The wind blew against her face, biting her until she thought she couldn't take the cold anymore. The white desert completely enveloped her and the steed she rode. It was an old and meek creature, gifted to her by her father for her seventeenth nameday. The Swanns were neither a famed nor a considerably rich family, and where other daughters would have been presented with a handsome and proud beast, she had been given her beloved poor Phoenix. She was clad in thick furs, her House's symbol, a black and a white swan united on a blue lake, embroidered on the riding garments she wore. The North was colder than any other place she had seen in her life, and although she had not seen many places, she already missed her home in the Stormlands dearly.
Bella Swann was accompanied by her handmaid, her father and a few household knights. In the winter, a small company was more likely to survive, especially so far in the North, only a few miles away from Winterfell. She was still wondering how her father had managed to engage her to Jacob Stark, the Heir of Winterfell and the North. After all, the Starks were one of the most powerful families in all of the Seven Kingdoms, and she... she was nothing but the only child of a Lord whose lady wife had left him years ago to run away with a Dornishman. Neither would she be able to bring wealth to her husband's seat, nor soldiers; nor was she especially charming. Sure, her handmaid and the few highborn girls who used to live at her father's seat had all told her how gorgeous she was, but never had she been able to believe them. Bella might be poor, but she did own a looking glass and was able to judge her own beauty, and what she saw was nothing but an average, common-looking girl. She wasn't beautiful, or even pretty, she thought, and she couldn't sew or sing or dance. Usually she would prick her thumbs as she was sewing, she would shatter glass when trying to sing and she would step on the toes of her partners when dancing. No, for a highborn lady, she was remarkably unsuited to become the Lady of Winterfell. Although she had never met Jacob Stark in person, she was sure of the fact that he would think just the same about her, and possibly refuse to wed her after all, and send her back home.
A girl could dream.
Snow started to fall the moment huge grey walls grew in the distance. Her father reined up next to her. He was a good Lord to his smallfolk, Bella had always thought; a bit hot-headed, but generally gentle and good. "You know I don't want to give you up." he said, his voice a bit louder than necessary to be heard over the sharp wind.
She nodded wordlessly. "I love you, Bella, and I want only the best for you. And this, this is the chance of a lifetime. Your son will one day be Lord of Winterfell. I couldn't have found you a better match." His words sounded as if he was trying to convince himself that his choice to give her hand and her life to a cold Northerner was the right one. She tried to smile thinly, but didn't succeed.
"It is well, Father." she told him, her voice shaky but gentle. "Surely Jacob Stark will be a good husband and father." She didn't mention that she already hated this place, where the cold seeped into her bones and froze her from the inside, where her blood seemed to freeze solid, where her heart stopped beating.
Her father didn't reply. He sighed instead.
Bella looked out over the white desert. Far away, she thought she saw a human figure. But that was impossible; with the snow falling like this, nobody would venture outside into the fields, and yet this man seemed to stand on a hill as if nothing could hurt him. As if he was the king of the world. She resisted a sudden urge to steer her horse into his direction, and instead focused her gaze on Winterfell again.
They arrived within two hours. The sky was grey, and the clouds hung low, hiding the cold winter sun. Snow had melted on Bella's face, coating it with a fine sheen of melting water. Her cheeks were rosy from the exhausting ride, and when they were lead into Winterfell's yard and she dismounted her horse, she was so weary that she felt like she could drop dead right where she stood. However, she was a lady, and she would not show signs of weakness in this strange place.
"Charlie!" A loud roar bellowed from a balcony. Involuntarily, Bella looked up to see a face belonging to an old man, sporting a thick dark beard and cheerful eyes. He rushed down a few steps, and the very moment her father had dismounted as well, the stranger drew him into a tight embrace.
"How I've missed you, old fool! Charlie Swann, how long has it been? Ten years? Fifteen?"
To her surprise, Bella saw that her father was smiling. "Twelve, Billy. We visited Winterfell twelve years ago exactly. How is your pack?"
The Stark's sigil was the Direwolf, and the family was known for their wolfish qualities - they were proud people, deadly and loyal. She figured this had to be Billy Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North and former King of Winter.
"The children? Doing well. I married Rebecca to the Lannister heir and Rachel to the second Tyrell son. Jacob's out with the men, hunting. We didn't think you'd arrive today!" He averted his gaze from her father and looked at Bella directly. She curtsied nervously, almost falling down in the process and blushing. Billy Stark laughed lowly.
"And this must be Isabella, yes? She's a gorgeous Southern flower. Lift up your chin, child, and look at me." She did as she was told. Billy had kind eyes, and she found herself smiling as wide as her father.
"My Lord. It's a pleasure to meet you." Billy rolled his eyes.
"We've met before. Twelve years ago, if Charlie speaks true. You were a mere child then, I suppose, but I remember you, and so does Jacob. You played together, you two. Adorable." The snow kept falling, and the Lord of Winterfell shouted out a few orders to get his visitor's steeds safely into the warm stables and his visitors, from Bella's handmaid to the lowliest hedge knight they had brought, into the Great Hall of Winterfell, to share his bread and mead.
Bella first met Jacob in the evening. He was handsome, she thought, and seemed cheerful enough. Him and a few of his father's bannermen and his squires had gone out to hunt, and returned with a few rabbits and the carcass of a deer. However, Jacob had left them all as soon as he'd been informed his bride-to-be had arrived, to bow down in front of her and kiss her hand. Bella blushed as he straightened up again.
"My lady," he said with mirth gleaming in his dark eyes, "it's such a joy to have you back in Winterfell. You have grown even more beautiful than when I have last seen you."
"My Lord is too courteous," Bella replied, although his words secretly pleased her. They feasted, and Bella danced with Jacob for a few songs, and he made her laugh quite a few times. Drunk on wine and song, she asked him whether he had stood on a hill today, all alone. He'd shook his head, confused, and kissed her cheek, and she tried to stop thinking about the mysterious man she had seen there. They danced again, and Bella gossiped with a few of the maidens in Winterfell, and Jacob took his leave of her with a funny jape.
This marriage could work, she thought as she went to bed. He obviously liked her, and promised to be a good friend and person, and who needed passion as long as one was married to a friend?
Yes, this marriage could work, she thought as she went to bed.
The next few days were uneventful. She broke her fast with Jacob, his father and her own father. Father and their household knights would stay until after the marriage; her handmaid would stay with her forever, up in the cold North. After breaking her fast, she would stay in with Winterfell's women, married or maiden, and embroider the wedding cloak she would wear at her wedding. Jacob would unclasp the silver brooch formed like a swan, take the black-and-white cloak off her shoulders, and slide his own grey-and-white cloak around her shoulders; and she would be a Stark, not a Swann anymore. After embroidery, the women would head out and watch the men at their play at arms. Jacob was ferocious when he fought, like a wild animal, but Bella found that she was unable to be afraid of him. In the evening, they would eat a modest meal. It was Winter, after all, and one had to conserve the scarce food - one didn't know if the ice would thaw in a few months or in a few years.
Yes, Bella's days were uneventful, and they stretched out impossibly long. The day right before her wedding, the weather was surprisingly mild, with the winter sun high in the sky and the seemingly eternal snow almost-but-not-quite melting. She was brushing her mare's mane, with her brown eyes locked to the neverending sky above her head, and then, her horse shied. She never shied, and with a soft "Shush...", Bella tried to calm her - to no avail.
"It's me," said a dark, smoky voice that felt like it came from inside her mind. "Your beast is irritated because of me." It was a man's voice, low and full with hunger, and Bella turned, her hand tight and tense around the brush. In front of her stood a man that seemed to be one with Winterfell's native chill, his eyes the bluest and coldest things she had ever seen. Still - Bella did not dare to step back, although every instinct told her to run, run far away, never let him get you. She raised her chin.
"Might I inquire for your name, good Ser?" He was no good man, one could see, much less a knight. Although he wore filthy rags, he managed to look unblemished, as if the Seven Gods had sent him down from the Seven Heavens to grace this hideous world with his beauty. His eyes, though, were an abyss, a deep abyss, devouring Bella's very soul the longer she looked into their vast nothingness.
His lips moved, and only with difficulties could Bella understand his words through the blood pounding deafeningly loud in her ears.
"It is Edward, my fair lady, and I am a Ser as much as you are going to wed Jacob Stark."
That brought her back to consciousness. Or at least, something similar - still his eyes haunted her, still his voice wavered in her ears like the sweetest promise, still he broke into her life with the force of a thousand angered dragons.
"What do you mean?" Her voice was wavering, she noticed. Who was this man, this Edward? Where had he come from? He looked like a commoner, but spoke like the highest lord and even more gorgeous. His beauty was otherwordly, as were his manners. He was simultaneously the brightest white knight and an eerie creature that seemed just wrong in this world of living, breathing things.
"You are to be wed tomorrow. Heed my words, Bella Swann." He didn't even try to hide the hunger from his eyes, she found with her heart beating irregularly. "This wedding will not take place. There will be blood and fear and death in the place of laughter and joy and love. The snow will bury and the snow will choke, and so it will bury and choke you."
Now she decided to step back. His words were like daggers, boring into her spine and spilling her blood. Her back hit her mare.
"You are one of them, are you not, Ser Edward."
She saw him smiling. It was a terrible and beautiful thing to behold, just like the rest of him.
"Who I am is not of importance. Flee from this place, flee from this sorrow. Flee from the cold. My dear lady, don't let the cold take you."
"You are cold." His eyes were bluer than the sky, bluer than the sea, bluer than the cornflower. His hands were black and dead, his skin was the finest porcelain, but there was not a beating heart in his chest.
Edward smiled. "Yes, I am cold. Don't let me take you, my lady."
She held his gaze, but felt forced to look away after a few endless moments. He disappeared without a trace, and where he had stood, the snow had melted.
When they came, they came in the night. A vague feeling, a vague fear had kept Bella awake for hours. She drowsed shallowly for one or two hours in the end, but the hysterical screaming of women woke her, and she was awake within one second.
Bella slid into her nightgown, sewn of a heavy, warm fabric, and opened the door of her chambers. Cautiously, she peered out into the dark, cold corridor; nothing was to be seen, all the torches aligned at the walls were extinguished. The panicked screams coming from down below were her only company as she tried to find another living soul, and the darkness around her seemed to engulf her completely.
Finally, she found the large stairs leading down to the main corridor. Still there was no sign of either her handmaid, her father, any of her knights, any of the Starks or - Edward.
"There you are."
Edward appeared on the first step. Something far away in the corridor glowed, and he was illuminated by that faint light. Bella could not force herself to descend the stairs; instead she stood there staring into his eyes, coloured in a magnificent bright blue neither the sky nor the sea could compete with.
"Edward," said Bella, sounding hoarse and strangely tranquil. In the distance, someone pleaded for mercy.
"Flee, Bella Swann. I have told you to flee."
She lowered her head.
"What is your name, Edward? Your full name."
Dead things, her mother had told her stories of dead things living beyond the wall. She hadn't believed those stories; nobody had. Dead things did not move, dead things did not walk. Dead things did not talk. Dead things did not talk to her.
"My name is Edward Bloodmouth." He smiled.
"The last Lord of Bloodmouth died two hundred years ago." Edward inclined his head. "It is true. The last Lord of Bloodmouth was my uncle."
Bella gasped. It was not very much like a lady to gasp, but she couldn't hold it back.
"You are dead."
Edward smiled his bright, soulless smile. Coldness crept up into Bella's spine, directly into her heart, and she felt as he was eating her alive.
So Edward had come to Winterfell, with an army of dead men at his side, to kill all the living people within its walls. She had known it all along, but still hadn't been able to bring herself to flee this place - not because of her betrothed, not because of her father, but because of Edward, this mysterious man she had so longed to see again.
He took the first step. The whole castle was cold, Bella realised with a start. That was why the torches did not burn. The ice had found its way inside Winterfell and had made it its very own stronghold.
"I do not want to hurt you, Lady Swann." said Edward without replying to her statement. "But my body wants to hurt you. My black hands want to find their way around your throat and strangle you until you turn as blue as my eyes."
A shiver walked up and down Bella's back. "But you haven't given in, so far."
Edward climbed another step. She stayed right where she was. "It is only a matter of time, and I cannot guarantee for your safety, my Lady."
"But why?" spurted out of her. "Why do you not wish to harm me? Why me, why me of all the people in this castle?"
Edward opened his mouth, and suddenly, Bella saw sadness in his eyes, a sadness that was eternal and as fiery hot as the rest of him was cold.
Yes, he opened his mouth, but he did not answer, and instead closed the distance between them with another step.
"I do not kill." he said slowly, lowly, like a caged beast. "I have sworn not to kill anymore. So have my brothers and sisters."
"Then why are you here and kill my people?!" snapped Bella, brown eyes large with sudden fury. "It was you! You have brought the ice, and you have brought death, and-"
She could not finish her sentence, for Edward lunged forward and grabbed her arm. "We need to go." he hissed abruptly, and Bella, too astonished to struggle, allowed him to drag her with him; up the stairs, along the corridor, until they stood on Winterfell's highest balcony, looking out over the courtyard far, far below.
Down there, people were killed, simple as that. Bella felt tears creeping up in her eyes as she reconised her handmaid's lifeless form on the frozen ground.
"Don't look at the dead," whispered Edward right into her ear, "but look at the living. Those who're escaping. There-" He pointed at the Eastern gate. "Do you see? This is my sister, Alice, and your..."
"Yes," said Bella, trying to fight the tears. "Yes, it's one of our knights."
Edward nodded. "She will bring him to safety, away from the slaughter. We try to help, but we cannot help everyone."
He turned his face towards hers, and their noses were only a few milimetres apart.
"My lady." he said. His voice came from deep within him, and in this moment Bella did not doubt for one moment that a soul was burning within his cold cage of a body.
They kissed. It was a kiss as sweet and short and innocent as the sunrise. For one moment, Bella forgot the screaming and the blood and the smell of death in the air; she drowned in her own world, in Edward, in that cool little winter rose blooming between them. She died, and she rose, and she died and lived again with his lips upon her mouth, chapped but warm, and lost herself in his eyes.
When she woke, hazy, as if everything had been a dream, he was still there, still at her side.
She breathed in, slowly, and looked at the man - at the monster in front of her. Then, she smiled.
They descended through the madness all around them. The corridors were darker than before, Bella thought; out on the balcony, a lazy moon had gifted them with the ability to see. But in here, without candles, without torches, without a single fire, it was as black as Edward's cold hands. Still she felt safe, with a monster at her side.
"Bella?" She knew that voice. That voice had once promised her a kingdom, had promised her future son a kingdom. Now, it held nothing but sorrow, and she turned her head to look at Jacob Stark. He stood in the doorframe of his chambers, only half-dressed; his breeches hung low on his hips, but his chest shone naked in the light of the fire in the hearth. "Bella, is that you?"
She nodded slowly. Jacob narrowed his eyes.
"Bloodmouth..." His voice was transforming, and held much less of the buttery tone he used when talking to Bella and much more of a growl. "This is your doing." He bared his teeth, as if he was a wild beast. Behind him, in his chambers, a man rose; Bella recognised him as a close friend of Jacob. His eyes glowed yellow-ish, she thought, and the man underwent a sudden transformation. Where a moment ago had stood a fully clothed, grown man, there was a huge grey direwolf in his place now, snarling in Edward's direction.
Bella was wondering if all of this was just a dream. First the people of Winterfell were being slaughtered by dead things from beyond the wall. Then, Edward Bloodmouth was still alive, one of them, and intent on saving her. And third, there were people who could transform into direwolves.
This had to be a dream, she thought as the direwolf - larger almost than a horse - jumped at Edward's throat; its - his - claws sunk deeply into the man's flesh. Jacob took her hand and yanked her to his side.
"Are you hurt?" he asked her, his voice a mixture of anger and worry and hatred. Bella couldn't tear her gaze off Edward and the direwolf fighting. The beast inflicted wounds on Edward, but he didn't bleed. "There's no... blood..." she whispered, dazed and shocked. Jacob nodded.
"He's dead. His blood has accumulated in his hands, in his feet, and it's frozen. That's why his skin's so white, that's why his hands are black." Bella shivered, and it wasn't because of the cold. Jacob's attention was back on the fighting duo; his friend seemed to lose, but Bella could see that Edward tried not to kill him but only defend himself. She looked over to Jacob.
"I wanted to tell you some other way..." he whispered. "Bella, my dear, I promise he won't hurt you."
And then, he transformed as well. It happened within a few seconds. Jacob was a direwolf even larger than his companion, his fur brown like a deer's, his dark eyes shining brightly. He jumped, and while his friend whimpered down on the ground, tore at Edward.
Bella watched for a few seconds, horrified. Was this happening? The man she had been betrothed to could transform into a monster, and the monster who had come into this castle to slaughter had kissed her.
"Jacob, no!" she screamed, and both monsters turned towards her. She took a few steps in their direction, her eyes prickly with tears trying to find their way into the world. "Edward- Edward wants to save me! He's trying to save as many people as possible! Don't hurt him, please, please, Jacob..."
The giant wolf looked at her, and Edward tore away from him. He seemed to breathe heavily, but Bella was aware of the fact that he didn't breathe at all. Her voice was echoing inside the narrow corridor.
Without replying, Edward turned his head. His eyes grew huge, and Bella as well as Jacob followed his gaze.
At one end of the corridor stood ten dead men. One of them stepped forward. His companions didn't seem to share his intelligence, but he could speak just as well as Edward could. "Take them." the Other said, directed at Edward. Jacob's fur bristled, but Edward narrowed his eyes.
"No." Edward said. His voice was calm. Jacob looked up at him with curious eyes, and Bella could feel her heart leaping. Oh Gods. Oh Gods, he was actually doing it; he was going against his people to save her. She couldn't quite believe it. Then again, she would've happily stood against all of Winterfell for Edward if that had been necessary.
"No?" the Other said. His tone was as icy as the rest of him seemed. Subconsciously, Bella stepped closer to Edward, and he wrapped her black hand around hers. "Fine. No. You say no, Edward."
"Leave us alone, Caius." Bella sensed that one could not talk to this man. He was a monster much different from Edward. He scared her. She gripped Edward's hand tighter still.
"Kill them all." Caius said, his voice slow and heavy. The dead men around him seemed to brighten up with life and came rushing towards them. Jacob's friend jumped up and dove right into the hive of dead people. Bella screamed wordlessly, but before Jacob could follow him, Edward grabbed his long, bushy tail. "Not you, mutt," he growled. With Bella at one side and a yapping Jacob at his other, he began running towards the other end of the corridor.
The dead men followed them, other people's blood covering their arms and mouths. Jacob had seemed to regain his intelligence and turned back into a human - naked, but adrenaline flooded Bella's blood so strongly she could not bring herself to care about this indecency. "I know this castle better than you, you stupid... stupid!" Bella almost laughed as Jacob took the lead, running ahead from then through Winterfell's dark corridors.
They ended up on the roof. The stars overhead shone coldly down on them, and the fighting in the courtyard seemed to have stopped: Bella could not see anything down there from their current angle, but the silence hung heavy in the air. Jacob shivered violently, and with a sigh, Edward took off his coat, tore it in half and gave each of them one half. Bella declined politely when Jacob tried to offer her his half; he was naked after all, and she had her thick nightgown to protect her from the cold.
They were on the roof, and behind them were dead men rising, and there was no way they could survive.
"Whelp," said Edward, disdain clearly audible in his voice. The silence was broken by the groaning of cold wights trying to get to the roof. "Turn, I cannot carry both you and Bella. We will meet on the wall, right there." He pointed at the Eastern wall. Jacob nodded curtly, did as he was told, and within seconds, Bella found herself in the embrace of Edward. She held on to his hips desperately as he jumped down and thought she might die. Next to them, Jacob glided down through the thick night; he came up on the wall with an indistinct thumping sound.
She could not say what happened next. They probably jumped down from the wall as well, landing in the soft snow, but her eyes stayed closed all throughout the procedure, and she only dared open them again when Edward whispered "It's alright now" into her ear.
They were surrounded by an icy desert, the moon's and the stars' light reflected by the endless white nothingness. Jacob raised his head, looked back at Winterfell, and howled as quietly as possible. Edward pulled Bella closer to him, and she almost felt warm at his side.
Then, they began to plod through the snow, away from Winterfell. Away from Jacob's home, away from what would have become Bella's home. Light snow fell, turning Jacob into a white wolf and catching in Bella's long hair.
"Where are we going?" she asked Edward quietly. Neither she nor Jacob would survive long in this weather. Edward smiled at her.
"To a warm place." he said, and smiling, she believed him. With all her heart.