The sudden crack of loud thunder caused Catelyn to jump nearly as much as it did the children, but she at least managed to prevent herself from crying out as Sansa, Arya, and Bran did. All three of them clutched at her tightly, and she attempted to pull them all onto her lap where she sat in the dirt floor of the little cave although they couldn’t possibly all fit.
“Robb, please move back away from the entrance,” she said to the not quite twelve-year old boy peering out into the storm. “You’ll get soaked.”
“It’s dark, Mother,” her son replied, turning around to look at her. The auburn hair falling over his face was indeed quite wet. “It can’t be night yet, can it?” Her firstborn son’s voice didn’t tremble, but it did sound very young, and she could easily hear the worry in it.
“No, Robb. It won’t be night for hours. It’s only the storm that darkens the sky.”
“But how will Father find us in the dark?” he asked, and this time his voice did tremble just a bit.
“He and Master Tallhart know these woods well. He’ll be back as soon as they’ve found Master Tallhart’s brother.
“I want Father here now!” Arya whined plaintively, and Sansa nodded her auburn head in vigorous agreement.
Ordinarily, Catelyn would smile widely to see her daughters in accord about anything, but at the moment she could scarcely conjure up the barest hint of a smile as she, too, wanted Ned back safe and sound. She could throttle Leobald Tallhart for having ridden away from the main party just as the sky began to darken, and she could throttle her husband as well for riding off with Helman through the blinding rain in search of the damn man.
“He’ll be here soon, sweetling,” Catelyn soothed, swallowing her own worries. Then she looked up to see that Robb had not moved from his spot near the entrance, and once again stood with his back to them, staring out into the curtain of water that fell from the dark sky.
“Robb Stark, get over here with the rest of us now,” she admonished him sternly.
He huffed, but turned and began to walk back toward them. Behind him, the cave entrance was suddenly illuminated by a blaze of light, and Catelyn held the other three more tightly as she knew the thunder would once again follow.
Robb was just sitting down on her left when the inevitable boom occurred, and she saw him jump along with his younger siblings.
“It’s only thunder,” she said soothingly, stroking four year old Bran’s hair as he whimpered against her chest, but she meant her reassuring words for all four of them.
“Will it stop soon, Mother?” Sansa asked softly.
Her eldest daughter had accepted that her two younger siblings would never relinquish their claim on their mother’s lap, and so Sansa sat on the cave floor curled into Catelyn’s right side. Catelyn pulled her right hand from Bran’s head and wrapped that arm around Sansa, putting her left arm around Robb, who was shivering from being wet. Catelyn knew her son was more cold and frightened than he would admit when he simply leaned against her shoulder and allowed her arm to stay.
“I don’t know when it will stop, Sansa,” she replied honestly. “But I do know that it will. And no harm will come to us here.”
“Why is it so dark, Mama?” Bran asked plaintively. “And so loud?”
With her arms around her eldest children, Catelyn dipped her head to plant a kiss on Bran’s dark auburn locks and then another on Arya’s forehead as she gazed up at her with enormous grey eyes which reflected the dim light of the solitary lantern Ned had left them. Thankfully, her cautious husband always had torches and lanterns in his saddle bags when they traveled even short distances. He didn’t believe in being careless. Other than with himself, she thought angrily as she thought of him out in this storm. Of course, she knew he could never leave a man out alone in such weather, but that did nothing to ease her worry for him.
“It’s a thunderstorm, Bran,” she said. “A big one. I don’t think you or Arya have ever seen a storm like this.”
“I’ve never seen a storm like this, either,” Robb proclaimed.
Catelyn laughed. “Oh, you have, sweetling. In the long ago spring, after we came to Winterfell. You just don’t remember because you were so small.”
“Was Robb scared?” Bran asked.
“Oh, yes,” Catelyn assured him. “He wouldn’t let me put him down.” Robb frowned at that, but Bran smiled for the first time since Ned left with Galbart so Catelyn considered her remark a success.
“What about Sansa?” Arya piped up.
“She cried as if she’d been struck whenever the thunder cracked.”
Arya began to laugh, but almost instantly the cave was flooded with lightning again, and the thunder this time shook the cave almost before the light faded.
All four children cried out, and no one laughed any longer at anyone. Catelyn simply held them against her.
When it was silent again save for the steady pounding of the rain on the ground, she said, “To be fair, Sansa was a babe then. No older than Rickon.”
“Do you think Rickon is scared, Mother? He’s by himself!” Sansa said in some distress.
“He isn’t by himself, Sansa,” Catelyn assured her, although the thought of her babe crying at the thunder without her there to hold him was physically painful. “He’s in Winterfell with Gerta and Old Nan and Maester Luwin and all sorts of people to look after him.” But not his mother. Not me.
“And Jon!” Arya exclaimed. “Jon won’t let Rickon cry.”
Catelyn carefully did not react to Arya’s mention of the bastard. It would hardly comfort her children for her respond with anger, and in truth, the child was probably right. The boy did have a knack for making Rickon laugh, and if that kept him from crying through this storm, Catelyn could try not to begrudge that talent.
“Father’s not in Winterfell,” Sansa said quietly. All of her children got very quiet after that, and Catelyn knew they all worried for their father.
“Your father has seen far more thunderstorms than even young Robb and little baby Sansa,” she teased them. “He knows how to take care of himself.”
“But this the worst storm that ever was,” Arya said solemnly after another flash of lightning followed by loud rolling thunder.
Catelyn smiled at her. “Oh, it’s a big one, all right. But I’ve been caught out in worse.”
“You?” Robb asked incredulously from beside her. “Why would you ever be out in a storm like this?”
“Well, my sweet children, I am quite certain I’ve seen many more thunderstorms than even your father.”
A chorus of expressions of disbelief met that statement, and Catelyn laughed.
“It’s true,” she assured them. “I grew up in the Riverlands, remember. And while it’s generally much warmer there, and almost never snows except in the coldest parts of winter, we do have far more frequent thunderstorms.”
“It’s like this all the time?” Bran cried in dismay. “It must be an awful place!”
Catelyn laughed again. “No, Bran. It’s a beautiful place with summer days that are often so warm, you don’t want to do anything but swim in the calm places in the river.”
“And the water you swim in there is cold!” Arya exclaimed. Catelyn had told them of swimming in the cool, flowing waters of the Red Fork before, and they all found it very funny as their only experience of swimming was in Winterfell’s hot pools on cool evenings.
“Yes, Arya,” Catelyn said. “And if feels lovely on your skin because the air is so warm.”
“Did you swim in thunderstorms, Mother?” Robb asked, with a smile on his face.
“Certainly not!” Catelyn laughed. “And your grandfather would have skinned me if I’d tried it. He sent me to my chambers often enough for swimming when he thought the current was too strong. If he’d ever caught me swimming in a storm, I’d probably still be confined to my old bedchamber in Riverrun!”
Robb and Sansa laughed, but Arya narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “You were never bad.”
Catelyn sighed. “Well, I tried very hard not to be. But I fear I didn’t always live up to my father’s expectations.”
“You had to go to your room?” Arya asked in a disbelieving tone.
“Sometimes,” Catelyn confessed. She wondered if it were a mistake to admit her own childhood misbehavior to her children, especially to a child so prone to misbehaviors as Arya, but when she saw the slow grin spread over her daughter’s face and looked to see that all her other children were smiling as well, she couldn’t regret it.
“But we were discussing thunderstorms,” she said after a brief pause. “That warm summer air seems to breed thunderstorms at times, and quite a few sunny afternoons gave way to vicious storms. My father and uncle were quite good at reading the sky so we were usually indoors by the time it started raining, but some seemed to come out of nowhere, rather like this one today.”
“Did you hide in a cave?” Bran asked.
“I’m afraid we didn’t have a lot of caves, Bran. We’re very fortunate Master Glover knew about this one today, or we’d all be very cold, wet, and miserable right now. In Riverrun, we could take shelter under the trees, but if there was too much lightning, we were told to run for the castle from wherever we were caught out. We weren’t allowed to go far without my father or uncle, so it was never a long run, but we were always plenty wet by the time we got inside.”
“Good thing you’re fish then, huh?” Robb said with a grin.
“She’s a wolf,” came a deep voice from the cave’s entrance, and Catelyn looked up to see her husband standing there, soaked to the skin but seemingly unharmed. “A mother wolf keeping all her pups safe from the storm.” Ned smiled at her, and she felt warm all over as she returned his smile.
The children’s momentary shock at seeing him there wore off and they were all up and flinging themselves at him, heedless of his soggy state. Catelyn slowly got to her feet and stood there watching her husband and her children hugging and laughing and thought that she needed nothing else in the world.
“Can we go home now, Father?” she heard Bran ask as Ned lifted him up.
“Nay, son. It’ll rain at least another hour or so, and then the poor horses who’ve not been inside a warm, dry cave like you deserve some rest and a chance to dry out. We’ll stay here tonight and ride home in the morning.”
“We’re sleeping in a cave?” Sansa and Arya cried out together, one in dismay and one with excitement, and Catelyn laughed out loud.
“Aye,” Ned said, setting Bran down and running his hand over both girls’ heads. “It appears we are. Now, settle down, you lot, and let me greet your mother.”
He walked to her, and she threw her arms around him.
“Careful, Cat! You’ll get wet.”
“I don’t care,” she declared, and then he laughed and put his arms around her then, kissing her soundly on the mouth to the sound of the children’s giggles.
“You found Leobald?” she asked as she pulled her face slightly back from his.
“Aye. For awhile there, I thought we never would, but we finally did,” Ned sighed. “His horse got spooked by the first thunderclap and threw him. He twisted up his leg when landed. I don’t think it’s broken, but we didn’t exactly do a thorough examination of it out in the rain. We got him onto Helman’s horse, and they headed back to Torrhen Square. I rode here to you.”
“I take it the Tallhart brothers are no longer riding to Winterfell with us?”
“No. Helman’s rather perturbed at his brother, but that’s nothing new. And truthfully, we discussed pretty much everything we needed to discuss while we were at Torrhen’s Square. I think the Tallhart boys just wanted to get out of their keep for a few days.”
“Like you suggested to me?” Catelyn laughed.
Ned sighed and shook his head. “Gods, Cat, when I suggested that that you and the children come along on this visit, I merely wanted to get you away from work and worry and responsibility for awhile. You hadn’t left Winterfell since before you were carrying Rickon, and he’s nearly reached his first name day. Had I known it would turn out like this . . .” He shook his head again.
“No one could have known it would turn out like this,” she said, shaking her own head. “I confess that I’m loath to spend another night away from Rickon, but I know he’s safe and well. And there are worse places to be than with my husband and the rest of my children. I’m fine now that you’re back safe. Truly, I am.”
He let go of her. “Gods be good! I’ve utterly drenched you! Forgive me, my lady.”
“As Robb said, my lord, I am a fish. A bit of water won’t hurt me,” she said with a smile.
“And as I said, you’re also a wolf, my love. Our pack will be quite content in this little den as long as you are with us.” He kissed her hand, and then turned to their oldest son. “Robb! Come with me, son. We hurried after Leobald so quickly, we didn’t even take the packs off our horses. If you don’t mind getting a bit wet, let’s go rummage around in them for some food and see if anything in the packs has kept dry enough to use as bedding.”
Robb’s face glowed with pride and excitement at being asked to help, and Catelyn bit her lip to keep from expressing any concern about his going out in the storm. There hadn’t been any thunder in the last little bit, and the rain didn’t sound as heavy as it had earlier.
She smiled as her husband and son walked outside and didn’t admonish the younger three over standing too close to the rain as they tried to peer out after them. They showed no fear at all of the storm now, and Catelyn’s smiled widened as she recalled Ned’s words. Whether she would ever truly be a wolf or not, her children certainly were, and she knew they all had more courage and strength within them than they realized. She loved them with a fierceness that sometimes took her breath away.
Later, after they’d shared what dried meat and bread Ned and Robb had recovered from the saddlebags, they all curled up together on the cave floor with the driest of the blankets and garments from the packs spread out for bedding. Ned put his lips close to her ear, and kissed her briefly before whispering softly. “I doubt you ever expected to emulate our house sigil quite so literally when you wed me, my love, piled up on the ground like a pack of actual wolves. Forgive me for these poor accommodations. I promise I will have you safely to your comfortable bed when next you lie down.”
“I am untroubled, my love,” Catelyn replied airily. “After all, I am the mother of wolves. Where better for me to lie down?”
Her husband’s rumbling laughter then warmed her heart far more than the thunder could ever frighten it.