They leave for Braavos first.
Ned still remembers the terror upon receiving his old friend’s letter, still remembers the shock of hearing the king is sending a party to Winterfell, riding as fast they can.
The right thing, the honorable thing, would be to surrender himself, but he swore to protect his sister’s only son and he knows that the king would surely kill the boy. There can be no reasoning with Robert when the dragons are involved.
Catelyn insists on accompanying him after her initial shock and anger over his deception passes, insists their entire family will follow.
He protests at first, tells her the life of a highborn hostage will be far better than one of a commoner wandering the Free Cities. But his wife is clever, sees things he cannot, and she reminds him of too small bodies wrapped in bloody cloaks, of children killed like dogs for the crime of their blood.
And so they leave for Braavos, so they flee in the night like common criminals, jewelry and gold tucked away in hidden satchels, clothing hastily packed away in their one and only trunk.
But Braavos has no use for a man that cannot work. Oh, Ned can read and write and swing a sword far better than any other man in this strange city. But he cannot work steel or stone, he cannot even build a chair or haggle in their strange tongue. Lovely Catelyn finds work with an ease he envies, rising quickly in the ranks of a seamstress’ shop, but one woman’s wages will never be enough to feed five children.
One woman’s wages will never be enough, but a man skilled with a sword can earn a great deal of coin if he is careful.
Pentos is first, the merchants of the city eager for skilled guards for their manses and even more eager for men willing to fight the few Dothraki that attack their caravans. Ned grows used to guarding men he would’ve rightfully executed in Winterfell, grows used to turning his gaze when slaves are punished, grows used to telling his valiant son and noble nephew to learn to look the other way.
Myr is next, followed by Tyrosh and then Lys. After all, it seems as though those free cities will never tire of fighting over the barren waste they all lay claim for their own. They are even in Volantis for a time, though they leave as quickly as they came when a noble becomes particularly insistent on buying Sansa, refusing to believe his daughter is not for sale.
Volantis, Myr, Pentos, Tyrosh, Lys…they move from city to city, wherever the fighting is thickest, wherever the most coin can be made.
Robb and Jon first hold a sword the day they turn ten, Ned patiently correcting their grip as they move through the motions he teaches them. His son was meant to be a lord, was meant to be the Warden of the North. Instead Robb becomes yet another sellsword, instead his good-hearted son grows used to fighting Dothraki savages to protect the interests of men that deal in flesh.
Sansa was meant to be the lady of a great house, meant to marry a nobleman and have the life she dreamed of as a little girl. Instead his sweet daughter carries a dagger on her waist and one strapped into her boot to protect herself from men that only see her beauty, instead she sews for coin like a common seamstress.
Bran was meant to be a knight, to win honor and love just like the songs he loved so much. Instead they cannot afford a maester when he falls and breaks his leg, instead his son must hobble with a cane rather than wield a sword like he dreamed of.
Still, there some good things about their exile. Jon is not reviled as a bastard in this strange land. Jon is not mocked or hated for a lie meant to protect him. He is not safe, that is true, but he is happy and sometimes Ned thinks that enough.
And Arya! Wild Arya, with Brandon’s wolfsblood and Lyanna’s look, who begged and pleaded to wield a sword until he finally gave in. His Arya would suffocate in the life of a highborn lady, Ned knows this, and he cannot help feeling happy she will never know what is like to be married off for an alliance, will never know the feeling of leaving her home for a strange man’s bed.
Rickon came last, a mere year after they fled, and Ned had never been so scared. Not when Robert called for war or he killed his first man, not when Lyanna placed her son in his arms. Cat could die, the babe could die, and he would be left alone, left to raise five children without the woman he loved.
But Cat and the babe survive by a stroke of luck. Rickon is as wild as Arya, more wolf than boy on some days, but he is a sweet boy, quick to laugh and quicker to love.
Aye, there are bad things about this new life. It is not the life he wanted for his children, not the life he would have chosen.
Still, the good far outweighs the bad, and Ned thinks himself content in this strange new life, thinks he could die without regrets if he never sees Westeros again.
And then Sansa, his ever clever daughter, tells of the rumors of the last Targaryens, tells of the whispers that Viserys will try to reclaim his throne. The Beggar King and his sister are in Pentos, the very city his family lives in.
Looking at his nephew, with his Stark eyes and dark hair, with the long face so like Lyanna’s, Ned knows what he must do.
Winter is coming, but whether it comes for the wolves or stags-only time will tell.