Chapter 5: Eyes On the Forest, Not On the Trees
A loud knocking on my door dragged me from a dreamless sleep, and I lurched from my bed in a daze. I heard a rustling coming from Orla's room, which was connected to mine by a servant's door, but I just stumbled, half-dead with sleep, to the door and opened it.
"What d'ya wan'?" I mumbled, trying to wipe the sleep out of my eyes. I had yet to actually focus them and see who stood before me. My lovely brain had yet to remind me that this was the real world. When my eyes and brain finally connected, I froze.
There before me stood a very amused looking King Bran, a faintly disbelieving, questioning look in his eyes, a full blown grin tugging at his perfect mouth, which was slightly a-jar, no doubt about to answer my previous question.
The circumstances of our current meeting hit me just as I felt Orla came up behind me. Hair? Messy and falling out of my plaits. Nightgown? Slightly twisted, slipping to expose just a bit of my shoulder (enough to scandalise my mother, but nothing too bad was showing, thank gods). Feet? Bare. Not noticeable under the long gown, but I knew, and it left me feeling even more exposed in front of the King. Plus, the floor was freezing.
"My lady, I apologise, I see you are not quite ready. Your mother told me you would be up and ready by now. It appears she was misinformed." King Bran managed to get out, his eyes darting quickly up and down, taking in the state of my current attire.
"I…uhm…I just woke up. I…uh…well, you see…" I tried to say something to explain why I looked like I had just rolled out of bed (which I had, but… you know…). I could have said that, but you try remembering real words when an annoyingly handsome king, only a couple years older than you, is standing less than half an arm away from you. Then throw in the fact that he's staring into your eyes with his (which strangely enough, your mind decides to note are a more hazel than brown, as you had first assumed). A lovely…golden hazel…
"What my lady is trying to say, my king, is that she thought you were the maid-servant, Hanna, who showed us to our room yesterday. She said she would be back in the morning to bring rose-water for my lady to wash her face, but you have arrived before her. I was trying to find some perfumes my lady brought with her when you knocked. I believe she quite forgot she was not yet ready, and opened the door whilst I was in the other room." Orla explained for me, since I was just standing there, mouth opening and closing like a fish, as I stared at the King. I snapped out of my haze, but was still unable to look away from King Bran. His eyes never left mine as he spoke.
"I see, my deepest apologies again, my lady. I can return when you are ready, if you wish." His tone implied he didn't quite believe us, but was being charitable and playing along with Orla's story. My cheeks were burning hotter than they had in the courtyard earlier, and the relative warmth of the air inside the castle meant they weren't going anywhere quickly. A subtle poke in the ribs from Orla seemed to push words out of my mouth.
"Whatever you wish, my King. I apologise for…well. I apologise." I finished lamely. You truly have a silver tongue and quick mind, don't you? You look stunning, by the way. Nice dress… The snarky voice goaded, in my head. Oh, shut up. I just woke up. It's not like I'm half dressed, the nightgown isn't that thin. I replied. Bet he would have liked that, the voice replied. What's that supposed to mean? I thought back, slightly confused at my own brain's thoughts. It didn't respond, so I returned to the increasingly awkward (well, on my half, at least) conversation with King Bran.
"It's quite alright, my lady. It is my fault for not enquiring further if you were truly ready yet or not. Sansa has repeatedly berated me for being too hasty in my actions. I suppose I just could not wait to speak to you at breakfast." He smiled, his eyes taking on a peculiar glint.
I remembered a similar glint in the eyes of my old wet nurses little son, when I helped him place worms in his sister's doll-chest. Mischief, the sparkle said. Though what he was doing to be mischievous, exactly, I couldn't place my finger on.
I felt Orla placing a cloak around my shoulders, fleetingly noting the familiar warmth of the fabric as it blocked a draft I hadn't realised was there.
"You wished to speak with me, my King?" I asked, that part of his response catching my attention the most.
"No, well, yes. I meant that I wanted to speak with you and your family at breakfast, but I was wondering if you care to join me on a ride this morning. I mean, you may still be tired from your journey, but it is a nice day out and…" It was King Bran's turn to struggle for words. A faint pinkness filled his cheeks, but faded as he regained his composure.
It was my turn to smile, though my blush was still working its way from my own cheeks.
"I see, my King. Well, I'd be happy go for a ride with you, once I am ready. I won't be too long, I should think."
I could feel Orla itching to drag me back into the room and make me presentable. She was nothing like my mother when it came to painting my up like a doll and shoving my in front of people to be cooed at, but she didn't want King Bran to think of her as a terrible hand-maid who can't even dress her mistress properly, I think. Orla often worried that my mother would get rid of her, if she thought she was lazy or lax in her duties with me. She already thought we were too close. A lady and her servant, friends? Oh the horror! If this incident got back to my mother, I'm sure Orla thought she'd be done for.
Somehow, I don't think King Bran would tell anyone, but to put Orla at ease, I decided to cut off my conversation with King Bran, my recent embarrassment no longer bothering me as much. King Bran had a strangely calming presence. He put people at ease without any apparent effort.
"Wonderful, my lady. I will return you to your faithful hand-maid for a bit longer, and I shall return in a while to escort you to the stables?" King Bran said to me, the glint still in place.
"As you wish, my King. It would be my pleasure." I all but beamed back at him. The chest-jumping feeling was back. I don't know what it means, but I'm still not going to start questioning any happy feelings on this trip. I already had to deal with my mother; I needed all the happiness I could get.
He nodded and bowed to me once, smiling up from beneath his strangely long, thick eyelashes. I opted for a deep head nod and imperceptible bob of a curtsy, not planning on embarrassing myself any further by injuring him or myself, my almost-failed curtsey at the welcome party still present in my memories. He opened his mouth as if to say something else, then closed it, shook his head slightly, and nodded to me once more.
As King Bran and I both turned away from each other to walk down a corridor and enter a sleeping chamber, respectively, he walked away a few steps, and then turned; the "about to say something" look back on his face. Except, he actually did say something.
"My lady, hopefully we will be talking often during your stay here in Winterfell. Whilst I am sure you have been taught otherwise, you can just call me Bran, if you wish. Saying "my King," after every other sentence must tire you as much as saying "my lady," does me." He blurted out. A look of slight trepidation filled his previously playful eyes, though the reason for it, I did not know.
A full blown grin appeared on my face.
"It would be my honour, m…Bran." I began, "But if that is to be the way I address you, may I be so bold as to insist you call me Alianor?" I finished. Bran returned my grin, the tiniest dimples appearing at the corners of his mouth.
"That would be my honour, Alianor." He replied.
"I must tell you, though; I can only call you Bran when my mother and her informants in my father's court are out of ear-shot. If not, I think she might just die from the improperness of it all." I joked, but the half serious meaning hopefully apparent. An understanding nod began his reply.
"The same with my sister, Sansa. She is more relaxed now than she was as a young girl, but she still has her moments, and her disapproving looks still get me. We'll just be outrageously improper when we are alone." Bran joked back. I gave him an appreciative nod and a short laugh.
"Thank you, Bran." (I'd have to get used to that, it felt weird saying it without a "King" before it).
"You are very welcome, Alianor." He nodded back. There was an awful lot of nodding going on today, my brain observed in some corner of my mind.
"Farewell." I said.
"For a little while." He replied, turning to leave, his cane tapping lightly on the floor as he walked away.
The second his back was turned, Orla grabbed me by the back of my nightgown, dragged me into my chambers and attacked my head with a comb.
So, that was my fourth encounter with Bran.
I think it went quite well.
A half hour later, I was ready to leave my chambers. The nightgown had been exchanged for a looser fitting green dress, riding boots and a warm cloak. Hair was pulled back into twin braids down my back and sleep had been scrubbed from my face with rose water the hand-maid Hanna had actually brought (turns out that wasn't exactly just a cover-up). Orla finally deemed me fit for being seen, and sent a serving-girl to tell Bran I was ready. A few minutes later, he was at my door and we walked to the stables. Escorted by guards after we mounted our horses, we made our way slowly out of Winterfell's castle, through the Hunter's Gate, out into the vast fields beyond its walls.
Three guards, Orla and the serving-boy from the feast were riding with us, hanging far enough back that they couldn't hear what Bran and I were saying.
"So, Alianor, what is the rest of your family like? I have met your mother and father, obviously, but I hear you have sisters as well?"
"Yes, I do. Four of them. Isadora, Tyana, Mylla and Mara."
"You get along well with them?" He asked.
"At times. I get along best with Mara, who is only a year older than I. She is the most…relaxed out of all of them. Isadora, the eldest of all of us is essentially a watered-down version of my mother…" I saw Bran grimace a little at that. I know I would, at the idea of two of my mother. "Tyana, the second eldest, is alright, I suppose. She is prone to exaggerating things a bit. Everything is a drama with her. Her favourite comb breaks, and suddenly we must go to war with the Free Cities and conquer them all, to make sure she can always have jewels to replace the ones that fell out of the comb handle. Just in case they refuse to trade with us." I explained. Bran shook his head in disbelief, laughing at my descriptions.
"And the other two?" He pressed.
"Mylla, the third youngest out of us is reputedly the most beautiful, and I'd have to agree. She has the most amazing black hair that falls past her waist, tawny skin and the same violet eyes we all have, from our father. Yet hers seem to be larger than ours, so they look stunning. Though, she spends most of her time worrying about her hair, clothing and such. Which I can't imagine is good for worry lines, but what can you do."
"The most beautiful?" Bran repeated, looking forward. I nodded. "Matter of opinion, I'd contend." He said, glancing at me with a small smile. I ducked my head down to hide the blush that attacked my cheeks. I cleared my throat and continued speaking.
"Mara, as I said, is the one I get along with best. She prefers reading to messing around with dresses, though she doesn't like going outside as much. She's a decent person to talk to, though. Very kind, and a great listener. She married into the House of Martell, which leaves her near enough to Starfall that she can visit often."
"So you all have your father's eyes? The violet Dayne eyes." He noted.
"Yes. Same eyes, but all my sisters are tanned. I'm the only one who's pale. Mara, Tyana and Isadora have my mother's lighter brown hair, whilst Mylla and I have darker hair. Everybody says they all look more like my mother, whilst I favour my father. An old friend of my his once told me I looked almost exactly as my father did when he was a young boy, just with longer hair. He was drunk, though, so I don't know how accurate his assessment was." I laughed. Bran joined in, turning his horse to head towards some woods off to our left. I followed, and we continued riding slowly, enjoying the…less cold (the North is rarely "warm"), day. It was almost summer time in the North.
"And what about your siblings, Bran?" I asked.
"Well, you have met Arya and Sansa already, but I also have two brothers called Jon and Rickon. Jon lives in the far North, with his wife Ygritte. She's one of the Free Folk from beyond the wall. Jon's the commander of the new Nights Watch. Rickon lives here at Winterfell, with his wife Lady Alyce, of House Florent." He informed me.
"You're close with them?" I kept my eyes forward, watching the woods grow closer. Bran nodded.
"Yes, it was a year after the wars ended that I saw Rickon again. We had to be separated early on in the wars, when he had to go and stay with Greatjon Umber, one of our bannermen." Bran's gaze was stony, but distant, for a moment, focused on the forest as well, his jaw set slightly. He relaxed a moment later, finished with whatever he had been thinking. We stayed silent a few more moments, before Bran spoke again.
"I had a brother, Robb, who died in the early years of the wars." Bran said. He didn't elaborate further, and I didn't want the stony look back, so I didn't press any further.
We rode in silence for a little while longer, but it was more comfortable than the previous one. We finally entered the forest, Des whinnying slightly as we did. There was a path going through the forest, so we didn't have to push aside any branches just yet. The sunlight filtered through the leaves, speckling the ground with patches of light green and yellow, which danced whenever a breeze unsettled the leaves. I must have leaned too far to the forward to see the patterns, as I lost my balance and nearly slipped from my saddle. A sharp shot of anger surged through me. Stupid dress. Stupid side-saddle sitting. I had little control over Des at this angle, and I was forever grateful that he seemed to know where I wanted to go without proper instruction.
My almost-fall caught Bran's attention, as he turned his head sharply to look at me.
"Are you alright, Alianor?" He asked worriedly.
"Yes, I'm fine." I snapped back, annoyed at my saddle and dress, not Bran. But that didn't matter. I was irritated. This led to me forgetting who I was talking to.
"This stupid side-saddle nonsense is just…urgh! It irritates me so much! You men have it so much easier. You don't have to wear dresses, you can ride astride, and you don't have to worry about your hair getting caught in branches… All I wanted to do was see something further in front of my horse, and I nearly fall off! And it's not just because I am ridiculously clumsy, I've seen other ladies nearly do the same." I let out a final huff of indignation, directed at the inanimate object I was sitting on. But I think Bran thought it was aimed at me. At least, the stricken look on his face led me to believe so.
"I am sorry, Alianor. I…I don't know what to say." He stammered, looking apologetic. A confused look crossed my face.
"Why are you sorry, Bran?" I asked. Then it dawned on me. He thought I was angry at him! Oh gods…
"Oh no! I'm not angry at you! I'm just annoyed at my saddle. It is painfully impractical, and the only purpose it serves on short rides like this is leaving a few creases out of my dress. People always say it is more comfortable to ride like this, but I have no such experience. It just…" I sighed, not sure how to finish my explanation. A look of intense relief came upon Bran's face.
"I see. Why don't you ride astride like me, then? The only people here are you and I. The guards and servants are far back, and wouldn't care either way, I'm sure. I don't care either. It's how Meera and Arya ride. I know that none of the children would ride side-saddle, if they had the patience to stay on a slow moving horse for any amount of time." He assured me. I looked at him skeptically, before smiling, shoving my foot into the left stirrup, dropping all my weight down so I was hanging on the left side of Des, swinging my right foot over and pulling myself up to sit astride.
My dress skirt rode up to around mid-calf, but my boots went to the knee, so I suppose I was still somewhat modest. I could imagine the horrified look my mother would give me if she saw me like this, and it made me smile even wider.
"Much better!" I exclaimed happily. Bran laughed and spurred his horse onwards a little faster. I did the same, now that I had full control of Des. Bran narrowed his eyes a little, the playful glint from the previous day back in them. He urged his horse faster, into a fast canter. I did the same.
He suddenly spurred his mount into a full gallop, getting only a few feet ahead, before Des and I caught on and galloped off behind them. The wind immediately began tearing at my hair as we raced through the forest, hot on Bran's tail. A laugh bubbled up from my lips, only to be caught by the wind and lost in the light roar. The road began to weave through some trees, diverging into two close paths. Bran took the one on the left; I took the one on the right. I finally caught up and we drew up alongside him, separated by the row of trees that split the road.
I caught glimpses of Bran between each tree, and saw him looking at me now and then, seeing how I was faring in our race to nowhere. I knew Des could outrun him if we tried, so I urged him on faster. He understood what I wanted, and he galloped faster, so the trees became a green and brown blur around us.
The trees splitting the road ended and it became one again, pulling Bran and I closer together, in our race, me in the lead. Any closer my foot would have touched the shoulder of his horse. Bran tried hard to bring us level again, but after a few minutes, he gave up, letting his reins go slack and slumping ever so slightly in his saddle in defeat. His horse slowed and I pulled on Des' to make him do the same. We drew level once we had slowed, both breathing hard, though it was the horses that had done the hard-work really.
I tried to hide my victorious grin, but I failed dismally. Bran rolled his eyes good-naturedly and let out an undignified snort.
"I let you win." He scoffed, sending me a mock scowl.
"Hardly! I won that race!" I replied, fighting the extreme urge to stick my tongue out at the end. I settled for an overly-cocky hair flick, flinging my now-messy braid over my shoulder. Bran shook his head and chuckled softly.
"Alright, you won. But you can't tell anyone. I have a reputation to maintain, and no-one will serve a King who can't win any horse-race he has against a woman. Arya and Meera both beat me many times too." He admitted with a smile. His eyes were dancing with laughter, making them sparkled in a mesmerising way. I nodded, and raised a hand.
"I swear, your secret is safe with me." I promised. Bran nodded, grinning at me. We carried on riding for a little while longer, the guards, Orla and the servant boy catching up a fair bit later too.
We talked about light-hearted topics, nothing all that personal. Mainly books and tales we both liked. I told Bran a few tales I knew from my childhood down in Dorne, whilst he told me the stories an old servant woman he called Old Nan told him when he was young. His were better than mine, but he looked interested enough when I told them.
We eventually turned back and began our ride back to Winterfell castle. I caught Orla's eyes as I turned Des around and she winked at me, a knowing smirk on her lips. What she knew to cause her to smirk like that, I didn't know, but it wasn't an irksome smirk, so I just rolled my eyes at her and smiled. On the ride home we didn't race, but Bran and I did mess around with the horses, trying to keep our horses noses that in front of the others, but never speeding up to more than a trot, both giving in every now and then and falling back a little. Only to try again a minute or two later.
We did this until we left the shelter of the forest, back into the open field land, Winterfell just on the horizon before us.
"I enjoyed myself very much today, Alianor. You are without doubt the most interesting riding partner I've ever had. I'm afraid when we get back to Winterfell, I will have to go and attend some of my duties, including talking with your father and mother some, but later in the afternoon, would you care to join me for a walk in the Godswood. I actually have something to show you this time." Bran said.
"I had a wonderful time too. Of course, I would love to go for a walk with you, Bran." I answered enthusiastically, nodding and smiling. Then realised I must look a bit silly, so I tried to compose myself and be lady-like and coy, like I should be according to my mother and teachers. Bran noticed this, because he shook his own head.
"One of my favourite things about you so far, Alianor, is that you actually show how you feel. Don't worry about being like every other lady of the court when we are alone. That's one of the reasons I actually want to speak with you alone. You aren't like them. It's as if you show whatever you think all over your face, and yet you have so many thoughts that I can never keep up. You are still a mystery to me. I have to talk to you to understand you, to know what's going on in your mind. It's a unique gift, and one no other lady I have met in the past few years possess." He stared right at me as he spoke. As if he was trying to read my mind at that moment. I cocked an eyebrow, then crossed my eyes and wrinkled my nose like a rabbit.
Bran jerked back in surprise, snapped out of his reverie, a laugh escaping his mouth. We were riding back into Winterfell by then, courtiers walking within earshot, so Bran and I both straightened slightly, the formal postures and facades back in place.
"You are truly one of a kind, Lady Alianor. I'm look forward to the rest of your visit. I have a feeling it will be most…interesting." He said carefully, the only part of our interaction from seconds ago still present being the now familiar glint in his eyes.
"As am I, my King."
We dismounted and said farewell, Bran following Lord Jojen (who had arrived just after we had returned to the stables, with Bran's cane in hand) into the castle. I was swept up by ladies the second I stepped from the stables into the courtyard.
They gossiped around me in a huddle, twittering on about Bran, asking me questions about him, and about our ride, only to create their own answers before I could even think to answer.
This went on for some time, before I somehow escaped and found my way to the library on the other side of the courtyard. I hid there for a long while, reading a small story book that caught my eye, until I heard Orla calling for me.
We then retired to my chambers, to get me out of my dusty riding clothes and into a less comfortable, but clean, dress.
"I've said it before, but I'll say it again, Lady. You've definitely caught the King's eye." Orla stated.
I rolled my eyes at her, a common occurrence today, it seemed.
"He is just being friendly. I am a guest in his home, after all. I admit, he seems to be doing more than he needs to, to welcome me and all, but that may just be what he does when he meets someone new. He's hardly declaring his undying love for me or something."
"I never said he was, Lady. But your mother and father are new to him too, yet they didn't go on a long ride with him, alone, this morning, did they?" She sounded so smug, as if she had one the little argument already.
"We weren't alone, you were there! So was that serving boy, and the guards!" I protested.
"Oh, we don't count, not really, anyhow. We're people, yes. And our presence means you aren't truly alone, but we weren't part of your conversations. Face it, Lady, you were essentially alone with King Bran. We couldn't have stopped you if you were to…get a little more familiar…" Orla retorted, a little wink accompanying her words.
"Orla! You have a filthy mind! Bran would never be so dishonourable as that! And neither would I!" I laughed, "And I don't think for a minute that you would hesitate to slay any man who tried to go near me, King or not. You care too much for my honour to let me do anything so bold and reckless." I joked.
"And don't you forget it, Lady." Orla huffed, but I could tell she was pleased with what I said.
It was a good few hours after my ride with Bran by this point, after my time in the library. A knock at my chamber doors was revealed to be a serving girl, come to tell me "King Bran wishes to see you, my lady."
Orla finished combing out my hair, letting me wear it loose in waves for once, and I left my chambers, to go and see Bran yet again that day. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited.
Author's note: I know I said a couple days, but I had a full free day, and I felt like writing. So here ya go! Another chapter. A little bit more Bran/Alianor. I'm not great with titles, by the way, so I will sometimes use quotes from books that fit close enough. Today's title was from Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins (said by Katniss Everdeen). Interpret it as you will, or not at all. :)
The title of the story itself, Every Hour Wounds, is from Neil Gaiman's American Gods (one of my favourite books).
"Every hour wounds. The last one kills."
Critique, comment, correct. Reviews are much appreciated!
XO and DFTBA