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The Winter Lioness

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Marei had once heard from her friend Lyra Crakehall that under the Rock there was gold enough  to buy the Seven Kingdoms and some more. It had been during the celebrations  of Prince Joffrey's name day, when Lord Tywin when Tywin spent money there was always some reason behind it. She, at those words, had immediately thought about how silly it was to build a castle over a mine. There were thousands of tunnels under Casterly Rock, and there would be thousands more if the cliff that held it could not come down if they keep diggin. How much gold would be in the stone, where no one could reach it?

Fortunately for Lord Tywin, the rest of the westernland mines were in a better position, ensuring a constant source of income for their owners. Not enough to buy kingdoms, but yes many other things: forgiveness, loyalty and marriages.

What she didn't expect was something like this.

Her mother was ecstatic, which did not surprise her even though Lady Genna was not a woman given the effusive displays of affection. Every gesture and every word had a meaning, being open with your own feelings only left you vulnerable. But her joy was evident. On second thought, the last time Marei had seen her mother so cheerful had been when she discovered the sweets of the new pastry arrived from Oldtown. She was at the culmination of her hard work in search of a suitor worthy of her only daughter, traveling through all the castles of the West, meetings, walks, teas and thousands of dances with a hundred different possible husbands.

Genna Lannister resentment for her unworthy marriage had not diminished even a little in all the years that had passed, nor her contempt for the clumsy and gross husband they had granted her . Avoiding Marei's destiny was a priority. She supposed she had done it with the Lord of Winterfell.

“When will the wedding be?” Marei finally asked. Her tea was intact on the table, next to a tower of small cakes and biscuit plates of which her brothers would give a good account as soon as her mother stop paying attention.

“In two moons. We will have to hurry up with the preparations” and began to ramble on all the things that still had to be attended, but she did not want to think about dresses, plans or celebrations.

She mentally calculated the distance between Casterly Rock and Winterfell. On horseback they could arrive in maybe two weeks, but they would travel by carriage, with entourage and guards. A moon, she finally decided. At that time it seemed like a whole world.

"We've been lucky," said her mother. “Bless your uncle for this.”

No doubt her uncle's work had been masterful on that occasion. Marei was the daughter of a second child, Walder Frey's second son and the Frey were as common as rats in the sewers. With a mediocre father and last name her marriage hopes resided entirely in her uncle and his gold.

Actually, the Guardian of the North was not a party as unattainable as most great lords. Recently widowed and with an heir, it was unlikely that Frey or Lannister blood would end up in a little lord of Winterfell, her children would be the spare. It wasn't impossible, just strange that Eddard Stark choose her as a future bride. It made her ask questions.

She tried to remember if Eddard Stark had been present at her cousin's and King Robert's wedding, but she couldn't. She had been thirteen years old and the only thing that was engraved in her memory was the endless long ceremony and how handsome the King was in his black cloak and golden crown. At the beginning of the celebration he had invited her to dance with him and had raised her to the tips of his boots to compensate for the difference in height, although she was no longer a small girl and would normally have considered such infantilization offensive , at that time it seemed extraordinarily gentlemanly. Then she had twist Tyrion all over the dance floor, making half the guests laugh and frowning the other half, after that show Uncle Tywin had sent them both to bed.

No, she definitely couldn't remember Eddard Stark.

"We'll have to hurry with the maiden's cloak, and the dress," her mother continued. “We only have one moon, to prepare everything.”

And then she proceeded to curse the northern seamstresses and their lack of skills. Marei would like to know when her mother had met a northern seamstress.

She didn't pay much attention, her little brother Walder trying to steal biscuits was immensely more entertaining. The little boy had his head covered in a bush of pale brown hair and plump baby cheeks.

She had heard the ugly rumors about the true nature of their father, from guards to Edwin Hawthorne, the candidates changed regularly. On an especially unpleasant occasion the name of her uncle Tywin had been mentioned. No one knew what had happened to the laundress who pronounced it, and nobody wanted to know, but the rumor died soon.

She watched with fun as Walder grabbed a paste of almonds and honey and stuffed it as quickly as possible in the mouth without losing sight of his mother. When he finished he realized that his older sister had caught him doing the entire operation. His little face twisted into a truly credible grimace of grief but all pretense of guilt disappeared when he saw his sister's smile.

“Are you listening to me?” Genna required her daughter's attention.

“Yes, mother” lied easily.

“We will have to think which color will be better. Of course not gold, would not combine with the cape” and proceeded to complain about the incompatibility of Frey colors with gold.

The girl’s thoughts turned back to her fiance. He had two children, no, three, she had heard the stories of the bastard he kept between the walls of his castle. The boy he had taken from Dorne with him. The girl must have been just a baby and his heir would have about four or five name days, the bastard would not be much younger.

On two moons she would be a wife and the lady of a castle and a mother for two small children. She knew how to handle a manor, but the rest was a total mystery to her.

The marriage of her parents was not marked by love, not even for convenience, it was only the cause of a man who was too weak and another  to exploited. Most of the time her mother could not stand her husband's presence and he knew well that it was better to stay out of her way. Her mother was not a particularly caring person. On one occasion Cleos had said that Marei was Lady Genna's favorite, she didn't think she was her favorite, she was only the one she hated the least.

Gods, her head hurt. At that moment, she wanted to be alone in her rooms so she could lie in bed, but she knew that many hours of planning were ahead.

 

In Genna Lannister's opinion there were two things that mattered at a wedding, the first was the party, but since the wedding would be held in Winterfell there was nothing they could do to make sure it was magnificent. The other was the bride, and there she focused all her strength.

Preparations began the day after Lord Tywin received confirmation of the engagement. The trousseau had been prepared for years but since no one expected the groom to be from the far north it was also tragically ill stocked. The seamstress and the furriers were, how could it be otherwise, the first to appear for her rooms.

The dressmaker, Katryna, was an old woman, hunched over and tiny, who had been making dresses for the ladies of Lannisport all her life. Even with her age, no one in the west was more skilled with a needle. She had created the wedding dress of the queen, covered in myr lace and curdled with rubies and emeralds, and Lady Joanna’s many years before.

Behind her was always a huddle of uniformed girls who wore measuring tapes, cloth samples and pincushions and who pushed, punctured and bothered Marei incessantly.

She had been forced to spend hours on a pedestal alone in her underwear, while everyone turned around her. She was wrapped in fabrics of all colors, made pose with each dress and they laid before her paper sheets with designs beyond that she could have imagined. And, under her mother's judicious look, she couldn't even afford to enjoy that show of extravagance.

Escape was more and more difficult for her. She had tried it in the library that rarely visited but was discovered on the second day and dragged on to try on shoes, and in the kitchens but that nook only lasted one afternoon before someone was out of the tongue. The only hiding place in which she had not been caught yet was the secret turret.

She had discovered it a year ago while playing with her brothers, but never had found a need to use it. The old tower was narrow, with only one room not very large on the top that could only be reached by a sharp staircase, which explained its lack of utility. It was leaning over the edge of the castle, above the sea, and from one of its narrow windows could be seen a small piece of beach and a lonely cabin by the water's border, far from the castle.

Everything was covered in dust after many years of abandonment and there was no furniture but Marei found that she could overlook that in favor of the tranquility of it. She just had to share the tower with a little family of spiders.

The only one who caught her at the top of her shelter was Tyrion, which was no surprise, Tyrion always seemed to discover everything. Not even the maiden that her mother had put to spy on her had come so far, she had made sure to lose the girl in the convoluted labyrinth of corridors that surrounded the Lord rooms.

“So here you hid” commented her cousin, looking around. He seemed to approve her refuge.

She had managed to smuggle a few cushions and a blanket, along with a stolen food basket.

“I needed to stop looking lace” she admitted. That earned her a smile from the boy.

Marei had always thought that Tyrion was lovely when he smiled. He was not handsome, had a flat nose and uneven eyes as well as a prominent front, but when he smiled his face became sweeter, even funny. On one occasion she had confessed that he reminded her of the flat-nosed dogs that one of her mother's ladies had bought from a YiTi merchant. In response he had pushed her from the chair, but he had also laughed.

Sadly in recent years his cousin had found less and less reason to smile. She didn't know what, but something had happened. She had seen his uncle's fury, then Tyrion spent a week locked in his room and then everything was different. Brothels, wine and the library was the only thing that interested her cousin now.

She missed their cyvase games, even when he had won each and every one since she was ten years old.

“You are not the only one. Now she has sent the seamstresses for me,” he said, sitting hardly on one of the cushions. It was not easy for his short, crooked legs. “I need a new doublet, a new shirt, new boots ... I had forgotten what it had been like before Cersei's wedding.”

“At least you don't have to try on a dozen dresses every afternoon. Wine?” He didn't need more encouragement to get the jug she held out.

“Aren’t you excited? You're going to marry Lord Stark, the king's desired brother” he asked, after a few moments of silence.

The sun was beginning to set and the reddish light came right through the window in front of them, it was a beautiful image. She tried not to think about when she would have the opportunity to see it again.

“Not much” she admitted, without taking her eyes off the water.

Tyrion nodded, giving the wine another drink.

"Do you think father will let me go to the Wall?" He asked.

"Do you want to join the Night's Watch!?" She asked horrified, giving a jump of surprise. Her screech also made the boy jump.

"Of course not," he reassured her, slightly offended. “I just want to see.”

“Oh”now she felt ashamed of her outburst. She smoothed the wrinkles of her skirt in an attempt to regain the composure. “I do not think so.”

The sincerity of her words could have been cruel, but her cousin would not have believed any lies. The boy seemed resigned.

His existence was particularly sad. His deformed body had prevented him from being a warrior or an adventurer, even riding a horse was a challenge for him. His mind was bright, even she could see it, but his father kept him chained, he could not join the Citadel to learn the secrets of the masters nor could travel outside Lannisport without permission. Tyrion was as a prisoner of the Rock as she was. Or from Winterfell, Winterfell would be her new prison.

“At least you'll see Winterfell. Didn't the same Brandon build them?”

She had tried to learn as much as possible about her future home in recent weeks, Septa Olira, her lifelong caretaker, a woman as wrinkled and gray as her cloak, had taken the task seriously. As the North had not seemed a possible match, her education in that area was poor and she had to compensate it now. That is why the old woman harassed her with family trees, maps and history books.

Unfortunately there were as many Brandons among the Starks as there were Walders in the Twins.

"That's what they say," Tyrion confirmed. “With giants”

She would have liked to know how he had got some giants to help thim hem and she thought that surely Tyrion too.

They remained silent for a long time, until only a few sunbeams appeared over the horizon. Marei knew that they should return, dinner would be served soon and they could not appear disheveled to be lying on the floor, but didn’t want to do it. Not yet.

“Tyrion.”

“Yes?”

“I'm afraid” she admitted.

She shouldn't have it, she had always known that she would end up married, maybe far from her house. However, she was terrified, scared of her future husband and those cold and strange lands he ruled and whatever was waiting for her there.

Tyrion considered his answer a few moments.

"I don't think you should," he said. It's what you've been educated for and you're not stupid. People tell stories about the honor of Lord Eddard, I doubt you should worry about him.

“They say he has a bastard.”

Her cousin shrugged.

“And other men have dozens. They say our king is going that way and there you have your lovely grandfather. There are worse things than planting the seed in the wrong garden,” he said simply. And, if you look a little like your dear mother, he will fear you too much to deviate from the path.”

That made her laugh. Lady Genna was an unusual creature, fearsome in a way that women rarely were. She had seen her look all her uncles in the eye and tell them exactly what they were wrong about and they had been silent and listened. She didn't think that could be learned.

"You will be fine," he said. “And if not write a letter to Uncle Gerion and Jaime, they will surely be at the gates of Winterfell ready to hand you Lord Stark's head in a week.”

“That scares me too” especially because she knew it wasn't a lie. Thus, she recalled with fear, it had been how her future husband's brother had lost his life.

She stood up, dusting off her skirts, Tyrion followed her example. She would go back for the basket at another time, didn't have time to get rid of the evidence now.

They carefully descended the spiral staircase. It was narrow and the dust on the steps made it slippery, a deadly trap that only became more dangerous due to the lack of light. Tyrion held her hand, but doubted that anyone could stop the fall of the other if they tripped. When they reached the bottom they both laughed, as if it had all been a lovely joke or the most exciting of adventures; they should have drunk more than Marei had noticed, should avoid talking a lot during dinner.

She pulled hard on the tower door to close it. The wood was old and a little swollen so it used to get stuck, and at some point it had been covered by a large tapestry of men on horseback chasing a unicorn. It was so hidden that she had only recently discovered it despite the many years exploring the corridors of the fortress. Obviously no one had set foot there in years, so she didn't have to worry that anyone would bother to go see the place now, if they remembered where it was or even if it existed, but she wanted to take precautions to keep her secret place well hidden.

"Come on, Mare, I hear footsteps," her cousin hurried.

She dropped part of her weight on the handle until the wood clicked into place. She quickly replaced the tapestry to hide the door and the two children ran away.

Marei was much faster, even entangled in the petticoat layers of her skirts, so she had to wait for her cousin while he struggled with his short, crooked legs, but they didn't have to run away much. Whoever went through the hall had taken another path and they could quietly return to their rooms.

 

Soon, much sooner than Marei had wished, a moon passed and it was time to leave. A retinue of red cloaks was ready, with its full armor and surrounded by lions banners to attack and double towers. At the last moment the King had announced that he would join them, forcing his uncle to strengthen their guard.

In the great courtyard of the castle, among a caravan of horses, carriages for ladies and carts for luggage, her transport was waiting. Saddled steeds boiled nervously as servants fluttered around them, men carrying bundles, children bringing messages of the latest preparations, maidens accommodating the transport of their ladies. That trip was not just to formalize an alliance, it was a declaration of power and his uncle was very good at that kind of statement. And, of course, his vassals were delighted to help his lord achieve his goal.

The carriage had been prepared to take his cousin to the capital several years ago, but for that trip they had fixed it. The delicate carvings of lions had been painted gold, with their eyes of small semiprecious stones, and at the top they had added a miniature replica of the Twins. It was an impressive creation, of a size that made it difficult to maneuver the small house with wheels.

There were two rooms inside, one that served as a lounge with benches covered with embroidered cushions, an iron brazier that was useless in that climate and a table with an ingenious method of folding. The other was a narrow room, with bunk beds on the walls that Marei, the young women who accompanied her and her septa shared.

Lady Genna, although traveling with them, had her own place to spend the night. Away from squeaky little girls and her own little brats full of energy after all day locked up.

In addition to all this, trunks full of things followed closely. A good part was of Marei, all his life holded and dragged around the world. Her wedding dress and cape were carefully folded among silks, they had given her jewelry, dresses, skins and rolls of fabrics. The rest of the women were no less charged.

Only Septa Olira traveled lightly. She had no doubt that, if it was necessary, the old woman would survive only with her robe, her prayer circle and her faith. She was a truly pious woman, devoted to her task and her gods. She had always wondered how that simple woman had ended up serving her family, but she had never asked and the mystery continued. She just knew she was there. Her presence in her life was as natural as that of her own parents.

Accommodated inside the wagon, surrounded by her friends, she watched as the entourage finally set off. It seemed they had been waiting for a century.

Her uncle was in the lead on his tall white steed. The red cape fell down his back and over the back quarters of the animal, scarlett edged in gold. It was all that a great lord should be, fearsome and fascinating, and neither Marei nor all those who had gathered at the edges of the road or looked out the windows of the house to see them leave could look away.

People had gone out in droves to the streets of Lannisport to see the show. The news of the engagement although it had not been announced had not been secret either. Someone told a maid, the maid told her friends, her friends to their husbands and soon everyone in the west knew it. The niece of the Great Lion married the Quiet Wolf. And all occasions were good to celebrate

“Smile” her mother ordered and she obeyed immediately. She planted a grimace of joy on her lips, large and with teeth, exposing her dimples; nothing of the little shy smiles of the court. They should see her happy. If she was happy they would find reasons to be happy too, if she cried they would cry with her. That was the power of a lady well loved by her people.

Some shouted the her uncle name, the lion, called him, cheering as who cheers their king. Some girls, who could not have more than thirteen, threw flowers when they stopped before them. She took one on the fly, a bright pink lily, and cheerfully greeted the girls. The cheering got louder.

Her mother smiled with satisfaction.

“I taught you well.”

They kept smiling and greeting until they left behind Lannisport and its crowds, then the carriage shutters got closed and the false smiles died. It was no longer necessary to pretend joy.

Locked up all day, day after day, they all got in a bad mood very soon. Even Myranda Swyft, whom few things placated, and little Jeyne Brax, who at eleven considered that the most magnificent adventure of her life. Lady Genna excused herself, along with her personal companions, after the third day suffering from headaches. Only her little brothers remained in an unshakable good mood.

All they could do was read, embroid, talk, study and repeat, again and again, until they had more scarves than they could need and got tired of the voices of others.

The nights were no more fortunate. All had to share the small beds. She didn't mind sleeping with Lyra, she had done it many times before, but being crammed into a narrow room with seven other people was hellish. At least, she consoled herself, he didn't have to share a bed with Walder, who still had poor bladder control. Septa Olira prohibited him from drinking anything after dinner on the second day.

The days that were lucky stopped in villages, filling the inns for the joy of their owners. The days without luck slept listening to the snoring of Tyanna Farman.

They spent three nights at the Twins, though only out of obligation. It was a dreary and cold place where Marei had only been twice before, when she was a child. The identical castles, on each side of the river, were beautiful. High square towers, practical. The bridge that united them had made their family very rich, but they had not made good use of that wealth. It was all a facade. Inside the children, grandchildren and bastards of the Late Lord Frey were piled up in the dark and damp rooms, too many for her to remember all the names.

The girls were quickly forced into the company of female relatives that she didn't know, hidden in austere sewing rooms, perhaps to keep their mates away from the lustful eyes of her grandfather. It never hurt to have another wife in waiting, especially for a man who had survived so many. The majority were kind but boring girls, wishing to know everything about the fashions of the capital and whispering about the most handsome knights.

“You're so lucky” one of them had told her, a young woman in her twenties, who was sure was named Walda. And, although she didn't feel especially lucky, it was to be assumed that was more than her. From what I had heard, husbands were much desired and needed among the young women of the Twins.

Home, sweet home.

Not even the royal entourage had been able to animate that place. And it wasn't because the King didn't try.

Robert Baratheon was an immense man, of body and personality. With laughter in full bloom and a worrying taste for women and wine. His entourage joined the Lannister's when they were the Twins.

"Cousin!" He bellowed as soon as he got off his huge warhorse.

He passed away Lord Walder and Lord Tywin, not caring about either of the two lords and hurried to greet her. He hugged her tightly, raising her like a doll until her feet barely touched the ground. Marei was briefly horrified by his familiarity, like her poor septa who seemed to be willing to give the King a good reprimand.

"But look at you," he said appreciatively, his eyes traveling south. “How lucky is that Ned.”

“Thanks, majesty” and lowered his eyes to demurely.

“Well, what do we all do here standing as fools? Let's go inside.”

And so began two days of food, and hunts and perhaps new bastards. Tyrion had theorized, seeing Robert joking shamelessly with one of the maids who served them dinner during the welcome banquet, that the King wanted to leave one in each kingdom.

“I'm sure he's on his way” said the young man, seeing him put a hand on the girl's generous ass. She avoid telling him that, at that rate, he would also end up with a child in each kingdom.

And then they returned to the road.

The northern lands soon denied them any comfort. The swamps of the neck expelled them from the carriage in favor of the horses, something that kept her mother in a constant circle of endless complaints. The weather got colder and snow fell.

“Snow in spring!” screamed Jayne, who had never seen the snow.

Snow in the middle of spring, the world had gone crazy. And it wasn't just a light snow with which the children could go out to fight and play, no, the white and pristine flakes soon turned into a blizzard that left them trapped in the ruins of the Moat Cailin for five days.

The First Men from whom all the northerners descended had built it ten thousand years ago. Brandon the Builder, as reported by his cousin, and she considered her information to be good. It seems that there is only one Stark capable of building things. And it seemed a little sad that in ten thousand years no other builder had appeared.

The fortress wall, which once must have been immense, had disappeared leaving behind only a few blocks of stone scattered across the swampy land. There were only three mossy towers left in the castle, abandoned and empty, infested with vermin. They had been forbidden to approach any of them but Tyrion, Lyra and her had managed to convince Ser Addam Marbrand to take them to explore one of them.

"Please, Ser Addam," she had pleaded, pouting that she had practiced many times with Uncle Gerion. “Mother doesn't have to know.”

And in the end the poor knight had yielded.

“Well, but do what I tell you and don't gossip about it. I don't want Lady Genna to kill me.”

One early morning, when most of the camp was asleep or busy with another things, they had slipped away to the Gatehouse Tower, the most robust of the three. Addam had decided that this would be safer than the crooked Drunk Tower or the Children’s Tower, with the top demolished.

Although the men had walked around all the rooms of the three towers when they set up the Addam settlement it was first, with their hand on the pommel of the sword. Lyra was just behind carrying a lantern, always brave and daring cobwebs and bats did not frighten her.

They entered a couple of rooms, but they were all empty and soon they seemed too bored and decided to return. Just in time to pretend that they had only gone for a little walk between the tents.

And, although the towers had been freed of dangers beyond that of a surprise collapse, what surrounded them made up for it more than enough. The land itself seemed to be in constant rebellion against those who tried to cross it. There were mud pits that could swallow a man and the earth that looked solid could become water under your feet if you were not careful. Some plants were beautiful, surprisingly colorful flowers on a bright green background, but many were poisonous, and the swamps were infested with vermin. There were snakes that lived among the twisted trees and lion lizards that hid just beneath the surface of the water, hidden among the aquatic grasses, ready to attack.

To Marei that seemed like hell. Her septa had warned her once, when she was a child, that the land of sinners was full of beasts and fire, she no longer believed her. Those were the true gates of hell, the ghost of a castle between snowstorms and poisoned swamps.

 

A moon and five days after leaving Casterly Rock they finally spotted Winterfell. Compared to his imposing home or the Red Keep, the castle seemed disappointing.

Behind the double wall was a hodgepodge of towers and small service buildings. The land had not been matched and each of the buildings was at a different height, some joined by a small maze of bridges that seemed to have been added in the last moment. It occurred to her that probably no one had planned the castle, they had just begun to build and had continued to do so.

As it corresponded to a royal entourage, they were welcomed in the courtyard by everyone who had nothing else to do.

Eddard Stark was a severe, gelid man. His long face was petrified in an indifferent expression that only softened when he greeted King Robert and had achieved the remarkable achievement of looking as gray and hard as his lands. He was not very tall and next to the immense king he seemed frankly dull although in reality, when she looked at him well, he did not seem an ugly man. She supposed that was always a good thing.

Right next to him, clinging to his cloak with a small hand that was the only trace of nervousness, was the little heir. The boy, who bounced anxiously on his toes, had his head covered with bright red-haired curls. It seemed that it was all trout and nothing wolf, a real shame for the future lord of the north.

The child's other hand floated close to his face, as if he were about to put his thumb inside his mouth, but quickly lowered it when he noticed. He was old enough not to need a pacifier. The boy watched with fascination as the King talked to his friend shouting, patting on the back and returning the boy's hair.

After the King was his uncle, who shared cold polite words with Stark. The two oozed contempt.

Marei approached behind her father, her hand on her mother's elbow. The two of them dressed in red-colored skins were out of place in that simple courtyard, but the king's entire caravan was out of place.

"My daughter, Lady Marei" presented her father, who for the occasion had put on a new doublet, with the twin towers embroidered in silver thread "and my wife Lady Genna."

"My lady" pressed a short dry kiss on the hand of each of the ladies.

He had gray eyes. Gray as his cape, as the colors of his house and his castle and his lands. In the north everything was gray, gray and more gray.

Except the little fish. The little boy continued to rock on the tips of his feet, more and more bored as according to a child his age. It seemed that his red curls were the only color in hundreds of miles around, red hair and blue eyes, there was nothing gray in it. She found it strangely comforting and when he raised his hand to greet her she smiled back.

“We should go in, you don't want your bride to get sick for the bedding” exclaimed the king and then, in a lower and cooler voice, he added “Take me to see her.”

A tiny tick appeared on Lord Stark's cheek, the only sign of anger that went unnoticed by the monarch, but he bowed his head and followed his king's orders complacently.

He left the boy with his septa, a woman younger and rounder than Septa Olira, and gave orders to his butler to accommodate the guests and serve them bread and salt that they took in turns at the doors of a tall and slender tower.

Fortunately and to her surprise the interior of the castle was warm and welcoming. The butler of Winterfell, a man named Poole, with a hooked nose and half-bald, was very busy giving orders to the servants but personally guided her and her companions to their chambers.

It was a simple room, made of smooth stone. There was a wooden four-poster bed, a corner cabinet and a small table that served as a dressing table. On the floor, in front of a turned off chimney, a bearskin made of carpet, more skins covered the bed.

The only sign of luxury was a tapestry that hung opposite the fireplace. It had been clearly embroidered by expert and loving hands and it depicted a court scene with care. Two ladies playing the lute and high harp surrounded by small furry animals. On each side of the embroidery was an elegant horse, raised on the hind legs.

The butler immediately informed her that this was only a guest room and that she would move to the lady's rooms after the wedding.

Servants with trunks that stacked carelessly in a corner of the room kept coming. And as soon as her ladies began to open them in search of things she found herself surrounded by a sea of silks and velvet that seemed terribly out of place in that austere room.

She did not have time to rest. The welcome banquet was in a few hours and everything had to be ready.

They immediately took her out of the travel dress to put her in the party dress, which her mother had chosen carefully. It was a beautiful thing, with the skirt swollen by the many layers of petticoats and the slashed sleeves that western women favor. The red velvet of the bodice was delicately embroidered with flowers of golden thread and a lion's head as a front piece just below the neckline, between her breasts.

Lyra placed a string of white pearls with a gold and ruby medallion around her neck while a servant was busy combing her hair. They released it from the hairnet that had kept it in place and held it back in braids around her head with small gold pins.

“Beautiful” exclaimed Myranda Swyft.

No, she was not beautiful. She was a statement, a loud and clear reminder to anyone who saw her that she was not a Frey bride. She was a Lannister.

The banquet was a solemn thing, although she should have expected it. Her father and the king abused the northern beer and also enjoyed the northern maids, although they all escaped from their father as soon as they could. At least he had the dignity of looking humiliated when her mother gave him a furious look but was more unleashed than usual, alcohol had that effect on people. That's why her uncle Tywin never drank. But soon her mother would remind him that no matter how far he was from the land of the lions, he should not forget his place.

There was no dance, but yes a northern bard who had the good education of playing the Rains of Castamere once.

Oxtail soup with carrots, leeks and chopped tomatoes was served in a fine cream topper, inside a bread bowl. A warm salad with roasted pumpkin and some kind of root that I had never tried before followed by venison cooked with herbs and chicken pie covered in a delicious golden crust. Marei pecked a bit of everything until desserts arrived. Roasted apples with cinnamon and fruit tartlets that were stacked in front of the diners and not even she, who had had little appetite throughout the evening, could resist a small one cover of bright blackberries. Everything was served accompanied by black beer and wine from Arbor that was part of her dowry but since they didn't let her drink alcohol at the banquets she drank warm milk with honey, like the little fish.

He had been seated right across the table, next to his uncle Benjen Stark, who had traveled from the Wall to attend his brother's wedding. The little boy had found good entertainment in mashing a roasted apple. Like her, the party must have been boring him to exhaustion.

Excluded from the conversations around her, all she could do was observe the guests who had gathered in the banquet hall while trying not to fall asleep. He recognized layers with the white sun of the Karstarks, the giant chained of some Umber who were shouting and the Hornwood moose. In one corner were some envoys of os Reed, who had been his guides by the neck, was a group of five very calm men.

Her friends were sitting together, chatting animatedly.There was a certain pink tint in the freckled cheeks Myranda that indicated that his septa had allowed them a glass of wine. She contented herself with a caramel covered pear pie.

Tyrion had disappeared although at the beginning of the night she had seen him sitting next to her brother Lyonel. Now Lyonel was busy trying to gain the attention of a maid who seemed more interested in Ser Addam.

Her mother tapped her arm.

“It's time for you to retire” she indicated. It was humiliating to see that someone had just gone looking for Lord Stark's little son, but she obeyed.

Like every night she prayed before going to bed next to Septa Olira, kneeling by the bed before a small miniature septom. Uncle Kevan had given it to her before she left, so she could always pray to the gods while was on the road. It was a lacquered box, with a seven-pointed star delicately carved on the top that, next to the front, could be separated to expose the interior. Inside were seven small statues of the gods that some craftsman had done with extreme skill in the image of the Casterly Rock septom. It must be someone who knew them very well because they were identical to the originals. Their faces were always peaceful and reassuring.

They made requests for wisdom, health and protection over what would take place the next day and, secretly, Marei also begged them to give her strength to endure what was coming.

But many hours later, lying in bed next to Lyra, she still couldn't sleep. Her friend had arrived shortly after her and Marei had pretended to be asleep so as not to have to enter into in conversation. She had fallen asleep in a few minutes but the dream didn't catch Marei. She couldn't stop thinking about what would happen in the morning, in the wedding and, above all, on the wedding night.

They had explained to her the mechanics of the act, first her septa and then her mother, who believed that someone who swears chastity should not teach about marital consummation. She knew that it could hurt and that there were men who took their rights regardless of what his wife wanted, it was not that his father had never dared to.

"Are you still awake?" Lyra's sleepy voice came from the other side of the bed.

The young woman turned to face her while rubbing her eyes, trying to wake up. They were a very pale blue, which stood out with the paleness of her skin and the black of her hair. She had a plump face, with a pointed chin topped in a small dimple and full lips and, like all the women in her family, large breasts and wide hips. The Crakehall were famous for being huge people, with big bones, brave and fearsome warriors. In Lyra all these features had manifested themselves in a charming way, with the kind of body that made men turn their heads and a bold and fun personality.

“I can't sleep” she confessed.

Her friend moved to get closer to her, resting her head next to hers on the pillow.

“Do you want me to ask for an infusion?”

She shook her head. That was not the kind of insomnia that disappeared with a tea.

“I'm just nervous. By tomorrow”

"Everything will be fine," she promised, hugging her tightly. And so, in her arms, Marei allowed herself to close her eyes and rest.

 

She was woken up very early in the morning, although the wedding was planned for much later, when the sun had already fallen. They helped her bathe and washed and dried her hair, brushing it until it shone. Then they combed it elaborately, curling and braiding the curls almost completely.

She found that couldn’t take a bite during breakfast, even when a maid brought her little pies from last night, but at lunchtime she was so hungry that took everything that was put in front of her even though she felt her stomach was twisted of nerves. She was served a light broth of meat and vegetables followed by a plate of roasted fish with lentil  salad and almonds and pistachios with cheese to finish, because her septa said they were good for the nerves. Also ginger tea to control her stomach, although she detested its taste.

Then they started dressing her. The dress had taken four weeks of work to a group of eight expert seamstresses. It was silk of a very pale gray, almost white, with the bodice embroidered with silver flowers that had been sewn by small brights that reflected the light like tiny drops of water. The skirt was adorned with panels of the finest myrish lace and the sleeves were swollen at the top. She only wore simple drop pearls in her ears, a large sapphire in her left hand and around the neck just a simple gold pendant with a lion's head, all the women in her family had a similar one.

“You are ready.”

“And so pretty!”

"You look like a princess," Jeyne added.

They couldn't say much more before Septa Olira threw them all out of the room. Only they two together prayed one last time asking the Mother for protection and strong children, security for the Maiden and wisdom and guidance to the Crone.

“Good luck, my daughter” said her old tutor, since that day her work with her was over. “May the gods keep you and your family, and give you health and joy.”

Then her mother arrived, dressed in Lannister red and with a pendant identical to her over her chest, that and a large diamond on her finger were her only jewels. She carried the maiden's cloak with her. It had the twin towers embroidered on a dark blue background that imitated the waters of the river. Inside, Lady Genna had embroidered a small lion herself, just to stay against Marei's neck when she was wearing the cloak.

Her mother placed her solemnly, smoothing the fabric over her shoulders.

Despite all her previous joy, Lady Genna didn't seem happy now that the crucial moment had come.

"You're beautiful," she said sadly. “Your husband will be a lucky man.”

She met her father at the edge of the forest of the gods. The Starks believed in the ancient gods and would celebrate the wedding following that faith, before an arciano tree, although they would add parts of the Seven ceremony.

Her cloak was long and it was dragging on the ground, as she entered the forest on her father's arm it began to catch on broken branches and tree roots. Each step was an effort and not just because of the overwhelming pressure around her chest. When she saw Eddard Stark felt like her heart would go out through her mouth.

In the religion of the ancient gods the ceremonies were different from those in the south, there were no priests but the highest ranking member of the groom's house was in charge of conducting the ceremony. As it happened that she was marrying him, King Robert had offered to accomplish this task.

Her father accompanied her around the heart tree to the side of her future husband. It was a sinister thing that sacred tree, with its bark white like old bone and its face carved by ancient souls. The mouth was contorted in a bad mockery of a smile while the eyes cried blood.

Marei looked away, not wanting to see him anymore.

“Who gives this woman?” asked the king.

“Emmon from the House Frey. I come to deliver my daughter, Marei from the House Frey , ” said her father, although she hardly listened to him. 

“Who comes to claim her?”

“Eddard from the Stark house comes to claim this woman.”

Then her father removed the maiden's cloak. During the few seconds it took Lord Stark to replace it with his own, she felt terribly naked. Then the heavy wolf skin fell on her shoulders.

He held her icy hands in his, larger and warmer.

“I'm his and she is mine. From this day, until the end of my days.”

“I'm his and he is mine. From this day, until the end of my days.”

“Let it be known, in the sight of the gods, that Eddard of the Stark house and Marei of the Frey house are one heart, one flesh, one soul“ the king announced with his loud voice. “Damned everyone who try to separate them.”

And with a brief kiss, her new husband completed the union. His lips were dry but kind.

It was already done.

They returned to the castle, where the wedding celebrations were waiting for them, still hand in hand. Ahead of them the little heir ran alongside Tion and Walder, behind them was the busy septa of the boy, gasping for air.

On this occasion the banquet hall was more lively, with several musicians in one corner and a large area in the middle that had been left free for the dance. They sat in the place of honor at the high table while the guests settled in the other places.

The music and the talk began while the servants will serve dinner dishes. If the welcome banquet had been good, this was magnificent, without a doubt the Winterfell chef was determined to impress its southern diners. Hazelnut soup, roasted goose, glazed ham, they also served a traditional pigeon cake, although there were no live birds inside. The king encouraged her to cut it and she served her husband's first slice, as she knew she should; the second one went to his little brother Tion, because he knew he loved it.
Despite all this, and like last night, she barely found strength to take a couple of bites of each dish.

Just after the cake was served, her husband took it out to dance once. It was a northern song whose rhythm she did not know and stumbled several times, stepping on Lord Eddard on at least one occasion, but if he noticed didn’t say anything. Actually, the only time he had spoken to her had been in the forest, while he was pronouncing his vows. And she didn't even know if that counted, maybe he was talking to his gods and not to her.

Then they returned to their seats and no longer danced. No one asked her for it, but it didn't bother her.

There was an almost funny moment when Benjen Stark took her mother to the dance floor, the musicians played the Bear and the Maiden. Her mother was surprisingly popular among her husband's vassals, including the particularly uncivilized mountains clans. She even performed a lively piece with the little fish and Walder, none of whom seemed eager to go to bed when their caregivers took them away.

At one point her mother served her a glass of wine. The strange thing about that act surprised her.

"Take it, you'll need it," she said quietly. Marei obeyed, knowing that if she said it it was for a reason.

That reason was Robert Baratheon.

"THE TIME HAS ARRIVED!" she thought she might vomit.

Her mother had time to squeeze her hand briefly before the first men pulled her out of her chair and pushed her out of the room. The first to go for the clothes was Benjen himself, who undoubtedly removed the cloak in an attempt to save it, but that opened the ban for everyone else. They ripped off her dress with a disgusting sound of tearing cloth, she wanted to cry when she knew that she would surely have no arrangement. The corset was just after, pulled back by a half drunk Umber who was about to suffocate her in the attempt.

Her brother Lyonel was running around, trying to protect her from too wandering hands, but he was only twelve and was half a head shorter than herself, could do very little against adult men.

An arm wrapped around her waist and she felt someone pick her up and throw her over a broad shoulder. She screamed in shame, kicking while trying to keep her breasts inside her turn until she recognized the flaming hair of Ser Addam. After that the audacious hands stopped.

The next time she was upright was when Addam deposited her carefully in her lord husband's bed.

"Good luck" he wished, before pushing the rest of the men out of the room.

The door closed, but she still heard the scandalous laughter and vulgar comments coming from the hall. Marei sat on the bed, trying to calm her nerves. Can happen a minute or an hour until her lord husband arrived, she could not tell the difference.

He stumbled, closing the door tightly behind him. His hair was rumpled and he had only left the underpants to cover his modesty. The women had not been nicer to him than the men with her. She was surprised to find that he was visibly blushing.

Lord Eddard stood awkwardly by the door for a few moments before finding the courage to sit next to her on the edge of the bed. It was taller than the home ones and her feet barely reached the ground. She had never felt so much like a little girl as in that bed with an adult man, a widower, a lord and a father.

"Aren't you going to let go of your hair?" He asked, taking her by surprise. “It doesn't seem comfortable” he explained, seeing her confusion.

She ran a hand over the single strand of loose curls.

“I could not alone” admitted.

He looked at her hair with a critical eye for a few moments, trying to decipher a twisted knot of twists and braids. He tentatively removed a pin and then a ribbon. Gradually he began to release the tufts of head with somewhat clumsy but kind hands. He gave several jerks, but Marei bit her cheek to avoid complaining, fearing that if she did would frighten him.

After a few minutes the last lock fell free. She combed it with her fingers, massaging the sore scalp after all day in the complicated hairstyle. Lord Stark placed a few golden strands behind her ear, placing a hand against the cheek before leaning down to kiss her. As the first time in the sacred forest, his touch was gentle and it occurred to her that perhaps he also fear to frighten her.

He pulled away gently.

“Are you nervous?” he asked in a whisper.

“A little bit” she confessed, without looking him in the eye.

A small sympathetic smile tugged at his lips.

“You don't have to be” he promised before leaning down to kiss her again and Marei wanted to believe him.

Chapter Text

Five days. That was the entire time that the royal cortege remained in Winterfell after the wedding. It didn't seem like much, but was enough for Marei to realize one thing, nobody  care about her in the north, at all. Neither the lords, nor the servants, nor her own husband seemed to want to acknowledge their existence as long as it was not necessary. Indifference soon became a familiar feeling and she did not like it. She was not used to people ignoring her, to her presence being unwanted.

Eddard Stark, although always appropriate with her, had no more time or interest for her than she had for weeds growing on the walls of his castle. Perhaps even less, apparently the plants were bad for the stone.

During each and every day that the visit lasted, the King required all his time and attention and her new husband was more than willing to provide it.

They spent every hour of the day and many of the night in company, gathered in the private rooms of Lord Stark or hunting in the company of other men. She couldn't even imagine spending so much time with a person and not getting tired of it, but Stark did his duty as a devoted servant without complaints. Even with pleasure. If not for its effectiveness on the wedding night she would have begun to consider that her husband could have interests that she might not satisfy.

However, the other northern lords were more than happy to begin returning to their respective homes once the courtesy visit was completed. Away from the hustle and bustle, the protocols and, above all, the Lannister.

At fourth day Marei thought she could kill someone if she had to eat wild boar meat for another night.

She spent those days with the only people who welcomed her company, her mother and her ladies in waiting, getting acquainted with the ladies of the northern houses.

Lady Donella Hornwood was a quiet woman, entered in years, who had been kind to her but not especially talkative. Lord Mormont had been widowed two years ago and didn’t attended the wedding but had sent two of his nieces and presumptive heiresses, Dacey and Alysanne. They were almost her age she but found them too intimidating to try to make friends. Leona Manderly, the wife of Lord Hederly's heir, a sympathetic but terribly talkative woman, recommended having a child as soon as possible.

“Children give so much joy” she had said, and for the love and pride with which spoke of her own it was hard not to believe it.

Her mother had agreed. That she should have a child soon, not that they were a joy like no other, Lady Genna had barely been able to avoid laughing at that.

“And Lord Stark is a man of proven manhood. They say he conceived little Lord Robb on his wedding night, maybe another child is already on the way” and had patted her on the belly.

She avoided answering because thought that she could have vomited if she had. Marei tried to think as little as possible about the late Lady Catelyn but her presence, although discreet, was everywhere in that castle.

She had not even been able to pray in the small sept of Winterfell the morning after the wedding, just as Olira had recommended her to do. Lord Stark had build it for his first wife and Marei thinked that the faces of the Father and the Mother seemed judicious, as if they believed her unworthy. She had not dared to return there. The chambers of the lady that she now occupied had been hers and, even with her things carefully removed, she felt they could never be of her property. The servants looked at her with a mixture of condescension and sorrow, as if they thought she would never match their old lady. She hated it, she hated everyone and everything.

Despite the sincere advice of Lady Manderly and her mother's anxious suggestions, she also didn't have many opportunities to try to get with child. Her lord husband had not visited her since the wedding night.

And, on the fifth day of nightmare, her new maiden woke her up to say goodbye to the last guests. To her family. Everyone would leave Winterfell and the North that same day after breaking the fast and return to the South, to the west and the beaches of Roca Casterly. She also hated them a little even when she tried not to feel that way.

The woman, whose name was Lara, helped her dress and comb her hair. On the Rock she had half a dozen maids to do these mundane tasks. They would all return west that day too. There was no money for such nonsense in the North, although she had already imagined it. It had not been hard for them to find new employers.

Lady Genna was no less stoic than a stone statue, as usual in her, and Tion and Walder were immediately distracted by breakfast sausages and porridge and proceeded to ignore her. Only Lyonel dared to break the illusion of normality with his bad mood. Not even the promise of riding with his uncle's knights when they left managed to get half a smile from him.

"Stop frowning," they mother ordered, making the boy sulk even more. At that time she remembered that, even if only for a few more years, he still a child. Her child.

"Mama, can I go on the horse too?" Walder asked innocently. He had received his first pony only a few moons before and was ecstatic.

“No, you are too small” and the child did not even think of replicating.

"Then I'll go with Mare," he announced, grabbing an apple fragment from a little dish.

Marei's knife squeaked against the porcelain of the plate. Her mother and she shared a brief look of concern. She had not stopped to think that Tion and Walder could be too young to understand that, after marrying, their sister would not return home with them.

“Wader …” began in a soft voice “my love, I'm not going with you.”

“Why?” asked the little boy, with a confused expression.

She opened her mouth, but no words came out of it. Didn't know how to explain it, how to tell it in a way they could understand.

“Because she got married” Lyonel replied uraciously.

"Yes, why does that matter?" Tion was no more satisfied than Walder.

"Well, that's it, period, stupid!" Exclaimed his older brother from the other side of the table.

“Lyonel!” their mother bellowed. “Do not insult your brother again!” taking a moment to regain calm, she continued. “Your sister is a married woman, which means she is now part of Lord Stark's family. She will stay here to take care of the castle and have her own children.”

And the conversation ended. If any of them wanted to replicate something did not dare to do it. As soon as they emptied their plates their mother expelled them from the table and they ran away, more than happy not to be victims of more screaming.

During the minutes that the maids will take to pick up the table Marei and Lady Genna remained silent. When the woman left her mother reached her hand, the young woman was surprised. She held it tightly between her owns, looking at an indefinite point of a tapestry with tight lips.

"Listen," she said finally, in a surprisingly soft voice, "you are no longer a child. You are a married woman, with the responsibilities that entails and I know you will fulfill all of them. But, and listen well to me, if Stark mistreats you, if he despises you or if he touches only one of your hairs I want you to write to me.” Her gaze was intense, one of her hands was now on Marei's cheek. “Write me and I promise that I will come for you and burn this castle to the ground.”

“Mother…”

"Shut up," she ordered, though her tone was kind. “Promise it. Promise me that you will write to me immediately if you need me.”

“I promise” she answered confused.

Lady Genna turned away then, all the intensity of the moment disappeared. The woman had recovered her cold mask of calm, but after that moment of sincerity Marei could see through her. The slight tension around the mouth, the stiffness of the back.

She wanted to tell her something reassuring, but didn't know how to do it without insulting her or looking like a fool so she shut up.

The moment she had feared came. Gathered in Winterfell great yard, while the servants prepared the last things, she had to say goodbye to her family.

Her uncle, dry as always, spoke a few words about family and duty that Marei was not interested in and barely heard. Her father could say little to comfort her, sadly they had never been very close and, even if she tried with all her might, she couldn't remember more than half a dozen conversations between the two. Even so, he seemed sorry to say goodbye. It was more than anything.

Tyrion, who had spent the entire trip locked in the Winterfell library, seemed in a good mood. He commented that if she got bored he would be delighted to receive handwritten copies of some strange volumes.

"Goodbye, cousin," she said, kneeling so she could hug him. He corresponded with equal enthusiasm.

“Goodbye cousin. I will get bored without you.”

Lyonel, though reluctantly, hugged her, squeezing her with a little more force when tried to walk away. And he even let her planted a kiss on his cheek, which was cleaned immediately. Tion and Walder cried, the eldest trying to hide the tears and control the trembling lip, the smallest crying with all his might, bellowing and releasing large tears. They held on to their skirts until septa Olira came to take them.

Her mother, to her surprise, hugged her tightly, not caring that they were in plain sight.

“Don't forget, my girl,” she said in her ear “that you are a lioness. And don't let them forget it either.”

At some point she must also say goodbye to the king, like everyone else, but did not remember well when. Nor did she remember placing herself next to Lord Stark. Her gaze was still lost in the sea of red and gold banners.

Her mother's carriage carried the shutters closed she could imagine her brothers screaming inside. Lyonel was very close, riding his bay horse. Looking out the windows of another carriage, with any sense of forgotten property, were her friends. Jeyne's nose was very flushed, as if she had been crying, and Myranda dressed completely in black as if she were in mourning, she had always been given to drama. Lyra had the tiniest of smiles planted on her lips although her eyes were sad. Just before they crossed the doors the four said goodbye one last time waving their hand and Marei could not help but correspond to the gesture.

And then they disappeared and wanted to cry but when she closed her eyes, to prevent the tears from falling, she felt her mother's hands on hers. She decided then that she would not shed tears, she was a lioness and would not forget it.

After the wedding and the guests disappeared Marei discovered one thing, she had nothing to do.

In Casterly Rock she was never unoccupied. She went from classes with her septa to sewing meetings, then teas with her aunt, more lessons with her mother, talks with Tyrion, afternoons taking care of her brothers or cheering on Lyonel in his sword training, small escapes with her friends trying to run away of her duties… There will always be something that occupied her, that filled her mind and her time. In Winterfell she had nothing.

Her only official task was to prepare menus for meals and seating arrangements, her husband had the particular habit of eating with one of his vassals every day but he chose which one. And it wasn't even really a job. One of the kitchen servants brought her menus every day and she never found any fault with them.

She also realized that Eddard Stark's disinterest in her was not due to the king claiming his full attention, he really didn't care. On their first moon as husband and wife he visited her chambers once. He was kind as on the wedding night, without causing any pain, and left her alone as soon as they had finished their duty. Marei, who who had always wondered if the experience of the marital bed would be something horrible but necessary or if it was the passionate adventure that the books that her septa had forbidden her to read, she was disappointed. It was more like what her mother had said. Duty and discomfort. The rest of the time he rarely saw him except during meals, but even at that time his attention was always on other things.
Suddenly, for the first time in her entire life, she encountered all the time in the world and nothing to spend it on.

Also for the first time she found a lifeguard in the books. The written word had never been of her special interest, if she should not study something for hrt lessons she was not interested, but found that it was better than being alone with her own thoughts. The castle maester, a man named Luwin, responded kindly to her requests for reading material and provided the necessary volumes. The history of the North, northern deeds, northern songs, family trees of the northern houses since the time of the First Men, Marei knew that she must know her new land if she wanted to have any hope of finding her place in that cold and strange site.

She also found herself sewing more than he had in her entire life. The rolls of cloth she had brought with her became dresses that followed the simplest fashion of the women around her. She also sewed for Lord Stark and as did not receive any complaints about it, she continued to do so, he used one of her creations, a simple gray doublet with wolves facing each other on the chest and she considered it a victory. Their children also received gifts, small matching suits for the heir, miniature dresses for the girl. At the last moment she decided that she should also do something for the bastard that her husband treated favorably and made imitations of those of his father and brother.

She had seen the children many times from afar, but had only interacted with them on one occasion, during her first week at the castle. Vayon Poole, the steward, had guided her through all the important places of the castle, including the nursery. The three were there, in the care of a septa, a nurse, and an old storyteller who reportedly only responded to the name of Old Nan.

She had done the appropriate thing and asked about the children, the nurse and the septa responded adequately, the old woman continued weaving without paying the slightest attention. The heir stopped his game just enough to confirm that there was nothing interesting in her before returning to his wooden figures, the bastard remained still and silent throughout the exchange and the girl threw a rag doll at her, accepted her gratefully when she returned it and threw it again with a mischievous laugh.

For her the worst were the nights. Marei hadn't spent a single night in her life alone, there was always a maid, a nanny or a friend with her.

She felt lonely, very lonely. More than in all her life. She had always known what everyone expected of her, what her role was, her place, in Winterfell she didn't have one or know how to find it.

“My lady.” She could always expect the most perfect education from Maester Luwin. He came from the Vale, something that had surprised her. Those who needed to get rid of a son in the Vale of Arryn used to send them to the Faith, not to the Citadel.

His tower was always messy, with piles of books that had made his cousin Tyrion shiver with pleasure, piles of messy papers and squatters she didn't even begin to understand. It also had a strange smell of herbs and ointments. She was always surprised by that organized chaos, no matter how many times witnessed it. If she knew anything about her uncle, wast that he would never allow such a disaster from any of his servants, but she had silenced her opinion. She had begun to shut up many things.

The man did not hesitate for a moment, knowing well the reason for her visit. She searched through some papers and took out a roll of pristine white parchment that she handed immediately. The scarlet wax stamp was intact as usual but she couldn't help considering that they could have read its contents. It wasn't that they found anything strange on it.

Even if Marei were carrying out some conspiracy, which was not, they will find nothing in her correspondence. Her mother was too smart to send any information compromised by an insecure means. She would bribe a servant or manage to infiltrate someone trustworthy in the castle, someone discreet and disposable.

With the letter already in her hands she said goodbye to the maester with a nod and left immediately. She never read what they sent to her where they could see her. The fear of collapsing in front of any of those people who already considered her too weak, foolish and childish was very real.

The only one in which she could afford to place the slightest confidence was Lara. Not because she thought the woman respected or liked her, simply because she needed it. She needed someone to talk to, someone to trust even if only a little, and she was the only one within her reach.

She had realized that she had never served a high lady. Was not noble or especially educated. She had told her that both her father and her husband had been merchants, both of whom had died during the rebellion. The only family the woman had left was a small daughter who sometimes played with Lady Sansa.

"Letter?" She asked, when she returned to her chambers. She rarely showed great consideration for the proper way of addressing her mistress and commented, asked and explained when she wanted and without hesitation. It would not have lasted long in the Rock.

"Yes."

She broke the seal carefully, unrolling the paper between her fingers. The first part was written in the elegant and flowery handwriting of her mother, she knew that the letter came from her and not from one of her uncles or Lyra because only the Lannister women used the lioness stamped on the wax, she used to do it too. It was a short and concise message, asking her about her health and reporting the latest events in the West.

Lyonel had written a piece even smaller than his mother's. He mentioned his training, the practices and that they were thinking of sending him as squire of cousin Jaime. She was sure he would love it. Tion extended for more than half a page with its ramblings in large and unequal letter. He quickly jumped from one subject to another, which made it difficult for her to follow the thread of what he was telling but also made her want to laugh. The last piece of paper was dedicated to a large and colorful drawing of a horse with extra legs over Walder's hand.

"He is talented" Lara commented, peering over her shoulder.

"Yes, very much." After reading, she kept the letter in a small box with the many others that had been sent to her since she was married. She felt her eyes burn and her throat clenched, unmistakable signs that she was just moments away from crying. She closed the box and put it out of sight. She would write an answer at another moment.

The letters that arrived from home, as punctual as could, was the only thing that didn't seem icy and lonely in that place. A small window to her family, the sun, the laughter and the beaches. But that little relief never lasted too long before it vanished.

 

Marei had been married just over three moons when they received terrible news. The first letter reached her and not her lord husband, from Lord Crakehall. It was not what she expected to see the seal of the wild pig. She did not find one of Lyra's usual messages on the scroll, spreading over pages and pages with Jeyne's nonsense and the adventures they were having in her absence. They always hurt, but it was a pain she craved. She would never have imagined that Lannisport had been attacked.

With her heart pounding hard inside her chest and the letter clenched in a fist she went to her husband's rooms.

It was the first time she was in them, as simple and bleak as himself, and he seemed surprised to see her invade his office. She herself would have been surprised at her boldness of not carrying important news in her hands.

"You have to read this"

Lord Eddard's frown deepened as he observed the words, his eyes dark and far, far away. She wondered if he remembered what had lived in the Rebellion. She had witnessed that same expression on the faces of her uncles and cousin.

A mere week later they received the King's letter ordering his old friend to gather the troops. Balon Greyjoy had called himself king, it was an offense that could not be left unpunished.

"Dark wings, dark words," he said simply. He had gathered many of his advisors and Marei was also between them for the first time, but there was nothing to celebrate in that little victory. "We are going to the war"

Marei was not a stranger to war. She was old enough to remember Robert's rebellion. Her family may have remained neutral during most of the conflict but that does not mean that they had been isolated. They received letters, the peasants migrated terrified to Casterly Rock, fearing they would be killed if they stayed in their homes ... She remembered hearing her uncles discuss hiding on the balcony of her mother's rooms. Everyone was scared. She had been too, even without fully understanding what was happening.

And now, only a few years later, they were pushed back to it. But things were different now, because her lord husband would not remain on the sidelines until he was assured of victory as her uncle had done.

She shouldn't be surprised that he called his banners immediately.

More knights than those who had attended the wedding gathered between the castle walls, large and bearded men, many older than her husband, although that did not seem to stun or make him less worthy of respect and obedience.

Marei had attended some meetings, sitting quietly between the maester and Rodrik Cassel. No one consulted her and she did not interrupt.

On that occasion there were no women to turn to, no one to offer advice. All were in their own homes, preparing for the inevitable war, and their mother was even further.

Only five moons after their marriage Eddard Stark got on his warhorse and left. She couldn't force herself to feel sorry for him, even when heard little Sansa, just a baby, call for her father screaming. She was too small to understand that it could be the last time she saw her father, the boys may not understand it either.

His face was solemn when Marei wished him good luck.

"I will pray for you," she promises, although doubts the efficacy of the gods in such a situation.

"I ask you, my lady, to take care of my children in my absence"

Marei looks at the kids, undoubtedly confused, who wait with their caregivers and nod slowly.

He does not turn around once but she still remains in the courtyard of the fortress until the wolf banners disappear from sight. Then she turns to return to the castle, has duties to fulfill.

"Take the children inside" orders the babysitters when she passes by.

Sansa continues to cry despite the ineffective attempts of her brother Robb to stop the tears. Despite the promise she has just made, finds no strength to try to comfort the little girl.

 

The weeks pass slowly. They don't receive too much news, only short and sporadic letters that ensure the safety of Lord Stark. Even more irregularly, she has news of her home and clings to them with all her might. Know that despite the attack on the ports of Lannisport Casterly Rock remains undefeated and its inhabitants safe reassures her.

The tasks inside the castle continue with some normality, they are so far from the coast that it seems impossible that the Greyjoys pose any threat, the only difference is that they find more work than before.

Her new situation forces her to take a step forward. Checking account books with Maester Luwin, looking for what they can save on, should be even more frugal in war; visiting the stables and the armory in the company of Rodrik Cassel; eating, as her husband did, each day with one of his subjects and listens to their concerns. Almost without realizing it she was becoming the Lady of Winterfell.

She was only beginning to find her feet in the castle when she wakes up one night throwing up everything in her stomach. Lara was almost immediately by her side, not a little disgusted by her half-digested dinner.

"It's not the first time I've seen it and it won't be the last," she says.

The woman accompanies her away from the puddle, calls someone to clean it and brings her tea in just a few minutes. Despite all her shortcomings Marei cannot complain about the efficiency of her maid.

"Better?" She asks, crouching beside her, watching her as she sips her mint tea.

"Yes," she says, even though her stomach continues to reveal.

It's a lie. The days after she finds herself getting worse, eating heartlessly and throwing up almost everything later. Little do the teas and tisanes that give to her.

"It's over," says the woman a few days later. She sounds like an angry mother but Mare was  so tired and hungry that she cannot find the strength to be outraged by her tone. “You have to go to the maester”

She finds few reasons to argue because she is obviously not improving. Let the old man examine, puncture and harass her with questions. Despite not having thought about it, he is not surprised when he announces that he is simply pregnant. It seems that her lord husband is determined to plant his seed before leaving for battle because she is sure that the child was conceived only the day before his departure.

"I knew it," says Lara, with a haughty expression.

"It is better to wait," Luwin advises, "it is still too soon. At this stage there is still danger of loss ”

He prescribes some remedies for her nausea, eating well and resting. Marei complies with everything willingly because she knows well that a lot depends on the child she expects. She doesn't want to think about it, but if Eddard Stark dies in the war she isn't sure that they want to keep her as regent of his son. She is not northern, she hardly knows anything about them and they are just starting to listen to her. If she does not have that baby and is becomes a widow, they could return her to the Rock, to wait until her uncle could find another husband for her, certainly not as good as the Lord of Winterfell.

But despite her efforts, little changes. She finds no strength to keep almost no food inside. Luwin was concerned that she was thinner on her second pregnancy moon than before conceiving.

"We must take action," he says, when he confines her in bed despite her protests. “If we do not remedy your disease you could lose the child. Some women even die of dehydration. ”

She doesn't want to think about what would happen if her life was in danger for the child too. They assure her that they are not yet at that point, they can still save the child.

They confine her to her rooms as a punished girl and make her drink more than she thinks she can bear without urinating. Taking broths, porridge and soft fruits every few hours as if it were a helpless creature. She still feels dizzy almost all the time and the most unexpected of odors can cause her stomach to launch an unexpected attack, but at least she can keep almost everything she eats where she should be.

When it is confirmed that she is not losing more weight, Luwin lets her start receiving visits on her chambers, although he still does not let her get up.

Lara combed her hair in a tight braid and wraped her in a heavy dressing gown to hide her white nightgown before allowing Mordane to pass, she updates her on children. Robb is old enough to start his lessons with the maester and he assures her that they will start soon although he is now busier than ever. Sansa, seems, is becoming a great conversationalist although they have to watch her at all moment to avoid trying to climb into dangerous places.

Sir Rodrick appears later, with messages from the blacksmith and questions about grain reserves. The man, who has magnificent sideburns, as white as snow, stands at the door, noised a little and turned red when he sees her lying on the bed. Marei arches an eyebrow, looking down at her robe tied with a large bow around the neck. Even her hands are covered by cloth and Luwin is sitting by the fireplace, but the knight still doubts before entering.

Just when her stomach begins to swell the nausea begins to disappear and feels that little by little begins to regain control of its own body and its life. She had never imagined being able to miss the icy air of the north, but everything is better than being locked up.

"Happy?" Lara asks, holding her elbow in case the forces failed her. They are located on the covered bridge that connects the armory and the great tower; she has just spent ten minutes arguing with the blacksmith about the iron orders before her maiden crawled her to continue their walk.

“I would be more if you didn't treat me like a child of breast.” She pretends not to see how she rolls her eyes.

“Well, if you are so good, I leave you. I have many things to do,” she said, although both knew that would go gossip with the castle cook.

Marei stayed a while longer on the bridge. In the early morning a light snowfall had fallen and the yard was covered with a layer of impolute and fluffy snow. A group of stable boys had begun an improvised snowball fight, although after a few races what they threw was more mud than snow. She could not understand the fun of throwing balls of iced water but the boys laughed out loud, with red faces and disheveled hair.

She noticed a small gray lump in a corner of the courtyard. Even in the distance was not difficult to recognize the figure of thin members and long face. Despite his scarce four name days Jon Snow had always seemed like a miniature replica of his father, too serious and too quiet for such a small child. Also a little thin and weakly for his age, but with good health and good character. Marei had never seen him scream or demand. She doesn't really think have heard him speak more than three times.

The young woman looked around the yard, trying to find the nanny of the boy, but except for the squires and a couple of guards by the entrance was empty.

She didn't know much about children, something she was thinking about more and more now that she was waiting for her own, but she was sure it was not smart to leave one so small without vigilance.

She descended her path down the spiral staircase of the great tower, when went out into the yard the boy was still where she had glimpsed him. Sitting in a corner, leaning towards the floor. She feared he was crying, she had no experience comforting young children, but when approached she discovered that he was playing with the snow.

Marei peeked over his shoulder, trying not to interrupt him, but he noticed his presence almost immediately. He looked at her with gray eyes like stone on a face that seemed too adult to belong to such a small creature.

He watched her for a moment before returning to his game without saying a word.

Was piling up and compacting the snow between his tiny hands to try to build something, although the technique was somewhat awkward and the result irregular. She recognized a wall halfway between a circle and a pentagon and a flat rounded tower in the center. He was clearly halfway to building a castle.

"Is it Winterfell?" she asked, crouching beside him. The bump of her belly was still small but in that position she noticed it more than usual. It was a strange feeling. Still wasn't sure what to think about it.

He replied with only a small nod.

"Where is your brother?" asked again, as the boy raised the stables. She had rarely seen him without Robb nearby. He shrugged. "And your babysitter?" insisted.

"Sansa" he replied.

Marei frowned, hoping the boy would elaborate his answer, but seemed unwilling to do so.

"Can I help you?" The boy shrugged again.

She dropped into the snow, her thighs began to ache from squatting, and began to build the second wall while he lifted a mountain near where the main tower should be.

She had built many castles like that on the beaches of Casterly Rock and, although the feeling of snow was completely different from that of sand, the ability had not disappeared. After a few minutes the boy was giving her orders.

Her butt and hands were cold and surely the boy too, his cheeks were red from the cold, as was his little nose. However, until the work was finished he showed no intention of returning to the warm interior of the castle. With a certain parsimony he nail a dry twisted twig in the center of the false godswood.

Marei watched the tiny white castle. Despite obvious structural problems, the pit looked more like a sinkhole and they had failed to get any of the bridges to hold, it was a surprisingly good replica. It was clear that the boy knew his ancestral home very well.

"How pretty" she praised, without getting any response. "Did the cat eat your tongue?"

Without a word, the boy jumped up and, turning on his heel, marched back to the castle. Marei followed him, shaking the snow from the wet and stiff cloak.

He was surprisingly fast for someone who barely got up from a meter. They went through corridors unknown for her on the ground floors of the castle, going up and then down the convoluted stairs. They passed near the kitchens, just as her nose told her, but quickly walked away through a passageway that she was sure only the servants used. As the boy had come to know all those shortcuts it was a mystery.

They finally took a path that was familiar to her.

The boy ran out the last steps to the nursery, opening the door just a little to slip like a lizard.

"Where on the name of the Mother were you?" Septa Mordane's voice was high and annoying.

Marei stood in the doorway to listen to the woman.

“I don't have time to run after you, kid. The next time you run away I will whip you ”

The only time she had been hit was ten years old, it was not a pleasant memory. She had pulled Cersei's hair for making Tyrion cry. Her mother rarely had the patience to deal with these trivialities and Olira preferred to put them to copy texts or memorize sentences. Her uncle was not so forgiving, luckily her rarely had time for her, or even remembered her existence.

"An interesting consideration about your time" she interrupted. “Especially since Lady Sansa is too small for lessons. Unless you are teaching Lord Robb to embroider, in which case I have not been informed. ”

The woman looked at her in horror, releasing the boy’s arm as if it had burned her. On the other corner of the room was a very nervous maid who looked at both and then step back, closer to the wall. With her gray dress she could almost have melted.

"My lady," her voice was sweet to the impasse "I didn't know you planned to visit us."

"It was not planned. You said something about your time,” she insisted.

“Well, Lady sansa was very irritable. The poor girl misses her father and… ”the excuses kept coming in line. If there was something to be admired about the septs, it was thair ability to speak without saying anything at all.

"Lady Sansa has two nannies and a nurse, besides you, of course" interrupted. “I am sure that among four adult women you can take care of a little girl without problems. If not, I think that a change of personnel would have to be rethought. ”

“My lady, we all adore Sansa. We were just worried about her. ”

“I am aware of that, Septa. Also that you were Lady Catelyn's personal choice and I respect her wishes regarding who will educate her daughter, but" she continued" if you threaten to put a hand on any of Lord Stark's children again, it will be the last time you have a hand”.

The woman's complexion acquired a slight greenish hue. She gasped uselessly, looking at her as if she didn't believe what had just heard. Jon, who hadn't moved a bit during their exchange, looked at them confused.

"Where is Lord Robb?"

"With the maester, giving a lesson of ..." she replied automatically.

"Just him?" The children did practically everything together, from eating to sleeping.

"Lady Catelyn ..."

"It's not Lady Catelyn who asks you." She can't hide her irritation. The woman closed her mouth. “I may intend to respect Lady Catelyn's wishes regarding her children, but Jon Snow is not one of her kids. From now on he will attend his lessons with Lord Robb, everyone.” Then she turned to the boy. “Go for the Old Nan, she will give you something hot to snack on, you're going to get sick. You, accompany him. ” The maid's eyes were wide open. She nodded anxiously, ready to disappear from that place.

The boy ran away, suddenly animated at the prospect of sweets. Surely he would find the old woman curled up in a chair next to the kitchen ovens, knitting endless blankets. The girl followed him, her head so low that her chin almost touched the chest.

Marei left the room immediately heading to the tower of Maester Luwin, leaving the very nervous Septa Mordane in the nursery. It was the narrowest and steepest of the castle, for now in old age he managed to reach all it’s plants, even the upper one in which were raised the crows, in a few years he might have problems.

"Maester" in the center of a long work table was a large map, from the Wall to the Neck. Each fortress marked with a tiny note.

"My lady" the man seemed surprised to see her "I'm afraid I have no more correspondence for you."

Robb, who had to kneel on a bench to see the map, looked at her cautiously. Lara had informed her of the tantrum he had thrown with one of the babysitters. He was expectant, cautious about what she would do. He looked away when saw that she had no intention of doing so.

“That is not why I come. From today both sons of Lord Stark will receive the same lessons, together ”

He raised his gray and bushy eyebrows in questioning expression, but didn't question her.

"Of course, my lady."

"Will they be regular now, maester?"

He looked at Robb's slate board, in which there was only a poorly made scribble of what vaguely reminded of the word STARK.

"That is my intention"

"That's fine. They are old enough. I don't interrupt you anymore. ”

She left the tower with a deep sense of victory in her chest. For the first time since had arrived, she knew her role. She was the Lady of Winterfell.