- Alternate Universe
Without strangers there to interlope, Jo’s horse was left to Ser Edric’s steady hands and Joanna insisted that the first place they saw was Storm’s End’s Godswood. The gods deserved a bit of gratitude for seeing them safely here, but truly, it was quite a bit more than it was the only place in Storm’s End that Joanna could be sure would guarantee them some privacy. No doubt Shireen could point them someplace else, it being almost her home and all, but Joanna was not in the mood to risk these ordered guests who seemed to think it was their right to invite themselves into hellos.
The heart tree in the Godswood was solemn, with a long face and closed eyes that almost reminded her of her father when he was in deep contemplation. He would hate the comparison at all, and hate it even more than a tree resembling him had found its way so far south. Joanna felt a moment’s stab of homesickness before Shireen pressed against her side and asked if they ought to be doing something.
“We kneel in the sept and offer up prayers to the Seven. We sing and light candles.”
“I’ve heard Lady Stark singing, and it’s lovely. I admit, there’s been a time or two when I’ve sung some things to the Old Gods, but that was more for my own interest than a matter of religion. We pray in the Godswood, but keep the words to ourselves. There are no rites in our faith, just respect and communion with the gods who watch us through the trees.”
The roots of the weirwood at Winterfell rose up to make little benches for them to sit around the pool at the tree’s base. Here the godswood itself was smaller than Winterfell’s – though she suspected that was true of any godswood in the South – taking up only a large courtyard and filled with strong eliminate to withstand the storms and the lone weirwood, two feet across and standing straight and unbowed by any touch of time or season. The weirwood at home was thick and with its wide branches and surfaced roots, while this weirwood seemed almost as though it had been tended to grow straight and tall, untouched by the wildness that ought to dwell at the heart of any weirwood tree. Joanna told Shireen so, though she didn’t know how much sense it might make to a girl who had spent her life bullied into worshiping statues.
As it was, Joanna took Shireen by the hand and led her to sit side by side at the base of the tree, gossiping about all that had happened since their last letter and a hundred other things besides. Lady Margery and Ser Loras had been invited to the birthday celebration, and their presence seemed to signify to every other bannerman and their wives that they were all welcome to stick around Storm’s End despite lacking an invitation. (Lady Olenna’s nameday present had been keeping Lord Mace Tyrell from inviting himself along to the party since he and Stannis hate on another. And yes, the Queen of Thorns had written Stannis a note saying she thought his daughter would prefer the peace and harmony that came without her son to anything else she might be gifted.)
According to Stannis, Uncle Renly hadn’t yet found the spine to tell everyone to get out, while Uncle Renly argued that they hadn’t reached the end of the time that Renly had suggested they ought to leave, so they were only unaware, not yet impolite. That seemed far too generous a view to Joanna, who found several people lurking outside the Godswood when she and Shireen departed for the evening.
Joanna could not have guessed what a wolf child she looked like emerging from behind the trees, an actual direwolf slipping among the trees to settle itself in for the night, red leaves in her hair and sword strapped to her side. Lord NAME was not the only person who felt their heart skip a beat in their chest at how much more wild their godswood felt with the wolf child making a place in it, breathing life into it.
Lady BERRY, however, was not one of those people. “I did not realize that Northerners were so dedicated to their gods, Miss Snow.”
“I do not imagine that you have ever devoted any thought to worship of the Old Gods, Lady BERRY. If you’ll excuse us, Lady Shireen was going to show me to rooms.”
“Are you not going to have supper?”
“It is late, Lady BERRY,” Shireen said. “Lady Joanna has travelled far today and will be eating supper in her room.”
“She does not need to retreat from the rest of us.”
“Dinner has already been served for all the guests and Lady Joanna did not want to inconvenience anyone with her late arrival. Ser Edric has already eaten and retired to speak with my father and uncle, and now it is time for Lady Joanna to retire as well.”
Shireen took Joanna’s hand and flounced off down the hall, paying them no heed. “I can chat with them if it will make things easier on you.”
“No. I’m sure father will want to verify that you are well, and then it’s off to bed with you. You’ve been yawning for the last hour and I’ve already been selfish enough to keep you up long past when you ought to have retired after your journey. Joanna slipped an arm around her shoulders. “It’s never selfishness to speak with a friend.”
The smile was still on Shireen’s face as they arrived at what Joanna had to assume was Stannis’ solar. She couldn’t image Lord Renly wanting to be that far out the way, or to choose a room so small or with so many books. Lord Stannis was behind his desk, paper before him and quill in hand while Lord Renly was sprawled picturesquely before the fire and Ser Edric was in a chair before his uncle’s desk that he had twisted about to pay both men heed. It must be exhausting to have to cater to both Stannis and Renly’s sensibilities, and Joanna resolved to do all she could to help Edric manage the task while they were here.
All three men paused at Shireen’s arrival, and then straightened in their chairs when they realized she was not here alone. “Lady Joanna.” Lord Stannis rose to his feet with Renly and Edric a beat behind. “You went to the godswood. I trust all of Shireen’s questions on the subject of Northern religion have been answered?”
“I doubt anyone’s questions on the subject of religion will ever be entirely answered. And hello to you too, Lord Stannis.”
Lord Renly snickered. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Joanna.”
“And you, Lord Renly. Thank you for the invitation.”
“Thank you for accepting. I trust that Edric was correct and your journey was uneventful?”
“I’m told it was uneventful. I’ve never been on a ship before so everything about the journey was eventful to me.”
“You’ve never been on a ship before?” All three Baratheons looked at her in shock.
Edric only didn’t because he’d heard this already and so he said what Joanna had said the first time. “Winterfell is landlocked.”
“But you’ve never been South before?” Lord Renly asked.
“Just once, but I was too young to remember anything about it.”
Lord Renly looked terribly confused, and Joanna wondered how bland he would have been if he had been confused by her in front of his guests. Edric coughed at his uncle and raised an eyebrow. Lord Renly just furrowed back at him.
Lord Stannis had none of his relatives’ politeness. “Lady Joanna returned with Lord Stark from the South.”
Lord Renly flinched. “Ah.”
“Don’t worry, Lord Baratheon, I’m not offended.”
“Don’t worry, Uncle,” Shireen added, “she means it.”
“I assume this is a mistake your father has tested already?”
“Mistake presumes I did something incorrect, Renly.”
“People generally don’t like it when you ask them about the dubious circumstances of their birth, Uncle.” Edric pointed out.
“Lady Joanna is not people.” Stannis replied.
Joanna did not blush, but it was a very near thing.
“Oh, brother? What is she then?” Lord Renly had a look in his eyes that reminded Jo of Robb, the sort of secrets that passed between siblings and circumvented everyone else. Though, Joanna could admit that she was more like Lord Renly in this situation and the glower Stannis shot at his brother she was accustomed to seeing on Robb’s face.
Whatever secret had them staring so at one another, Shireen had no time for it. “She is Jo. And Jo is our friend. Now, because our friend is tired, I’m going to see her to bed.” She gave all three men a sharp nod, but still waited for a look from her father before tugging Joanna out the door. Joanna did not object, though she hoped that Shireen’s desires to avoid chitchat didn’t mean she would be sent to bed without dinner.
Unbeknownst to Joanna, Stannis was determined not to understand the looks of his brother, and since he valued not being shouted at in his own home and not having his brother storm out of Storm’s End and refuse to return, he was not going to press the matter. However, he did cast a speaking look at his nephew, who just smirked. Renly had not quite believed Renly’s interpretation of events and now Renly knew better.
Joanna woke bright and early only to discover that the expected members of the Baratheon family and the people who actually kept the castle running were the only people awake. Shireen explained that things at Storm’s End generally began later in the day and ran later in the night, but since Stannis did not concede to the adjusted schedule, neither did Shireen. Unfortunately, the efficiency of early morning meant that they got a days’ work done before anyone else managed to rise for breakfast, and then there were few excuses for avoiding being the guests’ company. (Stannis managed to drive away their attention with a well-placed glower, but Shireen had yet to learn that skill.)
The staff had a light breakfast prepared to see them through the morning, but despite a large amount of sitting so Shireen could be just as efficient on this morning as she was on any other, Joanna was still ravenous by the time the rest of the house was awake for breakfast. Unfortunately, by the time she sat down to eat Joanna had expended what little energy had been gained from her sleep.
“Lady Joanna,” Lord Renly asked at the breakfast table and quite in general hearing of the rest of his guests, “are you still tired from your journey? If the amenities were not to your liking the hospitality of Storm’s End can do better.”
“The amenities were lovely, Lord Renly. Please do not trouble yourself.”
“Perhaps the child is homesick, Renly. Things here must seem so strange to a Northerner.” Lady BERRY said, and the table giggles as though there was something clever about mocking Joanna for being new here.
Lord Renly, however, took the woman seriously. “Was this the trouble, Lady Joanna? Is there something I might do to make things more like home for you?”
“There is nothing you can do, Lord Renly, unless you can urn down the heat.”
“Even at high summer Winterfell is never as warm as I found it to be last night.”
“You haven’t adjusted on the journey down?” One of the Lords asked.
“No. Circumstances while journeying are quite different.”
“How?” One of the women asked. Joanna stared at her, wondering if the lady was toying with her or if she had never paid attention to her knights as she travelled.
Lady Brienne saved Joanna from having to answer. “I imagine Lady Joanna slept outside on her journey, Lady NAME.”
Oh, the woman actually was stunned. “Her travelling companions did, you mean?”
“Given Lady Joanna’s status as a knight I imagine she did as well.”
“I can’t imagine there’s anything I can do on that front.” Lord Renly said with a smile.
“I managed, Lord Renly. I’m certain I’ll find some way to adjust.”
Lady Joanna’s sweet smile and Lady Shireen’s little furrow directed at nothing more than sleep – and the way both Lords Baratheon had continued their meals through the conversation with no sign of concern – was what convinced Margery to be friends with Joanna. Obviously she needed it. Neither Joanna nor the Baratheons noticed the reaction caused by her statement. Most of the men at the table had glazed over at the thought of pretty Joanna, sweaty in bed, stripped nearly naked to combat the heat. Margery cleared her throat and gave Renly a pointed look at the one of the gentlemen most consumed with staring. It took him a long moment to translate that expression, but he caught on.
“Well, we do have you in the family wind, Lady Joanna, so if any of us can be of assistance, do let us know.” That shut down any thoughts of lechery. Not because it would require going through the unintimidating lord of the manor, but past Stannis Baratheon who would happily kill anyone he found lurking in the middle of the night and anyone else who gave him trouble for it later.
“I am told, Lady Joanna, that you approach Storm’s End from land instead of from sea, and that your wolf attacked a bird along the way?” Margery asked, the first direct question she had turned to Lady Joanna. The rest of the morning had been conversation with Renly, her brother, and managing the table so Shireen did not have t bear the burden f it. Margery had not yet resigned herself to marrying Renly and all the perils that would come from such an incestuous union, but it was better for Loras for everyone t believe he was there because Margery had yet t make her mind up, and it certainly improved her own chances to look as though she was seriously being courted by the king’s own brother. Being Lady of Storm’s End would be no small fate to accept, even if it was one she didn’t prefer.
“He did, yes.”
“You have a wolf? I thought Lady NAME was joking!”
“There must be a story there, Lady Joanna.”
“Not nearly as interesting as you might suppose. Several years ago my father and brothers were in the woods outside Winterfell and found a dead, fully grown direwolf and several pups she had left behind. There was one for each of us and my brother, Robb, convinced father that it was sign.”
“And your direwolf just follows you?”
“You don’t tell a direwolf where it can and cannot go. I actually was a bit upset with Ghost because I couldn’t find him to say goodbye the morning I left. Then he was already on the ship.”
“And the captain let him come?”
“As I said, you don’t tell direwolves what they can and cannot do.”
Lady Margery laughed. “My grandmother would want me to say that roses are allowed to grow where and how they would like. Though I imagine it’s quite a different matter.”
“I have attempted to grow things before, Lady Margery, it seems rather much the same to me.” Joanna nudged Shireen, who seemed a little pinch-lipped at the easy connection of the other ladies. “Wolves go where they like because no one wants to pick a fight, roses where they like because they’re too beautiful to refuse, and stags because they’re too majestic.”
“I don’t think majestic is a word for me.”
“And I’m not terrifying like Ghost, and I imagine that Lady Margery is even more clever than she is beautiful.”
“I don’t think he’s terrifying. I think Ghost is wonderful.”
“You’re one of the few who does.”
“You’ve gotten to meet the direwolf, Shireen? What was he like?”
Shireen puffed up at the chance to be the one to discuss the wolf, and happily ignored everyone else at the table despite how they were all listening while pretending like they weren’t listening. Between Margery and Joanna they managed to keep the conversation balanced while making sure Shireen did not feel excluded. They also managed to exclude everyone else who did not bear the surname Barathone or Tyrell, picking up any slack that they men left and jumping on it before someone else could insert themselves into their conversation.
That tactic served them well all the way to the Godswood, where Margery couldn’t quite bring herself to actually touch the direwolf, but resolved to try again tomorrow, and then up to Shireen’s private sitting room, tucked into a part of the keep near her father’s solar and away from Lord Renly’s place that was never occupied but far more often traversed than anyplace else in the castle. And then on a tour of the keep. Shireen pointed out all the important places, while Margery offered up background information that sweet Shireen thought everyone knew.
Such as Margery pointing out that the way you keep things cool at night is to open the windows and the bedroom door so air could pass though.
“But I opened a window.”
“It doesn’t matter how many windows you open if there isn’t a cross breeze with the open door.”
“But…” Joanna glanced at Shireen, who was watching the whole conversation.
“You’re in the family hall, Joanna.” Shireen said, no flinching at the context of her worries. “There’s nothing to worry about there.”
“I believe you, Shireen. But still, the thought. Does your father let you sleep with your door open?”
“He does.” Shireen shrugged. “Storm’s End is safe.”
Joanna bit her lip and plastered on a smile. “Then I should be all right with opening mine, then.”
“Joanna?” Shireen took her hand, already knowing her so well that she could tell something was wrong. “Did something… why not?”
Joanna stroked a hand through Shireen’s hair. “It’s not your worry, love.”
“”You can trust me with it.”
“It’s not a matter of trust, Shireen.”
“I can leave for you to have the conversation, if you need.” Margery added. “I take no offense and completely understand. We’ve only known one another a day.”
“No,” Joanna took Margery’s hand as well, “it’s nothing like that. I simply… private.”
“How are private and not trusting us not the same thing?”
“There was an incident at Winterfell. An incident that means I prefer sleeping with my door closed.”
Margery reached out and snatched Shireen’s arm before she could ask any of the follow-up questions that lurked behind the eyes she got from her father. “I could loan you a nightdress since it might be a lighter weight and help you be cooler as you sleep? Or even some dresses for the day since I cannot imagine how hot your trousers must be during these muggy days.”
“Your dresses won’t fit Joanna at all. She’ll be spilling out.”
Both other women laughed, the tension broken by Shireen’s blunt and dry assessment. “I’ll have you know,” Margery added through giggles, “that’s the fashion in some circles.”
“Not at Winterfell.”
“Too wild and Lady Stark would accept no such nonsense in her house.”
“Fashion is nonsense?”
“Fashion that would not please her interpretation of the Seven.”
“Thank you for couching it in those terms.”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to tell you what opinions the Seven have about anything. I wouldn’t want to presume.”
Margery snickered. “I know just as little about the Old Gods, so you are forgiven. I do not think I’ve ever even been in the Godswood at CASTLE.”
“What about a soldier at the door to the family wing?” Joanna blinked and tried to remember what they’d been discussing.
“What about one of the soldiers standing at the head of the hallway to keep anyone but family and invited guests from entering the hallway? Would that be enough to be comforting enough for you to sleep with the door open so you don’t boil when you’re trying to sleep?”
“I’ll be all right without, Shireen.”
“But you need to sleep tonight, Jo!”
“I’m sure I’ll adjust without needing to do anything.”
Shireen raised an eyebrow and Margery gave Joanna a mothering smile.
Shireen, however, was her father’s child, and without a bit of worry for the politeness of it declared, “That’s not how summer storms work.”