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The Winter Rose

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“Robb Stark.”

I knew that voice, I hadn’t heard it in a few years, but I would know it anywhere. I spun around, and there standing in the courtyard of Winterfell was Alianna Umber, one of my best friends and my betrothed. “Ali?”

She looked different. The last time I had seen her she was a young girl with a wooden sword in her hand, now she looks like a little lady, just like Sansa, and that was odd. She smiled, her dark eyes lighting up, and then she gathered her skirts and ran the rest of the way across the courtyard, but I was ready for her. I caught her in my arms and swung her around laughing along with her. We separated and she said, “Surprise!”

“Why are you here? I’m glad you are! But…” Gods I sound a mess. Her smile didn’t diminish. “I convinced my father to come for a visit. I was getting bored at Last Hearth, and papa can’t deny me anything, besides he missed Ned and Smalljon wanted to see you as well.” I smiled, “he still can’t say no to you huh?” There was a great booming laugh behind me, and I turned to find myself looking up at Lord Umber, the Greatjon.

He clapped me on the back and ruffled his daughters’ hair, “never could say no to her either could you Stark? That’s why she came home with sword training and was able to shoot a bow better than half my men.” Ari’s face reddened a bit but I could see the pride in her and hear it in the man’s voice. “That was not entirely my fault, she had some skill before she started following Jon, Theon and I around the training yard.”

“No, but after only a few moments of pleading you agreed to let me train with you, regardless of what Lady Catelyn or Lord Stark had to say about it.” I smiled at her, “okay yes, I did.” I heard footsteps behind me and turned to find Jon and my father, Lord Eddard Stark, making their way to greet the guests. “Lord Umber, we didn’t expect you until tomorrow.” Lord Umber bowed his head to my father before they both laughed and the Greatjon hauled my father in for a hug. Jon nodded to the Smalljon while our fathers caught up and then Ali was squealing and rushing to Jon, similarly to how she greeted me. I watched my half-brother scoop Ali up and I couldn’t help but smile at his smile. He had been getting much to serious lately, I knew he would lighten up a little with Ali here, she would make sure of it. She did not care that Jon was a bastard, she cared that he took her seriously when no one else did and that he was a good friend.

My father eventually finished his conversation with Lord Umber and his son, and then ushered us all into the keep, Ali on both my arm and Jon’s. We were met by mother and my sisters, as well as Theon, who had to have heard the commotion, and I saw my mother’s face sour momentarily when she caught Jon mixed in with the rest of us, but it cleared just as fast, replaced with the Lady of Winterfell mask, and I was grateful, and not in the mood for another round of the same argument we always had. Theon grinned his rakish grin at Ali who merely rolled her eyes before giving him his own hug, before moving to greet my mother and sisters.

I took the moment of commotion to sweep my eyes over her again. She really had grown up in the last two years. She was fourteen now, and beautiful. Her black curls were hanging loosely down her back, almost to her hips, and she was taller than I remember. She was starting to look like a lady, and grace could be seen in the way she moved. She had always been graceful, but it was innate now instead of practiced. I was brought out of my reverie by the Smalljon. “Stark.” He clapped my back. I grinned at him, “Umber,” we laughed and shook hands. “We will have to spar later, see what you have learned in the last few years.” My grin turned wolfish at the challenge in his voice, “You’re on Umber.”

I felt an arm hook into mine and looked down into the dark eyes of Ali and met her smirk. “You boys already at it again? We haven’t been here but ten minutes’ brother dear and already your causing trouble for me.” The Smalljon laughed, “always little sister. I aim to please.” With a snort Ali shook her head and tugged me after the rest of my family and hers, which were retreating further into the keep.

“So Robb, what have I missed? Your letters are always so short! Is Bran still a monkey? Is Arya still shooting her bow like I taught her? Jon seemed sullen, is Catelyn at it again? Fill me in!” I chuckled. “Of course my lady.” She elbowed me. “Don’t my lady me just tell me!”

“Yes, Bran is still a monkey, Arya is still shooting and Jon is sullen. I haven’t seen or heard any arguments so I’m not sure if it is my lady mother or not but I am trying to cheer him up so we are going to practice archery with Bran on the morrow because he asked Jon to and I told Jon we are doing it regardless of what my mother says. Rickon is begging to be able to practice in the tiltyard with us all now, or at least get a bow, but mother feels he is still too young to start. Sansa is becoming a perfect southern lady in the making and mother couldn’t be more thrilled, but I fear it is making things between my sisters worse than ever. Arya still has little interest in the womanly arts and mother is forcing the issue and Sansa isn’t helping.” Ari shook her head.

“You leave Arya to me. I will work my magic there and straighten the issue out. I know how she feels. I never wanted to be a lady either. If the Mormont girls can wield weapons, why can’t we? North and South are as different as night and day; your lady mother should know that by now. Sansa needs to relax and enjoy her youth before it is gone. I cannot believe that Rickon is begging to learn. The last time I saw him he was still a babe clinging to your mothers’ skirts!” I laughed, “that’s what you get for staying away for so long Ali.” Her eyes lowered to the ground, her body tensed, something was wrong.

“What is it Ali? What are you not telling me?” Her dark eyes found mine. “King Robert sent a raven to my father a year and a half ago, right around my yearly visit here. He wanted to know what it would take for my father to let our betrothal end.” I tensed, why would the King care about our betrothal? She read the question in my eyes. “He wanted you to marry his daughter, Myrcella Baratheon. My father was angry, but he said we must stay away for a while, until Robert found another fancy, but he wrote to your father, just in case, and Lord Stark said he would take care of it, and I guess he did because when I asked father if we could finally visit again he said yes.”

We had fallen behind the rest of our family, so I lead her to the glass garden, as that had always been her favorite place. “Ali, why didn’t you say anything in your letters?” She guided us to a bench near the winter roses and we sat. “I didn’t want to say anything until we knew one way or the other, I’m guessing that’s why your father also said nothing.” Her eyes looked away from mine, but I brought them back to me by squeezing your hand. “What’s the other reason Ali? I know you, your leaving something out.” I searched her face, trying to read what she wasn’t saying, but I couldn’t be certain.

“I was scared Robb. You and I have been betrothed since we were eight. For most of our lives, and some king in the south was trying to take that away from me. If I wasn’t going to continue being betrothed to you, my father was going to accept Roose Bolton’s offer for me to wed his son. Domeric is kind, at least from I have heard, but he is still a part of that family, and the Bolton’s make my skin crawl. I was terrified I would have to go to the Dreadfort and marry him instead of you. I wanted it to be you.” The last sentence was a whisper, but it made me smile. I don’t think I have heard Ali so meek and quite. It was offsetting but I could tell she genuinely meant every word. I ignored the nagging in my mind that there was something else going on, and answered her in kind.

“I want it to be you to Ali. You and I have had years to get used to the idea of marrying each other, I would hate to lose that. I would also have to wait longer to wed, because the princess is much younger than us. Father must have pointed that out to the King and made him see reason.” She looked up at that and let out a breath. “I’ve missed you Robb. Your letters were wonderful, but they were not enough.”

I nodded in agreement. “I missed you to Ali. It’s been odd, not having you here for periods of time. Theon has become even more of a pain in the last two years, Jon is pulling away, because he feels left out here, unwanted. My sisters are at each other’s throats and my mother, bless her, doesn’t help, always praising one and punishing the other. You were always the one to help me fix it and without you, I haven’t known what to do. I have managed to keep Theon’s foolish behavior from father, and I am trying with Jon and Arya but those two speak their own language, have their own little pact that is hard to enter because they booth feel the black sheep…” She cut me off by cupping my cheek and forcing me to look her dead in the eye. “Well I’m here now Robb Stark, so we will put your family to rights, and leave the last two years in the past okay?”

Gods, this right here is why I had missed her. She has always been my voice of reason, my steadying hand. Ever since the day we met, she has been helping me keep my family together, and accepted them as her own. “Thank you Ali, truly. I’m sorry I didn’t write all of that, I just didn’t know how to say it, and I didn’t want to dishearten you when I couldn’t be there to cheer you up myself, though I doubt your brother and father would have left you down for long. They adore you.”

Before she could reply, Arya came hurtling into the gardens and was yelling, “Robb, Ali! They know your missing. They want you to get to the great hall for dinner!” Ali chuckled, “Arya, we are right here, there is no need to yell silly. Come, tell me what I have missed these last years. Have you been practicing as I taught you?” She held out a hand to my willful sister and Arya took it and began tugging Ali back in the direction from which she had come running. I trailed after them, watching her already begin to work her magic. Not that it was hard, her and Arya had always been close.

Arya had thrown a fit the first time she hadn’t been allowed to continue playing with the boys, Ali and I, at make believe and sword play. Especially since Ali was still allowed, so Ali had begun teaching her and by the time my mother had figured it out, it was too late. Not that it is all Ali’s fault, I know that Jon helped, but I don’t mind, the only time my sister seems truly happy is with Jon and when practicing in the tiltyard with the rest of us, so not often. More and more lately she has been stuck in lessons with Sansa and miserable.

We entered the great hall, and my mother seemed relieved at our presence, and the seemed to note the space between Ali and I with a small smile. I wasn’t sure why, but I chose not to question it for the moment. As Ali was guided to the dais by Arya she saw Jon slipping into a seat at the lower tables and immediately frowned. I knew what she was going to do next before she did it.

“Jon, please come join us at dinner.” My brother’s dark head shot up, and he stared at Ali for a moment before giving her a small shake of her head, but she wasn’t to be discouraged. “Please Jon, I have missed you all terribly and wish to catch up.” Before he could deny, Ali waved down a servant and kindly requested another chair and place setting be made at the table so that he could eat with us. I saw the storm cloud fall over my mother’s face, but father simply smiled and nodded, placing an appeasing hand on my mother’s arm. Jon had no choice but to stand and allow both Arya and Ali to take an elbow and walk to the table. I clapped him on the shoulder as I passed and winked before taking my seat next to father. It was good to have her back; she is exactly what this castle needs to get back in order.

****

Catelyn Stark was not happy. Her son’s betrothed appeared on their doorstep with her father and brother a full day before they were due to arrive, and we had only received word of them coming a week prior, we hadn’t told Robb, because the whole situation with the King had only just been sorted out. Her son had always been distracted by the girl, from the time they met, she has always been a distraction. He has improved so much in the last two years and now they just want to marry him off and be done with it. But this girl is not a lady. She may look it, but she is where my daughter gets all of her bad manners and influence, Alianna Umber and that Jon Snow. And now, after disappearing with one boy, she is commanding the presence of the bastard at the high lords table in front of the whole keep. Not that her ridiculous father seems to mind, he just chuckled and let her do whatever she pleased, same as he always has.

Ned did nothing but greet the Greatjon like an old friend, which yes they are that, but he is the lord of Winterfell, his liege lords should show respect, not just drop in whenever they please, that is not how things are done. Even now, as we all sat at a meal, the bastard was talking to Robb’s betrothed and Arya, Robb was laughing and smiling more than he has in months. He has been getting much too serious with his father, and now here is his bride to be, and no doubt they are to be wed soon. She is too wild, to unruly, far too little refined, yet here she is about wed a future lord paramount instead of the princess Robb should be marrying. At least the princess would know how to be a lady, how to guide her people, how not to rile them up and stir the pot.

****

Lord Eddard Stark sat in the middle of the high table, his old war buddy and friend to his left, and his son on his right. He had been showing his son a lot of his future responsibilities these last few years, and he couldn’t be prouder of how his son had stepped up to the task, but he was becoming far too serious, all of his eldest were, and he would like to see them smile and act like young children once more, which is why he allowed the Greatjon to bring his family here once more. No one else inspired smiles on his children’s faces more than Alianna Umber.

The girl was truly of the north. He had heard whispers, these last few years, calling her a winter rose, they were not false. She was a beautiful girl, but behind that beauty was an iron strength that he knew was there, even if few others yet realized it. She was good for Robb, would be good for the north. He knew, of course, that his wife had some misgivings, but he hopped that the relief and happiness now shining on their son’s face would make her realize what he had known for some time.

His son, who never doubted or questioned any of the choices his father made for the family, had had a few misgivings, in the last few years about his arranged marriage, but not for the normal reasons. His mother’s words had made their way into his sons’ mind. He feared that he wouldn’t be respected if he married a girl from the north. How wrong he was. Cat was an amazing Lady of Winterfell, she had helped him greatly, been exactly what he needed when they first began their life, even if he hadn’t known it at the time, but she was from the south, and for that, some had never really grown accustomed to her. They showed her the respect due to her as my lady, but for most that is where the line was drawn. With this girl, Robb could truly make the north whole once more. No one would question him, especially with a northerner like Alianna at his side.

He had told Robb that, as gently as he could, and it had eased his sons’ fears. He had seen the reunion between the pair an hour ago. All it had taken was his sons name, and he had turned around with a wide smile. They had embraced as they often did when reunited as children, but he could see the changes in them most clearly in the next moments. They had both grown up.

Gone was the girl with her hair in a long simple braid down her back and her dresses dirty and carrying a sword. He knew that she had not given up her training, he and the Greatjon had exchanged letters as well over the years, but she was refined in a way that she hadn’t been two years ago. She had a woman’s body beginning to show, and that is why the whispers about her had already reached Winterfell. She was going to be a true northern beauty, just like Lyanna. He could see so much of his sister in her, so much so that at times it was painful. Like when moments after making his presence known, and finding Jon at his side, she had greeted him with as much enthusiasm as she had his son. As Jon hugged her he heard his sisters’ final words in his head once more, Promise me Ned.

His attention had been drawn back to his son. His son who was no longer a lanky child, but nearly a man grown, soon to be seven and ten, and filling out in the shoulders much the way his Uncle Brandon had at his age. His Tully red curls a raucous mess on his head, and the Tully blue of his eyes shining as he watched his two friends reunite. They had always been as thick as thieves, and seeing them here, once more, almost all grown, was a shock to his system.

The differences between the two oldest boys could not have been more obvious as they had been in those moments in the court yard. Jon was still thin, lithe, like his true father had been before him. His dark Stark eyes, ever observant in a way his mother never was. He had all of his mother’s looks, but very little of her temperament. He thought before almost every action, something Lyanna never had been able to boast about. He was truly almost like Ned in that way, making it easy for people to believe his lie. The boy was as tall as his ‘brother’ and likely to be taller if he was to have the height of his father. He had prayed, as he always did, that the boy continued to escape the notice of Robert in King’s Landing, he had made a promise he wanted desperately to keep.

Now, as they sat at the dinner table, all of his children and the Umbers gathered around it, he felt truly at peace once more. His sons were grinning like young boys, gone were the serious masks of the bastard and the heir to Winterfell he had been seeing. In-between them was Alianna, grinning much like they were, dark eyes alight with happiness. Her father had worried for his daughter, Ned knew. He had received the letter a few months ago, Umber in a panic when his daughter had been found distraught and crying in the Godswood at Last Hearth. No one knew quite what had happened, and it had been kept quiet. The Umbers had been hosting the Bolton’s, but only the father, brother and the girl herself knew aside from Ned. He was glad to see her smiling, she had always been a special child.

Farther down the table was the rest of his brood. Theon, his ward, kept trying to insert himself into the conversation with Robb and the other two, and so far was mildly successful, all four laughing. His daughters were for once not warring. One was steadfastly ignoring Jon’s presence at the table, always on her mother’s side, which was both a thing of pride and pain for him to bear witness to. Then there was his Arya, willful, insolent at times, Arya. Smiling and looking far more pleased then she had been as of late. Alianna and Arya had always had a special bond, so he knew what brought the smile on her face.

His two youngest children, still truly children, were enjoying the attention that they would receive from the elder children, and watching everything around them in wonder. Rickon, wild little Rickon, was beaming at Arya while she helped him cut up his boar. Bran was listening intently to whatever Sansa was whispering to him, but always distracted by the bright laughter ringing from the four oldest. As the impromptu feast wore on, he watched the Umber siblings insert themselves into his brood once more.

As she always used to do, Ali helped escort the younger children off to bed with Robb. Arya trailing after her, but Sansa being allowed to stay now. On their return, she held a hand out her son and nodded to the clear space in the middle of the room, clearly meaning to start some dancing. His son’s answering grin was full of youth and joy. He may not realize what Ned himself could already see, but he was in love with his future wife, or at the very least, well on his way to being so.

As the pair began the dancing, he saw his wife’s face darken, and sighed. He knew, then, that he would have to have more words with her about the match between the two. As Robb spun the girl out away from him, and then pulled her back in as the dance demanded, he noted the ease with which the pair had always moved around each other with, as it settled over them once more. He had little to fear for his eldest child in that moment, he would deal with Cat’s feelings, make her see what he saw. His son, his lands, his bannermen, his family, they all would be in good hands.

Chapter Text

The next morning dawned bright and cheerful, Winterfell lit up in the new day’s unaware that today was the beginning of a tidal wave of change heading for the inhabitants of the keep. The servants rushing around to ensure that the first meal of the day would be ready before the family made its appearance. The first person to leave their room was, to no one’s surprise, Alianna Umber-always an early riser.

Her gown today was a deep, almost silver grey, the Umber giant sigil of her house that she had sown into the dress herself was playing with a grey direwolf near her collar, for her and Robb’s future was all but cemented now. They had proven that they were still in sync last night. He hadn’t hesitated to follow her lead out onto the dance floor, and she trusted him implicitly, even after everything that had happened to her in the two years. She was happy to be back at Winterfell, this place had always been another home for her, the people here her family. She knew that her future good-mother was not in favor of their match, it was more obvious now than it had been the last time she saw her. Her son had almost been given to a princess, but instead he was still linked to a girl from a small northern family. She wished that Catelyn Stark didn’t feel the way she did, but the last few months had taught Ali that life was too short to worry about things she couldn’t change.

She made her way towards the great hall, smiling at servants that are bustling around. Her smile widens when she catches sight of Arya making her way towards her, grumbling under her breath and pulling on one of the tails of hair hanging from her hairstyle. “Hello little wolf.” That brings the grin straight to Arya’s face and any sense of discomfort gone. “Ali!” She freezes and takes the older girl in for a moment, noting the interesting attire and the symbol of her house mixing with the Umber one, but just as quickly her slight apprehension of the changes in her old friend gone. “Please tell me mother talked to you last night.”

Ali had no idea what the young girl was speaking about, and her confusion must have been clear on her face so a deep sigh left Arya’s mouth, “great.” The sound was so defeated that Ali swung an arm over the girl’s shoulder and pulled her close, “what is bothering you Arya? What are you hoping she said?” The younger girl took a deep breath, “She was going to insist that you come to lessons with the Septa along with Sansa and I. I was hoping you were going to so that I wouldn’t have to be there alone with them anymore. All they do is fawn over Sansa and criticize me.” I frowned. Poor Arya, no wonder her and Jon were so close lately, they were really feeling like the black sheep.

“Well she didn’t ask little wolf and my brother asked me to be at the tiltyard this morning to watch him spar with Robb.” I left out my involvement, knowing she would demand to go and join in. I didn’t want to anger lady Catelyn more than I already probably do. I saw the sadness in her face for a moment before her eyes glittered with mischief. I cut off whatever idea was blooming in her head, “after they spar they are going to shoot archery with Bran, I’ll join you then okay little wolf, or I’ll steal you away.” Her smile came back, just as we came upon the rest of the Stark family and mine settling down for the morning meal.

I let Arya dart ahead, seeing her favorite breakfast pastry sitting on the table and quickly made my way to the chair Robb was pulling out for me. I was trying to avoid the Lady of Winterfell know that I knew what she would be after, I wasn’t about to miss my brother and my best friend sparring.

Thankfully the meal went by quickly, as the boys were all in a hurry to get to the tiltyard today. Even my father and Lord Stark seemed to have half a mind to join us, or at least watch their sons spar. My father offered me his arm before Catelyn could say anything. All she could do was offer us all a tight smile and give Arya a very firm shake of her head when the girl moved to join us. Though Arya didn’t question her, because she knew what I had promised. I saw the shock color the woman’s face and I shot Arya a wink before being ushered out the door.

When we got to the tiltyard my father let go of my arm to go speak to my brother, so I turned my attention back to Robb. “So, how long do you think you will last?” My smile was teasing, a laugh coloring my voice. Robb growled, “longer than you think I will. I’m better than I was Ali, I’m not three and ten anymore.” Without being able to stop myself, I swept my gaze over him. It was true, gone was the lanky boy with the funny grip on his tourney sword. In his place stood a handsome man, tourney sword still held loosely but held properly, and when my eyes found the Tully blue orbs, I saw something flash across his face, but before I could truly figure out what it was, it was gone and Robb was giving me a wolfish grin, “is there something I can do for you my lady?” Was he trying to flirt with me?

I gave him my own wolfish smile, “don’t lose.” I stepped back, watched his eyes blaze in promise and then took my seat near Rickon and Bran on a railing, Jon standing behind them. “That was subtle.” My gaze turned to him while the two in this silly challenge got ready, “what are you talking about Jon?” His eyes flickered between me and Robb, but said nothing else, because my brother opened his mouth to taunt Robb. “Alright then lordling, let’s parlay.”

Robb said nothing in response, just stepped up to where my brother was waiting. My brother’s eyes found mine and he quirked an eyebrow, beckoning me to start the fighting, as I used to when we were younger. I rolled my eyes, but they clearly were waiting so I stepped forward, between the two and looked at them both, “Okay boys, clean play now, you know the rules.” I stepped back a few paces again, and then gave them the verbal go ahead. Almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth the two boys sprang into action.

Their tourney swords met in a clash, and then the fight was on. I could see that Robb was leagues away from the boy he had been last time I watched him duel. He was more confident in himself, in his actions. He and my brother were almost evenly matched now, and my brother was two years older than Robb. I knew that both the boys in front of me could only be so good until they saw true battle, something I desperately hoped they never would.

As I watched the boys dance around each other, I found my eyes trailing one more than the other. Watching the new ease and confidence with which Robb moved and handled his blade was a thing of true beauty to watch. I wondered if he had ever swung live steel. I had. Once. I had stolen out to the tiltyard late one night after everyone had gone to sleep, and nicked one old live steel blade from the guard station, I had gotten exactly one swing in before my arm had tired and I had almost been caught a moment later.

I was fascinated, watching them move around each other. I knew that my brother never put all his effort into practicing with me, not the way he was with Robb. I suddenly had to resist the urge to grab a sword of my own and jump in. My brother, after five minutes had finally gotten Robb to where he wanted him, and the match ended in bright laughter. Then Robb was pulling Jon and Theon into the foray, and all the boys began swinging at one and other. I was so enthralled with watching Robb, watching them, fight that I missed the presence at my side until the sun shifted slightly and the glint off of the Tully red hair tuned me back into my surroundings. Lady Catelyn, I had been caught out, much sooner than I had wanted to be.

“Lady Catelyn.” Unlike everyone else in the yard, she was not intently watching the light-hearted melee going on, her cold blue eyes were on me. “Alianna. Please come…” Before she could finish speaking however one of her young boys barreled into me. “Ali! Do you see how great Jon and Robb are? Theon and the Smalljon are losing! Come, we must get closer.” The young boy tugged me closer to the edge. I had been perched on a fence, now thanks to his tugging I was right on the edge of the action. I had seen the thundercloud over the lady of the keep darken, but there was not much I could do.

I stood right on the edge of the circle that had built around the boys, their laughter and jests ringing in my ears. They were stopped not that much later, however, by an amused but strict call from the Lord of Winterfell himself. The boys immediately halted, Jon and Robb wearing twin grins that made my heart happy for two different reasons. Theon and Smalljon wandered away, and after a few moments Bran was waved over to the boys and I knew it was time for me to go to Arya.

****

I heard the clashing of tourney swords in the tiltyard, and loud cheers and laughter and wanted so much more to be there than here. In this stupid stuffy room with perfect Sansa and her perfect stiches and her perfect lady-likeness. I wanted Ali to just come already so that I wasn’t so alone. They didn’t favor her either, though Sansa seems to be changing her tune there now that she is older and looks like a lady, but I doubt she will stick with those feelings when she sees or hears something from mother about Ali still being Ali. I for one am glad she is here because she makes me seem less odd, even if it only serves to make my lady mother more strained. At least Ali will mock the Septa with me when she gets here.

The thought hadn’t even finished when she came striding in like she owned the room. Sansa shot up to greet Ali but she simply smiled at her before coming to sit next to me and picked up her own sowing basket which I hadn’t noticed until now. She must have had someone else drop it off early this morning. Sansa and Alit chatted, only for a few minutes before Jeyne drug her back to the other ladies’ conversation and left Ali and I to our peace.

“So Arya dear, we must stay here for a short while, but then we will go shoot in the yard with the boys alright? But only if you try to sit up straight and not look quite like your being tortured.” I huffed a breath, “easy for you to say, even you’ve got it now.” She quirked an eyebrow at me while she sowed snowflakes into a dark blue piece of cloth. “You fit in here, at least a bit. You have the ‘grace of a lady’ and I don’t. You and Sansa with your stupid hairstyles and…” I cut her off, trying not to laugh.

“Arya, I am a lady, you are a lady, Sansa is a lady. Those things you speak of; they make proper ladies. I am not sure I am fully proper. I like my time in the tiltyard too much, but I see the value in the other things now as well. I can make pretty things for my father and brother to wear, and for your family to because I was sat down and told that I could use this skill to save my brothers someday. If you can sew straight lines and keep your stitches close, you could have the ability to save a life Arya, think of it not as a skill you must know for marriage and prim and proper ladies, think of it however you need in order to be able to sit here as I do, and do as I do. It will make life much happier for you.” I considered that, but chose to remain silent for a while.

Sometime later, Ali looked up and caught my eyes and gave me quite the smile. “Septa Mordane?” The old Septa turned, “yes my lady?” Could you please check my last row of stitches; I think I may have lost count? Arya, could you do me a favor and get me some more white thread from the table please? It seems I’m all out of it here.” I grinned, seeing that she was placing me by the door so she could distract the septa. I took my time, waiting for the signal from Ali, and when she gave it I slipped out the room, and a few moments later she was walking out with a sly smile on her face. I said I would retrieve you and I have, but we are not going back there, we have shooting lessons to go watch.”

****

Robb’s eyes kept wandering from his brother and his attempts to hit the target in front of him. He was looking for Ali. He knew that Ali wouldn’t stay away from the tiltyard for long, and most certainly not in that room with the Septa and Sansa. Jon was doing well enough with Bran on his own, but Bran was still nowhere near the target.

His wandering eyes noted that his father was back from wherever he had retreated to previously, and his mother was standing next to him. Jon finished rearranging Bran’s stance again and told him to go ahead, and told him that father was watching, meaning he clocked him as well. Both of them turned to look at father for a moment but my eye was distracted, still looking for the girl who wouldn’t leave my thoughts alone.

As Bran prepared another shot, I put my focus back on him, only for the shot to fly over the target and the wall behind it. Both Jon and I laughed, but were quickly rebutted by father, who aptly pointed out that none of us were marksman at ten. Ali had been. I shook my head to clear it as Jon offered Bran advice, told him not to think so hard. I, in turn told him to loosen his bow arm. Before he could release it, however, an arrow flew out from behind him and landed dead center. We all turned and there was Arya, with a bow in hand. She made a sassy little curtsy and then Bran dropped his own bow to chase after her. A laughing Ali picked up the bow that Arya dropped and headed towards me.

I grinned at her, “you lasted longer than I thought you would.” She stuck her tongue out at me. “Oh hush you. I made a point to Arya, I hope she sees the merit behind it and thus makes your mother’s life a little easier. Maybe that will ease the ice between us.” I grimaced, I knew why the ice was between them, but what I didn’t understand fully is why my mother didn’t see what my father did. He had calmed my worries, after mother flared them with her own. He told me that as wonderful as my mother was, she was of the south, Ali wouldn’t have those problems, she would truly be beloved. She already was becoming beloved.

“I’m sorry about my mother, but thank you for speaking to Arya.” We were gathering arrows, with Rickon shuttling them to Jon. Her smile in reply to my comment was distracted. She observed the hardening of my mother’s face at the sight of Jon, father gone from her side. I didn’t have time to dwell on the ever growing animosity in my mother before Theon was upon us, “there was a deserter. Lord Stark says you are to get your horse, and get Jon. Bran is also going.”

I sighed, knowing how much my mother will hate that, but as our family words say, “’winter is coming,” and we all need to be ready. He may only be ten, but Bran is tough and smart, and he has his older brothers to lean on, we will get him through this. My eyes found Ali’s and she smiled that beautiful small smile, the one just for me, and I couldn’t help but give the answering smile in return. If I have her to come home to, along with the rest of my family after days like today, I think we will be okay.

****

The beheading business was done. My father had heard the man’s last words, which he used to claim he saw something out of the stories Old Nan used to tell. I could tell that my father thought the poor boy was crazy, as did I. Bran learned what he needed and handled it well, I knew father was proud. We were riding back, messing around now that the dire business done when we found them.

There was a fallen stag, huge in size, laying across the road back to Winterfell and after dismounting father went to find what killed it, but Jon walked farther and we discovered that it was a direwolf. A real direwolf on this side of the wall, and the best discovery of the day was the pups, which Jon used his quick wits to save, telling father they were meant for the Stark children.

I was admiring the pup that had been placed in my arms and heading for my horse when I heard Jon say he wasn’t really a Stark. It hurt to know that he didn’t feel included because of my mother, it was one of the strains on my relationship with my mother, and I could tell that Alianna was going to become another. My mother had been dead set on marrying me off to a princess, but I wanted no princess, I want to finish what my father couldn’t. I want to knit the North back together, and Ali is the girl who will help me do that, I know it. I can’t imagine marrying anyone but her.

I was glad when Jon found the hidden two puppies. Bran immediately stated that they were going to Ali and Jon. My family all would have a symbol of our house with us now, and we wouldn’t know what that would do for us in the coming months and years until much later.

Chapter Text

Ali was happy to hear the gates opening and guards shouting, as it meant that her future husband and his family were back, and she could escape the Septa she, Sansa and Arya had been left with. The Septa was cool towards her because she had helped the younger Stark girl to escape. Ali knew all would be forgiven if she would help rein the girl in, but she understood how Arya felt, and wanted to help her.

She arrived in the yard just as the boys came clattering into the yard. Bran was most noticeable, holding something in his lap that was squirming. She moved closer, not noticing that Jon and Robb also had armfuls of the same squirming figure. Bran clambered off his horse and met her half-way, chattering so quickly she only caught snippets. The quiet chuckle from Lord Stark is what cut him off, and drew her attention to the others. Robb stepped forward with his bundle, while Bran ran off to find Rickon and Sansa.

“Close your eyes Ali.” She did as Robb asked, and he told her to hold her arms out and when he did, he placed something furry and moving in her arms. “Open them.” She heard Jon’s quite huff of laughter but paid it no mind, her view focused on the puppy in her arms. “A puppy? Robb where…” He cut her off, “not a puppy, a direwolf puppy. We found a dead mother near a dead stag. The puppies were near. There is one for all of us Stark children as well as you. Do you like her?”

Her grin would have been answer enough, but she laughed and pulled him into a hug squealing her thanks. He chuckled and wrapped his free arm around her to return the affection before stepping back to show off his pup, and Jon showed her his. “What are you naming yours?” Both boys shared smiles, “no idea yet.” They spoke almost identically, showing how close they really are.

****

The next few days we all were occupied with our new pups. Lady Stark had thrown a small fit when she saw the gifts, but some words from her husband about teaching responsibility killed her argument. She was displeased and refused to allow the children to bring the animals with them to dinner, which only lasted for a few days before she stopped trying to enforce it and just gave up all together.

Robb chose to name his grey wolf Grey Wind; with its piercing yellow eyes it was a beautiful wolf. Jon chose Ghost and it was fitting for the wolf was nearly silent and had gleaming red eyes, and the wolf itself fit his owner as Jon was as quiet as a ghost some days. Arya chose Nymeria for the Dornish Queen of Old Nan’s tales and her favorite character. Sansa chose Lady which was quite fitting for her wolf, and no surprise to anyone else. She was the first to choose a name after all. Bran hadn’t been able to choose and his was still unnamed. Rickon called his wolf Shaggydog and the name stuck. I chose to name my white direwolf Joy as that is what she brought me and what the direwolves brought to the Stark children, and what Robb frequently told me I brought to him and the keep. My wolf had thick white fur like its twin Ghost, but instead of the blood red eyes, mine had deep black eyes that glittered in the sunlight.

After the boys had returned from that mission a raven had brought news, the King was coming to the North because Jon Arryn had passed away. It was clear that the King was coming North to ask his oldest friend, Lord Stark, to replace him as the Hand to the King. Robert Baratheon was coming here, and his official reason was stated as ensuring a marriage alliance for his house and House Stark. Robb was worried that the king was again going to try and make him marry his daughter, and as such asked our fathers if we could be married before they arrived. They assured him that the King had agreed not to ask for Robb’s hand, it was Sansa that he wanted for his oldest.

I was glad that I would not have to watch Robb marry the princess and then marry the heir to the Dreadfort as I had no interest in being the future Lady Bolton. I wanted to marry Robb, and be the future Lady of Winterfell. We were promised that we would be married before the King’s visit ended, as he was apparently interested in witnessing the marriage of the girl that had caused his oldest friend to deny him a marriage. We would be married not long after the Kings arrival, and as such many families in the North were coming to Winterfell, in hopes of furthering their own houses anyway they can.

I was excited to be married. Robb was the man I wanted to marry, he made me happy, he made the nightmares fade, and brought me as much joy as he said I brought him. He had told me of his mother’s opinions and his father’s reasons for denying the King his wish. He believed what his father did, that we could finally heal the North fully, and make it whole once more. I hoped that we could be that for the North.

I was walking away from the heart tree when I came upon Jon and Arya and their wolves in the Godswood, talking quietly. My thoughts turned to them, and what Robb had said to me about them upon my return. The black sheep were in need of some love, and I would be more than willing to give it.

****

Jon had come to find me early this morning, saying he wanted a few hours of solace with me in the Godswood, he wanted to speak to me about his plans for the future, and I was worried he would choose to run off to the Wall and leave me here to deal with Sansa and my mother all by myself.

We were seated beneath one of the large trees in the woods, our wolves playing together a few yards away, and he had told me he was tired of feeling unwanted. “I need to do something to make father proud, I need to leave here and find a place where I belong.” I shuffled closer to my favorite bother, as he continued to speak. “I love Winterfell, it is home, but I am not going to be welcome here much longer. I am not going to be able to stay here forever, I need to do something with myself.” He met my eyes and I sighed. I hated my mother at moments like this. It was her fault that he didn’t feel welcome here, especially lately.

“I understand Jon, but I don’t want you to go because having you here makes things better for me, but I also see how selfish that is and for once I don’t want to be selfish. But if you go to the Wall you won’t ever be able to come visit often, and I know I am not the only one who would object to that. Robb, Bran, Rickon, Ali, they would all miss you as well.” Jon’s smile softened at that.

“Robb and Ali are going to be married soon Arya. That will change things around the keep as well.” I rolled my eyes. “He loves her, she loves him, nothing is going to change except that they may realize it themselves.” He snorted a laugh, “you see it as well then.” I nodded, “And I’m glad it’s nothing like Sansa’s stories, because those are silly. She would protect him as much as he would her.” He chuckled. We fell into a momentary silence, and I realized how much I depended on Jon, especially the last few years with Ali gone. I wouldn’t be the good shot I am today without him.

“Please wait to make a choice until after their wedding at least. I don’t think Robb wants to get married without you here.” He smiled softly at me, dark eyes honest. “I wasn’t going to leave before that.” We missed the wolves’ ears pricking at the sound of someone else in the godswood. “I’m glad you plan on staying for my wedding Snow. I would have had to chase you to that wall myself otherwise.” I watched my brother’s smile grow as Ali stepped into the light of the clearing. I knew that if anyone would succeed in keeping Jon here it was Ali and Robb. Jon loved all of us but Robb was as close to his twin as one could get. Ali was his best friend, they could get him to stay.

“I wouldn’t miss the wedding Ali.” Her grin was a bright light in the slightly darkened forest around us. “Oh I know, but Jon dear, you need not worry. I want you here, Robb needs you here. The Lady Catelyn will not be able to rid this hall of you, regardless of what your Lord father decides to do about the offer the King will surely give him.” She had settled herself against the trunk of our tree and was holding Jon’s arm earnestly, trying as hard as she could to reassure him, and I could see the first crack in Jon’s will.

“Please Jon, I shall need all my friends after I marry Robb. I may be marrying my best friend, but he comes with a large amount of responsibility and I do not want to have to face that alone.” Jon sighed, “I will think about it Ali, but I don’t wish to be a burden.” At that, both Ali and I scoffed, Jon Snow was a burden to only one person in this keep, and she was fighting what I was now more confident would become a losing battle.

We all sat in silence for a few moments, enjoying the peace the Godswood brought to all who entered it. But I had more fears in mind, and with these two I knew I was free to voice them. “Do you think mother will get worse if father has to go away with the King?” Ali’s face hardened. “If your father leaves Winterfell, Robb becomes Lord of it in his place Arya. Yes, she would still be acting Lady until I reach an age where I can do it alone. She will surely miss her husband, but that doesn’t mean she will be allowed to do things as she pleases. Why are you worried about that sweetling?” I moved closer to her, and Jon’s dark eyes showed a compassion that drew the two of us together frequently.

“I worry that if Sansa goes South, as she wants, I will be forced to change who I am. I fear that I will be expected to become what Sansa is now, and I cannot do that. I much prefer riding and archery to needle work and gossip.” Ali tucked me under her arm like I was a babe, not a girl of eleven.

“I will see what I can do to help you if it comes to that Arya, but sadly I fear your mother is still very much a southerner no matter how long she has resided in the North. She has expectations that we in the North don’t view as important as she would hope, and I wish she would see how very much you belong to the northern side of your heritage. I wish she would see how very much Jon loves her children and would never do anything to hurt them. I wish she could see how very much I care for her children and the North and want the best for them and for it.”

Ali was just as much of a black sheep in my mother’s eyes as Jon and I. Both Jon and I moved closer to her and offered her comfort. Ali was an easy person for me to show affection to because from the day we met she has always seen me as I wish to be seen, and cared for me the way I wished my mother would. “You will be a great Lady of Winterfell Ali. I know it.”

She smiled at me, softly and even a bit shy, which is unusual. “To be honest, I worry not about that part, I…I want to make my father proud. I want to make your father proud, as he has cared for me for almost as long as my own father. I want to make Robb proud and be the wife he needs.” Jon put an arm around Ali, as best as he could. “Ali, Robb needs you as much as you need him. He wants so much to make our father proud and make the North better, but he has no fears or worries about marrying you. Our father told him that you are exactly what the North and its people need.” Her eyes met his, “really Jon?” His gentle smile was back as he nodded. Ali’s face lit up once more, and I knew in that moment that she really did love Robb, love all of us, and some of my worry faded. As long as we listened to fathers words all would be well, after all the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.

****

I saw a lightness in Arya and Jon after they came back from the Godswood earlier, and I had no idea why, until I saw Arya laughing with Ali a few moments ago. I suspected she spoke with them and tried to make them see that they were still a part of this family, regardless of how much like the black sheep they felt at times.

Jon had continued to get restless, my mother’s glare weighting him down, and Arya had still looked glum unless in the presence of her beloved wolf, Jon or Ali. I hope that they heed her words, I would not know what to do if Jon took to the Wall as he had been planning. He was as close to my twin as he could be, no matter how different we appear. I need him at my side, and I love my wild little sister, no matter what she chooses to do with her time.

I followed the laughter of the two girls and found them in the training yard, bows in hand training together as they had so many times when we were younger. I knew that mother would not approve if she heard, but I glanced up and saw father in the balcony smiling as he did so often, and knew he wouldn’t scold Arya. His wild little wolf reminded him of his sister, Robb knew that, and his father never could scold her as much as she sometimes needed.

Ali took up the stance, bow held perfectly, nocked arrow at the ready. She took a deep breath and then released the shot, the arrow arcing perfectly and hit dead center in her target. Her grin brightened when she met my eyes as she turned back to a normal stance. As Arya moved up Ali came closer to me and as a greeting said, “I spoke with Jon and Arya. He needs his brother Robb. He’s having a rough go of it.” I tilted my head, wanting her to explain, but before she could riders rode into the yard. Fathers guardsmen, and from the looks of them they had news of our visitors. Ali and I shared a look. The Southern court was surely close to arrive, by the looks of the men’s faces, which meant that soon this girl would be his wife, and if suspicion rang true, his sister engaged to a prince.

Father came down to greet the men, and led the leader away to his solar, and dismissing the rest to get some rest. Ali’s eyes met mine once more and I saw the same mix of excitement and anxiety swirling in her green eyes, as I felt in myself. We stared at each other, communicating silently for a moment, before we were pulled back to the present with a whoop from Arya, meaning she had landed a perfect shot. We both grinned back at her and I was glad to see a smile stretch across her face once more, for my little sister and her wild beauty shone the brightest when she was happy.

Soon maintaining that happiness may fall to me, if father goes south. I will ensure that Jon is safe from my mother, and I know that Ali will get Arya to learn what she needs, and continue to do as she loves. My mother will remain the acting lady of Winterfell, but she would still have to abide by my wishes and those included my family, safe and happy, and as together as we could possibly be, for as long as we could.

“Go again Arya, I’m going to speak with your brother for a moment.” Arya nodded and turned her attention back to her bow and the target, and Ali turned her attention to me. “I think you need to ensure Jon that he will be welcome here, even if his father must leave. Leave Arya to me, I have begun to make her see the importance in her sewing lessons and allowed her to practice this, as long as she allows that we sew and act more proper later.” I grinned, and without a care for propriety, pulled her into a hug, holding her snug against me. “Thank you. Gods Ali, I don’t know what I would do if you weren’t here.”

She leaned back only far enough for me to see the smile on her face, “you will hopefully never have to know that Robb.” She nestled her head back below my chin, and I held her tightly, glad for the support she always so readily gave me, and gave my family. She had named her wolf Joy and I had smiled, because I told her on some of our walks that she brought joy back to me, back to my brother and sister, back to the keep that had often felt small in her absence.

Feeling her lean against me, and the comfort it brought as we watched my sister improve her archery skills gave me a flash at what I hoped for in the future. Her and I watching our child or children learn and grow, together against any who wished harm against them or the North we had worked hard to make whole once more. It dawned on me, in the moment she stepped out of my arms and moved back toward my sister. I love her.

I followed her path back to my sister with my eyes, wondering how I could have missed falling in love with my best friend, but I had, and now I needed to find my brother and speak to him. He would give me advice better than Theon, and I could in turn, hopefully fully convince him to stay with us. I turned to leave, after the girls fell once more into their practice, waving farewell as I went, hoping I could track down my brother and speak with him where no one would bother us.

****

Jon was returning from visiting Micken in the forge when Robb found him. He grinned at his brother, and Robb’s answering smile was bright, but Jon could see there was something on his mind. “What is it brother?” Robb quietly asked if I would go to the Godswood with him, and I agreed, curious as to what had my brother acting the way he had when Ali was gone.

Momentarily I let myself fear that father had acquiesced to his old friend and Robb would wed a princess not Ali. If that were the case it would explain his brother’s mood, because even if he didn’t know it, he loved her. I could see it, gods even our eleven-year-old sister could see it.

We sat ourselves under the weirwood tree and I asked again what was plaguing him. “I love her Jon.” My eyes fell closed and a chuckle escaped me as I asked, “and that’s a problem why?” Robb’s head snaps up, his eyes wide, “you knew?” I laughed openly now, before slinging an arm around him. “Brother the whole keep probably knows by now. She makes you smile more than you did when she was gone. Her support means something more to you than the rest of us. Plus, I’ve seen the way you look at her Robb. But that is only because I know you so well.”

Robb looked so surprised, but then a smile dashed across his face, and he laughed. “She has always been pretty, but gods Jon, seeing her standing across that courtyard from me three months ago was like seeing her for the first time all over again.” My grin widened, “aye, she has grown up.” He smiled at me and we sat in silence for a few moments, then the joy slowly eked out of me at the thought of losing moments like this soon.

Robb glanced at me, sensing my troubles as always. “I saw you all come out of the Godswood earlier. Is everything alright brother?” My eyes closed, “I want to make father proud, make the family proud, give myself some sort of future that isn’t reliant on my family, but the only path I can seem to find for that is the Wall, and while it would be an honor, I am not sure I want to serve. After talking to Ali, I think I wanted the idea of belonging to something more than anything so I let the truths others tried to tell me roll off of me.”

My brothers Tully blue eyes met mine as he said quietly, “Jon, I need you here. It wouldn’t be charity. Someone needs to help me keep things together and who better than you? You have been my partner since we were babes. You know me, better than anyone, I trust you more than anyone. Something tells me that I am going to need that if father must leave Winterfell. My mother will have no say in what happens to you Jon. I will see to it. I have plans to speak with her later. Her treatment of you, of Ali, even her disappointment in Arya, it needs to stop. Fathers words are best heeded with the King’s court at the gates of Winterfell. The lone wolf dies, the pack survives. I plan to survive Jon, do you?” I grinned at him, “always brother.” My smile dimmed, “but I do not wish you strife with your mother.”

Robb sighed. “My mother and I will be at odds for many more reasons than just you Jon. She treats me as a child, that cannot happen if I become the Lord of Winterfell. She needs to let her anger at you go, it is not your fault, and she needs to realize that Ali is better for me, for Winterfell, for the North than some Southern princess, no matter how good her manners may be. She needs to stop making Arya feel less than Sansa because she is not the perfect lady as Sansa plays at being. She needs to realize she is of the North now, and things are different here, something she should have realized years ago.” Robb looked pained, I knew it was from speaking ill of his mother, but it was all true. Catelyn Tully was still a very Southern leaning lady, and she had alienated herself for it.

I thought about what my brother said, what he was promising, and I realized I really wanted that. I wanted honor and belonging, but I wanted to find that with him, with them. My family, if I could help Robb, help the North, keep them safe, and stay than why shouldn’t I stay? Especially if Robb was going to speak to his mother. “I’ll think about it Robb.” He nodded, “just remember, no matter what, you will always be my brother. From this day, to my last day.”

“Heed his words son. The pack would be stronger if it stayed together.” We both looked up to find father smiling at us with pride on his face. “Robb and I will deal with my wife Jon, but you will be allowed to stay, even if I leave.” I bowed my head, “thank you father.”

“You boys make me proud. I raised you both right, and for that I thank the Gods. You support each other, support this family, and I believe that together the two of you will achieve what I sadly have failed to do. With Ali and Jon here, I have complete faith that the North will finally get to start healing.” He patted both our shoulders and then beckoned for us to follow him. “The King will be here at noonday tomorrow. We must be ready.”

We both nodded, ready to do as our father asked, regardless of what he asked for. We had no idea of what was about to begin, what our family, our people and the North would be swept into.

****

That night Lord Stark called Robb away from his siblings and together they went to find his wife. It was time to have a serious conversation with her. She needed to understand that Robb’s marriage was indeed going to happen, so she needed to accept Ali; that Jon would be allowed to stay if that is what he wished, and would be so long as Robb wished for his brother to be at his side. It was time for her to see reason, before the southern court invaded Winterfell.

Catelyn met the two near the solar of her husband, and followed them in when asked. As his eldest and his wife settled into the chairs on the one side of his desk Ned took a breath, prepared for the fight he was about to start with his stubborn wife. “Cat we need to talk about some things. I need you to listen, and heed what we say.” Her face hardened slightly, no doubt guessing where this conversation was headed, but she nodded. I looked to my son allowing him to start, as he was the one with more to say right now. Robb took a similar breath before speaking.

“I love you mother, and I love that you support me but if father must go South I need you to take a step back. I cannot look weak to the northern lords. I will need to be seen as strong, and we need to be seen as united. All of us. I need you to let your anger at Jon go. He is my brother, my closest confidant and I do not wish for your anger to drive him to the Wall. I also need you to let go of your animosity with Alianna. I love her mother, and I want her to feel at home here, but she fears she will not be accepted because of you. That is not okay. Ali is what the North needs mother. I need you to see that. I need you to trust that she will steer Arya straight, but that she will not change Arya into another Sansa. Can you accept that? Can you let Arya be who she is and still learn how to be a lady? Because Ali did the same and I have no doubt she will make a wonderful Lady of Winterfell.”

He took another deep breath at the end of that, and then flashed his gaze to me, afraid he had overstepped but I said nothing, waiting for my wife’s response, and he turned to her to wait as well. I watched numerous emotions flit across my wife’s face, the most prominent being shock and anger, and I prayed that she chooses to see his way, so that I do not have to fight with her as much as I would have to otherwise. I also pray that she sees the reason in what we both have to say.

“I will work on not mothering you Robb, but you speak of things you do not understand when you speak of Arya and Jon Snow. I understand that you love your siblings, but Arya will never learn to be a lady if she continues down the path she is on, and your future bride and Jon Snow undermine me and my authority when they go against my wishes and help her with her nonsense. I cannot just forget about Jon Snow, nor can I let my anger fade. He is a threat to you and to your brothers and sisters no matter how much you care for him.” My eyes closed, that was the wrong thing to say to Robb, he has her stubborn streak. I watched the anger swim across his face, but to my pride he paused before speaking, collecting himself and the anger.

“My brother loves us mother. He lifts Bran up after he falls and tells him to try again. He plays all of Rickon’s senseless games and cuddles him when he needs it, and others, you included, are busy. He cares for Arya, and he wants her to be happy, and she is miserable because you, and the Septa, praise Sansa to kingdom come and act as if Arya is a nuisance and a problem. She has given up at her sowing and other things because she never gets any praise, only reprimands and to watch people fawn over her sister. The other girls pick on her mother, because you fill Sansa’s head with tales of her beauty and pretty stories and then they use those to tell Arya she is not pretty and bully her, and no reprimand ever comes, even when Sansa partakes in the same activities.” My wife looked hurt at the idea that her son was condemning her in the bullying as much as the children, and hurt that her daughter was being hurt that way and didn’t tell her. I had suspected but never directly heard it so I could say nothing, and I thought my wife had known, but I was wrong, and I hurt for my little she-wolf.

“Jon is who she confides in because he makes her fell normal, makes her feel safe and loved. Jon is the best swordsman of our keep, at least at our age, yet he lets me and Theon win sometimes so that we do not give up and become discouraged. He detests Theon, but he helps him learn anyway. He puts up with your abuse and Sansa’s snubs in silence because he loves us and he understands your anger but you are driving away my brother and my best friend and my biggest supporter because of anger you should be directing at father or letting go of. Jon doesn’t deserve it, and Ali doesn’t either.” Cat tried to speak but he plowed forward.

“Ali is the best thing to happen to this keep because she understands all of us. She loves your children as much as Jon does. She does the same for Rickon as he does. She listens to Bran ramble for hours about knights and tourneys and tells him stories because she cares. She soothes Arya’s hurts after those girls tear into her and she helps her gain her confidence in herself back when it should be you doing as much. She teaches her what she asks because it brings a smile to her face that otherwise is rarely present. She has been encouraging Arya at her needlework since her return and trying to help her stop comparing herself to Sansa. I love you mother, but you need to let go of your beliefs about what is right and proper because this isn’t the South, and those are hurting this family. The North is different. Arya could be happy if she was allowed to foster with the Mormont’s because they would understand her. She is the same as them, as is Ali. They want to be able to defend those they love as much as they want to love and care for them. Arya is so afraid that she will be unhappy in her life because of what you force her to believe that she has come close to running away.” I froze, that I didn’t know, and from the look on my wife’s face, she didn’t either. She looked as if she had been struck, she was frozen in her seat listening to her son rant.

“Do you know who stopped her? How I know? Because she ran into Jon the first two times and the last two Ali has stopped her, coaxed her back and soothed her hurts. They both have done more for her than even me, and I can’t stand to see her sad any longer. Same with my brother, and the girl I love, so please mother think on what I have said.”

He stood, nodded at us both, and left. My guess is that he left both to give me space to say what I must after she inevitably asks me to defend her, and because he was trying to remain civil even in the face of her stubbornness.

“Well Cat, I think he said it all. I have decided that even if I go South, my son will be allowed to stay here. You cannot force him to leave. He belongs here, with his brothers and sisters. They have learned what I have so long tried to teach you. The lone wolf dies but the pack survives, and whether you like it or not, Jon is a part of that pack.” She unfroze at that.

“Ned, I…” I shook my head, cutting her off. “Our daughter tried to run away Cat. My son was thinking of running to the Wall. My oldest is trying to be a lord even when he shouldn’t need to be to please you, Sansa is a little lady, and as wonderful as that is she has distanced herself from her sister because she is different and you have not helped. I have not said anything but the Southern court will be here tomorrow. We need to be untied, so I am saying something now. You need to accept Alianna Umber, accept that Jon will stay as long as his brother wants him at his side, and that Arya is not Sansa, and try to find common ground with her and between her and her sister, before things get worse. If I go South, I expect that you remember what both Robb and I said here, because it will be important. Winter is coming, and when it arrives we need to be united and that will not happen if things do not change.”

I fell silent and waited to see what she would say. “I will remember this Ned. But what you ask is not easy, and will not change overnight. I will work on accepting Ali, and I will not direct my anger at Jon any longer, but I will not mother him either. I will keep an eye on Arya and Sansa and attempt to fix the mess I did not know I made.” I smiled at her, putting the fight to rest. “I understand my dear, now let’s get some rest, tomorrow will be a big day.”

Chapter Text

Winterfell was a bustling holdfast the next morning. The northern people were getting ready to greet their King, and Robert Baratheon’s court. As well as the banner men of Lord Stark who were coming to see his heir wed to another Northern daughter. Catelyn Stark was bustling about, herding her servants. Alianna was herding Stark children, ensuring that all met the standard necessary for meeting a King at Lady Stark’s request.

As such Ali had been dressed since early that morning, and while she hadn’t seen her betrothed yet today, she had chosen her dress today for him, for her future good family, as she wanted Robert to see that she belonged next to Robb. She was clad in a black dress, with grey under skirts, and silver undersides to her sleeves. Upon her collar there was a stitched direwolf, resembling Grey Wind and sitting on the opposite side of her collar was a giant, for her own house had to be represented. The giant was stitched white. Her cloak was snow white, for her house, with a wolf head pin Lord stark had gifted her the night before clasping the cloak around her neck. Her hair was in a simple Northern style. A crown braid holding the front of her hair away from her face, whit the rest falling in long back waves down her back. She looked every inch a beautiful lady.

The first Stark she checked in on was the one she was least concerned about today, Sansa was already sat, having Jeyne Poole put her hair in her usual style. Her dress was a light and vibrant blue; her red Tully hair would cascade over it nicely. The cloak she would wear was draped over her bed, a light grey, with white fur trim at the collar. She was the beauty of the family, with her mother’s coloring and look falling to her, she was a look at a younger Catelyn Tully.

“You look lovely Sansa.” Sansa smiled at her future good sister through the looking glass, “thank you Ali. You look beautiful. I love your dress.” I smiled at her compliment. “Try to keep track of Rickon when you’re finished. Your lady mother could use the aid.” The girl nodded and I went off to find the other Stark girl, hoping she was dressed appropriately.

Thankfully when I found Arya she was sulking, but dressed in the dress her mother had decided upon. She was in blue, like her sister, but hers was a darker shade to match her northern coloring. Her hair was neatly pinned up, only a few strands allowed loose near her face. “You look nice Arya, please try to stay clean so we can avoid your mothers’ wrath and your fathers’ embarrassment alright?” I received a nod from the sulking girl.

“Remember to be in the yard at high noon to greet the King, but for now you can go as long as you play carefully.” The girl grinned and prepared to run off, but before she did she turned and grinned at me, “you are very pretty Ali. I can’t wait to see Robb’s face.” And then she was off, headed for the doors of the keep no doubt. I grinned at our little she-wolf before heading to find some of the boys.

I came across Jon first, who told me that Robb was with Lord Stark, preparing for the day, so I would have to wait till we gathered to see his reaction. I smiled at Jon, in his nicest clothing, a doublet I made for him showing off his handsome looks. “You may not get to stand with us today Jon, but tonight I expect a dance form my future good-brother, to hell with what Lady Catelyn wants.” His eyes darted to the ground before coming back up, and I received a nod. ‘You look to pretty to refuse today Ali.” I grinned at his cheekiness. “Oh hush you.” His smile I adored so much came to his face, “quite the northern beauty. I’m sure the King will appreciate it.”

My eyes narrowed at him, “it isn’t for the King.” He grinned at me and I realized what I said, just as Theon came upon us. “Snow, did I just hear our dear Ali confess something, as I think I did?” Jon nodded, to busy teasing to dim, even with Theon around. “Aye, Greyjoy you did. I believe she just fessed up to dressing pretty for our dear Robb.” I growled, “Oh hush up both of you.” They both chuckled as I walked away, their laughter following me.

“Look at my daughter, what a beauty.” My smile returned full force as my father fell into step with me a few moments later, as I headed to find Bran, who was no doubt climbing to get a better look at the coming party. “Thank you father.” He slung an arm around my shoulders, stopping our movement. “You do our house well today, and the king will see what you want, see where you belong, and you can get married with no worries hanging over you.” I leaned into the embrace that had served the greatest comfort for my entire life, “thank you papa. I love you.” His smile was, for once, soft and tender, the Greatjon melting at the sound of her childhood title for him. “I love you to Alibug.” My smile was bright as I pulled away and continued on my mission, while my father went in search of Lord Stark no doubt, or to find my brother.

By the time I came upon Bran, his mother was watching him scramble down the last few feet from the walls of the Keep, his still unnamed wolf waiting at the bottom. I covered my mouth to hide my laugh, especially when his mother called him on his lying. Upon turning and finding me, Lady Catelyn asked that I escort her son into the keep, to freshen up (get the dust off), put the wolf away with the others and then see him to the line, as the King was very nearly here.

I nodded and smiled softly towards Bran and held out a hand, which he quickly took, and I led him back inside. We quickly cleaned the dust off of him and then we headed for the yard, and the rest of the keep inhabitants were making their way there as well.

****

I had been following my father all morning, helping him prepare to host the King’s party’s horses in the stables and ensuring that the yard and hold were tidy and prepared for a Kings visit. I hadn’t seen Ali since dinner the night before, but I would see her in a few moments as everyone was now lining up to greet the king, who was making his way through Winter Town. My father told mother to leave a space next to me for Ali, to which my mother ground her teeth and said nothing. Apparently our talk last night was still in her mind, and I hoped she was choosing to heed my words.

As I moved aside for Ali to have room, a quiet chuckle from my father drew my attention away from my mother and I followed his eye line and there was my betrothed. I was shocked and frozen. She truly had grown up to be beautiful. Her dress was a beautiful mix of her house and mine, and I smiled brightly at the sight of the direwolf modeled after my own near her collar. Her cloak made sure her curves and beauty were on full display, as did the dress itself. The sunlight made her black curls shine, as they fell in waves down her back, and I was struck dumb, unable to look away as she led my brother to the line of Stark children. I heard Jon and Theon snickering behind me at my expression, but I ignored it until her dark brown eyes met mine and her lips tilted up into a smile. That familiar smile is what knocked my wits back about, and I held out a hand to her, which she accepted. I tucked her small hand into my elbow.

“Does my gown suit Robb.” I froze once more. She did this for me, she looked like that in hopes to catch my eye. “Gods Ali, your beautiful.” Her smile was radiant, though it dimmed when mother asked after my wild sister. Ali winced, but let out a sigh of relief when a small figure darted towards and then attempted to pass my father. Father pulled off the helm my sister had found somewhere before sending her on down the line.

She stepped into her place right on time, as the gates swung open and Kingsgaurd began riding into the yard. In the middle was a man in gold, and a young boy that could only be the Prince, he was smiling, but his smile was false, I could tell he was judging my home and I had to bite back a scowl, especially as he caught sight of the two girls standing to the right of me. Ali and Sansa were beautiful northern girls and I could see him appreciating that, especially my betrothed. I let out a quiet growl, almost against my control, but Ali squeezed my arm and I relaxed in time to watch a great horse come through, and the royal wheelhouse get stuck on the other side of the gate.

Our attention was pulled from the gatehouse when the rider on the horse became clear. The King. This was not the man Robb had pictured, nor the man Ned had last described. This was a man drowning in perfume and fat off of all the food and wine he was able to reach. I saw Bran and Arya whispering and heard a sharp retort from Sansa, but it was lost when the King was finally off his horse and striding towards my father.

We all knelt as one, and waited with baited breath for the greeting and permission to rise as my father told him Winterfell and the North were his. Upon a silent command my father rose, and then the king greeted him, but it was not the greeting we expected. “You’ve gotten fat.” The crowd froze collectively. I raised my head slightly to see my father raise an eyebrow at the kings’ considerable gut. The king and father laughed and then he pulled my father into a bear hug, which seemed to be our cue to rise. “Nine years, where the hell have you been? Why haven’t I seen you?” Father chuckled and said he was keeping the North for him, causing another round of laughter for the King.

My father began to introduce us to his childhood friend. The king greeted mother like a brother, a warm embrace, and then father introduced Rickon, who was standing next to my mother and reached for her hand at the sight of the large man’s eyes on him. King Robert ruffled his hair, earning a smile before my father continued and his attention was on me. “Who do we have here?”

“My heir, Robb and his betrothed, Lady Alianna Umber.” The king held out a hand for a shake, and I returned it and then he turned to face Ali. A ghost seemed to flash in front of his eyes for a moment, but he smiled softly at her, “your every inch the beauty we heard you were my dear.”

Ali curtsied and quietly replied, “thank you, your Grace.” Father continued on down the line, and I saw the same shadow cross his eyes once more when he was introduced to Arya, but it was gone as quick, though she got no pretty words, but she grinned at his short conversation with Bran. My attention returned to my father during their conversation to see the Queen had arrived with her other children. She was truly the golden she had been fabled to be, but it was tarnished by her bored expression and fake smile at my father. She said nothing in greeting but held her hand out for him to kiss, which he did. The King strode back up our line to wave his own children nearer.

They lined up similar to us, but it was a short line as the King only had three legitimate children, though the whole realm knew of his slew of bastard children, though there was another young girl with his children. “My heir, the Crown Prince, Joffrey Baratheon. The Princess Myrcella and the Prince Tommen.” He waved to the blonde children and then at the last young girl added, “My niece, Lady Shireen Baratheon, Stannis’ girl.” Each bowed or curtsied at their introduction, but the Prince distracted me, as his eyes were still glued to Ali. I was pulled away from that distraction by the King shouting about paying his respects and denying the Queen’s request to wait.

As the King and my father left, and the household disbanded, I drew Ali closer to me, and her brother appeared at her other elbow, no doubt seeing the same thing I had. Arya materialized in front of her before anyone could speak, and seemed to be feeling similar to me and the Smalljon as she shielded much of Ali’s body from sight. Ali chuckled quietly at our antics as the Queen followed mother into the Keep. The Prince sauntered over and ignored all of us, save for Ali and Sansa.

“You Northern Beauties are a delight to see after so much travel.” My face soured, and I did nothing to hide it outside of the Kings company, unimpressed with this Prince. Sansa opened her mouth, but was cut off by Ali, who was as unhappy as I was at the attention. I could feel the tension radiating from her as she spoke, “thank you, your Grace.” He held out a hand as if offering to guide her, but she denied him. “Thank you your Grace, but Robb is my escort tonight.” Sansa eagerly stepped forward, and seemed to completely miss the storm that passed over the boy at being refused, but he sweetened again under Sansa’s attention and she led him away, much to all of our immense relief.

As soon as they were out of sight, Ali relaxed in my hold but kept Arya close, and ignored her brother for a moment to scold her quietly. “I let you wander Arya, and you almost missed greeting the King. And where on earth did that helm come from and why were you wearing it?” I laughed at the frown that crossed Arya’s face.

The Smalljon saved Arya by stepping forward. “Come now sister, the royal family is here, best to forget everything else.” That earned him a beaming smile from my sister and he offered to be her escort back inside which she gladly accepted, as he spoke with her about his training as much as the other boys.

Jon had melted into the background, but I was determined to find him and gripe about the Prince soon. Theon had slipped away as well, no doubt to the brothel in Winter Town. I silently prayed that he would make it back in time for the feast tonight after the arrival of some of father’s banner men, or he would earn quite the tongue lashing from my mother.

I was about to lead Ali into the keep as well when Bran came bounding up to her, “Ali! Ser Jamie Lannister is here!” She laughed, “aye little wolf, he is. He is the Queen’s brother and a part of her personal guard so of course he is here.” I smiled at the affection in her tone, and my brothers’ clear adoration. “Do you think Ser Barristan Selmy is here?” She chuckled, “I don’t know for sure little wolf but he could be, after all he is commander of the Kingsgaurd. I imagine he would want to be with the King.” The grin that came to Bran’s face looked to split it nearly in half. “I’m going to see if I can see him!”

“No climbing Bran. I already am in hot oil with your mother over Arya, no need to add your monkeying to the list! If you stay on the ground I shall read to you before bed tonight, after the feast.”

“Deal!” Bran shouted his reply over his shoulder, already off trying to spot the greatest knight, the living legend as he himself someday aspired to be. We laughed at his actions before she finally tucked her hand into my elbow once more and I led her back into our home, and into the start of chaos.

****

Throughout the day banner men of North had begun to arrive, so the hall would be full tonight. I was with Lady Stark ensuring that everything for the feast was all prepared so that it ran smoothly. I had put my foot down and ensured that Jon was sitting with my brother, Theon and some of the other younger heirs that he had spent time with before and was friendly with. I wouldn’t have him banished or relegated to the far servants’ end of the hall. Surprisingly Catelyn didn’t fight very hard before giving in, which pleased me.

In attendance tonight would be some of the North’s most devoted banner men. The Karstarks, Umbers of course, Mormonts and Glover. They had all arrived throughout the afternoon, and the Karstarks had brought word that even the Bolton’s were planning on attending the wedding. This sparked anxiety in my stomach, but I said nothing, as no one knew what had occurred and I hoped I would never have to share. I also knew I was safe here, so that helped to quell some of the anxious feelings from my stomach.

Lady Stark eventually dismissed me to go prepare for the feast. Tonight would be the first night I have been presented as Robb’s betrothed to many of these banner men so I knew I must take care to look my best, as many eyes would be on me as much as they would be on the royal family.

I knew that the Lannister colors were similar to my house red, but I chose to wear one of my favorite gowns any way. Our red was much darker than theirs, and this dress was blood red. Underneath I wore silver underskirts, and the undersides of my sleeves were silver as well. The collar had two giants in black, both ripping apart chains, my house sigil, and the chains on one’s right and the others left crisscrossed under my bust, accentuating my womanly figure. The cloak I would wear down to the hall I kept the same, with the direwolf clasp still present. I had made my point about being a future Stark earlier, now it was time to remind the king that the girl he had praised for her beauty came from house Umber. I chose to keep my hair the same as well, loving the contrast of my black curls on the red of the dress.

I knew I would make my father and my house proud tonight. I would be on Robb’s arm, and we were to lead the others into the hall. The king had allowed this, as this was technically the start of our wedding festivities as well. Behind us would be Sansa and the prince, who quite frankly creeped me out with all the staring earlier. Then came Bran and princess Myrcella and then Arya and Tommen, and the Rickon and the Lady Shireen. I knew Arya was glad she was with the youngest Prince, as he would be too young to try speak much and that would help her keep her promise to me.

I had caught her for a few moments earlier and told her I would get her more training time if she acted polite and good tonight, and she had said she would try, and I knew she would succeed as long as Sansa and her friends kept quiet. They had a habit of mocking her and then she retaliated and often she was the only one punished.

Rickon was close in age with the Lady Shireen from what I understood. She was six and he five so they were quite close in age. The Princess was older than Bran, who at ten was two years her junior. The Prince and Sansa were only a year or so apart and I had no doubt that tonight the King would announce that they were betrothed as well. If that was the case then Sansa probably only had a year, possibly a year and a half, before the wed, and I was unsure how I felt about the Prince.

I was knocked from that line of thought when there was a knock on my door. I knew it would be Robb, here to escort me to dinner so I took a deep breath, put my cloak on and then went to open the door. When the door opened to reveal him, my breath caught in my throat, he was so handsome. He was wearing a brown undershirt, with a black doublet that had the direwolf sigil on either side of the collar, dark trousers and his boots had been polished to perfection. His normally messy curls were smooth and his scruff shaved, which I hope he would allow to grow for our wedding in a fortnight, because I adored him scruffy and his curls flying every which way.

“You look stunning Ali.” He was beaming at me and I couldn’t help but return the sentiment, trying to mask the blush rising at his compliment. “You look quite handsome yourself Robb.” His smile only widened as he presented me a rose, which he tucked into my braid near my left ear. “A rose for the winter rose.” I grinned, “thank you Robb.” I took his arm and we headed for the feast.

When we got to the corridor outside the main hall we found Sansa looking pretty in her dress, Arya looking sour next to her, but her grin came back when she saw me. “You look beautiful Ali! You will have ALL eyes on you.” She stressed the all enough to let me know that Sansa had been mocking her again. I held a hand out for her to take while giving a Sansa the knowing look I always gave her when I found her or heard she had been mocking her sister. She had the grace to look away as Arya took my hand. “Your quite pretty yourself in that dress Arya.” She rolled her eyes, but her small smile let me know she was pleased. Before she could say anything in return the rest of the children and the King and Queen and Lord and Lady Stark appeared.

Lady Stark swept her eyes over all of her brood, they all looked similar. Dressed in the Stark colors and the girls’ hair was similar. The kings’ children all looked resplendent in Lannister colors, which made me raise an eye brow, and the Lady Shireen and I stood out since we were the only two in the hallway not from the two families. She was adorable in a Baratheon green gown and her hair down in the northern style, unlike the rest of the Southern children.

The King made his way to me and Robb, holding out a hand for Robb to shake and then he turned to me. “You’re quite the pretty lady in that dress my lady.” I curtsied, “Thank you, your grace. My father had it made for my nameday.” He chuckled, “likely he didn’t know how pretty you would look. If it wasn’t for young Stark, he would be beating boys away with that sword of his.” I giggled, the visual funny, though my father would do just that. The king grinned at me once more before going to his wife so that they could enter the hall and lead the procession. As we fell into line behind the Stark elders Robb was chuckling.

“What?” I whispered. He grinned down at me. “The king is smitten with you Ali. Hopefully now he will allow us peace. Besides, you should have seen the Queen’s face.” I tipped my head confused. “She looked like she had sucked a lemon.” I giggled, rather loud but It was drowned out by the doors sweeping open and the trumpeter getting the guests attention to herald in our party.

The adults made their way in, the applause was louder for the Starks than for the King and Queen but it died quickly when Lord Stark made his opening announcement. “You have all heard the news, in a fortnight my son and heir will be wed to Alianna Umber. Tonight they lead the children into this hall, to show their strength and leadership of the next generation.” There was loud cheering, and then he must have signaled for the doors to open once more. As they were opened I took a breath and then Robb and I both allowed smiles to grace our faces and in we went.

As we made our way up the middle aisle, I saw many familiar faces sitting with Jon at the table closest to the Stark children’s end of the High Table. There was Dacey and Alysanne Mormont clapping and cheering. Little Lyanna Mormont was with her mother at another table. Then there was the Harrion Karstark seated next to Theon, his sister Alys was seated next to him and Jon, who was for once not looking quite so solemn. Next to him was the youngest Karstark and one of Bran’s closest friends, Harald. My brother was seated on Jon’s other side, and I knew they would be conversing most of the night.

As Robb and I passed the table all the boys wolf whistled and cheered and the Mormont girls played right along. Alys merely grinned at me and kept young Harald from toppling out of his seat because of how he was craning his head to watch the goings on. When we finally reached our seats, and the other children had filled their own seats the feast began and I surveyed the rest of the room, seeing who was still missing and who was here.

Sitting at a table nearest the royal family was a whole host of Lannisters, and I noted that the king kept shooting glares at the table. At the top middle table was some of the North’s most loyal banners. My father was of course seated at the high table because of Robb and I’s wedding announcement, but otherwise he would be among his friends. There was Maege Mormont with her youngest daughter Lyanna perched on her lap. Next to her was Lord Wyman Manderly and his son and heir Wylis beside him laughing with Torrhen Karstark who was seated next to his father, Rickard. The Manderly daughters are seated across from the two young heirs, and I knew from the looks they were giving the Karstark heir; Winifred and Wyla were only a year apart and more than ready to wed based on the looks they were giving the eligible men around them. There was a space for Lord Reed, who was still making his way to Winterfell. He was the oldest friend of Lord Stark aside from the King and hadn’t been seen in a few years. Scattered around them were other houses, the Hornwoods, Forresters, Pooyle’s and others. The most notably missing house was the Bolton’s, who would be here soon, sadly.

There was a clear divide in the room, northern men and women keeping away from the southern host, which seemed to be made up almost entirely of Lannisters and Baratheon guards, as well as the Kingsgaurd. The famed Ser Barristan was in fact in attendance as Bran was no doubt thrilled about. He was standing behind the King, and behind the queen was her twin, the Kingslayer, Jamie Lannister. Behind each royal child was a kingsgaurd or knight there to protect them, as if they were to be attacked at any moment.

The queen had a look of barley concealed contempt on her face, and seemed to be drinking heavily, her eyes watching Sansa and us Stark children closely. It was widely known that Tywin Lannister was not pleased with the King’s deep love for the Starks, and clearly his daughter mirrored that thought, though that was probably because the King still openly mourned the death of Lyanna Stark, and was very blatant about it this morning.

As the night wore on, the younger children were escorted to bed, and though I had promised Bran a story, he was told by his mother it would have to wait as I was to stay here tonight. Sansa was conversing with the Queen, and Arya was glaring at her plate. I went to her, leaving my place at Robb’s side with a kiss to his cheek, sensing Arya needed to talk before she did something drastic, but before I got to her, she was gathered by her mother and sent to bed. Sansa, Robb, Theon, and Jon were the only Stark children old enough to stay, and as soon as Lady Stark returned, Robb stood, catching everyone’s attention, but he ignored it and turned to me with a wolfish smile. “Dance with me my lady?”

I smiled and placed my hand in his waiting one, and as I did, I saw Theon, Jon and my brother find partners as well. They had planned this. Seeing my glance, Robb whispered, “we are showing that snooty queen that the North has class. She’s been huffing and sniffing all night.” My grin widened, and we took our place in the space that had been cleared for us at Robb’s standing. Many northern men and women showed no surprise, especially those who frequently visited or lived here; they were used to us starting off the dancing. The only ones who looked surprised were the southerners, and I knew it was because of the rumors about the north in the South. We were about to show them what the North was going to be like in the future.

****

I chuckled at my son’s antics. He must have a good reason for this, because he rarely puts on a show without a reason. I noticed Catelyn’s slight frown, her eyes on Jon and Theon flanking either side of the young couple, but for once she said nothing and I saw the astonishment on Robert’s face as my son began to dance with Ali. He knew how I felt about these things, but Catelyn had insisted the children learn and they enjoyed it so I had let the matter drop.

Robb and Ali were moving with their usual grace, smiles both wide. To their right was Jon and Alys Karstark, to their left was Theon and Alysanne Mormont. The Smalljon had partnered with Dacey Mormont. They were quickly joined by Harrion Karstark and Joelle Mormont, and Torrhen Karstark and Winifred Manderly.

They painted a pretty picture, all the couples circling my son and his future wife. The two were rather lost in the dance, paying little mind to those around them. Robert, who never could stay still long, let out a booming laugh before grabbing the nearest girl and joining in. The queens jaw clenched but she said nothing. She did however stop her son from rising, refusing to let him join and I saw my daughters face fall. I was about to sacrifice myself, but Wylis Manderly appeared at her elbow and offered his hand, which my daughter took, and the two joined the others.

The rest of the people were content to watch, though I saw the wistful look on my wife’s face, but she said nothing since she knew I didn’t dance. The Greatjon came to her rescue, holding out a hand and declaring that they should show the kids some tricks. My wife smiled demurely and took his hand, as he was her only option for a dance.

Robert came back to his seat after the first dance ended, and promptly picked his wine glass back up and leaned back to watch the younger kids entertain. The Greatjon returned my wife to her seat before going to sit and watch the kids dance with Maege Mormont. Most of the youth remained on the dancefloor and switched dance partners at the end of the dance, and I saw my wife’s jaw clench and took a closer look; Sansa was in Jon’s arms, and the two seemed to be having a nice conversation for once.

Ali and Robb were still in their own world. I knew that I would have to take Robert’s offers from this morning, leaving these two in charge. I would of course leave Catelyn here to help them, but they would soon be shouldering more responsibility and I mourned their carefree spirits. I was also considering sending Arya with the Mormont girls to foster, but I had a strong feeling that Cat would not let that happen, she would likely send Arya South with me, or keep here and try and make her a lady. If it was left to those choices, I would bring her with me, and hopefully her and Sansa would learn to get along. I was glad that at least my three oldest would be happy. Robb would be happy with his young wife, Jon will be happy that he is at his brothers’ side and Sansa will get her prince, though I have my concerns about the boy.

As for Theon and my younger kids, only time would tell what their futures would bring, but I hope to bring Bran South with me so he can become a page to Ser Barristan or some other knight, as long as it isn’t Jamie Lannister. I knew my wife thought him to young, but it was time for him to learn. Perhaps going South won’t be such a mistake for my family this time around.

****

The next morning Winterfell saw very few early risers, as the festivities had continued long into the night, however one usual inhabitant was awake. Ali was making her way to the barn hosting the wolves while the guests arrived, and on her way she would meet to more of the very slim number of early risers.

“Ah Tyrion, we are being blessed with the presence of the Winter Rose this morning!” Standing in the yard, near the practice dummies, stood the golden kingslayer, Jamie Lannister, and sat to his side was his brother, the Imp, Tyrion Lannister. Jamie beckoned the girl to him, unaware of his audience.

“Come Lady Umber, regale us with stories of the North!” Ali raised one eyebrow, but merely shrugged, “I will return in a moment Ser.” She continued on her way, wary of speaking to a Lannister alone. She returned a moment later with two wolves prancing at her sides. They were growing, and Greywind and Joy were beautiful in their contrasts, much like their owners.

The two men stared at the wolves as the girl came closer, wary of the animals. “They won’t bite unless provoked Ser. They are well trained.” Jamie raised one golden brow, “you have direwolves for pets in the North?” His brother snorted his agreement, still eyeing the wolves warily. At this they received a truly wolfish smirk, Robb would have been proud if he had seen it. “Only the Starks, after all it is their sigil is it not?”
“And you have one because?” The smirk remained, “I am to be a Stark in a fortnight, so I was given Joy.” She waved to the white wolf, who at her name, came and sat at her master’s side. “Now what can I do for you Ser? Why did you request my presence?” Greywind, at the loss of his playmate sat at her other side, and both wolves watched the two men closely.

“Tyrion and I were merely wondering why a beauty such as yourself would choose to stay sequestered here in the North. You danced wonderfully last night, fit for a court, not the North.” The moment the sentence left his mouth, he regretted it. The girl took a step closer, as did the direwolves, all three snarling in their own ways. “I happen to love the North Ser. It is a beautiful place, and I love my homeland.” Tyrion had grinned upon watching his brother put his golden foot in it. “I meant…”

“You meant all the offense ser. I see that the rumor of the arrogance of Lions was not false. The North is not savage Ser, it is a wild beauty different from your South. Now if you will excuse me.” She made to leave but was stopped, this time by Tyrion, Jamie was still standing frozen, shocked at the brazen words of the girl.

“If my lady would be so kind as to point me to the library?” Ali sighed, but turned. “I will escort you there Lord Tyrion.” Tyrion nodded and together the two departed.

****

“You surprised him.” I looked down, into the mismatched eyes of Tyrion Lannister, “why because I didn’t lay down and accept his judgment of my home? I was raised by my father Lord Tyrion, I speak my mind, and I am a Giant and a wolf, your brother should think twice before he taunts me.” Tyrion smiled.

“I meant no offense, your Starks are interesting to me, and you’re particularly interesting, because Lord Stark is known for his honor, but also for keeping his children close. You are the first to marry into that family since the Lady of Winterfell herself did. And Robb is the only one betrothed, which is unusual for children that are of his children’s ages.”

“Robb and I have been betrothed since we were eight Lord Tyrion. I spent half of my childhood in these walls. Lord Stark knows his duty to his children, and will pick good marriages for them, but I do not hold his love for his family against him. He lost much in the last wars, and deserves to keep those he loves near.” Tyrion bowed his head, hiding a smirk no doubt and I felt my anger spike as he said, “of course my lady.”

“What is so wrong with that Lord Tyrion?” His head snapped back up at the ire in my voice, and at the soft growls that emanated from behind us, as I still had the wolves with me. “Nothing my lady, just unusal to someone from the south I suppose.” I said nothing, stewing.

“I apologize for angering you my lady. One so beautiful as yourself shouldn’t be angered by the likes of me. I thank you for showing me to the library.” We were approaching the library so I responded. “Why come north at all if you have no interest my Lord?”

“Ah but I do have interest my lady, I just have a unique way of expressing it. I love to travel and learn; I was merely in a sour mood for family reasons. I apologize for my offense.” I was puzzled by this man. One minuet he is a witty, jokester, the next a humble man. Which is the mask, which the truth. “Your welcome my lord, I bid you good day.”

I left him at the doors of the library, egger to escape his company. The Lannister brothers were an odd duo. One tall and golden, but a prick nonetheless, most likely because of his status and his name; much like his sister. The younger, smaller one was a puzzle. I had heard the stories of course, and at the start he made them seem true, but the bit about loving to learn was a surprise. Perhaps not all the Lannisters were as proud as lions.

****

Arya watched in awe as the Mormont girls trained in the yard. Ali was at her side, oiling her bow and waiting for a chance to finally show her work with a sword. The girls swinging swords and maces around in the yard were ignoring their southern audience, moving through their normal training routine.

Dacey and Joelle were both going against Alysanne, trying to beat their oldest sister. When Dacey finally landed the mock killer blow, she turned and beckoned my future good sister to her side. Ali told Joy to stay with Nymeria and then grabbed her own sword from where it was lying next to her. She unsheathed it for the first time since returning to Winterfell and the ring of the metal leaving its sheath made me incredibly jealous.

Ali winked at me, and then tipped her chin toward the southern contingent. The princes and princess were present now, awe and or detestment on their faces depending on the person. Her smirk grew and she took a confident step into the yard, giving her sword a swing as she went.

“It’s been to long little Giant. Come and play with the bears and let’s see what you have learned since we last played here.” Ali’s grin turned wolfish, and took her ready pose. Dacey took up position across from Ali just as Robb made his way to my side with Jon. “You ready to watch your future wife play with the bears Robb?” My brothers smirk widened at Jon’s comment and surprisingly he remained quiet. Then the swords started swinging. My jaw dropped, and Jon and Robb let out twin peals of laughter at the shocked expressions on many peoples’ faces, including that smug prince’s.

Ali was holding her own against Dacey Mormont’s bigger sword. Ali’s was as prim and delicate as she pretended to be. I watched her battle and wished with all my heart to be out there with her. This is the girl I inspired to be like, the girls that gave me hope for my future, even as my mother kept it from within my grasp. “Hello young wolf.” Robb grinned, “Maege, your girls better be careful with my future wife. If she is injured her father will not be pleased.” The great bear mother chuckled. “They know to play nice, but it looks like she is quite the challenge.” She then turned her attention to me, “your father tells me you wish to train in the ways of my girls as well, little wolf.” I nodded, “well I will have to see what you know so far, but I have offered to foster you, if your father so wishes, so that you may learn. We women of the North need to prove our worth, and what better way to do so then with a sword?”

I grinned up at her, “do you really mean that Lady Mormont?” She let out a great laugh, “Oh yes little wolf, and I can see the eagerness in your eyes. Later we will see you in action and then we will speak to your parents once more. Just one thing, do not call me lady, call me Maege. It is a shame we can’t bring your future good-sister along, she knows how to swing a sword.” I grinned, turning back just as the fight wound down, Ali making the final, winning strike. Her grin was as big as mine, and she hugged Dacey before spotting Robb at my side, she ran over and launched herself into his arms laughing.

“You were amazing Ali,” he whispered in her ear, but I could still hear the pride in his voice. Her grin never dimmed as she pulled back from him to hug me and greet Maege. Upon hearing my news, she pulled me into a hug and said, “Well little wolf, it looks like life is looking up huh? You get to go train, Jon gets to stay, and I get to be married.” I nodded and clung to her like a babe, glad for this girls’ presence in my life, she’s saved Jon and I from a life of misery. She makes my brother better, she makes our family better, and I know she and Robb will make the North even better once they are married.

The joy was ruined by the dunce of a prince who sauntered over and started laughing. “So you’re going to marry a woman who could defeat you?” Robb’s face soured. We had all heard what had happened between him and the Prince this morning, Jory didn’t let Robb practice with live steel for his protection, and it was obvious the prince knew he would lose.

Before Robb could speak, the princess Myrcella came to his aid. “Your just jealous because even a girl could defeat you in combat Joffrey. You don’t practice as you ought, and you know they could all beat you, live steel or training swords.” The Prince’s face turned a lovely shade of puce, his anger obvious, but Maege sent him on his way, “go on little lion cub, we have a practice to return to. Girls retrieve your bows; your fathers have told me you are both remarkable shots.” The prince stormed away, and Ali and I shared a grin before doing as Maege asked, always ready to prove our skill. Robb calmed when Ali leaned up to kiss his cheek before following me to retrieve our bows, and when we returned, we set about proving that we were two of the best shots in the North.

Chapter Text

Before Robb and Ali knew it, a fortnight had almost passed. In two days’ time they would be wed in front of the Godswood, as that is where Robb and Ali wished to be wed. The soon to be husband and wife had become quite the team during the Kings visit North. The family was united, for the most part, and the Kings family always seemed to be in disarray. The King and Queen fought often, Joffrey and his siblings fought often, and Tyrion and the Queen fought often.

By comparison, Lady Stark had taken to just ignoring Jon Snow to comply with her sons wishes. Lord Stark had agreed to allow Arya tod foster with the Mormont girls, lady Stark was reluctant but after watching her daughter smile frequently in the presence of the bears of the north, she allowed it. Jon Snow was more relaxed, he had decided to stay at his brother’s side as Robb had requested, and help him and Ali anyway he could. Sansa was still dreaming of marrying her prince, though the rest of her siblings were reluctant to see them wed, the Prince was a royal ass and no one wanted Sansa to be subjected to that.

Lady Stark, of course, had her blinders on to the tension between most of her children and the crown prince, as did her daughter. They were thrilled that the family would be linked to the royal family someday. Lord Stark had not officially decided what he was going to do about both offers. He wanted to do neither. He was not pleased with the Prince’s actions either, and he had no desire to go south, however, he knew he must do at least one of the two. He was considering another option for Sansa’s marriage, one the King could only slightly argue with.

The Bolton’s would be arriving for the wedding, but before the main retinue had arrived, the heir to Lord Bolton arrived. He had just finished squiring for a lord in the Vale and returned North. It had been agreed that he would meet his father at Winterfell. Surprisingly, the Bolton heir was nothing like his father. He had darker looks, more common with the North, and was very handsome. He had caught the attention of many of the young girls his first night, especially when he led Sansa in an elegant dance. Sansa thought him handsome, but was still dreaming of her golden prince, unaware that her father was considering marrying her to one of his most tensely related bannermen to solidify the North farther.

Domeric Bolton was kind, courteous and an excellent swordsman. His time in the Vale had served him well, and his lack of influence from his difficult father had made him an altogether different breed of Bolton then what Lord Stark was used to and this pleased him. He knew that if he spun the reasons well enough, Robert would have no choice allowing him to deny the marriage between Sansa and Joffrey for the Bolton heir.

Many plots in the North were beginning to thicken, and they would all begin to come to fruition not long after the much anticipated wedding.

****

Robb Stark woke early two days before his wedding, as this was the day that the rest of the Bolton contingent would be arriving. Robb knew that greeting them well was important, as relations with the Bolton’s were always tense. He had prepared for this day, though he was concerned for Ali, she seemed tense about the Bolton’s, and he had only asked once, to which she had uncharacteristically shut him down. He had watched her interact with the Bolton heir and everything seemed fine so he had no idea what to make of it, but he knew he would be there for her today as much as he could. He just hoped the tension faded before their wedding, because he wanted it to be a happy day. He loved her, and he wanted it to be perfect, for them, and for the North.

He chose to wear the Stark grey once again today, but instead of brown, he accented his outfit with black. He was curious to meet this lord of his fathers, as he had never mentioned Roose Bolton much, aside from the general history of the house. I knew that tensions were often fraught between our family and the Bolton’s but I suspected my father was thinking of ways to fix that, or at least I hoped he was.

My mind drifted back to Ali, as it had been doing frequently. I loved her, and I love the ease with which we interact. She seems able to read my mind some days, with how well we work together. She and I made a good team, and we had been proving it to the royal family, to the banner men, to our families these last few weeks. We had opened the dancing every night, and my mother had started having the tables arranged differently so that there was more room to dance as we had more and more people join in every night. We both excelled daily in the training yard, and Ali had been receiving high praise form the Princess on her needlework alongside my sister. Ali and Arya could always be found in the company of bears in the training yard, especially my sister as she was to be fostered with the Mormonts.

Ali and I had also seemed to unknowingly coordinate colors and outfits most days. She was the perfect other half to me, like the old legend of the soulmate. The person who perfects you, who completes you; for me that is Ali.

I was broken from that thought by a steward letting me know that the Bolton party had been sighted and my father was waiting for me with my family in the yard. I made my way out of the keep and meet them and sure enough Ali and I were on the same wavelength, she was wearing black and grey as well. Her sigil was on the left side of the collar and the direwolf was on the right, over her heart. She had obviously had most of her dresses made to fit both of her house allegiances until our wedding.

She looked beautiful, she always did, but she also looked pale, and frightened and I had never seen her act that way before. My father and some of my siblings seemed to have picked up on the tension in her, and were all standing close, and my father was watching her worried. I stepped to her side and put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay Ali?”

She couldn’t meet my eyes, so I knew that whatever she was about to say was a lie already. “I’m okay Robb, just tired.” I pulled her closer and whispered as the gates opened, “I know that isn’t the whole story Ali, but you can tell me when you’re ready.” That brought a real smile to her face, granted it was small, but it was there. “Thank you.” She linked her arm with me, and I didn’t object to her keeping me close. We both turned our attention back to the gates, where riders were streaming in carrying the flayed man banner, Domeric Bolton was standing on the other side of my father, scanning the men until his eyes fell upon a rather small and lithe man atop a black horse. He moved to greet the man as he made his descent, only to come to a stop seeing the young man riding further back in the group. “Father, is that…?” Domeric had told Jon and the Starks that his father also had a bastard son, but he didn’t know his brother, and had wanted to find him upon his return to the North.

Roose Bolton waved his hand and the young man strode forward and I heard and felt Ali’s reaction. She stiffened and took a noticeable intake of breath. “I decided to heed your request. This is Ramsay Snow. Ramsay this is Domeric, my son and heir.”

****

Ali was in shock. She did not think Roose Bolton would ever bring his son with him in any travels he had to take to Winterfell. She felt herself stiffen and felt her breathing speed up, she knew she was letting him and everyone else see her fear, but Domeric and many people in the yard thankfully had their eyes on the Bolton bastard, not on her and the Starks. She tried to collect herself, but then his crystal blue eyes scanned the waiting party and found hers. The spark that lit in them was almost demonic, when they registered her and her body, then anger clouded them when he noted her arm secured in Robb’s.

Ali felt herself fighting to maintain composure but everything seemed to be happening as an out of body experience. She watched as the Bolton’s all bowed low in front of Lord Stark, and as the introductions began I upped my fight to remain in control. I wasn’t going to let Ramsay Bolton ruin the next few days for me.

With that determination, and the strength provided in Robb’s presence, I felt myself stand straighter. My strength improved further more when Arya moved herself to my side, regardless of where she was supposed to be in the line, and put her hand in mine. Sansa had already been introduced to Roose Bolton anyway, as she had been led forward by Domeric, almost as soon as the greetings had begun.

My smile was almost real when they reached Robb and I, who were standing next to Lady Catelyn waiting to be introduced. Domeric and Ned were switching off who was introducing whom, mainly so that Domeric could prove to his father that he had been getting along with and paying attention to the Starks while awaiting his arrival, as he had told us he had been asked to do, to learn what the Starks were like. I had a feeling like that was not Roose’ intentions in complete honesty, but I had said nothing.

“Father this is Robb Stark, and I believe you already are acquainted with his betrothed, Alianna Umber.” Roose shook Robb’s hand and then those cold ice blue eyes were meeting mine. He held out a hand, “indeed, it is a pleasure to see you once more my lady.” I curtsied nicely but faltered rising back up as another pair of boots appeared, standing next to Roose and they weren’t Domeric’s. “This is my bastard son, Ramsay Snow,” Roose introduced Robb as if he hadn’t heard from where it had been announced earlier.

Ramsay gave a greeting but it was neither pleasant nor drawn out, as he was far too busy staring at me for that to occur. “It is a pleasure to once more be in your sweet company my lady.” I hated his voice, and that fake charm that I wish I had seen through on day one of meeting this man. I gritted my teeth and responded as politely as I could, “it is nice to see you again Lord Bolton. I hope your travels were easy.” I took a fortifying breath and then turned to him, “same to you Ramsay,” and then I feel silent, intent on never having to speak to that man again.

Just as the others were starting to notice the tension between me and Ramsay, the wolves all began howling from their post in the barn, startling the new arrivals. “I apologize for the noise; our wolves are not yet pleased by being locked away whenever we greet new arrivals. You will soon learn that they mean no harm, they are mere pups.” Robb calmed the visitors with excellent diplomacy, and the greetings continued, though Arya wasted no time in ending her introduction, and then she squeezed my hand, sensing my lingering tension.

Arya and I had a bond, so I knew she would be asking what had me worried, as would Robb, and I had no idea how I could tell them what had happened to me, especially Robb. So I decided to speak to my father and Lord Stark, and inform them, tell them the truth they had pushed me for months ago after I left the Dreadfort, then I would come clean to Robb, no matter how hard it would be. First, however, I had to make it through the welcome dinner that would be occurring, where the Bolton’s would meet the royal family.

****

Lord Stark had continually found himself glancing at his soon to be good-daughter all day, and he wondered once more what had happened at the Dreadfort while she had been there, because she was only tense around the Bolton party, and Domeric and herself were fine. At this moment she was seated with her usual tablemates, and Robb was at her side, no doubt boosting the girls’ mood, but she was pointedly facing away from the Bolton contingent a few tables away. Roose himself was sat next to me, but I did not want to cause an argument by accusing him of something until I knew more.

I hoped that Ali would soon come to me, or come to my son and tell us what is so wrong with the Bolton party, and why their presence was so troubling. I trusted the girls’ instinct, she was raised by a keen man, no matter how much he differed from the quintessential image of that type of man. I trusted the Greatjon in many things, and if his daughter took issue with someone in the Bolton household, I would ensure it was dealt with as needed, because she was wise beyond her years.

As the feast came to end Ali and her father approached me, “Lord Stark may we speak privately?” I met her eyes, and nodded, wondering if this is the moment I was waiting for. “We can speak in my solar.” She nodded, but my son caught her attention, and I saw the conflict in her eyes, “would you like me to have Robb join us?” She was quiet for a moment, her eyes falling closed, but when she opened them, they were determined. She nodded a yes and I sent a servant to notify my son while we made our exit.

We entered my solar, and the Greatjon and I both settled into a seat, but Ali remained standing, her eyes on the door. After a few moments of silence, it opened to reveal my son, who looked confused until his eyes fell on his future bride, then that confusion turned to worry. “Ali?”

“Please sit down Robb, I need to tell you all something I probably should have ages ago. I just was scared, and I also never thought I would see him again.” Robb took the other vacant chair and Ali took a deep breath before beginning.

“About a year or so ago my father and I traveled to the Dreadfort to visit the Bolton’s as we were unsure if this marriage alliance was still going to be in effect, my father was meeting Roose Bolton to discuss my marriage to Domeric should you agree to marry Robb and the Princess. I was accompanying him to hopefully meet my future betrothed and because Lord Bolton requested it. When we arrived, we were introduced to his bastard, not his heir. Ramsay was beside his father in what should have been Domeric’s vacant spot.” Her eyes closed at the mention of the Snow boy, and her hands clenched.

“I had not seen him since that day, and we had been at the Dreadfort for a few weeks when he came upon me once more, in the Godswood. We spoke and he seemed sweet and kind. He reminded me of Jon at first, though less saddened, as there was no Lady Bolton to despair at his existence. After that first talk, we walked together in the Godswood often. I thought him a friend, so I shared my fears about not marrying Robb with him. I told him I had nothing against his family, or his brother, I just always expected to marry Robb, who was my best friend, and the thought of that changing was rather terrifying as it was all I had known for most of my life. He changed after that conversation. Anytime Robb’s name would be mentioned he would become rude, saying I didn’t deserve him because he was leaving me for a princess.” Her eyes had still not opened and her fists continued to tighten, until my son could no longer bear the look on her face and reached out and took a hand at the pause. He squeezed her hand in comfort, but her eyes did not open.

“I stopped mentioning Robb, because he got agitated every time, and I became worried of what he would do. Everything went back to normal, he became sweet again and I feared nothing about his presence. He was unable to meet me in the Godswood one day, so I went alone. I often prayed aloud when I was alone, and I was praying for my marriage to Robb to be saved, so that I would not lose my best friend, and the connections I had made with many of his family. I didn’t know that Ramsay had decided to join me after all.” Her eyes opened and they were teary, a look I had not seen in this young woman since she was a babe.

“He became enraged and burst out of the woods behind me. He was yelling about how I had betrayed him, and taken advantage of him and many other things, and he advanced on me. He said that I didn’t deserve to be loved if I took someone’s love and wished it away. He said I would ruin everything he had planned with my stupid girlish wishes. I had never seen so much anger in a person. He struck me, but he was certain to make sure it was a place that would not be discovered, and he told me to stop thinking of Robb, or it would become worse. I began trying to avoid him after that, and I began asking papa when we would be leaving, but I was scared, so I said nothing of what happened. I never went anywhere alone for another week after that, but then I overheard some servants saying that Ramsay was out of the castle for the next few days so I resumed my trips to the Godswood. I didn’t know that it was trick to get me alone.” Robb let out a growl, the Greatjon looked like he had been punched in the gut, and was growing red in the face from anger. I myself felt anger on her behalf, and feared where this was going.

“He was hiding the woods. I knelt, beginning my prayers. I prayed for the continual safety and good health of my family, and then I started praying for the safety of my other family, the Starks. He stayed hidden until I once more mentioned your name Robb. Then he revealed himself. He knocked me off my knees and into the snow, and told me that I had disobeyed and that I had to be punished for that. He pulled out a knife. He made to strike but I got out of the way. I had begun carrying my small blade after that first altercation, and I pulled it from my boot, but he didn’t see it until it was too late for him. He advanced on me and I struck him in the shin with the blade, and then I got up and ran, crying for my father. He screamed at me as I was running that if I said anything he would tell everyone it was a lie and that I had bedded him, and that he would find a way to hurt you Robb. He said he had friends in Winter Town that would see it done. My father’s guards found me and I said nothing, but requested that we leave immediately and my father thankfully acquiesced and we left a day later.” She took a watery breath, not meeting anyone’s eyes.

“I never thought I would see him again, I thought I was safe, especially when it was said that my marriage with Robb was safe. I knew that nothing would happen to me here. I never imagined that Roose Bolton, who is so full of pride, would bring his bastard son, even with all of Domeric’s pleading to meet him. Now I fear for my safety, Robb’s safety, and Domeric’s. He is Lord Bolton’s only heir, and should something happen to him, I think he would legitimatize Ramsay, and that would be terrible, and I think that is the plans Ramsay was yelling about when he lost control. I fear that now that he has seen how close we are Robb, that he will do something to hurt us, and I couldn’t let that happen.” Robb could no longer stay away, he pulled her into his embrace, where she began to cry.

“I should have told you, but I was afraid. Then when we arrived here and nothing happened right away I thought it safe, and decided to just forget him, but then the Bolton’s were said to be coming and I feared that he may sneak with them, I had no idea that Lord Bolton would actually allow him to travel at his side.” The Greatjon rose from his seat, growling, “That bastard will not be allowed to live!” Ali immediately leapt up from Robb’s arms, “no father, we cannot hurt him. No one will take my word over his, even if he is a bastard. His family’s bannermen think him an innocent, kind man, I have no doubt that many would vogue for him, either out of fear of him and his father, or out of respect. We must wait for him to try something, but I wanted you all to be alert, and I wanted to ensure the children’s safety, as I do not know how he will endeavor to hurt us.”

I nodded, seeing what she was saying. “It will be done Alianna. I will not allow harm to come to you, Robb, nor any of my children in my own home. You can be assured that a discreet guard will be assigned to you and the children, also I would like Jon to be informed and vigilant, no one is a better swordsman then him and Robb, and with both of them vigilante you will be safe.” She nodded, “thank you Lord Stark. I will tell Jon, please.” I rose, putting a hand on the girls’ shoulder, “you are like a daughter to me Aliana, I will not allow harm to come to you, and you can ensure that he will be watched.”

She smiled at me, and then was swept back into Robb’s embrace, and she put her head on his chest and the Greatjon and I decided to give them a moment of privacy.

****

Once Robb’s father and mine had left, I tensed, fearing Robb’s reaction to what I had just told them. “Ali, why did you not tell me?”

“I didn’t want to disappoint you Robb. And I feared that he was right, that no one would believe me. I was also scared for your safety.” I felt his arms circled around me tighten, “Alianna, I love you, I believe you. You do not disappoint me. You came back to me because you thankfully had that knife in your boot. I will have to work to keep my anger hidden in his presence, but no harm will come to us here, I promise you that.” I looked up into those beautiful Tully blue eyes, seeing the honesty shinning there.

I decided to reveal one more secret I had kept near to my heart. “I love you to Robb Stark. I am so glad I made it back to you, and I am so happy that we will be wed soon.” His eyes widened at my words, shock and then joy flashing across the bright blue and then he leaned in, resting his forehead against mine. A bright smile lighting his face to replace the tension that had been there while I was speaking. He pulled me onto his lap, and settled us in a chair, me curled into his arms, and I never wanted to move again.

We sat that way, me drawing comfort from him, for a few more minutes before there was a gentle knock on the door. When Robb gave permission for them to enter, Jon was the one who followed the command.

“Father said that you two had something you needed to tell me?” I looked down, drawing all my remaining strength to me, “yes Jon, I do. Please sit.” I made no move to extract myself from Robb’s lap, knowing that it would keep us both calm. Once Jon had seated himself across me, I retold my tale, as I did I watched the same anger travel across his face as it had Robb’s and my fathers and I knew then that he believed me as well and I was relieved.

Once I finished, and before Jon could say anything, Robb told him his plan, which was altered from his fathers. “I want you or I to be with the girls at all times. I know that Arya will often be with you Ali, so it won’t look much different than usual. I also want you to keep Joy with you as much as you can. I will tell my father the guests will have to become used to them because they are integral to all of our safety, as I have no doubt they would do much to protect us.” I nodded, having no problems with the plan.

“We will have to do our best to make it seem natural. Of course after the wedding it will be quite common for the two of you to be attached at the hip, but before it would do for us to keep to how we usually are, or similar. The children will be safe as long as they stay together and with whoever father assigns to them.” I smiled at the dark-eyed boy across form me and finally moved from my seat. Going from one set of strong arms to another.

Jon hugged me tight, tucking my head under his chin, he was so much taller than me, and whispered, “I swear to you, no harm will come to him.” He knew that my fear wasn’t for myself so much as for the man I loved. “Thank you.” It was quite but I know he heard it. This boy was another brother to me, and I know I was another sister to him, and he is so protective of his family, I have no doubt he will do his best to keep me safe. He smiled that soft smile he usually reserves for Arya and then he passed me back to Robb. “We should get some rest.”

He had a point so both boys held out an elbow and after securing my hands in each boy’s elbow, they escorted me to my chambers, and there I found Joy already waiting for me, meaning that Lord Stark had let the direwolves out, thinking ahead of Robb and Jon. I smiled at my wolf, and turned to the boys, “I think I may actually be able to sleep tonight now.” I was met with nearly identical grins, both boys knowing that if my wolf was here theirs were waiting in their own chambers. Jon kissed my cheek and then Robb placed a kiss on my forehead and they left, and I went to bed feeling better than I had in a few days.

****

The next day, preparations were underway for the wedding, and vigilant eyes had been notified. The story had not been shared, they had just been informed that Lord Stark had received some troubling information and wanted to ensure his guests and his children’s safety. Lady Stark had been told nothing aside form that either, and she was rater curious as to what her husband was keeping from her.

She became even more curious when she saw Theon, Jon, Robb and all the other older children wearing their swords at their hips. The Mormont girls and Arya were training in the yard and the boys were lounging around, watching them as usual, but what was most curious was the lack of an Umber girl on the training field, instead she was sitting between Catelyn’s son and her husband’s bastard, laughing and looking much healthier than she had the last few days. Her anger mounted when she saw the direwolves she had demanded being locked away laying at their masters’ feet. Grey Wind, Ghost, Joy and Nymeria were by the seated trio, and that meant that the rest of her children were also in the company of their wolves. Arya’s was waiting patiently at the feet of Alianna Umber, golden eyes watching her master spar with the girls in the yard.

I turned my head that way and a frown slipped onto my face, watching my little girl play at being a man. Arya’s hair was in disarray, coming out of the loose hairstyle she always kept in, and sweat was gathering on her forehead, but I held my tongue because my daughter’s smile was miles wider than I had seen it in a long time.

The sound of growls made my attention return to the rather large group of young people around my son. Domeric Bolton had just arrived, and at his side was a Stark guardsmen and his bastard brother. He made his way towards that group, undisturbed by the now tense direwolves and I once again felt my curiosity rise. Ali had fallen silent at the arrival of the two new boys, but the boys were greeted normally, the new bastard eyeing them all before his eyes fell on my future good-daughter. His gaze stayed there, and a grin made its way to his face.

I watched Robb tense at the look on the boy’s face, but before he could do or say a word, my youngest daughter made her appearance at Ali’s side. “Ali! You must come train with us! Please!” Robb leaned down and whispered something into Ali’s ear, and at his words, whatever they were, a wide grin spread across her face, and she smirked, very much like how my son always did, and she stood, sweeping dust off of her dress. “Jon, be a dear and fetch me my sword?” Jon smirked, a rare emotion on his face, before he turned to do her bidding. Robb stood, his arm still around Ali, while Arya scampered back off grinning at getting her wish. There was confusion on the face of the new bastard, clearly he had not expected her to play at swords like the Mormont girls, and I wondered why he was so curious about her.

Jon returned and passed Ali the sword her father had presented her with a month or so ago, and she pulled it from its sheath with practiced ease, and a look of wonder graced the Ramsay boy’s face. Robb grinned and placed a chaste kiss on her forehead before escorting the girl to the middle of the training yard. “Play nice with my future wife Mormont.” Dacey grinned up at my son, “have no fear little lord, we will keep her pretty for your wedding tomorrow.” The girls all laughed, before Arya took a place at Ali’s side, and whispering something in her ear.

I was distracted from the goings on by the appearance of my husband and Lord Umber. I wondered if my husband would put a stop to whatever was going on here, but he made his to my side with a small grin on his own face. “Hello my dear.” I looked up, meeting his eyes, “do I want to know what is going on here, or why the direwolves are with the children as well as the guardsmen who look much more observant than usual.” He shook his head, and then we heard the clash of steel and our attention returned to the yard. My eyes, however, spotted King Robert heading to stand at Ned’s side, and the Ramsay boy staring unabashedly at the girls in the yard. “Umber is really letting her spar with live steel?” My husband just nodded at the Kings question, watching the girls spin and weave around each other as my youngest stood watching in awe.

We watched as Ali kept pace with the Dacey, an easy grin on both girls faces, and Robb and the others cheered and tossed comments at them from their side of the yard. “They are all rather close.” It was the King and he sounded surprised. It was unusual for children of lords to be so familiar with each other unless fostered as they had been, but here it was different.

“Aye. My bannermen travel to visit frequently and they all grew friendly early, they exchange letters, and are all close. It reminds me of us at their age, though we had no need for writing, as we were together at the Vale.” The king nodded, but was quickly distracted at the action, which had escalated.

Ali had moved onto what I knew was some kind of offensive move, instead of the defensive stance she had been in, and with a few fancy steps, and a neat twist of her sword, Dacey Mormont’s sword fell to the ground, and the yard fell silent. Ali was panting, but her grin was wide, and the silence lasted but a moment before my youngest was rushing up to Ali and throwing her arms around the girls’ waist. “That was amazing!”

My eyes swept over the yard, watching as my son and his friends made their way to the girls who were now shaking hands and joking, with Arya still hanging off of Ali, only to let go as Robb swept her up into his arms. At that motion, my eyes found the Bolton bastard, and there was a hard look on his face that had not been there moments prior, but before I could ponder it, my eldest joined me on my other side. “Mother, the cook is looking for you, something about tomorrow?” I was brought back to the present and the work still left to do, so I thanked my daughter and took my leave, wondering what else my husband was going to allow to change around this keep.

****

Robb couldn’t help but feel extremely proud of Ali after her little show in the yard. The Ramsay bastard would think twice before messing with her after seeing what she could do. He and his father had also seen, over the course of this day, how very out of the loop they were in terms of relations with the North, and how very connected we were, and how beloved we were to both the future generations, and the current lords and my father. My father’s dearest friend, Howland Reed, had even appeared from the Neck, which was rare. Father had enjoyed catching up with his friend, and Bran had found friends in the odd, but still polite Reed children.
The Reed children were twins, the same age as Bran, and Jojen loved to climb as much as my little brother. Meera simply followed along, and earlier this morning, I had heard her be the voice of reason for the two boys, so in their company and the still unnamed direwolf, I felt no fear for his safety. The safety I was now the most worried about was my sisters and Ali’s. That little display in the yard may have frightened Ramsay, but I got the sense that he wouldn’t stay away from her.

I had also seen the look that he gave Arya for gluing herself to Ali’s side, and it wasn’t friendly. Then there was my sister, Sansa. She not only had a Prince hoarding her attention because she was pretty, but now she had a wily Bastard as well. Jon and I had seen a look of wonder cross his face, when she entered the feast moments ago, on the arm of the Prince. He gave her a similar look that he had flashed at Ali, one of lust and greed. He also stared at the whole of Winterfell with a sense of greed, and I knew he was going to be the type of bastard my mother had always feared Jon to be.

My father distracted me from my thoughts when he stood and made his way over to me and Jon with Howland at his side. Jon, I need to speak with you. Robb, you and Ali may come along. I need to tell Jon some things and I think he needs his friends.” I was curious, but from look on my father’s face, I decided not to question him, and I turned to scan the room for the form of Ali and Arya, since I was sure she would be attached to her. To my surprise it was the other sister with Ali, Arya was seated with the Mormont girls, laughing over her long emptied dinner plate.

I made my way to where Sansa and Ali were standing and I was surprised to see Domeric Bolton standing there chatting with my sister, who usually spent the nights staring at the Prince. Ali was smiling watching them, and leaning into her brother, who was the only other person I knew she had told the truth to. He had been hovering around all day, but people believed it was because he was anxious to give her away tomorrow, rather than for her own safety. Everyone knew how close the Umber siblings were, despite their age difference.

“Father wants to speak with us Ali.” She turned to face me, confusion on her face, but she wordlessly accepted the outstretched hand, which I tucked into my elbow, and shared a nod with her brother before leading her off, towards my father’s solar. “What is this about Robb?”

“I’m not sure, but I think has something to do with Jon and his past because Jon is with him now. So is Howland Reed.” She hummed, and then leant further into my side, “are you ready for tomorrow.” That brought a smile back to my face, the idea of marrying her always did. “Yes. I love you, I can’t wait for you to finally be my wife.” A light blush spread over her cheeks, and she smiled, soft and light. “I love you to Robb.” We walked in silence, each thinking about the next day until we reached my father’s solar. We knocked and were told to enter and sit down across from my father. Ali settled between Jon and I, and sensing the tension, picked up a hand from each of us, ready to lend her support for whatever news my father was about to share.

****

Jon took a deep breath and let it out. This could be it. His father could finally be telling him who his mother was, what other family he somewhat belonged to. If his mother was alive. If she knows about him. If she cares. So many questions could finally be answered. He aqueezed the hand in his, thankful that she was here. Ali was the sister he trusted to see him at his lowest, at his weakest. She wasn’t the sister that depended on him for strength and solidarity, she was the sister who protected all of them, even those older than her.

“I know that you all must be curious but before we being, I want your honest opinion on a few things. First I want you three to tell me how you feel about Prince Joffery.” We all looked at each other, before Robb went first.

“He’s conceited, arrogant, worse than that of any other lordling first born I have ever meant. He is pompous, craven, and weak. He hides behind his mother, or his grandfather’s name to get his way. He has no formal training, his sister says he slacks off and then tries to hide it. His father isn’t a fan of him either. He concerns me.” Ali calmed him with a squeeze to the hand she was holding before speaking herself.

“He is everything Robb said, but he hides it well when he chooses to. He hides it behind false words and fake kindness, like Ramsay Snow. I do not know what he will do, and that concerns me for Sansa’s sake.” She squeezed my hand, and to my shock my father’s eyes turned to me, asking for my opinion, something he has never done.

“He is as they say. I think he fears us, but means to hide it behind his degradation and cruelty.” Our father nodded, a look of contemplation sweeping over him, meeting Lord Reed’s gaze before falling to us once more. “Secondly, I have seen as you have, and I must give the King an answer. He is pushing for one. I have had another offer for Sansa’s hand. I want your imput, as it would affect some of you more than others. Lord Bolton has accepted my offer to marry Sansa and Domeric if I can get Sansa out of a pact with the King. I want your opinion of Domeric, and his father.”

He means to anger the king? “Father, would that not anger the king?” Father smiled, “aye Robb, but I think I have enough sway, and enough good reasoning to get away with it. I also have been speaking to Lord Manderly. He has offered to wed Wylla to the boy instead. The king will still get a northern Princess if he so wishes, and a link to a very powerful house. Now please share your thoughts.”

“I think Domeric is kind, and polite, where his father is rough and greedy. Roose Bolton made it no secret that he wanted me for his son, he also made it no secret that he wanted me because I was a rumored beauty. He made no secret of his wish to gain power. Domeric has none of those goals. He has shared that his only goals were to find the part of his family he did not know, and try to ease the stigma on his house. Stigma I fear his father will only make worse. I think that Domeric would be good for Sansa, once she gets over the initial anger at losing her fairytale ending. He is handsome, strong, and intelligent. He could care for her, and be kinder to her than the Prince would ever be. I do not think that Domeric has a bad bone in his body, unlike his other living family.”

Robb nodded at his betrothed’s words. “Aye. He is strong, a good fighter, but smart. He knows that his father is cunning. He has laminated that fact with me in our talks. He wants to fix this rift between our families, but he fears his father has other intentions. I cannot help but wonder if Lord Bolton knew about what happened between his bastard and Ali, what his bastard wants, and brought him along to cause problems for us.” Father completed that, and Robb squeezed Ali’s hand and looked tome having said his piece. “I think that Domeric would be better than the prince. He was kind to me, even though he knew I was bastard. He wishes his brother could have been raised as I was. The prince is rude, and downright awful to me because of what I am. He has taunted Arya and Ali for being brutish because they train while he himself does nothing but trail after his mother and wial when things do not go his way. Domeric is not that. He understands hard work and determination, I think he will be a good Lord someday, like Robb, and I agree that he will be better for Sansa, and better for this family.” My father looked surprised that I had said so much, but his smile was full of pride.

“You have both thought on this then. Good. I tough you both well. Lastly, I need you to know. I will have to agree to go South after the wedding. It is the only way I can think to fully soothe the anger that denying Robert a wedding. I will need you three to step up. And that brings me to the other reason I have called you here. Lord Reed has convinced me it is time for you to know the truth Jon, and I knew you would need the others after I told you. I will be sharing this, and my plans with Lady Catelyn after this talk, but first I owe you the truth Jon.” He paused, his eyes falling closed, and the smile disappearing. I felt myself sit up straighter, my body tensing, and I only barely registered Ali’s hand leaving mine and resting on my back, rubbing soothing circles.

“Your mother was willful, strong, wild. Her name was Lyanna Stark.” Before anyone could speak father continued, as shock rattled my brain he dropped another surprise, “I am not your father Jon. You took after your mother in coloring, it was the only way I could keep you safe and pass you off as my own.” My eyes fell closed. I knew who my father had to be then. It was worse than I thought I was the product of rape.

“They were married.” It was the first time I had ever heard Lord Reed speak, and he was watching me, us, reading the shock and realization on all of our faces. “Your uncle Benjen saw them married, he knows. It was kept quiet, they had a war to deal with first, but before he could meet you, before anyone could meet you, the war was lost. The men guarding you, killed men in a fight with us to get to you, your father and I were the only survivors.”

“Aye. I found your mother at the top of that tower, dying from birthing you. At first I didn’t know, then she had the nurse bring you forward and she confessed everything. The last words she said were, “promise me Ned.” She wanted my word that I would keep you safe. Lord Reed and I decided the only way we could do that was for me to claim you as my own. We considered my brother, but he had been gone for too long with how young you were. I could never tell Cat the truth. At first, I didn’t know her well enough, and even now, it is just a secret I would rather keep. But since I am leaving, and with all that is going on, I figured you should be made aware, but this secret cannot leave this room.” He fell silent, his dark eyes on me.

All I could feel was the fact that I was an orphan. Then it hit me. If my mother married him, than that made me a Prince. My eyes widened, finding my father- I mean my uncle’s. “What I am supposed to do now?” His eyes fell shut. “After I tell Catelyn, I am going to name you a Stark, if you so please. It will allow you to stay at your brother’s side.” He held up a hand at my would be protest, “I know that you aren’t technically brothers, but I raised you to be that. You are that. I may not be your father by birth Jon, but I raised you, and love you as my own. I think your mother would want this for you. Now hear me out.”

I nodded, leaning further into Ali, who had remained silent, soaking it all in, her arm still rubbing my back. At my action she released Robb, who was also staring at my father ins hock to put an arm around each of us and draw us closer to her, offering her silent comfort, which I took, and so did Robb.

“I am going to give you my name, and give you a castle. If you wish you can go there, or you can send someone there in your steed. I have raised you as I raised Robb. There are some things you will have to be caught up on, as my wife was rather pushy these last few years, but the basics are there. If you do not want that, then I will keep it for you for later in your life. I will broker a marriage for you, as I would my own children, and it would not be the exact same, but you would, become my second heir if something should, god forbid, happen to your brother, as you are older than Bran. I want you to be able to truly be a part of this family Jon, I think my sister would want that. But his name cannot be spoken with the king here, nor hers after this night, or our rouse will be up, and I fear what he will do to you. You heard the stories about the others no doubt.” He fell into silence, watching us for a moment before him and Lord Reed shared a look, “do you have any questions Jon, because if not there is one more thing we must discuss. I know this is a lot to take in but it must be considered.”

I was frozen. Shock and disbelief warring through me, through my mind. I was a Prince, or had been. I was not, and never had been a bastard. Ali squeezed my waist, with the arm draped around me, guiding me back to the present. Sitting up some I spoke.

“No. Wait yes. What am I going to tell Arya? I can’t. No. I won’t lie to her. She is…” Father nodded before I even finished speaking, prompting me to stop. “You can tell her the truth, but it must be made very clear that it must remain secret. She will be able to tell no one, but I know how close you two are, what you have done for her, so I would never expect you to hide it from her.” I nodded, and then sank back into the seat, and Ali’s comfort, and this time my brothers hand appeared on my shoulder, sharing his strength as he has so many times before. I wondered what he thought of all of this?

“Your still my brother Jon. It doesn’t matter who your mother is, who your father is. It never has.” He read my mind. I met the Tully blue eyes of my closest friend, my partner, my brother. I nodded, “Thank you Robb.”

“We need to talk about what I am sure you have all realized.” Our attention returned to my father. “You are, were a Prince Jon. Your mother had it all with her. The proof. I have it here at Winterfell. It is safe where it is hidden, but you must know about it. The marriage license, the birth certificate, love letters, it is all there. There is one thing that is not with them, because I decided it was time you had it. He and Lord Reed stood, and Lord Reed grabbed the bag that had been sitting at his feet, which I had not noticed until now. Father pulled a sword from the bag.

“This is…” He was cut off by three voices speaking in unison, “Dark Sister.” He nodded. “He took it from where he had found it, and gave it to your mother. He said she reminded him of the woman the sword had been made for. Visenya. It was written in a letter, and your mother included it in her story. You can say that the swords designed after that one if anyone asks, but it hasn’t been seen for so long that I doubt anyone would notice that you have it. No doubt you only know it because of Old Nan and her tales.” He held the sword out to me, and I took it with shaking hands.

I had now inherited a name, a sword, and a kingdom if I so choose. Robb would get Ali, Winterfell and Ice. I now had a chance at that for myself. I was starting, not by marriage, but by receiving a great family sword. “If the time comes and we need to tell the truth, will you accept what that will entail Jon?”

Everyone’s head turned to stare at Howland Reed, who said in his wise voice, “no one wants that boy to take the throne. Should something happen, and he does before he has been wizened by either his father or age, we could play smart, and we have a prince of our own.” Lord Stark was staring at his friend in shock, no doubt having never thought of taking this that far, what with his famed honor. Robb however, looked to be contemplating things. “That makes sense Lord Reed. If the realm, the lords had to choose, they would choose him before the out casted siblings. They could have the Targaryen madness, but many have now met Jon, they can see that is not the case, and with us behind him…” Robb trailed off, but I finished silently, with the North behind me, we could win a war for the Iron Throne.

My father, I would still call him that, met my eyes, questions floating behind his. “If it must be done I will. But I don’t will it to. I do not want it. I want to remain here, with my family, at Robb and Ali’s side. I don’t want the castle father, at least not now. But you will always be my father,” I turned from the thankful grey eyes to face Robb, “and you will always be my brother.” The Tully blue reflected gratitude and my statement back at me. My eyes then moved to a softly smiling Ali, “and you have, and always will be my sister Ali. Thank you for being here, keeping me calm, and being here for all of us. I promise I will always be there for you in return.”

Her smile grew, and then she once more let go of Robb, and swept me into a hug, “you have always been my brother Jon Stark. I never thought of you as any less. You will do great things, I feel it, and you will make Lord Stark and your parents proud.” I kissed her forehead before returning my gaze to the sword that signified what was left of my family, and the man who had raised me as his own. “Thank you for being honest with me father, but now you must be honest with Lady Stark. And I must share this with my sister. I hope she will understand…” Ali chuckled, “I think she will. I think she will be angered at her lady mother all over again, but we will help her see reason in that. Have no fear Jon, that girl loves you, adores you. All she has ever wanted was for you to share her name, now you will.” With that this meeting was adjourned.

****

None knew, that as they left that room they were embarking on what would be a wild adventure. None knew that they would soon be players in the Game of Thrones. None knew that they had just set into motion a new future for Westeros, and that elsewhere in that castle, the future of Westeros was changing further, as it saw secrets kept by those of the South, and learned the truth. None knew what was about to begin.