The steel in Winterfell sang.
Sang the song of an upcoming war, and soldiers and lords they played it endlessly. They lured nightmares into my chambers, nightmares of my family´s heads rolling to my feet whilst I held onto my husband´s hand. And I tossed and I turned, until I found myself back in his embrace. Then I stilled, and dreamt what was fallen apart was whole again. His poison is also my balm; he kills and heals me with each word and each touch. Losing him felt like dying, but having him like treason, and it tore me apart.
The gods have barred their teeth against the folk of Westeros and chaos spread through the Seven Kingdoms like wildfire. Wolves of the North, Lions of the West and Stags of the South dragged their whetstones over their swords, preparing them for blood. Peasants, bakers, butchers, blacksmiths became soldiers. Boys barely of age prepared to ride into their death, only seeking for the glory that comes with victory. Madness had always accompanied war, as fear did too.
And even in those crystalline blue orbs fear surfaced, despite the concealing mask whisking over his face. His innocence faded into hardness, his joyous laughter was forced, he´d grown lean, and barely slept. Robb Stark was no boy any longer. A scolding look now met Arya´s childish behavior, a court nod in greeting of an old friend, dark half-moons beneath marked each sleepless night, and his smile had become a distant memory. This war has wrecked him before it began.
The white narcissus on my nightstand had withered, and I stood motionlessly, staring through salt and water. I felt chains on my wrists, to keep me captive between these walls of ice and stone, and a hand on my mouth to keep me from screaming aloud. My mother taught me marriage was slavery draped in silk and gold. She had been right, I knew that now. Love is poison, it is sweet, but it will kill you still. If it wasn´t for my beating heart, I would not know the difference no more.
The clouds wept onto my windowsill, as I did into my chamber pot.
Sourly smelling vomit forcing me to gag, my hands fumbled over my lips, wiping chunks of bread away, and wishing I had fallen sick instead. It certainly would´ve been more welcome.
"Mary," I wailed, distancing myself from the pot.
My maid hurried through the door separating us. She tore her eyes open at the pitiful sight of me, covered in my own sick. "Your highness, I –"
"Do not! Fetch me a new gown, and get rid of this. Don´t let anybody see you. Please, Mary. Not a word to anyone."
The handmaiden crossed the room in three wide strides, picking up the pot and placing it onto the wooden table, then pulling the grand windows open, before turning to me. An arm slung around me in support, she lead me towards my freshly covered marriage bed and sat me down. "Are we friends, your highness?"
I glanced over my shoulder at her, "Of course we are, Mary."
She gathered my hair, handing it over to me. In utter silence, she dragged the coral silk past my bony shoulders and began tugging on the strings of my corset. After a while, Mary spoke again: "And it is a friend's duty to advice their friend, am I right?"
Removing the pale corset, she left me bare from the waist up. My hands instinctively slid down, hiding my stomach. I dipped my head in defeat. "Yes, Mary, you are right," I muttered, stroking my palm over my flat belly.
"I believe the Lord Stark is entitled to know."
A bitter laugh hushed past my lips, "Lord Stark has other worries. Developing a plan to slaughter my family, for example."
"War is a dark place, Princess Tania, such things may bring light."
"But light is no more, Maryn. Winter is coming."
"We would not know of the value of light, if there wasn't darkness, your highness. Perhaps you should recons–"
"Enough," I snapped, rising to slide the dress past my hips, "I will hear no more of it!"
"Pardon me, your grace, I meant no offence," she whispered hastily, tossing the cloth over her shoulder. In a swift movement she opened the wardrobe where my dresses hung neatly, "Does her highness have a preference for today? Perhaps green? I remember, it is your favorite?"
I shook my head. It was the one I wore riding out with Robb. "Black, with my mother's chain. The one with the rubies."
Her head bobbed in approval as she drew out the long sleeved gown. Refusing to meet my eye, she laid it onto the bed, before picking out matching smallclothes. I felt a stab of remorse.
"Forgive me, I did not mean to take my anger out on you."
"You mustn't apologize to me, your highness. I am a simple handmaiden, and if you wish me silent, silent I will be," She said, helping me into the dark grey smallclothes.
I urged myself to argue, yet I was at loss of words. People of low-birth never, or on rare occasions, accept apologies of high-borns, for they and said society thinks them unworthy of it. So I changed the subject, "I don't think I've ever asked you where you're from."
Her reflection smiled faintly. The white teeth complimenting the dark shade of her skin. "From Salt Shore, in Dorne. So I've heard."
„Dorne," I said thoughtfully, „I've never been to Dorne."
"Neither have I."
My eyebrows pushed together, "You've never been to Dorne?"
"I was born, grown and taught in King's Landing. My mother was a dornish woman, she came to King's Landing as the Princess Elia's handmaiden," Mary explained, whilst buttoning my dress.
Elia Martell was a name forbidden as manslaughter in the capitol of Westeros. Rumors of her death were only whispers passed from mouth to ear, for the Mountain's actions bide unpunished, and apparently unproved. "Your mother. Is she-?"
"Dead? Yes. She suffered Princess Elia's fate, because she tried to shield her and her children. I was in the kitchens, hiding in a large dirty pot." She laughed, but her eyes grieved, "I don't remember how old I was, but I know she has sent me there. To Baldwick, the cook."
Nausea pinched my stomach again, and my teeth daggered the tender flesh of my bottom lip. The sadness in Maryn´s black pearls reflected my own, and I felt shivers trickle down my spine as my dream spiraled around my mind again. I was soon to suffer the same fate.
Gripping onto the bedpost, whilst she pulled the strings of my corset, I heaved for air, trying to calm my stomach. "One more time," the Handmaiden informed and then tugged. Despite my lungs being squeezed, I released a relieved sigh when it was finally over.
There was a knock at the door. "Lord Stark insists on your presence in his study," Sandor grumbled.
"Oh, Seven Hells, that man has terrible timing," I cursed, "Quick, get rid of this. Be careful."
She curtseyed, "Yes, your grace."
I waved dismissively, pinching my cheeks in the mirror to get some color, then strode out with my guards at my tail.
Entering the candle-lit study, I found it to be exceptionally empty compared to most of the castle. Robb stood, crouched over a map, unbothered by my entrance and I ordered the guards to wait outside. His leather jerkin was mostly unbuttoned.
"Take a seat. I shall join you in a moment." He said absently and motioned to the stools surrounding a grand table.
"Is this how you treat your wife? Or am I to be treated like the rest of your petty men?"
"Would you quit being difficult?", Robb snapped and confronted me with his tired glare, "Tania, please."
The temptation to continue this provocative argument vanished, and I, partially against my own will and to the bidding of two blue orbs, complied. Though, they did not stop me from pulling out a chair unnecessarily loud. My Husband´s hiss gave me immediate satisfaction. Smiling wickedly, I leaned back and awaited him.
"I would like you to have dinner with us," he admitted after a while, whilst rubbing his temples.
I squinted at him. "Is that all?"
"Dining with my family´s assigned murderers. How very lovely."
"Of course," he groaned, all but slamming his palms on the table, "Who was I to think you´ve finally gotten some sense into that stubborn head of yours?!"
"Sense? You´re the one to talk!"
"Gods, Tania! You don´t get it, do you?" Robb snarled, "These people out there, your people, they hate you! Because you have done anything but your duties as the Lady of this house. This ridiculous rebellion of yours is raising suspicion! They think you´re a spy for the Lannisters, and such mistrust leads to hate."
I pressed my mouth shut, feeling sick bubble up from the pit of my stomach.
"If your mother has taught you anything, it´s beyond time to prove that," he pressed and tried to nail me with his glare, but I avoided him.
Oh, how I wanted to slap him. How dare he talk of my mother? How dare he, when it will be his men, if not him, to spill her blood? I stood up, crashing the stool to the ground behind me. The anger I then felt, it burned with the intensity of King´s Landing´s sun, it stormed alike the thunder in Storm´s End and roared like the lion´s in Casterly Rock. I would strike him, I would – but then, I remembered the part of Winterfell living beneath my heart. And I hated him, I hated him so much for doing this to me. For giving me another reason to remain by his side. So I stood and left for the door.
"The next time you want something, do not bother, simply send a maid," I coolly said and stride out into the hallway.
Dinner was not a great affair, just a gathering of beardy northern barbarians and whole stables cooked and served on oil-slickened plates. The glistening meat made my stomach churn and the raucous laughter tore on my nerves. I was unsure if the effects of pregnancy were supposed to occur this early, I barely had a bump! Perhaps it was just the emotional turbulence…
Currently seated at the end of the lengthy table, to my husband´s right, whilst he engaged in a conversation with the Lord Bolton – the grumpy elder – I blankly stared at the empty seat across from me. There was no one talking to me, or rather no one I wished to talk to, hence the absent-minded glaring. It was clear as day, I was an unwelcome guest at this table. But I did not care, I didn´t. I´ve grown accustomed to the loneliness in the past few weeks.
Then my object of affection was drawn back, by a heavy-breathing Theon Greyjoy. The evening had just gotten worse. "Excuse my being late, I was out riding."
"Really," I drawled, "Who?"
My seat neighbor, Torrhen Kastark, began violently coughing into his fist, his table opposite, Bolton´s bastard son, snickered childishly and Torrhen´s oldest brother, Harrion, burst out in that dreaded raucous laughter. A sense of satisfaction came over me, at this and Theon Greyjoy´s red face, despite Robb´s and Lord Bolton´s stern looks. It reminded me of Galen on his sixteenth name day. He was always one to easily embarrass. A mischievous smirk tugged on my lips.
The rest of the evening was fairly uneventful after the last hateful glares were shared, I didn´t do as much as utter another word, until a kitchen boy refilled my goblet.
Unsuspicious, I brought it to my mouth, but halted a split moment later. The Bolton bastard shook his head, his eyes sliding from mine to the goblet and the small movement was reason enough to put my drink down. He warned me, so something must´ve been wrong with it. Poison was my first guess. It´s the most favored and traceless method of killing in the capital city and the southern regions. Also, a Lannister knows it´s poisons.
That is why I did not panic. My hand still resting around the goblet, I rose from my stool, eyes locked with the Bolton. Striding over to stand behind Robb, I placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered to his ear: "I´m feeling rather unwell. Woman´s problems. Surely you will excuse me?"
He cleared his throat, squirming a bit. Men, I refrained from rolling my eyes. Starting a war is no problem, but soon as it got to women´s bodily functions, they blush like maidens. "Yes, of course. Feel well soon."
I touched my lips to his blushing ear and threw my cloak over the drink I held, eyes focusing on the bastard as I walked out the Great Hall.
"I shall escort the Lady," I heard him say, and before someone could protest he rushed out behind me and Sandor.
"Your name?" I asked, glancing around me for any other followers.
"Ramsay Snow… m´lady."
Handing Sandor the wine and my cloak, I said: "Son of Roose Bolton?"
In a swift movement I unsheathed the dagger on my guard´s hip, turned, burying my elbow in Bolton´s gut and situating the pointy end beneath his throat. "How did you know the wine was poisoned?" I demanded. The sound of the goblet falling to the stony ground echoed in the hallway.
Sandor´s sword joined his dagger, yet the boy smiled. "My, my, does the North have a southern warrior princess on its hands?"
"You, filth, dare to address the Princess of the Seven Kingdom´s like this?" The bodyguard roared and dug the steel further into Ramsay´s ivory throat.
"Excuse me, my Lady, I meant no insult," he rasped and wiggled his fingers above his shoulders, "But I did save your life just now."
"How did you know?" I pressed further without backing down.
The Bastard wrenched his head back. "The kitchen boy." He hissed breathlessly, "I saw a cloaked figure pay the kitchen boy and provide him with a bottle. He mentioned your name."
"Who was it?" I bellowed, the Baratheon temperament getting the better of me. He took a step back and I took one forward. "Tell me!"
"I don´t know, I swear on my life!"
"Your life has no worth to me, boy," Sandor growled.
"It is all I saw!" Bolton croaked and winced as a tear of blood slid down his neck. "My Lady, you have many foes in this castle. Many who believe you a traitor. I know nothing more."
I retreated. Robb had warned me, he was right. I wiped the bloodied end of the dagger on the black material of my skirt and ordered Sandor to lower his weapon too. Ramsay Snow touched the wound, smearing the red fluid between his fingers whilst attempting to regulate his breathing.
"Lady!" A feminine voice called from the dark. Sansa´s. "Lady, you bad girl, where are you hiding?"
The three of us turned towards the noise, and next I noticed what Sansa is calling for lied close to us. Motionless, unmoving, dead. The direwolf with the blue ribbon was curled up next to the puddle of wine, it´s snout red. I slapped a hand over my mouth to catch the gasp. Tears filled my eyes. I killed her.
"Sandor…" My fidgeting hand grasped his armor. "Sandor."
"I´ll dispose of this," He volunteered, marching forward and seizing the furry corpse my it´s paws.
"Tania?" Sansa´s voice questioned, she was nearer this time though.
"Go," I pleaded silently to my guard and grabbed the Bolton bastard´s unoffered arm, the dagger tucked in my sleeve. Sandor nodded, shooting a threatening look towards Ramsay, before disappearing down the next stairs.
Stiffening, I clenched my hand around his arm and turned with a faltering smile upon my lips. "Sansa, why aren´t you at dinner?"
"I was, but Lady followed you out the hall. Now she´s nowhere to be found! Mother said I shouldn´t have taken her with me. I should have listened!" The red-haired girl rambled, he pale cheeks now flushed. Her Tully blue eyes shifted to Ramsay, and she dipped into a curtsey. "My Lord."
I did not correct her, nor did I say anything else for a never-ending moment. I felt sick when I eventually started speaking. "I am sure Lady will return shortly. She is a wild creature and needs some time for exploring. You, on the other hand, should not stray around this late. Why don´t you head back to dinner, I am sure you´re missed. I heard they will serve lemon cake."
"I– you are probably right." Sansa sighed, considering the dark yard over the railing and smoothing out her skirt. "I shall see you tomorrow then. Have a restful night."
She longingly looked out for another minute and then swept back to the Great Hall with slumped shoulders. Gods, I felt horrible and so very guilty. I decided I was a terrible person and swiped my brow with the sleeve of my dress.
"It could´ve been me," I whispered, hand dropping to my stomach. My babe. The guilt doubled, because besides it, I felt somewhat grateful too.
Ramsay observed my hand and I dropped it immediately. "But it wasn´t. Thanks to you." I added quickly, looking into his pale blue eyes.
"I did what everyone else would do, m´lady."
"Apparently not everyone." Muttering, I tugged on his arm as sign to start walking.
He remained silent, as did I, for the rest of the way. Thoughts reeled within my head, swirling, disappearing, reappearing and appearing. I thought about Sandor and where he would hide poor Lady, I thought about Ramsay´s words, about my apparent enemies and about the future. Would they attempt to dispose of me again? Would they not only kill me, but my child also? Were they cruel enough? Heartless enough? Yes, yes, they were.
We reached the door to my quarters.
"Ramsay, do you know how to fight?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Yes, m´lady."
"Would you teach me?" I said, "You shall, of course, receive payment."
Bolton studied me for quite a long time. "My lady, if you don´t mind me asking… You have one of Westeros´ most feared fighters by your side, why not ask him instead?"
"Sandor knows me since birth," I explained, "I do not need him to baby me."
He smiled, and I felt uneasiness stab my gut. "Then, Lady Stark, we have a deal."