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The Reluctant Bride

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Chapter 1 –
The war is won. Now we fight for peace.

 

It was coming, as sure as winter would come again.
She smelled it the air and felt in her bones.
Something was coming, something that would change everything.
It was just out of reach, just out of knowing, but it would happen soon and nothing would be the same again.

Arya woke with a start. The same dream again, the same dream every night since she had returned to Westeros. She rolled over and, closing her mind to it, fell back asleep.

 

-o-

Queen Daenerys and the Ladies Arya and Sansa sat in the King’s solar, awaiting his arrival, or at least The Queen and Sansa, sat, while Arya lounged, with one leg draped over the arm of a chair.

Daenerys worked at the King’s desk, busy with correspondence and instructions to be sent to Meereen. She looked up from her papers as Arya blew out a long, loud, disgruntled sigh.

As she regarded them both, Daenerys thought that two sisters could not be more different. Arya was restless and bored, filled with an angry energy. She gave the impression of being a wild animal, corralled against her will. Everything about the youngest Stark girl strained against the constraints of convention; from her short hair and men’s attire to her skill with a sword and her refusal to accept her brother’s bidding. Just as the Direwolves came and went as they pleased, Daenerys expected Arya to simply disappear one night, as suddenly as she had arrived.

It was Daenerys’ turn to sigh. She wished with all her heart to have family surround her and, to her mind, these siblings had been apart too long already. It seemed inevitable that Arya would leave again if she could not reach an accord with Jon and soon.

In complete contrast to her sister’s relentless fidgeting, Lady Sansa sat serenely with her embroidery in her lap, poised, still and calm. The deft movements of her fingers as she worked were the only proof that she was not an exquisitely painted doll, designed to make men weak with desire and women green with jealousy. Daenerys suspected Sansa hid much and her good-sister certainly shared nothing. Sansa had hinted at dark events in her past during a few, rare moments when she had inadvertently dropped her guard, but Sansa steadfastly refused to be drawn or elaborate on her trials during the seven years war.

In her own way, Sansa was even more of a mystery than Arya. Although the embellishment of the man’s tunic in her hands appeared to be a labour of love, Sansa kept the design carefully hidden and, despite Daenerys’ gentle prodding, would not admit to whom the garment belonged. Worse, Sansa had caught Aegon’s eye and Daenerys doubted anyone had ever said ‘no’ to her nephew in his entire life, especially not the ladies. ‘Twould be awkward for them all if Aegon was to hear if for the first time from Sansa.

Daenerys was determined to aid these two, very different ladies in any way she could and, most importantly to guide them through the perils of matrimony. As she knew to her cost, a poor marriage brought untold misery. She was determined that would not happen to her Good-sisters.

As if to highlight the differences in their character, Arya muttered “bored, bored, bored” under her breath. Without looking up from her needlework, Sansa chided mildly, “It would do you no harm to learn a useful skill sister.”

Arya huffed and replied sarcastically, “I have plenty of skills sister, just none that you would appreciate.” To prove her point, she drew Needle from her tall boot and sent the small sword flying across the room, with sunlight glinting off the steel. In an instant, the point was embedded in the wood around the door with a powerful ‘Thwack”. Needle was not designed to be a throwing blade, but it was so familiar to Arya’s hand, she could judge its weight and balance perfectly and land it exactly where she wanted – at a tall man’s eye level.

Unfortunately that was the precise moment Jon entered his solar. The sword was still quivering in the wood as he took his first step into the room. He immediately stopped dead in his tracks, startled by the vibrating blade beside his head. Grinding his teeth, he pulled it angrily from the wall.

“When I gave you this, I never intended it to be the instrument of my death Arya!”

“Pah! You exaggerate like an old woman. At worst, you would have lost an eye.” Arya quipped.

Jon was obviously in no mood for japes as he stomped over and presented Needle to her, pommel first, accompanied by a deathly stare.

“Daenerys, Sansa, would you care to take leave of us. Lady Arya and I have some pressing business to discuss.”

Arya groaned loudly as Sansa stood up and gave King Jon a deep curtsey, which he acknowledged with a curt nod. Lady Sansa, with her perfect manners, carefully gathered up her needle work before retreating towards the door.

Daenerys was in less of a hurry to leave, closing her ledger and re-arranging the inks on Jon’s desk. He strolled over and began helping her tidy away her papers. Arya did not miss the way Jon’s hand lingered as it brushed against his Queen’s, or the beguiling smile on Daenerys’ lips as she looked up at him through her eyelashes.

Arya steeled herself for what was to come. ‘Twould be the same lecture she had already had to endure twice since she had arrived in King’s Landing.

Jon watched Daenerys leave, his eyes never straying from her petite, perfect form until she was gone from his solar and the door was closed firmly behind her. Only then did he fold his arms across his chest, purse his lips and fix Arya with his most determined stare.

“Will you at least consent to meet him?”

His sister remained impassive, turning her head away and settling her gaze on the far horizon.

Exasperated by her lack of response, Jon strode over and placed his hands gently, but firmly, on her slim shoulders. His youngest sister stiffened under his touch but she did not speak and he did not remove his hands.

Ghost stretched and rose gracefully from the patch of sunlight on the floor of the solar where he and his sister had been lying. Ghost padded silently to Jon’s side. Nymeria followed her brother; humans and Direwolves reunited after seven years of war.

The four of them looked out across the broken land. On a clear day you could see as far as Harrenhal, but this was not such a day. Smoke still rose from too many places; dulling the sky and making the spring sunshine seem weaker than it already was.

Scorched fields assaulted their eyes whichever way they looked. Far below Jon’s solar the assembled armies of men looked insignificant, but they were not. The realm depended upon these men to win the peace as surely as it had depended upon them to win the war. But these men needed to go home. They had been soldiers too long and they must become farmers, husbands and fathers again if the peace was going to last and the realm survive.

Too many years of war and a hard winter had left half of Westeros starving while the other half drowned in blood. The seven years war had set brother against brother, father against son and now it must end. Jon would see it ended.

The war was won. The price paid by them all had been far too high, yet Jon feared that the cost of keeping the peace might be higher still. Battles of another kind had still to be fought and won. Jon knew the greatest challenge that lay ahead was feeding his people and ensuring the fragile peace held. Below him were too many warriors with no wars to fight; too many men, bearing too many grudges, too keen to settle old scores.

If the rule of Three Headed Dragon was to last there must be strong lords to hold these lands in the Dragon’s name. Lords like Weyland the Smith, whom Jon had so recently raised from bastard knight to Lord Baratheon.

Of all Jon’s Captains, none had fraught as tirelessly by his side or commanded as much respect as The Smith. It was he who had brought the Bad Company to his cause. To his surprise, Jon found himself smiling at the memory, for that had been a turning point in his war. The ‘Brothers Without Banners’ as they had been then, could hardly continue with that name once they had rallied to Jon’s own banner. Comradely rivals to Aegon’s own Golden Company, the name that had been first used in jest, had stuck. The brave men of Bad Company had fought with him, some had died for him and their leader had become his closest friend.

And whom could a King trust if not his friends? Already Jon was wary of the politics of rule and he needed friends around him more than ever. He needed advisers he could trust, who would not offer platitudes and lies when the truth was necessary and unwelcome.

How many could he truly count as ‘friend?’ Rob. Jon had not thought on him and what might have been for many years now, but having Arya returned, with Sansa and Bran close, he allowed his thoughts to drift back to the brother who might have been King now in his stead. What would Lady Catelyn have said if she could see the bastard sat on the Iron Throne instead of her first born son? The thought might once have amused Jon, but too many were lost for it to hold any satisfaction now. Rob had been his boyhood friend, but would they have remained so as men? His brother had always been first to Jon’s poor second, but Rob was long gone and Jon still endured; not only King of The North, but a King of all Westeros.

At The Wall he had found friendship with Sam; so shrewd and steadfast, but in truth they were too different in temperament and nature to be always at ease in each other’s company.

And then there was Aegon. Thinking of him caused another, deeper, sigh to escape Jon’s lips. Aegon was his brother, his King, as Jon was also to him, but they were rivals too. Their rivalry was unspoken, but it existed none the less and made for a wary friendship.

With Weyland, there was an affinity he could not define, something they both shared, that Jon found lacking in the others. Perhaps it was the fact that they both carried the stain of being born bastards; raised to expect little, but driven by something to achieve so much. It was Weyland’s company he would seek around campfires or to pass the time in easy conversation or companionable silence on many long marches.

Now his friend and greatest Captain asked but one thing as reward for his toils - the hand of Lady Arya Stark in marriage.

Jon groaned as he looked down at his sister, still little more than a girl, but on whose slender shoulders so much depended.

“Look at what surrounds us” Jon pleaded. “We need this peace Arya; I need it, you need it, the realm needs it. We’re exhausted – all of us and I need you to bind this lord to me. We must have no more rebellions.”

Although Jon counted the new Lord Baratheon as his closest friend, he could not allow the possibility of another Baratheon challenge to Targaryen rule. The tried and tested way to prevent such threats was by arranging marriages between the great Houses of Westeros. Jon would wed his sister to a Baratheon and bind that House to his. The sons of Weyland and, if she would have him, Arya would squire in his halls and their daughters would marry Targaryen sons. Their Houses would be at peace and war would come no more to Westeros.

But Arya truly frustrated him. The Gods only knew what she had been through – what they had all been through, but they had to let go of this war, pick up the threads of their lives and believe in the promise of a peaceful future. Marriage and heirs had to be in all of their futures.

“I need this Arya and you’re not making it easy for me.” Jon said gently. “If your favour lies elsewhere, then he may be persuaded to step aside, but you need to tell me if there is another.”

“You know there is no other” his sister replied tightly.

“If there is truly no other then at least meet with him.” Jon cajoled, his patience beginning to wear thin “As your brother, I will not force you into marriage with him...”

Arya snorted. Nymeria growled. Ghost remained stoically silent.

Jon chose to ignore them all and continue

“…but as your King, I will have you wed one of my Lords.”

Jon had no doubt his sister was scornful of the entire proposition. He would tread carefully, but he would not relent. This was not a request. It was an order and they both knew it.

Arya finally looked up at him with the same steely grey eyes he saw every time he looked in the mirror. Jon knew that was the heart of his problem – they were too alike, both too damn stubborn for their own good. But stubborn had sustained him when all else had failed. Stubborn had won him the war and stubborn would win him the peace and this argument with his damn sister.

“I want no husband.”

“I didn’t ask what you wanted Arya!” Jon snapped, instantly regretting raising his voice, but she was being so bloody uncooperative. He hadn’t had half, nay, not even a tenth as much trouble with Sansa. He resolved to stay calm, took a deep breath and continued, “Do you think I wanted to wed Daenerys? A widow thrice times over and a stranger to me until the day of our marriage!”

Arya shrugged in that irritating, disinterested way she had with her. “A King needed a Queen and a Queen needed a King.” She muttered.

“As a Lady needs a Lord and a woman needs a man” Jon shot back quickly, warming to his theme, “…as a brother needs a sister who will assist him in whatever ways she can, as a King requires fealty from his subjects and as the Stormlands demand protection.”

“I care nothing for marriage and I care less for the Stormlands.” She countered dismissively,

Jon tightened his grip on her shoulders. His hands itched to shake some sense into her, yet he did not. Instead he gritted his teeth and tried again,

“Then perhaps it will not trouble you to sit with me when the small folk from those lands come to me to tell me of their pillaged farms, their raped women and their stolen children. Sit by my side and listen to these people beg for my help, then tell me you care nothing for the Stormlands.”

“You have named The Bastard Knight Lord Protector of the Stormlands. So I must assume he will care for his lands and protect your people. What use can I be to you or to a Bastard Knight in this?”

Arya regarded him coolly as she repeated the name given to her would-be-husband by his enemies. Jon had to remove himself from her for fear his anger would overwhelm him. His tenuous grip on his self control was obvious in the way he stalked to the window, the way he leaned heavily against the stone wall and the way the muscles in his neck tightened as he ground his teeth.

He was well aware of the whispers; Bastard Knight, Bastard Lord, Bastard King.

Jon took a deep breath, held it and exhaled slowly. As he did so he called to mind Tyrion’s words of advice from all those years ago, “Never forget who you are, for surely the world won’t. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it and it will never be used to hurt you.”

And he had learned the lesson well. Let others call him and Weyland what they would, but Arya…

Was she insulted that her brother, her King, was suggesting marriage to a bastard? Did she consider this marriage beneath her?

The Arya that Jon had known as a child had made no difference between him and her full blood brothers and he had loved her for it. But the Arya who sat beside him now was no innocent girl. She had been lost to him for seven years and had spoken so little since her return that he had scant idea what she was thinking or of the woman she had become.

“War raises good men above their expected station in life and he is a good man. His men love him and I believe you will too – given time. If you find him very much against your liking, then I will attempt to dissuade him, although he assures me he wants only you.”

Jon thought again on the similarities of situation he shared with Weyland - two bastards, trying to make their way as great lords. As a boy he had been Jon Snow, the bastard of Winterfell, destined for what? The Wall had raised him to Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch; Stannis had supposedly removed the stain of bastardy to raise him higher still. War had raised him to King and brought him his Queen. War had also elevated Weyland far beyond his natural expectations. Now honoured with the title of Lord Baratheon, marriage to a King’s sister would raise him higher again, yet Jon doubted that was why his friend sought Arya’s hand.

“I will not wed. If you think to make me, you will find that neither you nor these walls can hold me.” Her voice was flat, emotionless. She wasn’t threatening him, she was simply stating facts – she had skills acquired in Braavos he knew little of, but which he had no doubt would enable her to disappear again. Next time even Brienne of Tarth might not find her. He could not allow there to be a next time.

“So you’ll run?” He snapped. Despite his best intentions to remain calm during this ‘negotiation’ with his sister, Jon’s patience had worn through. “And to where would you run Arya? Where would a Braavosi sell-sword find employment in times of peace? With Lords who still seek to defy me? With those who have lost the war, but still seek revenge for some slight? You would do that to me?” He was yelling now and that made him angrier still - at himself more than her.

She remained silent, contemplating the scene of devastation from the window.

Harsh words and threats would not have worked with the Arya of his childhood. Nay, they would only pusher her further away from him and it would be the same now. He hoped he still knew his sister well enough to appeal to something else; something he suspected was long buried by whatever terrible things had happened to her, but something he had to believe still burned deep within – a flickering flame he hoped to ignite, to see blaze again the way it had in the girl he had known. He needed her love and her loyalty, but how to get it?

“Would you flee across the narrow sea and run from the brother who asks for your help? Would you hide from your King? I never thought you a coward Arya! I still fight a war. The war for peace! I need your allegiance to win this war. If I cannot win it, then everything - all our loss, all our struggle, all our suffering, will have been for naught!”

She finally turned to him and fixed him with those piercing grey eyes. Calling her a coward was a low blow, but would it provoke the response he wanted…needed?

Her eyes narrowed and her hands were balled into fists of rage, but at last she spoke, slowly and deliberately, grinding every word out reluctantly.

“Why does this lord want me brother?”

Jon had asked himself this very question. Was it possible Robert Baratheon’s bastard wished to strengthen his position for a future claim on the Iron Throne? Marriage to a Princess of the North would certainly strengthen that claim, but Jon did not and would not, believe that was his friend’s intention. No, Jon had come to believe the blame for Weyland’s desire to wed his sister lay squarely at his own feet.

Around campfires, on long marches, during the interminable waiting that is the inevitable companion to the urgency of battle, Weyland had liked nothing more than for Jon to tell him stories of his childhood in Winterfell and in particular of his wild, younger sister.

Jon had not though anything of it at first, assuming that his friend, an orphan from an early age and with no siblings of his own, found Jon’s stories of life in a large and vigorous family merely an entertaining diversion from the mind numbing waiting they frequently had to endure. But years passed and his friend would ask him time and again to recount the same stories about Arya. As Jon watched the way his friend’s battle hardened face would light up at the mere mention of her name and her wild antics, Jon had come to realise he had made Weyland fall in love with a memory of a girl who no longer existed.

Jon had to accept it was his own fault for initiating this, otherwise unexplained, interest in his sister.

Weyland had never met Arya, nor shown any need to do so before declaring his determination to wed her. Jon groaned. The Arya who sat before him was brittle and cold and not at all the fiery girl of his stories. Weyland had fallen in love with an idealised memory. She was no longer wild, spirited Arya underfoot whom Jon had loved so much in his youth; who Weyland now thought he also loved.

His sister and his friend had to meet and soon. If Jon forced the marriage before they were properly acquainted, as was not unusual in marriages of convenience, then he feared for the consequences. If…nay when, Weyland found his new bride to be lacking in all the wonderful attributes Jon had bestowed upon her, then none of them would be happy. It could not end well. If Jon’s loyalties were to be torn between his strongest Captain and his youngest sister; he was truly not sure where those loyalties would lie. Best to end this infatuation of Weyland’s now, before a hasty marriage destroyed their friendship and possibly more. Perhaps he could find another way to deal with House Baratheon and another, less demanding lord for Arya to marry.

“I will have you meet him soon Arya.” Jon said finally, turning on his heel and leaving her before he was provoked into doing or saying something he might come to regret. He would ask Daenerys to talk to her and persuade her of the need to wed. Perhaps his Queen would succeed where he had so obviously failed.

Ghost left at Jon’s heels. To Arya’s disgust, Nymeria followed Ghost.

“Traitor!” Arya hissed under her breath as the she-wolf padded past.

Nymeria turned to stare at Arya with enigmatic amber eyes, but the Direwolf didn’t come back. She followed her brother out of the door and Arya was left alone. Again.