After spending two days and nights eyeballing comparisons and exploring thievery options, Lyanna had finally come to the conclusion that Benjen's cuirass and greaves would have to do. So, when her father and brothers set off for the morning hunt, she stole back into their pavilion and set about wrangling the armor from the banded wooden chest in which it was stored. It was hours yet before the lists opened, but there was a world of things yet to do if she hoped to succeed: fulfilling entry procedures, procuring a lance, and finding a nondescript horse, just to start.
But first, the armor.
She fit the plate greaves carefully over her shins, pulling the straps snug over her dark leather riding breeches and high boots. Her legs were too long for them, but there was no help for it. Even Eddard's would be too long and impossible to walk in. And this was the easy part.
The breastplate was harder. She wore her own shirt of chain mail already, and the unyielding plates of steel didn't want to rest correctly on top of the chain. And once she settled it into what she thought was the proper position, she found that the straps were damnably hard to reach. She'd helped her brothers into armor more than once, but fastening it on one's self proved a fair sight harder.
The chink chink of the chain, the creaks of leather and plate, and her own frustrated growls all set against the hum of activity in the camp did a fair job at masking the sound of footsteps. A pair of boots appeared on the other side of the curtain of her still unbound hair, and she froze, still bent half over with her arms twisted unnaturally around her torso and her fingers tangled in the straps of the armor. "Seven hells," she swore under her breath.
"And what is it you're doing?" Her brother's voice sounded amused. "Or... failing to do, I suppose?"
She straightened with a sigh and scowled at him. "Getting ready for the feast this evening, of course. Mixed metals are all the rage in Dornish fashions, I hear."
Benjen would have cackled and heckled her. Brandon might even have believed her. But Ned just looked at her and shook his head, smiling. "Fashion indeed."
He stepped around her and straightened the overlapping plates at her back, then tugged the whole thing up an inch or two and pulled the upper straps tight.
"That doesn't feel right," she protested.
"It's better this way," he assured her. "Pull it up and set it on your hips so you carry the weight of the thing there instead of on your shoulders. You won't tire as quickly."
"As you say," she allowed, and fell silent while he fiddled with and tugged the cuirass. "Why aren't you off hunting?" she asked after a moment.
Ned shrugged and took her by the shoulder, spinning her around so that her other unfastened side faced him. "Some of the knights are sparring in the practice yard. I'd thought to join them instead of going on the hunt." He slipped a lower strap through its buckle and tugged it snug. "But I needed my sword, so here I am."
For a moment, the indignation that had burned fierce within her for days abated, and her interest was piqued. "Oh? Who is sparring?"
He didn't look at her. "The prince. Sir Arthur Dayne. A few others."
"Oh ho!" Lyanna laughed. "The prince and a Dayne? I don't suppose Princess Elia is there? With her ladies perhaps?"
He gave a tie one final tug, a bit harder than necessary, and then gave the whole curiass a little wiggle with his palms to test its placement. It didn't budge. "I wouldn't know," he answered at last, a primly as a septa, and turned away. When he reached the softly drifting flap of the entrance, he paused and looked back. "Sister," he said, solemn and serious as she had ever seen him, "I think I know what you're planning, and why."
"Don't-" she started, but he held up a hand to stop her.
"I've been speaking to Howland Reed," he said softly, "And I saw how you were when you brought him up to tend his wounds. Just... please be careful, Lyanna. I know that - that look you have, and it worries me. Don't take any more risks than you must."
She smiled at him. "No? Then why don't you go take a few for me down in the yard with Ashara?"
A look of annoyance flashed across his face and he left without another word, the tips of his ears burning red.
She turned to the glass that hung on the wall and looked at herself. Once she bundled up her hair, donned a camail and helm, and found a suitable shield, she might well pass as a man. An ill-equipped and haphazard sort of man, she supposed, but it was of little consequence. The memory of the injustice of those ingrate little upstart squires had crept back in after Eddard took his leave, and her avenging rage had returned full force. She drew herself up, resolute and righteous, and with reawakened furor attacked the arms chest in search of a helm.
The roar of the crowd should have been deafening, but the sound of her panting breath and the pounding of her heart in her ears drowned out any other sound. Up and down the line she rode atop a courser, her arm straining but steady under the insistent weight of the lance. All around her, the crowd waved brightly colored cloths and applauded and cheered and chanted for her, but her gaze was fixed on the three men at the end of the lists.
Unhorsed and in various states of disarray, they called out for her as well. Although she could scarcely hear them over the clamor of the crowd, she knew well what they would be calling out to her: insults, challenges to her honor, and demands for ransom of their horses and armor. Having done her dues to the crowd, she put her heels to her horse's flanks and galloped down the lists, pulling up sharply just before she reached them. Summoning all of her courage and breath, she stood in her stirrups and shouted deeply, "Ransom? Ransom for your material goods?" Her voice echoed and boomed splendidly within the hollow helm, and the crowds grew quiet to hear her. Giving the reins a jerk, she wheeled the courser around and paced before them. "No, my lords," she shouted out, more confident with every second. "Teach your squires honor, that shall be ransom enough!" And then she spurred the horse and galloped past them and off the tourney grounds, leaving the calls of the crowd and a trail of dust in her wake.
Benjen and Eddard had flanked her as they entered the feast hall that evening. "Very exciting jousting this afternoon, didn't you think, sister?" Benjen snickered in her ear as they were seated.
She leveled a glare at Ned on her other side, traitorous trollop that he was. He shrugged sheepishly and whispered, "He recognized his armor. I could hardly lie to him."
A sharp prod to her thigh turned her attention back to her younger brother. "Everyone was talking about it," Benjen exclaimed, excitement raising his voice more than she would have liked. "I couldn't believe you –"
"What's that, pipsqueak?" a voice called from a little further up the dais.
Lyanna drew a measured breath, then leaned forward and smiled at Robert Baratheon, Stormlord, mêlée champion, and best friend to a brother for whose sake alone she had consented to also call him 'betrothed.' "My brother was describing the mystery knight who prevailed in today's lists, my lord," she called back to him. "I was feeling rather out of sorts, so I was not able to watch."
"Not able to watch indeed," Benjen replied in a blessedly low voice meant for her alone. She ignored him.
Robert slammed a fist on the table with enthusiasm. "The Knight of the Laughing Tree, the commons are calling him!" he affirmed loudly. "A coward, I say, frightened to show his face like an honest man!"
Lyanna smiled again and turned away, knowing what would come next. She let her eyes wander the cavernous hall, wondering not for the first time at the enormity of it. In the belly of the hall were seated hedge knights and freeriders, squires and sworn men, who slowly gave way to families of lesser houses seated further up the hall. Members of several of the major houses sat scattered on the dais beneath the high table: Prince Oberyn of Dorne was just opposite her across the way, making a jest with a serving girl; Lord Tyrell sat well away from him at the table beyond her left hand. Princess Elia and her ladies were making merry conversation at the high table, where the king sat above all, with his white knights standing tall to either side of his chair. The prince sat beyond him at his right hand, quiet and contemplating and looking directly at her.
Slightly discomfited, Lyanna dipped her head respectfully in acknowledgement and looked away. She had been presented to the royal family along with Benjen at the opening ceremonies, of course, but there was something about them that set her mind tumbling. She had heard the quiet whispers about the king and his deep suspicions of everyone at court, and Ned had told her all about the elder prince and his princess, but meeting them was quite different from hearing stories. She glanced back up to find that Rhaegar Targaryen had not looked away. He made no attempt to hide his observation, but continued to sit, swirling his wine idly, watching her with a thoughtful furrow on his brow.
The arrival of the twelfth course jolted her back to her own table. The voices in the great hall had risen to a roar that pounded against her temples, and Robert was out of his seat by then, goblet in the air, bellowing out his intentions to unmask the mystery knight on the morrow. Other voices had joined his, and then Richard Lonmouth was on his feet as well, calling out his support for Robert and a challenge of his own. A glance over their heads told her that the prince still had his eyes fixed on her. She fixed her own gaze straight ahead and drank her wine in gulps as the din continued to increase. A hot flush washed over her face in waves, and the wine seemed to burn in her chest as she swallowed.
Suddenly Robert was at her elbow, too close and too loud. "What do you say, my lady?" he asked as she turned to face him.
Lyanna shook her head to clear it and said with the utmost courtesy, "Oh, a thousand pardons, my lord - I could not hear you."
He laughed, red-cheeked and happy as only wine and feasting could make him. "I would have a token from my lady to grant me luck in the lists against this mystery knight. The favor of your northern gods would surely stand against the mockery of his heart tree!"
"Of course," she assented, having to nearly shout to be heard.
He reached out and tugged gently on a grey cord that bound her hair behind her head. "This would do, if I may?"
Lyanna tilted her head away from his hand, smiling her brightest. "On the morrow, certainly. I have need of it for now, my lord!" Robert beamed and nodded and turned back to his seat, and under the table, Ned reached for her hand and gave it a grateful squeeze.
She glanced back up the dais. Rhaegar lifted one pale eyebrow and looked pointedly at Robert, then back to her. The insolence of it incensed her unreasonably. He was being beyond unseemly and the gods only knew why, but the man's coin had clearly landed awry. She found that her cup was refilled when she looked down and decidedly away from his face, so she drank deep. It seemed Robert Baratheon and Rhaegar Targaryen were intent upon ruining her evening, but she did not intend to let them.
"You need to dispose of it," Ned told her quietly when they had returned to their pavilion. There will be a to-do when you don't appear tomorrow, and if we're found with it – you heard the king tonight: 'the face behind that helm is no friend of mine!'"
"What, do you think they'll search through our equipment? Don't be so suspicious, brother."
"I'm afraid I need to be. Who can say what the king will order? He would cause great offense, no doubt, but he is our liege. He would be within his rights."
"Perhaps I'll hide it under my skirts," she said irritably. "No one's like to try searching there, except perhaps Robert."
"If he does, I give you my blessing in the mêlée that is sure to follow," Ned said solemnly.
Lyanna couldn't hold back a smile. "I will take it out into the forest in the morning, toss it somewhere no one is like to look."
It was well past midmorning by the time their father finally made his way to the tourney stands and she could steal away unquestioned. Lyanna had the shield well wrapped and bundled up behind her saddle, and could only hope that the few unlucky sentries and men at arms who wandered throughout the camps would not take note of her. None did, and soon she had left the confines of the camp well behind her, its wide and brightly colored sprawl dwarfed under the towering walls of the castle behind it.
The sounds of the tourney were slower to fade, but soon those too were gone. She walked the horse through the trees and breathed the clean cool air with the greatest sense of peace she had known in weeks. The little path she had followed since the open grass gave way to thicket and forest met a small stream, and veered off to run alongside it. Instead of turning to follow it, she urged the horse across the stream on a whim. They splashed through the shallow water and ascended the far bank and then climbed up and up again before cresting at the hilltop and finding themselves in a wide, sun-dappled clearing of trees. Some hundred paces away, an ancient, sprawling oak stood at the opposite side, commanding the eye to take notice of its dominating majesty.
Lyanna reined up the horse and looked across at the oak for a moment. It was not as tall as the sentinels of the wolfswood, but its branches stretched out broadly into the largest crown she had ever seen. Its root system was spread just as wide, and had choked out any saplings that dared to grow in its shadow. She considered a ridiculous notion for a moment, and then, with a short burst of laughter, touched her heels to the horse and trotted over.
A handspan or so above eye level was a hollow just the right size to squeeze in the shield's hand-holds. The white of the weirwood device on the shield shone brightly against the dun of the oak bark, and Lyanna had to laugh again at the sight. "I must take care, else I shall become as poetical and dramatic as our prince," she told the horse.
After admiring her handiwork a moment longer, she took up the reins and tugged gently at the horse's bridle. "Come along, then, let's get you a drink before we ride back."
They walked side by side through the high grass back up the hill. The horse pulled to a stop with a snuff, and then whickered softly. An answering neigh sounded from somewhere off to their right – somewhere uncomfortably close – and Lyanna's hand shot to her sword hilt in apprehension. "Who goes there?" she called out, the steel blade bright in her hand.
A bit of white flashed in the edge of her vision, and she turned to see the prince step from behind a tree at the cusp of the hill. "That... will really not be necessary, my lady," he said with a half smile, gesturing at her sword.
She stood silent and still for a beat, staring at him in mute incredulity.
"Your Grace," she said at last, her tone as curt as her short greeting.
"My lady of Stark," he replied. "My deepest apologies; I did not mean to startle you."
"Then perhaps you should not have been lurking behind a tree. Your Grace," she added. Her heart seemed to be pounding away right up in her throat.
He laughed, and the melody of it was distracting beyond fairness. She sheathed her sword as an excuse to look away, and clenched her teeth, counting down to the moment of accusation or – more likely – condemnation.
"My apologies again, my lady," he said, the smile audible in his voice. "For the lurking. But it was quite necessary, I am afraid."
She sighed. "And why is that, Your Grace?"
"Why, so that I could observe you without your notice. I had no doubt that if you knew I was there you would not have come here."
Lyanna counted to ten in her head, reminding herself that she was addressing a member of the royal court, her future king, lord, and liege. "Your Grace will forgive me if I have no stomach for spying and other such courtly games," she snapped, the counting having had no calming effect at all.
"Of course," he said, all seriousness now. He held his hands out in front of him in a gesture of repentance and walked over to where she stood. "For the third time, then," he said, "I offer my apologies and beg your forgiveness. It was not my intent to offend."
"What was your intent, then, if I may ask?" she demanded.
"My royal father send me and a score of my men out to hunt down the Knight of the Laughing Tree, my lady. But then I caught sight of you in the meadow beyond the camp. It was at a fair distance, but I was certain enough it was you. So I left my men and followed."
Of course he had; she had expected as much. "Perhaps your grace was not gifted with a sense of direction as profound as your other talents and abilities," she said with abundant sarcasm, "but the tourney grounds are a good hour's ride behind you. Perhaps you would do better to look there. At least that pursuit might come to a fruitful end."
Rhaegar laughed again, but it seemed more a sound of pure delight than one of mockery. She ground her teeth together.
"Oh, Lady Lyanna," he said, "I had heard that you Starks had ice running in your veins. And I hear it here, in your words and tone. But in your eyes... there is such fire in your eyes, smoldering there beneath the surface. How can that be, I wonder?"
She shifted her weight in annoyance and discomfort. "I don't know what you mean."
He took another step forward and stood an arm's length away from her. His eyes flicked back and forth between hers, never looking away. "Ice and fire will make a pretty bit of steam when they come together, but it all turns into a tepid pool of ashes in the end. And that is not you, my lady of Stark."
"Your grace is a very strange sort of man," she informed him, having no other words come to mind.
He smiled then, as sudden and bright as a flame. She was struck by the difference it made in his face; the man before her hardly resembled the plaintive singer she had seen at the opening ceremonies or the brooding and bored aristocrat of last evening's feast before.
"My lady is a very strange sort of tourney champion," he replied, his strange, strange eyes sparkling with amusement.
She didn't flinch. "Is that some outlandish kind of Southron compliment? To commend a lady with the titles of men?" Her words came out sharper than she had intended, and the edge of her bitter tone cut through the space between them.
"I guessed it was a Stark as soon as I saw the heraldry on the shield," he said, in lieu of an answer. "A heart tree, truly? Did you want to be discovered?"
She raised both eyebrows but remained silent. After a beat of expectation unfulfilled, the prince continued.
"I knew that the knight was too small for Brandon, so I took it for a younger brother for a moment. But only a moment. Your brothers sat just beyond my father's platform, you see, and there were all three of the Stark sons, lined up in a row. But not you. You'd been at every tilt of the tourney until this one, so it struck me as odd. But it wasn't until I saw the look on your brother's face as you rode past that I knew."
She couldn't restrain her smile. "Honest Eddard with his damnably honest face. He couldn't keep a secret if his life depended upon it."
Rhaegar dipped his head and chuckled. "You rode brilliantly," he added after a moment.
"Thank you," she acknowledged with a touch of pride, making no attempt to deny it. "But tell me, your Grace: where does this leave us?"
"Where it leaves me is some forgotten corner of the lands of Harrenhal with the most interesting woman I've ever met. Where it leaves you is up to you entirely. Happily for you, my father made no connection between the arms and your family. No doubt he would never suspect that a woman would do such a thing."
"What do you want?" she asked flatly. "I have nothing to hide. I would have ridden openly if it was allowed. And I cannot imagine that your lord father would not forgive me if I begged it of him. Perhaps the knights I bested would not look kindly upon being beaten by a woman, but they cannot touch me."
He was shaking his head. "You misunderstand. I am not going to tell anyone. I only wanted to speak with you, to commend you, to...see you. To see."
"I don't know what you mean," Lyanna said again.
Rhaegar took a final step, cupped his hand around her face, and leaned in close. Lyanna froze. Her sword hung at her hip and a dagger was nestled in the flowing fabric of her riding tunic, but if never occurred to her to reach for one of them. She concentrated on drawing her next breath, feeling for a moment as if she was back on the tourney grounds with a thousand thousand eyes on her and her heart in her throat.
"I had a dream, Lyanna Stark," Rhaegar whispered, so close she could scarcely make out his features. "I have been having the same dream all of my life. Summer and winter, fire and ice, life and death, over and over again, and through it all, a song, a prophesy. The dragon must have three heads, my love, and I must have you to make it so."
Lyanna was unsure what frightened her more: how little she understood his words or how well. "I am betrothed to Lord Robert Baratheon," she said, praying her voice was steady. "And you should return to your lady wife." She ducked her head away from his hand and took a step back.
"Elia knows I am here, and encouraged me to come," he said. "She sometimes seems to know my mind almost better than I, and has an open heart."
That angered her more than anything. "I care not for her open heart. I will not play the whore for any man, not even a prince," she said. "And I pity your lady wife, almost as much I despise her implicitness in your attempts to shame her!"
"As Robert Baratheon will shame you?" he pressed.
She slapped him hard across the face, leaving her palm stinging and her stomach flipping at the enormity of what she had done. "We are finished here, your Grace," she pronounced fiercely. "I thank you for your attentions and your confidence, and will thank you still more to keep them both to yourself."
"Do you hear yourself?" he asked, and Lyanna was infuriated to hear delighted laughter in his voice.
"What is wrong with you?" she demanded, all thoughts of reverence to one's monarch long having fled.
"Why, you!" he exclaimed. "You are – by the Seven gods, you are perfection made flesh!"
She threw up her hands in exasperation and turned to walk away, but he put a hand on her arm and gently pulled her back to face him. As damnably intrigued as she was angry, Lyanna let him. "There is hardly a person in these kingdoms who would say the things you have said to me, done the things you have done," he insisted, still smiling in amused wonder. "The clash of your fiery passion and cold rage – it is beautiful. You want so much, but you don't dream of reaching out to take something for your own. And I see him in your eyes, Lyanna. I see the child of the prophesy, and I hear the song in your blood calling out for mine."
She shook her head. "First a dream and now a prophesy? You're trying to seduce me because of a prophesy?" She held back incredulous laughter. "I must admit, it's more clever than most other excuses I've heard."
Rhaegar looked suddenly pained. "Don't - do not do that, I beg you. Do not trivialize this, no matter what you may think of me or – or what I have done. Have you never been compelled to some action? Have you never known, just known, that there was something you must do, even if you could not see your path? I think on this, night and day and it is there behind my every move, my every word, and no matter what I do, I cannot escape it. And suddenly, there, at the corner of my vision there was a hint of light, a wisp of an answer, the promise of understanding. It is you, Lyanna. It is all I can see when I look at you... the answer to every question, the culmination of every action I have taken since I was eight years old... all leading right here. To you." His voice grew quieter as he spoke, its tone of desperation giving way to such warmth and hope that it made her throat tighten to hear it.
At last he fell silent and just looked at her, without expectation or impatience or even lust. "Words are wind," she whispered, but these sounded weak even to her ears.
He took a step closer and pressed his warm palm gently over her heart. "But this is not."
Lyanna put her hand over his and firmly pushed it away. She had only a fleeting moment to see the disappointment cross his face before she twisted her fingers in his doublet and pulled his face down to hers. It was inevitable, she thought wildly, irrationally. It had to be, she wanted it to be, and she had made it so.
She had let Robert kiss her more than once after their betrothal was made official, but never had she initiated a kiss, and never had one felt this way. Rhaegar's mouth was warm and fervent against hers, and his face was smooth, with barely a wisp of stubble. As she pushed herself up on the tips of her toes and held herself there with hands clutching hard on to his doublet, he pulled her body flush against his with one hand and buried the other in her hair.
Their kiss had begun like a primitive dance not yet learned, a whirlwind of push and pull and gasps for air between almost rhythmic movements with both of them leading at once. After a few breathless moments of trailing lips and silk-smooth frenzy, Rhaegar caught her face in his hands and slowed her, sliding his lips over hers again and again at a unhurried and maddening pace that was no less passionate. Lyanna felt like she was burning, freezing, consuming and being consumed at once, and when she pulled away and looked, trembling, into his face, she saw the same emotions echoed there.
"What is this?" she whispered, her voice lost somewhere between exhilaration and hysteria. "What is this?" she demanded again before he could reply.
"Fate," he said softly, and pressed his lips against hers, hard, one more time.
This time is was Rhaegar who pulled away, a high flush bathing his cheeks, and his breath coming as shallow as her own.
"I will see you again, Lyanna Stark, know that" he said. "When this is over, I will see you again. And perhaps then I can make you understand. Perhaps by then I will."
He took a step backwards, and then another, and then turned and walked back to his horse, with a flutter of grey ribbon twined around his fingers.
Her buzzing brain took a few seconds to register what she had seen in his hand, but when it did, she laughed, the glorious madness of the afternoon momentarily overshadowing her uncertainties. "The absolute nerve of the man," she remarked to the horse, rubbing a hand over his neck idly.
She did not know what prophesy or dreams or madness the morrow might bring, but her prince was right: a wild, senseless hope was stirring in her breast, and his song was pounding and burning in her veins.