The story of my recent year or so of life is quite complicated at the moment. We'll get to that later though, so hold your bloody horses.
I'd been abandoned by my parents as a babe of five months old, and so grew up with a blacksmith's family in the heart of Winterfell. I was named, or maybe re-named, Lyara. It means 'Fighter' in the tongue of the Northerners. My new mother found me lying in the wet grass, in a field where she had gone to pick the summer poppies. The same place I'd been lying for days, they said, by the looks of me. I'd been sickly and starved, and yet I was still alive, just lying there in all the red screaming my throat raw. Of course, that had been why I was even found in the first place. Lungs like a direwolf pup's. So, after being married for ten years and having only one son, the woman and her husband took me in. I would come to learn their names-Richard and Orla. I always knew I was adopted, as they made no attempt to cover that I was and I looked nothing like them. I had sable hair, while Orla was fair-haired and Richard before he had gotten older had had red hair-at least, if their then eight-year-old son Kirren was anything to go by. My eyes quickly turned hazel green as I grew older, when they were all blue-eyed.
Nevertheless, I liked to pretend that the Rierdens were my real family-that soft, motherly Orla was the one who'd brought me into the world and that strong, kindly Richard had sired me. Kirren I didn't much care for. Even so I wanted him to be my blood brother.
So I was raised by them, as a poor blacksmith's daughter. I didn't meet Jon until I was twelve years old, a week or so after my name-day. I still remember it.
I had been exploring the Winterfell grounds, coming upon the weirwood heart-tree frequented by the Stark family. It was a rather boring day in the eyes of a twelve-year old, having nothing to do unless I wanted to play dolls with the other girls. I hated dolls, being a tomboyish child. I still dislike them to this day. I much preferred my bow that I practiced with regularly, determined to become an expert marksman. I have to say, without being at all boastful (all right, we both know I'm being a little bit boastful. Maybe much too boastful, but still) that I succeeded. But back to my little reminisce.
After walking around the tree a few times, I lay down on my belly to look into the glassy water, stirring its smooth, cold surface with my index finger. And it was then that I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a boy my age with a messy, curled mop of raven-black hair that nearly reached his shoulders. He was staring at me, his pretty slate-grey irises focused on this little girl playing about in the woods as if I were the most fascinating thing in Westeros. We locked eyes for a few minutes, until I eventually said, "Are you going to tell me your name?" My mouth twisted into a rueful smile.
"I'm Jon Snow," he mumbled shyly. "What about you? I think I've seen you before when my father went to buy a new sword. Are you the blacksmith's daughter?" I knew vaguely who he was. Lord Eddard Stark's bastard son. But who was I to judge? My mother had probably been some whore who couldn't afford to keep her baby. I was just as much of a bastard as he was. I had to wonder then why I wasn't called Snow.
"No," I replied. "Not by blood, at least. I was found by his wife when I was little, and they took me in. I'm Lyara Rierden-nice to meet you, Jon Snow." I smiled warmly at him, folding my arms. "I don't suppose you know any fun games?"
We played endless fighting games for the rest of the day, until Orla caught me and dragged me home, bruised and cut, scolding me for being so unladylike, and Lord Stark came to bring Jon home, with considerably less fuss and ear-pulling. We've been best friends ever since.
Winterfell, five years later
I was half asleep when Orla woke me. "Lyara? The Snow boy's here to see you. Time to get up, love," she murmured. I didn't move, instead I simply squeezed my eyes shut. I wasn't not in the mood to get up. Not for Jon, not for anyone. She sighed. "Lyara, if you don't move your arse in the next five seconds I'm throwing cold water over you and you can practice with Jon in your soaked nightclothes." I leaped out of bed at that. Orla didn't make empty threats and she had bloody good aim with a bucket.
"Fine! Fine. I'm awake," I yawned, rubbing my mussed hair with the heel of my hand. "Tell Jon I'll be down to him in a minute." As she left, I groaned and pressed my head back in my pillow before fumbling for the drawer handle to pull out a fresh tunic and leggings. Kirren was probably asleep next door. Lucky twat. I had never felt less like swordfighting, or seeing Jon, but I said and/or felt that respectively every time I was roused to do anything. So, not really wanting to tame my wild mane of hair, I simply put it back in a ponytail to keep it out of my eyes. I would deal with that menial task later. I grabbed my sword and thumped down the stairs, deliberately making quite a bit of noise as I went to wake my stepbrother. He was twenty-five, almost twenty-six, and he would be off to start up his own blacksmith's in a few months' time. I would really, really miss ribbing him so he would lose his temper.
Jon had gotten even more handsome since the day we met. His face had become less boyish in five years, his chin, the edges of his jaw and his top lip covered in hair. The hair that grew on his head was just as curly as ever and his eyes were deep pools of sea on a Winter's day. The smile that came to my lips whenever he was around planted itself idiotically on my face, and I could almost feel my eyes light up. "Morning, Snow," I grinned cheerily. "Come for your daily arse-kicking?" He raised an eyebrow.
"Hmm. Are you sure it's not the other way around, Lady Rierden?" he asked teasingly. "If I recall I had my sword at your throat yesterday." I shook my head.
"Call me Lady again and I'll break your cock off like a twig and ram it all the way up your arse." A grin finally came to his face.
"LYARA RIERDEN! Don't you dare use such filthy language or I'll shove your bloody face in the fucking fire," Richard boomed from inside, only half joking. I closed my eyes, cringing internally. Even so, everyone knows I swear as much as any man in Winterfell does. Perhaps more than that. I've only ever heard Jon curse a couple of times, though. He started to walk off, making his way across the square to his father's practice grounds.
"C'mon Lyara. Bran wanted to watch today; let's not disappoint him by being late," he called over his shoulder. I glared at his back before I shifted into a runner's gait instead of a slug's one and sprinted on after him. Sure, I was a girl and a right gangly one at that, but I was much faster than Jon and both of us knew it. I passed him before he could do anything about it, racing him. I went to effortlessly flick my legs over the fence, and, of course, tangled in a heap and went flat on my arse with a resounding, "Ooof!"
Jon laughed as he caught up and saw me lying in the grass, trying to get my breath back. "Bugger...off," I wheezed painfully, trying to get back up. Bran came up behind us-with his father in tow. I finally struggled up and managed to bow. "My Lord," I coughed out.
"Miss Rierden," Lord Stark replied, nodding. Jon's face had taken a downward turn, less cordial in front of his father. I knew how much he wanted to please Lord Stark, to make him proud. I would have done the same-except with my foster family I didn't have that much to prove.
I hopped (slightly more gracefully and with less falling-on-arse-like-a-fool action) over the fence, striding out to the centre. Jon wasn't far behind as I drew my sword and turned to face him. His expression was a mix of determination and concentration, two qualities that had always shone brightly in his personality. I narrowed my eyes, leaning into a fighter's stance. "Come on then," I hissed, mock-threateningly. He rushed, as frighteningly accurate as ever, at me head-on. I spun 90 degrees out of the way, blocking him with a swing of steel and silver. It was like a fast, predatory dance, which took a long time and a lot of practice to master completely. I wheeled around smoothly, dodging a blow to my ribs with a quick parry, slicing upwards and outwards to try and fail to land a small touch on him. He was just as swift as I was in combat, always succeeding in seeing my offenses and defenses and exploiting them. I'd only ever won twenty or so times out of hundreds, maybe even thousands, since we were small and using sticks. It was in archery that I could beat his arse into the dirt without trying very hard. I ducked, moving my weight onto my other leg and not seeing his foot swing out to trip me. Our fight ended with me on the ground, the edge of Jon's sword pointed at my chest. I put my hands up in surrender. "I yield," I sighed, pretending to swoon. He let me up, my grey-legging-ed arse covered from crack to thigh in grass stains. Orla was going to throw my head to the dogs when she was done with me. Lord Stark was laughing so hard I feared his sides would rip open. Bran wasn't exactly sitting there calm-countenanced either. I half-smiled breathlessly, panting and sweating more than I'd ever done before.
"Well done, Jon, Lyara," Lord Stark began, serious once more. He turned to Jon. "That was very well fought. Keep up the good work, Jon, and you may make a great swordsman. And as for you, young lady, I shouldn't wonder if you'll be on the battlefield someday. You have some admirable skills."
"Thank you, my Lord," I returned, blushing.
"Thank you, my Lord," answered Jon.
I went home, to put my sword away and get my bow. Bran was all too eager to get on with his archery lessons and I'd promised Jon that I would help some. I hadn't anything to do at home, anyway, as Kirren and I do our chores in the evening. I'm the one who does most of them, typically. And that's on a good day. Robb stood there with Jon and Bran when I made it down to the castle (after I bribed Kirren not to tell Orla, who was not the happiest about my friendship with Ned Stark's bastard. That's right; I actually had to bribe my older brother). "Hello, Lyara!" Bran beamed cheerfully. He'd taken a shine to me in the latter two years I'd known his brother. And when he found out I could use a bow.
"Hullo, Bran," I replied, tightening my arm and finger-guards. "How's the practice coming on?"
"Just starting," explained Robb, silencing his younger brother. Bran set to nocking his bow, a look of deep concentration on his face akin to the look on Jon's when we fought with our swords. Drawing the arrow back, he squinted at the target intently before firing. He hit a wine barrel about a foot or so from the left target. Jon put his hands on the ten-year-old's shoulders.
"Go on. Father's watching...and your mother," he murmured, looking up at Lord and Lady Stark. I almost felt the inside wince at 'your mother'. Bran followed his line of sight, smiled briefly at his parents, and took aim again. This time it shot straight into the wall opposite and clunked off of the stone. Robb chuckled.
Bran wasn't giving up so easily. Three arrows were spent before one finally went over the wall and all three Stark children watching burst out laughing. Even I had to laugh a little. Okay, I laughed as much as anyone would. "And which one of you was a marksman at ten?" Lord Stark asked dryly. That made us shut up. I was thirteen before I mastered my longbow. "Keep practicing, Bran. Go on."
"Don't think too much, Bran," Jon whispered.
So, for the fifth time, Bran drew his arm back, again making the string too taut. "Relax your bow arm," cautioned Robb. And in the blink of an eye, an arrow thudded into the dead centre of the target. Not Bran's. Arya Stark, Bran's younger sister, smiled and curtsied as we turned to look for the archer. That did it. I cracked up. Bran scowled and chased after her, forgetting about his lessons. "That's it, Bran!" Robb snorted.
"Faster!" Jon yelled, falling about. I got up from where I'd actually rolled on the floor, roaring with peals and peals of laughter. The last few died in my throat as I saw the look that Lady Stark was giving Jon. I immediately wanted to slap her for looking at him like that. I could understand maybe just a miniscule bit, but to look him in the eyes with such hate and glacier-cold fire was unfair and even cruel. I started to pick up the arrows left by Bran, sliding them into the large quiver-like basket used to keep the intact practice missiles, fuming about it. I had respect for her as anyone under her rule would-but from that day on I hated her more than I ever hated anyone. Except perhaps Theon Greyjoy, for certain reasons I'm not divulging right now.
"Snow!" Theon Greyjoy shouted from across the yard. "Get your horse saddled and tell Bran he's to come too. A Night's Watch deserter's getting beheaded by your father." He then noticed me, letting his gaze roam and quite clearly eye-fucking me-like he'd ever get the chance. I'd kick him in the bollocks first until they fell off. He was what quite a lot of people, myself included, would call a man-whore.
"Could you stop staring at my tits, Greyjoy?" I growled frostily.
"That's not the only thing I was staring at," he leered. I gave him a two-fingered salute and turned to Jon.
"I'll see you later, Jon. In the godswood?"
"Maybe. See you later, Lyara."
"I don't suppose you're allowed to punch Greyjoy for me?" I muttered, too low for Theon to hear.
"No." A faint hint of amusement illuminated his voice.
I didn't want Bran to see what was going to happen to the deserter. He was far too young, too innocent to see our father swing the sword, to bring it down on the man's neck and cut his head off.
I didn't want to see it myself.
Nevertheless we rode towards the old tree that was used as a chopping block, seeing the soldiers holding him captive. His life would end today. When I joined the Night's Watch, I would never desert them. Not only for the fear of having my head severed from my body, but because I would take my oath more seriously than a contract sealed with my own blood. 'What about Bran and Robb, Rickon and Sansa, Arya and your father? What about Lyara?'
And there it is. The tiny whisper of doubt that crept into my mind whenever I thought about leaving for the Wall. I would be leaving my family, and it would break my heart to leave Bran especially, but I'd also be leaving behind my best friend, my confidante, and one of the only ones who'd ever cared for me. Could I really leave everything behind? It hurt even to think about it. I pushed every thought out of my mind, trying desperately to focus my attention on my father. Bran had his back to me, but I knew he'd try to look away. To tear his eyes from the horror. Like a sensible person. As our father began to speak the sentence, I whispered to Bran. "Don't look away. Father will know if you do." Because the sight would dance in his soft brown eyes, not yet hardened by battle or bloodshed. My eyes begged for me to close them as he raised the great sword, and with a swift blow, beheaded the young man. Blood spurted from the split carotid artery, staining the grass with its foul red colour. Bran had not flinched. "You did well," I told him, wishing I could have pressed his little, freckled face into my jacket and prevented him from seeing the brutality of execution. I turned back instead, walking down to my horse. I merely wished to leave now. Was it possible to 'unsee' things? I very much doubted it. A few paces away, Father spoke to Bran.
"Do you understand why I did it?" he asked quietly.
"Jon said he was a deserter," Bran answered, adjusting the girth.
"But do you understand why I had to kill him?"
"Our way's the old way?"
"The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword."
"Is it true he saw the White Walkers?" Father paused, thinking carefully. I listened hard, pretending to inspect the martingale on my saddle.
"The White Walkers have been gone for thousands of years," he finally stated, trying to reassure Bran.
"So he was lying?" A much longer pause this time.
"A madman sees what he sees." Father turned away, making for his own horse. I mounted mine, and we began the ride home. I couldn't stop thinking about the head rolling down the hillside. Would that be my head, one day?
Of course not. When I took the Black there would be more chance of a snowball surviving in the hottest of the Seven Hells than of me being a deserter.
We were almost home, just coming over an old wooden bridge when the rotting stag was spotted. One antler was broken. Maggots crawled in the festering flesh and the entrails, guts and organs spilled onto the path, so eaten away and decayed that the foul, pungent odour invaded every corner of my nose and mouth. I could nearly taste it. I swallowed a wave of nausea. "What is it?" I questioned no-one in particular.
"Mountain lion?" continued Theon Greyjoy.
"No mountain lions in these woods," my father insisted. He led us down across a steep, grassy bank, looking for the killer. The river bubbled and flowed at our side, and the side of the unmistakeably dead and decomposing grey direwolf. The missing part of the antler was embedded deep in her throat, and the she-wolf was soaked in her own blood and the stag's. But five small fluffy pups clambered over her, searching for milk which was no longer there. They were very beautiful, their fur thick and rich, and their eyes open and bright. They were yapping noisily.
"It's a freak," Theon spat. I felt like rubbing his stupid, arrogant nose in the stag's putrid guts. He could be an utter git when he wanted to be. He had no respect for anyone except my father, and even that was grudging.
"It's a direwolf," Father corrected. He pulled the broken antler out of her neck. "A tough old beast."
"There are no direwolves South of the Wall," Robb dismissed.
"Now there are five," I interjected, picking up the closest puppy. The silvery fur was wonderfully soft and thick, warm with the blood that pumped under its skin. "Do you want to hold it?" I asked Bran. He nodded, cuddling the mewling pup close.
"Where will they go? Their mother's dead," pointed out Bran. Clearly, he wanted to keep the baby wolves.
"They don't belong down here," Ser Rodrik muttered.
"Better a quick death. They won't last without their mother," decided my father. Theon, eager as always to kill, rushed forward.
"Right, give it here," he ordered Bran, snatching the now squealing puppy.
"No!" Bran cried.
"Put away your blade," snarled Robb.
"I take orders from your father, not you."
"Please, Father!" Bran pleaded.
"I'm sorry, Bran." An idea formed quickly in my mind. Perhaps...
"Lord Stark? There are five pups," I tried. I had his interest, at least. "One for each of the Stark children. The direwolf is the sigil of your house. They were meant to have them." All eyes turned to him. He sighed.
"You will train them yourselves, feed them yourselves...and if they die, you will bury them yourselves," he eventually agreed. Theon grit his teeth but resheathed his dagger and handed the pup back to Bran. I picked up two more puppies and gave them to Robb, who passed them on to Theon. Bran's voice sounded.
"What about you?" he wondered out loud. I faced him properly.
"I'm not a Stark. Get on," I replied, almost wincing at the bitterness that came with those words. As if I needed reminding. I knew Lady Catelyn loathed my presence in her house. I was the bastard; living, breathing proof my father had been messing around with another woman behind her back. A pest, something to be squashed before it bred and got out of control. I knew nearly everyone saw me that way. And I hated it. I remembered now why I wanted to join the Night's Watch in the first place.
As I stepped back up the slope to rejoin the others I heard another sound. A low whimper. Another pup? I investigated further, and saw a white bundle of fur curled up in fright at the base of a tree.
"What is it?" Robb asked me. I plucked the puppy up by the scruff of the neck. It was smaller than all the others, red-eyed and with a coat as white as...Snow.
"The runt of the litter. That one's yours, Snow," Theon mocked smugly. I ignored him and brought the little albino puppy into my arms.
I took Ghost (my name for the tiny pup) into the godswood. I needed to get away from Theon and his ilk for a while, and to at least try to train the wolf. He had taken to chewing my fingers. I suddenly remembered Lyara's question from that morning, and sure enough, she was sitting by the heart tree, looking more or less as she had done the day we met five years ago. Her dark waterfall of hair was tied strictly back in a thick ponytail, and her shining hazel-green eyes flickered up to meet my own. They quickly moved to Ghost, and she stood. "He's a beauty, isn't he?" she complimented, loping over to scratch behind the pup's ear. "Lovely fur for a dog."
"That's Ghost. His mother died, and left five other pups, so we took them," I explained.
"Well, I'm not an expert, but I think you've got a friend for life there," Lyara giggled as he bit my hand with his needle-sharp little teeth. I smiled too, in spite of myself. She never failed to put me in a good mood and I had always so loved the sound of her laughter. Like flowing water that served as a balm for my inner wounds. She'd always been the one who understood me, more than anyone else had bothered to even try, and she accepted me for who I was. Of course, Lyara's foster mother did not like our friendship. Lady Stark didn't care about me that much as to mind whom I was friends with-and Father didn't mind too much. Orla mainly didn't like it because she saw Lyara as her own daughter rather than what she was; and what self-respecting mother wants their child to be friends with a bastard child of their town's Lord? She saw the expression on my face and her eyes went steel-hard.
"Jon, what happened?"
"You don't need to concern yourself with me, Lyara. Can we just have peace today?" My voice was weary. She huffed, but said no more of it, instead giving me a one-armed hug and laying back down to play with Ghost, who had squirmed and wriggled in my arms until I had to put him down.