She remembers at times – the before.
There is a part of her that always knows, of course, the part that says Rickon Bran Arya Sansa Robb like a mantra when she sends another man swinging, but sometimes they are just names, just a prayer, their faces blurry. It is easier that way, to thrive off of the rage and hatred and bitterness and not to focus on that which brings agony like a hot dagger to her chest.
But sometimes they come in flashes – the crisp scent of lemons in a passing breeze and it is Sansa, who reaches for another lemon cake when she thinks no one sees because it would not be ladylike to have another and yet she is just a child (just a child, just my child, my girl) and there are still whims and wants she indulges before she must be grown. The rustle of leaves above her is Bran, climbing and climbing (until he falls and climbs no more…), the wild howling of wolves in the cold night is her little Rickon, his cry loud to make his presence known, so small and yet so fierce. She digs hard into the earth and feels Arya in the dirt and life beneath her fingers, in its rawness and realness.
She twists an iron crown that rusts between hands that are scarred and skeletal and ruined (they were beautiful once, she thinks, but that is harder to remember), and it is resting back atop Robb’s head, and she should have wrenched it from his hair then, thrown it into the fire, if only I had not let them put that crown on your head, would you be here still?
They call her by so many names, fearsome things spoken in hushed, frightened whispers, the Silent Sister, Mother Merciless, Lady Stoneheart, all names she did not claim as her own but were bestowed upon her in trembling reverence or abject terror, but sometimes, she remembers when she was Catelyn Stark.
(They never call her that, save one tear-filled ’Lady Catelyn?’ that she likes to forget with all the rest that she once was.)
They are brief snips of memories, there and then gone, remembered and then forgotten, like a fraying tapestry that is worn with each passing year.
The times when she remembers before are blinding; she rips at her chest with nails but she does not bleed anymore, and it does nothing to abate the pain, and so she prefers when the before is vague like a dream she cannot quite remember, when she thinks she has always been this way, all anger and violence and bloodlust and power, that there never was a before - there is only now, and this.
The war ends, as wars do. The sky fills with the cry of dragons, a song long forgotten, and the world is turned to ash and soot and slowly brought alive again, and a silver queen sits atop a throne of swords and bones. The golden Lannister lions devour one another and she hangs Walder Frey from the highest tree she can find. She watches him die and he watches her watch him die, and those brothers who swore themselves to her service yell and cheer. Because, they ask, isn’t this what they have been working towards, fighting for?
And yet whatever she had expected to feel at his death – joy or vindication or victory – she does not feel. His death does not abate the rage that eats at her insides, the hollowness where her heart was once housed – they are all still dead, her husband and all their children, and she is not (but she is not alive, either, she thinks – she is not sure what she is). And while there are times when their faces are a blur, when the memories skip and jump and scramble and leave her uncertain, the one thing that remains unchanged is her certainty that she is supposed to be with them, and not here.
The men who follow her melt away, their task completed, and she does not add them to the litany of names that she curses, the Lannisters Boltons Freys - they served her well, and such ilk are fickle souls, and she has nothing left to give them anyway. She has served vengeance yet her aching bones scream for more. It is all she has want for; she needs no sleep nor meat nor mead, she thirsts only for bloodshed. They took, they took, they took, she repeats like a dark mantra in those moments when she cannot recall why she is so angry, only that she is, only that she aches and the gaping pit in her chest can only be filled with revenge and bloody justice. I want, I want, I want.
She is always left wanting, pained, unsatisfied.
She walks and wanders alone because her limbs do not ask for rest, her eyes do not ache with exhaustion, because she does not fear (there is nothing left to fear). She finds the Riverlands coming to life in the budding spring, the grass green and the river sweet and cool on her withered hand, but it is too beautiful, too bright and alive, and it blinds her so that she draws her hood down further. If the before of being Catelyn Stark is hard to remember sometimes, Catelyn Tully of Riverrun is even more difficult to recall, the memories twisted and backwards so that faces are but mere shadows. She tries to recall those she knew there, brother and sister and father and uncle, family, but they distort so that Lysa’s face is a bitter snarl, so that Edmure’s mouth is agape in horror. That is not how it was before a small voice says, but the lady has stopped listening to that voice long ago, when it brings her nothing but heartbreak and painful memories.
The banner of her House flies tattered but unbroken in the breeze off the water, and she can just barely recall the bright colors of her maiden cloak, red and blue upon her back, to be replaced by a stranger – not Brandon, not whom she thought to wed (and yet how fiercely she had grown to love him, she remembers, but then she forgets again – it is better that way) - who wielded shades of white and grey (grey like his eyes, the thought rises unbidden, and she would weep if she thought she remembered how).
She leaves the south behind as she did in her youth, and she goes north, to Winterfell, because that is the ruin that is etched upon what little remains of her heart. She is much better suited to the ashes and rubble; she is a creature of brokenness now and the slivers of the before that she finds there match the fragments of her memory.
There are ghosts in Winterfell, in the crumbling towers, and she imagines them trapped beneath the new walls they will someday raise and thinks perhaps she will be among their numbers. She hears them sometimes, calling on the whistle of the wind; they call her Mother and Cat, and it has been so long since she has been those things that sometimes she wonders if they call for her at all. She lets out a keening cry, she stretches out a palm, but they are always just beyond her reach. She can never quite see them, it is a flash of Sansa’s bright hair, it is Robb’s laughter in the yard, it is Bran merely a shadow against the sun high in the tree. It is Arya dashing around the corner, it is Rickon’s foot disappearing as he crawls to hide. It is Ned’s horse disappearing down the Kingsroad, never to return, his eyes flickering back before turning ahead.
The ghosts and whispers follow her to the godswood, and she thinks she never liked it here. But unease is not an emotion she knows anymore, nor disquiet, and this is still part of her home. She sits next to the weirwood and the pool and listens to the silence, and next to her, the tree weeps red tears (she remembers weeping red tears once, red and white, red and terrible and red) and keeps her company.
A ghost appears one day, clearer than the rest, - Lyanna Stark, she thinks fuzzily, Brandon’s sister, her betrothed’s sister, Ned’s sister, and though she saw her but once in her youth, the visage carved into crude stone in the crypts of Winterfell served as a reminder of the woman – the girl, really – who started a war. Stoneheart recognizes her, though she expects that the same will not be said in reverse, not anymore.
She wears a man’s shirt and breeches that hang loosely off narrow hips. At first she appears only in shadows, only in glimpses, always watching with hunger in her eyes (we are all of us hungry, the lady thinks bitterly, so few thoughts are anything other than bitter or painful. She does not know how long, how many days they watch one another from the corners of their eyes before finally the spirit approaches, and red leaves crunch beneath her heavy boots like dead soldiers.
(Crunch, Stoneheart thinks, no, that is not right, the ghosts are always silent.)
“They told me to wear my face this time,” the shade of Lyanna Stark says that day, and the lady is surprised at how solid the words sound, they are not merely a murmur on the wind, prickling against the back of her neck, something not quite there (no matter how badly she longs to reach out and grasp them).
She does not understand, she does not care to understand; she cares only to hurt as she was hurt, to revenge where she was wronged, to take as she had been taken from, and words are difficult and mostly meaningless. And so she does not ask for an explanation, does not raise a grasping hand to the wound in her throat, and she silently waits and watches from beneath her hooded cloak.
The lady wonders if it means she is closer to death, that the spirits are so vivid now. She knows what it is to die, she remembers the pain and the fear and the agony like a searing brand upon her breast, yet it had been so swift she does not know what it means to be close to death. She feels no weaker than she did the day they woke her, except that the memories of before become hazier the further she travels from them, like a fading dream. If anything she feels stronger, without sorrow and lingering human emotion weighing upon her, with only anger as her supper. Perhaps someday, she will not remember at all, perhaps someday, the litany of names that follows her will be meaningless and forgotten. Perhaps one day she will not ache, she will only kill, and perhaps it will be over (and yet, she thinks, perhaps that will be worst of all – losing them all forever, in the very last way that they could be lost to her, perhaps she will never find them that way).
Wind brushes the dark hair off Lyanna Stark’s dirt-smudged face, and her breath mists softly in front of her – it is still the North, still cold in the blooming spring, but Stoneheart does not feel the cold as she once did in a life forgotten (her rooms were always warm, she remembers vaguely, the room and the body in her bed, the arms that held her; she was the lady of a snow castle but she remembers feeling warm).
It is not until the girl’s small rough-hewn hands land on her hood and her touch is there, her hands are real, that Stoneheart realizes for certain that this is no spirit or ghost. This is a living girl, a living girl and Lyanna Stark is long dead, that much she remembers, and Stoneheart hisses angrily, drawing back, but the girl’s familiar grey eyes are steady and solid.
“It’s okay,” the girl – the girl who is not Lyanna – says, and there is something in the stubbornness of that voice, the earnestness to prove something, and suddenly the lady cannot breathe, as though she is back in a wedding made of blood and a knife is sawing at her throat, and instinctively she reaches up to grasp the hole there, to cover it. “I’m not afraid. Sansa…Sansa would have been, but I’m not.”
The girl pushes her hood down, and Stoneheart sees a falter in her beautiful grey eyes, sees the lump in her throat that she pushes down, the way she draws her lip between her teeth and bites hard. And it is as it was before, when she would be making some trouble for the septa, refusing to finish her embroidery, pulling her sister’s hair, spilling ink on her dress, some new mischief every day. And she would wear that expression, the desire to avoid trouble and punishment, and it is so terrible here and now, to remember those little troubles proper for a child to manage and to know that such greater trouble has found a family that was once whole and happy.
It is then that the lady’s withered body remembers how to weep, and the tears burn like fire as they run down her ruined face, as she reaches out with a skeletal hand to grasp a handful of the girl’s hair, no, no, she thinks, not the girl, my girl, my own girl. Her own girl who is suddenly not just a name, not a mantra or a memory but a living breathing creature, heart beating strong and so fierce and warm and so alive, so much more than Stoneheart is or can ever be again.
“Arya,” she croaks, and her eyes desperately demand confirmation, and she sees the conflict in her daughter’s eyes.
“No,” she answers, but it is in a way that the lady so recognizes, you have always been a terrible liar, she thinks, she remembers, and it is for the first time in so long a memory without pain, a thought of the before that does not bring agony. “I’m no one.”
But the girl drops to her knees before the lady, and Stoneheart cradles the girl’s head in her lap, brushing hair off her face, touching the smooth skin with scarred fingers, she is so grown she thinks, and so broken. But the lady is more broken and her girl may be splintered but she is alive and there is fight in her yet. You are still Arya, she would say, if words were not so difficult to manage. You are still my little Arya, you are not ‘no one’. You are someone.
“I will get them for what they’ve done,” ‘no one’ swears, her fingers curling in the dirt-ridden and tattered skirts of the lady. “For what they did to our family.” And the lady may remember how to cry but she does not remember how to smile, or perhaps she would at that, sadly – see, you still remember how to be someone, you still remember how to be Arya Stark.
For Lady Stoneheart, remembering is such a difficult chore, and she hopes for her daughter it is less so.
“No,” is what she does say, shaking her head, and her Arya looks up from her lap, eyes wide. Stoneheart does not want this for her child; this is her weight to bear and bear it she has, for her husband and her children and her home. Happiness and hope are things long lost to her, but her girl is so young still, and Stoneheart wants more than promises of blood; it has been so long since she has wanted anything more than revenge and pain that she almost does not recognize the foreign desire, to want something good for someone. She does not want her girl to waste away in anger and agony; she wants her to keep living and living and live. “Home,” she adds in a rough voice, glancing up at the lazy drifting red leaves of the weirwood, where she can still hear the whispers of those lost (though how quickly they fade and leave her behind).
The lady takes her daughter’s hand, and it has been so long since she has touched someone, and even longer since she has touched someone in anything akin to love (she used to know how to love, but she thinks that must be as lost as joy and smiles; tears she can remember now because they are still close enough to pain, and they streak on her cheeks like wildfire).
Arya’s eyes (Stark eyes, Stark colors, she is not a ‘no one’) are bright and her mouth is grim, and her voice is firm when she says, “I will take you home, I promise. It isn’t here, anymore. There’s no one left.” She is so fierce, the lady thinks, and so beautiful, and the pain in her chest is almost blinding and she thinks it is easier to be filled with hate alone – that this pain is the reason she tries to forget the before.
“I can give the gift to anyone,” Arya adds, and Stoneheart thinks she does not sound completely certain. Her eyes have gone hard and the lady wishes that she could take the girl in her arms, soothe away her hurts, kiss away her troubles; but that is of another life and they are nothing more than broken remnants now, both of them, relics of what once was.
Arya rises, not bothering to wipe the dirt from her knees, and holds her mother’s hand. “Will you come with me?” she asks, as though it were ever a question, as though an answer is needed, and Catelyn Stark stands.
(She remembers, at times, the before of being Catelyn Stark.)