin pattern pieces for gowns, stays and jars of beads, amongst other things. Pride of place was an abstract wooden box that Lyarra had just carved by cutting away excess wood and polishing a burl she split and hollowed out to form an oddly shaped, organically rounded, box. The box contained the necessary knives, gouges, polishing materials and punches needed to make beads from bone, stone, or any other material that was handy.

 Lyarra had gotten the first two layers of paint on the falcon carving, sealing the wood and establishing the base colors she'd shade away from, when the door to her quarters opened with a rapid series of knuckle-raps that was more a staccato warning of an entrance to come than a request for permission.

Arya Stark stumbled into the room in a flurry of mud-stained skirts and mussed, rapidly unraveling dark braids all topped with a scowl angry enough to grace the muzzle of a real direwolf. Then, with a sound halfway between a snarl and a curse Arya shouldn't have ever heard, let alone repeated, the spindly little girl threw herself down upon the bed, mussing the covers and sending furs in every direction but not quite knocking them upon the floor.

 "I hate Septa Mordane! Will you please come back to our lessons?" Arya whined and Lyarra felt a stab of guilt for having escaped the Septa and left her baby sister to the woman's non-existent mercies.

 "Lady Stark and the Septa both agreed that, as a bastard, I do not need the finer skills a real lady would have use of and that my time is better spent in lessons with Maester Luwin and refining the skills I already have," Lyarra replied instead, feeling it her duty to try and keep her sister from unintentionally stirring up trouble with her mother.

Arya was her staunchest defender and the youngest of Lord Stark's trueborn daughters had proven the only one to truly argue with her mother over Lyarra's nature and place in their family. Inevitably, Arya ended up punished for it when the little wolf-girl lost her temper and accused her mother of being unfair. Far worse was when she had finally grown old enough and perceptive enough to have once accused Lady Stark of being jealous because Lyarra's mother was someone their father chose. Lyarra had never felt more guilty than she had while watching Arya's face turn red as she stubbornly held herself from crying, as their grim looking father took his youngest daughter over his knee for having disrespected her mother so.

"That's stupid; you're a better lady than anyone." Arya, staunchly loyal to the last, snorted in derision.

"I try." Lyarra felt her lips turn up in a little smile.

Because she did. Her sparring in the mornings with Robb aside, Lyarra did work hard to be a lady and set a good example for her sisters. She could do nothing to reverse the stain of her bastardy or change the way that the world viewed her and the hostility it heaped on her head. What she could do was refuse to live down to their expectations and instead seek to prove every backwards notion about what bastards were like wrong. Lyarra Snow would never hold the Stark name but she was determined not to dishonor her Stark blood.

"You should be having singing lessons; you're a lot better than Sansa and I sound awful," Arya complained, rolling over to look at Lyarra with gray eyes only a couple of shades lighter than her own nearly-black gaze. "You make people cry, Lyarra."

 "That's not necessarily a sign of talent." Lyarra shook her head and Arya huffed, shaking out her tangled, straight dark hair. "Sansa's a very good singer and she's doing well on the harp."

"You should be learning the harp. You really liked it!" Arya shot back and Lyarra clamped down on that old hurt as fast as she could.

She was sure it was Lady Catelyn who had pushed her father into discontinuing her harp lessons. Septa Mordane had required all but a direct order to begin teaching her but even she'd had to admit that Lyarra had shown promise. Then, after she'd made her first and only performance in the Great Hall, the lessons had been brought to a quick halt. Lyarra had thought it would be enough that she'd waited until most of the household left after dinner and only the family and some of the guards and kitchen staff - always the last to dine - were left but she'd been wrong. Apparently the very public approval of the bastard's talent had infuriated the Lady completely. Or rather, that was the only explanation Lyarra could think of for the fact that her father forbade both any more lessons on the harp or Lyarra singing in public like that again.

 "I really like carving too, and now I have more time for it." Lyarra replied, and then smiled. "Besides, the carving makes me money."

 "You're getting so good people are asking about you in Wintertown." Arya nodded, humming in agreement and perking up. "Do you think father would let me start trapping with Bran? Robb could teach me too and I could sell the skins and use the extra money to buy a sword of my own!"

 "It would take a very long time to earn a sword from trapping." Lyarra said and felt obligated by honesty and caution to add, "I don't think Lady Stark would allow it either, Arya. She only really agreed to it with Bran because it's tradition and it keeps him from climbing so much."

 "Lords hunt, smallfolk trap," Arya muttered, her scowl coming back again.

 "Lady Stark didn't say that," Lyarra countered.

 Lady Catelyn might think it but Lyarra knew the woman had spent too long in the North to say something like that openly. She might have brought her Seven Gods with her and half her ladies were from the Riverlands but Lady Stark wasn't foolish. She'd never openly disdained a single tradition in her acquired kingdom, even if she didn't practice them herself.

 "No, but her sister did. Aunt Lysa's last letter was awful." Arya complained and Lyarra groaned.

"Arya, do not read your mother's mail!"

 "Or at least don't get caught at it!" A cheerful voice with a Westerlands outfit said from the door. Lyarra looked over and found it open as the other occupant of the chamber entered, shutting the door soundlessly behind her. "I have a hot blackberry pasty if you can tell me what was in it."

 "Gwyn," Lyarra sighed.

 "I only spy on kin for kin," Arya said firmly and paused, looking longingly at the basket hooked on the blonde girl's arm. "But I can tell you where Jeyne Poole keeps the love letters she writes herself and pretends are from that beau she invented."

 "Deal!" Lady Gwyn Parren announced. She peeled back the layer of clean canvas beneath the embroidery in the basket to produce a steaming, golden brown folded pastry with star shaped slits gleaming with bubbling, black-purple goodness. 

It was very much like Lyarra's father to foster the daughter of a modest but brave knight. Ser Galen Parren was the son of a Lord's third son in the Westerlands and he'd fought bravely during the Greyjoy Rebellion. He had done so with an honor that was very distinct amongst some of Lord Tywin's other knights. He'd been one of the few of the Lannisport Guard to survive the sacking of that city and he had gone on to become the second-in-command of the city guard when the rebellion was over. When Ser Galen died and his wife followed shortly thereafter, his daughter was left with only a very modest dowry and no family to guide her. Rather than leave her to be forgotten and victimized, Lord Stark had told the great-aunt who'd written on Gwyn's behalf to send her to foster at Winterfell.

"Do you have enough for Theon and Robb?" Lyarra wanted to know.

"I dropped Theon's off on the way here but had to use Robb's to bribe the guard. It was Daffyd and you know he doesn't care how large your eyes get or how you pout unless there's something in it for him," Gwyn replied with a hint of admiration for the guard. She handed Lyarra one without prompting or haggling and earned a half-hearted glare from Arya as she wolfed down her own treat. "I told him and he said he didn't mind."

 "Isn't he in lessons with Maester Luwin?" Lyarra frowned, thinking of her brother's schedule.

 "Maester Luwin got ravens from King's Landing and Highgarden." Gwyn replied. "Robb was excused from lessons early but told to practice his figures by inventorying the armory for tomorrow's lesson."

 "Will Maester Luwin give us lessons later?" Arya butted in again, looking hopeful.

"No." Gwyn looked positively wilted with relief as she nibbled daintily on her own snack, having pulled the stool over by the fire with only a brief glare in the direction of the chair Lyarra had claimed. "We're both free of the maester for the day and all of his books."

 Arya hooted in amusement and sat up, intent on going to tackle Robb in the training yard and demand a lesson while everyone was busy. Lyarra considered it but decided she'd do better to keep painting the falcon until she had to wash up and change out of the slightly worn and rough clothes she was still wearing from hunting lost snares with her brothers. Gwyn stayed, both because it was her room and because she'd have to change for supper as well. She was wearing the simpler, draber, poorer clothing that she wore when she was in the kitchens.

Lyarra might have been taught all of the basics of running a household, and Maester Luwin was making sure that she could handle scaling up her lessons to any size of keep - even one so large as Winterfell - at her father's insistence, but Lady Stark wasn't going to allow Lyarra any household responsibilities. In her mind it would just be a foothold Lyarra used to try and usurp something that wasn't hers; though how she was supposed to do that when she was a Snow and a woman besides she had no idea. The result was still the same; Lyarra had Ned Stark's blood in her veins but less to do than even a fostered girl from a modest family who Lady Catelyn didn't even like. 

Lady Gwyn had arrived at Winterfell not quite three years before as a girl of ten. She'd been strangely jumpy and standoffish at first, which had prompted Lady Catelyn to indulge her motherly impulses. Unfortunately it became clear very quickly that, for all that she wasn't rich or powerful, the daughter of the Westerlands in their midst still had pride. Becoming Lady Stark's project or her pet, rankled and Gwyn quickly proved to have a sharp tongue and a habit of seeing weakness to strike out at quickly.

 Even if her sharp tongue had been turned on Lady Stark, Lyarra hadn't liked the younger girl at first. She'd seen twelve years when the small blonde girl arrived with her honey-tan (that had faded) and light, bright, golden hair. Where Lyarra had only just started growing into her long, angular, face and her skinny body began to blossom into a slender grace, Gwyn had been immediately pretty in much the same way Sansa was growing into. Her face was heart-shaped, with sloping cheekbones, a small, pert nose very different from Lyarra's lupine beauty and huge dark blue eyes that appeared guileless rather than stormy. Where Lyarra's hair was tangled, nearly-black curls, hers was easily braided golden waves. Her lips were a sculpted rosebud rather than a natural pout.

Lyarra had felt awkward and very much a bastard in the face of the girl's razor sharp courtesies and sarcasm. She'd felt it was unfair that her Lord father's wife intended to pass the punishment around, as it were, by exiling the fosterling to Lyarra's only newly allowed private room. Yes, Lady Stark said it was because they couldn't leave a highborn girl alone in the guest wing where only Theon had quarters but Lyarra knew it was because she was uncomfortable around Gwyn and Gwyn was Southron enough that she had to feel insulted to be put into a room with the family's bastard.

Gwyn had confessed later, after their friendship was established, that her initial kindness had been entirely to spite Lady Catelyn. By that point it didn't matter. Lyarra had always been of age with Robb and was only just beginning to grow into being a woman and her determination to act like a real lady and prove Lady Catelyn wrong (barring learning to use a sword but that was just an essential skill Lyarra wasn't giving up) had still fit her awkwardly. Sansa was too young then, to be of any help and Lady Catelyn had already begun to drive a wedge between them by using Sansa's dreams of songs and knights and a Southron marriage as leverage. So Gwyn was the first other girl her age Lyarra ever really had contact with. They grew to know each other through doing up each others' stays and talking long into the night in their shared bed, while Gwyn slowly grew into a feeling of safety in Winterfell. It was probably not a perfect foundation for a friendship but it was as sturdy as the roots of Winterfell's great Ironwood trees.

 "If you need help with your lessons, you know that I'm here." Lyarra offered and Gwyn waved a hand at her, turning back to Arya to quiz her on the location of Jeyne Poole's secrets.

Shifting in her seat in a fruitless effort to get comfortable, Lyarra firmly stayed out of it. She loved Gwyn like Robb loved Theon but she wanted no part in some of the things that Gwyn got up to. The Westerlands girl had a mean streak if riled, and - unlike Arya - she wasn't likely to confront you in a direct fashion. Lyarra disapproved of her penchant for petty revenge but had learned to accept it. If Gwyn could deal with her silences and brooding without harassing her, Lyarra felt that letting Gwyn get back at the steward's daughter for spreading those foul old rumors that Septa Mordane had started was the least she could do.

 "Did you get hurt?" Arya demanded and Lyarra looked up from where she was mixing paints on the glazed palette on her left side.

 "No, I'm just sore." Lyarra made a face and pressed a hand low on her stomach, then pointed at her own back. "It's been bothering me since yesterday morning. I think I strained myself in the yard with Robb and then riding made it worse."

 "Were you wrestling with him?" Arya asked, then sagely advised. "Don't wrestle with Robb, he's too strong. At least not unless you intend to bite."

 "I'm too old to bite and so are you." Lyarra snorted.

 "I wasn't talking about me. Rickon didn't want to wash up last night and Mother told Robb to handle it," Arya replied. Gwyn snickered from where she was now sitting by the fireplace with an embroidery hoop.

 "I know," Gwyn drawled. "Robb showed me the marks and asked me if I thought he could pass the scars off to his future wife as having bravely fought off a wild animal."

 "I hope you said yes." Lyarra huffed.

 "Of course I did." Gwyn grinned. "I didn't want to lie."

Arya was left whooping with laughter while even Lyarra gave in to giggling with the other two girls. She still thought to save half her pasty for Robb, wrapping it in a handkerchief. Later, when Gwyn was washing up for supper and Arya had been sent back to the nursery to do the same, she snuck into her brother's room and left it on his bedside table. Halfway through dinner however, the ache in Lyarra's belly had turned to a nauseous twisting and her back was a steady throb of low-slung pain. She asked to be excused, and her father granted it with a kiss to her forehead and a concerned expression as Lyarra went back to change and put herself to bed early.

 Four hours later Lyarra was awoken from her nap by the sound of the other girl cursing as she was unable to reach the laces on her stays because of how Lyarra had tied them.

"Sorry, Lady Stark found out that Robb and Sansa skipped dance lessons this afternoon." Gwyn apologized sheepishly in the light of her single candle as she shivered in front of the fire in her smallclothes. "She wanted to speak to your Father and Septa Mordane had gone to bed, so I had to provide the music. You slept right through me getting my guitar."

 Gwyn's guitar lived in its hardened leather case on hooks mounted securely to the wall; it had pride of place next to a painting Lyarra had done on a single glass-smooth board of her father and all of her siblings. Just as she was absent from the tapestry of the Stark family that hung in Lady Stark's solar that Septa Mordane had turned into a lesson and Lyarra had had to help stitch the borders on years before, Lyarra had omitted her father's lady wife from her painting. It was a pettiness she usually tried to rise above but Gwyn had a habit of bringing out the worst in Lyarra and then encouraging it. Lady Stark hated the painting but Ned Stark had asked that she give it to him, for his Solar, when she wed.

"I know that I can't keep my children with me forever but it will be a comfort to see them every day regardless," he had said.

Lyarra sat up with a groan that quickly morphed into a yelp of alarm.

 "What is it?" Gwyn's question wasn't nearly as important as Lyarra's mortification and outrage at the situation.

 "I'm wet!" She tried to express her embarrassment as she leapt up from the furs, feeling even more humiliated when she felt the dampness that had been gathered across her buttocks begin to run down the inside of her thighs.

"Your moon's blood?" Gwyn asked eagerly and held her candle aloft, revealing a dark red stain all across the back and streaked across the front of Lyarra's nightshift. "Ha! That'll show that dried up old hag, Mordane!"

Lyarra might have said something, anything, about getting back at Mordane for suggesting that Lyarra would never bleed because the true Gods would likely strike her barren for being a living sin. Unfortunately, she was distracted. Lyarra Snow reached forward with both hands to peel back the sheets, quilts and furs on the bed to see the damage she'd wrought to the linens. Her left wrist promptly protested the movement with a wave of pain as intense as if Gwyn had taken the piece sandstone that she used to polish stone beads smooth and rubbed it over the inside of her wrist.

Lyarra automatically clutched at her left wrist with her right. Gwyn had put the candle down to go grab some of the clean rags they'd been hoarding for when their moon's blood came and Lyarra staggered over, trying to hold her legs together so she didn't drip on anything, to see how she'd managed to make the situation worse with an unexplained injury. What she saw there pulled a shocked gasp from her throat.

There, on her left wrist, inked in brilliant colors as indelible as death's pallor and or the bleached and hidden bones in the crypts, was an image painted by the hands of the Gods.

"You're Marked." Gwyn whispered and Lyarra could only swallow and stare at her friend with wide eyes as her fate was decided in a room that smelled of blood and wild flowers.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 - 297 A.C.

The sound of youthful laughter filled the air in the Water Gardens. Pink marble with gleaming gold veins, tall columns of white and a myriad range of fountains spread across Hoyse Martell's pleasure palace. Children of all strata of society played amidst the music of flowing water. All of this was precisely as it was meant to be and Prince Doran Nymeros Martell could not have been more relieved to find it so.

"I can't believe I'm not making some mistake somewhere that has thrown off our figures, Father." His nephew's serious voice greeted Oberyn's ears as he strode past Areo Hotah with a nod. The guard opened the door to Doran's private solar to allow the tall, lean man to enter. "I - Uncle! Come check my figures."

"Ah, the finest greeting from family that any prince could desire." The Red Viper drawled, pressing a hand to his chest in a mockery of being overwhelmed by emotion. "Accounting."

"Agriculture, actually but figures nonetheless." Prince Doran added sarcastically, sitting across the table from his son. "How are the girls?"

"As if you do not know." Oberyn snorted, walking over to his nephew to give Quentyn a crushing hug.

The stocky, strong lad used his broader shoulders and heavier arms to enthusiastically return the embrace. The Red Viper refused to wince in response; he would not rob the solemn man of one of the few remaining bits of his boyhood left to him: the belief that his infamous uncle was invincible.

"Loreza and Dorea have decided not to drive off this Septa." Oberyn finally relented and answered his brother's question after a fashion. "They've deemed her 'good enough' to give them their lessons and keep them company when Lady Yulia cannot."

"Well, that's a relief, though Lord Uller will be disappointed." Quentyn observed with a small smile. "He bet me a new sand steed that they would drive off at least five before Lori turned four. This is only the third and my cousin's fourth nameday is less than a fortnight away."

"Do not remind me that my daughters are growing up." Oberyn glared at his nephew and lightly shoved the sturdy young knight's shoulder. "I have tried to forbid it but, alas, the Gods have proven as uncooperative with me as they have with every father to make such demands of them."

"Indeed." Doran agreed quietly, the lines around his eyes briefly deepening before his expression smoothed out completely. He reached down to grasp the polished brass rings attached to the ebony wheels of his chair and turned it towards the balcony of his solar. "Such is the way of Gods and daughters."

Oberyn nearly winced and tried to think of something to say to soften his brother's grief. Unfortunately his own was yet too fresh. A longing for Tyene's sharp, intelligent eyes overcame him. Memories of the way she stood out as a flash of gold amidst her dark sisters crashed down on him and obliterated his eloquence. His sympathy remained, however, and he kept his silence for that very reason.

Doran didn't share his emotions with others. Oberyn's brother kept his anger but didn't hoard it like a miser, letting it eat him alive inside as Oberyn sometimes felt his thirst for vengeance was doing to him. No, Prince Doran Martell was a farmer of hate, and he planted its seeds well, watered them with plans, and waited to reap a harvest of retribution.

"Indulge your future Prince and check his accounting."

Oberyn rested a hand on Quentyn's shoulder, hoping to appease some of the guilt and anguish on his nephew's dark eyes as he teased the lad about a few of the more beautiful young ladies who'd made their way to Sunspear of late and asked after Doran's heir.

A year before, such questions came from hungry-eyed lords and knights. They were directed not at Quentyn then, but his sister. Oberyn could only think of Arianne with grief and he resented and regretted that his anger had already faded so much. He preferred fury to grief, and Arianne's actions had deserved righteous anger for their foolhardiness. What princess stood as Heir to Dorne and chose to use the cover of plague to try and elope?

One who felt she was being disinherited by her father and supplanted by her brother. Oberyn knew the answer, but it made it no less difficult to bear. He'd have raged at Doran for not bringing his daughter into their confidences earlier, but what good would that have done? Doran's insistence that Arianne was not mature enough, not collected enough to be trusted with their planned treason against the Crown had been proven all too true. She had slipped out of Sunspear under cover of darkness with Gerold Dayne of all the damned souls to trust.

At least that was revenge that Oberyn had not had to wait upon Doran's pleasure to take. His brother had sent him immediately to retrieve Arianne. Oberyn couldn't have held himself back if he'd tried when he found that Gerold Dayne had happily supplanted Arianne's plan with his own. Instead of rushing to the small cove west where a ship waited to bear her to Oldtown, the Darkstar had kidnapped Arianne and begun a journey back to his seat in High Hermitage. They'd only made it so far as Hellholt before the plague struck Arianne. He didn't know how but suspected it to be one of the wells alongside the road, where travellers gathered and disease spread.

Perhaps the infamous member of House Dayne should have been granted some clemency. He'd had to have known that stopping at the seat of House Uller would put him into the hands of his enemies. Gerold Dayne had stopped at Hellholt, however, in some slim hope that having a maester on hand might keep his unwilling wife alive. Arianne had been dead when Oberyn arrived, however, and the Viper in no mood to give the man a fair fight.

Oberyn had sent Doran a raven. In it he broke the news of Arianne's death as gently as he could. He'd also included a rough sketch of Gerold Dayne, staked out in the desert around Hellholt, providing a feast to some brave vultures willing to taste living flesh. Doran's response had been short and to the point; Oberyn had sent more sketches.

"These cannot be right, and yet they are." Oberyn eventually pulled himself from his memories and checked the figures a second time. He looked up to the back of his brother's gray-threaded black head with a frown. "Was some mistake made on the initial figures? These are final estimates, yes?"

"They are the final crop production estimates for Dorne, but I independently ran the figures myself. Quentyn did the same, and we have checked our work multiple times with our treasurer." Doran turned his chair around then before resting his hands in his lap. "We have had more rain than we've seen in a century for the last two years, Oberyn, and now we're reaping the dividends. Dorne has blossomed."

"You need only look out the window to know that." Oberyn waved a hand dismissively, but then sat down and nodded towards the crystal decanter of wine sitting upon a nearby sideboard.

Quentyn obligingly got up and poured his uncle a cup and another for himself when his father refused. He then stepped forward and pushed his father's chair into position so that the three princes of Dorne were all facing each other around a small, round table. Oberyn's mind flashed back over the years and he swallowed past a memory of sitting at the same table in his mother's solar with Elia. They had worked on their lessons while his patient brother, newly knighted, sat beside them and helped them fight their numbers into submission.

Elia had previously done Oberyn's figures for him, allowing him to draw. They'd fooled their septa and tutors for years that way as small children. Their mother, the ruling Princess, had been too busy to notice. It was only Doran's arrival as he returned from being squired that had ended their ruse. Oberyn had resented him for it until the moment he'd realized that the older brother he barely knew was willing to help them. With children no coin was more valuable than time, and it was best spent lavishly. Doran had given them both that until he'd left on his journey and Oberyn had discovered to his shock that he wasn't hopeless at arithmetic.

Elia had never cared to draw, however, and eventually it had been given up entirely along with her music lessons. Elia Martell had many great skills, but she could not sing and was too farsighted to draw well. The ladylike skill they'd settled on for Elia had been archery, and in that she'd excelled until the Mad King had locked her in Maegor's Holdfast without her bows and arrows and left her to Tywin Lannister's dogs.

"Whoever you're killing in your mind, Oberyn, finish them quickly and come back to the discussion at hand." Doran drawled and Oberyn blew out a breath and shot his brother a brief glare that only earned him a graying eyebrow filled with amused rebuke. Oberyn put his sandaled feet up on the table in retaliation, counting on Doran's desire to speak and not haggle over his bad manners to allow him the victory.

"Your numbers are sound, Quentyn." Doran told his son firmly. "Given the Reach lost so many of its smallfolk to the plague it hasn't been able to produce to its fullest extent despite the fine weather this year and last. It's harvests have still been impressive, but not much beyond a normal summer year for the Reach. Currently our crop yield has exceeded our population far enough to either become a hinderance for Dorne's internal economy or a boon that may revitalize trade. The question is how to arrange these facts to most benefit our people."

Oberyn sipped his wine and listened as Doran settled into the lesson in ruling. Quentyn's nervousness slowly settled out as his answers flowed and his father looked on him with quiet pride as his son rose to the challenge. Everyone in the room ached that it wasn't Arianne sitting across from Doran in one way or another, but grief would not topple their country now as it threatened to topple the Vale.

"If we've seen ten years of Summer, what will Winter be like when it arrives?" Quentyn's question jarred Oberyn from his thoughts. "I've read that the North needs to import food if the winter is longer than four years. If I'm to wed - I mean, it could be leveraged against Winterfell."

"I need to speak to my brother." Oberyn interrupted as soon as the name of the Usurper's Kennel was spoken. His mind veered down a path he'd refused to speak of for the last fortnight as a sudden, painful burning scraped across the inside of his left wrist.

"Mannerly as always." Doran observed, but his own dark eyes had focused on his brother with a hint of relief. "Go make sure the new septa yet lives and your winnings are secure. A free sand steed for Lord Uller's stables is nothing to risk lightly."

Quentyn managed a smile for his father and a bow for his prince and uncle before he left the solar.

"I assume you're ready to tell me what has had you in such a foul mood of late?"

Doran's question brought Oberyn out of his seat, the false comfort the morning had brought him vanishing along with the contentment of listening to his brother reacquire enough of the man he'd once been to guide his son as he'd once guided his siblings. Oberyn had lost half of his heart and what little was left his innocence when Elia and her children were murdered in the Red Keep. He'd nearly lost his mind and led his people to slaughter along with it. Doran, however, had a crueler fate.

Loss was far less damning than sacrifice. Oberyn had been willing to throw away his life and any others he need for his revenge that was not Doran's way. While Oberyn raged and sobbed and howled his grief Doran silently gathered his trust up in his arms and smothered it upon the altar of justice.

He put his marriage, his children's future, his dreams, and the manifold kindness of a gentle and fair heart beside it and burnt them in offering. Mellario had raged at him, and then she'd left him, but Doran had not broken. Instead Oberyn had watched over the years as his Prince had collected the bones of his sacrifices from that altar and revealed the metal that lay within. Reforged into shield and spear he held the first over his country and his people while the other stood poised at the throat of their enemies, all unaware of the danger at their neck because they were occupied instead by the hissing Viper at their feet.

Oberyn still hadn't entirely forgiven Doran for denying him his revenge or the death he'd sought in his grief. He'd grown to love his only living sibling even more, however, as he finally grew to know him. That Doran had forced him to live a second time, past yet more grief, Oberyn found he couldn't resent in the slightest. He'd forced Doran to go on too and he was not such a young fool that he hadn't been able to share his grief with his brother this time.

"Did you hear the news from Essos?" Oberyn asked instead of answering his brother's query, rubbing his hand over the silk of his coat's sleeve to try and soothe the skin on the inside of his wrist. "It's rumored in Mereen that they have erected a statue of you in Qarth."

"I shall go down in history as the most beloved man ever to ship diseased lifestock across an ocean."

Oberyn let out a bark of laugh despite himself. The location where the cure for Greyscale and Grey Plague’s spread had come from was nearly as absurd as its vehicle. Who would have expected salvation from sick goats?

"You shall go down in history as the only man in Westeros intelligent enough to stop throwing gold at a depleting resource and instead make your own. It was a stroke of brilliance to put diseased bucks amidst flocks of healthy nannies and let nature take its course." Oberyn replied cheekily. "You could have emptied even the Lannisters coffers selling to them."

Grey Plague, Greyscale's faster and deadlier cousin cropped up unpredictably across the world. No place was safe, and rank meant nothing to the disease that turned you to stone. Death entombed in your own body came, and few survived it once they contracted it, though survivors were fortunate enough to enjoy a full recovery without the disfigurement of Greyscale. The plague had come from the Dothraki plains only a few moons into the 295th year after Aegon's Conquest of Westeros. From a small group of unfamiliar slaves sold at market in Norvos, it had spread quickly.

The terrible thing about this iteration of Grey Plague was that it possessed an incubation period of weeks. Normally Grey Plague struck fast and killed quickly, leaving little time to spread it to others across distances. This time the disease moved from city to city with slaves and traders alike without anyone the wiser until it began to creep through the population.

It arrived in King's Landing first, but Dorne only a few days later. Oberyn had sent for information from the Citadel, seeking to find some pattern and pray for some way to halt the spread. Closing your gates did no good if, for all you knew, it was already in your midst and just silently growing in someone who unknowingly carried death with them.

It wasn't the Maesters or the Faith that had saved them in the end. Instead, of all of the things to shock Westeros, what saved them was a savage from the Mountain Clans of the Vale. The man carried a bent bronze sword and came into the Riverlands with a herd of rough mountain goats with ragged fur. According to Doran's spies the Blackfish had refused the man passage at first, for his animals were clearly diseased. The man's mad ramblings about having been sent by the Voice of the Old Gods who'd spoken to him from a Weirwood tree didn't help.

Thankfully Brynden Tully had eventually relented. Hoster Tully's brother may have been one of the men who'd reaped the rewards of Elia's slaughter but he wasn't a complete idiot. He may have thought the illiterate raider and shepherd mad but he'd listened to him. When the clansmen had claimed that he had a way to keep the Grey Plague from spreading and prevent a person from catching either it or Greyscale the Ser Brynden had come down to see the neat scar upon the back of the man's shoulder and hear his tale of using a block of wood set with needles to pierce one of the oozing patches of rash on a goat suffering Goatscale.

When the man explained that catching it gave you a rash, but once it healed you could not catch either of the diseases the Blackfish had made him an offer. If the clansmen spoke truthfully he shouldn't be afraid to go to a keep with an outbreak. If he stayed there for two moons without catching the disease, Ser Brynden would help him see the Old God's will done and personally make sure the King knew of this miracle. The goatherd had proved himself just so and gone farther yet. He'd taken his goats with him and used this new thing that the maesters were calling inoculation amongst the smallfolk of the village he'd been sent to. Not a single new case had appeared amongst those willing to share a stamp of needles with a sick goat, and every other person who'd ended up barred inside the walls of the village by Lord Hoster's order had died.

"I could have." Doran agreed calmly.

Oberyn couldn't think of anything to say to that. He knew that with Doran nothing was simple. His brother had nearly bankrupted Dorne buying up every diseased goat he could after his spies told him of the Blackfish's "experiment", but the gamble had paid off. Dorne was already suffering less from the disease than the more populous kingdoms of Westeros, as even Grey Plague couldn't fly across the wastes of the Red Desert or hop from distant keep to isolated village without someone carrying it. Still,Oberyn knew that his brother had grieved for every one of his lost people from smallfolk to his own daughter. He'd already received the raven telling him Mellario had succumbed along with her entire household in Norvos.

The brother who'd been newly knighted and eager for adventure only to put that aside to help his brother learn his sums had done it because it was right. Prince Doran, who sat upon the sunchair and who willingly let the world think himself too crippled to walk when most days he could suffice with a cane, was making yet another gamble. While a goat with Goatsbane rankling its hide was worth more than its weight in gold Doran had been infecting almost every goat in Dorne rather than merely trying to save his interests.

Then he'd shipped them out, sending them to every corner of Westeros and Essos besides along with instructions on how to finally end the threat of becoming a Stone Man or a stone corpse. In King's Landing the Usurper had done almost nothing. First he'd shut the gates, then he hadn't been able to stand the suffering and ordered masses of Maesters to come serve his people without any hope of cure, spreading the disease further. Then, when there was a way to prevent the plague from spreading he'd ordered all of the goats in the Crownlands brought to the capital.

An act, Oberyn noted, that had nearly sparked a rebellion amidst the Crowlands lords. It had only been averted by the fact that they'd ignored the order, and because there were so few goats to be had. After all, it had been the law for decades that any goat found with goatscale was to be killed and its corpse burnt. Either way, the order had triggered a mass emigration of the smallfolk towards King's Landing where they believed salvation lay. Instead they'd found that there were neither enough goats nor enough food to go around.

Thanks to Prince Doran, however, goats had begun to arrive from the South. They were spread amidst healthy flocks at his guidance as ravens flew across the continent. The hysteria passed, the outbreaks began to wither and die out with no new victims available. For two years the plague raged, but a few weeks before the Citadel and the Faith - for once working hand-in-hand - reported that the last distant holdfast in the North and the Iron Islands had been reached, inoculated, and now knew to continue inoculating their children as soon as they reached six moons old. Even Essos had been sent the cure on Doran's orders, and the knowledge spread faster than even the disease had managed to move.

And wherever that knowledge spread, Oberyn noted with a certain satisfaction, Doran was beloved. He was the poor, grieving husband who'd lost his wife twice - once to distance and once to disease. The father who'd buried a daughter whose body was its own stone effigy without the change to reconcile with his child. Gold and gratitude flowed into the Martell's coffers as they received gifts from everyone from Dothraki Khals to the Iron Bank. Even Twyin Lannister had sent them gold, carefully totted up along with a ledger recording the worth of the goats sent to the Westerlands on the open market. It included the number of goats sent, the relative value put on Doran's advice on how to foster the disease, and a dozen other details that the Honorless Lion had somehow thought could expunge his debt to their family.

The goats the Old Lion could pay for in gold, Oberyn allowed, for Dorne was now richer than ever it was. Oberyn was going to take his own revenge in blood. Nothing else would do.

"Oberyn. Whatever you're working so hard not to think of, I beg you to speak of it."

The open worry in Doran's tone brought the Viper up short and he blinked as he realized that he'd continued pacing the room with no knowledge of what he was doing or how much time had elapsed. He chafed his arm and his thoughts twisted around him. He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. Despite the fact that Oberyn had specifically come to the Water Gardens to meet with Doran a day earlier than was his wont to speak of this very matter, his mind was coiling in knots to avoid it.

Oberyn couldn't worry his brother further, however. He had some of a maester’s training Oberyn had thrown himself into treating their family, struggling to keep from losing anyone else he loved. When that had proven futile and he'd lost two more of the dearest women in the world, he'd thrown himself into treating the smallfolk in the shadow city. The Viper had worked himself nearly to death.

In many ways he wished that he'd succeeded, as he wished he'd died for Elia's justice. Instead he'd awoken after collapsing in exhaustion to find his brother's hands, knuckles swollen red and painful, wrapped around one of his own. The Prince of Dorne was nowhere in evidence as his brother sat at his bedside and spoke four words.

"Don't leave me alone."

Waking up in a bed Oberyn knew he hadn't put himself into, weaker than he'd ever felt even as a small child, Oberyn had known he couldn't leave Doran to be the last of their mother’s children. Oberyn knew that asking his brother to endure this one last grief was a coward's way out and he had never been a coward.

"The Gods are cruel, don't you think?" Oberyn finally asked, turning and slouching aggressively backwards against one smooth marble wall, as though it was the curvature of his spine holding the palace up with sheer pique.

"Generally I merely find them uncaring." Doran's face was composed but his relief at this salty line of questioning was obvious as his eyes traced over his brother's stance.

Oberyn knew he was taking in the weight he'd regained. He'd barely eaten after he'd lost Ellaria to the plague and muscle and flesh alike had melted off his frame. By the time he'd lost Tyene to an infection of the lungs she'd gotten while helping him distribute inoculations Oberyn knew he had looked like a pale reflection of himself. He'd let his hair grow long and lank and his clothing had hung off of him like a cadaver. Two moons spent in the desert hunting a brigand who'd fancied himself king of the sands and scourge of the caravans had put him and his pride mostly back to rights.

"What particular offense have the Gods committed against you now?" Doran went on drawing him out with less caution than usual. The open demonstration of his brother's caring almost managed to turn the sneer that twisted Oberyn's lips into a smile.

"I've been Marked."

"What?" Doran stared.

"I've been Marked."

"That is a terrible jape." Doran reproved. "You usually have better taste than that."

"I've been Marked." Oberyn repeated again, standing up to his full height and glaring at his brother as his temper began to stir.

Doran frowned at him as though he were a lad of eight and had been caught chasing some girl at the Water Gardens with a biting lizard again.

"Oberyn, Marks are nothing to jest about. I was hoping you'd come here to discuss the matter we spoke of during your last visit."

"The Usurper's daughter and spare are still dead and that won't be changing." Oberyn snorted, crossing his arms. "His heir's a mad cur who tortures animals, and sadism isn't a phase children grow out of. The smallfolk blame the Stag King for the plague. The Faith of the Seven's panicking because there's been a resurgence for the Old Gods thanks to a savage from the Vale and some diseased goats. Yes, I want to talk of how to make all of that worse for the bloody Usurper but I tell you, I am Marked!"

"Oberyn, you were sighted entering three brothels in the last five days!" Doran finally huffed out in exasperation, rising carefully from his chair. He leant against it as he limped to the side where he could reach the sturdy ebony cane against his desk.

When he stood on his own feet Doran was an inch taller than Oberyn. How this could possibly be a significant measurement the younger prince did not know. It never failed to make him feel like he was being loomed over by his brother, knightly and princely as he stood kitted out in gleaming copper armor, while Oberyn was no more than a naked child playing in the pools.

"The buildings were the only thing I entered, dear brother!" Oberyn bit out his temper coupling with his embarrassment - again, now his temper was doing more than he could - to birth a dramatic and rude gesture in his brother's direction.

"If you want to point, use a polite finger." Doran's tone was as dry as it had been when Oberyn was a child. He let out a sound of pure frustration and rucked up his left sleeve, thrusting his wrist out and baring the bottom of his forearm.

Doran's look of absolute, open-mouthed shock was poor reward for Oberyn's suffering but he'd accept it.

The Gods had a strange and cruel sense of humor, and perhaps Marks were the best proof of this. They had different names and significance in every culture, but no single group of people was without them. The Maesters had searched out every fact they could find, trying to pin down a purpose and a logic to the appearance of the Marks, but none had ever been found. Instead it was left up to the various faiths of the known world to describe them.

The Faith of the Seven had, unsurprisingly, spun the Marks into something that was an equal mix of romance and divine retribution. They claimed that the Gods drew the symbols that matched soulmates on the arms of those they intended to bring together as one. These people would then be bound together, soul-to-soul, tied together for life by the will of the Gods.

They did not claim that these people were brought together for love. Oh, they sang a good song for the young maidens about love growing in such circumstances, but there was that eternal threatening undercurrent that most religions possessed. Marks, the priests of the Seven claimed, could be because of a true love, like Prince Duncan for his Jenny, but they could also be for any other reason the Gods wished to bring people together. They could appear to appease two warring houses, they could occur in order to bring together feuding neighbors, or even as punishment. Love they explained, would happen because shouldn't people be filled with absolute delight before the Seven's Will?

In Dorne, the Rhoynar held Marks more sacred than most. While Oberyn was well-read and traveled, he had no idea what the North thought of Marks. He, however, had been raised to esteem them. Not because they were merely holy, but because they were Paths of Greatness. When a man and a woman were Marked their children were anointed by destiny, and fated to do great things. In Dorne Marks were celebrated, bringing on feasts and gifts and recognition even when they occurred in the smallfolk.

One thing that most religions agreed on was that marks were indisputable and holy. The ferocity of this devotion differed a little from place-to-place, but Oberyn couldn't recall ever having heard a tale where trying to circumvent them didn't result in tragedy. In all of the places he'd been trying to circumvent a Mark was considered unacceptable, and that was without the physical risks of weakening, sickness, and phantom pain that were proven results of separation from the soul fated to join with your own. Not to mention the other mitigating factors.

"Oberyn…" Doran breathed out, looking from the Mark on Oberyn's wrist and then up at his brother's face before shaking his head slowly and waving a hand behind him. "Sit."

It was clearly an order from his Prince and Oberyn scowled. He watched as his brother walk to the door and order Hotah to tell his secretary that his schedule was to be cleared until he gave notice. The Princes of Dorne were not to be disturbed.

"Thank you." Oberyn sunk slightly into the chair he'd taken and scratched at his wrist irritably.

The skin shifted from pain to a pins-and-needles tingling.

"Don't scratch." Doran couldn't quite resist being a nag though.

Oberyn hissed a little at his brother as Doran lowered himself into his own chair and took possession of his left arm. He fidgeted aggressively just to annoy Doran, tugging his arm slightly towards him even though he knew he wasn't about to have it returned until Doran was satisfied. He stretched his legs out into Doran's space as well, just to share his discomfort.

"It is a graceful image, at least." Doran finally said and Oberyn rose from his chair, tugging his released wrist to his chest and then dropping his hands to clench his fists.

"Oh, yes," Oberyn replied with pithy disdain, "Surely having a pretty Mark upon my wrist makes up for a choice between offending the Gods and living a lifetime of celestially enforced chastity or binding myself to one of the brats whelped by the Usurper's dog!"

"I imagine it was a trout that did the whelping," Doran snorted. "Eddard Stark's contribution would have happened at an earlier date."

Oberyn refused to be amused. Instead he seethed. It was a skill he'd honed for decades.

"Do you want me shackled to some barbaric child with a horse's face and a cunt as cold as their family motto? You know Marks appear when girls flower or a lad's voice settles. I am a man of forty!" Oberyn argued hotly. "Are you glad for it? I can no longer serve as an example of Dornish licentiousness and excess to our pious neighbors to the north, and you've been bidding me to show restraint since I first painted my sheets in my dreams."

"Oberyn, I want you to be happy. If the Gods had to curse one of us I would far rather it be me than you or our children." Doran's expression shifting from the default smooth control it had fallen into when he'd banished his shock and into one of controlled frustration. "If the Gods asked what I wanted, Mellario and I would have been Marked and she would never have left me, or Ellaria would have borne a Red Viper half covered in Sand upon her skin and I could have spat upon tradition and seen you wed to the woman you loved as I was."

The rare display of passion, leashed as it was in a moderate volume and brutally controlled tone, was enough to bring Oberyn back into his seat. When Doran wheeled his chair around and then returned with two glasses of wine and the decanter, Oberyn muttered his thanks and drank deeply. He savored the sour bite of the wine, grateful when Doran said nothing while he worked his way through the first glass. He'd only indulged in a sip of the second when Doran spoke again.

"How long has the Mark been present?"

"A fortnight and two days." Oberyn felt exhausted now that his confession had taken place and his temper had spent itself.

He'd wasted his rage alone for days, and he couldn't bring himself to develop the kind of lasting hate he felt for others and direct it at some barely flowered girl he'd enver met. Instead Oberyn had attempted secrecy and tried to rally his mind to the idea of never knowing the pleasures of the flesh again. A body's ability to find pleasure was bound to their soul through their Mark, and unless their soulmate was present the pleasures of the flesh were simply not an option.

When he'd lost Ellaria two years before Oberyn had spent months in worry and exhaustion battling the plague. He'd believed he would die without the love he'd found that balanced his hatred with kindness and his fury with tenderness. She had accepted him and all his faults, and beyond that, she'd loved him for the very things other women had loathed in him as inconstancy. They'd shared their passions and been stronger for it, and even with two years to grow used to her loss Oberyn knew he'd never truly be reconciled to it. Like Elia, like Tyene, she'd taken part of his heart with her, and he'd always feel the wound.

Time, habit, and the knowledge that Ellaria would have been furious with him for denying himself so in her name had restored some of his passions in the last few months. He hadn't been of a mind or heart to visit a brothel. He and Ellaria had frequented all of the decent establishments around Sunspear and without Ellaria there to enjoy it with him, the idea held too many sad memories to return there. His pride and refusal to contract some kind of crotchrot meant that he most certainly wasn't going to visit any poor whorehouse.

Instead he'd rekindled a brief affair with the Bastard of Godsgrace. Ser Daemon Sand had once been his squire and he knew and trusted the younger man for being as honorable as he was desirable. He still recalled fondly how Daemon had waited a few months after he'd been knighted, knowing Oberyn's opinion of men who dallied with their squires, and then appeared in his tent at a tourney the Daynes of Starfall were holding. Daemon had made his desires as clear as only a hand down your breeches and a tongue down your throat could make them.

Oberyn was only grateful that Daemon hadn't been with him when, in the middle of a meeting with his steward, his wrist had begun to itch. In retrospect he was offended that there hadn't been something more dramatic. A clap of thunder, a terrible burning, a crippling pain; any of it would have been better than dumbly hiding his arm under the table to scratch while he talked over the household pay schedule. He'd obliviously gone to the garderobe to relieve his bladder and see if he'd gotten bitten by a spider or something without knowing and managed to piss on his own feet in horrified shock when he'd seen the Mark.

Oberyn was never telling anyone that story. He'd come up with a suitably impressive lie later.

"Do you wish to conceal it further?" Doran asked solemnly and Oberyn winced.

His skin crawled at the idea. It wasn't Dornish to even consider it. A Mark meant your children were fated to greatness, that they were needed for something. Nymeria had come to Dorne bearing the golden spear of the Martells upon her wrist piercing her own red sun, and their children had carried that Mark as their sigil since. The Uller whose scorpion bolt had brought down Meraxes had been the product of such a Mark. More than half the Swords of the Morning had come from Marked parents, and that was just the greats of Dorne itself. History was littered with proof of their people's belief in the purpose of Marks, and who was Oberyn to try and deny his people a trueborn princess of their line who was destined for greatness?

"I repeat," Oberyn drawled with an endless well of sarcasm to back his words, "a lifetime of celestially enforced chastity."

Doran breathed out and nodded, looking torn between anger on his brother's behalf and amusement. Oberyn scowled at him for the latter, but Doran's face had already settled into familiar, unreadable lines. Behind his impenetrable dark eyes, however, Oberyn knew that more gears were turning than had ever been manufactured by all of the Maesters of Oldtown. Plans were forming and adjusting at speeds that would have made racing lightening weep as it tracked across the sky.

"I don't like it."

Oberyn finally bit those words out, letting his tone reflect the irritation he still felt even after battling over the idea for a fortnight. He had even visited three brothels just to try and prove to himself it wasn't real. It had been a failed hypothesis and the experiment unenjoyable as a result; even watching the pleasure of others had left him queasy. The discovery of that fact had left him so furious that he hadn't a single knight or guardsmen in his household who would spar with him since.

"I wouldn't expect you to." Doran agreed, leaning back. "Though there are advantages."

"I mean the Mark itself." Oberyn thrust his wrist out again.

"Artistically?" Doran raised his eyebrows and sat back, his tone mild. "I admit it's rather simple, but I think it's better for it. If I recall correctly Lord Bolton and his second wife were marked with a flayed horse."

"It looks as if we're being eclipsed." Oberyn replied in clipped tones.

The Mark on his wrist was his family's symbol: the red sun pierced by a golden spear, though its background was his own bronze skin rather than a field of orange. Inside and slightly smaller than the circle of the sun was a black circle the center of which featured a white direwolf's head with gleaming ruby eyes.

"It's wrong anyway." Oberyn complained. "The Starks' colors are a gray direwolf upon a white field."

"Colors are reversed for bastards, and as I recall, Stark's eldest trueborn daughter is but eleven." Doran replied calmly and Oberyn stared at him in shock. "Eddard Stark must be exceedingly fond of his natural born daughter to raise her in Winterfell amongst his trueborn children. It was likely over all of Lady Stark's countless objections that he refused to foster her, despite it being a chance to strengthen ties with his bannermen."

"I would respect the man more for it if he'd accorded Elia's children even a fraction of that charity."

"If our sister could be the Mad King's hostage, I don't see why we couldn't keep Lord Stark's in far greater comfort and safety here." Oberyn paused and eyed his brother.

"You are still sending Quentyn to Essos?"

"My actions have fostered good relations with the Free Cities, it would be a shame to let such an opportunity pass us by for political inroads into Essos." Doran replied placidly. "Besides, the unequaled generosity we were shown demands a proper response."

Neither said anything about the fact that Viserys Targaryen was dead of the plague. Illyrio Mopatis was dead as well and no-one knew anything of the location of Daenerys Targaryen. All of Doran's careful plans to destroy the Usurper and the Lannisters revolved around the presence of a Dragon, and this was not a mission they could entrust to anyone outside of their family.

The Usurper had lost his two youngest children to the plague. Tywin Lannister's health was still fragile according to reports from the Westerlands. Jon Arryn had lost his only son and Harry the Heir to the Plague and his wife had hurled herself through the Moon Door when her son died. The Vale was left with no direct heir and no hope of more as Jon Arryn had firmly announced himself far too old to remarry. The smallfolk were discontent and Dorne's reputation had never been better thanks to House Martell's actions.

Right now was the best possible time to make some kind of move against the drunken oaf who'd climbed onto the iron throne over the broken bodies of Elia's babes. The only problem was the North, that still remained absolutely loyal and was far too large and powerful to take lightly as a threat. No-one had ever conquered the North without dragons. Getting through the Neck without being poisoned and pincushioned with arrows was nearly impossible.

"I'll send a raven to the Citidel myself." Oberyn breathed out and watched as Doran nodded, then paused in thought before speaking.

"With your permission, Brother, I will write Winterfell."

"Since when does my Prince need my permission?"

"Because your Prince has never wanted to have anything to do with your sexual antics and this is uncomfortably close to procuring you a bedmate." Oberyn snorted in amusement despite himself.

"I'd rather you write that letter than I." Oberyn finally stood, making a face and shaking his head. "I'm in no mood to be polite."

"Go get drunk on my wine and write bad poetry." Doran suggested almost absently, wheeling himself towards his own desk - reminding Oberyn that while his brother could walk, it was still very painful - and reaching for a fresh quill and knife. "I promise to wait until you're snoring loudly before I send your daughters to drag you out of bed by the ankles."

"I do not snore." Oberyn stole the wine off of his brother's table in retaliation as he left the Prince's solar. Professional as always, Areo Hotah didn't bat an eyelash at the sight of Prince Oberyn Martell wandering back to his quarters while drinking directly from a crystal decanter.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 - 297 AC

 

"Is it true that the Red Viper has six bastard daughters?" Jeyne Poole asked in a lilting voice that poorly concealed mischief with false innocence.

 

Lyarra looked up from the trailing dagged sleeve she was hemming and felt a wave of relief as she recalled that Gwyn was in the kitchens for the entirety of the day. Strictly speaking, that was merely the younger girl's responsibility and a sign of the trust that House Stark placed in their fosterling. Functionally, it was both punishment and peacekeeping rolled into one. Lady Stark had dictated that Lady Gwyn Parren was to spend the entire day managing the kitchens without leaving them to keep her out of the Lady's solar. Gwyn had been baiting the steward's daughter again and the uneven contest had ended in tears on the young brunette's part.

 

"Prince Oberyn," Sansa interjected from her seat beside Lyarra, her normally soft and genteel voice injected with cold steel, "Is considered one of the most skilled knights in the Seven Kingdoms and is brother to the ruling Prince of Dorne. He should be addressed with the civility and rank of his birth."

 

Jeyne flushed, surprised to find her usual cohort glaring at her. She turned her eyes to Lady Stark in appeal against the unexpected attack. Instead she was met by a stern expression on the Lady's face and forced to mutter an apology.

 

"You're right, Sansa. Winterfell treats is guests with the full respect of their rank and our House's honor." Lady Catelyn intoned severely before her voice took on a more maternal note. "I would have all of you girls watch yourselves closely, however, while the Dornish party is here."

 

"Dorne is a wicked, licentious place." Septa Mordane commented from her own place between Alys Karstark and Loren Harclay. "The Prince himself is likely worst of all, and you're right to worry, my Lady. He earned his name poisoning his weapon in a duel, and his Prince sent him in exile for it. Not that he was cowed, for the Prince has eight bastard girls to his name and I have heard he entertains himself with worse sins besides. Let that be a lesson to all of you, to pray to the Maiden and the Mother for a good husband."

 

"If he's got eight daughters, I seriously doubt his weapon's poisoned." Lady Lyra Mormont drawled, and adjusted the leatherwork spread over her lap as she shot Septa Mordane a disdainful look. "That would have impeded the flow of daughters, and men are awfully precious about their spears. As for a worse sin, sodomy's disgusting, but he's hardly dining on babes like some of the wildlings do. Bumming hurts nobody but those involved so I fail to see how it's another's business. Your Gods pick strange things to get riled about in the South."

 

Lyarra felt her face heat up and bit her cheek to keep from laughing. Lady Stark's normally well-shaped lips vanished altogether as she pressed them together in disapproval. The fine Southron lady had successfully removed Gwyn from the sewing parties that had taken up Lyarra's days over her protests, but she hadn't been able to bar the daughter of one of her Lord Husband's bannermen from joining them. As such, there was no shortage of sharp-tongued mischief going on in the room and it gave every appearance of driving Lady Stark to distraction.

 

"What do poison and spears have to do with the prince's ba- his daughters." Sansa corrected herself quickly and Lyarra was torn between annoyance and warm gratitude for her sister's actions.



Over the last three years her little sister had drifted away from her. At first Lyarra's bastardy had mattered not at all to the redhead. Yes, it had confused the black-and-white, song-and-story gaze from which her sister viewed the world. What it had not done was change the fact that they'd spent years in the nursery together. Proximity and fondness eclipsed even Lady Stark's ability to project disdain and disapproval on Lyarra.

 

What had hurt was realizing what the actual wedge driven between them was. Lyarra had always been a thin girl with a bony face and tangled dark curls growing up; the kind of child no-one named a beauty. She'd grown into her looks in the year between twelve and three-and-ten, and gained a beauty of her own that Lyarra was both proud of and embarrassed by.

 

As she grew more beautiful Septa Mordane continued to parrot her endless supply of homilies describing the duplicitousness, jealousy, and betrayal that all of the sinful creatures known as bastards engaged in. It was implied that if Sansa made a good match Lyarra would seduce him, even as he courted Sansa. Stories were told of how Lyarra would become Sansa's husband's mistress after she "innocently" visited her younger sister. Murder was implied and adultery and usurpation outright stated as the inevitable fate of a highborn lady who trusted a bastard sister.

 

Lyarra had wanted to shake her little sister when she started to avoid her. Sansa had cried because she felt that Lyarra was stealing away the attention of every handsome male visitor who entered Winterfell. Lady Stark had comforted her, neatly failing to mention that visiting nobles would be far less forward with a trueborn daughter. Not to mention the fact that few men even noticed the beauty of a girl of nine or ten years. If they did, they were the sort of men best given a choice between the Watch and a strongly swung blade.

 

"They've nothing to do with anything." Lady Stark said primly. "Attend your work, Sansa. You need only remember not to be alone with any of the Dornish party. The Septa is right. Dorne is not the North and it's not properly Southron. It is its own place, and decent people are better avoiding it."

 

"I hear it's very accepting of bastards." Jeyne ventured to murmur, shooting a sideways look towards Lyarra again.

 

"Then it's very lucky that there are no bastards in this room."

 

Lyarra refused to be cowed. Instead she put her chin up and let her words ring out across the solar she'd spent most of her life avoiding. She bit off her thread aggressively as she watched Jeyne's face pale and then turn red under her gaze.

 

"Of course not!" Sansa interjected, bubbling again with delight. "The Gods do not make mistakes nor do they Mark the sinful! It's a gift from the Gods to be chosen to do their bidding, and they only choose the worthy, don't they Septa Mordane?"

 

"Yes." The Septa looked like she'd bitten into an apple and found only worms.

 

"So there's no dishonor in it." Sansa went on, her expression triumphant. "The Gods needed Lyarra, and so Father's honor is clean."

 

Lady Catelyn's expression suggested the sort of stomach upset that required a long stay in the privy. Lyarra felt the usual war between wicked delight and guilt at seeing the woman so discomfited. She had spent a lifetime working hard to stay out of the woman's way, and her father's lady wife had mostly allowed that. There had been occasional outbursts of disdain or dislike, but they were fewer than Lyarra knew might have happened with many other wives in Lady Stark's situation. It was just that knowing that made it no easier to bear the woman's cold manner and blistering opinions.

 

"Yes." Lady Stark said shortly and then turned to Lyarra. "What progress have you made on that gown? If the Prince's party arrives and finds insult in your appearance, it will shame House Stark."

 

"Prince Quentyn will love you on sight, Lyarra." Sansa enthused. "You're so beautiful and we've finished some of your new gowns and you're going to be a Princess! We can-"

 

"Do not get your sister's hopes up, Sansa." Lady Catelyn's patience had finally snapped and the iron control in her voice barely restrained her irritation at her favorite daughter. Sansa's love of stories and songs had outstripped her veneration of her mother. "Tis likely a cousin from a secondary line. House Martell still blames your father and the King for Princess Elia's death, and the Red Viper's ire most of all. The Prince's journey here is a political choice, as is the fact that they haven't mentioned her future soulmate's name. They wish to enlarge the dowry on offer before they confirm it's their household steward or his son that the Gods have involved in the matter."

 

"That would do little enough to repay the debt of honor House Stark owes for Princess Elia's rape and the slaughter of her babes." Lyra Mormont replied flatly. "Though I suppose that if you don't keep the Old Gods, blood debts would matter little in a Marked couple."

 

The rebuke was delivered flatly, and with something that was probably as close to subtlety as a Mormont was capable of. Lady Catelyn flushed at being reminded that, marriage and children aside, she was the foreigner in her own home. Lyarra was worried to see it. Gwyn had said that there was talk amongst the smallfolk of misliking Lady Stark for putting a Sept in Winterfell. If there was discontent it could be a danger to Robb, especially with his Tully looks.

 

She was jarred out of her thoughts by one of the maids knocking frantically at the door to announce that Prince Oberyn Martell's banner had been sighted flying over a large party of approaching riders.

 


 

"Who's here?" Lord Eddard Stark demanded of his son and heir as soon as Robb walked into his father's bedchamber.

 

Robb took the question to be an inquiry about which bannermen were already present in Winterfell, and not a request for who was approaching the castle's gates. He answered accordingly.

 

"Houses Mormont, Umber, Thenn, Wull, Bolton, Blackwood, Burley, and Karstark are here, Father."

 

"A good showing." Ned Stark breathed out and turned. "Has your mother seen to your brothers?"

 

"They were still in that fort they made out of cushions and blankets in the playroom, plotting their rebellion." Robb grinned and his father groaned. "Bran was dressing himself when I left with help from the nurses, and Rickon was allowing himself to be dressed as well."

 

"No success in explaining that it's not a rebellion as Dorne has no standing here and I am the authority in the North?"

 

"Brandon's declared it a hostile negotiation. Rickon's still insisting that if rebelling worked for you and King Robert, he doesn't see why he can't do it to keep his sister."

 

Robb regretted the words the instant they left his mouth. Lord Eddard's face darkened with old anger and anguish and he shook his head. His brown hair slid around his shoulders as he bid his son forward to help him settle the finely tooled boiled leather armor over his gleaming silver scalemail. Robb had to swallow past his own foolishness in forgetting how unsuccessful his father had been at rescuing his sister. Aunt Lyanna was very much dead and his father still grieved her; Robb was not a toddler Rickon's age to forget that.

 

"Your mother and sisters?"

 

"Mother's busy wrestling Arya into a suitable gown, and Sansa and Gwyn have attacked Lyarra with ribbons or some such to make her ready for the other half of her Mark." Robb answered the somber question, grateful for the change in subject.

 

"And yourself?" His turned and put both his hands on Robb's shoulders. The auburn-haired boy suddenly felt like nothing more than a child with those large hands bracketing him in place and anchoring him in his own feelings.

 

"She should be marrying the Smalljon like we'd talked about." Robb's bitterness leaked out. "My sister has no place in Dorne. It's too far."

 

He bit his words off before they became a whine or worse, in the face of his sense of loss. Robb couldn't remember a moment of his life without Lyarra in it. He knew there'd been several moons where they'd lived without each other, but what did he know of that? He and Lyarra were all but twins in name and they'd gone through everything together growing up. Robb had been the one to insist that she share his lessons with Maester Luwin. He had been the one who championed his playmate being allowed to spar in the yard with him and continued to as she aged. They'd teethed on each other, given each other scrapes and bruises and scars. Thinking of her on the other side of Westeros, as far away as she could possibly get, was like a physical pain and Robb hated it.

 

"Aye, but the Gods have willed it so." Ned Stark stated with the same blunt, pained duty that was central to his nature. "How are the Umbers taking it?"

 

"The Greatjon's actually taken it well." Robb was relieved to say. "He says he's relieved that, if the Old Gods looked down on how Princess Elia and her children died, all they're asking to balance out the loss is a marriage. Then he said something I won't repeat about getting tangled up in affairs south of the Neck and what that leads to. Oh, and he insulted the Lannisters."

 

"If he keeps up the last bit our relations with Dorne might actually improve." Ned carefully settled his best silk surcoat over the formal armor. "Smalljon?"

 

"He got roaring drunk after arriving and seeing Lyarra for himself." Robb rubbed a hand over his face. "He's still a bit bloodshot around the eyes, but he's reconciled himself to it. Lady Mormont cuffed him about the head for blubbering and offered a chance to court one of her daughters to toughen him up."

 

"Aye, that'd do it." Ned looked at his son sideways and smiled as he led him out of the room and through Winterfell's halls. "Speaking of which, I heard Lyra Mormont admiring a certain blue-eyed young lord earlier."

 

"Gods, please tell me it was Theon?"

 

Lord Stark's laughter, always infrequent in the solemn man, was good to hear after having vanished entirely with the appearance of his daughter's Mark.

 




"You said it would be no worse than Braavos."

 

Ser Daemon Sand had complained at the beginning of their journey from Winterfell and Oberyn had been forced to throw his once-squire, once-lover, and longtime friend a cheerfully irreverent smile and proclaim: "I lied."

 

It was better than admitting he was wrong. Entirely, completely, frigidly wrong. The cold damp of Braavos in early spring was nothing like even summer in the North. Oberyn was well aware that the Dornish retinue looked like shrunken bears or perhaps a collection of some other shaggy beasts. The summer snow seemed determined to fall their entire journey from the port (which they'd arrived at in the midst of a storm hurling goose egg sized hail about) to Winterfell. Oberyn and those with him had purchased what felt like every spare fur in White Harbor.

 

He resented the air of comedy that it gave his party's arrival. With his brother's blessing he'd taken a large party with the bulk of it as fighting men. This was entirely appropriate and polite, for he was a Prince and this was a long journey with ladies involved. Not to mention the expected pomp of weddings involving the joining of Great Houses. Despite this Oberyn was well aware that there was an implicit threat involved and he had wanted to make a proper show of it.

 

Well, that was alright, he could improvise.

 

Perhaps they were buried in a thick coating of furs, but he'd brought a significant party with his brother's blessing. Once a Princess of Dorne had been taken to the Red Keep in the name of an alliance and instead become a hostage to call their people to war. As far as Oberyn was concerned, the Mark on his wrist was the Gods giving them leverage against the Usurper's Dog. The Mad King's last two children were gone - one dead, one vanished. Doran's plans needed reorganization, but in all of them it was essential to keep the North out of it. Having the newly legitimized daughter of the Quiet Wolf in Sunspear would go a long way to doing this.

 

Not that Oberyn meant the girl any harm. In the four moons that had passed since he'd been Marked Oberyn had begun to feel the edges of the connection he was going to have with the she-wolf whether he wished it or not. Most of what he'd felt was flashes of hurt and trepidation punctuated by brief flashes of happiness. He was no Lannister to punish children for their father's sins, and the idea of making a girl younger than half his daughters miserable turned his stomach. He just wasn't too proud to leverage the Gods' cruel trick into getting a step closer to his sister's justice.

 

It was with this in mind that, wrapped heavily in layers of furs or not, Oberyn watched in satisfaction as two hundred Dornish spears rode into the keep along with the retinue of Lord Wyman Manderly. The constipated look on Ned Stark's face was more than worth the expense. Seeing that look mirrored in some of the Stark Bannermen, Oberyn decided they probably thought that it looked stoic. Instead it looked as if they were the victims of a mass bowel complaint. The thought was amusing enough to put a smile on the Viper's face that was all fang and venom.

 

"Prince Oberyn Martell, well met and welcome to Winterfell." Lord Stark intoned as if he'd never had a passionate moment in his life.

 

Oberyn might have lamented for the man's wife, or even offered to help (if the Gods hadn't seen to making that impossible). What stopped him from considering it, just as an amusing mental exercise, wasn't the five feet of Valyrian steel strapped to Lord Stark's back. Instead it was the cold, uncompromising and superior look in Lady Catelyn's eyes as she surveyed everything around her. Save for a brief glance at her children, the Tully woman was quite the cold fish.

 

"I have never seen a more welcoming set of walls, nor a less friendly wind to push me into them." Oberyn bowed deeply and watched as all of the appropriate gestures were made around the courtyard where the kith and kin of the North were gathered.

 

Oberyn could hear several of the Northern lords chuckling at his sally. He ignored their humor just as he ignored the insistent vibration beneath the skin of his wrist and in the back of his mind saying his soulmate was near. Instead he kept his eyes trained on Lord Stark's and was delighted to find he had an inch in height on the man. Perhaps the only advantage of the Martell nose was looking down at those who would find the gesture offensive and Oberyn employed it gleefully against the Warden of the North.

 

"The weather of the North often has that effect on people." Lord Stark managed something that was a distant cousin to humor and Oberyn noted that the man's gray eyes were searching behind him amongst the various guests and banners arrayed behind him.

 

"Given the great respect I have gained for your northern weather, why don't we move this along so we can get inside the fine keep you call home?" Oberyn quipped.

 

As the host, Lord Stark offered introductions first.

 

"My wife, Lady Catelyn Stark."

 

"You must consider yourself a lucky man, Lord Stark." Oberyn kissed her hand with a smoldering look through his eyelashes he didn't feel just to watch her otherwise pretty lips press flat with disapproval. "To have gained a wife so beautiful and won a war with the same vows."

 

"The Gods have been good to me." Stark grunted reluctantly, as if suspecting ambush. "My son and heir, Robb, my daughters, Sansa and Arya, and my two youngest boys, Bran and Rickon, stand beside them."

 

Oberyn greeted the children properly. They were, after all, but children. He did wink at the little redheaded girl skirting maidenhood, though he made sure no-one else caught the gesture. She was looking at him as though he were coiled to bite and she wasn't sure whether she would shriek in terror or swoon in delight when fanged. He supposed he was the first Prince she'd ever met and she was one of the girls to esteem that too much.

 

A title alone saved no-one's life, and Lord Stark would be a wiser father to teach his pretty daughter that. The youngest girl, with unruly straight dark hair caught in a stiff braid and a mussed, little gray and blue gown that was missing a button, seemed the wiser of the two. Her gray eyes were far warier than her sister's dreamy blue gaze.

 

"And this is my daughter, who has been Marked by the Gods Old and New to bring our Houses together." Lord Stark finally moved slightly, bringing forward the figure that was half-obscured by his shadow on the side opposite his wife and trueborn children. "The Lady Lyarra."

 

Oberyn felt his entire body go stiff with shock as the girl stepped forward, and the smirk he was wearing twist into a blank stare. He was catapulted nearly seventeen years into the past as he stared into a face he hadn't expected to see again outside of Hell. The back of his mind rang with Elia's soft intake of breath and his right hand stung from how her nails had scraped it when her husband rode past her to crown another the Queen of Love and Beauty.

 

"Prince Oberyn." Lyarra Stark curtseyed, rising slowly and showing him the deepest of respect.

 

It was only when her dark gray eyes looked up and caught his that the scales of the past fell from his eyes, and Oberyn managed a small smile and a bow in her direction.

 

"The beauty of the North is cast in a hard mold, it seems." He offered as he bent down and kissed her hand.

 

Due to how her father was hovering over her and the position they were standing in, he ended up taking her left in his. A bolt of something sharper than lightening shot around under his skin, vibrating through his bones, and percolating into his muscles. The faint unease teasing at the back of his mind, easily ignored, roared to the front as a mixture of melancholy, nervousness and genuine fear was directed at him.

 

It was the last that shocked Oberyn out of the hostile glare he realized he was shooting the girl. It also allowed him to look at her, rather than the dead aunt she so resembled. Lyarra Stark possessed a great deal of Lyanna Stark's beauty. Both possessed the long face of the Starks, both had fair skin, both were of slender figures with high breasts and long limbs despite being small women.

 

Where Oberyn recalled Lyanna Stark as being a wild girl who cheered and waved at the Tourney fighters and who was by turns angry, sullen, or whirling about with laughter, Lyarra Stark was self-contained and quiet. Lyanna Stark's hair had been fine and disobediently wavy, like that of the girl he'd noticed glaring at him earlier amongst Lady Catelyn's redheaded children. The girl who'd run off with Rhaegar and shamed Elia had been fair-skinned, but bore a spray of freckles over her nose and a hint of tan around her cheekbones.

 

Lady Lyarra Stark's skin was so fair it was as if it had never seen the sun rise upon it. Her hair was a hip-length cloud of nearly black curls as thick as marsh grass where they tumbled down the back of a fine, conservative northern gown of dark gray cotton over an undergown of white linen. Lyanna Stark's lips had been finely shaped, but thin. Lyarra's were full and sensual over a sharper chin and higher cheekbones and a more delicate nose.

In short, Lyarra Stark possessed all of her aunt's beauty, but it had been refined to a far greater level. Oberyn knew that the rumors about the girl's unknown mother being Ashara Dayne couldn't possibly be true. He was finally able to see where they came from, however, because on a purely physical level Lyarra Stark was the only woman he'd ever seen who might possibly have equaled the famed beauty.

 

"Thank you, Your Grace." Lady Lyarra spoke with a certain shaken caution.

 

Oberyn inclined his head to her, in no mood to speak further with his soulmate despite the spark of connection that had passed between them. For his part, Lord Stark was looking between them and then back at Oberyn's escort with a kind of slow-dawning suspicion.

 

"Allow me to make introductions." Oberyn spoke formally into the pause and stepped back. "This is Lord Tremond Gargalen of Salt Shore and mine own late father's brother..."

 

Oberyn introduced all of his primary party. Lady Jynessa Blackmont, who was heir to her family's lands and title as well as her son, Perros Blackmont. She was formidable woman who would officially serve as his bride's guide and teacher on the road back to Dorne, not that Oberyn mentioned it. With her was Lady Myria Jordayne, daughter and heir of Lord Trebor Jordayne, who would serve his wife as well.

 

Ser Deziel Dalt, the Knight of Lemonwood who had a fine reputation in the tourney circuit, if you ignored that he purposefully ran an opponent through with his lance two years before for insulting his paramour. Then there was Mors Manwoody of Kingsgrave, eldest son and heir to that title. As a man of middle years he'd brought with him his younger son, Dickon Manwoody.

 

Ser Arron Qorgyle made an intimidating visitor in his own right. His face was badly scarred fighting in the Usurper's War. A blow from a battle axe had left him with an empty right eye socket and his lips pulled up on that side in a perpetual grin.

 

Ser Ulwyck Uller was perhaps the only one of the party who had surprised Oberyn in offering to go. Though that wasn't right; Ulwyk hadn't asked or offered. The younger brother and heir of the Lord of Hellholt had insisted.

 

He'd expected his dear Ellaria's father to be angry. Her uncle's presence made him suspect loss might turn to some violence done against either himself or the recently legitimized Stark girl. Instead Oberyn had been reduced to spending two days in his cabin not long after they left Dorne because the man had tearfully explained that Ellaria's last letter had begged her kin to promise to look after and remain loyal to her love. More than that, the woman who'd held his heart like none other, who'd known and accepted him and gloried in the things others considered faults?

 

Ellaria Sand had sworn to her father and brother that she'd send a sign from her eternal rest that she was well, and that his love would always watch over him. Lord Uller and his younger brother, half-mad as that entire family was, had taken Oberyn's Mark as that sign. With tears in his eyes, Ulwyck had said how he was sure his sister had asked the Gods to intercede on his behalf so he would not spend his life whoring without taking the chance to risk his heart by letting someone close again. Oberyn could have told him that Ellaria would have been the last person to shackle him into a conventional marriage, but it did no good against the grief-forged certainty of the knight. Not to mention the fact that the idea left Oberyn shaken as well.

 

"Prince Oberyn, I am honored to host such noble guests." The sullen Lord Stark looked even more sour when there was creeping suspicion tugging his mouth crooked. "However, I cannot help but notice that you are the only member of your House present. Your brother's last letter led me to believe Prince Doran agreed that the wedding would be held here, and yet I see no groom."

 

"Indeed, how so?" Oberyn raised his eyebrows and held his arms out before pressing a hand over his chest.

 

"I - there is no other member of House Martell here." Lord Stark was now outright scowling.

 

"Keenly observed, Lord Stark."

 

Behind them there was a gasp and the littlest dark she-wolf let out a string of curses foul enough to satisfy any of the pirates Oberyn once sailed with. Lady Stark let out a soft cry of outrage as her eldest son clamped a hand over Arya Stark's dirty little mouth. One of the Lords behind the Stark family - a huge man with a hairy giant on his banner - began to guffaw loudly at the display.

 

"I will tolerate no trickery in this matter." Stark's growl was almost worthy of his house's symbol.

 

"Nor does House Martell offer you any." He replied back, his tone as sharp as Stark's was low. "Indeed, Lord Stark, I'm beginning to feel unappreciated."

 

Dawning horror washed over the man's face and Oberyn was all too happy to foster it by hooking his fingers through the cuffs of all four of the garments protecting his upper body. Pulling back the sleeves he bared the Mark for the Lord and those assembled behind him to see. Leaving the Lord of Winterfell to make strangled noises, he turned to the young Lady. Her mix of trepidation and confusion was causing his temper to flare after the stresses of the journey. It hadn't been all that calm since discovering he was going to have to be Bound to the niece of the unruly child who had led to his sister's doom.

 

"My Lady, have mercy on the heart of a poor second son." Oberyn couldn't quite keep the sarcasm out of his voice as he pressed a hand over his heart and then held it back out to her. "I am not so dismaying a husband, am I?"

 

"I've been offered worse." The words visibly slipped out of the girl's pale lips without her permission and her cheeks flamed red as her blush plunged down her neck and into the prudish confines of her gown.

 

"Well," Oberyn allowed philosophically. "That's a start."

 




"I must apologize for my youngest brother. Two is a very trying age." Lyarra felt the need to say as soon as she  stepped out into the chill air of the courtyard, holding stiffly to the arm that she'd been offered by the Dornish Prince the Gods were intent on binding her to.

 

Dinner had been composed of her father seething and Prince Oberyn essentially ignoring Lyarra in favor of baiting Lord Stark. Lyarra had just been relieved that the brief feeling of rage that had seemed to race across the back of her mind, unbidden and foreign, had faded into smoke and a whiff of guilt. The first look the man she was fated to marry had given her had been so full of loathing that she'd almost stepped away from him in shock.

 

"In my experience, all ages are trying." The Prince mused lackadaisical. "The toddling years are just trying harder."

 

Lyarra managed a wan smile at that, but was too embarrassed to do much else. Rickon had been brought down to dinner already in a foul mood after being forbidden from going to the kennels. He had hoped to play with the direwolf pups that had joined their family some weeks before. Shaggydog was often the entire focus of Rickon's attention, and as such was used as a way to guarantee his good behavior. Lady Stark had promised her son he could play with his pup before dinner, but that was a promise made before the Dornish Party had arrived two days earlier than predicted.

 

Feeling betrayed, Rickon had been in a foul mood even as he was settled into his mother's lap at the high table. He'd ended up fussy enough that he'd been passed to Robb, which had turned out to be a terrible mistake. Robb had been sitting on Lyarra's left for once, with Prince Oberyn sitting in a place of honor at Lord Stark's side and Lyarra sitting between her future husband and her closest brother. Robb's furious glaring at the Red Viper had been enough for the youngest of the family's redheads to guess that this was the man who was taking his oldest sister away.

 

With a howl of rage to do any wolf proud, Rickon Stark had launched a steaming hot potato stuffed with cheese, peppers, and ham through the air. Prince Oberyn's reflexes had saved him. Unfortunately Lord Gargalen had risen from his seat to approach the high table and speak to his nephew and he had caught the piping hot root vegetable right in the face.

 

Even with Rickon sent to bed without supper and their House's firmest apologies, the damage was done. The Lord of Salt Shore had laughed it off, the gray-haired man in his sixties wryly asking the Viper who Rickon reminded him of. Prince Oberyn had solemnly declared himself ignorant of any resemblance, and though Lord Gargalen's humor had broken the tension of the moment, the embarrassment remained.

 

"Father says Rickon has too much of the wolf's blood." She offered after a moment.

 

"I should like to see a direwolf." He mused and Lyarra licked her lips. “Is it true your family has come by a litter of them?”

 

"Yes, mine will come with me to Dorne." She offered, hoping not to hear a contradiction and was relieved when she got a smile instead, even if it wasn't particularly warm.

 

"They are welcome." He replied and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm, opening his mouth to say something and then pausing to frown down at where his hand was covering hers. "How are your hands possibly warm in this weather?"

 

"How are yours like ice?!" Lyarra asked instead, shocked to find how cold his fingers were. "It's not that cold."

 

With the automatic gesture of a Northerner with many younger siblings and a natural wariness of frostbite in the extremities, Lyarra's next movements were automatic. His hands were large, but long-fingered and graceful like her own. Despite that, Lyarra brought her own hands up and wrapped one of his in both of hers without thinking. He immediately snakes his other up to join hers, as if greedy for the warmth.

 

"If it is cold enough for snow to fall, then I declare it entirely cold enough to freeze." She shot him an exasperated look, forgetting for a bare second that he was a Prince and every other thing that had happened that day.

 

"If you find it so, then you shouldn't go outside without your gloves on."

 

Behind them, Septa Mordane cleared her throat creakily. Their chaperone for the walk back was not happy with the cold either. Five paces behind them the small, stout woman was huddled beneath her cloak and glaring at them both as if trying to summon the fires of Hell. Lyarra wished her great luck with the task; presumably it would take care of keeping Septa Mordane's delicate Southron hide warm and she'd likely get along well with the demons.

 

"I hadn't intended to go without, until you did. How are you not cold?" He sounded peevish.

 

Lyarra blushed and shrugged. "I don't get cold much."

 

The Prince turned them again and they began to walk at a more reasonable pace. They'd slowed and even stopped when she'd taken his hands, and Lyarra was berating herself for it. Ladies didn't act like that, and they certainly didn't nag men more than twice their age that they barely knew. Doing it when they'd been a bastard up until recently and the one they were speaking to was a Prince only made it worse. Lyarra lapsed into silence, frowning down at the neat pavers beneath her feet as she imagined how quickly the Septa would tattle to Lady Stark. A lecture of some sort on courtesy and respect for rank was sure to follow.

 

"You've been very quiet tonight." He observed, and Lyarra was surprised when he went on in a tone of voice that was rather gentle. "I apologize if I am at fault. I did not mean to frighten you when we were introduced."

 

"I was not frightened." Lyarra insisted.

 

"I am as aware that that is untrue as you would be if I said I was not angry at the time." The statement was blunter than she expected after listening to the man's verbal dance around her father at the high table. "As… unexpected as it is to know such, you have my humblest apologies and my assurances that it is unnecessary. You are entirely safe, my lady. We do not hurt little girls in Dorne."

 

"Do you see me as a little girl?" She countered, embarrassed.

 

"When I've four daughters older than you, it is hard not to."

 

At least he was honest, she decided. Lyarra could respect him more for not hiding his bastards than she would have if he acted ashamed. Fondness and pride leaked through every syllable as he smiled slightly at the mention of his children. Septa Mordane's small noise of displeasure spurred Lyarra to speak further.

 

"Lady Stark said that you have eight daughters?"

 

"Seven." His answer was abrupt and Lyarra felt a stab of pain that she wasn't sure the source of.  It was either her own, at realizing what she'd just unearthed or his and she'd caused it. Either way, Lyarra swallowed and tried to say something.

 

"I'm sorry. The plague was horrible."

 

Lyarra was left regretting that she'd inherited her father's way with words.

 

"Winterfell appears blessed to have experienced it little." The slight warmth of his tone from earlier, when he was trying to reassure her, was gone.

 

"Maester Luwin thinks that foul vapors can't travel as fast or as far in cold air." She offered weakly. "The North is seldom hit as badly by plagues as the South. Goatsbane is also more common here."

 

"Indeed." Came the wry, cutting reply. "Lord Umber had an interesting song about that."

 

Lyarra winced at that. Several of the Mountain Clans had long ago discovered that outbreaks of the rash that goats with Goatsbane developed could be cured by rubbing raw unions and a weak lye solution on the affected areas. Rather than waste the livestock, Clan Wull, Clan Forester, and others simply treated the goats. As a result most of the clansmen had been naturally inoculated by proximity.

 

It just so happened that some enterprising minstrel had invented a song that suggested a much greater proximity between the mountain clans of the North and Vale and the goats they kept, than was proper. Lord Umber found the song hilarious. The Wulls had been less amused. There'd been a bout with practice swords out in the courtyard after dinner that had turned into a mass of fists and drunken yelling between the two lords, further adding to the chaotic image the carefully orchestrated political dinner had turned into. In the end Lord Umber and Lord Wull had laughed over their various battle wounds and passed a jug of mead between them once the dust settled, so at least no lasting grudge had come of it.

 

"We were still very lucky." Lyarra finished lamely, looking away. "My heart would break if I lost any of my brothers or sisters."

 

"Then I am glad you were spared." Came the stiff, but sincere reply. "I would not wish that loss upon you."

 

"Were you at the Tourney at Harrenhal, my Prince?" Lyarra blurted out into the awkward air around them, and pushed on when she felt the muscles in his arm clench. "I know you looked - I know you saw my Aunt Lyanna when you looked at me. Everyone does. I'm sorry I caused you pain… and I'm sorry I keep making it worse."

 

The pause that followed was longer and nearly took them to the gate that would lead him out of the courtyard and into the guest house. While Septa Mordane went to her own room, Lyarra turned towards the family quarters. When he spoke, however, his voice was slightly lighter.

 

"I accept your apology." The older man turned, and in the moonlight she found the lines on his face less apparent and the silver in his hair invisible. She realized, with a shock, that he was a handsome man, if a bit lean and fine-featured for Northern tastes. "You inherited your father's gift for words, didn't you?"

 

"Do you mean that I always find the worst words possible, or none at all?" She greeted his wry tone with a snort, forgetting to be perfectly ladylike. "If so, then yes ."

 

He left her with a perfunctory kiss on the knuckles and a graceful bow. Lyarra decided she'd never been more grateful for a chance to seek her bed. She only hoped that Gwyn had fallen asleep waiting for her after all of her hard work in the kitchens. If her Southron foster sister was awake Lyarra wouldn't get any sleep until Gwyn had picked apart every word said, event witnessed, and rumor heard. After the day she'd had, Lyarra really hoped to escape that.

 




"In the last four moons, my eldest daughter has become a maiden Marked and bound to a fate half a world away from hearth and home. My wife is furious that her own religion legitimized that daughter. I've had to reorder my books to incorporate a larger dowry I will yet have to negotiate with that man. And now, my youngest son assaulted the third most powerful Lord in Dorne with a root vegetable at mine own table." Lord Eddard Stark looked over the rim of his tankard at Maester Luwin.

 

The Maester had joined Ned in his solar after the meal was over and Ned had made sure that his daughters are all safely in their rooms with the doors barred.

 

"Yet, on the positive side, Lord Gargalen was willing to be amused by the throw, your heir handled the incident between the Greatjon and The Wull brilliantly, and young Lord Greyjoy distracted several of the younger and more hotheaded guests handily with his tales of the entertainment to be found in Wintertown." The aged Maester mused, his tone consoling. "It is not so bad as that, my Lord."

 

"Oberyn Martell is to marry my daughter." Ned gritted out and watched as the older man had nothing to say to that. "I thought not."

 

"The food was spectacular."

 

"Aye."

 

Ned's stomach had been too twisted over the revelation that his daughter was to marry the infamous prince to enjoy it, but Lord Manderly had nearly cracked the bench he was seated upon when he went for his fourth plate. Ned groaned and raked a hand through his beard, aimlessly staring down at his desktop, fixed on a letter from his only living brother.

 

"My Lord?"

 

"I've just realized that the least stressful duty I've had in the last four moons was executing a Night's Watch deserter."

 

"You've had a rough fortnight and more." The maester acknowledged, then stood, his knees popping with the movement. "With your permission, my Lord, I'll retire. The Dornish party will likely have need of my services in the Ravenry tomorrow morning."

 

"Aye, sleep well."

 

If an aggrieved mutter about vipers followed the Maester out the door, well, Luwin was too polite to comment upon it.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Four - 297 A.C.

Lyarra woke up when Gwyn slipped out of their shared bed. The younger lady was more of a morning person than she was. It was, Lyarra understood, the product of a daily schedule that involved baking. Baking required getting up before the cocks crowed and usually left her nodding off not long after sunset.

"Don't roll over and go back to sleep." Gwyn's Westerlands accent was sharp and crisp this morning. "We need to talk."

"Do we?" Lyarra groaned, poking her head out of the covers and then pulling a face. "I don't need you to choose my clothing for me."

"Yes, you do." Gwyn had laid out a dark violet gown that she'd made for Lyarra before being exiled from the Lady's solar.

Gwyn embroidered in a different style than anyone else in the keep. She used a hooked needle with a wooden handle, and it was as much like crochet as it was sewing. The Westerlands girl also included a lot of beadwork and sequins in her embroidery that both Lady Stark and Septa Mordane dismissed as gaudy.

Lyarra herself tended to favor simpler dresses. Despite that, she could hardly turn down a gown her friend had spent so much time making. Besides, even she had to admit it was beautiful. The gown's sleeves were tight to the elbow, then flared wide with the bottom edge trailing down to nearly the hem of the wide skirt. Though the dress itself was a fine plum-colored wool, it was lined with pale gray linen.

It was the neckline that Lyarra objected to. It fell entirely off her shoulders and across her chest to show the tops of her breasts. Lyarra had never worn such a dress before and felt herself turning red at the thought of doing so when she knew all eyes would be on her.

"I can't wear that all day." Lyarra tried again as she watched Gwyn take out one of her new corsets.

Also sewn by Gwyn, the set of stays had more boning than Lyarra usually favored. It was also made of black satin lined with cool cotton. Sansa had been talked into delicately embroidering tiny pale blue flowers around the deep dip in the cleavage and in a trail down the front. The smallclothes were even worse. They were also pale blue and bordered by little frills of crocheted lace where they were held on by ribbons that tied over each hip.

"You're not going to wander around covered from neck to wrist." Gwyn shook her head. "Your dress last night was noticed. When one of the laundry maids was seeing to the linens in the guest house, she overheard Ser Deziel Dalt talking to Lady Jynessa Blackmont. Both thought you looked prudish."

"Better prudish than like a harlot." Lyarra frowned.

"You'll wear it and you'll like it." Gwyn replied implacably. "If they think you naive and ashamed of your body, Lyarra, they'll exploit it as a weakness."

"Why?" Lyarra scowled. "It's not as if either I or Prince Oberyn have a choice in this. It's not a match that was made or even wanted by our Houses."

"Which is even worse because it means you have no leverage!" Gwyn shook her head and turned a pleading expression on Lyarra that she wasn't prepared for. "Lyarra, you know nothing of the South. Marriages - marriages can be as bad as wars."

"Prince Oberyn told me last night that he wouldn't hurt me." Lyarra tamped down her reservations in face of the fear she saw in her friend's eyes. "Gwyn… you've barely talked to anyone in the last fortnight. When you did, you were drawing blood with your tongue. Why now?"

"Things are changing." Gwyn said quickly. "I'll explain later. I can't talk now because Alasane overate last night and is in no fit state to help Lady Stark this morning. Please wear the dress."

Alasane was Lady Stark's personal maid. She was a tall, stout woman a few years older than Lady Catelyn. Lord Hoster Tully had assigned her to his daughter when she'd flowered and she'd been with her since. Knowing exactly how displeased both Lady Stark and Gwyn would be with the young blonde serving the Lady of the House, Lyarra caved.

"Fine, but you'd better explain." Lyarra grumbled. "Now help me into the torture device."

"It makes your tits look spectacular."

Gwyn's attempt at reassuring her led to Lyarra groaning loudly and blushing brighter than the sun on her wrist. Letting Gwyn lace her tightly into the black stays, the older girl submitted to having the purple dress put on afterward over a single petticoat tied at her waist. She refused to let anything be done to her hair. If half the castle were going to leer at her breasts then they could accept that her curls refused to be have themselves. Wrapping the fringed pale gray shawl around her shoulders firmly, Lyarra headed down to breakfast. There were a few longing moments spent looking at all of the carving projects on her table though. She didn't delude herself that she'd have time for her favorite hobby anywhere in the near future.


Oberyn Martell had a well-developed sense of humor and less shame than his brother would have preferred. Normally he would have laughed off his current situation, but he found himself sour enough in response to it that he wasn't up to the task. Instead he decided to brood.

Before the Gods had shackled his manhood with the Mark on his wrist, some idle excitement in the presence of a beautiful woman wasn't surprising. It was almost a requirement. Had he sat beside a woman as beautiful as Lyarra Snow and not gotten at least a twitch out of it, Ellaria would have begun to ask if he was feeling well. Right before she decided to help him. Recalling the warm joy and arousal that came with the filthy, beautiful things she would whisper in his ear about what they both would do to their latest object of passion hurt. He would never experience that again. He would never even hold Ellaria again. Only the darkness of her crypt would embrace her as she served as her own effigy.

Now, however, he was more than a little irritated to find that his manhood had decided to stir because of a glimpse of Lyarra Stark's cleavage. The girl wasn't even showing that much skin, but the sight of her creamy shoulders and the bare tops of her breasts were enough to have him half-hard inside the heavily lined breeches he had on. The hints of youth still clinging here and there to her face and her complete innocence were enough to cool his momentary ardor, however. He hadn't bedded a girl of four-and-ten since he was four-and-ten.

"I hope the night treated you well, my lady?"

Oberyn had no desire to spend his life making the child miserable, however, and pushed his ambivalence away as he slid into his appointed seat next to his Marked wife. The wedding would not be many days away, he would at least know something of her if he could get the girl to speak. The girl blinked at him once, but answered readily.

"It did, Your Grace."

"I'm glad to hear it."

Oberyn went on breezily, realizing from the girl's expression that she was uncomfortable and trying to push past that. If he wanted to get to know her at all before he wed her, and he'd prefer if he did, then he had to get her to speak. He had a sinking feeling this wouldn't be easy. He'd attempted to reassure her the night before. Now he believed that he had failed.

Oberyn still seethed a bit over being bound to a soulmate who looked so much the irresponsible brat who'd turned the world upside down, but the idea of frightening a maiden so turned his stomach. The girl had done him no wrong. His quarrel was with her father.

"May I ask for your plans for the day, my Lady, and if I could trouble you for some of your time?" He asked with a sideways smile that earned him a slightly suspicious upturn of her lips for his trouble.

"My time is yours, Prince Oberyn." She was formality itself, before she added. "I had planned to spend the morning working on my trousseau in Lady Stark's solar. I'm afraid that the preparations I had begun before I was Marked were not sufficient for a wife of House Martell, and I must beg your forgiveness while I work to amend that."

Oberyn frowned at the practiced words and noticed her carefully not looking past him. Leaning back around in his seat he turned to look past Eddard Stark's empty chair to where the Lady of Winterfell was now sitting. Her youngest son was nowhere to be found, but the next-to-last boy was present. He leaned over to direct his words at the auburn-haired woman.

"I hope the night treated you well, my lady?" He repeated himself in precisely the same tone he'd used a few moments before and watched her lips thin.

"It was passable, Your Grace."

"I'm glad to hear it." He replied. "May I ask for your plans for the day, my Lady, and if I could trouble you for some of your time?"

Now she was outright scowling at him.

"Forgive me, Your Grace, but I was not raised to favor the word games it seems are enjoyed at the court in Sunspear." She spoke directly, her chin up and her expression cautious and haughtily courteous in equal measure. "I beg your pardon for my ignorance, but what is the purpose of repeating yourself?"

"None at all." He helped himself to the spiced small beer on the table before availing himself of some fried ham and a hot beet salad.

Did no-one in the North eat fruit for breakfast? No wonder the woman's expression was so sour. He'd have to speak to Lord Stark on the benefits of a diet rich in fruit. It would highly improve the lady's disposition.

"Do you often find amusement in such conversation?" He smiled gamely at the question. Lyarra Stark sat beside him like a coiled spring, ready for some disaster to happen now that he was speaking to her lord father's wife.

"No. However, as I dislike pointless conversation, I thought I would simply go directly to the source of my betrothed words. It seems more convenient than expecting her to parrot after another for their piece of mind, don't you think?"

Lady Stark's blue eyes flashed with anger, but he had to admire her poise as she replied.

"I would be remiss in my duty to my House if I did not direct its daughters in matters of courtesy and prepare them for marriage."

"Truer words." Oberyn agreed cheerfully and turned back to Lyarra, content his point was made.

He felt a rush of pleasure at the appreciation in the gray eyes, nearly as dark as his own. He also felt even less well-disposed towards Eddard Stark. He knew how bastards were treated north of the Red Mountains. By those standards, Stark and his Lady wife had treated Lyarra Stark very well when she was still a Snow.

Oberyn was Dornish. He was also the father of eight girls, grieved by the loss of Tyene or not, and the thought of even one of his daughters thinking they had to silently accept such treatment left his blood boiling. Perhaps the Gods meant more than whatever children awaited them. Oberyn had saved more maidens than he'd deflowered, despite his reputation, and if it was his lot to teach this controlled young she-wolf how to be a little wilder, he could accept it more readily than being breeding stock for Fate's design.

"My Lady, when you have finished breaking your fast perhaps there will be time for us to go see your direwolf?"

"Of course, my Prince." She answered and turned to her dish of porridge.


Robb Stark left the practice yard sore. He'd been sparring against Ser Rodrick when Prince Oberyn had entered the yard. The man had been walking beside Lyarra at the time, and Robb had lost his concentration. The result had been being knocked on his ass in front of several of his father's bannermen, a large number of Dornishmen, and Theon.

Though, in his defense, how was he supposed to ignore the sight of Lyarra smiling shyly up at the Red Viper while holding Ghost in her arms? The direwolf pups were fully weaned now, and had they not had so many guests, would have been sleeping in their rooms. Unfortunately the schedule for the pups had been delayed by the wedding and its myriad preparations.

Still, as cute as the little white she-wolf was with her oversized paws and wet black nose, Ghost wasn't Lady. Sansa's direwolf was as friendly as anyone could want and almost as docile as any pet. Ghost was almost as aloof as she was standoffish. Still, as he'd watched, the spaniel-sized pup's tail had waved beneath Lyarra's elbow while the Viper scratched between the pup's ears.

Robb felt slightly betrayed. He vowed to talk to Grey Wind about it. His direwolf was also a puppy, but Robb felt himself understood by the ball of gray fluff in a way that was hard to explain. With any luck Grey Wind would chew on his sister and tackle her until Ghost came back to her senses and at least growled at the interloper a bit. The Viper needed reminders of the dangers of mistreating the pack.

He hadn't the time to share his concerns with the direwolf though, as Gwen informed him of a vital meeting occurring in Lord Stark's solar. The auburn-haired boy headed there quickly to learn of the matter at his father's hand.

"Robb?"

"Father."

Robb bowed carefully with a tray in his hands and a slight smile on his face. Father had left him completely unaware of the fact that Lord Gargalen and the Prince were both closeted in his solar to discuss the dowry and wedding contract to be made between their houses. It hurt to be treated like a child at his age. It also left him unsure if he'd ever be ready for his role. It left him worried that he wasn't being prepared properly.

'Thanks, Gwyn,' Robb thought sarcastically to himself as he prepared to invite himself into the proceedings. "Mother noticed that Lord Gargalen didn't break his fast. She didn't want the courtesy of our house left in doubt."

Truth be told, his mother had mentioned that many of the Dornish hadn't broken their fast. Which was also when he found out that his mother hadn't slept well the night before and had chosen to come down early and see to the kitchens herself while assigning Gwyn other duties. The spread of cold meats leftover from the feast had been wonderful in Robb's opinion, but Gwyn had cornered him later and told him that the Dornish only ate a light breakfast.

He wasn't sure where she got that information. Robb had learned not to ask questions like that more than a year before though, when it became apparent that Gwyn would get silent and withdraw if questioned too closely about some things. At Theon's urging he'd eventually accepted that the wide range of gossip she turned up was too valuable to question into nonexistence. Gwyn had been slow to trust anyone beyond Lyarra, after all.

"You're a lucky man in your wife, Lord Stark." Lord Gargalen smiled affably as he took in the large platter of sliced pears, apples, and the ewer of cream to go with the bowl of blackberries.

"Indeed."

How Prince Oberyn could make a single word sound insinuating, Robb didn't know. Theon did the same damned thing, but without the practiced grace or easy confidence. He decided it must be a talent some people were just born with.

"Come in and join us, Robb." Lord Stark waved him in with an expression that suggested Robb's visit may have prevented something violent. "As my heir, you should know how these things go."

Robb's first lesson was that 'these things' didn't go well. His father, the Prince, and the Lord of Salt Shore had been closeted for two hours. In that time it seemed very little progress had been made.

Their guests had been given a small trestle table that sat nearby his father's desk. A great sheaf of legal documents sealed with the sun and spear of House Martell had been placed on that table. Beside it sat a blank, lined ledger and a locked casket of the kind that contained seals. The aging Lord sat comfortably upright in his seat beside the table while Prince Oberyn lounged in his seat opposite Robb's father with one indolent leg thrown over the arm of his chair.

Robb's father had neatly organized piles of documentation out on his own desk. Judging from his father's expression they hadn't gotten to the point of using it. That was his father's pained look at being forced to engage in small talk or word games.

"How go the negotiations?" Robb's tone was pleasant to try and get the tense air to move a little.

"They swim along like a fish in the desert." Prince Oberyn replied mockingly.

"We've reached a slight impasse." Lord Gargalen's tone remained calm and urbane.

"I realize that mutual defense is a standard practice between allied great houses. I would never fail to come to the aid of my daughter and her children. What I object to is the wording."

"You object to backing the right and true ruler of Westeros?" Prince Oberyn's expression was surprised. "I fail to understand why."

"I object to vaguely wording it as 'right and true' without mentioning the King's House."

"And yet royal houses do change, do they not?"

Robb looked to the Prince's uncle, hoping to see some kind of moderating influence. Instead he saw the placid, polite blankness of the man's face carry on as if nothing had changed. There would be no allies here for House Stark, Robb realized, so they'd have to stick together. Moving to draw a chair up beside his father's at the edge of the great desk, Robb decided to employ a tactic he used on his younger siblings.

"If you've reached an impasse on mutual defense, why not set that aside and discuss something else?" Robb suggested.

He knew his father's stubbornness wouldn't let him easily leave be any perceived danger to his best friend's crown. It wouldn't matter how likely it was that the Viper was just baiting him. His only hope was to change the subject and get things moving on another level.

"Indeed." Lord Gargalen agreed. "Your heir's a wise young man. Mayhaps we should discuss dowry and bride price?"

"In Dorne a lady is not chattel." Prince Oberyn snorted derisively before his uncle spoke again.

"What my nephew means is that the Lady Lyarra is Marked by the Gods as his intended and comes to us as his partner in life. Just as her House is expected to see that her dowry reflects the respect accorded to her husband's house and their love for their daughter, the bride price shows House Martell's gratitude for the blessing you've bestowed upon us. A portion of it is also set aside to allow her financial independence, as it will provide much of the monies to run her private household."

That startled Robb, but it also sent a hint of relief through his rigid spine. If Lyarra had independent funds, she could at least always assure her own comfort. His sister didn't have a duplicitous bone in her body, but if Dorne was unbearable she might also use the money to escape and come home. Of course, that should be avoided at all costs given that it would likely start a war between Dorne and the North, but it was a comforting thought.

"That is good to hear." Eddard Stark looked relieved and rifled about a bit before finding several sheets of paper bound with string. "These are the initial estimates I have made for the Lady Lyarra's dowry."

Prince Oberyn took it, but negligently passed it to Lord Gargalen. It was a gesture that was sure to infuriate his father, Robb noted. He was also fairly sure that was why the Prince did it.

"You are most generous." Lord Gargalen reflected.

"All of my children are incredibly dear to me."

Robb held in a smirk at how his father made that sound like a terrible threat, but he misliked the gleam in Oberyn's black eyes when the prince looked up from the cup of spiced wine he'd poured himself from the fruit tray.

"Dorne appreciates your generosity in the matter of lumber." Lord Gargalen went on, flipping through the papers slowly, his own dark brown gaze as sharp as his words were smooth. "We're also pleased to see such a large amount of iron ore included. On other matters I would have further discussion. Sunspear is more formal than what I have seen of Winterfell."

"Aye, the South often is."

Robb nearly winced at his father's sour tone. Seeing Prince Oberyn hold a hand out for the paperwork felt like the herald of some kind of challenge. Robb sat back and waited, wondering how his father would deal with it.

What followed was the worst headache of Robb's life. Prince Oberyn lived up to the half of his reputation Robb had heard less of. He seemed more than intelligent enough to have forged a partial maester's chain, and Robb found the man's ability to do complicated sums in his head annoying. Lord Gargalen ended up serving as the Prince's scribe and Robb picked up the same position for his father as the two men fell into debate and negotiation that bordered on argument.

Every detail of the dowry was attacked and deconstructed. Dorne was a nation wealthy in jewels, gold, spices, and exotic flora. The North was rich in lumber, furs, and an entirely different ecology. The question became then: what did they need from each other?

Lord Stark's face flushed with embarrassment when had to refuse to lift the amount of silver expected. Mining was hard where the ground was constantly frozen and the people disinclined to search for wealth that would give you food or warmth. Robb couldn't help but be embarrassed as well when he realized that an unpaid loan to the crown meant that Lyarra's dowry wasn't arranged the way it ought to be for such a beneficial marriage. It also suddenly left Robb worried for his other sisters.

"You can field that much lumber on such short notice?"

Prince Oberyn's surprise was genuine and Robb gave his own wolfish grin at it as Lord Stark nodded.

"Aye, and it's laid by and seasoned."

"I think that would work nicely as a replacement for the usual allotment of hard currency." Lord Gargalen agreed. "Given that our Maesters agree that the upcoming winter will arrive soon and likely be difficult, we are also happy to accept the allotment of furs."

"Despite having already augmented it somewhat." Prince Oberyn japed and flicked his fingers at the fur of the cloak draped over the back of his chair and Robb couldn't hold in a snicker.

The Prince looked up, his smile something Robb couldn't quite describe as the Prince gave him a slow wink. Lord Stark cleared his throat loudly. It sounded rather like a growl.

"We shall consider the matter settled then." Prince Oberyn sat up in a smooth gesture that totally belied the fact that his leg had to be asleep after so long in such an unnatural position. "I would move on to Lady Lyarra's household. Shall she have northern attendants? I couldn't help noticing that your house has no fosterlings."

"That's not so." Robb spoke up, feeling his face heat.

It had been Gwyn who'd first mentioned it. She wouldn't speak of her life before coming North, at least not in any detail. The knight's daughter had said how unusual it was to be the only foster child in Lady Stark's household though. Robb had asked Maester Luwin about it, and had her words confirmed. Normally Great Houses had a half dozen or more children fostering from their bannermen. It was also the best way, other than marriage, to create bonds between kingdoms.

Still, despite having loved his years in the Vale, Robb couldn't miss the fact that his father hadn't fostered anyone but Gwyn and Theon. Nor did Theon really count, as he'd come to them as a hostage first. The fact that Robb saw the older boy as his brother changed little of the circumstances of his arrival. As for Gwyn, Robb knew nothing of how that situation had come to pass, but he knew it was unusual. His father had full guardianship of Gwyn now, from controlling the modest dowry lodged in the Iron Bank to choosing her husband.

"Indeed, are we counting hostages?" Prince Oberyn asked cheerfully. "I noticed you seem close to the Ironborn heir last night, Lord Robb."

"Lord Theon is my ward as much as his life is bound by his father's word, and I have seen him educated as such." Lord Stark replied, his tone indicating the subject was closed as he jumped forward in defense of his son.

"I was speaking of my mother's ward." Robb replied stiffly, his own pride offended.

"I didn't see another young Lady at the feast last night." Lord Gargalen's surprise alerted Robb to the stiff way his father was seated and made him wish he hadn't spoken up.

"Nor was she introduced with your household." Prince Oberyn all but purred. "Is the lady in some sort of trouble?"

"Ladies under my roof do not get in trouble."

"Lady Gwyn Parren." Robb filled in, fearing the offense in his father's voice.

"Of House Parren of the Westerlands, mayhaps?"

Well, shit, Robb thought. Obviously he should have kept his mouth shut and scribed. How could he not think of the fact that Gwyn had spent two years in Casterly Rock itself? Who had more reason to hate the Lannisters than the Red Viper?

"Aye." The Lord of Winterfell answered, this time his tone sarcastic. "Lady Gwyn and your betrothed are particularly close. You should consider her for part of Lyanna's household, if she's willing."

"A generous offer I will make to the young lady personally as soon as we are introduced." The Red Viper's smile was such that Robb expected to see fangs pop out from amidst his even, white teeth. "Would one of your other daughters care to make the journey as well? It is traditional, and would give the Lady Sansa or the Lady Arya experience in another court."

Robb decided that his mother was right about Dorne. If it produced Princes like this it had to be an awful place.


Gwyn was late, undoubtedly detained by Lady Stark. Bran had told Lyarra earlier that she was caught talking to one of the Dornish men-at-arms, and was getting a lecture for it. Lyarra could only hope that her friend's often lacking patience made an appearance. If not, she was in for who knew what punishment given the tension in the household.

"Choose a blade you can wield, Arya, that one's longer than you are tall." Lyarra huffed as she looked up to where her little sister was peering over the practice blades. Lyarra had brought them out to the little used courtyard where the entrance to the crypts and the Old Tower stood.

Gwyn had wanted privacy to talk about things she'd overheard. Lyarra wanted Robb to know anything that she did, and Robb could hardly spend a long time in the room Lyarra and Gwyn shared without it drawing attention. Equally, when Lyarra told Robb she wanted to met him, Arya and Bran had overheard. So now what had originally been Gwyn and Lyarra talking had become Gwyn, Robb, Lyarra, Arya, and Bran.

"You should have brought more. I'm too old for one of the baby blades!"

Despite her protests Arya picked up one of the hardened wooden practice swords that the children used in training and left the regular blunted blades that Lyarra had brought along for herself and Robb alone. Lyarra picked up her own weapon and swung it a few times. She directed the way that Arya stretched out and practiced her footwork as she relished being able to move again in the tunic and long trousers she was wearing.

They'd made their way through two spars before Gwyn appeared at the gate. Lyarra's heart leapt when she saw the large basket that her friend was lugging along. Bran gave a whoop from where he was partially up the side of the old tower, and Gwyn threw a rude gesture at him.

"Sorry." Bran apologized after he'd gotten back to the ground and jogged over. "I forgot we were sneaking."

"Why weren't you at dinner again?" Arya complained. "I had to sit by Theon and he was busy drooling over Lady Myria."

"Considering what Lady Myria was whispering in his ear while they broke their fast, I'm hardly surprised." Gwyn complained right back as she dropped herself down onto the piece of canvas Bran gallantly spread over the ground for all of them. "Thank you, Bran. Theon's so indiscreet. That woman's ten years older than him and from one of the wealthiest families in Dorne. She's interested in what she can drain out from between his ears, not his legs."

"Eww, Gwyn!"

Lyarra shoved her friend over. Then she told her, at length, how she never needed a mental picture like that again. Gwyn just glared and fussed over the state of Bran's hands, spitting on a handkerchief and cleaning them off while Arya scrubbed her own palms on the seat of her pants.

All other sins were momentarily forgotten when the towel came off the top of the basket. A tightly stoppered jug contained a warm, spiced posset that smelled like heaven. Mushroom and chestnut pasties sat steaming in a smaller basket. Sweet cream filled buns that were a speciality of Gwyn's sat in a small golden heap. Each one was the size of both of Lyarra's fists. As they settled in to enjoy their snack in the moonlight, all of the children who should have been in bed held their conference.

"Robb's still in your father's solar trying to work out your dowry." Gwyn was the first to speak. "I wasn't at supper because I snuck out to Wintertown."

"What?!" Lyarra sat forward while Arya perked up. "Really? Take me next time!"

"No." Gwyn huffed and turned to Lyarra again. "You know how Lady Lyra's been irritable around Lady Stark lately? I've found out why."

"I thought it was because Mother was Southron." Arya scowled defensively. "As if Mother's not a Stark after birthing all of us. She's had more Stark in her than anyone!"

Lyarra reddened as Gwyn burst into giggles at what Arya said. Arya and Bran frowned, not getting the joke, and Lyarra was left to glare at her friend until the other girl caught her breath and went on.

"You know how the smallfolk in the south have been sending ravens north trying to buy weirwood saplings to replant their godswoods?"

"Father's been talking about it. He combed through the Wolfswood to send a few to the Reach." Bran nodded. "I think it's great. There's no reason that the Faith and the Old Gods should fight one another."

"Of course there is. It's called tithing and the North doesn't do it, but the South does." Gwyn shook her head.

"Isn't that where the lords and the smallfolk send money to the Faith to build septs and keep septons and septas and such?" Bran frowned and Lyarra couldn't help grinning at her brilliant younger brother.

"Yes, Bran. What does that have to do with Lady Stark? Or the fact that people are complaining about the sept being here in Winterfell for the first time in a decade?"

Gwyn answered her question quickly, her voice lowered and her tone shaken. Lyarra reached out and squeezed her friend's hand. She didn't know what left her friend always feeling vulnerable, but she wanted her to know that she was safe.

"You know how proud everyone here is about the goatsbane inoculation. They're proud that it was old knowledge and a vision from the Old Gods that saved so many and will keep another Grey Plague outbreak from ever happening again." Gwyn rushed to speak. "No-one will sell the weirwood saplings. They're not giving away many, but they're just sending them down for free."

"Aye, father issued an edict. He won't have our weirwoods violated by the greedy." Lyarra frowned.

"Word in Wintertown is that Lord Holster Tully's been selling weirwood saplings." Gwyn whispered. "They're saying that he's getting them from his daughter in Winterfell."

Arya's cursing was loud and offended, and left Gwyn putting her hands over her face in exasperation at the noise. Lyarra calmed her sister down, but couldn't keep her own indignation at bay.

"Lady Stark might be harsh at times, but she would never betray Father." Lyarra insisted and her siblings seconded it.

"I know." Gwyn wrung her hands. "I heard it from one of the tavern girls I sell moon tea to-."

"You weren't raiding Maester Luwin-."

"I promised to never do that again!" Gwyn sounded genuinely hurt. "Lyarra, I wouldn't lie to you."

"Note, you wouldn't lie to Lyarra." Arya snickered and Gwyn pointedly moved the basket out of reach.

"Look, what matters now is the rumor. It's stirring up bad feeling amongst the bannermen." Gwyn hurried to go on. "I heard it first from one of Lord Wull's guards this morn after I saw to Lady Stark and was looking for you near the kennels. I've been trying to figure out where it's come from, but I lost track of the rumor at the brothel. That's another problem - all of those whores are foreign, so what are they starting rumors like that for?"

"Anything else?" Arya asked after they'd all stopped eating and drinking due to the tense silence that followed.

"One of Alys Karstark's maids was eavesdropping at Robb's door when he spoke to Theon earlier." Gwyn groaned, tugging on the bright golden braid hanging down against the brown fur of her cloak. "I caught her and threatened to embarrass Lord Karstark by revealing it in front of everyone in the Great Hall. She told me everything to avoid punishment, but I don't see how the whole castle won't be talking about it tomorrow."

"Talking about what?"

"Apparently your Lord Father gave the crown a loan to help buy food for King's Landing during the worst of the plague." Gwyn whispered, her expression pained. "It's making getting your dowry together difficult, and will do worse for your sisters. The Red Viper offered to negotiate terms on your dowry in return for the names of the men who killed Princess Elia and her children."

There was a moment of silence before Arya spoke, her voice scornful.

"If Father knew, they'd already be dead."

"Father would never let someone so dishonorable live!" Bran was quick to agree. "He'd have executed them there in King's Landing and sent their heads to Sunspear!"

"With Lord Tywin's army surrounding him?" Gwyn's voice was a cold rasp and Lyarra realized with a shock that her friend was violently shaking. She hadn't seen Gwyn do that in a year.

"Gwyn-."

"Moot point." Gwyn was quick to say, stifling her shaking by pressing her hands together in her lap.

The storm that had brought them the summer snow of a few days before had faded that day. The sun had come out and the ground was brown again, with only a hint of white in a few deep shadows around the wall. It wasn't even cold enough to freeze water.

"According to the maid, Robb told Theon that King Robert personally refused to punish them and then swore Lord Stark to silence on their names." Gwyn said quietly. "Your father told the Prince and Lord Gargalen that."

"Of course he did. Father's a good, honest man."

"A lie speaking of ignorance would have profited you better, Lyarra."

"I have no wish to profit from a lie." Lyarra glared at her friend. "Gwyn, you know better."

"I know marriage isn't a song and that there are some things you can never forgive." Gwyn shot back, her hands shaking again. "Look, just - Lyarra, you've got to be careful. If you - you don't want to get dragged into anything involving the Lannisters."

"Wasn't your mother a Lannister?" Bran asked almost gently and Gwyn huffed.

"We're the poor relations. The Lannisport Lannisters are only good as confidential servants and disposable cutthroats." Gwyn laughed shakily, but then shook her head and changed the subject back to the weirwood rumors.

Eventually they finished most of their snacks and drank all of the posset. Lyarra and Gwyn hovered over the two younger siblings as they all slipped back into the family quarters, quiet as mice. None of them noticed the lean shadow watching their progress, or had been in a position to see Prince Oberyn casually leaning against the old gate weaving a web of leather thongs around the haft of a red spear in the moonlight. His presence went unnoticed as he nodded away a Winterfell guard who would have stumbled over them on his rounds, or his smile sent a wandering Bolton retainer in search of some other abandoned place to bed the giggling scullery maid on his arm. As quiet as any slithering thing the Red Viper listened and watched in the night.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five - 297 A.C.

 

It hadn't been long after Lyarra's friendship with Gwyn developed that the bastard girl had noticed that little escaped Gwyn's ears. The Westerlands girl liked to joke about it. She said that she had to listen closely because once something got more than a hundred paces away, she could only see it as a moving blob of color. She also tended to brush it off as a simple result of being in places like the kitchens and the laundry where servants spoke freely. Gwyn liked to joke that there were no secrets from the servants in any castle. She maintained that there was nothing special about her ability or her drive to know what was going on around her.

 

Lyarra had spent long enough watching Gwyn struggle to find some sense of safety to know that none of this was particularly true. She simply thought that prying into the younger girl's past was cruel. There was no honor in hurting a friend, or anyone weaker than you. Lyarra accepted that Gwyn was sharp-tongued and jumpy just as Lady Gwyn Parren dismissed that Lyarra was a bastard as unimportant.

 

Legitimization aside, Lyarra felt that she would always be a bastard. Just like Gwyn had never quite answered why she seemed to feel marriage itself a danger, Lyarra knew her friend would never pick at her own insecurities. Acceptance was the foundation of the deep friendship both girls had managed to build.

 

Sometimes, however, Gwyn's absolute refusal to directly approach either Lord or Lady Stark with anything she overheard was inexpressibly aggravating . Lyarra knew that her Lord father and his wife needed to know about the rumors. She couldn't even begin to think of how dangerous the outlandish stories about Lord Hoster Tully selling weirwoods could be. Then there were the rumors about the loan that he father had given the crown, which could seriously affect the reputation of House Stark.

 

"Wake up, lazy-guts!"

 

Lyarra's gentle, singsonged cry as she rocked her closest brother by the shoulder didn't have the effect she'd hoped for.

 

"Gooarwey." Robb Stark muttered into his pillow, swiping backwards with one arm out of the covers, covered by the dim light coming from his fireplace and Lyarra's single candle.

 

"I have a spider and I'm not afraid to use it."

 

Gwyn's heartless threat produced a much more gratifying reaction, though Lyarra did not approve. First of all, there was no excuse for the cruelty that was flinging a spider on someone's sleeping face. Second of all, if Robb thought a spider actually was crawling on him, he'd make enough noise to bring the very walls of Winterfell down. If that happened, how were they to explain why they were in his room in the wee hours of the morning before the sun rose?

 

"For fuck's sake, Gwyn!" Robb came fully awake with a barely audible, strangled exclamation.

 

"Right, I'm off to the kitchens." Gwyn grinned at Lyarra. "Call me if you need to actually throw a spider on the slugabed."

 

"Heartless Southron wench!" Robb threw at Gwyn quietly as he sat up.

 

Clutching his furs to his chest and blinking at his sister, Robb looked simply awful. There were dark circles under his blue eyes and his auburn hair was totally disarranged. Lyarra sighed and sat Ghost down on the foot of the bed with Greywind. Both Direwolf pups happily began sniffing and tumbling over one another.

 

"I'm sorry. I always forget what she's like when she's waking up other people." Lyarra apologized.

 

"Did she really have a spider?" Robb asked, his eyes narrowed. Lyarra shrugged.

 

Both knew that Gwyn was as likely to just threaten something and then laugh it off as she was likely to carry through. Whether or not she had the spider at the time was the question. Personally, Lyarra thought it was simply bad luck that Robb was afraid of something Gwyn seemed to like. Though why Gwyn liked spiders, of all things, Lyarra still couldn't figure out.

 

"How can she stand touching those things?" Robb shuddered. Lyarra grinned as he voiced her own thoughts, though she wasn't as bothered by insects as Robb.

 

"She says they're good housekeepers." Lyarra grew serious. "Robb, we need to talk."

 

What followed was a quick summary of everything her brother had missed when he couldn't make their secret meeting the night before. He was just as outraged as the rest of the Stark children at the rumors of Lady Stark selling weirwood saplings. Robb was also furious to find out that Alys Karstark had set her maid on him and been eavesdropping in the family quarters.

 

No-one but the family should have been able to get close enough to listen at Robb's door, period. That the maid had managed it meant that there were guards who would have to answer for the lapse. That she'd overheard and then repeated such things was another mark against their household staff as well as the servant and the girl who employed her. Lady Alys Karstark, Lyarra noted with a mix of sympathy and pride in Robb, had just lost any chance of becoming the next Lady of Winterfell.

 

Maybe he'd give more thought to Lyra Mormont. Lyarra was growing rather fond of the daughter of the Lady of Bear Island. While Lyra wasn't quite as fierce as her mother, Maege, she was ready with an axe and had pride in herself. Robb would never find such in a Southron wife.

 

"The idea that we can't properly dower you, Sansa or Arya's insulting." Robb huffed as he got up and dressed behind a screen. "Father knows his duty. King Robert may be his best friend and people might have been starving, but he wouldn't beggar the North to give the crown a loan."

 

"I know that." Lyarra found herself biting her lip anyway. "I'm more worried about the Dornish taking advantage of his pride…"

 

"Prince Oberyn seems more interested in baiting father's temper than skinning the North." Robb's reluctance to voice the almost-compliment was obvious. "We've reached a good compromise with more iron ore, lumber, and a few other resource to even out the lack of ready silver. Did you know the Dornish didn't even know what peat was? They were also prepared to be very generous where the bride price is concerned."

 

"Bride price?" Lyarra had never heard of it before.

 

"Aye. Apparently in Dorne, when a woman weds there's a dowry which goes to the bride's husband to show the match is valued. There's also the bride price, which is split between the bride's family and the bride herself. It's meant to help support the bride's household with some independence once she's a wife, and to honor the fact that the bride's family is giving up a daughter."

 

Lyarra thought about that for a few minutes. She couldn't help liking the idea on a visceral level. Her entire life had been spent painfully aware of how much she had to rely on the kindness of her father and, in the future, her brother in supporting her. As a bastard she had very little status, and she knew Lady Stark wanted to see the back of her as soon as possible. Without her father and brother supporting her, Lyarra would have had to take whatever husband she could get as soon as she flowered. Or rather, that was the reality that had given her nightmares before the Mark appeared on her wrist and sealed her fate.

 

"I like it."

 

"I thought you would." Robb smiled as he came out from behind the screen and sat down on the bed beside her, idly petting Greywind as the pup crawled into his lap. Ghost demanded off the bed so that she could drape herself over Lyarra's coiled legs on the floor. "Still, you shouldn't worry. We're short on silver and jewels to drape you in, but the family isn't suffering in any way. The loan was a modest one, by the standards of Great Houses."

 

"I'm not sure what that would entail, as I was never taught to run a great house." Lyarra snorted, and then wished she hadn't.

 

The shortfalls of her education had always been a bone of contention between her brother and his mother. Lord Stark saw all of his children educated well in terms of lessons with Maester Luwin, and his daughters had to learn the arts of courtesy with Septa Mordane whether they liked it or not. These lessons were vague and broad, however, with Lyarra spending more time with Maester Luwin than anyone else. As a result she was extremely well-read, but Lady Stark had never taught her more than the basics of running a household. She could balance the books splendidly, as she knew she was good with sums, but she knew very little of managing servants or creating projections for supplies needed for more than a dozen or so people.

 

"You'll need to learn." Robb breathed out, then shot her a crooked, slightly pained smile. "You're not the only one either. I let the Viper get beneath my skin several times and watched him do the same to father. Every time it made us say more than we intended, and I could tell that was the infuriating, arrogant snake's objective. I saw him with you and Ghost yesterday, Lyarra. You shouldn't be alone with a man like that. He didn't try anything, did he?"

 

"As no less than two sets of Gods have appointed him my husband, Robb, I think being alone with him is unavoidable."

 

"Now you sound like Gwyn." Robb whined. "Don't do that, Lya. You know what I mean!"

 

"He didn't try anything inappropriate."

 

Lyarra caved and reassured her worried brother, standing up to sit beside him and curl an arm around his shoulders while he did the same. It was still a shock to realize how much taller he'd gotten than her, and how wide his shoulders had grown.

 

"Really?"

 

"All he wanted to do was talk, and to introduce me to his household without anyone there to interfere." Lyarra explained. "He was everything chivalrous, if you ignored the rampant sarcasm, and Ghost likes him."

 

"I'm starting to question Ghost's taste." Robb replied sourly and looked down at where the little white direwolf was obviously contemplating nibbling on the toes of his boots. "I'll need to talk to father and mother as soon as possible about the rumors."

 

"Gwyn won't get involved."

 

"I know. I'll talk to Theon. He's volunteered before. He can pretend he was talking to the whore while, um - he can pretend the girl in the village told him."

 

"I know what a brothel is, Robb." Lyarra was amused. "Or have you forgotten that Gwyn's father owned a couple? She brought a ledger from one to our household account lessons with Septa Mordane once, just to hear her shriek."

 

"I can't believe Lord Tywin would permit the second-in-command of the Lannisport Guard to own brothels. What about his knightly vows to protect women?" Robb muttered, then breathed out. "Do you think it would be pushing it if I had Theon claim to catch the maid too?"

 

Lyarra thought about it. Duplicitousness didn't come naturally to her at all. She wasn't bad at cyvasse, though, and two years of sharing a room with Gwyn meant learning a few things.

 

"I think you should claim to have overheard someone catching and disciplining her." Lyarra offered only reluctantly. "Pretend you thought it was Lady Stark. If you start the conversation like that, they'll want to know everything and it doesn't leave them asking you who you heard since you didn't realize you were mistaken."

 

"My sister is a genius!"

 

Robb mussed Lyarra's hair and she swatted him for it.

 

"Lackwit." The insult was nothing but fond. "Let's go spar. I want to hit something."

 

"Hit Theon. I didn't get to bed until a few hours ago."

 

"Stop whining. Theon's too lazy to spar at sunrise."

 

" Fine ." The Heir to the North groaned and looked at Lyarra with naked relief. "At least your sparring clothes are decent. Did Gwyn make that horrible gown from yesterday?"

 

Lyarra groaned and accepted Robb's promise to have a stern talk with her friend as a good, if likely ineffective punishment for Gwyn's stuffing her into yesterday's gown.



It wasn't often that Oberyn was shocked or delighted. In fact, delight was beginning to seem like the experience of another lifetime. It seemed almost a betrayal to feel it. Elia had owned tranquility and peace within his heart; it had passed away with her murder and he hadn't known it since. Surely delight had gone with Ellaria and Tyene, turned to stone and burned away by fever.

 

Oberyn was a man of great passions. He preferred action to words and found only agitation in mournful grief. Besides, mournful things reminded him of Rhaegar. He was naturally inclined to turn sorrow into anger just to spite the Silver Prince's memory.

 

Besides, he hadn't seen such a sight since the last time he'd seen Obara and Nym spar. In the center of Winterfell's training yard stood the Heir to the North along with Oberyn's Marked wife. His betrothed was wearing an oversized, plain tunic in Tully blue that had likely once belonged to Robb Stark over a pair of fitted buckskin breeches that most certainly had not. He took a moment to mourn the fact that the tunic covered her down to her thighs, and then concentrated on the match itself.

 

Robb Stark was talented, but obviously not battle-tested. Oberyn watched him with the eyes of a man who'd founded his own sellsword company before he'd seen five-and-twenty, a knight famed in his homeland for his skill with sword and spear, and a man who'd trained half a dozen squires. Robb Stark had considerable skill. It was the sort that came from a man – young or not – who applied himself to all he did with the whole of his concentration.

 

Lyarra Stark, however, was a natural. It was the difference between genius trained into existence and the kind of genius that was born. She ducked and dodged, relying on a style that countered her brother's strength with lightning fast reflexes and flexibility. Given that Oberyn's own style had some similarities, he found himself naturally pleased to realize that his unwanted, unexpected child bride was going to be a deadly wife. It would make getting his girls to tolerate her much easier.

 

It also brought one of Oberyn's hands up to squeeze Damian Sand's shoulder as he leaned in towards his friend.

 

"Go get the practice spears."

 

Ser Damien grinned and bowed briefly before going to accomplish his task.

 

Grinning, Oberyn moved into a better position to observe the match. While he watched the evenly matched young wolves sparring in the half-light of the rising sun, he considered the information he'd gleaned the night before. For once, his inability to sleep alone had benefited him.

 

The knowledge that Holster Tully, or someone pretending to be him, might be selling the North's sacred trees was very interesting. A year before Oberyn would have rejoiced at the knowledge. He would have done everything he could to undermine Stark's much vaunted reputation as an honorable man, or to at least drive a wedge into the man's marriage and alliance with the Riverlands. Now doing so would decrease the value of his own marriage.

 

Oberyn had spoken to Doran and outlined several possibilities where his marriage might be of benefit in their much-disrupted quest for vengeance. The simplest reality was that Lyarra Stark could become a hostage for the North's assistance, or at least neutrality, in whatever war would have to occur to unseat the Usurper and end his line. There was a cruel satisfaction in knowing that he could do to the North what the Mad King had done to his family.

 

There were many other levels, though, and the opportunities had only grown more plentiful as Oberyn continued to bait and observe the Usurper's Dog and his heir. The Young Wolf clearly adored his bastard-"twin". Lord Stark was unusually fond of his children, to the point where he was reluctant to give his daughters up even in the most auspicious of alliances. With finesse, it might even be possible to draw the North further into the matter. The unpaid loan from the Crown was particularly promising, as was Stark's clear disgust over having his friend wring an unworthy vow from him.

 

Just thinking of Stark's guilt-laden admission sent Oberyn's blood boiling and left him aching for a target. The man knew who Elia's murderer was. He knew what had been done to her and her children. Still, however, he held his much sainted honor above any kind of justice. The fact that he'd given his word meant everything to him. It didn't matter that he ardently claimed that his friend had drug it from him unwillingly by threatening to detain him from his quest for his own sister.

 

Oberyn pushed the bloodthirsty drive for an answer away. He would get his names one way or another on this journey. Whether Stark had meant to or not he'd supplied Oberyn with another potential avenue. One he didn't imagine would be difficult to leverage.

 

Unfortunately, his eavesdropping had put him in the distasteful place of needing to help Lord Stark and his pointlessly judgmental wife. If the North was destabilized, it would be of little use to them. With his marriage out of his hands, Oberyn wasn't going to give up the advantages that did come with it. Nor did he have any great desire to crush the spirit and family of the girl on the other end of the Mark on his wrist. He was already getting the occasional dull flash of emotion across it. Oberyn understood grief. The idea of spending the rest of his life weighed down by someone else's was not attractive.

 

For all of Doran's plans they needed the Starks more secure rather than less. Oberyn was developing a few of his own that wouldn't work if he corrupted his potential allies. He watched the grinning redhead nurse his sore ribs while Lyarra apologized for catching him so hard with her elbow.

 

Oberyn came to a decision. He would work only with the younger generation. It would spare him from helping the rigid fool who'd sired the boy and present him another chance to at least get to know his young wife better.

 

"Beautifully done, my lady." Oberyn called, bringing his hands together lightly in quiet, appreciative applause.

 

Both of the youths before him jumped, but Oberyn was impressed to see their practice swords come up in a proper defensive posture.

 

"Thank you, my Prince."

 

Lady Lyarra's response was perfectly polite. Her eyes, on the other hand, were grey pools of caution. She suspected mockery. Oberyn thought of his own girls and felt a hint of displeasure stir that his wife would look like that in response to having what was obviously a Gods-given talent observed. Obara's talent hadn't just been honed by her father, but by the best teachers that the Martells could provide.

 

Looking at the furtive expressions on both the long faces before him, Oberyn guessed that Lyarra hadn't received any instruction save her brother's for years. When she was a tiny, skinny tomboy of a child with skinned knees, it was likely dismissed as a cute preoccupation. At a certain point, bastard or not, they would have decided that the Lord's daughter couldn't be seen doing something so unladylike.

 

"You've woken early, Prince Oberyn." Lord Robb stood up straight and stepped forward after he offered Oberyn as brief a bow as politeness mandated. "I hope your quarters were comfortable. You were not too cold, were you?"

 

"My reception in Winterfell is everything I could expect and more." Oberyn replied with a smile he knew was impossible to interpret. "However, I will admit to feeling restless. The last year of my life has been one of action, and long negotiations do wear on one's patience, don't they?"

 

" Aye ."

 

Robb Stark packed a world of meaning and frustration into that word.

 

"In truth, having seen you spar, I was hoping for a match." Oberyn went on genially, laying his trap with a pleasant tone.

 

Suspicion warred with the boy's pride in his skill. It hurt to see that the lady didn't even consider the fact that his offer might have been for both of them. In the end Robb Stark's pride won. His posture was already as ramrod straight as could be desired, but his blue eyes gleamed at the compliment offered. The Red Viper was considered a fearsome warrior across the Free Cities as well as Westeros. He'd just complimented the lad's form and asked for a spar. That wasn't an offer that most fourteen year old lads could resist.

 

"I would be honored, Your Grace." The boy actually smiled a little. "Truth be told, we have no practice spears, however. Everyone here favors the sword, save Lady Lyra Mormont and she wields an axe."

 

"I haven't sparred against anyone using an axe as their favored weapon for years. I shall have to ask her if she can spare the time later." Oberyn bowed towards Lyarra then. "And you, my Lady, will you favor me with a match? Once you've rested from besting your brother, of course."

 

The heir looked slightly offended but Lyarra Stark's surprised smile, Oberyn found, was well worth the effort. It changed the lines of her face, bringing out her sharper chin and cheekbones. When she smiled she looked less like her Aunt and her eyes lit up brightly.

 

"I would be delighted."

 

"Perfect."

 

Oberyn clapped his hands together and then rubbed them, letting his callouses rasp and hiss with the movement.

 




Ned Stark felt like a decade had just dropped off of his life when he looked out the window of the quarters he'd shared with Cat for nearly half his lifetime.

 

"Ned, what is it?" She sidled up next to him and gasped.

 

He settled his hands on her shoulders quickly and squeezed.

 

"'This just a spar, and likely a valuable lesson at that." Ned reassured her as he watched the Red Viper's wooden practice spear hook behind his son and heir's legs and send Robb tumbling to the hard-packed earth of the yard. "See?"

 

Prince Oberyn was grinning as he offered Ned's son his hand and demonstrated how Robb's footwork had failed him. In the same motion he had the lad raise his own tourney sword and showed him how to counteract the lightning-fast movement that had put him on his arse. It took four more tries for Ned's son to successfully manage the block. When he did it was only to face another hole in his defense, the spear poised over the bridge of his nose, in the next bout.

 

The infamous man was more than gracious, however, and seemed genuinely happy for the first time since Ned had laid eyes on the princely pest. The Dornish knight who tended to shadow his prince most often was there as well. Several other Dornish figures, including the Lord of Salt Shore stood around the yard. At some point Ser Rodrick had joined them, and the Greatjon and Lord Bolton as well.

 

"Ned, they say he poisons-."

 

"I don't trust the man, but he wouldn't harm a child." Ned replied gruffly. "I've had to put up with enough of his doublespeak to know why he hates me, Cat. I can't even blame him. I'll always hate those creatures in King's Landing who stood by and watched while my father burned and my brother choked to death. I'm just relieved that it will keep us safe from everything poisoned about him save his tongue."

 

"You're sure ?"

 

"It's just a lesson, and one that'll likely do Robb good." Ned rubbed a hand over his face. "Lord Gargalen was shocked we don't have more fosterlings."

 

Lady Catelyn's lips pressed thin.

 

"We both know that the North doesn't send its children to Winterfell because it fears I will corrupt them to my Southron Faith and ways."

 

"Cat, I'll find out who's besmirching my religion and your name." Ned breathed out and felt his lips curl slightly. "I'm calling a meeting of the bannermen present this evening. I want to get this out into the open since they're apparently gossiping about it. I'm going to charge each with a survey of their weirwoods, looking to see where the poaching is happening. While they're doing that, I'll question the women in the village Theon got the rumor from."

 

"It will quiet them a lot, to have you include them in the investigation."

 

Ned wrapped her in his arms and drew her against his chest, kissing the bright red hair that had been splayed over his chest that morning. He'd been grateful to postpone any meetings that day. It had been too long since he'd just been able to lay abed and talk to his wife, forget their other activities.

 

"It's my name that they've attached to it, and House Tully’s honor that's been besmirched as well as yours."

 

"Aye."

 

The anger in her tone was as clear as river water; he could see right through to the pain at the bottom, and the sense of never being accepted or belonging.

 

"It could be worse." He tried for levity.

 

"How?"

 

"Your father could actually be selling weirwood saplings."

 

She shot him a look that suggested his joke wasn't funny, then her lips turned up as she buried her face in his neck to hide the dark amusement they were sharing.

 

"I'm more afraid of Edmure getting caught up in something stupid." His wife confessed. "He's young and his letters are still filled with complaints about father trying to rule his life, and talk of tourneys and friends. He needs to settle down, especially with father's health not being what it once was. A lot could slip by both of them given Edmure's carefree nature and father's illness."

 

"I don't suppose your father might soften and allow the Blackfish back to the Riverlands?"

 

"Uncle Brynden would have to apologize."

 

"So, not bloody likely?"

 

"The Dornish will bathe naked in the Whiteknife first."

 

Ned snorted and looked out the window, every muscle in his body clenching and freezing as he groaned.

"What is it?" Cat's head shot up in alarm as she did the same, only to be followed by an appropriately ladylike, but exasperated exclamation.

 

The rest of their children had found their way down to the training yard. Sansa lingering to the side, blushing and smiling sweetly as one of the handsomer Dornish knights turned and bowed to her, rising from the piece of log he'd claimed as a chair to offer the seat to her. Their other children got right into the thick of things.

 

Bran was left at the side to corral the six rowdy direwolf pups that had been brought out with them all, but his eyes were shining as he looked at the yard so packed with knights. Meanwhile Arya's eyes widened as she watched a match between the Prince of Dorne and his future wife. It went differently from that against Robb. Not because of any lack of training or skill on her son's part, but because of the fact that the Viper and the young girl he was facing didn't have diametrically opposed styles.

 

Robb wasn't used to fighting a grown man with a different weapon, a longer reach, and a greater height who was that much faster than he was. Lyarra was much shorter than the Prince, and she obviously had no idea what to do when facing a man with a spear. What she had were reflexes on par, or nearly so, with the man she was facing. The result was the same; Lyarra landed hard on the ground each time. The method was different, as the Viper didn't bother to try and trip or trick her, and instead used his greater strength against her to wrench her weapon from her hand or tumble her over several times.

 

" Arya !"

 

Ned chuckled weakly at his wife's gasp and held tight so she couldn't pull out of his arms when Arya jumped into the spar. Holding her own wooden practice sword in her hands, she stood over her fallen sister. Ned had no idea what she yelled, but had a feeling that if he found out he'd be obligated to punish her. A pity, Ned imagined that it was nothing he didn't want to say to the infuriating man.

 

Instead of laughing at the girl as Roderick or any of the others would, however, the Prince stepped away. Then, to his shock, Ned watched Prince Oberyn toss the practice spear to one of the knights watching the match and swing Lyarra's tourney sword up into his own hand. Arya's jaw dropped open, but she quickly scrambled forward to meet him, her own little sword held at the ready and her expression alight.

 

"Ned, I'll say nothing on the matter of your bastard, but my daughter is not going to shame herself in front of the Bannermen and visiting roy-."

 

"Arya's young enough to be excused by those who care, and it'll please the Mormonts and the Northern Clans to see her fight." Ned replied, keeping his wife in his arms. "Peace, Cat. Lyarra's not the only one who's the image of my sister, and Arya's display will do our children more credit with the bannermen than all of our words could."

 

His wife stilled in his arms, but remained standing rigid with displeasure as they watched the next bout. Robb hovered protectively and Lyarra watched the Prince closely as he sparred with the young she-wolf. Ned found he had nothing he could complain of, for the man was a natural at training children. He moved slowly to telegraph many of his moves on purpose, giving Arya a sense of success, but he didn't let her win. Instead he walked her through fifteen solid minutes of sparring, correcting her stance, taking her weapon four times, and laughing off the fact that she kicked him in the shins and fought dirty while he was doing so. Each time Oberyn Martell did something to show Arya how she could better use the play weapon in her arms had it been a real blade.

 

The match stopped when Lord Gargalen stepped forward and began to clap. Arya looked up from where she had landed on her rump after one long, wiry leg had swept her feet out from under her. Her glare melted away into a grin at whatever the man said. She held the wooden sword she'd managed to hold onto despite her fall and the Viper's grab for it in triumph. Then the Greatjon walked forward and snatched Arya up, tossing her into the air to what had to be squeals of delight. Robb turned and bowed to one of the nearby Dornish knights and the man gestured around, clearly asking for a match later.

 

Lyarra stepped forward and Ned's heart nearly broke at the brilliant smile she directed at her Marked and intended husband as she nodded towards where Arya was bragging with Ned's loudest bannerman. Ned watched with his stomach clenching as the man bent down and kissed her fingers. Ghost pelted across the yard on overlarge feet, the spaniel sized she-wolf pup sniffing enthusiastically at the Prince's boots once it had greeted Lyarra. Ned felt both better and worse when he saw that the often standoffish little white she-wolf would allow the man to stroke her ears.

 

"Robb's suggestion that we leak Sansa and Arya's dowry settlements was a good one." Cat said after a long moment, pride in her voice.

 

"Aye."

 

Ned's good mood fled with the memory of the humiliating rumors that he was also going to have to contend with along with the investigation into the supposed theft and sale of their sacred trees. As if he would beggar his family and his keep to help Robert. He loved the man as much as any of his brothers, but he knew the King's proclivities where money was concerned. His friend had always been extravagant. The loan had been nothing the North couldn't bear, it merely meant that they didn't have as much ready hard currency as he might have liked.

 

"Our girls won't suffer for this marriage, Cat, I swear." Ned reassured his wife, whose expression made it obvious she needed to hear it. "No, they won't go out with a Southron dowry measured in silver and jewels, but they'll have a dowry any Northern lord would bleed to have. My talks with the Dornish haven't ended with Lyarra's dowry."

 

That got Cat's attention and he grinned at the shrewd blue eyes that looked up at him. He'd liked to joke from the moment they'd wed that his wife was smarter than he was. In this, however, he felt he knew his homeland and people well enough to reassure her doubts. It might disappoint some of her hopes for more Southron grandchildren, but surely she knew that would be bad for their family in the future. His wife lived by her family's words: Family, Duty, Honor. Cat would understand.

 

"They have a food surplus in Dorne that needs to be addressed and the half of the bride price coming North will be incredibly generous. With winter coming, that will reassure my bannermen more than a ship's weight in silver." Ned explained. "I'll let it be known that I want Northern marriages for the girls as well, and that a lot of their dowry will be in lands, as I hold claim to all of the unclaimed lands between bannermen. The Starks haven't offered land in dowry for a hundred years, and no-one save maybe Bolton faults me for keeping King's Landing from starving. Robert's throne would have been in doubt and we could have been caught in the middle of another gods-be-damned war."

 

He could feel his wife fighting with some disappointment. Ned waited patiently to see what she would say.

 

"Sansa's always wanted a Southron marriage. She dreams of knights and tourneys and handsome, gallant men."

 

"Aye." Ned allowed, his voice quiet. "Look how well that turned out for Gwyn's sister."

 

Cat went stiff and then pulled away from Ned entirely to glare up at him.

 

"You can't judge all of the south by the Westerlands or Dorne for that matter." She argued. "There are many good, honorable young lords in the Riverlands or in the Reach. Eve the Stormlands are full of kind men who'd make our daughter a wife. Nor should you forget that King Robert's spoken of binding our families together before. You know my father has hopes in that regard, and I'm surprised you don't as well."

 

"If I could meet Robert's boy, I might." Ned acknowledged. "It would handle the loan tidily. I could write it off as part of the dowry and the crown could write off part of its debt. Robert needs to retrench badly."

 

"You should go south to King's Landing." Cat smiled. "See your friend again. Sansa could go, and I would accompany you. We could visit my family and Robb could remain. Benjen's visiting for the wedding, isn't he? Why not leave Robb as the Stark in Winterfell to get a feel for his responsibilities with his uncle at his side to guide him? You know the King would be overjoyed to see you. He's wanted you to visit for years."

 

"Let me get this mess settled first, and the rumors about the weirwood saplings." Ned frowned as an idea occurred to him. "I should track down the parties I sent to take the trees south, as well. If they were dishonest it might be that the very trees I sent are being sold under your father's name to hide their actions."

 

"I may not have married the handsomest Stark brother, but the Gods know I married the smartest." Catelyn grinned and Ned felt his cheeks stain red despite his age and the beard that mostly covered them.

 

"Don't say that where Benjen can hear." Ned replied wryly. "He'll call you on the untruth of it and your reputation will never be the same."

 

Cat's laughter was sweet in his ears as Ned stole a kiss.

 




Oberyn was in a remarkably good mood, perhaps the best since the Mark appeared on his wrist, as he went to seek out Lord Stark's solar with his uncle at his side and his usual guards flanking him. His bride was more than she appeared to be. The dour facade had fallen away once he'd gotten the girl out into the yard and away from the expectations of her stepmother. Likewise, Robb Stark had lost a great deal of his father's glowering disapproval of Oberyn's existence and his people once he'd met him in the yard.

 

"It's a crying shame that girl doesn't own real steel." Lord Gargalen huffed.

 

"I trust you're speaking of the Lady Lyarra."

 

"Lady Arya as well."

 

"I'll be amending Lady Lyarra's lack, I can assure you, Uncle, but the Lady Arya isn't a part of my household."

 

"Shall you wait until we're back in Sunspear?" He asked and Oberyn shook his head.

 

"She deserves a northern blade, and there's a good smith here. I've some jewelry to give her that I've been holding back. I'll have a piece or two broken down to make the weapon beautiful enough for the lady who wields it."

 

The older man raised his frosted eyebrows and Oberyn snorted.

 

"I was annoyed to find her the image of Rhaegar's mistake. I'm not blind to her beauty." He argued. "And she's not an abrasive, cocksure thing like the girl at Harrenhal was. I don't want to be bound in misery, Uncle, I'll find my way to good ground with my wife."

 

"I'm just relieved you can say the word 'wife' without a condemned man's expression."

 

The other man drawled in Doran's precise tone of mocking support and Oberyn snorted loudly. One of the advantages of the Martell nose; it made snorting loudly quite easy. Having the nose was something Oberyn had resented as a child. He'd grown into the family's most famous feature with time. Eventually he'd even grown to enjoy teasing his princely brother that he looked more a Martell than Doran. It was something he hadn't bothered to even try saying to his brother in decades. Responsibility had long ago crowned his brother with a majesty that Doran wore like a cloak. He looked a Prince in a way few rulers ever would, and perhaps the most savagely satisfying thing of the current political situation was seeing his brother's quality finally recognized.

 

"Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria would like to know if you are speaking to Stark today on your wife's behalf." His uncle went on. "They're enjoying their time in Lady Stark's solar, as neither has worked on a trousseau since before Lady Lyarra was born, but the girl's education is wanting. She'll get eaten alive in Sunspear if she's not prepared, and she needs her household."

 

"Oh, I've already found at least part of it." Oberyn grinned. "The girls would love Arya Stark, don't you think?"

"It's traditional for a young bride to bring sisters into her own household, and it would be an invaluable experience for Lady Arya to experience life in a Southron Court."

 

Lord Gargalen was nothing if not politically astute and Oberyn was still chuckling at his answer as they walked up the stairs to Lord Stark's solar. He knew his uncle well, and though Doran had inherited much of his temperament from the man who'd been the most powerful noble in Dorne for nigh on half a century he knew that the man's passions ran as deep as his own. Lord Gargalen had given them six cousins to play with as children, all born relatively close together. Of them only his two sons yet lived, as a fire in the Maiden's Quarters at Salt Shore had devastated the house some twenty years before.

 

The Lord had never remarried after his wife had starved herself to death following the fire. He'd remained polite, urbane, and still enjoyed life. Despite that, inside Lord Gargalen's heart was a hole shaped like his daughters just as he grieved with Oberyn and Doran for their lost sister. The man would have offered to foster Lady Arya Stark himself before he let marriage to some rapacious oaf from north of the Red Mountains crush that girl's spirit and talent. Had his own two sons not been near Oberyn's age and already wed he'd have likely suggested a marriage as well, but his grandsons were either too young or, in the eldest's case, betrothed.

 

"Your Grace, Lord Gargalen."

 

Ned Stark greeted them with a nod and a brief bow that Oberyn returned floridly and his uncle with proper restraint and respect. They were shown to their seats where the now-expected tray of fruit and light wine rested. Oberyn grabbed a fresh pear and bit into it as he draped himself over his chair and watched his uncle pour three goblets of wine. Robb Stark appeared a few seconds later, freshly scrubbed and in finer clothing. Oberyn tossed the lad an apple by way of greeting and got a brief, surprised smile from the lad for it. Oberyn weighed what he could get out of the boy if he had a real change of heart, then watched Robb Stark's face shut down into something more appropriate as the lad put his age and his enjoyment of the sparring yard away in favor of a more appropriate mindset for a negotiation.

 

"I believe that we've settled the dowry, save for the usual defense agreements." Lord Stark opened with his usual bluntness and Oberyn sat up.

 

"Yes, though I'd like to put that aside for a moment to speak of my bride herself."

 

Both the Starks went stiff.

 

"My daughter is a fine girl-"

 

"I couldn't agree more." Oberyn purred over the man's offended tone, unsurprised Ned Stark had assumed insult and amused by it almost as much as watching the man's face redden at the insinuation in his tone. "She is not, however, Dornish ."

 

He received a cautious nod from the man in reply.

 

"I am certain that the Lady Catelyn ensured only the most proper and beneficial lessons for her husband's bastard." Oberyn sneered. "Fate has seen fit to make Lyarra a princess, however, and I would have her raised up as such."

 

Ned Stark's red face went pale with amazing speed and one of his eyes actually twitched. While Oberyn had expected him to be displeased by the sally about his wife's uncharitable treatment - by Dornish standards, at least - of the family bastard, he hadn't expected a reaction like that. Lord Stark moved to try and cover it with a laughably false coughing fit, but the only one who believed it was his son. Oberyn chose to go on and see if he got any further such reactions, but he did not.

 

"My wife will be chatelaine of Sunspear itself as my brother usually keeps court at the Water Gardens. With my family's recent grief over the Princess Mellario and Princess Arianne, Lady Lyarra's position will be the highest of any woman in Dorne until mine nephew, Quentyn, weds. Lady Lyarra needs to know all she can of Dorne, its traditions, culture, and Houses. Lady Jynessa Blackmont has long been an ornament and credit to Doran's court. Likewise Lady Myria Jordayne is a lady of considerable accomplishments."

 

"I was under the impression both had joined my wife and daughters in Lady Stark's solar daily since their arrival."

 

"They have." Oberyn replied dryly. "A room largely composed of unwed young women sewing and chattering is not the best place for detailed political lessons. Lady Lyarra has expressed to me that she doesn't much care for sewing herself, nor is there any point in arranging an extensive wardrobe for her here when she will need an entirely different mode of dress in Dorne. I would have Lady Stark do as she will in regards to Lyarra's trousseau and instead concentrate on preparing her for her new role."

 

"I see." Ned Stark replied, measuring his thoughts behind his gray eyes as he pulled on his beard. "You're correct, Your Grace. I believe my daughter would be better served with more preparation, however, I do not want my daughter separated from all else. These are the last days she will spend with her family. She is especially close to her siblings, and I'm loathe to separate them so."

 

All of Oberyn's humor fled.

 

"Oh, I have some understanding of that."

 

Robb Stark winced and even his father looked like he regretted his words. Oberyn just smiled sharply and turned talk back to the dowry. He decided vindictively that he and his uncle would become so involved in the particulars that no-one would break again for food or the privy until dinner. Well, the privy would depend on his uncle. Exceptions had to be made for men over a certain age.

 


 

"What happened to your arm?"

 

The words popped out of Lyarra's mouth before she could think to properly greet Prince Oberyn. It left her to drop into a belated and embarrassed curtsey in front of Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria. Ghost, who was standing by her skirts, cared nothing for etiquette. Instead the little white she-wolf surprised her by wandering forward and hopping up to put her front paws against Oberyn's thighs and beg for attention. It was friendlier than her other half often was with some of her siblings, and Lyarra felt a sudden wave of affection for the man as he waved them all negligently to their feet and leaned down to ruffle the fur around the pup's neck with a bright grin.

 

"I believe I have found a valuable ally in Winterfell that I was not expecting." The Prince grinned. "Lady Stark, may I escort you to the family quarters? I find it a strange irony that I came to wed you, and yet spend more time with your father and brother."

 

They'd been lent the use of a lower room in Maester Luwin's turret for their lessons. Lyarra had gone in with a great sense of trepidation and left with real pleasure. She'd always enjoyed reading and learning. The library was ever a refuge from Septa Mordane and Lady Stark's disapproval.

 

While what the ladies taught her of Dorne was nothing like her usual lessons in sums, history, and other matters, it was fascinating. It also left Lyarra feeling a little less overwhelmed and frightened by the idea of wedding a Martell Prince. Yes, she was looking to face a life that was going to contain entirely too many unfamiliar things and ideas. She wasn't going to enter it ignorant, though, and her husband seemed intent on actually helping her prepare for it rather than solely using her as a weapon against her house. Lyarra had been afraid of that at first.

 

"Your Grace, may I ask you a question?"

 

"You may ask me as many as you wish and I will endeavor to answer, but I would ask the same favor of you."

 

"It's no secret why you mislike Father." Lyarra pushed forward, looking straight ahead despite the hand she had on the crook of his arm.

 

Her husband had shucked his outermost layer in the sparring yard. With the summer storm clear along it had brought, he hadn't been wearing the four layers to begin with. Despite that, the thick, rich patterns woven into the orange wool of his long outer coat was enough to make it feel like she was a league away from the warm flesh of the man beneath. It was a slightly reassuring feel when Lyarra recalled the strange feelings she'd experienced when warming his hands.

 

"You don't seem to hold it against my brothers and sisters. Why?"

 

"I've told you once that we don't hurt little girls in Dorne." He replied almost lightly. "Nor do the Martells carry grudges on for generations. If we did, we would be ruling the barren wasteland that our ignorant neighbors often assume Dorne is."

 

"Every family here can tell you that the North remembers." Lyarra bit her lip. "Grudges are carried for a long time in Northern hearts."

 

"A warning, my lady?" His black eyes glittered with curious appreciation.

 

"A contrast."

 

Lyarra was about to say that it was a warning. She didn't want any of her family hurt for King Robert's mistakes and Lord Twyin's evil actions. She was upset to know that her father had sworn such an awful oath as he had, to protect rapists and the murderers of children. Despite the disappointment of knowing it, the knowledge still had no effect on the love she bore for her father.

 

Gwyn's voice was hissing at the back of her mind though, begging caution. That was an unusual occurrence, since Gwyn was usually the one instigating some insubordination towards someone. The Westerlands maid chose odd moments to either fall completely silent or overindulge her sharp tongue.

 

"A politic answer, Lady Jynessa will be pleased."

 

Lyarra cast her eyes sideways and felt her lips crook up a little when she saw him smirking at her. Lord Oberyn was much older than her. He looked perhaps a year or two her father's junior with his night black hair threaded by just a few strands of silver. Even the lines on his bronze face seemed carved more by smiles and the sun than age, and there was a boyishness to his sharp features and playful smiles that Lyarra realized she liked.

 

It was a sudden thing, rather an ambush, to discover that she thought him handsome. Northern men were supposed to be tall, and Prince Oberyn was. They were not supposed to be lean, however. An ideal Northerner carried a handsomeness that was rugged and bearded, with long hair and strong, thick muscles. The Viper was as leanly muscled as his namesake. His wiry form was graceful, and his movements languid when he wasn't showing off his frankly astonishing reflexes.

 

In truth, the even fineness of his features was almost pretty, and Lyarra had heard whispers that he'd once favored the company of men as much as women. It was a completely alien sort of handsomeness. Lyarra decided that she was just grateful that her husband made her feel that sudden hint of something that raised the hair on the back of her arms and neck. She'd definitely had worse matches proposed. Lyarra no more anticipated delight in the marriage bed then she felt any maid would, but she at least contented herself that he always smelled faintly of spices and had a clean, healthy body. His manners were good and he didn't disdain the fact that she'd had to be legitimized to gain the Stark name.

 

"I believe it is my turn."

 

"Ask." Lyarra found herself smiling. "You'll likely be bored, my Prince. I've lived an uneventful life."

 

"I've lived anything but, so perhaps you may regale me with stories of the foreign concept of boredom and I might tell you my own tales." His tone was teasing and Lyarra relaxed further. "Content me first with the answer to a mystery. I heard Lord Karstark speculating earlier that your mother was Ashara Dayne, but I know this to be false. Was she Dornish? It seems most likely."

 

"I don't know." Lyarra replied, woodenly, not having expected the question even though she realized she should have.

 

Her good humor fled entirely and it was only when she felt the rasping of his callouses across the top of the hand she had tucked in his elbow that she realized she'd stopped walking.

 

"Your hands are cold again." She muttered, bringing hers up to chafe at his larger hands.

 

His skin was very dark against her own. He also rubbed at her hands almost greedily as they stood in an abandoned corridor that would take them up a set of stairs and thence to the guards standing before the family's quarters.

 

"And again, yours are not." He murmured quietly in return, and his dark eyes were soft as he looked down at her.

 

"Forgive me for causing you pain. You have lost her then?"

 

"I don't know ." Lyarra returned uncomfortably, and he frowned.

 

"Dorne's population is more mobile than most of the other kingdoms. We travel, and some of our people are entirely nomadic." Oberyn replied. "If you've lost contact with her it does not mean that the plague took her, or some other fate."

 

"No," Lyarra swallowed and clarified. "I mean I don't know. Father, he - Lord Stark won't speak of it."



The Prince stared at her as though he didn't understand, his black eyebrows knotting over his eyes and drawing attention to the sharp line of his jaw and strong nose. Somewhere in the back of her mind, behind the old pain and hurt, she noted that she liked his nose. A strong nose was considered a fine thing on a Northern man. Prince Oberyn wore his well.

 

"I'm aware that he keeps the secret from the world." The Viper asked, his expression shifting to something more dangerous. "Are you telling me that he will not tell you who your own mother is, my Lady?"

 

Lyarra felt strangely defensive of her father. This had been the largest divide between herself and her only parent since her earliest memories. She'd asked him again after her Mark appeared, wondering if her mother was Dornish and that might have something to do with the Mark appearing. Unfortunately, Lord Stark had been even more severe in his answer than he'd been before. Her father had made it clear that she was not to ask him again, though he'd promised - again - to speak to her of it one day in the future.

 

" You've raised your own daughters away from their mothers, haven't you, Prince Oberyn? Surely there are some questions of their mothers you don't answer."

 

"The Stranger took Tyene from me." Prince Oberyn's voice rasped with pain and anger. "I took her from her mother at birth and raised her on goat's milk from my own hand on the journey back to Dorne after she was born. I lost her too young, but she was older than you, Lady Lyarra. Never in all of her life did she not know of her mother's name and all I could tell her of the woman, and few would say I did anything but shame myself utterly when I seduced a Septa from her vows to make Tyene. How could I claim any honor at all if I kept from them such knowledge for my own bruised pride? All children have a right to know where they came from."

 

Lyarra opened her mouth, then closed it. She could feel a hot blush suffuse her face as something caught in her chest. No-one, not even Robb, had ever said something like that about her father. On one hand she wanted to dispute it, strongly. Her father was a good man, an honorable man, if often inflexible. On the other hand, something hard and painful was unknotting in her chest at the unexpected, furious, and impassioned defense.

 

He'd said it was her right to know, as it was a man's right to a fair judgement from his Lord or a Lord's right to his lands or wife. Lyarra thought rather distantly that she'd never been told she had a right to anything before. Mostly she heard only of what her trueborn siblings were due, though that had changed somewhat with the Mark.

 

"My Lady."

 

Lyarra jerked her gaze from where it had fixed on the front of his tunic back to his face and realized, to her horror, that her own face was wet. Automatically she reached up to wipe the shameful tears away. She wasn't a child!

The prince beat her to it, freeing his hands from hers he reached up and framed her face with them. Lyarra froze in place, never having been so close to a man who wasn't her kin before. He leaned forward and she found her fear misplaced as his lips pressed gently and chastely against her forehead instead of anything inappropriate. It was an almost paternal gesture, warm and comforting, and Lyarra leaned into it. She had no idea what to do now, so she rested her hands awkwardly on his chest and waited to see what he would do next.

 

"Prince Oberyn!"

 

Lady Stark's outraged voice cut through the halfway and Lyarra jerked away from her future husband. Ghost, who'd been leaning against her shins through the whole exchange turned with her. Then her direwolf pup did something it had never done before to another member of the family. Turning with both the prince and Lyarra, Ghost spread her legs in a solid, threatening stance, curled her white plume of a tail over her back, and pulled her lips back from her sharp white teeth in a silent growl.

 

Lady Stark stared down at the pup in shock even as her thin-lipped glare at the two people in the hallways danced back up to her stepdaughter and her betrothed.

 

" Snow , go to your room." The words were out of Lady Stark's mouth in a familiar, scandalized and frustrated tone. "Prince Oberyn, my Lord wishes to speak to you."

 

"And I have words for your husband." Oberyn's reply was full of derision. "However, I believe you misspoke to the Lady Stark and owe my betrothed an apology."

 

"Perhaps, however, I was not raised in a house where men weren't allowed to take liberties with their intended."

Lady Stark's righteous indignation rolled off of the Martell prince like water off a duck's back.

 

"Really? That's a new tale." The Viper replied, his words glistening, dangerous coils. "Tell me, Lady Stark, did you by any chance receive a letter from Lord Baelish ere his death of the Plague?"

 

"What?" The Lady started, her face paling. "Petyr's dead? Little Petyr?"

 

"Mayhaps had you not ignored him for decades, you'd be aware of your dear foster-brother's death." Oberyn drawled. "Though I dare say that if you had received one of his letters, as so many other houses did, it would be much on your mind."

Lady Stark's expression hardened.

 

"I'm not going to bandy riddles with you in the hallway."

 

"Thank you, my Lady, for that would be a waste of both of our time." The Viper smiled, his fangs gleaming as Lyarra stood still next to him, watching in shock as the man openly engaged with the woman she'd spent her whole life either avoiding or being so carefully respectful of lest she suffer. "Instead ask Lord Hoster precisely why your little sister bled near to death in her bed before her marriage to Jon Arryn. It will cast an entirely new light on the Tully motto, and just how far family extends when face is at stake."

 

With a low bow that was in now way polite Lyarra found a hard kissed pressed against her hand and then a pair of black eyes snapping as they met her own.

 

"I shall see you soon, my Lady, for now I go to find if some other convenient royal has demanded an oath forbidding your father from uttering your mother's name as well."

 

Lady Stark's face was as pale as ice and twice as hard as she watched him go. As she turned to Lyarra something twisted in her belly and climbed upwards. It coiled around her spine and forced her to stand straight as it pushed her shoulders back.

 

She dared for the first time in her life to turn the verbal exclusion Lady Catelyn had used on her since her birth against her father's wife.

 

"If any of my family should ask where I am, Lady Stark, I will be carving."

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Six - 297 A.C.

 

A fortnight made a lot of difference in many things. In four-and-ten days, Lyarra found her dowry settled, the marriage contract completed, and herself standing in her father's solar with a quill in her hand. The Prince hadn't been lying when he said things were different in Dorne. A marriage contract was what bound two souls together, with the ceremony but a technicality in law.

 

The Prince had made her blush when he'd drawled that the state of a woman's hymen was no one's business but her own. Marriage was a set of promises made in trust and honor. If one was untrustworthy and dishonorable, than being a virgin would do nothing to change that. It was a woman's word that made her married.

 

Lyarra felt oddly powerful as she signed her name beside the Prince's great flourish of a signature. Her own was small, neat, and tidy. It was the efficiently penned name of a girl who'd loved to draw and never had quite enough parchment. Below her name her father's signature was bolder and larger. Below the Prince's, Lord Gargalan's name was equally as elegant, but not so outsized. Lyarra supposed you could tell something of a person by how they wrote.

 

"In Dorne, this would have us wed, and the celebration all that remained." Prince Oberyn observed a little wryly. "This is the North, however, and I must claim my wife before a tree to be properly wed. Will you show me the Godswood, my Lady? I've yet to see it in my time here."

 

"Of course, Your Grace." Lyarra replied, for a fortnight hadn't given her enough confidence to abandon the distance that civility gave her.

 

It had served to produce other accomplishments. Lyarra now enjoyed a privilege she hadn't had since she was Arya's age. Every morning at sunrise, she sparred with Robb openly . The Prince and a collection of others who chose to rise so early joined them. Much of the Dornish party came to the yard for these semi-official training sessions, and several of the Northern Lords and their heirs had taken to attending and participating as well.

 

The Prince was adamant that she should become as skilled with a blade as she wished. Lyarra had been delighted with tales of the female warriors of Dorne. In turn, Oberyn had been visibly pleased to share his stories of the great female warriors he'd known. Most had been from his homeland, but three had been from Essos. With those stories had come tales of his time founding a mercenary band in the Free Cities.

 

The Red Viper took by far the most pleasure in telling tales of his daughters' prowess. Obara Sand, who fought with a spear like her father and also favored the whip. Nymeria, who could hide a dozen knives upon her person and use and throw them as well as any Braavosi assassin. His daughter Elia, whom he called Lia, was referred to as Lady Lance by the servants, though she was barely older than Sansa was.

 

"She rides like the wind, and can unseat a man thrice her size with no effort." The prince had bragged with obvious pride. "I know, I've been one of them more than once."

 

Talk of his girls' skills had led to talk of the Sand Snakes themselves, and Lyarra was determined to foster that. Oberyn's support, unexpected and unasked for, against Lady Stark had been both exhilarating and a little shameful. It was exciting because no-one had ever stood up for her so before. Lyarra's shame was rooted entirely in the hurt she knew her father always felt over such things, and the awareness that Lady Stark had never been truly cruel to her. Dismissive and unwelcoming, yes, but she could have been so much worse.

 

Lyarra was determined to do better by her own stepdaughters. It would be ridiculous to try and mother any of them; even the youngest were older than Rickon. Obara was nearly old enough to have been Lyarra's mother. What Lyarra knew she could do was be kind to them, and make it clear that she wanted friendship with all of the Sand Snakes. At the very least Lyarra figured that they could all establish a truce.

 

Speaking of truces…

 

Lyarra had very deliberately not shown up for their morning spar. She knew Arya and Robb had gone, not knowing what she did, and Lyarra felt slightly guilty for disrupting the growing accord she knew was being reached between the three over tourney blades and wooden spears. Arya, for one, had undergone a total reversal of feeling where the Viper was concerned. A man who was stealing her sister was one thing. A man who was wedding her sister and offering to take Arya with her to a land where she could train in the yard as much as she desired was another.

 

"You are quiet today, Lady Lyarra." He stated cheerfully. "You are not feeling unwell, are you? I missed you in the yard this morning. Not a single other person attempts to kick me in the knees or pinches during a spar. Though your sister bites."

 

"Not as hard as Rickon." Lyarra replied wryly.

 

She'd finally learned why her betrothed had a bandage on his arm when Oberyn had escorted her back to the family quarters the night he'd wiped her tears away and pressed a kiss to her forehead. The youngest Stark had bitten the prince. Lyarra still wasn't clear on the circumstances, and apparently no one else was either. The nurse who'd been allowing Rickon a run about one of Winterfell's many courtyards loudly proclaimed it happened too fast to understand, let alone prevent.

 

"Who is a viper to tell a wolf not to bite?" The black eyes glittered at her with humor and she tried very hard not to like him more for the glimmer of affection, or perhaps the seeds of what could become it, that she felt over the fate-woven threads that bound their spirits together. "Tell me, my Lady, have I displeased you lately?"

 

It was as good an invitation as she would ever get. Lyarra gathered her courage and every ounce of bluntness in her Northern soul, and just asked.

 

"Lady Gwyn was almost used to you three days ago. Why is she so afraid of you now?"

 

There was a beat of silence and Lyarra reached out, straining to sift through what little she could feel around the older man. Anger, yes, and that fierce hate that was never too far beneath the surface. It's ever ready companion was on hand too, and Lyarra ached for the steady beat of hurt that drummed along with Oberyn's heart.

 

"I came north to fetch a bride and learn some names." He finally replied, bitterly lighthearted. "I've never claimed half a success before at any endeavor in my life. It was always perfect success or bitter defeat. I can't say I have enjoyed this lesson in partial victory."

 

Lyarra had a feeling that, where his victory was concerned, Oberyn had not gained the half he would have valued better. She had no idea how to respond to that, so she fell silent. It was a tense silence as they walked to the Godswood.

 

Once there, she reached out to the peace she always felt in twilight lingering beneath the trees. For perhaps ten thousand years, the Godswood of Winterfell had stood, guarded by the tall sentinels, warmed by the broad branches of the oaks and their blankets of lichen, and watched mournfully by the bleeding red eyes of the silent heart tree. The hush seemed to seep into Lyarra's skin as she led him down familiar paths covered by centuries of lush, decaying leaves.

 

The air was warmer in the Godswood, holding as it did the damp, loamy scent and heat of the hot springs. Perhaps Oberyn felt that peace too. Or he was simply enjoying a chance to breathe warm air while not hemmed in by a dark-beamed ceiling. He'd told her of Sunspear and the Water Gardens and the light, bright, airy architecture of his home. When she wasn't anticipating the desperate loneliness of leaving most of her family behind, Lyarra found herself eager to see it.

 

Lyarra led him to the heart tree, by the largest pool, and waited. She withdrew her hands and tucked them into the pockets of the high-necked, dark gray woolen gown she was wearing that day. Gwyn had slept late, for once, and she'd put on her own choice of gown. After days of listening to Gwyn and either letting the younger girl outright choose her attire, or choosing it with the Dornish ladies she spent so much of her time with, it was a relief to wear something so familiar.

 

"May I touch it?" Oberyn asked after a moment of staring into the face on the heart tree, his black eyes gleaming as if in silent contemplation, or conversation, with the carven features.

 

"Yes."

 

Lyarra found one crawling root that arched up out of the ground. It was as thick as her father's waist and was polished smooth by generations of Starks. She took a seat on it and waited.

 

Oberyn traced his fingers over the nose and around the eyes of the heart tree. He carefully avoided the bloody red sap. He felt the bone white bark. After a while he came over and sat beside her and idly slid his hand around her forearm. Lyarra let him draw her right hand from her pocket and trace his fingers over the callouses on her palms and the tiny, thin, white scars that covered her hands here and there.

 

"How did you get these?"

 

Thinking of how long an explanation that would take, Lyarra reached back into her pockets. It took a bit of searching, for she'd sewn extra pockets in the skirt of her gown, but she found what she was looking for. She wordlessly handed the prince her token.

 

A few days before she'd begun to go stir crazy during her lessons with Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria. Both were intelligent, cultured women and Lyarra loved having a chance to learn from them. She was just used to making things while she learned, and embroidery was not helping.

 

"You carved this?" He sounded intrigued.

 

"Aye."

 

It wasn't her best carving by far, but Lyarra could admit it held some charm. It had originally been a little chunk of knotty pine burl with the golden tone of the wood worked through by twists of black grain. Now, however, it was a chubby little mouse curled into a ball, wrapped in its own tail as it slept.

 

"You're good."

 

"I didn't start out that way." She replied, amused, and stretched out both her hands to show off the scars she'd earned learning how to handle the sharp carving blades.

 

The prince chuckled and nodded, then he continued.

 

"I had no intention of scaring the girl." It wasn't quite an apology, but she could feel the truth of it. "She can't have lived two years at Casterly Rock without having overheard a great deal. Especially given how much she tends to hear in Winterfell."

 

"What do you mean?" Lyarra asked sharply and got a smug smirk in return.

 

" I mean , my lady, that in the future you should plan your secret meetings without bringing along two of your three loudest siblings or allowing your spymaster to cross the castle grounds lugging half a bakery with her."

 

Lyarra wanted to be offended, but instead she decided she'd have to settle for severe embarrassment.

 

"How many people heard?" Information would be good, too…

 

"None but I." He proclaimed while pressing a flamboyant hand against his chest in mock humility. "I couldn't sleep that night, so I was already out in the sparring yard with a spear and Ser Damien. I sent the latter off when I heard you shushing your siblings. I followed you across the yard and stood guard at the gate. It's a wonder what a well-armed prince can do to the intentions of other eavesdroppers, is it not?"

 

"Rank and the potential of a lethal poisoning are strong motivations." Lyarra shot back sarcastically and got a wider grin for her trouble.

 

She was getting the feeling he liked her best when she was saucy. Lyarra had no idea what to do with that. She'd been told all her life by Lady Stark and Septa Mordane that a lady's authority rested within her husband's power, and that she should be obedient to that power while stern in the use of her own. Gwyn had always said Septa Mordane was full of horse shit. She also said that Lady Stark was running on the principle of, "Do as I say, not as I do". If it was true, then why in the world did Lady Stark put her in charge of the education of the House's daughters?

 

Lyarra pushed away the urge to run with that question. She hadn't had Oberyn to herself, without chaperone, since the Prince had offered her such kind and unexpected comfort in the hallway outside the family's quarters. He hadn't succeeded in his quest to help her learn her mother's identity, but it had been Lyarra herself who'd had to ask him to stop. It was obviously tearing her father apart and Lyarra couldn't stand to hurt him.

 

"Gwyn doesn't talk about her past much." Lyarra finally offered lamely. "And she's a strange mix of stupidly brave and easily scared, but she is the only friend I've ever had who isn't bound to me by blood, Oberyn."

 

"I truly did not mean to scare her so. Is she unwell with it?"

 

His response now was sincere, and genuinely remorseful.

 

"She was shaking so hard that she couldn't sleep last night without dreamwine."

 

Her betrothed winced and Lyarra watched as his grimace carved the lines in his face deeper. He looked as old as her father for once, as anger and regret chased themselves around his features. Finally he settled on a wry, humorless smile.

 

"Then an apology would make it worse, if you are sure she's not shaming?"

 

"Aye." Lyarra glared before agreeing with him. "You are right though. She's like a cat. You've got to let her come to you."

 

Her husband snorted in derision.

 

"House Parren uses a lion on their emblem as well, did you know?"

 

"A black lion." Lyarra agreed, then paused. "Once, when we were almost asleep in bed together, she told me there was a story about why the lion was black. She never told it to me, though."

 

"I have made it my business to know a great deal about the Westerlands." That was ominous. "But that is not a story I have heard. House Parren is rich, but considered ineffectual these days. Its leader is a doddering old man and the grandson who stands to inherit a poseur, who does nothing but play at tourneys. He cannot even do that well."

 

Silence fell again and he returned to his seat beside her and tried to pass the carving back to her. Lyarra folded his hand around it.

 

"Keep it." She smiled weakly. "First of many?"

 

His lips turned up.

 

"I will hold you to that." He pocketed the mouse and Lyarra thanked him for allowing Gwyn to become part of her household.

 

"Even if you did have ulterior motives, you had more to forbid her presence."

 

"You're a sincere little thing, aren't you?" He mused and Lyarra scowled up at him.

 

"I'm not that short."

 

"Of course not." Now he was humoring her. "And our stalker is as silent as fog rolling over the Tor, off the Sea of Dorne."

 

There was a crunch of leaves and a near-silent curse as a slender arm banged against wood. Looking over, she could spot a dark-haired little form stepping out.

 

"At your age, shouldn't your hearing be getting worse ?" Arya Stark complained sullenly as she crept out from behind an oak several times as broad as her shoulders.

 

Oberyn barked out a laugh, delighted at the sally. Lyarra felt herself smile despite the somber tone of the conversation and the fact that she was still angry that he'd scared Gwyn the way that he had. Not to mention her dissatisfaction over not knowing precisely what was said between them.

 

The Viper's obvious fondness for Lyarra's favorite sister soothed some of that. She could forgive a lot given the man was handing Arya a life that wouldn't smother her and a chance to learn the things she craved like breathing. Besides, when cornered Gwyn tended to make things worse, and if she did know something of Princess Elia's murderer Lyarra couldn't help feeling that her friend should be speaking of it.

 

"And given your size, you should all but float over the leaves, not crack every twig and crash through the place like a charging elephant." The prince laughed and her sister scoffed.

 

"When did you ever see a charging elephant?"

 

Lyarra allowed herself to be led back to the castle on one of her future husband's arms while Arya was coaxed to take the other. Little could tempt her sister into being ladylike. A story about fighting as a mercenary in Essos, a bloody pirate raid, and a charge through a village on the back of a blood-maddened elephant was sufficient to the task of getting Arya Stark to take a man's arm, however.

 

Both of Lord Stark's dark-haired daughters entered the Great Hall for a light meal. Before their various responsibilities swept them apart, the Viper leaned closer and whispered in Lyarra's ear.

 

"The matter of names is not closed."

 

"I know." Lyarra whispered back, then, hesitantly made her own offer. "I'll talk to Gwyn, just - well, give me time."

 

"I'm not done with your father yet, either." This time the tone was clearly testy and Lyarra felt a hint of trepidation for her father even while his persistence in finding out who her mother was for her warmed her a little.

 

"I know." Lyarra agreed.

 

At that point Arya was swept away to lessons with Maester Luwin and Lady Stark collected Lyanna. Her father's wife was friendlier than her wont, and Lyarra found herself enduring one last fitting of her wedding dress. Then it was the greater horror of a long, stern, and confusing talk with the Lady and the Septa summarizing a great range of topics an honorable wife had to be aware of not to disgrace her husband in the South. It was ended on an even worse note as Lady Stark excused herself and Septa Mordane settled in to inform Lyarra of the primary duty of a wife with a stern expression of distaste and The Seven Pointed Star open on her lap.

 


 

 

"If you could promise a lady safety from the Lannisters, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

 

Oberyn recognized that what he'd heard as scorn in the child's voice had likely been fear. Intellectually he knew that the fear was well-justified. The truth of those words had burned, however, had been salt in open wounds. Hearing them from the button lips of the blonde girl had been too much for his temper.

 

The fear in her blue eyes had been what realized he'd clenched his fists and begun to raise one of his hands. That had been what had drawn him back in horror. The blue eyes weren't green, her face was not sharp enough, and while the girl had the right cheekbones and dimpled chin, it was not cold Cersei Lannister he faced. The memory of her tormenting her infant dwarf of a brother as a child, or the thought of how she climbed into the crown her bloody-handed father had promised her over Elia's death were not relevant.

 

This was the daughter of a man one step above a hedge knight and a poor relation. The Lannisters had only taken the girl in as a ward out of a sense of appropriateness that seemed to forbid letting themselves be embarrassed by a poor connection adrift in the world, but saw nothing wrong with ordering the rape of princesses and the murder of children.

 

Oberyn had dropped his hand immediately, stepped back, and apologized. For all his comment to Lyarra about not doing so, his contrition had been immediate. 'We do not hurt little girls in Dorne ' ; that was what he'd said to reassure his wife. Yet, faced with an inordinately painful truth, Oberyn had been on the verge of doing just that.

 

"If you could promise a lady safety from, the Lannisters we wouldn't be having this conversation."

 

Oberyn wondered bitterly if the lions had mauled one of their own. He doubted they'd consider a poor relation as such, however. House Reyne had earned its red lion by starting out as a bastard branch of House Lannister. If Lord Tywin would slaughter his distant kin so mercilessly then, why not now?

 

"Nephew, if you don't wipe that look off your face, Lord Stark is going to make us renegotiate the damned contract to contain a codicil that you never actually touch his daughter."

 

Oberyn growled and brought a hand to his face, feeling his clenched jaw and bunched brow. Rising from the tub with a curse, he snatched the towel from Damien's hands and applied it roughly to his hair, then the rest of his skin, as he stood in front of the fire in his quarters. Spying his expression on the mirror above the fireplace, Oberyn winced. His uncle wasn't wrong.

 

"I was lingering underneath the windows to Lord Stark's solar two days ago, flirting with a maid-" Ser Damien Sand began and Oberyn cut him off wryly.

 

"Couldn't get anywhere with the blacksmith?"

 

"Alas, no . Have you seen the shoulders on that man?"

 

Oberyn hummed his appreciative agreement, though it was a little bitter. The Mark on his wrist was no longer quite as onerous as it was once. Lyarra Stark was a beautiful, kind girl who was growing more intriguing as he got to know her.

 

She was a bundle of unexpected talents. Oberyn had only just discovered that she was a talented sculptor in wood. Lady Jynessa also reported that she spoke passable High Valyrian thanks to being the only Stark Child interested in language lessons and the Winterfell Maester's desire to have someone to practice the language with. He'd seen for himself her talent with a sword. If he had to be shackled for a lifetime to a girl less than half his age, he was pleased it was an one who he felt he could like as well as enjoy the company of.

 

Despite that, it would never make Oberyn happy to have had the Gods decide who he could and could not bed. He'd never had a single partner before and he knew that he might grow to chafe with it more when he actually wasn't living like a Septon. Not that he had any option but living like a Septon, though that might change with his vows.

 

"You were lingering under the window?" Lord Gargalen prompted as the silver-haired lord poked at the carefully arranged clothing and light, gleaming, armor laid out across the bed and the top of one clothes chest. "Oberyn, you didn't forget the ring, did you?"

 

"I did not." Oberyn sighed. "It is in the small silk purse four inches from your hand, Uncle."

 

"Ah." And his uncle went to rifle for the ring.

 

The Rhoynish exchanged rings when they wed. It was a custom that had been embraced by the Dornish. They said that when Queen Nymeria wed she never removed her rings. When she finally died her fingers sparkled with the many tributes of her adventures in widowhood.

 

"While I was lingering by the window I heard Lady Gwyn trying to convince Lord Stark to convince you to take your bride directly back to Sunspear and ignore the King's letter." Damien went on. "She was very convinced that the Red Keep is too dangerous a place for any sane person to venture."

 

"Indeed…" Now that was curious. "Why?"

 

"Lady Gwyn insisted that Lord Stark knew what the Lannisters were like, and that Queen Cersei was the worst of the lot." The knight went on, his expression serious as well as curious like Oberyn's. "He pressed her for reasons. She gave none."

 

"What did Eddard Stark do then?" Lord Gargalen asked, his dark eyes sharp. Damien just sighed.

 

"He took the girl in his arms as if she was his own daughter, and comforted her. He assured her that he would be right there during the whole trip, and he reminded her that it was Baratheon who was the King in King's Landing, and that he'd never owned a better friend in his life than the Usurper."

 

"Did this comfort her?" Oberyn asked quietly.

 

"I think the hug did, but she looked at Lord Stark like she was adding him to her list of things to fret over."

 

"I was quite set to dislike the child for her origins, but she's making me too curious for unrestrained loathing." Lord Gargalen commented before nodding towards the door. "If you'll excuse my nephew and I?"

 

The knight bowed obediently and withdrew from the room.

 

"You said you were going to talk to the Parren girl last night." Lord Gargalen stated baldly. "You spent half the night pacing and cursing and the rest composing a letter to your brother and sending it off by raven. What did the girl say? I'd thought maybe we'd finally gotten the names we seek, but-."

 

"I pressed too hard and spoiled my advantage entirely." Oberyn admitted with intense self-exasperation. "Then I frightened the girl."

 

"How?"

 

"I raised my hand to her."

 

Lord Gargalen had been leaning against one of the bed's four posts, trying and failing to untie the knots in the small silk bag due to his increasingly arthritic hands. When Oberyn said that he dropped the bag back to the bed and rose to his full height. He was an inch or so shorter than his nephew, but his expression was as thunderous as if he were still the man who'd fearlessly take either of his princely nephews over his knee if he thought they warranted it. He said nothing, and when he did speak his voice was entirely quiet and profoundly level. Yes , Oberyn thought, his brother's time as their uncle's squire had taught Doran a lot.

 

"I didn't touch her, Uncle." Oberyn breathed out his shame and anger both, leaving only ashes to coat his tongue and burnt spirit. "I am not so lost as that."

 

There was a long moment of silence before his uncle spoke again, and his voice was soft enough with compassion that Oberyn winced. The kindness hurt worse than cruelty. If the girl's truth had been a lash, his uncle's understanding was a battle hammer.

 

"If you could promise a lady safety from the Lannisters, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

 

A pair of hands that were still strong despite their slightly twisted joints gripped both his shoulders. Oberyn looked up from where he'd been standing with the towel draped lightly around his hips, staring into the flames of the fireplace. He looked up into his uncle's face. His eyes were as dark and still as a moonless night.

 

"It's likely the girl knows who Elia's killers are." Lord Gargalen spoke with a cold practicality not at all present in his expression. "We know that it's spoken of in Casterly Rock. She was at Casterly Rock for two years, and her father was highly placed in the Lannisport Guard for the duration of her lifetime; short as that has been."

 

"Yes." Oberyn rasped. "I'm certain she knows."

 

"I've observed her closely, when Lady Gwyn wasn't actively hiding in the kitchens or the laundry or elsewhere under the guise of errands." Lord Gargalen's lips turned up. "I'm almost impressed at how well she manages to be busy when we're about, but have time to chat when our servants are around."

 

Oberyn felt his lips turn up as well. The girl had the signs of a subtle gatherer of information in her, but she was young and much untested. Their servants were loyal. Though she'd asked and done nothing that was the least bit suspicious, everything was still reported to the Prince and from there to those he felt needed to know.

 

"We know from what she asks that she's genuinely concerned for and loves your wife."

 

"We do." Oberyn agreed. "And the Lady Lyarra's convinced she'll walk over hot coals for her."

 

"My grandmother was from the Westerlands." Lord Gargalen murmured, surprising Oberyn.

 

It was a fact Oberyn knew well enough, though not one he'd heard spoken of in decades. Lord Gargalen's great-aunt had been the original line to hold the tile as Lady of Salt Shore. Unfortunately, she had been a spendthrift. Foolish in love as she was foolish with money, she'd ended up marrying a minor knight from the Vale who was thirsty for power. When she refused to let him dominate her, he'd left. She'd attempted to get him to come back by poisoning herself, but was entirely too effective.

 

The title passed to Lord Gargalen's grandfather; Oberyn's great-grandfather. His own marriage to the daughter of a wealthy Westerlands lord had allowed him to retrench and reestablish his family as one of the driving forces in Dorne. Subsequent generations had increased the family's power and capped it off with a marriage between the Lord's younger brother and the ruling princess who had birthed Oberyn.

 

"She was a fearsome, loyal, loving woman, your great-grandmother." The silver-haired lord went on, lowering himself to sit on the bare lid of a wooden chest not occupied with wedding finery. "Murder on our enemies, you know?"

 

"I've heard tales." Oberyn smiled a little.

 

His father had been terrified of his grandmother.

 

"I'm sure you did. Your father and I were terrified of the woman. Teeny blonde with big eyes the color of turquoise. They called her the Lioness of the Shore in her heyday." He recalled warmly, terror softened by decades of love and loss. "She told me something once, when I was young."

 

Oberyn waited and was rewarded quickly.

 

"She said that in the Westerlands, one trait often runs true in the older families." Lord Gargalen explained. "That they don't love often or easily, but that when they do, they love with their entire being. Your great-grandmother was that way; she either had no use for you or she'd disembowel someone barehanded just to see you smile."

 

"You believe that the girl's in love with my wife?"

 

That was an intriguing idea for many reasons.

 

" In love , no, loves , yes." Lord Gargalen shot his nephew a look of tolerant amusement. "Or, perhaps it would be in love, had she been raised differently. It matters little given the Marks on your wrists."

 

"True." Oberyn admitted a little regretfully.

 

Both girls were young, one entirely too young, but that didn't mean that in a few years it couldn't have been intriguing… if it weren't for the exclusivity enforced by Marks. Oberyn would likely always chafe at that.

 

"If she's afraid of you, then you will have to earn your wife's loyalty and leverage that."

 

"I'll find leveraging her sense of justice a faster road." Oberyn snorted. "I've achieved liking and some fragile trust in the last fortnight. Lyarra Stark is a sweet girl, but she's not inclined to being swept off her feet by handsome princes."

 

"Taking it personal, are we?"

 

Oberyn didn't dignify that with an answer. Instead he began the arduous process of dressing for his part in the pageant that was his wedding.

 

"It seems ridiculous to spend most of a morning dressing for a ceremony that will not take a quarter hour." He complained.

 

"If your appearance weren't so dear to you, it would not take half the morning." Lord Gargalen laughed. "Your wife is likely to be ready before you at this rate."

 

Muttering about Gargalen being his brother's proxy in irritation, rather than supposed level-headedness, Oberyn then had to put up with further laughter from his uncle as he finished his preparations. The older man redeemed himself slightly by preventing Oberyn from forgetting the ring he'd insisted on making part of the ceremony.

 


 

 

Lyarra didn't have any choice but to accept Lady Stark's offer of her solar as a space to prepare for her wedding. To her surprise, however, the lady had softened somewhat. Septa Mordane was nowhere in sight.

 

Instead she entered the room to find it populated by mostly friendly faces. Lady Alys Karstark looked hangdog and shot fierce glares at Gwyn whenever Lyarra's friend turned her back on her. Other than that, however, the atmosphere was festive.

 

Lady Lyra Mormont and her mother were both present. The Lady of Bear Island, Maege Mormont, laughingly told everyone in the room that – having never prepared for a wedding of her own – she would live vicariously through the bride. Then, her hard face motherly, she sat Lyarra down and began to tend her curls with a comb and a vial of thin oil scented with roses that Gwyn handed her.

 

Sansa and Gwyn were in charge of the clothing, though who had put them in such a position Lyarra didn't know. She had a feeling that no-one was willing to countermand them when they were operating in tandem. Usually Gwyn and Lyarra's redheaded sister sniped at each other when they were trapped in a room together, but today they were a perfect, ferocious, unit.

 

Lady Stark reminded Lyarra through her handling the situation that, their own poor relationship aside, she could stand to remember all she observed from her husband's wife. Lyarra wondered if some small part of the woman's graciousness was that she was finally getting rid of her husband's bastard. Dismissing the thought as unworthy, Lyarra just tried to enjoy being the center of attention rather than squirm in discomfiture at it.

 

"I've never seen a gown made so."

 

Lady Jynessa was nothing but pleased with the wedding gown, and Lady Myria agreed.

 

"The beading is lovely. Your work, Lady Gwyn?"

 

"Yes, though Lady Sansa did all of the finer needle embroidery." Gwyn replied and Sansa beamed in pride as she was also complimented.

 

Lyarra's gown was made of a rich, heavy ivory silk that was finer than any garment she'd ever owned. Her sister and best friend had begun work on it as soon as her Mark had appeared, and her father had donated material that was meant to be a new surcoat for himself. As a result, of course, the traditional full sleeves and wide skirt of a Northern wedding gown had not been possible.

 

Sansa and Gwyn had gotten around this in a novel, and slightly alarming way. They had discounted sleeves entirely, and shoulders and neck with it. Instead the gown cut straight across her chest and carried on tightly down her body in a tube of ivory silk with only a slight fullness that grew into a train at the back of the skirt. A train that was managed by the addition of a piece of black silk cut into the shape of a pie piece that ran from a point at the small of Lyrra's back to its widest point dragging behind her.

 

Black and white Myrish lace, crocheted rapidly in the heavier Northern fashion, covered Lyarra's arms tightly from low across the back of her hand. There was a slit for her thumb, then the pattern of black and white snowflakes and roses climbed smoothly up to her shoulders. They were joined with a high neck in a yolk of lace that flowed down to be sewn to the straight line it formed across the top of her breasts.

 

Gwyn had adorned the lace with tiny glass beads from her collection. They gleamed like ice or droplets of dew amongst the roses and snowflakes. Then she and Sansa had attacked the black train. With Sansa's delicate needlework twining lifelike white roses amidst the heavier geometric snowflakes Gwyn's hooked needle had left, the dress was taken from odd and simple to quickly exquisite.

 

The gift of a fine, translucent white silk veil from Lady Stark almost finished the gown. Arya had gifted her a pair of pale gray ankle boots lined with white rabbit fur and brushed soft as velvet. From all of her brothers together, a fine belt of silver disks set with moonstones would wrap her hips.

 

That was not the sum and total of her jewelry either. Lyarra hadn't known what to do but thank her betrothed when he'd presented her the circlet. As his wife she had a right to wear it, as he had a right to a thin band of his own. His brother, as ruling prince, had a coronet. Oberyn had told her that he seldom wore it; a man who needed baubles to project his authority had none.

 

It was lovely, however. A small amulet in the shape of a copper sun pierced by a golden spear stood in the center of a group of silver chains. The chains were a network that circled her head and arched over a center part. Lady Maege proved a readier hairdresser than would be expected, though she laughed it off when it was mentioned.

 

"I have five daughters, and I've relatives with Flint curls like this." She tugged gently on Lyarra's hair. "It would be a crime to bind them up in some Southron plaits."

 

"You'll need at least some braids to hold the circlet in place." Lady Stark observed and the other woman huffed, but nodded.

 

"I'll do it!" Sansa stepped forward enthusiastically.

 

To Lyarra's surprise, Arya stepped forward as well as Gwyn. Arya held the circlet of chains in her hands and waited with unusual patience. Gwyn handed Sansa combs without complaint, a silent smile on her face, and piece of heavy white ribbon. Lyarra didn't even bother to ask about the ribbon; there was no way a braid would hold in her curls without proper restraint.

 

"Am I ready, then?"

 

Lyarra had never spent so much time on her appearance before. It wasn't that she was averse to primping. She'd waxed her legs when the hair had darkened and coarsened there like Lady Stark had shown her Southron women did in a rare moment of almost motherly guidance. She'd only stopped when Gwyn had shown her a foul-smelling potion that had been used by the girls in her father's brothels to kill the roots of their body hair. At that point her underarms and legs spent a week red and sore, but afterward she was cured of the curse of having to rip her own hair out.

Lyarra rarely stained her nails colors, however, and didn't experiment with face paints much. Her first attempts had been enough to reduce Robb and Theon to tears. That hadn't been strong encouragement.

 

Now she'd bowed to allow Lady Jynessa to rim her eyes in kohl and darken her eyelids with glittery powders made of some crushed minerals from the desert. Her nails had been filed and buffed by one of the Forrester daughters. Arya, in a display likely never to be spoken of again at risk of violence, had chased everyone else away and lacquered her nails the color of wine.

 

"You need your cloak." Lady Jynessa was smiling at her proudly, and reached up with gentle fingers to settle the Martell pendant against her forehead.

 

The motherly gesture made Lyarra's throat tight as she rose from her seat. Lady Stark, whose expression had been softer than her wont around Lyarra, frowned. It was a stoic expression, and Lyarra suddenly realized that she didn't blame her for it. The gray velvet cloak that Lady Stark was reaching for, with the white ermine capelet over its shoulders and the fine oval of white silk with a gray wolf upon its center upon the back had been Lady Stark's occupation for several moons by the time Lyarra's Mark had shown up. It was, after all, made in preparation for Sansa's moon's blood making an appearance and the wedding that would one day follow.

 

"That's alright, Lady Stark, I have my own." Lyarra spoke up then. "You made that for Sansa, and Sansa's it should remain."

 

"I don't mind sharing!" Sansa protested, though she thought she could hear a little longing underneath her sister's tone.

 

"Lyarra, the colors aren't appropriate." Lady Stark protested instead, looking at the cloak that Arya was lifting from its place folded off to the side.

 

"I haven't had the Stark name long, and won't have it at all by midday." Lyarra replied, trying not to be bitter at how the Gods had given her what she most wanted only so it could be snatched away along with her home. "Those colors will be mine until I die, and I don't feel like giving them up."

 

"Many ladies keep personal arms, or quarter it with their husband's." Gwyn replied, grinning with unexpected delight.

 

The cloak that Arya, with Sansa's help, produced was one that Lyarra had begun working on years before. When draped over her shoulders it was clear that it was slightly too-long. Lyarra had been overly optimistic over her adult height. Lord Stark had given her the length of black lambswool to start her maiden's cloak after he received, and turned down, her first offer of marriage.

 

Robb had saved his allowance along with Theon to give her the white satin that lined the cloak, which was made wide and practical to wrap entirely around her body. Perhaps not the most fashionable way to make a maiden's cloak, Lyarra now realized, but the only kind of cloak she'd ever thought to make when she'd started it. If nothing else, it would keep her warm. It was shaping up to be a very cool summer morning.

 

Across the back was a massive white wolf's head, snarling at the world with a gleaming red eye. The eye was a new contribution, made to an old color scheme, after Ghost had entered Lyarra's life. The embroidery on the Wolf's head was Gwyn's work. It was work of many long hours for the Westerlands girl had used her hooked needle to pile up stitches upon stitches along with mother of pearl beads. The wolf itself was as much sculpture as it was flat embroidery.

 

Sansa had added her own touches to it. All along the edges on each side was a thin line of sinuous knotwork embroidered in white. A gift from her sister featuring the ancient art of the North, most often seen in carvings, Lyarra's favored medium.

 

Arya had joined in the labor of love as well. Lyarra didn't care that the stitches on the hem were uneven and crooked. She loved them more for their origins and the difficulty that Arya found sitting to the task.

 

Draped across the shoulders was a wolf pelt. Killed by Eddard Stark's own hand when its pack was raiding lambs and endangering shepherds amongst the smallfolk, the huge black wolf's fur was silver tipped with age. It had been a fearsome creature in life, though no direwolf, and the fur crowned the cape as indisputably Northern. Lyarra stood still and reached out to rest a hand on Arya's head as Lady Jynessa stepped in for the mother it now looked like Lyarra would never know. She fastened it closed with a cloak pin Lyarra had carved from an ironwood branch dropped in the Godswood.

 

"Do you have Prince Oberyn's ring?" Lady Myria's dark eyes misted as she fumbled for a handkerchief.

 

"Yes." Lyanna spared a thought at how odd it was to see the formidable, political woman sentimental about anything, but nodded towards Arya. "My sister's holding it for me."

 

Arya patted the pocket of the immaculate blue and gray gown she'd willingly put on for her sister's wedding. Her hair was, for once, braided into a crown around her head with ice-blue ribbons, and perfectly tidy still. Their wild little wolf looked every bit the lady, save for the watery scowl on her face and the copper handled dagger hanging from her braided leather belt. Lady Catelyn eyed it with exasperated helplessness every time she saw it, but she could hardly tell her daughter not to wear a gift from the prince's own uncle to Oberyn Martell's wedding.

 

"Then I'll go tell your father."

 

Lyarra nodded solemnly in return to Lady Stark's words and smoothed her hands down the heavy white silk skirt sliding smoothly over her thighs, and she fought to keep the sudden wave of nervousness that had hit her at bay.

 


 

A wedding ceremony before the Old Gods was not a crowded affair. Most of Winterfell's guests were waiting in the courtyard near the North Gate. There they would greet the newly married couple and escort them with the proper cheer back to the Great Hall for the wedding feast. That would be fairly well attended.

 

Oberyn stood near the immense bole of the the Heart Tree, bracketed by the huge weirwood tree's great spreading roots. Further off to the side, his Uncle stood shoulder to shoulder with Ser Ulwyck Uller. A canopy of red leaves fluttered in the wind overhead, and Oberyn noted that the sun had fled behind a thick veil of gray clouds. He was glad he'd decided to cast pride aside and wear gloves. If he hadn't, he'd probably have ended up fumbling and dropping the ring in the ankle-deep leaves around his feet, or something else equally irritating.

 

Oberyn's lips turned up as he spied two figures approaching in the gloom beneath the trees of the Godswood. One was small and thin, wrapped in a blue and gray dress and taking scowling care not to drag the hem through the leaves and damp brake. The other walked slowly and seriously, his face cast in an expression to match his movements.

 

"Good morning, Lady Arya, I trust the preparations have gone well?" Oberyn's uncle spoke first, his expression nothing but fond as he looked down on the girl.

 

Oberyn still hadn't forgiven him entirely for getting the girl a blade before he could. Yes, it was only a knife, but it wasn't a meager knife. It was a perfectly nice dagger, well-weighted for throwing and as sharp as any razor. The Viper had a sneaking suspicion it had actually been meant as a gift for him, and then shamelessly repurposed by his uncle.

 

"Father and Lyarra will be here shortly." Lord Robb said, ignoring the exchange between the venerable lord and his beaming little sister. "Lord Oberyn, could I have a word?"



"Of course, several even!" Oberyn replied flippantly, but nodded to his uncle and Ser Ulwyk.

 

Both his witnesses nodded and drifted further away, and Oberyn watched his uncle charm the young wolf girl away with a few well-placed questions about her sparring practice. He knew a story or three about Obara's training would follow. He might also add something of Lia's last victory at the lists. Either way, Arya Stark would not be eavesdropping, though Ulwyk would likely manage to catch at least every other word.

 

"I take it this is the requisite threat?" Oberyn asked sardonically.

 

"I'm sure you once stood before a Prince making such a threat, so I won't repeat history further." Robb Stark's answer straightened the insouciant slouch Oberyn had fallen into and twisted his smile into a frown. "Did father tell you Lord Bolton asked for Lyarra's hand more than a year ago?"

 

"Lord Stark did not see fit to mention it, no."

 

Oberyn frowned at the thought of marrying the quiet, sensitive girl he'd just begun to know to the cold man he'd been introduced to as Lord Bolton. The idea of his revolting banner spread in a pink cloak across the back of any young girl was an unpleasant thought. Oberyn idly entertained the idea of getting to the man's wine, or possibly his leeches.

 

"Father refused." The boy went on in the same quiet, thoughtful, unhappy tone as he stared past Oberyn into the Heart Tree's red, weeping face. "He said he wouldn't marry any of his girls to a man over a decade their elder."

 

"Which is when you looked on to Lord Umber's son, I presume?"

 

"Aye." Robb looked away. "The Smalljon is good, and honest, and kind enough to those he likes. He'd have treated my sister well, though I didn't think him good enough for her. I don't think anyone is, really. No offense, Your Grace."

 

"Or, at least, very little offense?" Oberyn snorted and balanced the mix of curiosity and anger he was feeling, to see which weighed out heavier.

 

The comparison to Rhaegar was more than irritating, but he could overlook it, he decided. Oberyn hadn't considered the issue from Robb's perspective, but he'd once fought off unworthy suitors only to lose his sister to a Prince he didn't see fit to lick her boots. He had found no joy in being right. Ashes and weeping had greeted his victory, instead.

 

"At the least." Robb agreed gamely and then he shook his head. "Whatever my coloring, I'm a Stark, but that doesn't mean I don't listen to my mother. My father was a second son, and he guarded his honor before he had a keep or a wife to protect."

 

"Yet, you were born with a title and lands to think of." Oberyn filled in the obvious.

 

"And a family, some of which was more vulnerable than others." Robb Stark's Tully blue eyes were as cold as the Wall that bound his northern border. There was no hint of trout in their depths; they were the eyes of a predator, poised and ready. "I've always protected all of my family with everything I have, and I always will. I ask only that you remember that when you take my sisters away, and as you become my brother."

 

A threat and a promise, neatly wrapped into one. Oberyn had watched the boy struggle, only partially prepared for his duties as heir, while he sat in on and participated in the negotiations surrounding the joining of two of the most powerful houses in Westeros. He felt something akin to pride under the anger and grief that always lashed him when he thought of Elia. The boy had learned something, it appeared. Oberyn committed every word to memory to write to Doran as soon as he had the time. If he could think of a myriad of uses for such words, Oberyn couldn't wait to see what Doran's labyrinthine mind did with them.

 

"I will keep it ever in mind, Brother."

 

Oberyn repeated, amused to call a lad younger than his own children such.

 

"They're coming!"

 

Arya Stark's poorly thought out yell heralded the squeaking of a gate on the other side of the Godswood. Oberyn nodded at the boy, who walked back to where his sister stood. Ser Ulwyk and Lord Gargalen returned to their own places, with the two young Starks mirroring the Dornish witnesses. Oberyn straightened his shoulders and turned in the direction of the noise as he waited for his bride. He chafed only slightly at the inescapable reality of it, as the skin over his mark sparked and itched with heavy anticipation.

 


 

Don't trip on your dress.

 

Don't step on father's cloak.

 

Don't step on your own damned cloak.

 

Don't let them see your hands shaking.

 

Lyarra had a list of things running through her mind as she walked through the familiar, reassuring smell of the small forest. She tried not to think of how short a time she'd have to visit it. She realized with alarm that she hadn't asked Oberyn if they had a Godswood in Sunspear, and if not, was there some way she could plant one? Would a weirwood sapling survive in the heat of Dorne?

 

Oh!

 

Thoughts of her dignity fled at the sight before her. It wasn't Robb. He stood like a younger version of her father dressed in his best, only with a blue undertunic instead of gray, and crowned by dark auburn waves. It wasn't even Arya in her unusually tidy gown, or the two Dornishmen in their mix of silk finery and copper scalemail.

 

Instead her eyes were helplessly caught on the Prince standing beneath the Heart Tree. Oberyn Martell could command instant respect in a sweat stained tunic and worn leather breeches. The man usually preferred shades of dusky orange and yellow in long leather coats and cotton layers, but the well-cut clothing was no more or less fine than any of the Dornish lords in his party. Now, however, the man looked every inch the Prince he'd been born to be.

 

Prince Oberyn Nymeros Martell stood beneath the Heart Tree, and its crown of whispering scarlet leaves was a very fitting canopy for the Red Viper of Dorne. The crackling lightning lingered under her mark, exacerbating the gooseflesh he'd give her when he wandered up to snatch some brief moment alone with her. Lyarra felt a little dizzy as she took in his appearance.

 

Oberyn wore a high barrel-collared under tunic of gold silk to guard against the chill in his air, and it ran down his arms until it tucked into snug fitting black leather gloves. Over that he wore a long split coat of gleaming copper-mail; scaled like the serpent he was. He wore a surcoat of dark red leather over the shining armor, and the leather was worked into a pattern of intertwined snakes, such as might be found in some venomous pit out of legend. Across the chest of the surcoat was blazoned a great red sun pierced by a golden spear in his family's arms, and over it all he wore a cloak of heavy red velvet embroidered around the edges in cloth of gold thread and clasped with a golden sun brooch at his throat.

 

The cloak only fell to his calves, but it was lined with shot silk that danced like flames between yellow and orange. Lyarra didn't have look at the back to know it was emblazoned again with his family's symbol. All such cloaks were.

He wouldn't be wearing the cloak long, and off to the side she could see that his uncle held what had become his everyday cloak. Given that Oberyn was not overfond of the cold it made sense that he should have the fur-lined cloak with the wind picking up. Lyarra herself was not cold.

 

"Who stands before the Gods?"

 

Lyarra's thoughts were jolted aside suddenly as her father spoke in a deep, slightly raspy, voice. She realized that she'd lost track of where she was. Her and her father were far closer to the Heart Tree than she'd realized.

 

"Prince Oberyn Nymeros Martell, of Dorne, stands before the Gods, Old and New, to claim Lady Lyarra Stark as his wife." The Prince's voice was firm, his drawling accent seeming to slither through the air around the jagged edges of her father's voice. "And you?"

 

"Lady Lyarra Stark, and her father, Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North." Lyarra's eyes jerked back to her father as he stood beside her. He'd paused to swallow and Lyarra felt her heart ache inside her chest at the sadness in his eyes turned to look down at her and continued to speak. "Do you take this man as your husband?"

 

Lyarra felt her hand shake, but she knew what to do. Somehow she didn't fall as she removed her hand from the crook of her father's arm and walked forward to stand in front of the tall, slender form of the man standing beneath the canopy of red leaves. Oberyn's eyes were as black as the unlit crypts in the shadows beneath the tree.

 

"I take this man."

 

As Lyarra said the words that bound herself forever to the man before her she felt a deep burning in her wrist that seemed to seep down into her bones and spread through her skeleton. Gloved hands reached out and wrapped around her own, anchoring her in place. She was shocked to feel a fine shaking in them, as well as her own, as she knelt in front of the heart tree with Oberyn and bowed her head to pray. Excitement, ambiguity, fear, and a dozen different emotions seemed to settle like a cloud around them before fading away to just leave a feeling of unfocused awareness that Lyarra didn't know how to deal with.

 

Instead of trying to, Lyarra prayed. She begged the Old Gods to give her strength and dignity to handle a place in life she had never anticipated. She asked them to protect her and Arya in a foreign land. Finally she asked that they bless her marriage so that it may be happy, and she might have children of her own to love. Her father's refusal to speak of her mother, even under the haranguing of a prince who also happened to be a persistently aggravating man, had left her with a deep, melancholy certainty that she would never know. It made her long for children of her own that she might at least know motherhood from the other side.

 

The idea of how one got them was still a little frightening, though.

 

She looked up, then, and found black eyes waiting on her patiently. This was where the ceremony she knew was going to be deviated from slightly, and she waited to see what the Pr- her husband would do. He reached up and pulled the glove off his left hand with his teeth, then tucked it at his belt as Lord Gargalen stepped forward and produced a small silk bag from pocket. From that he produced a small gleaming thing that quickly vanished into Oberyn's hand.

 

"As I wed my soul to yours with my words, let the world see our bodies wed with this token." He repeated solemnly and Lyarra watched as he slid a ring onto her left third finger.

 

She didn't gasp even as she felt her eyes widen. On her finger was a square cut ruby larger than the print of her own thumb, its many facets gleaming as darkly as blood on snow. It was nestled deeply in a strong golden band and was surrounded by geometric patterns picked out in tiny diamonds. Suddenly her own offering seemed paltry and she wished she'd taken up Lady Stark's offer of assistance. There was nothing to do for it, however, as Arya was already at her shoulder, passing her the ring that she had to put on her husband's finger.

 

"As I wed my soul to yours with my words, let the world see our bodies wed with this token." Lyarra repeated and slipped the ring home, gratified that at least it fit well as it slid past his knuckle and settled comfortably against his dark skin.

 

His dark eyes watched her, and she was surprised to realize that the hint of pleasure she was barely cognizant of feeling was coming from his as those sharp black eyes looked down at his own hand. She had to admit that the white of the ring gleamed well against his bronze skin. Then he was standing and helping her do the same, and Lyarra had no more time to think.

 

Without a word Oberyn Martell swept her maiden's cloak away. The black wool was passed to her father, who held it against his chest with an expression that could only be called tragic before he folded it carefully over one of his arms. Lyarra saw and felt his appreciation as he looked down at her wedding gown, and the lace that covered her chest and arms. Then his own gleaming, fiery cloak was settled around her shoulders.

 

Lyarra would later deny that she squeaked or made any noise at all when Oberyn swept her up into her arms. She was just glad that he'd had the presence of mind to slide his arms beneath her hair rather than trapping it. Instead, one moment she was standing, then the next she was wrapping her arms around his neck to steady herself as her hair fell over his back. He waved off the cloak that had been brought for him, then, and Lyarra was left to feature as the centerpiece of the raucous procession that waited to take them to the Great Hall for their wedding feast.

 

For a few bare moments, though, she was nothing more than a new bride in her husband's arms as he carried her underneath the sacred hush of the Godswood, and Lyarra would admit years later that she'd savored that a little. Who wouldn't?

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven - 297 A.C.

 

The Starks still threw a mean party, Mance Rayder thought to himself as he sat with the other musicians. His brown hair bleached to blonde by a helpful lass beyond the Wall, and a smile on his face he enjoyed Eddard Stark's ale heartily and looked around the Great Hall of Winterfell with watchful, curious eyes. It was as interesting an affair as he'd ever seen.

 

Not that Mance had come south of the Wall to see what kind of party the Quiet Wolf could throw. He'd seen that already. Mance had never seen a Dornishmen though, and all he knew of their country was that it was hot and dry and as far away from the Others as you could get and still stand on Westeros. That was reason enough to be curious, was it not?

 

"... and this bride price!"

 

Greatjon Umber's loud, carrying voice was currently Mance's best friend. It pleased him to know how furious the Lord of Last Hearth would be should he ever find that out. The man hated wildlings with the passion only a kneeler lord who'd been victim of their raids could feel. Not that he'd have needed to, if at any time in the last how many thousands of years, his people had been allowed escape from the Others. Still, it remained that they had not, the Umbers hated the Free Folk, and the King Beyond The Wall was enjoying the irony of the Greatjon's unintentional help immensely as the man's bellowing carried clearly over the music.

 

"Aye!" The Wull was equally enthusiastic, and nearly as loud now that he'd gotten some ale into him. "Damned brilliant. Not that I'd want to pay to get a good-daughter, but the Ned's always had a good head on his shoulders. He's Northern, that one, for all that the Wolf's Blood settled a little too much with him."

 

"Have you seen the gods-be-damned crop figures?" Lord Umber lowered his voice, after a fashion, but it really didn't help. "What they're sending for the bride price alone'll get us through a decade of winter."

 

"T'will." Lord Wull agreed with an almost smug nod as he swallowed a mouthful of honey-cured ham cooked in sweet cider. Mance wasn't ashamed to admit that he was eager for the song set to change so he could go down and sample the feast itself. "An' the Young Wolf told me that they've got some trade deals in the works to bring more up. If you've good peat bogs, make yourself known to The Ned for it; I have. The ravens'll be flying themselves dead working it out, like as not, but when winter comes around again I'll have no grandfather's 'out hunting' this time."

 

"And not beggar ourselves to the Reach."

 

"Not that, not this time."

 

"Spot you a song or three?" A cheerful young female voice interrupted Mance's thoughts and his eavesdropping, but he threw a ready grin up at the voice.

 

The little kneeler lady was as pretty a Southron thing as he'd ever seen. Not that Mance had seen many Southron ladies. Small and slender, but with curves growing in nicely and set to improve with some age, she was perhaps three-or-four-and-ten. She wore a dress of wine colored lambswool with tight sleeves. Dotted down the back were bright buttons made of little circles of polished yellow-orange stone. Around the waist a sash made of strips of black and yellow twill had been tied and wrapped to run under her bust, cross over her belly, and then rest against her hips before the ends trailed down her front.

 

Mance took a moment to admire the woman she was going to grow into as he looked at the dress' low, round collar. Then he shot the girl's slightly suspicious look a wide grin, finished up the song he'd been playing, and stood from his stool to bow. He might have tried to seduce the lass, but the lovingly polished worn wood of her guitar stopped him. There was a certain necessary respect amongst musicians, and he'd already played with her several times this evening. He wouldn't waste her clear suspicion of strangers and the little hint of happiness that had passed between them over music for a tumble with a green kneeler girl with no experience; he'd get better when he was home with his people.

 

"I'm parched and you're a gift from the gods, m'lady!" He replied gallantly and went to go shove his way into the standing room around the low servants tables shoved into the corners of the room.

 

Mance reluctantly admitted that it was a point in the Starks' favor that those tables had been crammed in at all. The Great Hall was filled with bodies, and yet he hadn't forced his small folk out. As though any person were small in the eyes of the Gods merely by birth. Kneelers .

 

Once he'd secured a bread trencher and some of that ham to go with a big flagon of spiced, hot ale, Mance found a piece of wall to hold up. To his regret, the Greatjon had decided that he'd had enough talk for the moment. He was out of his seat and had created a general hazard on the dance floor as he spun one of the two daughters he'd brought along around with frightening enthusiasm.

 

Young Lord Robb, Mance thought with a certain wicked glee, looked relieved at the development. He was the only one, but who could blame him? He'd been the 'little' lady's last partner and was a full handspan shorter than her and likely a stone lighter; all of it pure muscle. It appeared that the Greatjon's children all took after him.

 

So far Mance had learned several valuable things. Foremost among them was that the Lord of Winterfell had taken this Dornish tradition of bride price almost entirely in foodstuffs. Which meant that storerooms of the North would soon be filling, as the Warden of the North was sharing the wealth with his bannermen. More importantly, it meant that shipments from the South would be filling them. While that would mean they'd be moving in ways and on roads harder to hit, it still meant that potential raids would go up, and that was good for Mance's people.

 

Mance directed his eyes up towards the high table while he thought this through. He swapped spots on the wall now and then, to better listen, but mostly he mused on the high table. He'd wanted to see what a Dornishman looked like, and now he could say he had.

 

A thin and pretty people, Mance decided, and would have been less impressed if he hadn't seen the whip-thin, wiry Prince carry his bride the full length of two courtyards to the Great Hall. The girl wasn't tall and was built slender, but it was no mean feat for a man Mance judged to be his own age. At least not if you intended to do it without showing the effort. The Dornish Prince hadn't shown the effort.

 

Mance scratched at his blonde beard and watched the man say something to Ned Stark. He regretted he couldn't hear it over the din, because it earned a blistering glare and what appeared to be a blush from the Warden of the North. More importantly, it earned a laugh from the damned Ranger Crow next to the bride.

 

Benjen Stark owned a set of eyes Mance did not want turned his way. He knew the man and respected his skill, but that didn't mean he either liked him or wanted the man to stand on his shoulders while Greatjon Umber took that great bloody sword of his to Mance's neck. Best not to give the Black Wolf anything to caw about.

 

Oh, but the girl he was sitting next to. That was something Mance could have cawed about. The creamy skin peeking through the shoulders, arms, and bosom of her gown's lace construction were graceful and clear. Her features were heartbreakingly beautiful, and very Northern besides. Her lips full and sensual and a pink that only seemed bright because her skin was so snowy. Her eyes were as dark a gray and as pure as any forest shadow.

 

It was when he thought of just how tempting it would be to steal her that Mance knew he was about to do something stupid. It was just a question of how stupid. He decided to settle on moderately stupid and went to replace the blonde Southron girl who'd put her guitar away to join the squid lordling on the dance floor.

 




Benjen Stark's heart was breaking and he was seriously looking for some opportunity to smack some sense into his brother. How could he not have told Lyarra of her mother when a Mark appeared on her wrist binding her to Dorne of all places? And the Red Viper as her husband?! The man's grudge was notorious, and justified enough that the Old Gods themselves had acknowledged it. Lyanna's daughter needed to be warned.

 

Ben had already had one fight with his brother over it, shortly after he arrived in the wee hours of the morning. His party had been delayed. As a result he hadn't arrived home in time to talk to his niece himself.

 

He'd agreed with Ned that she couldn't be told when she was a child. Secrets were poorly kept by young children. Ned's so-called dearest friend would have her murdered as soon as he heard, and might do the same to all of the rest of Benjen's family in a temper. Why Ned thought so highly of the philandering, spendthrift, drunken lout he'd fostered with, Benjen didn't know but Robert didn't forgive easily.

 

If Ned hadn't gone south, then his father wouldn't have tried to bind Lyanna to the oaf. If there hadn't been a betrothal, there wouldn't have been a reason to go to Harrenhal. If they hadn't gone, Lyanna wouldn't have ridden against those damned Frey squires. If she hadn't won, then she wouldn't have caught the prince's eye in the Godswood. If she hadn't caught Rhaegar's eye, there wouldn't have been a secret betrothal, a plan to let the Prince 'abduct' Lyanna for a Queen's crown and a place in Rhaegar's coming rebellion, and a decision to hide the plan from his wild and unruly brother, Brandon.

 

A raven lost, a ship that never materialized, a prince who ran further south than he was supposed to, and Benjen's world had ended. His wild brother was dead. His father was dead. His sister, his dearest friend in the world, had died in agony birthing a child she’d never get to raise. All he'd had left was a niece his brother was raising under the stained protection of bastardy and a mountain of a temper that only cooled atop the ice of the Wall.

 

"What was that commotion while I was in the privy?" Benjen demanded as he retook his seat beside his niece and reached out to give Lyarra a one-armed hug. "Where's your Prince?"

 

"My father threw out that wandering minstrel for playing 'Bael the Bard'. Look! My Prince has convinced Arya to dance!" She grinned back at him, the expression wide and merry, far more than his sweet, melancholy Lyarra was wont to give.

 

She looked so much like her mother that Ben's heart ached. He'd had years to deal with it, but now it was like a physical wound. Her hair was curlier, but the shade was precisely the same. If anything, Lyarra was more beautiful, but what did that matter? Benjen knew he'd ask for a long ranging when he got back to his position. The cold and danger beyond the Wall would clear his head and heal his heart somewhat.

 

"Brave minstrel." Ben observed with smirk.

 

Out on the floor, the song concluded. It was some fast-paced thing he wasn't familiar with, and had been instigated by Lyarra's little blonde friend. Benjen liked Lady Gwyn, for all her foibles. Mainly because she'd thrown her arms around his waist and hugged him hard enough to risk his lower ribs about ten minutes after meeting him. Then she'd declared him, 'The only Stark who didn't leave his common sense out to die upon a hill as an infant!' His brother had looked so sullenly offended, as though he were still the put-upon middle-brother and not the lord he'd grown into, that Benjen had had a soft spot for Gwyn Parren since.

 

"Yes, though in retrospect I might become offended!" Prince Oberyn Martell came back from the dance floor with a wild, sharp grin upon his face as he picked up and drank deeply from a cup of wine Lyarra passed him. "Thank you, my wife."

 

"Offended for what?"

 

Benjen held in a sigh. His brother would choose to be sharp-eared over the stupidest things. The younger of the Stark brothers turned to look at the expression of mulish dislike on his brother's face. He couldn't blame him, not entirely. Ned was, after all, staring at a man who'd be taking Lyarra's maidenhead shortly, if Benjen judged the tone of the feast right. It didn't make Benjen fond of him, either, but he couldn't see anything to hate about the man.

 

Then again, Ben had to admit that time on the Wall taught you strange lessons in the character of men. For all that the Martell Prince had greeted him with a sarcastic sally about his vow of chastity, Benjen knew men now. Moreover, he knew foul men. He'd fought beside rapists for years and knew how such men acted around women.

 

Prince Oberyn's hand rested on the small of Lyarra's back. Sometimes it drifted to her shoulder. Occasionally he curled his arm behind her over the top of her chair. The touches were possessive, but they weren't hungry. Moreover, Benjen had seen when they occurred. If some young whelp was working himself up to ask Lyarra for a dance, or to make some comment, the Prince's hand would settle on his bride and a smile that could have disemboweled an angry mammoth graced Prince Oberyn's even white teeth.

 

Benjen could almost like the jackass for it.

 

"Why the implicit accusation of theft, Lord Stark?" The Dornishman pressed a dramatic hand against his chest, over his finery. "I've been accused of much, and some of it has even been accurate. Never, however, have I been a thief."

 

"You are taking the fairest maiden in Winterfell, though!" Bran Stark piped up.

 

Rickon had already been sent to bed and Benjen was willing to bet that Bran and Arya were on their way soon too. Lady Catelyn's expression suggested that the boy's comment had just reminded her that it was long past when he should have gone to bed. Benjen decided that, after he ensured the bedding not get out of hand, he'd seek his own rest. If he could find any, that was.

 

"Aye, but she was gifted to me by the Gods themselves." The Prince pointed out, smiling indulgently at the lad.

 

Further down the table Benjen watched his brother take another long swig of ale. It didn't help his sour expression or his mournful eyes. Benjen amended his plans to include tossing his brother in a snowdrift at some point. Halfway through the feast a summer snow had hit, and Benjen felt that it was a gift for the express purpose of reminding his brother that his dignity could become a burden. It would take care, though. Benjen had grown taller than his brother, but Ned remained stronger. Perhaps he could get him off guard by teasing him about growing fat. That was becoming a sore spot for Ned…

 

"Not a gift; restitution ." Bran managed to get the large word out around a mouthful of dark honey cake, then swallowed and went on earnestly. "The Old Gods Mark their children to make things right between Houses who have wronged each other, or just been wronged. You can't afford blood feuds when Winter is at your door!"

 

Ned and several others, Lyarra included, went stiff around the table. One or two of the Dornish party looked offended. Benjen mentally cursed. The boy meant well, but was too smart for his own good. His little moment of passing on what he knew had also had Bran imply that, in some way, Elia Martell's death could be made up through Lyarra's marriage. A truth, Ben knew, that wasn't going to happen with Ned holding true to that blasted oath to the Baratheon King.

 

Benjen wished he knew who'd slaughtered that poor woman and her babes. If he did, he could just tell the man outright and settle a lot of things. Hell, given Ned's drunken confession about how the Princess Elia had suffered and his brother's grief over their broken little bodies, wrapped in bloody red cloaks? Benjen might see if he could make a trip south to ‘recruit’ . An offer like that could go a long way to making Lyarra's reception in Dorne kinder.

 

"Ah," Ben was relieved to see that, despite the tightening of the Red Viper's lips, he spoke with no anger as he addressed little Bran and his bright blue eyes. "You Northerners have interesting ideas, and your Gods with you. In Dorne, we hold that the Marks are given to bring great children into the world."

 

"Of course Lyarra's children will be great. They'll be hers !" Arya scoffed, adding as an afterthought. "Your daughters sound okay, too."

 

General hilarity, which the infamous prince joined in, greeted that statement. Ben settled down and watched Ned relax slightly as well. Given that Lyarra was laughing so hard she had to accept a handkerchief from Ned to wipe her eyes, and Oberyn Martell was floridly thanking Arya with sarcasm so intense it was almost visible, Benjen felt that the worst was over for a while.

 

" Enough !" A retainer Benjen didn't recognize roared, coming to his feet along with several other younger Lords, their Heirs, and a number of others not so young. "Send the children to the nursery, Lord Stark, it's time we had the bedding!"

 

'Perfect timing', Benjen Stark thought acidly.

 




Robb Stark rose to his feet, his stomach a tight knot of anger. He was distantly aware of his mother catching Bran and Arya by the arms and herding Sansa out with a firm command. Their disappearance wasn't high on his list of priorities.

 

How had he forgotten the bedding? Robb hadn't really given the tradition any thought before. Save, he could admit, a bit of enthusiasm for the idea itself. Getting to see a lady in the altogether and carrying her to her husband to bed was more than a little titillating.

 

The idea of the same happening to Lyarra was not. His sister was shy and sweet and her happiness turned to sadness easily and with little provocation. He'd spent his lifetime wringing laughter out of her and teasing her into some mischief that she wouldn't have otherwise indulged. No-one, Robb decided, with a hotness boiling in his gut that was totally unfamiliar to him, was going to tear his sister's wedding gown from her body and carry her through the castle with grasping hands.

 

Before Robb could voice his own furious refusal, however, the hall went silent. Mostly silent, at least. A handful of pained and surprised cries went up first. Then the only sound was the humming vibration of the wickedly curved dagger buried an inch into one of the lower tables by its flight from Oberyn Martell's hand.

 

"There will be no bedding!"

 

The Red Viper's hiss snapped like the strike of the snake he was. Lord Wull's eldest son, who'd lurched forward as if to move past the table and grab at Lyarra, was gripping a torn sleeve and red crease along the flesh of his upper right arm. Several others who'd stepped forward had somehow been struck by the passing knife and were nursing minor wounds.

 

"See here-!" Lord Glover rose to his full height, his eyes sharp.

 

"Indeed." Lady Jynessa's voice interrupted, full of scorn. "We do not practice such in Dorne."

 

"This is not Dorne!" An angry cry went up.

 

"I've noticed."

 

The Red Viper spoke again, and Robb went still and watched him. The sarcastic, but cultured man who'd tormented them through days of negotiations was absent. So was the indulgent father who'd appeared to insist Arya had a right to foster her skills with a blade, and negotiated for her to join his new wife's household with paternal concern for his sister's future happiness. His laugh lines had shifted, carving fissures into his handsome brown features that spoke of boiling fury and a flash-fire temper. This was a man Robb had only caught glimpses of before, though his reputation preceded him.

 

"Is that an insult ?" Now the Greajon was glaring as well.

 

"If it pleases you, my Lord, who am I to deny you?" Half-flirtation, half-treat, the poisonous creature standing behind the High Table over where Lyarra sat frozen offered before going on. "I find the night grown cold, and would hate to greet my new wife with my blood grown sluggish. Mayhaps a few rounds of live steel would set us all to rights? After all, if it's excitement that you want, I can promise you a lifetime's worth in just a few moments. Let me only call for my spear and sword."

 

"Don't strain yourself, Your Grace." Robb butted in, half his mind dedicated to not letting this become a fight between the coiled and furious Dornishmen who were now standing around the room and the angry Northerners holding their fists clenched in offense. The other half of his mind was just hungry for the blood of anyone fool enough to think of putting hands on his sister. "There are rabble present not fit for a blade as accomplished as your own. Allow me the pleasure of occupying their time."

 

"Whatever's left can be my entertainment for the evening as well." The Greyjoy boy offered idly, but his storm-blue eyes were avid and his teeth bared in a smile that was all fight.

 

"Enough!"

 

A crash and a strangled cry of surprised terror wrenched everyone's attention from the drama at the high table. Down below Robb was shocked to see the Smalljon on his feet. One of a ferret-faced man from Lord Bolton's guard was currently dangling by the throat from one of the Greatjon's son's meaty hands. His face was purpling and his feet pinwheeling over the ground, but the Smalljon no longer looked like he even realized he'd taken the man by the throat at all.

 

"Enough, I say!"

 

Smalljon Umber had been drinking like a fish breathed since the procession from the Godswood. Robb felt for the lad, who was only a couple of years older than himself. He'd never met Lyarra, but they'd all been negotiating for him to wed Robb's dearest sister. When he'd arrived and seen her beauty for himself, then how passionately she fought in the training yard, the other young lord had become inconsolable. He'd spent the wedding feast getting drunk and occasionally crying into his beer while his father patted his back and commiserated with his Heir in between his usual boats of boasting.

 

Now, however, Smalljon Umber's usually pleasant faced was wreathed in his father's most intimidating scowl. His teeth were bared, slightly yellowed by the ale. His bloodshot eyes were wild and murderous.

 

“Lord Stark, we’re not savages here! No matter what the Southrons think.” The Smalljon slurred. “The North has honor. I say we ask the lady what she wants!”

 

"Fairly spoken."

 

Robb watched his father nod and slowly stand, noting all at once that he'd just sat through the display. Seeing how calm his father's gray eyes were, and the complete lack of anger, Robb started. His father didn't look the least bit surprised. Robb sent a suspicious look to where Lord Gargalen sat, calmly drinking his wine, and wondered if they all hadn't been underestimating his father again. There was no way Ned Stark would have permitted a bedding, either. Robb recalled all of the sudden the stories his mother had told him of his father refusing to permit a bedding at his own wedding to Robb's mother, either.

 

"Princess Lyarra." Ned Stark's voice was level, kind, and spoken in a tone no-one argued with. "Do you wish a bedding to go forward?"

 

"No, Father." Lyarra breathed, her tone a little shaken.

 

"There you have it." Smalljon stated firmly, looking in surprise at the twitching figure he was holding aloft and dropping him. Then the young lord sank back to his bench and bypassed his flagon of ale for the nearest pitcher.

 

Robb met his father's eyes and stood up, moving to stand behind him as Ned Stark moved to his daughter's side, opposite where Prince Oberyn sat. Uncle Benjen and a few of their other lords, including the Greatjon (who gave his son a final squeeze on the shoulders), Lord Manderly, and Lord Bolton moved forward to join the honor guard. Members of the Dornish party rose as well, flanking the newly wedded couple on the opposite side as they escorted Lyarra and her husband out of the Great Hall and towards the Guest House where the bridal quarters had been prepared.

 

Robb didn't get a chance to embrace his sister, though he dearly wanted to when he saw the restrained fear in her gray eyes. His father didn't get the chance, either. Instead they reached the door and Prince Oberyn swept Lyarra into his arms again. Ser Damien Sand opened the door at that point, the Viper stepped inside carrying Robb's sister, and then the door was shut.

 

Robb had never been quite so grateful for anything as he was when Lord Glover's son decided to start a brawl in the yard when the feast was breaking up for the night. By the time he was done he knew his mother was going to be furious to find his best tunic and surcoat torn and bloodstained. None of that mattered, though, because as he sat beside Theon on a bench while Maester Luwin tended their split knuckles Robb had managed to spend two hours not thinking about what was being done to Lyarra behind that closed door.

 


 

“That was a good throw.” Lyarra found herself speaking out of sheer nervousness as the door shut behind them and after the last sounds of their honor guard departing had faded. “It wasn’t poisoned, was it?”

 

“I do not poison my daily knives.”

 

“Our wedding is not a special occasion?” Lyarra asked, and wished that her mouth wasn’t running away with her due to nerves.

 

“Not one that warrants poison, I hope?” He quipped back.

 

The room was dimly lit. Only a single candle burned in a ceramic cylinder tall enough to guard against possible fire, but with walls so thin that the light shone through it with a milky glow. The fire in the fireplace was high and well-built to last the night without tending. Around them the room was warm and smelled of flowers from the glass houses. Earlier in the day Lyara knew that Sansa had gathered them, now she got to see the results.

 

Prince Oberyn had told her the day before of being kicked out of the best rooms in the guest house so that they might be transformed for the bridal night. He was not offended, but rather amused by the custom. Lyarra was, in truth, a little upset to see the chains of roses and other flowers running up the four posts of the intricately carved cedar bedstead. It was a wasteful, if touching, display of sisterly affection.

 

“That’s good.” Lyarra bit her lip and looked towards the large linen-lined tub that sat steaming in front of the hearth. “Why a bath, my Prince?”

 

“Because we’re both sweaty from dancing and smell of the feast.”

 

His reply was simple, but Lyarra shivered as she felt the calluses of his hands through the gaps in the lace that covered her shoulders as he settled his hands there.

 

“Besides, a bath before bed is pleasant, is it not?” He offered quietly. “I slept little last night, and I find myself tired.”

 

“You don’t want to…?” Lyarra’s tongue froze trying to find a word that didn’t belong in Theon’s vocabulary or sound clinical and foolish. “I mean, your rights - it’s the wedding night.”

 

“I am a Prince of Dorne and my word, name, and seal on that contract we copied thrice makes us wed.” He replied simply, his voice calm. “As I told you before; your maidenhead has nothing to do with it.”

 

Lyarra watched as he released her shoulders and stepped back, reaching into his surcoat and plucking a small glass phial from a hidden pocket. She stared dumbly at it, wondering if it was some potion. Amidst their lessons in sigils, Houses, bannermen, feuds, and facts about the new land he was taking her to Lady Myria liked to gossip about Oberyn’s reputation. She’d said that there were tales that he’d studied magic amidst his expertise in poisons and handful of maester’s links. The phial, she realized in surprise, was nothing more or less than blood.

 

“We do not hurt little girls in Dorne.” He reminded her, and the gentle tone of his voice was entirely different from the raw murder hinted at in his tones when he’d forbidden her father’s own bannermen from holding a bedding ceremony.

 

“I’m a woman wed.” Lyarra found herself arguing, not sure whether she felt relieved or slighted in her confusion over his generosity.

 

“Yes, wed to me .” He insisted, his expression a mix of arrogance and tenderness. “I’ve never taken anyone, man, woman, or whore unwilling to my bed. I shall not start now. We’ve a lifetime ahead of ourselves to give House Martell amazing children. Considering the number of fabulous daughters I’ve already contributed, I think you can rest safely until you’re properly eager for my touch, wife.”

 

“Oh.” Was all Lyarra could manage, still trying to wrap her mind around the idea. Fortunately she’d found that for all her silence and awkwardness with words, her husband was very fond of them. He went on willingly, expounding on the topic.

 

“It’s your choice, Lyarra.” He spoke her name without titles for the first time gently. “I have no right to take that from you, husband or not.”

 

“Septa Mordane did not prepare me for this.” Lyarra complained bitterly.

 

“No!” Oberyn snorted loudly. “I do not imagine many septas qualified for the task of preparing a maid for her wedding night, though for some reason they claim the duty.”

 

“Your experience with Septas eclipses mine, so I’ll take your word for it.”

 

Lyarra had meant the comment seriously, but her husband took it as a sally and laughed openly at it, grinning at her unintended humor. That struck her as funny and Lyarra found herself giggling. Emboldened, she stepped forward and rested a hand on his chest, breathing slowly and thinking. As she thought on the subject the creeping excitement, foreign and a little scary, she had begun to feel around the man lifted the small hairs on her arms and the back of her neck again.

 

“If it is my choice,” She decided. “I would be your wife in full.”

 

“Your reasons?” He asked, and she realized he didn’t trust her not to do something she would regret.

 

“I spent my whole life bitterly yearning to be a Stark of Winterfell. I was only granted that so I could give my name and home up and become a Martell, and your wife.” Lyarra told him, feeling the pain of it and trying to let it go and be hopeful as she spoke. “I don’t know why the Gods wanted it so. I can’t say if it was the Old Gods trying to acknowledge that we did you a terrible injustice, or if you’ll give me children that history will remember. I do know that I was tired of being the Bastard of Winterfell, and of fearing everyday that something would happen to my father before my brother’s majority.”

 

He watched her as she spoke and Lyarra felt her tongue loosen further. It was likely the wine, because eloquence wasn’t one of her gifts outside of song. The words of bards flowed more easily off her tongue than her own.

 

“If it did Lady Stark wouldn’t keep me, and I would have to either wed any who would take me to find a home or allow her to ship me off to the silent sisters and misery. Instead I am a princess, and you’ve given me a choice and respect none of the Northern husbands I had hoped for would dream of showing me. You’re not the husband I would have chosen, but I if I am to be your wife, Prince Oberyn, then a wife I wish to be in full.”

 

Lyarra wasn’t quite sure how they transitioned from standing a foot apart and speaking to his lips pressing against hers. It wasn’t an unpleasant change, however, and she had no complaints for her first real kiss. His hands were warm, for once, as they rested upon the small of her back. His lips were dry and soft underneath hers. They moved slowly, tugging and teasing at her own lips until he drew the tip of his tongue across the seam of her mouth. She gasped and he invaded.

 

Emboldened by the knowledge that she had chosen to lose her maidenhead rather than offered it up in a sacrifice ordained by others Lyarra slipped her tongue into his mouth. It was a little awkward. Lyarra found she wasn’t sure where her nose went and she clicked her teeth against his once. He reached up at that and took her chin in his hand and showed her how to tilt her head to avoid such problems. When she came back from the kiss, breathing heavily, it was to realize that she’d risen up on her toes. At some point she’d buried her hands in his short, black, hair and mussed it severely.

 

“Our bath is getting cold, my brave little wolf, and I have two requirements of my own before I take you to my bed.”

 

“What?” Lyarra asked, surprised and curious.

 

“First, I will not bed my wife if she can’t call me by my given name.” He smirked at her, his eyes black in the dim lighting of the room and playful. “Secondly, I do not make love to the ignorant. Share the bath with me and a most enjoyable lesson.”

 

“Aye.” Lyarra breathed and then turned her back to him and pulled her hair over her shoulders as she very deliberately used his name alone and not his title. “I cannot get out of this alone, Oberyn. Could you unlace me?”

 

Her husband laughed softly behind her.

 

“Yes, and you shall have to help me out of my armor. As pretty a picture as this night would be with Damien added to it, I do not think him welcome right now.”

 

Lyarra huffed at the sally, accepting it as the first of many.

 




Oberyn had chuckled less at the ridiculousness of the situation, then the charming innocence of the girl he’d wed. One moment she was a blushing bride, frightened of her new husband’s fearsome and debauched reputation. The next she’d been as bold as ever she was with a blade in her hand, telling him she wanted to be a full wife to him and all but demanding his services.

 

He felt a welling of grief at the painful reality of how much Ellaria would have liked his new wife. In another lifetime, were the Gods kinder and less miserly, perhaps there would have been three Marks. His beloved would have shared his ardor entirely, and likely been a better teacher for a maid than he could hope to be. He’d only ever bedded one untouched woman before, and then he’d left her to her faith after she’d given him a daughter.

 

Lyarra’s unintentional, practical, seduction brushed some of his hurt aside, however. Oberyn was grateful for her innocent demand he help her disrobe. There was a charm there he fully enjoyed as he slid the dress carefully from her body and allowed her to drape it with care over a chair. Her smallclothes were surprisingly enticing. She wore a white satin corset embroidered in delicate blue patterns and a pair of smallclothes that were no more than a scrap of cotton and lace.

 

Beneath his armor Oberyn was relieved and excited to feel his shackled member do more than merely stir. With thoughts of Lyarra in his mind Oberyn had managed some limited relief with his own hand. For the better part of half-a-year, however, he’d lived the life of a Septon and chafed at it. As Lyarra helped him off with his finery and his armor (and a few concealed knives) he reveled in the sensuality of what he knew was coming. Partners aside, he’d missed the act itself.

 

He allowed her to turn away and slip into the tub as he got rid of his trousers and smallclothes. If she was feeling shy he had no right to rush her. He did take the time to truly appreciate her own naked body, however. The unbroken line of ivory skin was the same shade of pale everywhere. He was enchanted by the small triangle of dark curls at the apex of her long thighs and the pale shade of pink her nipples pebbled into.

 


 


Lyarra couldn’t quite bring herself to look at her husband as he finished stripping. Instead she settled into the bath, sinking down until the night-darkened water covered her up to her collarbone. It felt good to sink into the hot water, and Lyarra suddenly realized that she was tired despite having done no more than dress, pray, feast, and dance all day. Revelry was exhausting; she’d have preferred a day in the library tower.

 

It was a strange and frightening thought that she had a husband, but it was exciting too. No one could call her a girl or a maid come morning. She would be a wife and princess .

 

A wife whose husband slipped so neatly into the water that its surface barely stirred. He really was a lean blade of a man, she noted as she turned slightly at the feel of his leg pressing against hers from ankle to hip, brokenly only where he had to bend his knee to accommodate his height. Oberyn curled an arm around the lip of the tub and sighed, cracking his neck and shoulders loudly and earning a stifled giggle from the absurdity of it.

 

She was going to have to tell Sansa. Handsome princes were nothing like the songs.

 

“Your sister is a demon on the dance floor. On the plus side, should I ever find myself in the melee without a weapon, I can call for a minstrel and your sister and have a passable flail at hand. I’ll just have to fit her with iron boots, first.”

 

Lyarra gave up and rested her face against his shoulder, shaking with silent laughter. She finally choked out a confession as she felt his hand wandering warmly between her back and the linen lining the sides of the tub.

 

“This isn’t going as I expected it to.”

 

“How did you expect it to go?”

 

Lyarra breathed in the soft scent of his neck. It was a mix of sweat and the smell of the roast aurochs that had been central to the feast. Underneath was still a hint of the spicy scent she’d always noticed hanging around the man. She decided that, at some point, she’d ask if it was perfume or simply Oberyn that smelled so.

 

“This is better.” Lyarra offered by way of an answer and reached out to tentatively pet the smooth skin of his chest. “You’ve no hair here.”

 

“I remove it.” He replied, and kissed behind her ear, making her shiver.

 

Lyarra had piled her hair atop her head, twisting it around itself into a messy knot. If she got it wet it would take most of the night to dry. It would aso end up soaked, cold, and unpleasant in every way. Nobody needed a wet hair cloak that weighed as much as Rickon.

 

“Tell me, my darling,” Oberyn asked her quietly as she settled more closely against his side, and interrupting her intention to ask why he didn’t take the hair off his legs if he removed it from his chest. “When was the last time you saw a man naked?”

 

“When I was eight and Robb was nine and Lady Stark decided we were too old to be bathed together.”

 

Lyarra’s honest answer sent her new husband into paroxysms of repressed, silent laughter that had the water rippling in the tub around then. Lyarra had to stifle her own giggles in response. She ended up with her face hidden in his shoulder while he pressed his cheek against her curls as they both calmed.

 

“At least I may rest assured you shall find me impressive by comparison.” He finally japed. “Do no men piss in the corners of Winterfell’s courtyard?”

 

“Not unless they’re dead drunk and want to risk Lady Stark’s temper.” Lyarra snorted. “The first usually being the only condition where they dare the latter. Even if they do , I don’t look .”

 

“Then let the lesson begin.” He breathed, stirring a loose curl hanging around her ear and prompting Lyarra to look into his face and find his black eyes pools to drown in. “This is how a man is made, Lyarra.”

 

Her husband lifted one of her hands and kissed her knuckles before leading it beneath the water and down his chest. She felt her face flush as she felt the dip of his belly between his hip bones, and the divot where his belly button was. He’d left some hair there; a short trail of softness leading to a tangle of harsher curls below.

 

When something smooth and unexpected brushed against Lyarra’s wrist she froze her hand’s progress. She could feel the rough curls beneath her fingertips, but wasn’t sure what to do. Septa Mordane had told her that she was to lie still and let him do what he wanted to her. Then she’d read to her about the sins of fornication corrupting the soul.

 

Oberyn wanted Lyarra to sit with him in the bath. He wanted to trade lazy kisses, as he was doing now. He wanted her to touch his body, and he ran his hands over her back, kneading while she froze, unsure of how to touch him . She concentrated on kissing instead and resting her hand low on his belly as a safe stopping point until she found her courage again. The kissing was lovely, and she was beginning to feel that creeping excitement beneath her skin again. Perhaps even more encouraging; she was getting some disjointed sense that he was excited and pleased as well.

 

“Are you going to touch me, too?” Lyarra asked, unsure of where his “lesson” was going, but having grasped that he wanted her comfortable with both of their bodies.

 

It was a strange thought, but she would take the pause it gave her while she tried to hide her ignorance of what they would actually be doing during the coupling itself. Septa Mordane had been no help. The most specific she’d gotten was that he would penetrate her while she lay beneath him; a single meager sentence of information.

 

Theon had likely accidentally told her more with his comments about wet, eager, whores and the size of his member. Not that Lyarra was supposed to listen in on those conversations between her brother and his older friend. Robb had always been wroth with Theon when he figured out he’d said something like that where any of Robb’s sisters could hear.

“Where would you like to be touched?” The soft purr of Oberyn’s voice against her lips made her shiver more than the gentle hand on the small of her back.

 

Lyarra had intended to tell him that she didn’t know where she would like to be touched.

 

“Everywhere.” Is what came out of her mouth instead.

 

“As my Princess commands.” He grinned against her lips.

 


 

Oberyn was delighted. He’d expected to have Lyarra take the offer of time he’d given her. The girl was shy, and not inclined to let people close. He’d noticed that her family was affectionate; they embraced each other freely and pressed kisses to each others’ cheeks in greeting. Lyarra only reluctantly exchanged embraces when greeting the other young Ladies of the North who had joined the festivities at Winterfell, and she’d been as nervous as any wild thing who’d lived untrammeled when he’d pressed a kiss to her hand or slipped an arm about her shoulders during the last fortnight.

 

Now, Oberyn found he had in his arms a very passionate little wife. Inexperienced, yes, dreadfully so, but passionate and so very responsive. He earned a series of gasps pressed against his lips when he traced his fingers down the side of one pert little breast for the first time. He garnered a hand through his hair and a blissful expression when he petted the silk-soft inside of a thigh. When he finally leaned her back in the tub and took a pale little nipple in his mouth she mewled and arched her hips against nothing, seeking out something she didn’t understand she wanted.

 

Oberyn was dearly tempted to relieve his own growing need by carrying her, wet and dripping, directly to the marriage bed. Unfortunately he was a man of his word. He did not ravish innocent young girls. He needed her to know his body even as he was teaching her to know her own.

 

He just hoped that half a year’s unwilling celibacy didn’t have him embarrassing himself in the bath. Oberyn was, for once, rather grateful that he was only days away from his fortieth nameday. Had he been five-and-twenty he would never have been able to summon the patience.

“I think you know a bit more about being a woman, darling, but you’ve yet to learn much about men.”

 

“I’ve learned your hands are more dangerous than your tongue, despite its reputation.” Lyarra panted back, flushed down to where the water met her chest, and Oberyn grinned wickedly.

 

“Ah, but you only say that because I’ve no way to properly acquaint you with my tongue’s virtues without drowning.”

 

The thin rim of gray around her blown pupils widened and Oberyn chuckled, indulging himself with a long kiss and enjoying the way her hands now wandered freely over his shoulders and chest. His wife dared to draw her fingertips over one his nipples, then gently twisted it. He purred his pleasure and nipped her lower lip.

 

He was rewarded further when she abandoned his chest and finally made good on his earlier offer to explore lower. She curled her hand around the base of him and Oberyn winced when she was a little too rough given the state he was in. She immediately took her hand back and he swallowed her apology with a kiss.

 

“As long as it’s been for me, I suppose we shall both have to be gentle with each other.” He teased, wanting to combine setting her at ease with a sop to his own pride. Usually he didn’t mind it a little rough. “Here.”

 

He took her hand in his and showed her how to touch him. Oberyn ended up moaning into the hair atop her head, tugging her against his chest so that he could have something to hold onto and ground himself with. If he wasn’t careful he was going to embarrass himself. It had been that long, and the growing novelty of feeling flashes of her excitement and pleasure along with his own was a distraction that jarred his already fragile control.

 

“It’s bigger than I had thought it would be.” His young wife blurted out as Oberyn moved her hands aside and he gave in and laughed again.

 

“Is that a compliment on an insult, wife?” Oberyn demanded, but grinned to soften his offended tone and was rewarded with a guilty smile.

 

“A sign of my own ignorance?”

 

“Your prince will accept this answer.” He allowed and retaliated by moving his teeth down to the spot on her neck that he’d found left her limp and squirming in his arms. “You must tell me if you wish to stop, and it is too much.”

 

“Hm?” She asked, lazily, and Oberyn slipped his hand down into her own sodden lower curls, marveling at how soft they were as he searched for the pleasure he was intent on giving her before they left the cooling tub.

 

“Let’s dry off.”

 


 

Her husband’s order was given with a tense voice, thick with restraint. Lyarra could barely pick out the words in shock as she lay panting in his arms. She was sure she’d left bloody scratches in his back. Robb had complained before that her nails were as thick as any real wolf’s claws, and while she kept them fairly short and neatly filed she knew she could draw blood from a few accidents in the sparring yard.

 

Oh, but she hadn’t been able to help it! She’d had no idea that it could feel like that to be touched there. Occasionally she woke up from a dream and her womb felt heavy and she was sensitive below. Lyarra had shared a bed her whole life, however. First a crib with Robb, then as a child with Sansa, and lastly she’d shared her maiden bed with Gwyn. She’d never been alone enough to try anything to alleviate the occasional discomfort of waking unfulfilled from… something.

 

Oberyn had changed that entirely. His hand had plundered her, and she’d enjoyed the shameless maneuverings of his fingers utterly. He’d played with the most tender parts of her, spreading and soothing the petals of what Lady Stark had once awkwardly referred to as a woman’s “flower” when explaining to Lyarra what moon’s blood was and how a babe was birthed.

 

Her princely husband had sought out and found the very center of her pleasure, and then worked the pearl of flesh until she was a shuddering mass in his arms. Worse, Lyarra hadn’t even known what it was that overcame her as he did so. It felt so good she’d seen nothing but white behind her clenched eyelids and was only vaguely aware of the fact that she’d dug her hands into his back as she’d shuddered against him in the barely-warm water.

 

It felt irresistible and powerful, like a storm raging inside of her. It was an entirely different sort of power, though, to what she’d felt when she’d reached down and explored his body. He was nothing like she expected, but she hadn’t known what to expect, had she? Men were strange creatures, and while he’d had all the same parts she recalled Robb having as a boy, they were shaped differently and did far more than allow her husband the privilege of pissing upright.

 

His soft noises and words of encouragement had been wonderful, though. When he’d groaned her name and pushed his hips up into her grip, reaching down to show her how to move her hands, Lyarra had felt like she’d finally beat the man in a spar. His soft moaning and the sweat beading on his forehead had been a triumph in itself.

 

“As you will.” Lyarra agreed and rose from the tub on shaky legs.

 

Drying him meant seeing him, and that was its own revelation. He looked even larger than he’d felt in her hands, jutting up against his belly from a patch of thick black curls. She didn’t have much time to examine him, because he drug her against him for a series of kisses that had her chasing his mouth for more. When he let her go it was to reach for the towels and move closer to the fire.

 

Lyarra took a towel and automatically began chasing the water running down his chest. He patted the curls at the back of her neck dry, and then carried on down her body, turning the process into a caress. Lyarra looked up and frowned, prompting him to raise his eyebrows.

 

“Bend down so I can reach your hair.”

 

He grinned, but forbore making a joke about her height. Lyarra appreciated that enough to be gentle when she was drying his back. She had scratched him bloody.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Just more battle scars I shall show off with pride. My prowess is legendary for a reason.” He promised her, his grin smug, and then Lyarra was in his arms again and his member was trapped between their bellies. “To bed?”

 

“Yes.” Lyarra agreed, then swallowed and gathered her courage to ask a necessary question. “What was that?”

 

“I would think it obvious.” He replied teasingly, rocking her hips against his. “Though if you want to be more specific, I’ve several names-.”

 

“No .” Lyarra groaned, because his sense of humor was going to be the death of both of them. “What you did to me with your hands. It - I liked it. What was it called.”

 

“Your peak? Pleasure, a little death, it has many names.” Oberyn replied helpfully now that he’d had his jape and kissed her lips again, nudging her towards the bed. “I shall give you another, if you like, when we’re warm beneath the covers.”

 

“I would.” Lyarra breathed, feeling her flush darken and spread down her chest. “May I do the same for you?”

 

“Oh, most certainly.”

 


 

 

His first thought, other than pure masculine enjoyment, as he slid beneath the covers fully and kissed his way down his new wife’s belly was that he was actually quite lucky that the air was chill that night. Winterfell itself was warm enough, and the fire in the hearth was good, but no-one had apparently planned for a summer snow on the wedding day. It meant that the heating system in the castle had not been adjusted - however that worked, and Oberyn was fascinated to know. Were there plans he could get ahold of?

 

However, with the air cold Oberyn’s ardor had cooled a little out of the bath. He’d slipped a finger into his wife after they’d gotten comfortably in bed and found her tight enough to leave him both deeply enticed and worried. Lyarra had no experience, and if she was so constricted after one orgasm he was afraid that her first night was going to hurt no matter how much care he took.

 

She tasted wonderfully on his tongue, though. The Viper found his wife clean, fresh, and dripping for him. It was enough to challenge his newly earned plateau and he pushed all thoughts of it aside to concentrate on the task at hand. His pride demanded he fully satisfy his bed partners, and as he had no choice but to call upon her for all of his desires for the rest of their lives he was intent on leaving Lyarra wanting him.

 

“Oh, Gods, more.” Lyarra gasped obligingly, nudging her hips towards him and bending his neck uncomfortably.

 

Oberyn braced one of her hips with his free hand while he felt her fingers tangle into his hair. He grinned against her mound as he spread her open with his free hand and licked a long line over her from back to front. When she mewled his name he fastened his lips around her clit and sucked. It had the desired effect and she writhed under his restraint as he slipped a finger into her again, relieved to find her wetter yet and a little looser. He worked a second finger inside of her and she gasped.

 

“Too much?” He asked.

 

“Get your mouth back on me!” She ordered roughly instead and Oberyn’s eyebrows rose along with his sudden delight at the harsh command.

 

“I do so enjoy a woman who knows what she wants.”

 

He returned to the task at hand, and was relieved when the third finger made her wince, but she was too busy with one hand upon her own breast and the other clamped over her mouth to seem to notice. He concentrated on matching the movement of his fingers inside of her with his mouth on her, revelling in her pleasure and his own growing need as he pushed her over the edge a second time.

 

While she was lying limp and panting, her legs having slipped off his shoulders and splayed out, he slid up over her and claimed a kiss with her pleasure still smeared all over his lips and chin. She started only slightly before groaning into his mouth. Oberyn curled a forearm beneath her shoulders to better hold her close and proper himself up with as he rolled atop her.

 

“Yes?” He turned the word into a quiet question against her lips as he lined himself up with a shaking hand.

 

“Mm-hm.” She nodded with their lips still joined, her eyes half-lidded in tired pleasure.

 


 

Lyarra’s eyes snapped open in shock and her own gasp was covered by the strangled groan her husband let out as he made her his wife. Somehow she’d expected, after nearly two hours of lovemaking and tender touches devoted to her pleasure, that his would be a similarly drawn out affair. Instead, one moment she was a maid - if a debauched one - and the next she was truly his wife by the laws of any of the Seven Kingdoms.

 

It did hurt, but the sting that had to be her maidenhead giving way actually was less significant than the sudden stretch of her as her body worked to accommodate her husband. It was a deep, muscular sort of pain. Not horrible, but the kind of feeling Lyarra was used to associating with straining herself too much in a spar with Robb. Or that time she’d been too stubborn to admit Theon had given her a bow she couldn’t truly draw and had left her shoulders a mass of knotted agony.

 

This wasn’t so bad as either of those things. As her husband moaned into her hair, a slurred string of affection leaving his mouth that she couldn’t decipher due to his accent thickening with passion, Lyarra was able to relax into his arms. She felt every motion as he slowly drew his hips back from hers and then slid inside again. It was nice. Not as good as his hands or mouth, but she arched her hips into it to try and chase the pleasure over the discomfort of having him inside her.

 

“Yes, li-like that!” He gasped and suddenly his hand was fumbling between them. “Ah, my darling, yes- .”

 

His words were cut off in a hiss of his own pleasure as he thrust slowly into her again, but Lyarra gasped and lost the concentration she’d been giving the ache as his body pushed and pulled at her own. His hand was back to doing for her what it had done in the tub. That was a far more commanding reality.

 

Individual sensations were lost then, garbled in a new wash of pleasure. In the end, Lyarra was shocked to find her peak a third time, clutching at his shoulders and wrapping her legs tight around his waist in eagerness of it. As she went limp against the pillows in the aftermath her husband changed completely, his hands going beneath her ass and curling around to brace her there. A moment later and he was thrusting into her hard and rough, his movements quick and the pain back. It only lasted a few moments before her husband let out a cry loud enough to surely be heard through stone.

 

Then Lyarra felt a wetness spreading inside her and had her breath nearly knocked out of her as the full weight of her husband went limp atop her. Oberyn was heavier than he looked, but that made sense. What there was of him was solid muscle.

 

A moment later he was rolling over onto his back, dragging her with him to hold her tight against his chest. Lyarra went willingly enough, and awkwardly slid her leg across his thighs, trying to get comfortable. He let out a deep breath and she felt his hand rubbing across her back before curling behind her shoulders to idly drape a hand over her breast underneath the covers she’d automatically pulled up underneath their chins.

 

“You’re well pleased?”

 

“Aye.” Lyarra answered the sleepy, slurred question and yawned.

 

Whatever she had been about to say, in thanks or in curiosity, died on her lips at the sound of a soft, snuffling breath. She looked up into her husband’s face, barely lit by the flickering light of the fire and the low-burning candle. It was slack and his eyes were closed. Lyarra muffled a giggle against his chest and reached up to pull down a pillow as she realized that the infamous Red Viper had already fallen asleep.

 




"Underneath that Tully hair, the Young Wolf's got some of his Uncle Brandon's blood boiling. Not to mention that little girl of yours!"

 

"Aye." Ned admitted, rubbing a hand over his face as he looked at Lord Glover and blew out a breath. "I'm sorry for your son's ear."

 

"He'll keep his hearing and a cauliflower ear'll teach him to do as his father bids rather than lingering in the yard after a feast to cause trouble. He should have minded his damned manners as I told him." The Lord huffed. "I hope no offense was taken at his words?"

 

"If it was, my son got an answer for it." Ned was more satisfied with that than he should be.

 

"A fine feast, and thinking on it, I think the Smalljon was right." The older Bannerman spoke admiringly. "These Dornish are a strange lot, make no mistake, but they're not a bad one. They'll put a sword in a lady's hand so that she's no easy target, they fight like demons themselves, and they were damned generous for all their Prince's smart mouth."

 

"Aye, we'll not go hungry in this coming winter." Ned agreed, satisfied with that despite his foul mood about the match itself. "My father would have applauded that."

 

"He would have." Glover agreed, but whatever he would have said as they walked towards the Hall to break their fast was stopped when the Lord paused mid-step and chuckled. "Well…"

 

Ser Damien was lingering against a wall, yawning and rolling up a ball of twine. When he saw them both the knight bowed in greeting. Then he grinned.

 

"As we deprived you of a traditional bedding, I consulted with Lord Umber about another Northern tradition we might oblige in as an apology." The knight explained. "Is it to your liking, my Lord?"

 

Eddard Stark stared in unabashed horror at the sheet hanging from across two of the guest house's windows. It was bore all the expected smears of a bridal sheet, red and otherwise. Beside him Lord Glover huffed out a laugh.

 

"You'd have done better to ask myself or Lord Manderly, lad, no-one's hung a bridal sheet in generations south of the Dreadfort!"

 

"Ah," The Knight looked falsely crestfallen. "My apologies. I hope no-one will be distressed?"

 

The clatter of the younger man's copper scalemail as Ned knocked him on his ass with a well-placed blow and then turned to go get his goddamned breakfast was almost as satisfying as Lord Glover's unrestrained laughter. Ned amended his plans for the morning. If Robb wanted to indulge his temper like a man, his son could handle the bannermen for the morning. At least the ones who threw off their hangovers enough to emerge before noon.

 

Ned was going to find his little brother and… he wasn't sure what. Getting drunk was an option. Plotting to murder a snake likely wasn't. It would be nice to find at least one sympathetic ear in all of Winterfell, however.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight - 297 A.C.

 

"I cannot believe you did that."

 

"Ah well, the Northmen were annoying me. It put them nicely in their place." Ser Ulwyk reached up and grabbed a handful of dripping icicles off of the eaves of the nearest building and pressed them to the side of his face as he slumped against the wall. "Dammit, Oberyn, that hurt ."

 

"You're lucky it was the butt of the spear." Oberyn growled at the man who had effectively been his Uncle by marriage for nearly two decades and continued to glare the man down. "It was your idea?"

 

"Do you really think Ser Damien could have come up with it on his own, and sober? The boy is too courteous for his own good." The older man snorted, then cursed as a bubble of blood came out of his left nostril. "Fuck you, an elbow to the face in a friendly spar?"

 

"I said I wanted to spar, I never said it was friendly ." Oberyn replied. "I cannot believe you would put that sheet up like some kind of banner. It's crass and my wife didn't deserve it, even if I likely did."

 

"Was the girl much embarrassed?"

 

Now the half-mad idiot sounded contrite, Oberyn noted sourly. It cooled his anger at the future Lord of Hellholt a little though. Ellaria's brother almost always meant well. His way of going about it was just what you'd expect from a group of people crazy enough to kill a dragon and burn their own keep down twice to stop invasion.

 

"Not too badly, but she'd have been far moreso had her brother not gotten that sheet down as quickly as he did." Oberyn complained. "I should tie you down and let the Starks direwolves devour you."

 

"Those things?" Ser Ulwyck laughed. "Oberyn, those pups have barely lost their milk teeth!"

 

"Hence tying you down." Oberyn replied with a grin that was all fang and venom. "Were they full grown it would be a quick sentence. Besides, I'm sure fresh meat is good for growing direwolf pups."

 

"It's when you smile so that people wonder if you'd really do it." Ulwyck observed with an answering grin. "It's also why we like you. So the girl's good for you? You look better than you have in awhile, Brother."

 

Though the man was technically Ellaria's uncle, and not her brother, Oberyn was closer to Ulwyk's age than not. The man had been born as the last in a series of stillbirths bookended by two healthy sons in House Uller. He was seventeen years younger than his elder brother, and only a handful of years older than Oberyn. They'd always gotten on well, and since he'd taken it into his head that the Mark was a communication from his beloved niece from beyond the grave he'd been very favorable towards the marriage.

 

Despite the relief of knowing that the Uller's wouldn't turn their useful brand of madness against his brother's reign, Oberyn could have done without the heartache. He'd woken up late that morning, and felt better rested than he'd felt in two years. Lyarra was a good bed partner. She was small, soft, warm and quiet. She'd anchored him down so he didn't move restlessly as he often did. That had kept Oberyn from waking himself up, and he'd tired himself out enough in teaching her of lovemaking that he'd had no nightmares.

 

"And now you look worse again." Ser Ulwyk muttered. "I should take it as a victory considering how you greeted me this morning."

 

"It's afternoon." Oberyn replied dryly and shook his head, stepping back. "Go see a Maester."

 

"I shall, but only because your own punishment is on its way."

 

Oberyn turned his back cautiously on the other man. After he'd stepped out of the way of the last minute strike against his back, and delivered a smack to the man's shins with the shaft of his spear, he turned to look at who was approaching. He was suddenly quite glad Ser Ulwyck preferred live steel. Having the familiar, light, deadly weight in hand of a spear he'd used before to kill a man was nice given the three glowering figures stalking towards him.

 

Oberyn was debating with himself whether he wanted to start a fight while he watched them approach. Robb Stark looked ready to start chewing on the landscape in anger. If Lord Eddard's disapproval became any more intense his mouth would vanish entirely into his beard and his eyebrows crash down to join it. Only Lord Benjen Stark of the Night's Watch managed to look merely displeased.

 

"My lords, what a pleasant surprise." Oberyn greeted and bowed, his gloves creaking a bit against the spear's shaft. "I was told you would be closeted with your bannermen until this evening."

 

"The meeting was yesterday afternoon." Lord Stark was as blunt as ever. "Many of my bannermen have left."

 

"I suppose you lost a lot of time lying abed." Robb Stark said it like it was an insult, but all Oberyn could do in response was smirk happily.

 

He had lost a day yesterday. It was one well-spent, though not in debauching the boy's sister as he thought. After their first night together some of Lyarra's shyness had returned, and then there was the simple reality that she was new to such pleasures. He wasn't going to impose on a maiden still sore from her defloration.

 

They'd spent the day in bed alternately napping, or reading in bed from the small library Oberyn had brought with him. He'd been pleased and surprised to find his wife an avid reader and enjoyed several long and enjoyable conversations with her about his travels. For a girl who'd never gone anywhere nor desired to leave her home, Lyarra Stark was a curious little thing.

 

"I did! However, you need not worry for your sister's comfort." Oberyn couldn't resist. "I assure you, I was everything attentive."

 

Robb's face was exactly like Oberyn's daughters had been the first time he handed them a lemon slice and let them find out what it tasted like, the Viper noted gleefully. Lord Stark looked as though the stick lodged up his rectum had turned sideways. Pity he wasn’t adventureous enough to enjoy it. Benjen Stark just looked mildly annoyed at the innuendo.

 

"I wished to speak of our arrangements for the journey to King's Landing." Ned Stark announced bluntly and Oberyn felt his lip curl up into a snarl at the presumption.

 

"You speak hastily on the subject." Oberyn countered and turned to toss the spear in his hand to one of the lingering guards and pull his cloak off the bench he'd draped it over when his match with Ulwyck began. "I have not yet decided that my wife and I are going to the Capital."

 

"It was a summons from the King."

 

" You were summoned by the King, who apparently misses his foster brother greatly and is quite hurt that you never write." Oberyn didn't bother to keep the scorn out of his voice as they walked through the courtyard and hallways the separated them from Ned Stark's solar. "The letter I received was from the Hand of the King, and Lord Arryn suggested my bride and I might find a visit to the Capital pleasant, if I felt my young wife ready for court."

 

"You do not believe my daughter fit for court?"

 

"Given what we know of the man's history in regards to Princesses of Dorne, I wouldn't imagine you so eager to see Lyarra anywhere near the Red Keep." Oberyn mocked with open cruelty as his temper flared. "Unless you've found some way to assure her safety where all failed before?"

 

"I thought we had agreed that our parties would travel south overland together." Lord Stark sounded genuinely angry.

 

"We agreed that I would consider it." Oberyn replied tensely. "I have yet to hear from my brother on the subject. My Prince shall be the deciding factor in whether we take a ship from White Harbor directly to Sunspear, as it would be in his name that I negotiate. If any negotiations are to occur."

 

By the time Stark was left fuming at the entirely reasonable insistence that Oberyn could not and would not negotiate without Doran's command on the matter established, they were at the man's solar. Oberyn was fiercely glad not to see his uncle present in the room. Lord Gargalen was a restraining influence on Oberyn, and that morning he suddenly felt trammeled. He couldn't stand any more politics or prevarication.

 

Perhaps Lyarra's sweetness when she'd come to his bed, and the intense pleasure she'd given him in teaching her how to experience her own, should have left Oberyn languid and relaxed. Instead the Viper found himself filled with a restless energy. The brief fight with Ulwyck hadn't helped settle him, either. He longed to cause actual damage, or for something to simply happen.

 

"I cannot imagine your brother disregarding the King's will." Lord Stark replied mulishly and Oberyn was darkly amused to note both the man's brother and heir looked ready to roll their eyes at him.

 

It appeared that Oberyn wasn't the only one in a changeful, obstinate mood. Good, Oberyn decided. Mayhap he could get something out of the stolid oxen of a man.

 

"Then I must request you use your imagination more, as it seems to have atrophied considerably since you used it to start a revolution." Oberyn lounged in the chair the man had invited him to take in precisely the kind of sprawl he knew Stark hated.

 

"Aerys started the revolution when he murdered my father and brother and declared my life and the King's forfeit."

 

The reply was all stiff offense and Oberyn was delighted to realize he might have actually pushed the man far enough to get him to snap somewhat. Perhaps he shouldn't have been so quick to chastise Ulwyck and Damien for their stunt with the bedsheet. They'd surely deserved it, and he could only apologize to Lyarra again later for the egregious violation of their privacy, but if it moved Stark to blurt something useful, Oberyn could forgive them easily enough.

 

"One could argue your brother started it when he was foolish enough to walk into the castle of a murderous lunatic and demand his son's head." Oberyn smiled humorlessly.

"However, Lord Stark, I notice one great difference of opinion that seems to exist between yourself and the King. Robert Baratheon always speaks of the rebellion starting when his beloved intended wife was stolen from him by a rapacious prince. Why do you not ?"

 

Beside him Oberyn could feel Robb Stark had gone completely still. Oberyn had, out of graciousness and some little sympathy, not brought Lyanna Stark up in Winterfell. It felt in bad taste to slander the girl now that she was dead. The fact that he was still raw in places that his own Marked wife so resembled her just made it more uncomfortable.

 

Lyarra was her own person in his mind now. She was quiet and introspective where the wolf-girl from the tourney had been wild and brash. The similarities in their features had blurred and faded a bit as he became more familiar with the differences. Oberyn was comfortable enough with his wife wedded and bedded and having shown she wanted him to be precisely the kind of ass he thought Eddard Stark deserved to deal with.

 

"I would think you would understand my reluctance to speak of my sister's fate." Lord Eddard said lowly instead of backing down or sidestepping and Oberyn felt his smirk shift into a snarl as he leaned forward.

 

"Did you know that Ser Arthur Dayne was only two weeks my junior, Lord Stark?"

 

"No." Lord Stark frowned, sitting back, surprised by the apparent shift in topics.

 

"Indeed. Lord Dayne sent his younger son to the Water Gardens when he was four. He spent his days there with Elia and I, playing in the pools and pretending sticks were swords and spears. I would pretend I was Morgan Martell and Arthur would be the Sword of the Morning."

 

"He achieved his dream, then." Robb Stark offered, his tone admiring as well as cautious.

 

"Quite." Oberyn agreed, turning to face the Young Wolf and ignoring the irritated expression on the face of the boy's father or the cold tension emanating from the lad's uncle. "Never have I known nor will I likely live to know a more perfect knight than Ser Arthur Dayne. Even as a boy he was always honest and good. He once laid me out cold when we were six because I was pulling the tails off of lizards, even though their tails grow back."

 

"Out cold, at six?" Robb Stark looked torn between being impressed and being amused.

 

"Out cold." Oberyn agreed. "Our Septa nearly wet herself. My sister made him walk barefoot over hot sand as penance for striking his prince."

 

"Did he?"

 

"Yes." Oberyn replied. "My mother made me clean the privies for tormenting harmless creatures."

 

Lord Stark managed a soft, bitter laugh at that, and Oberyn continued. He ignored the Quiet Wolf. The Young one made a far better target here.

 

"Does it strike you as strange , Lord Robb, that a boy who couldn't stand to see a lizard hurt without seeking justice would help a man kidnap and rape an innocent girl?"

 

The Young Wolf's face twisted as he suddenly tried to reconcile the universally respected image of Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, with his aunt's reputation in the North.

 

"I was at Harrenhal, Lord Robb, as your father and the uncle who stands behind him." Oberyn went in for the kill. "Nor was I so deep in my cups as our good king. I was returning from paying a lady a late night visit one morning and had gone through the Godswood lest her husband happen to see me leave her tent."

 

The noise of disgust coming from Lord Stark did nothing to stop the growing look of horror on Benjen Stark's face.

 

"I stood in the shadows of a sentinel pine and waited for the Godswood to clear while Lady Lyanna and a dark haired young man knelt before the heart tree and prayed to the Old Gods to break her betrothal to Robert Baratheon. Seldom have I heard so impassioned a plea for a girl to escape marriage." Oberyn went on and turned to the Crow. "What was it she called him, Lord Benjen? My memory may escape me, as I am the oldest man in the room. Was it a brutish oaf? A whoremonger ? I don't recall exactly, as at the time I thought it of no importance to me or mine that some Northern Lord would sell his daughter into so unhappy a marriage."

 

"Enough!"

 

Lord Stark's fist crashed down upon his desk as he rose to his feet.

 

"You've made your point."

 

"Oh, I've hardly begun!" Oberyn argued, ignoring the shocked and confused lad sitting beside him entirely as he shot up to his full height, leaning towards Lord Stark with bared teeth. "A fortnight is too long to spend mired in your brand of hypocrisy, honorable Lord Stark. Your sister must be a perfect, innocent victim while mine own's killers run free for the sake of a loathsome promise you made to an unworthy King!"

 

"You stand before me a great, noble warrior who was tragically late to save his sister while the Lord Dayne pulled his brother's body from its cairn at that tower to find you'd brought back the family sword but left the truth at the Tower of Joy." Oberyn accused and Lord Stark sucked in a deep breath, his face paling. "Tell me, Lord Stark, did you put the knife in Arthur's back that brought him to his knees so Howland Reed could take his head off with Dawn? Or was it the reverse?"

 

Had Oberyn been less firmly in the grips of his own temper he might have noticed the relief that flashed in Lord Stark's gray eyes. Instead he merely pressed forward.

 

"Then there's the matter of your bastard." Oberyn drawled harshly. "Mine own wife. A woman who has lived nearly five-and-ten years never once knowing who her mother was. No word if the woman's alive or dead. No word of what affection she might have carried for her child. Instead you left a motherless girl to wond-."

 

"It's the world that claims my honor perfect." Lord Stark's words were quiet and exhausted. "Prince Oberyn, I've always known it to be broken at best. I am sorry your family must pay for that."

 

"Father-" Robb started, but Oberyn just shook his head in disgust.

 

Lord Eddard Stark stood behind his desk then. His hair was threaded with more gray than Oberyn's, despite being several years younger. His face was lined more deeply and his beard added years to his appearance. Like some icon of sad Northern perfection he just stood there, a martyr to his own noble humility. At his shoulder his brother stood; a thin shadow with angry eyes. Even his son leached the pleasure of the confrontation away, looking at his father with shocked eyes but offering no other response to the inference that his aunt had started a revolution by shirking her duty or that his father had murdered a famed knight.

 

Oberyn swept out of the room at that point, his temper past the point of mere mockery and his intelligence enough to let him know that no good would come from remaining.

 

 




"How bad was it?"

 

The first words out of Gwyn's mouth when Lyarra stepped back into the comfortable, familiar confines of their shared room were not auspicious. Her friend's dark blue eyes were wide and worried. Her blonde hair was tucked into a simple braid down her back and she wore a simple green tweed gown and cotton surcoat that spoke of either sneaking into Wintertown or time spent in the kitchens. Gwyn's expression also suggested that she'd been too worried to do either, and the Westerlands girl had likely been up all night fretting.

 

"It doesn't have to have been bad !" Sansa countered, her expression offended.

 

Sansa had slipped into the older girl's meeting by dint of pouncing on both of them in the hallway. Lyarra had put a hand firmly on Gwyn's wrist at that point to keep Gwyn from sending Sansa away to complain to Lady Stark about the blonde girl's cruelty. Not to mention because Lyarra really didn't want to see her sweet little sister get the sharp edge of her friend's tongue over her excitement about the wedding.

 

"I mean," Sansa went on. "It was so romantic when he threw the knife and forbade a bedding! He wouldn't let anyone else touch you, and he carried you all the way from the Godswood into the Great Hall!"

 

"He's stronger than he looks." Lyarra offered, because that was the only thing she could think to say.

 

Gwyn paled as she said it. Lyarra put both her hands over her face and groaned. Then, when Gwyn reached for her where they were all sitting in a mass of furs, cushions, and blankets that had been pulled in front of the fire, Lyarra reached out and shoved her friend over.

 

"Not in a bad way, Gwyn!"

 

"Men are almost exclusively bad, and when they're not, they're strange." Gwyn argued.

 

"Is our father strange?" Sansa demanded.

 

"Yes." Gwyn said earnestly, as if it were a terrific compliment. “The strangest I’ve ever known.

"Both of you stop it right now." Lyarra ordered firmly.

 

Gwyn stopped and turned to look at her, immediately ignoring Sansa. For her part, the redhead frowned but gave her half-sister her full attention. Lyarra could have cheered. Gwyn was her best friend, and Lyarra appreciated that she was likely the only person Gwyn really listened to completely and without reservation. Sansa was less likely to listen and take anyone but Lady Stark's words completely to heart, but Lyarra's new title and her marriage had elevated her considerably in her sister's eyes. Not to mention the fact that Sansa wouldn't want to be thrown out of their room.

 

Lyarra realized with a jolt that it wasn't 'their' room anymore. She would have to pack her things up soon, as would Gwyn. They didn't live in Winterfell any longer, and when she went to bed this evening, it would be the bed in the Guest House where she'd lost her maidenhead the night before.

 

"He didn't hurt you?" Gwyn asked, shaken out of waiting for further instructions by her eternal need to worry over everything. "You mean that, Lyarra, you aren't just trying to throw yourself on some sacrificial family altar for honor or somesuch?"

 

Sansa made a scandalized noise, but looked at Lyarra with her own concern.

 

"It didn't - it didn't hurt too much, did it?" Sansa asked, and then blushed. "I asked Septa Mordane what she was talking to you about, and she told me."

 

"Septa Mordane is full of shit. "

 

Gwyn paused to look at Lyarra and Lyarra paused to look at Gwyn as they said the exact same thing at the exact same time. A moment later and the two girls, one blonde and one brunette, were both holding onto each other and laughing. Sansa stared at them as if they were insane, then began to giggle too. It was a nice moment, though it passed fairly quickly.

 

" Finally , you see reason!" Gwyn joked before her face became serious. "But… he was gentle with you?"

 

"Oberyn was… perfect." Lyarra admitted, feeling herself blush as she thought of the passion and pleasure of the night before, and the unexpected laughter. "Do not repeat that anywhere he can hear. He's arrogant enough without any help from me."

 

Sansa just sighed in a way that suggested Lyarra would have to put up with her husband knowing she'd said he was perfect in bed by nightfall. Her sister would be gossiping with Jeyne Poole in short order. Once that happened the Children of the Forest might as well start shouting it from the Heart Tree.

 

"How?" Gwyn was bluntly skeptical.

 

"Yes, how!" Sansa's blue eyes were as avid as Gwyn's were not. "Did he read you poetry?"

 

"Lord Gargalen says his nephew's poetry is awful." Lyarra commented idly, suddenly realizing that - with her little sister here - she couldn't possibly be as blunt as she might have been with only Gwyn there.

 

"Oh." Sansa's face fell, then lit up again. "But he does write poetry. Princes should write poetry, and songs! Have him write you a song, Lyarra!”

 

"Yes, Prince Oberyn is a very accomplished man." Lyarra agreed, feeling a hint of real pride at having him as her husband. " No , I will not be demanding songs or poetry from my husband, Sansa. Though, in truth, you wouldn't believe how many languages he speaks! He brought a whole chest of books with him for the journey! He swears he grows bored easily, and that it's best for everyone if he's kept occupied. He has a tome that he'd had shipped from Braavos, copied from a Valyrian medical text that supposedly dates before the Fall-"

 

Sansa's eyes were glazing over, so it was probably just as well that Gwyn interrupted.

 

"So he, like you, is entirely too enamored of ink squiggles on paper." Gwyn shook her head, still obviously concerned. "Lyarra, what happened?"

 

"Oberyn brought a phial of blood to our wedding bed."

 

It came out in a rush. Lyarra still couldn't quite believe he'd done it. The fact that he had left her feeling something she couldn't quite name. The respect had already been there to a certain extent; he was a man proven and a great warrior, after all. This was more than just simple affection, however, and gratitude. Lyarra didn't quite have a name for it, as she knew it wasn't love, but she couldn't call it appreciation, either. What did you name an unexpected gift of yourself?

 

"What? That's strange, why would he do that?" Sansa frowned, then her eyes widened.

 

Gwyn, however, had entered some state of strange shock. First she froze, staring at Lyarra as if she hadn't heard her right. Then she shook her head and bit her lip. Disbelief seemed to be the order of the day.

 

"Why would he do that?" She seemed upset more than anything. "He can't have the marriage annulled. You're Marked . Not bedding you would embarrass him, not you, if it came out. Maybe it's something to do with-"

 

"Not everything is political, Gwyn." Lyarra sighed and got a sad look in return that would have been better suited to her face than her lively, sharp-tongued friend.

 

"You only say that because Winterfell is a home, not a court, Lyarra." Gwyn countered. "He may love his daughters, but surely he wants legitimate sons?"

 

"Oberyn's convinced he only throws daughters." Lyarra replied, because they'd talked about it the day before in between reading and napping. "Having no sons is not so great a concern in Dorne. There, a daughter inherits equally with a son."

 

"But still, why-"

 

"Because it was my choice." Lyarra replied, her tone passionate and her face flushing as she recalled the moment he'd convinced her that he believed it so. "Not merely as a matter of courtesy to be put aside for duty or for pleasure or because that's how everyone expects it to be. Oberyn brought the phial of blood so that no-one would make us the subject of gossip, but that I would still have time if I didn't want to lay with him on our wedding night."

 

"You're too beautiful for any man to be that decent." Gwyn looked unsure even as she said it, shaking her head and wringing her hands in her lap. "Even your father wouldn't make that offer."

 

"He didn't let them drag Mother through a bedding, though." Sansa was quick to defend her father as her river-blue eyes shot stars into the air around her at this tale of princely kindness.

 

"It was different for him, anyway, they were at war." Lyarra added and Gwyn shot her a tired look before shooting another at Sansa out of the corner of her eye.

 

"So… you're still a maid?" Sansa asked, looking a mix of relieved, disappointed, and hopeful.

 

"I didn't say that ." Lyarra was sure that she could heat another glass house with how red her face felt. "I'm a married woman, and my husband's a handsome man. He gave me the choice, and I chose not to be fearful."

 

"How bad was it?" Gwyn repeated her first words and Lyarra glared at her, momentarily forgetting she had a sister of not quite two-and-ten in the room.

 

"Spectacular." Lyarra told her friend crossly. "Especially when he used his tongue for something other than inciting violence."

 

Gwyn looked at her in shock.

 

"What was he doing with his tongue, then?" Sansa wanted to know before her blue eyes got wider still in shock and Lyarra realized that there was no way she could explain this to her father without getting his dreaded disappointed look. Possibly this time with a dose of added horror. "You didn't let him put it in your mouth when he kissed you, did you, Lyarra?"

 

"I don't think Lyarra stopped him at using his tongue on her mouth." Gwyn added dryly, looking rather startled even as she japed about it.

 

Sansa's confusion shifted to understanding, and then a shock that transcended verbal description. The next few moments were spent with Lyarra trying not to explain every single detail about her wedding night. Under the combined inquisition of Sansa's pleading and Gwyn's greater skill with words, Lyarra failed miserably. Sansa left the room muttering that everything the Septa had told her was wrong, and Gwyn continued to sit, looking unsure of everything around her.

 

"You're sure that he didn't hurt you."

 

This time it wasn't a question and Lyarra nodded, grateful for a brief break from conversation.

 

"You're walking a little funny."

 

"Earned it."

 

Lyarra's guiltily smug reply got a snort of laughter.

 

"I'm glad he took care of you." Gwyn admitted after a little while, looking relieved. "Now we just have to make sure he doesn't stop."

 

"Gwyn, why do you assume everyone has ulterior motive?" Lyarra asked in tired exasperation. "Can't anyone simply be good because that's what they are?"

 

" You can."

 

"Other than me - and don't say 'Lord Stark'!"

 

"I can't help it if goodness is an inheritable trait in your family." Gwyn managed a smile, but Lyarra didn't intend to let it go for once.

 

"And what about inheritable traits in your family? Aren't you good, beneath it all?"

 

"No." Gwyn said simply. "I'm frightened, and I'm weak, and I'm angry. I'm sneaky, I lie, and I don't feel a bit guilty about doing any of it. The fact that I do it for people I care about as well as for myself is a redeeming quality, not a good one."

 

"I think you've forgotten that I'm the melancholy one."

 

Lyarra's comment teased a laugh out of Gwyn and Lyarra flopped back onto the mound of covers. Gwyn accepted the invitation and curled up with her, resting her head on the older girl's shoulder. Lyarra felt her idly combing out her curls with her fingers and didn't protest. Gwyn generally only did that when she was really upset and couldn't keep her hands still.

 

"Assuming that I'm safe and treated well because I'm valuable, and not because that's how Oberyn would treat anyone, why am I valuable?" Lyarra asked her friend.

 

She'd discovered long ago that Gwyn didn't lay out her logic. Her reasons were clear and she was transparent in why she did things. It usually all boiled down to whether she cared or not, and there was no complexity to examine.

 

The logic for why she made the choices she made was something else. It was all rooted in the past she wouldn't speak of. A past that Lyarra had put aside out of friendship, but was rapidly realizing couldn't stay buried in silence. Word didn't get out of Casterly Rock often and the Lannisters had a lot of enemies. If it wasn't for her father's reputation for absolute honor Lyarra was suddenly sure that Gwyn wouldn't have been allowed to foster at Winterfell. Yes, technically her Great-Uncle was Head of House Parren and could make the decision to transfer her from Casterly Rock to Winterfell without permission from his Lord Paramount. The idea that he'd anger his own Lord Paramount over it when that man was Lord Tywin Lannister was something else.

 

No-one questioned her father's honor, unless they were joking about the existence of his bastard. Given how obvious it was that Gwyn was a shivering, terrified wreck when she was sent to Winterfell, those who'd sent her had to know that her father would ask about it. Equally, they had to know that her father wouldn't press a terrified girl to tell him anything if she didn't want to. Lyarra could now well imagine that anyone who would allow their bannermen, or order their bannermen as Oberyn thought, to do what had been done to her husband's sister… Lyarra could imagine what had been said to make her friend so scared.

 

"You're not using his title." Gwyn answered by changing the subject.

 

"No, he told me not to." Lyarra replied, then thought about it. "I likely still should, in public, don't you think?"

 

"Try it that way first, then correct as he indicates his preference." Gwyn suggested practically and Lyarra nodded. "He really said that you got to choose what he did to you in bed?"

 

"People shouldn't do things to each other in bed, Gwyn." Lyarra repeated something he'd said to her as they lay reading together while she was too sore to try again what had so pleased her the night before. "They should do things with each other, or not at all."

 

Gwyn had nothing to say to that, so Lyarra changed the subject again. Gwyn happily, if a bit vindictively, regaled her with how Theon's teasing had the men Lyarra's husband had nicked with his knife worried about poison. Maege Mormont, of all people, had gotten in on the torment as well.

 

"Theon convinced the men that they should pour boiling wine on it, to wash the poison out." Gwyn scoffed. "I know almost nothing of poison and even I know that doesn't work. Boiling wine is for when wounds get infected."

 

"So you told them that and sent them to Maester Luwin?" Lyarra offered sarcastically, knowing very well her friend wouldn't have done that to anyone she thought had slighted Lyarra through their behavior.

 

"Of course not." Gwyn grinned proudly. "I convinced them that after we were done with the boiling wine, we needed to rub salt into the cuts to neutralize what the wine didn't. Lady Mormont and Theon were gracious enough to help hold my patients down while I treated them."

 

The idea of anyone trusting Gwyn to treat their ills sent Lyarra into a fit of laughter. Her friend soon joined her. Lyarra reported that her wedding dress was in perfect condition, a rare gift for any bride in Westeros north of the Red Mountains, and Gwyn beamed and promised to tell Sansa. They'd put a lot of work into the dress and had been unhappily anticipating its destruction. Lyarra waited until her friend had relaxed before pressing again.

 

"Gwyn, why am I valuable?"

 

"Didn't forget?"

 

"Not going to."

 

There was a long pause and, just as Lyarra decided to accept her silence, her friend spoke very quietly into the sunlit warmth of the room that was no longer quite theirs.

 

"The Dornish hate King Robert." Her words weren't what Lyarra was expecting. "And he's not a good King. He's six million gold dragons in debt, he handled the greyscale sickness badly, and he hasn't changed his spending or how he acts even though everyone suffered from the Plague."

 

Lyarra was very quiet, waiting to see if her friend went on.

 

"The Queen," Gwyn nearly spat the title, "is hated as well. King's Landing was starving, the plague was raging, and she had her dead children carried to their tombs in the Great Sept on a solid gold litter ."

 

"Meanwhile, Prince Doran sits in the South as the most loved man in Westeros. He didn't just save the nobles, he didn't sell the cure when he found it. Instead he inoculated everyone . Only your father started inoculating the smallfolk at the same time they started on the nobility. Every other lord, even Lord Arryn and Lord Tully, only allowed innoculations of their smallfolk after their own families and bannermen were clear. By the time they got around to it, Prince Doran's Gift had already arrived, herded into town by other smallfolk trained in how to do the inoculations."

 

"What does this have to do with why I'm valuable?" Lyarra asked, but she had a terrible feeling bubbling up in her gut as she listened to Gwyn's tired, dispassionate speech.

 

"The Reach isn't loyal to anyone but the Reach." Gwyn explained, turning to look at her with those eternally worried, calculating blue eyes. "Lord Stannis is dead of the plague, and so is his wife. With him went the watchdog that the King used to keep track of the Stormlands. His daughter's been sent to his younger brother in Storm's End. Lord Renly Baratheon, Lord of the Stormlands, is wroth with his brother for forcing him to give the Crown a loan they could hardly afford."

 

"The Vale of Arryn has no direct heir. Lord Arryn's line is spent, his sister's line is spent. His bannermen are scouring their family trees trying to see how far back their own Arryn ancestors are as they prepare a dozen different claims."

 

Lyarra felt the hair on the back of her neck begin to rise as Gwyn just went on talking.

 

"Hoster Tully is a strong, capable, intelligent lord. He's also old. I don't know what Edmure Tully is like, but nobody really sounds impressed with him. That's important, as what people think of you can indicate the kind of support you get when things go dreadfully wrong."

 

"The Westerlands follow the Lannisters, and the Lannisters care only for themselves. So they will support the Queen and her remaining son, even if they've little care or liking for the King. " Gwyn's eyes fixed on Lyarra then, deadly serious. "Then there's the North. It's been barely hit by the plague. It's bannermen are strong and have their full population to call upon if they should need to. They're also loyal, and they will answer your father should he call them."

 

"Gwyn, why would my father need to call his banners?" Lyarra asked carefully.

 

"Perhaps he won't." Gwyn shrugged and sat up, her hand shaking as she clenched them in her lap. "But if a man would go to war for a dead father and brother, and swear an oath he hates for a shamed sister… What would he do for a beloved daughter?"

 

"You think I'm a hostage. Like Theon." Lyarra felt ill.

 

She'd thought about it before, but that was just in terms of idle imagination. Noble marriages between Great Houses were always a careful balance of power and negotiation and trust. In effect each bride and husband was a hostage in kind, because no-one would be a kinslayer.

Hearing Gwyn lay out the strengths and weaknesses like that… Hearing her reduce kingdoms into the balance unnerved Lyarra immensely. Nor was Gwyn done unnerving her.

 

"I think it would appeal to Prince Oberyn's sense of justice to hold you and the children he gives you over your father's head when they finally make a move for fifteen years of denied justice."

 

"Gwyn, where do you even hear these things?!" Lyarra finally exploded, standing up and wanting to deny the whole thing. She found that she couldn't.

 

"I heard some of it from the Dornish themselves. They're a tight-lipped crowd, but they make no secret of how they hate the King." Gwyn shook her head as she continued to sit, shaking. "They call him 'The Usurper' openly, unless someone from your father's household is nearby."

 

"And you don't count?"

 

"Only if they see me."

 

" Gwyn… " Lyarra wasn't sure what to say.

 

"Some of it I heard from Lord Stark." Gwyn went on. "Most everything about the kingdom and strategy and how big the Crown's debt is came from your father. Since you were busy, I took Ghost out to romp around a little in the courtyard beneath the Broken Tower. Nobody goes there near the entrance to the crypt, but I could hear your father and uncle talking down there so I crept down-."

 

" Gwyn!" Lyarra was scandalized.

 

Listening around corners was one thing, but to creep up on what was obviously a secret conversation around their dead kin

 

"-and they were talking about war." Gwyn finished. "Lyarra, be careful . War has not been kind to Princesses of late."

 

"Is it ever?"

 

"I don't know, I only learned to read two years ago." Gwyn snorted. "I haven't graduated to those great, huge history books you favor yet."

 

Lyarra groaned, burying her face in her hands as she tried to deal with the great tangled mass of information and feelings that had just been dumped on her. It didn't help that in the background she could sense a growing well of anger building. Something, and she didn't know what but she had a terrible feeling it was likely a family member, had left her husband so furious that even the unreliable and new bond she shared with her soulmate was relaying his temper clearly.

 

Gwyn was talking, however, and Lyarra decided she might as well go for broke.

 

"Gwyn, answer me truthfully." Lyarra pulled her hands away from her face to look her friend in the eye. "Do you know who killed the Princess Elia and her children?"

 

"If I tell you that," Gwyn offered sadly, "Then I don't have any value, do I?"

 

 




Oberyn's earlier plans for the day had included lying about and generally making Lord Stark dyspeptic by giving every evidence of a man deliriously happy to have bedded his beautiful young wife. He would break this up by planning his return by ship to Dorne - he had no desire at all to go anywhere near the Usurper or that cursed castle. This would include some time alone where he found out if his wife had made any attempt at living up to her word about pressing the Parren girl for information on Elia's killers. Then, assuming Lyarra was not so sore as she'd been the day before and he was still in the mood for it after their other conversations, Oberyn frankly wanted to make love to her again.

 

Waking up to find out that a maid had handed the bridal sheets off to Ulwyk and Damien had been drunk enough to have the things hung up as a banner to his virility had not started the day off well. His temper already raw with the disrespect inherent in that act, then lost half its control with the Starks. A raven from Doran telling him to go south with the insufferable, rigid asshole who was now his goodfather had done the rest of Oberyn's self-control in nicely.

 

He'd snarled at his Uncle. He'd been insufferable to several other members of his own party. Then, having exhausted even his own tolerance for himself, he borrowed a horse and took an ill-advised, hell-for-leather ride through the Wolfswood against his better judgement. Despite his hopes, however, he ran into no brigands nor slavering beasts. All it accomplished was exhausting his horse and leaving Oberyn himself tired enough that he felt safe to return to the keep, if not to join anyone in the Hall for meals.

 

Returning to his quarters, he was surprised to see a small white head with pointed ears and a little black nose appear from the foot of the bed. He was more surprised yet to see his wife sprawled out beneath the covers, pale, with a cold compress covering her eyes. Suddenly he realized, out of nowhere, that the dull hint of a headache that had been plaguing him for the last two hours was likely not his own.

 

"Lyarra, what is it?" He pitched his voice low and approached the bed carefully, some of his temper cooling at the idea something was wrong with her.

 

The slow-growing fondness he had for the girl aside, she was his wife. It was his duty to protect her. If he'd been out indulging his temper while something happened, he wouldn't even fault Robb Stark if his young goodbrother attempted to run him through for it.

 

"Tried to talk to Gwyn." His wife pulled the cloth off her forehead, wincing at the red light from the sinking sun that was slanging through the windows. "Got a headache."

 

"She's part Lannister; you were likely quite lucky." Oberyn couldn't help his bitter reply, or the eager injunction that followed. "Did she tell you anything?"

 

"She thinks I and my children will be hostages for your future war with the Crown, and that if she gives up any valuable information you'll either send her away or kill her. Oh, and she didn't confirm or deny having that information, either." The Stark bluntness was strong with his wife at that moment as she covered her eyes again and sank back into the pillows.

 

Prince Oberyn Martell stood there for a moment, carefully weighing everything his wife had just said.

 

"The partial maester's chain I forged had silver links." He said quietly, leaning down and gently pressing a kiss to the hair at the crown of his wife's head while his mind began to click and whirr with thought. "I'm going to get my case and fix you something for that headache. It will likely put you to sleep, but if it is bad enough for the light from the windows to be painful, I don't imagine you'll mind."

 

" Thank you ." His wife's quiet gratitude was clear.

 

Walking into the small sitting room that came with their suite, Oberyn walked to the locked wood and leather case that sat upon a table far from the windows and their light. As he checked the contents of various bottles and phials he carefully pushed the tension out of his shoulders, down his arms, and out of his posture altogether. While he measured out careful portions of two phials and a little powder from a small tightly-fitted wooden box, he reflected on how much more difficult several things had gotten, and how this changed things.

 

Tomorrow he had to plan for several tasks that would not be over quickly. The first was an overland journey for his party from Winterfell to King's Landing. The second would be reassuring his wife that she was more than a hostage, despite the fact that a good deal of why he'd come so willingly to an unwanted wedding was the politics behind taking her to wife. Finally, he had to figure out some way to get the most critical step to getting Elia's Justice from the grips of a young girl whose fears were rooted in some very logical facts.

 

Deciding he was in no mood for dinner and his sympathetic headache was going to get worse before it got better, Oberyn measured out a portion of his concoction for himself and joined his wife in bed. It wasn't what he'd hoped he would be doing between the fresh sheets that night, but the direwolf pup was warm where it sprawled across their feet amongst the furs and his wife allowed herself to relax into his arms again after only a quarter hour of suspicious stiffness. By the time sleep took them both Oberyn was no closer to being relieved of his frustrations and anger, but he was at least sure he had something resembling a plan to deal with it all.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 - 297 A.C.

 

The wind whipped Lyarra's hair behind her, twisting and twining with the curls. It would be a wild, knotted mess by the time she got back to Winterfell. Gwyn would fret and Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria would likely click their tongues at her for looking so little like a princess, though they would also look upon her with less disapproval than Lady Stark ever did.

 

The cold air smelled like pine and untamed space. With a sudden wave of hapless grief, Lyarra wondered if she would ever smell the Wolfwood again. As soon as it could be arranged, Lyarra was due to leave Winterfell with her husband. She would have her father with her and Ayra, and Bran, but she would lose Robb.

 

She'd never lived more than a few days of her life separate from her closest brother before.

 

"You're going to break your neck!"

 

Summoned by her thoughts, her brother's worried shout reached her and Lyarra turned to shout back at him over her shoulder, grinning through a cloud of her own curls.

 

"You're going to lose!”

 

"LIke hell!"

 

Then nothing mattered to Lyarra but laughing and staying on the horse that was her father's wedding present. Ash was everything Lyarra had wanted in a horse her whole life, but never would have dared asked for or expect. The big mare was perfect.

 

Ash was no delicate palfrey. Instead Lord Stark had bought from the Ryswell's a mare bred of coursers. A descendant of warhorses, the big, fleabitten gray horse was tall and strong, but not so heavy as a true warhorse would have been. Long-legged, deep of chest, and with powerful haunches, she was made for speed and power without the weight meant to carry a man in plate armor.

 

Robb's coarser, a great black beast, was much of a height with Ash. It was also several stone heavier. Lyarra grinned to herself wildly as she felt Ash pull further forward past Robb and the guards they'd left behind on the trail half a mile before. Theon was no doubt giving them a merry chase in the opposite direction with Arya's help. Robb had said he wanted time to talk to his sister in privacy, and Arya and Theon were obliging them.

 

The path was a familiar one, crossed twice by fallen limbs and cleared by years of game carving a trail through the Wolfswood. She had to watch for low hanging branches with her hair undone, but otherwise their race track was as familiar as the walkways atop Winterfell's walls. Behind her she listened to her brother curse as he realized there was no way he was going to catch her. Lyarra whooped her victory as she crossed beneath the arch of two leaning sentinel pines. They guarded the entry into the ending point of most Stark family races.

 

It was Uncle Benjen who'd showed Lyarra the broad clearing. The meadow had, apparently, been a favorite place of her Aunt Lyanna's. It was a broad, green space with moss and low grasses mixed together in a lush carpet, surrounded on one side by a tumbled mass of broken boulders from a hill long since crushed by time. The other side of the roughly triangular meadow was bound by a broad, rocky streambed. Finally, a heavy thorn thicket, three times wider than a man was tall, guarded the last side of the meadow.

 

The thicket was rich with blackberries, snowberries, and frost berries. Tangled all through the brambles were flowering vines with tiny silver-white blooms. Gwyn had been delighted when Lyarra had first shared the meadow with her. While Lyarra and Robb had taught Arya swordplay and Theon lounged around with Bran on the spread blanket to listen to him chatter on about whatever he'd been learning, Lyarra's friend had filled a large basket with blackberries. Later they'd had tarts.

 

Thinking of Gwyn somewhat spoiled Lyarra's good mood as she sat atop Ash, sliding down to walk the mare. Robb appeared a few seconds later, still swearing creatively. When he slid down from his own black horse he didn't move in to walk beside her. Robb had graduated from a gelding to a war stallion of his own, and his beast had terrible manners. Though Ash wasn't in heat they'd likely have to tie them quite a bit apart to make sure Robb's horse behaved.

 

"You cheated." Robb announced.

" How ?" Lyarra scowled.

 

"By being unnaturally skinny." Robb replied, suddenly grinning and using Theon's favorite sally against her. "If you were built properly your horse wouldn't have thought it riderless."

 

"Forgive me for not being appropriately buxom." Lyarra instantly shot back the usual rejoinder. "Though if my husband has no complaints, I don't see how my brother's opinion matters."

 

Robb's face reddened and Lyarra's went with it. For a brief moment she'd forgotten that she had a husband. Moreover, as she recalled that she was fully a wife, she also realized how truthful her statement had been. Oberyn had shown every sign of finding her breasts and the curve of her ass more than adequate.

 

"Gentle, merciful Gods, we can never use that joke again." Robb croaked, a hand rubbing his face as his ears all but glowed. They were even redder than the auburn of his hair.

 

"Agreed."

 

Lyarra's meek acquiescence prompted Robb to clear his throat. Lyarra then found herself extremely busy with getting Ash's bit out of her mouth so she could drink and graze. A long rope was found and employed to keep her in place. Robb, meanwhile, took his own horse some distance away and tied the stallion up with a somewhat shorter lead.

 

"You wanted to talk?"

 

"I need to talk, I want to spend time with my brother." Lyarra clarified and a moment later was wrapped in one of Robb's warm, all-encompassing hugs.

 

Her brother wasn't yet as broad as her father, but he was growing stronger. Lord Eddard Stark had years on his son to pack on hard-won muscle. If there was a little bit of padding there as well, Lyarra wasn't going to comment. It was Uncle Benjen's job to imply their father was getting fat, and Lyarra wouldn't intrude on a special joke between brothers.

 

"Did he hurt you?" Robb's concern was everything an older brother's ought to be. "When I saw that sheet hanging out like some obscene banner-"

 

"Don't blame my husband for that." Lyarra blushed, but felt herself smile a little. As awful and embarrassing as the sheet was, the aftermath had been a little funny. "Ser Ulwyck's hot-tempered and didn't like some of the complaints that our bannermen were giving about being denied a bedding ceremony. I don't know why he hit upon doing that as some kind of revenge, but he did. My Prince gave him a black eye and I think he may have cracked a rib."

 

"I'd do worse, if father hadn't forbade it." Robb muttered, scowling. "Ser Damien was involved as well."

 

"Aye, but he was drunk and apologized to me later with no prompting." Lyarra grinned as she buried her nose against the fur of her brother's cloak, letting the embrace stretch on and smelling the unique mix of woodsmoke, clean soap, wool, and sweaty boy that was her brother's scent. Given that she'd stolen another of his tunics for the ride, she felt surrounded by her brother; it was reassuring. "Oberyn gave him a nasty spill in the yard, as well. Then the rest of the party weighed in."

 

"Indeed?"

 

"Lady Jynessa lectured the seven hells out of both of them like they were mere boys and Lady Myria's cooking up some revenge of her own, I'm sure. She hadn't even heard of a bedding ceremony and is all over horror at it." Lyarra explained. "Ser Deziel is very protective of ladies as well; his paramour was apparently a slave for a time before she escaped Essos for Dorne. Then there's Ser Arron."

 

"I would not offend Ser Arron Qorgyle without an extremely good reason." Robb agreed, his tone serious before becoming eager. "Was he much offended?"

 

"Yes." Lyarra told him, smiling. "His wife is the Lady of Ramblerock up above the Prince's Pass and he's got four daughters by her. He has strong opinions about how to treat women, and he's to be my personal guard on the journey. I've found I rather like him."

 

"I don't know him at all." Robb muttered.

 

Lyarra spent the next few moments describing the members of the Dornish party Robb hadn't gotten a chance to become familiar with. Lord Gargalen he knew well, and the ladies he'd spoken with at length at the table on more than one occasion. Ser Deziel was one who joined them often in the yard, and was a gregarious man.

 

Ser Arron was not gregarious, nor was he a handsome, courtly man as most of the other party was. A hard-bitten warrior, Ser Arron Qorgyle had married an heiress but refused the title of lord. His wife, he insisted, was the Lady of Ramblerock, and he was there to be her husband and her protector, not her lord or guardian.

 

He was a serious man by nature, with a broad, hard face, and salt and pepper hair despite being in his mid-thirties. The Dornish knight's appearance had been taken to another level of intimidating by his scars. A battle axe had taken one of his eyes and drawn his lips up into a cruel, lunatic's grin on one side of his face. Worse, when the maesters were healing his eye they'd pulled the lid down over the gap and then cauterized it with hot steel. Ser Arron Qorgyle rarely wore a patch over the roughened, seamed and scarred skin that covered the cavity where his eye had been.

 

"So, he's trustworthy." Robb frowned contemplatively.

 

"I believe so." Lyarra reassured him, but felt her good mood crumple a bit as her conversation with Gwyn of two days past crept back into the front of her mind.

 

"Lyarra, what is it?"

 

"You first." Lyarra decided. "You wanted to talk too, and not just because I've had no time to talk to hardly anyone who can't sew or give me a lesson on being a grand lady since this Mark appeared on my wrist."

 

Robb nodded, but reached up to tug at his hair a bit before he finally wandered over near the stream. A series of large, smooth rocks sat there. They were the perfect height for chairs. Lyarra wondered if the rocks had been worn smooth in the past when the stream was a river and flowed over them, or if generations of Stark children had sat on them until they'd submitted to a more comfortable shape.

 

"Your husband's been in a foul temper."

 

"Has he ever ." Lyarra huffed and rolled her eyes, then saw Robb's concern and realized he hadn't likely seen the same side of it that she had. "He's not done me any harm, Robb, he's just been sharp-tongued, and he won't allow me to spar with him or any of the other knights of his party when he's in such a mood."

 

That one had stung a little. Oberyn had told her she had real talent with a blade. Then, as soon as he wasn't in a playful mood, he sent her away from the yard like a child. If she was old enough to bed, Lyarra felt, she was surely old enough to fight. What did his temper have to do with it?



"Perhaps with you that's all he's been." Robb muttered, worrying her, and then adding. "But I'm glad for it. He is treating you well?"

 

"Yes, though I see him little during the day. My lessons with Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria take up so much time."

 

Lyarra desperately wanted more time with her siblings before she left Winterfell. The thought of spending years without them was like a physical wound, it hurt so badly. Would Rickon even recognize her the next time he saw her? Would she ever seen any of her family again in person, beyond Arya?

 

"And at night?" The question seemed to physically pain Robb.

 

"He's done me no wrong." Lyarra blushed, but absolutely did not want to be more specific than that with her brother.

 

In the four nights that had passed since her marriage, Lyarra had spent more time sleeping than anything else when she shared her husband's bed. Despite his reputation, the Viper hadn't imposed himself on her. Instead, the first night after Lyarra had chosen to give him her maidenhead, her husband had been nothing but understanding. She was sore, and he'd accepted that.

 

The next night Lyarra had spent in a drugged sleep, fighting the migraine that her unwilling lesson in politics from Gwyn had given her. Or rather, the headache that had come from trying to figure out what was real and what was Gwyn's fears leading her. Lyarra had learned long ago that Gwyn was a wonderful friend and would do anything for her, but that she wasn't reasonable when something scared her.

 

Then Oberyn had spent a good portion of the next day out in the practice field with members of his party. He'd had little conversation with anyone, and Lyarra had found Ser Deziel gently ushering her out of the yard. It had been a disappointment. Lyarra had wanted to watch, as the match she'd seen shaping up had been her husband facing no less than four of the knights who'd accompanied him. She'd wanted to see if he could really win such a match; from the looks on the faces of his opponents, it was a strong possibility that he could.



Then night had fallen and her husband had returned to bed seeking only sleep and to put his cold feet all over her in an attempt to warm his toes. Lyarra had slept as well, anticipating another quiet night and beginning to fear her husband didn’t truly desire such a young wife at all. It was a fear she learned was rather misplaced.

 

Just a few hours before sending Arya to wake her brother for an early morning ride, however, Lyarra had been otherwise occupied. It made her blush to recall waking up to her husband's lips wandering over her shoulders in a silent request. It made her want to hide her face in her sleeve at how eagerly she'd agreed.

 

"That's good ." Robb was visibly relieved as he scrubbed a hand over his face, then scowled. "If I could say the same for his behavior elsewhere, I'd be happier."

 

"What did he do?" Lyarra demanded.

 

She knew that her husband disliked her father. She understood why. That didn't mean that she had to like how Oberyn baited those she loved. Lyarra was merely cautious about upending or spoiling her marriage before it started, and her father himself had cautioned her not to let old grief damage new bonds. It was likely no other man in Westeros took the idea of accepting responsibility for one’s actions as Lord Eddard Stark.

 

"Where shall I start the list?" Robb groused. "He's moved past simply baiting father. Now he's outright arguing about the Rebellion…"

 

"And?"

 

"And," Robb sighed, wincing, "He brought up Aunt Lyanna."

 

Lyarra winced with him. It was an unspoken rule in the family not to bring up her father's dead siblings. If he chose to talk about them, that was encouraged, but it had long been agreed amongst Ned Stark's children not to bring up the topic themselves. It hurt their father too much to prod at old wounds.

 

"I'm not surprised." Lyarra admitted. "The Dornish don't, well, they don't badmouth her before me, but it's obvious that they hold her in scorn. They universally believe she left with Prince Rhaegar willingly."

 

"I don't know if that's better or worse ."

 

"I don't know, either." Lyarra said mournfully, her mind tangled up with the same concern that had risen since she'd realized how the woman she so resembled was viewed. "If she left with Rhaegar willingly, then she wasn't raped. It means that she disobeyed her father, shirked her duty, got half her family killed horribly, and then started a war that killed tens of thousands… What do you think happened?"

 

Robb didn't answer at first, and Lyarra was surprised. It had taken real work on her part to hold her tongue when she'd heard some of the discussion about her aunt. Lyanna Stark was a martyr in the North, a tragic tale of beauty gone wrong and an innocent maid despoiled and stolen from her kin. Her own Lord Father had spoken of how heartbroken the King was, and how he'd loved Lyanna Stark.

 

"Prince Oberyn claimed that while he was in Harrenhal he'd heard Aunt Lyanna praying in the Godswood there for her betrothal to King Robert to be broken."

 

Lyarra gasped and caught her brother's blue eyes, which were narrowed almost in pain.

 

"He claimed Uncle Benjen was there, but Uncle Benjen wouldn't tell me." Robb looked troubled. "Instead of answering, Uncle… well."

 

"Yes?"

 

"He talked about how, if Aunt Lyanna had run away, what would that mean for our family's name?" Robb blurted out at a pained whisper, his eyes carrying a new weight. "Think about it politically, Lyarra. If Aunt Lyanna ran away, then the betrothal was broken. That's an enormous shame on the family. It also means that Uncle Brandon had no grounds to threaten the Prince, and his imprisonment was justified by King Aerys. Not that the execution or madness can be justified, but it casts a lot of the Rebellion itself into doubt! Everyone lost kin in the Rebellion, and our banners foremost among them. What if those deaths were useless?"

 

Lyarra shivered at the idea, her breath caught in her throat.

 

"Nor was the Viper done at that. Father lied by omission when he claimed to have killed Ser Arthur Dayne in single combat. Apparently someone stabbed the Sword of the Morning in the back instead."

 

"Oberyn claimed what?!" Lyarra hissed in outrage.

 

"Father confirmed it." Robb went on miserably, the blue pools of his eyes still and sad. "He said we'd talk about his reasons later, but…"

 

In the North, when you were fighting for your life, you didn't waste semantics on honorable combat. At least, you didn't to a great extent. Lyarra felt torn. On one hand, battle was battle and you fought to save your life and the lives of those you fought beside. Northerners didn't play games or fight in pointless tourneys because their skills were for warfare, and best kept hidden until needed. When you lived in a harsh place like the North, survival came first.

 

Still… to stab someone in the back in one-on-one combat... Presuming that the wound wasn't fatal, but bad enough to shift the fight, if your opponent was honorable it was expected in the North that you were to bind and save them in such an instance. Lyarra felt as if her world had tipped to the side, and she didn't like it. Her father’s honor had never been questioned, save where she was concerned...

 

"Father was in the Vale when all of this happened." Lyarra swallowed. "Then he went directly to war. Whatever happened with Aunt Lyanna, he believed he was fighting men who'd help a man abduct and rape his little sister. Father's actions weren't perfect, but they're understandable."

 

As Lyarra had hoped, Robb looked reassured. He also looked like he was ready to think about it, rather than just be upset. Lyarra herself felt off-balance over the whole thing. She knew now that she couldn't have been Lady Ashara Dayne's babe, but she'd spent no small part of her childhood dreaming about some relation to that family and had a soft spot for the legends of the man who might have been her uncle. To find out her father had lied about his manner of death…

 

"Yes." Robb breathed out and nodded.

 

"Has my husband done anything else?" Lyarra asked, nervous.

 

"He's made it clear that he has no desire to travel overland in a party with Father, and continued to heckle him over your mother's name." Robb's tone turned bitter. "He wants to bundle you aboard a ship straight to King's Landing, get whatever negotiations he has with the King over with, and then rush you off to Dorne and away from your family ."

 

Lyarra felt a wave of misgiving pass over her, and unfortunately Robb caught it.

 

"Lyarra, what is it?"

 

"Gwyn has a theory."

 

Lyarra summarized everything Gwyn had told her the night before. How the Dornish still resented and hated the Usurper for how Princess Elia and her children had died. How the state of the crown's finances and the plague deaths within the royal family left the succession unstable. How the Great Houses of Westeros had fallen or risen in disposition and strength since the Rebellion. By the end Robb was gray around the face and his lips were white.

 

"Lyarra, you're talking war ."

 

"No, Gwyn was talking war, and you know how she always sees everything turning out as bad as it can possibly be." Lyarra argued, but misliked the lack of surety in her own tone. "If I'm melancholy, Gwyn's… well, you know how she is."

 

"Terrified and easily startled." Robb filled in, but didn't relax. "She usually doesn't pull her fears out of thin air. Lyarra, what did Gwyn overhear?"

 

"Gwyn and I are going to have a long talk about who she can and can't eavesdrop on." Lyarra replied pertly. "You should sit-in, Robb. She was out playing with Ghost near the Old Tower and overheard Father and Uncle Benjen talking in the crypts. She actually snuck down to eavesdrop on them!"

 

Robb's expression was a mix of outrage and worry. He stood up and paced for a few minutes. Watching her brother agitated actually relaxed Lyarra a little. If nothing else, Robb was Heir. He was meant for this sort of thing, and watching him sit down again to face her calmly underlined that. Robb would make a good Warden, as his father before him, one day. Hopefully a day far in the future.

 

"Gwyn shouldn't eavesdrop on her lord, but Father should have talked to me about this as well as our Uncle." Robb's answer surprised her, as did the pragmatic sort of expression that had replaced the outrage and hurt on his face. "Don't look like that, Lyarra, we don't bat an eyelash when Gwyn spies on Mother. Strictly speaking, as a lady in the household where she is a fosterling, Gwyn should be more loyal to Lady Stark than anyone, but here we are."

Lyarra didn't bother to point out that Gwyn was loyal only to who Gwyn wished to be loyal to. They all knew how Gwyn's mind worked, even if they didn't understand it. They also all knew that Gwyn's first loyalty was to Lyarra rather than any of the people who she technically owed fealty and respect to.

 

"Here we are." Lyarra allowed, then bit her lip. She felt obligated to tell Robb the rest, though she didn't think it was true… "Gwyn thinks that the Prince and his kin intend to use me as leverage. Like Theon is leverage against his father."

 

The pragmatic expression vanished off Robb's face. He was on his feet in a second. This time his pacing was aggressive, as if he were only a thin minute away from mounting his horse and riding away to face down her husband and demand some kind of satisfaction.

 

"I won't have it!" Robb turned, his lips pulled back in a wolfish snarl that emphasized the length of his jaw over the color of his hair and eyes, or the freckles on his nose. "He'll not take you off to Dorne and lock you in some tower to bend the North into treason."

 

"Robb!" Lyarra interjected, realizing that - for once - it was the wolf's blood that had Robb in its grip and not his usual thoughtful nature.

 

"No!" Robb shook his head. "I won't have the bastard use you like that, Lyarra."

 

"He's not a bastard, Robb." That one had stung a little, and Lyarra rose to her own feet.

 

"He's sired enough of them."

 

"So has Father." Lyarra shot back and Robb paused, his expression briefly displaying regret before settling into angry lines again.

 

"You know I didn't mean it that way. Also, one’s not the same as eight. " Robb argued. "You're my sister. I've never known a life without you. Giving you up to someone worthy of your hand - or as close to it as any man could get - is bad enough. But an aging viper with a poisonous tongue and a bad attitude? No, I'm done letting him disrespect and manipulate- "

 

"And what do you intend to do?" Lyarra had finally had enough and just interrupted. "Robb, shut your mouth and think! He's a Prince . A seasoned man of almost forty years who's fought in wars here and in Esoss as well. His reputation is well-deserved, and you've barely kept your feet, let alone your sword, in the sparring yard with him for long as is!"

 

Robb looked nettled at that, but he wasn't giving up.

 

"If we came at him together, we could both take him."

 

"An invitation my husband would deeply appreciate, then sadly reflect that the Marks he and I share would keep him from fully enjoying it."

 

The words were out of Lyarra's mouth before she could stop them. Robb's eyes widened and then closed as if in pain. Slowly color rose into his cheeks, blotting out the freckles.

 

"I could have lived my entire life pretending those rumors weren't true." Robb complained. "Doesn't it bother you?"

 

"I wish he wouldn't flirt with Father, but then again, so does Father." Lyarra reached up and rubbed her own pink face. "That's why he does it. When he flirts with you, on the other hand-"

 

" Stop . Stop right there." Robb ordered her, and sat down again. Lyarra followed suit. "I surrender. Still, answer my question, does it shame you when he behaves so?"

 

Lyarra considered it carefully, nibbling on her bottom lip as she thought. She was tempted to find a stick and pull out a knife. Even if all she did was whittle a whistle or shave kindling for her firekit she'd feel better to have her hands occupied.

 

"If he were courting me, or either of us had a chance to choose, I think I would be more upset."

 

Lyarra allowed and turned to look at the Mark on her wrist. Idly she reached down and began to gently twist the heavy ruby ring on her left third finger as well. Having never done it before, she found the repetitive gesture was comforting. She also liked watching the rich gleaming bits of color and light thrown off by the ruby; it painted blood red rainbows across her fingers and clothing.

 

"Or maybe if I felt something before… Being Marked is different, Robb. I know some of what he feels. It comes in flashes and I don't understand it yet, but… he means me no harm or shame when he does so. He's very bitter about having his own choices taken away and his life decided for him by the Gods, but he never takes it out on me. He even…"

 

"Even what?" Robb looked both hopeful and worried and Lyarra just accepted that her face was going to turn redder than his hair and went and said it.

 

"He brought a phial of blood to our marriage bed." Lyarra breathed quietly. "He told me that it was my choice, ever and always."

 

Robb stared at her in blank shock, then visibly relaxed.

 

"So the sheet?"

 

Lyarra shrugged, deciding to let Robb think whatever best pleased him.

 

"I want you to help me talk to Gwyn, as well, when we get back." Lyarra pressed on, frowning. "I - we both know why my husband is so angry."

 

"Yes." Robb winced, then looked up. "You think she knows who killed the Princess? Lyarra, she never talks about… almost anything before coming here."

 

"Yes, but she can't have just started listening to everything, all of the sudden, upon coming North." Lyarra replied, shaking her head. Then she relayed Gwyn's comment about having value, and what happens to those without it in courtly households. "I think she's just afraid. You know how she gets."

 

"If we could settle this, it would help the North and Father's reputation. The bannermen all understand that father was young at the time and desperate, but being manipulated into giving a dishonorable oath to protect a rapist and a murderer of babes makes him seem weak at the time." Robb agreed. "Not to mention that it would make things easier for you in Dorne."

 

"It's the right thing to do." Lyarra added and got total agreement just as Arya and Theon pelted into the clearing on their own horses, their guards following behind with a look of severe irritation.

 


 

"Prince Oberyn."

 

Ned Stark was both pleased and displeased to see that the man was alone when he entered the small solar attached to the guest quarters where Prince Oberyn was staying.

 

"Lord Stark." The taller man drawled before gesturing negligently around him. "Please, have a seat."

 

"Thank you." Ned sat, ignoring the untidy sprawl that seemed to be the man's answer to every situation other than the sparring yard.

 

"Tell me, to what do I owe the endless pleasure of this visit?"

 

Ned was actually getting used to the sarcasm. He wasn't sure whether that was a relief or another layer of annoyance. He accepted both as part of whatever punishment the Gods were intent on visiting upon his House.

 

"I wished to offer my apologies, and my reasons for remaining silent about Ser Arthur Dayne's death." Ned said baldly and watched the other man freeze.

 

He braced himself for some verbal strike that would follow. The Red Viper said nothing. Instead he looked at Ned with black, reptilian eyes and simply waited; coiled languidly in his chair and as unpredictable as his namesake.

 

"Lord Howland Reed is younger than I, and was then." Ned breathed out. "He's a brave and decent man, but he's a Crannogman. They are small men, and fight through their wits and by ambush."

 

"I had thought all north of the Red Mountains disdained ambush warfare." Oberyn drawled and Ned nodded, refusing to be anything but somber in the face of the man's infuriating, obstinate insolence.

 

"Aye. The Crannogmen are mocked even in the North." Ned agreed. "But Lord Howland has been my friend, and a good honorable man as long as I've known him. It was to save my life that he stabbed Ser Arthur in the back, just as it was to save his that I remained silent."

 

The Prince said nothing and Ned ran a hand over his beard before meeting those black eyes.



"We both know that I was Lord Paramount then, and the new King and conqueror's best friend." Ned replied. "House Dayne could rage in their grief, but they'd not lay a hand on me if I returned their family blade and acted with honor. If they'd known what my bannerman had done he'd never have walked out of Dorne alive. I am sorry your friend died as he did, so that mine might live."

 

"Apologies ceased to have meaning for me in matters of death and war long ago, Lord Stark. A lesson I learned when Dorne judged me the villain for killing Edgar Yronwood despite the fact that the old letch was keeping his paramour against her will and had been for more than half a year by the time she crawled into my bed." The other man's tone was dark and low and without a hint of anything but harsh truth, and Ned looked at him in shock; he’d never heard any detail of that story beyond the probable use of a poisoned spear on the Red Viper’s part. "I judge men by their actions."

 

"Then recall what actions started the war in truth , not in Robert's romantic heart." Ned shot back, his own temper worn down to nothing. "Lord Arryn called for his banners not when Lyanna vanished or my father and brother were killed, but when the Mad King lost his mind enough to start calling for my head and Robert's and anyone else's he fancied. War would have come no matter what, and it was Rhaegar's idiotic refusal to put the man aside without assuring his prophecy that cost us all our kin and the realm its peace."

 

"You're holding the Silver Prince responsible for the war?" The surprise on the thinner man's face was clear, and Ned just glared at him.

 

"Aye." He all but spat, and then bit his tongue to keep from speaking further.

 

He hadn't intended to say so much. It came perilously close to discussing his sister, and he could afford to say nothing about Lyanna. He'd already argued with Benjen over it enough for one lifetime, and knew that his brother wasn't entirely wrong. Lyarra was potentially in grave danger should the truth come out in Dorne.

 

It was in strategy where Ned and Benjen differed. He knew it was wrong to keep the truth from Lyarra as a married woman. Ned had originally intended to tell her before she wed, but now he could only see the dangers of telling her. Lyarra was as useless at lying as he was, and her eyes gave everything she felt away, as had her mother's before her. He couldn't risk having her in King's Landing with the secret on her mind, not when his heart was less than sure of how well Robert would deal with seeing someone who so looked like Lyanna under his own roof.

 

Then there was the Viper to deal with. Ned had his own fears in regards to the man, but finding a kinslayer amongst the Martells was not one of them. As infuriated as he'd been to see that sheet flapping in the wind, it had been a great relief on one front.

 

Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper of Dorne, feared all over the Seven Kingdoms and Essos for his volatile temper and deadly nature… loved children. Ned was neither blind nor stupid, and it had been obvious from the moment he'd descended into hilarity over Ned's youngest hurling a root vegetable at his own uncle, that the man was a father at heart. Oberyn had accepted Rickon's temper tantrums like a seasoned veteran accepted the vagaries of battle. He'd charmed and been charmed by Arya completely, in all of her wildness, and treated her like a daughter of his own. That was the largest reason why Ned had felt comfortable allowing Arya to join her favorite sister's household in Dorne.

 

It was also why Ned had decided to tell Lyarra the truth of her parentage, but only after she'd birthed her first child. Hopefully by then Robert would have gotten his crown and house in order.

 

Either way, Ned would deal with the Martell's thirst for revenge against Robert when he could avoid it no longer. If Lyarra had carried and birthed one of the Viper's children, he wouldn't lay a hand on her. The protection that the Mark already gave her would be magnified a thousand fold. He just prayed she fared better in childbed than his sister…

 

"Well," Oberyn finally spoke, his tone cautious as he unknowingly jarred Ned from his own thoughts. "On that we can agree. Rhaegar was an irresponsible, dreaming fool."

 

"A failure as a Prince, a knight, and a husband." Ned agreed darkly and rubbed a hand over his face. "I know not what else to say."

 

"On the contrary, you know precisely what to say." The Viper's poisoned tongue came out again, and his sarcasm with it. "You simply hold the value of an oath unwillingly given too highly to say it."

 

Ned said nothing. There was nothing he could do or say. Robert had, knowingly and intently, tied his hands far too thoroughly for that. While he loved the King as well as any of his brothers, he couldn't help feeling a flare of resentment for being put in this position. Had he pressed Tywin, the Mountain and Lorch at least would have seen a headsman's axe to assure Robert of Lord Lannister's loyalty. Instead Robert had let them go free over the mangled bodies of innocent babes and an innocent woman's death and suffering.

 

"Yet why retread old paths?" The other man went on. "There are other trails to follow to the same end in Winterfell, aren't there?"

 

"You told my daughter that you don't hurt little girls in Dorne." Ned shot back, hearing the implications immediately and being angered by them. "I didn't take Lady Gwyn into my care, nor allow her into Lyarra's household to open her up to harassment. The child's suffered enough."

"Indeed? And how precisely has the little lioness suffered?"

 

"Does it matter if you're making it worse?" Ned stood up, done talking in circles. "The Lady Gwyn spent two years in Casterly Rock, and came out of it a shaking, frightened shell of a child. You swore a knightly vow to protect the innocent and guard women. Does a drop of blood from a family that harms its own disqualify her?"

 

That, Ned saw with satisfaction, struck a nerve.

 

"As part of the Princess' household, the Lady shall have mine own protection." The other man stood as well, visibly angry once more. This time, however, Ned had the satisfaction of knowing that he’d been who’d hit the mark too closely for the Viper’s comfort. "She need not fear anything , least of all a sense of justice. Though, being of the Westerlands, I suppose it makes sense to fear what is new to you. I imagine Lady Gwyn will take some time before she comes to understand of my household and realize she’s in no danger."

 

"You may find that you and Lady Gwyn have more in common than you know, Your Grace." Ned bit back and immediately wished he'd stayed silent.

 

The bitterness in his own voice was enough to ring across the room. It sent a ripple of surprise over the Dornishman's face. Then the Prince leaned forward, his black eyes avid and his body as tense as any serpent before the strike.

 

"Is that so?"

 

"I bid you good day, Your Grace, and hope to see you and my daughter at dinner in the Great Hall."

 

Ned left the room then, before he could be baited into saying anything else he didn't wish to.

 


 

Lyarra all but walked into her husband's chest as he opened the door to the guest rooms they now shared. She took a moment to look up at him in surprise. Oberyn, in turn, looked down at her in much the same before his lips twitched upwards into a smile.

 

"I had thought we might sup alone tonight, Husband?"

 

"I think the proper word might be 'assumed' rather than 'thought' , Wife." His tone was merry rather than offended. "Your father will be disappointed."

 

"Uncle Benjen has him cornered in his solar, so I don't think he will have a chance to miss me in the Hall." Lyarra's lips quirked up as she turned to the side to let him take the leather bag hanging from her neck. It was meant to be hanging from her shoulder, but her hands were full.

It clinked when he lifted it, and Oberyn's face opened up into a wider smile. Lyarra was grateful for it, especially when he hummed his approval upon further inspecting the contents. She watched as he took the two glass bottles of Dornish wine out with obvious appreciation.

"Lord Robb would have you know that he's less than pleased with the hanging of the bridal sheets and would like to discuss it with you over tourney swords tomorrow morning, but other than that, my brother sends his greetings."

 

"If he sends his greetings in the form of decent wine, I will accept them happily and be obligingly gentle with him upon the field tomorrow." Her husband went in search of a corkscrew as she carried the basket in front of the hearth.

 

There was already a large bear skin rug stretched out there. Lyarra had no intention of eating directly on a fur rug, however. Instead she spread out a tightly woven, plain brown blanket atop the rug. Then she removed the toweling from the basket and began to spread out their meal.

 

"You don't prefer the table, do you?"

 

"As it is spread with my latest attempts at poetic expression, the floor would be my first choice as well." The Prince chuckled and returned with an opened bottle, the other setting in the windowsill where it could chill further. "Other than my irresistible nature and natural charm, to what do I owe the pleasure of this intimate feast?"

 

"I wished to talk, and if Lady Jynessa quizzes me over House banners or Dornish history one more time I may lose my mind. Especially if I'm trying to eat when she asks me to justify my belief in one of the fifteen accepted and entirely conflicting theories about how the Ullers managed to kill a dragon." Lyarra winced and her husband outright laughed.

 

"As good a reason as any for a private supper. Especially if Ser Ulwyck gets wind of it." Oberyn was still chuckling as he lowered himself gracefully down onto the blanket to sit opposite her. "He'll argue with you on the subject no matter what version you choose. Then he'll claim superior knowledge as a member of House Uller, but refuse to clarify or support any one account on its own merit."

 

Lyarra laughed at that summary of Ser Ulwyck's likely behavior. She was growing fond of the man, but the knight was a contrary man at times. Sometimes she thought that he got on so well with Prince Oberyn simply because they both were of such changeful disposition.

 

"How was your morning ride?" Her husband asked as he hummed appreciatively at the food.

 

Lyarra had secured her meal before approaching Gwyn with Robb. She hadn't wanted her friend to feel hunted, so she'd let her know that the talk was coming. Then she'd assembled the basket with Gwyn, talking of other things, while they stood at a work table in one corner of the bustling kitchen.

 

She'd secured a large crockery that Gwyn had set aside that morning to slow-cook in the coals. The venison roast had been rubbed and marinated in spices and sugar beet molasses. It sat on a bed of quartered baby potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables. A smaller crock contained greens steamed with butter. A small loaf of fresh, dark bread and a variety of cheeses finished out the meal, along with a couple of fresh apples for desert.

 

"It was good. I've missed spending time with Robb." Lyarra said and felt her heart clench around the idea of how much more she would miss him soon.

 

Her husband said nothing, but the way he scowled down at the knife as he made quick work of dissecting the roast said he must have felt something of it. She wondered if he was thinking of Robb’s words, comparing how Oberyn was taking Lyarra away to how Prince Rhaegar took Princess Elia away from her family all those years before. Lyarra was ever getting flashes of her husband's changeful emotions. They unnerved her sometimes, and she couldn't help but wonder if he experienced the same. She knew that's how Marks were meant to work, but she also knew that soulmates never experienced anything in precisely the same way.

 

"Tell me more of your lessons."

 

Oberyn changed the subject and Lyarra let him. They discussed politics and history. Lyarra learned a little more about what responsibilities would be expected of her in Sunspear and found herself more than slightly nervous. The Old Keep was usually where the Prince of Dorne held court, though Oberyn's older brother had lately moved to the Water Gardens for his health. That had, in turn, left Oberyn to manage the court at Sunspear, and as his wife she would be expected to be his chatelaine.

 

Lyarra promised herself to not just study during her lessons, but to begin asking more questions. She was determined not to embarrass herself. She would let no-one in Dorne say anything of her having been born a bastard, or of the North breeding ill-educated barbarians.

 

"I spoke to Gwyn again."

 

Lyarra had to get a second glass of wine into herself to prepare for this particular talk. She knew what she had to say wouldn't please her husband. She also knew that she wasn't pleased either, but she'd come to a decision. One, she knew, that might put her on the wrong side of the man's infamous temper for the first time. She wasn’t going to be afraid, however, and she would not back down.

 

"Indeed."

 

She had his attention absolutely now, those black eyes focused on her tightly. She could feel the writhing mass of loathing and pain that underscored so much of what he felt and felt wriggling in the air between them, almost. His hate was so old and cultivated that it was practically a living thing of its own at this point, but it was the grief underneath it that Lyarra wished she couldn't feel. It made her think of leaving Robb and her other siblings with fear. It was one thing to leave them, but what if something happened? She wouldn't be there for them…

 

"Robb helped and we got her to say a little more." Lyarra bit her lip as she saw his eyes briefly light up and then immediately dim in anger.

 

"But not about what I would wish to hear, yes?" He asked bitterly and Lyarra shook her head.

 

"She's - I never realized how tangled up Gwyn is." Lyarra said, her tone sad. "I know you don't want to hear about her, or sympathize, and I don't blame you. She's my friend, however, and-"

 

"She is a little girl, and she is afraid." Oberyn interrupted her, his voice not precisely calm or happy, but his tone reasonable overtop the frustration. "I am a father, and I understand frightened children. If it is something else, make me understand."

 

"Robb and I got her to talk a little about Casterly Rock." Lyarra confessed. "Very little, but it's clear she's terrified of the Lannisters. She hates that we're going to King's Landing, and I believe if you snubbed the King and my Father and rushed me off to White Harbor bound for Sunspear tomorrow, she would actually like you better."

 

"Alas, my brother bids me otherwise, so that is not an option." Oberyn snorted, frowning. "The child truly believes the lions to be that dangerous? They are powerful, but they are mortal, Lyarra."

 

"I know that, but - well, she…" Lyarra tried to think of how to make it make sense as she looked down into her half-empty wine glass. "When Gwyn's scared, she stops talking, Oberyn. I always thought that was a choice, but today we really tried to get her to talk and she… I don't have a word for it. She tried to speak, but nothing seemed to come out, and she had another one of her shaking fits."

 

"I've seen the shaking fits." Her husband admitted reluctantly. "Sometimes they are temporary. They may strike soldiers after a bad battle, and never be seen again or stay for years and return at the worst possible moment."

 

"Gwyn has them when she's frightened; sometimes they're not serious. This time Robb and I had to put her to bed afterward." Lyarra winced. "It's why I was not here sooner."

 

"And why you did not show up at all to this afternoon’s lessons with Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria."

 

"Aye, that too. I hope they are not too angry." Lyarra rubbed her face, and looked up at him earnestly. "I did get out of her that it's more than just being afraid of you sending her away when you have no more use for her. You know that, during the first year of being wed and Marked… we're, well, our connection can be dangerous?"

 

"Yes, the first year or two, the Gods hold our lives as one to prevent families from interfering with their will through assassination." Oberyn stated impatiently. "What has that to do with it?"

 

"She won't tell us what she knows, but she made it clear that she's afraid you'll end up dead and take me with you."

 

She wasn't surprised when he stood from the floor in a single swift motion and his own wineglass ended up in the fireplace. The waste of glasswork was irritating and the explosion of bright orange flames and the crackle of glassware made her jump. She wasn't unduly alarmed, however. His anger was an expanding cloud moving in all directions, but it wasn't really directed at her.

 

"That is idiotic!" He snarled. "Five and ten years, nearly, I have waited for my sister's justice, and you're telling me that it could be easily at hand and that child denies it because she's afraid I'll end up dead? What does a maid of three-and-ten know of such things?"

 

"Robb and I couldn't figure out if she's afraid of someone specific." Lyarra went on, standing as well. "It could be that she's afraid of who she would name, or is just terrified of Lord Twyin and his power in general. It could be that she's too terrified to be rational."

 

" Why ?" Oberyn snarled the most damning question and Lyarra bared her teeth back at him in her own frustration.

 

"I don't know!" Lyarra threw up her hands and glared back. "Gwyn does not talk about her past. I've said it to you before! I know her father was second-in-command of the Lannisport Guard. I know her mother was the third daughter of a Lannisport Lannister who made a moderate fortune in the wool trade. I know her father owned two whorehouses. Only today I found out his father was the disinherited nephew of Lord Parren who worked in a mine before becoming a sellsword! I do not know anything about her life at the Rock other than she was a shaking wreck who jumped at shadows when she came here two years before!"

 

Oberyn slowly ceased his pacing. First he snarled a bit. Then he picked up the second bottle of sour Dornish red and opened it, drinking directly from the bottle. Finally he settled on the cushions he'd spread about the floor for them again. This time the sprawl was more aggressive than it was lazy.

 

Lyarra sat down next to him at his gesture. Slowly she let herself relax as she felt his anger recede. She couldn't tell what replaced it, but as she watched the shadows and lights of the fire play over his sharp features and dance, reflected in his black eyes, she assumed it was thought. He didn't relax when she moved over closer to him, but he did hook an arm around her waist to show she was welcome. Lyarra was surprised how much that pleased her.

 

"Ser Damien heard a rumor." Her husband turned unhappily, measuring eyes towards her. "Lady Stark's Septa was overheard four days ago telling Lord Forester's daughter that Lady Gwyn had been ruined as a girl in the Westerlands, and his pity for her was why Lord Stark was willing to foster your friend."

 

Lyarra glared at him as her temper flared.

 

"That is nothing more than an ugly rumor Septa Mordane started out of her need to appear wise!" She spat, reaching out to begin returning the remains of their meal to the basket to give her something to do. "Gwyn swears that isn't what happened."

 

"But she won't tell you what did happen to make her so frightened."

 

"Until today, she wouldn't admit anything happened at all! She'd just say that Winterfell isn't like the rest of Westeros and we should be glad to live in the North." Lyarra let out a deep breath. "I learned more from Gwyn today than in the last two years, and all she really told me was that she's afraid you'll get us both killed, she's afraid of Lord Twyin the way small children fear snarks and grumpkins from beyond the Wall, and that she claims Lord Twyin lets some of his men do whatever they want amongst the smallfolk with no consequences. After that she was shaking so hard she couldn't speak."

 

Her husband let out a series of soft curses in a language Lyarra didn't know. She braced herself, but his temper remained focused firmly away from her. He didn't even get up again, just sat up straighter and balanced his elbows loosely on his knees as he stared into the fire.

 

"I'm not going to torture her further." Lyarra said quietly. "You're my husband, but she is my dearest friend."

 

"I would not have you torment the girl." Oberyn's voice was stiff, and she could feel some inner struggle going on. "Leave her be, for now."

 

Lyarra took that as the best answer she would get and rubbed a hand over her face. She was startled by a knock at their chamber door. A moment later Oberyn called out and the guard looked within to announce that her Uncle Benjen wanted words with the Prince. Lyarra decided she'd had quite enough and rose to her feet before Oberyn could to shove past the guard. Her uncle looked at her in mild surprise.

 

"Uncle."

 

"Lyarra." Benjen offered her a smile.

 

"I'm going to assume that, as your the latest in the line of male Starks to arrive to threaten my husband, you've brought your sword with you?"

 

"Yes?" Now he looked amused, his lips turning slightly as he shot a mild glare over Lyarra's head towards where her husband had walked up behind her. "Shall I need it?"

 

" Yes ." Lyarra said firmly, feeling Oberyn stiffen in surprise behind her.

 

Instead of saying anything, however, as he tried to rest a hand on his shoulder she shrugged it off. Then she reached past him to one of several wooden hooks set into the wall. Hanging beside a far more well-used, if well-cared for, blade was a smaller, slender sword. Brand new and gleaming in a black leather scabbard with the glint of amber in the center of the hilt's crossguard, Oberyn's wedding gift to her had made her giddy with surprise. Uncle Benjen's shock wasn't bad, either.

 

"With the mood I'm in, a tourney sword isn't going to suffice." Lyrra smiled sweetly at her uncle, stepped out, and aggressively wounding her arm through his, before the black-clad man could do anything about it. "Let's go. I need a match."

 

Lyarra ignored her husband's soft laughter as he grabbed his own cloak and weaponry and followed them. She didn't tell him to leave them be, however, or protest when Ser Arron joined the group. She'd had entirely enough of the politics of being a Princess for one day. For the moment she was just going to be a wolf.

 


 

Jon Arryn looked around the private audience chamber of the Tower of the Hand with a practiced, if tired, eye. Bread, cheese, and cold meats were set out along with a good assortment of fruit on the sideboard. A variety of wine rested in crystal decanters that were finely made, but not fiddly. He'd had a small table placed in front of the fireplace along with two comfortable armchairs. The carpets were Myrish, the candles burned well in the sconces, and everything appeared comfortable, casual, and intimate without being forced.

 

It was amazing , the effort that went into looking as if no effort were put forward at all. His guest was announced and the Hand of the King welcomed Lord Tywin Lannister inside with the appropriate level of limited formality. The King's Hand couldn't been seen to imply that he didn't trust the King's goodfather, after all.

 

"Lord Tywin Lannister to see you, Lord Arryn."

 

His guard's announcement threw him from his own thoughts and Jon called for his guest to be let in as he stood to receive him. It was gratifying to watch as the door was opened and the Lion Lord shown in. Tywin Lannister no longer seemed quite so invincible, though only a fool would presume it so.

 

The tall man was now rail thin, where once he'd been lean muscle. Walking up the stairs to the reception room had left Lord Tywin working to hide that he was out of breath. The thick sideburns were trimmed close to hide how brittle and sparse the hair had become when Grey Plague had wracked his body. That he'd survived at all at his age was viewed as a surprising accomplishment.

 

In another case, Jon might have called it a miracle but he doubted the Gods would provide Tywin Lannister with such. Hopefully the Stranger was preserving him for a more just end.

 

"Lord Lannister, thank you for coming." Jon greeted the man with an appropriately respectful nod and got one in return. "Please, have a seat."

 

"Thank you." The younger man sat. "Your summons indicated you wished to discuss a matter of some importance this afternoon?"

 

Jon had spent the morning dealing with the grief of Robert's latest bastard. In this case, the girl hadn't wanted to keep the child. She'd been a young servant and her mother had died in childbed recently. She'd asked for moon tea, and if some position couldn't be found in another keep far away from the Queen's temper.

 

Jon had sent her to Dragonstone after having a Maester see to her. At the moment Dragonstone had no lord for the pretty young girl to seduce, and the steward Stannis Baratheon had trained there would tolerate no nonsense. After that a letter from his more responsible foster-son should have been a relief full of family news from Winterfell, and discussing Jon's increased attempts to get the warrior and lord he would always think of as an earnest lad to come to King's Landing and make a visible show of the North's support for the Crown.

 

"Yes." Jon sat down as well, grateful for the support of the well-padded armchair. His arthritis was getting worse. "I had a raven recently, from Lord Stark."

 

"Good news, I hope?"

 

If nothing else was particularly pleasurable about it, Jon reflected, the lack of small talk found when dealing with Lord Tywin was always something of a relief. Even a request for 'good news' was just a polite way to get information.

 

"Very. It appears that Grand Maester Pycelle's friends in Old Town were not nearly so accurate as he claimed. Lady Lyarra Stark's soulmate is not to be a minor Martell cousin. Prince Oberyn is finally to wed at the Gods' insistence."

 

The briefest flicker of surprise passed the man's face, and then the mask settled in. Jon wondered if he could somehow parlay this into proof that the Grand Maester was in the man's pay. He doubted it.

 

"A most fortunate event for the North. Lord Stark is truly blessed. I know of no other man who could have been saddled with a bastard and end up with his daughter a Princess."

 

"My father always said that the Gods favor the honorable and just." Jon sipped his wine.

 

"If so, they do Lord Stark's daughter no favors in her husband." Lord Tywin reflected. "The man is not called the Red Viper for nothing. Dangerous and ill-tempered; I wonder that a man like Lord Stark isn't concerned for his child."

 

"I'm sure Ned is. However, concern for his child will not outweigh his duty to his Gods. In the North they hold that the Old Gods use Marks to prevent strife between families by settling debts. Ned views this as punishment for not saving the Princess Elia's life."

 

"I see." The immobile face remained so.

 

"There is, of course, a silver lining." Jon went on. "The bride price custom of Dorne is such that Ned is likely to get an influx of either currency or goods to bolster the North's economy."

 

"Given the North's habits and traditions, I imagine he will request goods." Lord Tywin sipped his own wine, but didn't touch the food. Neither did Jon. He'd have to have it distributed to the servants, as it would be wrong to waste it. "Dorne has had a spectacular year for farming."

 

"Yes, and Ned's letter indicated that he plans to negotiate further for his bannermen to secure a larger surplus through trade." Jon couldn't quite keep the hint of exasperation from his voice when he added, "Winter is Coming."

 

Lord Tywin condescended to raise his eyebrows in silent comment. Jon didn't want to discount the trials of winter in the North, as he'd never lived through a Northern Winter. He did , however, sometimes find that the rabid preparations that the North went through for the season exasperating politically.

 

"If that is the case, then Dorne will not see any economic fallout from their massive food surplus."

 

"No," Jon agreed, "Nor will food prices drop between the Red Mountains and the Neck."

 

The Westerlands would, without a doubt, be hardest hit by that. Lord Tywin's lands had poor soil, and you couldn't eat gold. Just as the prices of everything had risen due to inflation, the massive death toll amongst miners in the Westerlands made it harder to mint gold and silver. Now the cost of food would rise and create further unrest for the Warden of the West to deal with.

 

The Reach hadn't had the spectacular crop yield it might have this year or last due to the sheer number of smallfolk killed by the plague. Oh, its crop yield was good, but the Tyrells and their vassals would sell little. Jon knew that Lord Tywin had begun maneuvering in that direction, but was meeting the usual very polite resistance that House Tyrell was capable of.

 

The Maesters had been rattled by their inability to treat the Grey Plague and the hostility that caused among the smallfolk. Just as the Faith was reeling from the hostile response to their insistence that the Plague was the result of sin, and their loss of face when the Old Gods provided a cure, the Maesters were scrambling to secure their place.

 

They had begun to do so by sending ravens carrying the formula, calculations, and predictions for the coming winter to all of the major keeps. They could say with no certainty, of course, but they believed that autumn would arrive shortly, and be brief. The winter after that was predicted to be at least twice the length of average, and the idea of a ten year long winter was grave . The smallfolk were restless enough in half of the kingdoms.

 

"There has never been any great link or trade between Dorne and the North, and there is much reason for hostility." Lord Tywin went on and sat forward as the real discussion began; Winter was yet a fear that could be put off. "The Red Viper is not about to forget his grievances. How concerned for his child will the Warden of the North be, Lord Arryn?"

 

"I all but raised Eddard Stark. I couldn't love him or know him better if he were the son of my body." Jon sighed, reaching up to run a hand through the thick white curls that still topped his head. "His honor is unquestionable , his loyalty to Robert couldn't be greater if the King was his own brother, and Ned values nothing more than family."

 

"Should the Viper be mad enough to risk the Gods' anger over something happening to his Marked bride," Tywin's voice suggested he thought Oberyn quite that mad. "The girl's safety could be a strong motivation for the North to act."

 

"I sincerely doubt that either of the Martell Princes would put a young woman, especially Prince Oberyn's soulmate, to any harm."

 

"We both know that there are ways to achieve harmful ends without taking the burden of the dishonor on your own hands."

 

Jon couldn't restrain himself from scowling at that. Tywin clearly won the round. How could Jon not still be angry over the deaths of the Princess and her children? They'd been unnecessary, and they'd put all of them in an untenable situation that the whole of Westeros was suffering from.

 

Jon had put Robert on the throne because he had no choice. He'd known that Robert would always be lusty and irresponsible. It was in the boy's nature, just as was his profligate generosity and kindness. There was honor and goodness beneath House Baratheon's rage, and Robert was a gleaming example of how all of it could both go very wrong and very right.

 

He would have been, Jon thought with grief, as good a Lord Paramount as anyone could want. He was loyal, and spared the misery of his current marriage his bad habits would never have become so bad. Saddled with a crown he was ill-suited to wear and a wife he loathed, Robert was slowly coming to ruin and Jon grieved that he could do nothing about it.

 

Had those children lived with their mother Jon could have appointed himself Lord Protector. Doran Martell, a reasonable man, could have been appointed to the Small Council to assure his family's interests. Then Prince Oberyn, who was greatly beloved in his homeland for the very things that the rest of Westeros distrusted him for, could have served as his brother's voice in Sunspear while all Seven Kingdoms were stabilized under decent leadership. Everyone would have watched young King Aegon like a hawk for signs of madness of course. Should he have exhibited them, then more steps could have been taken. For one, a wife who wasn't the lad's sister…

 

"So there are." Jon acknowledged and shook off the might-have-beens as useless. "Should the Martells wish to use Lady Lyarra as a hostage they need only move her into a position of danger. At that point, Ned would be forced to choose."

 

"Do you doubt his choice?"

 

"I could never doubt Ned's love or support for Robert."

 

Lord Tywin's eyes were sharp and Jon went on to drive the point further home.

 

"Ned applies himself to his duties and his honor like some men apply themselves to wine and women. He loves them dearly, and he loves justice and goodness in others too much to abandon it himself. A just and good king need fear nothing from the North."

 

Lord Tywin's lone surviving royal grandson and the Heir to the Crown tortured animals for fun. He often set his hounds on small, injured, and defenseless creatures - such as fawns - to watch the more powerful animal triumph. He also sobbed like a baby and threw massive tantrums during the lessons where he was supposed to be learning the arts of war because he wasn't allowed to win every time. He had neither the patience nor the humility to apply himself to his Maester's lessons and was ill-educated and foolish in his arrogance. Joffrey Baratheon was no-one's idea of a man who would grow into a just and good king.

 

"A relief to us all, I am sure." Lord Tywin's understanding was, as usual, perfect. "It is a great pity that the Crown and Dorne have been stripped of their daughters. It is long past time for Dorne to have a closer relationship with the realm."

 

Neither man mentioned the general over sufficiency of sons amidst the Great Houses. Jon Arryn felt he did nothing but fret about how soon he could shore Robert's position up enough to return to the Vale and sort out the succession amidst his distant cousins by appointing a successor to the Arryn name. Likewise Lord Tywin would not wish to be reminded that the only son left to inherit Casterly Rock was a dwarf that he hated.

 

"My thoughts precisely when I wrote to Prince Doran and bid his brother welcome in King's Landing." Jon agreed. "The King wishes to celebrate his foster-brother's good fortune in having a daughter destined by the Gods for a Princess, and it would be an excellent opportunity for negotiation."

 

"It strikes me that Lord Stark has two daughters yet unmarried." Lord Tywin offered what they both knew was coming and Jon nodded.

 

"If a balance cannot be struck with Dorne, then a secondary match to bring all three regions together has a great deal of potential. I understand that his next eldest daughter is approaching two-and-ten, and is very fair in the way of her mother."

 

"I shall speak to my daughter and grandson on the matter then." Lord Tywin agreed. "You shall write to Lord Stark, of course, and speak to the King."

 

"I shall."

 

The idea of marrying a truly innocent girl to Joffrey wasn't pleasant, but Jon believed that the lad could be constrained if they got him away from the Queen somewhat. There was still time for that, and Lord Tywin had already proven would choose a grandson on the throne over his daughter's happiness. The important thing was stability within the realm and not giving the Martells the room they felt they needed to truly maneuver into war.

 

They were the least populous kingdom, and they didn't use heavy warfare tactics. The eldest Martell had proven himself wise enough not to engage in open warfare once , so what they needed was to maintain a balance where the Prince of Dorne believed it wasn't worth it to directly oppose the Crown. Should they counterbalance the hostage situation of Lyarra Stark with her younger sister, it wouldn't give the Dornish any free rope with which to convince Ned to hang himself.

 

Jon Arryn bid Lord Tywin goodbye and called a servant to pick up the remains of the untouched meal. Then he went into his solar. Looking at the two massive trestle tables piled high with neat ledgers he spent a moment to deeply mourn Petyr Baelish's death. Not only had his final illness brought about feverish ramblings that had severely embarrassed Lord Tully and Jon himself by revealing Lysa's past indiscretions, but the man's financial dealings were so convoluted that no-one else could make sense of them.

 

He'd had nearly a year to look over the Crown's finances, and he'd had many other sets of eyes turn to them as well. In all that time he hadn't been able to make heads or tales of any of it, beyond realizing with no small amount of embarrassment that the largest influx of coin that Baelish had brought in had come from having the Crown invest in brothels. It had worked out well enough in the short term, but when Jon divested the Crown of those embarrassing assets he'd just cost them yet more money.

 

The smallfolk were discontented. There was a labor shortage in all of Westeros. Half the mines in the Westerlands had shut down because of that labor shortage. The North was allying with Dorne and the Prince in Sunspear was being raised to the status of sainthood by the peasantry. Meanwhile, amidst all of this, the Faith was floundering as a resurgence of belief in the Old Gods flourished, and its attempts to suppress this were leading to more unrest.

 

"What better time for a wedding?" Jon muttered in tired sarcasm to an empty room and got a sheet of paper to prepare another letter to Ned, encouraging him to bring his second born daughter with him and reminding him of how dearly Robert and Jon himself had missed Ned since the Greyjoy Rebellion.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten – 297 A.C.

 

Leaving Winterfell was a bitter experience. Lyarra was slowly growing to hope that she might one day find the kind of affection for her husband that her father had found in Lady Catelyn, but that didn't change the fact that she'd never wanted to leave the home she couldn't quite claim. Saying goodbye to everything she'd ever known hurt.

 

There were some things that weren't all carefully restrained tears. Some of those things were even entertaining. Lyarra would always remember the day that she realized she was going to have to assemble all of her possessions and then decide what to take with her to Dorne with fondness. Her father was riding out with Prince Oberyn and several of his party to view some of the seasoned lumber that would be part of the dowry, and so Lyarra was left in an interesting sort of mixed company for the exercise.

 

"Everything within this room is the sum of your possessions?" Lady Jynessa frowned as she looked over the modest room's interior.

 

"No, I share the room with Gwyn." Lyarra willed herself not to blush at the lady's surprise at her lifestyle and the visible reminder that she'd been no more than a bastard daughter. "Well, shared."

 

It felt like an invasion of her privacy to bring the Dornishwoman with her into the room. Lady Jynessa was well over fifty, though she looked younger, and having the impressive and accomplished Lady look over the private spaces and details of her life was intimidating. Having Lady Stark stand there as well with a stern and uncomfortable expression on her face did not make it easier. At least Lady Myria had gone out with her father's party and wouldn't be there to add to the discomfort.

 

"I see." Lady Jynessa replied, and then smiled at Lyarra with the quiet support she'd slowly begun to offer her at odd moments in between fast-paced instruction and keen assessment. "Well, then, the first thing we should do is separate everything out."

 

"All of my clothes are in the chest, here." Lyarra stepped forward and nodded towards one of the waiting maids. "You may take this to Prince Oberyn's quarters."

 

The two stout maids hurried forward to take possession of the chest. Then Lyarra realized things were about to get more complex. Unsurprisingly, it was Gwyn who slipped into the room unseen, smoothing her hands over the dark green tweed dress she was wearing and picking up where Lyarra had left off.

 

"Lyarra has two more carved chests that she finished recently." Gwyn offered to the room at large before turning to Lyarra. "You could use them for the rest of your trousseau."

 

Lyarra was about to protest that she'd put too much work into the carvings on those chests to keep them. She'd intended to sell both in Wintertown. Now, however, she realized that she wouldn't have need to do that, and it would potentially embarrass her father to imply she didn't have a sufficient allowance to support herself. Not that she did, Lyarra had just never turned down a chance to put a little silver aside for later.

 

"You're right." Lyarra agreed and walked over to where she'd laid a sheet of paint-stained canvas over both chests to form a small table in one corner of the room.

 

She and Gwyn had been using the space as a kind of de-facto desk. The night before it had been spread with brand new, fresh smelling parchment and an untouched ledger she'd gotten from her father. Oberyn had gone over the figures from the wedding contract with her, and it had left her more than a little dizzy to realize the full financial reality behind going from the Bastard of Winterfell to a Martell Princess.

 

The half of her bride price that remained in her name wasn't going to be delivered to her in the form of agricultural produce as was now being readied to come North in staggered shipments. Instead, Oberyn had explained that the bride price would be paid in yearly installments in the form of interest on the sum settled upon her by the Martells. A yearly sum that Lyarra had realized with shock would have been enough to maintain the kind of ten or twelve person household she had once expected to be in charge of as the wife of a minor noble.

 

Lady Jynessa had addressed the same thing in her lessons, though in a more roundabout way. She'd emphasized the fact that certain things were more expensive in Dorne, and certain things were cheaper to give Lyarra an idea of what she would be facing. Instead of outright helping Lyarra order her household, as Oberyn had offered to do and Lyarra's pride rebelled against, she'd given Lyarra all of the prices of labor, supplies and food. Then Lady Jynessa had delicately discussed the expectations that Lyarra faced for the kind of personal household she'd be expected to field as a separate entity within Oberyn's own household.

 

That had led to Lyarra sitting up all night with Gwyn, the ledger, and her notes from her lessons. Lyarra carefully took stock of the allowance that Oberyn would be giving her as his wife and added it to the income from the bride price. She was relieved to find that as his wife she also had the income from a well in the Prince's Pass that was traditionally a lifetime holding of the wife of any of House Martell's second sons. She couldn't pass it on to any children she had, but she would have that income for her entire life. Added together and with frugal management, Gwyn and Lyarra discovered that she could maintain her household with a modest excess of funds left over.

 

Lyarra was keen to reinvest that. Gwyn had pointed out with her usual brutal practicality that Oberyn was twenty-five years her senior, had a reputation for getting himself into various kinds of violent grief, and had eight bastard daughters to support. Lyarra wasn't sure what she thought about the blunt assessment that she would outlive her husband. She was sure that she didn't want to be any burden upon the daughters he already had and loved. The Marks on their wrists and the vows they'd said to each other should have no influence on his support of or eventual death settlements upon the Sand Snakes.

 

" Oh , how lovely!" Lady Jynessa's surprise lifted the careful, diplomatic tone of the stately woman's voice when Lyarra lifted the covering from the two chests.

 

The ledgers and paper had been relocated to the smaller chest where Lyarra had her private documents locked away for the journey. After she and Gwyn had done all of the math, Lyarra had taken it to her father. Lord Stark had been solemn and his eyes sad as he looked over everything and praised her planning and careful arrangement of her future finances. Then he'd personally gifted the small ironwood chest with its complicated locking mechanism to her.

 

It was already sitting in the rooms she shared in the Guest House with her new husband. It was still an awkward arrangement. Lyarra was left feeling guilty for her relief at how little time she and Oberyn spent together awake. He was yet occupied with meetings with her father, arranging for their journey to King's Landing, and then for returning to Dorne beyond that. She was spending every spare moment she could with the family she would be forced to leave behind.

 

The trunks revealed by the removal of the canvas were sturdy things of ironwood with steel bindings and locks she'd traded other carvings for. Their lids were arched, and smooth. All along the sides she'd carved the twisting, interlocking lines of old Northern knotwork.

 

"Princess, is all of this your handiwork?" Lady Jynessa went on, moving from the doorway and into the room at Lyarra's nod to look at the work tables currently scattered with Lyarra's various carvings.

 

"Aye." Lyarra felt even more embarrassed.

 

All of her projects were finished, but she'd only created one new thing of any merit or difficulty since her Mark came through. That particular object had been her smallest project to date. That had also been what it made it of note; a carving that small, that had to be strong enough to survive all kinds of manhandling while still being beautiful, took a great deal of skill. Formulating the two resins required for it had been a nightmare. Once the first resin had soaked into the wood, and the second been polished in layers atop it, she was confident that the unique qualities of weirwood branch she'd used and the protection she'd soaked it in had left the bone-white wood harder than iron.

 

"You are very talented, my dear." Lady Jynessa's voice was full of approval as she looked with a small, delighted smile upon a cedar carving of a fox kit curled in upon itself for warmth, peeking out from beneath its own bushy tail. Then she looked over at the portrait Lyarra had painted of herself, her father, and the rest of the Stark children. "I've known professionals who don't have your gifts."

 

"You're too kind. "Lyarra found herself saying, and was rewarded by Lady Jynessa's surprised pleasure, and another realization. "If the carving pleases you so much, please consider it a gift."

 

There was no way it was reasonable to take any of her hoarded work with her. Moreover, why should she rush and sell her carvings for a lower price in Wintertown when she was leaving? If she was leaving her family behind, well, shouldn't she leave something with them and with all of the others in Winterfell who'd been a part of her life?

 

That realization had led to one of the better memories associated with losing Winterfell as her home. As she went through her possessions and folded them up and put them away, Lyarra realized quickly that Lady Jynessa had brought more with her to act as the matron of the Dornish party than Lyarra owned.

 

This made sense in some ways. Lady Jynessa was an established woman, and the Head of House Blackmont. On the other hand, Lyarra wasn't merely packing for a trip. She finally began to see what Lady Stark was fretting about in regards to her trousseau. What she'd already put together in anticipation for her wedding wasn't but a fraction of what a trueborn daughter of a Lord Paramount was expected to bring with her.

 

Lyarra was a little disheartened to realize that the feverish work to augment it had not accomplished what they sought. Even having been told by her husband not to overspend or overwork herself in terms of clothing that would be unwearable in the Dornish heat, Lyarra could now see that the clothing, bedding, and other things she would bring with her into marriage were not up to the standards of the dowry she'd been given.

 

It was an embarrassing realization, but what was she to do? Lady Catelyn and even her father had thought that she was more likely to find a soulmate amongst a distant cousin of the Martell line. Had that been the case her trousseau would have been adequate, but there'd been no time to order Myrish lace, exotic ribbons, or other such things from the South. Even in White Harbor the selection was limited, though Lady Stark had sent for silk from the port once the Mark had come through.

 

It couldn't diminish the pleasure of handing out so many gifts. Lyarra liberally gifted the bowls and spoons amongst the older and kinder servants who'd never disdained her bastard status. Old Nan received several small figurines she could see with her gnarled old fingers rather than her failing eyes. Her father and siblings received the most. Lyarra advised them all to gift or sell the extras, as she ended up crowding their mantels with various carvings, but she had feeling that at least Robb was going to hoard them and brood about her absence.

 

Lyarra knew she was going to be absolutely heartbroken when she couldn't see her almost-twin every day. Oberyn had gifted her several pieces of jewelry upon their marriage, and she'd added them to her meager, mostly empty, jewelry box with some embarrassment. Not because she'd never been one for frivolity and her father gifted her the practical things she preferred as presented. Instead it had been the result of Oberyn poking through all of her things as soon as they entered his purview and obviously taking it as some kind of personal insult.

 

"It has nothing to do with you, you can see that, I hope?" Lyarra had sighed, twisting her heavy new wedding ring upon her finger and feeling oddly reassured by the weight.

 

"I know nothing of the sort."

 

He spoke as he looked down into her jewelry box. He frowned as he examined several thick bracelets of beautifully burled wood she had made for herself years before. They no longer fit, but Lyarra knew Sansa wouldn't wear wooden jewelry and Arya wouldn't wear jewelry of any sort so she'd taken them with her. He poked a finger inside to shift the tiered necklace of amber beads he'd given her, the chain circlet she'd worn to their wedding, and moved aside the rather impressive collection of beaten gold bangles that Prince Doran had sent as a gift.

 

"What is this?"

 

Lyarra huffed and came over to see what could have possibly caused such a powerful scowl to touch her husband's face. There wasn't anything she could think of as offensive inside the little oak jewelry casket. At least not offensive enough to make him look so murderous.

 

" Oh !" It was a piece of jewelry Lyarra had had for years, but never worn.

 

"Oh?"

 

"It was my great-grandmother's." Lyarra explained, reaching inside and gently taking out the scrap of black velvet and the gift she'd lovingly wrapped in years before. Oberyn's prodding had disturbed the wrapping, revealing the piece of jewelry hidden at the bottom of the casket. She could feel the sharpness of his curiosity, so she went on reluctantly.

 

"Father gave it to me when I grew old enough to have a room outside the nursery, along with the jewelry box. It was the first thing I owned with a lock upon it."

 

"Where you wrapped his gift up and never removed it?" He prompted and Lyarra bit her lip. For good or ill, her husband was intelligent enough to make the necessary leap to understand her hesitation to speak further. "Lord Stark asked you not to wear it, didn't he?"

 

Lyarra nodded.

 

"Because," Now her husband was angry again, "You were a bastard , and his wife would be wroth that he gifted you an heirloom of his family."

 

His moods since their wedding had confounded Lyarra. He was not harsh to her. In truth, sometimes she was surprised by the patience that the Prince showed her in their limited time together during daylight hours. At night he was either in want of sleep and happy to pursue it, or his mind and body turned to passion. Lyarra found, to her embarrassment, that she was learning far more about her own wants in bed and her husband's desires than she was learning of being a wife or even the kind of man her husband truly was.

 

"It has nothing to do with you." Lyarra pointed out, removing the golden torc and its wrapping from the box.

 

It felt rather like having him see her naked for the first time. She'd never shown anyone the gift. It had always felt as if, should it be seen, then she would lose her father's gift.

 

The bracelet was solid, as the old-fashioned jewelry of the mountain clans often was, and the gold was dark and not very pure, with a soft reddish tint. Made out of two thick, twisted cords of gold and capped with a snarling wolf's head on each end near the open gap where it could be forced around a woman's narrow wrist, the torc was a beautiful thing. If it was also primitive to Southron eyes, Lyarra loved it more for that. Arya Flint had worn it when she'd wed Rodrik Stark, and brought it and another just like it with her as part of her dowry. Then she'd passed them onto her daughter when the first Lyarra Stark had married Rickard, and from that union had come Lyarra's own father and his siblings.

 

"On the contrary, I find the idea that you felt you couldn't wear the one family heirloom you possess keenly relevant." Oberyn turned to look at her with anger coiled tight in his voice and the black depths of his eyes. "I have eight daughters, and I wed none of their mothers. Should one of my nephews treat them so within my family I would take them over my knee, or out to the training yard for a good thrashing and I would have done the same to my niece. Should anyone else so dare, it would be the last thing they did in life to be remembered for."

 

"That is your family, and in Dorne." Lyarra felt herself flush and quickly wrapped up the torc and returned it to the casket, shutting it and locking it away before her fingers nervously returned to the ring upon her own hand.

 

"Is it too much?"

 

"What?"

 

"The ring." Oberyn interjected, reaching down and stilling her hands until her long white fingers were splayed over the bronzed palms of his own and she had to look down at the great ruby and its heavy setting. "Is it too large or heavy? I told Doran it was gaudy, but he insisted."

 

"Your brother chose my wedding ring?"

 

Lyarra felt something inside herself wince at that. Had you asked her an hour before if it would have hurt to hear the husband the Gods chose for her had not chosen her ring she would have said, no . Her fondness for him was growing, but it was a cautious thing, inhibited by the yawning gap in age and experience. She found her husband pleasant, she liked him, and he was a source of endless curiosity for the things he knew and could teach her about life. None of that should have left her open to the sudden sting she felt.

 

"No." Oberyn replied, then let out a low hissing noise as his temper spiked.

 

Lyarra took a cautious step back, surprised to feel his anger directed at her. Then she felt it veer off and lost connection with the tenuous bond she shared with her soulmate as he looked up. To her surprise, his expression was as contrite as it was frustrated.

 

"I'm not angry with you." He then held his hands out. "Truly, come here, please?"

 

It was a request, not an edict, so Lyarra went. He enfolded her in his arms and Lyarra rested her hands on his chest, but stood stiffly. Suddenly all the physical comfort she'd found in his presence in the first few nights in their marriage had leached away. Stubbornly, rather than releasing her, Oberyn curled an arm around her shoulders and rubbed along her spine with his other hand as his chin rested against the crown of her head. She pettily hoped her curls were getting up his nose and tangling in his eyelashes.

 

"You have the thickest hair I've ever known." Her murmured, and she thought she'd successfully irritated him until he began to rub his cheek against her curls. "Lyarra, I chose your ring. I will admit that I did not put as much thought into it as I should, and when Doran asked to see it I realized the stone was likely too large and too dark for a girl as young as yourself, or with your coloring. You're a creature of the pale moonlight, Lyarra, with beauty made for pearls and diamonds."

 

"I love it." Lyarra breathed, unable to speak as she stood there with her face pressed into the soft material of the orange velvet surcoat he was wearing.

 

"I'm glad." His voice was sincere, and then shifted to wry as he went on. "I began to understand the solemnity of the North, I think."

 

Lyarra wriggled slightly backwards in the circle of his arms to look suspiciously up at the false earnestness of his expression.

 

"Indeed." He went on, the innocent look wavering as it fought a losing battle against the man's customary smirk. "I've determined that you've all been trained from birth to aspire to some kind of noble misery. I begin to think I shall enjoy breaking you of it."

 

Lyarra frowned up at his cheek and he openly grinned at her. It was a truly rotten expression. Like that time Theon had slipped into her room while she and Gwyn were going through her new smallclothes and he'd spied the lacy, minimal underthings she now had to endure along with the embroidered stays and such that she wore under her gowns. Both she and Gwyn had hit him before he'd left, but she was still certain that he'd snatched something off the bed. Lyarra decided she didn't want to know what he'd do with her purloined underpants.

 

If Theon managed to really annoy her before she left for the South, however, Lyarra was telling both Oberyn and Robb about the theft. Robb would be furious and go demand what their foster-brother was thinking. Oberyn would likely find it amusing, but choose to make an issue of it just to cause trouble. Either way, Theon's terrified expression would be priceless.

 

"I also think Lady Jynessa has been remiss in your lessons." Oberyn's face fell into slightly more serious lines. "You're a princess of House Martell. Our words-"

 

He was cut off by a knock at the door. Ser Daemon, who was standing guard, announced Lord Gargalen. Oberyn muttered something under his breath about a boat oar, a goat, and a bucket of lard that seemed incredibly unsafe. It was also disgusting and Lyarra pulled a face as she stepped away from her husband and moved to receive the venerable Lord with the good grace he deserved. Oberyn threw himself into a chair in front of the fire and glared into the flames, his foul mood resurrected once again. As she poured a cup of wine for the aging man, Ser Daemon knocked again.

 

"Lords Robb, Bran, and Rickon Stark wish to know if the Princess has time to to spar this evening?"

 

"Of course I do." Lyarra immediately stepped towards the door, reaching for her cloak. "My Prince-"

 

"Ser Arron goes with you."

 

Oberyn waved a hand at her, never turning his eyes or scowl from the flames, and Lyarra gratefully took the offered escape. As she'd known, four direwolf pups, already more than knee-high and starting to gain a certain lankiness to their frames as they grew, were with them. Ghost, the only she-wolf amongst them, had managed to get Shaggydog down by the scruff of his neck, the pup play-growling as he flailed his legs in the hallway and tried to regain his feet. Greywind was standing, dignified and on guard, at Robb's side and Bran's own pup was permitting Ser Arron, who was now Lyarra's official guard and obligated to be by her side unless Oberyn said otherwise, to scratch his ears.

 

"What do I owe this unexpected pleasure?" Lyarra tried to jest, still feeling a little raw from the storm of strong emotion that her husband could be.

 

"We have to make the most of the time we have." Bran's quick answer caused Lyarra's heart to ache nearly as much as Rickon's swift denial of, " Nobody takes Lyarra! "

 

"Judging from the sheet Lyarra's already been thoroughly taken." Theon, who Lyarra hadn't seen lurking further down the hall japed.

 

Lyarra felt her face flame, but was rewarded when Robb's cry of outrage neatly distracted Theon from the other present threat. Ser Arron Qorgyle wasn't an especially tall man, but he was a large man. Fully grown and heavily muscled, he was surprisingly fast for his blocky frame. He was also standing closer to Theon than Robb, as Theon had the sense to put more than an arm's reach between them when he planned to make off-color remarks to Lyarra. He had only put twice a man's reach between himself and Ser Arron though, and that was his mistake.

 

"Ser Arron, please release him." Lyarra asked sweetly.

 

The Dornish Knight had swung around and taken two steps forward. Then he'd hooked the hand not holding his spear behind Theon's neck. A moment later the Greyjoy had found himself slammed face-first into the corridor's stone wall. While Ser Arron hadn't broken his nose or bloodied his lips, Theon had hit hard enough to have some fine bruising in the morning.

 

"As you wish, Princess." He released Theon with a scowl. "Shall I address his disrespect more sharply?"

 

"If I were to have you punish all of the idiots in the world for their stupidity, you'd have no time to write any letters, Ser Arron."

 

Her smile was wolfish as she met Theon's surprised and rather embarrassed gaze; he'd apparently forgotten that her rank and marriage meant things besides the fact that she was leaving and now had to wear fancier clothing. Lyarra didn't blame him; she could go hours without remembering she was a Princess even in the midst of her lessons with Lady Jynessa. It still seemed to strange and unlikely to be real.

 

"We can't have that." Ser Daemon's tone was merry but his gaze hostile as he glared at Theon from his place by the door. "The man pines for his wife enough as is. If he couldn't write them, he'd never shut up."

 

Lyarra felt her lips turn up at that. Ser Arron was not a talkative man on most subjects. His uxoriousness, however, was apparently as legendary in Dorne as his terrifying abilities with a morningstar in battle.

 

"At least I'm not pining for a burly blacksmith who thinks I've a strong interest in his bronze work." Ser Arron snorted, stepping back and bowing deeply to her. "As you will, Princess."

 

Ser Daemon laughed at the sally. Robb merely looked scandalized. Rickon didn't care, as he was now wrestling on the floor of the corridor with Greywind and Shaggydog as if he were a wolf pup himself. Bran looked like he was trying to work out what was going on. Lyarra quickly reached down and snatched her brother up out of the tangle of furry limbs on the floor and balanced Rickon on her hip as she tried to think of a way to distract Bran.

 

"Where are Sansa and Arya?"

 

"Waiting for Gwyn with Mother." Robb shot Theon a final reproachful look full of promise of vengeance to be had later. "Father wanted to have a family meal tonight and had it set up in the small meeting room. Uncle Benjen insisted on handling the food."

 

Lyarra made the same horrified face that she was sure Arya had made at that news.

 

"Sansa won't be pleased."

 

"I imagine not." Bran agreed, grinning. "I bet I can guess what's in it first, though!"

 

In a quirk of his nature, their only uncle had taken a certain delight in cooking after he'd joined the Night's Watch. It wasn't the love of kitchens and bubbling cauldrons and carefully mixed, delicious recipes that Gwyn had. Instead, their uncle took a deep and slightly evil pleasure in what their father referred to as "field cooking". He liked to fix barely edible recipes from unknown sources and then dare his relatives to figure out what he'd just served them.

 

Their somber father happily leapt into this strange game. No-one would believe that solemn, ice-eyed Lord Eddard Stark fed his wife and children mystery meat cooked by his own brother. That's precisely what he did, however, and very insistently. Who could turn him down when Old Nan said it was the only time she ever saw the two eldest living Starks act like the boys they'd apparently once been years before the Rebellion and grief befell them?

 

"It's probably squirrel." Theon maintained. "It's usually squirrel."

 

"Marmot." Lyarra replied at the same time as Robb.

 

" Cat ." Rickon announced as he squeezed Lyarra around the neck.

 

"Uncle Benjen wouldn't feed us a cat!" Bran's horror spurred even Ser Arron to a chuckle.

 

"He fed us rat once." Robb argued. "Mother still hasn't forgiven him. What do you bet she'll fill up on bread?"

 

Lyarra smiled, something inside her twisting painfully until she had to fight to make sure none of her siblings noticed the tears in her eyes. Unsurprisingly, she failed.

 

"Lyarra?"

 

She started when Rickon touched her face. His expression was worried and upset. She was relieved they'd just walked into the yard, because it gave her a ready excuse.

 

"Nothing's wrong, lil'red." She kissed his nose just to watch him wrinkle it. "Just the wind in my eyes."

 

There was no graceful way to say she was heartbroken that she'd never have to be afraid of her dearest uncle trying to serve her rat again.

 


 

"Her sisters?"

 

"Yes, my Prince." Ser Arron confirmed. "You've said before not to interrupt her time with her family if possible. She's in the Stark Family quarters with the Lady Sansa and Lady Arya, and the little Westerlands girl. The Princess is safe for the night, and I think she's feeling their loss."

 

"Let her have this time." Oberyn agreed, but it still felt a little bitter to say it.

 

He would have no more time with his sister, and he was still no closer to avenging her death.

 

"She's a kindhearted young thing, your Princess." Ser Arron went on, surprising Oberyn at the easy conversation until he added, "She makes me miss my girls."

 

"Don't start." Oberyn pointed a finger at his fellow Dornish warrior. "If you start whining about missing your daughters, I'll begin pining for mine, then we'll both be drunk by the end of the night."

 

"At least I don't have to worry about you trying to bed me." Ser Arron snorted, then glared lightly at his Prince. "Or my wife."

 

"Preferably both of you." Oberyn replied with a shrug and a smirk, though that was another fact that left him feeling resentful. He decided to change the subject. "I've already spoken to the rest of the party. Take Ser Daemon and tell the guard to be ready to leave in two days. Lord Stark's preparations have gone more quickly than was expected, and I've decided that I won't suffer further delays. I want to be out of King's Landing before the year is spent."

 

Ser Arron raised his eyebrows but he didn't say anything further. It wasn't in his nature to ask excessive questions. Oberyn was grateful for it.

 

"A wise choice."

 

Lord Gargalen was still in Oberyn's guest quarters. It had grown late, but they hadn't exhausted each other's company. Oberyn appreciated the fact that his uncle could offer quiet companionship when he was in a foul mood, and after Oberyn had issued his initial orders about their travel plans his uncle had left him be. It wasn't until Oberyn's need for action prompted him to ask his uncle for a cyvasse game that they'd had any conversation. Then it had centered around Syrella's scholarship, how to manage Lia's desire to enter a tourney outside of Dorne, and Quentyn's promise as a future Prince. They'd talked of calm things, family things, and some of Oberyn's foul temper had eroded.

 

"A wise choice that I would like to know your reasoning for. Doran did not ask you to stay in King's Landing overlong, but we both know that between questioning the servants there and putting the Parren girl back amidst the lions she so fears, it will be our best chance to get names for your sister."

 

"I'm aware of it." Oberyn shifted to stand with his back against one side of the fireplace, where the warmth of the hearth that could seep into his bones and rest with his frustration.

 

" And ?"

 

"I'm also aware that half of my daughters were conceived in a single night," Oberyn said with quiet intensity. "The rest were likely conceived within a fortnight of Ellaria going off moon tea."

 

"And your wife is young and fertile."

 

Oberyn winced at that and pulled a hand roughly over his face, letting the scrape of his calluses over his face ground him.

 

"Can you not describe her so?"

 

"You've yet to reconcile yourself with her age, then." Lord Gargalen's dark eyes were speculative and unreadable and Oberyn suddenly wished dearly for a chance to talk to his older brother.

 

"It is not… simple." Oberyn settled on saying. "For today, at least, I've no urge to discuss it."

 

"I make a poor substitute for my other nephew, then?" Lord Gargalen smiled up at him and Oberyn shook his head, refusing to answer and veering back to his original subject.

 

"The Gods wouldn't have brought us together if we weren't meant for children. I'll have seen forty namedays shortly." Oberyn crossed his arms over his chest. "It would make no sense to delay, and likely it can't be delayed. Without moon tea such things simply take their course. If she hasn't already caught, she will soon. I don't want her showing in the Usurper's court."

 

Lord Gargalen considered his words and then nodded.

 

"If her condition is apparent through other symptoms?"

 

"My daughters treat their mothers gently in the womb." Oberyn stated with a certain amount of pride.

 

He had no idea how three of his lovers had fared in their pregnancies, actually. He did know, that Nymeria's mother had been able to hide her pregnancy completely for its duration. She was a tall woman, and Nym had been carried low and small, her Voltene noblewoman of a mother hadn't even had to use the excuse of having grown fat. When he'd come to collect his infant daughter she'd bragged that she'd never known a moment's illness.

 

Ellaria, Oberyn recalled with grief tangled up with old joy, had been much the same. At times her appetite had been weak and he'd been forced to tempt her with whatever delicacies he could think of. She'd never been violently nauseous, however, just often very tired in the first three or four moons.

 

"Ellaria was faint with both Lia and Dorea." His uncle reminded him and Oberyn frowned.

 

"True." Oberyn agreed. "If Lyarra's symptoms are obvious we will leave. I will not have my unborn child carried through a lion's den, or around that lurching oaf who calls himself King. Lady Gwyn travels with us, and I know that girl knows something."

 

"I agree, though you'd said you had told your wife she is to be left be." Lord Gargalen raised an eyebrow at him and the Viper offered him a cold blooded smile.

 

"I said I would leave the girl be, and I plan to be the soul of courtesy to the child." Oberyn explained. "I've spoken to our own ladies. Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria will begin leaning upon the girl in the wheelhouse as we go south. Nothing too aggressive, just enough to keep her nervous. Her origins mean that the rest of the party will treat her with care, as she's my ward now and my wife's lady, but that will not make them warm to her."

 

"Ah." Lord Gargalen agreed. "A gauntlet in one hand, a velvet glove in the other."

 

"With a frightened maid who is only barely three-and-ten, it shouldn't take to long to gain her trust." Oberyn shrugged and then frowned at the indecipherable look his uncle was giving him. "What? You disapprove."

 

"I'm not that kind-hearted where children are concerned." Oberyn's uncle waved off the suggestion. "We'll be doing the girl no real harm, and if she does know any Lannister secrets then the safest thing for her will be to destroy them so that she may live on without them ever knowing the child was aware of anything in the first place. I'm not concerned about that."

 

"Then what?"

 

"Your temper." Lord Gargalen's tone was that of a man relating a simple fact; non-prejudicial and non-judgemental and all the more irritating for that. "You're a passionate man, Oberyn, and all that has happened strikes closest to your deepest pains. Your wife is younger than the daughter you lost, you miss Ellaria and will do so for the rest of your life."

 

Oberyn breathed out slowly, looking away as the pain welled up and fought to turn itself into anger. He refused to live up to expectations, however. His uncle was the only one brave enough, or unkind enough, to have once told the Red Viper that he hid behind his fear.

 

"If you do lose your temper and frighten the girl, this plan could backfire completely." The Lord of Salt Shore went on. "You'll be carrying a child who feels hunted from all sides right back to a group of people who are frightening, but familiar, and distant kin besides. If Lady Gwyn goes running back to the Lannisters, we may have lost our chance yet again."

 

"I will not lose my temper." Oberyn insisted. "Too much is at stake, and I'm not a reckless child. Moreover, I do not believe there is any risk of her choosing the Lannisters over us. It would mean separating herself from my wife, and if she's grafted herself tightly enough to Lyarra to leave her safehaven in Winterfell, she'll not readily abandon her out of fear of even me."

 

"A nest of vipers or a lion's den is a hard choice." Gargalen countered. "Especially when you've already been thrown to the wolves."

 

"Ned Stark told me that the Parren girl and I had more in common than I know."

 

"What could a Prince of Dorne possibly have in common with a girl of mixed merchant stock from the Westerlands?" Lord Gargalen sat up in surprise.

 

Oberyn, out of a perverse sense of triumph at having surprised his formidable uncle, walked slowly over to the sideboard to pour two cups of wine. He wandered back idly, stopping to run his fingers over the carvings on his wife's newly delivered trunks.

 

"It is just as well that Doran's generosity with the innoculations led to half of Westeros gifting us with gold. The coffers are overflowing nicely, so I can well afford to supply my wife with a proper wardrobe." Oberyn frowned as his mind went back to the strange golden torc he'd seen while looking through his wife's shamefully meager jewelry box. "She'll look spectacular in fine silks, don't you think? Something thin; so delicate it's nearly translucent. We can't burden her with heavier fabrics in the heat. Lyarra will be unused to it."

 

"Will you enjoy shocking her more, or watching her grow fat with child?" Lord Gargalen gave in before Oberyn, knowing the futility of dealing with Oberyn when he was in this sort of mood.

In truth, Oberyn had no idea what Ned Stark had meant. He couldn't fathom what he might have in common with the girl. He'd seen the Usurper's Dog bite his tongue, though. Had Ned Stark been able to snatch those words back out of the air and swallow them, he would have. He was sure that whatever the Quiet Wolf thought he had in common with the little blonde was the key to getting the names and the beginning of Elia's justice.

 

His uncle's words put a smile on his face, however. Oberyn accepted the distraction gladly. It was a picture that pleased him immensely to think of.

 

"It's been too long since I've held a babe of my own." Oberyn smiled and then shook his head. "Dorea's nearly five. Where has the time gone?"

 

"It will be nice to have another Martell in the world." Lord Gargalen smiled broadly back and laced his hands together over his flat stomach. "Your Sand Snakes are a joy, but it'll reassure the smallfolk to see the family name grow. Despite what the Starks think, you've only the one cousin."

 

"Yes." Oberyn nodded. The foul, changeful mood of the day began to unwind. "Lyarra will be beautiful as she grows big, but I'll have to watch her closely. She'll be fifteen when she delivers, likely enough, and that's younger than I like."

 

"It is just as well, then, that's she has at least part of a Maester to wait upon her." Lord Gargalen drawled and Oberyn shot him an unamused look.

 

" Please , we both knew I grew bored with the Citadel's hidebound philosophies, not learning itself." Oberyn scoffed. "I could have forged more than one chain with what I learned of poisons alone in the East, and I studied far beyond that."

 

"It's always nice to have a midwife in the family."

 

"Hah." Oberyn dryly, then smiled smugly. "You cannot embarrass me. I was a joy to deliver the daughters Ellaria gave me. I will be equally blessed to deliver the rest of my children."

 

"Indeed." His uncle's smile was soft, but the older man's eyes were laughing when he got the final word in. "I beg to be allowed in the room to hear your wife's reaction when you tell her that, however."

 

"Drink your wine, Uncle." Oberyn scoffed, and followed his own advice.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven - 297 A.C.

 

Lyarra looked longingly out of one of the small, arched windows of the wheelhouse. It was a fine Northern day. The wind was a brisk chill, and everything was cloaked in a thick, silvery mist that dulled the sharp edges of the rocky gray ground of the Barrowlands.

 

It was cold enough that the mist hung heavy on the air and dusted crystalline droplets over every surface, clinging like diamonds to the thick gorse scrub that clung to the harsh ground. On the rare occasion when some sliver of sunlight peeked through the charcoal clouds overhead, everything would turn to a glimmering landscape of refraction before the soothing silver blanket returned.

 

In short, it was a beautiful day for a Northern heart to feast on, and Lyarra was stuck inside the wheelhouse. For the first few days of their journey, she'd been spared that. Lord Gargalen preferred to ride, and he'd become her default teacher in political lessons. Lyarra's husband happily participated, and others in their party contributed as they rode. Learning with the wind in her hair was a wonderful experience. Even Arya had managed to contain her need to gallup about enough to join in the lessons.

 

"Your Grace?"

 

Lyarra turned around guiltily.

 

"House Toland holds Ghost Hill, on the shores of the Sea of Dorne near the Broken Arm. Their seat takes its name from the ghosts of the sailors whose ships wrecked upon the rocky shoals and submerged islands off the coast. Lady Nymella Toland currently holds the House's title. She has two daughters, Lady Valena and Lady Teora."

 

"Very good." Lady Jynessa nodded. "What are House Toland's colors and why did they take them?"

 

"The Toland arms are a green dragon biting its tail on a golden field." Lyarra recalled, having enjoyed the tale. "During the First Dornish War, Aegon the Conq-."

 

"Aegon the First, Princess, we do not refer to the man as the Conqueror in Dorne." Lady Myria reminded her and Lyarra blushed but pushed on without comment at her own mistake.

 

"The Targaryen King found no success in his efforts and challenged Lord Toland to a duel. Upon killing Lord Toland, however, Aegon found that the man was no more than House Toland's mad fool. After the battle House Toland took gold and green as their colors to remember the brave fool's motley."

 

"And the dragon was chosen because?"

 

"They claim it was to symbolize the endless nature of time, but it's strongly believed they were either mocking Aegon for his duel against the jester or the fact that his dragons were not proven as a universal tool for easy conquest."

 

"Nicely done." Lady Jynessa smiled at her and sat back to take a sip from the mug of hot tisane she was cradling in her hands.

 

Lyarra looked over at where where Gwyn was diligently working on embroidering a shawl and tried to summon up a glare. The heavy black silk was a parting gift to the girl from Lady Stark, and Gwyn had delightedly taken out her hooked needle and tiny glass beads and was now embroidering across it a glimmering rainbow of flowers and green vines.

 

Her friend had been the one who'd chosen the mix of herbs in the tisane. With a good amount of dried lavender in it, as well as something tangy that Lyarra didn't recognize, the tea was soothing to all of the senses. It also threatened to put Lyarra to sleep in the warmth of the wheelhouse. Lyarra had exchanged it for another mix and was just waiting for the kettle to boil again upon the wheelhouse's small stove.

 

Gwyn didn't look up from her work, though Lyarra was sure that she was aware of any eyes on her. Lyarra felt her glare soften immediately at the thought. Though Gwyn did not enjoy riding, she'd been on the solid, spotted rouncey as often as Lyarra had been on Ash.

 

Lyarra had given Gwyn space and not asked her another word about her past. Oberyn had been true to his word and hadn't pressed her further on what she might or might not know of Lord Tywin's bannermen. That did not mean that any of the other Dornish were willing to let it go. While no direct questions were asked on the subject, a great deal of curiosity had been directed at Gwyn herself.

 

This was especially obvious with Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria. At first they'd both tried to be motherly towards the Westerlands maid. Then, when that failed, they'd been kind but firmly proper in their behavior. Lyarra had wanted to bang her head against a tree as she watched Gwyn's sharp answers become careful courteous evasions. Finally, Lyarra felt her own nerves draw tight as Gwyn stopped speaking at all unless it was absolutely necessary. Even then her answers were short and vague.

 

Lyarra had finally taken matters into her own hands. She'd put herself firmly between her friend and anyone else. Then, when either of the Ladies attempted to address Gwyn, she interrupted. Lyarra might not be comfortable with being a Princess, but she knew that as Prince Oberyn's wife neither of the older, more worldly, and intimidating women who were currently giving her lessons could refuse to answer any question she asked. Lyarra proceeded to ask them all, and was relieved to see her friend's shoulders relax even as Gwyn remained silent.

 

"Now, let's move on to-." Lady Jynessa's comment was cut off by two sharp raps at the door to the wheelhouse.

 

"Probably Ser Daemon whining about the weather again." Ser Arron grunted, as Lyarra tried to stifle a smile.

 

Some of Oberyn's escort, most notably his uncle, had ridden to White Harbor. They would take the ship that had originally been intended to bear the whole party back to Dorne and instead take a cargo to Braavos. After having made a profit and allowing Lord Gargalen time to carry out some business with the Iron Bank, they would then sail for King's Landing. From there Lyarra would be borne to her new home with the rest of the party.

 

The rest of the Dornish party did not display the stoicism that Lyarra had grown to expect from everyone of her acquaintance. While every good Northerner complained about the weather, nobody avoided it. To do so, especially if you were a man grown, was seen as a sign of weakness.

 

The Dornish did not share this belief. In fact, Lyarra had watched a steady stream of knights attempt to claim a place in the wheelhouse since setting out. It was a legitimate guard post as the last line of defense for the ladies within. If it also happened to offer warm drink, the occasional hot snack, and a warm seat by the cast iron and brick stove that heated the wheelhouse, well, Lyarra supposed that was just happenstance.

 

Ser Daemon Sand was particularly bad about wanting to take the warm seat by the stove. So far he'd been able to monopolize it as well. However, as Lyarra had spent all day in the wheelhouse and her husband had personally assigned Ser Arron as her guard, the one-eyed man had steadfastly refused to leave the warm seat all day and left his fellow knights to suffer the mist Lyarra had been admiring only moments before.

 

"Prince's orders, pretty boy," Ser Arron pulled the slide back over the metal grating on the door so he could shout out. "I'm here guarding the Princess and you're out there guarding our backs!"

 

"While I'm pleased you find me pretty, Ser Arron, kindly shut up and open the door!"

 

Lyarra clapped a hand over her mouth at the short, annoyed tone of her husband's voice, and realized her own restlessness might have had less to do with tiring of her lessons than she'd thought. Now that she was paying attention she could all but feel nettled annoyance radiating from her soulmate, with a not inconsiderable splash of misery. Judging from the way Ser Arron snapped into attention, he was seeing an expression to match the surliness Lyarra was perceiving.

 

A moment later and Ser Arron Qorgle was gone. He'd managed to somehow step down onto the narrow platform that jutted past the door. Then he'd turned at the same time that Prince Oberyn had hopped onto it, grasped Prince Oberyn's reins, and swung onto the horse as Prince Oberyn swung into the moving wheelhouse. It was a demonstration of horsemanship that had Lyarra staring in delight, but seemed to surprise neither Lady Jynessa nor Lady Myria.

 

"It's ill-bred to flaunt so, my Prince." Lady Jynessa huffed lightly, the older woman carrying a tone of exasperation.

 

"I'm flaunting nothing." Her husband replied, his tone clipped as he pulled off his wet, muddy boots while leaning against one of the wheelhouse's walls, and divested himself of his damp fur cloak. "I'm too cold to flaunt."

 

"Then the North's climate has succeeded where nothing else in the known world could triumph."

 

"You cannot possibly be so cold. It's summer, and a good deal above freezing." Lyarra permitted herself a laugh and, without thinking, reached her hands out as she now found herself doing automatically whenever her husband complained about the cold.

 

In a fit of pure childishness, her husband reached past her hands and buried his fingers in the arch of Lyarra's throat between her shoulder and her chin. Squealing as the ice cold digits pressed against sensitive flesh, she batted his hands away. Feeling herself blush as she scowled at her husband, Lyarra glared. She still reached out and caught his hands, chafing them between hers.

 

"A man old enough to be my father, and yet Bran is too old for that stunt." Lyarra scolded before she could help herself.

 

She couldn't help but wonder if she would offend her husband by doing so. Oberyn enjoyed sass in essentially all forms, she'd found. That might be different, however, than being scolded as if he were a child by a wife who he hadn't wanted, and who was younger than half of his daughters.

 

"Then I shall have to remind him of its usefulness." Her husband said impishly as he lowered himself to the cushions beside her and then shamelessly pushed his stocking clad feet beneath the warm cushions where Gwyn was sitting, causing her to squeak and nearly topple from her own pillows. "After all, my hands are no longer cold."

 

"You're intolerable." Lyarra muttered mulishly.

 

"These Northern ladies are so innocent where men are concerned, aren't they Prince Oberyn?" Lady Myria commented sweetly. "Normally women have figured out that you're not worth more than a night's trouble by the morning after."

 

"Lies and slander." The Viper remained undented. "I am universally beloved by all of the ladies of my acquaintance."

 

Arya awoke from the nap she'd fallen into. As if in defense of the Prince's absurd statement she quickly quit the bed she'd been curled up in with Bran. Crawling over her brother, Arya caused him to produce a wheezing sound that Lyarra knew meant one of her sister's bony knees had ended up somewhere sensitive. Oberyn apparently agreed, because he winced in sympathy. At the foot of the bed, Nymeria, Ghost, and Bran's nameless pup lay in a large tumble of furry limbs. Bran's pup got up to sniffle at his face, but Nymeria and Ghost merely flicked open their eyes before curling up more tightly amidst the furs and quilts and going back to sleep.

 

"Lady Arya, what is the seventeenth rule of combat?"

 

"I don't know, we've only gotten up to number six!" Arya protested. "I want to go outside and ride! I shouldn't be stuck in here for lessons with Lyarra! I'm not going to be anybody's princess."

 

"What about lessons with me?" Gwyn asked, speaking for the first time in hours. "You slept straight through doing our sums, and I'm supposed to be helping you with that. Even I learned how to do sums at your age, and nobody ever intended me to marry more than a household knight. You're a Lord Paramount's daughter. Being a hoyden is an eccentricity, being illiterate is an embarrassment."

 

"Yes, well, you skipped reading and you're supposed to concentrate on that." Arya glared at the blonde for daring to comment. "Besides, we're on an adventure . There's no time for reading!"

 

"On the contrary, I've done some of my best reading on adventures."

 

Oberyn countered and reached out, taking his hands from where Lyarra had been idly chafing them and catching Arya beneath the armpits to drag her over beside him. Lyarra watched in surprise as her sister allowed this manhandling. She did shoot a suspicious glare up at the Prince once she was settled on the cushions Ser Arron had vacated, however.

 

"What is the seventeenth rule of combat?"

 

"Only foster grudges intentionally." The Red Viper was blunt. "Striking a man in the balls fosters a grudge."

 

Lyarra shook her head and took the opportunity to stand. The wheelhouse had been somewhat refitted to allow for easier travel and greater comfort for the Dornish ladies. The furniture had been removed for the most part, leaving only the large beds that ran horizontally across the back of the wheelhouse. Both the beds were plain wooden platforms, one overtop of the other in bunks, but were wide and piled high enough with rushes and feather ticks to be very comfortable. Currently the bottom bunk was a nest of slightly disturbed quilts and furs out of which Arya had scrambled with only two direwolf pups sleeping peaceably at the foot.

 

"You're well, Bran?" Lyarra bent over as the wheelhouse continued to jostle down the road, gripping the smooth wooden planking on her left side as she knelt. "Bran?"

 

"I'm fine." Bran insisted, wincing only a little as he emerged from the covers in a rumpled tunic, buckskin breeches, and a pair of wooly knit socks. "She barely touched me."

 

Lyarra nodded and said nothing else as Bran scrambled forward to join the rest of the party with his own pup at his heels. The front of the wheel house had a tall cabinet filled with crockery and other supplies that had not been relegated to the baggage. Located a little further down one side was the small, but very efficient, masonry and iron stove keeping the wheelhouse warm. Scattered around it on the floor were thick carpets and a plethora of cushions, furs, and blankets that migrated about the low folding table that served as a desk as they all worked on their various lessons.

 

Her husband had taken her absence as the perfect opportunity. He'd already scared Gwyn out of her seat by shoving his feet under her. While Lyarra knew the move was mostly born of cold feet, Lyarra still felt annoyed for her friend's sake. Gwyn had given up her place by the stove and retreated from the man as he happily claimed the warmest spot. A goal that Lyarra knew he'd likely had in mind as soon as he got inside and Arya scrambled out of bed to claim the spot on the other side of the stove that Ser Arron had previously occupied.

 

"Where are we now and how far have we traveled?" Arya wanted to know.

 

"We are where we are, and we have traveled far as we got yesterday in the same length of time time." Oberyn replied.

 

"How far was that?"

 

"I don't recall, do you?"

 

Lyarra covered her mouth as her husband proceeded to thoroughly vex her sister into a lesson in sums. After Arya had been forced to do the requisite division and multiplication required to find the pace of their party's progress on a slate the Lady Jynessa produced, Oberyn distracted Lyarra's sister from her ire at this with a story of his time in Essos. Lyarra tried to hide it, as she was finding that Oberyn's arrogance got worse when you paid him too much mind when he was obviously showing off, but it was futile. She was as spellbound as her younger siblings as he wove tales of his time founding and leading a sellsword company.

 

"As diverting as you are, My Prince, mayhaps we might enjoy some music as well?" Lady Myria interjected after he'd brought his third tale to a close.

 

Bran made a disappointed noise as he sat next to Oberyn, listening with wide eyes as his direwolf pup sprawled across his legs and enjoyed a thorough ear rub.

 

"I wouldn't be averse." Her husband allowed and reached out to happily accept the cup hot herbal tisane that Lyarra handed him.

 

It was one of Old Nan's mixes. The tea tasted tart and then promptly left a pleasant burn in the sinuses as they cleared. She claimed it would stave off head and chest colds in the worst weather. Lyarra was hoping that it would do some good for the Dornish and planned on coaxing Gwyn into helping her fix a large cauldron of it when they made camp. Her husband's party wasn't fighting any brigands on the King's Road in the North, but almost all of it was battling the sniffles.

 

"Lady Gwyn, you played very well last night in camp. Would you favor us with a song?" Lady Jynessa went on and Lyarra relaxed in relief.

 

"Of course, my Lady." Gwyn rose to get the hardened leather case that currently lived in one of the cabinets of the wheelhouse.

 

"I've never seen an instrument quite like yours." Lady Jynessa added.

 

"I'm not surprised, Lady Jynessa." Gwyn stated, her tone level and careful.

 

"Indeed, it's a sad fact that the Westerlands and its habits have not been much welcomed in Dorne of late." Lady Myria commented casually and Lyarra stiffened, ready to intervene if her friend was in for another bout of verbal prodding.

 

"I meant that it is a peasant guitar, Lady Jynessa." Gwyn replied as she settled down amongst the cushions with the guitar across her knees, and when she looked up a small innocent smile had fitted across her face and a hint of the fire Lyarra had found hidden under all her friend's fears had crept into the dark blue of her eyes. "The nobility of Dorne is known far and wide for its discernment, after all."

 

Lyarra was by no means gifted with words. She didn't hold with them and hadn't learned much about how to insult someone with a compliment, despite her friendship with Gwyn. She could, however, recognize the fact that her friend had just called the intimidating gray haired matriarch a snob. She'd even managed to lump most of Lady Jynessa's countrymen into the the jab.

 

"It has twelve strings, yes?" Oberyn interrupted and Gwyn nodded cautiously.

 

"Yes, Your Grace."

 

He flicked his fingers at that, gesturing for her to play. Gwyn struck up a lively tune with a good beat. He frowned, however and gestured for her to stop. Lyarra stiffened, worried at what Oberyn might say. For all that he'd been kind and diverting with her little siblings, she knew he wasn't in a good mood. Her husband's mean streak was more developed than Gwyn's had had a chance to grow into as it was backed by his endless confidence…

 

"A song usually includes words as well as a melody, Lady Gwyn."

 

"Then you will have to importune your Princess, Your Grace, for anything I sing is a punishment rather than a diversion." Gwyn answered saltily and Lyarra couldn't help snickering, drawing her husband's attention.

 

Gwyn couldn't sing, but it came less from having an awful voice like Arya, and more from an inability to relax into the song. Arya would belt out a tune and sound like a dying cat with every apparent glee. Gwyn's otherwise pleasant, moderate soprano fell flat every time she sang as she spent all of her effort on watching those listening to her rather than controlling her vocals. Lyarra didn't want to see another thing added to the list of irritating things that Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria had already discovered and applied to Gwyn.

 

"How is it that I have married you and no-one mentioned you sing?" Her husband demanded.

Lyarra flushed, and before she could think of how to answer that, Bran spoke.

 

"Father doesn't let Lyarra exhibit." Bran answered quickly, his tone apologetic and a little embarrassed as it always was whenever something hopelessly intertwined with Lyarra's previous bastard state was mentioned.

 

Lyarra held in a wince. She didn't blame her brother. When she was little she'd sang quite often, and everywhere. As she'd aged, however, and her voice grew more mature and richer as she gained control over her range that had changed. She was sure it was Lady Stark who'd demanded her father stop her singing in front of anyone who might matter, just as Lyarra was certain she had to be the one who asked him to stop Lyarra from the harp lessons she'd begged out of Septa Mordane.

 

"Lord Stark no longer has any say in the matter." The flare of Oberyn's temper was sharp across their bond, but the hand he laid on her arm was almost as warm as the purr in his voice. "May I beg a song from you, wife?"

 

"No, but you might trade me one." Lyarra was determined not to be embarrassed by the man today.

 

Well, again today. They'd still been abed when Oberyn had answered Ser Daemon's request to enter their tent. While they weren't doing anything under the covers, Lyarra had been all too embarrassed to have the man walk in to report on the status of the horses and baggage as he did every morning while Oberyn had a leg and arm thrown over her and her head was resting on his chest. They both might have been well-hidden by the covers Lyarra hadn't yet forgiven him for his unthinking shamelessness.

 

"And what service might I render my wife so to tempt her to entertain me?"

 

Lyarra didn't know what that smirk made her feel more like doing. On one hand, it left her with a strong desire to kiss the man. On the other, she really wanted to hit him in the back of the head with a nice solid chunk of firewood. Worse yet; she had the firm feeling that her husband knew of her dilemma and enjoyed it.

 

"A proper sparring match when we stop for the night, and one without complaints about the weather or the mud." Lyarra replied as haughtily as she could manage, which wasn't yet much. Haunter didn't come naturally to her. "Mud is a fact of life in the North, and likely anywhere else that isn't a desert. Whining about it changes nothing."

 

"I do not whine ." Now he was scowling at her.

 

Arya snickered at him for his petulant tone and it served as a good distraction. While Arya grinned cheekily at her husband, Lyarra slipped out of her place beside him and moved over to sit beside Gwyn. This caused a general reshuffling of everyone for greater comfort. Soon Oberyn was sandwiched between the stove and Bran, with Arya claiming his legs as a pillow as she sprawled out across the open area. Bran's pup had at least decided it was more pleasant to join his littermates than be surrounded by so many humans. Oberyn had stretched out his long legs to fill most of what had been open space in the wheelhouse while everyone else was politely folded up, tailor-style, underneath their spread skirts.

 

"A lesson in swordsmanship for a song, then." Her husband finally agreed, his black eyes sparkling with challenge. "Though, if you expect a seasoned warrior such as myself to go out in such weather unnecessarily I expect it to be a song worthy of my expertise ."

 

"I will allow you to be the judge of that." Lyarra announced and before she could turn to Gwyn her friend struck up a song.

 

Lyarra felt the hair on the back of her neck rise and her lips turn up just barely. She tried to catch Gwyn's eyes, but she was too busy watching her fingerwork. The song was complex, and haunting, slow without being simple, and the chords were difficult. Lyarra had taught Gwyn the song shortly after they'd begun to share a room, but she didn't play it often anymore. She complained that Lyarra's love of sad songs didn't need anyone to feed it, and usually insisted on something more upbeat.

 

With a soft smile on her face, Lyarra half-closed her eyes and began to sing the familiar, dirthful tune.

 


 

Oberyn's first thought, when the Parren girl began to play, was that he was surprised at the younger girl's skill. He'd seldom seen or heard such sure picking on such a complex song outside of a professional bard. Nor had he ever seen someone play a stringed instrument with a metal pick curled around their thumb as well as their fingers.

 

All other thought was obliterated from his mind as soon as his wife began to sing. He listened, rapt, as his quiet wife produced a liquid, lyrical singing voice he never would have imagined coming from a girl of four-and-ten. Moreover, the feeling infused into the song twisted him unwillingly along into the oncoming wave that was her words, and he couldn't refuse the tide.

The song itself was no help in maintaining distance. Oberyn had never heard it before. In fact he'd never heard anything like it.

 

The song wove the tale of a skinchanger - a warg - in the ancient days of song and story. The man had been a simple hunter, one of the smallfolk, but he'd been good and loyal and come when his lord rallied his men to fight. The Boltons flayed him, seeking his power, but his mind fled into that of the direwolf he hunted with, and he hunted yet again for those that had taken his love away.

 

The song followed him through blizzard and battle. He tore the throats from the men who stood between him and the trail of his wife, even as he forgot why he followed her scent, and lost all memories of who he had been to the wolf he'd become. The song ended jarringly and awfully at precisely the moment you expected the man to at last free his wife. Instead, he found only her flayed skin stretched outside the petty King's tent.

 

The song ended on a bittersweet note. The wife was dead, as was the man who'd slain them both, but as the hunter lived on in his wolf, his wife had also warged into a hawk. Neither knowing quite what they'd lost or who they were, they remained together but forever separate. With no other life open to them, the Hawk and the Wolf hunted forever on in the woods, haunting the lands around the Dreadfort forevermore.

 

Oberyn hadn't realized he'd clenched his eyes closed until he opened them. He was surprised to find his face wet until he heard Lady Jynessa taking a deep, steadying breath. The old battle axe hadn't cried, but her lips were pressed into a thin white line and her eyes were wet. Lady Myria was an entirely lost cost, mopping her eyes with her handkerchief, she was so affected. Even Bran, who had to have heard his sister sing the song before, was sniffling.

 

"Your father should be ashamed of himself!" Lady Myria huffed. "You've got a Gods-given talent! How could anyone stifle that?"

 

"Indeed. I haven't been so moved by a song in twenty years." Lady Jynessa said with a soft huff of breath. Oberyn was too busy watching his wife blush to note the speculative sharpness that had touched her dark eyes. "Though, for the sake of an old woman's heart, perhaps the next song could be a little lighter ?"

 

"Next…?" Lyarra was slowly turning the color of a ripe strawberry, Oberyn noted, as he felt his mood lift after the surprising catharsis of the mournful song.

 

It felt as if all of his griefs had been drawn to the surface like poison in an infected wound, then bled out. Oberyn knew the respite would be brief, but he was glad for it. Catching the blue eyes of the Parren girl, he saw surprise there and smirked at her. It wasn't hard to guess that she'd chosen the saddest song she knew in the hopes of discomfiting him. He winked at her and watched as she got flustered, fiddling with the perfectly tuned instrument as thought it needed an adjustment.

 

"Of course!" Lady Myria sniffled delicately into her handkerchief while little Arya took the handkerchief her brother gallantly offered her and blew her nose in it, loudly and wetly. Bran Stark let her keep the scrap of thoroughly soiled linen. "You must sing again, Princess!"

 

"Yes, if nothing else it shall get you out of lessons for a while." Lady Jynessa offered wryly and Oberyn sat back, stretching his legs out farther and slouching against the wall in order to get comfortable as he added his own voice.

 

"Indeed, I insist."

 

"If my husband insists, then I see no polite way to refuse." Lyarra's tone was pert and he smirked at it as he closed his eyes and settled in, pulling a stray quilt up over himself.

 

He drifted off somewhere along the third song. After that he knew no more. Later he would firmly deny that Lyarra had needed to stop singing not to save her voice, but because of the din he was making. Oberyn knew very well that he snored a little for Ellaria had complained of it once or twice to tweak his pride, but he wasn't about to admit it.

 


 

Oberyn's tent was spacious, but not grand. Its quality was apparent more in how waterproof it was than in any princely luxury. The furniture was polished, but compact, well-worn, and obviously made more with a military campaign in mind than a lady's comfort. Lyarra was surprised to find that she really enjoyed sharing a tent with her husband.

 

There really wasn't a lot to complain about. Oberyn liked all of his things in order, as Lyarra did, but he wasn't obsessive about it. Had his voice been less pleasant or he had less to say that was actually interesting, his habit of talking all the time would have annoyed her. Instead she found she liked his endless stream of stories, sallies, and exaggerations. It was a comfort not to be left alone, or pushed off to the side of things. Being the center of attention was horrible, of course, and Lyarra couldn't seem to adjust to it, but simply sharing her space with Oberyn wasn't the same.

 

Even his snoring wasn't really bothersome. He was relatively quiet. He stopped altogether if you got him to roll on his side. Unfortunately Lyarra was discovering that her husband preferred to sprawl on his back if he had a the space available and was comfortable enough. His simple, wide and comfortable bed was the only real indulgence in his tent, and it was no hardship to share it with him. Well, beyond his habit of putting his cold feet on her at odd times in the night, but Gwyn did the same. Lyarra had decided it was a Southron thing.

 

"I'm surprised with your talent for song that you do not have an instrument of your own." Her husband commented idly as he stirred the brazier that heated the tent, scowling down at it in aggravation when it didn't produce enough heat for his taste.

 

"I had a few harp lessons from the Septa, but father had me stop those when he said I could no longer sing in public." Lyarra admitted, and failed to keep the sadness or bitterness from her voice. "I'm sure Lady Stark convinced him to do it. Father had no reason to stop me other than that she was embarrassed…"

 

"She was embarrassed to see his bastard earning such praise." He scoffed, filling in what habit forbade Lyarra from saying aloud. "Lyarra, look at me."

 

She jerked her eyes up from the rough canvas 'floor' of the tent. She hadn't intentionally looked down at her feet. It was merely an ingrained habit whenever her father's wife was under discussion.

 

"When Lady Stark stopped your lessons you were naught but a Snow and she the Lord Paramount's lady wife." He spoke lowly and softly, walking over to stand so close to her that their breath met and mingled, but he didn't touch her. "I saw you stand up to her once as a Stark. Now you stand before me as mine own wife and a Martell, yes?"

 

"I am."

 

Lyarra swallowed, a mix of slow-blooming, fragile happiness flickering at his willingness to claim her under his own name along with the heavier grief of becoming a Stark only to have it snatched away so quickly.

 

"What are our words?"

 

"Unbowed," Lyarra licked her lips, the words themselves seeming to burn the moisture away. "Unbent, Unbroken."

 

" Yes ." The Viper hissed softly, like scales sliding over themselves and a whisper of danger, as a rough hand came up to cup her cheek. His hand was cold again now that he'd shucked his gloves. She automatically covered it with one of her own. "So do we bow to the haunter of a fish out of water, so insecure she attacks her weakest foe?"

 

" No ."

 

"When you think about her eyes on you, judging you, my darling?" His voice was low, soft and as dangerous as a the shadows beneath a rock. It could hold emptiness or death or salvation and you would never know until you were upon it. "I don't want you to look down from her eyes. I want you to look up for mine ."

 

Lyarra had her hands fisted in the fur of his cloak and was pressing her lips messily against his before she knew what she was doing. Fortunately, she'd apparently kissed a man well-used to being grabbed and having a tongue thrust past his teeth. With a surprised and pleased noise echoed by the replacement of the low, burning background hum of his righteous anger with lust, her husband slipped his arms around her and dragged her against him.

 

At first the kiss was just that. A kiss that was all the slowly roughening drag of lips over each other, then the slide of tongues past teeth. Then one of his hands fisted in the hair at her nape, gently pulling at the curls as he bent her head back to drag his lips down the arch of her neck, making her gasp. Mirroring the gesture she twisted her own neck around, nudging his head to the side and following the line of his jaw and the day's worth of stubble that had grown there. It scraped her lips as she chased it with kisses and teeth to tug at his earlobe, earning a low groan.

 

It was that sound, that she was surprised to have wrung out of him while they were still nowhere near in bed, that jarred Lyarra out of the strange hot place inside her head that she'd gone. That wild, focused exhilaration and power was something Lyarra had only ever felt with a sword in her hand. Oberyn had brought her to the point of being a shaking, pleased wreck in bed and she'd been slowly growing used to the delight of it, but she felt suddenly shy at the pressure of him pushing his hips and the bulge of his arousal against her belly in a situation she'd incited.

 

"Ah." His unhappy hiss as she pulled back wrenched her gaze up to where his eyes were glittering jet black in the low, red light of the tent's brazier. " Lyarra… "

 

Then he leaned in for another kiss, and Lyarra melted into it. The roughness of his stubble and the slide of his tongue over hers was a delight. She slid her hands up to toy with the collar of his tunic, and her husband groaned into her mouth.

 




Oberyn could have thrown his arms up in frustration and howled like a wolf himself when he felt his wife begin to retreat back into her shell. That brief flash of passion, of that well of fire he'd been surprised to find in Lyarra, was fleeing back into whatever cavern in Lyarra's soul where she kept it. It was enough to make a man insane .

 

When you put a tourney sword or live steel in his wife's hand she became the wild thing you'd expect a she-wolf to be. Not the blind, unthinking, spoiled whirlwind he would always think of her blasted aunt having been. Instead she was all contained skill and flash-fire talent. She would laugh and grin, her teeth a snarling flash of triumph as she jabbed and parried, striking out with surprising skill and the unbelievable, effortless speed of youth.

 

Oberyn delighted in sparring with her, as he'd honestly thoroughly enjoyed sparring with her brother. Had he not been a Marked man he would have made every effort to seduce the Young Wolf. Robb Stark was a talented swordsman, and Oberyn hadn't lain with a redhead in ages even before the Mark appeared on his wrist. Seeing if the boy could matched the honed focus and natural skill of his swordplay in bed would have been a joy.

 

He was trying to find the same with his wife. Training Lyarra to know her own body, and coaxing the girl into learning the ecstasies of the flesh was a task he was enjoying thoroughly. Even her shyness was sweet to experience in its own way, and he no more believed he would grow tired of it than the naturally quiet, thoughtful girl would ever truly abandon it.

 

The temptation in her innocence wasn't all that he wanted. Oberyn fiercely enjoyed teaching. His own talent was considerable and broad in life, and just as he'd worked hard to foster all of his skills he loved seeing the gifts of others' blossom. Watching as Lyarra flicked her sword from hand to hand in a trick he could counter but even a couple of his seasoned knights struggled with was an excitement all on its own. Just as had been working Robb Stark into a lather as his youth and strength couldn't quite keep up with Oberyn's experience and speed.

 

In another five years Oberyn wouldn't be able to count on victory if he challenged the Young Wolf. Stark would likely not gain much speed, if any, but Oberyn knew that even as fiercely as he kept himself fit, five-and-forty was a new challenge. Especially when facing a man not yet twenty. The same would be true for Lyarra, when she was no longer hampered by limited practice hours when the yard was mostly deserted and only having two willing sparring partners, neither of whom fully settled in their own skills. Oberyn was looking forward to the day his wife bested him in the yard; the triumph in her grey eyes would no doubt be fit for some warrior Goddess from the other side of the world.

 

The feel of her dragging him into a kiss and demanding he pay court to her passions for once had gone straight to his loins, however. In that moment Oberyn had happily chased her passion as it challenged and attempted to dominate his own. His mind had raced back to a dozen different lovers who'd pressed against him, tangling bodies and tongues together in a battle where everyone emerged the winner.

 

Oberyn was beginning to experience flashes of what he'd read having a soulmate was like. His wife's emotions weren't clear to him, however, save in vague flashes. Usually when something bothered or pleased her strongly. These windows of awareness opened and closed and Oberyn had yet to master any kind of control over them, as they were like grasping fog with pliers. It was frustrating , especially as he began to realize that the girl he'd taken to wife was perceiving far more from him.

 

The only place he had no trouble finding that connection was bed. Oberyn had no complaints about that. It added a wonderful spice, and a fascinating newness to the act to truly share his lover's pleasure. He doubted it would ever grow stale as experiences went, and was some small consolation for knowing that - as long as the girl lived - he would never bed another.

 

Feeling Lyarra's passion awaken and break free from the flickering candle of her unease and the old shame he'd barely brushed the edges of had been like swallowing a full dose of Blood Nectar. Not that Oberyn needed the infamous aphrodisiac, his young wife was a desirable woman. Feeling her suddenly want him so had taken him from the slow-growing, languid anticipation of a night of expected lovemaking to the hectic need of a being pushed and pulled through the inferno of a thorough fucking fast enough to steal his breath away.

 

Still… she was so damned young. How could he resent her shyness? Easily , actually, but what would that get him? Oberyn knew women and as uncomfortable as it made him for his mind to make any use of the things he'd learned as a father to so many daughters, he found he couldn't help applying the knowledge. Lyarra was not yet five-and-ten, and he'd just seen his fortieth nameday. She had every right to be intimidated and he had no right to rush her into the kind of bedplay she might not be ready for.

 

So Oberyn stifled his impatience and curled his hands around her back to massage the muscles there as she rested in his arms and threatened to drive him mad toying with his collar. He'd already learned that she'd but shyly help him disrobe. There was yet time to get her to tear his clothing from him and press him down against their bed, as subject to her own storms and needs as he was to his own.

 

" Ah , Lyarra." He breathed and began pressing a delicate line of kisses up the sharp, straight bridge of her nose. "What would you have of your husband tonight?"

 

Just because he wasn't going to overwhelm her didn't mean he couldn't push a little. He could feel her blushing beneath his lips as he trailed them over one sharp cheekbone. He was reaching up to uncoil the loose knot at her nape, pulling the blue silk cord used to hold the mass of hair back as he spoke, and he gently combed his fingers through the untamed ringlets in the dark of the tent while he waited.

 

"You know what I want."

 

He could barely hear her and he smiled wryly into the dark. It really was his own fault. She'd never turned him away from her bed, but she'd been more adventurous their first time laying as man and wife than she had been since. She'd seen too much of her temper, and the delight of unexpected pleasure had faded behind a quiet, introspective nature and a lifetime of being stifled for her bastardy.

 

Now, though he'd begun to coax her into lovemaking nightly with the split goal of pleasure and quickening her, Oberyn found he'd lost ground. His wife was shyer nearly a moon into her marriage than she'd been on her wedding night. He blamed it on the fine display he'd been making of his temper in the weak northern sunlight, and resented a little that it was affecting his marriage when the fires burned low and the annoying and ever-present clouds blocked the stars.

 

"Yes, but there are so many options ." He teased. "You must give me more guidance than that, darling. One needs information to make an informed choice."

 

Her breath huffed out against his chest, hot through his layers of clothing, and Oberyn marveled again at how warm she was. No matter how cold he got he always found his wife pleasantly heated. It was another reason, beyond the impropriety any Dornish mind would ascribe to soulmates not sharing a bed, to keep her close at night. She was an excellent bed-warmer in the literal sense.

 

"You're awful." Lyarra accused him.

 

"True." He wouldn't deny it, and he licked the shell of her ear experimentally while he said it. She squealed and tried to squirm away, which was how he found that nibbling her neck was fine, but that her ears were not sensitive in a sexual way.

 

"What do you want?" She looked up at him again, her lips swollen from their kissing, though her lust had receded to a soft undercurrent of arousal. She had enough room to think of her actions, and to be curious.

 

Still, her question pleased him. Oberyn decided not to test how far he could stretch her comfort with him. With his back and hips aching lightly from days of riding in an unfamiliar, bulky northern saddle, he wanted the relief lovemaking would offer, but now that the eager, wonton flash of her own passions had receded to steady want he decided he didn't feel like grappling in bed, either. Surely he'd get used to the poorly designed, infernal thing in another few days of riding.

 

Oberyn answered her with a kiss and led her to bed.

 


 

Lord Eddard Stark, Warden of the North, Lord of Winterfell, sat and polished his family's Valyrian greatsword, Ice. The dark, gleaming surface of the weapon caught every red and orange ray of the slow-rising sun. Ned stubbornly buffed at a non-existent spot as he squinted down at the blade with bloodshot eyes.

 

Jory approached him, his expression suggesting utter seriousness but his eyes holding a hint of amusement. Ned shot the man a look that sent him in the opposite direction. Then he moved on to the other side of the long blade.

 

"I believe I can finally tell we are heading south, Lord Stark."

 

Restraining an irritated sigh, Ned turned politely to Lady Myria. The woman was closer to his age than she appeared, he had found out. Looking younger than you were appeared to be an infuriating trend amongst the Dornish. Either that, Ned thought sourly, or he'd aged beyond his years and was only now becoming aware of it. The fact was, however, that the woman was more than three-and-ten, but with her hair still night black and only the barest touches of lines around her dark eyes, Lady Myria was an attractive, voluptuous, desirable, and self-possessed woman.

 

Her knowing, dark eyes made him miss Cat that much more. His wife was all any man could have ever desired in bed, and more beautiful by half than any woman Ned had known. She was not, however, a dangerous temptress. Her charms were honest, sincere, and didn't give him a migraine or make him feel uncomfortable with sheer proximity.

 

Not that all of the Dornish party didn't make his teeth grind and his head throb. Where in all the strange Hells of the South had they gotten the opinion that he was a prude? He had fathered five children, and there might yet be more if the Gods were generous.

 

"We're close enough to the Neck now that the air is warmer." He agreed as pleasantly as he could. "Did you pass your night well in the Wheelhouse?"

 

"We did." Lady Myria's smile was less comely but more honest as she answered. "Your children are a delight, Lord Stark, especially your daughters. Lady Arya regaled the Lady Jynessa and I with more ghost tales from beyond the Wall."

 

"I hope you weren't burdened by her exuberance." Ned ventured a small smile at that as she voiced an immediate and firm denial.

 

If he could be relieved of one thing by the Gods' will being written as it was on Lyarra's wrist, it was Arya. The older she got, the more her Wolf's Blood showed and the more he worried for the battle of wills that took place daily between Cat and their youngest girl. He understood how essential it was for their daughter to learn how to be a lady. As a Lord Paramount's daughter he'd seen first hand how wildness could bring grief and tragedy down upon kingdoms if it ran through the female line. He also understood, however, that the natures of some people's souls couldn't be chained, and that in doing so, one courted disaster.

 

As much as he would worry for both his girls, in this case the fact that Dorne was such a different place was a boon. Even the Red Viper's reputation as a shameless seducer with eight bastard daughters to his name worked in Ned's favor, for each of the Sand Snakes was being raised to be a woman unlike any lady born north of the Red Mountains.

 

A man who would adopt his first daughter by telling her to choose between spears and tears would not stifle his daughter's love of the sword, or trammel her with embroidery. If Arya could live in Dorne and absorb enough of their ways, he knew her dowry fine enough and her lineage impeccable enough, to draw her a husband that would would value rather than crush her spirit. They'd even taken her direwolf's name as a sign; Nymeria had been their most beloved and mythic queen. The Viper had even named one of his own daughters after her.

 

In the background Gwyn slipped silently away from the fire. Ned was now used to the sight of her fluttering about. Her bright hair appeared and vanished, and Ned had learned not to be surprised when the girl turned up somewhere unexpected. She was nearly the first one awake every morning, joining the servants around the fire and organizing the mulling of small beer in the morning and the frying of meat and hotcakes over the fire. Having left that, she slipped into her other duties at the first opportunity.

 

In this case, Ned bid the Lady Myria goodbye as she walked over to speak to Ser Deziel and another of the Dornish party, and watched as the young blonde maid smoothed her hands over a simply made dark gray gown that had likely been a hand-me-down from his daughter. One, he noted with some disapproval, that she'd altered by putting a rather immodestly low, square neckline in. Then again, thanks to the Dornish, it seemed like all of the gowns the child and Lyarra wore grew progressively more alarming. Huffing out a breath, he turned back to attending Ice and his own foul temper until a warm, smug masculine voice greeted the fosterling Ned had given up.

 

"A fine morning, is it not, Lady Gwyn? The Princess is ready for you to attend her."

 

Ned looked up as Gwyn offered an appropriately demure answer. He caught sight of the large bucket of water in her left hand and the steaming kettle hanging from a rag in the other. He ground his teeth as he reflected on why Lyarra needed the kind of thorough wash-up that called for warm water rather than the practical cold water ablutions Ned knew she'd performed on every hunting trip or short journey he'd ever taken her on.

 

"Ah, Lord Stark, polishing the family sword again, I see."

 

It's not as if he could remain ignorant of it.

 

" Must everything be crude, Prince Oberyn?" Ned gritted his teeth and asked, sheathing the sword and slinging it across his back as he stood.

 

"I don't know what you mean." The other man denied, but his dark eyes were all sharp resentment and malicious enjoyment as he continued his baiting. "Can a man not admire another man's weapon without being ill-thought of?"

 

Ned didn't grace that with an answer.

 

"If the rains holds off, we'll cross into the Neck by mid-afternoon. Once there your party must be careful to keep to the Kingsroad. The Neck is a dangerous place of quicksand and lizard-lions."

 

"We have swamps in Dorne, but I'll remind my people to be wary." A hint of the mockery vanished in curiosity. "I had no idea there were lizard-lions so far north. They grow to great size in some of our rivers."

 

"I know, I saw." Ned replied briefly. "Their heads are broader here, and their teeth more hidden, but they grow just as large."

 

Had it not been for Howland Reed's caution and good sense Ned could have either gotten to the Tower of Joy early enough to save his sister, or would have failed altogether by dying in the jaws of some beast. Near the entrance to the Prince's Pass, there'd been a small river that came and went with the ebb and flow of rains in the Reach. At the time it had been swollen against its tall banks, and Ned had thought they might simply push their horses to swim across. It had been Howland who'd noticed that the 'logs' in the river had been nothing of the sort.

 

"What do they do in winter?"

 

"Sleep." Ned grunted shortly, in no mood to speak to the man.

 

Watching the Viper twist his lean body to the side, cracking his spine and then rubbing at where his spine joined his hips at the small of his back did nothing to improve Ned's mood. He knew very well why the man's back was aching. It made him long to remove Ice from its scabbard and do the licentious, shameless fiend some harm. It was folly though, as much as it burned him that a man he now knew was older than himself was his goodson. He was now kin. The Starks were not kinslayers.

 

Seeing the livid bite mark on the man's neck made it very tempting to break that solemn rule, however. The thing would have been hidden by the collar of his tunic, but the languid hedonist hadn't tied his collar. Instead it gaped open, showing the strangely hairless expanse of skin over his collarbone as he idly rubbed at the mark with a heavy-lidded, satisfied expression on his conceited, hateful face.

 

Ned knew the power of Lyarra's voice. His daughter's sweet, childish singing had been a delight to him when she was a little girl even if it was a painful reminder of her true parentage. Lyanna had been like Arya; she didn't sing, she caterwauled with enthusiasm. Prince Rhaegar had a voice that could dance between the tenor and baritone ranges, and wring tears from hardened warriors. Lyarra had inherited that gift, with a voice that could soar sweetly like a birds or resonate with the passionate thrum of echoes in the mountains. Ned's fear that someone would hear her and make treasonous connections with the truth was why he'd forbidden her to sing, though Cat and the rest of the castle believed he'd done it out of love for his wife.

 

Unfortunately Ned had found out that his quiet daughter… was not always quiet when she wasn't singing. Her voice was every bit as powerful when it was raised in unleashed pleasure and the fabric walls of the tents could in no way contain it. So far, every night of this blasted, unwanted journey south he'd had to listen to the ( thankfully ) indistinct, sensual rumble of Oberyn Martell's blasted pillow-whispers while Lyarra moaned out her pleasure at whatever it was the man was doing to Ned's previously innocent little girl.

 

He hadn't had a good night's sleep since he left Winterfell.

 

"My Lord?"

 

"Yes, Jory?" Ned turned around, glad that the damned Viper had wandered off to see to his own retinue.

 

"With all due respect, My Lord," Jory gave him a level and rather apologetic look. "You look a fright. Unless you want to meet revive the myths of the Others and their wights, mayhaps you could catch a nap with the ladies in the wheelhouse today?"

 

Ned shot his man a look that could have melted lead, but it was spoiled when he opened his mouth to speak and a jaw-cracking yawn emerged.

 

"Father?"

 

Ned turned around to see Lyarra looking at him with concern. Her own eyes were sleepy but bright, and her hair had been contained in the sort of loose braid, wound firmly with silk cord at the tail, that was the only kind her curls would permit to hold them. He was thankful for a full ten seconds that she was wearing a properly modest dress. Then his suspicions about the high collar arrived.

 

"Yes, Lya?" He was tired enough that he fell back on the nickname his sister had shared with her daughter, all unknowing.

 

Lyarra's bright smile at it was a reward for his exhaustion, however.

 

"Father, did you get enough sleep last night? Your eyes look awful." Her concern was more than a little embarrassing.

 

Ned would sooner cut his own tongue out with a soon than let her know why . First, he couldn't possibly admit to what he heard aloud. He'd already made clear that if any of his men commented on it, that would be the last thing they ever found amusing. He'd only grudgingly admitted he was pleased that the Red Viper had done the same with his own people. Second, Ned was at least relieved that his daughter's marriage bed wasn't a place of humiliation or agony for her. He'd far rather she find joy there than misery.

 

By all the Old Gods and every Godswood ever planted, did he have to hear it, though?

 

"I'm afraid I'm too much an old married man to sleep well alone." He replied deprecatingly, and got a small, shy smile in return that warmed his heart for precisely as long as it took for his daughter to blush and reply.

 

"I think I can understand that, now."

 

Lyarra's coaxing aside, Ned refused any offer of rest or to go anywhere near the wheelhouse for the rest of the day. Not only wasn't it seemly for a man to ride in the thing, no matter how the Dornish acted, but he couldn't stand feeling like he was torn in two every time he looked at his daughter. On one hand, he'd always hoped he'd find her a husband who'd give her the love Ned had found with Cat. On the other?

 

Why the fuck did it have to be the Gods-be-damned Red Viper?

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve – 297 A.C.

 

Oberyn supposed that it had to happen eventually. Oberyn was a passionate man, and he was beginning to realize that underneath their cool surface, these Starks had fire as well. It was, after all, a great deal of fun to bait Lord Stark's temper. He'd just assumed that his first fight would be with his wife , not her younger sister.

 

Firmly keeping a grip on both the young girl's arms he held Arya between himself and the teeth of the growling, lanky direwolf pup currently snarling at him. Turning, he issued a level command.

 

"Damien, put your sword down. Ser Deziel, your spear is unnecessary at the moment." Oberyn let the tone he used in command of men in the field mix liberally with his strongest fatherly voice. "Lady Arya, call off Nymeria immediately."

 

"She's not a dog , she doesn't do what she's told like that!" Arya shot back, her face still twisted up in anger as she kicked at him.

 

"If you want her to be able to survive to adulthood, then she has to learn the difference between when you are in trouble and you are in danger." Oberyn was unsympathetic. "She is your responsibility. If you cannot manage her, she will not be safe in King's Landing, nor will you. If you cannot control her then will your wolf cannot come to Dorne. If that means you choose not to come to Dorne, then I and your sister will miss you. Choose now, while it is easier for your father to send you back to Winterfell."

 

Resistance bled out of the girl even if her anger didn't budge. Oberyn couldn't help but think of Obara in the way Arya Stark's eyes filled with furious tears that she refused to let fall. Not until Tyene's death had his eldest cried again in all of the years he'd known her. He'd never meant her to take it so literally when he'd told her to choose between the life of the spear and the defense of weeping.

 

Nymeria the wolf stopped snarling at a few soothing words from Arya, and a grudging order to lay down. It was obvious that the yellow eyes were resentful, however, as the growing gray beast lay down in the dirt and grass. They'd stopped for the day in the ruins of Moat Cailin, and their tents were pitched in either protection of the roofless great hall or the lower levels of several ruined towers. They were currently in an old sparring yard overgrown by weeds and small trees.

Oberyn had assumed his invitation to spar would have been favorably received by the younger Stark girl. She was impatient with her other lessons and would not enjoy being cooped up in the wheelhouse while her sister continued to study with Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria for most of the day. Oberyn himself was restless.

 

He'd already sparred with several of his own party and found himself tired, but still in need of something to occupy his mind. As such, he'd hoped to distract himself with teaching Arya. She was a gifted child, and so blindingly fast, that it took effort and skill to tame her wildness and talent into something she could use.

 

Instead he'd found the girl genuinely trying to do him an injury. Likewise, he'd had to contend with her toothy friend. The direwolf pups were growing, and while they hadn’t quite reached the size of a large hound yet they would likely have reached that by the time they made it to King's Landing. By the time they arrived in Dorne they'd be larger yet, and in another year's time Oberyn was curious indeed to see how they grew.

 

He was not , however, in any hurry to be bitten by one of them. Especially when his apparent crime was taking Arya's tourney sword away, and remonstrating her for an unacceptable attitude for the sparring yard. He would admit it was a little unknightly to use the girl as a shield against her own companion, but he hadn't wanted to kick the wolf pup and that was his only other option besides allowing the knights of his party to do their duty. That option was clearly unacceptable.

 

"Now." Oberyn released one of Arya's arms and let the eight-year-old girl stand beside him while he still held her firmly by one elbow. "Come with me, Lady Arya."

 

"Are you going to tell Father?"

 

"From the moment your father signed the contract putting you in your sister's household disciplining your behavior ceased to be his prerogative." Oberyn replied, then explained further when he saw her confusion. "I have, perhaps, not explained what fostering means well enough. We shall amend that to start with."

 

Oberyn led Arya across the yard within the unkempt but high stone walls of the keep. Inside his head he was noting with one part of his mind that he should speak to Doran about this. If they were allied with the North than the Neck had to be secure. To fully secure it Moat Cailin could not stand a ruin. It would be expensive as seven Hells to repair, though.

 

Thinking on the debt the Crown owed House Stark and was highly unlikely to ever repay, he noted that he should write to Doran again soon. There were too many things piling up that he wanted to discuss with his brother, and too many things he needed to know that could not be entrusted to ravens. For one, Quentyn had left for Essos only days before Oberyn had sailed north. Everything they did from this point hinged on what they found out, if anything, about whether Daenerys Targaryen yet lived.

 

Eventually Oberyn sat upon the gap between two of the wall's crenelations. At his back a cold wind pushed stubbornly, making him glad that he'd taken the time to throw his cloak on when Damien offered it to him. Arya Stark stood with her arms crossed over her chest, her back to the inner crenellations of the wall walk, and an expression on her face that could have curdled milk. Nymeria had followed them up and was crouched in a sullen way twenty or so paces away from them. As the wolf pup was not trying to maul him, Oberyn ignored her.

 

"Jon Arryn cares for your father and the King as though they were his own sons." A bitter example, but a good one in that it got Arya's attention immediately. "Why?"

 

"Because he raised Father and King Robert like they were his sons."

 

Her mulish expression said everything about how stupid she thought the question.

 

"For years, yes, he did." Oberyn agreed. "As Lord Stark went to the Vale and became a ward in Lord Arryn's household, Arya, you have come into my household as if you were mine own daughter. As my foster-daughter, you are subject to me."

 

Arya watched him beadily and Oberyn went on.

 

"As such, it is my prerogative and my responsibility to see you trained, educated, rewarded, and punished as you need to become a Lady of which House Stark can be proud."

 

"Father is proud of me."

 

"Lord Stark would be proud of his children if they ran through Winterfell naked, wearing a squash on their head, screaming, 'I am the pumpkin king'. "

 

Arya started at him, then started giggling. Oberyn smirked back, crossed his own arms and waited. Nymeria the wolf even crept forward to sit at her person's feet. Oberyn was going to have to come up with something before they got to Sunpear or the name his daughter and the pup shared were going to cause confusion.

 

"Lyarra told you that story?" Arya finally asked, curious.

 

"Yes."

 

Oberyn had been more than amused to hear the tale of a bet that had occurred between young Lord Robb and Lord Theon Greyjoy when the boys had been younger. The then two-and-ten year old Robb Stark had made wager on some subject that Lyarra wouldn't clarify for him. The forfeit, however, had been to recreate an event that had apparently occurred in the Vale many years before when Ned Stark himself had lost a bet with the Usurper.

 

"That has no bearing on the Lady you grow into." Oberyn went on, speaking as a father and a Prince rather than the charming teller of tales and teacher of swordplay he'd been lately with the girl. It was a sad transition, but as soon as he accepted her into his household he knew he couldn't stay the fun and dashing goodbrother forever. "Sword or embroidery needle, it's of no moment. The weapons you wield in battles of blood and courtesy reflect on your family. It will shame my House if I return you to yours with no manners, nor will I suffer any disrespect. If you've something to say to me, say it."

 

"Gwyn and Lyarra know you've set the ladies on Gwyn and it's not right!" Arya exploded at him, glaring angrily. "I don't care if Gwyn says she can take it and Lyarra thinks it's her job to handle it and it's some kind of test to see if she can be a Princess! You're supposed to be a knight and protect people who are scared, but you're just making Gwyn more scared."

 

That was not what Oberyn had expected to hear. He divided it up in his mind and debated which surprise to take on first. Should he mentally apologize to his uncle for having scoffed when Lord Gargalen told him his doubts that the velvet-glove-and-gauntlet approach would be effective? Or should Oberyn instead take on the idea that his wife thought he was testing her fitness to be a princess by setting her up as a guardian between two Dornish ladies he'd long respected and had actually trusted to prepare her for her role and her dearest friend?

 

"If Lyarra believes that this is a test, it is not one of my making." Oberyn answered honestly, balancing his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands. "I will not rule out that my brother, who I answer to as you answer to me, asked for such a test. Doran is more subtle than I and may have made that choice. If not, it could be that the ladies themselves want to see what their new Princess is made of. I cannot fault them for that, can you?"

 

"No, but it doesn't mean I don't want to stab them."

 

"I find myself glad that I didn't provide you a blade when I did your sister." Oberyn snorted, and firmly quashed any pity at the girl's martyred expression. Obviously she hadn't given the thought he'd progress her past a tourney sword much thought; she was too happy to have even blunted steel in her hand instead of a child's wooden practice blade. "Tomorrow's lesson will be when it is and is not appropriate to stab someone with something. I imagine it shall carry on for some days afterward given your enthusiasm for the subject."

 

Lady Arya offered him a sharp toothed grin at that. It matched the yawn that Nymeria gave as the direwolf pup settled down to lay comfortably on the worn, mossy stone of the deserted castle. Lady Arya wasn't done. Oberyn reflected that the unsure, worried tone of her voice was now far more dangerous to his resolve than Arya's willingness to fight. It was ever the danger he faced with his daughters as well; they were so much more difficult to punish when they looked like they needed a hug instead.

 

"What about Gwyn?"

 

"You said I am making her worse." Oberyn was entirely sure his wife would have let him know if that was the case. He was working damned hard to earn Lyarra's trust. That left one other option. "Is she hiding this from your sister?"

 

" Yes ." Arya's relief was palpable as she tugged at one unravelling dark braid, the loose waves around her face having escaped and stuck to her forehead and lips. "I found her hiding in one of the old towers breathing into her cupped hands and shaking this morning. She woke me up when she had a nightmare and snuck out of bed. I don't want her to do that! Sometimes when she has to breath into her cupped hands, she faints!"

 

"What?" That put a frown on Oberyn's face as training he'd long ago had, but never had use for kicked in.

 

He recalled studying the signs of mental unrest while at the Citadel. Elia had been worried and wanted to know if there were any signs of madness that could be spotted in children. She was marrying the son of King Scab himself. While he'd found nothing to help ease his sister's mind, he'd learned a variety of things about different disorders of thought. Severe anxiety was the easiest to study as it often had roots in reality. Hallucinations and delusions or paranoia had been lines of study that had only left him feeling more like a lunatic than when he'd started the frustrating endeavor.

 

"She breathes really fast and gets the vapors."

 

"No, I heard that part." Oberyn stood up and shook his head. He didn't need to go over that for long; those signs were easy enough to fake, but it wasn't as if the Westerlands girl was faking them publicly. The likelihood of this being a smokescreen - something that Oberyn half-wanted to believe as it made just getting the information no longer seem like harming a frightened child - decreased. "She has nightmares and sneaks out of the wheelhouse in the dark?"

 

That was very much an immediate concern. He wanted something from the child. That much was true, and he was willing to put as much pressure as it took on her to get her to tell him what she knew of the Names his family was owed. He didn't want to break the girl.

 

Arya's words about being a knight crept back into his mind and Oberyn felt his temper strain against his conscience. We do not hurt little girls in Dorne. She was a young maiden in his wife's household. She was directly under his protection, and even in an armed camp made up of his people and Lord Stark's, there was no way it was safe for the girl to sneak out and go wandering.

 

"Gwyn can be very quiet." Arya grinned now, wild and bright and proud. "She's taught me how to. I traded lessons for reading Mother's mail."

 

Oberyn chuckled helplessly. Mayhap he'd leave Gwyn in King's Landing. The Spider could adopt her and then the eunuch could finally have a child of his own.

 

"Arya, do you know what she says during her nightmares?" Oberyn chanced, as it could give him something to work with. Ellaria had comforted him enough after his nightmares, and he'd seen Lyarra's face when he'd finally had one in a bed shared between them. He knew the names he called out; he was not a man prone to silence.

 

"Gwyn goes stiff as a board when she has bad dreams, and she doesn't make any noise." Arya made a face. "She just breathes really fast and twitches a little during the bad ones… Better than Rickon, though. He still wets the bed."

 

"I obviously chose the right wild little wolf to foster, then." Oberyn offered, getting a smile and forgiveness from the girl. "You're still getting punished."

 

And the smile turned back into a scowl.

 

"You should get punished too, then." She argued. "For - for not being a proper knight or prince! Aren't you supposed to save maidens?"

 

"I'm all but an expert on the subject." Oberyn replied archly, but even he couldn't stop the twinge of guilt from returning again.

 

Elia, he knew, would be glaring at him right along with Arya Stark. His sister was not his brother, to have endless patience. Elia was too kind to plot. She'd had her own frustrations with his impatient ways, though. She would council him to be kind to the child. To coax the truth from her through comfort, and to feel sorry for one so hurt by those who'd harmed them.

 

He'd never been as good as his sister any more than he'd ever be as subtle as Doran. His pride rebelled against the idea that the little girl standing opposite him was successfully taking him to task, however. His conscience rebelled against the unintended results of his actions. His intelligence told him, quite bluntly, that if the Parren girl was pushed until she broke then Lord Gargalen might well be proven right; she could either flee for the Lannisters themselves, or he could end up estranging his wife from himself when she realized how badly her friend was faring.

 

"So you'll tell Gwyn it's alright?" Arya asked hopefully, then added. "I mean, that she's safe . We all want her to tell you who… who did those things, if she knows. You know we do, don't you, Prince Oberyn?"

 

"Yes."

 

Oberyn managed to say, shortly, and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. It was hard to put his anger aside, but it helped to look down into the sharp face of this dark-haired girl. Looking at the blonde prettiness of Gwyn Parren's Lannister features just made it easier to think it was all as it should be. That the girl brought it on herself by being standing in the way of his sister's justice. His conscience knew that was wrong, but he'd had to bear the hurt so long for his sister's suffering…

 

"Your father told me that I have more in common with Lady Gwyn than I know." Oberyn looked down at the young girl staring up at him. Like Gwyn Parren she often saw things she should not, though the eight-year-old was too young yet to understand most of it. "Have you any idea why?"

 

"No." Arya Stark looked surprised. "You're tall and you fight and you're not scared of anything. Gwyn's short and she's scared all the time. You're old, too."

 

"Yes, let's never forget that last one." Oberyn huffed out a laugh.

 

Lady Arya had commented on the gap between his age and his wife frequently for the whole of his acquaintance with the girl. He was standing from his perch, ready to take her down and issue her punishment when she spoke again and Oberyn ended up having to release a breath slowly to deal with the flare of temper that came with her words.

 

"Maybe the same people that made her scared hurt your sister." Arya suggested, her face a mask of thought. "I mean, if they like hurting people who don't have anyone to protect them Gwyn would be a good target."

 

"And yet, now the Lady Gwyn has many people to protect her." Oberyn replied, brushing gravel and dust from his cloak. "Your sister, your father, myself - and a certain fierce young she-wolf, it seems. She has no need to be afraid. She is safe."

 

"Gwyn doesn't think anyone's really safe." Arya said after a moment, as if she was uneasy with the idea and wasn't sure what to believe.

 

It was on the tip of Oberyn's tongue to speak truth to the child. It was a bitter truth, and one he still railed against. After all, hadn't his inability to protect that which he held most dear been well-proven? Elia's murder, her children being massacred before her eyes, his uselessness in the face of disease taking his daughter and his love from him… Oberyn was old enough to recognize the truth of it and hate it. He found he could no more offer wisdom and caution to Arya in the face of that grim statement than he could have done for his daughters. Doran would have been more honest in his quiet, implacable way, but Oberyn's brother wasn't here to be the Prince the girl needed for this talk.

 

"The Lannisters have taught the girl unfortunate lessons." Oberyn forced a confident smirk onto his face and reached out to ruffle her hair. "As with all of their works, I shall have to see this undone, yes?"

 

Arya grinned at him.

 

"You're still banned from sparring for three days, and I shall be giving you poetry to memorize and copy, Lady Arya. I expect your script to be perfect."

 

Nymeria fell in beside Arya and whined softly in commiseration as Oberyn walked the girl and her pup back down to the care of the other ladies.

 


 

Lyarra sat on a folding chair in the tent she shared with Oberyn and obediently held the bronze hand-mirror that Gwyn had handed her as Gwyn wrestled with her hair. They weren't going to Greywater Watch. For one, no-one but a Crannogman could find the place. They even said the castle moved. For another, it would have cost them time and boat travel that her husband and father weren't prepared to indulge in.

 

Instead, on a rare, broad patch of dry ground beside the Kingsroad, her father's bannerman was coming out to meet their party. Lyarra was more than a little nervous about this. Lord Howland Reed was one of her father's most loyal bannermen, and a good friend. He was also the man who'd stabbed Ser Arthur Dayne in the back to save Lord Eddard's life when Lyarra was no more than a newborn babe, or perhaps just before she was born. Lyarra had never been sure precisely when that was. Her nameday was celebrated on the day Lord Eddard Stark's party returned to Winterfell from the war rather than the day she came into the world.

 

"Lean forward." Gwyn ordered and Lyarra sighed and obeyed and her friend pushed the great heavy mass of her curls forward to flop over Lyarra's head.

 

It was warmer in the Neck than the rest of the North, and it was humid. Lyarra's hair had happily responded to this by becoming a frizzy rat's nest. While Lyarra would have been happy to stuff it all into a knot and not worry about it, Gwyn wasn't having it. Instead Lyarra sat on the chair while Gwyn mercilessly took thin, warmed and sweetly scented oil to her hair along with a broad toothed comb to sort her curls out.

 

"I don't think Lord Reed's party cares if I look like Princess as long as I look like Eddard Stark's daughter." Lyarra tried to plead her case.

 

"You're not doing this for Lord Reed's party. Lord Reed would support you no matter what because he is your father's friend." Gwyn's voice was slurred as she passed the carved wooden comb to her mouth to hold while she worked the warmed oil into Gwyn's hair with her fingers. "We've ridden straight through on the King's Road. This is the first time that the people you actually have to impress are going to see you acting like their princess. You'll also have to do it while standing next to the Prince, and your husband can act like a Prince when he's falling flat on his ass."

 

"Thank you."

 

Gwyn didn't jump, for which Lyarra was thankful given that her friend's hands were all wound up in her hair. She did, however, freeze for a moment. When she started moving again Gwyn's hands were just barely trembling.

 

Lyarra reached up and moved some of her hair aside so that she could see where Oberyn had slipped into the tent. Absurdly, she felt embarrassed to be sitting on a stool in her smallclothes and stays in front of him. He'd certainly seen her in far less… though Lyarra realized that wasn't entirely accurate. Other than their first bath together things tended to be most conducted under the covers of their bed; Oberyn insisted that the cold have a negative effect on lovemaking, though he'd yet to explain what it was, and Lyarra still thought his definition of 'cold' was a little delicate.

 

"Truly, Lady Gwyn, you are most kind." Oberyn observed cheerfully as he looked over and raised his eyebrows before nodding at where his armor was neatly laid out over the bed, along with the light woolen tunics, surcoat, and other things necessary for his own preparations.

 

"Ser Daemon was here before we were. As we kicked him out, I thought it only fair I prepare for you, my Prince." Lyarra explained with a small smile. "I hope I listened well enough?"

 

"You'll make a fine squire, if you ever tire of being a Princess."

 

"Bran will be heartbroken to hear he's so easily replaced."

 

Oberyn chuckled at her jape as he walked over to where Ghost was curled up, snoozing happily on top of a clothes chest.

 

Gwyn said nothing, as Lyarra had expected, and simply turned Lyarra's head back around so she could continue to work. Lyarra watched her husband scratch the pup around the ears. Ghost had really become fond of the man. The young she-wolf leaned into the touch, rather than snapping or merely tolerating it.

 

"You may be dismissed, Lady Gwyn, I shall play maid this evening." Oberyn went on, his tone light. "See to your own preparations. As I understand it, Lord Reed has an unbetrothed son."

 

"I've not the dowry for a Lord's son, Your Grace, but thank you for your kindness."

 

Lyarra winced at the tone to Gwyn's voice. The only adjective she could think to describe it was careful. Nothing else slipped out of her tone or expression, which was peaceful and blank. Lyarra tilted the mirror in her lap to watch her friend curtsey and slip out of the room.

 

"You know." Her husband's hands were in her hair before she could flip it over and stand, petting along the nape of her neck and making her shiver as he played with the curls there as he spoke with the conversational bloodthirstiness that she was starting to recognize as a unique trait her husband possessed. "I had honestly thought that I had reached the fullness of hatred when it came to the Lannisters. I believed the the world had no more to teach me of loathing. I've found out that I am wrong."

 

"Oberyn?" Lyarra flipped her hair over anyway, letting the mass of it hit her husband in the chest as she rose to stand and look at him, ignoring the long look he gave everything she wasn't wearing.

 

" That is the child who would throw live spiders on a Lord Paramount's heir, and who went alone into a whorehouse to trade moon tea for information on damaging rumors about her foster family."

 

Lyarra understood and nodded, suddenly relieved as she realized precisely had the Viper hissing this evening.

 

"She's too scared to act like herself, but she still hears everything, and she still tells it to me." Lyarra sighed. "Did you know Lady Myria and Lady Jynessa have started to argue about whether the Daynes were lying and I really am Lady Ashara's daughter? They say interesting things when they think Arya and Gwyn are asleep in the wheelhouse. Oh, and Ser Daemon has drowned his sorrows over Mikken's obliviousness to his affections by hopping into bed with that tall guardsmen with the cauliflower ear."

 

"Yorin Greene." Oberyn mused with an expression that Lyarra decided was wistful. "Daemon has good taste. The man's insatiable."

 

"Have you bedded everyone in your party?" Lyarra asked, suddenly irritable and embarrassed when her tone brought her husband's black eyes to look up at her speculatively.

 

Lyarra's views on bastardy were complex, as any bastard's were likely to be. They had evolved, however, with every new thing she learned and every new edition to her life. Lady Stark and her own negative experiences were strong. Gwyn's acceptance and the grim humor she showed at how often you ended up with an heir who looked quite like this or that dashing knight had left Lyarra a little more mobile in thought than she'd once been. As did Gwyn's strange tendency to accept anything that didn't do her harm fairly openly; how could Lyarra not be affected by it when it had won her such a steadfast friend?

 

Her Dornish husband and his people had brought their own influence. Oberyn unselfconsciously loved and bragged of all of the Sand Snakes. Lord Gargalen had raised his cousin's bastard son as his own until the boy had died of some wasting disease of the bones before Oberyn had even been born. Ser Deziel Dalt was as good and staunchly honorable a man and knight as Lyarra's own father, but his paramour was a very male poet from the Summer Isles who'd once been a bed slave. He spoke fondly of passing on his title to his younger brother, as if was of no consequence that he would never marry and produce an heir.

 

So Lyarra truly wasn't angry , she found to her surprise, that her husband had once bedded men as well as women - and many of both. It simply did not bother her so much as it might. The Marks on their wrists meant he couldn't betray her. Lyarra also could sense his frustration and found that the link that allowed that was enough to make her feel more understanding than annoyance at his situation. He hadn't asked for her anymore than she'd wanted him. The Gods had decided their lives without any input, and being locked into such a situation together was rather a bonding experience.

 

"Jealous?"

 

"No," Lyarra sighed at the caution hidden in his teasing tone. "But I'm quite tired of having half the men and women we're traveling with offering me advice on what you enjoy in bed, Husband. Lady Myria is too cultured to do it, and Ser Daemon too kind to risk that I should take it badly, but many others are not and apparently I know nothing ."

 

Oberyn looked torn between humor and grave offense. Lyarra let him gather her into his arms, but she stopped short of kissing him or leaning against him. Instead she balanced both hands on his chest and looked up at him with an expression she knew was likely a little bit sad and a little bit peevish.

 

"Mayhaps you knew little enough when I took you to wife, but you are far too talented a student for me to offer any complaints." He purred at her and she allowed him to tug her closer and draw a slow kiss across her lips. "As for my preferences? I am more than capable of expressing them, and I'll be having words over this with those who think otherwise."

 

"Would you like a list?"

 

"After dinner, perhaps."

 

"Which we must dress for."

 

"Unfortunately. Should we all attend in your current ensemble it would liven up the proceedings, don't you think?"

 

"You'd look terrible in this corset." Lyarra rolled her eyes, and then almost felt the little voice that sounded like Gwyn at her worst whispering the words that came out of her mouth in the next moment. "Though the lace smallclothes might be fetching."

 

Standing outside at guard, Ser Arron shook in place with silent laughter.

 


 

"Ned."

 

Lord Eddard Stark nearly jumped out of his skin as he relieved his bladder behind an ancient oak with great, serpentine roots that wandered down into the water near his feet.

 

"I checked for lizard-lions before I started pissing, so don't start." Ned grumbled, returning himself to some state of presentability as he turned, feeling his lips turn up as years melted away at the amused huff of Howland Reed's laughter. "The feast went better than I expected."

 

"I didn't expect the Prince to accept my apology."

 

Lord Howland Reed's tone was warm with regret and appreciation and Ned had to admit that he felt the same. Introducing his unwanted goodson to his old friend was the second most nerve-wracking moment of the entire afternoon spent with the Crannogmen who'd come to join his party for a while. To his surprise, however, it had gone well.

 

Prince Oberyn Martell might have carried murder in his eyes when her first met Howland Reed, but the man's moods were always mercurial. Howland himself was… odd. Ned took it for granted that he was, for he'd known the man for so long and he'd never changed. Crannogmen were also a little closer to the Forest and its Children than any other families he knew of in the North, and there was an air about them that was hard to ignore if you were not the sort of fool who saw only appearances.

 

The Red Viper was many things, but he was not a fool. While Ned felt that nothing would reduce the Dornish loathing for his sister, and it worried him for good reason, the man had listened to Howland. There was no mention of the Knight of the Laughing Tree, but Howland Reed had told the tale of how Lyanna had saved him from a beating at the hand of some unworthy squires, and the friendship he'd felt for his Lord's daughter for that act.

 

He'd gone on to explain that he'd come to the war knowing nothing of men, nor of Southron knights, and only wished to settle Lady Lyanna's abduction and gain justice for his Lord and Lord's heir. He was saddened to know he'd stabbed a good man in the back and left his family to mourn. Lord Reed refused to regret saving his liege lord, but offered what apologies he could for being young and only seeing a lady abused where more might have been known and less grief felt by all.

 

Howland Reed wasn't forgiven in the end, but Ned couldn't blame the man for that. Some small peace was made, and that was enough. Ned just wished he didn't think that the man's choosing to accept Howland Reed's explanation of fury at a group of men he'd thought were guilty of the kidnapping and rape of Lyanna Stark wouldn't come back to haunt him as another lever to try and gain House Martell their Names. Ned's hands were tied by his oath, and he was growing to resent it more daily.

 

He'd resolved to speak to Robert of it in the capital. There was no reason not to. Robert's reign was less rather than more secure these days. House Martell's popularity with the smallfolk was intense. Some gesture towards Dorne might be politically expedient enough that Ned could get Jon Arryn on his side, and maybe finally remind Robert of what Ned was sure he knew was the right thing to do.

 

"I didn't, either." Ned finally allowed, breathing out and smirking at his friend as he looked out over the still, black waters of the Neck as he leaned comfortably against the clean side of the tree he'd just made use of. "Brought all your antidotes with you anyway, didn't you?"

 

"Of course." The Lord of the Neck chuckled and then grinned his crooked grin out of the light brown beard as he looked up at his much taller friend. "Pity he's only reached the level of tolerating me. I would love to talk poisons with the man."

 

Ned chuckled. The Neck was famous for a lot of things. Ambush warfare and poisoning those who crossed it were amongst them. Had the two sides not spent the evening maintaining a tense if diplomatic peace there might have been much to discuss.

 

"Your children are well-grown, my Lord." Howland said formally after a few moments companionable silence, listening to the endless singing of the frogs and crickets that populated the swamps of the Neck. "You must be proud."

 

"As must you." Ned agreed, breathing out and thinking on what to say. "Meera's a fine girl."

 

"Pride of my heart." Howland offered a smile and breathed out. "She'll make Lord Bran a good wife."

 

Ned Stark opened his mouth. Then Ned Stark shut his mouth. Then, after a moment Ned Stark silently shook his head.

 

"How did you know?"

 

"My boy, Jojen, has dreams." Howland chuckled tiredly after a moment. "You were going to offer a betrothal, yes?"

 

"Aye, after the children have time to grow a bit. What does your daughter think of it? She didn't seem much taken with Bran at supper."

 

"She's young yet, and more interested in catching frogs and snakes and such than boys." Howland smiled. "Give her time, and give him time as well. You said at supper that he goes to his mother's uncle to squire in the Vale. We've never had a knight live in the Neck, mayhaps his armor will turn her head when the day comes."

 

"Mayhaps." Ned chuckled at the image. "The Blackfish is a practical man, so you needn't worry that I'd be sending your daughter a useless husband with unaffordable Southron ways… I'd be giving him Moat Cailin, so she'd be well provided for."

 

"She would, indeed. How do you plan to pay to rebuild it, and when would you start? That'll take years , Ned."

 

Ned explained the Dornish custom of the bride price, and the food that would be flowing into the North. Without the careful balance of buying in, and then subsidizing winter food supplies for the smallfolk to the extent he'd been afraid he'd have to, House Stark could afford to begin work on rebuilding the massive, iconic stronghold.

 

"That won't cover the entire cost, not unless the Crown pays back its debt, but it'll make a start." Ned breathed out. "For the rest… I've a few ideas and Cat'll help me work it out. With the South so restless after the Plague, I want Moat Cailin ready to reinforce your people."

 

"We appreciate it." Howland said quietly, and breathed out a long, slow breath. "My son's had dreams of that, as well."

 

"Anything that makes sense?"

 

"Not a damned bit."

 

Ned snorted out a laugh at that and things descended into comfortable silence between himself, his friend, and the songs of the swamp again.

 

"So the Gods have seen fit to have the Dornish help rebuild Moat Cailin. The Gods are strange."

 

"They often are. " Ned swallowed, knowing what he couldn't afford to say aloud even here with even the limited potential of being overheard. "Lyarra's a Princess now."

 

"She's suited for it." Howland agreed. "The Gods don't bring together two bloodlines like the Princess' without a reason."

 

"Did your son… see something?"

 

Ned's blood ran cold at the idea. He wasn't a superstitious man. He'd seen Howland do things during the war, however, that were strange and not easily explained. The Crannogman could hide all but in plain sight if given enough warning to do so. He had an uncanny way of spotting snakes, scorpions, and other threats. If his son was truly having greendreams…

 

"No, this one was mine." Howland breathed out. "Before I went to Harrenhal. I told you about it, if you'll recall?"

 

" Aye , when we broke the siege you told me what you dreamed of." Ned shivered, recalling his friend's tale of a dream about dragons in the sky and a winter that seemed endless. Given the Citadel's predictions of what was to come... Ned couldn't afford not to take precautions. "They're saying this will be a decade long winter, Howland."

 

"I got your raven with the figures on how much food the Dornish are sending, and how much more they're willing to trade honestly for. If that's so, nobody in the North will starve. I don't know about Winterfell, but we've been laying by for years. We've got a six year surplus. With the Dornish contribution and more trade besides no-one will starve."

 

"We've five fat years laid by now if you forget the Dornish, twice that if we're careful." Ned admitted with a deep breath. "I've put Robb on gaining the honest figures for all of the North while I'm gone. I need to know where every House and holdfast stands, and have a good census."

 

Talk turned to numbers and responsibility. The true bread and meat of being lord was figures and projections and careful mediation, after all. Ned knew he wasn't meant for it, and hadn't been born and raised to it as Brandon was, but he contented himself that he'd learned in a hard school how to handle his responsibilities. While he wanted to spare his children that grief, he'd seen in Robb's shock and hurt during the last few weeks that he'd miscalculated in some way.

 

He'd never meant to let his son think he was perfect; that was a fearful thing to imagine anyone thinking or building a life on. He'd made too many mistakes, he needed to let Robb see that and gain his own strength. Ned was hoping the list of things he'd left his heir to accomplish on his own would help him with that. Getting the winter supply figures was always a hassle, but he had confidence in his son's Northern blood and stolid practicality. Cat would be there to guide him in the politics of it as she'd been for Ned in all of the years of their marriage.

 

"I brought the chest."

 

Howland's next words had Ned swallowing past the lump in his throat.

 

"Now's not the time." Ned replied. "Is it-?"

 

"Guarded on a boat past yonder." Howland pointed out past view amidst the moss-laden trees and the black water and Ned nodded.

 

"Take it back with you, Howland. I trust you… and I'll likely come to fetch it soon enough." Ned allowed and rested a hand on his friend's shoulders after Howland's next words sank in.

 

"I'm sorry about at dinner, Ned. You always said that when she was betrothed you'd tell her."

 

Ned winced as he recalled Howland telling his daughter that she was beautiful like her mother. He'd stopped him before he could go on and say she looked like her mother. Had he done that even the dullest sword in the armory would have been able to guess her origins.

 

"If it had been the Greatjon's boy I'd have already told her. I would have told them as well and known I had another layer of armor around Lyarra's life." Ned shook his head. "Now… After her first child's born, no sooner. Lyarra and I talked and we agreed to it. She trusts me at my word, and she's a good girl; dutiful and quiet."

 

"She gets that from her father."

 

Ned had no idea in that moment who this friend who knew the most closely guarded truth of his life meant, so he did the only thing he could do; he took it as a compliment for himself and not the damned Silver Prince. Then he changed the subject.

 

"Aye."

 

"Still headed to Riverrun to visit your goodfather?"

 

"I wish Cat was with me to smooth things over, but Lord Tully will understand why I wanted Robb to have the experience of ruling and the support of his mother."

 

"He'll also understand that you needed to show you trusted your Lady by leaving her with your Heir. Had you brought her with you it could be seen as you taking her home for judgement."

 

"Has everyone heard those damned rumors?" Ned asked in a sudden fit of temper. "Tell me, Howland, how long have you known?"

 

"Only a couple of moons, Ned. I was going to send you a raven, then I heard you were already heading south." Howland Reed shook his head. "I didn't credit them at first. If people were poaching weirwoods, the smallfolk would tear them limb from limb before any of us could get at their necks with a sword and proper justice."

 

"That's what I can't credit." Ned shook his head, scowling. "The rumors are coming from where ? I've spoken to every crofter and hunter I've run across since we left Winterfell, and I've put all of my bannermen to doing a survey of their forests. So far my people have heard them, but nobody knows where they came from other than south. It will be a while before the surveys come in, but the hunters and woodsmen would be the first to notice any weirwoods dug up, and all I've spoken to know naught of any weirwood saplings being dug up."

 

"If the rumors start in the Riverlands, you may find your answers there, my Lord. I wish you luck, this is a blight on the honor of the North itself, and an insult to the Old Gods."

 

"Aye." Ned all but spat before shaking his head and rubbing a hand over his face. "Stay till morning so we can speak again, Howland. I'd best turn in."

 

"Given that you'll have to deal with the Crossing to get to Riverrun, aye, I'd say catching up on your sleep was a good idea." Howland chuckled and Ned shot him a dirty look.

 

"It's not the Crossing I find distasteful, it's the Lord of it."

 


 

Oberyn's back was killing him. His hips ached like someone had grabbed one in each hand and twisted. It felt as if he'd wrenched his legs out of socket then popped each back in place crooked. He was beginning to think that the North itself was out to get him, and the weather was its choice of weapon.

 

Days of riding in the bulky, uncomfortable northern saddle had done his back no favors. That was unpleasant, but nothing he couldn't bear. That morning, however, there had been a heavy frost and as they mounted to ride out, leaving the North and its blasted weather behind, it had taken one more parting shot at its least favorite prince.

 

Oberyn had slipped on a rock and fallen hard. His back had twisted at an awkward angle. Then his pride had kept him from saying anything of it. As his pride was both his worst and most constant ally, he'd stayed in the saddle all day, joking and racing with Arya and Bran more than once just to prove the fall had done him no harm.

 

Lowering himself gingerly onto the bed in his tent that night, Oberyn stifled a hiss of pain. From neck to tailbone he was in agony. He muttered to himself in two different languages to try and fully capture the purity of the pain he was in.

 

"You did your back when you fell this morning, didn't you?"

 

"A proper wife wouldn't mock her husband's pain." Oberyn shot back, refusing to embarrass himself by trying - and failing - to turn and look at Lyarra.

 

She'd followed him into the tent, dismissing Gwyn and Ser Daemon's attempts to follow. He'd been grateful for that, because despite everything he and Daemon had done together, he didn't want to have to listen to a man who'd once been his squire or his lover laugh at his misery. Lyarra was alright; he could still reliably put her in a headlock and take her sword away in the sparring yard. How much longer he'd be able to do that he did not know; his wife's talents were progressing nicely on many fronts.

 

"Your wife is entirely proper, and she's not planning on mocking your pain." Lyarra replied with clear amusement. "In fact, you've got a wonderful wife who feels her genius is unappreciated at the moment."

 

"If my pain is what puts you in a playful mood, my melancholy little wolf, then I fear for our future together." Something licked his toes. "Is that Ghost or are you getting quite adventurous?"

 

"Ghost, and you're disgusting. You've been wearing boots all day, and excessively thick socks. When I pulled them off of you, they were so sweaty they squelched ."

 

"If your weather were not so horrid, then I could wear sandals like a civilized person and neither of us would have to put up with my sweaty woolen socks." Oberyn said waspishly, then added more pleasantly. "Though I thank you for removing them."

 

He listened for a few moments, noting the sounds of Lyarra going through the small chest that held her toiletries and then moving close to the brazier. He had to nudge Ghost aside when she began to nibble, and found the task difficult to accomplish without moving his face from where he'd buried it in his crossed forearms and a pillow on the bed. He just didn't want to bend, and finally had to ask Lyarra to get her pet before he had no toes left.

 

Lyarra did so, and Oberyn couldn't help smiling into his arms as he listened to her fondly scold her direwolf. The fluffy little beast was growing on him. He couldn't help but be fascinated by the intelligence in the pup's red eyes, and how it seemed to follow Lyarra wherever she went in perfect silence. The little white she-wolf also seemed to have a greater understanding of language than was possible, for Oberyn had lately noticed how complicated some of the commands that the three pups who traveled with them understood were.

 

"What are you doing?" Oberyn asked after a few minutes, curious as to the noises.

 

"Well," Lyarra's tone was definitely playful now. "I had thought I would have at least a few years before I had to minister to my poor, aged husband, but since I was wrong-."

 

" Aged?!" Oberyn tried to push himself up but stopped with another stifled hiss of pain as his back seized up all along its length and the muscles spasmed when he moved.

 

"Just stay down." Lyarra had the temerity to giggle at him, and he turned his head just enough to glare at her out of one eye when he saw she had a small, familiar bottle in her hand.

 

"Hair oil?"

 

"It's good for other things."

 

She smiled triumphantly at him and Oberyn felt a hint of surprised interest. He certainly knew that the thin, sweet smelling oil that many ladies used to soften their hair had multiple uses. He just hadn't expected Lyarra to be aware of them. He wondered, briefly, which one of the guards he'd already corrected for their prurient 'advice' had told her. He also wondered if it would inhibit her apparently rapidly blossoming curiosity if he told her there was no way he could possibly do anything in bed other than lay there with his back in the shape it was in. Then again, dying of the agony that would come from attempted lovemaking might be preferable to admitting himself too pain-wracked to be capable of it…

 

"Here, lie still."

 

The bed dipped under her as she moved to sit beside him, and she tucked the bottle against her knee as she knelt next to him wearing only a shift. Oberyn had already discarded his own clothing, pulling a blanket up as far as his hips before giving up on moving any further and accepting the cool night air south of the Neck would just have to linger on his skin until his wife came to bed. Whatever he might have said after that was lost in a moan of pure and utter bliss that shocked Oberyn more than he would like to admit.

 

Lyarra Stark carved beautiful artwork out of hardwood for a hobby. As he lay there his young wife put the palms of both of her hands on either side of his spine and pushed the muscular joint of her hands and wrists deeply and smoothly up the entire expanse of his back from tailbone to neck. Several audible pops followed and Oberyn could feel the abused muscles clench and then release in a sudden wave of relief so intense he wasn't even aware of the sounds he started to make. She repeated the gesture twice, then began digging implacable fingers into the knotted, tormented muscles of his neck and shoulders.

 

Bliss , the Red Viper found out, was a wife with strong hands.

 

Meanwhile, outside the tent Ser Arron sighed and set his face in a firmly blank expression as the loud, appreciative, masculine noises continued. Ser Daemon looked as if it was taking all of his willpower not to turned around and peek inside. Lady Jynessa, despite her years, was seized by a giggle-fit as she herded Lady Arya and Lady Gwyn into the wheelhouse for the night and used all of her diplomatic skill not to answer Arya's question about what was wrong with her new goodbrother.

 

Ned Stark once again did not have a restful night.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen – 297 A.C.

 

The combination of a windy day, a freshly ploughed field, and a brief rain did no-one any favors on the last two leagues before reaching the Twins. Lyarra, however, knew she fared worse than others. The fine coating of road dust that all of those who'd been riding mounted had was exacerbated by the heavier dirt the wind had carried off of the field. The brief drizzle had turned that water into mud.

 

Lyarra's husband had hair short and straight enough that the brief shower had simply washed the dirt away. Oberyn looked every inch the Prince, and was no longer plagued by the ill-expression that being cold put on his face. The Red Viper wasn't willing to call the weather south of the Neck warm , but he allowed that it wasn't cold. As such, he'd sat there upon his borrowed bay stallion in his copper scale mail, the unembellished scarlet leather surcoat he wore while riding, and his usual weapons. The long, wickedly sharp spear he carried while riding was particularly striking.

 

Lyarra's hair was too curly to give up anything it had caught easily. As such, the dust had turned to mud. She met the members of House Frey who came out to offer their party bread and salt with her hair dirty and stringy, her clothing roadstained, and a cloud of exhaustion that had descended on her for no good reason rendering her mood gray and bleak.

 

"I liked bolting rabbits with ferrets as a girl, but looking into the collective faces of House Frey is almost enough to turn me off weasels altogether."

 

The first words out of Gwyn's mouth were cutting, wry, and dark. They also immediately put a weary smile on Lyarra's face. They even earned a soft scoff of laughter from outside the screen where Ser Damien was acting as squire to Lyarra's husband. Whether it was the Sand or the Prince who had laughed, Lyarra couldn't say.

 

"You bolted rabbits?" Lyarra asked instead, intrigued by this little hint of Gwyn's clouded past showing through.

 

There was the briefest of pauses, but then her friend went on. Gwyn's nimble fingers made quick work of laces as she spoke. Lyarra stood still and grateful, letting her friend peel her clothing off. Gwyn had spent the day in the wheelhouse and had no need of the hot bath currently sitting in front of the fireplace in the suite in the River Tower that the Prince of Dorne and his wife had been offered.

 

"Yes. Father didn't have anyone landed who'd invite him hunting, but rabbits are a plague in the public fields around Lannisport. Anyone can hunt them who wishes."

 

"Your rabbit stew's really good."

 

Lyarra realized, suddenly, that she was starving. In fact, she was so hungry she was a little dizzy. That was probably why she was tired. Lyarra thought back and realized that all she'd eaten that day was an apple gotten from a villager they'd passed by who was selling them. She'd actually felt a little unwell all day. Not sick, merely like food was unappetizing.

 

" All my cooking is really good." Gwyn's confidence in that skill was well-earned, but smug enough that Lyarra nudged her shoulder hard in response and got a quick grin from the blonde girl when she did so. "You should wear the red dress, and your circlet. If the Frey women want to be catty, that's fine, there's not a princess among them. Nor will there be with their faces. Not unless the Prince of Weasels comes courting."

 

"Shall he bring his intended a rabbit skin cloak?" Oberyn called from outside the screen and Gwyn's confidence fled, her expression going blank. Lyarra sighed and shook her head, her own briefly lifted mood failing.

 

"The Prince of Snakes brought me a forked tongue, so I wouldn't sneer at a warm cloak." Lyarra shot back.

 

"Ah, you shall hurt my feelings, darling. I had thought you enjoyed my forked tongue!"

 

Lyarra felt her face reddening and then Gwyn was on her toes, whispering in Lyarra's ear.

 

"I cannot help if you are only tolerable company when your mouth is full, my Prince!" Lyarra happily threw out the line she'd been fed. "Has no-one told you that it's the lady in the marriage who is supposed to chatter?"

 

The sound of laughter that followed was definitely Ser Daemon's. Gwyn helped Lyarra into the deep wooden tub. Before her friend could continue acting as maid and help her begin to scrub her hair Gwyn let out a squeak of surprise and quickly turned her back.

 

"Oberyn!"

 

Lyarra protested loudly as her husband walked back behind the wide screen that was supposed to designate the separation between where Lyarra was dressing and bathing and her husband's space in the suite. That thin veneer of respectability was nowhere near sturdy enough to hold back her husband's shamelessness. Oberyn had walked over naked and climbed into the tub next to Lyarra with no warning and no fanfare.

 

"Yes, darling?" He grinned at her and picked up the rag and bar of soap that Gwyn had already set on a small folding table by the tub. "I don't suppose you'd be so kind as to scrub your poor aged husband's back."

 

"Oh, fine . Gwyn, you may go." She was off like a shot. "If you're staying than you've got to help me with my hair. Either that or get a knife and relieve me of most of the hassle of it."

 

" Never ." Oberyn denied passionately, turning his back to her and passing her a second rag and the bar of soap as he began to wash the road dust away. "You've no appreciation for the gift you've been given. You've hair such as the Rhoynish Queens of Old must have once had."

 

"If Rhoynish Queens had Flint curls one wonders how far abroad the Mountain Clan's sons got. Not to mention the powers of observation owned by the Rhoynish Kings."

 

Oberyn chuckled at that.

 

"Lady Mormont claims that she has Flint curls, and there was a Mountain Clan girl at the wedding making eyes at your brother whose hair was curly as well." He argued, reaching back to tug a wet ringlet forward and toy with it over one of his shoulders. "Their hair isn't half so thick as yours, nor its curls so resilient. No, you've Rhoynish curls, Lyarra. I could never mistake them for anything else."

 

"How?"

 

Lyarra reclaimed her hair, shoving it behind her as she finished getting the sweat that accumulated on her husband's back off of him. She then turned and presented him with her own back when he tried to lean forward and wrap her in his arms. His response was to stretch his long legs out, bracketing her own and dragging her back against his chest with an arm around his waist.

 

"My mother had such curls." Oberyn told her, quietly, and buried his hands in her hair.

 

Lyarra didn't know what to say to that. Fortunately she was gifted with a husband who enjoyed the sound of his own voice. She was beginning to find his easy speech a comfort. It filled in the gaps left by her awkwardness nicely, and laid a silence on her mind that was no longer uneasy.

 

"Truly, the ladies at Sunspear will weep when they see my wife. I shall enjoy their jealous moaning, I think. They certainly spent long enough gossiping over my refusal to wed. Let them waste their spleen on the sight of the beauty the Gods gifted me with. Though we'll have to take care. Your skin is like milk, if you don't curdle in the sun, you'll surely burn."

 

"Do you think my mother's Dornish?" Lyarra couldn't resist asking in a longing tone as she leaned into the talented, long-fingered hands massaging her scalp. "And I don't burn in the sun. The glare off of the snow is as bad as off the sea but I've never burned once in my life."

 

"You've never experienced the sun in Dorne, either. As to your mother? It would make the most sense, though I know not how the timing would work." He frowned against her shoulder as he planted a kiss there. "If you're only just younger than your brother, you must have been conceived at nearly the same time. If that's the case, then where did he meet this Dornishwoman who fled home to birth you?"

 

"I've always wanted to think her a noblewoman, like Lady Dayne, but what noblewoman could he have met and bedded when newly wed to a Lord Paramount's daughter?" Lyarra allowed, her gray mood deepening. "Mayhaps Lady Stark is right. A camp follower would be most likely."

 

"A professional would have taken moon tea."

 

Lyarra hummed noncommittally and stared down into the water. It was growing murky. Her hair was trailing around her. The curls were transformed into wet tentacles floating through the water to grasp at her hips and trail in the water beside her husband's bent knees.

 

Suddenly Lyarra felt her lips turn up in thought. Her husband was a tall man, all long, wiry limbs and muscular in the lean way of the wickedly fast. Once, however, the confident prince had been a boy as Robb and Bran and even Rickon were. She couldn't help picturing what he'd been like and realized he'd likely have been skinny with knobby knees.

 

She shivered as his breath ghosted hot over the back of her neck, and he drew his hands up her front. One settled low over her belly to toy with the dip of her bellybutton. The other came up in that unselfconscious way he dealt with his lust and satisfying it. Lyarra shivered and leaned into the hand palming her breasts as he lazily rubbed his cock against the curve of her ass. He wasn't hard yet, but he was certainly getting there.

 

"Whatever you were thinking of that felt so sweet, it's a shame to keep it to yourself, Lyarra."

 

Lyarra let herself relax back against him and turned, ignoring her own blush to search for his lips and a kiss of her own making. She felt his delight when she did so. He definitely enjoyed boldness in others as much as himself.

 

"I was thinking that you were my age once." Lyarra confessed and then pulled back from the kiss to grin at him. "And Bran's age, too. Did you have knobby knees?"

 

He stared at her for a moment as if she was some strange creature he'd never seen before, and then Lyarra's husband burst out laughing. Shaking his head, his response made her grin sheepishly and nod in acknowledgement.

 

"Obviously the danger of a quiet wife; you never know what they'll say when they finally speak." His bemused humor was wry, and when he kissed her lips it was more fond than anything like the growing passion of earlier. "Yes, you strange creature. I had horrendously knobby knees. Fortunately they sorted themselves out more than a score of years ago. Did you?"

 

"Arya and I look a lot alike."

 

"So that's a 'yes' most certainly?"

 

"Arya and I look a lot alike." Lyarra repeated and then reached forward to get the glass jar that Gwyn kept the mix of oil and gentle soap that she used on both their hair when it needed a better cleaning than a brush would give. "The water will grow cold."

 

"True." He took the jar from her and began to briskly and efficiently begin working up a lather in her excessive mane of hair. "Is that what's on your mind?"

 

"I'm starving." Lyarra confessed and her husband chuckled at her.

 

"As am I, though I think our plans for satisfaction were slightly different."

 

Lyarra did blush at that.

 

"Besides, let's not deny our gracious hosts their chance to shine." He scoffed, going on comfortably as she felt his interest flag a little as his mind engaged in other matters. "You will not forget today's lesson."

 

"No." Lyarra agreed, turning to look at him. "You think it's necessary?"

 

"Silver-stained utensils are always necessary in my household." The Red Viper grinned toothily. "You will find my daughters share many of my interests and enjoy experimenting."

 

Given that their lesson today had been identifying and avoiding poison present in food, Lyarra wasn't necessarily thrilled to hear that. Had she not already been intimidated by gaining a gaggle of gooddaughters older than she was, the idea that they liked to experiment with poisons in their own food would have done it. She couldn't help wondering if her determination to find common ground with the Sand Snakes would even be possible.

 

"Do not look so, Lyarra. Emetics and a few other gut-twisting things aside, my daughters do no-one harm that hasn't earned it, and you most certainly have not." Oberyn countered, dropping a kiss against her shoulder as he continued to scrub the dried mud from her hair. "Here, I would not be so sure. In King's Landing it will be more important yet."

 

"Best to establish the habit now then."

 

" Quite , now stand up so I can wring this cloak of yours out."

 

Lyarra did so, and was pleased to stand in front of the fire drying both of their bodies while he concentrated on toweling the worst of the lingering dampness out of her hair.

 


 

Oberyn had allowed his young wife to exile him to the solar to dress for dinner with the shambling creature that was Lord Walder Frey and all of his various descendants. The man looked like one of the walking dead from Arya's fireside tales. Oberyn had seen bodies mummified by the desert's heat and sands that were a more appetizing sight. He anticipated no pleasure out of their stay at the Twins, and was pleased it would be brief. Had it not been for a matter of timing, and their arrival happening near nightfall, he'd have been happier to push forward and simply camp for the night. Riverrun was the only place that they planned to stop for any length of time on their journey.

 

"I don't know why the Gods like you half so well as they do." Ser Daemon Sand's soft accusation put a smirk on Oberyn's face that nearly took the sting out of his displeasure with the meddling of the Powers that Be in his life.

 

Lyarra's little Westerlands lady had scampered back into the room to serve as maid when he'd left it. He found that he could issue no complaints as to her work. Gwyn Parren might have been no more than a knighted guardsmen's daughter, but she knew how a princess ought to look.

 

"My Princess is ever a credit to House Martell." Oberyn agreed, dropping into a bow in front of Lyarra and laying a lingering kiss upon her fingers.

 

Lyarra was wearing a satin gown cut in an unfamiliar style. Red as a cardinal's breast, the gleaming material of the gown had been cut lower and more daringly than any gown he'd yet to see his wife wear. Undoubtedly assisted by a snug corset, her bosom welled up white against the square neckline. From there, the dress rose into two broad straps over each of her shoulders, and continued down, drawn tight to her hips like a second skin by lacing up the back. From there it swirled out into a full skirt, but Lyarra wore no layers of petticoat under it to hold it out, so it followed the line of her hips and long legs fairly naturally before swirling into a short train in the back.

 

Underneath her gown, she wore a shift of dark cream colored chiffon so thin it was like fog around her skin. The gown's 'sleeves' were two tubes folded around her upper and lower arms that were held in place by complicated laces. The golden ribbon gleamed, as did the wandering pattern of golden vines worked out in heavy, three dimensional stitching of hooked-needle embroidery. Little multi-colored stone beads had been worked into the embroidery as well, giving the gown more weight.

 

Lyarra's hair was drawn off of her face and back into a netting of knotted golden ribbon of the same sort that kept her red sleeves in place over her shift. The Parren girl had the sense to take into account the stubborn intractability of her mistress' hair, because she didn't even attempt to hold it in place with pins or combs. Instead the hairnet was held by a broad band of fabric that curled around her forehead and over the crown of her head before tying firmly at the back of her neck with ribbons.

 

A length of golden ribbon had been stretched across her brow from one side of the headdress to the other, and at its center hung the copper and gold sunburst-and-spear pendant from the chain circlet he'd given her. At her throat was another of his gifts; the three-tiered necklace of smooth, round amber beads. In the back of his mind he was less than pleased with the Lannister colors. Some orange trim here and there was needed for the gown. That said?

 

"Tonight, no-one who looks upon my wife could doubt she was born to be a Princess." He smiled crookedly. "I feel entirely upstaged."

 

"It will likely be good for you." Lyarra offered through a fierce blush and Oberyn grinned.

 

"Wise as well as beautiful. I am indeed blessed!"

 

Having successfully gotten the last word in, Oberyn mused on his own accuracy. He was not an ill-favored man by any means. He'd chosen to dress the part of a Prince as well, as he no longer had to largely rely on Northern clothing that was hastily bought and did not suit him in color or cut.

 

He'd pulled a pair of the high boots he favored over simple trousers. Into that he tucked a shirt of dark carmine silk. Open to the waist with no fastenings, he tucked it loosely beneath his belt. Against his chest rested a golden chain decorated with one of his wife's gifts to him; a pendant of dark wood. Carved in a rounded disk with a broad center opening, it had the rays of a sun stretching from the open center to the edges of the disk. According to Lyarra it was a charm worn by the Mountain Clans to ward off winter and warm one when it came.

 

Over it all he wore one of the long coats he favored. Dusky orange silk damask shot through with an interesting pattern in dark yellow, the color did suit him, and served to remind the social climbing Freys just who he was. Those who sat north of the Red Mountains might disdain Dorne for its differences, but Oberyn intended to flout and glory in them. In Dorne, they were free .

 

"Won't you be cold?" Lyarra asked, her hands coming up to brush over the open collar of his shirt.

 

Oberyn felt his lips turn up at the gesture. His wife was a shy thing in public. He longed for touch. To kiss, caress, to share his space with those he cared about meant much to him. While he was reluctant to go too far and disturb Lyarra, he was discovering that her hunger for acceptance equated to a starvation for touch in the girl. His young wife had yet to learn the boldness he yet enjoyed, but he was starting to appreciate the subtler flavor of how she was learning to express her feelings and desires. Like his slow-growing perceptions from his soulmate herself, this was a new flavor in a dish he'd long savored in life.

 

At the moment she was expressing her pleasure at his appearance in what was becoming a habitual fashion. Lyarra smoothed her hands over the front of his coat. She barely brushed her thumbs over the exposed strip of his chest, tapped his sword belt only with the tips of her nails, and then her hands were back at his collar. She straightened the silk, smoothing it against the tendons of his neck and the tip of one index finger settled in the dip of his collarbone. The completely chaste touch sent a frisson of want up his spine as without warning he could all but taste her desire behind it.

 

Oberyn spared a dark glare for Lady Jynessa when she cleared her throat. She, the Parren girl, and Lady Myria had all been in the hall outside his guest quarters. They had escorted Lady Lyarra there, to wait, and Oberyn had emerged with Ser Daemon at his heels to find his wife quite the vision of youthful beauty. Her dark hair and the pale softness of her skin contrasted with the colors of her gown like moonlight on the red dunes.

 

"Your presence warms me." He opted to reply simply, enjoying her blush and the smug flash of smile he got in return before she took his proffered arm and wiped her features clean to proper Northern stoicism. "Now, we've an entrance to make."

 


 

Stevron Frey had lived more than three score years as the eldest of his father's legion of sons. He wasn't unused to tense dinner situations. Despite features that many referred to by the insulting adjective of 'weaselly', Stevron wasn't a particularly nervous man. It was a good night to be nervous, however, wasn't it?

 

Under the excuse of an aging body and all of its woes, he'd taken a moment to leave the feast rapidly thrown together to welcome their 'guests'. Travellers would have been a better descriptor, but Lord Walder wasn't having it. Stevron didn't even blame his father; for all that Lord Walder Frey was mocked by so many, he hadn't lived as long as he had without being canny. When you had as many unmarried kin as they did and a Lord Paramount brought an unwed daughter and son through your lands, then by the Gods, you pretended that it was the most delightful visit ever.

 

Or, rather, you did if it wasn't an absolutely idiotic thing to do.

 

" Well ?"

 

Black Walder greeted his grandfather's quiet, taut question with a wince and a glower. Stevron had no illusions about his second grandson's goodness, but at least he was quicker of wit than Edwyn. Stevron's son, Ryman, was a disappointment in every way. Ryman's eldest son was cold and aloof in a way that no man with so many alternate heirs breathing down his neck should have been. Family came first, of course, but Stevron also knew the value of caution. That was why he'd entrusted Black Walder with this task, for as little as his second grandson was often trustworthy, he knew that in this instance they'd see eye-to-eye.

 

"There's nothing we can do for it." Black Walder hissed back as they stood in a shaded alcove in the gallery above the seldom used sparring yard. "The ground's too spongy and the rain's too heavy right now to get out and even try and dig up the saplings. It would be like trying to suck glue through a straw with your asshole."

 

Stevron ran a hand nervously over his mostly bald head and the ring of long, lank gray hair that fell from it.

 

"Can they be hidden?"

 

"Aye, if we can keep the entire damned party both inside the castle and off the castle walls." His grandson spat over the railing. "That idiot, Merrett, cleared more ground and cut a bunch of sassafras saplings to splice and root the damned things. When he did it he took down the row of yew hedges that was blocking view of the nursery. The things are sticking out like pustules on a whore's cunt."

 

"Never having favored diseased whores, I'll take you at your word for it." Stevron groused, then shook his head. "Aenys' cleverness has run out. Where's Edmure Tully?"

 

"I've no damned idea. Last I heard he was riding north from Seaguard towards us, but if Lord Stark thinks the limp trout is coming to meet him then who the fuck knows when he'll show?"

 

"He cannot be far. Not if Stark got the news from that frog-eating nuisance, Reed, two days past."

 

Black Walder's already thin, angry face constricted into a darker expression yet and Stevron worried at his lower lip with his remaining teeth. He'd told his father that Aenys' scheme was too good to be true. His father, however, was enamored of any idea that would stick it to Hoster Tully. He'd never forgiven him for dubbing him the 'Late Lord Frey' and refusing any offer of marriage from House Frey.

 

Stevron had little use for Tully arrogance, but he knew that they hadn't the power to do anything about it at the moment. House Tully was too powerful, and the crown would support them even if Lysa Arryn was dead and humiliated. Hoster Tully hadn't yet been done in by whatever wasting disease was eating his guts, and as long as he lived, House Tully would leap at any chance to crush Stevron's own House and wrench the Twins from their cold, dead hands. If the shame surrounding Petyr Baelish's deathbed confession by raven of having deflowered both Tully's daughters had been amusing to hear bandied about, the bravery that shame had also given borne too many false confidence.

 

Why did it have to be weirwoods, Stevron wanted to know? It was one thing to make a tidy profit and pass the blame to an enemy house. They were hardly the only House to jump at that chance. It was another thing to play with anyone's faith. It mattered not if it was a true and decent one, like the Seven, or something barbaric like the Old Gods of the Forest. The smallfolk wanted to believe, and with the feeling of salvation the inoculation had brought with it, that belief was moving like wildfire.

 

Stevron had no intention of being burned to ash.

 

"Well, what're we to do?" Black Walder asked fiercely. "There could be an accident ."

 

"And bring down the wrath of the Crown, Dorne, and the North upon us? Don't be any more of a fool than the Gods intended." Stevron breathed out. "Speak to me again after dinner. I've plans to make, but I need time to think."

 

Black Walder's scowl grew uglier, but he allowed it with a nod. At least he was respectful. The man might be bedding his brothers' wives, his cousin's wives, and a few cousins themselves but he was at least polite to his elders. Given the situation Stevron was willing to take his advantages where he could find them. He determined that he had to get back to the Great Hall and listen. If there was a way out of this mess, he'd find it, and if not, he was the only one in his whole blasted family with a diplomatic bone in their body. Cleaning up the mess would, again, undoubtedly fall to him.

 


 

It should have relieved Oberyn that his wife had one friend who was close to her age and with whom she could share her secrets that was actually equipped to deal with politics and the public. It did not. The raucous, rude crowd of Freys that filled the Great Hall of the eastern castle of the Twins was not at all to his wife's liking. Lyarra sat stiffly at his side. He found himself throwing an arm over her shoulder in an offer of both comfort and protection and was relieved when she leaned against him openly and slipped a hand up to rest against his chest. If it was from a sense of self-preservation rather than passion, he could accept that with wry pragmatism.

 

Lady Gwyn Parren was infinitely lower on the social ladder than a Martell Princess. Even the 'Lady' in front of her name was but a generous courtesy title. She was no lord's daughter, and having a great-grandfather who'd been one didn't amount to much when several generations of mediocre marriages stood between that relation and yourself. Her dowry was modest. She had few connections.

 

As soon as she'd entered the Hall Oberyn had watched the Westerlands girl undergo a transformation. The nervous child of the trip had vanished. Folded up and slipped away before the collective eyes of House Frey, Oberyn watched the girl wear her new skin out of the corner of his eyes and evaluated what he found.

 

The lady looked good, though altogether too young. The gown she was wearing was cut much the way that Lyarra's was, though its neck was lower yet and rounded. Despite coming from a place where the weather and custom dictated brief clothing, he wasn't sure he liked how much it put the girl on display. She was a maid of three-and-ten, and Oberyn was a father.

 

Her gown was not so fine as Lyarra's. It was made out of good-quality linen rather than silk. The cotton of her shift where it fluffed out around her shoulders and elbows was thin and gauzy, though, and the robin's egg blue of the gown made the lady's eyes glow like sapphires in the torchlight of the Hall. Lady Gwyn had also picked up a slight tan on the road, and it was burnished to a gold by the candlelight at the table. Braided in a crown around her head, the Parren girl's fair hair gleamed brighter than the chain of fat golden links that rested close around her throat. Oberyn was willing to bet that the choker had started life as the chain that held a knight's cloak closed across his throat.

 

"My son Emmon mentioned his wife had a girl in her care at Casterly Rock a couple of years ago with Lannister looks. The pussy-whipped idiot didn't mention she was better looking than his wife was before she got fat."

 

Lord Walder Frey's unstinting lechery was enough to offend even Oberyn. He hadn't chosen to wed a girl younger than some of his daughters. That was a decision taken out of his hands. Though he was rapidly growing fond of Lyarra that didn't mean he wouldn't have preferred for his life to remain as it had been with Ellaria by his side. At the head of the high table in a chair carved like a bridge and twin towers sat a wasted pustule of a man who'd somehow cheated the Stranger for far too long and was smacking his lips over empty gums for a child less than one sixth his age.

 

"Thank you for the compliment, Lord Frey."

 

Gwyn was perfectly polite and demure in the face of the lechery. Oberyn briefly began to do the actual logistics of poisoning the occupants of the Hall in his head. Quite apart from the withered ass at the head of the table, there were a plethora of other hungry and soulless eyes turned on the women of their party. He found himself relieved that Arya and Bran had both been deemed too young for the table.

 

To his dissatisfaction he could not say he thought back on how that had happened with equal pleasure. He should have been able to put aside any dislike for the Parren girl. Oberyn lived by his passions, but he had a mind. The Lannisters had left the blonde girl with her own scars and damage. Instead of focusing on that, however, the angle of her cheekbones and the sharpness of her chin kept pushing him towards anger even as his mind accepted that his best hopes for the Names he sought lay in gaining her trust.

 

"Good manners, too. I don't imagine Tywin Lannister tolerates cheek from the wards of his House." Frey went on and one of his grandson's guffawed loudly.

 

"I don't imagine the cold sod tolerates much of anything." The nameless, fat Frey in question wiped his greasy mouth on an already filthy napkin.

 

"Who's your ward's father, Lord Stark?" Lord Walder asked, his rheumy eyes speculative.

 

"Lady Gwyn is not a ward, she's a lady of my household."

 

Lyarra's voice was as tense as her spine as she sat in the curve of Oberyn's arm and he felt a flare of delight at the hints he was beginning to feel from her slow-growing temper beginning to kindle. His lady wore her passions quietly. She did not, however, live a life without them.

 

"Indeed?" Lord Walder flicked his eyes once over Lyarra, concentrating on her cleavage, then turned to look at Oberyn in a clear dismissal of Lyarra. "Looking to improve that desert scenery, eh?"

 

"Dorne is a land replete with beauty." Oberyn drawled.

 

Inside he shook hands with his sense of disgust. The Reach, Riverlands, Stormlands, and Crownlands sneered at Dorne. This was a man whose behavior they found a representation of a powerful lord and family patriarch, however? Pah!

 

"The Crossing has its own charms." Lord Walder replied, looking over at Lord Stark after holding Oberyn's black gaze for only the briefest moment before his cloudy gaze skittered away like a rat just realizing a hungry viper had spied it. "Doesn't it, Lord Stark? You've got a likely enough daughter back home, I hear. Takes after Lady Stark? Back when she was just Hoster's older daughter, she was a fine young thing to look at, I recall."

 

"I'm blessed in my family."

 

Ned Stark, Oberyn reflected with amusement, was never going to make a player in the Game of Thrones. The man had the subtlety of a brick to the head. The fact that he looked like he wanted to deliver death by beating to most of those sitting around them only improved it. For once Oberyn found himself in agreement with his goodfather.

 

"We all are, until we're not. Tell me, are either of your girls betrothed? The little one looked feisty enough. Is there a reason she's not at the meal?"

 

"The Lady Arya," Oberyn interrupted smoothly, letting his voice slither threateningly across the table, winding between tankards with venom implied in its smooth movement. "Is being fostered as part of mine own household. I did not deem it well for a child so young to sit up late after a long day's ride."

 

"Besides, someone had to mind the wolves." Lyarra drawled, her words immediately spoken in perfect accord and reinforcement.

 

"Aye, Bran and Arya are doing so."

 

"I'd always heard Direwolves were big. They are no larger than a hound." Black Walder Frey, the infamous great-grandson of the original, snorted in derision and his grandfather, Lord Stevron sent a harsh look down at where the man sat a little too close to one of his multitude of female cousins.

 

"They are slightly less than six moons old."

 

Lyarra's words brought a moment of surprised silence to the table and Oberyn sipped at his wine in amusement. It was a decent enough vintage for all that it was the sweet, bodiless rubbish from the Reach. Oberyn noted, however, that the Frey reputation for parsimoniousness was well-earned. Outside of the High Table, the Freys themselves were drinking swill. Even the ale being taken by their various guardsmen was watered and weak.

 

"How big are they to get, then?"

 

The thin, squeaky voice that asked was young and feminine. It was also a little annoying, but it was hardly the fault of its owner that she hadn't been gifted with a fine voice. Nor did Oberyn find the girl particularly offensive when compared to her other relatives; male or female.

 

He had no idea of the girl's name. She'd not been ranked worthy of an introduction amongst the ten or so favorites that the Lord of the Crossing had bothered to introduce. She a round, pink butterball of a girl. Of medium height with a massive bosom and limp yellow hair that could have likely been made more presentable with more frequent washing, the girl was wearing a pink gown poorly cut for her figure and overly decorated with recycle ribbon rosettes and second hand crocheted cotton lace. She had only a pair of little silver horseshoes piercing her ears to serve as jewelry.

 

Her eyes were a wide, pretty steel blue. They were clear and guileless. Despite sharing an age with Lyarra, she looked younger. Oberyn found it rather cute, in a childish way, how her eyes went wide and she bit her lip a little as she asked Lyarra about the direwolf pups. As she did so her eyes sketched over Lyarra's fine clothing and beautiful features, then skirted towards Gwyn's self-possessed carriage. The contrast between the heavy-set girl's obvious admiration of the two young ladies and the sneering, backhanded comments the other Frey women had made was obvious.

 

"Not as big as you , Fat Walda!"

 

Oberyn identified the source of the raucous yell as being a skinny lad serving as a page. The girl, one of the many Waldas, turned as pink in the face as her reworked dress. She didn't look away, Oberyn noted, or lose her grip on the platter of fresh custard tarts in her hands; like many of the younger Freys, she served at the table as a servant would in a less populous house. Oberyn's attempt to speak was subverted by his usually quiet wife. He felt her flare of temper as she spoke.

 

"Mayhaps I will visit again when Ghost is full grown and you can judge for yourself." Lyarra replied in a low, dangerous voice that mixed perfect politeness with potential violence in a way that twigged Oberyn's memory. He ascribed it to Lord Stark, though he would later remember that the Quiet Wolf's temper flared in snarls and quick outbursts and not the low-burning fire he was witnessing now. "I'll make sure to bring her when she's hungry. Then I needn't worry about her sleeping through the introduction."

 

The boy froze, turned his eyes towards Oberyn's wife, and then looked at the Viper himself as if for help. Oberyn set his wine glass down and tightened the grip of the arm he'd left draped around his wife. He ran the tips of his fingers up and down over her sleeve, playing with the sheer material of her shift where they projected out of openings in the gown. Then, very deliberately, he smiled.

 

Unlike Fat Walda, the pimply lad didn't hold his composure enough to do his job. Minding his words and not his task, the lad didn't fare well. He'd been pouring ale and sloshed a great gout of it down the front of one of his uncles or great-uncle's tunics. The result was a rough cuff upside the head and a hail of harsh words about the boy's wits being addled.

 

"The mother was the size of an upland miner's pony." Lady Gwyn offered as well. "So, around sixty stone. Sixty-two at the outside?"

 

"That's the size of a sand steed!" Lady Myria had mostly fallen silent with disapproval of the company, but she perked up at that comment.

 

A beautiful, wealthy widow she'd ranked a spot at the high table as well, bracketing Gwyn as Oberyn bookended Lyarra. Lord Stark had taken up a seat at her other side to provide further insulation. The fact that Lady Myria hadn't used this to continue her fruitless attempts to seduce the man showed how much she appreciated the gesture.

 

"Mining ponies are sturdy beasts."

 

Oberyn's irritation at himself returned. Lady Gwyn's jest, redirecting attention away from where Oberyn's Princess was still glaring and giving off every appearance of well-restrained anger, was more than an intelligent move politically. It was funny in its false obtuseness. It was also genuinely brave. The girl was clearly willing to draw the greasy collective gaze of her hosts to keep them off of Lyarra, little though it mattered. Oberyn's wife was Marked, and he had no intention of having her go anywhere in the Twins without at least himself and preferably two guards. Ser Deziel could join Ser Arron on the morrow.

 

"As are Direwolves." Lyarra relaxed slightly, smiling crookedly at Gwyn.

 

"Such an interesting pet for a Princess."

 

Lady Mariya Frey, nee Darry was a handsome woman with gray-streaked dark hair, a figure only slightly marred by childbearing, and an expression that suggested life had been a severe disappointment for her. The falsely-kind tone of voice said she was going to attempt to share her disappointment.

 

Lady Bellena, a woman of absolutely unremarkable features and middle years, lit up with her own weak-witted expression of cruel amusement. Oberyn prepared himself to deal with whatever pettiness followed, but a brief look from Lady Myria stopped him. Lyarra did have to learn to stand on her own two feet, and while far less ugly the court at Sunspear was also far more subtle and difficult than this great collection of Freys.

 

"Indeed," Lady Bellena cooed, "And so young . How are you coping, dear?"

 

As reminders of her natural-born status often did, this stung his wife. Oberyn didn't feel it through the bond they shared. His soulmate's expression froze, however, and he squeezed her with his arm and prepared to step in. Letting her work was one thing; letting a weak-chinned, flat-chested idiot such as the one in front of him insult his wife without fear of retribution was another.

 

"It's difficult at times, but I find the rewards more than worth it." Lyarra replied and Oberyn felt his lips turn up in surprise as she directly leaned in against his side. In appreciation of the hard-fought boldness he cupped a hand around her hip and openly stroked her curves.

 

"How lovely ." Lady Mariya drawled, clearly implying it was not.

 

"I wouldn't have thought one of honorable House Tully would produce a daughter so inclined to teach her husband's bastard anything about being a lady, let alone a princess."

 

Oberyn took note of the next weasel's face to present itself and also that he made sure not to comment on Lord Stark's wife until the Quiet Wolf's attention was elsewhere. Stevron Frey had caught Eddard Stark up in a conversation. It served as the distraction this specimen of disgust took advantage of to try and curry favor with Lord Frey. Judging from his frown the old man didn't find favor with abject stupidity.

 

Oberyn just wondered how long the mob could restrain itself. At some point the full scope of Petyr Baelish's deathbed 'confessions' by raven were going to have to come to light. How it had gone a year plus without anyone north of the Neck seeming aware of it at all boggled him. Oberyn could only assume that Hoster Tully wouldn't say anything of the matter to his daughter, and Baelish had sent no letter to any Northern House or Lord.

 

"You know, I've always considered those who speak of bastardy often to be jealous." Gwyn chirped innocently into the silence, her dark blue eyes widening to pools of lapis.

 

"Really?"

 

Lord Walder spoke, his leer toothless and glinting with drool. Oberyn prepared to do something, for the old man was foul and he was getting tired to subjecting the ladies to his presence. His children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren were largely no better. What stopped him was the flash of vindication that came across the back of his mind from his wife.

 

"Yes, after all, Lyarra was born a bastard. Others have had to work a lifetime to achieve the title."

 

If the first half of her statement had been delivered with false sweetness, the cutdown was laid out with a sudden dose of frigid superiority. Oberyn found himself appreciating it intellectually, but his hackles raising at the sound of it. The tone had been pure Lannister.

 

"Charming." Lord Frey's mirth and his lechery both faded quickly into narrow-eyed displeasure. "Tell me, girl, what was it Lady Genna used to call the Lannisport branch of her family?"

 

"Lannisport trash, my Lord." Gwyn replied with a small smile, her chin held up proudly despite her hands still remaining well-hidden.

 

"Lady Gwyn ." Lord Stark had returned to the main conversation, and his expression was chiding and disappointed before he turned towards Oberyn. "I think the ladies are likely overtired from a long day of travel."

 

Oberyn took the excuse for the offer it was and rose from his chair, lifting Lyarra with a hand underneath her elbow as he did so.

 

"Indeed, and I for one know I am grateful for the fine bed I've been granted and eager to make use of it." Oberyn bowed as briefly as possible. "Thank you for the hospitality of your house, Lord Walder, it is precisely as described."

 


 

"You'd think the plague would have been less kind to such a group of… I'm too tired to think of a name horrible enough. I thought they were hit hard?" Lyarra muttered as she released her hair from the netting and ran her fingers through the curls. "Could you pass me - oh, my thanks."

 

Her husband had passed her the tube of silk that she wrapped her hair in at night, and Lyarra began to tame her hair enough to get it situated and the ribbons drawn around the protective sleeve. It would keep her now-dry hair from turning into a massive rat's nest as she slept. The fact that Oberyn willingly passed it to her was a surprise.

 

"House Frey was badly hurt by the plague. This is only half the numbers it once possessed. As for your hair? Much as I love it, it keeps trying to strangle me in my sleep."

 

"Gwyn says the same thing."

 

"How is the girl?"

 

Lyarra thought about how to answer as she watched her husband strip and fold his finery away. Her own dress was already taken care of. Gwyn and she had, as they often did, assisted each other in undressing for the night. Now Lyarra was wearing only a sleeping shift she knew her husband would soon deprive her of, and Gwyn was wearing the same. While Lyarra had her own bedchamber, however, Gwyn was sleeping on a pallet in Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria's shared room. Bran and Arya were on pallets in her father's room, though Lyarra thought with a little pang that they'd all be piled in with father like puppies in the morning, likely with Bran's unnamed wolf and Nymeria at their feet. Ser Arron and Ser Deziel were both sleeping on pallets in Oberyn's guest solar as it stood between their suite and the hallway. Yet more guards, both Northern and Dornish, stood about on tight watches.

 

"She put some fairly bad scratches on her hands forcing herself to be still and seem unafraid, but Gwyn's alright." Lyarra answered his question. "You've been kind to her lately, thank you."

 

"Harrassing a child is below me." Oberyn snorted and shocked Lyarra by sliding into a pair of loose drawstring silk pants she hadn't seen before. "What?"

 

"I've never known you to wear clothing to bed."

 

"If I've need to put spear or sword to someone unexpectedly I don't intend to do it naked."

 

"But we've shared guest right." Lyarra protested. "The Freys wouldn't do anything. They couldn't ."

 

"Something is strange here." Oberyn said quietly and Lyarra wrinkled her nose.

 

"Other than the ninety-year-old lech licking his lips at Gwyn and staring at my breasts, you mean?"

 

"Shall I do something about that for you, then?"

 

Oberyn's low purr was full of violence and death and Lyarra shivered. She almost wished it was from shock at knowing just how and what he might do; since they'd reached the Neck, with its lusher plantlife, Oberyn had been pointing out medicinal herbs to them. Almost all, Lyarra found, could be poisonous if applied in the right manner and in the right quantity.

 

"No." Lyarra shook her head and crawled into the covers of the bed, grateful for the familiar sheets as he followed her. Idly she played with the ties of his pants lying against his belly as she settled into her customary place, resting her head against his shoulder as she curled against his side while Oberyn sprawled on his back.

 

"Does my state of dress displease you?"

 

"No, does mine?"

 

"Terribly." He dropped a kiss into her hair, then went on in disgust. "After that meal, however, I find all of my appetites depressed. I noticed you ate little, yourself."

 

"Once I smelled the food, I felt nauseous." Lyarra replied, pressing her nose into his warm, spicy skin and inhaling as she felt herself drifting closer to sleep. Oberyn was a good bedmate, even if his toes were freezing.

 

"I blame the company."

 

Lyarra fell asleep before she could share her agreement.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen – 297 A.C.

 

Lyarra wasn't really comfortable with her husband's very public displays of affection and passion. She was a private person, and she hadn't been raised to the tune of passionate kisses or caresses happening in public. Her father and Lady Stark clearly loved one another, but they were not given to such displays. Nor, in truth, could she recall ever seeing anything quite like it. Even Theon's whores kept their business behind closed doors in Wintertown.

 

Princess Lyarra Martell, however, was outright praying for her husband to show up and be inappropriate. She would even take a repeat of their fourth night on the road where, after a particularly energetic spar where he'd done something totally inappropriate to distract her, Oberyn had thrown her over one of his shoulders and carried her back to their tent. Lyarra hadn't forgotten how embarrassing that was. It wasn't as if she'd rewarded him for such awful behavior! She'd slept in the wheelhouse that night once she was done letting him know just how little she liked such tactics, but she was more than willing to offer him anything he wanted in the way of bedroom favors if it would get her out of the situation she now found herself in.

 

"Your Grace, I truly must know what you think of the fashion in the capital right now."

 

What Lyarra thought looked like a small hall that could comfortably seat around fifty had been set aside for those few times that the ladies of House Frey were forced to all gather in one place. Meal times were, of course, a function of the Great Hall. Other gatherings were relegated to the 'Green Solar', though the space wasn't comfortable enough to merit the title.

 

The eastern castle's Green Solar was, as Lyarra first surmised, a small hall. It was a bare room with flagged floors and a line of windows along one wall. The windows were narrow, which Lyarra presumed was a measure to prevent the mass of women unfortunate enough to be bound to a Frey in marriage from literally leaping into the Stranger’s arms. Likewise, the walls were paneled, but it was done in a cheap species of knotty pine with narrow boards long stained by smoke and little helped by the thorough scrubbing they'd been given.

 

The furniture was also blessedly uncomfortable. Not in the way she'd assumed she'd find in southron castles; tiny, elegant things that were all decoration and no function. No, instead Lyarra had to endure furniture that was obviously cast-off from various men of the family. These over-tall chairs had been poorly hewn down to lower heights and were unbalanced as a result. Likewise, they had been reupholstered in green as if to give the room some theme or unity, but it had been done with low quality fabric and too little padding. So far both the sofa she'd first sat on and the chair she'd chosen later had been horrendously uncomfortable on her rear and back.

 

"I'm afraid I'm little informed in matters of southron fashion." Lyarra heard her own stiffness and saw Lady Jynessa's lips thin slightly.

 

She felt a little guilty, because the ladies had been working so hard to help her gain fluency and some sort of social grace. She knew her manners were fine, and she'd been praised on her developing courtesies. Lyarra simply found the Freys so distasteful that she was having trouble applying it.

 

"The Princess is the most modest woman of my acquaintance and gives little praise to her skills." Lady Myria filled in smoothly, smiling at Lyarra over the rim of her teacup. "She's a skilled artist, and a singer of exceptional quality."

 

"Indeed?"

 

"Truly?"

 

"Really?"

 

"How impressive that you managed all of that at Winterfell." Lady Nora offered with thinly hidden contempt. "I had never heard much of arts in the North."

 

"The North tends to keep to itself," Lyarra replied.

 

Gwyn, who'd been relegated to a corner beside the poor girl that everyone called Fat Walda and a pretty young brunette with very pale skin and large cautious brown eyes that reminded Lyarra of a fawn, chose that moment to interject in a ringing tone.

 

"Fortunately, it is not a habit Lord Stark insisted on, else we’d have been deprived a great deal of delightful company." Gwyn called out, her tone innocently questioning. "Isn't it true that, while Lord Tully took several fortnights to return Ser Brynden's letter about the inoculation, he also sent letters to other houses in the Riverlands? If I recall it was Lord Frey who sent to Lord Stark asking if there were any appropriate goats to be bought from the North's Mountain Clans."

 

"Yes!" Fat Walda's enthusiasm was instant and she bubbled appropriately. "Grandfather heard of the inoculation, but nobody yet knew how to contact the Mountain Clans in the Vale without getting murdered, well, except for that one nice fellow who brought the goats down to begin with. Anyway, Grandfather-Lord Walder thought that if one mountain clan knew it, others might, so he wrote north and we were some of the first to get the inoculations."

 

"Not fast enough." Another lady muttered and Lyarra noticed she was dressed in a gown dyed unevenly from blue to back, with her hair hacked short underneath a severe black wimple. "We lost a lot here at the Crossing."

 

A murmur followed and Lyarra felt a moment's guilt for her foul mood. She'd spent the last two hours trapped amidst poisonous small talk with the Frey women. It was a situation that led her to discover she hadn't made nearly the progress she'd earlier thought when only working with her Dornish instructors in a Princess' duties. It had also led her to being insanely grateful that she'd only had Lady Stark to contend with growing up. The Frey women were constantly jockeying for position against one another, and Lyarra didn't know how anyone could keep a grip on their sanity amidst all the verbal baiting and backstabbing going on.

 

"I'm sorry for your loss, and that we could not help you sooner." Lyarra meant every word and didn't even realize how powerfully that translated into her expression or her voice; as it was, the grieving widow and a few mothers around the room who wore black armbands or had cropped hair looked at her with a little less hostility. "We'd only just started to get reports of the disease appearing at White Harbor, and Lord Reed had closed the Neck. When Father rode to speak to the Wull he found out that our clans simply assumed that everyone knew of the inoculation and the treatment. They have so little contact, you understand, they believe everyone knows what they know."

 

"I suppose even savages have their uses."

 

Lyarra caught Lady Jynessa's eye right before her temper flared and she snapped at the older woman who'd spoken those bitter, mocking words. Instead she smiled slowly and took a sip of her tea. Then she caught and held the woman's stare until she looked away and an awkward lull had fallen over the conversation.

 

"Indeed, they're essential when it comes time for something savage to be done." Lyarra drawled, imagining how her husband would say it, or Gwyn at her worst.

 

Her tone came out differently, however, for Lyarra wasn't given to drawls. Nor was she very good at the kind of practiced, superior mockery that Gwyn engaged in so easily. Instead her voice was quiet and soft. Her tone lilted over the words as if asking a question to which only she knew the answer. A question over which everyone else would have to wonder and worry.

 

The elderly Frey woman looked down into her tea and several others averted their faces. More still, Lyarra noted, either flushed or grew pale. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Gwyn smirking into her embroidery. Lady Jynessa's dark eyes merely looked satisfied. Lyarra decided she'd struck just the right note.

 

"Still, fashion ." A younger lady blurted out. "In King's Landing."

 

"Aye," Lyarra sipped her own tea. "You'll have to describe it to me. Do you get much in the way of letters from the capital?"

 

"Not so many as we used to." The girl next to Gwyn's other side – Roslin, Lyarra thought – shook her head. "Father had a friend in King's Landing who died of the plague and sends no more letters."

 

"His name was Lord Baelish, and he fostered at Riverrun with Lady Stark's family. Perhaps you've heard of him?" Walda asked in her hopeful, squeaky way and Lyarra snapped her eyes up to a gilt-edged mirror that hung upon the wall behind Gwyn's head when she saw her friend's blue eyes focus sharply across the room.

 

Gwyn did not look up from her embroidery without meaning. For one, her needle was hooked. Stabbing yourself with a hooked needle is a lot worse than the usual pokes and jabs that come with embroidery. For another, Gwyn generally preferred to become part of the background in rooms filled with unfamiliar people. So if her friend was looking at something closely, it must be worth looking at.

 

Two of the middle-aged ladies in the room were glaring daggers at the heavy-set girl in her bright, but reworked, green gown. In fact, their scowls were downright murderous. Lyarra wasn't an adept at sneaky things like Gwyn was, but she understood that a basic tenant of politics was getting people to say things they shouldn't. To do that, Lyarra knew she had to keep people talking. Lady Jynessa had spent hours trying to cultivate some skill in small talk with her unusually quiet and withdrawn pupil.

 

Now Lyarra deliberately smiled at where Walda was biting her lip, then stood from her seat. Moving gracefully across the room, she caught Gwyn's eye. Gwyn neatly stood up from her place, letting Lyarra sit between Lady Roslin Frey and Lady Walda Frey (who Lyarra decided needed a new nickname immediately). Lady Jynessa had already smoothly slid over to sit by a Frey Matron who was hard of hearing, but seemed inclined to chatter happily if only someone would sit directly in front of her where she could but see their lips. Likewise, Lady Myria made her own move, this time following Lyarra.

 

When Lyarra stood up, she caused a general nervous reshuffling of the ladies. When it was over, new groups had been formed. There were clusters of conversation where different women were talking of different subjects with different quarters of the room falling under the purview of whichever lady was highest ranking in the area.

 

Lyarra hoped it was the right to decision to leave the Freys to sort themselves out in most of the space. Lady Jynessa would surely inform her later if she'd made a blunder. At that moment Lyarra wanted to concentrate on the two lowest ranking ladies. She knew not why Lady Roslin was unpopular with the other ladies; she was certainly the prettiest maid amongst the daughters and granddaughters of Old Lord Weasel. She'd been sent over to sit by Gwyn, who the household seemed to hypocritically want to pick on because she was several generations removed from a House Seat just as most of them were. Why a girl mocked as 'Fat' Walda was sent to the corner of shame, Lyarra didn't have to ask. Both, Lyarra fancied, would have little reason not to talk.

 

"Roslin, come help your grandmother with her sewing. Her eyes aren't what they once were."

 

The petulant, quavering voice of a woman who was no more than fifty-five, but whose body had been utterly wrecked by childbirth, called out to one of Lyarra's targets even as Gwyn resettled herself on a footstool and Lady Myria pulled Roslin's vacated chair around so her tall, buxom form blocked Walda's view of the room. Lyarra sat down where Gwyn had sat and smiled at Walda.

 

The girl smiled back, as though she was shocked that anyone would smile at her at all and Lyarra felt her heart go out to the other girl. Their reasons for the feeling were different, of course, but Lyarra knew it well. If you were a scrawny bastard girl running about with a wooden sword, every smile was a treasured, precious thing; a piece of acknowledgement where you didn't know when or if it would ever come again. Growing beautiful had done Lyarra few favors because it had cast more smiles into doubt as everything male that wasn't family now had to be watched carefully.

 

"I've heard so much about so many of your relatives that I believe I've lost all track of the details." Lyarra started. "I know that at least one other Walda here is a wonderful musician and plays the lyre. Do you play as well, Lady Walda?"

 

"Oh, no, Princess, Grandfather said he wouldn't waste coin on music lessons for a girl who sounded like an ungreased wagon wheel." The girl, who was much of an age with Gwyn and Lyarra tittered with nervous embarrassment. "I'm no-one of any importance or, well, I'm not very talented. I'm not very interesting, either, truth be told."

 

"I've not lived the varied life my husband has, so I cannot speak with Prince Oberyn's authority, but my Prince insists that he's never met someone who was completely uninteresting in his travels. As such, I must insist that you've got some talent that you're just hiding."

 

"Yes." Gwyn interjected, her embroidery neatly settled in the lap of her own green dress.

 

Her dress was of better quality and neater make than Walda's, but likely only because Walda's looked to have been constructed from two hand-me-down dresses passed on from someone else. Lyarra saw an opening. She was about to put it into words, trying to find a way to say it without inviting insult.

 

"I bet you're a wonderful pattern-maker." Gwyn observed, casting her own eye over the other blonde's dress and speaking with clear admiration. "Did you piece your dress yourself?"

 

Walda lit up. Her pink face beamed as she nodded and smoothed her hands over her skirt. The two shades of green in the dress were different, but cunningly arranged so it looked like it was a purposeful design element. Had it not been for the fact that there were still visible holes where embroidery had been picked out of it at the collar and in a few other places it would have been nearly impossible to tell the dress was the result of reworking.

 

"I did!" Walda explained proudly. "Father gave me the lighter green I used on the bodice and the flared parts of the sleeves. It was a tunic. Then I got the darker green from one of my Uncles' capes after he got blood on it. Black Walder doesn't often wear anything other than black, but - actually, this might not have originally been his.”

 

Walda looked momentarily worried about the provenance of her dress. Lyarra shot Gwyn a look as her friend blanked her face to keep laughter at bay. Lyarra restrained herself from sighing. Gwyn's sense of humor was just awful at times. She would think it was hilarious that Walda had made a dress out of a cape pulled from some murder victim by the girl's most infamous relative.

 

"Before the Gods Marked me I often did that." Lyarra smiled. "And my wedding was so rushed that we didn't have time to order fine fabric from abroad, so my father gave me white silk for my gown from a surcoat he was planning to make. It only made it more special."

 

"Lord Stark is very kind." Walda agreed, as if kindness were a rare and alien thing for anyone to display. "Mother sent me down to get a tray of tarts from the kitchen for her this morning. I came upon him in the hall and he insisted walking me up here himself. I thought he was going to take the tray for a moment!"

 

"Lord Stark's like that." Gwyn's grin was genuine. "I think it's a Northern quality. As they are not knighted and take no squires all of them attend their own gear and weapons, so they value a useful lady."

 

"It would be nice to have a husband like that." Walda's sigh was longing, and her tone quiet and Lyarra felt her heart go out to the girl.

 

She remembered what it was like being unattractive. Back then she'd been nothing but a long face, skinned knees and elbows, and several of the guards had referred to her as 'Bag o' Bones' just as Arya was 'Arya Underfoot' to the servants. Back then she hadn't wanted a husband, but she'd been desperately afraid of never having one as the meaning of the word 'bastard' sunk deeper and deeper into her soul.

 

"I feel the need to speak in defense of the men of my own home." Lady Myria, who'd turned and chased away an encroaching Frey lady with a few perfectly polite and terrifying bits of chitchat, joined the conversation merrily. "Surely, Princess, you will join me."

 

"I have no complaints to make of my Prince." Lyarra couldn't help blushing or the honesty that follows. "At least not as a husband."

 

"The Prince snores." Lady Myria stage-whispered to Gwyn and Walda, producing a snicker from the first and a whinny from the latter.

 

"Not badly." Lyarra replied before snorting, forgetting that princesses weren't supposed to use the common Northern method of derision. She ignored Lady Myria's glare, however, because she couldn't and wouldn't change everything about herself. "Though, in retrospect, being aware of why most of the women and half the men who frequent Prince Doran's court know this does get tiresome."

 

Lady Myria's surprised laugh was genuine. Gwyn looked torn between exasperation that Lyarra had said that aloud and real amusement, though it was hard to tell. Her expression had slipped back into the polite, hard to read, mask she often wore. Walda's eyes widened in first sympathy, then she tittered in nervous amusement when Lyarra tapped her Marked wrist to indicate she wasn't worried or shamed, nor could she be. It was just a rather darkly funny thing to know her husband was so known in his own special way.

 

"Think of it as one of his charming foibles."

 

"Lady Myria, Prince Oberyn's habit of encouraging the Lady Arya to violence is a charming foible, the fact that his feet are always freezing is a charming foible, and even the snoring has its own charms. I think foibles must mean something different in Dorne if you believe the other thing of Oberyn's is one."

 

"If nothing else you don't ever have to worry about him dying in his sleep with you unawares." Gwyn commented slyly, her eyes cutting over towards where one of the women who'd earlier jokingly referred to the lascivious way Lord Walder Frey had looked at Gwyn.

 

The woman was oblivious, but Walda was not. She lowered her voice and leaned in after glancing carefully around the room. Lyarra felt a moment's thrill, wondering if some secret was about to be imparted.

 

"Grandfather-Lord Walder is too mean to die." The yellow-haired girl whispered.

 

"If the Stranger feared mortal cruelty he'd never have dared take Lady Joanna away." Gwyn said scornfully, but softened it by nudging Walda's knee with her own. "Death is the one God all pray to, if not for. Did you ever hear the joke about the Stranger's Favorite Wife?"

 

"Do not repeat the jokes Uncle Benjen brings back from the Wall!" Lyarra admonished even as she worked to keep herself from blushing.

 

She'd actually taught Gwyn that joke. Lyarra suddenly realized that she wouldn't get in trouble for knowing it now that she was wed. Her husband wasn't exactly the type to be horrified that his wife had picked up a few dirty jokes from her only uncle. Oberyn would probably like the joke about the 'First Silent Sister'. It went into really… well, gross and terribly bawdy detail as to why she didn't speak. Lyarra resolved to tell it to him when he was drinking something. If it made Theon and Robb launch ale from their noses, it might do the same to her husband.

 

"I've heard it." The plump girl grinned back guiltily, and confirmed in a quiet, careful voice.

Lady Myria laughed softly and leaned forward.

 

"Well, I have not, and that isn't right at all, Princess. I insist that you rectify this as soon as we aren't at a public tea."

 

"Even if it would have hilarious results?" Gwyn wanted to know.

 

"A temptation we'll have to avoid as not to face Lady Jynessa's wrath." Lady Myria regained control of the conversation solemnly and twisted it back on track. "But, please, Lady Walda, tell us more about your family friend in the capital! Dorne lost fewer to the plague than the Riverlands, but we lost many. My younger brother is gone to me, and two cousins as well."

 

Totally at ease with them and beaming at the attention, Walda went on.

 

"Oh, yes, Lord Baelish was a good friend to my uncle and grandfather." Walda chattered happily. "I don't know what his business was, only that he was on the Small Council. I think he owned a boarding house or some such, for uncle talked a lot about nights spent at one of his establishments. Though, well, it might have been another such place to spend the night, if you take my meaning?"

 

They all nodded solemnly and Gwyn rose gracefully and returned with a tray of custard tarts. Walda accepted one happily, as did Lyarra, who found her appetite finally returning from the nauseous place it had been. Walda went on, beaming at the positive attention she was receiving from such great ladies. Her whole life she'd been the fat one. She had been ignored and relegated to more menial tasks than her other age-mates. Lyarra knew the feeling, and was as happy to just give the girl a chance to shine a little as she was at Walda's complete lack of caution over what she said.

 

"Still, Lord Baelish sent a lot of letters. You know he didn't really die from the grey plague, as it were, but from a wheezy chest that he came down with while being inoculated?"

 

"Really?" Lyarra was surprised. "That's very uncommon. Goatscale isn't serious, usually. Just a fever and a little rash around the broken skin."

 

Lyarra's inoculation scar was like most of those in the North. It was a neat wolf's head of little white dots on the back of her right shoulder. Oberyn's was a sunburst pierced by a 'spear' that was really just a line. It was more visible against his richly tinted skin, and Lyarra had ended up worrying it a bit with her teeth one night when she decided to put her mouth on all of her husband's scars. She wasn't sure why she'd decided to do that, but her prince had been appreciative enough that she'd decided to trust her instincts more in bedplay.

 

"Sometimes the very old or very young don't do so well with it." Gwyn frowned. "Old Nan came through fine, but the potter down in Wintertown took a fever and was gone in two days."

 

"Aye."

 

"Prince Quentyn took a bad fever when he was inoculated, but it cleared up after a day and night." Lady Myria added. "All of Dorne was relieved, but Prince Doran's anxiety cannot be articulated."

 

Everyone agreed to that and a few moments were taken to sip and refresh cups of tea. Then, with a touch of hesitancy as she wasn't answering a question this time, Lady Walda Frey went on. Lyarra's heart went out to her for the hopeful way she spoke, as if expecting to be shot down and desperate enough for the chance at approval to try.

 

"Prince Doran's such a good prince. He saved so many lives that I bet you couldn't count them, what with seeing to the inoculations for the smallfolk and poorer houses all over Westeros the way that he did." Walda enthused. "We've got wolf-marks because our goats and the Crannogman who led them down came from the North. Everyone was too afraid there was some kind of magic to change the kind of stamps we used. Father sent the goats on to other Houses, though, wanting them to owe him, I guess. All our smallfolk wear the Martell Sun and Spear on their shoulders."

 

That , Lyarra decided, was useful to know.

 

"Though, I suppose it makes sense that Lord Baelish died of a weakness in the chest, now that I think of it. Just like you not hearing of him makes sense, Your Grace."

 

Now Walda looked eager to speak, shooting a furtive glance around again and finding that Lady Jynessa had managed to politely antagonize most of the room into ignoring the new Princess and her little cluster of younger companions.

 

"How so?"

 

"Well, you see, Lord Baelish took a terrible chest wound when he got into a duel as a greenboy." Walda whispered. "Cut from navel to neck, my uncle said, by your own uncle, Brandon Stark. In a duel for the Lady Catelyn's hand back when she was a Tully, no less!"

 

That was not a story Lyarra had ever heard, nor even Gwyn judging by the brief flash of shock in her blue eyes.

 

" Really ?" Gwyn still knew how to prompt someone to speak, and her tone of fascination had Walda preening.

 

" Really !" The Frey girl whispered back urgently. "Lord Baelish loved her truly and thought that your uncle wouldn't do her right as a husband. He did have a bit of a reputation."

 

"He had the Wolf's Blood." Lyarra agreed, because she'd only ever heard good of him. Save for his habits of bedding and leaving any woman who'd have him, and few would refuse the handsome Heir to Winterfell in the tales she'd heard.

 

"Anyway, Lord Brandon nearly killed him, but that's not the most shocking thing." Walda whispered and grinned at Lyarra in a way that suddenly gave her broad, pleasant face just a hint of the weasel's slyness that her other relatives often wore. "While he was dying in the Red Keep Lord Baelish found the Seven, or was just afraid of finding his afterlife a bit warm. Either way he wrote letters and sent them out by ravens to half the houses in Westeros."

 

"A deathbed confession?"

 

Lyarra was fascinated. North or South, Seven or Old Gods of the Forest, such a confession had great meaning. She'd only heard of it being done a few times by raven, though. Her curiosity prompted another question.

 

"Had he no kin?"

 

"None." Walda shook her head, bit her lip, and then went on. "Lord Baelish confessed to taking both Lord Hoster's daughters' maidenheads, and wrote that he'd gotten Lady Lysa with child. Lord Hoster killed the babe with moon tea, though, and nearly took Lady Lysa with it when she half bled-out onto the sheets. That's why he made her marry old Lord Arryn; she was used goods and the Falcon Lord was too old and desperate for the Riverlands' allegiance to care. Not that I think Lord Arryn would have taken her if he'd suspected that Lord Hoster had ruined her womb forcing the babe out too late. Everyone knows you can't take moon tea beyond the third moon without problems. Even that late's a little risky."

 

Lyarra didn't know what to say to that and was afraid that when she lowered her tea cup, her horror would show clearly on her face. Thankfully, Lyarra's Prince had finally arrived to save her. Perhaps he deserved some reward for good timing even, despite her earlier thoughts of his unforgivable lateness.

 


 

"You what?"

 

"I need to speak to my father. Now !" Lyarra told him with quiet insistence, pushing her hands against his chest to put some distance between their bodies.

 

Oberyn scowled in disappointment and frustration, but acquiesced. He'd spent the morning agreeably. First, in the practice yard. Then he'd taken several of his retinue and a number of guards and gone on a long ride down some of the less muddy and more manageable tracks around the Twins. The roads were still too soaked to make for easy passage for the wheelhouse, but a lighter party could pass well enough.

 

Besides, Oberyn had needed the space. Had it not been more important to give his bride a chance to act the princess away from King's Landing, Oberyn would have saved her from the annoyance of her long, drawn-out tea with the Frey ladies. As it was, he'd left her to her unpleasant lesson in being a princess and gone out to see what information he could stir up.

With most of his party being Salty Dornish, there was no way for them to sneak about. They looked nothing like the fair, bright-haired Riverlands peasantry. They certainly would stick out at the Crossing itself. Almost nobody within the castle was without some sort of Frey blood.

 

So instead Oberyn had gone riding. What he'd found had been interesting in the extreme. First off, Oberyn had discovered that the sight of his family crest upon his surcoat was enough to produce a surprisingly strong reaction from the peasantry. In Dorne smallfolk wouldn't cower away from their Lords, but that distance was there. Here, in a completely different country, Doran's work had led to Oberyn actually ending up in a situation he wasn't quite sure how to deal with.

 

Being amongst sellswords and common soldiers was one thing. Oberyn could handle that in his sleep. War was different and all men were the same when their sword was bare. (In every sense of that saying, as well). But farmers and fishermen were folk Oberyn had never really consorted with. Now he found that the Riverlands peasants seemed to hold anyone from his House as some kind of long-lost lordly friend. He'd been offered flowers, fresh bowls of cream and berries, and any news he could wish along with their thanks as women thrust toddlers in his direction, praising him for saving them despite his denials and showing him their own inoculation scars.

 

Oberyn was looking forward to telling his brother that there seemed to be some confusion over whether Doran or Dorne was the proper name for the place or the prince involved. Nor did the smallfolk seem to care. When Oberyn had gotten across that he was their savior's brother that had only changed their praise slightly as they demanded he deliver their thanks to his Prince.

 

The statues in Qarth no longer seemed the joke Oberyn had made them into. If this was how the smallfolk were receiving him… Oberyn suddenly resented the trip to the Usurper's hospitality even more. He needed to speak to Doran in person. None of this could be trusted to a raven even as a charming anecdote. Anyone with half-a-mind could read between the lines of such a tale.

 

The trip's possibilities had excited him. So, for that matter, had the ferocity of the spar he'd shared that morning. Black Walder Frey was no handsome man. Even if he hadn't been a repulsive ass in terms of personality, physically Oberyn preferred his men as pretty as his women. Something he'd once told Damien just to annoy him when the younger man was being insufferable. Still, Black Walder sought to unnerve and intimidate his opponents with his skill, which was not inconsiderable. Having an opponent who was fierce, mean, and for whom Oberyn felt no qualms about accidentally doing some harm, had been a pleasure.

 

" Now ?"

 

Oberyn punctuated the word by rubbing his hips against hers. He'd grown hard during the kiss he'd pulled her into as soon as the door to their guest quarters closed. He had no fear of being overheard now.

 

He'd realized that his wife's direwolf wasn't just a wild pet when she’d alerted him to a few “improvements” the Freys had given the guest quarters in their keep the night they’d arrived. Ghost had been the one who'd alerted them to the three listening pipes in the wall (now stuffed with wet clay) and the secret doorway hidden under a stone in the hearth (sealed shut with molten lead). Ghost was currently gnawing happily on the three hares that a peasant boy of maybe ten-and-two had thrust into his hands when praising Oberyn for the inoculation that had saved his mother. The direwolf's proof of worth had also left their guest quarters the most secure place to talk.

 

"Husband…" Lyarra huffed as Oberyn, while musing on his day, also directed his attention, lips, and teeth to his wife's neck as he bent over to caress her. She shoved gently at his chest again. "I need to speak to Father. It's important. I heard things at tea."

 

"That is what such tea parties are truly for." Oberyn pulled back reluctantly. "You could tell me now and speak to Lord Stark later."

 

"I want time to fully appreciate this later." Lyarra replied, her face blushing but her dark gray eyes steady as she reached down and gently squeezed his manhood through his breeches beneath his shirt and coat. "And I can tell you both at once. We all should speak of it."

 

Oberyn growled his appreciation and leaned down for a kiss. It was a satisfying duel of tongues, but he could feel Lyarra begin to pull back even as sparks of pleasure and arousal began to jump between them over the bond they shared. Had he been the only one who mattered in the situation Oberyn would have had them in bed. He was not, however, interested in masturbating. As that was the only situation where only his wants mattered in bed, Oberyn reluctantly pulled away from his wife.

 

"A promise I expect you to live up to, darling."

 

Lyarra smiled at him, sweet, a little bit shy, and bright-eyed in a way he decided was worth the wait. She was slowly growing more adventurous. He looked forward to seeing what pleasures he could coax her into sharing with him tonight, or if it would be a time where she took the initiative.

 

Turning towards the door Oberyn adjusted himself and called for a tray of food and a message to be sent to Lord Stark that his daughter, the Princess Lyarra, would have him visit for a while if he had the time. If Lady Arya and young Lord Brandon were with him, as Oberyn expected them to be, he invited Ser Daemon to take them down to the yard with a few guards and run them through some practice drills and footwork.

 

A quarter hour later and Oberyn was comfortably settled with his wife tucked against his side and a glass of semi-decent wine. He'd been enjoying coaxing her to take sips in between sharing slices of apple and cheese with her while they waited. Given the sense of anticipation he was feeling, the closeness stoked the fires of his lust nicely. He currently had a strategically placed pillow draped across his lap.

 

Not that he would need it long in Ned Stark's presence. Flirting to make the man grimace aside, a face that dour was an instant cure for blue balls. How he'd ended up with six children boggled Oberyn. The man was so damned boring…

 

"Lord Stark, you'll forgive me if I'm too comfortable to rise?" Oberyn japed when his goodfather arrived.

 

Even as she pulled back from the warm embrace she'd shared with her father, his wife shot him a dark look. She understood perfectly. Oberyn mentally congratulated himself for the initial success of his slow corruption of the she-wolf's stuffy Northern morals.

 

"Entirely." Lord Stark said and then took a seat without invitation.

 

Oberyn decided that he liked the man better now that he was comfortable being as rude as Oberyn was. If nothing else, it made every insult more satisfying. At least now he wasn't all noble sacrifice and sullen expressions. Lyarra retaliated against Oberyn by sitting beside her father on the arm of the broad leather armchair he'd sunken into, opposite the low, broad sofa that Oberyn had chosen as his and Lyarra's seats earlier.

 

"Father, I heard something disturbing today."

 

"I don't doubt it." Lord Stark growled as though he were real wolf.

 

Ghost, hearing this, rose to her feet and padded over to nose around Lyarra's skirt. Oberyn watched in amusement as the lanky, hound-sized pup enjoyed a scratch around her thick white ruff and then her ears. She even sniffed Lord Stark's fingers in a friendly manner.

 

"I spent the morning fending off requests for the hand of every single one of my unwed children, and then reminding several widows that your Uncle Benjen's Night Watch vows lasted a lifetime. Ostensibly it was just a nice chat between responsible lords. In truth it was a fishing expedition."

 

"You don't sound impressed with the angler's skill." Oberyn drawled and Ned Stark snorted before turning wry gray eyes, a shade or two lighter than Lyarra's, on the Viper.

 

"After you've corresponded with Hoster Tully for five-and-ten years, you learn what a true fisherman is. Also, you mean anglers . Everything with the Freys is plural."

 

"A tragedy in linguistics."

 

"Aye."

 

"Speaking of Freys." Lyarra interrupted them, looking back at Oberyn in a quelling way that had him raising his eyebrows in surprise. He hadn't done anything that inflammatory, yet. "Father, I heard a disturbing rumor."

 

"I would pay it no mind. Southrons are full of such, especially their highborn ladies." Eddard brushed it off but Oberyn knew better.

 

"I imagine you heard many such rumors. You credited this one, why?"

 

Oberyn's tone had Ned Stark sitting up and taking note, brushing away the headache he'd been probing between his eyes with massaging fingers and turning towards his daughter.

 

"Lyarra?"

 

"During the tea, Gwyn, Lady Myria, and I managed to get Lady Walda-."

 

"Which one?" Oberyn wanted to know. "That will make all the difference in credibility."

 

"The one they call Fat Walda." Lyarra grimaced at the name, then turned her attention on her husband, visibly distracted for a second. "She's a sweet girl, Oberyn, if a bit naive and shy. This is a cruel House to live in."

 

"As they call their own kin Fat Walda as a pet name, yes, I believe you could say that with reasonable accuracy."

 

"That alone is reason enough not to give a child over to it." Ned rubbed a hand over his face.

 

"Any child. How that old letch could think I would take Lady Gwyn out of that festering pit of mentally deranged lions and then hand her to him…"

 

Oberyn couldn't help a smile at that description of House Lannister, though his temper coiled and slithered around the edges. The man had no respect for the Lions of Casterly Rock. Still, he held to that despicable oath the Usurper had pried out of him despite that. It was a dichotomy that infuriated Oberyn in a man that might have otherwise been tolerable, if unfortunately dour.

 

"Gwyn's not what I want to talk about, though Lady Walda is another matter." Lyarra brushed all that away. "What she said is what's important."

 

Lord Stark gestured and Oberyn leaned forward to mind his manners and offer the man a tankard of ale. Stark accepted it gratefully and took a deep pull as Lyarra stared at her father in truly fascinating worry, then blundered forward as bluntly as anyone born of Ned Stark's loins ever could.

 

"Apparently when the Master of Coin died of inoculation fever, he wrote letters to a lot of southron Houses." Lyarra blurted out. "His deathbed confession claimed he'd taken both Lady Lysa Tully and Lady Stark's maidenheads when they were girls."

 

Lord Stark choked on his ale magnificently. The frothy beverage came out of his nose and settled in his beard in a fine impression of a mad dog. He hacked, he coughed, he rose to his feet and half-bent over, spluttering. Lyarra beat her father apologetically between the shoulder blades and asked if he could breathe. Eventually the man wiped his mouth off on his sleeve and regained his breath.

 

"That's ridiculous!" Lord Stark croaked, turning and setting the now half-full tankard on the mantle and taking his daughter by the shoulders. "Lyarra, what are you talking about?"

 

This was better than Braavosi theater, Oberyn decided.

 

"Lord Petyr Baelish died of inoculation fever. It went to his lungs, he died slowly, and when he was feverish he made a full, public deathbed confession of his sins. Including sleeping with both of his foster father's daughters. He even said he got a child on Lady Lysa, but that Lord Hoster caused her to miscarry the babe with moon tea." Lyarra told him in a quiet rush. "Father, I'm sorry, but if someone so downtrodden by her family as Walda knows it, everyone must be speaking of it."

 

Oberyn watched as Lord Eddard Stark, Warden of the North, personally feared in battle, feared as a Leader at War, and respected as an honorable man by all of Westeros, slowly turned purple in outrage. He mentally shook hands with Petyr Baelish. Though all he'd heard of the man suggested he was nothing more than a slimy pimp who mistreated those in his employ, Oberyn had to admit that he'd just done more to infuriate Ned Stark from the grave than Oberyn had managed in two moons time. Oberyn didn't have to like the reputation of the man in question to respect his achievements.

 

Meanwhile Lyarra was biting her lip and generally looking distressed. Worse, Oberyn could feel her creeping unhappiness. It was like a cool dark cloud that hovered at the back of his mind occasionally, and he was coming to hate the thing. Lyarra, under the right circumstances, shone when she was happy and confident. Life in Winterfell had not made the castle's bastard given to confidence or happiness, despite the many good memories she held of the place. Instead it was left to Oberyn to show the girl had to enjoy the varied pleasure of life.

 

Apparently that was going to include saving her from her endless concern from others. Oberyn could almost feel Ellaria with him in that moment and his heart ached. " Poor Prince, cursed to care for ladies who make you act like a decent human being." She'd often teased him so when he complained that she would not permit him to be properly callous. She'd never put up with his horseshit, gentle hearted though Ellaria Sand had been.

 

Standing, casting aside the pillow he definitely did not need any longer, Oberyn stood and drew the attention of the man now looming in the center of the room. Purple faced Ned Stark was a volcano in the making. Oberyn had been foolish enough to climb about on the rocks of a small islet in the Stepstones where an eruption was taking place, once. One of his companions who'd been less quick, and less able to afford expensive boots, had ended up losing both feet to green rot when the burns had gone bad, then dying of blood poisoning afterward.

 

"You needn't look at me so, Lord Stark, for once I'm utterly innocent in the question of a lady's virtue." Oberyn held up his hands, palm out, in front of him.

 

"But you knew ." His goodfather actually snarled at him, taking a step forward while Lyarra stared at him in shock.

 

"I told to your wife of it, in passing." Oberyn admitted, torn between pleasure at having finally broken through the man's gargantuan bulwark of self-control and dismay at the sudden, unexpected jolt of creeping dismay coming from Lyarra.

 

"You what?"

 

Dammit, Lyarra's expression was going from dismay at having to tell her father to just genuine distress at the whole situation. Oberyn was hardly going to shield the girl the Gods had wed him to against his will from the truth. That would lead to leaving both of them open to attack due to ignorance. He could have spoken to her of it beforehand, however, or nudged her into speaking to him. He'd just assumed that whatever she had to tell her father was some small, unimportant matter spoken of between children.

 

'If she's old enough to marry, she's old enough to respect. Do not demean your wives.' His mother's voice from long past came to him in memory and his knuckles stung along with his pride as he answered the Quiet Wolf's rather loud question. 'They are your partners in life, treat them like it.'

 

"I told her she should write her father of it. Otherwise I am not getting involved in House Tully's dirty laundry. Lord Stark, it seems almost all Houses got such letters. I'd frankly assumed it was rumor fodder in the North as it is everywhere until your wife looked surprised. Even then I was perhaps half-sure she just couldn't believe I had said it to her face."

 

"And you chose to disrespect my wife to her face, why? She's no part of your quarrel with me."

 

"Lyarra is my wife and those who disrespect her to my face can expect mockery to be the most moderate response of which I will avail myself." Oberyn spat back, his own temper flaring.

 

" Enough !"

 

Both men jumped as Ghost shoved her way between them, sharp teeth bared at just above knee level. That was enough to move both the Wolf and the Viper back a couple of steps and turn to look at where Lyarra stood. Her fists were clenched at her sides and her cheeks flushed before she brought her arms up and crossed them imperiously over her chest.

 

"The Gods have brought my Prince and I together, Father, and we're making the best of it."

 

Lyarra breathed out as she spoke and Oberyn was temporarily distracted from the twinge of memory he'd had at her exasperated display of temper and power by the way her posture had the pale mounds of her breasts welling up against the neckline of the gown she was wearing.

It had a low, scooped neckline, but had been made in the Northern fashion with long, dagged sleeves and a flowing skirt. The pale lavender of the gown brought out the warm tones in the thick mass of dark curls cascading down her back. The little rim of violets and snowdrops embroidered around the neckline just drew more attention to the charms already on display. Oberyn found he liked the color on her, and spent a moment regretting again that he was stuck in a room with his wife and her father, dealing with the issues in Ned Stark's marriage alliance rather than working to improve his own.

 

"I wish you would both work harder to take advantage of the fact that our Houses are now joined rather than snipe at each other like boys in the schoolroom." Lyarra bit her lip then, her eyes warm and apologetic as they turned to her father, and studiously refusing embarrassment at having claimed her father and the husband who was older than him childish. "I'm very sorry, Father. Lady Stark is a good wife to you. She's a wonderful mother. I have no doubt that the claim this Lord Baelish made against Lady Stark was brought on by fever dreams and fear of damnation or whatever the Seven are spouting to get gold from the peasantry today. The man was sick, people shouldn't take it seriously."

 

"That is precisely why they will take it as gospel." Oberyn shook his head wryly.

 

"Aye, people don't often lie on their deathbeds. Not when getting right before whatever Gods they claim." Ned Stark reluctantly agreed then surprised Oberyn by offering him his hand. "It was none of your doing. I have not said so before now, but I would have you speak of such things, if you hear rumors of my family or kin. You are, after all, now numbered among them."

 

Oberyn felt his lip curl, but he took the man's hand. He would have been just as happy not to, but the reasons to do so outweighed those not to. First, he wished to antagonize the man personally, not politically. Secondly, he had no desire to antagonize Lyarra at all as he was growing to enjoy her presence in his life even beyond her growing adventurousness in bed.

 

Finally, the man was right. Like it or not House Martell was going to be associated with House Stark and all of its connections from this point on for at least another generation. Allowing the open mockery of Hoster Tully's despicable treatment of his daughter would be harmful.

 

"As you say." Oberyn gestured back to their seats and was pleased when Lyarra moved back to sit at his side, though he noted Ghost curled in the floor between all of them. He curled his arm around her shoulders and noted that she remained sitting stiffly despite it. "You'd heard nothing of it?"

 

"No, and do not say my wife was keeping it from me." Stark glared, but then breathed out and looked troubled. "She would have waited to hear from her father, perhaps, but she would tell me of such a thing. Especially with the damned weirwood plot rumors going around."

 

"Speaking of," Oberyn sat forward, knowing he'd get no better opening. "I cannot positively identify a young weirwood sapling, can you? Say, about knee-high, when many saplings have pale bark."

 

"Aye, but are their leaves blood red and five fingered?"

 

"These were four-fingered." Oberyn answered, frowning at the man's mocking tone; as if he was supposed to know what a young weirwood looked like. He'd never seen one before Lyarra walked him through Winterfell's godswood. "Do their leaves change as they age?"

 

"No," Lyarra interjected, "Not that I know of."

 

"No, they are always five fingered. What other tree would carry red leaves in summer?"

 

"Gwyn told me of a tree in the Westerlands. Until it's man-high, its leaves are pale red and the bark looks white. Then the leaves turn a dark purplish color and the bark turns gray, but I don't know how many fingers the leaves have, if any. Gwyn told me they grind the leaves of young trees to make a bright, cheap red dye in the Westerlands."

 

"Well, if she would recognize them I think you need to go on a ride tomorrow with your daughter and her ladies, Lord Stark." Oberyn mused and the man leaned forward, his gray eyes sharp.

 

"You saw something."

 

"When we rode out today my party passed several villages." Oberyn confirmed. "Each one had a newly planted godswood, and every single one had a little white tree no higher than my waist with four-fingered red leaves."

 

The two Northerners in the room both looked furious and relieved in equal measure. Oberyn noted with some chagrin that the expressions were eerily similar mirrored on Lord Stark's unhandsome face and Lyarra's beautiful visage. Either way, Oberyn was relieved when Lord Stark shook his head at the sight of Lyarra attempting to rise even as Oberyn kept his arm firmly around his wife's shoulders so she couldn't get up.

 

"Lyarra, there's no point in going out at night. We've no cause to ride around House Freys lands, nor would it be wise. We already know they are no trustworthy House." Lord Stark rubbed a hand over his face. "Nor am I the Lord Paramount of the Riverlands. Lord Hoster had his son deputed to look into this matter, and he is on his way here. He might arrive any day."

 

"Indeed, our task will be to have evidence to present to him when he arrives." Oberyn agreed, reluctantly willing to accept the man as an ally - or, worse, assign himself as one of the Usurper's dogs' supporters. Given the situation, however, he could do no less. "Lord Stark, I suggest that tomorrow you and I keep the Freys occupied, and Lyarra can do the same with the ladies if she does not ride out herself. I'd planned to send my own people out, but they're mostly Salty Dornish such as myself and stick out like a nude dancing girl amidst a choir of Septas. Your own men look more like these Riverlanders, and a few guards won't be missed."

 

"They do."

 

"And Gwyn's low-ranking enough not to be missed." Lyarra agreed reluctantly, obviously desiring to take action herself.

 

"I'll send Ser Daemon with her. If a modestly dowered knight's daughter and a knighted bastard vanish at the same time, they'll assume they're either courting or trysting, not spying." Oberyn suggested. "It will also serve to cool the old Weasel's ardor if he thinks he's not going to be the first one to plough that field."

 

"That's disgusting." Lyarra pulled a face.

 

"That's Lord Frey." Oberyn sneered and began to pet Lyarra's hip with the hand around her waist. They'd dealt with everything Lyarra had spoken of. The Quiet Wolf would surely send a letter to ask his goodfather about the rumors, or save that for when they were staying at Riverrun. They'd discussed his discovery of the likely false weirwood saplings. Surely the man would leave soon.

 

"A good plan." Ned agreed and balanced his elbows on his knees, his expression as serious as always until the Viper thought he saw a flash of something almost like wickedness hidden in the man's gray eyes. "Have you written to Robb lately, Lyarra?"

 

"I left a letter with Lord Howland so he might post it from his ravenry. Why, did you have one? Is something wrong?"

 

Lyarra's complete distraction was instant and obvious. She even batted his hand away from her hip as she leaned forward. As if in collusion, Ghost rose and settled her head across Oberyn's knees, necessitating that he petted about her ears to keep her from drooling on him in protest.

 

"Not wrong per say, but I had a raven from him this morning. Actually, there was a letter in it for you. Where did I put it?"

 

The man's searching through his pockets was so utterly staged that Oberyn was offended by the obviousness of it. Lyarra continued to accept it in all innocence and eagerness as she greedily watched the proceedings. She all but vibrated as her father carefully and slowly opened the oilskin pouch and began to rifle through three or four neatly folded and sealed letters. Oberyn resented this immensely. He did this to his daughters. The fact that he was forced to sit there, ignored by all but the direwolf, as he watched his goodfather do it to his wife was not amusing.

 

"Here we are." Lord Stark announced, squinting in bad playacting at the letters. "Actually, I think you have more than one from Robb here. Hold on, is this one from Sansa for you or-."

 

"Oh, Father, stop!" Lyarra finally lost all patience and went over to sit on the arm of her father's armchair, reaching out to beg for her letters and getting a chuckle and a buss on the cheek for her trouble.

 

"Here." Stark handed Lyarra three letters and rose, giving her a brief hug and then nodding at Oberyn with smug eyes. "Sleep well, Your Grace."

 

"And you, Your Lordship."

 

Oberyn's smile was all teeth and unhappy defeat. Lyarra was totally engrossed in her letters. Undoubtedly she'd want to answer them immediately. Resolving only to put off his plans for satisfaction until later, Oberyn quit the uncomfortable sofa for the comfortably plush rug in front of the fire. After some negotiation involving a belly rub Ghost condescended to allow herself to be used as a pillow. The shewolf pup was, after all, usually perfectly agreeable towards him, even if obedience was mostly reserved for Lyarra.

 

At least if he fell asleep on the floor Lyarra would wake him. When she did that, Oberyn promised himself, he'd collect his deferred pleasure. Unless falling asleep on the rug did his back in. Then he'd accept a massage as forfeit.

 

 


 

"It's not fair ! I'm older than Arya! I should be going to King's Landing and Sunspear and getting to meet more princes."

 

"Ladies do not whine , Sansa." Lady Catelyn Stark told her favorite daughter firmly, working not to be angry at her.

 

It was not Sansa's fault that this was not to be her time to shine. Lyarra's wedding was, Cat was now willing to believe, a true godsend. At first she'd felt it some mockery of her husband's Gods targeted against her for daring to bring a Sept north. Mayhaps even the bastard herself was such revenge, for Cat had spent her entire married life fretting over the fact that most of her children did not have the Stark looks while the bastard did.

 

Now, however, Cat was willing to feel humbled. She even wondered if, perhaps, humility hadn't been the message all along. She'd been raised well, she'd always sought to be good and pious. She lived by her House's motto: Family, Duty, Honor.

 

Nowhere in her lessons as a child had humility been broached as more than lip service, for all that it was written of so widely within all of the Seven's great religious texts. All aspects of the Seven demanded humility from their worshippers, for did the Gods not hold the power and grant their boons to those who lived exemplary lives? Did they not reward those whom acted by the standards of humility, kindness, honor, and piousness? Looking back on a lifetime of pride rooted in her family's standing, her beauty, and her own conduct, Cat was beginning to wonder if she hadn't missed an important lesson. If so, perhaps this was her second chance.

 

"I'm sorry, Mother." Sansa apologized contritely, pausing in her embroidery to look around Lady Stark's otherwise empty solar with a satisfied expression. "Are we going to talk more about running a household today?"

 

That question caused slightly guilty relief to well up in Cat's heart. Just a few moons ago she'd felt she had ages to prepare her daughter for being a lord's lady wife. After all, Sansa wasn't yet two-and-ten. Lady Stark herself been eight-and-ten, almost nine-and-ten when she'd wed Eddard, though she'd have wed Brandon Stark at seven-and-ten had things worked out as her father originally planned. Thinking of her father's plans, however, left Cat feeling unsettled over the man she'd grown up so close to and idolizing. It was a new experience, and it was completely dreadful.

 

"Yes, today we'll work on more bookkeeping, as sums are not your strong suit." Cat agreed just to have her mind occupied. "Your embroidery is already as good as many professionals, so we won't spend so much time at it anymore. I've been thinking you might also shadow me during the day, and when you've seen more, I'll give you some of the responsibilities that Lady Gwyn had before she left."

 

Sansa looked a mixed of pleased and disappointed at that and Cat felt a wave of chagrin. In truth, Sansa needn't be as involved in the kitchens as the ward Eddard had brought to their household was. Lady Gwyn Parren was removed from inheriting a castle of her own by many generations, and while she was pretty enough to hope for a landed knight, the Westerlands girl was never going to manage a lord with her dowry.

 

Sansa was going to marry spectacularly, Cat knew. With what the Plague had done to almost every House, there were many heirs belonging to influential Lords, future Lords Paramount, and even higher yet in need of a wife. Cat herself was hoping that her husband might make arrangements with his friend, King Robert, while he was in King's Landing. The Crown Prince needed to wed as soon as possible given the political situation, and who better suited to stabilize his grown than the North? It certainly wouldn't be Dorne.

 

That worried Cat. On one hand, marrying into Dorne was likely the North's salvation if the Maesters were right. Twenty years of winter could destroy the North without adequate food stocks and good southron allies. When Winter came, the only part of Westeros that still had a growing season was Dorne, for even in the the North's stories of the Long Night, crops had come up from past the Red Mountains where the Night King's magic had little influence.

 

Not that Cat listened to Old Nan's tales, but she did have ears. Ned's position as Warden of the North had been bolstered considerably by the wedding. The fact that he'd ignored the Viper's poisoned tongue and simply pushed through negotiations to the North's benefit at the cost of his own pride had great meaning to his people. It only helped cement his position, and with it, Robb's that the Gods had seen fit to Mark her husband's bastard for a Prince's wife.

 

The Marked are never bastards, however, for the Gods want them and honor them. Cat ignored her own Septa's voice in her head and tried not to think of her current situation. Instead she turned back to Sansa and led her to the table where she'd spread out her own household books to start explaining more deeply how one ran a large castle's household. She concentrated on the kitchens themselves, as Gwyn's absence left a gap behind in their organization and she was still working to balance that out.

 

That girl had been terribly annoying at times, and Cat was infuriated by her occasional bouts of insolence, but her story was such Cat couldn't find it in her heart to hate her. She did feel slighted that her attempts to befriend and mother the poor child had been rebuffed so harshly when Gwyn first arrived. That she'd insisted on befriending the - Lyarra made it worse.

 

Humility , Cat reminded herself, sadly adding three more familiar words. Family, Duty, Honor. If the Gods were punishing anyone, she decided, it wasn't Ned. Her husband was all that was kind and honorable. No, to her shame, Cat believed she knew who was being punished and who was being rewarded, and didn't think the eerie gods of the trees had anything to do with it.

 

That night, after she'd seen Sansa off to bed and tucked in Rickon and dealt with another quiet tantrum over the fact that he and Sansa were all of their family current in Winterfell, Lady Catelyn went to pray in her Sept. The building was, to her, the shining monument to her husband's love. Sometimes she thought differently. In her darker moments she sometimes wondered if he hadn't built it out of guilt over Lyarra's presence and existence, but she was trying to stop that.

 

Humility . Cat prayed to the Crone for wisdom and she reminded herself with brutal honesty that Ned hadn't wanted to marry her anymore than she'd wanted him. He wasn't the handsome brother. He wasn't the daring brother. He hadn't been meant to be Lord of Winterfell. She had wanted Brandon.

 

A properly devout woman would be understanding. A lady would love her husband and know he'd meant her no grief. If - if Ned had loved another, before her, then Cat told herself it was no worse than her love for Brandon. Lyarra had looked younger than her Robb when she'd first seen the babe, but that could have been because the child was sick. Bringing the babe up from Dorne had nearly killed the child more than once, according to what Cat had overheard. It was possible he'd never really dishonored her. Ned wouldn't speak of it. Maybe a night of passion with a love he knew he'd have to give up to win the war, just before their wedding…

 

It did Cat no good. No matter how she thought of it, forgiveness didn't come. She felt nettled, angry, and her pride stung at the idea. A little voice in the back of her head wailed in grief about what she could possibly lack. Was she not beautiful enough for her husband? Were her manners lacking? Had she in any way not fulfilled her duties?

 

You weren't her, and he wasn't Brandon. Cat chose to remind herself of this brutally. It was a settled and intentional thought, rooted in place by sheer determination. Cat would not keep doing the same thing endlessly. She wouldn't worry a wound until it drove her mad in grief.

 

She wouldn't end up like Lysa.

 

"Sister, forgive me." Cat murmured softly in prayer. "I should have known. I should have helped you, and instead I ignored you. Instead I felt better than you when you were only a lovesick girl. Forgive me for not protecting you, forgive me for forgetting you."

 

Her father had not written her back in response to her letter. Edmure had, and Cat had locked herself in her room for the day to deal with her grief and shame. According to the little brother Cat barely knew, their father had only admitted to the tales written of in Petyr's deathbed confession once, and that was in a rage-filled rant when the raven had arrived from Lord Walder Frey to sympathize with Lord Hoster about the embarrassment one's children could bring you. Her father, already weakening with some slow illness, had ended up bedridden for days afterward. When he'd risen, he'd refused to discuss it. Lord Hoster hadn't weakened on that silence since, according to his son.

 

It hurt knowing that it was true . Cat had always laughed off Little Petyr's crush on her. The short, slight young man who'd fostered with them had always seemed as much a pet in a way, as a little brother. He'd been ever so clever and so willing to join in all of their games. Cat had enjoyed the way that he trailed after her, and thought the way that Lysa trailed after him was cute.

 

"I'm no great lady, Lady Stark, but I am a lady nonetheless. If you want a pet, may I suggest a nice lapdog?"

 

Gwyn Parren's words, some of the first she'd spoken at more than a jittery whisper, raced through Cat's mind and left her a mix of contrite and seething. No matter what the Lannisters had left the girl thinking, that was not how she'd viewed the only foster child she'd managed to convince Ned to take into their house. Lady Gwyn was supposed to be how she convinced him to lean on his banners and bring more of their children into the household by demonstrating how well Cat herself could guide the child. Instead Ned had just laughed it all off as a strong-willed girl-child being herself, as his sister had once been, and his big heart had reached out to absorb another orphan.

 

It was one of the reasons why Cat loved her husband so. It was one of the best things about her husband, that he could love so freely even as he had difficulty expressing it clearly. It was annoying and frustrating in the extreme when it hindered Lady Stark's efforts to get him to think of the political realities behind their children's' lives though.

 

Politics was a refuge for Cat's thoughts even in bad times. It allowed her to divorce her personal feelings from what was going on. Not for long, for Cat felt things strongly, but at least for a while, she could walk out of her Sept, dress for bed and curl up in the empty but warm sheets and furs her husband wasn't sharing with her, and just think.

 

Right now, House Tully was severely embarrassed, but that could be countered. Her father might not be talking of it, but he was already acting on the deathbed letters that Petyr had sent out to so many Houses. Cat's father now had Edmure playing a stronger, more visible role than he was. It was Edmure he sent out to deal with the brigands who now seemed to be everywhere thanks to the plague's many evils. It was Edmure that he'd deputed to put those foul weirwood rumors down.

 

It hurt to know that her father's reputation was so destroyed and her House's words mocked. Cat could deal with that, however, and would keep her head held high in public while she prayed for understanding, humility, and guidance in private. Her sister had been shamed, perhaps to some extent by her own folly, but the fact remained that duty and honor dictated that Lord Hoster should have arranged a marriage between Lysa and Petyr as Lysa had wanted. Family dictated that he should have helped Lysa to hide her shame and get on with her life in some happy way. Instead Cat knew now that her father had cleansed her sister of the babe, nearly killing her and likely damaging her womb in some way given all of the griefs that followed in Lysa's unwanted marriage to Lord Arryn.

 

Cat shivered in her bed as she stared at the fire. Sleep eluded her. What if those rumors made their way North? Cat knew she should have talked to Ned of them before he left, but she hadn't gotten Edmure's letter back confirming anything after the Viper had thrown that vile hint at her in the hallway before Ned had left. She hadn't wanted to damage her family in her husband's eyes, and knew that it would. Nothing was taken more seriously than kinslaying in the North, and there was always a sort of open debate about whether ending a pregnancy counted as such.

 

Her thoughts led her to worry for her eldest. Robb was out, going from keep to holdfast and holdfast to castle. Before Ned had left, Cat had been glowing with pride that he trusted his son to do a full audit of winter stores and travel the North to confer on what was discovered by auditing the weirwoods amidst the North's forests. So far, Cat had been relieved; she'd had one letter back from Robb and he'd said that neither House Glover nor any house beholden to them had found any evidence of weirwood saplings being poached.

 

On the other hand, she fretted. Robb was so young and he was out there alone. True, she trusted most of her husband's bannermen as loyal. Most was not all, however. There were the Boltons to consider, and being wary of them was all but part of the Stark family motto. Then the Ryswells had their own long-nursed grudges. Cat would have preferred to be with her son, but knew why she could not. Besides, Rickon and Sansa were having enough trouble adapting to the fact that Bran, Lyarra, Arya, and Robb were all absent. The fact that it might yet be years before they saw the first three again didn't help. Still, she was sure her eldest was fine.

 


 

Wind whipped, wet and icy, across Robb Stark's cheeks as he stared north into the Bay of Ice. Whitecaps were everywhere. The sea was rough. It fitted his mood perfectly and he savored the sting of his cloak whipping against his legs in the wind.

 

"My Lord, please tell me you are not brooding upon a cliff like some silly southron song about a poncy knight missing his lady or somesuch."

 

Robb jumped and lurched slightly towards the edge of the tall cliff. There was a feminine gasp of fear behind him. Greywind, who'd been standing at his side, set his teeth into Robb's cloak and pulled him backwards towards safety. He promptly toppled backwards onto his arse. He felt his ears reddening even as he accepted his humiliation as the lesser of two evils.

 

"Lady Aislinn." Robb got up with as much dignity as he could muster with his direwolf licking at his ears in worry. Shoving Graywind away he brushed grass and rock dust from the seat of his pants and bowed. "I hope I haven't disturbed you, my lady."

 

"You've stolen my favorite brooding spot, but I suppose I can forgive you."

 

Robb felt his ears cool a little and offered up a small smile in return. Lady Aislinn Forrester was the only daughter of the current Lord Forrester, and he'd been thrown much into her and her brother's company since he'd arrived three days before. The former's company was by no means awful, but Robb found he appreciated the buffer that her brother presented. The future Lord Forrester was obviously as loathe to give up his sister to even the future Lord of Winterfell (should Robb entertain such ideas, which he wasn't yet entertaining in any direction), as he had been to give up Lyarra. It meant that he could enjoy being around a future bannerman his own age, and the lady, in their own right without worrying about being honor bound to marry anyone because he hadn't prevented a lady from being forward in front of others.

 

Lady Aislinn was also no hardship to look at, Robb allowed. Every inch as tall as he was, Lady Aislinn had long, slightly wavy black hair she liked to twine into two braids bound with white ribbon in reference to her house's colors. Currently Robb couldn't help noticing that her high-collared black dress followed the same theme, but only because of the stark white of the weirwood bow she was carrying in front of her.

 

"Did you come up here to hunt?" He asked curiously and got a hint of laughter instead.

 

"No, but I'm afraid your friend has me nervous. I think he covets my bow far more than myself."

 

Robb had to chuckle with her at that. She did have an easy laugh. He found he relaxed slightly in its presence, and nodded in agreement.

 

"Theon is jealous of your weapon."

 

"Theon is furious because I didn't give ground on our archery contest, and thinks insisting it was all due to having a better bow will soothe his pride."

 

"Theon is an idiot." Robb grinned. "He's still the best friend I've ever had."

 

"He's randy, but not awful."

 

Robb openly laughed at that assessment of Theon's character and stepped further away from the cliff, offering the lady his arm out of habit. She rolled her eyes at him and smoothed her hands nervously over her skirt.

 

"You missed the evening meal."

 

"There was too much to do." Robb shook his head. "Your father and I went over their findings, but I wanted to ride out and check that report of disturbed earth personally, just to be sure something hadn't been missed."

 

"No-one's touched a weirwood on our land without permission since times out of mind." Lady Aislinn replied, nettled. "It was naught more than a badger burrow, I'm sure."

 

"Bear den, actually. Would a new rug cool your ire at my unintended accusation, my Lady?"

She blushed a little and Robb realized his jape could have been taken as flirting with alarm.

 

"If I want a bearskin rug, I'll pick a fight with a Mormont."

 

"Isn't that a saying for if you want to feed a bear?"

 

"Lady Lyra and I are old friends. I've naught to fear from bears in these parts." Lady Aislinn's warm, ringing laugh showed him no harm was done and she turned and pointed. "You can actually see Bear Island if the day is clear enough. Not that today is clear enough, but on a hypothetical day when the weather in the North is actually kind, then you can see it. Oh ! But I had a real reason for being out here. I came to fetch you?"

 

"You came to fetch the future Warden of the North?" Robb was a little impressed by her boldness. He was also impressed by the curves revealed on her tall frame when the wind moved her cloak aside and pushed her dress close against her body and her long, long legs.

 

"I came to fetch Lord Theon Greyjoy's best friend. Last I saw of him, my brother had him in a headlock."

 

Lord Keavan Forrester was a head taller than Robb, broad through the shoulders, and inclined to be serious without being humorless. Just as Lyarra's melancholy pushed Robb to make her laugh, Lady Aislinn seemed to do the same for her elder brother. Robb was later surprised to learn that the lady was actually born right in the middle of the small gap that likely existed between Robb and Lyarra's ages. As it was, he was more concerned that Theon's japing about the lady's beauty might have gotten him into real trouble with Lord Keavan's quick temper.

 

Theon was terrifying with a bow and no slouch with a sword, but Robb had learned why Lord Keavan's morningstar was widely feared during a friendly bout this morning. The man fought like the Others were upon him. Not surprising when it was known that the current Lord Forrester's two uncles had died fleeing like a coward from a charge of mounted knights at the Trident. Like his father before him, Lord Keavan had a lot to live up to and a lot to make up for to fully restore his family's reputation.

 

"You've come to the right place." Robb groaned, striding back towards the path through the thick woods that would lead him towards House Forrester's keep.

 

Bent Tree Keep wasn't a great castle, but it was impressively built. A great rocky prominence jutted up in a sharp little valley between two ridges, and on that hundred foot tall rock in the midst of neatly cleared fields that Bent Tree Keep was built on. All around the foot of the stone hill, a tall wall stood, enclosing the weirwood that surrounded the keep. A deep ditch filled with fireharded wooden spikes stood at the edge of that wall.

 

Atop the rock, another wall stood around a large stone hall and several other stone buildings with the high, angled roofs common in the more remote parts of the North. It wasn't a rich keep, but it was a tidy, well-run place that had a surprising amount of support considering it was beholden to House Glover. Wood carvings were everywhere, and looking at it Robb felt the small smile Lady Aislinn had put on his face fade away entirely.

 

"Why the frown? Unless you're trying to look more like your father, in which case I must tell you that you have Lord Stark's smile."

 

"Really?" Robb was shocked out of his frown and almost jabbed Greywind, who'd insinuated himself under his hand for some reassurance and a pat or two, in the ear. The direwolf smeared his cold, wet, nose across Robb's glove in response. Robb scratched his neck in apology. "I'm told I don't look much like my father."

 

"You don't, much, but you've got his smile and you've got his cheekbones. When you smile it makes your jaw look longer, too." Lady Aislinn told him earnestly. "I only noticed because he spent so much time frowning at your sister's wedding that when Lord Stark smiled, it stuck in my mind. I look a lot like my mother, too, though I've my father's coloring."

 

"I didn't notice you at Lyarra's wedding."

 

"My father's not a great man, but he has too much dignity to throw me at you like a battleaxe the way some of the other Lords were. I thought Lord Umber's daughter was going to squash you out on the dancefloor."

 

"Ah." Robb groaned, then had to snicker. "So did I. Honestly, if women were allowed to propose I'd have been afraid to refuse. Did you see her bend that iron bar?"

 

"I think she was trying to impress you."

 

"I was afraid she was going to wrap it around my wrists to secure me and then throw me over her shoulder and run off like a Wildling."

 

Lady Aislinn's laughter, which which Robb thought he was accustomed to, turned out not to be some common thing with only one side. To his delight he listened as she burst into bell-like gales of mirth, clutching her sides as her blue-gray eyes watered and having to hand him her bow and fish around her person for a handkerchief. Robb, whose mother had raised him to always have such on his person, provided her his own, with a sudden feeling of being successfully gallant for the first time in his life.

 

The feeling was disrupted when Keavan Forrester and Theon Greyjoy came rolling out of the door to one building or another. Keavan did have Theon in a headlock, but Theon was holding his own well by laying blows into the taller man's unprotected ribs. The younger man prevaled, however, when he lifted Theon bodily over his head with a bellow and dumped him into the large water trough a moment later.

 

"I would thank you not to murder Lord Theon, Lord Keavan." Robb stated with every ounce of the cold authority his father was so good at that he could muster. To his surprise and pleasure Keavan looked abashed and stood up straighter, brushing his own wavy black hair out of his face with a contrite expression.

 

"I wouldn't murder a guest, Lord Robb, we're just having a friendly disagreement about how a man should address a lady."

 

"Theon has a lot of those." Robb observed and shot his friend a quelling look.

 

Theon glared for a moment before taking in the fact that Aislinn was laughing and dabbing her eyes with Robb's handkerchief; the little flowers Sansa had decided to embroider all along the edges gave its identity away. After meeting Robb's eyes and finding the blue of them exasperated and yet still the glare of a friend rather than anything else, Theon stood languidly from the watery bed he'd been dropped into and shook water from his hair as though he'd intended to be thrown into the thing.

 

"Friendly disagreements involving a little light bodily harm are a treasured part of Ironborn culture." Theon japed, then bowed gallantly to Lady Aislinn and smiled wryly at her brother. "For the sake of peace, however, we'll call my lesson learned. I meant to no harm, Lord Keavan. My sense of humor got away with me."

 

"Well," Lord Keavan's face cleared, his temper apparently as quick to settle as it was to boil over. He looked at his sister for guidance. "If my sister forgives you, then how can I not?"

 

"I see nothing to forgive." Lady Aislinn smiled warmly at Theon, prompting a feeling Robb couldn't identify to skitter around the hinterlands of his mind. "After all, he can't help it if he was dropped on his head as a babe."

 

It was Robb's turn to laugh as Theon looked affronted, but a few moments later found them all in the warm Great Hall again, seated around a table with a spread of cold fowl, butter, and fresh bread. Lord Keavan produced ale and tankards cooled to an icy chill in a cold room. Lady Aislinn surprised him yet again by producing a beautiful weirwood lap harp and treating them to a few songs.

 

"Did my singing displease you, Lord Robb?"

 

Robb, who'd fallen into a black humor, jolted out of it and shook his head.

 

"No, my lady."

 

"Doesn't she have the finest voice you've ever heard?" Keavan Forrester bragged proudly and Robb felt a pang that translated into a sad smile as he took a long drag of his ale; Theon had abandoned them a few minutes prior for a willing serving maid.

 

"Your sister's voice is fine, but you never had the pleasure of hearing L- Princess Lyarra sing."

 

"Aye, I understand then." Lord Keavan agreed and his sister nodded, yawning into her hand and then rising and waving for her brother and Robb to stay seated.

 

"The friendly squid lord is occupied, Keavan, and he seems not the sort to pester a lady well-armed to deal with him. I'll see myself to bed. You do your duty to our guests."

 

Lady Aislinn allowed Robb to bow over her hand with a warm smile, then left the hall for her own quarters. He also noticed a quiet maid was waiting for her at the end of the hall, silent and unobtrusive in all her movements. Robb approved.

 

"I'm sorry you lost your sister so soon."

 

Keavan Forrester was an earnest, plain-speaking man even amidst a kingdom of them. With his black hair, fair skin, and ice blue eyes, he looked as Northern as you could want. The shape of his jaw was different, and his nose was a little short for true Northern looks, but his coloring granted him favors that Robb's coloring denied him. Despite that, Robb found himself thinking that he might have found a way to earn the strong support of at least one bannermen at his very first stop upon his journey through the North. It was heartening considering that this was the first truly weighty responsibility Robb's Lord Father had ever given him.

 

"I'm afraid of the day my father decides it's time for Aislinn to wed." Keavan went on, shaking his head and refilling both their tankards. "You've undoubtedly heard tales of our mother."

 

Robb nodded, wincing. He'd heard of the Lady Mairin brought up a few times during Lyarra's wedding. Always it was used as an anecdote of the bad things that followed when one chose a Southron wife. The tale was right up with that of Jorah Mormont and his golden bride.

 

Lady Mairin's father had been from a cadet branch of House Osgrey. Not having great options to wed off his daughters because of bad finances, his daughters had been unusually comely. He'd sent out ravens searching for husbands for them, and found young Lord Norton Forrester.

Keavan and Aislinn's father had been young and newly risen to his position as Lord Forrester. Fearing that marrying with the daughter of one of the clans he was surrounded by would leave the others angry with him, he'd wanted to marry outside any possible dispute. He'd also wanted a beautiful wife, and by the standards of a second-tier Northern lord, Lady Mairin's dowry wasn't half-bad.

 

Lord Norton wed Lady Mairin in a Godswood. Apparently that was the first in a series of events that were the death knell of all happiness in the family. The current Lord Forrester's marriage was so awful that he'd approved of his wife's decision to forswear her marriage vows and become a Septa in the south some decade before.

 

"I don't want a marriage like that." Keavan stated with the kind of blunt insistence that came from the naturally frank and the slightly drunk; he appeared to be both and Robb realized that he should also likely not finish the tankard before him. "I won't wed if that's my only option, and I won't lose my sister to something like that. I've never been so thankful as when I realized she wasn't Marked, but I'm still afraid Father will fear he has no choice but to wed her for the House's good."

 

Robb's first instinct was to repeat what he knew was true. Lyarra had said to him. His mother reiterated it. When Lady Stark and Lyarra agreed you knew it was true, but he was also aware that it was politically dangerous to say things like , 'All ladies deserve their own household'. He was the objective of too many hopes to give any falsely. It would be irresponsible, and Robb was not going to shirk his duty.

 

"I know." Robb said instead, commiserating with the other man easily. "My sister, Lyarra, has sent me a letter by raven on her journey south. I got it shortly before I left Winterfell. She seems happy, and I'm relieved that she write that she's learning to be happy with Prince Oberyn. He's not - well, he's as annoying as they - he's…"

 

"A snake?"

 

"But not bad for a Viper." Robb allowed, snorting into his tankard and deciding it would be rude not to finish a drink given by his host. Keavan had the grace to laugh at his joke and nod.

 

"He wasn't properly respectful of Lord Stark." The other young man frowned, but went on more charitably. "We all know why, though. If anyone harmed a hair on Aislinn's head, they'd be lucky that I was naught but rude to them, even if all they were doing was unwillingly protecting the cowards."

 

"Aye, and I'll skin that snake like a Bolton if he makes my sister cry." Robb swore right back, then sighed and patted where the letter sat in his pocket. "Still, she seems happy. She always wanted to see more of the world, and she's getting to see most of Westeros on the journey south. He's even offered to take her to Essos - not that I want her going to such a place. Still, at least he told her that it's unlikely his responsibilities in Dorne will allow it. That'll help me sleep at night."

 

"So…" Keavan cleared his throat. "About Lord Greyjoy."

 

"Theon just likes to jape, he wouldn't dishonor a lady." Robb insisted, though he felt a little bit like a liar in saying it. He was sure Theon wouldn't be so incautious of his own position to dishonor a Northern lady, so at least it was mostly true. "We'll be leaving in two days time, as it is. I'll make sure he doesn't leave my sight. I know how fragile a lady's reputation can be."

 

"Thank you, My Lord."

 

Robb stood at that point, gladdened by the real respect in the young man's voice. He was surprised when Keavan rose and, on leading him to his quarters, made his own offer.

 

"I've little enough to do here right now. Father never leaves and Aislinn helps him by running the house." The young lord went on. "If you'd like your party to expand, I'd be honored to join you."

 

Robb agreed quickly. Having a future bannerman of his generation riding with him was exactly the kind of message he'd wanted to send. His mother had even suggested it, but if he asked, the impact would be destroyed. By volunteering, Keavan had set things up perfectly. The fact that Robb liked him just made it better. Now all he had to do was keep Theon and Keavan Forrester from murdering each other.

 


 

"Edwyn you idiot ." Stevron Frey cried out in alarm as he saw his eldest grandson being brought in on a stretcher as he rushed as well as he could through heavy rain across a small courtyard.

 

Edwyn Frey, third in line to inherit Lordship of the Crossing, lay sprawled in a muddy mess on a stretcher carried between two of his cousins. A second stretcher carrying a far more mangled body that Stevron could not identify was being carried directly behind them. Limping between the two and wearing a scowl smeared with mud, was Black Walder Frey. Stevron's second grandson wore such an expression of fury that Stevron might have wondered if he was the source of such injuries, had Stevron not just sent him out in an attempt to prevent just this from happening.

 

Stevron couldn't help reflecting that the problem with having so many offspring about was how your attention was split. There were always so many nieces and nephews, little siblings, and cousins around that your children got lost in the shuffle. Then, by the time they were old enough that you didn't dismiss half of what they did as the antics of children, you learnt your mistakes too late. By that point your heirs were a disappointment and there was nothing to be done for it but live a long life and grit your teeth while they made fools of themselves.

 

Take his eldest son, Ryman, for example. Stevron had grieved when his eldest boy had died of the plague. Fat, stupid, and mean though Ryman had been, Stevron had wished his son a long life. When he'd died, though, the part of Stevron that had been waiting forty years for his father to hand the Crossing over to him had been relieved . Ryman would have made a horrible lord of any rank or title.

 

Then there was Edwyn. Furious, cold, hateful Edwyn was many things but he'd never been stupid before. Stevron had held out real hope for his eldest grandson, but time had proven him wrong there as well. Fear of being usurped by the younger brother Edwyn had always treated poorly, and who'd grown into a far more dangerous man than Edwyn was, had corrupted his son. Worse, it had made Edwyn desperate . If he hadn't been so damned desperate to earn his great-grandfather's acclaim, mayhaps Edwyn wouldn't have gone along with the scheme Emmon and Aenys had cooked up.

 

"Oh for fuck's sake." Black Walder reached out and steadied Stevron as the man of past-fifty nearly slipped. "Grandfather, be careful ."

 

"What happened ?" Stevron asked, even though he was fairly sure he knew.

 

There were few reasons to be out in the middle of the night in a violent thunderstorm with the river on the rise. The castles were set well and high above the worst flood marks. There was no reason to leave them, save one, and that would have drawn Edwyn from the castle.

 

“Shit happened.” Black Walder spat.

 

"If the plague hadn't gotten Emmon on its way out, I'd kill my brother myself." Stevron seethed quietly, then let a breath out as he sought and found a pulse at his son's throat. "Call the maester, get him settled. Who is this?"

 

"We're not sure, yet, that big sycamore's roots gave in and came down on him. His face is caved in. We won't know till the body's washed off; could be any one of a dozen born ten years or so after I was." Black Walder shook his head furiously, sending water dripping from his lank black hair. "Had the idiots not taken down that hedge by the field the erosion wouldn't have been so bad."

 

The field where Emmon's little plot to grow the red dye trees from the Westerlands had been too visible. A dozen different ideas had been floated for how and when to change this, but in the end, the storm had made it pointless. While they hadn't been able to stop Prince Oberyn's party from leaving, they had made sure he did his riding on the opposite bank. Stevron wasn't sure if that would be enough to keep him from noticing how they'd placated their peasants with young 'weirwood' trees, but that was less important than hiding the proof that they were growing the things. Moreover, what were the chances that a Prince of Dorne, let alone one so arrogant as the Red Viper, was going to chat with the smallfolk?

 

"Come with me." Stevron grimly led his most morally bankrupt, but also most useful, grandson inside the castle.

 

He called for hot water and a large basin. Then he sent for clean clothes for Black Walder. He sat and waited patiently, letting his grief and his temper shift themselves so he could concentrate on the reality of their situation. With his father too busy shopping for his next young wife, and the rest of the House too occupied jockeying for position in the power gaps left by the plague deaths, it was up to Stevron to make sure House Frey didn't collapse under the weight of one supposedly good idea.

 

Edmure Tully was less than a day's ride away, as he'd last heard, and only a quickly passing storm was there to delay him. Even the flooding wasn't on the proper side of the river to do House Frey any good. They had more than four-hundred armed men about in the service of Lord Stark of Winterfell and the Red Viper of Dorne, and both were now their guests.

 

Meanwhile it had been Emmon's brilliant idea to grow a tree from the Westerlands and sell it in the Reach as weirwood saplings. While the plan had made a fortune, Stevron was kept up at night worrying about what would happen when it was discovered. His father thought it was grand to blame it on Hoster Tully when their Lord Paramount's reputation was already in the gutter thanks to Baelish's deathbed confession by raven, but Stevron was not so sure. They were only safe as long as they were undiscovered, and how could anyone assume they wouldn't get caught? Religion, especially now, was to hostile a subject to toy with. You might as well poke an angry bear with a stick and assume all would go well.

 

"Did they accomplish anything?" Stevron finally asked as Black Walder finishing cleaning up and sat opposite him and accepted a full glass of dark ale.

 

His father kept such a close, miserly hold on the wine cellars that most of the family had grown to prefer ale. It was better than drinking the horse piss Lord Walder considered serviceable daily wine. Stevron himself sipped at a large tankard of hot tea; his kidney stones were bothering him and his Maester blamed it on years of bad wine.

 

"No, but you knew they wouldn't. That's why you told them not to."

 

"Details, please."

 

Black Walder nodded at his grandfather, and went on.

 

"You know what the field's like. Now that they've torn down the barrier hedges it's easy to see. My idiot brother thought to cover it up by having blackberry canes from down by the river pulled up and then wrapped around the saplings to hide them. That field was just grafted, you know, and is only knee high."

 

"Yes, I know."

 

"Well, if it weren't for the fact that the whole thing is waist deep in sucking mud, it might have worked." Black Walder went on, his lips twisting. "They got mired down. We lost a servant into the mud, he fell, got sucked under, and we couldn't even find the body. As it was, we got everyone else out, but that tree went over and struck… whoever that turns out to be."

 

"What happened to your brother?"

 

That was the question Stevron was almost afraid to ask. He knew Black Walder coveted Edwyn's inheritance. That said, to the Freys family always came first. Even if you didn't like them, even if you hated them, they were family.

 

"He pulled himself up into that dead tree and stood on a branch after he lost his boots to the mud and saw that servant trip and drown. Lightning struck him." Black Walder swallowed, his face finally showing some distress. "Damnedest thing I've ever saw. I was yelling at him to get down, telling him to ignore the thorns and walk on the spread blackberry brambles like I was, and the next moment, this great tongue of light races down. Yellow and purple and white flashed, then Edwyn just jerked, like he was dancing mid-air. Next thing I know, he's falling. It was all I could do to drag him out of the mud at all."

 

Stevron put his face in his hands and breathed. When he felt one of Black Walder's sword-roughened hands settled on his shoulder, he reached up and squeezed it. Black Walder was not a good man. It was possible that his grandson loved no-one else in the world but himself. Still, Stevron contented himself that his grandson respected him, and there was a fondness there. Perhaps, should they be so unlucky that Edwyn died, he could have time to guide Black Walder into a better place before he handed the Crossing over to him. Stevron didn't want to live to see ninety; there was a truth to the idea you could live too long. Lords should never be too young or too old, he'd found.

 

"Grandfather…"

 

"What are the chances the unidentified one is Aenys?"

 

"None, he didn't come out, I'm sure of it."

 

"Good." Stevron breathed out and nodded once, swallowing. "Grandson, what is the first thing we're taught in House Frey?"

 

"Family First."

 

"Yes." Stevron stood up and took his cane in hand, moving over to stare at the glass in the window and the barrage of heavy raindrops being hurled at it by the wind. "Tell me, what will happen to our family if Edmure Tully and the Lord of the North discover that some of us have been selling false weirwoods in the south? Do you think they will accept the explanation that we all are not responsible for the actions of a few?"

 

"Fuck, no!" Black Walder snorted at the mere thought. "The Tullys don't think we're fit to piss on, and Hoster Tully's wanted rid of us since the Rebellion. Half of us will lose our heads, the other half will swing, and the hypocrite will turn the women out and give the Twins away to some other favorite."

 

"Exactly." Stevron nodded, and closed his eyes as he came to terms with the hardest decision he'd made in his life. "What I'm about to ask you to do is for the good of the family as a whole ."

 

"Yes?"

 

"Tomorrow, Grandson, I want you to pick a fight with Aenys in the training yard where Prince Oberyn spars. Don't worry about Aenys not being there. I'll see to it."

 

"Do you want me to…?" Black Walder frowned, but nodded slowly.

 

"Don't hurt your great-uncle badly." Stevron stifled his guilt at saying it. "Make it look real, however. I'll intervene, if the Red Viper does not."

 

"He won't, he doesn't like any of us."

 

"I wonder why?" Stevron snorted, then shook his head and ran a hand over his bald crown. "The point is, I need you to pick a fight with Aenys. If you antagonize a few others, all the better. Then, and this is important . I want you to ride west."

 

" West ." Black Walder was now looking at him carefully. "Last reports had Edmure Tully west of here."

 

"Miss him, do not meet him, but end up somewhere witnesses can credibly say you were looking for him. I'm going to give you a letter."

 

"What will be in it?"

 

"Nothing of importance. What's important is that you make sure that it's seen to have come from me while you ' look for ' Edmure Tully. Is that clear?"

 

"Yes." Black Walder sat back, his dark eyes alight. "You're setting Aenys up, aren't you?"

 

"If this is to work I'll have to set a lot of our own up." Stevron was frank and regretful. "We'll have to placate the North, and we'll have to remove my father from power to placate Hoster Tully. What matters is, that when the dust has settled, House Frey still holds the Crossing. We haven't built all of this to have it torn down by wolves and trout."

 

Stevron was proud that his grandson didn't suggest murdering their guests. Ignoring the dishonor of it, which stuck in Stevron's craw, there was the reality of what that would do. If they killed his best friend, the King himself would come down upon them like his famed warhammer. The North would rise up and smash them. Hoster Tully would call his other banners with glee. Even the Houses that they'd married into would likely jump at the chance, as there was the possibility that they could be gifted the Crossing themselves because of their marriage if they were on Hoster Tully's good side at the right moment.

 

"Setting up Aenys is a good start, but how to do you plan to prevent Honorable Ned Stark for putting that great sword to all of our necks, Grandfather?"

 

"I'm going to have to hope that Prince Oberyn's sense of political expediency leaves him satisfied enough with having our House owe him that he'll help us keep the Lord of the North in a reasonable frame of mind."

 

"... All the Viper does is bait Lord Stark." Black Walder looked at him like he was an idiot and Stevron raised his eyebrows.

 

"Yes," Stevron agreed impatiently, "And the Wolf Lord lets him. All, in case you weren't too busy to notice, while doting on the three children he brought with him. He'll value the opinion of his daughter, and for all that she's cold, the girl obviously likes her husband well enough. If she didn't, her father would be doing more than glaring. Beyond that, Stark is too honorable to ignore kin, and the man's his goodson now. Stark's also not a fool and will acknowledge the same of the Prince. Need you other reasons? If you do, then think on the fact that a man with the Red Viper's reputation is the one most likely to listen to reason and compromise, and consider just what kind of fucking situation we're in right now."

 

Black Walder finished his ale, nodded once to his grandfather, and rose. Stevron hoped that his grandson slept well tonight as he got up from his chair. Slowly, with all his joints paining him due to the rain, he went out to find out from the Maester if Edwyn would live, be addled, or what have you. He also decided, firmly, that there would be no more mucking about with any Gods or their prerogatives. Some unhappy deity was taking its wrath out on House Frey, and it had to stop.

 


 

"I'm destined to be thwarted by the men of House Stark tonight, am I not?"

 

Lyarra muffled her smile of amusement in Bran's auburn curls just as she listened to her husband's words being muffled by her own hair. They had ended up making love on the carpet in front of the fire. Lyarra had the friction burns on her knees to prove it, thank you, and confirmation that her husband hadn't been wrong about trying new ways to do things.

 

Afterward, however, they'd both cleaned up and returned to bed. It had still been relatively early and the storm was loud enough to keep them both awake. As such, she'd hardly been opposed to continuing what they'd started in front of the fire after her letters were complete, only at a more leisurely pace.

 

Then Bran had come knocking at their door. Let in by a mischievously smiling Ser Daemon. Lyarra wanted no part in knowing the details of her husband's past there. The knight had definitely looked falsely innocent when faced with Oberyn's glare at the interruption, however.

 

"Mmm?" Bran murmured from where he was curled up against her front and Lyarra nudged her husband's shin with her heel.

 

Oberyn had ended up sleeping on his side, curled around behind her like spoons nestled in a drawer. Lyarra didn't mind that, as if he slept on his side he wouldn't snore at all. Meanwhile the bed was large enough and comfortable enough to nicely accommodate the snuggly little redheaded boy along with both its current occupants.

 

A bright light flashed in the window. It was followed by a loud crack of thunder close by. Bran twitched in his sleep and made a softly frightened noise and Lyarra snuggled her baby brother closer. She felt her eyes fill with tears as it suddenly hit her that this might be the last time she was there to be the big sister who comforted Bran in a storm. He wouldn't even have Sansa with him when he went to squire for the Blackfish at the Bloody Gate. Did they have bad storms in the Vale of Arryn? Lyarra didn't even know.

 

"You're sad again."

 

The whisper was barely audible, but Lyarra heard it as much as she felt the brush of his lips against her ear as her husband spoke. The mustache he'd begun to almost idly grow over the journey brushed her ear and she shivered at the feel of it.

 

"Who will he go to when it storms if I'm in Dorne and he's in the Vale?" Lyarra whispered back. "Robb won't be there, or Sansa."

 

" Ah ." Oberyn kissed her neck, gently, and with understanding rather than passion.

 

They fell into silence then. After a moment he shifted, and one lean, strong arm draped fully over Lyarra. To her surprise he rested it over Bran as well, and when her brother shivered as thunder pealed out over the Riverlands four times in quick succession, the Red Viper soothingly rubbed his hand over the little boy's back.

 

"We've few thunderstorms in Dorne." He spoke into the quiet where sleep wouldn't quite come. "It does not rain often, and when it does, we rejoice. Well, unless you're stuck in the Red Mountains. I will tell you about a time I foolishly attempted to race a flash flood once. Do not due that in the Vale of Arryn, Lord Bran."

 

Bran peeked out of where he'd buried his face in Lyarra's chest, and blinked blearily at being shaken from sleep by the storm. She noted that her moon's blood had to be coming on. Her breasts were a little sore.

 

"We do have sandstorms, though."

 

"How can sand storm?" Bran asked, distracted from his fear and speaking in the same sleep-deprived whisper they were.

 

"Ah, well…"

 

Lyarra drifted off to sleep smiling as she listened to Bran's breath ease out. Her husband's voice, so often pitched to provoke or seduce, had fallen into a soothing sort of whispering lull. Like some magic potion mixed from sound and darkness, it blended with the patterning of water on the glass in the windows. It was inexpressibly soothing, and it was familiar. Lyarra's own father had spoken in just that tone a thousand times when soothing her or Robb from some nightmare or another in their nursery days.

 

"You're a good father." Lyarra whispered, sure even though she'd never seen nor met any of the infamous Sand Snakes. She felt a well of affection for herself that surprised her, and a flash of seemingly endless love branching off in another direction like the river they were now sleeping over and knew she'd caught some tiny edge of the feeling he had for his daughters.

 

"Of all the things I pursue in life, that has been my first goal." Oberyn whispered into her hair, his own tone suggesting he stood on the edge of the sleep he'd lulled Bran into falling into a few minutes prior. "You will be a good mother, Lyarra. I have no qualms about sharing my daughters with you, or those you will yet give me."

 

Lyarra fell asleep a few moments later. Her emotions were a tangled mix of love and apprehension and some growing hint of longing. Though her husband insisted that he only threw girls, and she couldn't doubt his certainty when he'd fathered eight of them and no sons, Lyarra couldn't help her dreams. In them there was a little boy, silhouetted in the moonlight and playing tag with Ghost on a great sandy stretch of beach. Strange trees stood tall in the background, and soft drifts like snow that had to be sand dunes surrounded them for miles. It was a good dream, but she was too embarrassed to share it.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen – 297 A.C.

 

"This is definitely a dyer's tree."

 

Lyarra clenched her fists and breathed through her nose to stifle her temper. She needed to get control of her fury before any accusation could be made. Right now, they hadn't been able to see the tree without some commotion. A number of smallfolk had folded into the procession, insistently praising Lyarra both for being a Stark by birth (Lord Stark being known for saving his own smallfolk and the Northern mountain clans being one source of greyscale infected goats) and a Martell by marriage (a family that could do no wrong in the minds of those who the inoculation had saved).

 

"You're sure , m'lady?"

 

"Positive." Gwyn shook her head and turned towards the man who the rest of the villagers seemed to defer to as a leader. "If I promise you that I'm not defacing a weirwood, but doing what the Old Gods would want in the name of justice, would you allow me to take a leaf off of the sapling?"

 

The miller chewed on his lower lip for a long moment.

 

"Well, I thank you for asking. It's more than any Frey would do. Let me go talk t'folks about it." He said, nodding back at the little knot of people standing at the outer edge of the freshly planted godswood.

 

Lyarra wondered how long it had been since stands of carefully tended saplings stood amidst neat fields, reverently tended to by the caring hands of peasants. Here, a mix of deciduous trees stood, all between waist high and man high, and each had a ring of carefully tended mulch to protect their tender roots. She wondered if Bran the Builder had once planted a Godswood so young and delicate in Winterfell. It seemed impossible to think of the great Heart Tree she'd prayed to since her first memories as being so small, but once it had to have been while the Children of the Forest waited to carve its face.

 

Leaning towards Lyarra, Gwyn began whispering urgently.

 

"Dyer trees only grow in the Westerlands. Lord Tywin's great-grandfather imported the original stand of trees from Essos, and they're taxed ."

 

"What does that have to do with anything?"

 

"Anything taxed is traceable, Lyarra, which means that if the Lannisters knew this was happening, they also knew they would be discovered to have sold the trees as weirwoods." Gwyn breathed out quietly as they waited for the Miller to return from where he was having an intense conversation with the knot of people from the village. "Lord Tywin is a monster, but he's no-one's fool and he hates nothing more than being embarrassed. This is a petty scheme, and he would be mocked for involvement in it when it was discovered, not to mention held as dishonorable. I'll bet you your next carving against the shawl I'm embroidering that Lady Genna's husband was where this started."

 

"He's a Frey, isn't he?" Lyarra asked, pushing her surprise at the fluency of Gwyn's talk about her past away and instead working to keep her talking. She could see the fine trembling in her friend's hands as she spoke.

 

"Ser Emmon Frey, one of Walder Frey's younger sons by his first wife." Gwyn agreed, nodding.

 

"What's he like?"

 

"Arrogant, petty, foolish, and terrified of his wife." Gwyn was obviously about to say something else, but she swallowed and chose to look away instead.

 

Lyarra was trying to think of what to say to coax her into expressing more. First, she thought it would be good for her friend to let some of the poison from her past bleed out. Secondly, this situation was such that they needed to know everything they could. If these false weirwood trees were from the Westerlands, Gwyn was essentially their only source of information. The Miller returned with several other villagers while Lyarra slid an arm around Gwyn's shoulders in a comforting half-embrace.

 

"Take a leaf from the tree." The tall, wiry man told them, his expression earnest. "We've already seen Dorne is good people. I've the Sun on my shoulder to prove it. An' who'd know weirwoods better'an House Stark?"

 

Behind her the three guards who'd come with them nodded, and Ser Arron leaned further on his spear as he silently watched the proceedings. Ser Daemon had moved forward as well, his expression curious and his eyes very sharp. Lyarra was just grateful that things had arranged themselves in such a way that she could leave with Gwyn on this ride, and not spend another day mired in the politics of the Ladies of House Frey when an insult to her very Gods was going on around them.

 

Gwyn looked at Lyarra and nodded, so Lyarra leaned down and very delicately plucked a single small, light red leaf from the delicate white sapling. She could already see silvery tips on the branches of the hip-high tree, and she knew from Gwyn's description that, by the time it was man-high, the tree would have changed. It would end up with pale gray bark, dark plum colored, purple leaves, and a rich purple tint to its wood. Lyarra herself was rather wistful about carving something from purple wood, but this was hardly the time or place to ask about getting some dyer's tree lumber.

 

"If you look," Lyarra held the four-fingered leaf out towards the Miller, "The leaf has an almost orangish tint to it. Real weirwood leaves are a deep red, like blood."

 

"They're also sticky if you break or crush them." Gwyn added and took the leaf from Lyarra. "Watch."

 

Taking the leaf in one hand she crushed it, then began to rub it with her fingers. The leaf quickly began to break down into a kind of weak pulp, and wherever it touched Gwyn's softly tanned skin, it left bright red streaks. Gwyn dropped the bits of leaf and held her stained palm out.

 

"Now, this will wash off with clean cold water, but if the water's hot, the color sets ." Gwyn took a canteen that one of the guards had handed her and demonstrated, washing the red off of her hand with a stream of clear water. "If you see someone who can't afford silks and dyes from Essos wearing Lannister red, this is how they make it."

 

"If she'd done that with a weirwood leaf, her fingers would be almost burgundy, and it wouldn't come off like that." Lyarra added. "Nor would it be like ink. Weirwood sap is thick. Do the branches do the same?"

 

"Yes, you'd crush a whole sapling like this to get a good, rich red dye. They grow them in big stands east of Lannisport for the textile trade."

 

The smallfolk clustered around them began to murmur, their expressions dark. One of them, a big man with streaks of soot on his chest and arms, brought his fist to land hard against the calloused palm of his left hand. The ugly oath that left his mouth came with a slow shake of his head, and a snort that wouldn't have been out of place amongst a herd of infuriated aurochs.

 

"Lord Frey sold us these trees, an' there'll be one like it in every hamlet from here on to the end o' his lands." The big smith shook his head and spat. "By the Gods that Abandon and the ones that Forgive, this ain't right. We paid for'n these trees. He acted all generous-like, too, saying how it cost 'im so much to get 'im."

 

"My father has charged no-one in all of Westeros for a weirwood sapling." Lyarra said hotly, surprised when she realized more smallfolk had clustered around, until she suddenly knew why Ser Arron and Ser Daemon were standing so stiffly; they were surrounded. She ignored it, however, as she had nothing to fear. Her people had done no wrong. "The North doesn't have enough weirwoods to give one to every village, but we've sent dozens out so far to the larger keeps. I've seen the weirwood sapling we sent to the Twins. It's in their Godswood, and it's genuine."

 

Several other locals spat and the angry susurration of noise around them grew in volume. Gwyn shot Lyarra a nervous look. Her blue eyes were wide and beginning to get frightened. Lyarra, however, didn't notice. Her blood was up, and with it, her sense of justice.

 

"Listen, everyone!" Lyarra raised her voice and turned to the man who'd first approached her when she rode up, warm and wanting to express his thanks for all 'the Princess' people down in the desert’ had done for them. "Miller, you know I spoke honestly to you when I came here, yes?"

 

"You did, Princess, and we appreciate it." The man allowed, turning away from the knot of angry men he'd been gaining volume with as they all spoke, his manners rough but gently meant. "Came right up to me, you did, and said somethin' might not be right with how we're prayin' to the Old Gods and makin' 'em a new home here. You are honest people, up north and down south, as it were."

 

"We do all we can to be." Lyarra agreed. "My father, Lord Stark, came down from Winterfell to find out why we'd heard rumors of someone selling weirwoods. You said Lord Frey gave you these? We'd heard it was Lord Tully, but he told my father he knows nothing of it."

 

"Lord Tully?" The Miller snorted. "The old sod's too proud to come out o' his castle and consort with the rabble, let alone the Old Gods. He'd never sell smallfolk nothin'. If he weren't ignoring us, he'd be gifting us to show how fine he is. He ain't the sort to try and profit off o' us through the gods, though."

 

"Whatever you're about to say, don't." Lyarra muttered to Gwyn, who closed her mouth and held both her hands up, and then Lyarra turned back to the Miller. "So it was Lord Frey?"

 

"'Twas one o' the lot of 'em from the castle." The Miller rubbed a hand over his face. "I was working, you know, so I wasn't there when the tree came. Sandyman, what works down by Burnt Branch, was who took it. Tom, where's Sandy now?"

 

"Aw, he's on his farm, where else?" Tom, a tall, thin man with a woodsman's worn but well-honed axe balanced on his shoulder, huffed. "He don't come to the village for just about anything, but he can grow corn from bare rock and smell a flood coming."

 

"S'why we made sure he took the tree." The Miller explained, his expression grieved. "We wanted to take care of it proper, you understand, and old Sandy's place is the best farm that ain't Quality that's about these parts. He's even got a small glass house to grow things. That's where he kept the tree when it was a tiny thing. It only grew hardy enough for us to dare plant it a couple of moons ago."

 

Lyarra got directions to Sandyman's place. She worked hard to convince the angry villagers not to do anything about their grievance with Lord Frey. They were angry, she could tell, and it was the kind of anger that grew all by itself and could easily run rampant.

 

She didn't want to risk the villagers getting hurt or causing the kind of disturbance that turned into chaos and panic. To avoid that, she emphasized that Lord Stark would see justice done for the insult to the Old Gods, and in this case that would mean people either losing their head or going to the Wall. They were satisfied by that idea, but wanted to see it happen, which Lyarra was loathe to promise given that she didn't know what Edmure Tully would do when he arrived.

Gwyn jumped in, however, and promised that nothing would be resolved without word being sent around. Instead she urged the villagers to take a different course. Lyarra listened closely, and hoped that her friend wasn't about to get them into more rather than less trouble. They were just supposed to be looking right now.

 

"The Lords will be expecting you to cause trouble. Don't give them what they want, or they'll be at your necks with swords and knights just to put the fear of them into you." Gwynn had advised. "Don't give the Freys the satisfaction or the chance to make an example out of anyone, or turn your Lord Paramount against you. Let Lord Stark put Ice to someone's neck. When Lord Edmure Tully's sitting in judgement, you can send a delegation to express your grievances."

 

" Expressing our grievances didn't do us much good with Hoster Tully when we heard the Old Gods had sent a way to stop the plague down from the mountains and only the Quality was getting it." The Miller spat, but then breathed out and looked at Lyarra with the same almost awed expression of gratitude he'd first directed at her when he'd seen the Martell Sun and Spear on Ser Daemon's armor. "You ain't a Tully, though, that's for sure."

 

"You have my word as a Stark," Lyarra promised. How long had she wanted to be able to say those words? "And as a Princess of House Martell, that we'll send for you. If you miss anything, it will be because there's trouble that we can't wait on taking care of."

 

"That's fair." The Miller replied, and there was a general rumble of agreement and approval from the crowd. "Princess, we'll do just as you say. I'll send a boy from my shop up to the Twins. He'll be lingering at the pay stable in the trader's tent village that's on the east side. You can't miss 'em, he's got more freckles than sense and his hair's red as they come. If trouble does come, he'll run down here fast as a dam breaking."

 

"I'll keep him in mind."

 

"You do that." The Miller said earnestly. "We ain't about to forget our friends in these parts, and Dorne's been a friend to us. Just cause we got no swords don't mean we've no weapons. A scythe'll take a man in half as easy as any sword, a pitchfork'll stab, and nobody knows their way 'round a hammer like a smith."

 

Lyarra thanked them again and led her party back towards the horses tied at the edge of the infant godswood. She couldn't get through without the crowd murmuring their thanks for the inoculation, though. She found herself required to press hands and offer kind words just to move, but she didn't mind. If anything, she was humbled by the experience. It was one thing to know what the plague had done south of the Neck, it was another to hear and see it. There wasn't a family that hadn't lost an elder or a child, and all around were widows and widowers who'd had to remarry in haste to keep their surviving children cared for and fed.

 

"I'll never understand how anyone was hoarding the goats." Lyarra muttered once she'd accepted a leg up onto Ash from Ser Arron. "It's not like you need to be innoculated more than once, and the whole thing takes maybe five minutes. You tie the goat, you stick it with the block with pins in it, you get stuck with it, and then you come down with the goatscale rash. You can cover a lot of ground and a lot of people fast."

 

"That's how Prince Doran saw things." Ser Daemon agreed, his tone becoming disgusted as he looked around. "My Prince was mocked for finding peace after the Rebellion, and his brother applauded for his bravery for trying to start a second war. Prince Doran isn't a coward, though, he just understands the cost and won't demand that others pay it for him. A prince isn't a god and he knows it."

 

"And now he practically is one." Gwyn observed quietly, settled comfortably on her reliable brown and white rouncey, Patches.

 

Patches was as solid a mare as anyone could wish. If Lyarra's Ash was simply beautiful in her flea-bitten gray coloring, then Patches was the definition of a workhorse. Solid without being heavy, tall without being out of the ordinary, the rouncey had proven herself over the years as an animal that could do any task. She was trained to ride. Patches could be hitched to a cart and wouldn't complain. If she hadn't much spirit, she also never spooked, and she treated all her riders gently no matter their skill or lack of it.

 

Patches was currently demonstrating her better disposition as Ash danced in place, wanting to run despite the bad ground. Everything was all-over mud right now. Lyarra didn't mind being a mess after a ride, but she drew the line at risking her neck and took Ash in hand so the dancing stopped as the rest of the party mounted.

 

"Unlike our other prince, it won't go to his head." Ser Arron noted and Lyarra felt her lips turn up in a tiny smile despite the seriousness of the situation.

 

"You're sure you're well, Princess?" Ser Daemon asked, frowning. "You were a bit pale this morning.”

 

"Compared to you, I'm always a bit pale." Lyarra joked and rolled her eyes. "Even you're tanning, Gwyn."

 

"Wait till we're farther south." Gwyn observed with a grin as one of the guards took the lead and they headed out to find Burnt Branch Farm. "I won't get as dark as Ser Arron or the Prince, but I used to get as dark as Ser Daemon."

 

Ser Daemon Sand had hair the color of his surname. His skin was a deep honey-gold, and his eyes a clear blue a few shades lighter than Gwyn's. Lyarra had been surprised to see the variety of appearances amongst the Dornish, and then been treated to a full explanation of the varying origins of the people in her lessons.

 

That had been fun. Lyarra had watched as it devolved into an argument between Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria about the Dayne family's coloring. Because it endured no matter who they married, unlike the Valyrians who they resembled but didn't share blood with, as they were of the First Men despite the resemblance. Oberyn had told her later that arguing about the Dayne family looks was a fallback for when gossip was thin.

 

"In Lannisport." Ser Daemon couldn't resist prompting and the easy expression of sharp intelligence and false innocence that had settled onto Gwyn's face since they left the castle on their mission dropped away into her now habitual blank look instead.

 

Lyarra shot him a sharp look and the knight had the grace to appear genuinely guilty. Then again that may have had less to do with Lyarra's expression than the way Ser Arron glared or the fact that Ghost, who'd shadowed Lyarra all through the day, decided that it was time to spook Ser Daemon's horse. The Sand let out a series of curses as his horse lurched off the road and into the brush in response to the young direwolf's choice to snap in its direction. He caught up a few minutes later, but stayed on the opposite side of the party from where Ghost ran at Ash's heels.

 


 

"A most interesting display with your grandson in the yard. One would have almost thought Ser Aenys a match for Black Walder."

 

Lord Stevron Frey stifled the urge to groan at the Viper's sardonic observation. For once, for once, his grandson had listened precisely to instructions. Then Black Walder had even followed them. However, in doing his great-uncle no harm, Black Walder had also made Aenys look like more of a swordsman than he was.

 

It made sense that the Viper would catch it. The question now was to answer with a carefully constructed lie, or lead with the truth. Stevron considered what he was about to do and decided on the truth. It was best to keep the air clear between conspirators, and that was what he was about to ask the Prince of Dorne to become.

 

"I needed an excuse for him to leave the Twins in a temper that wouldn't rile anyone up too much." Stevron gestured towards the seats in front of his own small solar's warm fire and took one for himself. "He's off to find Edmure Tully and rush him here, as he seems to be taking his sweet time."

 

That prompted a pair of black eyebrows to rise towards the man's hairline and Stevron reflected that it was unfair that a man recently turned forty should look closer to two-and-thirty. He'd always seemed older than he was. Here sat before him a man who was older than his goodfather and yet passed for younger. The Gods were truly generous with their favorites, weren't they? If, for some reason, they liked this snake, then perhaps he could at least benefit from it.

 

"Not a direction I would expect Black Walder Frey to ride. I had gathered he disliked his future Lord Paramount."

 

"My grandson is long past the point where it is time he grew up." This part required no acting; his grief was genuine. "My eldest grandson died last night, along with one of my younger bastard brothers."

 

"I'm sorry to hear that." Prince Oberyn replied levelly. "However did an accident befall them in so safe a castle?"

 

"Lightning strike outside during the storm." Stevron leaned back and laid out his own hand. "I believe you shall hear of it shortly, in some form at least. Lord Stark's men are even now surreptitiously poking around the field where it happened."

 

The Red Viper said nothing, just watched him with steady black eyes. Given that the man was still wearing the light armor and sword he'd been sparring in, Stevron was all too aware that he had to take care. He was not so much younger than the Yronwood Lord who the man had earned his moniker by poisoning into a slow death so many years previously. This wasn't Lord Stark, who'd hesitate to strike a man old enough to be his father. Then again, the fact that he was not Stark was the very reason that Stevron was approaching the Dornish Prince.

 

"Your Grace, let's speak plainly." Stevron stated and crossed his hands over his belly, interlacing his slowly twisting knuckles. "You aren't here for any particular purpose. You were wed by the Gods' design and none of your own, and I imagine all you wished to do was collect the young lady and then return to Sunspear. It was the King's interference that brought you south, and now it's Lord Stark's honor and Lady Stark's connection to the Riverlands that has held you here at the Twins when you'd have rather left yesterday at first light and called it done."

 

"You possess a unique ability to know a man so well with whom you've barely exchanged words, Ser Stevron."

 

Stevron was the oldest of too many children. Sarcasm was easy to ignore. Instead he merely smiled back, thinly.

 

"I have an active imagination, Your Grace."

 

"Perhaps then, you might imagine why I am in no hurry to leave when your delightful peasantry already view me and mine House in such a handsome light." The Viper observed in his thick Dornish accent, lightly brushing some yard dust from one knee with casual insolence. "After all, only a poor friend would allow his new acquaintances to be cheated, would he not?"

 

That was a threat that Stevron hadn't anticipated, and it made his blood run cold. The peasantry was a matter he hadn't considered. They did think that the sun shined out of House Martell's ass. It was the understandable result of the inoculation and how it had gotten to the smallfolk in the first place.

 

Stevron had ignored them utterly in his plot to keep himself and his line in possession of the Twins, for they hardly seemed important. The smallfolk vastly outnumbered them however, and at the end of the day, they relied upon them for their lives and their wealth. Nothing was more potentially damaging than unrest amongst the peasantry. Stevron couldn't imagine why his smallfolk would be angry, unless somehow the Viper was stirring them up again over the fact that Stevron's father had traded the goats he'd gotten from the North away for favors from other Houses…

 

"I'll admit that you have me at a loss, Prince Oberyn. How have my smallfolk been cheated?"

 

The younger man observed him for a moment. His black eyes were sharp and searching. For once Stevron was able to simply leave his expression open. His confusion was entirely genuine.

 

"Almost every village within a two hour ride of the Twins has a newly planted godswood. Each godswood I entered had an infantile, faceless heart tree for which the villagers paid dearly. Right now, mine own wife and a member of her household are out with guards assessing whether these heart trees are genuine." The Prince finally spoke, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. "Tell me, Ser Stevron, do you believe the smallfolk will be happy with the results?"

 

"Whoever is behind this." Stevron's blood ran as cold as the voice in which he answered the Viper's statement. "Lord Stark can have their head. You have my word as a knight, Your Grace, that I knew nothing of the selling of false weirwoods to our own people."

 

"And their sale in the Reach and Westerlands?"

 

"A wagon load left a fortnight before your arrival bound for the Stormlands as well." Stevron allowed. "I had it stopped and its contents burned. Black Walder took care of that for me as well. Those before, I did not feel myself in a position to stop due to my father's support."

 

"Black Walder is an obedient grandson."

 

"When it's his neck on the line, yes."

 

"And when it's someone else's?"

 

"Then that's far preferable to everyone's ." Stevron sat forward. "Let's speak plainly, Prince Oberyn. My family was halved by the plague. You know the sense of grief and anger such loss brings, and that foolish choices might be made in those moments."

 

He got no response, but Stevron wasn't going to give up just because of a set of black, reptilian eyes that refused to be read.

 

"Mayhaps, in a happier family, all would have pulled together in their grief and grown stronger. Ours is not a happy family."

 

"So I'd gathered from Fat Walda. Such a charming name to assign a young girl."

 

Stevron rubbed a hand over his face. This wasn't going as he hoped. Why he hadn't imagined he'd be mocked he did not know. It was the man's favorite sport now that it seemed the infamous seducer of a Dornish ass was denied the joys of whores of either gender.

 

"Since the plague came through, all everyone has tried to do was gain traction on everyone else, and with Father having survived again, they're getting desperate." Stevron breathed out. "Every year they grow closer to Lord Walder's death, and most know that with my father's death I'll have them out on their asses as soon as I can. It's long past the time, Prince Oberyn, that House Frey had a cleaning."

 

"On that, we can both agree." Prince Oberyn sat back and mirrored Stevron's posture, lacing his hands together, but lounging with more comfort than Stevron was capable of and throwing one long leg over the arm of his chair. "Allow me to speak plainly as well. You're suggesting a deal where we, how shall we put it?"

 

"Throw my more repugnant kin to the wolves?" Stevron suggested dryly.

 

" Apt ." The Viper allowed with a thin-lipped smile beneath the sharp lines of his black mustache. "You wish to exchange their fate for your place as Lord Frey."

 

"And the protection of my line and a few other innocent parties."

 

"You are aware that Hoster Tully will be practically giddy with joy at the idea of supplanting your family from this seat? I have no authority to sway your Lord Paramount's will."

 

"And that Lord Stark will want all of us punished for the insult to his Gods, yes." Stevron agreed. "I am asking you to intercede on our behalf, and trusting that Edmure Tully will be more reasonable than his father. Given the other rumors at hand, Hoster Tully will be hesitant to extend himself too far or too publicly."

 

" Why should I do this?"

 

"Three reasons." Stevron held up one hand and pointed them out.

"First, it will get you out of the Twins and the Riverlands fastest and with least effort. If our House is to be removed from power, it will not happen overnight. It will require risk, and there will be a siege and military action. You never intended to travel through this part of Westeros, let alone get caught up in a small war over some sacred Northern trees and an angry peasantry, Prince Oberyn."

 

"Second, it will reflect well on House Martell. Your arrival generally brings chaos wherever you go, Prince Oberyn, or at least your reputation would have it so. Now, instead, I would let it be known that you were instrumental in maintaining the peace. House Martell would look even better by default."

 

"And third?"

 

"You may be kin to Lord Stark now, but you're no friend of his House." Stevron finished. "Not after he turned aside and let Lord Robert shield your sister and her children's murderers during the war. This will allow you to be reasonable and still thwart the man's overdeveloped and absolute sense of honor."

 

"Good reasons all." The younger man admitted pleasantly and then slowly sat forward, like his namesake coiling for a strike. "They do not, however, tell me what I would get out of this situation. Beyond, of course, a boost to my personal reputation that I might not need. Have you considered that some men enjoy infamy, Ser Stevron?"

 

"Having never been infamous, I would not know. Mayhaps my grandson could speak on the subject." Stevron shrugged and and reached for a fallback plan he'd been loathe to employ. "If you desire more direct payment… My brother Emmon was married to Genna Lannister for a long time, and dwelt in Casterly Rock for many years, before the plague took him because the idiot was afraid of the inoculation."

 

The Viper froze and Stevron knew he had his undivided attention.

 

"And what , might I ask, could your late and apparently unlamented brother have heard or known during his marriage that might sway me to your side?"

 

Here was where Stevron knew it grew tricky. He didn't dare claim knowledge he did not have. He couldn't, however, make it sound like he didn't know enough to be useful. It was a fine razor's edge to walk.

 

"I do not know who murdered your sister or Prince Aegon, but I know that there was a minor knight of House Lorch who has bragged of murdering the Princess Rhaenys."

 

The man went very still, and silent for long enough that Stevron genuinely began to worry.

 

"House Lorch is a large house, much scattered. Have you nothing more specific ?"

 

"My late brother was far too afraid of his wife and Lord Tywin to tell me more; he was in his cups when he said that much." Ser Stevron breathed out, feeling he'd made his point. "I won't invent information to benefit myself when a man's death is the end result, and we both know it will be, Prince Oberyn. I will say that you've a lady amongst your party who was much thrown in with Casterly Rock's servants, and Emmon made much of the gossip that went on behind the Lannisters' backs because they were too good to go down to the kitchens or the char rooms and find out."

 

" That I can believe." Prince Oberyn sneered and then stood. "The Lady Gwyn is no one's business but my wife's and mine; she's a member of our household and inviolate as such. As to the rest?"

 

Stevron didn't hold his breath during the gap. He had some dignity. He did, however, wait patiently for the man's sense of drama to be appeased.

 

"Be specific as to what you wish to happen in this transfer of power, and who are the guilty parties. I'll take that information to my goodfather, and we shall proceed from there with the punishment of your House's brand of mercenary heretics."

 

"As you wish, Your Grace, thank you." Stevron agreed and stood as well, offering his hand.

He was gratified when the Red Viper shook it, but less gratified by what he said afterward.

 

"You do realize that there is one problem with your plan that you have not thought around. Lord Stark and I both owe your father guest right. I will make no action against him under his roof while I have shared his bread and salt, and Lord Stark most certainly shall apply to the same."

 

"I have no objections to having more time to organize this." Stevron all but wilted in relief. "You're not expected to stay past tonight. Surprise my father by taking your leave early. Your wife was riding. She can declare the roads well-cleared after the storm, you can prepare your party to go, and then return with Lord Edmure. I'll make sure we open the gates and all can be arranged beforehand if Lord Stark will consent to speak on the subject tonight."

 

"I'll speak to him directly." The Dornishman rose and Stevron shoved himself up from his seat, ignoring the pain in his knees, to offer him a grateful bow.

 


 

"Whatever you're about to say, I'm not going to like it." Ned predicted as he looked up from where he was mopping at Arya's face with a clean rag.

 

He'd taken her to the Prince's solar simply because it was the largest clear space and Nymeria was in a mood. The young she-wolf was prowling around growling beneath her breath and giving every evidence of oncoming violence. Thankfully Bran's pup was yet a bit larger than Nymeria, for he was shadowing his sister. The unnamed beast with its gray fur far tawnier than the moonlit color of Arya's partner stayed just far enough back that he would not get snapped at, but close enough to make it clear Nymeria would get tackled to the ground if she misbehaved.

 

"Probably not." Prince Oberyn observed. "Lady Arya, whatever trouble did you manage to get into, and why was I not invited?"

 

"No time." His daughter grunted as Ned made another pass and wiped away the mix of mud and blood on her face, revealing clean skin and relieving him that her nose had not been broken. "One of the weaselings insulted Lyarra for being born a bastard, but I fixed him!"

 

Ned sighed and tried to stifle the mix of pride, love, and old pain that raced through him. Lyarra looked like her mother, but it was Arya who'd inherited the wolf's blood that made Lyanna who she was. So much of Lyarra was tied up in that quiet sweetness that ran through her. One Ned knew everyone attributed to him, but had been a dragon's gift instead.

 

Besides, Ned resented being called sweet . He'd never been girlish or any such nonsense. He'd just been reasonable . In contrast with Brandon's constantly running off to cause havoc and Robert's boastful rowdiness, he supposed that the mistake was understandable.

 

" Good !" Oberyn observed in the gap, stepping forward. "I approve, though mayhaps you could do it with a bit more dignity. You look and smell as though you were in a pig's wallow."

 

"I pushed him into one after I walloped him with my tourney sword and Nymeria tore the seat out of his britches." Arya told him proudly before wrinkling her nose. "He splashed."

 

"Ah, well, a good thing to remember for the future remonstrance of your enemies. For now, a bath will answer nicely."

 

Arya's eyes widened tragically in protest.

 

"A bath." Ned agreed in his most fatherly voice and watched as the Red Viper reached out and caught his daughter under the armpits, grinning at her.

 

Holding her well away from himself, the prince marched her to the door where he handed her to a waiting guard and made her need of a thorough washing clear. The guard received Arya with a broad grin. The sound of his daughter recounting her victory to warmly laughter from the approving warrior was all it took to rest his soul a little on the subject of her loss. Ned would suffer for sending Arya to Dorne, but he knew she'd flourish there. He was again tortured with the thought of his father's shortsightedness. If only there'd been a Dornish betrothal in Lyanna's future, maybe his sister wouldn't have run away with that silver-tongued idiot…

 

"Wherever your mind goes when you make that face, I know not why you keep returning; it looks not the least bit pleasant."

 

"You're about the same age, though, so Father's lived through everything you have." Bran, who'd been sitting and patiently waiting with a book in front of the fire, finally spoke. "So I don't know how he'd go somewhere you couldn't go in his mind."

 

Ned jolted out of his revere to find that Nymeria had padded after her person, apparently in a better mood now that Arya's temper had abated with Oberyn's praise of her bravery. The Viper had some uses, after all. As it was, his face grew dark again at Bran's words, but he gave a short nod.

 

"You'll make a fine knight, young Lord Bran, and a wise one. Though I would point out that no two men carry the same memories, no matter how similar in age." The Viper looked down to smile at Ned's son. "That is the book of tales Lyarra chose to bring with her, yes?"

 

"They're Old Nan's stories!" Bran Stark beamed up at him. "I hadn't realized that Lyarra wrote them all down."

 

"Well, we shall have to have copies made then, so that the Tales of the North can be better heard in Dorne. We are now kin, yes?"

 

"That's a great idea." Bran enthused. "Could you send us tales from Dorne, too? You have to have your own stories. Well not your stories, though your personal stories are wonderful, Prince Oberyn. I mean Dornish legends. Since we're family we should learn them too."

 

Ned praised Cat for having passed on some of her diplomacy to their offspring. The Gods knew he'd had little enough to pass on. As it was, the Viper's smile was entirely genuine as he nodded in agreement at the idea. Ned took the opportunity to reclaim Lyarra's book and send Bran off with one of his own people who was waiting in the hallway. Strictly speaking, Ned had suspended his lessons somewhat, but there was a sheet of sums he knew waiting for Bran's attention and it would keep the boy busy while he saw what had brought the Viper in search of him. Because while Ned might have technically taken over the man's own quarters, he knew from the Viper's expression that his presence there was no surprise.

 

"Tell me, precisely how much of a bloody, volatile mess you want to make while handling the weirwood issue?" The Viper's first words didn't disappoint, and Ned scowled. "Before I move forward, I need an estimate of the human suffering you want to incur before any plans are made."

 

"I don't wish any suffering." Ned glared back, annoyed at the flippancy even as he realized he was being riled on purpose. "So you can cease the dramatics and tell me what you've done now."

 

"You don't know me well enough to take that tone with me, Lord Stark, you've at least three more years before you earn such exasperation."

 

"Your capacity to annoy me, Your Grace, exceeds the bounds of time."

 

"Oh Ned, you say the sweetest things!"

 

"Should I come back later?"

 

Ser Deziel Dalt's dry comment from the doorway sparked a laugh from the Prince and Ned glowered at both of the Dornishmen.

 

"The Princess' party has been spotted, they're maybe fifteen minutes away."

 

"Good." Ned said at the same time that the Viper scowled in displeasure.

 

"Do not escort my wife to the tower. Have her wait and meet me in the stables. Make some excuse with the horses, but keep her there and double the guards." Oberyn Martell's humor vanished completely, revealing the competent man that hid beneath the mountain of annoyance that made up his exterior. "Alert the rest to be ready for what we discussed previously."

 

"Yes, Your Grace."

 

"What exactly was discussed , Prince Oberyn?" Ned asked with quiet insistence as he realized just how much time and useful discussion might have been lost to the man's need to bait him. "What is going on and what has it to do with Lyarra or the weirwood rumors? She was going to see whether the village heart trees were false, nothing more. We are in Lord Frey's home under guest right ."

 

"I'm not unaware of that, Lord Stark. These are precautions for my wife's safety, in case Lord Frey's grasp of ethics is no better than Twyin Lannister's." Oberyn Martell stepped forward. "To be blunt and swift about it, Stevron Frey admitted that some of his family cooked this plot up and framed Hoster Tully for it. The trees came from the Westerlands, as Lady Gwyn thought they might, and are being grown in that field your men found earlier. Last night Stevron Frey's heir and eldest grandson died of lightning strike while trying to hide it, as did one of the natural born sons of Lord Frey. Stevron's had enough of shielding the others because of kinship and wishes this resolved."

 

"He wishes to escape punishment for his involvement, you mean." Ned felt his own temper flare. "Have you any idea what they have done? They've cast the honor of the entire North - all of my people! - in doubt. They've sullied mine own wife's name in Winterfell and amongst my bannermen. They've drawn her father's name into some plot to profit from our Gods - the same Gods who were driven north with fire and hangings when the Andals came with their bloody Seven - and risked her safety and our standing-."

 

"I know what they've done. Do you think that in the years since I've served as my brother's sword arm in Dorne, I've never had to answer for having Doran's name smeared?" Prince Oberyn countered, his expression fierce and, to Ned's surprise, slightly tired. "Now Doran's rule is unquestioned and every peasant in Westeros loves to hear his name, but it was not always so. Dorne is no easy place to rule from a wheeled chair. Or did you think that I seldom left Dorne after my sister's death only because my brother wouldn't trust my temper?"

 

Ned fell silent and then breathed out.

 

"Doran's health has not been poor so long as that."

 

"No, but someone had to stay with him as Mellario grew more and more unreasonable over the responsibilities of a prince. Do you think it is easy to rule when your wife extorts your cooperation in family matters by threatening her own life?" The words hissed from between the Viper's teeth, and afterwards Ned could see the man wished he could snatch them back out of the air from the way his jaw tightened. "None of that has anything to do with this. Stark, there are some fifty-eight left of House Frey, not counting current pregnancies or small children. Eighteen of those grown are women. Some are wives whose families will not take them back as widows. Others are widowed and childless daughters sent back to the Twins. Do you wish to see them cast out with no protection after we ride to Riverrun and drop this in Hoster Tully's hands?"

 

That left a sour taste in Ned's mouth and he breathed out, pushing his temper aside. Eighteen noblewomen with nowhere to go was a unique problem in any situation other than open warfare. In the south there was at least the Seven and their Septs to count on. Now many of those had closed. With the Faith refusing the inoculation and calling it heresy until the very end when the Plague was almost spent, entire religious houses stood empty and barren because all inside had turned to stone. The ladies of House Frey, if cast out, would find no comfort there. Nor could the Faith of the Seven really afford to support a whole cast out house; not when so many lords were moving to the Old Gods, where there were no tithes and their smallfolk would look upon them more kindly.

 

"How many children?" Ned wanted to know. " Minor children, too young to squire or arrange a fostering or some trade for?"

 

"Mayhaps a dozen or more. I'm not sure. House Frey has been trying to make up for its losses, it seems, and some of those about may be natural born." The Viper pulled a face and then threw himself into a chair. "I'm not asking that there be no punishment. Stevron Frey has offered the names of twelve of those heading the plot, including the four ringleaders. He is willing to depose his own father. He'll make no protest for up to six of those guilty going under your sword or Lord Edmure Tully's, but he asks that the others be allowed to take the Black if they so choose."

 

"And that is all?"

 

"No, he offers reparations as well. The village heart trees he seems to have been personally unaware of, but he's promised full reimbursement to the smallfolk. The Houses in the Reach and villages elsewhere will all be paid back as well, along with a generous amount given to both Lord Tully and your Lady wife to apologize for the slights you have suffered."

 

"I would prefer a set toll rate for traffic to and from the North."

 

Oberyn looked at him in surprised admiration.

 

"Then you will have to speak to him of it, but I think you'll find him amenable. The man wants to keep his birthright and his neck intact. Also, I know not how, but Stevron Frey seems a reasonable man despite the creature who begat him. He's agreed for us to speak to him today to form a plan, then ride out this evening with our parties. Guest Right will be severed and, with luck, we will come upon Edmure Tully quickly and you may convince him that this is the correct course. Then Ser Stevron shall let Tully's men and ours into the Twins, help us take his family in custody, judgement can be rendered by the Lord Paramount of the Riverland's Heir, and we can get on with this ridiculous and unwanted trip to King's Landing!"

 

Anything less than full satisfaction and the fall of the House stuck in Ned's craw, but the obvious irritation of the man he was speaking to helped him relax away from his own temper. He shuddered to think of what it would mean to actually disinherit a House so large as the Freys. Finding some honorable way to settle the women alone would be a nightmare in logistics and cost. Ned knew that Hoster Tully would be eager to throw the Freys out, but he also knew that with his goodfather's reputation already so smeared, he couldn't be seen as showing greater cruelty to innocent women. He couldn't imagine the Lord of the Trident would wish to spend his later years finding situations for an army of weasel-faced women.

 

"I will speak to Lord Stevron myself before any agreement is reached. I will give my word on no agreement unless my goodbrother stands beside me as his father's voice and agrees to all of it." He cautioned and got a reasonable, serious nod in return for once.

 

" Done ." The Viper rose. "I can take you to Ser Stevron as soon as I get Lyarra settled and preparing my household to leave this place. He's waiting, and Lord Edmure should be close, Gods willing, and we can leave and meet him on the road so this can be resolved. Ser Stevron was desperate enough to send Black Walder out with a letter for your goodbrother."

 

"So that's the reason for that commotion in the yard this morning?" Ned recalled being jarred out of a meeting with his own men by the sound of swords clashing.

 

"Yes, though everyone else is simply to think that Black Walder lost his temper over his brother's death. Aenys Frey is apparently the man behind the weirwood plot now that Emmon Frey's in his tomb."

 

Ned's temper flared even as he felt a well of satisfaction. It was satisfaction that came with teeth of its own, however. He'd spent too many days and nights stewing in fury at the idea of his wife suffering in silence as she lost face she'd worked so many years to build amongst his people. Now he had a name to set to the shadowy sense of anger and injustice he'd had to deal with for too long.

 

Cat yet lived, however, and she was there for him to love in spirit if not currently in the flesh. Ned held his own names on the tip of his tongue, held back by an oath he hadn't want to give to a man who was his brother in all but name. Knowing what Oberyn had to feel, with Lyanna already on his mind given Arya's earlier actions, and everything else…

 

"I'm doing you an injustice and I know it, Your Grace." Ned finally spoke through the silence he'd maintained as much for his own sense of justice - did he not deserve to deal with the man's anger and sharp-edged tongue after utterly failing to prevent Princess Elia's murder or that of her children? - as a way to keep himself from throttling his unwanted goodson.

 

"Prince Oberyn… it means little and I can promise you nothing, but I plan to tax the King with what was done to your sister and her children in King's Landing. You have little reason to believe it, but Robert has ever been a good man at heart. I told him the oath was wrong when he swore me to it, and it's been years. I would have you know I will do all in my power to be released from it, and when I am, I shall do all in my power to see that an accounting is made for the evils of the siege."

 

There was a long and tense moment of silence during which Ned decided he'd have better relied on his strengths and kept his mouth shut, at least until Prince Oberyn spoke.

 

"Do you honestly believe a man who referred to innocent children as dragonspawn will be so moved?" His tone was cutting and his anger deep, but underneath it was a kind of shock, as if he were marveling at Ned's stupidity.

 

He wouldn't be the first, Ned thought wryly. Too many people equated honor with idiocy. As though making the right choice somehow doomed you.

 

"Aye, if he can be made to see sense." Ned argued. "Robert is my dearest friend. He made me swear that oath when he was injured, in pain, and furious at all around him. He's lost children of his own now. I will speak to him, and I believe he will see reason. That he will see what's just."

 

"And if he does not?"

 

"He has to." Ned said because deep down, in the darkest places underneath his skin, he didn't know what he'd do if Robert still couldn't see his way to finding this one small piece of justice for a group of people so long dead they couldn't possibly do his reign any harm.

 

The Prince scoffed, but Ned thought he saw some change in the man's posture. He wasn't sure if it was a sign of him working harder to quell his temper than he normally did. It might have even been some sign that Ned's words had pierced the righteous fury that blinded the man to his own behavior as much as Ned's own beliefs had ever blinded him.

 

"Your ill-spoken oath forbids you from giving me names. Might it allow you to confirm one I already know?"

 

"Gwyn spoke?" Ned was shocked.

 

Oberyn's endless black eyes sharpened.

 

"While it's very kind of you to verify that Lady Gwyn does know that which I seek." Ned silently cursed himself as the man spoke. "No. She's said nothing. Stevron Frey offered me some information in return for carrying this offer to you. He told me that a knight of House Lorch murdered Rhaenys."

 

Ned's breath caught in his throat, but one of the iron bands wrapping around his chest where his sense of honor stood bound by his oath loosened.

 

" Aye ." Ned swallowed. "He's neither wrong nor lying. That much I feel free in telling you."

 

The man's expression was as dangerous and sharp as the spear he carried and Oberyn nodded as he stood, adjusting his sword belt and the leather and copper armor he wore when sparring as he rose from his chair. Straightening his armor as he stood, Ned repeated the gesture with his clothing. Prince Oberyn cast a look over him as he did so and Ned gave him a narrow-eyed stare, waiting for whatever sally or - worse - compliment might follow. The man lived to dismay him, after all.

 

"I'll get Lyarra then and get my party underway. You need to get into your own armor just in case and ready your people."

 

"Aye." Ned agreed with a quick nod, then paused, scowling. "Lyarra won't stay in the stable long, and we've spoken for longer than I intended. I'll get my armor and make it known we'll soon take leave of our host. You shall join me?"

 

"Yes, first we speak to Lord Stevron. Then we'll observe our courtesies to the Late Lord Frey one last time. The next time he sees us we'll not be so welcome."

 

Ned agreed and they spent another moment discussing how and where to place their men just in case the Freys made a move before they were ready. Then Ned went to get his armor and Ice. He had a good knife on him and a throwing axe, but he'd feel better with his family's ancestral sword in his hands.

 

As to the Viper, as little as he liked the man more often than not, he had no doubt that he'd use the spear he'd picked up from its place against the wall, and use it well, if called upon to protect Lyarra. Ultimately, for all his worries, Ned had to admit that the Gods had not done badly by him. Barring complications, the man could at least keep her safe, and wasn't that the thing he'd wanted most from any husband he chose for Lyarra?

 


 

It fit with Oberyn's experience of things going to Hell that they would be crossing the Great Hall to make their farewells to Lord Walder Frey when several members of that House lost their minds. They'd sent word that they were preparing to go now that the roads were known to be passable to a wheelhouse. Walder Frey had received word that they were leaving and accepted it, asking them to briefly break bread with him before they left, as was customary.

 

Oberyn took Lyarra with him. He could think of no excuse to omit her and where Lyarra went, Lady Gwyn insistently and silently followed. Lady Jynessa and Lady Myria could, reasonably, be preparing to leave. Bran and Arya could be sent with the same excuses, and so that they would not disturb the conversation of the adults. That put them amidst the bulk of their party. Oberyn chose to have Ser Arron, Ser Daemon, Ser Deziel, and Ser Ulwyck with him. Behind Lord Stark walked four guards of his own, carefully chosen.

 

None of them got to say anything, of course. That was the difference between a tourney and a real fight. One was staged. The other happened. Even the Weasel Lord himself could only cry out in dismay as a tall, gray, round-shouldered, bald man with a rat-tailed beard that Oberyn recognized as Aenys Frey shoved his way through his crowd of relatives with several armed men at his back and then surged forward to attack.

 

Oberyn shoved Lyarra behind him automatically, moving her within the circle of his men. His wife had changed into a gown for this final, formal courtesy before they departed and left the rules of guest right behind. It was a very northern gown, however, and suitably practical. The gray dress went only to her ankles, didn't encumber her movement, and its long sleeves were unornamented and followed her arms closely with no trailing ends to grab. Likewise, Lyarra had Gwyn draw her hair back into a single braid, securing the curls by winding stout white ribbons through the plait.

 

Most importantly for Oberyn's piece of mind, however, the sword he'd given her, with the amber teardrop nestled in the crossguard and the winding line of tiny garnets spiraling down the hilt, was belted firmly at his wife's waist. Oberyn had no intention of having her fight. That did not mean he didn't want her prepared for it. He'd even made sure Ser Arron pressed a dagger into Lady Gwyn's hands for her to slip into her own belt of brass rings wound through with multi-colored ribbons. He had no idea if the girl could use it, but better to have it than not.

 

"A fine farewell House Frey offers!" Oberyn smiled past the sword he crossed with a tall, stout man with more brawn than speed or wit.

 

"Fine words from a snake who would plot against his host!"

 

"I offered and will offer your father no harm while under his roof."

 

It was true, if only by technicality. Either way, the man had conspired to lie and defraud his own people. Oberyn's ability to be ashamed of such actions was limited.

 

"You'll never get out from here alive." The man snarled and lunged forward.

 

He wasn't bad with the heavy two-handed blade he used, but the man had no finesse. Oberyn stepped back and to the side, feinting, and Hosteen Frey followed him doggedly. He kept up his speed, overturning a bench and leaping up upon a table to keep the big man moving, sweating, and extending himself. A few more comments revealed that he assumed that, because Oberyn preferred to fight with a spear he did not currently have with him, he wouldn't know what to do with a sword. It was easy enough to lull the man into a false sense of security by retreating.

 

He made the usual noise when Oberyn's narrower sword slid past his defenses and into the unarmored and protected gap beneath his arm. The surprised expression was mundane as well. All men looked shocked at their own death. Oberyn yanked his blade back and shoved the man to the side to fall heavily, dead of a pierced heart.

 

Behind him, he saw Ser Daemon toying with a massive, fat man in his mid-thirties. Oberyn recalled the man as being introduced as Raymund Frey. The dumb ox was gasping out invective as Daemon danced around him, subjecting him to cut after cut. Daemon, Oberyn reflected, still had his sense of the dramatic and his tender heart. He was actually giving the brute a chance to surrender.

 

Oberyn left Daemon to his prey and went instead to where Ser Arron was currently facing down two men of less than twenty. Both had leapt in unarmored and one was armed with a chair leg. The other had procured a long, curved knife and was using a piece of firewood as a shield. Neither had been part of the original armed party of Freys, and as both were more boys than men, Ser Arron was taking care as he swung his mace.

 

Oberyn drew his sword in a quick sweep across the back of one's boots, hamstringing him and drawing an agonized scream from the boy as one of his legs went limp beneath him. Kicking the knife away, he ordered the boy to stay down. The lad's brother immediately turned his back to Ser Arron and earned his own fall as the knight drove a mailed fist against the back of the boy's head. Oberyn hoped that Ser Arron had shown enough control not to leave the young fool permanently damaged.

 

Another Frey, this one Oberyn could not attach a name to, rushed him. This man had obviously come prepared. He wore a mail shirt and carried an bastard sword. He also had almost no experience with the thing, for he swung wildly and was more of a danger to those around them than he was to Oberyn himself. The Viper was all too happy to duck the man's wild swinging and slide his own blade between the man's wide-braced legs.

 

The Frey squealed in fear for his manhood, but he'd have done better to fear for his life. Oberyn drew his sword back, aiming low along the inside of his thigh. The man had worn no armor on his legs and Oberyn's sword was as sharp as a razor. It sliced through wool and flesh until it severed the big artery in the leg, and Oberyn stepped back as the man fell, grasping his thigh as his life bled away.

 

Something rebounded off Oberyn's ankle and he risked a look. Acting on instinct he kicked the rolling head away and it revolved quickly across the floor, splashing blood everywhere and prompting more hysterical screams from the clusters of women who'd become trapped in the Hall during the fighting. Oberyn did regret terrifying the ladies, though he thought that in this case his gut-reaction to kick the thing towards them should be blamed less than the man with the damned Valyrian greatsword who'd just taken Aenys Frey's head clean off his shoulders. Whatever anger Oberyn had directed at the man for having claimed to have bested the Sword of the Morning when he had not, he had to admit that Lord Eddard Stark could fight.

 

A massive clang, and the sudden hiss of rope moving quickly prompted a group of Frey men who were about to come boiling out of the seats they'd been in, to tumble to the ground instead. If they weren't injured, they were shocked into scrambling away from those who were. Not to mention the massive circle of wrought iron that had once hung above their head holding torches.

 

At the side of the hall Oberyn spotted the light reflecting of Lady Gwyn Parren's bright blonde hair as she flitted to another of the ropes holding the huge torch chandelier's aloft and sliced through it with Ser Arron's knife. Realizing that attack could now come from above, more chaos descended as everyone looked over their heads in alarm. Oberyn gestured for Ser Daemon, who'd just dispatched his own fat opponent, to go guard the girl.

 

This proved unnecessary as Oberyn saw Fat Walda standing at Gwyn's side with a large iron pan in one meaty hand. When one of her own relatives ran towards them, the girl she swung the thing with surprising force. It impacted the face of the man with a solid sound and he went down like a sack of bricks.

 

"Stop, stop you fools, stop !"

 

The shrill, frantic shrieking of an old man's croaking voice somehow penetrated the massive fight that had erupted. Oberyn looked forward in shock and felt his lips begin to turn up in delight at what he saw. One of House Frey's knights was laying at the foot of the raised dias. Ghost's jowls were bloody and the man's sword was laying feet away from his hands as he clutched at where the half-grown pup had torn the back of his knee out and then danced out of reach.

 

"All of you, stop!" Lord Walder Frey shrieked again, his rheumy eyes wide, as he demanded of his children: "You idiots , what have you done now?"

 

Princess Lyarra Martell, her hair having pulled free of her braid to form a tangled river of nearly black curls down the back of her iron gray gown, stood directly before the high seat. Lord Walder cowered upon it as she held the tip of her sword pressed to his withered old neck. How she'd gotten up there, Oberyn didn't know, but he had every intention of taking his knights to task later for their charge having slipped away. That said? The sight of his wife standing before that wrecked old cretin with blood on her sword as she held it to his throat?

 

"What in the name of the Seven is going on here?!"

 

Edmure Tully's voice thundered, as confused as the expression on his handsome face, as he stood with a large party of fully armed and armored knights at the door to the Great Hall. Ser Stevron Frey was panting at his side from apparently having run to let the young lord in. Looking over at the expression of deep disgust and affronted dignity on Lord Stark's face, Oberyn did the only thing that made the least bit of sense.

 

"Well, my Lord, we were bidding House Frey farewell." Oberyn drawled. "I'm afraid they simply could not bear to let us go!"

 


 

Lyarra had intended to demand her husband tell her if he'd known that this would happen. She wanted to go fuss at her father. She was worried that he'd been hurt, because she could see a cut through his leather vambrace. Mostly she just wanted to step back and let Edmure Tully stalk forward and take control of the room.

 

When her husband turned from addressing the man to sprint towards her, however, something else happened. Later she would firmly blame it on the wolf's blood. Obviously fighting just did things to a person. If they had Stark blood, some of those things were a little inappropriate. Robb once kissed a serving girl down in Wintertown after getting into a fight at the tavern. These things just happened .

 

"Lyarra, you're well?" Oberyn asked, sprinting towards her with an expression that was equal parts admiration and genuine concern.

 

Lyarra stepped down from the dias, removing her sword from Walder Frey's age-spotted gullet, and then she was directly in front of her husband. A husband whose dark hair and forehead was streaked with his own sweat as well as a streak of someone else's blood. His sword was still held easily in his hand, and a smattering of red droplets fell from the tip to trail him when he moved.

 

Instead of answering, Lyarra stepped forward. She just - she wanted something. She wasn't sure exactly what that was until she'd tossed her sword to Gwyn, who'd scrambled up beside her as Lord Edmure arrived. At that point, her hands were free, her husband was directly in front of her, and her body knew what she wanted to do even if her mind had yet to catch up.

 

She meant to grab him by the small of the back and drag him towards her by his belt, but Lyarra was a great deal shorter than her husband. Instead she ended up planting both hands along the curve of his ass and dragging him forward until they were pressed together. She was on her toes then, the hard bits of copper worked into his leather armor and the teeth of his scale mail digging into her chest and belly as she leaned up and he leaned down to meet her. A moment later and she'd claimed his mouth as her own.

 

She wasn't sure who bit whose lip first, but she would be forced to admit that she was definitely the one who shoved her tongue past his teeth. He was the one who let out a surprised moan and then fisted his hand in her hair, though! His other arm, still holding his sword, crossed along her back just beneath her shoulder blades to better press their bodies together. Then his tongue joined hers and Lyarra closed her eyes, suddenly, completely, and totally content to be where she was in a way she couldn't even describe.

 

That went on for a while. Lyarra wasn't sure how long. At least twice she drew back a bit to catch her breath. Oberyn chased her with his teeth and his lips and his tongue. Each time he drew her back into the kiss, and Lyarra knew she sighed and went happily, moaning her appreciation when he bit down her lower lip and mirroring the noise himself when she returned the favor.

 

" Lyarra !"

 

It was her father's pained bark of her name that shocked her out of whatever very pleasant place her riled blood had taken her. She turned to see Ned Stark's face a deep red as he stood, Ice in hand, and observed her with an expression that could only be called pained embarrassment. Around him stood his men, armed Riverrun knights, and a handsome auburn haired man in his twenties who could only be Lady Stark's brother. A handsome man, it should be added, who was looking at her with a kind of astonished admiration.

 

" Father ?" Lyarra's voice was a little hoarse as she cleared it, trying to step away from Oberyn and only then realizing she still had him by the ass. She released her husband quickly. "Are you alright, Father?"

 

"I'm fine, are you?" Her father asked gruffly, then shot Oberyn a harsh look as if blaming him for a great many things.

 

"I'm well." Lyarra answered lamely, then turned back towards her husband, suddenly worried as she reached up to brush at his hairline and the dried blood there. "My Prince?"

 

Oberyn took this as permission to slide his free arm around her waist and tuck her against his side. Lyarra felt herself blushing and realized with embarrassment that almost everyone's eyes were still on her. Doing her best to ignore the whole world, she began to gently straighten the collar protruding from her husband's armor, the shoulder guard that was out of place, and check him for injuries while she was at it.

 

"Lord Stark, Brother, mayhaps I can get a better explanation?" Lord Edmure finally drew his eyes away from Lyarra and turned towards his brother. "Ser Stevron, I happened upon a group of smallfolk gathered upon the road with scythes and other weapons. They claim that your House has been selling false weirwoods in my father's name, and that you planned ill for your guests."

 

"As you can see, they spoke the truth, my Lord." Stevron Frey breathed out, his expression grieved. "I did all I could to restrain it, but some of my family's greed outgrew my ability to control them. I am sorry."

 

"What are you talking about, Stevron?"

 

Lyarra looked up and spotted the mix of fear and slyness on old Lord Walder's face and wondered if he was even now trying to think of some way to deny his own culpability. She imagined it was likely so and was about to speak up, but Oberyn stopped her by tightening his arm around her waist in warning. She looked at her husband, but he merely shook his head once and she held her tongue. She really didn't have any idea what was going on well enough to intervene.

 

"He's talking about, Lord Walder, the field of Westerlands Dyers' Trees growing less than a quarter league from this castle's south wall." Lyarra's father's voice was full of angry judgement. "And the rumors that have come so far as Winterfell that Lady Stark, my own wife , was conspiring to steal and sell my people's sacred trees south of the Neck for profit."

 

"I've known nothing of this!" Lord Walder Frey proclaimed fairly convincingly, his expression going from tragic to furious and back again as he sank further into his chair. "Mine own children !? What proof of this do you have? Those trees were a gift from my son Emmon, so that we might break into more expensive textiles."

 

"Dyers' red is a dirt cheap color. The dye can even be dried and shipped." Gwyn countered wryly from the side and Lyarra held in a cheer at her friend's daring to step forward and speak in front of all of those surrounding them with her chin held high and her hair gleaming beneath the remaining torches overhead. "If that was Ser Emmon's purpose, then he's not one I'd trust to guide your investments, dead or yet living."

 

"If that was the case then the saplings wouldn't have passed from your children's and grandchildren's hands directly into that of your own smallfolk after they paid exorbitant sums for them." Edmure Tully frowned. "I spoke to a local miller who has the respect of most of the countryside. He corroborates Ser Stevron's story. Lord Stark, have you found the same?"

 

"We could have hardly stopped at the Twins without finding out." Lyarra's father replied harshly. "The truth was poorly concealed."

 

"This must be dealt with." Lord Edmure stated, his expression full of severe intention. It was ruined, however, when he turned to an older knight who was standing beside him in heavy gray plate. "We must deal with this."

 

It was almost as if he was asking for advice or affirmation and Lyarra held in a wince. She was no-one's idea of a leader. She'd just been a bastard daughter until the Gods had Marked her as a Dornish Prince's wife. Even she knew, however, that someone in Edmure Tully's position shouldn't be asking for anything.

 

"First we should secure the Twins, my Lord." The knight responded and Edmure nodded and turned again to Lyarra's father, then her husband, then looked between them as if trying to decide who to address first.

 

"I've concerns for my wife's health and safety." Oberyn surprised her by responding. "I would not have had her caught up in this, if I could have foreseen such an attack. If you will all forgive me, I will withdraw to make sure she is as well as she thinks herself. If you have need of me, you need only ask Lord Edmure, but this is not Dornish business."

 

"No, of course not. Please see to your wife's comfort." Edmure Tully spoke eloquently and generously as he bowed in their direction. "Your Grace."

 

Oberyn bowed back politely and Lyarra recalled that she should curtsey (though not too low for she outranked Lady Stark's brother now, she remembered from her lessons). Then Oberyn was nodding at his guards, who clustered around them. Gwyn moved forward, and with her came Ghost, who'd drifted away from where she'd taken up a position in front of Oberyn to sniff at one of the bodies now on the floor; all of them belonged to House Frey she noted in relief. Then she saw the broad figure nervously hovering at the edge of the party and made a decision.

 

"Lady Walda, please come with Lady Gwyn." Lyarra stated firmly. "I've an opening in my household and I think after today's events, that you would be most comfortable there."

 

Fat Walda Frey, ignored and mocked by her own kin, who'd come to defense of Gwyn as the first friend of similar age and rank she'd ever made in her life, stared at Lyarra in complete astonishment. Then she burst into tears. Lyarra was held too firmly at her husband's side to respond.

 

Gwyn, however, was not. The slight blonde girl stepped forward to pat the other blonde on the shoulders and nudge her forward. Then Ser Arron hung his mace on his belt and reached out to wrap his own arm comfortingly around the girl as they led her out with their party. The fatherly knight could be heard saying gentle, comforting things while Gwyn awkwardly prattled on about how she was sure they'd both have fun learning Dornish cooking. While Lyarra worried about perhaps having stepped out of bounds her husband leaned down and pressed his lips to her ear. His mustache tickled her, making her shiver, as Oberyn spoke.

 

"Darling, if this is what a fight does to your blood, then I'm afraid I'll be starting them for the rest of our marriage."

 

"You would have done that anyway." Lyarra countered, blushing.

 

"Yes, but now I have a good excuse."

 


 

Three days . It had taken that long to sort out matters at the Crossing, and Oberyn couldn't be happier to see the back of the place. As it was, they'd trimmed down their stay at Riverrun accordingly to better compensate for the extended stay at the Twins. Now, instead of the fortnight they'd planned in Lord Hoster Tully's company, a mere five days were allotted for the castle. Oberyn noted his wife's relief and tried not to let it color his own opinions too badly.

 

Lord Edmure Tully had not been adequately prepared for leadership. That much had become clear while they cleaned up the mess that was House Frey and the weirwood plot. The man had a good heart, but the young knight's education had been weak on the actual day-to-day dangers of governance.

 

In the end Oberyn had sat back and let Lord Stark handle his goodbrother. Save for a few exchanges where he'd been surprised and gratified that the future Lord Tully had asked for a Dornish perspective on the proper, just punishment for this or that offense, Lord Stark was more than welcome to see to his goodbrother's education. For his part, Ned Stark had looked profoundly uncomfortable with it for all of fifteen minutes, then surprised Oberyn by sliding effortlessly into a mentorship.

 

Oberyn was only too happy to let the Warden of the North have it. Edmure Tully was certainly pretty enough to have earned his attention earlier. As of his Mark's appearance, however, such things were now impossible. Rather than dwell on it and work himself up into a temper, Oberyn concentrated instead of something that did please him: namely his wife.

 

Lyarra's surprising demonstration of passion couldn't have been more well-timed. The fire and ingenuity she'd shown in taking the head of House Frey hostage in the fight after managing to run a young knight through when separated from her guards had earned instant approval from his people. The Dornish appreciated survivors and they wanted competence in anyone they were expected to follow. Warrior princesses were approved of in Dorne.

 

Beyond that, however, Lyarra's inherent shyness about intimate matters had fallen away. Oberyn could appreciate this on a personal level, and he had. Oh, indeed, he truly had. Beyond that, on a political level, her actions had proven to his people that Lyarra was neither cold nor prudish; two things that the Dornish would not appreciate seeing in their princess. The display of passionate want that was the kiss she'd dragged him into had done wonders for how his people thought of her.

 

It had also left Oberyn with an arousal so intense he'd peaked twice before softening, but that was merely a personal victory. The decision by his people that Lyarra was shy, but still a woman who wanted and deserved her princely husband was a victory that would last his wife years if she maintained it. Shyness the Dornish would find endearing on a princess so young and beautiful and foreign. Prudishness or a sense that she was judging their ways, they would not accept kindly.

 

"You needn't watch me so closely, you know."

 

"Hm?" Oberyn blinked himself awake in the comfortable confines of his bed and tore his eyes away from the tent's ceiling to look at the woman whose head was resting against his shoulder. "What do you mean, darling? Mayhaps I enjoy watching you. My wife is comely, or so I've been told."

 

She rolled her dark gray eyes at him and rose up on one elbow. The sheets fell down to her ribs and he fastened his eyes on the soft white mounds of her breasts and their pink tips. Oberyn licked his lips and reached down beneath the covers to adjust himself. They'd already made love that night, but he judged himself ready to make love again with a few more moments of time and a bit of encouragement.

 

It was their first night on the road away from the two interconnected castles, and Oberyn had viewed it as a celebration. They were officially escaping the place, the weirwood plot had been resolved, and he hadn't been responsible for sending out the multitude of ravens explaining the situation for once. He hadn't even had to execute anyone; that duty had fallen to Ned Stark and a pallid Edmure Tully. House Reed had sent down a group of warriors and Ned Stark had sent a group of his own guards back North to join the Crannogmen in escorting the six men of House Frey who'd opted to join the Night's Watch to save their necks.

 

"Oberyn, be serious." Lyarra smiled at him even as she said it. "I mean, you've been so careful of me since we left. Don't think I haven't missed you encouraging me to stay in the wheelhouse, or the way you've fussed over me. I'm fine, the fight was fine, though I'm in no hurry to repeat it. I never thought I'd actually use my training."

 

"Gods willing you won't have to, at least for many moons." Oberyn sat up a little further and looked down into her eyes, surprised. "Lyarra, you're aware of why I'm concerned, yes?"

 

"Because I am a lady who was in a swordfight."

 

"You're more than competent, and while I would worry for anyone your age in their first engagement, that's not what I'm referring to." Oberyn began to feel a dawning mix of horror and amusement. "You're feeling well, yes?"

 

"I've been a bit tired, but I blame the trip. I've never traveled so before."

 

"These," Oberyn reached up and gently cupped one of her breasts in his hand, supporting it and running his thumb over her nipple as it obligingly tightened under the digit. "Have not been sore?"

 

"Well - I, yes?" Lyarra flushed. "It's just… they grow sore when my courses come."

 

At least, Oberyn reflected, he'd finally convinced her that talk of menstruation didn't either frighten or disgust him. Ignoring his medical training, Oberyn had seven daughters living and had already seen many through puberty. He'd once been blessed with a sister only a year his senior; less if you counted only the time between their births and not the official change in the year. It would take more than moon's blood to bother him.

 

It still didn't change the chagrined realization that Oberyn had just made. He debated for a moment whether he should just say it. He could wait and have a talk with Lady Jynessa, but that was the coward's way out.

 

"Lyarra, when was the last time you had your moon's blood?"

 

"Oh." Lyarra paused, not seeing the significance and obviously just thinking about the date. "It was…"

 

He watched as slow realization began to sink in. Bit by bit he could almost see her counting back, then recounting, and then gray eyes that were nearly black in the dim light of the single lantern glowing from within their tent turned to him. Reflecting in the light, her glaze was almost silvery in an instant, and it was like staring into the moon's glow.

 

"Before we were wed, yes?" Oberyn prompted.

 

They'd been sharing a bed since their wedding, and Oberyn could hardly miss that she'd never had to resort to pinning rags into her smallclothes. He'd never flinched from sharing a bed with Ellaria or any of his other women when they bled. For that matter, he'd never believed in separate beds at all. The Dornish didn't hold with separate quarters for the head of household and his wife; you either shared your bed with your spouse or something was wrong. It had been his first indication that Mellario was not being the wife he wished for his brother when she'd insisted on having her own quarters.

 

" Oh ." Lyarra spoke again and the word, if the noise she made could be called that, had a whole new meaning as both her hands vanished under the covers to press over her own flat belly. "Oberyn, I didn't know. I mean I knew it could happen, but I forgot ! How could I forget?"

 

"You're young yet." Oberyn replied wryly. "And as embarrassing as it is to have a bride young enough to forget her courses, the fact remains that you did and if anyone is at fault, it is myself for not reminding you."

 

"Why didn't you say anything?"

 

Now she was upset with him, Oberyn prayed silently the she wouldn't cry. He would yearn for Ellaria Sand for the rest of his life, he was sure. He would grieve for the life he'd had with her, for it was the life he'd chosen and the life he'd wanted. He really, truly hoped, however, that Lyarra would not be a crier when she was pregnant as Ellaria had been in the first months of each gestation.

 

"In the first three moons of pregnancy, there is a higher risk of losing a babe because it isn't well-settled in the womb." Oberyn explained. "I didn't want to speak in case you were waiting until you were sure. That's why I've watched you so closely since the fight. Had I thought there was truly a great risk of violence I'd never have allowed you into the Great Hall."

 

"That's why you were so harsh on Ser Arron and the others."

 

"Yes," Oberyn agreed, "Most did not know of your condition, but I had told Ser Arron my suspicions."

 

"He could hardly help that I darted away from him to follow Ghost."

 

"About which we have had words and likely will again judging from the stubborn expression you're now giving me."

 

"It doesn't - why am I arguing with you about this again?" Now she looked a little lost, her hands still idly curled over her belly. "I'm pregnant. Truly?"

 

"Your breasts are tender, and if I'm not mistaken, a little swollen." Oberyn pressed a kiss to her lips and fondled her a little more, toying with the soft flesh in his hand as he rolled onto his side to better face her as they spoke. "You've been nauseous in the mornings, though not much I am happy to say. My daughters treat their mothers well, I'll have you know. You've also been a bit tired, which is another symptom. So, yes, I'd say you're with child, wife."

 

Her breath caught in her throat and a mix of wonder and fear stole over her features. It was a wonderful expression and one he'd never grow tired of, he thought. His heart clenched and Oberyn spared a moment of surprise at the depth of his emotion. Not for his child; he loved the babe already and it was barely more than an idea. No, it was a welling of affection for his wife that hit him, and Oberyn realized all at once that she was coming to matter deeply to him as more than a set of sacred vows and a Mark upon his wrist.

 

Just as he felt a wash of feeling from her wash over him, he carefully rolled atop her, keeping his weight on his forearms as he kissed his way down between her breasts and used his nose to brush aside the slender white hand still covering her belly. He was beneath the covers now, but that mattered not. She could still hear him, and he knew she could feel what he was feeling as well as he could feel her love for their child tangling up with the slow-blossoming emotion growing in regards to him.

 

Oberyn pressed a kiss to the flesh beneath his wife's belly button. As tenderly as possible he framed her hips with his hands and then dropped yet more kisses between them. Nuzzling her belly he murmured a soft greeting to his newest daughter.

 

"I love you well already, and your mother does too." Oberyn pressed another kiss down against the soft white skin. "Your mother is here, and as you're within her she will be with you, always. I will take good care of her, little one, and you will know her well."

 

Above him, Lyarra stifled a sob and Oberyn discarded his earlier plan to trade sweetness for passion and offer her the pleasures of his mouth. Curling up on his side, he drew her onto her own. When Lyarra was wrapped in his arms and he in hers, he pressed a kiss to her forehead and tucked her face against his shoulder. Whispering reassuring things into her hair he let her cry out her grief for the mother she'd never known, and listened to the slow, halting whispers she traded back of all her hopes and fears in becoming a mother herself.

 

They fell asleep without having made love again, but Oberyn couldn't regret it. If anything, he was filled with relief and a sense of peace he hadn't expected to experience again in his life. He'd loved before; briefly, tempestuously, and in the way of a fleeting passion. He'd also held a love in his heart that had grown like a rose in the mountains; flourishing amidst rocks and dangerous debris. Ellaria had not fallen into his life and claimed his heart with great speed; rather she'd stood like a mountain and all of his love had grown up around her until he was too tangled to ever want to be free when she supported him so.

 

Perhaps it was only fitting that this child of the North was slipping into his heart like some seedling tree. Slowly at first, tenderly, and oh-so-fragile. Still, her roots ran deep, Oberyn thought. If he did not uproot it, if he cared for it, mayhaps this bond the Gods had cursed him with might become a blessing. It would not be of his choosing and he'd likely always resent that, but it didn't mean he couldn't love her if he tried. Relieved and at least temporarily peace, the Red Viper slipped off into his dreams with his wife and the soft growing hope of a child curled in his arms.



Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen - 297 A.C.

 

Lord Hoster Tully, Lord Paramount of the Trident, Master of Riverrun looked at himself in the long mirror present in his sleeping quarters and grumbled.

 

"Vyman, I don't care how fine the damned embroidery is, I'll still be old and sick."

 

The Maester chuckled and nodded.

 

"I've reached the point that adding links to my chain just hurts my neck, your Lordship."

 

Hoster permitted himself a smile and carefully and fully straightened. Today was a good day. The pain in his guts and bowels wasn't plaguing him as it had been doing for the last few moons. He felt well enough to be up and about with a cane, and to make the walk down the stairs from his suite to the Great Hall to receive his guests. He'd have gone all the way out to the gate on pride alone if he hadn't known it to be a mistake in the larger scheme of things. Edmure had to step forward now.

 

Grief, shame and anger briefly burned in his heart. It was all that - that boy's fault. Curse House Baelish for ever having been raised above their station! He'd befriended the lad's father during the War of the Ninepenny Kings. He'd thought that he'd be humble like his father had been and appreciate the notice of his betters, but instead he'd looked beyond anything he had a right to. He'd shamed Lysa and dared to think himself fit for Cat's hand when he was barely worthy to sit at a true lord's table…

 

"Lord Hoster?"

 

Hoster realized his hand was gripping the carved trout head of the cane his Cat had sent him so hard that his knuckles had gone white. He relaxed his grip. He wouldn't think of any of that for the moment. It had been all that was on his mind for more than a year now, until the weirwood rumors had pushed it out. The idea that more infamy was falling upon his House, that his name was being driven deeper into the mud and that it was threatening the only daughter he had yet still living, had hit him hard. He'd had to take to his bed to cope with the pain of whatever was slowly growing to block his bowels and the growths in his gut and the worry clouding his mind.

 

"Dark thoughts." Hoster acknowledged and then chuckled. "I won't think of them now, though. Late Lord Frey, the old weasel, is finally done . He’ll waste away what’s left of his life propped up on cushions, under guard, with no more young wives to kill in childbed."

 

"That he is, my Lord, and that he will." Vyman chuckled and Hoster allowed himself a lizard-lion's grin at the idea as he straightened his surcoat once more.

 

It was a fine thing of red and blue, with silver trouts picked across it in fine embroidery. Cat had sent it to him on his last nameday, and the stitchery was his granddaughter's doing. Little Sansa, who was his Cat's spitting image.

 

Cat had also sent him a fine sketch of all of his grandchildren, done in ink and tinted with watercolors. He'd had it put behind a very fine, clear plate of glass and framed to hang in his quarters. All his descendants looked up at him, and if they had some Stark features, he was more than a little proud of the Tully stamp he'd seen put upon the great House Stark's next generation. They'd been Kings of the North once, and held it truly for ten-thousand-years now, but the next Lord Stark would have Tully blue eyes!

 

Now if only he could get that damned son of his wed…

 

The walk down to the Great Hall put a fine sheen of sweat on Hoster's face, but he refused to acknowledge it as he lowered himself into the high seat. Carved of redwood like the doors of the Great Hall, it was a little worn in places. Hoster thought that suited him well. He was getting worn too, and soon he'd need to be replaced as his father before him.

 

From his seat Hoster looked around critically, wanting to make sure all was proper to receive his guests. The Dornish might be a licentious crowd who'd take ambush over an honest fight any day, but they'd done what no other House had done. By holding off the dragons, they'd kept their crown, and though they were Princes now rather than Kings, they had freedoms and prerogatives that no other kingdom held in Westeros.

 

They were also in a place politically that had Hoster wishing that the Gods had been a little freer with their daughters. Knowing he had two granddaughters soon old enough to be wed was a relief, for they'd be in high demand. He'd have to speak to Ned about that. He'd been a good husband to Cat in every way and Hoster was proud to own the boy as his goodson, but he'd always been sentimental. Hoster needed to make sure he understood the value of alliances forged through marriage, and how to prepare a daughter to do her duty.

 

He had to batter down and lock away thoughts of Lysa. He'd failed her so. He hadn't meant to harm her womb with the moon tea. He'd only wanted to spare her the shame of marrying while with child. He'd wanted to save their family the embarrassment of wedding so far beneath them as that boy. She'd have never been happy locked in the Fingers, dreary and poor, his dreaming littlest girl… Gods, but what else could he have done? House Arryn needed heirs and so Old Jon Arryn had to take a wife. At least he'd made Lysa a Lady Paramount, and Jon Arryn was kind… He'd never thought she'd own such misery…

 

Hoster shook off the shame again, burying it instead in his anger. All that time clawing for power in King's Landing, but the Gods had punished that boy well. He'd died in agony from what ought to have saved him. Inoculation fevers were rarely bad, but they were no pleasant way to go. He'd deserved it. If only he hadn't shamed them all with those letters…

 

"There'll be ladies present so I'll have no bawdy tunes, you hear me?" Hoster breathed out a harsh warning as he watched Rymund the Rhymer come into the hall. "I don't care what provocation or invitation you get from the Dornish. Just tell them you don't know the tune they ask for if it's not fit for a lady's presence."

 

"Yes m'lord." The bard bowed and scampered to his accustomed place.

 

The other servants needed were arrayed here or there. Most of them would meet the party from out in the yard, but Hoster knew better than to try to walk so far. He wasn't yet so far gone that he'd allow himself to be carried, either. Edmure was with them, so his son could do his duty in welcoming them into the keep. Bread and salt arrayed attractively on a side table waited to be brought forward on silver trays.

 

"How goes progress with the feast?" Hoster wanted to know.

 

Utherydes Wayne had been Riverrun's steward for as long as Hoster had been its lord. He'd grown old, gaunt, and sour but he still did a fine job. Edmure would have to replace him, of course, but Hoster had yet to find the time or the energy to start compiling a list of good choices. Edmure was too damned emotional; he'd have to remind the boy to guard against that. You didn't choose a steward because you liked them. You chose one for their skill, loyalty, and honesty.

 

"It goes well, m'lord, and I'm pleased to say it's right on time." The sour man ventured a smile. "We've two hours and a little until the meats are fully cooked and rested, according to Cook. The breads are laid aside, and we've seen to all the rest. That should give everyone a chance to wash the road dust away and the ladies to dress, and then your guests can feast."

 

Hoster grunted in satisfaction. That was just as it should be. He'd already dressed, and if he knew Ned Stark, the Northerner would take maybe ten minutes to freshen up. His solar wasn't far, so he'd get Edmure to lend him a shoulder and wait there. Then, while the ladies worried over their hair and gowns, and Edmure got the road dust out of his hair, Hoster could have a talk with his goodson.

 

For now , though, Hoster pushed politics from his mind. It caught in his craw a little that Ned Stark's bastard was now a Princess of Dorne. Sansa should have held that title, as one of his blood and a trueborn child. You couldn't predict the Gods, however, New or Old. After the brother whose name he'd gone so long without speaking had sent him a miracle from some mountain heathen claiming the Old Gods had spoken to him from a weirwood tree… Well, Hoster had decided not to try and judge the Gods. They'd judge him soon enough.

 

No-one else had any right to.

 

"You don't look half so dead today, Brother."

 

Speaking of his family's Blackfish…

 

"I wish Cat had made the trip. If she saw you standing here her eyes would get wide as saucers." Hoster allowed himself a laugh as he looked at where Brynden had walked into the room.

 

His younger brother was as hale as ever. Tall, broad, and wearing his usual gray plate and fine surcoat. He wore his family's colors still, even if he had betrayed them to go to the Vale and man the Bloody Gate.

 

Hoster reminded himself to leave that in the past. When the Plague had come, it was family that Brynden had honored. Hoster himself could… well, he could put aside even if he couldn't forgive his brother's other betrayals. He was old and he was dying and he'd missed the annoying, stubborn, old goat. Fitting, really, with his personality that there'd been goats involved in the cure…

 

"They would." Ser Brynden smiled slightly and chuckled back. "I'm looking forward to meeting my new squire. I'd never have thought Lord Stark would have it; he's too Northern, and by all accounts he keeps his children close."

 

"He's sending Arya south with the bastard." Hoster huffed, but relented a little in admiration. "Proper, that. The Snow-girl will not be the Princess of Dorne, but with Prince Doran's daughter dead and no wife, she'll be chatelaine of Sunspear until the man gets his eldest son wed. Then, the Red Viper has status all his own. Arya will learn how a southern court runs, and the Dornish are powerful now. Even our peasants wear their damned sun and spear on their skin, thanks to that Prince's gamble, and I hear half of Essos is sending them gold and jewels in thanks."

 

"Casterly Rock paid for the goats as well." The Blackfish snorted. "Lannister pride."

 

"There are rich Houses in Dorne." Hoster speculated. "House Dayne's got a son who'll be lord and dreams of carrying Dawn according to rumor. House Wyl's Heir has no wife yet, and a half-dozen others."

 

"Edric Dayne will own more than one seat now, too, as the Darkstar was executed for treason. Starfall is a gem and High Hermitage is a nigh untakeable fortress. They've also several smaller forts and towers. Not to mention all of the income from the trade up the Torrentine and several important wells."

 

"Yes." Hoster was pleased his brother knew that, but then again, the Daynes were a knightly family and his brother was always aware of any up and coming squires or knights. Martial gossip was the only sort of gossip his brother indulged in. "Arya's a good age for a betrothal, too."

 

"You and your weddings."

 

"You and your damned bachelorhood." Hoster shot back at his brother's wry tone. "And don't you dare start. What am I to do if Edmure doesn't wed before I die? Should I be burned on the river not knowing my name's secure? I don't want a Stark in Riverrun, for all that Cat's children are a comfort to me. She writes proper letters."

 

"Once you started writing back, I wrote." His brother argued.

 

"A few lines, mayhaps."

 

"A half-scroll at least and you know it."

 

"Hmph… Bran's a good age for a squire. A bit young, but that'll be good for him."

 

"I like taking a squire young, if I can manage it." Brynden agreed. "It'll help if I can get his seat settled on the horse with a lance in mind before he starts riding too much like a woodsman. You should see what Lord Redfort has done with Domeric Bolton. Tomorrow I'm going to have him and Edmure out in the tiltyard and have a go myself; the boy's hell in the saddle."

 

"I like the lad." Hoster agreed, then frowned as he looked about. "Where is he?"

 

"Likely already out in the yard, waiting for our guests."

 

"Why aren't you out in the yard? Your legs work well enough for the walk."

 

"I thought my brother might like my company."

 

"Well, it's wearing on me. Go do your duty and stop stalling."

 

"If I don't, you'll what? Threaten me with another wife?"

 

"Old as you are now you'd be a useless husband. I'm saving all the wives for Edmure."

 

"Gods protect him, then!"

 

"Just get your ass out there and send my grandchildren in!"

 


 

Lyarra was nervous entering Riverrun. If any place she'd ever been on this journey was enemy territory, it was this castle. Even the situation at the Twins had been a matter of circumstances. This was the castle where Lady Stark had been raised. Here was where she'd been taught that bastards were all cursed children of sin, destined to do evil to their families.

 

In the end she found that it wasn't as bad as she feared. Or, rather, entering the castle and being received by Lord Hoster Tully wasn't that bad. His son had been a bit chilly towards her for a day or so, and then Edmure Tully's naturally friendly nature had shown through and he'd been too busy locked in long talks with Lord Stark during the days on horseback to pay her much mind.

 

When he did, it was to be absentmindedly gallant in a way that Lyarra both appreciated and found annoying. She wondered if all southron knights would treat her such; praising her beauty and ignoring everything that came out of her mouth as though she hadn't a brain in her head.

 

Lyarra found herself grateful for her husband. As annoying as Oberyn could be, he always listened and never treated her as less than a person. Well, he was occasionally condescending about her age, but he usually stopped once she started prodding at him about being older than her father. The age gap nettled her Viper.

 

"You worry too much, Lyarra, the Trout Lord's too much a part of the Game to disdain you." Oberyn's voice slipped up as quietly as he did, but she hardly jumped.

 

"The Game of Thrones." Lyarra agreed, frowning. "Neither you nor Gwyn have explained precisely what that is."

 

She'd seen him approach in the mirror. The further south they got, the more the Prince her husband looked. The summer grew hotter the further they went, and the Viper appreciated it. Lyarra could have done without the extra work Riverrun's humidity meant her hair required, but she was pleasantly surprised to find she didn't mind the heat; it settled deeply into her bones, like something liquid and languid. It left her tired, though, and she kept slipping unintentionally into naps in the wheelhouse.

 

Or at least Lyarra kept assuming it was the heat. She felt her face flush as she thought of the other option. As if following her thoughts, her husband's right hand slipped around her and rested over her belly.

 

"You're very tempting tonight, darling." Oberyn murmured instead of answering as he pressed up against her back. "How is my daughter treating you?"

 

With eight daughters to his name already, Lyarra could hardly argue about his certainty, but she felt a twinge of something every time he said it. Part of that was nervousness. Part of it was the vivid dream she kept having of a little boy with her cheekbones and his nose. She'd been too busy worrying about being a proper wife and a princess, of all of the inconceivable things, to even notice she was with child, but the dream remained.

 

Now she fretted about everything else. She'd never had a mother. As much as she wanted to be a good one, what if she just couldn't figure out how? It was an alarming, overwhelming reality to face.

 

"Melancholy wolf." He accused, and Lyarra found herself turned his arms and forestalled whatever he was about to say about cheering up and not worrying by kissing him.

 

He allowed the distraction with enthusiasm, but when his hands started to wander she pulled back.

 

"Don't you dare muss me." She glared at her husband and reached up to reorder her curls and her gown.

 

"But it's one of my duties as a husband. As a Stark do you not take duty very seriously? I know not what to say if you're asking me to shirk mine. Are you feeling well?"

 

"I'm feeling fine." Lyarra couldn't help smiling a little as she rested her own hand on her belly, still awed at the thought of her own child growing inside of her. "We're fine. I'm just a little tired. I don't have the energy to put myself to rights if you muss me, and Gwyn's helping Walda dress now."

 

"Ah, yes. That would be quite a task."

 

Lyarra shot him a dark look and her husband shook his head and held up his hands, grinning.

 

"I don't mean it as a slight against the girl. House Frey put no effort into poor Lady Walda's wardrobe. Lady Jynessa mentioned the work you've all gone to trying to put her to rights before we get to King's Landing."

 

Lyarra relaxed, noting that her husband wasn't mocking her newly acquired lady-in-waiting and friend. Walda would never be a beauty, but if you ignored her weight, she was pretty enough. The girl was endlessly cheerful and worked hard to make the best of every situation. Even Gwyn, who had an endless capacity to be friendly and then stab you in the back unless you were on a very short list of those she truly cared for, was warming up to the other blonde rapidly. It was just difficult not to like the girl once called Fat Walda Frey.

 

"Her gowns are well-made. Walda's a gifted seamstress." Lyarra revealed. "But since they're reworked, some have stains and a lot have marks where old embroidery was pulled out. We're trying to put new embroidery on them to hide it. Gwyn's ready to strangle someone over Walda's stays, too. Apparently Lord Frey insisted that all the ladies wear full, whalebone stays!"

 

"Those went out of fashion at court when my mother was a maiden." Oberyn winced.

 

"Aye, and as whalebone is expensive, Walda didn't even get her own stays, either. She got second-hand stays from an older cousin's wife who was near of a size with her, but built entirely different! She was too afraid to try and resew them because if some other lady of more rank in the family saw her with loose whalebone after she'd cut it free, they'd have taken it and she'd have no way to stop them."

 

"The more I hear of the Freys, the less guilt I feel over having killed three of them in their own home, the executions that followed, or the ones sent to the Wall."

 

"Don't posture, we both know you feel no guilt at all."

 

"Well, they did attack me under guest right."

 

"You were plotting."

 

"Plotting is never disallowed, only acting , which we weren't going to do until after we'd left. Your own father quite agreed to it."

 

Lyarra rolled her eyes, but couldn't quite stop herself from smiling a bit when he leaned in for another kiss, this one lingering.

 

"You still haven't told me how the babe's treating you."

 

"Fine." Lyarra promised. "I'll tell you if anything changes, but I'm just tired. Likely enough it's just from the road and a long day of lessons with the ladies."

 

"Likely enough." He agreed smugly and rubbed a hand over her flat belly again. "My daughters are kind in the womb. You'll enjoy your pregnancy, Lyarra, and grow more beautiful every day. I don't know how you expect me to keep my hands to myself, and I really don't intend to."

 

"You never intend to." Lyarra rolled her eyes and stepped back to look at herself in the mirror and breathed out against the comfortable fit of her own corset and the stiff, but flexible, cording that gave it shape.

 

"Technicality."

 

"We need to be going."

 

"Can't keep Lady Stark's father waiting?"

 

Lyarra refused to acknowledge the truth behind the jape and merely turned towards the door. Her husband smoothly stepped up beside her, offering her arm. Lyarra took it, and felt a hint of her own smugness take hold.

 

Her husband was not one she would have chosen. He was far older than she was. He could be the most difficult man in the world when he chose to be. That said, Oberyn Martell was every inch a princes and she was his princess. There was a certain satisfaction to walking into the Great Hall of Riverrun as a Princess when Lady Catelyn Stark herself had never been more than a Lady there.

 


 

Oberyn watched in amusement as his host's pride did battle with his desperation. It was written clearly on Hoster Tully's face behind his white beard and blue eyes. Even Ned Stark, who was currently dancing with his elevated bastard daughter, likely saw it. Finally the prince watched as Lord Tully's pride won out and he leaned over to speak to his brother.

 

"Go do something about that, Brynden."

 

"About what?"

 

Ser Brynden Tully had wandered back from the dance floor after enjoying a rather graceless but charming dance with his great-niece. Arya again proved more enthusiastic a dancer than a coordinated one, and halfway through, had stopped dancing to show Ser Bryden some of the footwork she was learning. To what Oberyn had decided was the Blackfish's credit, he'd watched closely and then taken her aside and showed her a variation he knew of the movements before sending her back to sit down beside her grandfather and have a second round of dessert.

 

Gwyn and Walda had gotten their hands on Arya Stark that evening. She looked very nice in the same gray and blue dress she'd worn to Lyarra's wedding. She'd even allowed the girls to put her hair into rags to curl it at some point. A belt hung low about her hips that was made of pale golden wood carved into leaping trouts all bound together by copper rings and river-blue ribbons. Walda had likely done the girl's hair. The heavy set girl's kindness and refusal to look down on anyone had begun to endear her to Arya. It helped that the young she-wolf viewed her as a maiden to be rescued and admired her for leaping to Gwyn's defense in the fight at the Twins.

 

Gwyn would have been solely responsible for the political statement behind her belt and the colors of her dress. Oberyn knew who to thank when messages were being passed through how Lyarra dressed. His wife was more than intelligent enough to think politically, but she often forgot. For all of Gwyn Parren's faults, forgetfulness wasn't one of them. If anything, she had a hunted animal's awareness of its environment.

 

"About Edmure."

 

Hoster Tully's peevish voice drew Oberyn's attention away from Arya. She'd sat down next to her brother, Bran, and beamed once at her grandfather in an absent-minded way. Then she'd proven to need little supervision when supplied with sufficient strawberry cake.

 

"What's the lad doing wrong?" The Blackfish wanted to know, looking up. "He's dancing."

 

" Exactly !"

 

"I thought you wanted him dancing with pretty girls."

 

"Not that one!"

 

"What's wrong with the Parren girl? Lady Gwyn seems polite enough. She's a bit young, but she's got good hips, and that's what you want from the boy's future lady, isn't it?"

 

"Not in some knighted city guardsmen's daughter four generations from a title!"

 

"Beggars can't be choosers, Hoster."

 

"Just get up and go cut in."

 

"I'm too old to dance all night, brother. My knee's killing me as is."

 

Oberyn couldn't take the constant bickering anymore without outright laughing. Right now he was safe enough in lounging about at the high table and making observations with Ser Arron about this or that that their daughters would enjoy of the feast. Sarella would be fascinated by the castle's design, as the moat could be flooded to turn Riverrun into an island. Elia would want to talk to Brynden Tully about his own famed days on the lists as a young man. The others would enjoy the general festivities of the dancing and the very nice spread of the feast itself.

 

He missed his girls and it was beginning to grate on him more. Being sure of Lyarra's condition made the ache more intense. There was a fierce joy in knowing he'd be a father again, and a bone-deep smugness in having still quickened her so soon given his age. He'd begotten Obara after one night of passion as a greenboy, and he'd wed Lyarra at nine-and-thirty. Still he'd likely planted his seed on their wedding night or close to it, as she'd never had her courses afterward.

 

More than that, though, Oberyn wanted to be back home . He wanted to lay in the sun with Sarella and exchange stories about the latest books they'd read. He wanted to spar with Nym and Obara. He yearned to sit between Tyene and Ellaria's tombs, grief though it would give him, and tell them of this journey and the new wife the Gods had forced on him. He wanted them to know he was growing to care for her, and that he had hopes it would blossom into deeper feelings yet with time.

 

Oberyn missed crossing lances with Elia on the lists. He wanted a chance to introduce Arya, wild little thing that she was, around to all of his children and his nephews and watch as she ran rampant through Sunspear and the Water Gardens. He wanted to watch as Doran's face remained perfectly blank but his own black eyes danced with mirth at the chaos that Arya Stark was undoubtedly going to create once Dorea and Loreza realized they had an older compatriot in mischief. He desperately wanted to balance his littlest girls on his knees and tell them that they were going to be older sisters and watch their delight as the idea played over their faces.

 

They'd been so disappointed when he'd told them they were to be the youngest. He hadn't wanted to risk Ellaria to another labor after Loreza's went poorly, however, and she'd agreed to stay on Moon Tea for the daughters they already had. As far as more children by various women, Oberyn found that he'd aged past the point where he wanted to search out his daughters. If one happened in the result of his and Ellaria's shared pleasure with others, that was just life, but he was no longer being as incautious as his youth.

 

Now, though, Oberyn knew that being big sisters would likely be something that would help Lyarra win the youngest over. They were suffering from the loss of their mother already and would not take the idea of a 'replacement' kindly. Oberyn wanted to be home so that he could begin to smooth over the transition that his unexpected marriage would mean for all of them.

 

"Allow me, my Lord." Oberyn got up, bowed once flippantly at Lord Hoster - who'd apparently forgotten him momentarily as he was speaking to Ser Arron and the brotherly argument had been so engaging - and gestured to where another of his party was perusing the desserts. "Daemon, come, we've damsels to rescue."

 

"I see no beautiful ladies in distress, my Prince, and I've yet to have dessert."

 

"I'll eat it for you." Ser Arron grinned and got up to take the plate and the piece of cake on it out of Daemon Sand's hand.

 

" Come ." Oberyn insisted, taking his once-squire and past-lover by the shoulders. "Go cut in with the future Lord Tully and Lady Gwyn."

 

"She won't thank me." Daemon protested. "She's spent the last two dances learning everything there is to know about brigandage in the Riverlands, going over the latest crop yields, and establishing what kind of trade is coming out of the Westerlands down the rivers and the easterly roads."

 

"Which I will have Lyarra tax her on later, but for now, go get the girl off his arm before our host has some kind of fit."

 

"Your will is my command." Daemon sighed and shook his head and went to cut in as Oberyn walked over and bowed to a very shocked girl with lemon-blonde hair.

 


 

"You dance very well, Lord Stark."

 

Ned looked kindly at the girl that the Viper had transferred into his arms when stealing his daughter from him yet again.

 

"You dance well too, Lady Walda. I hope you're not disturbed that I do not prefer the fast steps that the younger men are involved in."

 

"Oh, no, I don't like fast dances. They make me dizzy!" Her earnest reply had him smiling as he lead her through a slow pirouette at his fingertips.

 

She would never be a beauty in his eyes, but Walda Frey was a nice, pleasant, well-meaning girl. She was also much-improved by whatever magic Lyarra and Gwyn had worked on her since taking her into Lyarra's household. Though nothing would make her slim, she no longer looked lumpen beneath her gown, and her large bust wasn't welling up and overflowing like a muffin's top past her gown's neck or bulging at her hips.

 

With her broad figure smoothed out, the blue and white gown she was wearing looked much better on her. It had a great broad girdle and neckline of black embroidery on it done in the kind of geometric pattern that he knew Gwyn could add quickly to any garment with her hooked needle. He'd watched her use it many a night by the fire, after all, as Lady Gwyn tucked herself into the back of their family gatherings and listened to Stark family stories and lessons of an evening.

 

Likewise her hair no longer looked quite so limp or greasy. It was still a brassy shade of blonde, but from whatever feminine magic had been worked on it, was now a soft mass of fine waves around her face. A crown a blue ribbons and little white river flowers added to the bright light in her slate-blue eyes and the Stark felt a well of pride for his daughter. It had been the right thing for Lyarra to do, to get this girl out of the mire that was House Frey.

 

Looking over at where the Viper was dancing with his daughter, Ned felt himself scowl again. He had perhaps two more moons to spend with Lyarra, yet the man couldn't resist monopolizing her attention. Yes, he was her husband, but he had a lifetime ahead of him. Ned had never expected to have to let her go so far from home in the first place.

 

Ned was happy enough to hand Lady Walda off to the dessert table for a chat with Bran. Arya wanted another dance, and he grinned as his wild little girl spun him around. He also mourned her as well, though he knew it was foolish to do so. Some of the happiest years of his life were spent in the Vale with Robert as another brother and Jon Arryn as his second father. He knew his wild little girl would blossom in the desert.

 

The feast carried on in the way of Southron feasts. There was toasting to Prince Oberyn and Lyarra's marriage, Marked and Blessed by the Gods, Old and New. Toasts were made to Lord Stevron Frey, honorable enough to have put his aged father aside and take control of his House. If there was a smugness at Lord Walder Frey's fall to a position where he'd live out his remaining years in captivity at a nearby Septry, well that was another matter. Bran's rising to squire for the Blackfish was toasted and Ned's son beamed, but by the end of the evening his mood had fallen dark and he was happy to remove himself from the revelry early to sit with his goodfather in Lord Hoster's solar.

 

"I want to thank you for your kindness towards Lyarra, Lord Hoster. I appreciate your graciousness more than I can say." Ned lead off with giving the man proper thanks as he settled in with a tankard of ale in his hand and poured a glass of wine for his host as the old man settled wearily into a padded chair in front of the fire.

 

"My own smallfolk think the sun shines out of House Martell's ass." Hoster snorted. "Only an idiot would slight them when half of Essos is sending Prince Doran gold hand over fist in thanks for those blasted goats. I wish I'd thought of it, in retrospect. Not that I had the gold on hand. Dorne gets a lot of trade, and you can't underestimate their mines and salt. Next to the Westerlands, they're likely the richest though they don't share their figures enough for anyone to know. The Dornish never talk about anything you want to hear about them, and when they do talk it's to give you details of their private life that you don't want."

 

"Shame's in short supply in Dorne, that's the truth." Ned grumbled and stifled any disappointment that Hoster Tully's formal, but perfectly polite, reception of Lyarra was political in nature.

 

" Brilliant move, though, everything that happened in the Twins. Getting them to attack you and putting Stevron Frey in your debt? I don't know that I'd have had the patience to do all of that myself without acting before I'd settled guest right properly, but you got them to dishonor their own House!"

 

"Actually, most of that was the Red Viper." Ned shook his head and scowled. "I would have preferred to handle it directly, out in the open, and call for trials… but, again, apparently a servant let Lord Stevron's plans slip to Aenys Frey and the attack prevented us from doing it in the proper order. I'm sorry that we couldn't have handled things as I first intended."

 

"Edmure needed the chance to make a ruling over something other than petty brigands. It was better this way."

 

"Aye." Ned could agree with that. "My goodbrother could use more chances to shoulder his responsibilities, and guidance in serious matters."

 

Ned had spent the entire ride from the Crossing to Riverrun trying to get a feel for his goodbrother, and then worrying when he did. Edmure Tully seemed as decent a fellow as you could wish. He might have whored less, but he wasn't irresponsible so much as carefree. Ned was reminded of a less boisterous and more gentle-hearted Robert in his youth, before the Rebellion had hardened all of their hearts. He was also reminded a little of himself, and that was worrying. He'd never been meant to be Heir to the North, but Edmure Tully should have been raised to be a Lord Paramount from birth.

 

"He's too flighty. The boy needs a wife and a few children to settle him down and give his poor father some peace of mind."

 

"A good, solid wife with practical sense would be a blessing." Ned agreed. "I cannot tell you how blessed I am in Cat. In my early years I knew little of ruling and her advice was a gift from the Gods."

 

Hoster Tully beamed smugly at his goodson in response to the praise for his daughter.

 

"Cat's a treasure."

 

"Aye, always."

 

"Arya's a bit wild. She's got the look of your sister, as does the new princess."

 

"When Arya grows into her features, she'll be a beauty." Ned agreed.

 

"She'll have many a suitor."

 

Ned heard those words from Hoster Tully's mouth and decided caution was more in order than he thought. Apparently he absolutely could not have a casual family talk outside of Winterfell. It was some kind of ruling from the Gods, he thought in annoyance.

 

"Yes, though I'm hoping for a Dornish match, if any. Arya has the wolf's blood and will need a husband who guides her spirit rather than trying to crush it and make her something she is not."

 

"Yes, yes, that's important." Hoster Tully's face briefly grew clouded and his eyes pained. "You can't just find a good husband it seems. You must find the right one and a Dornish match would be best. If she's so wild, it might be best to give her time to get to know the boy and grow fond of him before they wed. House Dayne's got a likely enough lad, and there are a few Houses on the borders of the Marches that are rich from trade tolls."

 

"In truth I can barely stand to think of sending my children away, let alone wedding them now." Ned opted for honesty, hoping for a subject change. "It's not as though they're Lord Edmure's age."

 

Hoster Tully scowled.

 

"I don't know what that boy's thinking ."

 

Ned congratulated himself for an excellent strategic feint and went in for the kill.

 

"He seemed to admire Lady Gwyn quite a bit."

 

Hoster looked pained.

 

"Your fosterling is a nice enough girl. I'd take her in a heartbeat if she was of better blood, but Edmure needs a proper match. A good one to a woman who'll make a proper Lady Paramount and who can run this castle when he's out running the Riverlands themselves. You wouldn't believe the women I've paraded in front of him. Whent, Blanetree, Blackwood, Vance, Wode. I've had every lady of decent birth and acceptable dowry in my demesne in front of that boy and still he shirks his duty! I ask you, Ned, what's a father to do ?!"

 

"Mayhaps you need to look elsewhere?" Ned suggested.

 

"I've thought of that, but the nearest ladies are either of the Vale or the Westerlands. I'll tolerate no uppity lioness in my wife's place, pushing me aside like I'm some dotard."

 

"The Vale won't send its daughters without a betrothal in place." Ned nodded in understanding and then felt a trap he'd accidentally laid for himself snap shut as his goodfather spoke again.

 

"Mayhaps a good Northern lady." Hoster suggested slyly. "Your bannermen weren't as wracked by the plague as others."

 

"True."

 

Ned felt supremely awkward in plotting out anyone's marriage. He'd come to love Cat and she and their children were the greatest blessing in his life. However, nothing would change the strain of their first few years of marriage. Years where Ashara Dayne's violet eyes haunted him in his sleep and where Cat once called out his brother's name in their marriage bed. He didn't blame her, though it had hurt him a great deal as a young man. He hoped that Cat didn't blame him, either, though he knew she'd never forgive him for having claimed a bastard and brought the child into their marriage.

 

Beyond that, Ned couldn't help thinking of his own father. Rickard Stark's Southron ambitions had cursed their family. Lyanna's betrothal had seemed a dream to him, for Robert had promised him a castle with a dying line in the Stormlands after the wedding. His original plan would have him wed Ashara and living within a day's ride of his best friend and baby sister, a castle of his own, and firm in the knowledge that his brother held the North. Instead Brandon and his father had died horribly. Lyanna had seen her betrothal as a curse. Everyone had suffered.

 

Ned refused to risk any of his children running away as Lyanna had. He wouldn't sentence even one of them to the grief that was a bad match. He wouldn't say anything of it to Hoster Tully, but just look at the disaster that was Cat's sister. A lost maidenhead, a child gone before it lived, kinslaying or close to it, and then years of grief, failed pregnancies, and death by her own hand. No , all of his children would have a say in their marriages, though Ned did plan to provide them the options they chose from.

 

He definitely wasn't going to get drawn into Hoster Tully's endless desire to arrange more marriages within his family. Looking up into the man's sly blue eyes, however, gave him an idea. Ned smiled warmly as he realized he had the perfect way never to be asked again.

 

"Actually, I've a good lady in mind whose mother's lamented ever seeing her wed." Ned sat back and took a deep pull of his drink. "She's not too young now, closer to twenty than fifteen, and she's a strong woman. Tall, with long dark hair, and a full figure. Her family is one of my most loyal bannermen and no-one in the North crosses them without great care."

 

Hoster Tully began to visibly perk up.

 

"Is the family fertile?"

 

"She's one of several children."

 

"And her dowry?"

 

"Modest, I'll allow, likely not much better than Gwyn's." Ned replied honestly. "However, if Edmure will have her…"

 

"You're right, you're right. If her blood’s proper I can overlook the dowry." Hoster was quick to agree, his tone hungry as the old man sat forward. "Do you think he would ? Be interested, that is. I don't know what it is about the little Parren girl that got him to pay her so much mind."

 

"I imagine it was her, really. Gwyn's got a talent for making people feel important." Ned allowed, but didn't add that it was a gift directed entirely at tricking others into telling her what they knew. "The youngest son of a great lord with two beautiful, intelligent older sisters… Lord Hoster, to be honest, that's something that worried me on my way here. At the Twins and since then, Edmure's seemed to me to have the habit of swaying to the will of others. He doesn't seem to trust his own opinions, or where he does, he doesn't stop and ask himself the right questions."

 

"I know." His goodfather rubbed a hand down his face and scratched his beard. "I was gone too much when the boy was growing, then that fool brother of mine abandoned us…"

 

"It was good to see the Blackfish here."

 

"Heh, surprised you, didn't it?"

 

"Cat doesn't know you're talking."

 

"Well, if she'd come she would. I understand why she had to leave, though. If you don't mind, I've bid my brother to go back North with you for a year, or at least a few moons. He's decided to give the Bloody Gate back to Lord Arryn. He wants no part of the succession mess in the Vale, and I don't blame him. Jon Arryn needs to leave the King with another Hand for a few months and get his House in order. You might offer to help with that, Ned."

 

"I wouldn't shirk a duty to a friend or the kingdom." Ned replied uncomfortably. He didn't want to. "I've no gift for politics, though. A better Hand could be easily found."

 

Hoster hummed and nodded in acknowledgement.

 

"Still, Bran's a good age for a lad to squire, but he'll miss home. Let Brynden ride north with him and that Bolton lad and then come south to Riverrun again after he's grown a little."

 

"I agree." Ned latched onto the chance to bring his boy home with both hands.

 

"And you can send some of your ladies south." Hoster went on, warming up to the idea. "Send Sansa with them, I'm happy to meet two of my grandchildren, and I know there must be a Stark in Winterfell and all that, but a man wants to know all of his grandchildren before he dies."

 

"I'll do one better." Ned promised. "It'll have to wait until I’m back in Winterfell, but I'll send Sansa south with her mother and Rickon. Robb can come to escort them. I'll stay north as the Stark in Winterfell with Bran and your brother."

 

Hoster Tully beamed and Ned congratulated himself. This would surely undo all of his goodfather's plans. After a Mormont and a couple ladies of House Umber descended on Riverrun, Ned Stark knew he'd never be asked to matchmake again.

 


 

Lyarra wanted to go into the Godswood to pray under the moon and Lady Gwyn wanted to collect mushrooms. The end result was pleasant, Oberyn allowed as he wandered in the heavy, warm night air and inhaled the scent of apple blossoms that was heavy in the air. The Riverrun Godswood was more of a garden than a wild, ancient place, but it had a weirwood with a carven face. He'd hardly deny Lyarra the pleasure of enjoying it and some prayers there. As it was, he wasn't even sure the delicate little weirwood sapling being so carefully tended amidst their luggage would even survive in Dorne. So he felt it best to indulge her prayers now in case her attempt at planting a Godswood in an underutilized section of the Sunspear gardens failed.

 

"Do you plan to ride in the tourney, Your Grace?"

 

Besides, the Godswood had a lot of pretty scenery that night. If Oberyn couldn't make use of that prettiness, he could at least admire it. Domeric Bolton was just lacking enough in worldliness to not take offense as well.

 

"The Tourney?" Oberyn asked curiously and got a small smile in return.

 

Ser Domeric Bolton was a handsome young man. A year or two older than Lyarra, he'd grown to equal Oberyn's height and might yet gain an inch or so more. He was an athletic young man, with broad shoulders and narrow hips covered in good, clean muscle.

 

His skin was very fair and his hair a dark brown the color of burnt tea leaves. The thick hair fell in waves around his face and down about his shoulders, emphasizing a long, angular face with a high-bridged blade of a nose between sharp cheekbones. It was a long, very Northern, face but where it would have been drawn-out and pallid, it was softened by a pair of full lips, a strong jawline, and a smooth brow.

 

His eyes were unusual. Neither gray nor blue, they were so pale they were nearly colorless. A kind nature showed in his eyes, though, taking the jarring lack of pigment and translating it from uneasy to striking. The sensual nature of his mouth and quiet way of moving and holding himself helped soften his looks as well.

 

"Aye, Ser Brynden had it from Lord Jon Arryn that there's to be a tourney held to celebrate Lord Stark's arrival at King's Landing and your marriage to Lady Lyarra." The young Northern knight went on.

 

They'd already made smalltalk as Lyarra engaged in her prayers. The young Heir to the Dreadfort had been leaving the Godswood when they arrived, but had paused and joined Oberyn when he'd complained that the ladies were abandoning him for the trees. Lyarra to pray, of course, and Gwyn to poke around in the dark for edible fungus. Of course, had the handsome young lord not been present to amuse him, Oberyn would have been looking for poisonous mushrooms along where the river ran by the Godswood, but that was another matter altogether. Besides, it would be better if he could do that tomorrow morning and include Arya and the other girls in the lesson.

 

"I don't know that I approve , considering what rumors I've heard of the Crown's finances, and the state of the smallfolk there. Lord Redfort told me inflation was a serious problem in the Capitol." Domeric Bolton went on, idly tugging at the hem of his rich pink velvet surcoat and then straightening the sleeves on the simple black tunic he wore beneath it. "I'm guiltily glad for it, though. I'm to head north and I've never ridden in a tourney for all that Lord Redfort spoke so well of my jousting."

 

"Ah, well, Ser Brynden would have me and other knights of my party join you and himself on the tiltyard tomorrow morning, so even if I choose not to ride in King's Landing, you'll get your chance against me."

 

Oberyn briefly considered making a jape about the handling of lances. He decided against it with a certain bitter sadness. He couldn't follow through, after all, on the very slim chance that the boy might show such inclinations for adventurousness in bed. If anyone Dornish expanded his horizons, it would have to be Daemon Sand.

 

"Truly?"

 

"Assuming the ladies don't keep me up all night wandering in the woods." Oberyn called lightly over to where his wife had finished her prayers and was now throwing a sycamore branch for Ghost, who was happily capering about. Her white fur was glowing eerily in the moonlight.

 

"But I thought you approved of my keeping you up all night, my Prince!" Lyarra called back playfully, her eyes catching the Bolton lad's and then widening to confirm she'd forgotten the quiet boy was even there.

 

Oberyn threw her head back and laughed as the two pale Northerners got into a contest to see who could blush more severely.

 

"I am corrupting you, darling. How delightful!" Oberyn bragged and walked over towards her with his intentions written all over his face. "Mayhaps I might corrupt you so far as to truly enjoy the Godswood this fine nig- ooph !'

 

Ghost, having retrieved her stick after its last throw, impacted with the back of Oberyn's knees and sent him staggering. He caught himself against a pear tree and shot the young direwolf a glare. Ghost turned and narrowed her red eyes at Domeric Bolton as if it was somehow his fault that the young she-wolf was no more than a clumsy, big-footed pup despite now being the size of a large, full-grown, hound.

 

"When she's full grown, Princess Lyarra, Ghost will be terrifying ." Ser Domeric said sincerely and took a cautious step back from the silent snarl he was being directed.

 

Satisfied, Ghost looped forward to offer Oberyn the stick. Taking it he held it up in the air and made her jump for it a few times in revenge before he threw it for her. The young she-wolf darted off again chasing it.

 

"I'm sure you'll do the North proud in the Tourney, Ser Domeric." Lyarra stepped forward toward Oberyn's side, but faced the other Northerner instead in a clear message of disapproval for his insinuations. "Though we don't often participate in them."

 

"They're a waste of gold and reveal too much of our talents in warfare." Domeric admitted with a guilty smile. "I must confess to a weakness, however. I love to ride. My Aunt Bethany swears I was all but born on a horse."

 

"Your poor mother." Oberyn muttered to himself and grinned and caught his wife's elbow with one hand, turning her with the blow and tucking her against his side happily in response.

 

He'd teach her how to break that hold the next morning. Carefully, of course! He had to be mindful of her condition, but as long as they took care, it was no reason to stop their sparring yet. He enjoyed the way it heated her blood and his own too much to give it up easily, and she was gaining skill daily. After the babe was born Obara would enjoy having another lady about who loved the training yard over the ballroom.

 

"My brother Bran is much the same, and dreams of being a knight as well." Lyarra ignored him, though she did pinch his hip roughly. Oberyn slid a hand down and patted her rear end approvingly, ignoring the way she stood stiffly as he did it and the rapidly growing look of trapped discomfort on the young knight's face.

 

"He's lucky in being the squire of a knight with a reputation such as the Blackfish has."

 

"He is. Tell me, since House Bolton doesn't follow the Seven, how did you manage your knightly vows?" Lyarra asked. "I've always been curious about that."

 

"I stood vigil in the Godswood, and I wrote my own vows to be anointed under." Oberyn felt his lips quirk up a little at the young man's small, guilty smile. "The blessed oil we used was actually infused with weirwood sap. I came up with the idea, and my father sent some down. I was surprised he bothered, for Father is not… an indulgent man."

 

Oberyn had met Roose Bolton. If he'd had to describe him, indulgent would not have been the term. Disturbing fit fairly well. Emotionless wasn't bad either. Heartless would do in a pinch.

 

"I'll have to make a showing at the tourney, when I ride." Domeric went on in the tone of a boy driven to confession by a rare friendly ear. "Father tolerates no failure and he looks to me to earn our name acclaim. House Bolton is known for little beyond our brutal past, but I would have us truly respected in the North, rather than simply feared for our power and our reputation for brutality."

 

Oberyn's wife was now openly smiling at the boy. Oberyn wasn't a jealous man by nature, but he found it irking him a little. Sexually he'd never been possessive before, but he'd also never been Marked nor restricted in his own partners. He was growing fonder of Lyarra and believed that in time he'd love her. He thought he felt the same growing within her along with his child, but seeing her smile that wide, beaming grin at a younger man from her own homelands…. Well, he found it bothersome.

 

"I understand wanting to prove who you are beyond a name." Lyarra, once known as Snow, replied earnestly.

 

"Lyarra!" Gwyn's excited, happy yell came from further in the Godswood. "Call off Ghost before she eats my new snake!"

 

"Gwyn, you cannot keep snakes!" Lyarra automatically protested. "It might be poisonous. What about the spiders? You've already got a jar of spiders!"

 

"Don't be a hypocrite, look at who you're married to! Ghost, no, my snake!"

 

Oberyn Martell threw back his head and laughed at the confused expression on Domeric Bolton's face.

 

"Call your direwolf, darling, and I'll go recapture our budding naturalist." Oberyn volunteered and decided to make use of the young man and a rare opportunity. "Ser Domeric, if you'd please escort the Princess back to the guest rooms?"

 

He'd been trying to catch Gwyn Parren alone since the Twins, but Lyarra had grown more protective of her friend as she slowly inched her way out of her shell again as she had begun to since that day. He hoped he was not about to undo that progress. Sometimes he still struggled with the girl's looks and her origins, but after his talk with Arya about her shaking fits and nightmares, he was having more success directing his hatred where it belonged: at the Lannisters.

 

"I would be honored, Your Grace." Ser Domeric bowed, Ghost loped back towards Lyarra as if sensing that she was wanted, and Oberyn ignored Lyarra's suspicious look entirely as he headed further into the godswood.

 

He found Lady Gwyn Parren finally looking like a girl of three-and-ten. The false air of maturity that clung to her expression and her controlled mannerisms were gone. She had climbed up a sturdy old holly, and sat on a low limb with her feet dangling down. Her fair blonde hair gleamed like a single fall of sunlight in the silver light of the moon, and her eyes were dark pools.

 

"Ah, a common green tree snake." Oberyn admired. "We have the like in Dorne as well."

 

Gwyn regarded him carefully from her perch and Oberyn reached down and picked up her abandoned basket of mushrooms to set it out of the way. She'd cast it hastily aside to climb the tree, it seemed. Glancing inside he checked and confirmed that nothing poisonous had been accidentally picked, but he'd noticed the girl's skills in cooking long before. Apparently gathering food was part of that.

 

"They're everywhere. They even go north of the neck, and only one other species of snake I've found does that." Gwyn allowed, but made no move to get down from the tree. "No snakes go north of Winterfell, according to Master Luwin and Old Nan."

 

Oberyn sat on the ground, letting her loom up over him. He took care not to be too close, though. Lyarra's age occasionally ambushed him and made him uncomfortable. He had no desire whatsoever to accidentally see up Gwyn's skirt.

 

"I imagine that when those two sources agree with each other, debate is fruitless."

 

"Usually, Your Grace."

 

Silence drifted onward and Oberyn clamped down on his impatience. Instead he summoned up an image of his daughters in his mind's eye. Impatient Obara, demanding to learn the spear now. Sarella, voracious for knowledge and forgetting to return his gauntlets because she'd needed them to collect scorpions. Picturing this girl's jar of spiders helped, for it reminded him of mischief that Tyene had caused, and with the grief came a hint of affection for a child he knew he shouldn't restent and helped him relax. Gwyn interpreted tension (and almost anything else most grown men did) as threat. He did not want her afraid of him anymore.

 

Eventually the snake desired freedom and the living emerald ribbon was permitted to slither away. Gwyn stayed in the tree, however, nervously looking down at him. Realizing he may have inadvertently treed the girl like a hound did a housecat, Oberyn stood up and wandered slightly away. His instinct was to offer any lady help climbing down from anywhere, though why a lady would be in a tree was a varied thing, but he held back and let her come down on her own. When she had he took a seat again and let her stand.

 

"I would like to make a deal with you, Lady Gwyn."

 

She watched him like that snake had likely stared at Ghost.

 

"A deal ?"

 

"Yes."

 

Oberyn kept his tone low and moderate and tried to imagine how his brother would sound. Doran, Oberyn thought bitterly, would have had far better success convincing the girl she was safe. Ironic, considering that he was an acclaimed warrior known across Westeros and Essos and his elder brother was weakened by age and gout. He went on.

 

"I would like to make a deal where I would ask you questions. If you don't feel comfortable answering them, then don't. Instead, tell me why you won't give me an answer."

 

Gwyn watched him for a few minutes. Then the girl slowly slid down with her back against the tree she'd climbed. She gathered her basket into her lap, as though its weight comforted her. Finally, facing him as he sat with his back to a hawthorn tree, the girl nodded.

 

"Do you know who killed my sister and her children?"

 

Oberyn couldn't keep his voice from growing low and hoarse and angry, but he tried. The girl's hands were visibly shaking. He cursed his impatience and was surprised when, low and having to swallow repeatedly to get it out, she spoke.

 

"Feed the living, bury the dead."

 

" What ?" Oberyn asked, his temper flaring up even as he tried to muzzle it. Fortunately his tone remained even, and while he could feel his face shifting into a harsh scowl, the girl had closed her eyes against the effort of speaking.

 

"We say it." She managed to gasp. "Back home. In the Westerlands… We've poor soil and we're further north than you are. Winter hits us hard sometimes, when it does there is never enough food for anyone but the richest lords. You h-have to put aside your gripes. You have to forget slights and - and everyone works together to save everyone. If we don't, only the Stranger eats."

 

Oberyn took a deep breath, nodded, and was rewarded when she opened her eyes to look at him with the fear of someone who expected punishment but saw no way to escape it. He moderated his breathing further and held up his hands, slowly and carefully, palm out. The fear was like a knife to his breast on the face of this child he'd just seen chase a green snake up a tree out of fascination. Oberyn thanked the Gods for it. His temper twisted like the Viper he was named after and went in search of better targets.

 

"You're afraid of the Gods punishing Lyarra if I get killed."

 

"Your lives are bound for the first year, maybe more, or until a child is born but sometimes that's not enough, either." The little blonde girl spoke, the words tumbling out. "Lyarra doesn't understand how things work outside of the North. She doesn't know what it's like. Someone has to protect her from that."

 

"True, but that is my duty as her husband , isn't it?"

 

"You have a duty to your sister, too."

 

The words were spoken quietly, and there was a pain there that led to Oberyn closing his eyes. He appreciated her understanding that he hurt. He focused on that rather than his anger and was pleased when, again, he kept it focused where it belonged. The same man who'd seen his sister and her babes slaughtered had terrified this child. He had to remember that.

 

"I do." Oberyn acknowledged quietly. "Why do you believe I will die?"

 

"All of Twyin Lannister's enemies die."

 

There was some hint of evasion there and she wouldn't meet his eyes, but Oberyn didn't press. That wasn't the objective this night. He had some information. He wanted more. More importantly, however, he wanted to build some trust with the child. For once he wasn't the right Martell Prince to rescue a beautiful maiden from her fears, but he was determined not to fail. He'd waited nearly five-and-ten years on Doran's slow work to avenge Elia and her children. He could channel some of Doran's patience and the gentle spirit he'd lavished once on a wild younger brother if it would help Elia's justice bear fruit.

 

"I've waited a long time, I can wait further if necessary." The words hurt, but Oberyn forced them out and watched the blonde head snap up and blue eyes regard him with a sudden suspicious hope. "Why are you so scared, my lady?"

 

A thousand things flickered across the girl's pretty face, but in the end, it shuttered. He thought she would get up then. Maybe to run away from him, maybe to just dispel some of her fear with movement. Instead she surprised him by answering in a barely audible whisper heavy with truth.

 

"Powerless."

 

"What?"

 

"I'm powerless , Prince Oberyn." Gwyn Parren's voice raised slightly, the whisper carrying and the expression she turned to him was ancient in its exhaustion and the deep-seated anger that underpinned it. "House Parren cast me aside, and I was lucky they did that much to protect me. Lord Stark took me in, but his strength is only great north of the Neck. Now I'm in your care, but you're just another man like he is. Men die, and yet the world has made you infinitely more powerful than women. I'm entirely at your mercy and the mercy of anyone with more wealth, more clout, or more beauty than I have. I can do nothing when something threatens me or those I love. That is why I am scared."

 

Crickets sang around them and Oberyn breathed slowly. His own fists were clenched. He let the silence drag out until he heard her fidgeting again, though he noticed in surprise that her hands no longer shook where they were clenched around her basket.

 

"I cannot help but wonder if that was not my sister's final horror." He muttered, reaching up and running a hand over his face to feel the cold sweat that had broken out there. "To feel such."

 

Gwyn Parren said nothing, but she was nodding woodenly. Oberyn couldn't bring himself to ask if she was agreeing. He'd have to demand why, and it would undo any progress he'd made. Still, he couldn't quite help going on again. It was not in his nature to be restrained.

 

"Ser Stevron Frey told me that a knight of House Lorch killed my niece, the Princess Rhaenys."

 

Gwyn Parren's head snapped up and she worried at her lip with her even white teeth. After a while she licked her lips and looked off to the side, then up into the tree, then off again as if fighting some internal battle. What happened next left Oberyn happy he was seated.

 

"Amory Lorch."

 

Silence stretched out before Oberyn broke it in a ragged voice.

 

" What ?"

 

"I-" The girl paused to swallow, then went on in a strained whisper. "They - at the Rock they say half-a-hundred men were in the room when the little Princess was murdered. Not that there’s ever been a bed chamber that could hold that many. Only one brags of it. Ser Amory Lorch is a stupid, mean, petty idiot of a man. Even his kin hates him. He's - he's got no real favor with Lord Twyin and has traded too often on the Sack. If he were to die quietly, j-just vanish , then nobody would ask questions. It wouldn't be dangerous. Unless you were a total idiot he'd be no match for you in a fight."


Oberyn could barely breathe past the sound of the blood rushing inside his ears. A Name . After all these years and all of his anger, he finally had a Name .

 

" Thank you , Lady Gwyn." He breathed out, real gratitude in his tone. He could hear the girl swallowing and was surprised when she spoke again.

 

"Or he could have an accident at the tourney. If Ser Domeric is right and there's to be a tourney, he'll try for it. He's greedy, but not good enough to win purses, usually."

 

"An attractive option." Oberyn allowed and moved a little closer to the girl, rising very slowly so as not to spook her. "It would be nice to use my unjust reputation for maiming unwary knights on the list so. I'll have to tell Willas of it someday, he'll appreciate it."

 

Gwyn looked at him, her expression confused while her breathing had sped up as if she'd just run for her life. Oberyn felt his heart clench for the girl, suddenly. She looked like a Lannister, that much was true.

 

"Lions eat their young sometimes, I'd heard."

 

"Wolves don't." Gwyn looked up at him, and then allowed him to draw her to her feet as she shivered in the warm night air. "I was raised by wolves, too… Who's Willas?"

 

"Lord Willas Tyrell of Highgarden, Heir to the Reach." Oberyn replied lightly. "I unhorsed him after the Fat Flower he calls a father pushed the boy into jousting before he was ready. His foot caught in the stirrup and his knee ended up shattered and ruined. I've been blamed since for crippling the lad, some say intentionally, though I sent my own Maester to see to him. We've been friends since. Willas loathes being captive to expectation. I believe he would like you. However, as I think his grandmother would attempt to steal you I will not be introducing you any time soon."

 

"Lords Paramount and their Heirs are too rich for me, anyway."

 

The half-truthful sally made Oberyn smile and he led the girl back to the castle. Finding his wife already in bed in a shift (a sure sign she expected to be wroth with him if there was any) he took advantage of it and handed Gwyn over into Lyarra's care. Pressing a kiss to his wife's hair he picked up the neat folding lap desk he kept his papers in. Then, adjurning to the small sitting room attached to his suite, he wrote his brother.

 

He would plan the specifics of the next life he took later. For now he wished to send a raven to Doran. After all these years they had a Name. More would follow, he was certain of it.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen - 297 A.C.

 

Lord Edgar Waterman was staring at him in shock, yet Robb firmly ignored the fifty-year-old man. Lord Waterman was a staunch ally of House Stark and a good man, but Robb had bigger fish to fry at the moment. If that meant hauling nets, then he'd haul fishing nets.

 

"You've had a good catch today!" Robb observed proudly, putting his back into moving the heavy netting and the haul of salmon it currently contained from the river. "Have you had much trouble with bears this year?"

 

"No more'n usual, m'Lord." The young man, a year or so older than Robb, standing closest to him replied with an expression of surprised delight on his face. "There's one with a great white scar across his nose who's a right nuisance, but we've fire and spears handy at night to deal with 'im when he comes prowling."

 

"If he's been around the docks, he's more a danger than a nuisance. You mean he comes up to the docks don't you? Right here?"

 

"Yes, m'Lord." A gray haired elder who was all lean height and wiry muscle shot his grandson a sharp look for his bravado and stepped forward from where he'd tied the family's small boat up.

 

They were on one of the many small lakes that branched out into the hills above the Rills. House Waterman held the land around this particular small lake, and the stout keep they called their seat sat above them. Waterhouse Fort was composed of two towerhouses joined by a hall and then surrounded by a high earth berm only topped by a stone wall in Robb's grandfather's youth. It was a good keep though. Strong, sturdy, and growing in prosperity thanks to careful management of the fisheries, Lord Waterman was a solid ally to House Stark despite having only been raised to the rank of lord during the Rebellion.

 

"If it breathes, Greywind can track it." Robb declared, looking around and spotting a few fresh claw marks in the sturdy, wet lumber of the docks. His direwolf had been insistently sniffing around the dock since they arrived, and a few low growls had been what prompted him to step forward and ask. "Are those its marks?"

 

"Aye, it dug in with its claws." The old fisherman nodded towards the long scrapes in the lumber. "Took everything we had to drive it off and it broke Evan's leg in the process. A bear that big coulda' taken his leg clean off with a swipe of its paw, but he was lucky the torches gave it a fright. It still tore down two racks of drying fish we was smoking."

 

"Winter's coming, and even with Dorne's help, we can't afford to lose the catch. It's too important." Robb scowled and stepped back.

 

The nets were now where they were supposed to be, and the various men and boys on the docks were dragging salmon from them. Getting out of the way, he slapped a rough palm between the shoulder blades of the young man he'd been speaking with earlier, getting a surprised grin in return, and then moved back to where Lord Waterman was standing. Greywind jogged forward from where he was scratching at the dirt and growling nearby. Burying his fingers in his companion's gray ruff he scratched and nodded before turning towards his host.

 

Theon was a few docks over, happily standing balanced on the rail of a larger boat and helping load it by stacking crab pots while he talked about the weather out on the Bay of Ice. The fisherman was apparently heading out there soon. While he didn't fish the bay himself, the man made crab pots and took them down to a coastal village to sell. He had some deal with a local blacksmith to get him wire for his, rather than twine netting, and so they were in much demand.

 

Robb had left Keavan Forrester with the horses. A quick glance showed that he was still there. It also showed that a hound had wandered up and the man was energetically scratching its belly. Robb decided he knew who to blame for slipping Greywind extra treats. Keavan had a fairly serious nature. Robb was learning he could rely on the tall, sturdy man as a bannerman of his own generation, and he appreciated that. He just also wished that the man's soft-spot for animals didn't lead to him sharing red bean and sausage stew with his direwolf. It led to a rather unpleasantly fragrant tent in the evenings.

 

"Forgive my digression, Lord Waterman." Robb walked up, dusting his hands off and bowing his head and shoulders to the aging bannerman. "My siblings and I have raised these direwolves since before they were weaned, and Greywind doesn't show his teeth without a purpose. When he began snarling at the dock, I had to know why."

 

"Don't apologize for solving a problem, Lord Robb." The older man shook his head and cast a look both cautious and admiring at the young direwolf trotting beside the Heir to Winterfell. "I appreciate a man who's not above himself as a lord, and the smallfolk won't forget it. The bears are always a hassle during the run, but I hadn't heard one was up at the docks."

 

"Nobody wants to be the one to complain. It's not the fault of your people for wanting to save you the burden. Your son's at Flint's Finger right now and can't manage the hunt, after all."

 

"And I'm in no shape for it." The old man agreed wryly, tapping his crutch against the wooden peg that served him for a left leg below the knee. "Aye, can't deny that. Of last year or so, even riding for more than a bit has become too much for my damned old bones. I appreciate you taking care of the nuisance animal."

 

"It will be my pleasure as well as my duty." Robb grinned. "Think of Greywind every time you enjoy your new bearskin rug."

 

Lord Waterman laughed as he hobbled along beside Robb, who carefully kept his pace even with the old man's. His son, Young Edgar, was actually the man's fourth son by his second wife. House Waterman had suffered greatly from stillbirths and childhood illness. As a result the Heir to the House was only a few years older than Robb despite his father being of an age with Robb's grandfather. He was also currently looking for a wife, and not home often.

 

Robb could appreciate that. He'd been propositioned for marriage (or just plain propositioned) by every unwed maiden in the North he came across on his journey to audit the weirwoods and assess the North's readiness for Winter. So far it felt like the only brother or father in the North who wasn't ready to hurl their family's ladies at him with a trebuchet was Keavan Forrester. Robb was growing more sympathetic to his new friend's melancholy over the eventual loss of his sister daily, and Lyarra's last letter hadn't helped the feeling.

 

"You've a way with the smallfolk, Lord Robb." Lord Waterman grunted. "I wouldn't have expected it, as fine a lady as your mother is."

 

Robb resisted the urge to bristle at that. It took a great force of will, but he managed. Snide comments about his mother were something he wasn't precisely used to, but he was slowly gaining an appreciation for just how slighted the North had felt by his father's marriage. He was also realizing how important it would be for him to choose a proper wife. A decision he was now beginning to see would dictate a great deal of loyalty or bad blood where his own rule was concerned.

 

Hopefully the day he had to worry about that would be far, far in the future, but Robb felt as if Lyarra's Mark appeared had opened his eyes in a way. First, in his father finally being forced to include him in important negotiations that showed, sometimes infuriatingly and sometimes sadly, that his father wasn't either as perfect or as universally admired as Robb thought. Secondly, the trip to King's Landing also meant that Robb had the responsibilities of his rank and House for the first time in his life, and as exhausting as they were they were also exhilarating in a way. He'd always wanted to make his father proud. Now Robb had the chance to actually do so.

 

"Mother's still a little nervous. She feels like the North dislikes her and tries to hide from it behind her pride. A fisherman should know that no trout wants to show weakness. If it does, well, some bigger fish is likely enough to come along."

 

"True enough, Lord Robb."

 

"She's been a good wife to my father, and she's given the North five strong children to carry on the Stark name."

 

"She has done that." Real pleasure came into the old man's voice as he agreed and Robb felt himself flush as he realized how much of that was directed at him as they hobbled up to where Keavan held the horses and Robb and the Forrester helped the one-legged man heave himself cautiously up into the saddle. "You've done your father proud, I'll say that. You may look a Tully, but you're as Stark as that wolf of yours."

 

Theon jogged up behind them, panting a bit from the run, but grinning at the chance to talk ships and weather. Or, well, honestly Robb wasn't sure what the Greyjoy talked about when there was water involved. It had done his friend good, though, so Robb was relieved and happy to see it.

 

"Thank you, Lord Waterman." Robb opted to be as polite and politic as his mother had taught him to be.

 

"Who got you talking to the smallfolk, though? Lord Ned's a good lord to every man in the North, and rank has little to do with it, but he's always been the Quiet Wolf. Your Lord and Father's not much for going out and just talking in general."

 

"That was mostly my sister's doing." Robb smiled and felt the sadness in it. "Lya- Princess Lyarra befriended one of our wards. Lady Gwyn Parren, from the Westerlands. Lady Gwyn's father was a very minor knight in Lannisport, and Lady Gwyn liked to go out and haggle with the merchants in Wintertown herself whenever she needed something. She was forever arguing with the spice merchant. It got so bad that he'd see Lady Gwyn coming and try to head the other way, but Lyarra was with her. If Lyarra went, then I went and I'd get talked into standing at the other end of the alley with Lord Theon so the spice merchant couldn't escape."

 

His bannerman let out a deep, rolling laugh at that story and Robb's brief embarrassment at talking so much about his family's personal matters faded.

 

"That sends me back years , to before my sister married."

 

"Yes, I can see how it would."

 

"You miss the Princess, then?"

 

"I do."

 

"I don't blame you, my lord." Old Lord Waterman replied, his expression wistful before it slid into satisfaction. "That said, the Gods smiled on the North when they Marked your sister. You've got to see that. Even in punishing your father they did Lord Ned and the North a good turn."

 

"With the grain and dried fruits and everything else coming in, you won't see children staggering around with the scurvy." Keavan, who'd been seated quietly upon his tall bay mare, added in a fiercely proud tone.

 

"Not this time." The old man agreed passionately, and grinned. "And there's more to come. I've made a deal through your father to send a lot of peat south to Dorne, and in return I'm putting up four more glass houses. We've only got the one now, but by the time winter comes, the glass should be here and I'll have them rigged with hypocausts to keep them blooming even when the snows are deep."

 

"We've sent lumber for glass, ourselves." Keavan added, his tone eager. "I know the Lady at Barrowtown unbent enough to do the same, and you know how Lady Dustin is."

 

Robb winced, and then shook his head. Barbrey Dustin, nee Ryswell, had come to his sister's wedding. She'd been a silent, dark shadow in widow's black, and she'd watched the proceedings with a calculation he had misliked.

 

"I wish I knew why she disliked us so."

 

"Well, Lord Robb." Lord Waterman paused and looked at him as they neared the gatehouse up at the keep and Robb raised his eyebrows at the speculative look. Whatever the man saw in his expression, his bannerman apparently liked it because he kept speaking. "I don't speak ill of the dead. It's no honorable habit. That said, your Uncle Brandon was a fine man in every way but how he treated ladies."

 

"What?" Theon asked, totally confused and voicing Robb's own feelings.

 

He'd heard that his Uncle Brandon was wild. Everyone knew he had too much of the Wolf's Blood. He'd even heard a tale or two about him frequenting whorehouses in a way that Ned Stark would have skinned Robb if he'd ever tried. He'd never heard any ill spoken of his uncle's habits, however. If anything Lord Umber and other contemporaries of his Uncle Brandon had sounded admiring.

 

"Lord Brandon didn't confine his attention to whores and women of the smallfolk." Lord Waterman clarified with a frown. "In her youth Lady Barbrey was a fine woman, and her father wanted to see her Lady of Winterfell. Lord Brandon took her maidenhead, but wouldn't offer her marriage when his father had a Southron lady with a rich dowry on offer, and the Ryswells have never forgiven your family. Not that I blame them. If it had been my sister, I'd have ridden into Winterfell like the Wild Wolf rode into the Red Keep… Probably would have only turned out slightly better, too."

 

Robb felt his face heat up and cursed his complexion. His freckles probably looked like they were connecting at this point. Shooting a look at Theon, he saw his friend's blue-green eyes turn away, unable to hold his gaze. Knowing that meant Theon had heard the rumors, Robb silently cursed. Looking at Keavan, he saw that the future Lord Forrester was doing the same.

 

"That wasn't right." Robb let out a deep breath. "I'm sorry my uncle did that to Lady Dustin. She and the Ryswells deserved better treatment for their loyalty, and the honor of their daughters."

 

"I've always thought so, Lord Robb." The old man allowed quietly, obviously pleased by the answer. "As I've no daughters or granddaughters to threaten you with, myself, I don't suppose it would do you any harm to tell me if you plan to seek a fat dowry to the south or a bannerman's daughter?"

 

"My sister's followed the Gods' will to a good alliance in the south, and we've prospered from it." It could very well do him harm and Robb knew it, but he found the answer coming from his lips anyway. "My wife will need to be a lady who can help my people through the rigors of Winter, and I don't think I'll find that South of the Neck."

 

Satisfaction rolled off of the man in waves and Robb realized that, other than the upcoming bear hunt, politics was likely to be his main goal even when it was as bluntly spoken as the last exchange had been between himself and his father's white-haired bannerman. He changed the subject, however, to the continued proof that no weirwoods had been disturbed. The old man was eager to discuss that, as the in depth search of his woods had produced a large stand of weirwood saplings where no-one would have looked for them. Taking it to be a sign from the Gods, he'd moved two very carefully to his Godswood, and had another two prepped for a journey south.

 

By the time that they'd finished discussing how to get one sapling to the Crowlands and another to the southern end of the Reach, they were comfortably settled in Lord Waterman's cozy solar. It had a bank of windows that overlooked the lake. It also had a collection of very comfortable chairs, a huge fireplace that smelled sweetly of burning peat, and a good bottle of wine that Robb was happy to accept a glass of. With Lord Keavan pleading a need to answer a raven from his own father and Theon wishing to go back down to the docks before nightfall, Robb settled in alone with the man to convey the information he most wanted to speak of.

 

"My father's written." Robb laced his fingers together around the thick stoneware cup of wine the older man had handled him. "You and all the other Bannermen should be getting letters soon as well, officially and under Father's seal. Since I'm here, however, I wanted to pass on the information immediately."

 

"Indeed?"

 

"Yes. Lord Stark stopped at the Twins and weather forced him to accept Lord Frey's hospitality."

 

"I have great sympathy for Lord Stark, then."

 

"It might be that a higher power wanted him there." Robb replied to the sarcasm with seriousness. "While there, Father and his men discovered a stand of saplings being grown. They were a tree from the Westerlands used to produce red dye. While they're young, the trees have white bark and orange-red leaves."


Lord Waterman's reaction was everything Robb could have hoped for. He sat up, he sloshed wine out of his own cup and onto his blue and brown doublet. His long white beard bristled like a frightened barn cat's tail.

 

"The Freys were behind the false weirwoods?"

 

"Aye, they were selling them in the Stormlands and Reach for huge sums."

 

Robb scowled at the thought. Greywind, who'd curled up at his feet, let out a low growl. Robb reached down to pet the direwolf's head as his pet sat up and placed his long muzzle on Robb's knee, looking for contact to soothe both their tempers.

 

"Those honorless bastards!" Waterman was furious. " Weasels , every one of them, and cowards besides. Lord Tully knew nothing of this?"

 

"My grandfather has been in and out of bed with a long illness." Robb shook his head. "He's turned most of the day-to-day running of his realm over to my uncle, Lord Edmure Tully. Of the last year my uncle's been much occupied dealing with a number of brigands. One band in particular seems to creep out of the Westerlands hills and wreak havoc just after a harvest comes in and the smallfolk have some ready coin on hand."

 

"Aye," Waterman's old, lined face grew pensive. "I'd heard that brigandage had become a real problem for the Southrons."

 

"The Plague killed so many, and a lot of smallfolk fled their homes and are now displaced." Robb rubbed a hand over his face. "Not to mention all the orphans who never were apprenticed or learned a trade because of it. Father sent a letter on that Lord Randyl Tarly of Horn Hill in the Reach wrote him. He and Ser Garlan Tyrell have been in the saddle more than out of it for the last year dealing with similar problems. Even my goodbrother, Prince Oberyn, had to deal with a major band of brigands that had come into Dorne from the Stormlands, in the moons between the Plague fading away and being Marked."

 

"We all owe Howland Reed and your father a drink, then, because if they're not coming north, it's Reed's damned invisible archers and fear of Ice coming down on their necks that's keeping the brigands south."

 

"Aye." Robb grinned suddenly, fierce and sharp and Greywind rumbled happily. "Speaking of justice , Lord Stark served it well."

 

He proceeded to explain everything that his father's letter had passed on to him. He told of how the weirwo