When Catelyn was eight, she was thrown from her horse whilst riding along the river bank. Her mare, normally so docile, spooked and reared up, and her grip on the reins had been loose. She still remembers those moments when she felt herself tumble, those terrible seconds before she hit the ground that had seemed to last an eternity. I am going to die, she had thought, and had mourned in those brief moments all that she would never have or become. Her heart had leapt into her throat, her blood pounding in her ears, and she had seemed to fall forever until she hit the ground and everything went black.
Dying, she had thought when she had awoken two days later in her bed, would be a thing of terror. Those moments had been the most frightening of her life, and she had been certain that they would only be eclipsed by those moments prior to her actual death.
As it turns out, dying can be a much more sedate thing, and it is not always measured in moments, but sometimes in hours and days. Sometimes, she thinks, it is like sinking beneath the water of the rivers as she had done as a child, looking up at the world above her, hazy and out of focus. It is like that, she decides – but never resurfacing.
That she is dying is a secret they try to keep from her, as if she did not know her body more intimately than any maester or midwife could. The bleeding will not staunch, she hears them whisper, and she feels it pulsing between her legs like a second heart beat, can feel the stickiness of it on her thighs and on the sheet beneath her. Her limbs feel heavy, as though they are sodden with water, and they burn hot and cold all at once. This is dying, she thinks vaguely, with a sort of wonderment at childhood notions being challenged. This can be dying, as well.
The babe is crying, his voice lusty and strong, and it is that which affords her some measure of tranquility, even as Maester Luwin barks orders, tries to stem the bleeding between her legs. It had been a terrible, difficult birth, the baby in a poor position, and there had been a moment where the midwife had told her that the child was surely lost. He is stronger than that, she thinks with a surge of validation, and if this is certainly not the best ending to a traumatic birth, in her opinion nor is it the worst.
She tilts her head on the pillow, the cover cool against her fevered cheek, and watches the summer snow fall out the window. She has never longed to spend time in the snow, but suddenly she wishes she were outside, beyond the stone walls that run hot and hold her trapped, to feel the cold breeze on her face. It would be so sweet, to see the sky a final time.
The pain that nearly ripped her in two has settled into a dull, mindless ache, and she almost does not mind as she sees first the midwife, and then, reluctantly, Maester Luwin step back, watching through heavy eyelids. She struggles to focus, recognizing one feature of the good maester’s – sad eyes – and then another – worried mouth in a grim line – as the others fade away. It is no fault of yours, she wishes to reassure, if she could gather the words. It is a woman’s business, a messy affair.
Vaguely she is aware of a weight next to her, the feather mattress dipping, and she rolls her head to the other side to see Ned perch on the bed next to her, their son in his arms. Dimly, she wonders when he arrived, thinks that she hates for him to see her in such bloody disarray, but then she realizes how foolish such a thought is. Instead, her eyes shift to the babe, so small in the crook of Ned’s elbow, and it is at that she feels her first pang of true sorrow. Her children, who would do without her as she did without her own mother so many years ago. Her children that she would not see grow, and laugh, and love, and live, would not see grow to men and women, would not see with their own children in their arms.
It isn’t enough time, she thinks wearily, and she thinks she would cry if she had the strength to. I have not had enough time with them. She peeks at her littlest one – Rickon, they had wanted to call him, and it seems so long ago that she and Ned had discussed a name when her belly had started to curve, as though from another lifetime. Her sweet Sansa is nearly the age Catelyn was when her mother passed, and Catelyn expects she will mother the babe as Catelyn herself once mothered Edmure. Her heart aches at the thought, at the burden left to a mere child, to her girl. She longs to have the children brought to her, so that she may kiss their brows, feel the smoothness of their warm skin, but a stronger part of her balks at the thought of their last image of her being of a woman drained and broken, streaked with sweat and tears and blood. Let them remember me as more than that, she thinks, her heart overfull.
She wonders if that is what her mother thought to herself, before her last birth took her.
“Please,” she says, her eyes still on their newest child, and her voice is soft and coming from a thousand miles away. “I want to hold him.”
It takes Maester Luwin and Ned both, to lift her from the bed, her muscles weak and useless. She tries to lift her arms but they stay stubbornly at her side, and at that the tears do well in her eyes, burning as though they are from the hot springs. At least grant me this, she begs silently of the Mother, and Ned shifts to sit behind her, her back sagging against his chest. Gently he settles the babe on her chest, his arms coming around her to support them both, a big hand cupping the back of little Rickon’s head where it rests just above the swell of her breast, his tiny hand resting on the slope of it.
She sighs with relief and the sound comes out thin and high, and she breathes in the scent of new life. She hopes that in some part of him, he will remember the sound of the beat of her heart, the scent of her skin and not that of the blood thick in the air. It is an fruitless wish, she knows, but she clings to it with what strength remains to her. He is another auburn-haired boy with the look of the Tullys, but she is so relieved to see him alive and well, snuffling lightly against her chest, that she cannot even grieve that she will never give her husband a son with his dark hair and eyes.
Her body feels fluid as silk in Ned’s arms, and she is glad that he holds them both tight against him, certain that if he did not hold fast that she would simply slip away and disappear into nothingness. Her head lolls back against the crook of his shoulder, too heavy to keep aloft, and the familiar bristle of his beard against her skin when he kisses her temple feels like sandpaper, each nerve ending alight.
The room is quiet, the others left them to their privacy (or perhaps, she thinks vaguely, they had never been in the first place, perhaps she had imagined them), and the only sound that echoes off the walls is the small peeps her son makes.
“You will get better,” Ned tells her, and she can feel his voice rumbling in his chest, against her back. She rises and falls as he breathes, and it is like the rock of the water, lulling her to sleep as it did in her childhood. She wishes a command would make it so, that she may follow the order as a good lady wife would, and she thinks that he has half-convinced himself that it is true, that she is not still bleeding even as he holds her. She wishes that everything did not feel quite so heavy, that it were not such a chore to keep her eyes open. I must stay awake, she resolves, for she fears if she sleeps she will never again rise, and she is not ready to stop looking at her son.
“Yes,” she answers, her breath barely a trembling whisper against his neck. “But if I do not, remember me fondly to our children.”
His grip tightens, but his cheek when he presses it to the top of her head, his lips brushing her hair, is dry. She has never seen Ned weep, she thinks, it is not the way of the north, not the way of the Starks. She had thought him so cold when she had first come to Winterfell, always serious, always distant. Even now, so many years removed from what they once were, his affections are private, his emotions held tight to his chest. But his heart, she knows, is good and loving, if buried beneath the hardened ribs of a northman. He loved another woman before me, she thinks, and somehow the words comfort rather than hurt, for the first time she can ever recall. He loved me. He is open to love, it shall come again for him.
The idea frightens her somewhat – who better than she knows the difficulty in seeing children that are your husband’s, and not your own? A new wife, a new lady would have not just Ned’s bastard son to accept, but five trueborn children, so that any children she bears would inherit lands of little importance. It is strange and unsettling, to think of a future to which she does not belong, to think of another lady in her place, but she is not selfish enough to think that her husband should never love again, that he should bury his heart away.
Perhaps, she thinks, that is how Lady Ashara thought of her, before she stepped from that tower. Perhaps she knew enough of Ned’s good heart to know that it would mend and love again, and perhaps she loved him enough to wish it so. Once such thoughts would have distressed her, brought on tears she would have fought to hide, but everything is more muted now as her life ebbs away between her thighs.
“You would not leave our children,” he tells her, and it is more plea than order despite the steadiness of his voice, and she closes her eyes, memorizing the feel of her son breathing against her chest, of the solid presence behind her. She breathes in, the sound ragged, and he always smells of pine and leather and salt, and it is a far more pleasing aroma than the tang of blood. “Nor me.”
“You will love them for us both,” she answers, and the press of Ned’s cheek against hers is as much an attempt to decipher her words as a gesture of affection. It is her sole comfort, to leave her children in the care of a man who loves them so deeply, who takes to fatherhood so well. His hands at the back of Rickon’s head and along his tiny spine are sure, steady, familiar. Had that not been the reason she had first started to love him? How could she not, when she saw him with their children, with a softness she had not known him to possess in those days before they built their family? “And you shall heal, as you did once before,” she reminds softly, and with his face so close, she can see him wince. I do not mean it as a reprimand, she wishes to tell him, but before she can do so, he speaks again.
“I want to tell you something,” he says, his voice dropping to a confidante’s near whisper, though they and their son are alone in the room. “About Lyanna.”
She does not quite understand, beyond the fact of knowing that the death of his sister haunted him still. It is a thing they rarely speak upon, something Ned keeps locked deep inside, in the parts that even she, at times, cannot reach. For that reason alone, reason enough, she bobs her head forward in a nod and makes a soft murmur of assent at the back of her throat. The sound of his voice is soothing, the deep rumble against her back, his breath warm against her cheek, and perhaps it is better that they do not dampen the air with goodbyes and regrets.
“I told you that when I found Lyanna in the Tower of Joy, Robert and I were not speaking,” he starts, his voice heavy and nearly reluctant. “Tywin Lannister had slaughtered Princess Elia and her children, the little prince and princess, and laid them before the throne. Rhaenys was younger than Bran. Aegon was an infant. And Robert called that justice.” He shakes his head, the old memories seeming to sit ill with him, and Catelyn wishes that life would be always summer for the babe in her arms. “I did not fight that war to murder innocent children.”
“I know,” she murmurs, and she does know – there is not a soul in the Seven Kingdoms who does not know what befell the poor Targaryen children, the terrible fate they and their mother had suffered, the mindless cruelty of their deaths. Fewer know of the row that had followed, between the two young faces of the Rebellion, that Ned had left in stormy silence to draw his forces south, but that, in of itself, is no great secret, merely glossed over in the songs that are written of that time.
“When I came into the Tower, Lyanna was dying,” he adds, and his voice is short and clipped, and weary as she is, she does not miss the way his eyes flicker down to the blood staining the sheet under her. “She told me that she was sorry, that she had made a mistake, that she only prayed that Brandon and Father would forgive her when she saw them next.” He hesitates, and in the silence she closes her eyes briefly, just a moment’s rest, she thinks, and she blinks them back open when he gives her a small shake, hand still steadying Rickon against her. “Cat. I did not find her alone. She had a child with her – she had left with Rhaegar willingly at the time, she told me, and they had made a son.”
The words pour into her ears but they sit fuzzily in her mind, and she blinks again, trying through the pain and exhaustion to process the information. “A son,” she echoes, the words thick on her tongue. “Did he die with his mother?” She wishes her arms were not so leaden at her sides, that she may draw her own breathing, living child closer to her chest. But she is in no state, just then, to protect him from the evils of the world, much as she may long to.
“No,” Ned answers heavily. “My sister’s dying wish was that I would keep him safe. The world is not safe for Targaryen children, no matter how young, no matter how innocent. So I brought him home and called him my own son.”
I called him my own son. She furrows her brow, licking lips that are dry and chapped, tasting dried salt from long fallen tears of pain. It is impossible, she thinks, and she has nearly convinced herself that it is a sweet lie, perhaps one that she had merely imagined and he had not actually spoken, until she sees Ned staring at her expectantly.
“Jon Snow,” she tries, the name never pleasant on her lips. “Do you mean to say…?” Of all the things she had considered – and how many she had considered, in those moments in the dark when doubt had overcome her – she had never considered such a thing. She had never thought that Jon Snow was anything other than her husband’s child, borne from a mystery woman that he had loved. And why would she, she thinks – Ned has no like for secrets, and he is not skilled at deception.
“Yes,” Ned lets the word out on a long sigh. “He is as good as mine,” he adds, “after all these years. But he is my sister’s child by blood, and not my own.”
“I don’t…understand,” Catelyn stumbles. “If…if you speak true…why would you not tell me?” She sags back against him, exhausted from the effort of speaking, her breath coming ragged and quick. Ned sighs, bowing his head onto her shoulder, curving his body against hers, almost as if to shelter her from the hard truths he speaks and the harder battle she faces.
“I told no one,” is his best response. “It was safest that way – for you, for our family, but especially for Jon. Robert must never know.”
She remembers dimly, as though it were from another lifetime, sitting in bed with him and asking of Jon’s mother. She had thought his anger was borne of sorrow for Lady Ashara, had assumed that his silence was in honor of a lost love. He did not lie, for he knows it is not a talent of his, she thinks. Instead he forbade us to speak of it.
She thinks had he told her at any other moment, she would be furious, that he should lie to her, with every breath, with every day. She would forget her lady’s manners and shriek and curse at him, remember the sleepless nights in which she would lie awake next to him and worry that she would always be the lesser loved, the replacement. She would think of Jon Snow with guilt, recall the countless times she glanced at his face and tried to glimpse another woman in the features that seemed merely Ned’s. She would order him from her presence and stew in her rooms alone, and had taken her time in days to turn over the ways in which to forgive him this deception, forgive his mistrust of her.
And after those days passed, there would be a part of her that would have welcomed the news, would have rejoiced, would have felt a rush of joy at being the only woman to bear him a child, the only woman he held in his heart in such a way. For their entire marriage, she had always felt that there were pieces of Ned missing, never to belong to her, and suddenly she would have had them, and she thinks it would have been a sweet thing indeed.
But in this moment, the moment he had chosen (of the so few that remain), she is only left with a hollow sense of sorrow, remembering how only moments ago, she had for the first time taken comfort in the love that had come before her. And now I am robbed of that comfort, she thinks, and she wonders if that is the final penance she must pay for her sins. She waits for the anger to follow on its heels, but it does not come, leaving her chest aching in a way independent of the trauma of the birth.
Anger, it seems, dies before all the rest.
Her limbs tingle with a fierce cold that reminds her of the bite of northern air when she leaves the warmth of the hot springs. The fire is stoked high and the windows are closed against the snow, and she wonders that she had wanted, just moments ago, to be outside in the cold. Why would I wish such a thing? she wonders vaguely, and she shivers. I feel as though I shall never be warm again.
Ned holds her and Rickon close, his arms tight and skin warm though she freezes, as if that were enough to keep them all tethered. Her sadness flutters like a bird in her chest when she remembers the moons spent so long ago in distant courtesy, before they had learned to love each other, to know one another. She had thought then that he had need of the time, to heal from a lost love before he could love his wife, but if his words are true, then it had been grief to harden him, to make him so difficult to know at the beginning. And I shall be another to add to the litany, and she feels grief and guilt all at once. She tilts her face as best she can, and he takes her cue and dips his head to kiss her mouth, and it is enough to make her want to weep all over again.
“I am sorry,” he says quietly, “for the pain I caused you. I made a promise.” He does not add an apology for his lies, for his secret-keeping, for the choices he made – he leaves it at his regret for her pain, and she thinks he would not be the Ned she knew if he apologized for anything more. He had done what he thought right, what the family he had lost had wanted, and she thinks she would not love him as much as she does if he did not hold so strongly to his honor and convictions. His steady devotion to his family would serve their children well, she thought, and they would have great need of it.
“I know,” she murmurs, her cheek against the crook of his shoulder, and the iciness in her legs that sends stabbing pins and needles throughout her body starts feeling numbing, instead. Like sinking, she thinks, into the rivers she knew so well, but at the peak of winter, or like the ice baths her septa would make her take when she was flush with fever as a child. “Are you not tired?” she mumbles; Ned’s arm cuts around her middle, over Rickon’s back, not merely holding the babe to her but holding her upright, as well.
“No,” he answers, his voice stubborn and his lips moving against her hair.
“Oh,” she responds, head thick and cloudy. “I am.”
“I would prefer you stay awake, Cat,” he tells her, his voice strange-sounding, and he holds her closer still. Though it can be measured in hours and days, she thinks for all her sorrow and for all that she aches to stay with her children and their father, there is a dark peace to this sort of death despite it all.
Against her, Rickon begins to fuss, and Catelyn shushes him with a soft breath that comes out like a gasp (or perhaps she meant it as a gasp, the sounds and sensations all run together), and wishes that she could do more.
“As would I, my love,” she answers honestly with a shaky smile, and she listens to the steady beat of Ned’s heart against her back, thudding like a drum, powerful and strong. She imagines it sending blood throughout his body, keeping him alive, and hopes he will not let it turn to stone.