"I thought the gods were done with me when I chose duty over fate, but here,
now, at the very end, I understand the cost of my choice.
It is a price I would gladly pay again."
He was just a boy when he learned the truth of his mark.
Touched by the gods, they told him, fated to walk a path long before he’d ever taken to it.
He hadn’t understood, so young as he was at the time.
Why would the Old Gods want him?
Why would they choose him?
What made his threads so important to pull and weave anew?
Old Nan spun her fables, spoke of wisps upon the winter winds and folk who would have guided him were they not gone from the world.
She spoke of fates and curses, of wars waged and lovers lost to blade and time.
She whispered of secrets, of choices to be made, of trusting the gods for only they could truly know the right way.
He believed her, waited with wide eyes and a leaping heart for her next tale, for her next explanation of what awaited him.
His father had clipped him around the ear and set him straight; there was no magical reason for why he had the mark, why he was chosen or why he was fated, he simply was.
Only the gods know why they do what they do; it’s not your place to question. Now get your shield arm up or I’ll ring your damned head like a bell, lad.
He stopped questioning then, and eventually, he stopped believing the tales Old Nan had spun in the dark and the cold.
The gods had a plan for him, but their reasons were their own.
He was barely into his training when he took to hiding the mark from any who might catch a glimpse of it.
He had never understood why others might whisper, might take to sneering; he never understood why the mark would cause him such grief.
Was it not a gift?
Was it not a sign that he was meant for something great, that the Old Gods themselves had seen him and heard him and decided that he was meant for more?
They teased him, the other boys he trained with.
His own brother smirked as if he knew some secret, as if the mark was a joke played on him by beings bored with watching the ordinary.
He fought them at first, defended himself, defended his mark, defended the Old Gods and their choice.
He fought them, and then he turned in on himself.
Were they right?
Was he cursed?
Was the mark a joke played on him?
He felt alone, shut away by those who did not, and could not, understand.
Brandon eased up eventually, a sad understanding shining in his grey gaze, and moved on to other things.
His father was never a gentle man and made no effort to comfort him, to reassure him that he was fine the way he was, that whatever the gods had planned for him was no curse, no joke, nothing but a different fork in the road of his life.
The gods simply wanted him to wander left, to turn from the path his parents had mapped out for him on the right.
His mother helped as much as she could, but before he could truly learn to understand her words, she was gone from his life and he was alone again.
He longed for the simplicity of his youth, for the tales spun by the old and the curious, by those who still believed there was some magic to be found.
He stayed away from Old Nan, too conscious of his father’s lingering gaze, and found his own way, his own tales.
And of them, there were hundreds.
Knights and maidens, ice dragons and lost magics; there were tales a plenty of all the things he cared little for but so very few of the ones he needed.
He hoarded the small few he found, aged books of darkened leather and fading words.
He read by the light of a single candle, tucked away beneath the heavy oak of his bed with a mug of watered-down wine and a small handful of pilfered food from the kitchens.
What he learned…
Hope was a blade in the dark, a fickle thing that beckoned as it bayed for blood.
How many had fallen to its razors edge?
How many had seen the mark of the Old and thought themselves lucky?
How many more had thought themselves doomed?
Was there no hope for him?
He read and he read and he dreamed of blood on his hands that never washed clean no matter how he scrubbed.
Dreams came to him all too often and whispered to him of violet eyes and raven locks whipping on the winds before a great storm.
He dreamed of her often, his maiden, and wondered if she was the one whose name was swirled upon his wrist so elegantly.
He hoped so, even as he feared it.
His curiosity with his own fate led to his banishment from Winterfell.
He was told not to see it as such but what else could it be called if not that?
He had longed to know his place, his reason; he had longed to know the gods and now he was sent to sky-stones and falcon keeps so very far from his home.
For your own good, they told him as they sent him away with horse and sword and an oath that he was to learn at the hands of the Arryn lord.
He wanted to stay in Winterfell, in the grey stones and northern snows of home, but he had no say, no choice, and off he rode with a handful of guards to see him there.
It was not home, that tower of dark rocks stacked high atop a mountain.
They welcomed him but did not understand him.
He withdrew, hid away inside of himself, and kept his mark hidden that they might never know his curse, his shame.
He thought himself so very alone then, in that tall tower atop its misty mountain, but then there was another who smashed the walls of his self-imposed prison with hammer and fist and dragged him into the sun with a booming laugh and a light shining in the blue of his eyes.
He was Robert of the House Baratheon, a boy as tall as a tree and just as sturdy, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do or try.
He was the first not a wolf to see the name scrawled across wrist and flesh, and upon the discovery, he had feared, had waited for the jokes and the sneers but the stag had met his gaze, had nodded his head in a way that spoke of understanding, and had sworn oaths to guard his secret, to guard his back and his hope.
They became more than friends then, they became brothers.
It was only days later that he learned the truth, learned of sharp lines and black ink and the promise of a union between their houses scratched into the underside of one thick bicep.
They were brothers by choice, brothers by training, and one day, by fates design, they would be brothers by marriage.
They could not have known how wrong they were to hope.
They learned of blade and shield and armour strong there in that place of sky-stones and falcon keeps.
They learned of history and houses, of battles and dragons; they learned of honour, and he knew then why he had been sent to the Eyrie.
There were two choices laid before every man, two paths that wound so very far from each other.
They learned the price of choosing, the gamble; they learned that one was the death of the other.
He learned that he would rather die a man in love than one who held his honour as a shield above all else.
What was honour compared to the love of a beautiful woman?
What was honour…
Honour became everything, as he grew and learned better the nuances of both paths.
He saw what the love of anything did to a man; had Robert not shown him what love could cost him?
How many maidens were left in that boys wake at the cost of honour?
How many hearts lay broken in that boys quest to feel as more than steel arm and the ink of fate scrawled upon it?
He swore he would never be like that, that he would swear himself to a life of truth and duty and would never stray from his chosen path.
There was joy to be found, he knew, but often times, more than he liked to admit, he would stroke his thumb across the swirl of ink and name and love promised, and doubt.
What joy could there be if duty and honour did not bring him his destined?
What joy could there be in a life made without her beside him?
What joy could he find when his chosen brother found naught but ash and empty hope in the beds of those not his fated?
He feared, then, that he would have to choose and that he would choose wrong.
He dreamed too many dreams of fallen silk sunk into salt seas, of tears atop pale cheeks and eyes that glistened like rare jewels before the fall.
He dreamed of a daughter with eyes like the mists of winter and hair the dark of night.
He dreamed of her smile, full and quick to widen.
And he dreamed of blood and death and knew, then, always upon waking, that his choice would bring him ruin if he made it poorly.
He grew and trained and watched on as Robert grew and trained and tried to throw fate to the winds for a night spent warm between spread thighs and circling arms.
He grew and he trained, and he put from his mind all thoughts of violet eyes and raven locks and the elegant swirl of a name across flesh and wrist.
He was a fool.
It was a tourney that made him think so, that showed him the folly of his denial.
Harrenhal was a ruin, stones of old blackened and melted and left to tumble where they may.
There was a sea of tents and people before the old hold, the winds alive with the songs of a thousand different tales.
He was awed by it, humbled by it, and shaken by it all when day slipped to night and he saw her for the first.
He had never given much thought as to what he should feel, as to what he should do.
He was not so brave or bold as Robert, nor so handsome and confident as Brandon or even his free-spirited sister Lyanna.
They thrived in the revelry, danced and drank and sang and played while he stayed as one with the shadows and watched, a cup of wine in his hands to stave away questioning eyes.
He wanted to leave, to take to his cot and sleep as others lived.
And then the room warmed, and took on such a light he felt as if all the years of his life had been spent in the dark; he breathed, then, for the very first time in his life.
There she twirled before him, her skirts a swirl of amethyst silks and her hair a wave of raven locks that twisted and writhed as a storm about her waist as she danced and laughed.
And when their eyes locked…
His arm burned, the ink atop flesh and wrist seemingly turning to wildfire that seeped into his veins and warmed him through.
Sound ceased with the stilling of her dance, her song; there was nothing else in the world beyond her, a single star in a sea of fading faces.
And oh, but she shone.
He knew her, a woman he had never met, as if he had spent half a hundred lifetimes at her side.
Their hearts beat as one and he knew it, felt it as surely as he felt drawn in by the twinkle in her violet eyes.
His mind ran to dreams of a daughter with eyes like the mists of winter and hair the dark of night.
His hand should be shaking, he thought, to be held in the gaze of such a beautiful creature, and yet, even as his brother pushed him forward, laughed and smiled and gave his wild encouragement, his hand was steady.
He went to her, a wolf in a hall of faceless people, and stood before her when she turned her smile up to him as if he were the sun and she a flower seeking light.
And how her smile warmed him, turned the ice in his veins to fire.
It’s you, she whispered, with a blush taking to her cheeks and her hand lifting to the yolk of her gown.
Eddard Stark, he saw, inked in the furrow of her collarbone in the lopsided scrawl he called his own.
She touched it, a barely there kiss of fingertips to his name, and he felt it as if she had branded him.
He wondered how he didn’t turn to so much ash there before her when she touched her slender fingers to the hidden line of her name across his flesh and his wrist.
She knew, as he had known, just where they were linked by gods and fate.
It was staring into her eyes that he shed the furs of the pup he’d been all his life, shy and unsure and afraid to dare to hope, and took her into his arms as the wolf he was born to be.
They danced as if the rest of the world had slipped away, as if they were the only two left there in the smoky-dark of a feast hall full of ghosts.
They danced, lost inside of themselves and sharing a lifetime of conversation without uttering a single word.
What words could they share that they did not already know by the beating of their hearts?
They danced, and they danced, and when they slipped from the halls of feasts and people, when they slipped into the dark of her chambers, beneath the furs of her bed, they danced again.
What was honour when he was finally alive?
What was duty when he finally knew why the gods had placed her name atop his flesh and his wrist?
And when he took to her with lips and whispered oaths, when he took to her with touch and taste and a longing that burned through his blood as hot as molten steel, when he sunk into her with kiss and cock, he let everything else slip away.
There was nothing but her, nothing but the one the gods themselves had chosen for him.
He could not have known how wrong he was.
The tourney at Harrenhal was where he learned to truly breathe.
So little beyond her remained in his mind as the days bled into each other, as each new moon gave way to days spent fighting and feasting and finally, for the first time in his life, fucking.
The tourney at Harrenhal was where he fell in love.
And the tourney at Harrenhal was where it all began to fall apart.
The world was turned to chaos.
So lost was he in violet eyes and raven locks that he missed the whispers, the murmurs on the winds.
He woke from her spell only to find rage and ruin.
The dragon had stolen away the wolf leaving the stag to stamp at his future turned to ashes and snarl into the winds with his crown of antler and moss held ready to spill the blood of the one who dared to rouse his fury.
He learned what madness was, saw the fraying of reason in the blue, blue eyes of his chosen brother.
Was this the cost of fighting fate?
Fear for his friend turned to grief for his family.
Wolves were scattered to the winds of Westeros; his sister was missing, stolen away by a man more songbird than dragon, and his brother, his father, were turned to memories and ash and a reason to rise to war.
He was forced to choose, then, between his duty and his fate.
It broke him, tore him to so many pieces he knew he would never be whole again.
They pushed and they demanded, they pleaded and they cursed; he fell into their trap, soul weary and lost, and he felt himself begin to fray.
He chose duty, and before southern gods he did not believe in, he married a girl with flames for hair and trident eyes.
She was not his fate, not his heart; she was not violet eyes and raven locks and her name was not scrawled by the gods themselves upon his flesh and his wrist.
He took to her bed with dread in his heart, with pain beside the tears in his eyes; he could not hate himself for thinking of another as he took to her, as he made her wife and unknowingly made her mother.
He turned from her as she slept, her red hair a halo of fire atop her pale pillow, and wept into his hands.
And when he left her there in her home of stacked stones atop the river, he prayed that she would forgive him, his love, his fated; he prayed that she would understand.
He prayed, that if she could not, that he would fall in battle, torn by sword and mace and left to bleed from wounds he would not feel.
He had married another, had taken another, had chosen duty over love and fate.
The threads were cut.
He had chosen wrong.
He had no chance to save his brother and his father, and he was too late to save his sister.
In a bed of blood and wilted winter blooms he found her, weak and pale but smiling as if she were happy to be dying.
Promise me, Ned.
He wept for her, for what had been done to her, for what she had chosen; he wept for her as she smiled, and he wept for her as she slowly faded.
He could not have known when he had ridden into Dorne to find her that he would lose her, that it would all be for nothing.
So much blood, so much loss and death.
Was it worth it, the price she paid to turn her back on the gods, on the name inked upon the swell of her hip?
Was it worth it, choosing dragon over stag, infatuation over fate?
He hated her, and wept for the pain and shame of it.
Her choice had forced his, had stolen from him his fated and his future.
There were no more dreams of a daughter with eyes like the mists of winter and hair the dark of night, there was only blood and ruin, blood and wilted winter roses scattered about a room that stunk of death and lost hope.
Even as he mourned for her, as he held her silent son to his chest and wept for the loss of her, he hated her for stealing from him the life he would never know.
And when he took to his love her broken brother’s body and the sword of their family, when he watched her shatter before his eyes, when he learned of a daughter with winter in her eyes and night in her hair born silent and cold, he hated her more.
Duty was the death of love, he learned, and he had chosen it.
He returned to Winterfell with the bones of his sister and the promise he would keep secure in his arms.
He returned to his lady wife with her flames for hair and her trident eyes, and found her waiting in the winds with two small bundles held tightly to her swollen breasts.
He returned to her tears, to her anger and her hatred, to her fear and her shame.
He returned to set his promise beside his own, a lie on his lips to protect the boy of dark curls and darker eyes.
He returned to the cold and comfort of home but found nothing familiar there for him.
He returned to their marriage bed with a silver scar atop his wrist and a heart torn from his chest.
He returned to her but he was empty, taken by the seas that swept away his love with her violet eyes and her raven locks.
He returned to her, his lady wife, as a man lost and less, for what was left of him without his fate?
The comfort of dreams had abandoned him as surely as his own sanity had.
Days turned to weeks, weeks bled into months and the war slowly faded from the land but not his memory, not his mind.
He woke more often than not with the whispers of her cries still playing at his ears, the shape of her falling into a storm of sea and stone behind his lids as if branded there to punish.
He begged of the Old Gods to take such horror from him, to let him suffer no more, but they refused him, turned from him, and left him to face the tattered remnants of his own undoing.
He had chosen, and he would have to live with it.
He found no comfort in his wife with her flames for hair and her trident eyes, he found only pain and suspicion, a hatred simmering beneath the surface that was turned towards his supposed bastard.
His promise to a ghost of blood and wilted winter blooms, a lost sister that took and took and even in death, continued to take.
He loved her, his gone sister with her laughing eyes and her warrior’s heart; and yet he hated her still for her selfish need to turn her back on the Old Gods and their weaving fates.
He hated her, but oh, how he loved her little son.
There was no room for hate in his heart for such a small boy with his midnight curls and his eyes so dark the grey seemed black.
Jon Snow, his bastard boy, his reminder, his promise.
Jon Snow, the little dragon wolf who clung so desperately to a girl with a head of dark locks and eyes like blue stars.
She was his hope, and his torment.
He clung to her each time he held her to his chest, lulled her to calm with the stumbling thump of his shattered heart.
She never cried when in his arms, never wept or screamed for her mother’s warmth, her mother’s milk.
Instead she cooed for him, stared at him with blue, blue eyes full of wonder, and waited.
She was not the daughter of his dreams, his daughter lost with a fate he had turned away from, but she was his; flesh and blood and warm and real.
She gripped to him so tightly when he dipped to smell her pale flesh, when he inhaled to remind himself of life and love and why he had to continue fighting.
Fate was a silver scar upon his wrist, fate was lost to him, but love was there before him, cooing her songs and smiling with eyes as blue as the skies at midday.
She soothed the wolf that had taken to baying for an end to the misery.
She calmed the storm that had taken to raging in the cage of his chest.
Dreams of a daughter with eyes like the mists of winter and hair the dark of night faded from his mind, from his memory, and all that remained was the little girl he cradled to his scarred chest.
She was not the daughter of his fate, but she was the daughter of his heart, the daughter of his soul.
She was Rowana, and she was his.
He should have suspected that the Old Gods would exact their toll from him one way or another.
He had turned his back on them, whether willingly or not.
He had turned his back on their design and had failed them, and such failure had consequences only they could fathom and know.
He had taken from them, and so they would take from him.
Snow was a pale blanket upon the lands of Winterfell when the price for his desertion was made clear to him.
The godswood had become his sanctum, his place of solitude and silence – at least when he was alone for it to be as such.
Three small babes cooed up at him from the heavy furs he’d laid them upon, all in various states of chewing on some part of each other’s anatomy.
His son, his heir, his strong little Robb with his auburn hair and his eyes the blue of Tully waters, was turning his sister’s hand into a meal.
He chomped and chewed, gummed and drooled until her pale flesh shone with his spit and sparkled in the morning sun.
He laughed to see such a thing, and laughed more when the little lad kicked his chubby legs and babbled around his mouthful in delight.
His bastard, his promise, his little Jon with his dark curls and darker eyes was staring at the fistful of ruby-raven locks he’d secured for himself, his pouty mouth blowing bubbles as he worked his fingers and twisted gently.
He was fascinated by his find, enchanted by the strands of ravens’ wings that shone like black flame when the sun touched them just right.
He was so entranced by what he held that he yanked and pulled and stuffed the hairs into his own mouth.
He made to stop the dark-haired boy, made to free him of his snatched prize, but he stilled, waited, watched, and then laughed until the godswood echoed with it.
She cared not a whit for the boys chewing on her, his daughter, his Rowana, her hand and hair both soon soaked and gnawed upon; instead, she stared up at him in delight, her little legs kicking up and up until she snatched a foot with her free fingers and cooed with pride.
They made a sight, his little wolves, heir and promise and pretty little pup.
He stayed there, in his sanctum, until the sun took to shining behind him and made its dip towards the hills.
He stayed there, with his little wolves and their playfulness.
And he stayed there longer, when his bastard yanked and pulled for more hair to gum at and made visible the cost of his defiance.
The Old Gods had taken to weaving new threads, he saw, and they had once again chosen his blood to bind.
Death had come for his boy of dark curls and promises kept.
He knew not where the sickness had come from or why it had chosen his second son.
Jon was too small, too weak and as the hours faded, he grew only more so.
He felt fear in a way he had never known it, felt crippled by it, drowned by it, dragged down deep until there was no breathing for the shadows that clung to his lungs and gripped his heart to squeeze.
His lady wife was beside herself, frantic and fearful and snatching with claws curled at their twins to get them clear of the raven-haired boy with his weakening coughs and his brittle breaths.
What could he do to stop her?
What could he say to still her storm?
What words could he speak that would not come out bitter and enraged, an insult and an accusation and a threat all bundled into poison upon the tongue?
He needed speak no words at all for it was his daughter who made her anger known, her first true screams rising high as she was lifted from her place at her sickened brother’s side.
She clung to his swaddling cloth, gripped with a fist made of steel and screamed until the pale of her flesh turned as red as the leaves fluttering in the godswood.
She clung to him and raged, spilled tears for fear that she would be taken from him and that he would face the dark alone.
His wife begged and soothed, sang her soft songs and tried to pry her little girl away from the sickened babe.
She pulled and tightened her hold and fire gleamed as triumph in her eyes when tiny fingers were pealed back and the cloth rapidly soaking through with sweat fluttered back into the cradle.
The little wolf howled and all of Winterfell heard her.
He moved then, from his shadows and his darkness and made for the crib where his promise was dying.
Jon was fading, struggling, fighting his first war without friend at his side.
He watched, then, as his heir, his little auburn wolf, curled in on himself, held his breath and let the colour swell his little face red.
And then he howled too, a great scream that left them both deaf to their own thoughts.
His wife broke before their babes, broke and crumbled and sobbed as she settled their little girl back beside the broken boy of raven hair and brittle breaths, and fled the room.
The wolves calmed then, and he watched as his son threw his little hand out and snatched a hold of his sister’s tiny fist, to save, to keep them both there and safe and close to the boy they claimed as theirs.
On he struggled, sucking down breaths that did little to fill his lungs as flames surged beneath his skin and burned through his little body.
He whimpered, afraid in the darkness of his body’s torment, and only calmed when a little hand as cool as winter burrowed into his swaddling cloth and curled little fingers against his heaving chest.
He watched them, his young pups, and he stayed there as they warred.
Fate had been weaved for his twins, names hidden beneath hairline and locks, but he wondered, there as they cooed and whimpered and fought to stay beside their brother.
Their fated names were their own, upon flesh and soul, yet both still fought so hard for his broken boy.
Was Jon a piece of the puzzle of their fates?
What part did he play in their tapestry?
What part would they choose for him?
He watched, with a small smile on his face, and hoped that whatever the gods had chosen for them, they would not make the mistakes he had made.
The sickness had not passed to his little wolves, nor had it claimed his secret promise.
His boy of dark curls and brittle breaths had struggled on through the night, but had faced the darkness and uncertainty with his litter mates at his side, calm and patient and vigilant in the weathering of their first storm.
Jon Snow lived and soon he grew rapidly, stronger than before and closer still to the sister who had cooled his fire and cooed her soothing songs to him, and the brother who had guarded them both, a quiet sentinel in their darkest hours.
They grew so quickly, and learned just as fast.
He thought that he had no room left for thoughts of regret and doubt; he thought he would never make a mistake as big as the one that had cost him fate and a daughter with eyes like the mists of winter and hair the dark of night.
He was wrong.
He knew a greater regret, a sweeter kind but all the same great, when he taught his little wolves to walk.
It was a mistake, and one he paid for every second of every day that they were let free of their crib.
His shadow had swollen, an old wolf haunted by yowling pups that gripped and kicked and chewed and cooed.
He took to wearing his longest cloaks just to hear the giddy squeals of his babes as they clung to the great furs and were dragged along behind him.
When the weather grew too warm for such heavy things, they took to riding his boots, clinging to his calves and yapping like excited pups as he marched his way through Winterfell.
The household delighted in seeing him so weighed down, two young wolves wrapped around his legs and another turning his hair into a bird’s nest of messy braids and pride.
He looked a fool, he knew, and yet he felt no happier than then, with them close and so, so alive.
His wife disapproved, though she hid her scorn behind tight smiles; he knew why she frowned, why she scowled and simpered, but he cared not a whit for her petty hatred of his boy of midnight curls and eyes so dark the grey seemed black.
He was as he should be, an old wolf with his pups about him.
He was as he should be; he was finally happy.
But happiness, as he grew to know, was always tempered by fear, and fear rose slowly with the whispers on salt winds.
War was rising as surely as the seas at storm, but he knew not when it would swell and seek to drown them.
Until he did, he stayed where he was, smiling through the exhaustion as his three young pups chased him through the grey stones and northern snows of home.
War could wait, for a time at least.
Three more babes came into his heart with the passing of years, and yet they took no shine away from his heir and his promise and his pretty little pup.
Sansa, kissed by fire and her mother’s daughter, was a dainty babe that grew into her stumbling legs and took to the life of a lady almost as soon as she knew words were more than just sound.
She was a spirited lass with her nose in the old books he’d once turned aside so carelessly in his quest for reason.
Knights and maidens were her balm, the hope that lit a fire behind her eyes even when she was still so young.
She begged for stories, giggled with delight as his lady wife spun her tales of shining heroes on dappled chargers and maidens of high towers with the songs of birds for voices.
She was the flame of his children, a pretty little fire that steadily grew but as with all lights, she cast all others into shadows and in so doing, pushed them away.
She grew and grew and soon she had no time for his little wolves, his dark pups with their howling songs and a bond shared that she could never understand.
They were wild and bound, linked by gods and fate, and she was an outsider by choice who took to her mother’s skirts to sneer down upon the wolves that padded behind his cloaks and his shadows.
Hope bloomed inside her, he knew, when a third daughter was born, but time stole her hope as the babe grew into a pup with features of her father and not her mother.
Arya Stark was all wolf, all Stark; there was no room for Tully Trouts or river song in her heart of ice and snow.
She had no time to grow to be more than a squealing wolf pup with curiosity a fire in her eyes before the gods saw fit to gift him another son.
Bran was a small babe, a quiet lad that stared at everything and mirrored how his eldest sister had been; quiet and calm and a very quick study.
He cooed for songs and he cooed for milk and all the while his Tully blues took to sparkling with a promise of mischief and adventure.
They grew, and his shadow swelled even more.
He loved them, his children, and was grateful the Old Gods had not thought to punish him further by taking that from him too.
Love was all he had left of his fate, and he placed it at the feet of his young wolves, right alongside his dreams.
Wolves and Trouts grew and Winterfell felt full with life and soul, alive once more and no longer surrounded by the fog of ghosts that stalked him constantly when his mind grew weary and his body grew tired.
They were happy, for a time, lost in a world of grey stones and northern snows, but happiness was trampled by fear and the whispers on salt winds had become screams.
War stole him once more from his home and he took to sea and stone and kraken lords with his claws sharp and his fangs poised to tear and bite.
He had reason enough to live, now, and no longer yearned for the kiss of a blade at his throat.
He had not thought to claim the boy for his home of grey stones and northern snows.
A fallen kraken to grow beside his wolves and his little trouts was not where he had thought the fates would take him.
He had fought and killed his way so easily through those born of salt and sea, and he had meant to leave them behind in their iron stones and kelp homes.
Had his once lord Arryn not offered to take the last son himself, to raise and teach him as he had with wolf and stag?
He had meant to let him, to see the boy go to that place of sky stones and falcon keeps, yet had given pause upon seeing the frightened lad with his wide eyes and his dirty hair.
It was not the fear he saw in his eyes that turned his mind, not the youth he saw the boy struggling to hide; it was the silver of a scar atop his brow, glistening as brightly as the tears that swam in the eyes of a scared boy of salt and sea.
There would be no understanding in that place of sky stones and falcon keeps, no soft words whispered in the shadows of a fate lost to him for whatever reason, a tether cut, a bond frayed.
He went to him, that frightened boy, and knelt before him.
They shared no words, for a time, but shared space and peace and a dawning understanding.
The old wolf bared the memory of his once fate, his once future, to that kraken boy with his wide eyes and his dirty hair, and no words were needed.
The shaking of the lad’s hand stilled as he took the future offered to him, and the old wolf returned to home with a broken kraken at his side and a new promise to keep.
Winterfell had not changed when he returned to it from the tides of war with a salt and sea lad riding beside him, his fear tucked tightly behind a wall of iron pride.
He settled in quickly, that lost boy, and the walls were beaten down by the baying of wolf pups eager to include him in their hunt; a salt pup, they called him, a sea-wolf come to join the pack.
He lingered over them, still the old wolf with his litter swelling his shadows, but his focus slowly turned from the new boy in his home and to the change’s others would not see.
Fate, as he knew, rarely waited, and the gods were not so patient as they had been with him.
He watched them, his twins, his heir and his pretty little pup, and he hid them from others as the fear swelled inside his chest and his mind reeled with paths and possibilities.
They were young, too young, and they did not understand, could not.
It was the godswood that kept them, shielded them, offered them sanctum as they hid beneath the heart tree and accepted the fate he had not; an innocent kiss, a press of youthful lips, and yet a promise to the gods that they would play their part, that they would follow their fate.
He wept for them, for the innocence that left their kisses and the youth that left their limbs and their faces, as kisses turned to touches and his heir turned to the wolf that prowled and snarled at all others that came too close.
They were growing fast, no longer shackled to his shadows, and as each new moon bloomed and faded, gave way to time and harvest, his concerns grew with them.
He watched over them, hidden from their sights, as they took to the forgotten halls of grey stones and northern snows and lost themselves inside the worlds kept locked within their dreams and their minds.
He often wondered what they saw when they slept so close at night, their brows touched and their eyelids fluttering in tandem.
Did they share dreams as well as thoughts and feelings?
Were they as he always suspected, one placed into two and brought back together?
He observed, ever the quiet wolf, as his heir grew from a playful boy with too long and lanky limbs into a young man with the promise of broad shoulders and a strong jaw.
There was an intelligence behind his son’s eyes, he noted, a cunning that grew darker with every day that dawned anew; youth had left his son behind and with it, hunger began to grow.
He knew the cause, and kept it to himself.
The gods had sunk themselves deeply into his heirs, he knew, just as he knew it was only a matter of time before fate dragged them to the precipice and made them choose.
He prayed before the Old Gods, with the memory of finding them tucked away in forgotten hallways with lips locked and hands hidden from sight, that they would not face the same loss he had, that they would never know that darkness.
He would gladly give his life to keep them from knowing that pain.
And so he lingered, a ghost about their shadows, and turned away the gazes of those who would see but not understand, those who would use such sights to gain and break.
He haunted them, his twins, and he smiled when his heir finally came to claim his sister’s hand, came to take her to his side and his bed and his heart.
It was quiet pride he felt when he took to the snow and the blood of leaves atop the white of the godswood and gave her hand to the wolf who had held her from the very start.
It was peace he knew when words of oath were shared before heart tree and the gods, when grown up smiles brightened youthful faces and a cloak of grey was set atop maiden shoulders.
He sensed them, then, when his heir and his pup touched fingers and touched lips; he knew them to be watching, listening, their whispers on the winds that fluttered their leaves.
He heard them, the Old Gods, as they sighed when son took to daughter and sealed their fates with the press of lips to flesh, of hands to hips, of seed to womb.
He sensed them, heard them, just as he felt them when the ice that had burned at his wrist since the loss of his fated, melted to a throb and slipped away to nothing.
He had failed them, once, but he had not failed them twice.
They were pleased.
Time continued to flow without ever giving him a chance to catch his breath.
He had never hated his chosen brother, but when he came with his lions and his demands, when he came with his wishes for an alliance, for what was owed him as he saw it, he hated him.
As if his own life and freedom was not enough, as if his service was not enough, his king, his friend, his brother by the bonds of war and youth, wanted to steal away his little pup and marry her to the prince.
He watched the wrath setting to burn in his son’s eyes when the king saw the beautiful Rowana, when ghosts clouded his weary eyes and made him see the dead.
It was possession he saw burning in the Tully blue, a wolf at prowl to protect its mate, to defend its territory.
The stag had stumbled into the woods without ever even noticing it was hunted.
Concern bloomed in his chest, squeezed his heart until his breath left him, and the cold rush of warning took root where his scar still burned when nights were their coldest and his dreams took him back to violet eyes and raven locks.
The gods were testing him, warning him, just as they were with his son.
They had taken all his sons dreams and wants and placed them in his sister, he knew, and now they were testing him, pushing him to see what it would take to make him his father.
Would he break?
Would he crumble beneath the pressure?
He stared at her, their king, stared and whispered to himself, and he could understand the wonder.
His little girl was no longer so little, no longer a giddy pup with flowers in her braids and more still in her hands just waiting to twine through his own hair.
Gone was the promise of her mother’s figure; the willowy lines of Tully women, all legs and slender dips, giving way to the wide hips and deep curves of a young wolf-mother.
But it was not his daughter the king saw, not the living pup but the long dead she-wolf.
The test was passed when the king stormed the crypts with the name of his gone-fate a prayer on his wine-stained lips.
He learned to hate him then, in the dark and the cold, when stag demanded the pretty wolf who looked to him as the sister once had.
He did not see it.
He had, once, when she had been such a small thing cradled to his chest and his heart, but it was not his sister he saw when he looked at his daughter as she was grown, not the one he loved and loathed in equal measure who took and took and left him with naught but memories of a bed of blood and wilted winter blooms and a promise he would take to his grave.
No, it was not Lyanna he saw when he watched his little Rowana race through the halls and the trees of grey stones and northern snows, not Lyanna when he sat to hear her singing, sat to hear her spinning wild tales of old.
It was not his sister he saw, it was his brother.
Were it not for the rubies brought out in her hair by sunlight and her eyes that shone like blue stars, he would think himself so very haunted.
It was his brother he saw, laughing and smiling and so very much alive, and he would not lose him again to the south, to the fallen stag and the golden fawn as once he had to dragon mad and cruel.
He had failed the gods, once, and with every second he felt that ice burning into his flesh and his wrist, he knew he was to make a choice, one that would see him fail, or see him praised.
He chose, and so the king waited as he played at discussion with his lady wife with her flames for hair and her trident eyes.
She was no more pleased than he, and he wondered, as the fear and the secrets swam in her gaze, if she too knew of the bond between twins, the promises before gods, the seed sown.
He wondered if she knew, when she offered up the daughter that was all fairy-tales and Tully streams.
Sansa was aflutter with hope and pride, a little girl with stories of golden knights and pretty maidens in her heart and her head.
The king accepted, and the wolves were safe.
As was the stag, though he never knew of the young wolf that haunted his steps waiting to lunge with fang and claw.
He did not wish to be there, the grey stones and northern snows of home set at his back as he shadowed his king’s side.
His little Rowana was safe, left to dance about their den with a smile on her face and love a warmth in her breast with her wolf at her spine.
His heir, his brave Robb, was no longer clawing at the walls, hackles raised and eyes blue flame set to burn any who wandered too close.
They were safe, they were happy, and yet he knew sadness remained a dark cloud about the dark halls of his home.
He had not wished to leave; his young pup was gone to his bed, his dreams of a future of glory tossed about the winds as a leaf.
He would never walk again, his Bran, his curious son with his hopes set on a life atop a steed with a name to make for himself.
There would be no Northern Knight, no wolf given chivalrous title and honour.
There would be no Ser Brandon Stark of Winterfell.
His heart twisted and the scar atop flesh and wrist took once again to aching.
He had made a mistake, he knew, for the gods were setting a burn in his blood, a rush of winter that rippled up his arm in sporadic waves and left him grieved and lost for answers.
How was he to know which was the mistake?
Was he meant to linger, to betray the wishes of his bound-brother and remain a wolf in the snows of the north?
Had he made the wrong choice in allowing his pups to play, to chase and hunt and mate together as he thought was their fate?
Were their marks not meant as a sign?
Was he not meant to see them and know they were bound beyond anything any mere mortal could truly understand?
Perhaps it was not a mistake he left behind but one he was making with every step he took closer to the south.
Were they warning him of the prince that lingered on the outskirts of his little Sansa’s shadows?
He had seen the way the blond fawn watched her, had seen the hint of budding malice in his wildfire gaze.
There was madness, of that he was sure, but there was also darkness and a cruelty he did not want aimed at his pretty Tully daughter.
Sansa saw his gazes too but her naivety left her blind to anything beyond the surface and so she fluttered and flounced, a docile little lady with a comely blush atop her maiden smiles.
A mistake, he knew, to bind his precious girl to one so suspicious, but he did not think it was why he ached, why his wrist felt as winter.
Was it Arya, then?
She was as much the untameable wolf his sister had been, uncontrollable, and so very much a free spirit of the north.
Was it the collar the septa tried placing about her neck, an invisible chain to rein her in and keep her quiet?
Was it the septa that he allowed into their den, allowed to teach and dictate and speak of the southern seven as if the Old Gods were some made up children’s story and not the ones pulling strings; as if the mark atop his wrist were not a reminder of their presence?
The south had no such thing, he knew, and the rare few who were marked were only ever bound above the Neck, tied to the north and the snows and the winter.
They thought it all a fiction, and laughed behind their dainty kerchiefs and gilded cups of fancy wine.
What did they know beyond empty idles and chains about their souls to keep them blind and shackled?
He hated them, the lot of them, and pitied them in equal measure.
They were empty, and with each day that faded into the next, with each mile that drew him farther from his home, he began to think himself just as lost.
The ache continued, a throb of cold that tingled and bit and reminded him every morning he awoke that his choices were important, that his mistakes would not go unpunished, that he was not beneath the light of a southern seven but a son of northern gods, a man of the Old Ways.
They watched, and when he bowed to the stag and bladed his daughters wolf himself, they raged against his choice and burned him until he felt as he had when southern seas had swept away his fate and his love.
He dreamt of her, dreamt of violet eyes turned to ice and raven locks whipping on the winds of winter.
She was not as he remembered, and when she screamed and lunged for him with skin the pale of snow and eyes gone to ethereal ice, and sent him shouting from his sleep, he knew they were not happy.
He knew, then, why they were hounding his steps so, when as a boy they had barely heard his pleas.
Winter was coming, always, and it was close.
King’s Landing was as he remembered; a melting pot of liars and cheats, of snakes and worse all writhing about in their own filth.
It set the wolf in his blood on edge, left him on the prowl and quick to anger.
They saw him as a novelty, a northern lord with naught in his head but honour and faith for the gods they mocked and named false.
They were blind, he knew, and wilfully so; just as he knew they were forsaken.
The Old Gods had left them, turned their ancient eyes on only those willing to hear them, to remember them; there was no room in the south for the truth.
Just as there was no room in the south for honour.
It was a reality he would learn too late.
The years had not been kind to those he thought he once knew so well, and the months that followed his arrival to the southern realm opened his eyes to the rot left to fester at the core of the kingdoms.
The man he had once called his brother had become a ghost; lost in his grief and his drink, he was quick to rage, and it was a girl with the wrong blood a sea away that showed him the truth of it.
She was a child, a lost dragon once swept away before mountain or stag could take to her with hand or hammer.
The knowledge that she was alive and well, that she now grew with child, was all it took to show the king for what he now was.
There was wisdom to his words, to his concerns, but his actions were worrying, a shock enough to give him pause, to make concerns of his own take root.
The silver of faded fate on wrist and flesh burned as ice above his clenching fist.
Would this have been his path to walk had he not had his family?
Would he have become a drunk with a war still raging in his heart and his mind had his little Rowana not soothed away the ache of losing everything meant for him?
He couldn’t stand it, seeing the last piece of his youth turned to a drunken wreck with madness in his eyes and a storm that never quelled in his heart.
He couldn’t stand it, and so he walked away, his armour bare of the pin given by king and once brother to show a station he had never wanted.
He walked away, resolute in his decision to bundle his daughters up and spirit them home to the grey stones and northern snows of home.
They railed against him, upset and angry; they had made ties in the south, but he swore to them and himself that he would see those ties met when they were home and safe.
It mattered little, what promises he made them, for they did not leave the south that night like he planned.
They did not leave the south at all.
He thought himself a fool for never having seen it, the truth flouted for all to see.
The seed is strong, he’d been told, and now he understood.
There were no fawns for the stag king, only lions waiting for the right time to strike.
He had thought it a kindness to warn the golden queen, the right thing to do in the face of what he now knew of his once brother.
The king would kill them, the golden twins, his rage a returned strength to once strong arms, arms he would raise to beat down on the lions that loved in the shadows and lied in the open.
The false fawns would be next, he knew, for there was no forgiveness in Robert anymore, a kindness stripped away by grief and loss.
He had seen it himself, an unwillingness to hold back when possible threats wore the faces of small children.
Dragon, lion; it made no difference to the stag who had lost his way.
He had thought to spare her that; he’d seen a mother’s love in the ivy green of her gaze, a sparkle that shone so very rarely when compared to the cold-fire always blazing when she was forced into her husband’s presence.
Were a man felled by looks alone, the lion twins would have matching titles.
He wondered if she had always been that way, or if time had worn her down, a tide against the rocks of her pride.
In the end, it didn’t matter.
His kindness, his concern; both were a blade placed against his throat by a man his wife had thought to trust.
Truth, honour, kindness; there was no place in King’s Landing for such things, and as he was dragged into the bowels of the Red Keep, as he was thrown into the dark of a stone pit and left to rot, he finally understood.
He never should have left the grey stones and northern stones of home, and the throbbing chill of a mark turned to silver on his flesh and his wrist told him, for once, he was right.
He lost track of the days he spent lost in darkness.
Food and water were brought to him sporadically, neither of which were palatable; it mattered little, as in the end he was growing weak to the wound in his leg.
It began to fester, a through and through hole that gaped and wept in his thigh and reminded him of the folly of fighting lions.
A moment of lucidity left him thinking of that moment, of the sun that had beaten down overhead, of the dirt kicked up into his mouth as he whirled with sword in hand, at war again after years of relative peace.
He’d watched his men felled, watched as one he considered a good friend was stabbed through the face and pushed to the ground with no care for the man he’d been in life.
Lion and wolf, that was what they were then, just beasts circling one another until their claws clashed and their fangs were shown to both be sharp.
He hadn’t expected the Kingslayer to disengage once he had fallen, a spear through his thigh and pain surging through his veins, but he had.
A strange sense of honour that, a reluctance to finish the fight.
It mattered little.
He didn’t even blame him, that arrogant golden knight; he better than any understood a need to fight for family, to demand justice, to want answers.
It wasn’t the lion he blamed, no, it was the trout.
A promise made, to have patience, and a promise broken when the youngest lion was tossed in chains and dragged away to the Eyrie.
It wasn’t justice that drove his wife, it was another sort of madness, and one he feared his little wolves would pay for in blood.
It was a valid fear realised, he learned, when the spider slunk down his web of lies to whisper in his ear of an auburn pup riding south to save the old wolf.
It would come to war, he knew.
Just as he knew he would not be there to fight it.
He could not remember the last time he had seen the sun.
They screamed for his blood, commoner and nobleman alike; they tossed food like stones, more concerned with shunning a man they had never known than filling their starving bellies with what they were given to waste.
He was dragged through them a criminal, the station afforded him from birth stripped away by lies and manipulations and tossed into the dirt alongside his name.
He was no longer the Lord of Winterfell come south to do the kings own work.
Now, now he was a traitor.
He saw it for what it was; he was a scapegoat, an example to be made.
Justice would be served for the death of the king and he would be the one to see the debt paid.
It was a price he would pay, a lie he would tell to save his daughter.
And he would lie, just as he would lay down his honour and sell his soul, if it kept his little trout from the fire.
The stage was set, and he thought the Old Gods smiling down upon him when he caught a glimpse of his youngest girl, the wolf pup with her dirty hair and her wild eyes.
There was a relief that calmed him as he saw her safe, sworn to the Night’s Watch where his promise would see her home.
It grounded him, and gave him strength to face what came next.
He should have known.
The lies felt as poison upon his tongue, a heavy weight that sapped the strength from his bones and left him drained.
She smiled prettily as he spun his web, his Tully daughter with her bright red hair a twisted flame atop her head.
Pretty as a southern painting, but blind to the rot festering in the city, in the people she had stepped into a cage for.
He lied, with the conviction of a man who believed the words he spoke.
He lied, to save his daughter, to see her safe.
He lied, and then he felt what little hope had bloomed within his gut turn to shards of glass that sliced and bled him dry as the deal he had made was tossed to the wind by the hands of a false king.
It was not her plan, he could see; the lioness queen knew the worth of his life, the safety it would afford them all were he sent to the Wall to fight and die there.
He didn’t listen to them argue, bickering like small children as the headsman slowly came to claim him.
That they were going to use his own blade was an insult he felt as fire in his blood, but there was no fighting it, no words he could say to change it.
He turned from them, cast his eyes out over the crowd of people baying for his blood.
He didn’t hear them, didn’t see them; it was the crisp snap of winter he heard, and an ocean of yapping hounds became a sea of staring ghosts all waiting to bring him home.
They stared with eyes he had closed, half a hundred shades of anger all left empty upon a field of mud and blood, cut down beneath his blade and left to rot in the sun.
They waited, men of war, for him to join them.
Come brother, their howls upon the wind cried.
In the blink of an eye they fell silent, replaced instead by a ghost he saw in the dreams he feared the most for the path they led to.
In place of the sea was the morning, eyes naught but pitying pits in a face once stoic and stern now gone to rot and ruin.
The blade at the wraiths side sang, a glowing beacon that burned like a star he half expected to pierce his heart and end him.
Now it begins.
He blinked, and found him gone when again he spied the phantom horde, but there was no relief in the disappearance of the dawn.
A shiver ran down his spine as he saw her, a ghost come forth on the tide of dead.
She was as he remembered, pale and weakened, her skin dewy with the sweat of death as blood stained the path behind her.
Her gown was soaked in it, as were the hands she raised to beckon him.
He shook, loss a weight upon his soul as he turned away his gaze and refused to see what his failure had made of her.
How long had he spent hating her?
How long had he spent missing her?
His eyes slipped closed, a darkness he found no peace within as he could hear the shuffling stumble of her every step closer.
Cold washed over him, sunk into his veins and threatened to turn him to so much ice upon the stones.
He looked, pale and afraid.
The sister was gone, and in her place stood another, her arms outstretched and welcoming.
She smiled at him, her eyes twin storms at rage sunk deep into salt seas.
He shivered, and she opened her mouth to speak, to call to him, but all the noise she made was a gurgling wet gasp as the ocean poured forth and made to drown him too.
He heard her screams in his head, felt them in his heart; the pale glow of her skin turned grey, began to rot away as the once silky shine of her long hair turned stringy and fell in clumps to the ground.
She stepped closer, smile still bright but for the pieces missing from her mouth.
Come to me, my wolf.
He looked away, ashamed and grieved to hear her struggling, to know he had done that to her.
The line of her fate upon his flesh and his wrist burned, a reminder that she was once real, a part of his soul, his path.
Another gone to the grave because of him.
Fallen star became others, all waiting to embrace him as the headsman stepped up to his side wielding Ice with an unfamiliarity that showed all too well.
It was another piece of the north now lost, and he mourned for a moment what would happen to his ancestral blade once he was gone.
It passed, as the ghost become his father, his brother, and he watched as each became mist and ash and called him killer.
The sea swelled and his mind splintered as half a hundred howls rose as one to blame him.
It was his fault.
He had chosen this.
A father, a brother, a sister.
Knights and lords and sons of mothers left to know nothing but grief and memories that faded until faces became blurred and nothing but names of people no one knew.
A lover, fated, violet eyes and raven locks tossed about on the southern seas that claimed her in his place.
She screamed with the others.
She screamed with a girl at her side, a girl who was all wolf and winter and now naught but dust and a lost promise.
It was a lie that dug deep into his chest and clawed at all his pieces.
He knew her, the gone daughter, but she was but a dream of a time so long ago.
Choices he had made had stripped her of her chance, had stripped them both of a life meant.
It mattered little, whether she was real or not, as she waited for him with the others, and just as they did, she turned to rot and ruin and became the nightmare he had spent years running from.
Blue, green, grey, half a hundred shades of brown, all became a blue so bright he thought he would burn just from staring into their frozen depths.
Flesh melted away, withered and turned to dust; he watched the sea of ghosts turn to snarling dead, a wave meant to drag him under, meant to drown him too.
His hands began to shake behind his back, tied and of no use to him as the howling grew and they surged forward.
He was frozen, staring into the faces of all those he had killed, whether with blade or deed or failed fate.
His eyes closed.
It passed, as the blade was hefted high.
He looked again, when the screams fell silent; their mouths yet moved, gnashing teeth waiting to bite and devour.
It was not the wraiths that caught his eye, that held his gaze, but the girl who moved through them, a shroud about her shoulders and a mist behind her steps.
The dead did not see her, but they parted, slipped away as silent spectres as she drew near.
They silenced as she looked to him, as she stepped between soldiers and merged with the mists of his once lover.
Star fell away, slipped into the darkness, into peace; violet eyes sunk to the depths of sea and salt turned to ice, turned to blue fire, turned to stars amidst the shadows.
The nightmare faded, the ghosts turned to winter mists and memories and whispers lost to the backs of his mind.
He stared at her, as the blade of his ancestors began to swing.
Within the blink of an eye she was gone, and panic filled him as he was met with the cheering crowds come to see a northern lord lose his head.
He prayed, then, for just another moment with her, phantom or memory or vision of a time he would never see.
He thought of her, his pretty little pup, and longed to see her there before him truly, a final chance to know the peace of her presence, the sound of her song, the comfort of her arms wrapped lovingly around his neck as she perched herself atop his back and hid her laughter in his hair.
It would be a price he would pay, to see her in the end, to know the warmth of her smile as winter came to claim him.
He blinked again, and thought the sea would find him, but it was her who waited, peace a promise in the sparkle of her pretty eyes, the gentle upturn of her full smile.
Her hands rose from her sides, her sleeves of her gown slipping away to show the pale of her unblemished flesh.
The sea rose behind her, a wave of snow and ice and a hundred thousand eyes of death all waiting for his fall.
Fear gripped him, but it slipped away just as quickly, slipped away as if a shroud pulled from his shoulders and left to flutter on the winds.
Her eyes softened, her smile followed; her hands rose higher, palms upturned and beckoning.
All else slipped away.
The crowd of southern liars, the screaming masses.
The ghosts come to howl at his waiting grave.
Once lover and the ghost of a daughter who had never drawn breath.
The stars fell away with the rest as a blade of Ice and the North fell with them.
He heard nothing, as she parted her lips as if to speak.
She waited for him, gentle and calm, as the world slipped away until all that was left were the shining blue of her eyes, twin stars that had always given him comfort.
There had always been such wonder in her gaze, and now there was tranquility.
He closed his eyes, and felt the pain slip from his leg, the ache from his body, the fog of fever from his mind.
The mark given by gods and fate took to throbbing, a final choice, a chance.
He thought of her, the one he had lost, and smiled softly.
He had made his choice long ago and he would stand by it.
The chill of his mark gone to silver on his flesh and his wrist fell away, as much a ghost now as the one who wore its name in life.
Warmth spread through him, and his choice became a final whisper on his lips.
She was safe, he knew, tucked away in the grey stones and northern snows of home.
The thought brought him peace, and he no longer heard the screams of strangers, no longer felt the ache of wounds forced upon his battered body.
Nor did he feel the kiss of winter at his neck or the rush of cold through his veins.
Ice struck true and he felt nothing.
He was already gone.