Highgarden was a beautiful place. A round, but elegant white fortress, it majestically stood on top of a hill and was surrounded by fields and orchards. It shone under the bright summer sun and could be admired leagues away.
Highgarden was the second richest castle in all of Westeros and seemed to lack nothing. It had food aplenty – so much so that the Reach had taken to selling its surplus to the other kingdoms – a pleasant weather, a charming countryside, many rivers and rich soil, and it was the most populated kingdom on the continent.
What most people did not realise was that Highgarden was in many ways vulnerable. The Reach produced a great many deal of well-off farmers, but very few soldiers. Its soil was fertile, but poor in gold and iron. Fields and orchards were many, but they had very few forests. It had no natural defense apart from the Dornish Marshes. The Reach, to make it short, imported as much, if not more, as it exported and had very little military power. Its main strengths were its amounts of food and its – mostly merchant – fleet.
The Reach needed the support of the crown more than ever before since the Lannisters had risen to power. Lannister gold flew from hand to hand and the Westerlands became more and more detrimental to the Reach's main strength : trade.
At first, Olenna Tyrell had thought of marrying her grand-daughter to the king's younger brother, Renly Baratheon. The boy, however, seemed to have more taste for her grand-son Loras, than her Margaery. It would have been of little consequence, had another option not presented itself.
Her son's heir, Willas, was still unmarried and, no matter her efforts and the reputation of the Tyrell name, most Lords seemed to find the idea of marrying their daughter to a cripple whose actual chance to inherit Highgarden was close to null (or so rumour would have it) distasteful. But Willas would inherit, she would make sure of it. He was the oldest and the smartest of her grand-sons and needed a wife and heirs of his own.
When she first heard the rumour that the king had legitimized Lord Stark's bastard daughter, she did not pay it much attention. It was only one more political blunder (offending the Riverlands) to add to Baratheon's ever growing belt. When she heard of Lord Stark's trouble to find a suitable husband for his now true-born daughter, she was unsurprised. The girl would have probably had an easier time of it had she remained a bastard : her status would have been clear and proceedings much easier. But then, while she was reflecting on the trouble of finding good matrimonial matches for one's descendants, an idea came to her mind.
Her first instinct was to dismiss it as ridiculous. But it kept nagging her, bursting in her head at the most inoportune moments. And the more she gave it thought, the more it appealed to her. Of course, the idea of marrying her Willas to a former bastard seemed preposterous, but... But, Lord Stark was the King's closest friend. But Lord Stark had control over more than half the surface of Westeros. But Lord Stark was a strong ally of both the Riverlands and the Vale. But, the North lacked what the Reach had in abondance – food – and had in abondance what the Reach lacked – lumber, iron, furs...and military might. Such an alliance, should it be made... Yes, the more she thought of it, the more she was convinced that it was the best political move she could make. It would strengthen both the Reach and the North and weaken the influence of the Lannisters. And the best part was that Lord Stark could not refuse such an offer : it would be the best, by far, that the girl could possibly receive. And so, she forced her reluctant son to ask for a match between his heir and Lord Stark's previously bastard daughter, Brighda Stark.
« Willas Tyrell ?! » she exclaimed when she heard the news, shocked.
Father nodded with that solemn air of his.
« But why ?! Surely, the future Lord of the Reach can do much better than me ! »
« Not necessarily » Father answered.
« What do you mean ? He is to be a Lord Paramount and I'm just a ... »
« No, you are not » Father cut her before she could utter the word. « Not anymore, and that is all that really matters. »
« I do not undestand »
Father got up from behind his solar's desk and walked to his window, inviting her to follow him.
« Look, he said, and tell me, what do you see out of our walls ?»
Confused, Brighda complied nonetheless.
« The Wolfswood and the hills ».
« And, can you tell me what lies beyond ? »
« The Wall »
« The Wall, yes, and to the South ? »
Brighda frowned, not following her father's train of thought.
« The Barrowlands and the Neck »
« And what lies between them and us, on both Western and Eastern Front ? »
« Mountains ? »
« Yes. Now tell me, little wolf, what do all these things have in common ? »
Brighda took a moment to answer, remembering some of Maester's Luwin lessons.
« Defenses, she answered, they're all military defenses »
« Yes, he said, and the Reach has none of it. I have – with Cat and Maester Luwin – read between the lines of the marriage contract sent to us by the Tyrells. Since the Rebellion, the Reach has been surrounded by ennemies. Dorne to the south, the Stormlands to the east and the Westerlands to the north. They are in desperate need of support. Dorne and the Westerlands would never agree to an alliance. The Stormlands might, but they are being indirectly controled by the Lannisters. The Vale and the Riverlands have nothing to gain from an alliance with Reach, they produce most of their own food and buy the rest to their closest neighbours. The North remains. »
« And we need their food as much as they need us ? » Brighda inquired.
« They might need us more than we need them. They need my influence on Robert, our wood and lumber, our iron, our soldiers, and so on. We need from them what we usually get from the Vale and the Riverlands. »
« So you refused their offer » Brighda sighed, both relieved and disappointed.
« No » Father answered, surprising her.
« You did not ? »
« No, because it is likely the best offer you shall receive. »
Her father's bluntness stung a little, even if she knew it was not meant to be hurtful.
« I wanted your opinion before answering. »
Father raised a hand to her cheek and continued with a soft smile.
« I have made discreet inquiries about the Tyrell heir. He sounds to be a good sort, for a southerner .»
Brighda felt her lips lift a bit at Father's attempts at humour.
« I have heard that you have common interests. Books, mainly, and animals. He sounds quite smart and has a good reputation among the lower classes. It speaks of kindness. »
« Why isn't he already married, then ? »
Father hesitated, lowering his hand, his face grim, once more.
« An injury » he said. « He has a bad leg and according to rumours, suffers terribly at times. There have been whispers that his younger brother, Garlan, will replace him as heir, sooner or later. »
Brighda took a moment to take that information in. A cripple. Immediatly she winced at the unkind thought. She'd never met the man and father seemed to think well of him. Even if he did not inherit, it was still a good match, if a bit scandalous, for both of them.
« But Father, if he does inherit, I will have to be Lady of Reach eventually. It is such a big place, and I have not been trained to handle such an important household, and... »
« Brighy, you will have all the time you need once there to learn what you need. Willas Tyrell is not yet Lord of the Reach and his Father's health is strong. Does that mean you accept the propsal? »
« I would live so far away. » She whispered, knowing she would miss her family terribly.
« You do not have to say yes. You can still marry that Karstark boy. »
But marrying a Karstark would bring nothing to Father. He had willfully downplayed what could be gained from an alliance with the Reach to ensure she would not feel pressured to accept. The North would get much more food at a cheaper price from Highgarden than it could get from the Riverlands and the Vale. It would open adventageous trade routes between the two Kingdoms and, thanks to the Winterfell-Eriye-Riverrun alliance, the Westerlands would be surrounded, bringing a new balance of power – in favor of the North and the Reach- to play.
« I will accept the Tyrell's offer » she said at last.
She owed it to her family. She would miss them, but she would protect them and provide for them indirectly.
Father looked sad, but proud.
« Are you sure ? »
« Yes » she answered, tears not quite falling.
In a rare moment of open affection, Father engulfed her in hi arms an whispered :
« So be it ».
« I don't want you to go ! » Arya yelled at her, her face an angry scarlet.
« I must » Brighda answered. « You know it had to happen some day. »
« But I thought you'd stay North ! You're going to be just like Sansa, all southern and ladylike and stupid ! »
Brighda sighed. While Sansa had taken the news of her impending marriage with Willas Tyrell with envy and, dare she say it, admiration, Arya had hated it. Her favourite sister was terribly upset. She had screaming matches with every person she talked to – excepting her parents – threw temper tantrums and refused, for several days, to aknowledge Brighda's existence. It had gotten to be such a nuisance that Catelyn Stark herself had asked her step-daughter to intervene.
« Arya, I'm not going to become someone else, I'm just getting married. »
« To a stupid southern Lord who can't even fight ! »
« Arya ! How dare you ?! You know it's not his fault ! »
« But you haven't even met him ! How do you know he's worth anything ? »
« I don't really. » Brighda sighed. « But it's the best offer I'm ever likely to get and the most advantageous for the family. You can understand that, right ? Arya ?»
Brighda heard a sniffle. She knew her little sister was doing her best to hold back tears.
« We don't need their stupid food ! » she said stubbornly.
« Perhaps not now, but we will, eventually. Summer will not last forever and their prices are much cheaper than the Vale's or even Riverrun's. »
« I don't want you to go and leave me alone with stupid Sansa ! »
« You won't be alone, Arya. You'll have Robb, and Bran, and everyone else. »
« But it's not the same. »
Resigned, Brighda went to her little sister's side and wrapped her in her arms. It was a testament to Arya's upset mood that did not attempt to struggle against the hug.
Lady Catelyn was behaving strangely. Her dislike had not disappeared, but she seemed to have become somewhat helpful. She had taken to giving her personal and highly uncomfortable lessons on managing a large estate. Brighda spent three hours of her time, every day, in Lady Catelyn's solar, observing her managing Winterfell and taking notes, answering lady Catelyn's questions and giving her opinion when it was asked for.
No matter their enmity, Brighda had to admit that her father's wife was a very capable woman. From managing servants, counting coins, giving out wages and deciding the day's meals, she also visited the sick, took care of her children (no small task), visited and exchanged information deemed relevant with her husband and Maester Luwin, and so on and on... Brighda was impressed and not a little intimidated when she imagined herself doing the same some day.
Lady Catelyn sometimes seemed so relieved at the prospect of her impending departure that she was sometimes nearly enjoyable company, having rather kind – if rare words – for Brighda's managing abilities. Brighda now took care of visiting their tenants twice a week, where she gained much valuable information. She knew, for example, that Ale Brewer Mick's son had dishonoured a kitchen girl called Yana, who was now with child and promised to another, a Stable boy named Aireck. The two men had had several rows and had nearly caused a fire in Winterfell's stables. Lady Catelyn had thanked her for the information and Brighda had observed her dealing with the situation. Mick's son had married Yana, who had lost her place in the kitchens and been fined for being the cause of discord, and Aireck had been given pecuniary compensation by Mick (not that it seemed to be much comfort to the poor man) and kept his place in Winterfell's stables.
When she wasn't taking lessons from Lady Catelyn, Brighda was preparing her trousseau in Mrs Ann's and Sansa's company. Sansa seemed to be in love with Willas Tyrell, even when she knew next to nothing about the man.
« You're so lucky, Brighda. Willas Tyrell must be so handsome ! All the Tyrells are ! I heard he got injured in a joust, that means he's a knight as well. You're marrying a handsome knight ! And you're going to live in the South, you will have the most beautiful silk dresses, and oh !... »
The ten, nearly eleven years old, would go on and on about handsome and gallant knights and how wonderful the South was, and beautiful dresses and jewellery. While Brighda liked good-looking dresses and some amounts of jewellery, she was more appreciative of the skill required to make them than the things themselves. She did not care if a dress was made in silk or wool, she loved that it was well and smartly cut, stitched thinly and elegantly embroidered. Just as well, an intricate wooden bracelet might be more beautiful to her eyes than a shiny gold one. As for handsome and gallant knights and the wonder of the South, Brighda expected things and people to be quite different in Highgarden, but not better or worse. The South was the South, and the North was the North. Both had strengths and weaknesses. And men, no matter where, would be men : some gallant, some smooth talkers, some shy, some good, some bad, some brave, some cowards...
She had tried to explain it to Sansa, but the girl was too young and enamoured with songs and ballads to hear the truth of it. And Sansa, no matter how annoying she could be, was a sweet girl, so Brighda resigned herself to listening to her little sister's praises every time she was in her company.
Mrs Ann, it had been decided, would come with her to the Reach as her lady in waiting. The older woman had grown attached to Brighda and knew Southern customs well. She would make a good and trustworthy companion in an unfamiliar place. She used her time sewing and embroidering Brighda's trousseau to tell tales of the South.
« People are not so open with their opinions, but they seem warmer. Do not trust appearances. Someone might comment on the originality of your dress and mean it is ugly. People often find ways of expressing their views without seemingly offending you. They are a lot more subtle than us Northerners. »
« The South has its good points. It is warm, and, particularly in the Reach, full of life. The people find time to have fun and enjoy themselves, they do not focus so much on duty. It is an important part of their lives, of course, but not at the center of it. They have all these coulours and delicious fruits. The food is much better. »
« You must learn of the Seven, my dear. You do not have to convert, but it is a very important part of these peoples' lives. They feast on many Religious feasts, they build their houses a certain way because of the Seven, they visit the Septs once a week, etc... In order to manage you people, you must understand them. »
Lady Catelyn, surprisingly, had agreed to teach her of the Seven, alongside Maester Luwin, who made her read the most relevant parts of the Book of the Pointed Star. Brighda personally saw no difference between that Holy Book and a Fairy Tale. She no more believed in the Father or the Maiden than she believed in the Ogres. She did not say anything to Lady Catelyn, though.
All in all, her days were full and the date of her departure South approaching fast. She barely managed to practice archery or play the harp any longer. Hory the Harpist had no wish to go back to the Reach and would remain in Winterfell, where he had gotten quite the Reputation by playing Northern songs with Southern instruments. He was well liked and one of Winterfell's feasts' main attraction.
One night, Father called her in his solar once more.
« Brighda, my dear child, I've received a raven for you, from Lord Willas himself, I believe. »
She felt her brows lift in surprise. Father pointed at a rather large parchment scroll sealed by a red wax rose adressed to her. She grabbed it and went to break the seal, but Father interrupted her :
« Not here, this is a private letter and should be read in your chamber ».
Brighda nodded and stored the letter in her skirt's pocket.
« We will be traveling by ship to the Reach, it will be faster than the Kingsroad. Three ships will be waiting for us in Barrowtown and we will gain the sea through Blackwater Bay. »
Father went to a wall covered by a gigantic map of Westeros, offered by Jon Arryn in the name of the King. He pointed out the locations with his finger.
« Theon will have to come with us, to avoid trouble from the Iron Islands. »
Brighda frowned. She did not like Theon. He was obnoxious, arrogant and extremely vulgar.
« That means Robb will come too. »
« He will ?! »
« Yes, he seems to be the only one Theon listens to, these days. »
That was true. Even Father had some trouble reigning in the Greyjoy hostage.
« Jon Arryn sent a missive and a small army to the Islands to make sure none of their boats leave land while we're at sea. But Theon is one more insurance. »
« I don't like it » Brighda said.
« Neither do I, but the Greyjoys are already treading on very thin ice since their Rebellion. The sea is safer than the Kingsroad. »
Brighda nodded, secretly glad that her closest sibling would be at her wedding. Robb was like her twin. He'd kept every secret she'd ever told him and she had done the same for him. He'd covered for her, and she for him. They'd learn to walk together, to write together, they'd played together countless times... And while, it was true, they weren't as close as they had once been, due to their respective sexes, they were still very much accomplices. She would have someone other than Mrs Ann to confide in.
« Then, we will roughly follow the coast until we reach the Mander river and sail to Highgarden. I will take us roughly a moon and a half, depending on the weather. We leave in a fortnight, so you need to start packing. » Father finished.
Brighda sat on her bed in her night clothes and held her letter close to a candle. She swallowed nervously and broke the seal with trembling fingers. She unrolled the scroll delicately and discovered a very neat – and sharp – handwritting. A hand used to holding a quill had written this.
To Brighda Stark,
I took the liberty of adressing you personally and hope you will not find it too presumptous of me. As we are to spend the rest of our lives together, I thought it prudent to introduce myself and give you some accurate idea of the man you are meant to marry.
I start with the begining that is my birth. I am the eldest child and heir of Lord Mace Tyrell and Lady Alerie Tyrell, née Hightower. As such, I am a child of the Reach, used to its rolling hills covered in fields and orchards. I have three younger siblings, born as follows : Garlan, Margaery and Loras. All three of them love the merriment and company which come from large gatherings seen in tourneys and other celebrations. I admit that, since my injury, of which I am sure you have heard, I have become more introverted. I am happiest when reading a book or taking care of my animals.
Such are my main interests : litterature and noble beasts. I have a weakness for History and Herbology and cannot resist the soft eyes of a well-bred hound or the wild look of a proud stallion. Books and beasts do not judge nor do they expect much from you. They give me peace of mind.
Otherwise, I spend my days in my solar, taking care of some of Highgarden's management, or in the company of my family, including both my parents and my grandmother, Olenna Tyrell. Perhaps you have heard of her ? She has quite the reputation in the South, but I know not whether it has reached Winterfell.
I have not had the occasion of travelling, my leg will not permit it. I do read a lot about foreign lands and cultures and find them most interesting. A close friend of mine, Oberyn Martell, sends me regular updates of his own travels.
Brighda frowned. Wasn't Oberyn Martell the man who had caused her future husband's injury ?And the ancestral quarrel between the Martells and the Tyrells was legendary. The fact that her betrothed was friend with the man who had injured him was extremely strange, but no more was mentioned on the man.
I will admit to being curious about Northern customs. I hope you will be able to shed some light on a few of my questions. I remember reading that direwolves have gone extinct, is that true ? I came across the phrase « Night King » and « King of Winter » a few times but I am rather confused : are those the same person or not ? And as a Tyrell, I feel it is my duty to ask : are Winter Roses really the only roses north of the neck ? Are they truly blue ? I would be most interested in reading some folk tales from the North, as well.
And what about you ? Do you believe we have common interests ? What activities do you enjoy ? Is there anything you would like to know about me or Highgarden ?
Feel free to ask anything.
Hoping to find you well,
A fortnight later, right before leaving Winterfell, Brighda sent her reply. She had read, an reread her letter several times and had asked discreet questions about Olenna Tyrell and Oberyn Martell. What she had heard worried her. The first was a woman whose wit and sharp tongue were feared throughout half a continent and the other was a man with a grudge against the crown and her own family the size of Dorne, a reputation for spending half his life in brothels, the other half concocting poisons and practicing the art of combat. Those were the people her future husband felt close to. She needed reassurances. So she had taken a lot of time to write her answer in such a way that it would not offend her future husband.
In the end, after many failed attempts, she had decided to ask straitforward questions about all his relations and asked for the tale of his strange friendship with a Martell prince, pleading a certain ignorance of Southern customs and her fear of being confused about the Martell-Tyrell enmity. She felt rather guilty about the lie, but she needed answers and had no wish to make an enemy of her betrothed before she even met him.
An hour later, she was leaving her home in a wheel house shared by Mrs Ann, Theon and Robb on horseback on both sides.