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A Matter of Judgment

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“They’ll be here soon, my lady.”

Catelyn looked up from the parchment she’d been studying and met the maester’s eyes. “Come and get me when you can see their banners from tops of the walls, Maester Luwin.”

“I only thought that perhaps we should discuss . . .”

“Discuss what, Maester Luwin?” Catelyn sighed. “I am well aware what Lady Hornwood wants and that Lord Bolton is not inclined to give it to her. None of us knows precisely what stake Arnolf Karstark has in any of this, and I fear we shall remain in the dark about that at least until the man is here to speak for himself.” She paused a moment, but the maester said nothing else. “Vayon has seen to the lodging arrangements as we discussed earlier?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“And food is prepared so that we might host them all in the Great Hall upon their arrival?”

“It is, my lady.”

Catelyn offered the man a small smile. In truth, she wasn’t angry at Maester Luwin. He’d been more help to her since Ned’s departure, truly since her arrival in Winterfell some years ago, than just about anyone in the castle. But she could not allow him to overstep here. Not if she truly intended to rule in Ned’s stead as he had asked of her. “You tell me often enough I spend too much time on my feet, Maester Luwin. I am simply trying to abide by your advice. My troublesome babe and I shall remain right here at my lord husband’s desk until out guests approach the castle, and then I’ll come down to the courtyard to greet them.”

Luwin returned her smile. “Is the babe restless again, Lady Stark?”

Catelyn laughed. “No more than usual. At this point, I believe I’d be more concerned if he weren’t beating me half to death from inside. If he’s half this active after he’s born, the Seven preserve us all!”

Before the maester could reply to that, Winterfell’s bewhiskered master-at-arms appeared in the open doorway.

“My lady,” he said, bowing slightly. He sounded somewhat out of breath as if he’d run up the stairs. “The Bolton party . . .”

“Will arrive soon,” Catelyn interrupted. “I’ve been informed. Have they been sighted approaching Winterfell’s walls yet?”

“No, Lady Stark,” Ser Rodrik replied, his breath a bit more controlled. “But before they get here, I thought . . .”

Catelyn sighed deeply. “Please come in and close the door, Ser Rodrik. You stay as well, Maester Luwin.”

When the door was closed, she beckoned for both men to sit in chairs opposite her. “Now, good sers, go ahead and tell me what particular instructions you think I so desperately need before greeting Lord Bolton, Lady Hornwood, and Arnolf Karstark in my courtyard.”

Both men at least had the decency to look abashed. Rodrik Cassel’s face actually reddened, but he was the first to find his voice. “We mean no disrespect, Lady Stark. It’s just that . . . you’ve never met Arnolf Karstark, and you’ve only met the others a few times. Lady Hornwood is fine and noble woman, but the other two can be . . .”

“Difficult,” Maester Luwin said simply when Cassel paused. “And the history of these Houses with each other and with House Stark must be considered before . . .”

“Before what, Maester Luwin? Before offering them bread and salt? Before sharing a meal with them and making small talk about their families, the war, and their journey to Winterfell? Because, I assure you, gentlemen, that is I will be discussing with our guests tonight.”

“Roose Bolton won’t like that one bit,” Rodrik Cassel said, frowning. “He’s not here to visit. He’s here . . .”

“I know why he’s here,” Catelyn said in a firm voice, rising from her chair to stand over them as she spoke. “I know why all of them are here, Ser Rodrik. They are here on a matter of judgment, and judgment they shall receive after each of them has been given a chance to speak their piece. But not tonight.”

Both men continued looking at her silently.

“If Lord Stark were here, do you think he would allow them to badger him with their complaints, accusations, and excuses upon riding through Winterfell’s gates? Of course not. He would welcome them with courtesy, accept their fealty, tell them he is pleased to hear their petitions on the morrow, and then offer them food, drink, and hospitality. I shall do no different.”

“I fear that Lord Bolton may push the matter, my lady,” Maester Luwin said softly.

“Of course, he will,” Catelyn replied, sinking back into her chair before the men could remember their courtesies and feel compelled to rise themselves. “I am no fool. Halys Hornwood has been demanding that Lord Bolton pay him reparations for those two villages since long before Balon Greyjoy decided to rebel. Bolton has stalled and put him off time and time again, but now that both Lord Hornwood and my lord husband are off fighting the Ironborn, he suddenly decides the matter should be settled at once and asks Winterfell for justice? He obviously believes he can bend Lady Hornwood and myself to whatever he deems is justice in this matter. His chivalrous offer to ride first to Hornwood and escort the lady here to Winterfell was obviously done merely to ensure that she would not arrive here before him and garner my sympathy. Had I been in her position, I would have refused his offer on principle. She has her own men to provide safe escort. I’m quite certain Lord Hornwood didn’t ride off to war and leave his lady wife and young son defenseless.”

“I see Lord Bolton’s actions the same way, my lady,” Maester Luwin said, half smiling at her with an appraising look on his face.

“Aye,” Ser Rodrik agreed. “But your knowing he’ll come at you, my lady, won’t keep him from doing it.”

“No,” Catelyn smiled. “But I fear that Lord Bolton will find me as immovable on the question of listening to his or anyone’s list of complaints this evening as he would find Lord Stark.” She picked up the parchment she’d been reading looking at prior to Maester Luwin’s arrival. “Now, if there is nothing else at the moment, I would like to finish this before our guests arrive.”

“I have nothing else, my lady,” Maester Luwin said, a full smile on his face now.

“No, my lady,” Rodrik agreed. “We’ll send word when they’re approaching the gate.”

“Thank you. Oh, and Maester Luwin, will you please tell Hannah and Nan, I’d like the children fed in the nursery tonight. Robb will likely fuss about it, but he’ll have to be satisfied with greeting the visitors in the courtyard with me. I honestly don’t need an overtired five year old at a dinner no one’s truly happy about attending.”

“Yes, my lady.” Maester Luwin bowed slightly before leaving Ned’s solar and closing the door.

Catelyn sighed, leaning back in her chair and resting her hands on her ever-growing belly. As if he’d been given a target, the babe within pushed hard with a foot against her hand, and Catelyn laughed tiredly. “Oh, my sweet babe,” she said, rubbing her belly, “May the gods grant me as much stamina as you seem to have for I fear I shall need it.”

In truth, she didn’t know what she was going to do about Lord Bolton. She had no doubts about her ability to get through this night just as she had explained to Maester Lewin and Ser Rodrik. She’d sat beside her father presiding over dinners with both Blackwoods and Brackens present, and these contentious Northmen couldn’t possibly be any more challenging than that. Her mother had once told her that courtesy was a lady’s armor, and Catelyn intended to go fully armored this evening.

No, her concern was for the morrow, for she would have to pass some sort of judgment. Ned had not charged her to keep the castle running smoothly while putting off all difficulties until his return. He had charged her to rule in his place. He’d been very specific about it, both to the people in Winterfell and in letters to all his bannermen—the lords who remained in the North during this rebellion or their designated castellans. If she didn’t pronounce a clear and binding judgment in this matter between Bolton and Hornwood, all the North would hear of it, and no one would take her authority seriously. She couldn’t have that.

She felt she had come a long way since her arrival to Winterfell in earning the respect of people here. She’d felt comfortable in her role as Lady at least since Sansa’s birth. Ned respected her, and that carried a great deal of weight with his people. When she’d thanked him for that, he’d laughed and told her she’d earned the people’s respect and affection all on her own, and that anyone who couldn’t see that Winterfell had the finest lady in the land was a fool.

She smiled, recalling that conversation now. The respect between them had been there for some time. But this tenuous . . . affection . . . between them, that was much newer. She missed his voice, his smile, his touch. She missed him. She closed her eyes a moment and imagined him rubbing her shoulders with his large hands, but quickly brought her mind back to the present. Ned wasn’t here now. She was. And gaining acceptance as the Lady of Winterfell running her husband’s castle and presiding over dinners on his arm was one thing. Gaining acceptance as a southron born woman ruling the North in her husband’s name was another thing entirely.

She’d told him as much when he’d first mentioned his plan to have her do it. “They’ll have no confidence in me,” she’d warned him. He’d only smiled at her and said, “But I have all confidence in you. There is no one I trust more, Catelyn.” She hadn’t argued further. How could she when he said those words and looked at her like that?

On the morrow, she would have to prove to herself and all the North that his confidence in her was not misplaced.

Catelyn rose from her bed the next morning doubting that she had slept at all. Certainly, she hadn’t slept very much. Between the usual aches in her back, the kicking of her babe, and the worry over today’s meeting with Bolton, Karstark, and Lady Hornwood, sleep did not come easily.

She stretched and pressed one hand against her back trying to ease the discomfort there. She called for her maid to help her dress for the day, selecting a dress of Stark grey and electing to wear a silver direwolf pendant Ned had gifted her on a chain whose links were cleverly formed in the shape of the Tully trout. The jewelry was possibly a bit formal for deciding a grievance between bannermen, but she wanted all present to remember precisely who she was.

Lord Bolton had attempted to push matters upon his arrival last evening. When she’d met him in the courtyard, he barely gave her the courtesy of kneeling before stating that this was a simple matter and if Lady Stark would give him five minutes, they could see it settled and dine at ease. She had simply smiled and assured him they would all dine at ease for the cooks had prepared an excellent meal.

Arnolf Karstark, a gaunt, balding older man with a white beard, who hadn’t yet knelt or even been introduced to her had immediately protested, stating they hadn’t ridden to Winterfell for dinner. Lady Hornwood, who’d stood back allowing the men to approach Catelyn first, had looked appalled, and even Roose Bolton had narrowed his eyes at the man in annoyance.

Catelyn had only smiled at him saying, “Lord Karstark’s uncle, I presume. Whatever reason brings you to Winterfell, you cannot deny that you and your companions must eat, my lord. You have had a long journey, and you and all your companions must be hungry.”

Without another word to the men, she’d called out for two servants to see the two men to the rooms which had been prepared for them. Then she’d turned to greet Lady Hornwood, who cooed over Robb who stood between her and Maester Luwin, managing to remain remarkably still and silent. He’d offered the woman a large smile when she exclaimed he’d grown very big and tall since last she’d seen him and told her that his father had assured him he was almost a man grown.

Karstark had grunted at that. “So you’re Lord Eddard’s boy?” he’d said, squinting his grey eyes at Robb.

“Yes, my lord,” Robb had said clearly, making Catelyn proud. “I am Robb of House Stark, son Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn.”

“You don’t look much like Lord Eddard,” Karstark had said, moving closer to Robb and ignoring the servant who’d stepped up to escort him to his room.

Robb had instinctively backed away from the man and moved closer to Catelyn, but he neither hid behind her nor reached for her hand.

“He has my coloring,” Catelyn had said coolly, her practiced smile never leaving her face, “but he is very much his father’s son. Already he is brave, but careful whom he trusts—much like Lord Stark.”

Karstark had met her eyes silently a moment before replying simply, “Indeed,” and giving a slight bow before turning to go with his escort.

Catelyn had escorted Lady Hornwood to her rooms herself along with Robb, smiling genuinely as the woman asked about Sansa and about how she was feeling during her current pregnancy. Not once until Catelyn was leaving her did the lady mention the reason for this visit.

“I do apologize for bringing this matter to you when your lord husband and mine are both absent, my lady. However, I could not allow Lord Bolton’s assertion that Lord Arnolf should mediate as a neutral party in Lord Karstark’s stead. Arnolf Karstark may be serving as castellan of the Karhold while Lord Karstark is away at war, but he is not its lord. He does not have equal standing with Lord Bolton or my lord husband, and should not be called upon to mediate between them.”

This business about Karstark mediating had been new information to Catelyn, but she’d endeavored to keep any surprise from showing on her face. “Does Arnolf Karstark have any particular knowledge of the matter in dispute?” she’d asked simply.

“Not that I know of,” Lady Hornwood had sighed. “Not that my lord husband has ever mentioned to me. Nor have I heard of Lord Rickard Karstark ever expressing any specific interest in our difficulties. He has had problems of his own with men from Lord Bolton’s lands. I can’t see why his uncle would be more concerned about our problems than Lord Karstark’s own.”

“Well,” Catelyn had said, her mind working to make sense of this new information, “I shall hear all there is to hear on the matter from everyone on the morrow, my lady, I assure you. But for now, please avail yourself of whatever you need to freshen up after your journey before dinner. I shall leave Ilva here to assist you.”

Lady Hornwood had expressed her gratitude, and Catelyn had departed to take Robb to the nursery before preparing to go the Great Hall herself.

The dinner had passed, if not pleasantly, at least without incident. Catelyn seated Lord Bolton and Lady Hornwood on either side of herself with Lord Arnolf on Bolton’s other side. She’d gotten the distinct impression that Bolton had warned the man not to speak out of turn as he barely said a word all evening. Bolton was cool and distant without being discourteous, much as he had always been in Catelyn’s experience with him, and Lady Hornwood was fairly quiet but cordial. They had discussed what news any of them had from the west coast and the Iron Islands, the prospect of summer’s imminent arrival, and the excellent quality of the meal. No one mentioned looted villages. At the conclusion of the dinner, Catelyn had informed them that she would hear all of them together in Lord Stark’s solar an hour after everyone broke their fast in the morning.

Catelyn now reflected on the previous evening and all she knew about the Bolton-Hornwood dispute as her maid braided and styled her hair. When the young woman finished, Catelyn thanked her and walked to Ned’s solar where she’d asked Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrik to meet her to break their fasts rather than going down to the Great Hall.

She arrived there before the two men and once again read all the correspondence Ned had received from everyone involved about the looted villages in Hornwood lands while she awaited their arrival, and when they did arrive, she shared what she had learned from Lady Hornwood last evening.

“So, did Lord Bolton ask for Karstark’s assistance, or did he volunteer it?” Maester Luwin asked thoughtfully.

“I’m not certain, but I intend to find out. And is this something Lord Bolton and Lord Karstark were discussing prior to Lord Karstark’s departure with my husband’s army or is this specifically an arrangement between Roose Bolton and Arnolf? Lady Hornwood didn’t believe Lord Karstark had any interest in it. She mentioned he’d had some problems of his own with the Dreadfort.”

“Poaching,” Luwin and Cassel said almost at the same time.

Catelyn raised an eyebrow in question, and Ser Rodrik continued. “Winter’s hard on everyone in the North, my lady. You know that well by now. But it’s particularly hard on the smallfolk in the Dreadfort lands because of the hunting restrictions.”

Catelyn knew much of this, but wanted to hear the men’s thoughts so she simply nodded and said, “Go on.”

“Lord Bolton doesn’t allow any hunting at all on any of the lands personally held by the Dreadfort except by his specific permission, and that’s nearly all the good hunting ground in the territory he rules. The longer winter drags on, the more supplies dwindle, and the more important game becomes. And the more desperate hungry people get to go after it,” Ser Rodrik elaborated.

“So he starves his smallfolk,” Catelyn sighed.

“He disputes that notion, but the smallfolk certainly see it that way,” said Maester Luwin. “The penalty imposed for poaching on Dreadfort land is death. To be fair, many lords execute poachers on their private lands, but no other lord keeps nearly as much hunting land entirely private as the Boltons. This isn’t new. It’s been this way long before Roose Bolton became lord. At one time, the penalty for poaching was public flaying prior to execution, so one could argue the Boltons are somewhat more merciful in their justice than they have been in the past.”

“So his smallfolk simply cross into bordering lands to hunt because it’s less likely to get them killed?”

“Aye,” Ser Rodrik said. “The Karstarks allow hunting and fishing pretty much anywhere they oversee. Their lands and the Umbers’ lands aren’t particularly suited to growing crops in great quantities even in summer, and those Houses understand well enough that if they’re to keep any small folk at all, they’ve got to let them feed themselves. The problem is that there are so many people living on Bolton lands now hunting and fishing on Karstark lands that the Karstark smallfolk themselves are begging for stronger restrictions to keep out the people who don’t live there.”

“Yes,” Catelyn sighed. “But that isn’t a simple prospect as people can move freely throughout the North as long as they aren’t breaking laws where they happen to be, and attempting to ascertain the name, home, and intent of every person wandering through the Karhold lands with a bow at any given time seems an impossible task.” She shook her head. “Ned has mentioned Lord Karstark’s concerns to me. He wants Winterfell to force Bolton to open more of his lands to hunting for his own smallfolk.”

“He does,” Maester Luwin agreed. “But if Lord Stark simply mandates that Bolton alters the way land has been managed by his House for hundreds of years, what’s to keep him from arbitrarily mandating that other lords manage their own holdings and smallfolk according to the whims of Winterfell?”

“Ned would never . . .” Catelyn began protesting angrily, and Luwin held his hands up.

“Of course not, my lady. Lord Stark is a just man, and he understands that his vassals require some autonomy to govern effectively. The North is far too large to be effectively managed entirely from Winterfell. But if Bolton were pushed on this matter, he would not let it go quietly.”

“No,” Catelyn said, seeing the problem at once. “No, Bolton would quietly find someone to instigate protests over some matter such as the harbor fees Lord Manderly sets while loudly warning Lord Manderly that Winterfell could step in and demand he halve his fees at once. He would seek to sow discontent among all the Northern lords, portraying himself as a victim, in spite of the fact that virtually everyone agrees that his restrictive hunting laws are wrong.”

“Aye, my lady. For a lass that’s not lived here in the North but for a few short years, you’ve got the right of it quickly.”

“It isn’t so different from the Riverlands, I’m afraid,” Catelyn replied, shaking her head at Ser Rodrik. “My father would love to simply order the Brackens and Blackwoods to cease their endless hostilities, and he’d certainly love to put a stop to Walder Frey’s behavior that forever treads the line of being outright treasonous, but having the authority to order such things does not give him the ability give such orders without consequences. And so compromises are often necessary.”

No one spoke for a moment, and then Catelyn continued. “The sticky matter here is that the villagers whose homes were looted and burned in Lord Hornwood’s lands swear the perpetrators were Dreadfort soldiers. That’s a far cry from hungry smallfolk hunting where they don’t live.”

“It is, my lady,” Maester Luwin agreed, “And as Lord Bolton staunchly denies that his soldiers were involved, the truth may be difficult to discern.”

“And why is Arnolf Karstark sticking his ugly nose in it?” Ser Rodrik put in. “What does he stand to gain here?”

“He wants to be Lord of the Karhold,” Catelyn said quietly.

“What? You can’t mean that he. . .” Ser Rodrik sputtered.

“Forgive me,” Catelyn interrupted. “I should have said he wants to be seen as Lord of the Karhold. I don’t mean that he seeks to actively depose his nephew. But Lord Karstark is away at war. Men die in war. Lord Karstark’s three sons are all too young to rule the Karhold which is why Arnolf is castellan in the first place, I would imagine. I do not suggest the man wishes harm upon his nephew, but do either of you believe he would hesitate to consolidate his grasp on the Karhold at least until Lord Rickard’s eldest son reached majority if Lord Karstark did fall?”

She could see in both men’s eyes that they shared her assessment of Arnolf Karstark’s character.

“But how does involving himself in this Bolton-Hornwood mess benefit him, my lady?” Maester Luwin asked softly.

“Bolton knows what happened to those villages. And he doesn’t want anyone else to know. Ned believes that very strongly, and he was trying to decide how best to proceed in the matter before Robert issued his call to arms. Mayhap Arnolf Karstark is willing to lend credence to whatever version of the facts Lord Bolton wishes to spin—for a price.”

“What price would that be?” Ser Rodrik asked.

“We all know the Boltons are not averse to killing their own people for the offense of killing a rabbit and that they maintain one of the largest armies in the North. Surely, they could keep peasants from crossing into Karstark lands to hunt if they took a notion to do so. After they kill enough of them, far fewer will try.”

“My lady . . . that’s . . .”

“Despicable. Yet, Rickard Karstark is facing growing unrest from his smallfolk about Bolton peasants taking their game and hasn’t been able to stop it. If Arnolf can shut it down in his absence, that will garner him a great deal of popularity, will it not?”

Maester Luwin regarded her with something resembling admiration. Ser Rodrik looked at her in disbelief.

“I assure you, Ser Rodrik, I take no pleasure in thinking such thoughts. But I learned long ago that trust must be earned. As the two of you rightly pointed out yesterday, I know Lord Bolton and Lady Hornwood only a little and Arnolf Karstark not at all, so I have no intention of trusting any of them to be entirely truthful with me. I must consider their worst possible motivations as well as their best.” She smiled at him. “Trust is earned. I trust only those I’ve known and loved all my life and those who have given me good reason to trust them now. That includes the two of you which is why I’d like you both to remain while I speak with our guests as I may desire your counsel.”

Both men nodded in acquiescence.

“But first, I will need your word that you will not speak unless I directly ask you to.”

Maester Luwin nodded again, but Ser Rodrik looked mildly affronted.

Catelyn took a deep breath. “I do not mean any disrespect toward either of you, but we all know that whatever Bolton or Karstark wish to accomplish here today, they only believe they can accomplish it because my lord husband is not here. They will seek to undermine my authority however they can. They may look directly at you and speak or ask a question, but I shall answer them. They must leave here knowing that my word is the law in Winterfell, or any judgment I render may be ignored. If that occurs, the North is leaderless until Lord Stark’s return, and we don’t know when that will be. A Tully and a woman I may be, but today I am the Stark in Winterfell. When I speak, the North must listen.”

Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrik replied, “Yes, my lady,” as one.

She bid them to place chairs on either side and slightly behind hers as well as three chairs for their guests facing hers from the other side of Ned’s desk. They’d barely accomplished this when a knock came at the door.

Ser Rodrik opened the door at Catelyn’s nod and admitted Lord Bolton, Lady Hornwood, and Arnolf Karstark.

“We missed you in the Great Hall, my lady,” Lord Bolton said, bowing slightly.

“I took my morning meal here as I had some work to do. Please be seated, and we’ll get started. You all remember Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrik. They will remain, and Maester Luwin will write a record of what is said here today.”

“That isn’t necessary,” Arnolf Karstark said.

“It is necessary, Lord Arnolf,” Catelyn replied, giving him the courtesy title as a matter of civility since he had no title of his own. “This is a petition for judgment. I am meeting with you in Lord Stark’s solar as a matter of courtesy and concern for your comfort, but that in no way makes these proceedings less formal than a petition heard in the Great Hall.”

“That will be fine, Lady Stark,” Lord Bolton said softly. Catelyn wondered if the man had ever raised his voice in his life.

“There has already been much correspondence between Winterfell and Hornwood and between Winterfell and the Dreadfort in this matter. Both my lord husband and I have read all this correspondence save the most recent letters expressing your intent to come here for judgment. These have only been read by myself as Lord Stark had left for Seagard before those ravens were sent. The first question I have regards Lord Arnolf’s presence here. The matter at hand involves attacks on Hornwood land allegedly by soldiers of the Dreadfort. What role do you have here, Lord Arnolf?”

The old man looked flustered for a moment and then angry. “I’m here because Lord Bolton asked me to come,” he said shortly.

“To what purpose?” Catelyn pressed.

“To what purpose?” Karstark repeated much more loudly than Catelyn had spoken. “To see justice done, of course. This has gone on much too long, and I want . . .”

“You want what?” Catelyn interrupted. She didn’t speak loudly, but her voice was firm enough to stop the man from speaking. “Your desire to see justice done is admirable, but surely you do not mean to suggest that your presence here is required to secure a just outcome. You said Lord Bolton asked you to come. Do you have some testimony to give about the attacks?”

Karstark began to sputter, but Bolton interrupted, again without raising his voice. “Alleged attacks, my lady, if you please.”

Catelyn turned toward Lord Bolton. “Do you deny that these two villages on Hornwood land were attacked, Lord Bolton? I have two letters from Lord Hornwood here describing the specific damages from inspections he personally made of both villages, and a third letter from the maester at Castle Hornwood describing injuries, mostly burns on people caught inside the houses that were torched, treated by himself and by two healer women who asked him to look at their patients when he visited the villages at Lord Hornwood’s directions. So, I am prepared to state categorically that these villages were indeed attacked unless someone here wants to dispute the words of Lord Hornwood and the maester.”

“My husband is not a liar,” Lady Hornwood said emphatically.

“No, my lady,” Lord Bolton agreed. “He is not. I simply wished to be clear there is no evidence that anyone from Dreadfort lands participated in these acts.”

“Then the participation of your soldiers is alleged, Lord Bolton. The occurrence of the attacks is an undisputed fact,” Catelyn said.

The Lord of the Dreadfort nodded his acceptance of that.

“Lord Arnolf says you asked him to come to Winterfell, Lord Bolton. Why?”

“Lord Arnolf knew of my frustration with the ongoing dispute between Lord Hornwood and myself over the responsibility for these attacks, my lady. He offered mediation as an unbiased party. Lord Hornwood is fighing the Ironborn so I approached Lady Hornwood with his offer and she refused it. We have come to Winterfell at her insistence as she would accept no other alternative.”

“I would not accept Lord Karstark’s castellan as a mediator,” Lady Hornwood said. “There is no reason for me to do so.”

“Castellan? I am a Karstark. The blood of the First Men and the Kings of Winter runs through my veins. Who are you? Just a southron-blooded Manderly who speaks of Northern justice but still prays to foreign gods. You are not above me, my lady.”

Arnolf Karstark’s rant appeared to take everyone by surprise, even Roose Bolton.

Catelyn recovered first. “Lord Arnolf,” she said coldly. You will apologize to Lady Hornwood immediately, and then someone here will give me a purpose for your presence or you shall leave.”

“I . . . I . . .” For a moment, the man’s expression made Catelyn believe he was about to shout at her as he had Donella Hornwood, but he thought better of it and gained control of himself. He rose to his feet and bowed formally toward Lady Hornwood. “Forgive me, my lady. That was ill-spoken. House Manderly has been a loyal Northern House for many generations now, and I have nothing but respect for the House of your lord husband.”

He spoke courteous words, but Catelyn saw little remorse in his face. Lady Hornwood obviously felt the same for she simply nodded stiffly and turned away from him.

“Why are you here, Lord Arnolf?” Catelyn asked once more as the man sat back down.

“Lady Catelyn,” the man began, with what Catelyn supposed he considered a charming smile on his face. “These matters are difficult for the wisest man to untangle. As Lord Stark is absent and I have thoroughly discussed this problem with Lord Bolton, I thought to offer my assistance to you in this matter. We truly have come up with a fair solution, and if you would only listen to it, I am certain . . .”

“You and Lord Bolton together decided upon a solution and then approached Lady Hornwood about your acting as an impartial mediator? I fear the two of you do not understand the term impartial, Lord Arnolf. Deciding upon a course of action with one disputing party and then sitting pronouncing that course of action to both parties is the opposite of impartial.”

“You don’t understand, Lady Catelyn. You see, we . . .”

“I understand quite well, my lord. I assure you I am an educated woman.”

“Of course, you are, Lady Stark,” Roose Bolton interjected quickly. He still didn’t raise his voice, but Catelyn detected more intensity in his voice than she’d ever heard and thought that the Lord of the Dreadfort was as irritated with Arnolf Karstark as she was—although likely for somewhat different reasons. “I know that you served as Lady of Riverrun from a very early age after your mother’s death, and you are obviously both intelligent and capable. However, you are a member of the fairer sex, and I believe what Lord Arnolf was trying to say, however poorly, is that certain matters of ruling can be . . . unseemly, and are not a part of a noble woman’s education. Therefore . . .”

“Stop right there, Lord Bolton. Yes, I did serve as Lady of Riverrun for a long time, and I have been Lady of Winterfell for several years now, but you forget that I am nine years older than my only living brother. As my elder brothers died before my birth, for the first nine years of my life, I was my father’s heir. He would have preferred a son, no doubt, but I was the heir he had, and so he taught me. Whether you consider it unseemly or not, I learned far more than needlepoint, dancing, and household management. After the joyous event of my brother Edmure’s birth, my father, having lost two sons in infancy still continued my education because he knows how uncertain life is.

“I am a member of the fairer sex, and there are some things I have not been trained in, so if we are suddenly attacked by a hostile force here, I will ask your advice as well as that of my own Ser Rodrik about to how to manage our defenses, Lord Bolton, for I have no expertise at warfare, but in matters of settling a dispute between two Houses or recognizing an attempt at manipulation, I have no need of your assistance or Lord Arnolf’s.”

Lord Bolton remained silent after that, so Catelyn turned to Arnolf Karstark. “Lord Arnolf, I would like you to leave this solar. You have no part in the matter at hand.”

“But I . . . But Lady Catelyn . . .”

“Leave, Lord Arnolf. This is not a request.”

The man stood then, looking murderous, and looked at Rodrik Cassel. “You can’t keep this southron woman in check any better than this, Rodrik? She’ll have you all praying in that sept she got your lord to build before he gets back from Pyke.”

“Nay, Arnolf. Lady Stark rules her in Winterfell in Lord Stark’s name and with Lord Stark’s voice, and she rules well. Winterfell and the North will be just fine in her hands, but you might want to get down on your knees and beg her forgiveness because if Lord Stark ever hears how you’ve spoken here today, you’ll be begging to go to the Wall.”

The man paled a little at Rodrik’s words. Slowly, he turned to Catelyn. “Lady Catelyn, I meant no . . .”

“Lady Stark,” Catelyn interrupted coldly, and he looked at her blankly. “You have referred to me as Lady Catelyn four times now, and I cannot let it pass. I am the Lady of Winterfell, the wife of your liege lord, and I am presiding over a formal matter of judgment. My title is Lady Stark. You will address me as such, Lord Arnolf.” She emphasized his given name slightly to drive home her point.

“Yes, Lady Stark,” he said simply.

“Now, go, Lord Arnolf. You may leave Winterfell now, if you wish, or remain within the castle and depart with Lord Bolton. But you are not needed in this solar. I charge you to return to the Karhold and take excellent care of Lord Karstark’s castle, wife, and children while he nobly serves his liege lord in war.”

“As you wish, Lady Stark,” the old man said before stiffly bowing and turning to go.

As soon as the door closed, Lord Bolton began to speak, but Catelyn held up a hand and addressed Lady Hornwood instead. “How many people were killed, my lady? In both villages.”

“Seven died, my lady,” she answered without hesitation.

Catelyn had known the number already, but wanted to see how readily Lady Hornwood could provide facts about the event. “How many permanent injuries that will affect the victims’ ability to work?”

“One man was blinded, my lady. And a stonecutter lost a hand. A little girl was burned and disfigured so that I doubt she’ll ever marry. Those were the worst.”

“How many of the dead were men?” Catelyn asked.

“Four. There was one woman and two children.”

Catelyn nodded. “I have the extent of the property damaged or stolen and the livestock killed or stolen written out here.” She nodded toward Maester Luwin who handed a piece of parchment to Lord Bolton. “Those numbers come from letters from Lord Hornwood and his maester, and from the report of our own men whom Lord Stark sent to the villages to speak with the people there.”

Lord Bolton had been skimming the items on the parchment, but his eyes flicked back up to Catelyn’s at that. “I was unaware that Lord Stark did any such thing.”

“Lord Stark did not feel it necessary to inform you that he was sending a group of Winterfell men to villages in the Hornwood,” she replied. “Lord Hornwood gave his permission for them to speak with his smallfolk.” She paused. “We have no names of anyone from the Dreadfort lands who might have been involved. If we learn of any names, we will communicate with you, of course, before sending any Winterfell men into your lands.”

“You have no names. You have no proof the attackers came from my lands,” Lord Bolton stated, laying the parchment down in his lap.

“But I do. Those same men who asked the villagers about their losses interviewed many men, women, and children about what they saw on the days of the attacks. The helmets, shields, weapons—all point to soldiers of the Dreadfort.”

“Anyone who’s seen my sigil can describe it whether they truly saw it on the looters or not, Lady Stark.”

“This is true, my lord. And that is why we sent our men with several illustrated books from our library. Illiterate women and children who have never marched to war nor read a book nor traveled even a league from their homes in all their lives pointed to pictures of soldiers and weapons of the Dreadfort. They did not carry banners, Lord Bolton, and I cannot say that they were truly your soldiers. But a group of men carrying weapons and wearing armor associated with your lands undoubtedly came from your lands.”

“And if violent rabble living within my borders manage to steal weapons and cross into Hornwood lands and commit crimes, that is my responsibility?”

“Yes, my lord. Your people are your responsibility. If you allow mercenary thugs to obtain military weapons and conduct raids, you are responsible for bringing them to justice. And you are responsible to their victims.”

Roose Bolton’s eyes looked coldly at her.

“You will pay to Lord Hornwood the amount of damages listed on that paper and Lord Hornwood will be responsible for disbursing it to the affected people.”

Lady Hornwood nodded, and Lord Bolton sat silently.

“You will also pay the two men who were injured beyond the ability to work and the families of the four men who died the equivalence of their annual earnings for five years.”

“That is too high!” Bolton actually raised his voice just a bit, and it nearly made Catelyn laugh. “These people are poor, Lord Bolton. “Their earnings are a pittance, and you know it.”

“Five years is too long,” he insisted. “It sets a terrible precedent. I can’t have smallfolk demanding endless payments any time one of them is wounded by someone theoretically under my control.”

Catelyn looked at him. “Three years,” she said, and he reluctantly nodded.

“You will also pay the families of the dead woman and children, and the disfigured little girl.”

“What economic value do women and children have?” he asked.

“What value does Domeric have to you? I know my children are priceless, but money is all you have to offer these people, Lord Bolton, and that is what you will give them.”

“And what do I get?”

“The satisfaction of having done the right thing,” Catelyn said with a smile. “And House Hornwood will consider the matter closed and hold no ill will toward you or make any further claims regarding this attack. There is no finding that these villains were employed by you and certainly no finding that you personally had any knowledge of or involvement in these crimes. Winterfell will make that very clear to all the North. You are simply doing what any responsible lord should do in making things right. And, of course, if you do find the perpetrators, you may bring them to justice with one caveat.”

“What’s that?”

“You must arrest and hold them so that they can be questioned by someone from Winterfell before they are executed.”

“Justice is mine to dispense in my lands,” Lord Bolton said in a voice that caused chills to run down Catelyn’s spine.

“It is,” she agreed. “But you brought this matter to Winterfell. And now it is ours as well. You have said you do not know who these people are, and I take you at your word. But they were violent, fairly organized, and certainly well-armed. If you manage to catch two or three, we would like the opportunity to question them about their associates and methods. No one wants more attacks like these, Lord Bolton.”

“I assure you I can question criminals quite effectively, my lady.”

Again, Catelyn felt chilled. “I am certain, you can. Never the less, I order you to keep anyone arrested for this particular crime incarcerated until they have been questioned by our men.”

Bolton nodded stiffly.

“Are these reparations acceptable to you, Lady Hornwood?” Catelyn said, turning toward the lady who’d remained quiet for some time now.

“They are, Lady Stark. I thank you.”

“And you will hold no further blame toward Lord Bolton in this matter nor disparage his name or his House.”

“If Lord Bolton does all that you have ordred, I will not, my lady. Nor will my lord husband. I give you my word of honor.” She turned toward Bolton. “I also give you my word, my lord.”

Again, Lord Bolton nodded.

“I would have you give your word of honor that you will comply with this judgment, Lord Bolton,” Catelyn said.

“I swear it on my honor and my life, Lady Stark. It shall be done as you have said.”

“Very good. We are finished here then. Lady Hornwood, as one ‘southron-blooded woman who prays to foreign gods’ to another, you are welcome to pray in the sept while you are here. Lord Arnolf was correct in stating that my husband built it for me, but all who worship the Seven are welcome there, just as all who worship the Old Gods are welcome in our godswood. The hospitality of Winterfell is yours as long as you wish.”

“Thank you, my lady.” Lady Hornwood curtsied as she rose to leave and did not wait for Lord Bolton.

“Stay a moment, Lord Bolton,” Catelyn said as he began to rise. Wordlessly, he sank back into his seat and regarded her.

“I know you have some idea of who attacked and looted those villages,” she said flatly.

“Lady Stark, I . . .”

“Oh, this matter is settled, Lord Bolton. I have no intention of asking you any further questions. I simply want you to know I am aware that for reasons of your own you do not want the identity of these criminals discovered.”

“I have stated repeatedly that I had nothing to do with these raids in Hornwood’s land.”

“I believe you. If I didn’t, you’d be clapped in irons and awaiting my lord husband’s return from Pyke in a cell here at Winterfell.”

“Lady Stark, I . . .”

“I do not mean to insult you, Lord Bolton, but to make it clear that I do believe you did not order these raids. Any vassal of Winterfell who willfully attacks another vassal will be arrested. Make no mistake.”

“Of course, my lady. The Starks keep the peace in the North. As it should be.”

“Peace sometimes has a price, my lord. Something my ‘unsavory’ education taught me. Whatever it is you feel you need to protect caused you to attempt this little charade with Arnolf Karstark. Unfortunate for you that Lady Hornwood didn’t want to play along with your ‘mediation’, and even more unfortunate for you that you brought the man to Winterfell.
“I know you must have offered him something for his assistance in making this problem of yours go away. I’m not going to ask you what it was, what sort of agreement the two of you planned to offer Lady Hornwood, or whether or not you’re going to pay Karstark whatever you offered him considering that he failed fairly spectacularly.”

“What do you want from me, Lady Stark?”

“Peace, Lord Bolton. The reason I demanded that anyone you arrest for the Hornwood village attacks must be questioned by my own men is to prevent you from executing a slew of random peasants and calling it justice done. I am not saying you would do such a thing. I am only saying that I would take great pains to prevent it.

“Your troubles with Lord Karstark will likely ease once summer truly arrives as your smallfolk will be able to grow food again and rely less on poaching, but as long as you deny them reasonable access to hunting grounds, they will always cross into other lands to hunt some game regardless of season. You rule the Dreadfort and its lands as you see fit, within reason, Lord Bolton, but this entire proceeding prior to our conversation now was carefully recorded by Maester Luwin. If border problems with Lord Karstark or executions for poaching increase a troublesome amount, Lord Karstark will be shown Maester Luwin’s record, and it will be very clear to him how you and his uncle conspired in his absence. I know Rickard Karstark and so do you. He would not be pleased.”

“And you don’t intend to tell him?”

“Why should I? No harm came of it. I have no reason to tell him unless you give me one.”

“And your lord husband?”

“Oh, I’ll give him Maester Luwin’s record and tell him all about our conversation now as soon as he arrives home. Once again, I am the fairer sex. My highest responsibility is to be a dutiful wife.” She smiled at him. “But he will support my decision in this. Make no mistake. When he appointed me to rule in his stead during this time, he intended me to truly rule, and he will not naysay me.” She gave him an appraising look. “I don’t know that you believed that when you arrived at Winterfell, my lord. I certainly hope you believe it now.”

“Indeed, my lady,” Bolton responded.

“You are excused, Lord Bolton. Like Lady Hornwood, you have the hospitality of Winterfell as long as you choose to remain.”

“I shall ride out after the midday meal.”

“As you wish. Please make those reparations to the Hornwoods in a timely manner, my lord. Peace is good for everyone.”

“As you say, Lady Stark.” He rose from his chair and bowed formally before taking his leave.

As the door closed behind him, Catelyn closed her eyes and breathed deeply, wondering if she’d made the right decisions and said the right things. She thought she had. She hoped she had. The babe, which had been remarkably still throughout the meeting gave her a sudden little kick, and Catelyn chose to take it as a positive sign.

“My lady, you did very well,” Maester Luwin said, causing her to open her eyes again.

“You needn’t sound quite so surprised,” she said with a smile. Then she grew serious. “If you could read over your notes while this is all still fresh in your mind, Maester Luwin, and write up a clear account of what took place right up until Lady Hornwood left the solar, I would greatly appreciate it. I’d like to read over it as soon as possible.”

“Certainly, my lady. I hope you’ll forgive my saying so, but you should now rest. You must take care of the babe.”

Catelyn laughed. “That’s what I’ve been doing, Maester Luwin. Allowing Roose Bolton to believe he can act with impunity is dangerous for all my children. He’ll never truly be a friend, I’m afraid. The Boltons have a long history of challenging House Stark. But as long as he knows his best interests lie in accord with ours, he can be a useful ally.”

“Lord Stark chose well in putting you in his seat, my lady,” Maester Luwin said, smiling.

Catelyn smiled back. “Thank you.” Then she turned to Ser Rodrik who’d been uncharacteristically silent. “Ser Rodrik?”

“Forgive me, my lady. I know you asked us not to respond to them, but I could let his words pass!” the older man exclaimed.

“Your defense of me was quite gallant, Ser Rodrik,” she assured him. “There is nothing to forgive. You have my gratitude.”

“Nay, my lady. You deserve respect. It is no more than my duty to see you receive it.”

“I am grateful all the same.”

She rose from her seat then and immediately felt the ache in her back. “I shall be in the nursery if anyone needs me,” she said, missing the children she hadn’t seen since the previous day. “And I promise that if I feel tired, I will sit down and put my feet up, Maester Luwin.”

As she walked through the corridors of the Great Keep, the ache in her back eased somewhat but the dull ache in her heart at her husband’s absence remained. She hoped he would approve of what she had done. She hoped he missed her the way she missed him. She hoped he would return soon.

When she reached the nursery, Robb was engrossed in some game and didn’t see her right away. The two nursemaids present did however, and they both dropped into curtseys before the one holding Sansa stepped forward to hand her daughter to her. Maester Luwin didn’t like her holding the little girl now, but Catelyn didn’t find her too heavy, even if it was a little unwieldy holding her around her rapidly enlarging belly.

“Mother!” Robb exclaimed, having looked up to see her there. He barreled into her, nearly knocking her off balance and threw his arms around her.

“Careful, Lord Robb!” once of the nursemaid’s replied. “Don’t wound your poor lady mother.”

“I won’t!” he exclaimed. “Come look, Mother! Come look! I made the little knights joust!” He took her hand and dragged her over to several toy knights and soldiers scattered on the floor. “Bring a chair!” he called to one of the nursemaids. “Bring a chair for my lady mother so she can watch the joust!”

Lady mother, Catelyn thought. Lady wife. Lady of Winterfell.

Once, those titles had felt foreign and strange to her. Now, they were simply who she was. As she sat down and listened to Sansa hum the tune of a lullaby to her belly while Robb rammed one toy horse into another in order to knock the toy knight off it, she laughed with pure joy. She still prayed that Ned would come home soon, but she felt more certain than ever that she could do all that was needed until he did.