Catelyn could still remember every detail of the day her father told her she was going to be Brandon Stark's wife. She had been wearing a red gown Lysa always wanted to borrow, her auburn hair was loose over her shoulders, and her father never seemed as proud as he did when he announced how Rickard Stark had inquired about her hand for his oldest son.
Catelyn had never met Brandon before he came to Riverrun the first time; once she glimpsed him while at court, and all she could seem to recall was how tall he seemed to be while standing beside Prince Rhaegar. When the sound of hooves approaching reached Catelyn inside the castle, she quickly smoothed her hair and tried to appear as calm as possible as she caught sight of Brandon Stark.
As he dismounted, greeting her father in a voice deep enough to make Catelyn flush with pleasure, Catelyn took stock of him, the eldest Stark son, the one they said was fire born of ice; she knew from her Septa that Brandon had two younger brothers, Eddard and Benjen, and a younger sister called Lyanna. When Brandon turned his bright gray eyes upon her face, Catelyn wondered how many children they would have.
* * *
The night after Brandon dueled Petyr for her hand, Catelyn awoke to Brandon slipping into her bedchamber. All of the air left her lungs at the sight of Brandon – tall, muscular, unbearably handsome – approaching her bed in, and Catelyn felt her heart start to beat wildly in her chest as Brandon smiled.
“What are you doing here? My father will geld you - “
“Your father,” Brandon interrupted in half of a whisper, amusement sparkling in his eyes, “is drinking himself silly with my companions. He will not even notice I am gone.”
Catelyn swallowed nervously as Brandon sat upon the edge of her bed, stroking her face with the back of his hand; she wore only her smallclothes beneath her heavy covers, her only concession to the ungodly heat, her hair was wild about her pillow, and her Septa always said there was no greater sin than to give your maidenhead before being wed.
“You are so beautiful,” he breathed, his knuckles trailing down the line of her jaw, the curve of her throat. His hand stopped at the top of her blanket, trailing back and forth above her breasts but not going any further, and Catelyn felt heat rising everywhere he touched. “The Gods surely blessed me when they gave me you.”
“I am the one who is blessed,” she offered in return, still remembering her courtesies even as Brandon smiled at her in the most deliciously sinful way, his hands falling to the bottom of his shirt, pulling it over his head in one graceful motion.
She opened her mouth to protest as he slipped beneath her blankets, but his arms felt so good around her body, his mouth hot and insistent against hers; Catelyn moaned as his hands fell to her breasts, exploring the curves which only recently developed. As Brandon's mouth slid down her body, his tongue toying with her nipples, his fingers pressing between her thighs atop her smallclothes, Catelyn realized how easy it would be to take Brandon into her body tonight, how wonderful it could be.
And yet Catelyn still heard herself pant, “Wait, Brandon, I do not want...”
She did not have to finish the statement. Brandon lifted his head, mischief and passion in his eyes, and swore, “There are many things we can do without compromising your virtue, sweet Cat. Will you let me show you?”
Later, when Brandon rode for Harrenhal and Lysa begged her for details of Brandon's kisses, all Catelyn could think about was the unbearable sweetness of Brandon's tongue licking at her most sensitive places.
* * *
The seamstress was making the final alternation to her wedding gown, Lysa glaring with jealousy from a nearby chair, when Hoster Tully entered the room bearing the news that Lyanna Stark had been kidnapped by Prince Rhaegar. Catelyn barely recovered from that shocking bit of news before her father tried as gently as possible to explain how Brandon and his companions were no longer headed to Riverrun but instead were riding to King's Landing to confront Rhaegar.
Catelyn did not remember falling to the ground but suddenly she was seated on the carpet, tears coursing down her face, her heart feeling as if someone was squeezing it with all of their might.
When her father entered her bedchamber a few days later, his face drawn and saddened, Catelyn knew Brandon was dead, that the Mad King exacted his particularly cruel brand of “justice.” She did not cry in front of Hoster that time; instead she nodded, keeping her face as still as a stone, and murmured something about how she would pray for the Starks still in Winterfell, now without a father or an older brother. After he left her, Catelyn pushed her face into her pillows and wailed, shrieking like a wilding for what she had lost, the beautiful man who called her his sweet Cat.
Catelyn never let anyone see her cry for Brandon Stark, but she wept every night.
* * *
She lost track of how many months into the Rebellion they were when Hoster came to her and asked if she would consider wedding Eddard Stark. Catelyn knew it was phrased as a question, but she understood the meaning behind his tone: Robert Baratheon wants my bannermen, but I will not give them unless you still end up Lady Stark.
Later, as she sat staring out at the wildflowers, Catelyn heard Lysa screaming how she was not going to marry “some old man,” and Catelyn could only shake her head.
When they arrived, the first thing Catelyn noticed was how unlike his brother Eddard Stark was. He was not as tall, not as handsome; there was no mischief in his slate gray eyes, no sense of teasing in his words. A beard covered the line of his jaw, and Catelyn instantly thought of Brandon's smooth cheeks brushing against the soft skin of her inner thighs; for a moment she dropped her eyes, afraid Eddard would see the utter disappointment in them, before raising them, offering both greetings and condolences. He accepted them with the same unreadable expression on his not-handsome-enough face before introducing her to Lysa's soon-to-be-husband Jon Arryn, naming companions whose names Catelyn did not bother learning.
There was no fire to Eddard Stark, only ice, and Catelyn never cared much for winter.
* * *
When she was finally left alone with Eddard for the bedding, their friends and love ones shouting encouragement and vulgarities through the door at them and at Jon and Lysa, Catelyn dared to look at Eddard's body as they arranged themselves on the bed. He was bulkier than Brandon, broad where Brandon was lean, and Eddard had hair which covered his chest, narrowing into a line upon his stomach before returning thickly at his manhood.
It seemed the size of his cock was the only thing in which Eddard Stark could best his brother.
His mouth was tentative against her, tasting of duty, and Catelyn tried to bring the memories back of her fevered kisses with Brandon, of the feel of his hands exploring her body. Their night together in her bedchamber was one of the sweetest in her memory, especially the way Brandon implored her in a delightfully desperate tone to give him her maidenhead.
“It is mine to take anyway, sweet Cat,” Brandon panted as he pressed his hardness against the throbbing place between her legs, still slick from her release and his mouth. “No one will have to know.”
But she refused him because that was what an honorable girl did, and now, as Eddard Stark probed at her with his cock, she wished she had given herself to Brandon when the option was still available.
It burned as he entered her, the pain of her maidenhead breaking drawing a shocked gasp from her lips; Eddard stilled above her and murmured an apology in the same flat voice he said everything else in, and Catelyn blinked the tears away, assuring him it was fine. As he thrust above her, Catelyn reminded herself that it could have been worse; she thought of poor Lysa trapped beneath Jon Arryn, a kind man but a man old enough to be their grandfather.
There was no rush of pleasure, no trembling Eddard could draw from her; she felt him spill his seed inside of her, his duty complete, and Catelyn watched as he drew away from the bed, pouring water in a basin and wetting a cloth. He cleaned himself of her blood before returning to the bed; Catelyn saw him move as if to clean her as well before giving her the rag. It stung as she washed away blood and semen from her thighs, but Catelyn did not let her pain show.
As Eddard crawled in beside her, Catelyn felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness begin to settle in her body, wrapping itself around her heart. And then Eddard turned to look at her with his serious gray eyes and promised, “I will be a good husband to you, Catelyn.”
He sounded so old and so young with those words, and, for the first time, Catelyn felt a stirring of something other than disappointment when it came to Eddard Stark. “And I will be a good wife to you, Eddard.”
The hint of a smile playing at his lips, he offered, “My friends and my family, they call me Ned.”
They only laid together one more time before he returned to the battlefield, and Catelyn could not quite bring herself to call him Ned yet. It felt too familiar, too presumptuous.
But mostly it felt too much like betrayal.
* * *
She missed her moon blood three times before Catelyn told Hoster they would need a midwife. Her father immediately sent a raven to Eddard while Lysa glared hatefully at her, as if Catelyn had stolen the baby from her womb and claimed it as her own. She did not tell Lysa she would gladly exchange her swelling belly for Brandon to return to her, for the chance to at being a woman a man wanted rather than a woman whose maidenhead was exchanged for soldiers.
When Eddard sent a raven in return, Hoster handed her the letter sealed with Eddard's direwolf. Catelyn went upstairs, waiting until she was alone with her husband's words. Slipping her finger beneath the wax, Catelyn read aloud to the bump of her baby, taking in the sight of Eddard's handwriting for the first time.
I was so happy to receive your father's raven. A child is the greatest of blessings, and I am certain the child will be a comfort to you while I am away. Robert hopes we will be finished soon, and we have recently learned where Rhaegar is keeping Lyanna. I cannot wait for the end of this war, Catelyn, and the chance to hold you and our child in my arms.
Please stay safe, my wife, and sleep well knowing I am doing everything I can to return to you.
It was a wonderfully sweet letter, the kind Catelyn used to dream of receiving from a man she loved, but the man whose words were so kind on paper was not the man who placed the babe in her belly, the man with ice in his veins and snow in his eyes.
When Catelyn went to the birthing bed, as she screamed and sweated to bring forth her child, she tried to recall Brandon's face with perfect clarity, tried to will the baby to look like his uncle rather than his father. She could not bear to see Eddard Stark in her child's face, a reminder of the man who did not love her, the man who might not come back to her at all.
“It is a boy!” the midwife cried above the baby's healthy screams, and Catelyn began to weep as she saw the dusting of auburn hair on his head, the Tully blue eyes staring up at her.
He did not look like Brandon but he did not look like Eddard either; this baby was hers and hers alone.
She called him Robb, her quiet baby who seldom cried, who took to her breast without a moment's struggle, who looked at her as if he knew exactly who she was. And as she rocked Robb to sleep, pressing kisses to his soft skin, Catelyn realized how wrong she had been.
There was nothing in the world, no promise of anything which could make her give away her sweet Robb.
* * *
When the news came that Lyanna Stark was dead, Catelyn felt the wound on her heart which had only begun to heal ripped open again. She thought of the stories Brandon told her of Lyanna - Lya, he called her – and how beloved she was by everyone, so beloved her taking started a war.
Eddard Stark would never love her as much as Robert Baratheon had loved his sister.
Catelyn found herself weeping with Robb in her arms, crying for a girl she never knew, a girl she would never know, crying for so long and so hard Catelyn began to wonder if it was Lyanna she was crying for at all.
* * *
Robb was a healthy baby, always alert and smiling, and Catelyn loved him ferociously. When Hoster came to her and said she was being sent to Winterfell at last, that Eddard would meet her there and it was time to go North, she wanted to protest, to scream that her place was not leagues away in a strange place with a strange man. But she didn't, of course, because that was not her way and it would be dishonorable to refuse to take a son to his father.
Benjen Stark came to escort her, barely more than a child but with strong men all around him, and he smiled widely at Robb. As they rode North, Catelyn decided she liked Benjen with his biting japes and hint of irreverence. When they were camped one night, Catelyn holding Robb to her breast, she finally ventured, “I am sorry for Brandon and Lyanna.”
Benjen looked up from the fire, a sad smile playing at his lips, before he returned, “I am sorry for Brandon as well, good-sister.”
Catelyn never asked how Brandon died; she knew Hoster would never tell her. As she sat near the fire with Benjen, she was certain he would tell her, not spare her feelings or declare she was weaker because she was a woman, but Catelyn could not form the words in her mouth, too terrified of the answer. Instead she asked about Winterfell, reciting the names of the people to herself as they rode.
It was getting bitterly cold. Winter was coming.
* * *
She was welcomed to Winterfell like a queen, the woman Benjen called Old Nan doting upon Robb like a prince, and, even though Catelyn did not care for the drab landscape so far from everything she knew, she found herself grateful for the kindness of its inhabitants.
Benjen gave her a tour of the castle, adding bits of aside which were decidedly not appropriate, but Catelyn laughed, laughed for the first time since Brandon died. She slept in Eddard's bed at night, Robb tucked neatly in beside her, unable to bring herself to put him in his cradle, and Catelyn wondered if mayhaps things would not be so dreary when Eddard returned. Mayhaps she could make love grow like the winter roses which were starting to bloom as the world got colder, as snow began to fall.
The cries signaling Eddard's return brought Catelyn to the castle's entrance, Robb bundled against the cold but staring alertly with his bright blue eyes from his place on her hip, and she was surprised by the flurry of anticipation in her chest at the sight of Eddard riding towards her through the gently falling snow.
I must call him Ned and give him a kiss.
But all thoughts of nicknames and kisses left Catelyn's mind as she watched Eddard help a strange woman from a horse, a woman who cradled a squirming bundle against her chest, a bundle which was the size of Robb.
Catelyn acutely felt the eyes of Winterfell upon her as Eddard approached, pressing a cool kiss to her cheek before gazing at Robb. For the first time, Catelyn saw her husband genuinely grin, his large hand affectionately swiping over Robb's auburn hair.
“He is beautiful, Catelyn.”
“Thank you, my lord,” she managed as the strange woman's bundle began to fuss.
As the servants set about their duties, the woman came to stand at Eddard's side. She was young, pretty but not exceptionally so, with hair the same shade as Eddard's; the bundle in her arms had hair as dark as her husband's and tear-filled gray eyes, the same gray eyes which looked as sad as her husband's always did.
“Catelyn, this is Wylla; she is a wet nurse.”
“I require no wet nurse, husband. I can feel Robb myself.”
The moment shame fell across Eddard's face, Catelyn knew; she did not need to hear the words but her husband – the same husband who promised to do well by her – said, “She is a wet nurse for my other son, for Jon.”
Catelyn said nothing throughout dinner, listening without hearing as Benjen and Eddard discussed people she did not know. Wylla was not at the table, having taken the bastard baby upstairs to nurse and put to sleep, and Old Nan took Robb, leaving Catelyn feeling as if she was without armor. When she and Eddard retired to their room, she could no longer take it. The moment he said her name, Catelyn struck him cleanly across the fact with more force than she knew existed in her body.
“You have shamed me!” she cried, hot tears of humiliation coursing down her cheeks. “It is bad enough you break your vows and lie with another woman, but you bring your bastard into the same home as your trueborn son? Have I displeased you so?”
“No!” Eddard objected, his eyes wide at the accusation, showing more life than Catelyn has ever seen of him. “I would never want to bring shame on you or Robb, but Jon is my blood as well, and I could not leave him.”
Thinking of the pretty wet nurse whose hair matched the bastard, she demanded, “Is that Wylla his mother? Did you bring your conquest with you as well?”
“Wylla is not his mother,” Eddard swore. “I would never do such a thing.”
“Then where is his mother? Surely a baby should be with its mother!”
His face darkened as he stated, “That is not an option. Jon Snow is my blood, and he will be raised in Winterfell with our children. I will have no other arguments to the matter.”
Catelyn felt anger rise in her blood at being dictated to but knew it would do no good; Eddard Stark was as immovable as the Wall, and he was determined his shame be all of theirs.
Nodding curtly, Catelyn said, “I need to check on Robb.”
“Nan can do that.”
Glaring at her husband over her shoulder, she snapped, “You tend to your son, my lord, and I will tend to mine.”
* * *
The moment Jon was weaned, Wylla was sent away. Catelyn heard the servants whisper how Lord Stark gave the wet nurse a purse full of dragons before arranging passage back to Dorne, and, in that moment, Catelyn was certain Wylla was Jon Snow's mother.
She watched as Jon and Robb followed each other on wobbly legs, Jon always stopping whenever Robb fell, waiting for his brother to join him again; if the blood in Jon's veins was her own, Catelyn knew it would have warmed her heart to see brothers love each other so dearly.
But Jon was not hers, and all of Westeros knew it.
* * *
She heard the name by accident. The maids were talking, Catelyn was embroidering an outfit for Robb to wear when King Robert and Queen Cersei came to visit, and the boys ran through the room. And then she heard the whisper.
“I hear the bastard's mother was Ashara Dayne. They say she flung herself into the ocean when Lord Stark took the boy and came back here.”
Catelyn remembered Ashara, of course; anyone who saw the woman remembered her. She was a companion of Princess Elia, her features practically Targaryen, and every man who saw her declared her to be the most beautiful woman their eyes ever beheld. When Catelyn first saw Ashara, she had not even had her first moon's blood, and Ashara was already the toast of the court, charming men with secret smiles and violet eyes. Like the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, Catelyn knew Ashara killed herself after her brother Arthur was slain at the Tower of Joy; like everyone else, Catelyn knew Eddard returned Arthur Dayne's sword Dawn to Ashara.
And then your husband returned from Dorne with a Dornish wet nurse and a bastard boy you are certain he loves more than Robb.
For the first time since their wedding, Catelyn wondered if Eddard had loved someone else too, if his heart belonged to Ashara Dayne the way hers belonged to Brandon Stark.
I would raise Brandon's child no matter what the shame because I loved him so. Eddard must have loved Ashara that much.
And even though Catelyn did not love her husband, it still hurt to know he did not love her either.
That night, when Eddard entered their chamber, as he stripped down to his smallclothes, revealing the scars which told stories Catelyn never asked to hear, she saw her husband for the first time: the second son who was never meant to be Lord of Winterfell, who lost his brother and his sister to the Targaryens but still spoke not a cruel word against them, who married his lost brother's betrothed because duty and honor were important to him. On that night, Catelyn could even forgive him for Jon Snow because at least Jon was proof there was passion somewhere in her husband.
Eddard was genuinely surprised when she turned to him, pressing kisses to his skin, reaching into his smallclothes for his hardening cock; she felt the hesitance in his body, but Catelyn wanted nothing but the passion he showed Ashara Dayne, the passion which brought Jon into the world.
When Catelyn straddled him, pressing her hands against his chest as she slid down onto him, she felt the stretch of her muscles but pushed the dull pain away; as she began to move her hips, Catelyn realized she did not know what to do from this position, and, as she faltered, Eddard's hands, large and sure, took hold of her hips.
“Like this, Cat,” he breathed, showing her the way.
The sound of “Cat” on his lips made Catelyn clench tightly around him, drawing a curse through his clenched teeth, and it ignited her blood, making her movements faster, more frenzied. She felt sweat rolling down her back, could taste it on Eddard's skin as she mouthed his shoulder, and suddenly she was on her back, her husband stroking into her with just the right amount of force and pressure, enough to make her body spasm with the kind of pleasure she was shown at Riverrun under his brother's tutelage.
“Ned!” she shouted as he filled her body one last time, making her core quiver around him.
He kissed her ear, her cheek, any skin he could reach without sliding out of her; Catelyn traced the scars on his back as Ned - he will always be Ned now - and smiled around his kiss. When they finally parted, Catelyn clenched around nothing, wanting to have him back where she was empty.
She would never understand why she chose that moment to ask, “Is Ashara Dayne Jon's mother?”
And, just like that, the Wall which separated Catelyn from Ned returned as he demanded to know where she heard such a name, the ice in his veins dampening the heat which existed between their bodies. Within days, the servants were gone, and there were no more whispers about Ashara, which only solidified Catelyn's belief that Jon Snow's mother was the Lady Ashara and Ned loved Ashara more than he would ever love her.
The only positive thing to come from the confrontation was Sansa, who arrived eight-and-a-half moons later.
* * *
She was tending to Sansa when she caught sight of Ned in the snowy yard with the boys. Robb's cheeks were already pink from the cold, his hands clumsy from his thick gloves as he attempted to make snowballs; Jon was building some sort of wall, trying to gather the snow with his short arms, and Ned was laughing as Robb began to throw the snowballs he made at Jon. Immediately Jon began to make balls of his own, and Catelyn couldn't help but enjoy the scene.
Robb was building a snow castle now, his face screwed up in concentration, and Catelyn's eyes instantly sought out Ned, to see what he thought of their boy's work.
Ned was tossing Jon into the air, catching him easily as the snow shook off of Jon's body, both father and son laughing in delight. They were such perfect likenesses of each other with their dark hair and gray eyes, their personalities so similar, it made Catelyn feel as if Robb was the bastard, the one who did not belong.
Catelyn watched as her son worked diligently on his castle as Ned's son begged his father to throw him again.
* * *
Arya was her Stark baby, and, having birthed only Tullys, Catelyn hadn't the foggiest idea what to do with her second daughter.
Robb and Sansa were quiet, happy babies; they took to the breast easily, hardly fussed, and were always smiling. Arya, on the other hand, fought constantly: fought her breast, fought sleep, fought being comforted; Arya wanted what she wanted when she wanted it, and you could not rush her. Catelyn hated to admit it, but Arya's endless screaming unnerved her, wore on her patience and made her want to scream herself; Old Nan tended to her more and more, always assuring Catelyn that Lady Lyanna had been much the same way and she was a robust girl.
“She has her own rhythm,” Ned said one evening after Arya spent hours screaming but quieted the moment Ned laid the child against his broad chest. “There's more of the North in her than Robb and Sansa.”
“So Nan keeps telling me,” Catelyn snapped, shaking the braid from her hair, “but I can do nothing to soothe her. I asked Maester Luwin to look at her, and he insists she is fine.”
“She is.” Smiling down at the dark-headed baby sleeping peacefully against his breast, Ned whispered, “Your mother isn't used to wolves, is all.”
Catelyn fought the urge to smack him; he had no idea the amount of stress upon her to tend to Arya on top of Robb, Sansa, Jon, and now Theon Greyjoy. At least Theon could keep the boys' attentions however briefly, but Sansa was always underfoot and Arya...Catelyn did not have the words for Arya.
A week later, Catelyn was tending to Sansa, sick with a fever, when Arya began to scream from her nursery. At first Catelyn waited to hear Old Nan's footsteps, certain the old woman would instantly quiet her daughter, but the wailing went on, increasing in volume and pitch. Pressing a kiss to Sansa's clammy forehead, Catelyn rose to fetch Arya when the crying suddenly stopped; grateful, Catelyn remained with Sansa. The fever had already taken a child in the village, and Catelyn could not bear the idea of losing a child.
When Old Nan entered the room, Catelyn felt a quick stab of panic; Arya quieted so quickly, and she only ever quieted for Nan or Ned. Ordering Nan to stay with Sansa, Catelyn hurried down the halls to Arya's room. As she pushed open the door, Catelyn stopped, stunned.
Jon and Arya were lying on their bellies on one of the heavy furs, Jon speaking to his sister in a surprisingly playful tone as Arya giggled and kicked her feet. When Jon saw her, he began to climb to his feet but Catelyn shook her head.
“No, you...you can play with her.”
Jon looked down nervously before lifting his eyes, Ned's eyes, Arya's eyes. “I like playing with Arya.”
“Where are Robb and Theon?”
He shrugged, dropping his gaze again. “Theon said I wasn't allowed to come because I'm a bastard, so I came up here to play with Arya.”
There was something so sad about hearing a child speak of himself that way, and, as Catelyn's eyes flitted between Jon and Arya, she found her resentment of her husband's son wane a bit. “You are always welcome to play with Arya, Jon. I believe she likes your company.”
Though Catelyn could scarcely believe it, over the next few weeks, Jon was a gift from the Gods when it came to his baby sister. Arya would instantly quiet when Jon would be near her, her hands grasping for Jon whenever she glimpsed him; Catelyn was ashamed at how easily she would forfeit her daughter to Jon, but it was peaceful when Jon was with Arya.
One night, after Catelyn put Robb and Sansa to sleep, she went looking for Ned. She saw him standing in the doorway of Jon's bedchamber, and, as she began to walk towards him, Catelyn was stunned to see there were tears glistening on Ned's cheeks. In their time together, Catelyn had never seen Ned cry, and, as she sidled up beside him, she saw what brought forth such emotion.
There, in Jon's bed, were Jon and Arya, Arya cuddled against her brother's body, Jon's arms sleepily wrapped around her.
“Lya and I used to sleep like that,” Ned managed before wiping at his face, resolutely walking over to the bed to carefully pry Arya from Jon's arms.
If Ned saw himself in Jon and Lyanna in Arya, Catelyn refused to think who that made Robb.
* * *
Catelyn nearly died bringing Bran into the world. She bled heavily and, when she finally woke up, Ned was there, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead and telling her she gave birth to a perfectly healthy son he named Brandon.
When Ned placed Bran in her arms, Catelyn heaved a sigh of relief when she saw this baby was not a Stark but a Tully; she was weak, and she did not think she could handle seeing Brandon's likeness on a baby who bore his name. But this Bran was just as beautiful, staring up at her with kind eyes, and Catelyn found herself crying all over again.
“Maester Luwin thinks he might need to be our last babe,” Ned informed her softly as they stared at Bran.
“Then the Gods were good to send him to us.”
Ned smiled as he touched the smooth skin of Bran's cheek. “Five children is a good amount.”
We only have four children, Catelyn began to say before remembering that she only had four children; Ned had five.
The children all stared at Bran with smiles on their faces; Sansa climbed into bed to examine her baby brother carefully, Robb cautiously following her. Arya, the last of her winter babies, clung to Jon, who held her securely in his arms.
“Does he look like Uncle Brandon?” Robb asked innocently, turning his eyes up to her.
Catelyn found she did not have a voice to answer, so Ned replied, “No, he looks more like the Tullys than the Starks.”
Later, when the moon was high and the children fast asleep, Ned murmured, “I hope you are not cross with me for giving Bran my brother's name. It has been in our family from the beginning but I did not think how it would make you feel.”
Grateful that the darkness helped to hide her face, Catelyn said, “It is a good name for a good boy which was worn well by his good uncle.”
“How different ours lives would have been,” Ned began before trailing off, the thought unfinished but its meaning cutting Catelyn to the quick.
You look upon the child you had with the woman you loved before me every day while I can only see Brandon if I go to the crypt. Your life did not change much at all.
But Catelyn loved her husband dearly, so she kept such unkindness to herself.
* * *
Catelyn and Ned were sitting in the parlor when they heard Robb's screams, and instantly both were on their feet, rushing to meet their son in the entry way. He was nearly one-and-ten now, smaller than Theon and Jon, still more boy than young man; his clothing was covered in dirt, and Catelyn could read how frantic he was in his eyes.
“It's Jon!” Robb shouted, his face flushed, tears streaking his dirty face. “His horse threw him, and he's bleeding from his head!”
Ned was already running, moving faster than Catelyn ever remembered him moving, as she followed, holding her skirts in her hand, letting Robb lead her to where he had left Jon and Theon. She saw Ned's broad shoulders and Theon before Catelyn saw Jon, prone and unconscious, blood trickling from his hairline. It was not a conscious decision to drop down beside her husband's bastard, her hand taking Jon's as she called his name; it was a mother's instinct, and, though she did not want the title, she was the closest thing to a mother Jon Snow had.
“What happened?” Catelyn snapped, glaring at Theon. He was four years older than the boys, and, as such, when Robb went off with their ward, she expected Theon to protect him.
“A bear came out of the woods and was going for Robb, but Jon charged it with his horse. The horse spooked and it threw him. Everything happened so fast,” Theon rambled, literally wringing his hands. “He saved Robb.”
He saved Robb. Catelyn instantly felt emotion rising in her body, the realization of what could have happened to Robb if Jon had not intervened truly hitting her, and suddenly she was terrified Jon Snow was going to die before she could thank him.
Ned carried Jon back to the castle, Maester Luwin awaiting them, and Catelyn immediately had to wrangle Arya, who screamed at the sight of her beloved brother bleeding. Catelyn nearly lost her balance as Arya fought like a feral cat to get free, screaming Jon's name as if he was her savior, and soon Sansa and Bran were hysterical as well. Robb gathered Sansa and Theon easily lifted Bran, taking them to the glass gardens while Catelyn attempted to soothe Arya.
When Arya's nails bit into the skin of Catelyn's arm, she dropped her daughter on reflex, and, before she could blink, Arya was racing up the stairs, shouting for her brother, begging him not to die. As Catelyn crested the stairs, she saw Ned had enfolded Arya in his strong arms, not even flinching as her little legs kicked and flailed.
“I want to see Jon! Let me go, Daddy! Let me go!”
If anything, Ned tightened his grip, murmuring, “Maester Luwin has to fix him, my love. I will let you see him as soon as possible. Please calm down, sweetling.”
“I want Jon!” Arya cried but her voice was full of tears now, and Catelyn could only watch as Arya began to uncharacteristically weep, her little hands clutching at Ned. Ned stroked her unruly hair, whispering nonsense, sweeter with Arya than he had ever seen him be with Sansa, and Catelyn felt like an intruder in that moment.
The moment Jon awoke, Ned fulfilled his promise, carrying Arya into Jon's cell and placing her on his bed. Instantly Arya burrowed beneath Jon's quilts, snuggling her body against his, and she declared in her father's voice, “I am not leaving until you're better.”
Catelyn tried not to flinch at the similarities in Jon and Ned's indulgent smiles.
Ned and Arya remained with Jon through supper, and, as Catelyn sat at the table, she looked upon her children, the ones whose blood was undoubtedly that of Riverrun, her Tully babies, and she wondered if Ned could ever love them as much as he loved his Northern children.
After putting the children to bed, Catelyn opened Arya's door to find her bed untouched; rolling her eyes, she walked to Jon's cell, finding her daughter and Jon asleep upon his pillows, Arya's hand resting against Jon's face, their dark hair so tangled Catelyn was unable to tell which dark hair was her daughter's and which dark hair was her husband's bastard.
“It is not proper for her to sleep here,” she said as Ned roused in his chair.
Ned lifted his hands, settling them upon her hips and drawing her down into his lap; Catelyn went willingly, trying not to telegraph her irritation. As he stroked her hair, he confessed, “I fell from a tree once when I was Jon's age. I remember Brandon shouting my name and then...And then I woke up in my bed with a broken arm. Lya...” Swallowing back the emotion thickening his voice, Ned continued, “Lyanna stayed at my bedside for weeks. Whenever Nan would try to remove her, she'd scream as if someone was rending her limb from limb.”
“When Rhaegar took her, Brandon bid me to come with him, to fight for her honor, and I refused. I refused and Brandon went, calling me a craven and a poor excuse for a brother. And I tried to tell him, Cat, I tried to explain, but he didn't know. He couldn't know...”
Catelyn felt his entire body tense, and, as quickly as his confession began, they stopped. Gently lifting her from his lap, he said, “It was a long time ago, another life. I don't believe there's any harm in Arya remaining with him tonight.”
As Ned slept beside her that night, Catelyn kept repeating Ned's story to herself. It was incredibly rare to hear her husband reference his brother or sister and rarer still for him to become so emotional. She understood it was a trying day on everyone, but the look Ned had in his eyes as he told her that story, as he looked upon Jon...Catelyn recognized that look; it was the look she wore the entire time Ned was putting down the Greyjoy Rebellion. It was the look of someone who had once lost a person they loved dearly and was terrified of losing them again.
Her dreams were full of sea cliffs that night, of Dornish sands and crashing waves, of a beautiful woman with a queen's beauty, a gray-eyed babe at her breast, Ned gazing upon them both with abject adoration.
She never did thank Jon Snow for saving Robb's life.
* * *
Catelyn spent her pregnancy with Rickon in bed, Maester Luwin insisting that, after the time she had with Bran, rest was of the utmost importance. Though it nearly drove her mad, Catelyn obeyed, embroidering endless gowns for Sansa and Arya, sewing clothing for the children, mending the boys' breeches, and reading whatever Ned put in front of her. By the time Rickon finally made his appearance, Catelyn was not sure if she was more excited to hold her son or to finally be free of her bed.
It was easier with a baby now that the other children were older; Sansa was so eager to play mother, cooing at Rickon and speaking to him in a voice Catelyn found absolutely adorable. When he was not climbing the walls, Bran would sit with Rickon, repeating the stories Old Nan told him, studying the baby with the inquisitive expression he was born wearing. Arya, of course, wanted nothing to do with Rickon, sewing, or anything remotely feminine; she was forever chasing after the older boys, begging to be allowed to go on hunts or learn to sword fight. Ned sent south for a Septa at her insistence, but, as far as Catelyn could tell, Septa Mordane could not contain Arya any better than the rest of them.
But, even as she rocked Rickon, Catelyn could not help but look at Robb, recently two-and-ten. Unlike Jon, who always appeared to be a little man, Robb was starting to blossom into manhood; already his chest was beginning to broaden and a light auburn stubble began to appear on his cheeks. Ned had made mention of fostering him with Jon Arryn the way he had been fostered, but Catelyn instantly balked.
“Boys are fostered, Cat. It is the way things are done. Some of the happiest moments of my life were with Jon Arryn and Robert in the Vale.”
“But Jon Arryn is not in the Vale, and I do not want Robb growing up in the Red Keep.”
“I suppose I could ask Howland Reed - “
“Where will Jon be fostered?” she interrupted. When Ned shook his head in confusion, she snapped, “If you send away my son, you send your son as well.”
“It is not the same. Jon - “
“I will agree to foster Robb if you agree to foster Jon.”
The topic was dropped, of course; Catelyn knew her husband would never part with Jon Snow any more than she would part with Robb. And now, as she watched the boys cross wooden swords in the yard, Catelyn was forced to admit they were not children any longer; Robb Stark and Jon Snow would be men grown soon with betrothals on the horizon, and it made Catelyn already begin to ache with loss.
She heard Robb's shouts as she set Rickon down to nap. Remembering the last time she heard her son sound so desperate, Catelyn instantly ran towards the yard; by the time she reached the boys, Robb had hold of Theon, trying to hold him back as Ser Rodrik drug Jon backwards. Both Theon and Jon were bloody; Jon's lip was neatly split while Theon's nose appeared to be broken. A deep bruise was already starting to form around Theon's eye, and Jon's top shirt was torn at the collar.
“Knock it off!” Rodrik roared as Jon continued to struggle to reach Theon.
“What is going on?!” Catelyn shouted, startling everyone in the yard. She seldom raised her voice, especially to the older boys; Ned had taken over most of the discipline when it came to them. And, while Theon stopped resisting Robb's grip, both boys looking instantly repentant, Jon simply glared as he tried unsuccessfully to shake Rodrik off of him.
“Someone will tell me what happened here or I will have all of you whipped like horses!”
Theon said nothing, dropping his gaze. When Catelyn saw Jon and Robb exchange glances, it only served to infuriate her further.
“Fine! Rodrik, take Jon up to his cell and do not leave him until Lord Stark returns. Theon, to your room as well; when Lord Stark returns, he will deal with you.”
Robb stood there awkwardly after the others left, and Catelyn turned her eyes upon him. “Well? Are you going to tell me what happened here?”
“It was Theon's fault,” was all Robb offered.
“And what did Theon do that was so offensive, Jon felt the need to strike him?” When Robb said nothing, Catelyn pressed, “What did he do, Robb?”
Flushing brightly, he mumbled, “He said something 'bout Jon's mother.”
Catelyn felt her blood turn to ice in her veins. “And what did he say about Jon's mother?”
Robb's face was redder than his hair as he said, “I'd rather talk to Father about it.”
“Your father is not here, and I am demanding that you tell me, Robb Stark!”
Looking absolutely mortified, Robb admitted, “Theon was talking about a...a whore in the village. He was just japing about...about taking me to see her for my name day. And when I said that...that he should do it for Jon too...Theon said Jon best not...that he best not bed any whores because one could be his mother and he'd never even know it.”
She thought of Ashara Dayne with her purple eyes and golden hair, the finest lady at court reduced to being called a whore to her son, and Catelyn knew Ned would throttle Theon Greyjoy if Robb told him this story.
“Go to your cell, Robb. Your father will see to you as well.”
“But I did not fight anyone!”
“No, but clearly you need a lesson on honorable behavior and japing about whores is not honorable in the least. Now go!”
When Ned returned from the village, Catelyn greeted him in the entry way. As she carefully explained what transpired in the yard, trying to tiptoe around the specifics, she saw Ned's face darken in understanding. The moment she was finished speaking, Ned headed straight for Theon's cell; when he and Theon emerged, the boy was pale as a sheet, clearly afraid of whatever words were exchanged.
She did not mean to eavesdrop, not really. Catelyn knew Ned was in Jon's room, but her focus was on soothing Rickon. It was not until she was leaving Rickon's room she realized she could hear Jon and Ned's voices. She truly meant to walk past until she heard Jon ask, “Who is my mother?”
Catelyn froze, pressing herself against the stone wall as she waited with bated breath. All she needed to hear was the name, the answer to the mystery which had plagued her for twelve years.
Instead Ned denied her again. “I cannot tell you that, Jon.”
“Is it because Theon is right, that she was a - “
“No!” Ned denied adamantly without hesitation. “Your mother...She was a lady, Jon, the finest lady I ever knew. She was beautiful and witty and everyone who knew her, loved her.”
“Then why can I not know her? Why can I not see her?”
“Jon - “
“Why does Robb get to have a mother and I do not?”
Catelyn felt her heart twist painfully at the naked longing in the boy's voice, and, for the first time since his birth, she was ashamed at how she had treated Jon Snow. It was not his fault he was a bastard, that his father dishonored his marriage with his mother; Catelyn could have been kinder to him, could have smiled more when he gave her flowers on her name day or offered to sing him to sleep the way she did the others. She could have done better by Jon Snow.
“Because I promised your mother I would keep you with me, that I would keep you safe, and it is safer if you do not know who she is. One day, when you are older, we will have a long talk about your mother, and I will answer all of your questions then. Can you agree to that?”
Catelyn assumed Jon nodded for she heard Ned get to his feet and start towards the door. She was about to move when Jon added, “Father?”
“Did you love my mother?”
Catelyn bit her lip to keep from screaming, willing her legs to carry her away so she did not have to hear the answer, but her body was weak. And then Ned said the words which would haunt her for the rest of her life.
“I will love your mother even with my dying breath.”
From that moment on, Catelyn could no longer look at Jon Snow and think of him as Ned's bastard. Now, when she looked at the boy who wore her husband's face, Catelyn thought, He is Ashara Dayne's son, and Ned loved her more than he will ever love you.
* * *
Princess Myrcella was showing Catelyn and the girls were embroidery when Jon Snow's screams started. When other shouts began to echo his, Arya immediately ran for the window to see the fuss and then she gasped, “Bran fell!”
The yard was full of men by the time Catelyn reached it; the white cloaks of the Kingsguard were circling her son, Ned and Robert kneeling at Bran's side, Robb and Jon both crying as they stared down at their motionless brother, and Catelyn shrieked as she ran. Strong arms encircled her, holding her back, and Catelyn kicked like a wilding against Ser Barristan's grip. Ned came to her, squeezing her against his chest as Maester Luwin began to instruct the men on how to move Bran without causing any more damage.
She felt bile stinging her throat, twisting her head away and dropping to her knees as she brought up everything she had eaten. As she sobbed, Ned's hand on her back, Robb bending down to help her up, Catelyn thought of the first Brandon Stark she knew, of how he had been taken from her as well.
Does nothing kind happen to the Brandon Starks of the world?
Robb and Ned pulled her to her feet, and Catelyn saw Jon holding a crying Arya against him, his gray eyes swimming in tears, and the ferocity of her hatred enveloped her in that moment. My son will die while Ashara's son lives, and that is not fair. Why must I always lose the people I love?
When Jon came to kiss Bran's forehead, to say his goodbyes, Catelyn felt the last bit of kindness towards Jon die in her chest. He had never been her son and never would be; let him go to the Wall and forget he ever knew Winterfell, ever knew all of the Starks. Jon Snow was a bastard who lived and Bran was a trueborn son who everyone believed would die, and it seemed to be the cruelest jape of all, Ashara's final victory over her.
Catelyn slipped her hand into Bran's, squeezing softly before asking, “Would you like to hear a story, my love?” As tears slid down her face, Catelyn brushed Bran's hair away from his forehead and said, “Let me tell you of your Uncle Brandon and what a brave man he was.”
Outside the direwolves howled.
Winter was coming.