Benjen had been methodically brushing the snow off of his black wolf's coat before leaving it on the rack to dry when Jeor found him. The Lord Commander of the Night's Watch had a strange expression on his face, puzzled, if not yet displeased, when he presented him with a letter.
"Near a hundred men from the cells, two years' worth of food rations, three years worth of back taxes and a bushel of those fireberries of yours." Jeor narrated. "I didn't even think the southrons knew they had Night's Watch taxes."
"Why would they? The last King to enforce them was Aegon V." The old wheeze of Maester Aemon spoke up. "Which House?"
"House Tyrell, if you'd believe it," Jeor eyed Benjen curiously. "Heard there's been an uproar in the taverns this morning 'bout a southron lordling. Know anything about it?"
The Black Wolf of House Stark thought back to the two letters secured in his bedroom, one from his nephew, another from the man his niece had married. Then he contemplated the likelihood of walking away without an explanation. "Willas Tyrell kidnapped my eldest niece for marriage. It turns out that all of their siblings were involved in the matter and the two were wed secretly in a ceremony in the Reach. Lord Willas promised a generous bride price for Lyarra's hand, and Robb negotiated the details of one for House Stark."
Allowing a moment for that to sink in, Benjen added. "Willas Tyrell sent me a letter asking for a late blessing to their union."
Jeor's reaction to his nonchalant tone was utter disbelief. "Must be some lass than."
Benjen recalled his eldest niece. Melancholy and reclusive, often like her father, but with a generosity of spirit and an unyielding loyalty that had been purely Lyanna. He smiled softly. "She is."
The two were broken of the peaceful silence of the moment with Maester Aemon's frank, "So your brother hasn't given his blessings to any of this?"
"Lord Willas means to secure your support by bribing the Watch then?"
"Can you string him along for more of such donations?"
Benjen considered the question. Then he nodded. "I can do that."
"Good man," Jeor said, approvingly, clapping the Stark's shoulder. "Have you any other nieces to be married off?"
Alys Karstark was startled when silence fell upon their table. It was not that theirs was a rowdy home but their father did take breaking their fasts as an opportunity to share his wisdom with his children. And Lord Rickard Karstark did appreciate the sound of his own voice.
The dark-haired noblewoman was not the only one broken out of an early morne stupor by the sudden lack of sound. She was, however, seated to the left-hand of her father today, and the closest of the four siblings, to obtain for herself the letter he held. Wiggling it out of the lord's hand, she brought it close to her eyes, blurry as the words were from a distance, and swiftly read it through.
'Tourney… kidnap… bride price… south… House Tyrell… Heir… Robb Stark… marriage… negotiation…'
Harrion was next to reach out and pluck the parchment from her slackened fingers.
Alys was furiously trying to understand what she had just read through. Lyarra Snow. She had met the eldest daughter of Lord Stark a mere handful of times but while not as visibly affected as her brothers, even Alys had noted the rare beauty the bastard held. Lyarra had been soft-spoken and quite polite, often shuffled to the back by either a Lady Stark diligently aware of her presence or a Lord Robb diligently aware of Alys' brothers. The woman was a gifted rider, she knew, often said to resemble her late Aunt Lyanna and a shared favorite amongst all of her younger siblings. Lyarra Snow had also borne the darker coloring of the North, though Alys, who did quite resemble a traditional Northern beauty, did not think so. Lady Lyarra was a beauty, undoubtedly so, but she was not a Northern one.
In truth, Alys hadn't more than an acquaintance with the Bastard of Winterfell, though she expected that to change in a handful of years. Torrhen had been apprenticing under a talented silversmith in White Harbor and, soon to complete his training and acquire a home of his own, would have pressed his suite for the lady. He had been besotted with her, a feat Alys credited more to eye than heart, as he had rarely spoken to Lady Lyarra of his own nervousness. Alys assumed that the suite would be accepted- Torrhen was a good catch, truly, and would be even better, once he learned to gather his wits around the girl- and looked forward to gaining a goodsister of her own.
Alys loved her brothers, she did, but Gods, did the Karhold need some good, female company.
'Well, Torrhen won't be pressing a suite now,' Alys thought sympathetically. The third-eldest son of Lord Karstark was a good catch but compared to the Heir of Highgarden? 'Beauty alone would be lacking. The Lady Lyarra must be rather clever.'
And sly. Torrhen had irritably related mention of the poncy, southron prick with the feminine golden locks and excessively lavish cloak of bluebells, to have crowned her. Alys had been impressed then. Who knew that her fellow Northern maiden was aiming all that higher for her wedding cloak?
'Or,' the noblewoman added admiringly, 'That Lord Robb would so ably advantage the rose lord's infatuation into food reserves for the Winter?'
Robb Stark had always been a catch as the Heir to Winterfell. To that, most ladies were aware of his amiable nature, swordsmanship skills and handsome mein. Adding wit on top of that all was simply making Alys cross her knees before the heat in her loins could stir any further.
'Risking himself to a negotiation for the North was quite dutiful too.' Ladies of the North had always appreciated a dutiful man.
Pleased with the letter, Alys looked up to other reactions. Her father was still held in shock, though a rictus grin of pleasure was slowly spitting across his face. Harrion was altogether unfoundedly smug by the letter. Eddard was still pursuing the parchment, quickly growing excitement in his eyes, while Torrhen waited impatiently for his turn-
Alys' view stopped. 'Oh dear, Torrhen…'
When her second brother had finished and the third was just reaching for his turn, Alys felt a moment of sudden panic. She grabbed at the first platter she could reach- bruised beat stew from the dinner last night, in fact- and threw it at him. The violently purple liquid soaked through and promptly ruined the parchment, even as Torrhen spluttered over bits of beef staining his face and eyes. Fortunately the soup was lukewarm by now, so he hadn't gotten hurt.
Alys, though, had gotten all eyes turned to her. She chuckled nervously. "Oops?"
"Willas Tyrell kidnapped a Northern bastard?"
The servant nodded obediently. "Yes, sir."
"Practical, bookish, sensible Willas Tyrell?"
"The crippled boy that walks around with a cane? My nephew who fears the blessed binds?"
The lord furrowed his brows in mild uncertainty. "Are you certain that it is our Willas Tyrell?"
"Yes, sir. I do believe that there's only one Willas Tyrell and he did indeed kidnap the baseborn daughter of Lord Stark."
Tyman Flowers regretted his wry words shortly after having spoken them but Lord Jon Fossoway, a more amiable employer than most, merely waved them away. He still stared down at his desk, where the infamous Tyrell letter rested on brightly varnished apple wood. Then he looked up, hazel eyes brimming in confusion. "Why?"
'To have the strongest claim to the throne,' was Tyman's suspicion. However, the baseborn servant was too wily to share the knowledge that had him effectively banished, hopefully temporarily, to New Barrel. Instead he offered an enigmatic smile. "Should I compose a response to Lord Willas requesting further clarification of his actions?"
The Lord of New Barrel considered that for a moment and then shuddered. "I should think not. Family they may be but if there's to be internal divisions between Lord Willas and his father- or Gods forbid, Lord Willas and Lady Olenna- then I want no part of it. Draft a letter of congratulations and have it brought to my desk. I'll have Janna inquire amongst the other cousins of how to approach this and should the marriage appear true, we'll send it."
"As you wish." Tyman fell into a practiced bow with just the necessary amount of flourish and was waved away by a distracted Lord Fossoway. In truth, the man's lack of airs and disinterest in intrigue made him a breath of fresh air to the servant. He enjoyed worked for the minor Reach lord though he desired still to return to Lord Willas' employ. Tyman had previously settled his goals on mere stewardship of his beloved sister's eventual estate but now… Lord Willas was ascendant.
And, as Tyman well knew, those lords that were rising in the Game, were always in need of good help.
"It is a jest, dear heart, isn't it?" Mace looked hopefully over to his wife, sitting stunned in her seat after she had read aloud the missive hurriedly brought by the servants. 'What is it that the children are doing these days- a lark? It is a lark, surely!"
He laughed weakly into the silence. "Our children have played such a delightful lark on us, to pretend to wed a bastard to Willas-"
"-I don't think this a lark," Alerie interrupted. The silver-haired woman gracefully withdrew herself from her position, taking dainty, ladylike steps with perhaps more haste and less composure than typical, to her husband. She brought the letter upto Mace's eyes, pointed to a final line at the bottom.
"At least she has good child-birthing hips," Mace read aloud. All of his hopes for this to be nothing more than a decidedly tasteless jape crumbled at the Queen of Thorn's words. "How could they?!"
Alerie rubbed his back soothingly. "I'm certain Mother had her reasons."
'And Willas, his own,' the noblewoman paused. 'She is young and well-mannered and dearly loved by my eldest son. I can accept this, if I must.'
"I'm certain she does!" Mace cried out, jabbing a finger roughly to the bottom of the page. "That's not my concern now! Look at this! All of our children were involved in the Plot and Mother too!"
"Indeed," Alerie looked puzzled. "Why does this distress you?"
"They didn't invite us to our own son's wedding!"
"You'll be dancing with the Knight of Flowers and drinking tea with all of the ladies of Highgarden? Oh, Sansa, you're so lucky!"
The red-haired girl beamed at Jeyne Poole's jealousy-tinted words. "I know! I was ever-so happy when Lyarra offered to foster Arya and I. She'll be the lady of this grand and beautiful castle and while there's a great deal for her to learn, we will have such fun exploring Highgarden together!"
"With your beauty, you will fit right in at the rose's courts," Jeyne sighed. She threw an irritable glance towards Arya, who was scowling unkindly at her tumbled strings as she tried to set them to order. "It will be entirely wasted on Arya, of course."
Rather than agree, as would be her typical wont, an anxious frown crossed Sansa's face. "It wouldn't be. Lyarra said that she would allow Arya to join in her sparring lessons with Ser Garlan."
The brunette girl's face twisted into a moue of confused distaste, at the mention of the act. "Lyarra doesn't still spar, does she?! It was bad enough as a bastard here but she's a Southron Lady now!"
Sansa opened her mouth to reply but Catelyn Stark had finally reached the end of her patience with this conversation. "Girls," she rebuked sharply, "Kindly return to your work. And Sansa, I will have no more of this talk of Highgarden. You're under your father's punishment now."
Her eldest daughter meekly nodded. It was a surprise when Arya merely glanced over, not offering her own acerbic commentary to Sansa's reprimand.
It would have been pleasant if the truce hadn't been born of shared solidarity over sending a bastard down to marry a Lord Paramount's Heir.
'Return to your sewing,' Catelyn reminded herself briskly, when her hands began to shake. 'You are Lady Catelyn Stark of Winterfell and you will finish embroidering this tunic for your son's nameday.'
Rickon would reach four years of age before the two moons that Ned had settled on each of his children as punishment expired. They were disallowed sweets and desserts, curtailed in playtime and assigned additional lessons every day. Despite this, the mood in Winterfell was merry as the bride price had leaked amongst the servants and everyone was in high spirits over one of their own marrying so highly. Catelyn could not finish scolding one servant for sneaking a child a treat before another was attempting to do the same.
'When it ends, Sansa's demands to be fostered in Highgarden will continue.'
The opportunity for her daughter to blossom in one of the finest southron courts in Westeros, if not the finest court outside of King's Landing, was once all Catelyn had hoped for. It still was, even if the chance given was at the generosity of a girl-child that she loathed as much as she feared.
That Lady Catelyn Stark nee Tully would loathe the bastard her husband brought home from war was of little question. How could she not despise the symbol of her husband's infidelity? Though the child herself was innocent, how could she not be pained by every mention of her beauty, her grace, her reclusive personality so alike to Ned? How could she not be worried when every comparison drew her to a Stark, when her very existence proved some loss for her own trueborn children?
'Mine own daughter looks more a Stark than Lyarra Snow does.'
No matter how the servants looked at it, Catelyn hadn't found the same Stark cast on the bastard's face. There were Stark features present certainly, the dark hair and the slightly long slant to her face, but there were so many- a heavy lidded gaze, those unnatural eyes, her plush lips- that were born elsewhere. And sometimes, when she heard those comparisons, Catelyn just wanted to scream.
'No, she doesn't! She's not the spitting image of her late aunt, she never was! Why do you not see those features that had not come from House Stark in her, as easily as you do mine own children?'
Catelyn didn't know if it would have been harder or easier if those words had been true. If Lyarra Snow did look exactly a Stark and had no trace of that foreign blood that chilled her heart. The Tully had spent more hours than she cared to think for, tracing river blue eyes over that face, tormenting her heart and mind both in trying to reconstruct the child's mother. Lyarra Snow was a beauty. Was the woman Ned betrayed her for, also a beauty? Ned wouldn't share a name with her- Ashara Dayne, her hopeful heart whispered, let it be Ashara, dead and gone and no longer able to tempt him- so Catelyn did not even know if the bastard's mother lived. It was the main reason she feared her, a recurring nightmare that Lyarra would draw her mother back to Winterfell and then Ned would betray her all over again.
'Bastards are sinful, lustful creatures and this one didn't even wait to steal her sister's husband from him,' Catelyn thought viciously, and then bit her lip sharply. No, she would not maintain a lie for her daughter's sake, not when Sansa so adamantly disposed it. 'My darling daughter is meant for the Prince. He will make a far better groom for her than the Cripple of Highgarden.'
Catelyn had thought to comfort her daughter about the bastard's selfish actions. Instead, she had been faced with a child overjoyed to have been part of his romantic caper, without any concern at all for the potential husband lost to her. Instead her daughter had briefly stepped down from where she walking on the clouds to reassure her.
'Willas Tyrell sounds everything a proper lord should be- kind and handsome and intelligent- but I think he would make a better goodbrother for me, than a husband.' Sansa laughed, undoing her braids and letting Tully red hair hang loosely, 'Lyarra and he are well-suited for one another. She loves to read as he does, meddle with strange substances and canter through the countryside. Neither love balls overmuch, nor I think, tourneys, and I would not want a husband who was not also a knight.'
'A man does not need spurs to be honorable and gallant, Sansa.'
'Oh, I know. Father is amongst the best of men and he hasn't any spurs.' Sansa leaned over to press a kiss to her mother's cheek. 'But I would want a man with spurs nonetheless. Lyarra has her bookish lord and is happy with him but while I do love my sister, in truth, she can be rather boring. When she's not fighting pirates during a kidnapping, of course!'
The Tully left the conversation simultaneously proud and saddened that her daughter seemed to have grown slightly. As it was, she chose to focus on the positive sides of this arrangement. Lyarra Snow was gone. Winterfell had a surplus of food for the coming storms. Sansa would be fostered in Highgarden where she would become an even better marriage prospect for the Crown.
'And a Queen outranks a Lady Paramount every time.'
'The roses have their own stake to the Throne.'
Varys was too well-composed to sigh irritably, though he naturally had the desire to do so. Not for the first time, he lamented his own decision to waylay Rhaegar's plot, thinking it to set a dangerous precedent for the Crown. In his mind, King Aerys' madness could have been controlled for a brief few years and then the succession peacefully ensured for his kind-hearted, if untested, eldest son. He had offered intelligence on the Silver Prince's plot to derail the work of lords meddling too deeply into royal business, knowing that Rhaegar Targaryen was too beloved to be cast away as Heir. Of course, then an untested young man chose to think with his lesser head on the matter and everything went, as the smallfolk in Fleabottom were prone to say, 'tits up' as a result.
The Master of Whispers should have just kept his trap shut. One could only waste so much coin in playing the harp and better a King that walked amongst the commons than a lush in the brothels. Either were security risks that brought him headaches to protect but at least the former didn't invite potential assassins to his bed.
'Not including the one he wed, of course.' Varys hid his twitter of amusement by practice, glancing through long lashes at the cuckolding lioness the King was bound to. 'Shame Prince Rhaegar isn't alive today to have his own actions turned against him. His beloved Visenya, stolen willingly from her home by another lovestruck southron.'
This she-wolf had three brothers too but rather than inopportune the youngest, Willas Tyrell had the sense to obtain the support of the eldest. By all accounts, the Young Wolf had even walked his 'sister' down the aisle and held up the kinship goblet for the groom to drink from. 'This opens opportunities.'
Varys wanted peace and prosperity for the realm. Any monarch could bring that to Westeros with a modicum of human decency, above-average intelligence- or the common sense to hire good advisors- and the ability to beget male children. These were not such vaunted qualities that his task need be so difficult, though somehow, it always felt that way. He didn't even mind which House controlled the Crown, though he would naturally prefer that the blood sit of the dragons on the Iron Throne. In the end, Varys was a simple man of simple expectations that everyone else made far more complex than necessary.
His chief complaints were Cersei Lannister and her incest-born monstrosity, Prince Joffrey, but Willas Tyrell had impressively made the short list. Preceding this, Varys had set aside the youngest of the Silver Prince's children and focused on other options, including Viserys, Daenerys and Illyrio's son as a substitute for Aegon. It was a shame, of course it was, to lose Rhaegar's progeny; whatever his other faults, the Silver Prince had been just and kind and true. But what could he do? No one would accept a woman on the throne and, as a bastard, Lyarra Snow could not beget a trueborn King. Moreover, her main base of support would be a kingdom that had allied with the stags once before.
'Though perhaps not once again.' Robb Stark had attended the wedding. He hadn't the same ties to the King that his father did, nor the same hidebound honor, if he was willing to negotiate a marriage in secret for his cousin. 'Willas Tyrell will put the key to the Kingdom into her womb soon enough.'
The Master of Whispers hadn't as many little birds in the North as he'd like but he'd collected a few useful bits of knowledge. Lyarra Snow was an intelligent, if melancholy child, much like her own father had been. She hadn't shown any signs of madness yet, possibly having stamped it out with her Stark bloodline. If her son followed suit, he would not be an unattractive option for the throne, with the roses, wolves and possibly trouts supporting him. Varys would have to quietly insert a few forgeries to remove the child's mother of the taint of bastardry but that wouldn't be past his abilities.
'The child would have the advantage of being raised in Westeros as well.'
Decisions, decisions. Plots and plans encircled around a babe even conceived yet. Truly the Game of Thrones demanded too much from her Players.
'One thing is certain. Everything has changed.'
Done! Finally my first completed fic! This is the end of Arc One of Winter Thorns. I'll post an update to this story when the second arc is posted, though I would warn that to be in the distant future. While I adore Willas and Lyarra, I've been focused on their story for nearly eight months now.