It was cold. It was cold and dark and her baby was dead. His tiny, fragile bones, bleached pale and fragrant with the herbs Maester Luwin purchased, were interred in a too-small box, within a too-small plot in the cold and dark Stark crypts. Behind her, Ned placed a hand against her back, offering whatever support he could. She didn’t look back. Catelyn had no desire to see the dried tear tracks on his face. Not when it was all her fault.
They said that it was not. That many women occasionally birthed a stillborn. That her next child would be healthy and hale, just as her first child, her beloved Robb, was. But Catelyn Stark took no comfort from these false promises for, in her heart, she knew that this was her burden. The Seven’s ordain to birth a corpse from her womb. All because she could not love a motherless child.
She wanted to stay there, in the cold and dark crypts, but they would not let her. Wanted to whisper to her baby, regrets and apologies and dreams for everything she wished for him, but her husband tugged her back. Her sweet and gentle Ned, who simply didn’t understand that this was her fault.
Ned brought her back to their marriage bed and tucked her in. Unlike many others, they chose to share a room for the added intimacy. She wished that she could be alone now though. Catelyn shivered and he placed another log into the hearth. Catelyn cried and he reached out to hold her. Catelyn slipped out of bed and he let her go, watched her step through a side door to the nursery.
The red-haired noblewoman felt less cold in the room. The walls were hung with warm cloths of pale yellow, the stone floors layered in thick rugs. Her slippers pressed into wool as she plodded forward. A polished honey wood crib adorned in snarling direwolves lay near the fire. The flames’ light revealed a peaceful babe suckling his thumb, his reddish brown hair in disarray. Her chest almost felt like it could breathe again.
“Robb…” Catelyn whispered. Her little man was not yet two summers strong but his skin was flush with life. He was the perfect blend of her Tully roots and Ned’s First Men blood. It comforted her to know that this child was still alive, even though his brother lay beneath the unyielding stone. The Seven hadn’t taken her firstborn from her.
The smile died on her face as she glimpsed the dark-haired form slumbering beside him. Skin as pale as snow and closed storm-grey eyes similar to the son she had buried just hours ago. Catelyn had hoped that a second son with such a strong resemblance to him would draw Ned away from his bastard. She could never bear to look at the child for long, this little girl that was so undoubtedly a Stark that none could deny her husband’s dishonour of her. Even now, with her half-brother having commandeered their shared blankets, Lyarra Snow slept on, ever resilient of the cold.
“It should have been you,” Catelyn said bitterly. Her hand reached out to touch that pale cheek, wavered and then drew back. “Your death would have cleansed the world of sin.”
New pain, from the child ripped from her arms, and old shame, from the child clasped protectively in her war-ridden husband’s arms, intermingled within her. Envy, thick and cloying and sickly warm in the sudden cold, crawled up her spine. Her heart clenched tighter and tighter for the bastard she-wolf that was not the second son she had borne.
‘You’re taking his space!’ Catelyn wanted to shout at her. It was irrational. She knew it was irrational but… ‘My Hoster should be there. He should be Robb’s playmate and closest friend. He should be the one squealing as my Ned throws him into the air. He should be stumbling over wooden blocks and hiding under the covers during storms. Not you!”
Why would the Mother have done this to her? Had she not been faithful? Had she not followed their teachings even in the lands of the Old Gods? Had she not accepted her husband’s bastard, perhaps not kindly but with forbearance for the insult she bore? Why hadn’t the Stranger taken this Snow child away, this sin in the eyes of the Seven?
Why had the Stranger stolen away with her little Hoster?
There was a wooden stool beside the crib and she collapsed there, tears running down her cheeks. The first sobs were choked whimpers but they steadily grew louder, helpless and furious over the injustice of the world. How could the Seven do this to her? Why would the Seven do this to her?
‘Because I couldn’t love a motherless child.’ The answer came as easily as the fury when her sobs drew Lyarra Snow from slumber. Sleepy eyes of stormy grey stared up at her, so similar to her Ned’s, so similar to the babe in the crypts… Catelyn released a spluttered laugh.
“You’re my penance,” she choked out, eyes bright and not a little wild as she looked at the babe, “I couldn’t love another woman’s child so my own was taken from me.”
The tears fell silently as the rage in her only grew. The Seven were right. She couldn’t love another woman’s child, not when it was also Ned’s. He shouldn't have betrayed her. Not when she had fallen in love with him.
Family. Duty. Honor.
She had lived her life by these words, accepted duty when her husband betrayed both family and honor. She had done her duty by his bastard and she had lost her Hoster for it.
Catelyn reached out and drew one finger down the babe’s cheek. Lyarra Snow gurgled up at her, innocently trusting, as the woman’s heart clenched further. Her head felt foggy, her limbs laden, as Catelyn stood up. How was she still even breathing?
It was in a dream that she picked the bastard up. A cloudy recollection as she wandered to the fire and sat before it. The heat was almost unbearing up close but Lyarra seemed entirely unbothered. Neither ice nor fire drew out whimpers from this child and Catelyn hated her just a little more for it.
It should have been her. The Stranger had made a mistake. Catelyn would fix it, fix this mistake, and when the Snow child was taken away, her Hoster would return.
The flames were so close. She picked up one tiny, stocking-laden foot and drew it over the flames. Lyarra Stark gurgled again as her tears fell on those snow-white cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” Catelyn told her. “I have to do this. I have to bring Hoster back.”
She let the foot go. Tongues of fire licked at the fabric, tore it to ashes. Quickly, before she could force herself to step away, Catelyn pushed the toddler into the hearth. Her entire body engulfed in flames.
Lyarra Snow glowed incandescent. Lyarra Snow did not cry. It was hot and bright and Lyarra Snow would not burn.
Catelyn Stark could not say how long she sat there and watched the hearth. The bastard curled up in the flames and stared back at her, silent and inhuman, as her body was bathed in fire. Embers sparked over dark brown hair, casting it into rich golden strands, and flares ran up her thin arms. Each stitch of clothing was stripped away but her flesh remained unburnt and the color of fallen snow.
Lyarra Snow was incandescent.
‘What manner of creature did Ned bring into our home?’ Catelyn wondered. Fear stirred in her breast at the thought of the monster that shared her baby’s bed. ‘The child does not burn.’
The bastard began to stir, her uncommon acquiescence tested by boredom and hunger. She could toddle well enough by now but preferred to crawl or better yet, sit instead. Lyarra like to make herself a nest of blankets around her latest interest unless Robb persuaded her into mischief. He wasn’t there now but even a complacent child such as Lyarra didn’t want to sit for long.
Catelyn moved back as the babe grabbed the smoky walls of the hearth and pulled herself up. A distant part of her mind noted that the ash did stain her skin. She carefully took one step forward, an unusual level of concentration for a child, as it was followed by a second step and then a third. Sparks fell down her back, the wind snuffling the final tendrils of fire, as Lyarra stepped closer.
The woman couldn’t even name the unidentified emotions in her body now. But as the bastard stumbled, her instinct was not to step back but to catch the falling child. Her skin was warm but not unbearable, stained with ash but not burnt, and Catelyn didn’t know what she could possibly do.
‘Will drowning kill her when fire cannot? Will a pillow smother her face or a wolf tear apart her skin?’
Lyarra shivered in her nudity. By nature, the red-haired woman stood up, the bastard in her arms, and turned to look for her chest of clothes. The child would get sick without proper protection.
Lyarra Snow could get sick, Catelyn knew. She had come to Winterfell in fever and that had been one of her reasons for not turning the bastard away. In truth, Catelyn had hoped that the sickbed would become her deathbed as well, but Lyarra Snow persevered and Ned and Robb grew attached.
She looked down at the child. Stormy-grey eyes looked back. Catelyn wondered in her head would shatter if she dropped her now.
A part of her was tempted to do so. Another part recoiled as sense trickled back into her. It was followed quickly by shame, as she brought Lyarra to the changing table and dressed her in a boy’s jerkin. The girl’s clothing was placed in another room, where she was meant to live with a wet nurse. More often than not though, Lyarra wound up in the nursery, as Robb fussed without his favourite security blanket.
“I just tried to kill a child,” Catelyn said softly. One child died by her lack of faith and a second almost by her own hand. Ned would have been utterly destroyed if she had.
“How could you be my Ned’s child?” Catelyn asked, almost plaintively. “You look like a Stark but you don’t burn. Are you even human?”
Lyarra smiled up at her guilelessly. She didn’t talk much either, unlike Robb who would happily babble nonsense words to her for hours on end. Catelyn couldn’t bring herself to smile back.
“Everyone burns,” Catelyn cocked her head to the side and added, “Yes, everyone. They say that the Targaryens could withstand fire but that’s not true. Aerion Brightflame died consuming wildfire. I wonder if you would survive.”
Still, even after Aerion, the smallfolk whispered of House Targaryen fireproof skin. Just as they did for Valyrian dragons and Northern wights and Tully river dreamers. Old wives’ tales meant to entertain children and nothing more than that. Yet once the thought popped into her mind, she couldn’t leave.
Lyarra stopped shivering once she was clothed. Catelyn wandered back over to the crib but didn’t put her back in. She didn’t want an unburnt creature beside her son. She stared at Lyarra silently. The Snow child stared back.
She looked just like a Stark. Just like her sweet Ned. She had to be a Stark. How could she be anything else?
“When did Ned bed a Targaryen then?” Catelyn traced the babe’s lips. Bow lips of Valyrian birth were the main fuel for the servant’s gossip of Ashara Dayne. They tended to fall silent when she wandered by but the lady suddenly wished that they had not. She was desperate to know more of this woman.
“Benjen was too young. Brandon died before you could be conceived. Lyarra was stolen away…” Catelyn wondered if it was the wind rushing at her ears then. She felt lightheaded. She felt cold. Ice burned in her veins. “The Silver Prince stole my good-sister to Dorne.”
Where Ned had ridden to find her at the end of the war. Where he had fought against the Kingsguard, even the famously loyal Arthur Dayne that had not fought at his best friend’s side. Where he found a Dayne wet nurse for his bastard daughter.
Family. Duty. Honor.
She had betrayed family when she attempted to kill her good-sister’s daughter.
She had betrayed honor when she attempted to kill her good-sister’s daughter.
She had betrayed duty when she attempted to kill her good-sister’s daughter.
Catelyn carefully returned the dragon in wolf’s skin to the crib, allowing her to cuddle closer to her son. Still caught in sleep, Robb’s pudgy baby fingers reached out to brush against her face. He had ever been too attached to his bastard sist- cousin.
Catelyn sunk to her knees before them and wept.
It was well into the morning when Robb’s nurse walked into the room. The children had both awoken by then, her son having pulled himself up to his feet to babble to her while the dragon child contentedly listened. She could hear ‘mama’, ‘papa’, and ‘lyaa’ well enough in there.
‘The girl needs to be replaced if she’s so late.’ Her thoughts were still so distant from her. Her eyes red and puffy and her body drained of any will to move whatsoever. She could not even manage a glare for the embarrassed girl when she finally rushed into the room and saw the Lady Stark present.
“Don’t be late again,” Catelyn stated. Then she rose to her feet, pressed a light kiss to her son’s brow, averted her eyes from Lyanna’s daughter, and swept out the room. Ned was still asleep as she started to dress herself. She briefly considered shaking him awake to demand why he had hidden a dragon child in their home but the prospect of explaining how she knew that filled her with dread. Instead, she cowardly escaped to the hall for breakfast.
‘Why wouldn’t he tell me the truth?’ Porridge congealed appetizingly in her mouth, her toasted bread must have been made of sawdust. ‘Why would he risk the king’s fury for a dragon child?’
No, that was simple enough to answer. He had saved a Targaryen babe, his own niece, for family, duty, and honor. The same ideals that Catelyn had broken when she risked an innocent.
Would she have hidden a child of Lysa’s or Edmure’s had it been needed? Before today, Catelyn would have said ‘yes’ without a second’s consideration. Before today, she would have claimed that she could never raise a hand against a child too.
Her recollection of her good-sister was a beautiful, spirited young woman with flashing grey eyes and an even quicker smile. When she was betrothed to Brandon, she had thought Lyanna cut from his cloth though her semblance was more striking, a play on dark hair and pale skin. Lyanna looked like her Ned, like Lyarra, who also looked like Ned.
But Lyarra was reserved and observant, where her mother had been lively and animated. In that manner, she was similar to her husband, the Quiet Wolf. She was also similar to Rhaegar Targaryen, the handsome prince with the melancholy air and keen violet gaze.
Lyarra Snow did not look like Rhaegar Targaryen. But then, Lyarra Snow also did not burn.
‘Why wouldn’t he tell me the truth?’ She wanted to be angry at him for lying to her. She wanted to beg his forgiveness for believing that he would dishonor her. She wanted to drown in the shame of trying to kill an innocent child, much less her own neice.
Catelyn couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t tell. Then she couldn’t understand why he would tell her. She closed her eyes and wondered if he had any reason to do so.
‘So that I could treat her fairly.’ Her first argument was dismissed shortly thereafter. Had her Ned expected her to be kind even without the lie? Had he tested her willingness to forgive and found her at fault for her pain and hurt?
‘Did he think I would deny refuge to a child that would brand us traitors?’
This reason was a little more realistic and far more painful to her. If she knew that the child was her family, not her husband’s bastard for that could never be family to her, then Catelyn would have been bound by Tully words. Family. Duty. Honor. Did Ned think that she would abandon these tenets?
‘Even if Robert Baratheon himself were battering down our doors, I wouldn’t have- I- I-’ She could feel the tears pricking at her eyes again, and she hastily stood up and rushed out the hall. Catelyn couldn’t allow herself to cry in front of the servants, even though all would have attributed it to her recent loss. ‘Would Hoster have loved Lyarra just as much as Robb did?’
Her second son would have been named for her father. It was something Catelyn had demanded after seeing Ned use a traditional Stark name, from his mother even, for his bastard.
‘Was Ned afraid that she would reveal the truth to the King?’ Catelyn shook her head violently to rid herself of the thought. No, no, no, he couldn’t possibly have believed it so. Even if she had not been particularly close to Lyanna, Ned and Benjen had adored her and Brandon even more so.
‘Not to mention, that even had I forsaken my vows, Lyarra would not have been the only one to die. Ned would have been killed for his crime.’
The thought drew her up short. Ned would have been killed. Then Robert would have all of Winterfell interrogated to learn if any other knew the truth. She wouldn’t have known and could have survived.
‘To protect our family, he kept the burden alone.’ Catelyn could have broken down in the corridor. As it was, she barely made it to the nearest guest room before sinking down on the dusty sheets. She wept and wept until there was nothing more that could be wrung from her tired soul.
Ned didn’t know that she knew the truth. And in her shame, she couldn’t bring herself to tell him.
‘But I’ll do better,’ Catelyn swore, clasping her hands in prayer and pressing it to her forehead. She didn’t know who she was praying to now. Her own gods certainly but to any who would listen, even the nameless ones in her husband’s godswood, she made the promise. ‘I’ll carry his burden beside him, even if he should never know. I’ll love Lyarra Snow as my own. I’ll never allow any harm to come to her. I’ll atone for my failure. I’m so sorry, Lyanna.’
Ned attributed her recent silences and red-rimmed eyes to Hoster’s death. She didn’t correct him of it when she returned to the hall. He attempted to offer her comfort several times, placing his hand over her’s or putting her favorite dishes in front of her but each effort only widened the gulf of pain inside. The guilt made her practically fold into herself yet Ned looked so forlorn by the gesture that she was eventually driven to accept them. In the end, Catelyn was strung between selfishly clinging to his support and drowning in the guilt of her unspoken crime.
The children were brought to the table beside her and for once, Catelyn didn’t move to draw Robb onto her lap and feed him choice bites from her own plate. Her son looked a little bewildered by this but amused himself with putting more porridge on himself and his sis- cousin than he did his stomach. Lyarra, who was regularly discontented by the morning sun, stared at him grumpily throughout.
She watched them silently and when the familiar resentment grew at the sight, Catelyn squashed it down with ruthless efficiency. Bastard or not, and she still felt mildly uneasy at a term that was near-taboo to all pious nobles, Lyarra Snow was her husband’s niece. Her Robb’s cousin.
“Would you like to go for a walk after the meal?” Ned asked quietly, drawing her attention back to him. “We could visit the glass gardens and find some flowers for Hoster.”
She wanted to say ‘yes’. Gods, there was nothing Catelyn wanted more than to accept this offer and find some freshly picked flowers to brighten the cold and dark crypts. But this wasn’t a kindness that she deserved, so she shook her head and forced a smile.
“Can you take Robb and… and Lyarra with you?” Catelyn managed to ask. “Let them pick some flowers for Hoster. Please.”
Ned’s eyes widened briefly and then he nodded. “Of course.”
He favored her with a smile that turned her stomach to lead and Catelyn fled thereafter. She had work to do as the Lady of Winterfell but the bare necessities for the upkeep of the castle could be put off briefly. Later, servants would be coordinated, market orders dispatched, and records updated for the recent hands lost to harvest season. Now the Lady Stark marched resolutely to the library and searched for the folklore section.
It was difficult to find a book on House Targaryen. Almost all mention of the dragons had been suppressed after the rebellion as loyalists fled underground and the current dynasty attempted to burn any information remaining. The North had never had much knowledge of them to begin with but the first book found revealed the information freely.
Members of House Targaryen were immune to fire. A fable except for the bastard child that she had pushed into the hearth last night. Lyarra Stark had been incandescent but unburnt. She was a dragon.
‘My husband is a traitor to the crown,’ Catelyn thought dully, ‘I’m a traitor to the crown.’
The idea of how Robert Baratheon were to react should he ever learn the truth suddenly made the apparent dishonour of a bastard child all the more appealing. She didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry at this point.
‘I’m tired of crying. I promised to make up for my faults and the first step to doing that starts now.’
Family. Duty. Honor. Family. Duty. Honor. Family. Duty. Honor.
The words reverberated with each step as she made her way out of the library. An available maid alerted her that Ned was still in the glass house. When she arrived, he was kneeling between the two children, attempting to console their crying son. Catelyn’s skirts swept across the stone floor as she walked over to them. Her Ned looked so utterly relieved at the sight of her that she couldn’t help but smile. She knelt beside him and Robb immediately presented his bloody fingertips to her.
“He tried to pick a winter rose for Lyarra,” Ned explained gruffly. She withdrew a handkerchief embroidered in winding river patterns and gently cleaned up her sniffling son.
“Did he now?” Catelyn cast her sight towards the Snow child. Her niece was shifting between her feet, looking terribly close to tears herself. In her hands, a fully bloomed rose rested, fingers carefully placed between thorns. The same flower that her mother adored, that her father had woven into a crown and bestowed to his ill-fated lover. “Did you like the rose Lyarra?”
The startled child nodded and then cringed. No doubt she expected a rebuke from her now. “I’m glad you like it. Did you thank Robb?”
Lyarra shook her head. “‘Tank you, Robb.”
Her firstborn seemed to have forgotten his injury as he happily grinned back. “Mama, I-” A series of unintelligible words. “ -for Lyaa!”
“Indeed. Now why don’t you pick another flower Robb? For someone else now?”
Her son nodded and the children walked off. More accurately, Robb grabbed his cousin’s hand and dragged her around until Lyarra found a flower pretty enough to make her stay. When she eventually plopped down before a royal blue carnation, the color of deep river waters, Robb decided that this would be the next flower to be picked. Catelyn silently approved; they would add some much needed colour and fragrance to her baby boy’s grave.
As the small family left the glass house, Ned held Lyarra while she carried on to Robb. Catelyn had expected only the small bouquet of carnations to be placed over the grave but didn’t protest as Lyarra carefully added her rose to the pile. As they walked back out, Ned’s hand slipped into her own and she squeezed it. There was still plenty of guilt inside of her but… Catelyn felt that she was moving on.
Catelyn Stark, the Lady of Winterfell, did her best to atone for the mistakes of her past year with the Snow child but it was not as simple as knowing the truth. She still instinctively cringed at the sight of those Stark eyes and hair but would fight through her immediate rejection. It helped to know that the child was of dragon stock too so that she could focus on those Valyrian bow lips, high cheekbones, and narrow chin. Her good-sister’s daughter would grow up to be an exquisite beauty… an understanding that still brought her grief though her reasons had changed.
No longer did she care that the child’s mother must have been a great beauty to seduce her Ned. Now she was more concerned by the interest other parties could show to an even more beautiful spectre of Lyanna Stark.
It was a concern to be handled in the distant future though. Lyarra was still a child of not-yet-two summers and she was growing up healthy and happy. Catelyn attempted to draw her into some of the activities she shared with Robb and was relieved to find her son too good-natured to fall into jealousy for it. She would try to offer kind words for her drawings, soft lullabies before wishing her good sleep, and her own hands to wash, bathe, and feed the child. After she directed one of the servants to build a swing of wood and rope, like the one Catelyn had shared with Lysa and Edmure in her childhood, she pushed both children on the contraption. In a rare occurrence, Lyarra had laughed with gleeful abandon, for once as free and open as any other child, and Catelyn’s heart soared.
It was startling even how quickly Lyarra took to her kindness. Had she been so starved of a mother’s touch that she would latch onto Catelyn’s own awkward attempts so fiercely? It seemed to be true and compelled the red-haired woman to try even harder with her niece. The servants that noticed this significant change in behavior whispered that it was due to the hole left in her heart by Hoster’s passing. Catelyn burned to use her dead son as a falsehood for her redemption but the knowledge of how precarious her family’s situation truly was, stilled her tongue.
If Ned shared the servant’s thoughts, he never spoke to her of them. He had attempted to breach his lack of understanding once, when he first saw her offer some of her favorite lemon cakes to Lyarra but her pleading gaze stilled his tongue. Her husband seemed all the more appreciative of her change in nature though; amusing Robb with his own silly tales as he covertly watched her interact with Lyarra in contentment.
The Seven must have been pleased with her efforts as well for after the next few fortnights, her moon’s blood was absent. Catelyn held her breath and went about her days with determined obliviousness. It was not until she felt the babe quicken in her womb that she rushed to Maester Luwin for confirmation. His response made her rejoice.
Ned had been out hunting so the first room she entered was the nursery.
“Robb, Lyarra!” The children looked up curiously as the woman nearly glided into the room. With a giddy smile on her face, she placed one kiss on her son’s brow and then a second on her niece. “You’re to have another sibling!”
Edmure Tully was genuinely glad to see Cat so happily situated. Despite being confined to her rooms with an outrageously massive stomach- was she to birth her husband another heir or a giant?- his sister was practically glowing as she welcomed him in. Sharing the bed with her was his nephew and niece, cheerfully ruining the blank parchment before them with their artistic masterpieces. While he was glad to see them both, he wondered to the greater forbearance by which his sister was treating her husband’s bastard. When he had seen her last, Cat could barely stand to look at the girl.
“Nuncle Edmure!” Robb was the one to first declare him. “Hello nuncle.”
“My favorite nephew, Robb!” Edmure declared with equal vigor. “It is good to see you again, my nephew. How you have grown since our last meeting. Have you been treating your mother well?”
The auburn haired boy nodded confidently. “Been quiet for mama. And made a pic’ture for the baby.”
“It’s a very nice… sailboat Robb,” Edmure responded, squinting down at the scribbles. The one beside it was a little neater. “And I like your flower very much, Lady Lyarra.”
The dark-haired girl beside his nephew looked hesitant. She appeared more carefree when Edmure kissed her knuckles with a flourish though, even giggling a little. “It’s not flower. A lion.”
“Hmm, now that I think about it, those petals do look a great deal like Cersei Lannister’s ridiculous hair loops. Very astute, my niece.”
“Edmure!” Despite her admonishment, he was sure that she found his comment amusing. The smile on Cat’s face was tighter than usual though. “Don’t insult the royal family.”
“With such a sober, pious monarch and generous, warm-hearted queen, how could anyone think to mock the crown?” Edmure jested. His mirth faded at her unimpressed look. “My apologies, dear sister. I had recently visited King’s Landing to see Lysa and must have been influenced by her humors.”
Catelyn frowned. “What do you mean brother? Is Lysa in trouble?”
“None but for the grief that she finds for herself. She does not appear amused with her husband.”
‘Unlike you,’ he considered adding, ‘The woman whose husband brought a bastard home is more content in the frigid North than the wife with the faithful husband in the position of King’s Hand. You’re even raising a Snow with more grace and aplomb than I had ever considered for you, Cat.’
Perhaps that was the problem then. Lysa’s husband was faithful but absent, while Ned showered his pregnant wife with all the attention of a man deeply in love. Lysa had no children of her own but Cat had two to nurture, even if one child was born to another woman.
Edmure bit his lip and considered testing his sister’s newfound forgiveness further. He was not oft driven to such manipulations but it was tempting nonetheless. The heir to Riverrun reached into his cloak’s pocket for two small wrapped packages. He was in the habit of sharing these gifts in secret to protect his sister from the grief of acknowledging Lyarra Snow.
“I have brought sweets for the children,” Edmure announced, looking Cat directly in the eye. “With your permission, I would like to gift them now.”
Robb perked up at the mention of sweets. “Mama, please, can we have them?”
Lyarra Snow did not speak but her pleading gaze passed the message on just as well. Cat considered the matter and at the cusp of when Edmure was sure she would reject him, she nodded.
“One,” Cat warned sternly. “I do not want you to spoil your appetites for dinner.”
“They’re special fruit candies from the Stormlands. Here, Robb, try a blueberry one. I think you would like it. And for one as sweet as little Lyarra, perhaps a strawberry? Oh, but if you prefer the tangerines than you should select that one instead. I am fond of them myself!”
Edmure couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face as his nephew and niece selected their treats. Robb accepted his suggestion freely and shoved half into his mouth with the first bite. Lyarra spent more time studying the offerings before accepting an orange jelly with poorly hidden delight.
“Thank you,” Lyarra said shyly, ducking her head down. Edmure was charmed by the action. She poked her brother and he echoed her words.
“Honestly Edmure, you spoil my children,” Cat chided. “Now, give me that strawberry one and tell me which of Father’s matchmaking efforts drove you to visit your sisters this time.”
“Cat, you wound me! I have never visited Winterfell for any reason but the greatest sincerity to see my sister and her family!”
“Then you shall be glad to know that I have invited a few Northern ladies to the castle on our uncle’s recommendation.”
“Cat! How could you?”
“I was in need of company during my internment. Perchance, have you met Lady Jonelle Cerwyn yet?”
Catelyn’s third pregnancy proceeded well and soon, the red-haired, blue-eyed Sansa Stark bloodily slid out into the world. She proved her wolf heritage well enough with the power in her tiny lungs, making her mother wince in pain and her father laugh out loud. Edmure Tully hadn’t left yet so he was the one to escort Robb and Lyarra in to meet their new sister. The former looked at his fussy, violently pink sibling with a dubious expression and wondered aloud if the baby would always be bald. The latter hit his arm and told the new parents that Sansa was adorable.
“She’s an awful liar, Cat. Definitely Ned’s genes right there,” Edmure joked.
‘You would be surprised little brother.’ Catelyn offered the Snow child a tired smile. “She’ll look far more normal when her hair grows in a bit Lyarra.”
Sansa was followed by a second daughter, dark-haired and grey-eyed Arya, that Lyarra was quickly smitten by. Any moment where the eldest two children were not practicing their letters or their sums was devoted to amusing one sister or the other. The years passed peacefully in this manner and any of the bannerman that visited Winterfell in that time were able to note the quiet contentment of their liege lord. Ned made a happy picture besides his wife, heir, and three daughters, two of whom were as blatantly of the First Men blood as it was possible to be. She grew ever closer to Ned in this period, their love sparking and growing like wildfire without her resentment to hold it back, and Cat attributed this to the fact that Arya was barely turning on her stomach before she fell with child again.
‘I’m praying for this one to be a son,’ she wrote to Edmure later, ‘Ned is pleased to have three daughters to spoil but a spare heir for the harsh North would not be unappreciated. I think he would like to have a son to name after Brandon too…’
‘A second grandson may even distract Father from his attempts to marry me off,’ Edmure wrote back, ‘One would think Riverrun empty of all sound and joy from how he complains of the quiet. You must make time to visit us after the birth, so the halls can echo with children’s laughter once again. Bring Lyarra as well, Father appears willing to meet her…’
Lady Catelyn Stark was entirely satisfied when she received the invitation and even more so when her husband agreed to the planned visit. Not only did she miss her childhood home and family but it allowed her the chance to solicit the advice of two of the wisest men she knew. Should Lyarra’s identity ever be revealed, the Baratheons and Lannisters would call for her head. Since her husband and son would never acquiesce to those demands, the North would be dragged to war. With Jon Arryn as the King’s Hand, the Martells smarting from the death of Elia’s children, and the other Houses unfamiliar with or actively hostile to the North, it would be the Riverlands she would turn to first. She knew her Lord Father would never allow his grandson to march to war alone.
Thoughts of a potential war casting a pallor on her day, Catelyn pushed the thought from her mind and made her way to the kitchens. She had a sudden and inexplicable craving for candied yams.
The morning of Robb’s sixth nameday heralded the first serious fight between the two friends. Neither of them were aware of the eventuality though as they were dressed up by the servants, Lyarra and Sansa in wool dyed dresses and Robb in a matching forest green doublet. Of the three, only Sansa looked in any way pleased by her fashionable attire.
“Do you think they made lemon cakes?” Sansa asked hopefully, reaching for her elder sister’s hand.
“Of course they did. Everyone knows that they’re your favorite treat,” Lyarra assured. “Let’s go down before Robb gets his hands on them.”
The knowledge that her brother might get to them first and even feel entitled to enjoy them all on his nameday lent wings to her most well-behaved sibling’s feet. Rather than attempt to gracefully walk down to the hall- “just like mama!”- Sansa sprinted down the winding stairs like a champion. Lyanna kept pace beside her, well used to one sibling or the other dragging her around their home.
“Faster Lyarra! He’ll be down there by now!” Sansa leapt down the bottom four steps, fishtail braid bouncing in the air, and ran straight down the corridor to the great hall. Lyarra slowed down to a jog behind her to apologetically smile at all of the amused servants that her sister had run by.
“I’m sorry about that. Sansa didn’t mean to push anyone.” She helped pick up the bedsheets before leisurely walking into a scene where an unrepentantly pleased redhead was being halfheartedly scolded by her father. The reason for that pleasure was probably the sugar-frosted cake being nibbled on while Sansa babbled her apologies. Arya had her own treat in front of her though it was mashed more into a paste than any form of cake now.
“She pushed me off my seat to get to the platter,” Robb told her, more amused than irritated as he offered her one. “Here. I saved two before Sansa stole the rest of the plate.”
“Thank you.” Lyarra crumbled hers over the porridge the servants brought in and took a bite. The tart sweetness of the lemon only added to the warm honey flavor of the hot oats. Breakfast passed peacefully from there until Ned Stark put his fork down.
“Robb, you’ve reached six namedays now. I think it’s time that you begin your swordsmanship lessons in earnest.”
The red-haired boy’s eyes widened in eagerness. Lyarra’s stomach filled with anticipation too. She knew her brother had been waiting for this day for over a year now. “Father, do you mean-”
“Yes. I’ve spoken to Ser Rodrik and he will expect you to join him until noon each day for lessons. You will use a blunted sword in training rather than the wooden one you play with now.”
Robb practically beamed at the news. “I will not let the Stark name down Father!”
“I’m sure that you’ll do well son,” Lord Stark replied, the ends of his mouth lifting up.
“May I attend Robb’s lessons too?” Lyarra’s excitement dropped as her father’s smile faded. “Do I need to wait until my own name day? It’s only two months away… can’t I practice earlier Father?”
“You won’t be attending my lessons, Lyaa.”
“But it would be silly to have Ser Rodrik explain the basics twice when he can teach us at the same time.”
“No. I mean that you won’t be attending lessons at all. You won’t have any sword lessons.”
“Why not? You’re allowed to have lessons and you’re the same age as I am!”
“I’m a boy and you’re not,” Robb tried to explain, “I need to be a swordsman to protect the North. You’re a lady and ladies don’t need to learn how to use a sword.”
“And why don’t ladies need to learn how to use a sword?”
“Because they have men to take care of them.” Robb saw the distress lining her features and tried to make her feel better. “You needn’t worry, Lyaa. I’ll protect you from anyone that tries to hurt you.”
“I don’t want you to protect me! I want Ser Rodrik to teach me how to fight!”
“Why don’t you want me to protect you?” Now it was Robb’s turn to be hurt. “Do you think I can’t?”
“I want to learn to fight,” Lyarra repeated. “Father, please, can’t I learn besides Robb?”
“That’s stupid!” The Heir to Winterfell exploded. “Father, Lyaa shouldn’t be out there fighting! She could get hurt!”
“You could get hurt!”
“I’m a boy!”
“You’re an idiot!”
“Enough!” Lord Eddard Stark’s voice boomed throughout the great hall, attracting more than his family’s attention but forcing the eldest two children silent. “Robb, kindly do not shout over your sister’s words. You are six-years-old now and I expect you to act with greater maturity than this.”
“And Lyarra…” Ned sighed and considered how to respond to her. “Do not call your brother an idiot. I know that you would like to attend Robb’s lessons but he is correct. A lady does not wield a sword.”
The two murmured their assent and fell quiet. Robb attempted to covertly catch dark violet eyes but Lyarra determinedly refused to face him. And Lady Stark watched it all with a contemplative frown.
Before Catelyn Tully had grown up to be a Lord Paramount’s wife, she was the eldest daughter of a Great House without any sons. Edmure was eight years her junior and her mother, Lady Minisa Whent, had had a difficult pregnancy with Lysa. On her uncle’s advice, her father had reluctantly allowed her to attend lessons meant for an heir: advanced mathematics, history and geography, diplomacy, strategy, and yes, even warfare. Catelyn had even shown some talent with a rare weapon used primarily in the Riverlands: the trident. The lessons were swiftly ended after Edmure reached his first name day and her family was assured that he would live but Catelyn had received them.
They were a feature of her education that Hoster Tully had never mentioned to Rickon Stark. Despite the motivation behind her son’s declaration, he was essentially correct. Ladies do not fight, not even in the North unless they come from the isolated and fierce Bear Island. Any daughter hoping for a proper Southron marriage would eschew the sword.
Unfortunately the realities of the situation made such a marriage unfeasible. Even had she not been a bastard, Catelyn would never be so foolish as to allow Lyarra south of the Neck. Similarly, Sansa would make for an excellent Southron lady but her decision would need to be carefully weighed to a son that would neither advocate war nor hand over a hostage to the Lannisters and Baratheons. There was the additional concern of cementing the North’s loyalty before the truth came out. Lord Rickon lost much influence when he tried to marry his children off to the South and Catelyn’s matchmaking would be received even less favorably.
‘If marriage is not the concern, why not let her fight?’ Lyarra would have her father’s guardsmen to protect her but her mother could boast the same before a dragon stole her away to Dorne. Done with some discretion and it could benefit all of her daughters to learn to protect themselves.
Her decision made, she followed her husband to his solar. As she waited for him to notice her, the Lady Stark admired the understated beauty of the room. It was simply furnished in dark woods, a black bear skin rug, and pale blue curtains. The desk had a tidy pile of parchment, an opened ink bottle, a small portrait his siblings, and a direwolf seal.
“Catelyn? Is there anything you need to discuss with me?”
“Lyarra’s lessons. I understand that you would like to keep her away from Septa Mordane?”
“Lyarra is of the North. She shouldn’t be educated on the Seven,” Ned responded. “And I do not approve of the way the Septa describes bastards.”
“I’ll speak to her about that. But if she won’t receive any lessons from the Septa than I think she should have them with me.”
“What do you intend to teach her?”
“As Maester Luwin’s lessons on history and maths are more than adequate, I’ll leave those subjects to him. There are other topics to be covered for a highborn lady: the arts of conversation, of music, of dance and so on. Running a household is an important skill. Falconry was popular enough at court, we may do that as well. And I do not see why a few games of cyvasse could not be played.”
Her husband’s brow furrowed. “You mean to teach Lyarra the strategy of warfare?”
“Nonsense, husband. My Uncle Bryden and I played many games together when I was a young girl. It is a perfectly respectable pastime and one that I enjoyed very much.”
“Ah, my good father must have forgotten to mention that talent.” Ned’s tone shifted to amusement.
“It escaped his memory entirely, I’m sure,” Catelyn responded flippantly. “And think, you’ll have your own opportunity to conveniently forget your daughter’s abilities when a sensible young man appears.”
“My daughters are all far too young to marry any man,” Ned declared. “Not that I would consider one that fears a game of cyvasse with his own wife.”
“A sensible decision. Mayhap we needn’t share all of their skills though. There’s no reason for a lady to unsheathe her sword when there are men to protect her.”
“You… mean to give Lyarra a sword?”
“I mean to train her with a sword and gift her with a dagger,” Cat corrected, “The latter is far easier to slip into sheath underneath a lady’s skirts.”
“I see. I didn’t think you would ever approve of such lessons for the girls,” Ned admitted. “Since it would damage their marriage prospects.”
“There won’t be anyone to know of the lessons. Ser Rodrik is one of our most loyal men. The cellar is cool and empty at this time of the year and other areas can be found in a castle this large, I’m sure.”
“Mind you, I will never allow a daughter of mine to ride to war,” she added.
“Neither would I.” A smile crossed her husband’s face and he stepped around his desk to clasp her closer. “It seems I was promised a Southron flower and received a hidden Nymeria instead.”
“I command no men to war, my lord,” Catelyn responded, attempting to appear nonchalant with her cheeks flushing. “I beg your leave now to discuss this with Lyarra.”
“Very well.” The twinkle in her husband’s eye was her only warning before he pulled her into a short yet fiercely passionate kiss. “We will return to our discussions tonight then.”
Catelyn offered only the briefest of curtsies before stepping outside and into the nearest empty alcove. She could hardly meet any servants with her heart beating at such a pace or her cheeks competing with the Tully sigil for their brightness. ‘That damnable man…’ she thought fondly.
When her composure had been regained, she moved to secure all three of her girls and bring them to her private sitting rooms. Arya and Sansa were occupied by their teething toy and dolls respectively while Lyarra was sat across from her on a small settee. Cat dismissed all but Kara, her personal childhood maidservant, and picked up her most recent sewing project. Lyarra picked at her own simple shooting star pattern.
“Lyarra, I would like to speak to you of your brother’s lessons. Do you understand why you cannot attend them?”
“Because ladies aren’t allowed to fight,” was the sullen response. “But I’m not a lady so Father should allow me to attend.”
“And what makes you think that you’re not a lady?”
“I’m a bastard,” Lyarra pointed out, matter-of-fact. “Bastards can’t be ladies but they can be knights.”
“Women cannot be knights regardless of whether they are trueborn or bastards, my dear,” Catelyn replied. “And I do not want to hear you call yourself a bastard again. You are a lady.”
The dark-haired girl pouted. “Am not. Pollock said that Snows are the names of bastard children.”
“Does Pollock know more than I do?”
Lyarra appeared to consider that for a moment. Pollock was six-and-ten and lived up in the mountains before he became a guard. Lady Catelyn had never been to the mountains but she was from the Riverlands, which was even further away, and Lyarra reckoned that she and father were only a few namedays short of Old Nan. And Old Nan was ancient. She shook her head ‘no’.
“Then if I say that you’re a lady, you must be a lady,” Catelyn stated. “Snow may be your surname now but you will lose it when your husband gives you his.”
Lyarra considered this even further. “I want to be a Stark. Can Robb be my husband?”
“No. It’ll likely be a Cerwyn or a Karstark or a Glover that’ll take you to their home,” Catelyn chuckled.
Her niece didn’t look impressed. “I don’t want to leave Winterfell for another home.”
“Then it’s fortunate that your father will have to be held at swordpoint to give you away.”
“What if I give up a husband for a sword instead?” Lyarra offered, looking up at her with pleading violet eyes. “Please? Boys are stupid. Can’t you speak to Father to give me a sword instead?”
It took all of Catelyn’s control not to burst into laughter here. Instead, she leaned forward and tapped her niece’s nose. Lyarra became cross-eyed as she attempted to look directly at the finger.
“Even if your father could be convinced to teach you, you’ll never become the swordsman Robb will be,” Catelyn responded gently. “No, Lyarra, I want you to listen to me. My son is tall and strong for his age, he will only grow more so. You have a slim body and will never attain much girth.”
‘To her fortune, really. Damn Rhaegar Targaryen and his trim figure. Lyarra would never be denied sweets for her expanding waistline.’
Before her niece could fall into one of her mulish silences, Catelyn continued. “Unlike Robb, you have the potential to be a swift and agile swordsman. Your Aunt was a good horsewoman and archer, you may excel there too. You are a woman and they will underestimate you for that alone. Play to your strengths Lyarra, when you have not the natural advantages to fight a man on his own field.”
Lyarra perked up and then recalled her situation. “Father said that I can’t attend Robb’s lessons.”
“And so you can’t. But Ser Rodrik can still teach you in secret. A falchier is lightweight and has decent reach. Daggers are discrete and can be hidden throughout your person. You can have your own lessons as long as you agree to keep the knowledge hidden.”
Her eyes gleamed. “I will! Can I tell Robb?”
“If you would like to.” Scarcely had Catelyn finished with her permission, than her niece was rushing out the door to find her son. Shaking her head in resignation, she returned to the stitching. She regretted it less than an hour later when Kara notified her that Lyarra had run back to the children’s rooms after having a screaming match with Robb.
Having already dealt with one child’s sullenness, she went to deal with another’s anger.
“Do you know that your sister is in the nursery rooms crying into her pillow right now?”
Robb looked up from the book he wasn’t even pretending to read with the blue of his eyes heightened by red. He didn’t answer but from the way his shoulders began to restlessly shift around, she knew her words had made their impact. “I just wanted to keep her safe.”
“I know you do,” Catelyn soothed. “But don’t you want her to be able to protect herself when the guards aren’t present?”
Her son’s chin jutted out stubbornly. “I wouldn’t leave her alone.”
“And I’m sure that she appreciates that. Lyarra knows that this is a skill that she will hopefully never have to use. A lady does not ride into battle after all.”
Robb’s head inclined to the side. “Then why does Lyarra want to fight so much?”
“She’s attracted to the glamour of it. But I’m sure her enthusiasm would dampen when she learns how it would damage her marriage prospects if others knew that she could fight.”
A strange light entered Robb’s eyes. “Oh. Well, I guess it’s okay to let her practice then.”
“You should speak to her,” Catelyn suggested as her son scrambled to his feet. “And Robb, you must not tell anyone- Robb!”
Unfortunately her son had already fled the library by then in his haste to apologize. Catelyn looked at her stomach, round and full with a child, and decided that her firstborn had enough sense for the warning to be unnecessary. She was sure he knew to keep his silence.
A month later, Lord Cerwyn and his son had come by to pay their respects to House Stark on a trip south. Young Cley Cerwyn made the mistake of commenting favorably on the crown of white wildflowers over Lyarra’s dark curls.
“She’s learning how to fight,” Robb told him. “Ser Rodrik says she’s a natural with her daggers and is taking well to the flechier too.”
Brandon Stark was born on a cloudless night with a full moon’s sky to herald his coming. There was hardly any need for candles with all of the silver moonlight pouring into the room. All of the children had fallen asleep by then but had visited her rooms before their bedtime. Catelyn was still awake from the contractions regularly hitting her abdomen. It would seem her fourth child had no intention of leaving her yet.
“These feathers could serve as stuffing for a small pillow, my lady.” She nodded absently at the Maester’s words. There had been a murder of crows flying through the godswoods today and Lyarra and Robb had been kind enough to gather as many of their molten feathers as they could.
“It would make a fine gift for a newborn babe,” Catelyn said. Indeed a pillow made of these strikingly soft feathers would be of greater comfort for a resting head than the common straw ones. “I wo- ah!”
Her last word was lost to a sharp gasp and then another, as the contractions grew closer together. Immediately, Maester Luwin found himself by her side and after the first scream tore itself from her throat, her dozing husband was by the bed as well. The pain was not uncommon for a birth and Cat was no unblooded mother, so she grit her teeth and kept on pushing. Once it began, the process was blessedly short and little more than an hour passed before she felt a head slipping through her. Then a torso and legs and Cat was shrieking in pain at this point and utterly terrified when she could not hear another cry.
For a second, she thought the babe lost to her and her heart broke itself into two.
Then Maester Luwin’s hand slapped against bare flesh and another voice, high-pitched and screechy, was wailing beside her own.
Cat fell bonelessly to her bed and beamed. The servants coaxing her into the afterbirth caught none of her attention, nor did her husband’s shining eyes and proud smile as they announced it to be a boy. Instead Catelyn closed her eyes and listened contentedly to her third son’s wailing.
‘He’s alive. My little Brandon is alive. I won’t have to bury a second son beside my Hoster.’
They cleaned her up and she waited impatiently for them to bring Brandon to her. When he finally arrived, she looked down at his squinched, unhappy child’s face and knew that she would adore him just as she did his brother and sisters and cousin. Brandon Stark had hair of such a deep auburn that it appeared one shade lighter than his sister’s brown. His eyes were the common baby blue but she fancied that it looked much like Robb and Sansa’s had before they turned the color of the deep rivers. She could recall Arya’s being a shade darker even at birth. His narrow face was hers reborn but those unmanageable eyebrows were certainly Ned’s.
“This is our third son,” Catelyn told her husband fiercely. “He will ride with Robb and swordfight with Lyarra. Sansa will fuss over him and Arya draw him into all manner of mischief. And when he grows older, he will pluck a flower from the glass gardens and give it to Hoster.”
“Our third,” Ned agreed gruffly. “Three sons and three daughters. The Gods have blessed us well.”
Cat felt close to bursting with all of the love she suddenly felt for the man beside her and drowning too, with the guilt of her unspoken crime. But she had gone too far and done too much to ever tell him the truth now. He would separate her from the children, all of them, including Brandon and especially Lyarra, and she couldn’t bare the loss of any of them now. Trails of tears ran down her face as she considered the grave secret she would die to keep away from her husband.
So instead, Lady Stark drew Ned into a kiss, hoping that he would accept the tears as signs of relief and joy rather than sorrow and regret. Then she returned to staring at the fragile, infinitesimal lifeform in front of her with the wonder only a mother could experience.
Brandon Stark, near immediately labelled Bran by his siblings, was a quiet and peaceful child. He slept when he needed to, fussed only when hungry or wet, and rarely cried when others clamoured to hold him. She would have been concerned but the Maester pronounced him hale and healthy, so Cat readied the family for a trip to Riverrun two months later.
Ned would be staying at Winterfell as it was always held by a Stark but the children would all go with her. She selected less heavy clothing for their journey, brushed out the near ancient wheelhouse from the back of the stables, selected a few trustworthy servants to attend to them, and practically barricaded her eldest three into the castle to learn a little of the Riverlands.
“But I’m of the North,” Robb had protested. “Why do I need to know about the Riverlands?”
“You may be Heir to Winterfell but it was a Tully woman that brought you into the world and by the Gods, I’ll take you back out unless you can recite at least ten Houses from your mother’s home.”
“There’s House Frey, brother,” Lyarra offered. “Ser Rodrik says Lord Walder Frey is the most vile, treacherous, greedy, short-sighted son-of-a-snake that ever-”
“-uh, so there’s House Frey,” the dark-haired girl ended lamely. “That’s one.”
Her son brightened. “Really? Let’s see what other lords Ser Rodrick knows about.”
More concerned about the manner in which the knowledge was shared than that given, for she concurred with the Maester-of-Arm’s judgement, Catelyn nonetheless let him go. She knew when to pick her battles after all.
For example, the battle over whether or not her niece would be bringing weapons along the trip. She expressly forbid steel of any kind from entering the wheelhouse, Lyarra begged for a blunted tourney sword instead, she denied it and they somehow reached the compromise where a wooden dagger was allowed. Lady Stark blamed this on Rhaegar Targaryen as well; those violet eyes spelled bewitchment.
The trip south proceeded well. It was summertime now and other than the brief and light snow flurries to blanket the grounds, the roads were fairly passable. They had decided to travel directly by the Kingsroad, thus not having to bother with Lord Son-of-a-Snake as Robb and Lyarra had taken to calling him, and make stops only at inns along the road. On the trip back, she intended to meet with Houses Manderly, Locke, Horwood, Tallheart, and Reed, if possible. The first four were to integrate herself more decidedly into the position of Lady of the North, as well as introduce her eldest son and their future liege lord. The last would accomplish the same goal but had one private hope of hers, to see whether or not Lord Reed could inadvertently be her reason for ‘discovering’ Lyarra’s heritage.
She also took the opportunity to subtly survey her husband’s lands for war. It disheartened her to see Moat Cailin, once the most notorious of the Northern keeps, laid waste to time and neglect. The roads, even the Kingsroad, were little more than etches in mud that made travel scarcely any better. With the Houses spread so far apart, how would men move quickly to amass their armies? The White Knife River held promise for faster travel and with the extensive forests available in the Wolfswood, it was a wonder that more bowyers were not settled along Winterfell. Lady Catelyn saw all of this as she passed and wrote each observation down, for the child curled up beside her firstborn, needed her to.
Catelyn knew that she was moving past the frozen lands of her current home to river-rich midlands of her childhood one when she saw the apple blossoms hang heavy from the trees.
“Oh, Mother, look!” Sansa squealed from the window. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
“The wind is blowing them everywhere!” Lyarra looked delighted. She daringly reached one hand outside and a white-blossomed flower edged in pink landed on her palm. “These blossoms become apples? They’re so small and pretty, surely they can’t turn into ripened, heavy fruit?”
“Not these for the wind has plucked them before their time,” Catelyn answered. “Would you like to rest the wheelhouse and play outside for a little?”
She received a chorus of ‘yes’ in response, even from Robb, and rarely one to deny her children, rapped at the top of the wheelhouse. It slowly rumbled to a stop and then Kara was sent out to request that they settle on the road for an early midday meal. Sending out the maid was hardly necessary since she intended to step out a moment later but Catelyn knew that Kara would delight in a chance to speak to Jory Cassel, shy girl that she was.
‘Look at you. Growing old with five children and now plotting another woman’s love life like a bored matron in a ballroom,’ Cat thought, chuckling to herself. She wrapped a blue scarf around her head, checked that Bran was comfortably warm, and then stepped outside. Her surroundings were more vibrant than the North even on its longest summer day, rich blue and green, joyous white and pink and yet lacking the warmth that only Ned’s smile seemed to bring.
She wandered around with Bran in her arms, keeping an alert eye on her rowdy bunch. Sansa was perched on a rock, quietly stringing together the apple blossoms and grass blades her siblings brought her. Her little she-wolf was crawling over the ground, gleefully pulling out handfuls of grass and offering them to anyone nearby, soiling her dress in the process. Lyarra was methodically sweeping the ground for the perfect flowers while Robb was…
Robb was preparing to be grounded for the remainder of the trip.
“Robb Stark, come down from there this instant!” Unlike his younger brother, Catelyn refused to use his full proper name once she recalled that it was shared with a drunkard Targaryen-hating King.
“In a moment, Mother, I found something!” Her soon-to-be-dead firstborn yelled back. Lyarra abandoned her flower search to look up the apple tree, Robb’s auburn hair blending in startlingly well with the wood. Catelyn promptly grabbed hold of her before she could try and climb up there too.
“Robb, come down from here and I will not be angry with you!” Catelyn lied. Her words had drawn the attention of two of the guardsman, including Jory, and she turned to them. “Can you climb up there and get him down?”
“I don’t think it’ll be needed, my Lady,” Jory answered, pointing up. She clenched Bran tighter and peered upwards through the flurry of apple blossoms that the wind had just now chosen to blow down. It was difficult to place but Robb seemed to have stopped mid-high in the branches and reached out with a fabric of some kind to take something. The handkerchief was secured into the pocket of his breeches and then her errant son was carefully climbing back down.
She waited until both feet were steady on the ground before using one hand to pull him into a tight hug. Robb hugged her back, always pleased to be receiving some form of affection, and then winced when she cuffed his ear. “And why did you try to stop your poor mother’s heart?!”
The auburn boy looked at her sheepish Tully eyes and she felt her anger waver. To reaffirm it, Catelyn cuffed him by the ear again. “I saw a bird’s nest up there.”
“You risked falling and breaking your neck for a chance to peek on some birds?”
“No! I wanted to steal their eggs.” Robb grinned at her dumbfounded expression and withdrew the handkerchief. It was embroidered with a simple starfall design and as he unfurled it six small, olive coloured eggs were revealed. “I saw pheasants flying in the trees and I know that their eggs are Lyarra’s favorite. We can boil them at the next inn and eat them, can’t we?”
Catelyn was torn between the urges to hug him or cuff his ear for the stunt. The earnest expression almost drew praise from her lips before Lyarra spoke.
“You risked falling and breaking your neck for a chance to steal some eggs?”
Robb wilted at his cousin’s tone and even Jory and Micar winced in sympathy for the lordling’s plight. The dark-haired girl didn’t cuff his ear but her actions clearly had a greater impact when she turned around and stomped back to her flowers. Watching her son trail forlornly after her had Catelyn reconsidering her punishment for the boy. Maybe two or three feet of lines would be pain enough.
Being the good mother that she was, Catelyn sat with her daughter to help her make flower crowns. That it was also in the best position to spy on the two was coincidental.
“I don’t know why you’re mad at me,” Robb sulked aloud. “I’ve climbed the trees around Winterfell plenty of times.”
Catelyn made a mental note to add another foot of line writing.
“The trees in the Wolfswood are old enough to support a full grown man’s weight,” Lyarra hissed back. “You don’t know if these Riverland saplings would do the same.”
“I’m lightweight and I pulled on each branch before I climbed it. I knew that I would be safe.”
“No, you didn’t. Pulling doesn’t show whether a branch is strong enough or not.”
“But I didn’t get hurt so they obviously were safe. And I brought you pheasant eggs. Aren’t you happy to have them?”
There was a long pause and then Lyarra’s next words were so soft that she had to strain her ears to hear them. “Did you climb up that tree for me?”
Her son nodded. “Please don’t ever do that again.”
“So you don’t like the pheasant eggs I brought down?”
“I like your unbroken neck even more. But yes, I like the eggs too.”
The two returned to the main group shortly after and Sansa offered Lyarra a flower crown. A brief look of mischief crossed her face when she accepted it, turned around, and put it on Robb’s head instead. “There! A crown of airblown flowers for the best airhead I know.”
Her son grinned back brightly. His face, so Tully-like when calm and focused, was positively wolfish now. “I will wear the crown proudly then.”
And, despite the guard’s minimal teasing, Robb did in fact keep it on for the rest of the day.
The first House that Catelyn ordered a stop for was one that had been most reluctant to march after her Father to war. That hadn’t been a surprising development. With the exception of the North that had banded unanimously in defense of their favorite daughter and perhaps Dorne for Princess Elia, the other kingdoms had held loyalists and rebels alike. House Vance of Atranta was one that owed more perhaps to House Targaryen than most. Their castle was situated between two mighty rivers that oft-flowed crimson before Aegon’s conquest. Even now the coat-of-arms included two defiant emerald dragons in reference to the kings they had knelt to.
The current heir, Ronald Vance, she recalled to be a childhood friend of her brother’s. The current lord, Norbert, having been the one to first call their proposed war ‘treason’. Both would potentially declare for Lyarra if her parentage was revealed.
Atranta was a smaller castle than average but barricaded and garrisoned enough to withstand a half-year’s worth of siege. The portcullis was wrought of shining iron, the battlements of hardy stone three feet wide, and the castle towers lined with slits aplenty for archers to pick people off from afar. It was the exact opposite of the palatial estates found southwards, especially the notoriously beautiful Highgarden, and Catelyn liked it at once.
Lord Norbert stood inside the courtyard, four out of five of his adult sons next to him, as the drawbridge lowered. The Lady Stark indulged her children gawking from the relative privacy of the wheelhouse and then calmed them down before they would all descent. Kara held Arya, Maella held Bran, and Jory was kind enough to offer her a hand as she stepped down.
“Lord Vance. It is a pleasure to see you once more.”
“Lady Catelyn, it has been far too long,” the elderly man gallantly bowed and kissed her hand. “Please find food and shelter within my halls. Eat of my bread and salt and be merry.”
“Thank you, my Lord. I present my children to you,” Catelyn stepped back and gestured to them. Robb came forward easily enough but Sansa hid her face in Kara’s skirts and Lyarra looked wary. “My firstborn Robb, then my daughters, Lyarra, Sansa, and Arya, and my youngest, Bran.”
“Five children, all fair and healthy. Your husband must be a proud and happy man,” Lord Norbert commented, smiling genuinely. “These are my sons. You may remember Ronald and Hugo as childhood friends of your brother. Then there is Ellery, Kirth, and my youngest, Jon, who has just recently received his Maester’s links at Oldtown.”
“My congratulations to Jon. And of course I remember Ronald and Hugo.” Catelyn looked critically at the eldest bearded man a few years her junior and debated the success of a jape. “I trust that you are no longer bribing your steed to carry you around?”
Ronald let out a bark of laughter. “No, my Lady. Tinderfell has been well and truly soothed. Her loyalty is to me instead of my father’s orchard now.”
Any remaining tension dissipated in the air as the Starks and their servants were led into the castle. A satisfied smile crossed her face when they were placed in the quarters reserved for the most honoured guests, a benefit Catelyn had doubted that she would receive as the wife of the Usurper’s best friend. After she ensured that her children were presentable, she refreshed herself and led them down.
“I hope that you still have some fondness for Atranta’s apple tarts, Lady Catelyn.”
“How could I not?” She was sat at the right hand of Lord Norbert, his children descending in age from the left and her own from her side. The exception were Arya and Bran, who had been judged too young to accompany them and Sansa, who was nibbling on a tart at her hand. “They are as delicious as I remember them to be.”
More innocuous remarks were shared of the dishes before conversation turned to her travels.
“I am surprised to find you accompanied by several children southwards.”
“My husband gave his blessing to a brief trip to Riverrun so that my Father can meet his grandsons and granddaughters.”
“I am certain that it would be a delight to Lord Hoster to be surrounded by grandchildren. You are a good daughter to given him so many, Lady Catelyn. Alas my sons have shown no inclination to bless me with any.”
“Father, I would remind you that I am only three-and-twenty years old.”
“Lady Catelyn is six-and-twenty but she has already given her father five grandchildren.”
“Yes, I have been generously blessed by the Seven,” she interjected swiftly. “A significant amount of my time is spent lighting candles in the Sept of Winterfell.”
“There is a Sept in Winterfell? I had believed that the Northerners prayed only to their sava- er, old tree gods.”
“My husband was kind enough to build one for me after my wedding, Ser Ronald.”
“I am pleased that you have received such kindness then, my lady. Are your children also instructed in the faith?”
“They are taught of the Old Gods and the Seven, Lord Norbert. My brother, Edmure, found comfort there too during his trip to Winterfell.”
“Ah, do not speak of that cur to me, Lady Catelyn!”
“Ronald! You are speaking of your future liege lord here and in front of his elder sister as well.”
Ronald Vance had the decency to duck his head down as his cheeks turned red in embarrassment. “Forgive me, my lady. I mean no disrespect. It is merely from my irritation that he fled northwards to his sister’s skirts and left me to entertain his jilted bride-to-be in his place.”
“That does not sound my brother, Ser Ronald.” She sent a mild glare in his direction to make him squirm. “He is of the habit to lessening those hopes by himself before fleeing my father’s anger.”
“Aye but each time he refused one Frey daughter, another would pop up to take her place,” Ronald cried aloud. “I cannot fault him for fleeing, my lady, but certainly he could do the decency of offering to take a friend along?”
Catelyn laughed politely behind her napkin, as her mind whirred over the new knowledge.
“Lord Frey seeks to match one of his many daughters and nieces to my brother then?”
“Your brother would be a prize but the old man would accept any noble with two dragons to rub together and perhaps not even that,” Ronald commented disgustedly. “He’s a-”
“Son-of-a-Snake!” Robb piped up helpfully. The adults all turned to look at him with varying expressions of surprise (and dismay, for Catelyn) before the men started to laugh.
“The little one has it right,” Lord Norbert chortled. “I’m surprised that your son knows of whom we’re speaking, Lady Catelyn.”
“I had my eldest children learn of at least ten houses of the Riverlands before this trip,” the Lady looked resigned. “It may not have been one of my better decisions.”
“Oh? And how many other Houses can you name Robb Stark?”
The impromptu test by Lord Norbert had her briefly worried but then her son recited ten of them out in one seamless string. He poked at his the dark-haired girl next, and Lyarra listed eight more. The men dutifully clapped once he was done and Lord Norbert nodded to her respectfully.
“It does an old man’s heart good to see the younger generation learn of their history.”
She inclined her head to accept the praise and then decided to test murkier waters.
“They each have their preferences, of course. Robb loves to learn of the famed battles and warlords of the past while Lyarra of how the world came to be. Her favorite lessons are of the Good Queen Alysanne. She thinks King Jaehaerys’ resign fortunate to have such a wise and just advisor.”
“...A better role model for a young woman there cannot be,” Lord Norbert said slowly. “Does Lord Stark encourage his children to study the old dynasties?”
“How could any lord leave such a deficiency in his children’s education?” Catelyn countered. “The Good Queen is well-beloved in the North for the New Gift.”
“Yes, yes, I can understand those sentiments well,” the old man replied. “Let me tell you more of the Riverlands, Lady Catelyn. As Hoster Tully’s daughter, it may be to your interest to know.”
Catelyn Stark leaned back, sipped her wine, and listened to the steady flow of revelations spilling out of her father’s bannerman’s mouth.
Cat did not compliment Queen Alysanne to imply that she had hidden Targaryen sympathies. She did it to springboard off of the fact that her children are being educated on the history and customs of her homeland and to signal that she understands the complicated history between the dragons and the Riverlands. It was a subtle acknowledgement of the other’s position, an ‘I may not agree with you but I understand your position and respect it’ kind of move. As far as Lord Norbert knows, there are no dragons to declare for, so he accepted the peace offering and moved to ingratiate himself further into her good graces.
The reason for his decision was born of two facts that Catelyn made obvious. The first is that Lord Stark is willing to respect her own customs, by building a Sept, teaching his children of the Seven, and encouraging them to learn of the Targaryens, who made such an indelible impression in five out of the seven kingdoms. The second is that the Tully line is as secure as it can be without Edmure having kids. Lord Hoster Tully and Brynden the Blackfish are both respected in the Riverlands but they’re old. When they die, the only Tully remaining is kind-hearted but (and let’s be honest here) politically untested and battle-naive Edmure. Catelyn made it clear that she has a second son available to be her brother’s heir and that her child wouldn’t be some Northern upstart coming down and disrespecting their traditions. Furthermore, the most likely alternative to Tully rule are the Freys and no one likes them. Cat made a good impression as a child, made a good marriage to an honourable man, and now has five children to take either Stark or Tully names.
And if anyone learns that one of those children happens to be a bastard? Well then she’ll just be the golden hearted lady that raised a motherless child.
There were few sights in Catelyn Stark’s life that filled her with as much pride as seeing the wonder in the children’s eyes at Riverrun. The grey-white stone walls and blue and red turrets, the deep moat that surrounded the castle, the glimpse of the western courtyard filled with its high-reaching lemon and orange trees… all crystallized in her childhood memories. There was a sandy inlet in a nearby cave that had the best trout in the Seven Kingdoms. A worn settee where she had read aloud by the Lord Tully’s desk. A spot under the southern bridge near brimming with blue and yellow wildflowers. All places that she was eager to get to but none quite so much as the inner courtyard, where she could see her family now.
Father, Uncle Brynden, Edmure, and the rest of the household had all gathered in welcome. Edmure looked as hale and hearty as he had been three years ago. He returned his nephew’s wave with a wide grin present. Her Uncle Brynden hadn’t changed a bit; still grey, steady, and intimidating but with a small smile available for his niece. In comparison, Lord Hoster Tully needed a cane to hold himself up now but he also looked genuinely pleased to see the wheelhouse roll in.
Catelyn wanted dearly to run out and embrace them all but she was the lady-wife of a Lord Paramount now. Instead she soothed a fussy Arya in her arms and stepped outside, orienting herself across from the Tully contingent. Her children flocked about her skirts and Kara positioned herself one step behind her left shoulder. Her father’s keen blue eyes flicked across all of them and Catelyn could practically hear him ticking off his reports of grandchildren: Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and one additional girl who bore not a hint of Tully blood.
“These are my children Father,” Catelyn announced quietly. She looked him directly in the eyes. “My eldest son, Robb, my daughters, Lyarra, Sansa, and Arya, and my youngest child, Brandon.”
Her father didn’t flinch once as he surveyed the tired and grumpy children. He addressed Robb first. “Do you know who I am child?”
“Lord Hoster Tully. You’re mother’s father.”
“Aye, and that makes me your grandfather. I am pleased to meet my Cat’s firstborn and my eldest grandchild.”
Robb smiled back and attempted an almost-perfect bow. “I am pleased to meet you too Grandfather.”
To her father’s credit, he acknowledged Lyarra directly after Robb. “You are Lyarra then?”
The girl’s curtsy was even better than her counterpart’s bow. Though the manner by which she ducked her head obscured violet eyes with dark brown bangs. “Yes, my lord.”
“Do now bow your head child. You are a pretty girl. Take pride in that beauty,” Lord Tully said bluntly. “You shall call me Grandfather as well.”
Catelyn released her breath and she was sure Lyarra did as well. Edmure visibly slumped in relief.
The first obstacle having been traversed, the remainder of the greetings passed by quickly. Her father proudly announced Sansa to be every bit Tully, Arya to have more spirit than half of his bannerman, and Brandon to have the strongest grip he could remember from a babe. Her Uncle Brynden shook Robb’s hand and kissed Lyarra, Sansa, and Arya’s hands in welcome. Her brother gave her a hug, clapped Robb in the back, and then spun Lyarra in the air.
“Me too! Me too!” Sansa had squealed, shyness forgotten. Her red locks were soon flying in the wind.
Catelyn took this opportunity to greet some prominent figures of her childhood: Ser Arwyn, Blacksmith Korfin, Maester Talmud, Cook Bethan, and others. Eventually the Stark party was escorted into the castle which was infused with the scents of freshly baked bread, smoked meats, grilled fish, and sweet treats that Lord Hoster had ordered. Arya looked tempted to fight her way down and crawl to the Great Hall for those mouthwatering scents but Lady Stark insisted on refreshing themselves first. She happily took her brother’s arm and let him lead her to the family wing.
“I converted your old room into my personal wine cellar,” Edmure informed her.
“That’s fine,” Catelyn dismissed. “You may sleep in the kitchens while I take your room then.”
The room that she was instilled into though soon banished all thoughts of revenge. Lady Minisa Whent’s quarters were still decorated in that pale yellow silk and blue damask style that she favored. Tiny bats were painstakingly sewed onto her bedspread, the curtains were parted to bathe the room in sunshine. Even now, Hoster Tully had fresh wildflowers placed upon her dresser.
The only difference were two cribs brought in from the nursery for her youngest daughter and son and an old rocking chair. Catelyn took the opportunity to nurse Bran as the children were bathed and then led them all down to the Great Hall. The dinner was one of the most pleasant ones she had ever had. Her Father was delighted with each of his grandchildren, even sparing the occasional praise to Lyarra, and indulgent in a manner that she had never experienced herself. Even Arya’s gleeful mashing of the peas, which would have earned her younger self or her siblings a sharp rebuke, received a chortling over the evident wolf’s blood. Edmure was downright offended by the clemency.
This was when he wasn’t piling the most juicy meats or ripened fruits onto his nephew and niece’s plates though. It warmed Cat’s heart to see the easy manner by which Edmund regaled her children with stories- some rather more boastful than she remembered them to be. It was evident that her brother had the makings of a good father in him; it was only his aversion to marriage and string of occasional lovers that kept him from the title.
Uncle Brynden took the most sedate approach to meeting the children. He answered all of her son’s questions about knights, battles, and valor but spent more time with Lyarra. Catelyn supposed that it was due to her unusual acceptance of her husband's bastard daughter that he wanted to study the girl. She felt it went well regardless. Lyarra was an endearing child; for all of her shy nature and wary demeanor, she latched onto kindness with full enthusiasm and affection. The Lady Stark was certain that her uncle enjoyed having someone listen raptly to his stories.
Catelyn’s only complaint could be that her husband, sister, and goodbrother could not attend.
Every pleasure has its end though and soon exhausted yet protesting children were ushered off to bed with promises of adventures tomorrow. The adults reconvened in the personal solar of the Lord Tully, cups of freshly brewed tea in hand. Catelyn restlessly adjusted her position as she waited to answer her family’s inquiries.
Lord Hoster addressed the most notable change to date. "You have a newfound tolerance for your husband's bastard, Cat."
"To the best of my knowledge, Ned doesn't have a bastard, Father," Catelyn replied flatly. "However he does have a niece that he's willing to claim as his own."
Lord Tully considered that for a moment and then came to the (incorrect) answer. Catelyn rather hoped this would be indicative of the conclusions other may reach in the future. "Well I find myself even more disposed to liking my goodson then. Though I could have done without Eddard publicly disgracing you by claiming Brandon’s bastard.”
“He may have done it to prevent any inheritance issues,” Brynden suggested. “A trueborn daughter of Brandon would be the rightful heir if someone could get her legitimized.”
“That’s a good point Brother. Foster the girl in Riverrun, Cat. I shall marry her off to one of my most loyal knights. She shall want for nothing if she gives up all claim to Winterfell.”
“No. Brandon died without any children, baseborn or otherwise. Lyarra would only be the rightful heir if Ned and all of our children died.”
“The other brother then? He would have been perhaps fourteen when that child was sired?”
Cat winced and shook her head. Despite knowing that this was one of the most secure rooms in the castle, surrounded by walls of thick, unyielding stone, and empty of all but those she trusted most dearly, she lowered her voice. “Ned found Lyarra in Dorne and took her from his dying sister.”
Her Uncle Brynden was the first to put the clues together and he paled rapidly. Lord Hoster Tully had to put his shaking tea down but it was her brother that spoke. “You're harboring Rhaegar Targaryen’s daughter? Is she trueborn?”
“I’m not sure…” Cat took a deep breath. “We all know of the rumors that Lyanna wasn’t kidnapped.”
Rumors that were forbidden in Winterfell. Rumors that could send her Ned into a rage whenever he heard them whispered.
“We also know of the Targaryen practice of polygamy,” Brynden said wryly. He shook his head. “Hiding the rightful heir to the Iron Throne in his own home? Your Ned has balls of steel, Cat.”
“Her Ned is a reckless fool that could plunge this realm back in war,” her father hissed back. “By the Gods Cat, what do you think Robert Baratheon will do to your family when he learns of this?”
Her temper flared. “I don’t know, Father. Perhaps what he did to Rhaenys and Aegon!”
The venom in her voice made him recoil. Before he could respond, Edmure interjected. “That was out of line, Sister. The entire realm was disgusted by the fates of Princess Elia and her babes. None of us desire the same fate for Lyarra.”
“Revealing her heritage would be the same as passing the death sentence,” Lord Hoster agreed reluctantly. “Since Eddard has already gone to such lengths to hide her identity, he would certainly fight to keep her alive. We’ll need to hide the truth however we can. It’s fortunate that she takes after her Stark heritage.”
“She does look remarkably like her mother,” Uncle Brynden noted. “So how did you learn the truth? Did your husband tell you?”
“Ned didn’t tell me. We haven’t even spoken of it yet,” Catelyn sighed. “Lyarra can’t burn.”
There was a moment of silence as they processed this and even though her brother gave her a deep, searching look, no one pressed further. “Then her eyes alone will show her Targaryen heritage. Does anyone else have violet eyes that we can link to the Starks?”
“Ashara Dayne was a former… lover of Ned’s,” she admitted. “They met at the Tourney of Harrenhal with Brandon, Lyanna, and Benjen.”
“We’ll be pushing it with the dates but a late-term babe born of Brandon Stark and Ashara Dayne will do well enough,” Lord Hoster mused. “People would think they uncovered the lie when Brandon’s name replaces Ned’s, never thinking to question the mother instead.”
“Not that many would care to look into a bastard daughter of a far flung northern kingdom,” Edmure pointed out. “We wouldn’t have even cared if Cat hadn’t been supposedly disgraced.”
“A small risk of being found out is not the same as having no risk at all,” her uncle’s voice was somber. “If the truth ever gets out, Robert will demand the girl’s head and Ned will call his bannerman before he hands her over. And when the Great Houses go to war, it is the Riverlands that bleed.”
“Only one side would expect war to come though. I had hoped to gain your counsel Uncle, on how to best prepare the North for conflict.”
“And to fortify the Riverlands as well?” Brynden added slyly. “Nay, don’t be embarrassed, little Cat. I would counsel my good-nephew freely for war. Should Lyarra Snow’s true identity ever be revealed, you can count on my sword to defend her.”
A flush of gratefulness spread across her chest and she bowed her head. “Thank you Uncle.”
“I would swear the same but I fear that war may come regardless of your niece’s blood,” her father added darkly. “You may not have heard of this in your isolated castle Cat, but ravens rarely bring glad tiding anymore. Those damn Greyjoys grow bolder every day and they’re still a distraction from the news south.”
Catelyn scowled at the mention of the Ironborn raiders. As the most common victim of their raids, there existed little goodwill for House Greyjoy in the Riverlands. Still his other words… “South?”
“Everyone knew Robert would be a leach and a drunkard. It hardly mattered when Lysa’s husband ran the kingdom but even Jon Arryn can’t contain his excesses,” Hoster Tully snorted. “Not when his appetites are whetted by Lannister gold. A Lannister in the Kingsguard, a Lannister on the throne, a Lannister for a Maester… it’s a miracle he hasn’t signed the kingdom away to Lord Tywin already!”
“Don’t be too optimistic Father. It’s more likely that the Iron Bank will get its due and convert us all to Bravossi,” Edmure said disdainfully. “How does he even run up a deficit with Littlefinger around to triple the revenue streams?”
“Petyr Baelish works for the King?” Catelyn was astonished. “Little Petyr?”
A sour look crossed Hoster Tully’s face at the reminder of his former ward. Catelyn supposed that he had yet to forgive the boy for challenging Brandon Stark to a duel for her hand.
“Petyr is the King’s Master of Coin. No doubt Lysa’s hand was involved in that decision,” Edmure snorted. “I only hope that she takes moon tea regularly before the family has an actual bastard to deal with.”
Catelyn stared at her brother. “...I am confused. Does Lysa have a lover?”
“Were you blind to that torrid love triangle between Lord Tully’s daughters and his poor ward?” Her brother mocked. Then Edmure’s face slackened. “Wait, did you truly not know? Petyr loved-”
“Edmure!” Lord Tully said sharply. “That’s enough. Your sister doesn’t need to know.”
“Doesn’t need to know what?” Catelyn looked around and saw her brother and uncle hastily avert their eyes. “Father?”
“It doesn’t matter Cat,” Lord Hoster said firmly. “It happened a long time ago.”
“Is this why you don’t trust Petyr?” Catelyn frowned when the men stayed stubbornly silent. “Fine. Keep the information to yourself then. We have more important matters to discuss.”
‘Not to mention that I can piece together enough of it on my own. A love triangle between Petyr, Lysa, and myself? I certainly never encouraged it, so Petyr must have thought himself in love with me while poor Lysa became enamored with him. And now the two are possibly entering into an affair in King’s Landing? Under the nose of Jon Arryn? What in the Maiden’s name could Lysa be thinking?’
“You know, with such an unstable regime, there may be the opportunity for-” Lord Hoster began.
“No!” Catelyn swiftly ended that line of thought. “We are not placing Lyarra on the Iron Throne, Father! I do not welcome war and neither will Ned; it remains a last resort if her identity is ever revealed to the world.”
“If that is your wish then,” her father conceded. “We shall take a defensive approach to this.”
“Winterfell and Riverrun need to be fortified,” her uncle drew the focus back. “Give me a day to review the current situation and then we may sit down to discuss it.”
“Men trained, garrisons filled, blacksmiths and bowyers acquired,” Edmure made a face. “At least the Ironborn give us an excuse to build up our ships.”
“There is a great deal to be accounted for. It would assist us if Lysa was aware but I would recommend not informing her. Her loyalty is to her husband now and Jon Arryn is the King’s Hand.”
“I agree,” Catelyn concurred. She felt mildly conflicted about hiding the truth from her own sister but even she could not deny that she considered herself a Stark foremost now. “Shall we rejoin this discussion tomorrow?”
“It would be for the best. I am not as young as I once was and some rest would do me well. Good night, my little Cat.”
“Good night, Father, Uncle, Edmure.” She rose from the seat and pressed a kiss to her father’s brow. The Tully-born daughter knew that she could trust him to help her in this time of need.
As she made to leave, a hand on her elbow drew her back. Catelyn looked back to see her brother, an uncommonly grim expression on his face as he led her to a deserted corridor. When they were standing below a faded weaving of some river lord of old, he turned to face her, ocean eyes darkened.
“You’re my sister and I love you to pieces,” Edmure said quietly. “But I have to know. Will Lyarra be safe with you?”
Catelyn flinched. “Where is that accusation coming from Edmure?”
“You tried to burn your husband’s bastard, didn’t you Cat?” He nervously ran a hand through reddish brown hair the exact shade her own. “No, don’t bother answering. I can see the truth in your eyes. I won’t tell anyone but if you can’t promise her safety, then I will insist that Lyarra be fostered here.”
She bit her lip as the familiar feeling of guilt and anguish rose up to choke her. “It was temporary madness, Brother. I will regret it for the rest of my life.”
“Answer my question. Does she need to be fostered here?”
“No. No, I’ll keep her safe. I’ll treat Lyarra as one of my own. I swear it.”
Edmure released a breath and offered her a sad smile. “I truly hope you will Cat.”
Lyarra’s mouth was pursed in concentration as she nimbly jumped from one slick rock to the next. He waited patiently at the other end of the stream with Great-Uncle Brynden as his sister’s brown curls bounced up and down with each leap. Finally both slippered feet landed squarely on the soil and she was grinning at him, dark violet eyes bright with excitement.
“Are we going to find the fairies here?” Lyarra asked, almost bouncing on her heels.
“They don’t like to see humans so we may not,” Brynden warned. “If we’re lucky, we can see their steed’s fiery dance and pick up one of their homes.”
“Where will they live if we take their home though?”
“They don’t choose a single home like you and me, Lyarra. They pick a new one every night and never the same one twice.”
Concerns assuaged, the dark-haired girl followed the older Tully up the steep incline of the cave. He could see the fascination written clear on her face over the breathtaking natural beauty in front of them. The humid walls were lined with a violently purple shade of moss and ink green vines creeping down from the skylights. Water droplets bedazzled the eyes when the occasional shard of light found its way through and drew attention to brightly coloured lizards skittering over the walls. Uncle Brynden had told them to keep far away from the beasts; while they were not poisonous enough to cause lasting harm, a bite from them would still be quite painful.
Brynden had to repeat the warning twice when he saw the temptation in Lyarra’s eyes. She was the more cautious one of the two but for when that intellectual curiosity of hers became engaged.
“How does the river go down in both directions?” Lyarra asked. Robb was puzzled as well. The river had certainly been moving downhill when he was climbing up but it appeared to go down in the other direction as well. The reason became evident when the incline plateaued.
“The river pools into a spring here and then branches down in two directions,” Uncle Brynden explained. He pointed to a shallow lake basin near overflowing with water, even as more and more flooded in from the mouth of the cavern. “That’s why we call it the Fishtail Cave.”
“Is this where the fairies live?” Despite being on higher ground, the entire basin was darker than the incline upwards. Barely any sunlight seemed to seep through here, allowing armfuls of mushrooms to litter the ground. Robb couldn’t see it as the preferred habitat of nature spirits.
“They come here to gather their favorite food- earthworms!” Brynden said brightly, his whiskers twitching when the children blanched. “You may not like them but fairies find them delicious.”
“Do you think we can use them to lure the fairies out?” Lyarra inquired. Robb grabbed her hands before she could kneel down to look. Mother would be furious if they started digging for earthworms.
“No, no, they’re too clever for that. I doubt we’ll catch a fairy but I do have another treat for you.” Bryden walked towards one of the drier parts of the cave and picked up a board of wood. It hadn’t rotted through yet but it had obviously seen much use. “Have you ever slid down a river?”
They had not and Robb for one was eager to try. With the old knight holding the board steady, the auburn-haired boy gingerly climbed on and waited for his sister to take her seat. Lyarra’s thin arms wrapped around his stomach, a few stray curls tickling his neck, as the current tugged on the wood. They looked inquisitively towards Uncle Brynden but he merely shook his head.
“I’ll be taking the long way down little ones. Now enjoy your ride!”
With those parting words, he released his grip and the current surged forward.
“Aaahh!” Robb screamed his glee as the makeshift raft skimmed several feet forward and then fell to the laws of gravity. It pitched downwards at a rapid face, water leaping out to hit the children’s faces, tilting left then right precariously as it curved down the river.
“Hold it steady!” Lyarra shrieked behind him, half laughing, half choking, as she buried her face in his back. He did his best to follow the order, blinking eyes rapidly to clear it of the water, and watching the scenery pass by rapidly. “Left, Robb!”
The raft tilted right, they leaned left and it struck a momentary balance. Then they ran through a miniature waterfall within the cave. The sounds of the cave were distorted to his ears but he could still feel the warmth of her arms around his stomach. Her lips were pressed to his ear. “Right!”
It was thrilling to ride down the currents until it came to one last drop. He managed a single exalted shout before the raft hit the water at an angle and pitched them out.
“Robb!” His name was the last thing he heard before he was fully submerged in the water. The auburn haired boy opened his eyes underwater and, ignoring the stinging, saw a halo of dark hair spread across a background of blue-green. He closed his eyes again and kicked his feet back to the surface.
“Lyaa?” He had to rub his eyes to get the water out but when he opened them, his sister was treading the lake by his side, an almost giddy smile on his face. Wordlessly she pointed upwards.
Robb tilted his head up and had to hold back a gasp of his own. There must have been thousands of lightning bugs up there, all of them lit up like luminescent blue lanterns. They cluttered around the cave ceiling turning an otherwise dull structure into an underground night sky.
“The fairies’ steeds,” Lyarra whispered in awe. She slowly drifted her body closer to land, grabbing his hand and pulling him along. He paddled silently with her, caught up more in her own wonder than his.
“Do you think they’ll come down?” His sister whispered the words, almost too afraid to break the reverential silence they had intruded upon. “Uncle Brynden said we had to be still, didn’t he?”
“He did.” They had pulled themselves up on land now, sitting down with feet submerged into the lake. Their clothes would undoubtedly end up caked in mud but he couldn’t care now. Robb tried to keep as still as he possibly could but his body felt restless, the cold of the water creeping up his back.
Lyarra took his hand again and he stopped trying to mimic a statue to watch her instead. She was utterly motionless, tranquil and docile in a manner he had never seen before, with her head tilted up to the cave ceiling. The pale blue light cast a glow to her pale skin- eerie yet lovely, and a sense of peace befell him too. Robb didn’t know for how long they had been sitting there when a few of the lightning bugs ventured down. Perhaps they were curious, perhaps attracted to the dark-haired girl’s serenity but one drew closer, ever closer, and landed on the tip of her nose.
If possible, Lyarra grew even more still. The blue light cast a greater sheen now, throwing her cheekbones into shadow and turning the dark violet of her eyes into a rich amethyst. Robb was utterly transfixed by it all: the silence, the tranquility, the darkness, and the way Lyarra’s eyes rivalled the rarest gems in Westeros. ‘Beautiful…’
The lightning bug must have tickled her for the girl’s nose twitched and then Lyarra was giggling. The ethereality of the moment broke and the curious beast flew away. She turned to him, the wide smile on her face beckoning him to share in her happiness. “Wasn’t that wonderful?”
“Yes,” Robb agreed. “It was.”
Catelyn Stark was the very picture of motherly gentility as she looked over the papers in Lady Whent’s old solar. She was dressed in an elegant gown of dark blue, her auburn hair was pulled up into a tasteful plait and her two youngest daughters were playing quietly by her feet. Situated next to her desk was a crib holding a gurgling newborn babe and the Lady Stark could be seen occasionally drawn from her work to tickle the boy’s stomach and coo over him. It was all innocuous and heartwarming should one be ignorant of the subject of her work.
Namely the extensive notes on how to turn the North into an economic and militarial powerhouse.
It should be stated that Lord Hoster Tully and Ser Brynden Tully were two of the finest minds in Westeros for their respective fields. The former was a savvy politician and wise administrator that turned his relatively small, in terms of land, realm into a trade hub and brokered treaties with his two nearest neighbors. The latter was respected throughout the lands for his military prowess and distinguished war record. Both men were compelled to undertake the challenge before them with vigor and neither were foolish enough to disregard her own observations on the basis of her sex.
The papers that she was focusing on now were written alongside her Father. Lord Hoster was of the belief that there were two tenets to a powerful economy in Westeros: an open hub for trade and specialized goods. In the former, there was more than enough proof in the wealthiest cities of the kingdom. White Harbor of the North, Lannisport of the Westerlands, Old Town of the Reach, Weeping Town of the Stormlands, and so on, were all trade harbors with strong economies. In Winterfell’s case, the castle was inland and would never be able to become a seaport but could still flourish in trade if they invested in the roads and rivers there. Catelyn could attest to herself that the Kingsroad was little more than a dirt track and barely encouraged trade between the North and the other realms.
The second tenet of a powerful economy was the trade of specialized goods. When her father asked her to list off the common trade goods of the North, she quickly cited off timber, wool, leathers, mutton, and the rare surplus of grains. Lord Hoster didn’t need to point out the issue there before Catelyn realized that everything she had listed off were raw materials, sold cheaply south to be turned into more expensive goods like textiles and furniture. The main specialized good that she could name were the famous silverworks of White Harbor, which earned House Manderly good profit and showed her that she needed to arrange a meeting with the man at once. For all that he was mocked for his excess weight and diminished martial ability, Lord Wyman Manderly had an excellent mind for economics and more importantly, was known to be amongst Ned’s most loyal bannerman.
Her father punctuated this point by complaining about the various craftsman across the Narrow Sea and how the merchants of the Free Cities were bleeding them dry with their advanced goods. Catelyn consoled him to the best of her ability before jotting down her future tasks.
Soliciting advice from Lord Manderly, investing in infrastructure, finding some means to draw skilled craftsman up north, which would be difficult with its frigid weather… Hmm, they did have land to spare for the occasional keep, did they not? Perhaps the lure of a family legacy and the promise of a just lord would draw these skilled smallfolk up north.
“You’ll need to increase your food production too,” Lord Hoster noted. “How difficult would that be?”
“It wouldn’t be difficult at all,” Catelyn answered, smiling at his surprise. “Yes, it surprised me too Father but the North has a great deal of arable land. Why even New Gift, which borders the Wall and is as far north as you can be in that realm, can be farmed. It won’t have the same yield as an acre in the Reach but there’s so much land that it hardly matters. The main problem is that the planting period there is dreadfully short, which limits the type of crops we can grow. And of course, the perennial shortage of manpower.”
“We can grow beets, cabbage, potatoes, peas, carrots, and onions there well enough,” Catelyn continued. “We need to import much of our grains though.”
Her father’s eyes gleamed. “Hmm, there are some cold weather crops that flourish in Braavos and Lorath you know. They call them ‘spinach’ and ‘cauliflower’ and they have done well for themselves in nutritional value. I tried to grow them in the Riverlands but the soil here is too wet for them to grow in large numbers. I had to import them instead. And of course those thrice-damned merchant thieves have been fleecing me-”
“-yes, yes, Father, that’s simply terrible,” Lady Stark interjected. “Please would you send some cuttings northward to Winterfell? We can experiment with them there and if they do well, the Riverlands will be the main hub to trade them to the rest of Westeros.”
Catelyn had received a ready assent on that note, knowing that the businessman in Lord Tully could not reject such a deal even were he not a father desiring to support his daughter. The subject then moved to the skilled artisans they would need to lure northward and her father promised to send out word to his men about second and third sons in need of establishing themselves.
“Your goodbrother regularly makes trips south, does he not?” Lord Tully asked, “Have him ask the children if they’re willing to travel north to learn a new trade instead of joining the Watch. It may still be cold but at least they won’t spend their entire lives devoid of kinsman.”
It was a productive talk and she could see that the plotting had done Father some good. Lord Hoster Tully hadn’t much to do in his senior years, with his daughters married off and his work mostly handed over to his son. He had spent much of his newfound free time either trying to marry Edmure off or griping about how Edmure refused to be married off, so the recent focus was doing much to cheer him up. And it was doing even more to cheer Edmure up.
The talks with her Uncle had been equally fruitful and Catelyn concluded them with a cramped hand, many feet of inked parchment, and a wonderful game of chavasse. Now all she needed was an excuse to put her plans into action without alarming the other realms of the North’s militarization…
Catelyn was momentarily distracted from her thoughts when Arya decided that Sansa’s new doll- and honestly, did her father know any restraint for her children- made a great teething choice. Sansa’s red face was seconds away from bursting into a wail when Lady Stark managed to pull her up over Bran’s crib, tickling the baby’s stomach to release giggles from both children. Arya appeared upset to be ignored as such, so she lifted her up as well, while discreetly removing the toy from the dark-haired toddler’s mouth. Returning the toy to her older daughter while offering a strawberry candy to Arya diffused the situation nicely enough.
She was returning them to their positions when a knock sounded from the door. “Come in.”
A man with reddish brown hair stuck his head in. “Sister, have you any time for me?”
“I always have time for you, Edmure. Where are Robb and Lyarra though?”
“They’re off to boast of their catches to Father and Uncle Brynden,” Edmure looked amused. “I suspect that Robb will boast enough for both of them while Lyarra merely looks all too pleased with herself.”
“Robb doesn’t actually like the taste of fish. I wonder if he’ll eat them without fuss when he knows that they’re his catch.”
“I look forward to finding out,” Edmure commented. “I wanted to speak to you of something that your son let slip today. I was teasing Lyarra about all of the boys that Ned will have to fight off in a few years and Robb breaks in from nowhere to tell me that she’s learning swordsmanship. Is that true?”
“I really need to talk to him about keeping that secret…” Catelyn muttered. She gave her brother a summary of the lesson plans that she had readied for her sons and daughters.
Edmure nodded thoughtfully at the end. “I agree with your reasoning there but I have one question. Have you considered expanding on any gifts she may inherit… from either side of her heritage?”
“Yes, of course. Her father was a gifted musician and Lyanna loved to ride horses.”
“I was referring to her more exotic gifts, Sister.”
“I’m not sure that I understand, Edmure.”
Her brother rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly but kept an earnest expression on his face. “You know of those fairytales that we have read about wargs and greenseers and river seekers…?”
Catelyn laughed. “My children are not wargs and greenseers, Edmure! There is no such thing! Such tales are inventions of the imagination.”
The taller man nodded in faux contrition. “My apologies, Sister. A warg cannot exist just as flesh cannot be unburnt. How anyone could be so foolish as to believe House Targaryen immune to fire…”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes Edmure, you’ve made a point. But it is one matter to believe that dragons are unburnt and another to believe that wargs exist. There is proof for only one of them!”
“They were stories until Lyarra proved them true,” Edmure argued. “We know that dragons existed in the past, Cat but generation after generation will retell them without proof until history becomes myth and myths become fairytales. Mere inventions of imagination if you will.”
“That… is a point,” she conceded reluctantly. “But wargs, Edmure? You think my children capable of wielding magic?”
Her brother’s eyes gleamed, in a manner similar to their Father’s when he was plotting to despoil his hated foes: Free City merchants. “They have the bloodline of the old kings, do they not? Lyarra proved herself capable of wielding the blood gifts of one parent, so why not the other? And if Lyarra, why not Robb or Sansa or Arya or Bran?”
She looked at him in disbelief. “Yes but… but… my children? Wargs and greenseers?”
Edmure could see the doubt plain on his sister’s face. Catelyn was a being of faith and while miracles could be accepted from the Gods, powers wielded by mere men would spook her. Still he couldn't’ deny his own curiosity pushing him forward.
“Why not look into the potential uses of the talent?” Edmure coaxed. “A rare ability that will protect them in the dark times ahead? A gift that few will ever believe and even fewer still be able to use?”
The appeal to her strongest desire compelled her to nod slowly. There was still hesitation on her face but Edmure had no doubt that Cat would explore the possibility. As a mother, there was nothing she would deny to keep her children safe.
“Do you remember what our family words are?”
“Famwily, duty, hon’or,” Sansa said obediently, beaming when a lemon cake was pressed to her palm. She looked nervously towards her mother but Lady Stark was too busy hugging her uncle goodbye to notice. Nonetheless, it was unceremoniously shoved into her mouth before it could be confiscated.
“Try not to stain your dress, dear,” Catelyn chided, pausing briefly to wipe the frosted sugar off of her daughter’s mouth. “I’ll send you a raven when I arrive at Winterfell, Father.”
“I’ll be expecting it,” Lord Hoster stated gruffly. “Now I expect all of you to write your Grandfather the occasional letter. Pay attention to your lessons and don’t cause your mother any trouble.”
“Yes, Grandfather,” the eldest three chorused. There was another round of embraces before Ser Jory drew Lady Stark’s attention and nodded towards the midday shadows. They would have to leave soon if they expected to make any progress for the day. A reluctant Cat hurried her children into the wheelhouse and turned back to wave at her misty-eyed father. She didn’t know how many years it would be until she could see her childhood home again but took comfort from the fact that her brother would be accompanying them for part of the journey.
Ostensibly, Edmure merely wanted additional time with his nephews and nieces while escaping his father’s ploys. In truth, Lord Vance’s information had prickled her concerns and Lord Hoster’s, when Cat related it to him. They knew that more than a few Houses resented the loss of the Targaryens and chafed under Tully rule and that other Houses were willing to use the discontent to advance their own interests but not that it extended so far. House Frey was a particular concern of theirs, since one of Lord Walder’s sons was married to Lord Tywin’s sister.
Catelyn couldn’t deny that part of the fault lied with her own father. While Lord Hoster Tully was a crafty, politically-minded businessman and impressive administrator, his domineering personality had not endeared him to his bannerman. She considered him to be amongst the best of fathers but knew that others regarded him as opportunistic and manipulative, which weren’t entirely baseless claims. Edmure was far more palatable in disposition- genial, considerate, well-mannered and open-minded but while the bannerman liked him, they did not necessarily respect him. Thus the decline in Lord Hoster’s vitality was considered a golden opportunity to grow at the expense of their liege lord.
It did not help that House Tully, like House Stark, had been whittled down to a single branch. The recent succession of wars, not merely Robert’s Rebellion but the War off Ninepenny Kings and the Fourth Blackfyre Rebellion before that, had pruned the nobility. This appeared to be the rule for many of the Great Houses, except perhaps House Baratheon and certainly House Lannister. The latter had more golden-haired, green-eyed metaphorical bastards running around the Westerlands than was healthy for anyone’s sake.
In comparison, neither her father nor uncle would sire any children while Edmure was the sole male heir of their line. House Stark had Ned and the abstinence-swearing Benjen. Her efforts had singlehandedly tripled the number of trueborn Starks in the world, which did more to endear Cat to the people of Winterfell than any number of kind words or considerations. Thus Edmure would be taking this opportunity to visit with a few of his friends and subtly reminding their fathers who the ruling family was. Catelyn would be dragged along to show that Lord Hoster may have had one son but also three available grandchildren.
In that goal, her children performed admirably. She may not have felt comfortable parading them around as spares to her brother’s untimely demise but she wasn’t blind to the necessity. More eye-opening was to see the brother so quickly dismissed for his lighthearted character charm truths out of his hosts. Edmure may not have had it in him to share Lord Hoster’s ruthlessness but he wasn’t hopeless in the field of intrigue either. They split apart at Seagard where the conversation mainly centered around the rise of Ironborn raids.
The words had been concerning enough that Catelyn made a drastic change to her travel plans. No longer did she want to visit the other Northern Houses along the route to Winterfell. If the Ironborn raids moved inland than there would be a corresponding rise in smallfolk displacement and banditry on the road. She did not want to subject her children to that and wouldn’t feel at ease until they were all settled behind the ancient walls of Winterfell- walls that had not been breached once since Bran the Builder set them down nine thousand years ago.
The wheelhouse made decent progress northwards, even with the momentary inanities of dealing with House Frey’s tolls. She had paid the exorbitant price without question, a curt response to their offer of hosting for one night her sole sign of displeasure. Even that would have been avoided had the Frey knight, whose name was unknown to her as even the most dutiful student would struggle to learn all the names of this constantly growing House, had the decency not to leer at her poor maid.
Those plans came to a rapid halt when three short men in light jungle armor slipped out of the shadows. Catelyn calmly raised herself off her seat and sent the children to the back of the wheelhouse as she approached the window. The men hadn’t seemed aggressive and thus, she sent Jory on ahead to speak to them. They had a quick conversation before the loyal guard returned.
“They’re men from House Reed, m’lady,” Jory Cassel reported. “They say that Lord Howland Reed is aware that you’re passing by and would like to request a brief audience with you.”
‘If that were true, Lord Reed has some effective patrols in his swamp.’ Catelyn schooled her expression into one of placid welcome and inquired softly, “Have they proof of their claims?”
“A note written by their Lord’s own hand and stamped with an alligator sigil,” Jory reported.
“Bring that note to me,” she ordered. The crannogmen were derided south of the Neck and often north of it as well, though their treatment had recently improved with Lord Reed’s accomplishments over the course of the war. The Lady Stark knew him to be a good friend of her husband’s, one that he had spoken of warmly, and resolved to meet with him if the note was true.
It was. With a barely shaking hand, she read the words again.
I am Howland Reed, Lord of Greywater Watch and an old friend of your husband. We fought together in the rebellion and I was one of the men to accompany him to retrieve the late Lady Lyanna. In the spirit of that friendship, I beg a short audience with you in regards to our children. While the notice has been abominably short, I assure you that this meeting will provide clarity desired by both parties.
I remain ever faithfully a loyal man of House Stark,
‘He knows. No, of course, he would know. Howland Reed was there with Ned at the Tower of Joy.’
“I would like to attend briefly to House Reed, Jory,” the red-haired woman said decisively. “How long would it take us to reach it?”
“With respect, m’lady, I am Boran of House Kell and I would prefer to answer you. I will be the one leading the group,” the crannogman with short brown hair spoke up. At her nod, he continued. “The wheelhouse may travel ahead for another league’s worth but then it would take a short walk to a boat to travel to Greywater Watch.”
“You can’t expect the Lady Stark and her children to walk through a swamp, ” Jory protested.
“The area we will use is safe and dry,” Boran refuted. “The Starks shall be safe on these lands.”
“I am inclined to accept,” Catelyn said. The Southron lady in her rebelled at the audacity of the request but the part that deeply loved her Ned reminded her that she needed an excuse to broach the truth of Lyarra’s parentage. “It is atypical certainly but House Stark has every faith in Lord Reed.”
The words earned her an approving glance from the crannogman and a hesitant but still impressed one from Jory. From the way that the other guards exchanged looks, Catelyn suspected that her reputation as Ned’s ‘delicate, Southron flower-bride’ would suffer greatly. She had to smile at that.
“Mama, where are we going?” Robb asked, tugging on her skirts.
“On an adventure, dear. We shall ride on a boat to a moving castle,” Catelyn answered. Her son’s eyes lit up and next to him, she could see cautious enthusiasm on Lyarra’s as well. “Kara will you watch over Sansa, Arya and Bran for the trip? I shall bring the eldest two with me.”
Lyarra would need to go, if only because she suspected Lord Reed would prefer to see the babe he had saved in the flesh and Robb because where Lyarra went, he would follow. Catelyn refused to bring her other children along though; Sansa was showing a worrying predilection for bringing baby birds home and the last thing she wanted was for the girl to meet an alligator.
They followed Boran’s instructions faithfully and soon after, Catelyn was stepping down from the wheelhouse. She used one hand to lift up her skirts, they would become terribly muddied regardless, she suspected, and the other to hold onto Lyarra’s hands. She had directed Jory to hold onto Robb and warned him sternly not to let the little lord loose. The path she was led through wasn’t quite the ordeal she would have suspected and by the time they came to the river, it felt more of a brisk, refreshing walk than anything else.
Lyarra and Robb had quite enjoyed it. The former had plenty of questions about the flora they saw around them and the latter was fearless in relaying them to the amused guide. They were even more delighted by the prospect of a boat ride.
“Look, Robb! There are lilies in the water. Aren’t they beautiful?”
Her son smiled back confidently. “Do you want me to go pick one for you?”
“ No ,” Catelyn intervened. She sent her son a warning look and he appeared undaunted. “There will be no little hands or little feet moving outside of this boat. If I see them, then we will return to the wheelhouse and no one will visit the moving castle.”
Lyarra gasped in horror and sent a warning look towards Robb. He appeared suitably cowed then.
“Do you see that log over there, m’lady?” Boran asked her, after a few moments of peacefully drifting down the river. “That one is an alligator, waiting in the reeds for appropriate prey to come by. With its eyes closed, it looks as harmless as any drifting piece of wood.”
‘As Lord Reed’s diminutive size makes him seem to be,’ Catelyn considered. ‘Yet he is the reason that the most famous knight in Westeros fell and Ned came back home to me.’
“A cunning creature,” the woman offered. “One that guards these swamps from intruders well.”
“Yes,” Boran agreed. “That is why one must adapt to rather than conquer these lands. They are not for the unyielding sort of folk.”
Eventually three large turrets came into the distance, in the form of a mass of shadows obscured by the noon light. Catelyn had to place her hand over her eyes to peer through and even then, little details could not be discerned. The boats moved closer and she could see worn grey stone of different shades, slits carved into rounded walls, an uneven approach to the doors providing the impression of a giant’s hall from afar and other such oddities. It was unlike any other castle she had ever seen before but held a haunting sort of fascination. There would be much thought to such a castle.
The boat was rowed to a man-carved basin with a nearby dock and Boran was the first to step out. Jory and Mikan, the second guard Catelyn had brought along, stepped out next and picked up Robb and Lyarra respectively. She was offered a hand and gracefully accepted it, though, as a Tully, Catelyn had spent much of her childhood on one rowboat or another.
They were led into the castle where a group of four awaited them. The man was of her height, with salt-flecked brown hair and unusually intense moss green eyes. He must be Lord Howland Reed and with him, a brunette woman with a kind, round face and two small children. The girl was Sansa’s age and had wildly curly brown hair. The other was a boy held by his mother with straw-colored hair and the same intense eyes.
“Lady Stark, I welcome you to Greywater Watch,” the man said. There was something about his voice that Catelyn immediately pegged as steady and reassuring. “I am Howland Reed and this is my beautiful wife, Amela, and our children, Meera and Jojen.”
She nodded and made the appropriate introductions as well. Once they were done, she silently raised the letter in question. Lord Reed merely looked at Lyarra, currently peering around a hall of intricately carved, petrified wood with fascination, and smiled softly.
“Perhaps my wife could give your children a short tour while we talk, my lady?” Howland suggested.
The Stark woman hesitated briefly- Lord Reed was trustworthy but she did worry for her children- before allowing them to leave. Jory and Mikan were made to follow, though they seemed perturbed to leave her without guard of any kind. Once they were alone, she took the proffered seat at their hall table and waited for the man to speak. A selection of drinks and fruits had already been set out.
“She looks very much like her mother,” Howland commented. “Except for her eyes. She has her father’s eyes.”
“Are you sure that it is safe for us to speak of this here?”
“The only ears here belong to the Old Gods,” the man replied. He nodded towards the end of the hall and, with a brief shudder, Catelyn saw that small holes, like eyes, had been carved there. “And they cannot speak. You may say what you will.”
‘I will never understand my husband’s religion.’
“Then, yes, she does,” Catelyn allowed. “Her resemblance to her uncle is also strong.”
“All of the Stark children of the last generation resembled their father, so this is not surprising. We are fortunate that Ned was able to claim her as his own.” Howland noticed the flash of disquiet on her face and continued. “I understand that you were hurt by the deception, my lady-”
“Do you? Do you truly know the pain I felt when my husband brought a bastard daughter home?”
“You were a stranger to him, my lady, and when you were not, I suspect Ned wished to guard you from his treasons.”
“I am his wife . His treasons are mine own in the eyes of the King and the Gods, Old and New.”
Catelyn recognized the bite to her tone and attempted to atone herself. “My apologies, Lord Reed. I felt grieved by what I perceived to be my husband’s betrayal but you are not to blame.”
“Grieved enough to push Lyarra into the hearth?” Lord Reed cocked his head to the side in question.
In that moment, fear and shame flooded Catelyn’s heart and shock flashed through her eyes. Oh, by the Seven, he knew, he knew, he knew ! Lord Howland Reed knew of her greatest shame, would be able to tell Ned, would tell Ned, who would banish her from Winterfell…
Before she could fall into a panic, Lord Reed’s hand reached out to press down on her own. “Peace, my lady. Ned will not hear of this from me.”
“Why?” Catelyn asked weakly. She wanted to feel relief, she did, but there was that guilt creeping up her belly again. “You are one of his oldest friends. Why wouldn’t you tell him?”
“Because it would just cause more grief,” Howland replied simply. “You have realized your own shortcomings and repented. Now you are trying to atone for your previous behavior. I am certain that Lyarra Snow will be safe in your hands and thus, I have no need to inform Ned of those past actions.”
“I have not repented. I haven’t- I don’t have the courage to confess my sins to Ned.”
“Then your own marriage will suffer for it,” Howland shrugged. “While I am his friend, it is not my business to engage myself in this affair. Lyanna’s daughter is safe and I am content.”
“How do you even know…?” Catelyn whispered. His words of refraining from telling Ned, far from reassuring her, only brought tears to her eyes. He spoke truly of how their marriage would suffer from his secret and her shame. “How could you possibly have known what I have done?”
“I am a greenseer,” Howland answered, matter-of-fact. “I see that you do not believe me, my lady. This does not surprise me. Indeed, I would have been shocked had a faithful woman such as yourself believed in my words.”
Wanting to disagree with him, she weakly replied. “My brother, Edmure…”
“Suggested that your children have inherited the magic of the First Men? Yes, that is true. They are all wargs and greenseers and your youngest is particularly brimming with talent.”
“Brandon?” Catelyn repeated in disbelief. Her baby, a talented warg and greenseer? He could not even keep down a full meal without spitting it up first!
“Yes, that would be the one,” Howland agreed, as though they were not discussing the mystical powers of an infant. “Far more than myself, even at this age. He will need training when he is older.”
“I see.” She did not see. “I would prefer that my children not utilize this gift.” Very much prefer it.
“The others may choose whether to train their gifts or not but Brandon’s will be too powerful to ignore,” Howland said gently. “If he were not to train them, they would drive him mad. Perhaps not in ten years, perhaps not in twenty but eventually Brandon will succumb to them and lose control.”
“My stepdaughter is a Targaryen. You are aware of my folly and now my children all have mystical powers,” Catelyn summarized, rubbing her forehead. “Is there anything else that I must know?”
Howland’s lips quirked up. Her heart fell. “Are you are of Lyanna’s handfasting to Rhaegar in the Isle of Faces?”
“No, no, I am not.” Catelyn turned to the table before her and selected a glass of wine. She took a deep sip to fortify herself and found it to be not of any vintage she had tasted before. It was of herbs that felt a little spicy on her tongue but not necessarily unpleasant. “Please continue, Lord Reed.”
“We need to talk.”
Catelyn Stark had chosen her time with care. They had finished their evening ablutions, the children had been tucked into bed and her maidservant had been dismissed after stoking a small fire. Her hair was loose tonight, ruby red from the light of their candles and being twisted anxiously around her fingers. It was a sign of her husband’s First Men heritage that his side of the bed was bereft of any blankets while her own had two, despite the warmth from the hearth and hotsprings.
“Talk?” Ned’s hand had been edging towards her night shift, evidently having missed her during the lengthy visit to Riverrun, but he paused in silent encouragement for her to continue.
“About Lyarra,” Cat elaborated. A slight wariness entered her husband’s storm grey eyes, so similar to their youngest daughter though without much of the wolf’s blood that Arya supposedly had. She took a deep breath and forged ahead. “I would like you to answer me honestly about her parentage.”
Ned’s face shuttered. She hoped there to be a hint of regret in those eyes. “I’m sorry, Cat. You’re doing wonderfully for her, you truly are but I will not reveal her mother’s name to anyone.”
“I don’t need you to.” The tugging at her hair became ever more insistent. The Tully woman almost hadn’t done this, had almost decided to stay silent. But ravens had come in from King’s Landing warning of the Ironborn rising and ordering every lord to raise their banners. As Robert’s friend, Ned would almost certainly march to war and she didn’t know if he would come back. And… and, she didn’t want him to die thinking that there were secrets between them, that she wouldn’t protect Lyarra.
“Cat?” While his tone was worried, it seemed her husband shared it for both herself and her words. When he reached out his hand, it was to gently pull hers from her hair and squeeze it. She wondered if he would recoil from her touch if he knew the truth. “What are you trying to say Cat?”
“Do you have a bastard daughter, Ned?”
Her husband froze. “Cat…”
“Is Lyarra Snow the daughter of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark?”
Catelyn’s whisper practically reverberated in the stillness of the room. The words were out, the names were spoken. She didn’t know which one struck the greater blow: the Silver Prince or her Ned’s own beloved sister. His shoulders sagged and this time it was her turn to squeeze his hands. ‘Oh Ned, please don’t hate me…’
“How did you know?” Ned’s voice wavered, his mind filled in the dots quickly. He had always been the clever wolf, her husband, when Brandon had been fierce, Lyanna spirited and Benjen loyal and brave. “You met with Howland. Did he tell you?”
‘If I say ‘yes’, then you would never know different, ’ Catelyn thought. ‘If I say ‘yes’, then you would love me and trust me, and if you were to die, then you would die thinking me a good woman.’
‘If I say ‘yes’, then you would die with another lie between us.’
“No,” she said. Her heart tore itself in two, she silently prayed to the Crone that he would follow her suggestions to ready the North even after he hated her. That he would let her correspond with her children even after he banished her south. “Lord Howland didn’t tell me. I figured the truth out.”
There was panic on his face briefly. Catelyn wondered to the reason why before it became apparent to her. He feared that if she could learn the truth, then so could others. But no, who else would burn a babe alive as she had? The Tully woman drew her hands back.
“How?” The word was abrupt and sharp. An order.
Catelyn took a moment to memorize him like this. Ned leaning towards her, strong and steady, as unyielding as the winter, as fierce as the direwolf, more dedicated to her family’s words than any Tully she knew. She loved him. She married him for chance and tragedy but by the Gods, she loved him .
Then her eyes swept down, her mouth opened and Lady Catelyn Stark admitted everything.
She spoke of Hoster’s loss, the madness that overcame her, the incident with the flames, Lyarra’s birthright, the truth and grief, the shame compelling her forward, the matters she had undertaken… Catelyn spoke and spoke and spoke and when she was done, she realized that she was crying.
Ned stayed silent.
‘Yell at me, condemn me, throw me from your home, just please do something!’
Catelyn looked up and froze at the look returned to her. Ned didn’t look angry; he looked blank. He looked at her like he had never seen her before.
“Ned?” Her voice was very, very soft. He stirred.
“I need to sleep elsewhere tonight.” His words were entirely courteous and distant. He rose from the bed as she watched with grief-lidded eyes. He stepped outside of the doors and she pressed her face into her hands a moment later.
‘ Lord Howland said that my marriage would suffer if I did not tell the truth.’ She wanted to laugh at the justice of it all. ‘Now that I have, my marriage will end.’
Catelyn Stark wept.
Ned did not speak to her the next day. He did not lock her in her rooms or warn her from the children or anything of the sort. No, instead Catelyn resumed her normal daytime activities: she prayed to the Seven, handled the servants, kept an eye on the children, finished her correspondence, reviewed the day’s catch and menus and had her lessons with Lyarra. There was one single difference; the red-haired woman was never alone with the children. No matter how private the activity, one or more of the most trusted servants would be watching her.
‘This is only just,’ she reminded herself constantly. ‘ He doesn’t know if I would harm Lyarra again. He needs to see that I mean the child no harm, that it was one episode of madness.’
It still burned her to know that their gazes didn’t relent, even when her own blood-born children were in her arms.
Nonetheless this was a far more palatable option than Ned banishing her from Winterfell. Even should the man she love hate her, he was not denying her access to her children and Lyarra. Even should he continue to hate her, Cat would abide by these restrictions if it meant being allowed near the children.
This continued for a near sennight, other lords arriving at the castle at odd hours and often being locked into the office with Ned. They were discussing the war efforts she knew. The Northern army would soon be sailing out on Manderly ships but while this may be the ideal time for her to discuss matters with them, Cat didn’t know if they would listen. The North wasn’t quite as fastidious regarding womanly propriety as the South but they were wary of outsiders. And Cat may have borne four children to North but she was not one of them.
If Ned didn’t add his backing to her ideas than she would have little impact on these insular men.
Finally the dreaded word came in. The men were marching off to war tomorrow.
“Where will Father go?” Lyarra fretted. Her firstborn stood next to her, an equally worried cast to his face as the dark-haired girl clung to his hand. “He will come back, won’t he?”
“Of course, he will,” her son murmured softly. “Father wouldn’t let a silly war stop him from missing your nameday.”
The reassurance, as faint as it was, seemed to weaken the tension in the girl’s shoulders. Cat sent them both off to the office to have a private goodbye with Ned before the others did so tomorrow. She wondered idly if he would say ‘goodbye’ to her or risk informing the men to their marriage woes.
Not having expected a thawing on his part, the red-haired woman nearly brandished the fire poker when the door to her quarters opened. Ned blinked at her, unfazed by the clumsy wave of iron in his general direction and she hastily returned it to its place. Had her cheeks been flaring red at the moment and Catelyn was well aware that they were, he had at least the sense not to acknowledge it.
“May I come in?” Ned’s voice was still aloof but kinder than it had been before.
She nodded tentatively. “This is your room as well.”
He entered and they merely stared at one another. When the silence became close to unbearable, Cat prepared to break it. Ned spoke first. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” There was genuine befuddlement in her voice and with an unamused quirk of his lips, Ned explained. For hiding the secret of Lyarra’s parentage. For not understanding the extent of her grief. For shutting her out the way that he did.
It did nothing to dispel her confusion. “But there’s still nothing for you to be sorry for. The things I did, Ned- my inability to love a motherless child, my resentment, my jealousy, my attempt- they were all my actions. My fault. I kept a secret from you for months on end too.”
“I’m your husband. I should have been there to help you through everything,” Ned argued. “You haven’t… I know it couldn’t have been easy for you. Living with that guilt for all of those years, trying to find penance on your own, keeping that secret and fearing retaliation from me. None of it would have occurred if I had told you the truth from the beginning.”
“You would not have trusted a stranger with your sister’s greatest secret and you were right for not doing so,” Cat replied. “Ned, I know that what I did was reprehensible but could you ever find it in yourself to forgive me?”
“It is not my place to do so.” There was sympathy in his eyes and she nodded, understanding his reasoning. She would have to gain absolution from Lyarra and Lyarra alone, at least when she was old enough to understand the severity of her crime. “I placed servants around you to see if Lyarra was safe in your hands.”
“I see. And your conclusion?” Cat’s hands had returned to her curls. Her stomach felt like a vice, waiting to know if she would be forbidden from a child that, if not her own, she was starting to love.
“Old Nan said that you had enough love in your heart to hold Lyarra as well,” Ned reported, a hint of pride in his voice. “I will dismiss the servants. While I am still wary of another repeat episode, I know that it would merely hurt Lyarra to separate her from you. And I hope it would hurt you as well.”
“I do love her,” Cat confirmed. “I didn’t think I could but… it is hard not to love a child like Lyarra.”
“She is her mother’s daughter.” Once those words would have hurt her but for now, all she felt was a contentment and pleasure to know that she could still help raise Lyarra. “Thank you for telling me the truth, Cat. You could have denied me that and I appreciate that you did not.”
“I couldn't have. I love you too much.” The Tully woman let a small smile pass her face. “Promise me that you will come home safely Ned.”
“I will do everything in my power to try,” he said solemnly. She would have argued that this wasn’t enough but then he was drawing her closer and pressing a kiss to her lips.
‘I have one more night with him before he must go, ’ Cat decided. ‘I shall make the most of it then.’
The next morning, men would look curiously at the bite marks littering Ned’s throat and collarbone, not fully covered even by the thick Northern furs and wisely keep their silence. Lyarra and Robb would pester their Father into a promise to return, under Lady Stark’s smug guidance, until Ned submitted. Then the party would ride off while Cat mentally penned her letter to Lord Manderly.
The Lord of White Harbor and Warden of the White Knife, being rather too old and portly for warfare, was willing to visit his liege lord's castle. Although his days were busy aiding and abetting the Northern war effort, it was a testament to his regard for House Stark that he passed it onto a trusted officer before making the two-day journey to Winterfell. He was received with all of the honor and warmth to be bestowed on a bannerman of his power, influence and, most importantly, loyalty.
He also brought his eldest granddaughter along because really, it would be foolish not to. One never knew when a match could be made after all.
Unfortunately for Lord Wyman, Wynafred was rather more interested in the girl of the group. “Your curls are so pretty!” she exclaimed.
Lyarra blushed. “Thank you. I like your hair too. And your dress is very nice.”
Robb scowled. “Lyarra is learning to fight,” he said testily. “She knows how to wield a sword.”
Wynafred looked even more impressed. “Really? Can you show me?”
As the children got acquainted and, unknowing to Cat, her firstborn made his first mortal enemy, the adults settled in the Lady Stark’s solar. Lord Wyman raised a single eyebrow at the neat piles of parchment on the desk, each filled to the end with the Tully woman’s slanted script. Before starting the discussion, she offered him a goblet of Arbor Gold and poured one for herself as well.
“Lord Wyman, I have summoned you here today to request your counsel,” Catelyn began, “I am of the belief that the North’s resources and manpower aren’t being properly utilized to full advantage. It is my aim to change that and as such, I would appreciate the support of one of the North’s finest economic minds. I understand that you have successfully managed and increased the wealth of White Harbor near threefold in your decades of lordship?”
The blonde-haired man didn’t quite manage to hide his surprise. He took a long sip of his drink before responding humbly. “House Manderly has the great blessing of a seaport city such as White Harbor. The advantages of such a location are manifold and difficult to apply outside of my own expertise.”
“Perhaps but I would think your expertise more applicable than you would give yourself credit for, my lord.” She selected the topmost parchment and passed it over. “These are the current crops and their respective yields grown in the North. The measures for Winterfell are accurate but I made reasonable estimates for the other Houses depending on their taxes for the last year. Would they be correct?”
The man skimmed through the document quickly, took another sip and then had a careful, thorough read through. Finally he gave an impressed nod and she relaxed slightly. “Some of these numbers are understated as last year’s harvest was a poor one by all accounts but yes, they are reasonable estimates. You calculated these sums yourself?”
She nodded and accepted Lord Manderly’s following compliment gracefully. The next parchment had far more guesswork. “My Father is a tradesman at heart and has recently come across several types of seed that he believes would grow well in the North.”
“Lord Hoster is an intelligent man and I should like to see where his observations take him.” Lord Manderly’s eyes lingered at the bottom lines. “A private trade deal between the North and the Riverlands? Would it not be more beneficial to sell to anyone who wishes to buy from us?”
“The trade limit would apply for five years alone and in exchange, Father has offered to fund the first two year’s worth of seed in these amounts.” A third parchment was passed over. “They should grow in lesser amounts even during the winter…”
“Allowing us to conserve our gold and silver rather than purchase food from the South, yes,” Lord Manderly hummed. “I had sampled a few of these vegetables myself. My cook grows spinach in our garden though the quantities are limited and there are few recipes known for them here.”
“Food is food and should people desire variety, they will invent the recipes themselves,” Catelyn dismissed. “It would be a significant investment of course but one I think would pay off dividends down the line.”
“The gold should be considered but my greater concern is transporting the seed thusly,” Lord Manderly grimaced. “As you are undoubtedly aware, the tolls at the Twins make transactions costly by land and our margins for profit are slim enough in the North.”
“Yes, which is why improving in-land transportation is a priority. I believe the King should be appealed to for an allotment, in conjunction with the North’s investment, into the Kingsroad.”
The irony of the man most likely to call for Lyarra’s death funding her safety was not lost to her.
Lord Manderly contemplated that for a moment. “Yes, I do see the possibility of the King yielding to his closest friend’s request, especially when the Ironborn uprising is put down.”
“Yes, the Ironborn, ” Cat’s tone turned the word into a epithet of its own. While not harassed by the Reavers often, Wyman Manderly shared her opinion on piracy in general. “We must discuss them.”
First though, she shared the remainder of her economic plans with Lord Manderly. The quick-witted man, for his mind was no slower for his girth, grasped the concepts easily and had many of his own suggestions to offer. Soon the two were discussing the matters in-depth, their goblets set aside as pleasure in drink fell away to the pass and parcel of a good-spirited debate on the attainment of mutual goals. Wyman Manderly was too well-mannered to use her first name of course but Cat could practically feel him softening his stance towards her, though he was rather inclined to be accepting of her regardless. House Manderly had migrated northward one time as well.
The bells rang for the midday meal and they took a temporary break. Robb and Wynafred wasted no time appealing to their respective supporters.
“Lord Manderly, your granddaughter called me an idiot boy that doesn’t know how to share!”
“Lady Stark, your son kept interrupting my conversation and pushing me off my chair!”
It took a few minutes to understand their respective complaints, which both boiled down to one refusing to let the other play with Lyarra, until an appeal was made to the girl in question. It was then that Catelyn Stark got treated to the most unimpressed stare she had ever seen on a child.
“I think they’re both being stupid and I’d rather play with Sansa and Arya,” Lyarra stated forcefully.
“Well, there you have it then,” Lord Manderly concluded reasonably. “If you two cannot get along than neither of you will play with Lady Lyarra.”
A tense meal and begrudging set of apologies later and the adults returned to the office.
“Before I begin on the Ironborn, would it be unwise to say that should our food production increase, our land would be able to support more sons?”
“My lady, while your suggestion has merit, I would like to clarify one thing before we continue,” Lord Manderly eyed her shrewdly. “Economic and military development suggest that the North is preemptively readying itself for war.”
Catelyn Stark didn’t blink. “Yes.”
“Is Lord Stark aware of this?”
“He is,” she confirmed.
“Ah, well then, continue on,” Lord Manderly waved his hand. “Our lands can support more sons?”
“Quite a few and I think we should address one to our advantage. Shipwrights and bowyers may benefit from a parcel of land of their own…”
Many years down the line, Catelyn Stark would look back on the Greyjoy Rebellion as the making of her. It was one of the most stressful times in her life, raising five children alone while managing the affairs of a Great House with Maester Luwin but it was also very rewarding. The servants of Winterfell gained a newfound respect for their Lady, as she kept the castle running with, if not the same ease as Ned with his many years of experience, than a considerable measure of skill.
She took up the habit of corresponding with her Ned and Lord Manderly. Inevitably the letters drew towards the war effort and Catelyn soon realized that they received different aspects of the news. While neither would gain full communication due to the risk of any one raven being shot down and intercepted by an Ironborn, they could piece together their information well enough. This compelled her to contact other Lords and Ladies of the North, more of the latter than the former due to the war and develop a shared network of knowledge. Catelyn invested a good portion of her own dowry into expanding the ravenry of Winterfell and then proceeded to contact everyone she could get her hands on. Even Lady Dustin, who she was fairly certain despised her, appreciated being kept in the loop.
By the end of the war, many of the noblewomen of the North would proclaim Lady Catelyn Stark to be one of them and their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons would merely shrug and agree.
Though the Greyjoy Rebellion eventually ended, Catelyn did not end her circulation of letters. This was how many of the Northern Houses received notice of Jorah Mormont, newly knighted war hero of the rebellion, venturing south for a tourney. No one’s fool, Elenna Tallhart soon applied to join him southbound out of a newfound curiosity for the Westerlands. When Jorah faced Ser Jaime Lannister in the final rounds of the tilt, it was with a forest-styled favor around his lance and a beaming Elenna in the stands. They came back home with Jorah looking both embarrassed and pleased by his ‘capture’.
Apparently Lord Commander Jeor had laughed so hard at the story that the wildlings believed an army of men to have settled on the icy fortress.
The Greyjoy Rebellion, however awful it may be, also gave Catelyn an excuse to employ many of her Uncle Brynden’s ideas. She sent notices south with her good brothers Benjen and Lord Jon Arryn and received a steady supply of eager young men from the crowded Riverlands marching northward. Those with skillsets of their own were given some capital, from House Stark’s coffers and Lord Hoster’s kindness towards his favored child, and directed to towns that would benefit from their services. Other demanded professions that lacked labor, such as the shipwrights of White Harbor, were sent skilled and unskilled apprentices. She had bowyers, armorers, blacksmiths, tailors, bookbinders and more all balanced around the appropriate villages. While some of them didn’t have steady work at the moment, she knew the areas would grow rapidly and their labor be necessary then.
Had anyone questions for why the North suddenly needed a surplus of ships, swords, armor and bows and arrows, she would merely say ‘Ironborn’.
Rebuilding Moat Caillin would need more of a reason than that but since the surplus of labor was there, Catelyn directed them towards moving away the rubble. And setting down a foundation with the materials available from the crumbling castle. Otherwise she would wait until Ned returned to discuss the topic with him. The same issue existed with the Kingsroad and her ambitious plan to connect the Fevre River with White Knife River . In relation to Lord Son-of-a-Snake, Howland Reed agreed that a second bridge downriver run by his House would be a fine way to undercut him. Again, speak to Ned.
Not that he was unaware of her efforts. Cat kept him informed of the broad strokes of her plan but the sheer depth of them would surprise him later.
In other news, Cat had managed to spend the entirety of her fairly generous dowry within the year.
Lady Stark had also decided that it time for her daughters, both of her blood and not, to learn the importance of maintaining friendly contacts with one’s bannermen. Sansa was too young to do much more than nod agreeably and then soon forget anything she said but Lyarra was a dutiful student. The little dragon was soon writing her own letters to the daughters of Lord Stark’s bannermen, her painstaking efforts in penmanship soon relating to a script even more fluid than Lady Stark’s own. She received many in return from Alys Karstark, Dacey Mormont, Meera Reed, Wynafred and Wylla Manderly and several others.
Of course, Robb was rather upset with her for a fortnight but you couldn’t please everybody.
Jojen Reed was six namedays old, with a solemn expression, dirty blonde hair and unnaturally bright moss green eyes. He’s escorted to Winterfell by the crannogman Boran and while his fostering is a reward for an old and loyal friend, he still appeared nervous. Understandable for this would be his first trip outside of Greywater Watch.
Domeric Bolton was ten-and-one namedays old, with dark brown and First Men pale grey eyes. He had recently finished four years as a page for his Aunt, Lady Barbrey Dustin and would spend a few years more fostered in Winterfell. He was even more nervous than his younger counterpart, for his House held a historical enmity with the Starks. It was such that Lord Roose Bolton had gritted his teeth and swore himself hoarse when that ‘honor’ was extended.
They had both arrived at the same time, Lord Howland’s hand in the coincidence, she suspected, and Catelyn did her best to welcome them. Even should Jojen be here to provide lessons in spooky blood gifts and Domeric be a hostage against his father, they were both children. She was also somewhat grateful for their presence as an excuse against accepting the Greyjoy hostage the King tried to foist on his ‘loyal’ friend. Why Robert Baratheon believed her Ned responsible for handling all of his problems, she did not know but the matter was eventually resolved when Lord Manderly stepped in. Theon Greyjoy would be raised by the sea under the keen eye of a trader-by-heart and Catelyn Stark wished him well, though also glad that he would not be near her own children.
The two children that Ned did agree to foster took well to Winterfell. Jojen became quick friends with Bran and they were soon inseparable to the point where Catelyn had two surefooted, sky-loving boys to fret over. Domeric had a more rocky inclusion into the Stark family. Her firstborn appeared to take offense to his books, his horses and his harp, all qualities that Lyarra took well to. How her eldest two, who tended to at least tolerate the activities that the other loved, could have such polar reactions to Domeric she did not know. The point of change confused Cat just as much; the Bolton boy bursted out with ‘beautiful’ when Sansa solicited opinions on her new dress. Her eldest beat him in the sparring yard later in the day for doing so but seemed to inexplicably thaw afterward.
Domeric’s fostering also meant that Lord Roose Bolton became a regular correspondent with Ned. They mostly discussed his son but the shrewd lord had his own opinions on how the North should be governed, some of them even worth implementing. Catelyn doubted the two would ever be friends but they did grow a wary respect for the other.
With how well Jojen and Domeric were adjusting, the red-haired woman didn’t bring up the subject of warging. Partially to keep pressure away from Jojen and more so, because the subject genuinely frightened her. This complacency was broken when they approached her while she was discussing supplementing Domeric’s strategy lessons with regular cyvasse games. The Bolton Heir had turned first and she followed when she saw the startelement flicker across his features.
“ Bran?! ” Her second son and his best friend were coming in through the Hunter’s Gate, their dirt and grass stained clothes indicating exploration had. This was not unusual but Cat did gasp at the beady-eyed Northern hawk-owl perched on Bran’s arm. The Stark had awkwardly tied a leather strip around the skin to keep the talons from tearing into his flesh.
The dark-haired boy was exultant. “Look, Mother, I have-”
“Move away! Shoo! Shoo!” Catelyn was already moving then, one hand out to push away the predatory bird, the other rising to cover her baby’s eyes from retaliation. “Guard!”
“Mother!” Bran shouted, her quick movement causing him to step backwards in surprise. His arm jerked up, the bird flared out its wings and with a sharp Preck took to the skies. Jojen wisely moved out of the way as she drew her son into her arms, fearfully tracking the hawk as it circled once around their heads and then settled on a nearby branch.
“ Preck !” To her dying day, Catelyn Stark would swear that that hawk-owl eyed her in disdain.
“Mother, she wasn’t going to hurt me!” Bran exclaimed, upset.
“The hawk-owl bonded with him, Lady Stark,” Jojen added his support. “He can warg with her now.”
“Watch!” Before she could order otherwise, her baby boy looked towards the hawk-owl and then his eyeballs rolled back. All she could see were the whites of his eyes. They practically disappeared into the slits of his eyelids and the sight was utterly eerie. Catelyn shuddered. “Circle around thrice.”
The black and white, snow-spotted hawk-owl took wing again. It circled around their heads once, twice and then a third time before settling down. It released a smug preck .
Bran blinked and then his eyes turned to normal. “I can’t look through her eyes yet but wouldn’t it be amazing when I can? I’ll be able to fly !”
“You mean you can do more?” Domeric made himself known now. He sounded awed. “What is that?”
“Warging, the First Men art of influencing and eventually skinchanging into animals,” Jojen answered cheerfully. “Bran’s the strongest one I’ve ever met. It only took him a few hours to bond with one!”
Her son turned pink. “It was only because you taught me so well,” he said modestly.
“No, you really are gifted,” Jojen argued. “All of the First Men’s blood have an instinctual connection with nature but only one in a thousand are skinchangers like you and the other Starks.”
“That’s a shame. It sounds like a truly incredible gift,” Domeric commented.
“Even if you’re not a full skinchanger, you still have some of the magic inside you,” Jojen stated. “You’ve always been gifted with horses, right? You can train that link until almost any horse can be ridden like it’s a part of you.”
Before the boys’ enthusiasm could spiral out of control, Catelyn sharply coughed. The cranmagon looked sheepish. “If that’s okay with you, Lady Stark.”
“We’ll discuss with Lord Stark after dinner.” She gave the hawk-owl a wary look. “Bran, can you please have your… friend stay at the Godswood for the time being?”
A few hours later and after a quick demonstration to the rest of the family, Ned Stark had given his permission to train the warging gift. While no mention had been made of that other ability Howland Reed mentioned- greensight- the children did start spending some time every week at the ravenry. Bran’s hawk-owl, named ‘Meera’ to Jojen and her other children’s amusement, was soon joined by other birds, falcons, owls, hawks and a mating pair of eagles that made their home in the Godswood.
Once Maester Luwin had gotten over his shock at the existence of magic and been sworn to secrecy, he became rather excited over the potential usage of these larger birds as messengers. Their endurance, speed and carrying capacity far exceeded their dark-wing counterparts but being birds of considerable size and ferocity, they were difficult to train. With his ravenry chain and the assistance of a capable skinchanger though…
“Only for the Northern Houses,” Catelyn sighed. “I don’t want them seen south of the Neck. And Bran, please stop bringing Meera into the Great Hall. Bond or not, she is not a pet.”
In addition to training their magical abilities, the Stark children and Domeric and Jojen had many other lessons to attend to. All of them received the same basic education in sums and letters but Lyarra, and in time, her own daughters, were taught the responsibilities expected of a noblewoman. The dark-haired Snow spent a good deal of time trailing after Catelyn as she managed the household budget, arbitrated between servants, organized events, met with the smallfolk and so on. In addition, the girl’s lessons extended to the ‘courtly subjects’, namely poetry, dance, music, embroidery and a second language, in this case the Braavosi dialect of Valyrian. Lyarra took to the harp with ease, while Sansa had a gift for embroidery and reciting poetry. Arya, when she could be persuaded to do so, was the best dancer amongst her sisters and quickly picked up Valyrian as well.
“Why are you making my daughters more marriageable?”
Cat rolled her eyes. “There, there, Husband. I doubt any should you leave you soon.”
The lessons with the sword continued but discretion became less paramount and eventually discarded by her twelfth year as it became an open secret in the North. Alys Karstark had gone and persuaded Lord Rickard to arrange the same, arguing that if the blade was acceptable for Lord Stark’s daughters than it should be fine for her. When a few ladies wrote to solicit Lady Stark’s opinions, Catelyn admitted frankly that she had no intention of sending her daughters off to war but would rather they be capable of defending themselves should the men be so. Lord Manderly, who already knew of her plans, was amongst the first to commission bows and arrows for his granddaughters.
“Wylla trains day and night with them,” Lyarra related once, laughter in her voice. “Her sister says it’s to wipe the smirk off Theon Greyjoy’s face.”
With Catelyn focusing so much on the daughters of House Stark, Ned took it upon himself to address the sons. Their lessons focused mostly on the duties of a Lord, even Bran as her husband remembered his father’s folly in merely teaching his older brother those necessary skills. Riding, hawking and hunting were not uncommon with both genders but there was a far greater emphasis on military strategy and warfare for the men. There was also more focus placed on Northern history and customs, especially for Robb whose Tully coloring wouldn’t be garnering any favors down the line. Catelyn did insist on at least one courtly art for each boy though; Robb selected a language, Domeric the harp, Bran chose epic poetry from the Age of Heroes and Jojen…
“That’s prettier than mine!” Sansa was aghast. Looking at the fine stitches and delicate ivy border around the smirking lion-lizard, Catelyn briefly acknowledged it to be even better than her own.
The Reed boy shrugged. “It’s easier than tying a new fishing line together, that’s for sure.”
Ned also took the time to sit aside with each of the boys every moon discussing whatever it was men talked about in father-and-son discussions.
Catelyn did something similar with the girls but their talks were mostly exchanging gossip over tea. Useful gossip, such as Lord Tywin’s maneuverings in the Mad King’s court and how that could be applied under Baratheon suites today but gossip nonetheless.
She also encouraged each of her children to correspond with at least four individuals in the North. Lyarra took to this order with gusto and Arya developed an immediate friendship with Lyanna Mormont but it was Sansa that most surprised her. It turned out that her eldest daughter and Lord Commander Jeor Mormont of the Night’s Watch shared a deeply romantic nature and with Sansa learning from Arya, learning from Lyanna, learning from Elena of Jorah’s overtures?
“He built a pavilion for their anniversary!” Sansa swooned. “It was so sweet, Mother! He built it out of ash- her favorite amongst the forests near her home- himself and it had a swing and a little arch to shield them from the rain. It was carved with bears ambling through trees and Elena said that it took them a full twenty minutes to find it, so deep in the woods it was! Jorah led her blindfolded but she wasn’t afraid of the dark because he held her hands and spoke to her the entire time.”
Ignoring Arya’s gagging, Sansa gave a soft sigh. “One day I will marry a man who adores me as much as Lord Jorah does his Lady.”
“So you shall, my dear, so you shall,” Catelyn assured.
The dreamy-eyed look stayed for a little longer before her daughter perked up. “Oh, I must tell Jeor!”
“Take my letter too,” Robb added, pausing in his meal. “There’s a Maester Aemon at the Wall who's surprisingly well-informed about the succession laws passed before the reign of Aegon the Unlikely.”
Arya’s head plopped onto the table. “Do find something more interesting, Robb. I almost want to listen to Sansa’s drivel instead.”
A minute later, the youngest she-wolf yelped and Lady Stark mentally planned another etiquette lesson. A mother’s work was never done.
Catelyn had suspected that the offer of land would draw men north but even she was surprised by how many came- and who they were. There were plenty of untested boys desiring adventure from the Riverlands and Crownlands but just as many of the migrants had professions and families of their own. It was a testament to the value of the parcels, to the idea of one’s children or even grandchildren rising to form a minor House of their own, that men from across Westeros would march north to gain land of their own. Not that the gold Winterfell was pouring into its projects didn’t have it’s own allure as the shipwrights from the Westerlands attested to. The destruction of the Lannisport docks by the Ironborn had drawn plenty of golden-haired, green-eyed lion sons northward, several even cadet branch Lannisters and Cat handled their placement personally.
The Lady Stark didn’t want to turn them away for fear of earning Lord Tywin’s enmity early but nor she could ignore the dangers of a Lannister rising in the North. Instead she divided them into two groups; unmarried young men of higher risk would be sent to Deepwood Motte, Bear Island or the Stony Share. There they would work under the keen eye of Stark allies and hopefully form an attachment to their Northern neighbors while fighting Ironborn raids. There was nothing like a shared enemy to draw men together after all. The other group, which mainly consisted of older, family men with more to lose were sent to White Harbor, Ramsgate or Oldcastle. Not only would their experience be useful for building up the Northern shipping fleet but it wouldn’t benefit Lord Tywin any longer.
It wasn’t merely families from the Westerlands that flocked to Winterfell but from across Westeros. There was every shade of blonde, red, brown and even Old Valyrian silver hair, with skin that didn’t blister under the sun or features that didn’t lend themselves to beards. With themselves, they brought their ideas- the stunsail of Lannisport, terrace farming from the Vale and even water desalinization from Dorne. Of course, many also followed the Faith of the Seven, leading to some grumbling when Septs were built for prayers. It was somewhat mitigated by the startling amount of people willing to try this ‘mad Northern, tree worship’ under the argument that at least the trees couldn’t accept bribes as the High Septon could.
Most of the migration occurred in the first two years of the offer made and Catelyn spent much of that time writing letters. There were the typical complaints- rise in banditry along the roads and spies being slipped in amongst workers two common ones- but the biggest concern was simply that these were not Northermen . They were outsiders and there were few things that an insular realm such as the North despised more than Southrons coming in and changing their culture.
Cat soothed these fears as well she could. She carefully ensured that no particular area of the North gained more than a few dozen men each. She encouraged each of the women she corresponded with to set time aside to introduce the migrants to Northern customs. She pointed out that at most the migrants numbered less than a thousand people, hardly a significant amount in the North. She sent ahead wood witches and Stark guardsman to ease the transition and reiterated that any laws broken by any party would face Northern justice. It did lessen fears somewhat but the most persuasive argument of the North remaining Northern wasn’t by her own hand at all. It was the younger generation mingling with one another and producing children. That the fruit of those unions inherited dark hair and brown or grey eyes more often than not calmed the older generation considerably.
If there was something to be said about an influx of young men and women though and the resulting baby boom, it was that House Stark was collecting far more taxes than the previous years. Catelyn was rather grateful for that as her projects, particularly connecting the rivers and building a second bridge necessitated far more coin. Her parchment expenses were none too light either though the most significant expense related to them, the rebuilding of the Broken Tower as an expanded ravenry for Winterfell, had been covered by her dowry.
Ned had kept his promise and returned from the war to find his desk buried under paperwork.
“There’s a lot to be done,” Catelyn admitted sheepishly. “Would you mind handling the crop issue?”
The Tully-raised woman knew shipping and trade but her understanding of agriculture was limited. Her husband took to meeting with several of their Reach-born citizens, employing newfound practices in crop rotation and mulch creation, along with importing as much glass as they could afford to increase food production. The spinach and cauliflower had worked better than expected; had any of her father’s bannermen doubted Lord Hoster’s indulgence of his daughter, their tongues fell silent when chests of silver made their way to Riverrun. Lord Manderly’s discovery of rice in the Summer Islands was another boon; the most cynical of estimates stated that the North would become self-sufficient in food production within fifteen years. While the crops were mostly kept in the North, they did have an increase in trade of raw goods by ship and specialized ones by the Kingsroad. One popular product exported were the uniquely Northern fashion styles developed by Lady Hornwood and an entrepreneurial Dornish tailor fascinated by fur coats.
This wasn’t the only hand the other Houses had in the development of the North. Lady Tallhart, intrigued by a southron merchant’s account of how much coin was spent on local tourneys, persuaded her husband to throw a festival on the Autumn Equinox. The Godswood of Torrhen’s Square was opened to the smallfolk, the ice pond and snow-banked hills lent to the children’s enjoyment, the hunting party’s biggest catch dedicated to the Old Gods and many small competitions made for the boys’ attention. Catelyn had spent the entire night on her feet, dancing mostly with her husband but also with an endearingly focused Robb and several bannermen. Even Lord Bolton had requested a set, though he dedicated most of it to inquiring about his son’s lessons.
The festival proving itself an attraction had Ned propose one in Winterfell every year, one that would coincide with an annual meeting of the lords to set goals for the year and discuss common issues. Houses in Winter Town would be in great demand during those particular sennights.
Lady Karstark, who had a love of plays, suggested building small theatres by their castles to educate the arriving southrons on their culture. Catelyn had mentioned that idea once at supper before Domeric Bolton’s eyes lit up and he offered to oversee the project. Sansa’s love of music and dancing soon drew her in and between the two of them, the Theatre of Winter Town finished its first show of Symeon Star Eyes and the Hellhounds of Nightford. The Boltons, Karstarks and many other Houses soon followed. He also helped his aunt, Lady Dustin, build a racetrack in Barrowtown for her Spring Planting Festival. The event was such a success that it was repeated again, without the draw of the festival and became a semi-annual occurrence there.
Torrhen Karstark when visiting the Last Hearth made a careless jape to Smalljon Umber that soon devolved into a fighting match. When the Lord of the House demanded an explanation for such, the two insisted that they were wrestling for amusement and somehow, the lie expanded to an event there as well. Another lie that brokered an event occurred when the young Gawen Glover begged to lead a hunt for his nameday, stating that he was old enough to do so. His grandfather refused him, ostensibly on the grounds that Robett Glover was the Heir and had the right, which led to a tradition of Heirs leading their first hunts when reaching manhood. It also worked as an introduction of the Heirs to their fellow bannermen and one-day liege lord. Slowly but surely, a greater sense of camaraderie and trust developed for a stronger, more united North.
While Sansa busied herself with the theatre, her other children had their own projects to pursue. Bran of course was interested in furthering his warging abilities and spent most of his free time in the ravenry, training their falcons, owls and hawks. Catelyn was rather nervous about allowing him near such predatory birds, spooky magic powers aside, and issued a guardsman to stand by at all time. When her son pointed out that Jojen was with him almost always, she replied that Jojen was more a danger to himself with a wooden practice sword than to any enemies.
Robb, who had been curious to her complaints of some of the village overseers abusing the lack of knowledge of Northern law in the migrants, had taken it upon himself to fix the problem. Her dutiful little wolf had spent weeks pouring through law books and asking questions of his father, until he had a rough twelve page draft of the most important laws and exceptions allowed in the North, along with their punishments. He was now working on making as many copies of them as he could and sending a few to each village, so that everyone knew where they stood with the Starks. The Heir to House Stark had also taken the habit of going to Winter Town and chatting with the residents there, trying to determine which protections they needed and the policies that should be passed for them.
Lyarra had taken a different route to helping the North. The dark-haired girl loved to read and would often find a storybook or two to read aloud to her siblings after supper. Some of the servants in the castle started to drop by and listen to her after work. When one maid shyly requested a repeat of a favorite tale, Lyarra took it one step further and offered reading lessons the next day. The opportunity for instruction in reading, writing and sums drew more than one servant. Lyarra, with the help of Maester Luwin, soon converted one of the castle rooms and took to teaching thrice every sennight. One of her students left Winterfell two moon’s later and the last Catelyn heard of him, was that he had returned to his village to pass on those lessons there.
Arya, whose interests primarily centered around her sword lessons, had more eclectic contributions of her own. While she did spend a lot of time on the training field, she soon added other skills to her repertoire. A letter from her friend Lyanna Mormont about hunting in Bear Island had her pester one of the local woodsman into teaching her to track her own game. From there it expanded to skinning her catches and using the fur and skin to create items of her own. The daughter who most hated embroidering was surprisingly okay with sewing her own ‘useful’ clothes, often corresponding with Lady Hornwood when she needed another’s judgement. Cat didn’t know how that led to donating her clothes, with her youngest daughter becoming increasingly more involved with the local orphanage. Mayhaps she shouldn’t be so surprised; Arya had alway a knack for relating to people, noble or not.
As Lady Dustin had written her,
‘We are doing our part to make the North strong, Lady Stark. But I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that this generation will be the ones to make or break the North. If my nephew is any indication of the men and women that they will be, then I think our future will be in good hands…’
‘I agree with you, Lady Dustin,’ Cat thought. ‘ My question is whether these efforts will be enough.’
It seemed fitting that the moment Lord Hoster Tully became too busy to pester his son about marital duties, Edmure Tully found himself a bride.
This blessed event was preceded by a letter to his sister detailing Edmure’s latest harebrained scheme. Cat had outright laughed at his proposal in visiting the Stormlands to ‘ gather intelligence on enemy forces’. Once the ludicrous image of her baby brother, dressed in head-to-toe black, skulking around castle walls to spy on noblemen passed though, Lady Stark found herself contemplative.
In childhood, Edmure did have a tendency to know things that he arguably should not have. He had a talent for scaling precipitous walls and perching in high places, gathering information that Petyr would later employ for their shared benefit. Their Lord Father had lamented it as a Whent failing, as shown by Lady Minisa’s sharp ear for gossip and Cousin Oswell’s self-taught four dialects of Valyrian for the same. Even if Edmure were not capable of such exploits now, and her own faint heart prayed that he had abandoned the dangerous activity, he was still charming. Her brother had a true gift for making friends regardless of status or circumstance and another gift in persuading men to speak truthfully to him. There was no reason to believe that those talents wouldn’t apply to the Stormlords.
Lady Catelyn Stark came to two conclusions then; the first, that Edmure had the capability to be an effective informant and the second, that he was to blame for Bran’s horrid climbing habit. She wrote him a scathing letter on that regard and concluded it with a plea to be careful. Edmure being Edmure proceeded to cheerfully move forward with his plans.
A friend’s sister would be marrying into House Penrose of the Parchments and Edmure soon joined the procession southwards. He befriended the Heir of House Buckler at the wedding, was invited to stay at Bronzegate for a fortnight, concluded that visit with another to House Wylde after a reckless horse ride with their youngest son and ended it all by attending Lord Swann’s nameday tourney. It may have taken two moons of revelries, japes, feasts and hunts but Edmure could then valiantly report his findings. He brought back whispers of rifts between the Baratheon brothers, Lord Renly’s pretty little thorny rose, frictious trade along the Dornish Marches, and autumn storms wrecking parts of the Weeping Tower and the Crown refusing to pay for fixtures.
He also brought back a blushing brunette with violet eyes and a shy smile from the sands of Dorne. Allyria Dayne had been spending the better part of the year with her friend, Visalia Wylde and had managed to earn her brother’s admiration with her staunch defense of her nephew. Edric Dayne had the misfortune of looking like a Targaryen in the Stormlands and the fortune of a fiercely protective young aunt. The swift kick caught Edmure’s eye and apparently the eyes did the rest.
Once Cat had gotten over her mild pain whenever someone mentioned the name ‘Dayne’ to her, she grudgingly admitted to the effectiveness of that violet hue. Lyarra’s had unbridled her oft-enough.
Although she had many responsibilities in the North, her plans were moving along well enough that Catelyn decided to attend her baby brother’s wedding. Once again, all of the family sans Ned took the wheelhouse to Riverrun, though this trip would be a little over a sennight. The journey took three days of non-stop travel, the party would remain for two and then return post-haste to Winterfell. Lysa had sent her apologies but everyone else had been present for the celebration.
“She’s insulted that I took a Dornish woman for a wife,” Edmure had told her, his tone caustic. “The Queen hasn’t any love for Elia Martell and the prejudice spread across the court. Had the audacity to advise me to end the betrothal lest I ‘offend the crown’. As if I care what that lion bitch has to say.”
Catelyn had murmured her sympathies and moved away soon after. It made her uncomfortable to see the fracture between her siblings but she had nothing to offer on Lysa’s behalf. Lady Allyria struck her as a strong woman, one with rather more steel than her sweet brother. She was certainly more talented with a sword or spear in her hands than Edmure but still demure when the occasion called for it. She hadn’t batted an eye at Lyarra’s bastard status and showed the type of confidence that attracted both of her polar daughters. Her level-headedness would be an asset to House Tully in the future and while Cat didn’t know about duty or honor, Allyria certainly believed in family. And the girl’s affection for Edmure was obvious.
As for Edric Dayne, he was clever, soft-spoken and utterly adorable. How could anyone hate a child like that?
Well mayhaps Lysa didn’t like them but the other members of House Tully were pleased to accept Allyria Dayne into the family. Uncle Brynden had even offered to take Edric under his wing for a squireship. Her father had spared no expense for an elaborate ceremony before Edmure could get cold feet and Catelyn had used the opportunity to canvass as many of the Riverlands bannermen as she could. The wedding was lovely though Lyarra was faintly traumatized by her exposure to the bedding ceremony. It was on the feast of the third day that a problem occurred.
As her niece related to her later, the children had been quietly chatting and enjoying the feast when the boys came. Three older Frey boys, squires all and likely sent over by their angry parents for the construction of a second bridge, started insulting the group. Edric Dayne had gotten a few for his Dornish blood and Valyrian looks, as well as Robb for being a Northern savage and Arya a horse-faced little girl but the main focus had been Lyarra. The others were trueborn while she was a perceived bastard and they were more than aware of her weak link status then.
Lyarra had been told of her true heritage on her tenth nameday and after a sennight of tears and distance from Catelyn’s recounting of the hearth incident, had decided to forgive her. Lady Stark had been grateful and bemused by the mercy of her niece; she hadn’t quite known how much the dragon-wolf’s regard meant to her until it was suddenly taken away. It had yet impressed upon her how special a child Lyarra Snow was and humbled her to know that a child of so few years exceeded her in generosity of the spirit. Catelyn Stark had once again reaffirmed her promise to protect Lyarra.
Although nervous, the dark-haired girl had elected to share the news with Robb as well and her other siblings, when they each reached their tenth nameday. Her first born's reaction had filled her with pride. Robb hadn’t blinked once before stating simply that she would always be a Stark to him and that he was there to talk to, should she need it. Lyarra had almost bowled him over in her haste to hug him though her son didn’t seem to mind overmuch.
Nonetheless, the security of her true origins and the love that she was raised by had Lyarra ignore the boys. The Freys escalated it step by step: from her bastard status, to her mother being a whore (and wouldn’t Cat have liked to have Ned there when they said that ), to her own future prospects. The Snow’s lessons proved true as she didn’t twitch at a single insult. Robb had been growing steadily redder but Lyarra had one leg hooked firmly around his leg to trip him over should he rise. Her hand was holding rather firmly onto Arya too while her eyes were pointedly staring at Bran.
So naturally Sansa had been the first to cause a ruckus.
“Don’t call my sister that!” The red-haired girl shrieked, spinning around on the bench and putting one foot firmly into the leftmost boy’s private parts.
He promptly buckled down. Another boy shouted. “You bitch!”
One reached forward to grab Sansa but received a thrown dish by Bran for his troubles. Lyarra moved to grab her sister from attacking the remaining squire and Robb took the opportunity to slip out and tackle the center one.
“Don’t hit my brother,” one Frey shouted.
“Don’t hit my brother!” Arya jumped in, stomping on one hand and breaking fingers before she was snatched up by the Frey.
“Don’t hit my sister!” Lyarra’s fist flew out and knocked him back. Arya fell down while the boy pinwheeled backwards into Edric Dayne’s convenient foot.
“Duck Arya!” Bran’s soup hit its mark. As the boy wailed in pain, Sansa threw into another kick to the poor one whose privates were still rather damaged. Inspired, Arya’s next kick mirrored her sister’s actions on the second boy.
“Apologize. To. My. Sisters. Now!” Each of Robb’s words were punctuated by a fist. Keeping an eye on the younger Starks, Lyarra pulled him off and replaced it with a kick to the downed squire’s ribs.
“And that’s for calling my mother a whore!”
By the end, all three Freys were downed and the Stark children (and one inconspicuous Dayne helping himself to a second helping of trout) were victorious. Most of the Hall’s attentions had been drawn to them with Robb, Arya and Bran grinning in pride and Lyarra in embarassed pleasure. The sole outlier was her Sansa who appeared downright offended as she studied the scuff marks of her dress. Lord Frey’s face was a particular work of art; he looked like someone bitten into an overripe lemon as he disgustedly eyed his moaning and tearing grandsons.
Lord Hoster summoned them to the main table. “Do you have a reason for accosting our guests?”
“Family, duty, honor,” Sansa had announced defiantly.
“Mostly duty,” Arya clarified. “The duty of keeping that stupidity from reaching another generation.”
“Now they know that attacking a wolf means getting torn apart by its pack.” Robb smiled beatifically.
“I see.” Her father’s beard twitched and she could see that it was all he could do not to smile. “I’ll leave your punishment in your mother’s hands then.”
Catelyn hadn’t the heart to issue more than an early bedtime without dessert. She then decided to be blind when Edric Dayne marched down the hallway later, balancing a massive platter of cakes in his hands. She did put her foot down when Robb and Lyarra attempted to smuggle the boy into the wheelhouse the next morning though. The line had to be drawn somewhere .
Ned had missed her quite a bit while she was gone and the proof of their reunion had weirwood red hair, river blue eyes and went by the name of Rickon Stark. Five moons later, he was joined by his maternal cousin, Arthur Tully. Sansa had listened to her brother’s nightly crying for a mere fortnight before asking whether he could be traded for their new cousin instead. Ned promised to consider it.
The following years were good to the Starks. The North flourished, their family grew stronger and Catelyn Stark started to hope for a peaceful life for them all. Then a letter arrived: Jon Arryn, Hand of the King and Lord of the Eyrie, was dead.
“Have you picked his name yet?”
Robb looked up from the grey-furred stomach devouring the sausage links in his hand. “Grey Wind.”
“I picked Ghost.” The pure white muzzle of her direwolf still had a faint sheen of grease but the beaming young woman hugging him to her chest didn’t seem to mind. “Sansa chose Lady and Arya chose Nymeria, after the Rhoynish Queen. Rickon chose Shaggydog.”
“Bold choice.” The pup finished licking his fingers clean and the auburn-haired boy stood up. “Has he talked about riding him yet?”
“No, and I would thank you not to offer him the idea, Robb Stark,” she chided. “Your poor mother needn’t suffer heart problems for it.”
“She took the news of the direwolves well enough.”
Actually Lady Catelyn had looked at her ecstatic children surrounding a litter of rare predators rumored to grow bigger than most horses, exasperatedly threw her hands up in the air and declared them all their Father’s children. This wasn’t an atypical occurrence; whenever Robb had gotten into trouble, he was solely Ned Stark’s son. Though warging technically was from his First Men heritage…
The sound of his cousin’s giggles drew him back out of his thoughts. There was a merry light to her eyes, a smile pulling at her lips, under the pink-cheeked cold of the day. “Lady Stark must pray daily that we not find ourselves a dragon to bring home.”
The reference to her Targaryen heritage, becoming more common over the years as she accustomed herself to it and particularly on days like this, made it more difficult to pull his eyes away from her cheekbones and the graceful curve of her neck. The problem with reminding Robb that Lyarra was not his sister was that it reminded him that she was not his sister ; that in the eyes of the Gods, his affections for her were without shame. In the eyes of men however, the Heir of Winterfell would be committing a cardinal sin and even should they know, he still lusted for a girl raised as his own sister.
‘Of course, with dragon’s blood, that may even be a draw for Lyarra,’ he reflected, self-deprecatingly. There were times when Robb seriously considered whether there was something wrong with him. Surely normal men wouldn’t react like this? Yet there were occasions when he suspected the dark-haired beauty of the same attraction and the Stark could never condemn Lyarra of any sins.
Occasions like now, when Lyarra reached out to brush her fingertips against the back of his hand, eyes darting over in concern. “Robb?”
“Thinking.” The auburn-haired boy allowed her hand to rest against the crook of his elbow. They began to walk back towards the castle, their pups following at their feet. “Father received a raven from the Crown. Jon Arryn is dead and the King plans to travel to Winterfell.”
There is a brief flash of fury at the mention of the King, a suppression of her lips before it smoothed out. “To ask Father to be the new Hand.”
“Likely so,” Robb agreed. “Father will refuse. He hates King’s Landing and risk of putting himself in the Crown’s hand is too high to accept.”
“Perhaps. Lady Catelyn received another letter and well…” The dark-haired girl looked sheepish. At his prompting, she continued. “She was tense over dinner and Bran and I- we may have warged into a grosbeak and a tomcat respectively. The bird was shooed away but I heard a few mutters through the door. Lady Arryn believes that House Lannister killed them.”
“The Magpie of the Eyrie?” At her swift, admonishing look, he rolled his eyes. “You do not like her any more than I do, Lyaa.”
“She is still family,” the girl reminded him. “Though I’ll admit her personality to be trying.”
“A kinder way to describe a bitter, shrill-toned madwoman that constantly harps of her lot in life, I do not know,” Robb returned. His Lady Mother had sent her sister a letter once regarding Crown funding of the Kingsroad. Independently, another letter had been sent to Lord Arryn and the wholly differing replies had established one a liar. After an impressive row with Father over who that could be, Catelyn Stark reluctantly admitted her sister the likely culprit. “Of course, it is House Lannister…”
The river-eyed wolf tried not to smile when his companion rolled her eyes. In the Riverlands, there hadn’t any bad luck occurred that could not traced back in some way to Houses Lannister and Greyjoy. It was a habit Lady Catelyn had kept even after marriage, muttering a flu due to lion-related stress or forest fires to be for the lions angering the Gods. Robb wasn’t quite so prejudiced but exasperating Lyarra did distract her from her melancholy.
“Mayhaps I should visit Wynafred for the duration of the King’s visit?”
A frown flickered across Robb’s face. The brunette noblewoman was sensible and kind, he was glad that she could be a friend to Lyarra. At the same time… “You’re not our dirty secret.”
She looked at him, violet eyes warm. “I know. But it would be better if we were to be cautious.”
“If we send you away, they’ll think us ashamed of you,” Robb said firmly. “Even if that’s a lie I’ll swallow for the King, I will not set that precedent for our bannermen. You’re a Stark.”
They were approaching the Hunter’s Gate now. Lyarra moved her hand from his elbow and used it to grab his. Squeezing their fingers together, she smiled at him, radiant as the sun and still wistful. “I’m not a Stark.”
‘But I want you to be,’ Robb thought, holding onto her hand when she tried to pull away. “Let's find Bran and teach him to be a better spy.”
“You may carry your blanket, Lady.” At her feet, the direwolf nodded sweetly, the trailing edge of a quilt held safely in her jaws. Although her arms were filled with pillows and blankets of her own, Sansa still kept an eye on the white-and-grey pup. Lady tripped over her own paws once, tumbling over the fabric on their way to Lyarra’s room but righted herself before the Stark could help.
The red-haired girl stopped before the second-to-last door of the corridor, next to the Heir’s room and nudged it open with her hip. “I’m coming in.”
Her older sister made a wordless sound of welcome, not looking up from the candles being arranged. Sansa dropped all of her supplies on the bed, stealing a pillow for herself and setting Lady’s quilt down for her to rest on. Then she sat, cross-legged, across from the dark-haired girl, who had a lit match in her hand now. She carefully lit each of the candles, set in a circular pattern before them.
“For Princess Lyanna Stark,” There was a hitch to Lyarra’s voice as the first wick burned. “May you find peace in the Great Beyond.”
Sansa stood near still, doleful eyes and solemn face, as the older she-wolf murmured each of the names of her fallen bloodline. This was a Targaryen tradition Robb had learnt of from Maester Aemon, to fast for the day and then hold a nightly vigil by candlelight for all those lost. Lyarra had taken a few liberties with the customs, adding her mother and stepmother’s names though they lacked dragon’s blood and performing the ceremony inside but it was a task she had performed dutifully for five years. Lord and Lady Stark, Robb, Bran and Arya had all taken turns sitting with her for them but this was Sansa’s first vigil.
‘It was tragedy that brought my sister to me,’ was the red-haired girl’s second thought.
Her first had moved to one of the stories she had researched for the theatre. A Lysine fairytale of a maiden stolen away by a capricious king for her beauty and pining to death for the loved ones left behind. Lyarra’s dark brown waves gleamed bronze, her violet eyes reflected the firelight. The simple cotton shift clung to her damp body, water droplets still sliding down her neck and past sight. When the match flickered, she blew it out and transferred the flame by her own hand, pale skin flushed with life from the wisps. The artist in Sansa admired the sight even as she inwardly cringed at seeing her strong older sister look so heartbroken.
The dark-haired girl named each paternal grandparent, skipping over the Mad King entirely though admitting Queen Rhaella and added a plea for peace after each one. She ended with her sibling’s names. “For Princess Rhaenys and King Aegon Targaryen. May they find happiness in death that was lost to them in life.”
Lyarra had been firm on this point. Westeros followed the law of primogeniture, an immediate transference of estate from father to son upon the moment of the former’s death. The Silver Prince had died before his father, meaning that, as the firstborn of the firstborn, Aegon would be next-in-line to inherit. Her half-brother may have lived for mere minutes after King Aerys’ death but in that brief time, he had been the true King and none could convince Lyarra Snow otherwise.
When the names had been spoken, the older girl fell silent, merely staring into the fire. Sansa reached for the platter brought here earlier and nudged it towards her. “Eat.”
The plain bread and water weren’t likely to be appetizing but her sister reached for it easily enough. Lyarra hadn’t eaten anything else today though it was unlikely that anyone would notice. The castle was abuzz with preparations for the King’s arrival after all and only Robb paid her such keen attention.
Sansa idly wondered once again when either one would gather the courage to confess. Arya had optimistically bet last year on Lyarra.
“You need a drink too,” Sansa reminded her. There was a wann look to her sister’s eyes that blew away all of the hushed romance of the scene. Her mind flitted to stories past and how she sighed over the tragic romance of Kelian the Warrior or the Moon’s Maiden. Lyarra was a song come to life; a secret princess of fire tucked away in ice and snow but her song was one that the young girl abhorred.
‘How would you have changed as the youngest of three rather than the second eldest of six, Sister? Would you have looked up to Rhaenys as Arya and I look up to you? Would you have fought with Aegon or been his closest confidante, as you are with Robb? Would you have played your harp with the Silver Prince? Had your fears brushed away by a mother instead of an aunt? Would you have come to love Winterfell and the Starks as you do now?’ The red-haired girl’s eyes moved to the last two candles lit. ‘Rhaenys and Aegon are kin of my kin. Would I have loved them too?’
They were empty questions for the dye was cast and the ink was dried. Sansa did not regret the life she had now. Despite the loss of her older half-siblings, she hoped Lyarra did not regret it either.
The silence that they stirred in was broken when a bundle of white fur stirred from the bed. The direwolf pup padded forward, fearless of the candles as its crimson eyes focused on Lyarra. The dark-haired girl accepted his nudging, cold nose with a weak smile and a gentle hand.
‘Fur of snow and eyes of fire. Ghost is a most apt familiar for his mistress.’
Scratching him behind his ears, Lyarra’s shadowed eyes turned to her. “I dream of them.”
Unsure of what to say in response, Sansa stayed silent and hoped her face conveyed some measure of encouragement. Not that it mattered as the dark-haired girl returned her attention to Ghost.
“There is a man with greasy hair and beady eyes. He wears pitch-black armor decorated with a manticore sigil and he makes Rhaenys scream .”
“She’s an innocent . Not even four years old and they drag her from under her father’s bed and stab her over and over . There’s so many holes on her chest, how could a child’s body even bleed so much? Rhaenys is just screaming- for Rhaegar, for Oberyn, for Belarion, her cat - and then you can’t even hear the words. All there is is a gurgle of blood in her throat. The men are choking her and stabbing her and all you can hear is gurgles and laughter.”
‘Stop talking.’ Sansa wanted to scream. It’s not a fairytale. It’s real, so real that she wants to run from the room. ‘Gods, Lyaa, you have to stop talking.’
The dragon raised by wolves is folding into herself now, tears falling freely down her cheeks. “My poor sister. How fearful she must have been. How desperate and hopeless, screaming for people that were so far from reach.”
“You don’t have to-” The words choke off. You don’t have to continue. I can see Princess Rhaenys in my mind’s eye now and Lyaa, you can’t imagine this, you shouldn’t imagine this, it will drive you mad.
“Do you know why she’s there?” Lyarra’s violet eyes- Targaryen eyes- are prideful and shamed both. “I followed her before the man came in. Rhaenys was being moved to the nursery where her mother and Aegon were. But she broke away from the servant and ran to our father’s room. There were letters on the mantle, letters from Rhaegar about my mother and me and Rhaenys burned them. She burned all of them. My big sister, she kept the lions from ever learning of me.”
‘Of killing me, so that a fourth crimson bundle could be presented before the Iron Throne,’ Sansa finished silently. ‘A present to a barbarian king.’
“She was a hero,” the red-haired girl said aloud. As the words came out, she knew them true and felt a sudden, overwhelming gratefulness for a little girl that she had never known, one that may have shared Lyarra’s melancholy violet gaze. “Rhaenys Targaryen died a hero.”
“And her murderers walked free,” Lyarra spit out. Grief transformed to fury, the fiery anger of the dragons and the icy one of direwolves. “My sister to an unmarked grave while the Lannisters won themselves a crown. She saved my life and all I did is light a godforsaken candle for her. I’ve done nothing for her sacrifice.”
The red-haired girl stood up and walked around until she kneeling beside her sister. The Snow didn’t protest as she wrapped her arms around the older girl, drawing her into a tight hug.
“You lived,” Sansa whispered. “And every day that you live, you honor your sister’s bravery. You’ve kept her story alive and one day, the world will know the truth of it. One day, they will all learn that Lannisters are not the only House to pay their debts.”
The Great Hall had been rearranged to one main rectangular table at the center and three smaller tables situated around it. Grand Stark banners of grey and white covered almost every stone surface. There were candle bowls, a Westerland invention, bringing light from the hollows carved on walls. Blades of dried grass were interspersed with the straw floor, adding a fresh, crisp scent to the room. Plates of bread and salt and tankards of ale littered the tables strategically and it was a mark of migrant influence that jars of Dornish Grape Sour and Vale Redvine Wine joined them.
His Father, northern to the core and unapproving of the ‘foreign muck’, eyed those jars with disdain. Domeric inwardly rolled his eyes; Lord Roose Bolton had enjoyed the Vale wine well-enough in the secrecy of his solar. “Father, may I sit with the other Heirs for the proceedings?”
“Hmm?” His Father looked up, the pale and- according to a tactless Arya anyway- unnerving eyes of their House warming slightly. “Yes, of course, son. Who will you be sitting with?”
“Robb, Lyarra, Smalljon, Cley, Dacey, Darryn, Wynafred and probably the Karstark brothers,” Domeric listed off. It was an impressive list of Heirs and assorted siblings and Roose nodded approvingly. These annual meetings in their liege lord’s home were ideal for building ties amongst the Northern nobility and the older Bolton was proud that his son managed to endear himself to so many important Northern sons and daughters.
This would be the fifth Stark Firefly Festival since the tradition was instituted by Lord Ned Stark. Held two moons after the Spring Equinox, it was meant to honor the Battle of the Reeds, where the North repelled the Andal invasion at Moat Cailin. The crannogmen had played a key role in that victory, harassing the enemies for three days and two nights until reinforcements could arrive and there would be a play to illustrate that at the theatre next sennight. Domeric had been uncertain about showing it- this year, the festival would be held off until the King and his retinue could arrive, thus sparing House Stark the expense of two such grand events- but Lady Sansa had been insistent.
“Why should we hide our history for their sensibilities?” Those river blue eyes had been lit by passion, her skin flushed with fury. Domeric would have agreed to anything she said then. “Why should we cater to their interests or honor their victories? The North has prospered long before the other Kingdoms took notice of us and it will prosper long after the Stags lose their crown. I won’t allow our pride to be suborned to the South! House Stark bows to no lion- uh, Southroner.”
‘If nothing else, Lady Catelyn’s hatred of House Lannister bred true,’ he had thought dreamily. ‘ Gods, she looks so bea- wait, no. Robb’s sister, Robb’s sister, get your head out of the gutter, man!’
“Pay attention to our discussions, son,” Roose continued, unaware of the direction his son’s thoughts had headed. “Even if you do not agree with the ideas proposed, observe how they are presented and why. There is much wisdom to be gained here. These are the men and women who rule the North and one day, you will take your place beside them.”
“How many of Lord Stark’s children will be observing the proceedings?” Lady Dustin inquired, a smile pulling at her lips.
“Robb and Lyarra will,” Domeric confirmed. Wary of the amusement in his Aunt’s eyes, he cautiously added. “This will be Lady Sansa’s first.”
“Oh? I hope Lady Sansa will not be too bored,” the woman teased. “Should that occur, you will entertain her, I hope?”
“Why would he do that?” His baffled Father protested. “Domeric wouldn’t lose such an educational opportunity to entertain a little girl.”
“Not so little any more, Roose. Not so little any more,” Barbrey grinned wickedly. “Right, Domeric?”
“Ah… I think Robb may be calling me. Father, Aunt.” With a perfunctory nod, the brown-haired boy turned on his heels and did not run away. The table he arrived to was one closest to the door and almost full to bursting with everyone wanting to sit next to the Stark Heir. Domeric would have had to fight for a spot had Robb not looked up and patted the side to his left in welcome. His right had the dark haired and violet eyed Lyarra Snow.
'Not that she will be a Snow much longer.' Lady Catelyn had broken the news to the household before the earliest lords arrived, so it was still secret. Otherwise the pale-eyed boy suspected many more noblemen to be jostling for the beautiful girl's favor. As the eldest daughter of Lord Stark, she would make a prized wife and with knowledge of her intellect, wit and accomplishments, even his father would consider the former bastard a potential bride.
This wasn't a consideration that Domeric held in the least. Not because Lyarra often felt a mirror of himself, a gifted rider, scholar and harpist with Northern features. Not because she was a former bastard and thus, someone open to ridicule in his House. Not even because he was at dangerous risk of falling in love with her sister, though that would undeniably make matters awkward. No, the reason Domeric wouldn't consider her for a bride was because a good friend did not court the woman his best friend loved, however impossible that love may be.
Torrhen Karstark made a jape now that sent the table roaring. Lyarra joined with her own silvery laughter, atypical for the melancholy that followed her recently and Robb leaned over to tuck her loose curls back. It was an intimate gesture, one rewarded with a soft, quiet smile that only Robb Stark seemed to receive and for a brief moment, they were refractions of Lord and Lady Stark. Robb with his mother's coloring and Lyarra with her father's features, younger and softer and more beautiful than the ones holding the castle now. And pity wells in Domeric's breast for the two he counts friends for Ned Stark cannot give away a daughter to his own son.
Not that it should ever reach that point. Robb was the very soul of duty and far too honorable to seduce his own bastard sister, despite, as Domeric suspected, a lifetime of loving her. A less charitable part of him wondered how it could have gotten to that point. Lyarra Snow possessed a rare beauty, true- frozen, Domeric had thought, ice and snow unlike Sansa’s hair of fire and river blue eyes - and she was kind but even without Robb, he would not have fallen for her. Lyarra was, frankly speaking, rather terrifying. Absurdly talented with a blade, adept in the magical arts, intelligent and perceptive and intimidating, with a gaze that would strip a man to the core and dispassionately study its inner workings. There was even an aura of tragedy about her, as though she was born from and into suffering. How his best friend could freely tease her, Domeric did not know.
Of course, Robb was also at ease stealing food from Bran who had an army of animal minions to spy for him, so mayhaps Domeric was just friends with an idiot.
Turning his attention away from the lovers that could never be, the Heir to House Bolton focused on the discussion. It followed the same format as the last: each of the Lords and Ladies presented their harvest and field numbers, estimated the yield for the next year, mentioned any notable breaches of law, bragged of their respective projects and reviewed the impact of the foreigners. For the third year running, there were worrying murmurs about the wildings slipping past the Wall.
“Does it matter how many of those fuckers get through?” Greatjon Umber demanded. “If they attack us, then we’ll put them down like we have been for years now!” There was a roar of approval.
“Just because you’re eager to run to battle, doesn’t mean we all are,” Aunt Barbrey rebuked. “My House is better served when our sons farm the land, not ride off to kill savages that should be well behind the Wall.”
“How do they keep slipping past at any rate? The Wall hasn’t gotten any smaller than before.”
“My son’s a Crow and he says it’s through the unmanned bases. Thirteen in all and three alone have any men to guard them.”
“Aye and the wildings are banding together under a Crow of their own. Mance Rayder, the King Behind the Wall, would know which bases to slip through.”
There was much shouting here before his father’s voice managed to eclipse its way through. “What I want to know is why they’re invading us.”
“What do you mean by that, Bolton? Of course they’d want to stay on this side of the Wall. No man would want to deal with those storms for another year.”
“And yet they have been doing so for generations,” the pale-eyed Lord sneered back. “Colder winters, wilder game, harsher lives and only a handful braved the Wall to come here before. Now they fall in line behind a Crow, risk life and limb to escape here, where they know we will kill them if they are caught. If they seek refuge with us , then what are they fleeing from ?”
There was a moment of hushed silence and then the Lord of Deepwood Motte hesitantly noted. “The men I catch make claims of the dead rising-”
Lord Glover was almost immediately under deluge of both support and condemnation. One ornery Lord demanded to know if they were to hunt for grumpkins and skinchangers next. Knowing the latter to at least exist, Domeric turned to the trio of Starks sitting on the table. Robb had put down the quill he was jotting notes with, exchanging concerned looks with the dark-haired Snow while Sansa frowned. When he turned back to the main table, he caught Lord Reed none-too-discretely rolling his eyes.
Ned Stark had to slam his hand on the table multiple times until the crowd fell silent.
“Enough,” he rumbled, many of the adults in the room looking sheepish at his glare. “We are not children to squabble before our chores. We have a duty to our Home and we will fulfill it with reason and judgement. On the matter of the wildings, I agree with Lord Bolton.”
From the look on Roose Bolton’s face, his Father looked contemplative of changing his position.
“The wildings are behaving strangely,” the Quiet Wolf allowed. “But we have not enough knowledge to discern the matter truly. My brother, Benjen, will be arriving to Winterfell in two days. I propose questioning him on the Watch’s account of things and then returning to the issue. Are we agreed?”
Once an accord was held, the conversation moved to the next topic of the agenda: the King’s visit.
“About bloody time that the North gets some recognition for its contributions in the war,” Lord Umber began.
Ned withheld a sigh as he regarded the empty pitcher and two stained goblets on the table. His conversation with Benjen, while enlightening, had left him concerned and distressed. His brother was a First Ranger with over a decade’s experience, a calm and steady demeanor and extensive knowledge of the Lands of Always Winter. The Quiet Wolf trusted his judgement implicitly, particularly on matters concerning the Night’s Watch or the Wall and thus, had no recourse but to believe in his words.
And Benjen’s account of wildings fleeing by the dozens, warring tribes uniting under one banner and repeated accounts of men claiming monsters from yore, were downright unsettling.
Ned’s first temptation was to deny everything. It wasn’t the magic that bothered him. Lyarra had the disturbing habit of sticking her limbs into hearths for relaxation and Arya of persuading local rodents to carry out her pranks for her. There were some brightly colored lizards in Robb’s room that his wife swore were from the inlets around Riverrun. He and Cat had even gotten into the habit of checking every room for a strangely attentive animal before they discussed anything of import. As the father of six wargs, Ned Stark was well aware that magical beings existed and had the potential for either great good (his children) or great harm (probably also his children).
The issue was more of this specific magical being and how it could potentially affect House Stark. White Walkers, wights, the Night King… all stories from over 8,000 years past. Had they ever existed, they were defeated, gone, buried under tons of ice and snow. It was impossible to return anything or anyone from the dead and even if it happened, why would they be stirring now? Why another Long Night when his sweet summer children lived? Why a potential war against his unblooded babes?
“Do you think the Old Gods sent direwolves as protectors?” Benjen inquired. He was fully aware of everything that had occurred since Ned’s discussion with Cat and while it may have taken two years, had finally forgiven his wife for her role. “I know House Stark has been prepared for war…”
“Against men,” Ned scowled. “I know nothing of these White Walkers or their wight armies. Assuming that they should even exist.”
“Let’s start with the case that they do not. There remains the matter of something spooking the wildlings into banding under Rayder’s banner. I’ve followed the same trails against the Wall for years now and more and more, I find empty homes, cleaned pantries and ravaged stations. People are scared, Ned. They’re scared enough to leave everything behind them and run.”
“Could it be a clan terrorizing others? Mayhaps one pretending to be the Night King?”
“It’s a possibility but…” Benjen grimaced. “Are you aware of the Thenn tribe?”
The Lord of House Stark furrowed his brow, casting memories back to the horror stories Lyarra had begged off of her Uncle. “The cannibals?”
“Aye. They believe the flesh of their enemies and strongest clan members rejuvenate their warriors,” Benjen made a face. “I caught one earlier in the year. A former Crow killer, so he was sentenced to beheading. Before he died, he told us to burn his body. Gave a chilling tale of the last enemy they captured being readied for the table and then coming alive when they were midway through feasting.”
“Midway?” Ned hoped that didn’t mean what he thought it did.
“Man claimed to be chewing down a leg when it started… wiggling in his hand.”
“...If you mention that to the children, I will personally thrash you until you have to be carried back to the Wall. Am I understood?”
“I have no desire to spread my nightmares, Brother. I am merely pointing out that it was a compelling story for the Night King theory. The man I caught was proud. He would not have requested such a ‘dishonorable’ death had he not truly believed it possible that his corpse could rise again.”
“Our first useful piece of information then. Burn the corpses,” Ned frowned. “Is that the only account?”
Benjen shook his head. “I believe- and Maester Aemon concurs- that the accounts solely come from their side of the Wall. There may be something in the Wall keeping such foul magics from spreading to the North. It may also be the reason why the wildings are so desperate to come here.”
“That’s the good news,” his brother added. “The bad is that Mance Rayder is gathering a wildling army in the hopes of bring down the Wall.”
Ned stared at his brother blankly. “If the Wall keeps the dead from rising, then why in the Gods’ name would Mance Rayder want to tear the damn thing down?”
His younger brother shrugged. “If I must die, then you will too?”
“It is my deepest wish that he proves himself less petty than that,” Ned gulped down his wine. “Alright, what are his chances for bringing down the Wall?”
Another shrug. “His following is massive. Tribes that have hated each other for generations are gathering under the hope of escaping south. And…”
“And?” Ned raised a brow when his brother looked briefly sheepish.
“I have met First Ranger Rayder multiples times, Brother and while he has his follies, overt lechery including, he is a good man. An honorable and brave man. I could not believe it when he abandoned the Night’s Watch. He was raised by the Black Brothers. He took pride in being a Crow. Then he took a trip north and saw something that compelled him to abandon his oaths.”
“This grants me no more relief than before, Brother.”
“Men of honor can be reasoned with. They can be approached under the banner of peace-”
The Quiet Wolf jerked back. “You mean for the Watch to parley with a wildling King?”
“No,” Benjen shook his head. “There is too much bad blood between the Watch and the wildlings for that to work. We need someone with more authority. A man whose honor is known far and wide…”
“Don’t prevaricate, Ben. You’ve never been good at it. Not even as children when you tried to butter me up for riding lessons or an extra sweet.”
His brother barreled on. “A parley between the King Beyond-the-Wall and the Warden of the North.”
Ned’s eyebrow rose. “Not the Lord of House Stark?”
“They don’t believe in lords there, not truly. The dragons gave us that title but we were Kings and Wardens long before then. The latter title was bestowed to the first Brandon Stark in the Age of Heroes. The wildlings will kneel to no King but even they will respect the Warden.”
“And what do you expect me to offer them? Entrance south of the Wall?”
“They wouldn’t believe any such promises early on,” Benjen noted. “Perhaps an exchange of information?”
“They have the knowledge of White Walkers and wights, Brother. We have-”
“Old Nan.” Benjen grinned at his brother’s disbelieving look.
“Old Nan? ”
“Old Nan,” Benjen confirmed happily. “We shall offer intelligence from the oldest source in Winterfell.”
“Brother, you expect me to call a parley with the wildlings armed with only the fairytales that our elderly nanny used to tell us?”
“Well, I don’t see you offering a better idea,” Benjen sniffed.
It took a good twenty more minutes of arguing before Ned acknowledged this to be their best (and currently only) plan. They fleshed it out further by agreeing that a party of Northern Lords, Umber perhaps and Cerwyn and others, would represent the North. Benjen was excluded as a representative for House Stark due to his Black Brother status, though he agreed to take part and persuade Lord Commander Mormont to send him in an official capacity for the Watch. Ned would lead the party himself though Benjen was concerned.
“What if you end up going south with the King’s party? Doesn’t he intend to make you the Hand?”
Ned grimaced. “Cat believes so. She is worried about the possibility and… did not take it well when I didn’t immediately refuse the idea.”
“That does explain why you were sleeping in the family guest room,” Benjen mused. Then, “Wait? You mean to go south? Are you mad, Ned?!”
“My wife’s reaction was much the same.”
“Cat’s a smart woman. Mayhaps you should listen to her.”
“Do you think I want to become the King’s Hand?” Ned looked exasperated. “I am concerned enough with the North and raising six troublesome if wonderful children. Then there is the matter of the Night’s King and Cat’s ever-increasing paranoia about the Lannisters. I don’t have time to manage a kingdom for Robert too.”
“Yet you didn’t immediately refuse because…”
“Because I have reason to believe Jon Arryn murdered.” Ned leaned back and for a moment, a look of such despair crossed his face that Benjen at once fell silent. His brother lived in such contentment with his family that his true age rarely showed. Now it felt like all of Ned’s burdens came to roost at once. “Jon was at the picture of health when he suddenly died of heart palpitations and fever. He rarely drank, never ate to excess and lived his life in measured action. Even with the stress of his work, I cannot imagine him dying so suddenly.”
“Men of old age often die without cause, Ned,” Benjen said gently. “It may have just been his time.”
“Aye but before he died, Jon was acting… strangely,” Ned frowned. “You know how Cat befriend many of the ladies in the North a few years past? One of them, Lady Forrester, has a daughter named Mira sent south to be a handmaiden for Margaery Tyrell. The sister of Loras Tyrell, squire to Renly Baratheon who's on the Small Council in King’s Landing. There was a stir then when the old and honorable Lord Jon Arryn began to visit brothels in Flea Bottom with Lord Stannis Baratheon.”
Benjen blinked. “What?”
Ned nodded, knowing how strange the idea of Lords Jon Arryn and Stannis Baratheon in a brothel was. “I said-”
“No, no, I got that,” Benjen waved his hands in the air. “I just- you have a spy network, Ned. You have a spy network made of a woman’s gossip circle.”
The Lord of House Stark considered those words for a moment- stated in Benjen’s most deadpan tone- and chuckled. “Indeed. I have multiple information sources, Brother. According to Bran, you snuck down to the kitchen and ate an entire basket of muffins all on your lonesome.”
At his brother’s blush- Benjen shared the same adoration for blueberry muffins that his red-haired niece had for lemon cakes- Ned broke into laughter. After a dirty look, his brother succumbed too. The brief moment of levity lightened their hearts before the wolves regained their composure.
“You believe him involved in some risky business then.”
“I do and I believe that he was killed for it.” Ned looked out the window, down at the courtyard where his eldest two could be seen sparring while his most gentle daughter notched her bow. Arya and Bran would be at their lessons now, Rickon exploring the castle with Shaggydog. He would not have left them for anything less than duty borne of love.
“Jon devoted years of his life to raising me to be the man I am today,” Lord Stark uttered softly. “I can pay back a mere fraction of that devotion by catching the man who murdered him.”
“I understand.” Benjen did not agree but he did understand. “You will be careful?”
“I will take measures for my own protection,” Ned swore. “Of course, if I do go south than I won’t be able to represent House Stark in the negotiations. As they are merely preliminary exchanges of information, done near the Wall and with the protection of an entire party of loyal men, I would entrust them to Robb.”
“Quite possibly the first official contact between House Stark and a King-Beyond-the-Wall and you want to leave them to a boy of seven-and-ten? I love my nephew, Ned but I must say again. Have you gone mad?!”
His brother made a humming noise at the back of his throat. “It is strange, I know. Robb will not be the leader of the group- that will be you and Lord Cerwyn, Medgar does have a way with words- but he will be a key player. It may be instinct that compels me but… I think that he is ready for it. That my generation will prepare the North but the next will decide its future. Everything that Cat and I do now is merely setting the stage for the acts that our children will perform.”
“It sounds so noble when you say it like that,” Benjen mused. He considered the children at hand, his own nieces and nephews and how far they had come. How far they had yet to go for the challenges awaiting them. “They’ll be leaders one day… but not today.”
“No.” A smile crossed Lord Stark’s face. “They have time to be children yet.”
The Black Wolf of House Stark suddenly had another thought. “Have you spoken with your wife about sending her baby boy to parley with wildlings?”
Ned paled but still looked firm. “I will have to tell Cat, won’t I?”
“You will,” Benjen agreed gleefully. “And to think you stand by your decision regardless. You are a brave, brave man, Eddard Stark.”
“It doesn’t look very grim, does it, Nuncle?” Myrcella inquired, curious, cat-like green eyes swerving from formidable yet drab stone to the gaiety of the people.
The gaudy monstrosity of a wheelhouse that Cersei commissioned is yet inching its way past the iron gates, the spikes above shaped like a wolf’s maw ready to tear into them. House Stark and many other Northern Houses behind them are arrayed in wait and Tyrion can pinpoint the exact moment his niece settles her gaze on them. There is a brief squeak of surprise- flustered, she must have been seen- and then the curtain is pulled down and a blushing Myrcella is staring down at her hands.
Shameless as he is, the Imp promptly lifts the curtain- “Nuncle!” Myrcella squeaks- and follows her former line of sight. The boy is pretty enough with his autumn hair and teasing grin, currently turned to a little girl with a helmet on her head but it is the young woman who meets his gaze. Features as still and deceptively harmless as the snow banks of her home and dark hair curled around soft skin. It is too far to see the state of her eyes but her posture remains proud and unyielding.
‘This one will break before she bends, ’ the dwarf thinks.
“The boy or the girl?” His tone remains gentle but there is a wince from the golden-haired princess across from him. Her eyes flit nervously around their corner of the carriage but Tommen is asleep and Cersei occupied with entertaining her little monster.
“Both,” Myrcella whispers miserably.
“She is the Bastard of Winterfell but her back stands straight.” It is not a dwarf’s place to tell a princess that her inclinations are normal and harmless. Not when she hasn’t listened the past dozen times and not when it’s more effective to make the subject habitual. “Do you think her proud?”
“Not undeservedly.” A gentle smile is present now and it is difficult to believe such sweetness to come from his sister’s womb. “Father will legitimize her today, won’t he? I hope it’ll bring her joy.”
“I’m certain that it shall, sweetling. Wake up your brother now. We shall step down soon.”
At that reminder, his niece quickly rummaged through her bag for a looking glass and checked to the state of her own braided waves. Tommen remained snoring on his sail-striped chaise and it was left to a chucking Imp to waken him. His nephew grumbled and moaned but eventually lifted his eyelids. Slits of a weaker green, the budding of a new leaf in spring, grumpily regarded the man.
“There’s a spot on your chin,” the Imp said blandly. There was not but it was amusing to see the blonde girl fuss over it anyway, in the anxiety of meeting her two most recent sources of admiration.
Tyrion occasionally wonders if it would have been wiser to smother Myrcella’s interest in women at the onset. The kingdoms excepting Dorne didn’t accept such proclivities and his niece will have trouble enough should any wonder at her golden hair and emerald eyes. Yet any advice otherwise would be hypocrisy made true; Tyrion had married a whore. Myrcella merely fancied a bastard girl and it was harmless enough when she bestowed her attention with equal fascination to the opposite sex.
She could have inherited her mother’s proclivities instead. It’s all Tyrion can do not to bury his head into his hands when the wheelhouse opens and Jaime arrives, hands lingering at their sister’s waist as he helps her through the door. ‘The dangerous games we play.’
Robert Baratheon hardly notices as he swings down from his horse, impressively graceful when one considers his girth and strides up to Lord Eddard Stark. The Northerner’s reputation as a man of sound judgement and honor, as well as being the closest friend of the King, long preceded him southwards. There is an awkwardness to the embrace now though and while the others focus on their discourse, Tyrion fastens his eyes to the other members of House Stark. Lady Stark alone manages a smile on her face, most of the children are curiously blank-faced. It is the positioning of them that catches his attention, the Bastard half-hidden behind the Heir, the girls pressed on either side of her, the middle boy standing protectively next to his mother and the youngest clinging to Lady Catelyn’s skirts.
Mayhaps his goodbrother feels the tension as well, for he jovially proclaims that he would guess each of the children’s names.
“You must be Robb.” A steady gaze in return. The lack of any visible reaction was clearly off-putting.
“My, you’re a pretty one.” The girl offered a tense smile, hands drifting towards the side of her dress.
“You must be Arya then.” This one’s face communicated her emotions most clearly, emotions that could be easily encapsulated in a question of the other’s intellect.
“I see your muscles. You’ll be a strong one.” A smile so sweet that Tyrion instinctively caught himself from double-checking his pockets.
“This little one is Rickon?” Wide, guileless river blue eyes peeked out and then promptly returned to the comfort of his mother.
It was at the last individual that Tyrion began to suspect why the Stark children could be unnerved. She was a pretty little thing, as Myrcella had been quick to observe and closer now, he could see lipid pools of violet for eyes and full lips pressed into a tight line. When the King gruffly demanded that she come out for a closer look, the Heir’s passivity broke to a displeased frown. Tilting her chin up in a proud gesture that felt decidedly too familiar and imposing on a little bastard girl, she complied.
“You’re the girl that I’m legitimizing today then,” the King said distantly. He was staring at her so intensely that even the dwarf was beginning to feel uncomfortable on her behalf. “What’s your name?”
“Lyarra Snow, your Grace.” The voice was high, clear, melodic and had clearly jarred with what the King was expecting.
“You look a great deal like your aunt,” Robert observed. The girl silently inclined her head. “She and I were betrothed, you know.”
“Nuncle,” Myrcella hissed under her breath. When his heterochromatic eyes looked up briefly, hers pointedly swept over the crowd. A group of lords and ladies beginning to look quite uncomfortable with the King’s enamored gaze caught on Ned Stark’s little girl.
‘How am I supposed to divert him from this?’ Tyrion scowled. ‘Of course, Ned Stark’s Bastard would end up looking like the King’s long-lamented lady love. Why did I expect any better in my life?’
A savior came from the most unexpected quarters.
“Very pretty. You are sure to make a good marriage-” the King was saying, one hand raised to cup the girl’s cheek. Before his hand could reach her, a blur of snow white fur barreled into Lyarra Snow. She stumbled backwards, surprised but unafraid, as it was followed by a second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth pup all scrabbling at the Stark children’s feet.
“Shaggydog!” The baby Stark yelled gleefully, letting go of Lady Catelyn for once to run to a black furred pup instead. “You found me!”
“What in the Father’s name is this?” Robert had broken out of his reverie, at least. Looking around, each of the Stark children had broken rank to pick up a puppy of their own choosing. The white-furred one was firmly in the bastard girl’s hands, receiving a tummy rub for his hasty actions.
“My children’s direwolf cubs, your Grace,” Lady Stark informed. Her apologetic tone was undercut by the approval visible in her eyes. “Please forgive them. They are young yet and are not accustomed to staying in the kennels.”
“You have direwolf cubs ?” Tyrion piped up. The fascination welling up had him edge closer to the children, the youngest preening at his awed tone.
“Would you care to hold him?” Lyarra Snow offered. “Hold out your hand and let Ghost sniff you.”
The Imp followed the instruction and was soon holding a squirming bundle of fur in his arms, grinning at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of cuddling a direwolf. From the corner of his eye, he could see his niece and youngest nephew looking longingly at the scene. The former knew better than to step forward under her mother’s sharp eyes while the latter was too shy to do so. Fortunately the Starks had no such compunctions, as soon Sansa Stark was introducing Myrcella to a grey-white beauty named ‘Lady’ and Tommen was tentatively petting the one dubbed ‘Nymeria’.
“He likes you,” the dark-haired bastard said as the direwolf pup licked his cheek.
“I like him,” Tyrion declared vigorously. “Truly a marvelous creature. I had never thought to see one before.”
“Neither had we.” The young woman held out her hand. “Lyarra Snow. Welcome to Winterfell.”
“Tyrion Lannister.” He shook it. “Pleasure to be here.”