Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction inspired by George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series/Game of Thrones television series. Asterisks *** are used whenever I'm directly or indirectly quoting something from the books/tv show.
Loathe though Lord Eddard Stark was to leave his wife and children behind in Winterfell, he made arrangements to journey south in a moon’s time to serve on the King’s Small Council. For years, he politely declined King Robert Baratheon’s repeated offers for a council seat, but a recent letter from his sovereign made him reconsider.
I will come to the North myself and beg if I must.
Despite the fact that Robert had been a dear friend and comrade once, Ned desperately needed to keep the man from the northern seat of the realm. For one, he did not share Robert’s sentiments regarding the joining of their two houses. While no official proposal had yet been made, Robert on several occasions suggested his eldest son, Joffrey, marry Ned’s eldest daughter Sansa. Ned intentionally did not respond to those portions of the King’s letters or mention the matter to Sansa. But that did not prevent the girl from dreaming about marrying the Crown Prince all on her own; that worried him.
Sansa was a bright and dutiful child, but when it came to understanding the ways of the world and its people, she was woefully naive. She also recently espoused a terrible knack for tattling on her younger sister whenever the opportunity presented itself and the viciousness and immaturity of it both deeply baffled and troubled him. Resigned to resolving the matter, Ned summoned Sansa into his study.
“You wished to see me, Father?” She stood smiling in the doorway, hands clasped before her.
“There is a matter I want to discuss with you,” he responded, more gruffly than he intended.
Panic flashed across her face. It wasn’t often that Ned called Sansa into his study for a private audience—not like Theon, Robb, or Jon. His lady wife usually handled the instruction of the girls, but either way, such meetings either entailed high praises and rewards or firm corrections and punishments.
“Did I do something wrong?” she asked.
“No.” Ned patted the seat next to him. “But I do want you to consider what I say very seriously.”
She nodded, relaxing. When Sansa sat, she clasped her hands again and kept her back perfectly straight as Septa Mordane taught her.
“Your mother tells me that you want to go to King’s Landing,” he began. Sansa’s eyes brightened with excitement. Ned continued, his tone darkening. “She also tells me that you want to meet Prince Joffrey and his siblings.”
Brows furrowing in confusion, Sansa replied, “Befriending them would be good for our family.”
Ned tapped his finger against the armrest. “There is something you must know, Sansa, something I always want you to consider when extending your trust and friendship.”
She leaned slightly forward in her chair, eager to hear what he had to say. Sansa was a studious girl and always mindful of her lessons, so Ned hoped that quality would be enough to impress the wisdom he imparted today.
“Not all knights are honorable, their ladies courteous,” he said. “And not all princes are good men. In King’s Landing, and in much of the realm outside of Winterfell, I am afraid this is more often the case than not. Lords and ladies play cruel games with one another for power.”
“Father,” Sansa began uneasily. “Are you saying Prince Joffrey is such a man?”
“Many who surround him are. Prince Joffrey’s particular brand of cruelty stems from his lust for violence.”
Sansa’s eyes widened. “Surely, you are mistaken.”
Ned looked at his daughter squarely. “I am not.” He recounted from Robert’s letters several troubling “accidents” the Prince had caused, including the deaths of his siblings’ pets and the maiming of a servant. The King was painfully and unwisely cavalier about his son’s misbehavior. Ned didn’t think it ever occurred to Robert that by sharing these stories, he ruined any chances he had of uniting the Houses of Baratheon and Stark.
She blanched, horror written across her normally carefree features. Ned spared no detail in the retelling, because now more than ever, he needed Sansa to account for how dangerous the world could be, especially when power is in the hands of dishonorable people. By the end of the telling, her fists were clenched—a better, stronger reaction than he could ever have hoped for.
“That is unforgivable. And the King and Queen allow it?”
Ned nodded. “They spoil the boy, and it has weakened his character and his mind. He does not have the capacity to be a good friend, let alone a husband.”
She looked away to hide her blush and the treasonous thought that crossed her mind. Or King.
“I know you dreamed of one day marrying the Crown Prince,” Ned said gently, “but you deserve someone who is brave, gentle and strong.”***
Smiling weakly, Sansa replied, “Yes, Father. Now that I know his true character, I will think of him no more.”
“Smart girl,” Ned praised, which perked his eldest daughter’s mood. Sansa sought compliments and approval a little too eagerly for his liking, but he thanked the old gods that in this case it would probably help his instruction stick. “Winterfell is the best place for you right now, at your mother’s side and in the company of your siblings. I want you to look after them while I’m gone and keep the pack strong; Arya especially. You should be kinder to her, more accepting of her differences.”
Sansa opened her mouth to protest, but Ned held up his hand to stop her. He’d heard these grievances before. “Sansa,” he said firmly. “Remember how well you played together as children. You were kinder to each other then.”
“She was more agreeable,” Sansa huffed.
“Arya has always loved playing at swords, wrestling in the dirt and riding horseback. She has never enjoyed needlework or lessons. All that has changed is how you treat her and, in response, her readiness to retaliate.”
“We don’t play games of pretend anymore, Father, or at least we are not supposed to, because we are too old. I’m nearly of marrying age, as will Arya be in a few years. Mother has said as much.” Upset, Sansa’s tone took a higher pitch. She paused to compose herself. Ned waited for her to continue. “I miss those games,” she finally said quietly. “But I have a duty to my family to behave as a highborn lady should. And so does Arya.”
“Be that as it may, the tattling, the unkind words and the shaming must stop. Keeping your sister out of trouble and helping her gradually assume her duties is what I ask of you. It’s not whatever it is you are doing now,” he replied more sternly than he meant to. This was supposed to be a constructive conversation, not a reprimand. He pressed forward in a softer tone, but it didn’t make his next words any less harsh. “Did you know, just the other day, I overheard Jeyne call Arya ‘Horseface?’ A steward’s daughter had the audacity to insult a highborn child. You lead by example, Sansa, and this is the example you set. It is intolerable behavior and cannot continue.”
Sansa’s eyes watered. She bowed her head in shame. Ned sighed. “But I am to blame, as well. I have seen this for sometime and said nothing. I should have much sooner. Can you forgive me for this?”
Sansa hastily brushed away her tears. She nodded. “I am sorry, too, Father. Can you forgive me?”
Ned’s expression softened. “Always. But it’s your sister’s forgiveness that you need to earn.”
“I know. I will do better.”
“How can you still go to King’s Landing after what you have said? It sounds like a terrible place, and we need you here.”
“I must do as the King wishes to keep our family safe.”
“I thought King Robert favors our family.”
“He does, but if he came here—which he will do if I keep refusing him—and learned Jon’s true parentage, the consequences would be devastating.”
To the world, Jon Snow was Ned Stark’s bastard. But to immediate family, Jon was the son of Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister, and her lover Rhaegar Targaryen, once heir to the Seven Kingdoms. Both of Jon’s true parents were now dead, having lost their lives during the war Robert and Ned started. In the beginning, Ned truly believed Rhaegar had stolen away his sister and raped her, a belief Robert, her betrothed, readily shared. But the truth was more difficult than the fiction they led themselves to believe.
In the Tower of Joy, as his sister lay dying, Ned learned to his great sorrow and shame that she had deeply loved Rhaegar and married him in secret. The little boy in her too pale arms was the product of that love. Gods, Ned silently cursed, remembering how he took his raven-haired nephew from Lyanna’s lifeless arms and held him close to his heart. They began a war because they thought she had been taken against her will, but she had gone with the Prince willingly. All the bloodshed that could have been prevented, if only he had known.
Realization dawned in Sansa’s eyes. “King Robert would hurt him,” she whispered.
Ned shook his head. “King Robert would kill him, Sansa. Best you not forget that. He would kill your cousin without question, without flinching, as he did the other Targaryen children.”
“I will not forget,” Sansa vowed.
“Good. And remember, too, that this conversation stays between us.”
“And one last thing. While I am gone, I would like you to pay closer attention to your history lessons and what good works would better the lives of our smallfolk. In doing this, and by helping your mother oversee the household, you will learn much about people and fostering relationships with them. These are invaluable skills for a lady.”
“Of course,” she replied, tears returning to her eyes. “I will miss you, Father. We all will.”
Ned hugged his daughter. “I know. And I will miss all of you very dearly.”
“Will you write?”
“As often as I can,” Ned promised.
Their conversation soon ended, and Sansa left.
Not long after, Jon knocked and peeked around the open door.
“Come in, Jon.” His nephew closed the door behind him and locked it to prevent servants from walking in.
“Please do not go to King’s Landing on my account,” he begged. “I will stay with Uncle Benjen at the Wall or take up work as a fisherman in White Harbor. The King will never see me.”
“It is a kind offer, but it does not sway my decision, though I thank you for trying. The King will not take no for an answer for very much longer. It is high time I do my duty. I have put it off for quite a long time.”
“How long must you stay?”
“For however long the King requires,” Ned answered wearily. He really hated having to leave, especially so soon after Catelyn had given birth to their youngest child, Rickon. “When Robb is comfortable with his duties as Warden of the North, and Sansa is married, Catelyn will come to King’s Landing with the youngest three. Robb will need you and Theon for counsel.”
“It will be alright. Now, speaking of Theon, has he been staying out of trouble?”
His nephew smirked. “Just a few pranks here and there.”
“Should I be worried?”
“No. It is always in good nature and everyone has a good laugh. He says it’s not worth doing otherwise.”
“Good. And the brothels?” Ned gave Jon a stern look.
The youth blushed. “Occasionally. Not like he used to.”
“How about you? And Robb?” Jon’s blush deepened.
“Learning how to please your future lady wife, too, are you?” Ned sighed. “Just follow the precautions I told you about and comport yourselves with respect and dignity. The time has come for you to be leaders of men in winter, not boys of summer.”
“Good. Now, unless there is something else, please tell Robb and Theon that I would like to speak to them next. They should hear this from me, as well.”
Jon left his uncle’s study and found Robb and Theon Greyjoy both helping Sir Rodrik in the armory. When Jon said that Lord Stark wished to speak to Theon, too, the young Ironborn man’s brows lifted in surprise. “He wishes to speak to me?” His tone held a note of disbelief.
“You should know by now he considers you a son.” Robb smiled in understanding and clapped a hand on his shoulder. Theon looked down, mumbling something intelligible, but a grin spread across his face.
Jon arched his brow. Robb met his questioning gaze and explained. “Theon is family as much as you or I, though he often forgets and needs reminding. Father would not leave without saying goodbye.”
Jon did not disagree.
On his way to speak to Lord Stark, Theon bumped into Lady Sansa in the hallway while rounding a corner. She stumbled back a step and yelped in surprise. Her eyes were red rimmed and puffy as if she had been crying.
“I am so sorry, my Lady. Are you alright?”
“You just frightened me. Are you in a hurry, my Lord?”
Theon’s lips quirked upward. No one but Lady Sansa ever called him that; she thought it proper to acknowledge his birthright on the Iron Islands. Theon did not often interact with Lord Stark’s eldest daughter, but he could not help but be fond of the girl for her attentiveness to courtesy. “No. Just preoccupied with my thoughts.”
“I, as well,” Lady Sansa confessed wearily.
“What troubles you?”
“I will tell you if you allow me to walk with you.”
Theon wordlessly held out his arm which she accepted. She set a slow, meandering pace; Theon figured that meant she had a lot to say.
“Firstly, I have been absolutely horrid to Arya.”
“That’s nothing new,” he smirked. Lady Sansa shot him a dark look.
“Be that as it may,” she continued. “Father commented on it, and I am utterly mortified and ashamed.”
“It’s about time.”
Lady Sansa frowned. He nudged her. “Come now. What’s done is done. There’s no use dwelling on it. Your time can be better spent by making it right.”
“But how? Arya hates me.”
“I would start by saying you’re sorry. And Arya doesn’t hate you,” he stroked his chin thoughtfully. “She’s just a bit of a hellion when she’s angry.”
“She’s always angry.”
“Because you provoke her. So don’t provoke her.”
Lady Sansa sighed. “Unfortunately, being in the same room is enough to provoke her.”
“Forgiveness isn’t going to happen overnight, but if you make a habit of treating her better, she will eventually take notice.”
She nodded, taking his words to heart. “I am also worried for Father and Mother.”
“Because Lord Stark is leaving for King’s Landing soon?” he asked.
“Mother will miss him, as will we all. But I cannot stop thinking about baby Rickon. Why does it have to be so soon after his birth? It could be years before we see Father again. He barely knows his youngest son, and Rickon will not remember his father. And poor Mother. How will she bear it? How could any mother and lady wife bear it?” Before Theon attempted an answer, Sansa continued. “And I am afraid Father will get hurt in the capital city, even with King Robert to watch out for him. I—I want the Prince and all the people at court to be courteous and kind, but they are not, are they?” She whispered the treasonous words so softly Theon almost did not hear them. He had a good guess what else Lord Stark spoke to his daughter about.
“I have not heard many great things about King’s Landing, my Lady, but Lord Stark knows the dangers and, as you said, he will have the King to look after him. He will also have a retinue of some of Winterfell’s finest fighters to accompany him, and he is a fine fighter himself. That is more than most can say.”
Lady Sansa worried her lip—Septa Mordane, ever the diligent watch-woman for unladylike behavior, would have a fit over it if she saw. Noting her uneasiness, Theon squeezed the hand that curled around his arm. “But that does not make you feel better does it?”
The affectionate gesture surprised Lady Sansa, but she did not comment on it and merely shook her head.
“Then allow me to try again. The North is great and powerful; it is the largest seat in Westeros. If something happens, Robb will rally your father’s bannermen, and I will go with him. I have never seen or heard of a Lord to inspire so much respect and loyalty as Ned Stark. The court would be wise to remember that. It will be a grave mistake for them to forget.”
“That does make me feel better for Father’s sake. But what do we do to deal with the heartache?”
Theon knew Sansa’s training to be a lady taught her that she would one day leave her family to start her own, but it seemed she never considered the challenges, uncertainties, dangers and heartache that came with it—something his own family knew all too well.
“My Lady Mother lost three of her children to my Father’s rebellion, myself included. Though I still live, my brothers are all dead. I do not know what my mother does day by day, or if the health of my sister comforts her at all, but I do not think I will ever see her or my father again. It would be cruel if she still held onto the hope of my return. But you will see your Father again. And Rickon will one day have a chance to get to know him. For now, he has you and his family to love him and share stories about the man that sired him.”
Sansa looked down. “You miss them.”
“How do you bear it? Mother and the rest of us will at least will be able to write Father letters.”
Theon winced. Forbidden to write to his Ironborn family, it was the single most glaring reminder that he was brought to Winterfell as a hostage, not a ward. “I focus on what I have, and what I can control. You should, too.”
Realizing her insult, Sansa looked abashed. “I am sorry. That was a rude thing to say.”
He sighed. “I know you did not mean harm by it.”
“I should not have troubled you with these thoughts at all, but I did not know who else to turn to.”
“Not Jeyne?” Sansa shook her head.
“No sooner did I tell her that I was not going to King’s Landing with my father, she begged me to convince him otherwise. If I go, she goes. It is all she can talk about.”
“I suppose she thinks such a trip will be everything she has ever dreamed of.” Theon pressed, knowing that not long ago, it was all Sansa could talk about, too.
Knowing this, as well, Sansa blushed. “Father told me horrible things, but I cannot tell her what he said to me without breaking his trust.”
“My Lady, you are the eldest daughter of the Warden of the North. Just tell Jeyne to stuff it.”
Sansa muffled a giggle and looked around to make sure no one saw her lapse in ladylike behavior. They were in the hallway that led to her father’s study, which was usually frequented by servants. “Ladies do not say such things,” she scolded.
“Of course not. My apologies.”
“But I take your point.”
Hearing their approach, Lord Stark stepped out of his study. Startled, Sansa disengaged and averted her gaze, certain Septa Mordane would hear from her father about the impropriety of walking with Theon unchaperoned. Lord Stark looked between the two of them for a moment—unsure of what to make of the sight.
Not wanting to see Sansa reprimanded, Theon spoke, “My Lord, Sansa was kind enough to accompany me here when we met in the hallway. You wanted to speak with me?”
Lord Stark nodded and returned to his chair. “I wondered what was keeping you.”