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Love and Honor

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 The Lannister woman came to his cell just as Varys had said she would. Two men at arms bearing torches preceded her, and the sudden light blazing into the blackness blinded him. Ned could not see her clearly as she entered, but he knew her voice at once. “My Lord Hand, it would seem you are somewhat indisposed. I have rarely seen or smelled such filth outside Flea Bottom.”

  She stood over him, and he struggled to rise, pulling himself up against the wall as he attempted to ignore the knifing pain in his leg and the sick, swimming sensation in his head. He managed to get himself more or less upright. He wasn’t about to lie prostrate before this woman. “Your Grace,” he replied in a voice like thick sawdust, “Did you come to discuss my execution or merely to view the results of your handiwork?”

 His vision had cleared enough now that he saw the flash of anger in her green eyes at that, and he silently cursed himself. He had to think more clearly and not simply speak to her as she deserved. Sansa, he thought, think of Sansa, who is worth far more than your pride! Remember what the eunuch said. Remembering was as difficult as clear thought, though, as his head swam, his leg throbbed, and his fever burned. Gods, help me do this.

  “Set the torches in the wall and go outside,” she ordered her men. “I would speak to Lord Stark in private.”

  “Your Grace, we should not leave you alone with the traitor. He is not chained,” one of them replied.

  She laughed at that, eyeing him derisively as he leaned against the wall, unwilling to fall back down, but unable to stand unsupported. “Lord Stark is known to be an honorable man,” she said, her voice dripping acid. “My Lord, do you give me your word you shall not accost me if my men leave us in your cell?”

  Ned had never despised a woman as truly as he despised Cersei Lannister in that moment, but he replied simply, “You have my word, Your Grace. I shall do you no harm.” 

  She turned to her men with a charming smile. “There. The honorable Lord Stark assures us I will come to no harm. Now wait outside, and close the door.”

 Grudgingly, the men did as she requested. The two torches lit the cell quite well as it was a small space, and Ned found that his vision was now surprisingly clear in spite of the persistent fog in his head. He leveled his gaze at her and asked directly, “What do you want, Cersei?”

  “What, no courtesies? That isn’t like you, Lord Stark.”

 “No games. No plots. Look at me, Your Grace--I am a dead man. Just tell me what you want and then let me be.”

 “I’m here to talk about what you want. Do you wish to live or die, Lord Stark? I have the power to make either happen.”

  “If you think my life is so precious to me that I would bargain with the woman who cuckolded and murdered my king and crippled my own son, you have mistaken me for someone else, Your Grace,” he said quietly. And yet I will do what you ask, Gods forgive me. I will do it, but not for my life, never for that. The gods know my life is not worth it.

  She gave him a small smile. “Sansa looks very like your wife, you know. Yet her face, I think, is somewhat longer. I suppose that’s from you. Odd. On your younger daughter with your plain face the length looks rather horsey, but on Sansa it somehow makes her even prettier. She will likely outshine your Tully bride when she weds Joffrey. Tis a shame you won’t be there to see it.”

 “You will never marry Sansa to your Joffrey now. Let her go home. She is guilty of nothing.”

  At that, Cersei actually laughed. “And what has guilt to do with it? Do you consider yourself guilty of treason, my lord? I’ll wager you feel certain you are guilty of nothing, and yet here you are. Why should innocence protect Sansa any better?”

  Ned was silent for a moment and then replied, “I am guilty of a great many things, Your Grace. But, no, treason in this matter is not one of them.” His leg was shaking visibly now, and he was unsure how long he could remain in his almost standing position. He had to get her to come to the point and be finished with this, so he forced the next word through clenched teeth. “Please. Just tell me what it is you want from me. What do you want for my daughter?”

 “Daughter? Have you forgotten I have both your daughters, my lord? Or do you simply not care about the fate of the tiresome one?”

 Daughters? But Arya fled. Varys said that . . .Oh! Ned’s mind slowly grasped the meaning of the queen’s words. She doesn’t know Varys was here. “Of course, I want both my daughters alive and well,” Ned snapped. “We were discussing freeing Sansa from her betrothal to your monstrous son.”

  “Monstrous? How dare you!” She slapped him across the face, and as he leaned harder against the wall to keep from losing his balance, he remembered the last time she slapped him.

  “Another badge of honor, Your Grace,” he told her, looking directly into her eyes. “I know you love your son, but I love him not. Joffrey is a cruel and selfish boy, and I will not let him have my daughter.”

 The green eyes still blazed with fury, but Ned could see her letting his words sink in. She knows she has me now. She knows I will do what she asks.

  Slowly, Cersei drew in a deep breath, visibly attempting to calm her rage. After a moment, she spoke softly, “Lord Stark, I asked you once if you loved your children, and you assured me you loved them with all your heart. You have now told me yourself that you have no love for mine, and yet you risked much to keep them from harm when you came to me with your knowledge of things best left unknown.” She laughed again, then, a hard and bitter sound. “I suppose you now realize how stupid that was.”

  “I told you I do not kill children, Your Grace.”

  She sighed. “No, you do not. But you also know perfectly well that I will not hesitate to protect my own son at any cost, regardless of the ages or innocence of the people involved. I will do anything to eliminate threats to his throne. A mother’s devotion is quite fierce. You know that, don’t you, Lord Stark. And if you risked this to protect my children, how much more would you do to protect your own?”

  He regarded her carefully. Yes, he knew she meant every word she said. Undoubtedly, she loved her golden son, although it seemed more obsessive than affectionate. She was certainly willing to sacrifice any number of other people for him. Unbidden, an image of soft white palms cut almost to the bone and a beautiful face with anguish in her blue eyes came to his mind. Cat, oh Cat, how fierce you were for our boy. He wondered if the woman standing in front of him would as willingly sacrifice herself as she would so many others. “What would you have me do? And what will you do for my daughters?” 

 “Confess your treason. Confirm my son Joffrey as Robert’s rightful heir. Order your son to lay down his arms and return to Winterfell. Do this publicly and Joffrey shall allow you to take the black. You shall leave for the Wall immediately in the company of a Black Brother who has been here recruiting. I believe you know him.”

  “Yoren?”

  “Yes, I think that’s his name. When word is sent to King’s Landing that you have reached the Wall and taken your vows to the Night’s Watch, and that both your son and his mother have declared loyalty to Joffrey and returned to Winterfell, the king will confirm Robb Stark as the Lord of Winterfell and we will announce the dissolution of Sansa’s betrothal to Joffrey. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It would hardly do to have the king wed the daughter of a disgraced traitor.”

  She paused then, apparently waiting for Ned to give some reaction to this description of his character. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction, freezing his expression and simply waiting for her to continue.

  “We shall then send Sansa north,” she continued, “with a company of our men to see her safe to her mother at Winterfell.”

  “And Arya?” Ned asked, wondering how the woman intended to use the girl she did not actually have.

 “She will remain a hostage in King’s Landing. Of course, I know your honor would never permit you to break your vows to the Night’s Watch, Lord Stark, but most on the council require a more tangible method of assuring your cooperation.”

  The ironic emphasis she placed on the word honor was not lost on Ned, but in truth he wouldn’t have argued with her even if he‘d had the strength or position. Once he said the lies she asked of him, he would have very little honor left. Still, he pushed her on the subject of his missing daughter. “Arya is just a child. Send her with her sister. What good is she to you?”

 Again, the bitter laugh. “What good is she? Why, you love her with all your heart, Lord Stark. I have the word of an honorable man on that. As long as we hold her, you’ll do nothing that would lead her to harm. As my son quite understandably cannot stand her, you need not fear a betrothal to a “monster” either. Terms of her eventual release will be negotiated with the Lord of Winterfell. I’m sure her brother will be a good boy and do nothing to delay her return to him.”

 She is not going to admit to having lost her. Be safe, Arya. Keep hidden. Gods protect you, and I shall try to protect your sister. “I have your word on all this, Your Grace? If I do as you ask, you will do as you have said regarding my girls?”

 She looked at him as if she couldn’t quite comprehend what he had just said. “My word of honor? You consider my word of honor something of value, Lord Stark?”

 “I consider it to be all that I have. As I told you at the start of this conversation, I am a dead man, Your Grace.”

  “Well, you have my word. Confess your treason, take the black, and Sansa will go home. A Lannister always pays her debts.”

 She turned then with a swirl of skirts that seemed oddly out of place above the filthy straw of the cell and rapped firmly on the door. “Guards!” They entered almost instantly and Ned wondered if they’d had their ears pressed to the door. They grabbed the torches and the three left without another word, closing the door and consigning him once again to the blackness.

  He sank to the floor and clutched at his injured leg. The pain had increased dramatically during the time he’d been up in spite of bearing his weight almost entirely on the wall and the other leg. It was hot to the touch far up his thigh now and it stank. The plaster cast dug into his flesh almost unbearably. The leg must be swollen. Now that he had made this bargain, he feared he may not live to see it through. He was terribly thirsty. He’d had nothing since Varys’s wine. Was that yesterday? The Lannister woman had brought neither food nor drink.

  He lay in the filthy straw and tried to think of anything other than his leg. He imagined himself at the Wall.  He would be with Jon.  There was much he needed to tell him.  He would have the chance now, and he vowed to himself not to waste it. He had to tell Jon.  And Cat.  Yes, Gods knew she deserved to know the truth.  He would tell his wife all that he . . . his wife. . . but she wouldn't be his wife.   Oh gods help me.  Catelyn can no longer be my wife!  He had known it, of course. He was a Stark of Winterfell, a man of the North.  He knew the words of the Night's Watch vow as well as any Black Brother. Take no wife. Father no children. He had known it, but now, alone in the dark, having made his bargain with the devil, he truly felt it. He just might get Sansa out of King's Landing alive, but he would lose her all the same.  He would lose them all.

 He realized he was shivering and wondered hazily if it was fever, pain, grief, or rage that made him shake. He cried out in the dark, but didn't know why or to whom he called. He saw Lyanna with sunken, heartbroken eyes, and heard her begging him for his promise; then Sansa crying for Lady and looking at him with accusation in her blue eyes; then Bran, still and unmoving in his bed as Catelyn sat beside him, begging him to wake. "Cat," he said softly.  She turned to face him, tears streaming down her face. "Don't leave us, Ned. Please." Her hair was in disarray, a riot of red around her face. He reached out to comfort her, to touch her hair. He closed his hand around a clump of straw.

Chapter Text

  Someone was shaking him. The motion sent knives of pain through his leg and as he fought his way toward consciousness, he heard himself screaming.

  “Stop now. He’s awake.”

  Ned lay still and took large gasping breaths as the hands left his shoulders, and the pain in his leg slowly subsided to its usual constant, burning ache. He opened his eyes, blinking in the torchlight shining in the direction from which the voice had come. “Who . . . What.” His voice was an almost unintelligible croak, and he could not form clear thoughts.

  “I fear you are still a dead man, Lord Stark.”

  Varys. The voice was the eunuch’s. Ned attempted to clear his mind and pushed himself up to a sitting position with his back against the wall. He had no strength to move further. He licked his cracked lips and attempted to speak again. “You told me that before. Cersei was here. I told her . . . I told her . . .” He ran out of breath and found he couldn’t finish the sentence.

  “Give him some water.”

  A jug was pushed into his hands by someone. Was that a child? Yes, a boy no older than Arya was helping put the jug to his mouth. He drank greedily, and then asked, “Who are you, lad?”

  The boy said nothing, sitting silently beside him as he continued to drink.

  Varys spoke again. “The child’s name is of no importance to you. I know what you said to the queen. You played your part well, and she presented the plan for your pardon to the small council. Everyone appeared to be in favor of it.”

  Something in the spider’s voice made Ned wary and pulled his attention away from the silent boy and to the words Varys spoke. The water was helping clear his thoughts, but his mind still moved sluggishly as he tried to discern their meaning. “Appeared?” he asked at last.

  Varys chuckled softly. “It would seem your friend Littlefinger likes you even less than I suspected. Sending you to the Wall is obviously the most reasonable solution to our current situation, but the man very definitely wants you dead.”

 “Why?”

 “I couldn’t say. He is rather fond of telling everyone at court how he had your wife’s maidenhead at Riverrun. Perhaps he’s afraid someone will tell you, and you’ll run him through.”

 “That is a lie!” Ned felt rage burn through him and suddenly he was on his feet grabbing at the eunuch’s throat. “Say one more word about my lady wife, and I am not the only dead man in this cell.”

 Suddenly, his bad leg gave way completely, and Ned fell to the ground dragging Varys with him. The pain from the leg seemed to knife through his entire body, and he grabbed at his thigh with both hands as if to subdue the pain the way he had attempted to subdue Varys. The eunuch had dropped the torch as he fell, but the boy had jumped up to grab it and now was helping Varys rise.

  As he got to his feet, Varys regarded Ned gasping on the ground. “You are in no condition to go about defending your wife’s honor, my lord. And I meant no insult to the lady. I have found that Littlefinger lies as often as most men breathe, so I am quite sure you are correct about the Lady Catelyn‘s virtue. You would, after all, be in the best position to know. I was only musing on the question you posed me. But this gets us nowhere. For whatever reason, the man wants you dead, and has contrived quite cleverly to arrange it. Would you like to know how?”

  Ned’s mind and vision had clouded again with the pain, and the eunuch‘s words sunk in only dimly, but enough. He pulled himself back to rest against the wall and nodded. “You are going to tell me, then?”

  “Of course. Why else would I be here? You know that Joffrey is a cruel, bloodthirsty little creature, do you not? He would delight in seeing your head fall from your shoulders and take even more pleasure in having your pretty little daughter watch.”

  “No.”

  “Yes. I don’t believe you truly know our little king’s appetite for cruelty. You haven’t been here long enough for more than a little sample. His mother is regent, yes, but he is the king and his word is law, especially if it is acted upon before wiser heads can intervene.”

  “What has this to do with Littlefinger?”

  “Well, the good Lord Baelish has been whispering in the boy’s ear. Why should he let a traitor live? That only makes him appear weak. He should be a strong king like his father was. King Robert would never suffer such treason. On and on he went until the boy asked him how it could be done. He took very little convincing, I’m afraid.”

 “How do you know this?”

  Varys giggled. “Oh, Littlefinger thinks he is clever, but not as clever as my little birds. They hear more than anyone could imagine.”

 “So Joffrey is overruling his council?”

 “Not precisely. Not in council anyway. You are to be brought to Baelor’s sept. The whole city will be summoned to hear you confess with your lovely daughter in the front row. Then the king will be asked to pronounce sentence. He is expected to make a lovely speech about mercy. His mother wrote it. However, he will call for your head.”

 “And the Lannister woman will simply stand back and allow that to happen? Allow her careful plans to go for naught?”

  Varys actually tittered. “Oh, she’ll no doubt try to stop it. But as you already have reason to know, Littlefinger owns the Gold Cloaks. Janos Slynt has been instructed to throw you down immediately for Ser Ilyn. That man has never been slow to remove a head from its body once he’s given the order.”

 Ned’s head was swimming as he fought the pain and hunger and attempted to make sense of what he heard. “So you are here why?” he asked slowly.

  “To see that your death is done quite differently, my lord. Show him.”

  Ned only realized that last was not directed at him when the boy carried the torch to the far corner of the cell and illuminated something he hadn’t noticed before. The body of a man lay upon the floor, naked but for a plaster cast on a badly injured leg. He had purple-black swellings and bruises on his body that Ned had never seen, but certainly had heard described. “Plague?! You’ve brought the plague here? Are you mad?”

 “Mad? Possibly. I am running out of saner options, my lord. But plague, no. It does look like it, though, doesn’t it? Particularly as so few currently alive in King’s Landing have ever seen it. He also looks rather like you, in a certain light. He wasn’t easy to find, to injure, to cut his hair and beard like yours, and to give the appearance of plague on short notice. Fortunately, my little birds are quite resourceful. You should be grateful.”

 “Grateful? For torturing and killing a man I don’t know? How could you do such a thing?”

 Varys sighed. “I do many things I would rather not in service of the realm, my lord. And he is not dead. Not yet. He sleeps from milk of the poppy. His part is necessary, but I won’t cause him more suffering than is needful. I have had the jailer inform the queen and small council that your leg is much worse and that you cannot stand at all.” He looked at Ned sympathetically. “That, at least, is not a lie. When that sad news reached us, I told the queen that I knew a healer who could likely have you on your feet if given a week or so. It wouldn’t do to ruin her little show by having you carried in to confess. So your sentencing is to be held in 10 days. By then, you will be dead.” Varys looked meaningfully at the man in the corner and then looked to the boy. “Take Lord Stark’s clothes and put them on our sleeper there. Be careful of his leg. No need to make this more painful.” Looking back to Ned, he continued, “I fear the journey out of the keep will be very difficult for you my lord , but certainly preferable to beheading.”

 “You are taking me out of here?” Ned’s heart leapt. “You can get me to Winterfell?” Then he looked again at the man in the corner and forced himself to shake his head. “No, I cannot let you kill this man for no reason. We cannot do this, Varys.”

 Varys shook his head. “I sometimes find it hard to believe you are real, Lord Stark. Would it help if I told you he is a rapist and murderer?”

 “Is he?” Ned asked levelly.

  Varys shrugged. “Does it matter that much to you? I am offering you your life. In any event, the choice is not yours to make. I am taking you out of here and we both know you are not strong enough to resist. But, no, you cannot go to Winterfell. You will be dead, remember? I told you I cannot allow you to escape because all questions would lead to me.”

 The boy had already removed what was left of his tunic and was tugging at his breeches. The leg pained sharply with each pull, but Ned found he had neither the strength nor the will to resist him at this point. He cried out involuntarily at one point, and Varys produced a vial from his cloak. “Drink this. Milk of the poppy. It will ease your leg, and in truth, I think you’d best be unconscious for this trip. If you cry out like that every time your leg is bumped, all could be lost.”

  “It won’t work, Varys. Someone will certainly realize that man is not me, and those questions will lead to you.”

  “I think not. But it is no concern of yours, my lord. You will be far from here when the time comes to manage that part of the plan. Now drink. You have nothing left to do but this. Even if I take you to your death, you are no worse off than if I leave you here to your death. You lose nothing by taking me at my word. And I do intend to keep you alive.” He pushed the vial into Ned’s hands.

  “And Sansa?” Ned’s heart clutched painfully as he thought of the daughter he must leave here. He could do nothing for her dead. Gods protect her. Please protect both my girls.

 “I will do what I can to keep her alive. I cannot promise you more than that. But with you dead, the North will clamor for vengeance. That army of your son’s is not something to be ignored. Sansa will be the only bargaining chip the Lannisters have. They should be even more concerned about her continued good health than I. Go on. Drink it.”

 Varys’s words made sense, although something tickled at Ned’s mind. Something Varys had said before. Still, he could think of no more to say so he drank the bitter substance, resigned to the fact that whatever the outcome, he had no more control over his situation. He looked up at the eunuch and wondered vaguely if anyone ever really knew what the man was truly thinking, what he truly wanted. What he wanted! That was it.

  “Varys, why?” he asked sleepily as the poppy began its work.

 “Why what, my lord?”

  “Peace, you said. Tame wolf better than dead wolf. All will be as if I’m dead. Why keep me alive?” The last words were thick and slurred, but Ned forced himself to focus. He needed this answer.

  Varys smiled. “Ah, my good Lord Stark. The game doesn’t end. It has gone on longer than you or I, and it will continue past this era. While the Lannisters hold the Iron Throne, you must be dead. Regrettable, but necessary. However, thrones change hands, and you may yet have a role to play. I won’t throw a valuable game piece away only because I must remove it from the board.”

  Ned’s eyes were closed and his consciousness was fading fast, but he heard the spider’s reply. Game piece, he thought. Go ahead and play your game, Varys, but I’ll not be a part of it. I will stay alive, though. Gods willing, I’ll stay alive. He thought of his daughters, one missing and one held by enemies. Stay alive, he willed them. He thought of his younger sons, one crippled and one hardly more than a babe. Stay alive. He thought of Robb, his firstborn son leading an army to war. Stay alive. With a pang of guilt, he thought of Jon at the Wall, living with the lies and secrets of his making. Stay alive. Finally, as thought and dream began to mingle, he thought of Catelyn. He could see her clearly, as if she were right there in front of him, but he couldn’t touch her. Stay alive, he thought fiercely. Stay alive, my love, and so shall I.

Chapter Text

Varys entered the council chamber and noted that all were present except the king and Lord Baelish. Joffrey’s absence was expected as he had no more use for meetings than had his putative father , and his mother was only too happy to govern for him. While Lord Tywin Lannister was now nominally the Hand of the King, he was not in King’s Landing. With her father absent and her self-absorbed son underage, Cersei Lannister felt herself to be the real power in King’s Landing. As to Littlefinger’s absence, Varys smiled to himself. He alone in the room knew what was likely keeping the Master of Coin.

“Your Grace. My Lords. Forgive me if I have kept you waiting.” He took his place at the table. There were only four of them--the queen, Janos Slynt, Maester Pycelle and himself. Jaime Lannister had a spot on the council as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, but like his father, he was not in King’s Landing.

“The person I need, Lord Varys, is my Master of Coin,” Cersei Lannister snapped in irritation. She had a number of papers spread before her and seemed dismayed by what she read there. “Is there anyone that fool Robert didn’t borrow money from? I am tired of hearing our coffers are depleted and I’d like to hear what Littlefinger plans to do about it.”

“I am sure he will be here presently, Your Grace. I know he is aware of our meeting,” said Maester Pycelle in what he must assume was a soothing tone.

“Well, while we wait for him, is everything in place for Ned Stark’s sentencing at the Great Sept tomorrow?” the queen asked, changing topics.

“Yes, Your Grace,” replied Janos Slynt. All preparations have been made. The High Septon feels that such a confession of sin followed by such a generous act of mercy is appropriate for the steps of Baelor’s Sept. He will be there with us.”

“And what of Stark’s leg, Lord Varys? Have you heard from your magic man? Has he made him walk?”

Varys ignored the derision in the queen’s voice. “I last spoke to Drazoro 4 days ago, and he said Lord Stark’s fever was gone, and he was able to walk about his cell with some assistance. He swore he improved daily, so I imagine he can stand on the steps of the Sept and say his piece.”

“That’s good at least. I’d like to have this business done,” the queen said grimly.

At that point, Lord Petyr Baelish burst into the council room accompanied by a heavy, unshaven man that only Varys recognized. “Now you shall tell them what you told me,” Baelish ordered the man without preamble.

“My Lord Baelish . .”started Maester Pycelle.

“Tell them!” Baelish again ordered.

The man was shaking with fear and Varys knew he had good reason. He almost felt sorry for the man, but if he had bothered to do his job diligently at all, he would not be in this position. Of course, Varys had been more than happy to take advantage of his lapses.

At this the queen rose from her chair. “Lord Baelish, what is the meaning of this display? Why have you come late to council meeting dragging this . . . this person with you?”

Lord Baelish looked at the queen silently for a moment and seemed to recover his usual cool demeanor. Varys had enjoyed seeing him flustered, however briefly. “My apologies, Your Grace,” Baelish said in his normal tone. “To interrupt you so rudely is unforgivable, I know, but you will want to hear what this man has to say. He is called Rugen, and is a gaoler in your dungeon. He came to me as I was about to leave my chambers for council meeting with a rather distressing tale.”

“Rugen, is it?” the queen asked, looking at the ragged man. “What have you to tell us?”

“It . . .it’s that Lord, yer Grace. The one shut up in the Black Cells, see. I . . .I think he’s dead.”

The color drained from Cersei Lannister’s face as she sank back into her chair. “Dead? What are you saying?”

Varys added, “You think? How do you not know?”

Littlefinger sighed and took his seat. “I fear the man has not actually seen Stark in some time, probably not for weeks.”

“That’s the turnkey’s job!” Rugen protested. “Them turnkeys take the water and such. They’re supposed to tell me if there’s any problem. I never heard nothin’ til that Dorzo fellow burst into my office all upset yesterday!”

“Dorzo? Is he a turnkey?” asked Pycelle.

“No! that eastern fella. The one he brought down to fix up the lord’s leg.” Rugen pointed at Varys.

“Drazoro?” Varys asked with a puzzled expression. “He visited Lord Stark yesterday? That’s odd. I received no report.

“He came running into my office yelling that we’d killed him.”

“Killed Lord Stark?” asked Cersei in obvious confusion.

“No!” Rugen put his unwashed face in his hands. “Him, himself. He told me he was a dead man and how could we have a plague ridden bastard caring for that lord and that it was all my fault. He sounded crazy, yer Grace! I didn’t know what he was talking about and he just ran out.”

“Really?” Varys feigned puzzlement. “That sounds most unlike Drazoro. He has always been a quiet, steady man. Are you sure you have the right of this?”

“I know what I heard, milord. But I didn’t understand it. Not then. I figured Ebben would tell me if there was a problem.”

“Ebben?” asked Pycelle.

“The turnkey,” Baelish said quietly. “Now tell them about the turnkey, Rugen.”

“Well, Ebben never come to see me yesterday so I figured that foreigner was just crazy. But then today I realized I never seen Ebben at all for 2 days like, so maybe I oughta check on things just to be sure. I went to go to the lord’s cell, but I found Ebben before I got there.” The man stopped speaking and started shaking again.

“Go on,” Littlefinger encouraged.

“He was dead. Right there in the corridor. I never seen nothing like it. He had these big black swollen places on his face and his hands was all purple. I never seen that, but I heard my grandfather tell about the plague ships that came when he was just a boy. I ran out as fast as I could, I tell you that."

“You didn’t even check on Lord Stark?” asked Maester Pycelle.

 “It’s plague, milord! I know it is! That lord in the cell’s gotta be dead or dying!”

“Nonsense!” Cersei stated flatly. “There has been no plague in King’s Landing since before I was born. How on earth would it find its way into Eddard Stark’s cell? If Stark is dead, it’s likely from blood poison in his leg. Perhaps your medicine man found Stark dead and killed the turnkey to cover his failure, Lord Varys!”

Varys pretended to consider the queen’s theory for a moment. All eyes in the room were on him and he carefully made his response. “Perhaps, Your Grace, but I doubt it. I have known Drazoro for years and have never found him a rash man. His behavior toward Rugen here yesterday was certainly out of character, but . . .as much as I dread to voice it, his ravings appear supported by Rugen’s description of the turnkey’s body. The most prudent course now is to go to Lord Eddard’s cell and see what we may find.” He turned to the gaoler. “I take it you did not remove the turnkey’s body from the corridor?”

“Move it? I didn’t touch it. I ran out and came straight to Lord Baelish.”

“Why to Lord Baelish?” Varys asked, seemingly puzzled, although he knew the answer. He enjoyed the sensation of Littlefinger tensing slightly beside him.

“Cuz he told me to. If anything happened out o’ the ordinary with that Lord Stark, I was to come straight to him.”

“I knew you were concerned about this confession and pardon, Your Grace,” Baelish put in quickly. “I thought it prudent to keep eyes on Stark to be sure he didn’t give any indication of backing out of his part.”

Oh, the pleasure of watching Littlefinger attempt to explain away his over-involvement in Stark’s imprisonment. Discovering his little arrangement with the gaoler to act as an informant had been a great stroke of luck--particularly as the man took Littlefinger’s coin and simply continued to ignore Stark’s existence. This delightful arrangement gave no impediment to Varys’s own plans and made certain the plague in the black cells would be reported to the council by someone other than himself. It was very hard not to giggle.

Cersei was looking hard at Baelish, as if she were unconvinced of his altruistic motives. “Any change of heart by Lord Stark was rather unlikely as he knows we hold his daughters.” To the group at large, she said, “But Lord Varys is correct. The sentencing is tomorrow! Someone must go the Black Cells and see for themselves what has transpired.”

Now there was a silence in the room. No one considered going near a potential plague victim without trepidation.

Varys sighed deeply. “I know the way to Lord Stark’s cell. I escorted Drazoro there on his first visit. I will go.”

“Thank you, Lord Varys,” The queen actually smiled at him. “Your service in this matter is much appreciated.”

“However, Your Grace,” Varys continued. “While you are aware of my loyalty to you, I fear I am not the most trusted man in King’s Landing. Perhaps someone should accompany me. Might I suggest you order one of the Kingsguard to come? They are sworn to protect King Joffrey, and certainly this is of great importance to him.”

“Yes, yes,” Cersei agreed. “I shall summon Ser Boros to go with you.”

“Maester Pycelle,” Varys asked with just a touch of apprehension in his voice, “In the unlikely event this is truly plague, how might Ser Boros and I protect ourselves?”

Pycelle coughed. “Truly, Lord Varys, it is not understood exactly why the plague spreads or kills so quickly, or why it disappears for years only to suddenly return. Many have written that you should not touch a plague victim with any part of your skin and that even breathing the air around them is dangerous. I would advise you to wear a mask of cloth and heavy gloves, but I know no more than that.”

Varys nodded gravely. “We shall do as you say.” To Cersei, he added, “Your Grace, I believe it would also be wise to speak to Drazoro. I know where he lives. We can send someone to question him. And if he is ill or dead . . . .” He let that statement trail off and shook his head.

“It shall be done,” Cersei replied. “I will send Ser Arys and Ser Preston. No man can refuse to speak to the Kingsguard.”

 

A surprisingly short time later, Varys found himself again carrying a torch through the corridor of the Black Cells. When they came to the turnkey’s corpse, he thought Ser Boros might piss himself at the sight. The man was three days dead at least and the stench was overwhelming. The blackened swellings and purple skin stood out clearly.

“Gods be good!” exclaimed Blount behind his mask.

“Here,” said Varys. “Help me roll him into this sackcloth.”

“I don’t want to touch him!” Blount protested.

“You’re wearing your gloves. We have to get him completely covered before we send someone in to drag him out and bury him. And we must get him buried at once.”

The two men bent to their task and soon had the corpse thoroughly wrapped for the grave. They then proceeded to Lord Stark’s cell. When Varys pushed open the door, the stench of death overwhelmed him. Blount stepped inside and vomited immediately.

“Oh dear,” said Varys, gazing at the dead man on the floor covered with the tell-tale lumps. His skin was mostly gray, but ghastly purple blotches were evident, particularly on his nose and hands. “He’s barely recognizable!”

“It’s him,” said Blount. “Who else would it be?”

“Ser Boros,” said Varys gravely, “We may be the only people who know Lord Stark to see this body. We must be able to say without a doubt that this is Eddard Stark. Look closely.”

To his credit, Blount walked closer to the corpse and looked upon the brown hair and beard streaked with gray and the plaster cast upon his leg. “It’s him. This is Lord Eddard all right.”

Varys grimaced. “I concur. Pity, really. That leg actually looks like it might have been getting better. Ser Boros, take out your sword.”

“What?”

When Varys told him what he wanted done, the knight looked grim but did not hesitate.

 

Very early the next morning, the council again sat around the table. This time Joffrey was present, and he was angry and sullen at the news of Stark’s demise.

Preston Greenfield and Arys Oakheart had just left after giving the report of their visit to Drazoro’s house. The man had been barricaded inside with door and windows barred shut. He had shouted through the door that he had the plague, and all should stay away from him. The brave knights had taken him at his word and returned to the Red Keep.

“There are no other reports of plague in the city?” Maester Pycelle asked.

“I have heard not a whisper,” said Varys. “I suppose the turnkey could have got it off a sailor from the docks who left before spreading it elsewhere.”

“Or from your healer!” snapped the queen.

“I suppose, Your Grace. But it seems to me that as Drazoro still lives and apparently had no symptoms when he reported the plague to Rugen, he must have gotten it from Stark or the turnkey. Perhaps, if he lives, we can question him more closely once he is recovered.” Of course, he will not live. Killing that poor mummer will actually pain me. He has played his part so well.

“But what do we do now, Your Grace?” asked Slynt. He spoke the least of anyone on the council, and it rather surprised Varys that he voiced the obvious question. “What do we do about the sentencing?”

“I want someone’s head,” snarled Joffrey. “Someone will pay for ruining this day!!”

Varys coughed slightly. “As it happens, Your Grace, we have a head. Well, more of a skull actually. I had it burned to remove any contagion and then dipped in tar.” He lifted a small chest from the floor beside him and placed it onto the table. Everyone recoiled a bit from it except for Joffrey who leaned toward it like a child reaching for a present.

“Do you really have Stark’s head in there?” he asked, fascinated.

“Indeed,” Varys replied. “Ask Ser Boros. He separated it from the man’s dead body with his sword.”

“But what is the purpose of this, Varys?” Cersei protested. “You counseled quite strongly against executing Stark. We shall suffer a great cry for vengeance from the North, you said. And I agreed. Why present my son with his head now?”

“Give it to me,” Joffrey ordered.

Varys ignored the boy and responded to his mother. “Because, Your Grace, Stark is dead no matter what we do. Do you think his son or his Tully widow will care whether he died by the sword or died of disease and neglect in a Black Cell? They will only care that he is dead and that we are to blame. I fear battle with the North is inevitable now.”

“Then, again, I ask you, what purpose does this serve?” She waved her hand at the chest.

“Perhaps, if the North rebels, it would be good to remind the other great houses what happens to traitors to the rightful king.” Varys watched Cersei Lannister closely as he responded and saw comprehension in her eyes. Whatever else may be true about the woman, she understood the power of threat.

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Sansa Stark walked out of the Sept with the queen and the Hound. She had been summoned there earlier and had passed the time praying fervently for her father. When Joffrey had arrived, he had smiled at her and assured her that all would be as it should. Now they all stood assembled on the steps in front of the great doors and a throng of people filled the courtyard.

She stood on her toes and looked this way and that, searching for her father. Surely, he had been brought here by now. No one had let her visit him since they took him away and she was desperate to see his face. She was desperate to have him safe. Where is he?

The High Septon was saying something now, but Sansa paid no attention. She didn’t understand where her father was. She thought he had to be here. He had to confess to whatever Queen Cersei wanted him to in order for her king to save him. Her king would save him. She knew it. He had said he would show mercy.

Joffrey moved forward and began to speak. The Hound moved from beside her to stand just behind Joff, holding the little chest he’d had with him since they arrived. Sansa wondered vaguely what it was for, and then turned her attention to Joff’s words as he was shouting her father’s name.

“The traitor Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North, and Hand of the King has confessed his crimes! He has confessed to plotting the murder of” Why is Joffrey listing Father’s crimes? Where is Father?  Sansa felt a bubble of panic rising up inside her. She didn’t understand what was going on.

Joffrey finished the litany of treasons and his voice got even louder, “The price of treason is death!!” The crowd roared approval at this and Sansa’s heart pounded in her chest. Oh gods, no. Just as she was about to cry out, her king turned to her and smiled. He spoke more quietly, but still clearly and loudly enough to be heard. “But I could not profane this holy place with blood, and I could not suffer my sweet Lady Sansa to see her father killed before her eyes.” Oh, she thought. It’s going to be all right, he’s going to save him!

She closed her eyes with relief and gratitude and so did not see the Hound move to Joffrey’s side and hold out the chest. Her eyes opened when she heard Joffrey shout, “So the sentence was carried out this morning in the Red Keep!” He pulled a grisly object from the chest and held it high. Sansa’s anguished scream almost drowned out his next shout although it was his loudest yet. “Behold the head of the traitor Eddard Stark!! Know that I shall never allow treason to go unpunished!!”

Sansa could not stop screaming, nor could she tear her eyes away from the head dripping in tar. She fell to her knees still screaming and did not stop even as the Hound picked her up and carried her back into the Sept.

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Arya Stark stared at her father’s head in Joffrey’s hands and felt her sister’s scream pierce her through, freezing her in place for an immeasurable amount of time. Then rage boiled within her, turning her vision red and blocking out all sounds. She jumped from her perch on Baelor’s statue into the crowd and drew Needle. She would kill Joffrey Baratheon.

She kicked and pushed and waved Needle at the people around her, but she could not get through! Desperate, she clawed those who blocked her way and pushed her back. She was prepared to stab the man directly in front of her just to move him when a hand grabbed her arm and she found herself held tightly by a man with long black hair and tangled beard. He snarled at her, “Stop it, boy. It won’t help.”

At his words, all the sounds returned and she realized she was sobbing. She kicked at him, but he wouldn’t put her down. He kept calling her boy and ordering her to look at him. Finally, she recognized him---Yoren, a man of the Night’s Watch. He’d been to see her father. She twisted in his hands and tried to see the steps of the Sept again, but he wouldn’t let her. “You’ll be coming with me now, boy.”

Her rage began to drain, leaving her numb, and she allowed him to lead her away. As she trudged along beside him, the only sound she remained aware of was Sansa’s unending scream.

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Catelyn Stark walked in the woods a short way from the perimeter of the camp. Robb was going over battle plans for Riverrun with his bannermen, and she had left them to their discussions. Her son had a good head for tactics and did not need her assistance there. Besides, he had already shared with her much of what he intended to do for he still asked her advice when he felt he needed it. She smiled a little at the memory. While most of his men were still celebrating the victory in the Whispering Wood, he was spreading maps out in her tent and asking her all she knew of the geography and fortifications at Riverrun. Ned had taught him well. While she might know little about warfare, no one in Robb’s company knew Riverrun as well as she and her Uncle Brynden; and her son was wise enough to take full advantage of their knowledge. Brynden was with him at his meeting, but she saw no reason to attend herself. Robb might be her son, but to these men he was their battle commander and future liege lord. She refused to give the appearance that he had to answer to her.

She was glad of the chance to be alone for a bit. Only when alone, could she think of her other children, and she silently offered up prayers for her daughters and her younger sons. Bran and Rickon were safe, at least, behind the walls of Winterfell, but her longing for them was a constant ache. For a few blessed moments, she allowed herself to think on her eventual return to them and even hummed a bit of that cradle song Rickon was still so fond of. She would sing it every night if he liked once she was at home. And she would go riding with Bran. Robb had told her of his special horse and saddle, and she smiled to think of him again on a horse instead of so still in his bed.

Sansa and Arya were harder to think about. No thought of them would come without fear clenching her heart like a fist. Cersei Lannister had her girls. And gods forgive me, I am the one who sent them there. Her sweet Sansa and her fierce little Arya trapped in the Red Keep without their father to protect them. She hoped desperately they had someone to treat them kindly and calm their fears. Her arms felt cold and empty as she longed to hold them both against her and keep them from harm.

And Ned. Oh, Ned! They had endured long separations before, and she had known the paralyzing fear of sending him to war, but this . . .she sometimes didn’t think she could stand it one more second without going mad. Is he hurt? Is he hungry? Gods! How could Ned be in prison? How? The thought of her husband, the most honorable man she had ever met, accused of treason . . . . “Damn Cersei Lannister!” she said out loud. “Damn all Lannisters!” She choked back a sob. Gods, be good. This won’t do at all.

There was a reason she did not often allow herself to think of Ned and their children. There was a war to win if she hoped to have all of them safe again, and she could not help them with her tears. If she thought of them much more, she would be nothing but tears. She thought of Ned’s arms around her in their last embrace at King’s Landing, and his smile as she rode away. His smiles came infrequently, and she always considered them gifts. Knowing that she could coax Ned’s smiles more easily than anyone else had always given her an absurd sense of joy. She knew he had smiled at her that day to give her courage, and she summoned it now. I will get you home, my love. We shall all go home.

She had been away from camp quite long enough. If she stayed gone too long, her son would send soldiers after her. That thought made her smile again. She would have much to tell Ned about their son. He would be so proud of the man Robb had become.

As she turned toward the camp, she caught sight of a rider, coming fast from the north, from the direction of the Twins. She waved to him, and he slowed his horse as he approached her. A boy, she saw, no more than two and ten. She did not recognize him, but he bore the sigil of Helman Tallhart.

“My . . My lady,” he gasped as he reined up beside her.

“Have you brought a message from the Twins, lad?” she asked him. He seemed out of breath and rather distressed, and she immediately felt dread creeping into her heart. “Has there been a raven from King’s Landing or Winterfell?”

“I have a letter, Lady Stark. I am instructed to give it straight away to Lord Stark. Lord Robb, that is.” He had the oddest look on his face.

“Robb is just ahead in the camp. I can take you,” she told him. Then his words sank in and the color drained from her face. She heard the tremor in her voice as she asked, “Why did you call my son Lord Stark? My husband is the Lord of Winterfell.”

The boy looked distraught. “My lady, my lady, I am sorry.”

Catelyn felt her knees buckle and she clutched at her chest as she sank to the ground. “Tell me,” she whispered. “Tell me!”

The boy climbed down from his horse, uncomfortable with being so high above her. He fell on his knees before her, and she willed him not to say it. Please, please . . . .say anything else. But he just looked at her with sad, frightened eyes, and said quietly, “It’s Lord Eddard, my lady. King Joffrey has taken off his head.”

“Noooo!” The word was a scream literally ripped from her soul. She couldn’t stop it. “No! No.” She was sobbing now. This could not be true. She rocked back and forth making sounds she didn’t even recognize, and then suddenly Robb was there. Her screams had drawn half the camp.

Robb pulled her up and held her by her shoulders. “Mother! What has happened? Are you all right?”

Catelyn looked at her son and saw terror in his eyes, those eyes so like her own. She could not fall apart. Her world was shattered, but she could not shatter. Not now. Not while her son stood here before her. She breathed deeply and cupped his face in her hands. “Robb,” she said softly. She raised her voice to address the other men gathered around. “Leave us,” she said. "There is a letter for my son, and I would have privacy for him to read it.”

She felt, rather than saw the men leave, for she had eyes only for her son, who now looked more like her little boy again. “Mother?” he said hesitantly, already seeing the truth in her eyes.

“It’s your father, Robb. We shall not see him again in this world, my sweetling.” She pulled him into her arms and he buried his face on her shoulder. She held him there as she had held him as a babe and murmured comforting noises in his ear.

Soon they would have to read the letter and see the words in black and white. And they still had Riverrun to free from the Lannisters. But right now, Catelyn Stark simply held her son in her arms and held her husband deep in her heart, burying the grief as far as it could go. Oh Ned, my love. I have no time to mourn. Forgive me, my love. Forgive me.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

He awoke again to feel the world still rocking gently. A boat. I am on a boat. Ned Stark had no idea how long he had been sleeping, nor how many times he had awakened to find himself in this berth on this boat. He only knew this wasn’t the first time. His leg didn’t seem to hurt him so much now, but that could be from all the milk of the poppy he was being given. He didn’t know how much time had passed since he had been with Varys in the Black Cell, but he was fairly certain the eunuch was not on the boat with him now.

Ned didn’t know where he was being taken. He didn’t know much at all, except that he was kept rather heavily drugged. He held on to the one truth he had. He was alive. And I will go home. I will bring our children home to you, Cat. I swear it.

Chapter Text

Ned woke to sunlight streaming through the high windows of his room. He could hear gulls crying, and the breeze through the windows smelled of salt. That’s right, he thought. I am somewhere near the sea. He remembered now, although every time he woke, he had to remind himself where he was and what had happened to him. It is getting easier to think, though. They are giving me less of the poppy, just as the dark man had said they would.

Remembering the dark man, he attempted to raise his arms, and found he could lift them no more than a few inches from the bed because of the cloths wrapped around his wrists and secured to the wooden bed frame beneath. His legs were similarly restrained--not tight enough for discomfort, but certainly tight enough to prevent him from rising.

The dark man (Ned had dubbed him that because he would not give his name, but he had black hair and eyes and the copper skin of a Summer Islander) had told him this was for his own safety. The man had removed the rotting cast from his leg, poked him with sharp knives and needles, applied numerous poultices and ointments and made him drink foul tasting potions. At first it seemed as if he were always there, doing something painful to Ned’s leg, but in truth, Ned had no idea how long he had been in this room himself. He knew he slept most of the time, and at first had been so groggy when awake, he wasn’t sure what had actually occurred and what he had dreamed. He had no memory at all of his arrival here.

Now, often as not, Ned awoke to find himself alone in the room. When the dark man did come, he spoke to him in the Common Tongue, but his speech was heavily accented. He did not answer any questions about anything other than the leg. The leg, apparently, was healing, but could not bear weight yet, and the man did not trust Ned not to injure it further when left alone. He apologized quite courteously about the restraints, but could not be convinced to remove them.

The woman did not speak at all. She brought food and water which she had to feed to him because his wrist bindings prevented his hands from reaching his mouth. She also brought and assisted him in using a chamber pot--a situation Ned found completely intolerable, but as he had no alternative at present, he accepted her assistance. If he tried to say so much as “Good Morning,” she looked panic-stricken and shushed him quite forcefully.

There were at least two other men, one lean and wiry and the second rather short, but very stocky and muscular. They would seem to be his guards. They never came into the room, but one of them stood in the open doorway whenever the dark man or the woman were with him. Beyond the doorway, he could see nothing but a small landing and what looked like the top of a very narrow staircase.

He stretched as much as his bonds would let him and called out. Usually, the woman came fairly quickly. She was not neglectful of him, he must give her that.

He heard multiple footsteps ascending the stair and when the door opened, he saw both the woman and the dark man. He had his usual case filled with any number of vile torture instruments and she had a pitcher of water, some bread, and a peach.

“You look very good, today, my lord,” the dark man said. “I think perhaps we get you up.” He turned and said something in another tongue to the man standing outside. The language sounded almost familiar. The guard hesitated a moment, glanced at Ned, and then started back down the stairs.

“How about today we get me out of this room?” Ned countered.

The man laughed. “Oh, no, my friend. You are not so well as that. But Alina has brought you a nice peach. Let me undo your hands so you can enjoy it.”

“Alina?” Ned repeated. The woman looked up from her pitcher as if startled to hear him use her name. “That is your name?”

She gave no response, simply picking up the cup by his bed to fill with water.

“I fear she does not speak your tongue, my lord, but yes, that is her name. You have asked me before, but you never remember,” said the man as he unwrapped the cloth from Ned’s wrists. He looked at Ned carefully. "Your voice is stronger this morning, my lord. Mayhap your mind is as well, and you will recall Alina's name this time." He turned to the woman and said something in that half familiar tongue again, and she looked Ned hesitantly. Then she nodded.

The dark man smiled at Ned. “I have told her it is not a bad thing for you to know her name. It tells you nothing of her, but allows you to call for her more courteously. You will be more comfortable with that, yes? Now, how does it feel to move your arms about?”

Ned stretched his newly freed arms above his head and then sat up fully in the bed for the first time since his arrival--or at least the first time he could remember. He was stiff and sore, but the movement still felt glorious.

The man laughed as if he knew exactly what Ned was thinking. “Ah, it is a very good thing to move, yes?”

Ned considered responding with any number of questions, but as he regarded the man’s apparently honest delight in his improved health, he said simply, “Yes, it is good.”

More footsteps outside announced the return of the guard--it was the thin one. He came all the way into the room and handed the dark man a crutch.

“Yes, today is a good day to get you out of that bed. But only for a bit, my lord. You must promise not to undo all my good work!” He laughed again. “You should be dead, you know.”

“I’ve heard that a lot lately,” Ned sighed.

The man laughed out loud again and then began removing the latest poultice from his leg as the woman handed Ned the peach and his cup. “Thank you, Alina,” Ned told her. She nodded quickly and scurried away to the other side of the room.

Eating and drinking entirely on his own was near bliss, but as his hunger and thirst abated somewhat, his need for answers intensified.

“Where am I?” he asked the man for what must be the thousandth time. “How long am I to be here and what news is there of my family?”

The man looked at him sadly. “You know I shall answer not. Why do you keep asking? I only know the answer to the first, anyway. I know nothing about you, my friend--who you are, what family you have, or why you are here---I am paid to fix the leg, yes? And keep you from dying of it.”

“Who pays you?”

He sighed. “In truth? I do not ask. It is better not to know. But it is a great deal of money, and I will not risk losing it by answering silly questions. So stop asking. This may hurt,” he added as he probed Ned’s leg with his fingers.

It did hurt, but nothing like the blinding pain he remembered from his time in the Black Cell. He looked at the leg closely. The redness was gone from the skin as was the swelling, but a long twisted, red, angry slashing scar ran all along his calf from his ankle to just below the knee. A second well-healing gash actually ran from below the outside of his knee to midway up his thigh. Ned bent the knee experimentally and winced, wondering again just how long he had been in this little room.

“I had to open your leg wide to drain the poison, my lord,” the man told him. “You are lucky they send for me. Another man would just take off the leg.” He made a slashing movement with his hand that made Ned shudder.

“I thank you,” he said sincerely.

“Well, maybe yes, you thank me, and maybe no. You will not die and I think you will walk, but that leg will never do what it once did. Some men, they don’t thank me for that.” The man looked at Ned carefully.

At his words, Ned’s thoughts flew to Winterfell, to the son whose legs would never walk at all, but whose life meant so much. “I would live,” he said simply. “I have much to do.”

The man nodded. “Then let’s get you up and I will show you how to use this crutch.”

After twenty minutes of hobbling around the room, the dark man helped Ned back onto his bed, shaking, sweating, and completely exhausted.

“That was good,” the man pronounced. “Does it pain you much now?”

“No,” Ned lied. He was thoroughly tired of being drugged and tied down.

The man laughed. “I will have them give you only the tiniest doses of the poppy now, my lord. Your leg will hurt, but you will not sleep so much and I will leave you unbound, so I think you will not care, yes?”

“I don’t want any more of the poppy,” Ned protested.

“Ah,” the man said, shaking his head. “But you need it. Not for the pain maybe, but because you have taken so much for so long. If I stop it, you will feel very ill, but the dose can be small enough now you will not notice, and I will instruct Alina how to make it smaller each day. Then you can stop it after awhile.”

Ned looked at the long gashes on his leg, healing quite well and even in the early stages of scarring. “Exactly how long have I been here?” he asked quietly.

The man looked at Ned sadly. “Long enough for me to heal your leg, my lord, and that was not an easy task.”

“Gods!” Ned shouted. “I need to go home!!” He pushed himself up off the bed again, but immediately fell back, too weak to stand any longer. “Gods help me,” he whispered, putting his hands over his face as he lay back. “Gods help me.”

The dark man stared him for a bit. “I hope whatever gods there are may do so. I will see you no more as your leg is better and no one wishes to keep paying me great sums of money.” He laughed. “You can use the crutch to get around your room now. Do only a little at first, but more each day. Eat all Alina’s good food she brings. Make yourself strong again and soon, I think, you will not need the crutch.”

“You said the leg will never be the same.”

“And it will not. But there is no reason you cannot make it much better than it is now. I wish you good health.” He turned then to Alina, who had been standing silently across the room in case of need, and rattled off a fairly long string of words in the other language.

Alina answered him this time, and without the thick accent of the dark man, he recognized the language. Valyrian! Not the High Valyrian he’d been forced to learn by the maesters at Winterfell and the Eyrie as a boy, but some form of it. He could almost understand her. He knew some bastard form of Valyrian was used in the Free Cities. Ned vaguely remembered the berth rocking in a boat. He was across the Narrow Sea! He had to be in one of the Free Cities on the coast of Essos!

The dark man finished his conversation with Alina, bowed to Ned, and turned to leave. He stopped at the door, and said thoughtfully, “It is best I go far from here now. I have my money and my life. Staying too long in the reach of the man who paid me could cost me either one.” He gave Ned a long look, and then left.

Alina gave Ned a quick nod and turned as if to follow him, but Ned stopped her. “Alina . . . .” he said, and then in his best schoolboy High Valyrian, he asked her, “Which city are we in? Braavos? Pentos? Myr? Another city with a . . .” He couldn’t remember the word for port so he settled for “seashore?”

Her eyes opened wide with shock. “No, no, no!” she said, and ran from the room. The guard outside looked puzzled, but simply closed the door. Ned heard the bar slide into place before the man’s steps followed her down.

I didn’t mean to frighten the woman! Damn it, where in all the hells am I? And how do I get back to the Seven Kingdoms?

A moment later, he heard more footsteps coming up to his room. This time when the door opened, a new person stepped in, pushed by the woman, Alina. He was a boy, no more than ten, brown haired, brown eyed, and skinny; wearing breeches that he was clearly in the process of outgrowing. Quite a bit of leg showed above his bare feet.

“Milord, you cannot ask her questions. Please do not do this anymore.” His accent was atrocious, but he was clearly speaking to Ned in the Common Tongue.

“And who are you, my boy, to be giving orders here?” Ned asked with some amusement.

The boy looked at him a moment. “I’m Dak. She’s my mother. We didn’t know you understood our speech, and it scared her. But you can’t ask her any questions. And don’t tell her nothing about you, either.”

“Well, it seems rather discourteous not to give you and your mother my name as you’ve given me yours. I am Lord . .”

“No!” the boy absolutely shouted. Ned stopped speaking, somewhat stunned, and the boy continued, “I mean, we aren’t supposed to know who you are. If we tell anybody who you are, bad things will happen to us. It’s easier not to tell things you don’t know. See?”

“I do see,” Ned replied. “So your mother has been contracted to feed and care for me by the same man who paid to have my leg fixed. Is that it?”

Dak nodded.

“And I don’t suppose you’ll tell me who that man is?”

Dak shook his head.

“Well obviously you know where I come from by my speech. Can you tell me any news of the Seven Kingdoms?”

Dak sighed. “What happens in the Sunset Kingdoms is none of our concern here. Why would I care about tales from somewhere so far away?”

Something in the way the boy said that made Ned pause. “But you do like to hear tales from far away, don’t you? Why else have you learned the tongue?”

The boy looked at his mother then, and she said something rapidly in her oddly phrased and accented Valyrian that Ned couldn’t quite catch.

Dak shook his head at her.

“You can tell your mother I can’t really understand most of what she says. The Valyrian I learned as boy in Westeros was quite different than what is spoken here, I’m afraid.” He smiled ruefully. “Wherever here is. What did she ask you?”

It was the boy’s turn to smile. “If I was telling you anything I shouldn’t. She thinks I’m talking too much. I learned the Westerosi talk at the docks, from sailors mostly. I’m good with tongues. I know some Dothraki, too. Them are those horse lords. I don’t know as much of that, though. They don’t talk as much as sailors.”

Ned smiled at the boy again, “I suppose not. Can you tell me anything the Westerosi sailors have said lately? Something that won’t get you into trouble with your mother?” He glanced at Alina, who had been glaring at him, but was now looking at him with curiosity. He gestured at her. “Is there something your mother wants to know, Dak? She’s looking at me rather strangely all of a sudden.”

Dak turned to his mother and asked her something. In her response, Ned caught the word for cold, but not much else. Dak laughed at her, though. Turning to Ned, he said, “She just said she never seen you smile til now. That she thought you were very hard and cold, but you don’t look so bad when you smile.”

With a pang, Ned thought of Cat teasing him about his frozen face and the lengths she would go to in order to get him to smile. “You may tell her I have heard something similar from another lady,” he said to Dak. “But do you know any news from Westeros that you can tell me, son?”

Dak bit his lip. “Well, milord, I mostly listen to the sailors’ stories--the good ones, I mean. I don’t care about some old king who died and some old lord who got his head chopped off. I like the tales of sea monsters or dragons or horrible spirits that live in a place that’s all snow. That’s what I listen to mostly.”

Some old king and some old lord? What has the boy heard?

“Dak,” Ned said thoughfully. “I have nothing but time here. And I know quite a lot of stories. I have a son about your age who loves them. Of course, he prefers the scary ones even though they keep him from sleeping at night.” Another pang at the thought of Bran.

“I love scary stories, milord. And they never keep me up nights,” the boy replied eagerly.

“Yes, my son says the same. But I know better.” Ned looked at the boy’s mother then, and tried hard not to look cold, hard, or threatening in any way. “Ask your mother if you could perhaps come visit with me, and I’ll tell you some stories. When any work you have is finished, of course.”

“I will! I’ll talk her into it.” Now it was his turn to look reassuringly at his mother. He then turned back to Ned with the confidence of a child whose mother didn’t know what he was saying. “I’m real good at getting her to let me do things.”

“I don’t doubt it for a minute.”

When Dak and his mother had left, with the guard barring the door behind them, Ned sat on his bed and thought about how he could make use of this boy. Surely, there was a way to get information from him. He obviously loved to talk to people. If he could get the boy to bring him real news, perhaps he could make some sort of plans. Perhaps, if he could gain his trust, he could even use the boy to get a message out to someone. Gods! He’s just a child! How can I think of putting him at risk? But how can I not do everything possible to get out of here? He may not be so willing to help me in any event. What shall I ask him if he comes without his mother? Ned’s thoughts spun in many directions, but before long, the exhaustion took him and he fell asleep again.

When he awoke, it was dark, and he heard the door of his room opening. Dak entered, holding a lamp and a plate of food. The guard said something to him, and then closed the door behind him and left.

Ned rubbed his eyes and sat up. “He’s locking you in with me?”

Dak laughed. “He was playing cards downstairs with the other one. I told him I’m not a woman like my mother. I’m not afraid some crippled man might hurt me, so he could go back down. He said he’d have to lock the door, and I said I didn’t care. I can take care of myself, and I’ll yell when I want out."

Ned cringed at the description of himself as a crippled man, but had to admire the boy’s nerve. He took the plate and Dak poured him water from the pitcher his mother had brought earlier. “Tomorrow, you get ale. The wizard said you could before he left.”

“The wizard?”

“Oh, I don’t know his name. The Summer Islander. I just call him that cuz of what he did for your leg. It had to be magic. You were more dead than alive when you got here, and that leg stank bad.”

“Hmm.” Ned was quiet as he ate. “Can you tell me how long I’ve been here?” he asked after awhile.

“No. Can you tell me a good story like you promised?”

“Did Lord Varys order you not to tell me anything?”

“Who?” The boy’s confusion was obviously genuine. The name meant nothing to him. Ned considered describing the eunuch, but considering his alarmingly changeable appearance, realized that would serve nothing.

“Never mind. I know we are in one of the Free Cities. What would it hurt for me to know which one? I have never been to any of them in my life. In the unlikely event I could overpower you and both guards, and limp down however many stairs are out there, knowledge of this city’s name would give me no help in finding my way about it.” Ned looked at Dak levelly. “It is very unsettling not to have a name for your whereabouts.”

Dak hesitated only briefly. “Pentos. We’re in Pentos. I’ve lived here all my life.”

“Ah. And where in Pentos do you live, Dak?”

“Well, here, for right now. On the second floor. This is the third. Mother and I get the second, and those two sellswords stay on the first. We get to live here as long as we’re taking care of you.”

Sellswords, eh? “So you don’t know our two friends downstairs very well?”

Dak shrugged. “Never met ‘em til we came here. They’re not so bad, though. Don’t like to talk much. But I can’t stay much longer, and you promised me a story.”

Ned almost laughed at that. For all the boy’s bravado, he sounded as young as Rickon begging for his story. “Okay,” he said. “Have you ever heard of the Children of the Forest?”

The boy shook his head, so Ned proceeded to regale him with one of Old Nan’s tales about the Children. He was quite certain he did not have the flare for storytelling that the old woman of Winterfell did, but Dak seemed completely enthralled in spite of that.

When he finished, he said, “Now it’s your turn. You said something about an old king dying and a lord losing his head earlier.”

“Oh, that. Well, the king of the Sunset Kingdoms died, apparently. The one that got the throne away from the dragon kings”

“King Robert Baratheon,” Ned supplied.

“Yeah, King Robert. He got killed by some wild animal, or maybe the beheaded lord murdered him. It’s all confused.”

“The beheaded lord. Do you know his name?” Ned asked.

Dak thought for a minute. “Um, yeah. It was Stark. Eddard Stark. He had some big job in King’s Landing but he was a traitor. I’m not sure what he did, though.”

Ned’s heart had almost jumped out of his chest at hearing his own name, but he kept his face blank. “Stark? Really? I had heard he was ill, possibly gravely ill. Are you certain he was beheaded?”

“Did you know him?” asked Dak, fascinated.

“Yes, Dak, I did know him,” Ned said quietly.

“Oh. Well, I’m sorry if he was your friend or anything. And I don’t know about him being sick or not, but he definitely lost his head.”

How on earth did Varys manage that? “And have you heard any other news from Westeros? Real news, that is, Dak. Not just wild stories.”

“Well, all the stories are pretty wild, now milord. They’ve got a bunch of kings now, and everybody over there is at war.”

“War.” Ned’s heart filled with dread. “Do you know where?”

“Not really. It’s kind of in lots of places, I think. I did hear about one fellow they call the Young Wolf though. I think he’s the son of the lord that got beheaded, the one you knew. The Young Wolf fought a big battle and freed some castle by a river and he has a giant real wolf that tears off his enemies’ arms and heads.” Dak didn’t seem to notice that Ned had gone pale and silent. “But I guess that’s just a story, huh? I mean the real wolf part.”

Ned Stark sighed deeply and looked at the boy. “No, Dak. I fear it is not just a story.”

When he said nothing else, the boy got up and said, “I better go down before Mother comes up. Will you tell me another story tomorrow?”

Ned shook himself. He looked at Dak for a long moment, and then said, “I need you to get more news for me, Dak. I need you to go to the docks and find out as much as you can about this war in the Seven Kingdoms. If you bring me good information, I will pay you with another story, or even two. I have a lot of them.”

The boy considered for a moment. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Ned didn’t even notice him leave. He lay on a bed in Pentos while his fifteen year old son fought battles in Westeros. He felt a cold dread as he pictured Robb, with his fiery hair and laughing blue eyes charging at Jon with a wooden sword. He couldn’t picture that same boy surrounded by the blood and chaos of actual battle. That couldn’t be real. Despite the milk of the poppy given with his evening meal, Ned Stark did not sleep that night.

Chapter Text

Quoted from A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin:

It hurts so much, she thought. Our children, Ned, all our sweet babes. Rickon, Bran, Arya, Sansa, Robb . . .Robb . . . please, Ned, please, make it stop, make it stop hurting . . . The white tears and the red ones ran together until her face was torn and tattered, the face that Ned had loved. Catelyn Stark raised her hands and watched the blood run down her long fingers, over her wrists, beneath the sleeves of her gown. Slow red worms crawled along her arms and under her clothes. It tickles. That made her laugh until she screamed. “Mad,” someone said, “she’s lost her wits,” and someone else said, “Make an end,” and a hand grabbed her scalp just as she’d done with Jinglebell, and she thought, No, don’t, don’t cut my hair, Ned loves my hair. Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold. (End Quote.)

“Stop, fool!” Another voice, from behind her. Another hand in her hair and her head was jerked hard away from the knife with a painful twist of her neck, even as the cold steel bit across the skin of her throat and she felt blood seeping down the front of her and onto her breasts beneath her gown. “Madwoman or not, she’s worth more alive!”

Catelyn’s vision went dark, and all her world became the flow of tears and blood--she couldn’t tell one from the other, nor tell her blood from Jinglebell’s. All of it seemed to flow down her body in streams to make a river.

“I would prefer her dead,” came an eerily calm voice beside her. “I’ve killed the Young Wolf. Why leave the bitch that whelped him? Look at her. She’s dead anyway.”

“Heh. Maybe she’s dead and maybe no. I’m not dead, heh, and that means I’m still Lord here in the Twins and I say we are done.” She couldn’t see, and her hearing was fading, but she knew that voice, and it made her feel colder than the steel. “Don’t be so quick to take orders from Bolton, Raymund. You belong to me. Now, put a cloth on that gash you made in her neck and see if you can stop the blood.” No, no . . . nothing can stop it now. It’s a river. It’s the Red Fork, made truly red. “Black Walder, leave her on the floor with Raymund. Go with Ryman, and see how well the Lord of Riverrun is enjoying his bedding. Heh, heh.” All sounds faded with the sound of the old man’s croaking laugh, and she knew only the pressure of a hand on her throat. Then nothing.

 

Dark and pain. She was searching for something, someone. She was floating. Or sinking--always through dark and pain. She cried out for someone, but the voices she heard in answer were all wrong. Ned! Robb! She couldn’t find them in the dark. Why won’t they wait for me? There was rain on her face, or snow--it was cold and wet, but soft--like snow. Bran! Rickon! Come in from the snow! It’s cold, and I can’t find you in the dark! Pain. Always painful hands on her throat. Sansa! Arya! She couldn’t reach them. The hands at her throat held her down and fire bit at her back if she tried to move. Ned! Make it stop! Oh, please . . .please. Dark and pain.

Dark and pain. Was there anything else? Yes. There were voices. She didn’t know them, but she could hear them, and now the meaning of their words began to reach her.

“Has she awakened yet?” A man. A young one. Robb? No!!! her mind screamed and slammed a door against a truth more painful than her neck or her back or the thousand tiny stings on her face.

“No.” A young woman’s voice. “But she moves some, now. I don’t think she’s going to die.”

“Why doesn’t that please you, sweet sister? You have tended the lady with such care. Surely, her recovery cheers you.”

The young woman’s voice trembled, on the verge of breaking. “What has she left, Olyvar? What have we left to her? I fear it would have been kinder to let her bleed to death--to follow her son and her husband.” Her voice broke then, and the next words came in soft sobs. “There is no joy here, brother. None for us, and even less for her.”

Why is she crying?

“Roslin, don’t . .” the young man started.

Roslin. Why is Roslin crying?? Oh, Gods, no!!! Robb!! Robb!! Her mind could no longer keep the truth shut away beneath the dark and the pain. Catelyn Stark opened her eyes and screamed her son’s name.

“My lady! My lady, please!” Olyvar Frey’s eyes were wide with shock, but he reacted quickly, rushing from behind his sister to the bedside and pinning Catelyn by her shoulders so she couldn’t rise. “You must be still, my lady! You will do yourself harm!”

His words actually stopped Catelyn’s screams and made her laugh--a bitter sound with no mirth at all. “Do myself harm?” the words came out as a harsh rasp, barely above a whisper. “Why should I harm myself with so many Freys willing to do it for me?” She hadn’t the strength to even raise her head off the pillow, but the venom in her words appeared to strike the boy like a blow. He fell to his knees by the bed and buried his face in the blanket by her shoulder.

“I did not know, my lady. I swear to you, I did not know.” He was crying now, tears flowing as freely as his sister’s. “They sent me away and told me nothing. I couldn’t stop it. I am sorry. I am so sorry.”

Catelyn stared at him a moment as he continued to weep onto her bed and then looked up at Roslin, seated in a chair by the bedside. “Is my brother dead?”

Roslin started. “Your brother? Oh, no, my lady. My lord husband lives, Lady Catelyn. He is held hostage, in a cell below the western castle, but he lives. And I pray for him every day.”

Catelyn closed her eyes. She was glad to hear Edmure lived, but she couldn’t take any true joy in it. Joy had left her, and she suddenly found herself very tired. “Where is my son?” she asked without opening her eyes.

She felt Olyvar raise his head up. “My lady?” He sounded very hesitant. “King Robb . . . King Robb is . .”

“Dead,” she said flatly. She opened her eyes and stared directly into those of her son’s one-time squire. “I watched Roose Bolton’s sword spill his blood with my own eyes, Olyvar. . I’m asking you where he is now. What has your lord father done with my son?” The cold hatred in her voice at the words “lord father” shocked even her.

Roslin looked stricken and gasped, “Oh, my lady!” and ran from the room in tears. Olyvar looked as if he wanted to go after her, but he took a deep breath and rose from the floor only to seat himself in the chair Roslin had left.

“Lady Catelyn,” he said softly. “You do not want me to answer that question.” She started to protest, but he cut her off. “I will, if you insist, but please let me say this first. King Robb was my liege. I never would have left him had I been given a choice. I will not lie to you. I was angry when he married that Westerling girl, and I told him he would have to pay for the slight to my family’s honor.” He paused for a moment, but when Catelyn made no response, he took another deep breath and continued. “He looked so sad then, my lady. He knew he’d done wrong by us, but he just couldn’t do wrong by the lady. He could never do that, and I knew it. I told him I was still his man, and maybe I could help him--I’d try to find out what my father would demand from him. I-I knew it would be awful, my lady, but I never . . .” his voice broke off, and he had to take several breaths before he continued. “My father is a cold, cruel, calculating man. But he talks so much about honor, I always believed he did have some. When he accepted the marriage between Lord Edmure and my sister, I knew the wedding would be terrible. I knew he would insult his Grace to his face and demand any number of petty concessions from him. I was furious when he sent me away with Perwyn, but I never believed he’d murder guests in his home! Truly, I thought he just didn’t want me making a scene at his disrespect for the king. Perwyn told me as much.”

“And Perwyn?” Catelyn was surprised to find herself interested in Olyvar’s tale, but she was. “Did he know the truth of it?”

Olyvar dropped his eyes. “Yes, my lady. To his shame, he did. He argued against it and when that came to no avail, declared he would take no part in it. But he made no move to warn King Robb. He simply took me and left on the pretense of trouble with some of our troops.”

“You haven’t forgiven him.”

“No, my lady. But he is my brother.” Olyvar raised his eyes to meet hers again. “They are all my brothers, half-brothers, cousins, and nephews . . . . and my father. As I am their family, I share in their crime. I would pay you anything I have, my lady, but nothing will atone, I know. I offer you what little protection I can give you here, although I fear it will not be much. And I offer you truth, in this house of lies. That is why I will answer your question, if you insist. But in all honesty, I tell you the answer will cause you pain. I fear my father has no more respect for the dead than for the living.”

Catelyn’s limbs felt heavy and her heart felt cold. She looked at Olyvar and realized she didn’t have the strength for any more horrors at the moment. “I shall ask again when I am stronger, Olyvar. How long have I slept?”

“Five days, my lady. We were most afraid you would not survive. Roslin has stayed with you almost all the time, dripping water and honey into your mouth and caring for your wounds.”

“I would think she should better spend her time with her new husband,” Catelyn said coldly. “Or does she not like the dungeons here at the Twins?”

Olyvar bristled at that. “She has begged leave to go and tend Lord Edmure. She has been forbidden to see him since they took him from her bridal chamber. She truly desires to be a good wife to him, my lady, and fears he will forever hate her now. She did not know, at first, and was very excited at being married. She made me tell her all I knew of Lord Edmure, every detail of his character and the color of his eyes. Roslin is a victim in this, too. She was used, and by the time she knew the truth of it, she could not stop anything.”

Catelyn thought then of Sansa, sent away to marry the monster, Joffrey, and then given to that treacherous Imp, with never a choice about any of it. She could almost pity the Frey girl, if she had any pity left.

“I suppose, if I am going to live, I should drink something, although I can barely swallow with this . . .” She raised her hands to claw at the thing around her throat, but Olyvar grabbed them.

“No, Lady Catelyn. You took a deep cut there. If you pull at the bandage, I fear Roslin’s stitches will come loose. She said you must have them for awhile yet.” Catelyn remembered the cold bite of the knife at her throat and shuddered. She remembered the feel of a knife in her hand sawing at another throat as well, but she put that thought away. “My back,” she said. “Something struck me in the back.”

“A quarrel,” Olyvar told her, as he poured water into a cup for her. “I am told you were struck by one of the crossbowmen as you ran toward King Robb. Fortunately, it was at a shallow angle. It hit only the flesh and sinew beside your spine. No vital organs.”

“Yes. I am a very fortunate woman.”

Olyvar had the grace to look abashed at that as he knelt to help her with the cup. When she reached her hands up to help grip it, her fingers brushed her face, and she felt cool damp cloths adhered to her cheeks. “What‘s this?” and then, “Oh,” she said softly, remembering the talons and the red tears. She held her hands in front of her face, turning them this way and that, expecting to see the scarlet streaks, but her pale hands were unblemished, but for the old scars on her palms from a Valyrian steel dagger.

“Roslin bathed you herself, my lady,” Olyvar said quietly, as if he knew what she was looking for.

Gently, Catelyn touched the cloths on her cheeks which didn’t really hurt, but rather tingled. “My face,” she whispered.

“It will heal, my lady. Some of the deeper gashes will leave marks, but Maester Brenett says they will fade with time. He has made ointments for Roslin to apply every day.”

“Oh, I see. Is Lord Walder terribly concerned about my appearance? Planning to marry me off to one of his bastards and proclaim him Lord of Winterfell?” Catelyn spoke purely from spite and was shocked to see an odd look of panic cross Olyvar’s face. “Olyvar, I will wed no one. I am not a maid to be frightened into saying the words. I will die before I wed against my will. If your father believes otherwise, he is a fool as well as a craven, dishonorable murderer.”

“No, my lady. I do not believe my father plans to wed you to anyone. He has led most people outside this castle to believe you are dead, in fact.”

“And what value do I have as a corpse?”

“I do not know all his plans, my lady. But I doubt either of us will be pleased by them.”

On that rather ominous note, Olyvar tipped up the cup and encouraged her to drink. The water was good in spite of the pain with swallowing, and Catelyn drank greedily. Olyvar then settled her back down and told her he had to leave, and she should sleep. There would be a guard just outside her room should she have need of anything. Of course, or to intervene should I develop a desire to leave this room.

Left alone in her bed, she allowed her husband and children to fill her mind and found herself paralyzed by grief so deep and painful that no physical hurt she had ever suffered could compare. Yet, her eyes remained dry. Have I cried all my tears, that I have none left? Or am I truly become a Stark of the North whose tears freeze before they can fall? Eventually, she fell into a fitful sleep. She was running toward Robb as arrows pierced his body one after another. She screamed, but the sound she made was that of Grey Wind’s mournful howl. She was suddenly in the woods surrounded by wolves, but they didn’t frighten her. She wanted to gather them to her, but a lion jumped out from behind the trees and chased them away, each in a different direction. She ran one way and then another, trying to find them, but they were lost to her. She was cold, bleeding, and her dress was torn, and she couldn’t hear the wolves anymore. Only the distant roar of a lion. She had given up in despair when she saw Ned beside a weirwood tree beckoning to her. She cried out for joy and ran into his arms, but he looked at her so sadly. She touched his face and ran her fingers through his hair. His gray eyes looked into hers with such grief and longing that her heart broke. “Smile for me, my love,” she begged him. He only shook his head and whispered her name, “Cat.” He bent to kiss her, but as his lips touched hers, she suddenly felt cold, and realized she was alone. “Ned!” she screamed, but he was as lost to her as the wolves, and she sank to the ground and cried.

She woke to find her pillow soaked with tears. Perhaps my heart is not yet so frozen as I thought. I only wish it were. She realized there were voices in the hall and hurriedly wiped her blanket across her eyes as the door opened. Whatever she may do in her dreams, Catelyn Stark vowed by the old gods and the new, she would never weep in front of any Frey.

 

For the next three days, she saw only Roslin and two serving girls who brought her food and tidied the room. The serving girls seemed terrified to look at her, much less speak to her. Roslin always looked frightened as well, but it seemed to Catelyn the girl was frightened for her, rather than of her. Tears filled her eyes frequently, and while she would usually answer questions, Catelyn sensed hesitations and evasions.

“What does Lord Walder intend to do with me, Roslin?” she asked as the girl removed the cloths from her face and rubbed some cream onto the skin of her cheeks.

Roslin stilled her hands, and replied, “I . . I don’t really know, my lady.”

“Nonsense. Lord Walder is very fond of the sound of his own voice. I am certain he has said something of me . . .if only to frighten or threaten people.”

“Well,” Roslin hesitated. “That’s just it, my lady. You never know if he means what he says. He had mentioned dragging you to Riverrun and hanging you in front of the gates if the Blackfish doesn’t yield. But he has talked of doing the same with my lord husband. Olyvar says he is unlikely to use you in such a manner after he’s gone to such pains to make it as if you are dead.”

“What pains, Roslin? And why do such a thing? A hostage is only worth something if people know you have one.”

“We hold several, my lady. Hostages, that is. My lord father has definite plans for most of them. Olyvar believes he is afraid of you. Afraid that your being held captive could further anger both the river lords and the northmen--who are all angry enough, already.” Her lip trembled as if her own words frightened her as she went on in little more than a whisper. “Olyvar says Father will use Lord Edmure, Marq Piper, and Patrek Mallister to make their houses bend the knee for King Joffrey, but that he will wait and sell you when he sees an advantage for himself from someone who benefits from your life or your death.”

Catelyn noticed that Roslin did not answer the first part of her question, but decided to press her further on the answers she had given rather than point that out. “And the secrecy? Is that truly because your father fears a rescue attempt from a pack of angry northmen?” Catelyn raised her brow and let her skepticism sound in her voice.

Roslin looked down. “Well, partly,” she whispered. “But also, my lady, if you are already dead, there’s nothing to keep him from doing anything he likes with you, and no one to tell him no.” She turned away quickly and went to get a hairbrush off a nearby table. “Let me brush your hair, my lady,” she said, with an abrupt forced enthusiasm to her voice. “I am to get you dressed today.”

Catelyn had believed she was past fear. She had nothing left to lose, nothing left for Walder Frey to take. Yet, Roslin’s whispered words made her blood run cold. “Roslin, why have I not seen Olyvar since that first day?”

“Because you are awake, now. My lord father does not trust Olyvar where you are concerned, and has forbidden him to come.” Roslin’s normally transparent face was completely expressionless as she added, “You will see him presently, though. He is to take you to my father’s hall today.”

 

Catelyn Stark was dressed in her own gown, one of those she had brought from Riverrun, but it fit poorly as she had lost weight while she had lain in her bed of dark and pain. There was no looking glass in her small room, but with the ill-fitting gown, the red lines on her face, and the sewn-up gash across her throat, she imagined she must look ghastly in spite of the care Roslin had taken with her hair. She was also even weaker than she had realized and had to lean heavily on Olyvar’s arm as he escorted her through the castle to the hall. Olyvar had been cold and formal when he arrived at her room. Now, momentarily out of sight from all as they walked slowly down a corridor, his face remained a hard mask, but he whispered urgently, “My lady, this will be most unpleasant. I am sorry I could not spare you or prepare you for this, but I will get you away from it as soon as I am able.”

Before she could respond, she realized they were entering Lord Walder’s hall. She felt sick and fought down the urge to vomit as “The Rains of Castamere” played in her head and she smelled clearly the stench of death. She blinked her eyes hard to clear away the bloody phantoms she saw all around her.

“There’s our special guest now, heh.” At his voice, Catelyn willed her face to freeze into a mask as she slowly turned to face the Lord of the Crossing where he sat on his carved oaken throne. The hall was mostly deserted. She saw only Lord Walder, Ser Ryman, Black Walder, Lame Lothar, Walder Rivers, and Ser Hosteen along with two other men she did not know by sight, presumably also some sort of Freys.

She met Lord Walder’s gaze, but did not speak to him.

“No greetings, my lady? Heh. Raymund cut out your tongue with that knife of his when he slit your throat?” Lord Walder’s watery old eyes stared at her expectantly and he pursed his lips over his toothless gums. “What’s the matter with her, Olyvar?” he snapped at his son. “I thought she could speak.”

“She can speak, my lord. If she chooses.” Olyvar said pointedly.

“Ah, I see. Yes, I see. Heh. Too good to speak to me now, are you? Old Hoster Tully thought he was too good. He’s dead now, I’m not. Heh.”

Catelyn continued to stare back at him silently. She had nothing to say to this man. She realized she had started shaking, but did not know if fury or weakness was the cause. She could not get the smell of death and decay out of her nose. Olyvar had put his arm around her for support.

Lord Walder noticed. “Let her go, Olyvar. If you want to squeeze her any tighter, you’ll need to push up her skirts. Heh. You like her that much, boy? Want to have a go at the trout’s daughter right here in my hall?”

It was Olyvar’s turn to stare wordlessly at his father, but he did not let her go. For that, Catelyn was grateful, as she was not certain she could stand on her own.

“Your son was too good for my daughters, eh?” the old man’s eyes glittered spitefully at Catelyn. “You seem to like this son of mine, though. Enough to spread your legs for him? Heh. How about it, Lady Tully? ”

“Lady Stark.” Her voice cut through the hall like ice. “My name is Catelyn Stark, Lady of Winterfell.”

Lord Walder looked back at her with malice. “So it is. Yes. And what do I care? Fish spawn, wolf bitch, it doesn’t matter to me.” He raised his voice and called to someone behind her. “Bring in Lady Stark’s present!”

Olyvar gripped her more tightly. “Do not look, my lady.” He turned to Lord Walder and pleaded, “Do not do this, Father. There is no need. There is no honor in . . .”

“Honor!” the old man spat. “She’s a big one for talking honor. Yes. Her son’s honor, her father’s honor, her bloody Stark husband’s honor. Well, they’re all dead now. All but her, and a woman’s only honor is between her legs. Turn her around and show her what her family‘s honor is worth!”

“No!” Olyvar shouted. Catelyn felt dizzy now, but she saw Black Walder step forward and shove Olyvar away as the bastard Walder Rivers grabbed her to keep her from falling.  I am drowning in a sea of Walders. She fought against hysteria. Then Bastard Walder was whispering in her ear, “Olyvar’s an evil boy to keep a grieving mother from her son.” And he spun her around.

Two men had carried in a chair on which was propped a corpse ripe with decay---a naked man. At first, she blinked uncomprehendingly, but then saw the crowned and rotting direwolf’s head sewn onto the dead man’s neck, and she clutched at the stitches across her own neck as she stumbled unsteadily toward the desecrated remains of her firstborn child. She couldn’t reach him this time, either, and for the second time, Catelyn Stark’s world went dark to the sound of Walder Frey’s laughter.

 

She awoke with her face pressed against the cold stone floor of the hall. The corpse scent hung in the air but when she lifted her eyes to look, Robb’s body was gone. She heard voices and realized the Frey men were huddled around a table in conversation, seemingly oblivious to the broken woman on their floor. Olyvar was gone. Her knees and forehead throbbed. She must have hit the floor hard when she fell. She remembered running toward . . Oh gods, Robb! Oh, Ned, our sweet boy. Our babe. Please make this stop. She felt the tears building behind her eyes, but she also heard the voices of the Frey men at the table, and remembered her vow. I will not cry for them. Forgive me, Robb, but I cannot grieve you here.

Ser Ryman was speaking. “So, Walder will take young Mallister to Seagard and show Lord Jason exactly what will happen to his heir if he doesn’t bend the knee, and I’ll do the same with Tully at Riverrun. We’ll see how long the Blackfish holds out with his liege lord’s head in a bloody noose.”

Catelyn couldn’t sit all the way up, but she raised as far as she could and called out to them, “Ser Brynden will never yield Riverrun to you! Lord Jason may bend for his love of Patrek, but you will all be as old as Lord Walder before the Tullys bend their knees for the likes of you.”

The men all looked down at her in shock. Then Lord Walder began to laugh and slowly clapped his hands. “Well said, my lady. Heh. Well said. Mayhaps the Tullys yield, and mayhaps they don’t. But you already said you’re a wolf, not a trout. Heh.” He looked at Black Walder. “You saved her from Bolton and your idiot uncle. Why don’t you claim your reward? It’s time this Stark yielded her honor. Heh, heh.”

As the meaning of his words slowly dawned on Catelyn, an involuntary “No,” escaped her lips, and she began to push herself backwards across the floor.

“But yes,” Lord Walder said. “Spoils of war, my lady. Ask your friends, the Iron Born about it. They kill little boys, I hear. Heh. But they know what to do with the ladies, I’ll grant them that.”

Black Walder was standing over her now, his eyes glittering in a malicious echo of his grandfather’s. A nasty bit of business, came Edmure’s voice in her head. She would not cower for him. She stopped moving and stared up at Black Walder coldly.

“Aw, she was a lot prettier before that bloody wedding,” the man declared. “But she’s not too bad. Her hair’s something. I could always turn her around.” He gave her a nasty grin, picked her up with ease and carried her out of the hall. Over his shoulder, he called nonchalantly to the other men. “I’ll be happy to fuck Ned Stark’s little fishwife before I ride out, but I don’t give shows. If you want her, you can always take turns later!”

He stopped in an empty alcove not far from the hall and shoved her up against the wall. She fought down the urge to scream and only stared at him with cold hatred. He just laughed and ripped the front of her dress down the middle, exposing her breasts. “Not bad teats for a woman who’s give suck to as many brats as you have.” He grabbed her nipple and twisted it hard, and she couldn’t prevent the small sound of pain that escaped her. He laughed and did it again to the other. Far beyond the physical pain, her mind screamed in outrage at the man’s touch. No man but Ned had ever touched her bare skin there, and his touch had never caused her pain. This man’s assault seemed to Catelyn to be as much on Ned’s memory as on her body. He removed his hand and replaced it with his mouth, sucking and biting at her as if she were prey being devoured by a beast. She made herself remain as still and silent as she could as he pushed up her skirts and fumbled at his breeches.

And then he was forcing her thighs apart with his knee and pushing into her. As she felt herself tear when he entered her, she could not smother a scream of pain mingled with rage. She felt she was being ripped in half with every thrust, but while she could not help screaming, she did not fight him. She would not give him that. “Cold little bitch, aren’t you?” he grunted. “Bedding with Stark do that to you?”

He finished with a loud grunt and collapsed against her. As he panted for breath, pinning her against the wall with his weight, he raised a hand to stroke her hair. That, she would not allow. “No,” she said coldly, and with strength she didn’t think she had, she slapped him hard and pushed him off her to the ground. “That is not yours to touch. Ever.”

She stepped over him and staggered from the alcove. She expected him to follow, to beat her, to kill her. Something. She didn’t care. But he didn’t come after her. She wandered lost through corridors in her ripped dress with Black Walder’s seed dripping down her thighs until she came upon a serving girl who gasped upon seeing her and ran the other way. Unable to move any further, Catelyn sank down onto the floor where she was.

Some moments later, the girl returned with Olyvar, who now sported a black eye. He looked down at her and shook his head mutely. Then he picked her up gently and carried her back to her prison.

As he settled her onto the bed, she looked at him levelly. “You were right, Olyvar. Being raped by your nephew was . . . .most unpleasant,” she said flatly.

“My lady,” he said, anguish in his voice. “I did not know, I mean, I knew about King Robb, but I . . .”

“Oh, yes. What they did to my son was most unpleasant, too.”

He stared at her, as if expecting her to break down and cry. She wouldn’t though. She had screamed, but she had not wept, and she didn’t think she would ever weep again. Something deep inside her had died. If only my body would join it.

“My lady, I could not protect you. Forgive me. I will try to keep you from as much hurt as I can, but I . . .”

“They cannot hurt me, Olyvar. Do not trouble yourself.” Her voice was calm, cold. Could I be turning to ice?

“My lady? They, they . . You are grievously hurt, my lady.” He couldn’t even say rape, she noticed.

“They cannot hurt me,” she repeated. She looked at the floor and saw a stone about the size of her fist lying there. It was used to prop the door at times, she supposed. No, not ice. Ned was ice, and he could be warmed. He could thaw and be so warm. I will never be warm again.

“But . .”

She sighed. “Olyvar, hand me that stone.” He looked confused, but did as she asked. She held it in her palm, cool against her skin, for a moment, and then threw it to the floor as hard as she could. A small piece broke off and skittered across the floor.

“There,” she said. “Did I hurt it?"

“The stone, my lady? You broke it, a little. But it will still serve.”

She laughed bitterly. “Still serve, indeed. I asked if I hurt it, not if I broke it. Did it feel pain? Did it cry out or weep?”

Olyvar looked at her utterly bewildered. “It’s a stone, my lady. It does not feel.”

“Nor do I, Olyvar. Your family may break pieces off me. They may break me entirely. But they cannot hurt me. I am stone.”

He stared at her then, and his expression might have broken Catelyn’s heart, if she still had one. “Go Olyvar. Find Roslin for me. I would like to bathe.”

He regarded her silently for a couple moments more before turning to go, and then she watched her son’s faithful squire go and do as he was bid by his lady of stone.

Chapter Text

Ned Stark stood in the center of his room and held a long plank of wood over his head. Finding his balance, with most of his weight on his good leg, he brought the plank down swiftly in front of him and slashed from side to side with it, mimicking sword strokes he’d learned in his youth. He stepped forward with a thrust of the plank, lost his balance, and fell to the floor.

“Damn this leg!” he exclaimed in irritation, slamming the wooden plank on the floor.

He regretted that action immediately as he heard the sound of someone climbing the stairs toward his room at a quick pace and heard Alina’s voice calling out, “Milord, are you well?”

He hurriedly shoved the plank beneath his bed and got to a sitting position. When the door opened and she entered with a worried expression on her face, he was making a great show of rubbing the bad leg.

“What have you done?” she asked in her odd Valyrian that he had come to understand well enough if she spoke slowly.

He answered in his own carefully phrased Valyrian. “It is nothing, Alina. I fell while trying to walk. Nothing is wounded but my pride.”

She was silent a moment as she puzzled out exactly what he had said, and then shook her head at him. “You try to do too much.” She reached out her hand and he allowed her to lead him back to his bed. If only you knew, he thought.

After assuring herself that he was not gravely injured, Alina left him with promises that Dak would be up shortly with his meal. If you knew all that Dak brought me, you would not treat me half so well, he thought with a stab of guilt, thinking of the makeshift practice sword hidden beneath his bed.

Dak had fallen into the habit of bringing Ned his evening meal every day along with whatever tidbits of information he’d managed to pick up from sailors and other men in the port. While the news from the Seven Kingdoms was often wildly exaggerated, and different tellers gave contradictory reports of the same events, some facts seemed certain. It seemed that both of Robert’s brothers had claimed his throne and that Robb had declared himself King in the North. When he first heard about the battling Baratheon brothers, Ned wanted to throttle Renly. He should support his older brother’s claim! Working together, the two had enough men to seriously challenge the Lannisters. Fighting each other served no one.

As for his son, Ned couldn’t begin to sort his thoughts or feelings. He knew Robb would seek vengeance for his supposed execution. He thought of Brandon riding heedlessly to King’s Landing demanding vengeance on Rhaegar for Lyanna, and he feared dreadfully for Robb. He was a boy! Who counseled him into a crown? Where was Catelyn? Surely, she would put Robb’s life before any need for vengeance. Would the boy pay her any heed?

Then had come the news of Renly Baratheon’s death at Bitterbridge. That tale was confused well beyond Ned’s ability to untangle it. The only certainty seemed to be that Robert’s youngest brother had indeed been killed. Who had done the killing was a mystery. When Dak duly reported that one sailor told him the assassin was Lady Catelyn Stark, Ned had choked so violently on his food that the boy had summoned his mother in distress. After reflecting on this particular tale, Ned had dismissed it. Bitterbridge was a long way from Winterfell, and while he knew his wife to be skilled in many things, murder was not among them.

Dak’s latest reports were of the Ironborn raiding in the north. He’d had no details about it, and Ned had bid him find out more. How dare Balon Greyjoy attack the north when Robb had Theon as ward? Did he think that with Ned out of the way, his son was safe? In truth, Ned himself worried about Robb’s ability to use Theon as a hostage. He had grown up following the older boy around Winterfell, admiring him almost as an older brother. What would he do with Theon if Lord Greyjoy was truly attacking his bannermen?

Ned cursed and put his head in his hands. He couldn’t do anything here! He glared down at his scarred leg and wondered if he could do anything anywhere. That line of thought would lead him nowhere, however, so he breathed deeply and resolutely bent down to retrieve his “sword” for more practice.

It was only a rough wooden plank, somewhat narrowed on one end in a crude imitation of a hilt, and his sons would have laughed themselves into fits at the sight of it in his hand. Even Rickon had a little wooden practice sword that put it to shame. But it was all he had, and for that, he owed Dak.

The boy had looked at him as if he had lost his mind when Ned first asked him about procuring such an item. “Milord! A weapon?!? I could never give you such a thing! Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t bring it past Mother and the other two!”

“Not a weapon, Dak,” he replied calmly. “Merely a bit of wood. I have fought with swords for over half my life, and moving with a sword in my hand is as important as walking. I do not intend to be in this room for the rest of my life, and I would prefer not to be a useless cripple once I gain my release.”

“I don’t know that anybody’s going to release you,” the boy muttered. “Nobody even comes to ask about you. Those two downstairs jape that we could just kill you and keep living here getting paid. Nobody’d know the difference.”

That had given Ned pause, but he’d only sat down to make himself eye level with the boy, the way he had done with his own children when he meant to speak with them about something important. “Dak, I know you would never agree to such a dishonorable course of action. You are no sellsword or cutthroat.”

“Oh no, milord! I’d never . . .” the boy began to protest.

“Of course not,” Ned interrupted soothingly. “But you are only one boy, and they are two grown men. You cannot stop them if they choose to harm me, and I cannot defend myself at all in my current state. With a wooden practice blade, I could improve my balance and strength.”

“But it’s not a real weapon, milord. You said so yourself.”

“No, but in a pinch, I suppose I could beat one of them over the head with it while you take out the other man.” Ned spoke very seriously and did not change his expression, but Dak was learning to see things in his eyes, and after a moment the boy broke into a wide grin.

“You don’t think I could do it, but I could! I’d show you!” The boy then became quiet as if considering something. “Milord, if I can get this thing for you, do you give me your word you will never use it to hit Mother or me over the head and try to escape from here?”

Ned sighed. “Dak, I will not lie to you. I cannot stay in this place forever, and if an opportunity arises for me to leave, I will take it. But, you have my word of honor that I will never do any violence to you or your mother---with a wooden sword, a hand, or any other weapon.”

Dak considered for a moment, and then nodded. “Okay, how big is this thing?”

Ned had thought long and hard about weaponry during his hours in the little room and reached the conclusion that a greatsword would simply be far too large and heavy to manage on his leg. Besides, Ice was lost to him, and a more standard blade would likely be easier to come by. He gave the boy rough dimensions, and Dak nodded.

“It’ll have to be the window then.”

“What?” Ned asked, completely lost by this turn in the conversation.

“The window,” Dak repeated. "I’d never get something that big up the stairs. No way to hide it. I can strap it to my back though, and bring it in your window.”

Ned turned to look at the high, narrow windows of his room. They were designed more for light than for looking out, and when standing, he could just look over the bottom sill. They did look large enough for a slender man to slip through perhaps, certainly a skinny boy like Dak, but . .

“Dak, we are on the third floor.”

“So?”

Ned cocked an eyebrow at him. “I wasn’t aware you could fly.”

Dak grinned again. “Oh, I can’t. But I can climb. I climb better than anyone in Pentos. I’ve been on almost every roof around here, and I never fall!”

Ned’s world spun and he no longer saw Dak, but another little boy with bright blue eyes and hair just a shade darker than his mother’s, scrambling up castle walls, leaping through impossibly high branches in the godswood . . .lying broken and still in his bed.

“Milord?” Dak’s voice brought Ned back and he saw the boy regarding him with concern in his eyes.

“You must always be careful, Dak. Even the best climbers may fall.” Or be pushed. “Are you certain you can do this without harming yourself?”

“Never doubt it, milord.”

Dak was true to his word, and Ned had been awakened three nights later by the sound of a boy scooting through his window with the wooden plank tied to his back. “In the dark? You climbed three stories in the dark?" he had asked.

Dak laughed quietly. “Well, I didn’t want to be seen, now did I? There’s handholds everywhere on this building, milord. It’s an easy climb, honest.”

“Truly?” Ned had asked, grasping at that little hope and measuring himself against the size of the window. “An easy climb?”

Dak had understood him instantly. “Easy enough, milord, for a man with two good legs,” he said sadly.

“Ah,” Ned had responded. “Well thank you for bringing me this, Dak. You are a good, brave boy, and I am fortunate to have you as a friend.”

“I am your friend, milord. Even if I can’t let you out. I really do want to help,” the boy said earnestly.

“I know, son. Now, you’d best climb back down, little monkey, before you are missed. And be careful.”

That had been over a moon's turn ago, and Ned had spent almost every moment since working with the wooden “sword.” He only stopped to rest briefly, or to conceal it when he heard people approach the room. He despaired of his slow progress, but he had no choice, so he kept working at it. He now repeated the maneuver that had caused him to fall earlier, and managed to keep his feet. No doubt, he’d have been run through by even the weakest opponent, but at least he hadn’t fallen. He continued to work with the plank until he heard more footsteps ascending toward his door. He then concealed it once again beneath his bed and sat down to greet his visitor.

The guard let Dak into the room with Ned’s evening meal and then turned back down the stairs, bolting the door behind them. Neither guard ever bothered to stay and watch Dak or his mother while they were in Ned’s room anymore. The boy set down the plate of food and a tankard of ale without saying a word.

“Good evening, young Dak,” Ned greeted him. “What news have you from the port?”

“Nothing, milord. I didn’t hear any more today.” Dak would not meet his eyes. “I’ll just leave your food and go. You don’t have to tell me any stories since I didn’t bring you any news.” He turned toward the door as if to call the guard back.

“Dak, stop.” Ned had slipped into what Catelyn referred to as his “lord’s voice” which tended to freeze his children and his men alike. It had the desired effect on Dak, who stood still and turned to face him, although he still kept his eyes down. “What is wrong? And do not tell me it is nothing. I can see you are distressed.”

“I just . . I . . please don’t make me tell you, milord,” he blurted out, and Ned was startled to see he had tears in his eyes.

“Dak, has something happened to you or your mother? What’s amiss, lad?”

“No! I mean, nothing with Mother or me. I just, I can’t . . . .I don’t want to tell you what I heard.” The last was almost a whisper.

Ned studied him for a moment. “So you did hear more news today, after all. You need to tell me, Dak. Undoubtedly, it is bad, I know. There would seem to be little good news from home. I have grown used to it.”

The boy looked at him almost desperately, as if he didn’t know what to say. “Not this!” he finally wailed. “You see, milord, I . . I know who you are and I . .”

“You don’t know who I am, Dak. I have never given you my name. And you probably wouldn’t believe me if I did. Now tell me your news.”

“It’s about the Ironborn attacks on the North,” the boy said quietly, staring directly into Ned’s eyes.

Ned’s heart began to beat faster, and he felt suddenly cold, but he kept his face very still as he asked Dak, “What about them? Do you know for certain there are attacks? Or where they are?”

The boy’s eyes never left Ned’s but he shook his head slowly. “I am sorry, milord. I cannot do this and pretend I don’t know what I’m telling you.” He came and knelt in front of Ned where he sat on the edge of the bed. “You are very good at hiding things, milord. And all of the names and places in the Sunset Kingdoms are just words and stories to me, so at first I didn’t notice. But then I did. Some of the names and places mean a lot more to you. Always you ask more about the North. About the Young Wolf. About that lady you say didn’t kill that king’s brother. You care more when I talk about them. And Winterfell. You always want to know things about that place, even though it seems far from the battles.” He looked down and was silent for a moment, as if he didn’t know what to say next.

Ned put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You are an observant young man, Dak. So you have discerned I am a northman. I’ll not deny it. Please tell me what you learned today. I need to know.”

Ned could feel Dak actually trembling. Then the boy looked up suddenly and grabbed Ned’s hand, holding it between his. “You are more than just a northman, my lord,” he said fiercely. “I asked Donnell about it. Donnell is a man I met at the docks. He asks as many questions about the Westerosi war as I do, because he’s from there. He’s from the north, and I . .. I started talking to him to understand the tales better, so I could tell you better . .and . . .he told me he saw the man once. The Lord of Winterfell.”

The title hung in the silence between them for a moment until Ned asked quietly, “and what did this man tell you of the Lord of Winterfell?”

Dak continued to look straight at him and swallowed hard before speaking. “He said he had dark hair and eyes gray like a winter sky. That his face was cold and hard, but he was always just and good and . . and . . I . . I just knew and . . . and, oh, milord, I don’t know how to tell you!” The boy was quite literally crying now, and Ned felt an icy hand close around his heart at the sight.

“Dak,” he whispered. “Please. Please, I must know what has happened. Tell me.”

“It’s Winterfell, my lord. A man called Theon Greyjoy attacked it and took it.”

“Winterfell has fallen to the Greyjoys? To Theon??” Ned jumped to his feet and paced like a caged animal, any pain in his leg forgotten in his distress. “Gods, Dak! How can that be possible??”

The boy remained on his knees looking up at him. “That’s not all, milord. The princes . . the two little brothers of the Young Wolf . . .they . .”

Ned’s heart stopped. He grabbed the boy by the shoulders. “What, Dak? They what? Tell me about Bran and Rickon!!” All pretense was gone now. He desperately needed to hear his sons were safe.

Dak’s tearstained face was white as he responded. “He killed them, milord. They’re dead.”

Ned’s howl of rage was that of a wounded wild animal. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. He threw himself against the door of the room and beat upon it with his fists as if he could break it down and reach through it to strangle Theon Greyjoy. He was vaguely aware that Dak was crying out, “Milord, please!” over and over, but it had no meaning to him. Nothing had meaning. Bran! Rickon! Oh gods, no!

Suddenly, the door opened, and he literally fell into both guards. He swung wildly at them with his fists and knocked one of them down several steps. Then his head exploded into darkness and he knew no more.

 

Ned awoke to a pounding skull and an aching sense of loss. At first, the pain in his head drove out all thought or memory, but then Dak’s words echoed through his head and knifed through his heart with a force that shattered him. He lay on his bed and struggled to comprehend anything. He must have made some sound because suddenly Dak was beside him.

“Milord?” the boy whispered. “Are you awake?”

“I am.” His voice sounded flat and distant. “What hit my head, Dak, and how long have I slept?”

“The wall, milord. Ullor slammed your head into it after you knocked Eril down the steps. You’ve been asleep for almost two days. I feared you wouldn’t wake.”

“Where are the guards?”

“Downstairs. I’m to call them when you wake. They think you’ve gone mad. I couldn’t tell them about . . .you know.” Dak hung his head and looked miserable.

“My sons. You couldn’t tell them my sons are dead.” Ned made himself say the words. It sounded cold and wrong. “You are certain of this, Dak? There is no mistake?” He tried not to put hope into the questions. He thought of his father, his brother and sister. Hope was cruel. It would not help him.

“Yes, milord. I am sorry. Donnel has people who write him. His brother’s a knight in service to some northern house, and he’s got other friends, too. They all send him letters. So it’s not just a sailor’s tale.” Dak hesitated a moment. “Milord, was one of them the boy like me? The one who likes stories?”

Ned’s heart clenched and he felt the desire to weep for his sons, but knew he would not. He held his grief inside, cold and hard. “Bran,” he said. “My son Bran was forever pestering Old Nan for a story.” He pushed images of Bran and Rickon away and tried to sit up. The room swam before his eyes.

“Easy, milord. It was a nasty blow you took. Lie back and let me get you some water.”

“I thought you were to call the guards.”

Dak shrugged. “Only if you wake. I say you’re not awake. I’d like to get you more steady before they have to come in.”

“You are a good boy, Dak. You will be a man your mother can take pride in.”

“My mother says she is always proud of me,” Dak said with a smile.

I am always proud of Bran. He heard Catelyn’s voice, speaking those words that day in the godswood. That day when their world had changed with the news of Jon Arryn’s death. The thought of Catelyn gave rise to a new fear.

“Dak, what word of the Lady Catelyn? Was she . . .” He couldn’t bring himself to ask the question. But she would never have allowed Theon to take their boys without a fight. He remembered the deep cuts in her palms. No, Catelyn would not have meekly surrendered up her sons.

“There was nothing about your lady, milord. Nothing at all. Maybe Donnell knows more about her. I can ask him.”

Oh gods, Cat. Be safe. With a pang, he realized that if she were safe, she was suffering this unbearable loss as well. He should be with her. He had to get out of here. He couldn’t lie on a bed in Pentos grieving Bran and Rickon. He had Cat, Robb, Sansa, and Arya to think about. His lands had been invaded. He had to go home.

“Tell me more about your Donnell, Dak. I think I need to meet him.”

“Milord, I cannot get you out of here, you know that! I would if I could. I promise you, I would.”

“I know that, son,” Ned said softly. “But how big is this Donnell? Could you perhaps get him here?” He looked meaningfully up at the windows. “Does he have two good legs?”

Dak’s eyes got big as he contemplated the prospect. “I think he could do it, yes. But what can I tell him to get him to come? He won’t believe me if I tell him a dead man wants to see him.”

“No, but perhaps I can speak for myself. Can you get me quill and paper, Dak?”

“Yes, milord. I can do that for sure. That’ll be easy.”

“Good. You do that.” Ned’s head was throbbing and his eyelids felt heavy. “I think, perhaps, I should go back to sleeping for a bit. I quite agree with you that I need to be more steady for what’s to come.”

 

The next day, Ned awoke to find Dak, Alina, and both guards in his room. The guards both wore swords and were quick to put their hands to their hilts when Ned moved.

Alina fell to her knees by his bedside and began apologizing repeatedly in Valyrian. She was speaking so quickly, it took Ned a bit to realize what she was saying. He looked to Dak in confusion.

“Just tell her it’s all right, milord. Tell her in Valyrian. I’ll explain later,” the boy said quickly.

Puzzled, Ned complied, assuring the woman that all was well and she was forgiven. She smiled broadly and thanked him sincerely. She then turned to the guards and told them she was quite certain he would be all right now. At least that’s what he thought she said. It made no sense to him, and he wondered if he had misunderstood her speech. Then he caught her look at Dak with some sort of question in her eyes, and observed Dak give her a small quick nod. Alina retrieved a bowl of warm water and some cloths from the table and began to clean the back of Ned’s head. He realized he had dried blood in his hair.

He watched the guards carefully, and saw them relax as he showed no sign of violence. As Alina worked slowly with her cloths, they began to fidget. Dak noted this as well, and told them he’d stay with his mother if they wanted to go downstairs. They hesitated a moment, but then shrugged and turned to go, reminding Dak they had to bolt the door, but that they would return at once if needed.

When they had gone, Ned looked at Dak. “What on earth is this all about?”

“Well, milord,” Dak hesitated. “I knew I had to tell them you woke up. They planned to tie you down. Like a mad dog, they said. I didn’t know what else to do, so I . . I told Mother.”

Ned looked at Alina, who was regarding him with a sad expression. “Told your mother what?”

“The truth,” Dak said simply. “Who you are, what I’ve been doing, what happened to you . . and your sons.”

“Oh.” Ned didn’t know what else to say.

“She was very angry at first, milord. At both of us.” Dak looked at his mother guiltily.

Alina frowned at him, and Ned felt that she certainly got the sense of what her son was saying even if she didn’t understand the words. She then gave Ned the same frown, but when he tried to speak, she shook her head and waved her hands in front of her. “It is all right,” she told him slowly. “I understand you are a man with no choice. You must leave here whether the fat man wishes it or not. We will not stop you.”

“It was Mother’s idea,” Dak burst in, speaking again in Westerosi. “She told the guards she made a mistake with your milk of poppy--put too much in your drink and it must have given you a nightmare. Milk of the poppy can do strange things to people, you know.”

Now the little scene played out in front of the guards made sense. “Madam, I shall forever be in debt to you and your son.”

She smiled at him. Reaching into the folds of her skirt she produced paper and a quill, and from inside the tankard which normally contained ale, she pulled a small inkpot. “Write your message. Dak will take it.”

 

After another four days and a number of messages back and forth, Ned Stark found himself helping a young man by the name of Donnell Boden through the window of his room in the dark of night. Donnell’s brother, it seemed, was a hedge knight sworn to the service of Lord Cerwyn, one of Ned’s bannermen. As House Cerwyn was not far from Winterfell, the Boden brothers had occasion to visit there in the company of Lord Cerwyn’s men. Although Donnell had left home to explore the wonders of Essos before King Robert had ever made his fateful visit to Winterfell, he had remained in contact with his brother and several others as well as he could.

Now, Donnell stood staring at Ned as if at a ghost. After a moment, he fell to his knees. “My lord! I did not truly dare to believe it. The gods are good indeed!”

Ned helped him rise. “I thank you for your service, Donnell. Have you brought all that we need?”

“Yes, my lord.” He untied a bundle from around his waist containing clothes and cloak fit for traveling as well as a pair of serviceable boots.

“And this, milord” Ned looked toward Dak, who had scrambled in the window behind Donnell, and saw the boy holding up a sword. “This one will suit you better than that wooden one, I think.”

Ned took it from him and tested the weight. It felt good to have a sword in his hand. “Yes, Dak, it suits me just fine.” Turning to Donnell, he asked, “You have arranged passage to White Harbor?”

“Yes, my lord. I will accompany you along with one other man. He is a Braavosi, but he has been with me for over a year, and I trust him with my life. He’s an excellent swordsman and we may have need of him.”

Ned nodded. He had to take help where he could get it. He started shrugging off the clothes he’d worn so long in this little room, and Dak handed him the new clothes a piece at a time as he dressed. “You’ve sent word to Lord Manderly?” he asked Donnell.

“I sent a message on a ship that left two days ago that Vikor’s Daughter would be arriving in White Harbor with important cargo. I didn’t dare be too specific. You did have the boy tell me you wished to stay dead until you knew more about the present situation in the Seven Kingdoms. Is that correct?”

“Yes. I hardly wish to be arrested the moment I step off a ship. I would like to find Robb and my wife before making any other moves.” Now that he was dressed, Ned was anxious to get on with it, but he raised his head from pulling on his boots to see both Donnell and Dak looking rather pale. “What is it? I know my leg isn’t very pretty, but it works far better than I’d hoped. I’ll manage just fine.”

“Yes, milord. Of course you will,” said Dak quietly.

“Your mother is gone, lad?” Ned asked him.

“Yes, she is waiting for me at an inn. We’ll be leaving Pentos tonight, too, milord.”

Ned frowned. “Dak, I am sorry that I brought trouble to you and your mother.”

“You didn’t, milord. We did that ourselves when we went to work for the fat man. He’s trouble, and we knew it. But we’ll be okay. We have places to go. Don’t you worry.”

“I won’t worry, Dak. I’d ask you again to come with us, but I know you won’t leave your mother.” Ned smiled at the boy he’d grown so fond of. “I hope things can soon be set aright in the Seven Kingdoms, and when that day comes, perhaps you can bring her to Winterfell. I know my lady wife will want to meet both of you after all you’ve done for me.”

Dak’s eyes filled with tears. "Y ..yes, milord. I would like that.”

Ned hadn’t expected the boy to cry. He seemed to be getting more distraught by the minute. “Is something wrong, Dak?”

“No!” he cried, a little too loudly, and Ned shushed him quickly, then looked at him carefully. “Dak, are you sure that . . .”

“Lord Stark,” Donnell interrupted. “We haven’t much time. We need to dispatch the guards and be on our way. The boy should leave first.” He looked at Dak rather more sternly than Ned thought necessary, but Dak nodded.

“Donnell’s right, milord. We all need to go. I . . . I hope you find your daughters, milord.” With that, the boy turned and almost vaulted out the window.

“My lord,” Donnell said, as Ned stared after Dak, “when you call for someone, will both guards come, or one?”

“Usually just the one, but we had better be prepared for both.”

Donnell nodded and moved to stand just beside the door, a dagger in his hand.

Ned called for Alina, and continued calling until he heard heavy footsteps and Valyrian swearing. The bolt was raised and the door opened. Ullor stepped into the room and his eyes widened at the site of Ned’s clothing. Before he could do anything else, Donnell had slipped behind him and pulled the dagger across his throat. Ned felt a pang of regret for the man, but they couldn’t leave either guard alive and hope to escape without pursuit.

“I’ll go downstairs and get the other one,” said Donnell. As much as Ned hated it, he had to let Donnell go. He wasn’t sure he could even manage the stairs, much less sneak up on a man and kill him. Damn the leg!

There was no sound of struggle from below, but after several moments, Donnell called up. “Come on!”

The trip down the stairs was slower than Ned would have liked, but he did it without assistance and without much pain. Once out in the street, he found he could keep a pretty good pace, with only a slight limp, but the leg did begin to hurt after a time. Fortunately, Donnell’s Braavosi friend was waiting only a few streets away with horses.

Ned had always been a good horseman, and he found that while the leg did hamper him, he could control the horse well enough. He had to use the reins more than he liked, but his spirits were soaring as he followed two near strangers through the streets of an unfamiliar city toward a ship he knew nothing about. He almost laughed at the absurdity of it. He’d have followed a devil if needed. Whatever evils awaited in White Harbor mattered little. He was going home.

The sun was almost up when they reached the ship. Ned hung back as Donnell spoke to someone on board, and then followed him to a small cabin.

“You should sleep, my lord. It’s been a long night. We will cast off with the morning tide.” Donnell turned and left the cabin without another word.

Ned lay down and tried to sleep, eventually dozing fitfully for a few brief hours. When Donnell returned, the ship was underway. Ned stood to greet him. “I think I shall go up on deck, Donnell. Will you join me?”

“Yes, my lord. There are things we must speak of.” The man sounded grave.

“What things, Donnell? Have you had more news?”

“Let’s go up on deck, my lord.” Donnell turned and left the cabin, so Ned followed him.

Donnell walked to the rail of the ship and stood looking out at Pentos disappearing off the stern. Ned stood by him. “You have had more news, haven’t you Donnell?”

Donnell lowered his head. “Forgive me, my lord, for not telling you right away. Dak and I only heard last night, and I needed to get you out of Pentos. There is grave news from home. A grievous crime beyond comprehension.” Donnell swallowed and seemed to have trouble continuing.

“The Lannisters?” Ned asked. A hard lump formed in his throat. “My daughter?”

“No,” Donnell shook his head. “This occurred at the Twins. Apparently, Lord Tully married one of Walder Frey’s daughters.”

“Old Hoster? My Lady Catelyn’s father?”

“No. Old Lord Tully has died. It was Lord Edmure’s wedding.”

“My poor Cat. Yet another loss to suffer.” Ned spoke almost to himself, but Donnell heard him.

“Gods!” the man spat. “How am I to say this?”

Donnell’s expression was tortured and he kept his eyes on the sea. Ned felt the same ice in his veins as he had when Dak had struggled to tell him about his boys. “What happened at this wedding, Donnell?” he asked quietly.

“My lord, it would seem the Freys had some grievance against King Robb. At the feast, they set upon the guests after sharing food and drink with them.” Donnell shook his head in disbelief that such a thing could be done. “They murdered many good people, including the king . . . ”

“Robb . . . No . .” Ned’s voice was a disbelieving whisper.

“and your lady wife,” Donnell continued.

“Cat? Robb and Catelyn both? No. No, no, no.” Ned shook his head, denying the man’s words. He backed away from him. “I will not have it. No.” A great pressure was building in his chest. “No. No!” He turned and fled from Donnell toward the prow of the ship, but he was trapped on this godforsaken floating tub. He had nowhere to go.

He stood in the prow of the ship, gripping the rails so that his knuckles turned white, taking great heaving breaths. He let out one long howling scream, and the sound reminded him of Bran’s direwolf. The beast had howled incessantly after Bran’s fall. Robert had complained about the racket it made. “You’d think the beast was wounded himself,” he’d blustered. He was, Robert. Oh gods, he was. And this wound will not heal.

Ned’s life suddenly seemed one cruel circle. Almost seventeen years ago he had ridden to war-- hoping to avenge his father and brother and rescue his sister. Now it seemed he must ride to war again--now he had Cat and their sons to avenge, and his daughters to rescue. He had failed his sister. Would he fail his daughters, too? Oh gods, Cat! I cannot do this! I fear I cannot do this! Help me!

He remembered the first time he’d seen Robb. Catelyn had ridden into Winterfell carrying their babe to meet him after the war. They’d barely known each other, but she’d held Robb up to him and his heart almost burst when he beheld that tiny face with its fuzz of red hair and thought, Mine. My son. And he’d looked at Catelyn, her cheeks flushed and her long hair coming out of her braid after riding all day, her blue eyes full of hope and pride in her child, and he’d thought, This beautiful woman has given me a son. He couldn’t even dream then of how much she would give him through the years that followed. Gods, how I’ve loved you, Cat! Do you know how I’ve loved you?

And now the woman and the babe were gone. Taken from him. Taken as Bran and Rickon had been. Ned had long been a soldier, and his body bore its share of scars, but only now did he feel wounded. He felt as if his life’s blood was spilling from his heart, and nothing could stop it. He shook with fury and grief until he fell to his knees. And on the deck of the ship that carried him toward home, Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, wept.

Chapter Text

A cold wind blew up from the sea as the small group of men made their way through the streets of White Harbor. Ned kept his head down with the large hood of his black cloak pulled well over his face, but he looked about enough to see that Lord Manderly had indeed fortified his defenses. Catelyn must have gotten that message to him. Cat. Just the thought of her name was a knife through his heart. He forced his mind back to the man in front of him and wondered precisely how things stood in White Harbor.

Robett Glover had recognized him immediately when he came to meet the ship, and for a moment Ned thought the man would faint. He literally staggered backwards into one of the two men at arms accompanying him, before recovering enough to fall to his knees and stammer out, “My . . My lord . .” Whatever the man had expected to find on this ship, it was not his dead liege lord returned from the grave with his head still attached to his shoulders.

Recovering from his shock, Glover had remarkably asked no questions, but neither had he offered any answers. He simply bid Ned and Donnell to come with him and asked Ned to put up his hood. The Glovers had ever been loyal bannermen, so Ned followed him without hesitation, but as they walked on in silence, he began to have doubts.

“Robett, stop,” he said, stopping himself. “I would know where you are taking us before we go further.”

Glover turned to face him and paused at the expression he met on Ned’s face. On the ship, Donnell had told him several of the crew were frightened of him as his face seemed harder and more carved in ice each passing day. So be it. Ned could name a good many men who should be very frightened of him.

“My lord,” Glover said quietly and hesitantly. “We dare not speak here. We must get to the Wolf’s Den.”

“The Wolf’s Den? Does Lord Manderly intend to make me prisoner?”

“No! No, my lord.” Glover drew as close to Ned as he dared, and spoke in a whisper. “White Harbor is not a safe place. You must not be seen. And I must not be seen at the New Castle. There is much and more to say, but not here. Please. Come.”

Knowing he had no real option, Ned nodded, and the group continued onward. Ned’s leg throbbed by the time they reached the walls of the Wolf’s Den. Glover led them down a crumbling stair behind a grove of trees to a door not visible from above. Once they had passed inside, he seemed to relax slightly.

“My lord,” he said, turning to Ned, “It is good beyond all hope to see you alive once more. Lord Wyman will be overjoyed. But . . How? How can you have escaped? They said you were executed.”

“Yes, Robett,” Ned sighed. “I was to be executed, but was stolen from the Black Cells and held prisoner in Pentos. I believe the Lannisters think me dead. Their execution was a sham, but they were made to think I had died in my cell. As to the identity of my rescuer or his purpose, I couldn’t say. I have been kept in a locked room, seeing only the guards, a serving woman, and her son, until I escaped with Donnell’s assistance.”

Glover looked at Donnell. “The North owes you a debt of gratitude, sir.” Then he looked at Ned and dropped his eyes. “Have you . . .have you heard any news during your captivity, my lord?”

“I have heard of the deaths of my wife and sons,” the words came out hard and cold.

“I am very sorry, my lord. King Robb was a fine, brave young man, and the Lady Catelyn as lovely and gracious a lady as could be found,” Glover’s sympathy sounded sincere.

“I thank you,” Ned said gruffly, not wishing to speak further of his dead family. “Now, where do we find Lord Manderly, that we might make him overjoyed?”

“Oh, come this way, please, my lord. There are passages that connect the Wolf’s Den with the New Castle so old and twisted, that almost none know of them. It is how I meet with Lord Manderly.”

As they walked, Glover filled them in on the status of the Ironmen in the North, who, in addition to Winterfell, had taken Moat Cailin, Torrhen’s Square, and Deepwood Motte. The last concerned Glover most as it was the seat of his brother, Galbart. Galbart had been with Robb just prior to the Red Wedding (Ned shuddered when he heard the name given to the murders of his wife and son), but did not seem to have been at the wedding itself, and Robett was not entirely certain of his whereabouts.

“My wife and child are at Deepwood Motte, though, held by that Greyjoy girl. Publicly, I am here seeking men to march with me and take the castle back, and Lord Manderly is refusing to see me.”

“What?” Ned was shocked at that.

“Publicly,” Glover repeated. “I told you White Harbor is not safe. There are Lannister spies everywhere and soon to be Freys as well.” Glover spat at the name Frey. “Here we are,” he said as they crested a last staircase and entered a door into a room which obviously was not part of the crumbling old Wolf’s Den. The floor was carpeted and a sheepskin map of the north hung on the wall. One of the men at arms accompanying them set to lighting beeswax candles while another left by a separate door.

He returned a few moments later with the enormously fat Lord of White Harbor. As Wyman Manderly entered the room, Ned lowered his hood. “Lord Manderly,” he said. “I am grateful for your hospitality.”

The fat man sputtered and swayed, and his eyes seemed to bulge out of his head. Finally he gasped, “Lord Stark, can it truly be you?”

“Yes, my lord,” Ned said firmly, and he gave another brief accounting of his non-execution. “ I am here to ask your assistance in putting wrongs to right.”

“Yes . . .yes,” Manderly seemed to be catching his breath. “Many wrongs. Do you know of what occurred at the Twins, my lord?”

“I do,” said Ned coldly. “And I mean to see that Walder Frey pays dearly for the blood he shed there.”

Manderly nodded thoughtfully. “Please, my lord. Let’s sit. Robett, this is quite a surprise. I thought you were bringing me Stannis’s man.”

“As did I,” Glover began. “The message we received was . . .”

“Stannis’s man?” Ned interrupted. “What man? Where is Stannis now? I’ve heard nothing of him since Renly’s death and the siege at Storm’s End!”

Manderly sighed loudly. “Stannis is at the Wall. Apparently, he has aided the Night’s Watch in turning back an invasion of wildlings. He now seeks the aid of Northern lords in his claim to the Iron Throne.”

“They should give it. Stannis has the rightful claim. The boy Joffrey is a bastard born of incest and no son of Robert’s,” Ned stated flatly.

“The boy Joffrey is dead,” Manderly replied. “His brother Tommen sits upon the Iron Throne now, and things are not as clear as you would have them, my lord.”

“Joffrey’s dead? But when? How?” Ned struggled to make sense of it. “What of my daughter?”

“She is being brought north to wed Bolton’s bastard and give him the claim to Winterfell.”

“Ramsay Snow? By gods, Tywin Lannister will pay for even considering giving Sansa to that foul creature!” Ned stood and pounded his fist on the table.

“Lord Stark, please,” Lord Manderly said softly. “You need to hear it all. It is the Lady Arya being given to Bolton--Bolton now, not Snow--the crown legitimized him. Lady Sansa has already been wed--to the Imp, Tyrion Lannister.”

Ned felt sick and he allowed himself to sink back into his chair. “My gods,” he said softly, shaking his head. “Is Sansa safe at least? Is she well?”

“I do not know, Lord Stark. I told you Joffrey Baratheon is dead. He was apparently poisoned at his own wedding and the Imp and Lady Sansa were accused. He was imprisoned, but she disappeared that night, seemingly fled. No one knows where she went.”

“So both my girls are missing,” Ned said quietly. Looking up at Manderly, he added more firmly, “The Lannisters do not have Arya, Lord Wyman. She fled the day of my arrest and the Lannisters were unable to find her.”

“That may be, my lord. But whether they have found your daughter or made you up a new one, a girl called Arya Stark is coming north up the King’s Road with Roose Bolton’s men as we speak.”

“Then we must ride out to meet them,” Ned declared.

“That, my lord, we cannot do,” replied Manderly.

Ned stared at him. Manderly just shook his head slowly. “You were not the only man to lose a son at that bloody wedding, Lord Stark. My Wendel died there as well as your Robb. The Lannisters hold my son and heir, Wylis, prisoner at Harrenhal. I want vengeance as much as you do, my lord. But first I must have my son back alive. To do that, I must convince the Lannisters of my loyalty to them, and there are Lannister spies throughout my city already. Any day now, I expect a party of Freys--bringing the bones of my son. I shall eat and drink with them, and offer them my two granddaughters in marriage, all as a token of the new friendship between our houses.”

“Friendship” Ned echoed, a cold fury building within him.

“I shall mean none of it, of course. Deceit, deception, and betrayal are the best weapons for dealing with liars, and I shall wield them as sharply as I can.”

“I cannot pretend friendship with any Frey or Lannister,” Ned spat out.

“Of course not. And you would never be believed if you tried, my lord. You are a far more honorable man than I, Lord Stark, so you must depend upon me to play this particular game. I am your man. The Manderlys will never forget what the Starks have done for them, but I must play out this farce for the sake of my son. Perhaps for the sake of us all. My lord . . .” Manderly hesitated, as if unsure he should continue.

“Go on, Lord Manderly. I would hear all you have to say.”

“As regards events in Winterfell . .”

“I know Theon Greyjoy took my castle and murdered my sons,” Ned said harshly.

“Ah, yes, that. Greyjoy indeed took the castle and killed the boys, but he did not burn it.”

“Burned? Winterfell is burned?”

“Oh, you had not heard. Yes. The story is Greyjoy put it to the torch when he was under attack by your castellan and about to lose to him.”

“Gods!” Ned exclaimed.

“That is not, however, what happened. I have very good information that Greyjoy was about to surrender the castle, when Ramsay Snow, now made Bolton, set upon your castellan’s forces, killing all the men, torching the castle, and removing some women and children to the Dreadfort.”

“And Roose has stood by and allowed this!” Ned’s head was pounding with fury.

“No, I believe Roose engineered it. The bastard is brutal, but not terribly cunning. The Boltons and Freys are much together now, my lord, and both doing Lord Tywin’s bidding and swearing loyalty to the Lannister boy on the iron throne.”

“Damn Roose Bolton! And damn Tywin Lannister! Damn him to every hell!” Ned was on his feet again pacing and cursing.

“Well, my lord, the second at least has been accomplished, it would seem. The latest word from King’s Landing is that Lord Tywin is dead. Murdered by his dwarf son who somehow escaped the Black Cells.” Manderly looked meaningfully at Ned. “It would seem those cells are not terribly secure.”

Varys? Ned wondered. Why would Varys want Tywin Lannister dead?

“In any event,” Manderly continued, “it would not do to have you here when my friends of Frey arrive, my lord. Where do you plan to go? I would assist you in whatever fashion I am able. Please do not ask me for an army. Not now.”

Where do I intend to go? Ned pondered the question a moment. “Moat Cailin is presently held by the Ironmen?”

“Yes, my lord. Roose Bolton and his Freys will march toward it from the south once they have their Lady Arya, and the bastard will join the attack from the north. I imagine they’ll take it, but until then, the Ironmen have the North closed.”

“They have Moat Cailin closed at any rate. Could you lend me a ship, my lord? For a short voyage, only.”

“Certainly, I could arrange that. How large a ship would you need?”

Ned looked at him evenly. “That depends, my lord. On how many men and horses you are willing to give me.” Manderly started to protest. “I do not ask for an army, Wyman. I only ask if you have any men and horses you could give me.”

“I do,” Glover spoke up. “I have about two hundred men I could call to your service. I’m short on horses, though.” Glover directed the last at Manderly.

Manderly looked at Glover. “I have a good number of horses, I could spare, I suppose.” He turned to Ned, “but where are we shipping them?”

“Only just down the Bite,” Ned replied. “To a hidden landing I happen to know which belongs to Greywater Watch.”

“Your crannogmen,” Manderly said. “You think they will give you aid?”

“Howland Reed has ever been a good friend. I believe I can count on him. And Robett’s men on your horses will be most useful as well.”

“Well, I can’t give you horses for all two hundred! But I believe we can provide transportation for fifty horses to this landing of yours. There will be more here waiting for you, if you find a way to get through over land.”

“I thank you, Lord Wyman.”

“Robett, if you could see about preparations, I believe the sooner we send Lord Stark on his way, the better.” Turning to Ned, he added, “Perhaps you could send your man with him to lend a hand.”

Clearly, Manderly wanted to speak to him alone. “Go on, Donnell,” he said quietly. Once Glover, Donnell, and the other two men had left through the door leading back to the Wolf’s Den, he turned to Lord Manderly. “You have something else to say, my lord?”

“There are two things, Lord Stark. I told you I had reliable information about the events at Winterfell. In fact, I have a boy, an Ironborn boy who was there. He is a mute, but he is not stupid. Even now, I have a man teaching him his letters. He has managed to convey much of what happened with yes and no and crude drawings, but I hope to learn even more from him. I believe there are many things which may not be as they seem.” The Lord of White Harbor looked pensive. “I would not say more to you on this. You have been too long with only rumor and conjecture to guide your course. Know that should I find anything that could help you, I will get word to you.”

Ned nodded. “I thank you, Lord Manderly. Be it burned to the ground or not, I will return to Winterfell--Boltons, Freys, and Lannisters be damned.” He waited for Lord Manderly to continue, but the man remained silent and shifted uncomfortably in his overlarge seat. “And the second thing, my lord?” Ned asked.

“Well, I . . .I am most sorry for your losses, my lord,” Manderly stammered. “Your sons and your lady wife. I grieve sorely for my Wendel and I know nothing can replace a son.”

“True,” Ned said briefly, wondering where this was going.

“And I know you had a genuine affection for the Lady Catelyn,” Manderly continued.

A genuine affection. Ned repeated the phrase in his mind and felt that knife in his heart again as he contemplated its complete inadequacy for describing even a fraction of what he felt for Catelyn. He looked at Lord Manderly and said nothing.

Manderly shifted again in his seat, sighed deeply, and plunged ahead. “And I do not wish to intrude on your grief, but my lord, with your sons dead and your daughters missing, the North is at the mercy of any number of foul men while you have no heir.”

Ned blinked at him. “Heir?”

“Yes, an heir, my lord. Surely you must see that you must marry again, and quickly. A young wife to bear a legitimate heir to Winterfell that no one could contest. My granddaughters . . .”

“Are promised to Freys,” Ned interrupted cooly.

“Yes, well, I don’t intend those weddings actually to take place! My Wynafryd must remain here to play the willing bride for her Frey intended, but my younger granddaughter, Wylla, knows nothing of my plots. She is quite vocal in her resistance to wedding a Frey. It would be easily believed she had run away. I could devise some other . . .”

“You are offering me your granddaughter? To take away with me?” Ned couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing.

“Of course. The sooner she’s wedded and bedded, the sooner you have an heir. She’s a brave, spirited girl, and quite lovely. She’ll be five and ten on her next name day.”

“Five and ten!” Ned shook his head in disbelief. “She’s younger than Robb! Barely older than Sansa!”

“Well, Wynafryd is eight and ten. You would have to wait for her, my lord, but once this mummer’s farce is played out I will free her from that Frey betrothal.” Manderly looked at Ned closely, and some of his shocked horror must have been visible on his normally frozen face because Manderly sighed again. “My lord,” he said more quietly. “I know it is a shocking thing to speak of when your loss is so new, and I do not suggest my granddaughters could easily replace the Lady Catelyn . .”

“No one can replace the Lady Catelyn,” Ned said simply.

Manderly nodded and continued, “But these are troubled times, Lord Stark. The North is in turmoil. Clear succession to Winterfell is greatly to be desired.”

Now it was Ned’s turn to sigh. “There is truth in your words, my lord, I know. I am honored by your proposal, Lord Wyman, and I am certain I could find no better maidens in all the North than your granddaughters. Yet, I must be truthful. I cannot wed another woman while my heart is filled only with the desire to take vengeance on those who murdered my wife and sons. I cannot take another woman into my bed while Catelyn lies uneasy in her grave because her children have no justice.”

Manderly looked at Ned for a long moment. “Then we will speak again after we have all played our parts here, my lord. Now, let us get you ready for your journey.”

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Catelyn Stark absentmindedly brushed her long hair and wound it into a single braid down her back. She never bothered with styling it anymore. On the rare occasions that Lord Walder insisted on parading her down to the hall for some farce at which he could gloat over his sons’ and grandsons’ exploits with her, Roslin would do it up and put her in one of her better dresses. Catelyn had objected initially, but none of this was Roslin’s fault, and the poor girl was only doing as she was bid. So now she simply sat still as stone and let Roslin do whatever she found needful. It mattered little to her.

The loss of the stone door prop mattered more. She had thought long and hard about ways to conceal it in her dress for one of those visits to the hall. She had imagined all the ways she might get close enough to Lord Walder to smash him in the head with it. It was possible to kill with a blow to the head. A blade would be better, but she hadn’t a blade. So she had prayed fervently for the opportunity and strength to smash his skull. She would like to smash all their skulls, and it would be so easy when the various Freys were rutting and pawing at her, but she knew one Frey death would lead to her own. She had to make it count. She wanted it to be Lord Walder.

But the old man had seen it somehow. He had seen it in her eyes. Damn her eyes. If only she could hide her thoughts as easily as Ned always did. She never smiled or cried or laughed or yelled. She barely spoke, other than to Roslin and occasionally Olyvar. But the hatred shone in her eyes. Roslin had told her so when the men came to search her room and take anything that might conceivably be used as a weapon. She told her the old man had stared after her long after he’d sent her from the hall with two of his wretched grandsons that night, and then ordered the search and seizure proclaiming that any wolf bitch who hated that deeply needed to be declawed.

So, she had lost her stone. She would simply find another way. Killing Walder Frey had become more than an obsession. It was her sole reason for existence.

A soft tap on the door of her room signaled Roslin’s arrival. She alone knocked so softly and politely, actually waiting for permission to enter. “Come in, Roslin,” she called, putting down her brush and facing the door.

Roslin Frey Tully looked deathly pale when she entered, and her eyes were ringed with red. Catelyn felt a small jolt of concern for the girl, an emotion which she found unfamiliar these days. “What has happened, Roslin? You look dreadful.”

The girl literally threw herself at Catelyn’s feet and began weeping, and Catelyn was reminded painfully of her behavior at that unholy wedding. “Tell me, child. What’s wrong?” It was something she might have said to one of her girls when they cried, and it startled her. She had forgotten her voice could sound like that.

“Oh, my lady! I . . I have missed my moonblood! I thought perhaps I was only late. I am sometimes, but it has been much too long now! What shall I do?” she pleaded.

Catelyn gave her a tiny, tight smile. “You shall have a child, Roslin. There is nothing else to do now.”

“But they will kill him!!” the girl wailed.

Catelyn knew the girl didn’t mean her child. She spoke of Edmure. For a woman who had spent only one tearful bedding with her husband, Roslin was surprisingly devoted to the captive Lord of Riverrun. That touched Catelyn in some way that very few things could anymore, and she wished she could offer the girl comfort.

“Edmure is a dead man, already, Roslin. Surely you know that,” she said softly. “You told me yourself they have moved him to Riverrun in an effort to sway my uncle. It will not work. Eventually, they will be forced to kill my brother or admit their threats are empty.”

Roslin cried harder.

Catelyn thought a moment. “Roslin, have you told anyone else about this child yet?”

The girl shook her head.

“I think you should tell your father.”

That shocked the girl out of crying. She looked at Catelyn with wide eyes. “But, my lady!”

“No, listen to me. I have come to understand more about the way that twisted old man thinks. If he can hurt Edmure by telling him he is to have a child he will never see, he will take pleasure in that. He would consider it further justice for ninety odd years of perceived insults from the Tullys. You might just prolong Edmure’s life for the duration of your pregnancy. Now, if you have a boy, there will certainly be no advantage for old Walder in keeping Edmure alive. You say that the Lannisters have made Emmon Frey Lord of Riverrun, but the river lords will never love him or his Lannister wife no matter how many times they are forced to bend the knee. Old Walder knows that. A Tully lord raised a Frey may suit him better, but he’d need to kill Edmure before the child is old enough to know him. If you have a girl . . . Well, mayhaps the old man might pause to consider the advantages a male infant of Edmure’s could provide and keep him alive to give you one.”

The girl listened attentively. “Do you really think so, my lady?“

While Catelyn did think her line of reasoning concerning Lord Walder was sound, she also knew there were many other Freys, Emmon Frey chief among them, who would want Edmure and any of his progeny dead at the earliest possible opportunity. But she didn’t think she needed to share that with Roslin. “Yes, child, I do. In any event, you cannot hide this forever. And I know my brother. Even if it causes him pain, if he is to die, he would wish to know he has a child first. The sooner you tell your father, the sooner Edmure will know.”

Roslin actually smiled at her through her tears at that. “You truly think my lord would be happy to hear I carry his child?” she asked in a small voice.

“Yes, Roslin, I do,” Catelyn said softly, smoothing the girl’s hair back from her face. “Now, are you here with orders to do something to me, or did you just come to share your news?”

“I only came to speak with you. I . .I had no one else to go to, my lady.”

In spite of herself, Catelyn felt another pang of sympathy for this girl whose only confidante in a house filled with relatives was her father’s prisoner. “Go then. Tell your father. With luck, I shall be left alone in my room today, and you can come tell me how he reacts if you like.”

Only after the girl left, did a cold fear strike at Catelyn’s heart. Roslin was with child after one time with Edmure. She was much older than Roslin, but she still bled. She knew many older women who’d borne children and had hoped to bear another of Ned’s herself. She had made herself numb to the visitations of Frey men--to their fists, and their curses, and their filthy cocks. But she had never considered she might get with child from their brutal attacks. I will bear no child but Ned’s. And now, as she sat alone in her prison room, she considered ways to kill not only Walder Frey, but if it became necessary, herself.

 

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Ned Stark stepped out of his tent into a gray, cold morning. He could barely make out even the closest other tents in the mists surrounding them. There were no fires and few sounds, very little to give a hint that hundreds of men were scattered in camps in these southernmost reaches of the swamps of the Neck. Adapting to the camping methods of crannogmen had not been easy for all his men, but it had been worth it. They were within two days’ ride of the Twins and remained largely invisible.

Howland Reed had not disappointed Ned when he had stepped off one of Manderly’s boats on the eastern coast of his friend’s almost impassable lands. Guides had met them as if it been arranged, and Ned let Donnell and the other men he’d brought with them believe that they had. It was far easier than explaining that the crannogmen often simply just knew things. They had been led swiftly west of the Kingsroad into the deeper recesses of the swamp along safe pathways only the men who called the place home could know.

Upon reaching Greywater Watch, Ned had discovered more help than he could possibly have hoped for. In addition to Howland Reed, he found Galbart Glover and Lady Maege Mormont, who had apparently been sent there by his son prior to the massacre people had named the Red Wedding. After those events transpired, they had remained there, quietly amassing men in secret, awaiting a chance to put an end to the butchery throughout the North.

None of them had questioned his directive to march south, however. He would take the Twins, and he would take Walder Frey’s head before turning his attention northward. It had been Howland’s notion to split into two parties, with the smaller one led by Galbart Glover going far enough west to cross the tributaries of the Green Fork while they were still little more than streams and thus emerge from the swamps in position to attack the western castle of the Twins once the main party had begun the attack on the eastern castle. It was a good plan, but it all hinged on being able to take the castle quickly, not an easy thing to do. It was by all reports lightly defended, what with Freys sent to Seagard, Freys sent to White Harbor, Freys riding north with Roose Bolton, and Freys laying siege to Riverrun. However, a long siege of the Twins would allow reinforcements to hurry north from Riverrun, and his forces on the western bank of the Green Fork would be overrun.

Ned sighed and walked toward Howland’s tent, stepping carefully on the bad leg that was always stiff and awkward in the mornings. He found the little crannogman eating some form of hard bread which he offered to Ned as well. “They’ve sent a few more scouts our way,” Howland said without preamble.

“And what became of these scouts?” Ned asked him.

“Nothing. They saw nothing but a few crannogmen hunting frogs in a swamp, so we allowed them to pass. It is interesting that we are seeing more of them, though. Almost as if they know something is here, but cannot see what it is.” Reed looked at Ned thoughtfully. “Of course, it’s a common thing for a man to look at something and never see what it really is.”

Ned sighed. “If you have something to say to me, say it plainly. I had forgotten your love of speaking in riddles and proverbs.”

Howland laughed. “You look at the Twins and see a need to take it quickly, do you not?”

Ned had long since given up being amazed by the little man’s seeming ability to read his mind. Howland vehemently denied he could do this, of course. He claimed he simply looked and listened better than most.

“You know I do,” he told him.

“So what will allow you to take it quickly? That is what you need to see.”

“An open gate,” Ned answered, “But I doubt Lord Walder is likely to give me one.”

“No, Lord Walder will not.” He went back to eating his bread silently, and Ned turned to go in search of Lady Mormont, thinking Howland was finished speaking for the moment. “Another thing about these scouts.”

Ned turned and looked back at him.

“We are seeing the same men over and over now. It would seem that only a select few are sent to look for us. I wonder why that is.” This time when he returned to his bread, he spoke no more, and Ned wandered off in search of Lady Mormont, pondering what Howland wanted him to see in the scouts.

He found her digging a stone out of a horse’s hoof. “Have we heard from the Kingsroad yet, my lady?”

“No, my lord,” she replied. "I will make sure you know immediately when we do.”

Ned nodded absently, his mind on the Bolton caravan heading north with a girl who may or may not be his daughter. Among the men gathered at Greywater Watch had been a few Winterfell men, some of the very few survivors of the battle there. They had confirmed Lord Manderly’s version of events, but more importantly to Ned, two of them remembered the girl they had called Arya Underfoot very well, and would easily know her by sight. He had dispatched a small party including these two to await Bolton on the Kingsroad, posing as Northmen trapped in the south after Moat Cailin fell and hoping to join with their forces. They were to discover the true identity of the captive bride and send back word. Arya, my fierce little swordswoman, could it be you? Ned hardly dared to hope.

Lady Maege interrupted his thoughts. “If she’s anything like her mother, she’ll stand right up to those Boltons, my lord.”

“Her mother?” Ned asked. He smiled then. “Sansa is her mother. Arya always put me in mind of my sister, Lyanna--fierce, stubborn, and brave.”

It was Lady Mormont’s turn to smile. “Yes, Lyanna was all those things, all right. And wild. But as for brave, my lord, your daughter cannot possibly inherit courage greater than her mother’s.”

Ned looked at her and waited for her to continue.

“I spent a great deal of time with Lady Catelyn, while we were on campaign with your son, King Robb. She was no warrior, and she was certainly not wild like your sister, but I have rarely seen a woman of more courage, my lord. We have all told you how proud you should be of your son, and it’s true. He became a man and a king before our very eyes. But men will seldom speak of women’s courage. I tell you truly, my lord, I hope to see half the courage of your wife in my own daughters.”

Ned started to reply and found himself suddenly unable to speak. He reached out and touched Lady Mormont’s shoulder, nodded to her and walked away. He then stood by himself for a bit, thinking about many things including the courage of women, revisiting scouts, and open gates.

 

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Perwyn Frey walked slowly down the corridor. He had avoided this part of the castle completely since his return after the mass murder his father insisted on calling a wedding. In truth, he was ashamed to look her in the face. He had taken no part. He refused to be a part of a deed so without honor. Yes, he had been as angry as Hosteen when word of Robb Stark’s faithless marriage to the Westerling girl had reached Riverrun, and he’d wanted justice for the slight to his sister. He had always thought of Roslin as the only possible choice for the Young Wolf’s bride. She would have made a fine queen. He could still get angry at Robb just thinking about it. But justice was a far cry from murder and shattered guest right. Could he claim to have honor simply because he didn’t take part?

Honor. His whole life he’d been taught to guard his honor and that of his family. He’d never questioned it before now, but nothing seemed honorable now. And Lady Stark. Where was the honor in the treatment his father had sanctioned for her? He had ridden by the lady’s side when King Robb sent her to treat with Renly Baratheon and never once saw her lack for courage or courtesy. He had sworn to protect her then. Now he hid his eyes as his half-brothers and nephews molested her.

He realized he had stopped walking and forced himself to continue down the corridor toward her room. He needed to speak with her. As he neared her door, it opened, and Ryman stumbled out, fumbling to lace his breeches and nearly colliding with the guard. He looked up and grinned when he saw Perwyn.

“Decide to come play with Father’s little pet, after all, Perwyn? Didn't think you had it in you!”

Perwyn suppressed a desire to smash him across the mouth. “I thought you were at Riverrun, Ryman. Get tired of listening to the Blackfish insult you?”

Ryman’s face turned ugly. “I came up with men to get more supplies. I’m heading back right away.” He pushed past Perwyn and staggered down the hall, a distinct aroma of alcohol wafting off him. “And I’ll have the Blackfish’s head on a spike the next time I’m here!” he yelled as he disappeared around a corner.

Perwyn swallowed hard and knocked on the door. After a few moments of silence from within, he knocked again. “Come in,” came a tired sounding voice.

When he opened the door, she was standing with her back to him, her braid mostly undone. She appeared to be adusting something on the front of her dress. When she turned to face him, her blue eyes widened in surprise, but her face was otherwise expressionless. She did have a purple bruise beginning to bloom on her left cheek, however, and her lower lip was bleeding. Perwyn could not stop a gasp when he saw it.

“Ser Perwyn,” she said cooly. “If you are looking for your brother, I fear he has just left.”

“Nephew,” he corrected automatically. “And I rarely seek him out if I can help it.” He then stood there stupidly, gawking at her.

“Come to take your turn then, Perwyn? I would have delayed getting dressed if I had known.”

Her cold words hit him like a slap across the face. “My lady! I . . I never. . I . . I shall call Ryman out for his treatment of you! Your face . . . Should I get Roslin? I . .” he stopped speaking, feeling rather helpless as she simply continued to stare at him without expression.

“Don’t trouble yourself about Ryman. Apparently, my uncle refuses to hand him Riverrun. As he cannot beat my uncle, he must content himself with beating me.” Her voice didn’t waver in the slightest as she said that, and it caused a chill to go through him.

She turned away from him then, picking up a cloth from a table and dabbing the blood on her lip. “What do you want, Perwyn?” she asked without turning around.

What do I want? Absolution? “I merely came to see if you have need of anything, my lady. I have been remiss in not coming to you before.”

She did turn back toward him then and laughed, a short, bitter sound. “Don’t worry about it, Ser Perwyn. There are plenty who have not been so . . .remiss.”

“Please, my lady, do not speak so.”

She raised one eyebrow and continued to regard him coolly. “Do not speak so? Why not tell them not to do so, brave knight?” She walked toward him. “Would you like to know the charming things your nephew Ryman spoke of just now? He said he’d like to take me to Riverrun and have me at the castle gate while my uncle watched. Perhaps that might impress him more than my brother with his neck in a noose.” She was standing right in front of him now and she shrugged. “I almost wish he’d do it. I’m dreadfully tired of this room, and I’d like to see Riverrun again before I die.”

At that, he couldn’t stop himself. He grabbed her hands and dropped to his knees in front of her. “My lady, I beg you, do not say such things,” he beseeched her.

She jerked her hands from his, and he finally saw a flash of anger in those blue eyes. “Why?” she demanded. “Do you think the things you Frey men do to me are any less vile in a bedchamber than they would be at a castle gate? Do you?” She spit in his face and turned away again. “Go, Perwyn. Either rape me, beat me, or go. I have no desire to converse with you.” The fire was gone, and her voice was ice again.

“My lady, I will get you out of here,” he declared, rising to his feet. “I will help you escape.”

“And where shall I go, good knight, after this escape?”

He looked at her, willing her to turn around again, to see that he meant what he said. “Well, you can go . .” He hesitated.

Then she turned to look at him. “I can go nowhere. My family is murdered, my home destroyed, and my honor stolen. I can go nowhere.”

He wanted to contradict her, but he didn’t know what to say.

“Go, Perwyn.”

He turned and went, just as she bid him. He wandered aimlessly for a bit, and then decided it was time to take some sort of action. He went in search of Olyvar and found him up on the castle wall. “I went to see Lady Stark,” he said by way of greeting.

“Did you?” Olyvar said acidly.

“Damn it, Olyvar, not like that and you know it!” His brother was silent, so Perwyn continued. “We have to get her out of here, Olyvar.”

“Really? That just now occur to you, Perwyn?” Olyvar sighed. “She won’t go, though, even if you found a way. She wants to kill Father, you know. I think it’s all she really wants now.”

“Do you blame her?” Perwyn asked softly.

“Not in the least,” Olyvar replied. “But it’s one thing I can’t do for her, Perwyn. I’m no kinslayer.”

“Nor am I, little brother. Although, in truth, I’m not sure what I am any more.” After a moment, he looked around making sure they were alone. “There are northmen in the swamp just north of here.”

Olyvar shrugged. “Crannogmen. They live there, Perwyn.”

“No. There is a camp. I’m sure of it. I’ve had the perimeter scouting duty for some time now, and there’s one area . . .well, there’s more there than meets the eye. I can feel it.” Perwyn shook his head. “I pulled all the scouts from there except the men I can trust to report only to me, and I’ve had them doing extra patrols.”

“Why would you do that, Perwyn? Do you mean to keep these imaginary northmen a secret?”

“I don’t know what I mean to do!” Perwyn shouted, suddenly angry, but not at Olyvar. “Perhaps I mean to repay a debt.”

Olyvar caught the tone in his voice. “Perwyn, you can’t raise arms against your own father. You can’t.”

“No, little brother, I can’t. But I didn’t raise arms against my king, did I? I am no kingslayer. Yet my king is dead. All I had do was stand by. Perhaps I can repay my debt without becoming a kinslayer, either. Perhaps, I need only stand by once more.”

Olyvar heard more resolve in his brother’s voice than he had heard since before the Red Wedding. He looked out in the direction of Perwyn’s invisible northmen and shivered.

Chapter Text

Ned had determined it was time to capture one of these scouts who kept coming from the Twins. As Howland’s crannogmen were the only ones who seemed able to reliably spot them, he had assigned them the task of bringing one to him. His men could not sit in this swamp forever, and he wanted as much information as he could gather before launching an attack. Hopefully a Frey scout could give them specific information about the castle’s current state of defense. Ned frowned at the thought of persuading a man to talk. He knew well what methods may need to be employed and despised them, but he had no choice. The Freys had left him no choice the moment they murdered Robb and Cat.

He looked up to see Lady Maege Mormont approaching him as he sat in front of his tent. “You asked for me, my lord?” she inquired as she strode toward him.

“Yes, Lady Mormont. The Freys know you from the time you spent with them at my son’s side. I would have you act as the head of our company when Howland’s men bring us a Frey to question.”

“Why, my lord?”

Ned sighed. “They know you to be loyal to Robb, and they certainly should not be surprised to find you wish to seek some vengeance for the King in the North and for your daughter. Should we find ourselves using this man as an envoy for any reason, I would rather not have my presence revealed until necessary.” He gave her a tight, grim smile. “I have noticed that my return from the dead has a marked effect on people. There may come a time when we can use that to our advantage, and I’d not give it away lightly.”

She nodded. “A wise course of action, I think. You seem awfully certain Lord Reed’s men will bring us a Frey.”

“I have no doubts at all, my lady. All we need do is wait.” He hesitated a moment, and then pressed on. “There was one other thing, Lady Maege. Have you perchance had any word from your brother on the Wall?”

Her eyes opened wide. “My brother? You have not heard, my lord?” She shook her head sadly. “I am afraid Jeor is dead.”

“Dead? I am sorry, my lady. I had not heard.” Ned was genuinely sorry. He had liked the Old Bear. But now a new fear gripped at his heart, one he had refused to consider too closely since leaving White Harbor. “Was he killed in the Wildling attack on the Wall? Lord Manderly mentioned Lord Stannis coming to the aid of the Night’s Watch to repel an attack, but I had no idea . . . .were there many casualties?”

Lady Mormont shook her head. “My brother was killed before then. Some nasty bit of business north of the Wall.” She looked at Ned closely. “You worry for your son, Jon Snow, don’t you, my lord? He lives, as far as I know. We had word he was chosen to succeed Jeor.”

The relief that had instantly filled Ned with the words “he lives” became shock at her last statement. “Succeed? You mean . . .Jon? Jon is Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch?”

“So it would seem.”

“But he’s just a boy!” Ned exclaimed.

Maege Mormont laughed. “He’s of an age with your Robb, is he not?” Her eyes became quite serious as she continued, “Robb Stark was a king, my lord. Why should it surprise you that his brother should command the Night’s Watch? It would appear that the sons of Eddard Stark grow to be men when the need is upon them.”

Ned looked at her thoughtfully. “Your words are kind, my lady. May the gods protect Jon and help him command wisely.” He shook his head in wonder, still having difficulty accepting the image of Jon as anything other than Robb’s accomplice in all manner of mischief at Winterfell. King. Lord Commander. My boys became men and I wasn’t there to see. The thought filled him with pride and grief at the same time. At least Jon lived. He wasn’t lost to him forever. And there was so much Ned still had to say to him.

“Perhaps, when we’ve prevailed here, my lord, you could journey to the Wall,” Lady Maege said softly.

Shaken from his brief reverie, Ned answered firmly, “When we have prevailed here, Riverrun will still be under siege and the North still under the sway of the faithless Boltons. Both the North and the Riverlands proclaimed my son their king. I cannot turn away from them while they still bleed.”

“No, my lord, you could not. Perhaps another man could, but not you. Know that you will not fight alone.”

Ned regarded Maege Mormont and marveled at her; this warrior who fiercely fought in battle, this mother who understood his concern for his son, this woman who knew without being told what losing Catelyn and their children had cost him. “I thank you for your loyalty, Lady Mormont. Truly, there is no lord or knight in all the Seven Kingdoms I would rather have in my service.”

Maege Mormont dipped her head then, and asked leave to go see to some of the men. She walked away leaving Ned alone with his thoughts. Be safe, Jon. I promised Lya I’d keep you safe, but now you must keep safe yourself.

 

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Olyvar Frey urged his horse forward through muck so deep he feared the beast’s hooves would become hopelessly mired. He hated this swamp. You could be on firm ground one moment and up to your knees in mud the next. The frogeaters could have this godforsaken place!

As he rode among the trees, straying from the path intentionally in hopes of attracting some of Perwyn’s mythical northmen, he wondered again why he had agreed to this. Even if his brother were right about northern soldiers camping here, riding right into them would only serve to get him killed. He had very little faith in Perwyn’s assertion that his status as King Robb’s one-time squire would give any northman cause to hear him out before stringing him up. His name was still Frey.

So why was he here? Was he doing it for Perwyn? For Catelyn Stark? For his dead king? While he was pondering these questions and attempting to cajole his horse into continuing this ill-advised adventure, he was suddenly hailed.

“Stop, and tell us who you are!”

He looked toward his left, and three men were standing there, not ten feet from him. They hadn’t been there a moment before. “Why should I stop and tell you anything?” he responded.

“Well, you’ll stop because we’re blocking your way,” came another voice. Olyvar looked toward it and saw two more men standing directly in front of him. How did they do that?

“And we won’t let you go until you’ve told us who you are,” said the first man.

So this was it, then. He might as well get it over with. “I am Olyvar Frey, squire to Robb Stark, King in the North, and I am looking for you.”

The second man who had spoken walked forward and grabbed the bridle of Olyvar’s horse. Olyvar did not object or attempt to move away. “Thanks to you Freys, King Robb doesn’t have much need of a squire anymore, does he?” the man said.

“I had no part in the Red Wedding,” Olyvar said truthfully. “I did not even know of it until it had been done. That is why I’m allowing you to take me. I hope to still be of service to my king.”

“You’re allowing us to take you?” The first man laughed as if that were the funniest thing he had heard in a long time. “Well, since you allow it . . . Keejen, take his weapons. You just climb down off that horse and walk with us. Jon, you keep hold of his horse.”

Olyvar complied with all their requests, including being blindfolded and having his hands tied together. They led him carefully along, and he noticed that with their guidance his feet did not sink into muck one time. He knew he would not have managed half so well on his own with both eyes and hands free. After they had walked for some time, he began to hear the unmistakable sounds of men all around them, and when someone stopped him and removed his blindfold, he was not surprised to find himself in the midst of a circle of tents.

“This way,” one of the men said, pushing him toward a fairly large tent. “They want you in here.”

As he entered the tent, he realized someone was seated on a chair directly in front of him and two men stood just behind the chair. Other men seemed to line both sides of the tent all around them. He blinked his eyes trying to get them to adjust to the dim light inside and suddenly saw clearly who was seated on the chair.

“Lady Mormont!” he cried and fell to his knees before her. “You are alive!” He was genuinely happy to see her.

“Of course I am alive, Olyvar. I was not at that bloodbath your lying, faithless father disguised as a wedding,” she said coldly.

“I was not there, either, my lady,” he said quickly. “I did not know that you . . I mean I wondered about you when I heard that Dacey was . . .’ He couldn’t finish the sentence.

Lady Mormont finished it for him. “Murdered, Olyvar. That is the word you seek. My daughter was murdered, along with King Robb, Lady Stark, Lord Umber’s son, and too many others to name.” She continued to glare at him coldly. “Why are you here, Olyvar? Lord Reed’s men say you were making so much noise and wandering so far into the swamp, either you are too stupid to live or you meant to be caught. I never found you to be stupid, so why have you come to us? And get up. You needn’t grovel on the ground any longer.”

Olyvar got slowly to his feet, hampered a bit by his bound hands. He took a deep breath and addressed Lady Mormont. She seemed to be in charge. He didn’t know either of the men behind her. One of them was rather short and slightly built, but he had an intense gaze and looked at Olyvar as if he already knew everything about him. He was dressed similarly to the men who had taken him off his horse. The other man was taller and more muscular. He had brown hair streaked with grey and a beard that was more grey than brown. His hard face looked carved in granite and he stared hard at Olyvar with cold grey eyes. Olyvar shivered and looked back at Lady Mormont.

“I am here at my brother Perwyn’s bidding. Nothing can atone for the crime committed by my family against King Robb and the others. It was completely without honor. They had eaten and drunk at my father’s table only to be cut down after the meal. I cannot undo it. I can only say how very sorry I am that . . .”

“You came here to apologize, Olyvar?” Lady Mormont asked incredulously.

“No! I mean, yes, but not only that. I, we, Perwyn and I . . .” He found himself tripping over his words and stopped to take a deep breath before continuing. “Perwyn and I cannot act against our father. We would not become kinslayers. We believe, however, that if you choose to act against House Frey, your cause is just. We would like to see you have justice.”

“So you came here to give us your blessing should we wish to attack you?” Lady Mormont asked, still looking at him as if he didn’t quite make sense. He didn’t blame her. He was making a mess of this. He needed to just come out and say it.

“No.” He looked directly in her eyes. “I came here to tell you how to get into the Twins.”

That made her pause a moment. “Why should I believe you, Olyvar?”

“I don’t know,” he said honestly. “I would say because you know me, Lady Mormont, and because you’ve ridden to battle with me. But you’ve ridden to battle with Hosteen and Ryman and the others as well. And they were there at the wedding. They killed people there. So I don’t know why you should believe me, my lady. But I’m telling the truth.”

“Do you have some secret entrance you would allow us to use?” The shorter man behind Lady Mormont asked that question, speaking in a voice that while quiet, demanded attention and respect.

“No, my lord,” Olyvar responded. “I wish there was one, but there isn’t. And you must get inside the walls to take the castle. Once inside, you could win the battle easily. Most of our men are at Riverrun or sent elsewhere.” It felt very odd to be telling this stranger that the Twins were ripe for the taking. Olyvar believed he was doing the right thing, but it still felt wrong. He turned back to Lady Mormont because somehow it was easier talking to her. He knew her. She and he were both King Robb’s which made this feel less like a betrayal. “Perwyn and I have talked and talked, and as much as I hate it, the only way we could come up with is to use the Lady Catelyn.”

Suddenly Olyvar was back on the ground, this time lying on his back with a blade pressed to his throat held by the grim faced man with the icy eyes. “Use the Lady Catelyn? It was not enough to murder her in cold blood? What do you mean, use her?”

The knife’s point dug slightly into his skin and Olyvar, terrified, sputtered, “but . . .she’s not . . .dead. She’s . .”

Suddenly the knife dropped against his chest and fell to the floor as he was jerked up into a sitting position. The grey eyed man had him by the arms and was shaking him. “Not dead? Not dead? What do you mean, she‘s not dead?” His face had undergone an incredible transformation. Where there had been expressionless ice a moment ago, there was now a desperation so raw that Olyvar almost couldn‘t bear to look at him.

The shorter man had come forward, and he put a hand on the other’s shoulder. “Ned,” he said quietly. “Let the boy go. Let him speak.”

His voice seemed to reach the man because he stopped shaking Olyvar. He lessened the grip on his arms, but did not move his hands away. He took a ragged breath, and then spoke in a rasping whisper through his teeth. “Tell me. Tell me the truth. . . . . Does she live?”

Olyvar could barely find his voice as those grey eyes stared into his, demanding an answer. He nodded and said simply, “Yes.”

The man uttered a brief cry as if he had been struck, let go of Olyvar, and sank to the floor himself. No one spoke or moved for what seemed like the longest of moments, during which Olyvar simply stared at the inexplicable reaction of this man to the news of Lady Stark’s survival. He knew she was widely believed to have perished at the wedding, but this man behaved as if . . . “Ned.” The other man had called him “Ned.”

He looked up at Lady Mormont and was stunned to see that she had tears in her eyes. She was the first to recover, though. “Please leave us,” she said to the other men in the tent, rather roughly. As they filed out, she turned to him. “Olyvar, this is far better news than we had ever hoped to hear. You are certain of it? This would be far too cruel a lie. I beg you to tell us true.”

Olyvar got to his feet again. “Yes, Lady Mormont. Lady Stark is alive and is held prisoner at theTwins. She was grievously wounded at the Red Wedding, and I feared for her life when I first returned. She . . She had been shot by a crossbow and her throat was cut.”

The sharp intake of breath directly behind him told him that the man called Ned had gotten to his feet as well. Olyvar turned to face him and found the shorter man standing beside him holding his arm. “She had lost a lot of blood,” he continued, looking at the man whose identity he was becoming more sure of. “But my sister Roslin nursed her diligently, and she recovered. Your lady wife has suffered, but she is no more dead than you are, Lord Stark.”

The man did not react to Olyvar’s use of his name. “I was told they stripped her body naked and threw her into the river,” he said quietly. Olyvar noted he was shaking just slightly and standing with his weight all on one leg.

“A serving girl," Olyvar said, "who had the misfortune of having red hair. She really looked nothing like Lady Stark, but sufficiently bloodied and then allowed to rot for two days before they put on their charade . . . Well, from a distance, it appeared as my father wished it to.”

“Why?” the one word question was so quiet, he barely heard it.

Olyvar hesitated. How was he to answer that? Certain things, he wasn’t about to say. Not now. Not to this man. “My father had plenty of hostages to bargain with. He sought favor from Lord Tywin by giving him two dead wolves. He gained leverage over Roose Bolton by keeping one alive. Lord Bolton wants all Starks dead, of course. And my father likes secrets. They make him feel powerful.” Olyvar shrugged. “Lady Stark has been his secret.”

 

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Ned Stark stared up at the stars. He knew sleep would not find him this night. Catelyn is alive. He sat outside his tent with the bad leg propped up. He had twisted it when he leapt at Olyvar Frey. In his rage at the young man for suggesting some ill use of his dead wife, he had forgotten it did not work as it did before. But Cat lives!

He had repeated that to himself a million times through the day. Catelyn is alive. As he and Reed and Lady Mormont had listened to young Olyvar’s plan, the thought had in turns given him courage, caused him to fear, spurred him to action, and given him reason for caution. Catelyn is alive. And he meant to keep her that way.

The Frey boy’s plan was not without peril, much of it for Cat. Use the Lady Catelyn, indeed! Ned thought. Use her as bait. Use her as a distraction. Gods! How can I do this? But while he had initially rejected Olyvar’s plan outright because of the danger to Cat, he could not come up with any other plan which offered as much chance to get her out of that place. And he must get her out.

Catelyn is alive. Very soon now, he would see her, touch her. So much had happened since he‘d seen her last. So much had been lost. She’d watched Robb die, Olyvar had told him. Gods, how did she survive that? Ned had never doubted the strength of his wife, but to have been a prisoner all this time, knowing her sons dead and her daughters lost, believing Ned to be dead himself. Catelyn is alive. She needn’t be strong alone much longer. Soon he’d hold her in his arms and be strong for her. He thought of the last time he’d held her, in King’s Landing. She’d trembled in his arms then, full of fear for their future. How right she’d been. I couldn’t protect you, Cat. I couldn’t protect any of us.

He couldn’t dwell on that. The failures of the past were done. He could regret them for the rest of his life, but he couldn’t change them. Catelyn is alive. That thought had to guide him now. The leg would be better, the Frey boy would go back to the Twins tomorrow to set things in motion, the plan would work, Walder Frey and his brood would be served justice, and he would hold his wife in his arms again. Catelyn is alive. Ned Stark allowed that one thought to push aside all others as he continued to gaze at the stars.

 

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Maege Mormont shivered slightly in the cold, grey dawn as she stood with Howland Reed watching Lord Stark walk away with young Olyvar Frey. Maege was a woman used to cold and she knew better than to think it was the temperature that made her shiver. The four of them had risen early to once again make certain of every detail of this convoluted plan. So much could go wrong here, and failure would cost lives. Ned and Olyvar had disappeared into the trees. She turned to Reed. “What do you suppose he wanted to speak to him about?”

The crannogman shrugged slightly. “He did not say. But as young Frey is the only person Ned knows who has been in the company of his wife, I would imagine he wishes to ask more about her. Less than a day ago, he still mourned her death. None of this can be easy for him.”

“Mmm.” Maege responded absently, looking back to the spot where the two men had disappeared. Turning back to Reed, she gave voice to her fears. “Yes, my lord, one day ago he mourned her, and in another three days he could mourn her again! Or we could mourn them both! We place Lord and Lady Stark both in grave danger with this scheme.”

“Yes,” Lord Reed responded quietly, “but the lady has been in grave danger since the Freys took her, and Ned cannot allow her to remain there.”

“No, he can’t.” She sighed and then said thoughtfully, “I’ve known Ned Stark most of his life, you know. Even as a boy, he was too serious by far. He was courteous and kind, but he smiled seldom and laughed out loud almost never. He lived in Brandon’s shadow or Robert Baratheon’s and seemed content there, I think. Then when the war came and all his family was killed save Benjen . . .” she shook her head. “The serious boy became an even more solemn man.”

“I was with him,” Reed said quietly. “I know what he suffered.”

“But you weren’t with him afterward,” Maege protested. “You mostly stayed in your swamp, and you didn’t see them together like I did. There are many leagues between Bear Island and Winterfell so visits were not frequent, but they did occur. Catelyn Tully brought that man to life. It didn’t happen right away, but each time I saw them through the years, they were closer and he was warmer. He laughed with her, Lord Reed, as I’d never seen him laugh in all his life.” She paused. “When he came to us in Greywater Watch, at first I could see nothing but the fact that he lived. I was so glad of it. But then I saw that he was frozen again, as cold as the ignorant southrons like to say he is.” She shook her head. “We have all lost much in this war, my lord. I shall mourn my Dacey for the rest of my days. But he has lost so much. I fear he cannot survive losing her twice.”

Howland Reed regarded her closely. “You actually see what you look at, Lady Mormont. It’s a rare gift. Lord Stark is fortunate to have you as bannerman and friend. It is a risky thing we do, but I believe we shall be successful.”

She hesitated before asking her next question as it made her feel rather foolish, like a child asking for a story. “Is there a reason you believe that, my lord? I have, um, heard that some of your people can . . .see things. Is there any truth in that?”

Reed laughed. “There is some truth in most tales, my lady. We remember the Children of the Forest more than most others do, that is all. Most of their lore is lost to us, true, but we still pay attention to our dreams, and some of us dream things that will be.”

“And did you dream of this?”

“No, my lady. I dream of my children. I dream of Ned’s children. I dream of the North. And in all those dreams, I see Lord and Lady Stark. They are somehow important to all of it. The dreams disturbed me when I thought them both dead, and I feared for our future.” He shrugged. “The dreams still disturb me, in truth, for I don’t know their meanings, but now I have hope. I must believe we will succeed.” He bowed slightly to her then. “Now if you will excuse me, my lady, I must give my messenger the instructions to be given to Lord Glover about his part in this.”

“And how, pray tell, is this messenger going to cross the Green Fork anywhere near here?”

The little man smiled enigmatically and said, “You need not worry about that, my lady. He knows the way. Lord Glover will get word.”

She smiled after him as he left. Even after spending so much time in Greywater Watch, the ways of these crannogmen remained a mystery to her. She only knew she was exceptionally grateful to have them on her side. Lady Maege Mormont then squared her shoulders, put aside all speculative thoughts, and went to prepare for her own journey to the Twins on the morrow.

 

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Olyvar had been startled when Lord Stark had asked if he might speak with him privately before he left for the Twins. After spending all evening and half the night in discussions with him and Lady Mormont and Lord Reed, he wasn’t truly frightened of the man anymore, but he was still rather intimidated by him. He hadn’t forgotten just how cold those grey eyes could be, and Olyvar devoutly wished never to have them turned on him in anger or displeasure again. He dreaded what the man might ask him, for he knew he couldn’t lie, but there were some things he could not imagine telling him.

Their pace was slow, as the northman’s leg pained him, and he moved with a noticeable limp. Once they had walked a ways in silence, Lord Stark spoke. “Olyvar, I would like you to tell me of my son’s marriage.”

Olyvar stopped suddenly. He certainly hadn’t expected that. “His marriage, my lord? To Jeyne Westerling, you mean?”

“I am not aware of him having married anyone else.” Lord Stark stopped walking as well, and turned to face him. “Lady Mormont has spoken to me of your devotion to my son. She says that you wished to stay with him when Ser Ryman demanded all of your family to leave after he broke the marriage pact.”

“Yes, my lord, that’s true.”

“Why?” Those intimidating eyes were turned full on Olyvar now, and Stark waited for an answer.

“Why what, my lord?” Olyvar stammered.

“Why stay?” Lord Stark elaborated. “Robb had broken a marriage pact with your house. That is a serious breach of honor, Olyvar. Ser Ryman was not acting without cause when he withdrew your family’s support. Were you not angry as well? What had Robb done to earn your loyalty to him over your family?”

“I . . .well, it wasn’t that simple, my lord.”

The older man gave him an almost sympathetic look. “It rarely is.” Then he was quiet, simply waiting for Olyvar to gather his thoughts and speak.

That gave Olyvar confidence. It reminded him of King Robb. This man looked nothing like his son except perhaps in build. Robb’s coloring and features had been entirely his mother’s. Yet, the direct way he had of looking at you when he spoke; the quiet way he listened when you spoke; the impression he gave that your thoughts and words mattered to him--he found the echoes of all that in this northern lord.

“We were fighting in the west, my lord. We had taken the Crag with relatively few casualties, but his Grace had taken a wound in the arm, so we stayed there to allow him time to heal. Jeyne Westerling was a daughter of the house, and she tended him herself. She was pretty, my lord, and kind. We were still there when we got word of your other sons.” Olyvar paused then and looked directly at Stark. “I am sorry about them, my lord. I know his Grace loved them very much.” Stark simply nodded at him and waited for him to continue. “His Grace took it hard, my lord. Very hard. He stomped and screamed and blamed himself. You see, he had sent Theon Greyjoy to treat with his father even though Lady Stark warned him against it. She had been . . . quite vocal in her opposition, my lord.” Stark snorted at that, and Olyvar almost smiled. Apparently, the man knew his wife well. “Anyway, we couldn’t do anything for him. But Lady Jeyne, she . . .comforted him.” He dropped his eyes. “The way only a woman can comfort a man,” he added softly.” When Stark said nothing, he looked up at him again.

“I am familiar with the concept, Olyvar,” Stark assured him, and again waited for him to continue.

“She came to him, my lord. He never forced her,” Olyvar said adamantly. “But still, he felt he had dishonored her. And he couldn’t have that, my lord. He truly felt his only course was to marry her. He knew it was wrong to break his agreement with my father. He knew he would have to beg forgiveness and try to make amends. But he thought it was more wrong to dishonor the lady. I was angry, my lord. But I couldn’t hate him for that. And he was my king.”

Olyvar stopped speaking and waited for the older man to respond. It surprised him not at all that he was silent a bit longer while he thought about Olyvar’s words. This man truly was King Robb’s father.

“Thank you, Olyvar,” he finally said. “I have wondered what possessed my son to break his word of honor. It is not a thing I would have expected of him. You are the first person I felt I could ask.”

“Me, my lord? Why?” Olyvar asked.

“You were his squire. You were close to him. And you are a Frey, so you had reason to feel the slight to your honor. I felt I could hear a more complete truth from you. I was right. And I understand his actions much better now.” He sighed deeply. “My son wronged your House, Olyvar. I do not deny that. However, the wrong he did could never warrant the violation of guest right and foul murder done by House Frey.”

“I know that, my lord. That is why I am here. I will not take up weapons against a member of my family, but in all else, I am your man, as I was your son’s.”

Lord Stark nodded. “Fair enough, Olyvar. It’s time you were on your way. I have one other favor to ask of you, though.”

“Anything, my lord.”

“My lady,” the man started. He looked at Olyvar intently. “If all goes according this plan of your brother’s, Catelyn will soon believe her death is imminent.” Stark swallowed and took a deep breath. “I would spare her that, at least. Tell her all is not as it seems. She is intelligent and brave enough to play her part. Please tell her I am coming for her.” His voice almost broke as he said the last.

Olyvar closed his eyes. This was what he had hoped to avoid. He simply could not lie to this man. “ She is brave, my lord. I know that. And I will try to give her courage. But I cannot tell her you live.”

“Why?” Disbelief with an edge of anger had crept into Stark’s voice. “She will be more than stunned, I know. I cannot describe what I felt when you told me she lived. But she is rather less likely than I to put a knife to your throat,” he added half apologetically. “And she can guard her emotions. She can play her part. Tell her I will come for her.”

Olyvar swallowed hard. “I fear that I cannot, my lord. The Lady Catelyn, she is . . .well, she is . .”

“She is what, boy? What are you trying to tell me?” Stark’s eyes warned of an impending storm.

“She is surviving, my lord. She is surviving because everyone she loves is dead, and because she waits to take vengeance on my father. She has survived by becoming hard and cold to everything around her, and she has to be. She has to be because . . . .because she has been sorely abused, my lord.” The words were now falling from his lips very quickly. “She doesn’t let it touch her. She doesn’t feel anything. She told me she was stone . . . But if she knew you lived . . . Don’t you see, my lord? She couldn’t be stone. She would think of you and she couldn’t stand it when they . . .” he couldn’t finish the sentence. He had been speaking without looking at Lord Stark. He couldn’t look at him and speak of Lady Catelyn this way, but now he looked up at him.

Lord Stark’s face was ice. There was no color in it, and his expression was hard and cold. His eyes were alive, though. His eyes were filled with pain and rage. His voice, when he spoke was cold, quiet, and controlled. “Sorely abused, Olyvar? Sorely abused? Who has abused my lady wife . . .what precisely have they done to her?”

“Please, my lord,” Olyvar forced himself to look at the man. “Don’t make me say it. I wouldn’t shame her by speaking of it.”

“Shame her?” the icy control left Stark’s voice and that came out as a shout. “Shame her? As if any thrice damned Frey could ever shame my lady!” He turned then and walked about three paces. Then he clenched his fists and roared at the sky. He turned back to Olyvar and shouted again. “You shame only yourselves!! You cannot touch her honor! Do you hear me? You cannot touch her!”

Footsteps came crashing through the trees and suddenly Lady Mormont was there with three men, and all had their swords drawn.

“What has happened here?” Lady Mormont demanded.

Lord Stark was shaking and did not speak. Olyvar walked directly up to Lady Mormont disregarding her weapon. “Lord Stark asked a question about Lady Stark’s treatment at the Twins,” he told her quietly. “I answered him honestly, and it is not an answer any husband wants to hear.” He pleaded with his eyes for her to understand.

Lady Maege did not disappoint him. “There is nothing to fear here,” she told the other men in a commanding voice. “Go back and get Olyvar’s horse so we can get him on his way.” More quietly, she said to Olyvar. “This is ill news, but it changes nothing. Ride for the Twins. Be ready for my coming on the morrow.” She looked at her liege lord and back to Olyvar. “I will tend to him,” she said softly.

Olyvar was shaking, but he nodded to her, and turned to follow the men.

“Wait.”

Lord Stark’s voice was cold and commanding, but once again controlled. Olyvar turned back and found the man facing him. He walked toward Olyvar, standing straight up and barely favoring the bad leg.

“You understand that I will kill your father,” he said.

Olyvar nodded mutely.

“And I will kill every man that has laid a hand on my wife. You must know that before you leave here.”

Olyvar forced himself to speak. “I know that, my lord.”

“And you are still resolved to do this?”

Olyvar stood straight and looked the Lord of Winterfell in the eyes. “I am, my lord. You spoke truly. The Freys have shamed only themselves. I would see the Lady Catelyn have justice from them.”

Stark looked at him long and hard. “Go, Olyvar,” he finally said. “See to my wife. Keep her strong, however you must, until I come for her.”

Then Eddard Stark turned and walked slowly away alone. Olyvar felt a hand squeezing his own and turned to see that Lady Mormont was holding his hand tightly. “You heard him, Olyvar. Go, and do not fail him.”

He nodded. “I won’t fail him, my lady. I won’t fail either of them.”

Olyvar Frey walked to his horse and as he mounted up, he prayed he would be able to keep his promise.

Chapter Text

 A cold drizzle had fallen continuously upon them since leaving the larger part of their force and riding toward the Twins under a flag of parley and flying the bear banner of House Mormont. Ned Stark was grateful for the thick, hooded cloak which kept most of the water off him. He rode at the back of their little group, an arrangement which pleased him none, but Lady Mormont had not wanted him to come at all, so he conceded this point to her.

They had argued long about it after Olyvar Frey had left them. After Olyvar Frey had told him that Cat . . .that Cat had been . . .Gods!! I will kill them all! Ned’s horse bolted forward suddenly as he had stiffened and inadvertently dug his knees into the beast at the thought. He quickly reined him back, but Lady Maege had noticed from her place at the head of the procession.

She called a halt and turned her own mount back to him. Reining up beside him, she looked at him steadily. “Are you quite certain you can do this, my lord?”

Ned returned her look with a glacial stare. “Ride a horse? Why, yes, my lady, I am quite certain that I can.”

She frowned at him. “You know perfectly well that is not what I meant.” She hesitated only a moment and then asked him, “Can you sit on that horse, silent and still, before the gate of that godforsaken castle, while I trade insults with some Frey, and you imagine your wife being raped behind its walls?”

“Gods, Maege!” he growled at her, courtesies forgotten.

“Because if you can’t,” she continued, “then turn around and ride back, Ned Stark. You cannot help her by getting yourself and the rest of us killed.”

Lady Mormont’s eyes held understanding and sympathy, but her voice was steel, and Ned knew she was right. This had been her fear since Olyvar’s revelation--that he’d single-handedly attempt to storm the Twins, indiscriminantly killing Freys and screaming Catelyn’s name as he rode. She wasn’t wrong to believe that was his desire. He’d thought of little else all the long previous day and night. But he wasn’t Brandon. He wouldn’t sacrifice all hope of rescuing Cat on the altar of his rage. He pushed his fury deep inside and felt it freeze hard around his heart. He breathed deeply and looked levelly at the woman who waited for his response.

“The horse simply startled, Lady Mormont,” he said flatly. “I shall be no more than a shadow behind you during this parley, my lady. I simply wish to hear all that is said with my own ears. We have been through this already.”

Her expression softened slightly. “As you wish, my lord. I only fear that this shall be a hard thing for you to bear.”

“A hard thing for me to bear?” He shook his head. “As you have so bluntly just reminded me, Lady Maege, my lady wife has borne far worse evils than I have ever known. If she has the courage to survive such treatment, she deserves a husband who is not unmanned by simply hearing about it.” He looked at Lady Mormont steadily. “I can do this,” he told her quietly.

She simply nodded and resumed her place at the front.

They rode on and were soon hailed by riders from the Twins. Ned pulled his hood about his face and kept his head down, but he did not recognize any of these men. Asked to state their business, Lady Mormont said boldly that they came under a flag of parley to treat with the Lord of the Crossing and requested safe passage to the castle gate.

Two of the riders turned back to the castle at a gallop to bring word of their coming, and the others fell in with them to escort them the short distance left. As they approached the eastern Twin, Ned could see archers positioned on the wall. The large gate was closed, but several mounted men waited in front of it, apparently having come through the sally port to meet them. Cat. Her name came unbidden to his mind, and he had an absurd urge to call it out. She was just there, somewhere behind those walls. So close. His breathing sped up slightly, and he realized his heart was pounding. I cannot do this. I must not think of her. I must stay still. He forced his breathing to slow and concentrated on Lady Mormont’s interaction with the men in front of them. Two, at least, appeared to be Freys, although Ned did not know their names. Lord Walder had far too many sons, grandsons, and great grandsons for him to have met them all.

“Lady Mormont,” one called out. “How pleasant to see you again. You remember my brother, Ser Raymund, do you not?”

“I do, Lothar,” Lady Maege responded. “But I fear it is not pleasant to see you at all. We come to seek redress for the foul acts committed here by House Frey against the King in the North and his men.”

“Oh?” Lothar replied. “I fear you have been misinformed, my lady. The only treachery committed here was perpetrated by Robb Stark. After breaking his marriage agreement with my lord father, he came here as a guest and attacked us under our own roof, he and his barbarous Northmen warging into wolves and tearing out the throats of innocent men and women.”

Ned felt the frozen fury within him threatening to boil again at this abominable slander of his son, and he closed his eyes and forced himself to stillness.

“Lies!” responded Lady Mormont angrily. “You are speaking to a lady of the North, ser, and I name you liar. I would like nothing more than to raze your castle to the ground, but while I have the men to do it, I hesitate to waste their lives against filth such as you, for I have need of them in the North.”

Lothar Frey passed his eyes over their small party. “And where is this great host, my lady?”

“Not far,” she assured him. “You shall see them on the morrow.”

“I will?” he asked, raising a brow. “And why should you bring your host here, Lady Mormont, if you do not wish to attack.”

“You do not hear well, Lame Lothar. I told you I would like nothing better than to attack and kill every man among you. I will return tomorrow and do precisely that if you do not meet my terms.”

The man had bristled when Lady Maege called him Lame Lothar, and now he laughed nastily. “Terms? What terms would you have, my lady?”

“You will give us the Lady of Winterfell,” Maege Mormont stated boldly.

The man next to Lothar made a startled sound. “She . . .she is dead,” he sputtered.

“No, she is not,” Lady Mormont answered him confidently. “Although, according to the information I have received, that’s no thanks to you, Ser Raymund.”

The man sputtered again, and Ned suddenly recalled where he had heard his name. Olyvar had identified him as the man who . . .This damnable whoreson cut Catelyn’s throat! He swallowed hard and his hand flexed on his sword hilt. Still. I must be still.

“I . . .I don’t know what you mean,” Raymund Frey sputtered some more. “The Stark woman went mad, killed my nephew, a poor helpless idiot, and then was killed with the rest of the wolves before she could murder anyone else!”

Ned felt as if he could not bear to hear one more word from this man’s throat without leaping from his horse to throttle him.

“She lives,” said Lady Mormont calmly. She addressed her remarks to the one she called Lame Lothar, now ignoring Raymund Frey as if he were beneath notice. “She is held prisoner here. We know this to be true, and we shall not suffer it to continue. She is the widow of our murdered lord and mother of our murdered king. She belongs to the North. Tomorrow, you will produce Lady Catelyn Stark. We shall take her with us, unmolested, or you shall suffer the consequences.”

Without another word, Maege Mormont turned her horse and began to ride away from the gate. As she passed one of their men, Ned heard her whisper sharply. “As soon as we are away, to the archers. Not a raven leaves this castle.” One by one, each member of their party turned to follow her, and the Freys watched them leave in silence.

As she rode by Ned, she game him a grim smile and said softly. “The first move is made, my lord. The game is Ser Perwyn’s now. The gods be with him.”

Ned offered his own prayer as he forced himself to turn his horse and follow the column away from the Twins, away from his wife, leaving her fate in the hands of one man barely more than a boy and another man he did not know. Gods protect her. Please keep her safe and deliver her back to me.

 

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Perwyn Frey had watched from the wall as the little scene played out in front of the gate. He had looked carefully at the men who rode with Lady Mormont, but all were heavily cloaked against the foul weather, and he couldn’t see much of their faces. He wondered if one of them was Ned Stark, risen from the grave. That had been a shock when Olyvar reported it. Perwyn hoped the man had the good sense to stay hidden for the present. Convincing his lord father of Lady Catelyn’s relatively low value as hostage and small potential to cause trouble if freed would be considerably more difficult if she became once again the wife of the living Lord of Winterfell.

Perwyn sighed and turned to go down to the hall where he knew his father would await them. Lady Mormont had played her part well. Now it was his turn. As he descended into the courtyard, he saw Lothar and Raymund had returned within. What a stroke of luck that Raymund had been sent out with Lothar! The She-Bear had played him like a fiddle, and Perwyn smiled at the memory of his discomfiture in spite of the daunting task ahead of him. He stopped smiling as he looked at Lothar, though. That man was too clever by half, and Perwyn needed to use him for his own purposes today. If Lothar even suspected he was being played . . .Perwyn shook his head as if to clear it of troubled thoughts, and proceeded to the hall.

His half-brother Merrett caught up with him as he entered, half in his cups as usual. “Did you hear? They said the Mormont woman asked for the Stark bitch. She knows we’ve got her!”

Perwyn suppressed the urge to rebuke him for the manner in which he referred to Lady Stark. Gods knew drunken insults from Merrett were the least of the lady’s difficulties. “Yes, I heard it all from the wall,” he said simply. “Let’s go see what Father has to say about it, shall we?”

Lord Walder sat in his large throne with a blanket wrapped around his legs. “It would appear someone has very loose lips,” Lothar was saying as he gazed around at the assembled Frey men. “The old She-Bear seems remarkably well-informed about events at the Red Wedding.”

“She can’t possibly know anything,” Raymund protested. “She’s just guessing, that’s all.”

“Heh,” Lord Walder laughed shortly. “Just guessing that you, in particular, tried to open Lady Stark’s throat, and that she survived and is held here at the Twins. Heh. Pretty good guesser, that She-Bear.” He looked darkly at Raymund and then at his other assorted progeny. “So would one of you like to tell me who’s meeting with Northmen and telling them what they shouldn’t know?”

Silence fell for a few beats. Then Lothar sighed. “She could have heard it from any number of sources. There have been countless people in and out of this castle, and while we haven’t paraded Lady Stark about, she isn’t precisely hidden away, either. The question for us is not so much how she knows, but what do we do about it.”

Lord Walder looked carefully at Lothar. “Do you believe her about this host of men she has?”

Time to jump in, Perwyn thought. “I do.” Lord Walder turned his watery eyes toward him, and Perwyn continued. “I don’t know how many men, but I believe there have been men in the southern swamps of the Neck, likely for some time.”

“Oh, are you on about your frogeaters again, Perwyn?” Merrett interjected. Gods be thanked the man was so predictable. Perwyn had given him vague information off and on of suspicious reports by his scouts just in case he found the need to give evidence he had performed his scouting duties diligently. “I told you that . . .”

“Let Perwyn speak,” Lord Walder interrupted.

Perwyn sighed. “There was never anything concrete, my lord, and I never saw anything myself, but several men came to me with impressions of having been watched or followed, and twice they found evidence of horses having been ridden recently in unexpected places. They saw no one but the occasional crannogman, however, and when I discussed it with Merrett, he felt it was nothing. I realize that we can’t take impressions or odd feelings as evidence, but these are experienced scouts. Given Lady Mormont’s rather surprising appearance here today, I think perhaps they were right.”

“And why haven’t I heard any of this before?” Lame Lothar asked him sharply.

Perwyn shrugged. “I was unaware of any need to report to you, ser,” he said stiffly. Every man in the room knew he had barely spoken to Lothar since the Red Wedding. “And I am not the only man scouts report to. I discussed those few odd reports with Merrett and had to admit they didn’t amount to much.”

“With Merret, eh? Why not your brother, then?” Lord Walder asked him.

“Merrett is my brother, my lord. I have a great number of brothers, as you are wont to remind me.” He met the old man’s eyes directly. “I assume you refer to Olyvar, however. You were very specific in your directive that he not be involved in any matters regarding Northmen. He was not to be trusted.” He let his bitterness come through on the last.

“Heh. You disagreed with me, I recall,” his father said.

“I did, and I do. But I know my duty, my lord.”

“This gets us nowhere,” Lothar interjected. “Father, I say we kill the Stark woman and be done with it. Let Lady Mormont believe what she likes, but we continue to insist Catelyn Stark was killed at the Red Wedding while in the act of murdering Aegon. She cannot prove differently once the woman is dead. Perhaps we can even give her her daughter’s bones as a token of good will.”

“We don’t have them,” Raymund put in. “I don’t even know what happened to the Mormont girl’s body after the wedding.”

Lothar looked at Raymund and shook his head. “Bones are bones. We can find some.”

Perwyn watched his father consider Lothar’s suggestion.

“We could kill Lady Stark,” he said thoughtfully. “Of course, that wouldn’t keep Lady Mormont from attacking the castle.”

“She can’t take it,” said Lothar.

“No,” Perwyn agreed. “But she could trouble us for a time. We don’t have enough men here to ride out and defeat even a modest force. We’d have to send to Riverrun and pull men from the siege there to rid ourselves of her. That would take time and waste resources needed elsewhere.”

Both Lord Walder and Lame Lothar seemed to pause and consider that. “We should send a raven to Ryman at Riverrun,” Lord Walder said, “to inform him of these developments.”

“She’ll have archers,” Perwyn and Lothar said at almost the exact same time. Lothar looked at Perwyn as if shocked that the two of them would agree on anything. “She’s too smart to come and make her demand only to allow us to send ravens. It will have to be a rider. She can’t stop anyone riding out of the western castle for Riverrun. She’s on the wrong side of the river. She must be hoping to get whatever it is she really wants before a rider can bring aid.”

A rider that won’t get past Galbart Glover’s men, who are on the right side of the river, Perwyn thought. “What she really wants?” Perwyn asked Lothar. “You don’t think she wants Lady Stark?” Careful, now. Don’t push him too quickly. He has to get there on his own.

Their father watched the interchange between Lothar and Perwyn carefully. Perwyn knew the old man respected Lothar’s wits, and that he trusted him as much as he trusted anyone. “I can’t think why she would,” Lothar said slowly. “Catelyn Stark has no family left save the second daughter, whom the Lannisters have already given to Bolton. She’s not a Stark by blood, so she’s no claim to Winterfell of her own. Why not ask for Umber? He could rally his House to her cause, at least. And we’ve made no secret about having him. It’s won us one of his uncle’s for Bolton’s cause.”

“Perhaps Lady Mormont knows Lord Umber’s more valuable and that Father is unlikely to give him up. Perhaps she only seeks to rescue Lady Stark for honor’s sake. I could see her doing that. Lady Stark once told me that Lady Mormont may be the most loyal bannerman her husband ever had,” Perwyn mused.

“I will not simply hand Catelyn Tully Stark over to that She-Bear,” said Lord Walder, almost petulantly. “She is my hostage and I intend to keep her.”

“Perhaps, if the woman outside our gate is truly silly enough to want the woman we hold within our gate out of some misguided sense of honor, we can use this to our advantage,” Lothar said thoughtfully.

Yes! Perwyn thought. “I agree,” he said to Lothar. “Perhaps it’s time we used Lady Stark.”

Raymund laughed at that. “I thought we’d been using her pretty well, but you never seemed keen on the idea before, Perwyn!”

Perwyn looked at him coldly. “Lady Stark is not a tart out of some brothel, Raymund, and every man here knows how I feel about what’s been done to her.” He nodded stiffly to his father, “Including you, my lord. I have not kept my opinion secret from you, but I have not gone against you, either, Father.” He paused a moment to collect himself. “Lady Stark is, however, a hostage, and hostages are taken to be used, are they not?”

He had everyone’s attention now, but he only cared about his father and Lothar. He paused again as if thinking through a plan of action, and then continued. “I say we show Lady Stark to Lady Mormont when she comes in the morning. You have the large gibbet in the courtyard which faces the gate. Why not take a page from Ryman’s book and greet the She-Bear with the site of her dead lord’s widow with her neck in a noose.”

“Because that is working so well for Ryman with the Blackfish,” Lothar said drily.

“It worked on Jason Mallister,” Perwyn countered. “And Maege Mormont is a woman, for all she prances around like a soldier. She’s more likely to be swayed by such a sight.” Perwyn again silently thanked the gods that the Northmen in the swamp had been led by a woman, as it lended support to his plan. “Tell her that if her force attacks us, Lady Stark will swing. We might, however, be willing to part with her if other hostages are exchanged for her. Have her bring us one of her surviving daughters, for instance, to insure her good behavior.”

“Why would I trade Hoster’s daughter for the She-Bear’s daughter?” Lord Walder asked.

“Because Lady Mormont has an army and Lady Stark does not,” Lothar answered him. He looked at Perwyn carefully. “You surprise me, Perwyn. I had not thought you interested in making war on the men of your dear, departed king.”

“You mistake me, Lothar,” Perwyn responded. “I have never been against defending our house or our honor. I will never agree that any honor could be found in that wedding massacre of yours, but hostages are taken and used by all sides in war. I accept that.”

“You would open our gate to an enemy army, Perwyn,” his father said. “Why not take the wolf bitch out for them to see?”

“To see her scars? Her fresh bruises?” Perwyn responded coldly. “I would not be anxious to have these northmen see their Lady too closely, Father. Outside our gate you would have a large force of northmen, a small group of Freys and one bound and beaten woman. They could take her easily if they chose, and the sight of her would likely motivate them to do at least that."

“We could send out a larger force with her,” said Raymund.

“And end up with a full scale battle at our gate,” snapped Lothar. “That serves no purpose. No, Perwyn’s plan makes the most sense.” He looked at Lord Walder. “We will have the lady in the noose, horseman mounted all across the gate, and make it clear if one Northman crosses, the lady swings immediately.”

“So we’d have a dead woman and a castle full of angry northmen?” Raymund said stupidly.

“We’d have only few angry northmen, Raymund,” Perwyn said softly. “We’d close the gate against the rest. We could hold them outside as long as need be, and easily rout them once we are reinforced from Riverrun.”

“Assuming the woman is stupid enough to attack,” Lothar added. “Possibly, she’ll just stare at the gibbet and listen to our terms.”

“Possibly,” Perwyn agreed.

“Perwyn,” his father said, looking at him carefully. “There is a distinct possibility this plan of yours will get your Lady Stark hanged. Heh, heh. You ready to do that, boy?”

Perwyn clenched his jaw. “She is not my lady Stark, Father. Yes, I do respect her, and would rather her not come to harm.” He looked hard at Raymund and some others in the room. “But, in truth, if it comes to it, I would rather see her hanged than continue as she is.”

With that, Perwyn turned and strode from the hall. He had much to do.

 

. _____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Olyvar Frey stood by the gibbet in the courtyard watching Wallen work at the rope. “It will do what it’s supposed to?” he asked. The Freys’ hangman was actually a very kind man which had always struck Olyvar as odd for a man of his profession. He was near fifty years old and had a son about Olyvar’s age with whom Olyvar had played as a child. The two small boys had spent nearly all their time together, and Olyvar had come to view Wallen in some ways as more of a father to him than Lord Walder was. Even after a flux took Wallen’s son when the boys were about ten, Olyvar had continued to spend time with Wallen, and he loved the man.

“It’ll do,” the man said briefly, looking up from his knots to see Perwyn and Lothar approaching. “It’ll snap her neck clean, lad. I won’t let her suffer needlessly.” Perwyn and Lothar had reached them to hear the last part and they looked up at Wallen sitting on the elevated platform of the gibbet as he worked.

“All prepared, Wallen?” Lothar asked him.

“Aye, ser. Good seasoned rope here and the trap’s in good working order. If it comes to it, I’ll be ready.” Wallen looked at Olyvar with sympathetic eyes, and Olyvar saw Perwyn follow the man’s gaze to him.

“It might not come to it, Olyvar,” Perwyn said softly. “Lady Mormont might not attack. She might choose to bargain.” He shook his head sadly. “I can’t honestly see her giving up her daughters, though.”

“I’d just as soon she attack,” said Lothar bluntly, and Olyvar looked at him in surprise.

Lothar caught the look and laughed. “I never thought I’d say this, Olyvar, but I agree with your brother about this business of keeping Lady Stark as some sort of twisted amusement for Father. The Starks got what was coming to them, make no mistake, but we’ve got our vengeance. This business with the woman was bound to end messily. She should have been killed at the start.” He looked up at the rope on the platform again. “Now we’ve got a way to be done with it. Maybe with her traded, maybe with her dead. Either way, I’ll like it better.”

“Roslin’s been crying. She really likes Lady Stark,” Olyvar said.

Lothar shrugged. “Roslin’s a woman.”

Olyvar frowned. “I like Lady Stark, too. Could I escort her down in the morning? You can send as many men as you like if you don’t trust me, Lothar,” he added angrily.

“I don’t see why not, Olyvar. But why would you want to escort your dear lady to her probable death?”

Olyvar looked at Perwyn when he replied. “I would give her courage, and help her stay strong, however I can.”

Perwyn nodded, but Lothar just laughed and shook his head. “You two are quite a pair. You truly are.” He was still laughing as he walked away.

Once Lothar had gone, Wallen the hangman finished his work and the noose swung ominously from the crossbar above. He looked at the two brothers standing below him and gave them an almost imperceptible nod as he decended the steps and then turned and walked away himself.

Olyvar and Perwyn Frey lingered only a moment longer, looking up at that noose before they parted ways silently, each to their own tasks and thoughts.

 

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It wasn’t raining this morning, but otherwise the weather had not improved. The sky was a leaden grey, and the air was cold with a biting wind. Maege Mormont rode at the head of her column in full armor. She flew no flag of parley today. The Freys knew she came to attack if her demand was not met, and of course, it would not be. Her standard bearer rode to her left. To her right, also in full armor and with his visor down, rode Ned Stark. He had demanded that he be the one. No amount of reasoning from herself or Lord Reed had swayed him from his decision. She knew his bad leg was thickly bound from knee to calf to lessen the pain he felt when he dug the leg into his horse’s side. She also knew it still hurt him like hell.

No riders came out to meet them as they approached the Twins on this day. They rode toward the eastern castle with every man they had, some of whom would be dead come sunset. She prayed it would not be many, and that victory would be earned for the price of the blood spilled. As they approached, she could see many more archers on the walls than had been there the previous day, all with their bows trained on them. But no shots were fired yet.

The gate was open, just as Olyvar had said it would be. She looked quickly to either side to make certain Reed’s men were close, the men who had to get through that gate quickly once Ned had made his charge. They were there, looking toward the gate as intently as she was. The wide opening was lined by men mounted on horseback. And behind them was . . .

Oh gods! Olyvar had told them, but she hadn’t fully believed it until now. Well behind the men on horseback, just visible in the center of the courtyard stood a raised gibbet, and there with hands bound behind her and a noose tight around her neck was a woman whose long red hair fell loosely down her back and blew wildly with each gust of wind. Maege swallowed. Even at this distance, she easily recognized Catelyn Stark. Beside her, she heard Ned Stark strangle the cry that had come from him.

“Steady, my lord,” she said softly. “Go steadily. We’ll have her in a moment.”

He didn’t answer her. She didn’t imagine him capable of speech at the moment, and she was grateful she couldn’t see his face beneath the visor of his helmet. As they closed to within twenty paces of the men on horseback, she saw that Walder Frey had been carried out into the courtyard on his litter.

“What is the meaning of this, Lord Frey?” she called loudly. “How dare you treat Lady Stark in such a manner? I demand you release her now!”

Ned was positively vibrating beside her.

“Heh. The lady’s my hostage. Heh, heh.” The old man’s voice was not as clear and strong as her own, but Maege had no trouble hearing him, and neither did Ned Stark. “I’ll treat her any way I see fit, and if you cross that line, she swings. You want her? Heh. What’ll you give me for her? Not promises, I hope. Your promises are no good. Heh. Some of my sons have gotten a bit attached to her, heh . . .”

That was enough for Ned. Maege heard him kick his horse with a great, growling roar, and he had charged forward and cut down the two men directly in front of him before the Freys could react. As the Lord of Winterfell galloped into the courtyard of the Twins, Maege spurred her own mount to follow him, with Lord Reed’s men already doing the same.

Arrows began raining down from the walls, and just like that, full battle was joined. Maege slashed about her, called to her men, and prayed for that gate to remain open.

 

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Catelyn Stark shivered in the cold wind. They had not seen fit to give her a cloak, and the thin material of the blue dress Roslin had brought her did little to keep her warm. Roslin had cried ceaselessly as she helped lace that wretched dress over Catelyn’s shift in the pre-dawn hours. She had finally ordered the poor girl out of her room in an effort to preserve her sanity. She had brushed her hair herself, started to braid it, and then decided to simply let it be. She was going to die today. She had closed her eyes and run her fingers through her hair, wondering if she would find Ned when it was all done. She didn’t really have much hope of it. Hope had left her long ago. And yet, he would want her hair down.

Olyvar had come for her after an indeterminate amount of time. “Walk with me, my lady,” he had said quietly, and offered her his arm.

He was a good boy, Olyvar Frey. She knew he was older than Robb, but he always seemed younger to her. She wanted to say something to him, but she couldn’t quite manage it. She felt somehow even colder and harder than usual, and stones do not speak.

Olyvar had been the one to tell her. He had come with Roslin to her room the previous night and told her of Lady Maege’s ultimatum. Foolish woman! She should be riding out to find and kill Roose Bolton rather than seeking the dead here. She should seek Arya and Sansa. Now, Catelyn would die, good Northmen would likely die, and Walder Frey would go on living.

Catelyn found that she didn’t mind dying. It was Walder Frey living that left her feeling cheated. She had lain awake all night wondering why the gods had never seen fit to let her kill him. Ninety-two years that twisted, evil man had drawn breath while she, Ned, and their sons would get barely more than that to share among all of them.

By the time Roslin had brought the blue dress, Catelyn realized she had been dead for a long time. She had started dying piece by piece the day that Tallhart boy had told her about Ned. Today, her body would finally admit to being dead. Olyvar had said Maege had a sizable force. Perhaps she could manage to kill Walder Frey after all. Catelyn would hope for that. That would be enough.

As Olyvar had walked her into the courtyard, he had whispered to her, “Things are not what they seem, my lady. Be of good courage. I will be with you. All is not lost.”

She looked at him then, and forced herself to speak. “I have been lost for awhile now, Olyvar. Do not fear for me, for I do not fear this. I thank you for taking this walk with me, child. I fear it has been harder for you than for me.”

Two men had taken her from him then, roughly tied her hands behind her, and walked her up several stairs to the gibbet. The man who waited for her there actually looked at her with genuine kindness, and his hands seemed oddly gentle as he fastened the noose snugly around her neck. “There, milady,” he had said quietly. “Don’t you worry. I’ll let no hurt come to you. No pain.” He stood her over a rectangular trap in the platform and pulled the rope so it was almost taut from the crossarm above to her neck below. Then he left her alone.

And there she had stood, shivering in the wind as her hair blew across her face and all around her. She saw the Freys assemble at the gate and saw Lady Mormont’s company ride up with her bear banner flying. She would have liked it to have been the direwolf of Stark, but there were no Starks left save her. And soon, she would be no more.

There was some talk to which she gave no heed, although she was aware of Walder Frey’s hideous chuckle as he spoke. Then suddenly an armored knight beside Lady Maege reared his horse and broke ranks. He rode down two Frey men and galloped through the gate. More Freys converged upon him, blocking him momentarily from her view, but then she saw him again, hacking and cutting through them with a single-minded determination that defied possibility. She was vaguely aware that others had joined battle, but she could not take her eyes from this man. She suddenly feared for him and desperately wished for him to be safe. Watching him ride toward her, fighting for his life, she felt her heart pound and her pulse race as it had not done in a very long time.

He broke away from the last of his immediate pursuers, and he was now galloping directly toward her. He had raised his visor and as he approached, she could see his eyes. Oh gods, his eyes! She must be losing her mind. Perhaps, she was already dead, for the man racing toward her stared at her intently with her husband’s grey eyes.

She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t take her eyes from his. She was vaguely aware of the sounds of battle: swords clanging against each other, horses screaming, arrows whizzing overhead, and the groans of dying men. Ned is coming to me. She heard shouts: “The gate!! Lower the gate!!” “Pull the trap, damn it! Pull it!” She kept looking at Ned’s eyes. He had almost reached her. She must be dead. Now, she even heard his voice. “Cat!!!” She had opened her mouth to answer when she felt the trap beneath her give way, and Catelyn Stark found herself falling into darkness.

 

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Ned Stark wheeled his mount this way and that, slashing with a sword, as men came at him, on horseback and on foot. Damned Walder Frey’s laughing voice had stopped when he cut down those first two men, he thought with grim satisfaction. He had no more thoughts to spare for Walder Frey, though. His entire world had narrowed to the woman on the platform ahead, and he rode for her as hard as the horse would go, screaming in rage at every man who dared slow him down by giving battle. He couldn’t see well enough so he threw up his visor and rained blows down on the men on all sides of him.

He couldn’t move fast enough. Others had followed him through, and now he had men covering his flanks, attempting to clear his way forward. It wasn’t fast enough. Arrows were being fired into the courtyard now as well on the men outside, and his heart stopped as one sailed within a hair’s breadth of her on that godsforsaken platform. Why is she still up there? She is an easy target for anyone! He had shaken most of his pursuers now, and was able to ride straight for her. Oh gods, Cat! She was looking right at him. She could see him coming for her.

“Cat!!!” He screamed her name just as the trap beneath her gave way.

He had expected it to happen, had been waiting for it to happen, but it still shook him badly to see her drop. The rope gave way near the crossarm, and she dropped through the trap out of sight beneath the platform. He rode quickly to the rear of the gibbet and found the platform open beneath it there as Olyvar had described. She was lying in straw beneath the platform attempting to sit up with her hands bound behind her and the noose still around her neck.

He vaulted off his horse, giving no heed to the bad leg and fell to his knees beside her. He grabbed her up and crushed her to him, pressing his face into her hair. “Cat, oh gods . . .my Cat.” He felt her move in his arms and realized he was probably bruising her against his armor. He reluctantly loosened his hold on her and maneuvered her into a sitting position facing him. Then he cupped her face gently with his hands.

The light was very dim beneath the platform, but her blue eyes glowed. They widened as she looked at his face. “Ned?” she said his name hesitantly. “You did come. I didn’t know. I was afraid.” She looked at him in wonderment and seemed dazed.

He felt rather dazed himself, but they were in the middle of a battle, and he forced his mind to focus. “Don’t be afraid, my love. I’m here now. Let’s get that rope off your neck. Were you hurt at all when you fell?”

She looked at him as if she didn’t understand him at all, and then her mouth fell open. “Oh gods!” she exclaimed. “You’re alive! We’re alive!” She looked at him with such joy and amazement, he actually laughed, and then pressed his lips to hers in a brief, but desperately longing kiss.

“Yes, my love. We are both alive. But if I’m to keep us that way, I must get you out of here.” He began to pull the noose over her head, and with only a second’s hesitation, she lowered her chin to help him. His breath caught as his fingers brushed the angry red scar on her throat, but he put aside thoughts of that. As soon as her neck was free, she turned her back to him and he went to work on the bindings at her wrists. The moment she could pull her hands apart, she spun back around to face him, throwing her arms around his neck. Heedless of his armor, she held him as if she would never let him go again, and he put his arms around her once more, holding her wordlessly.

He could not help but hear that sounds of battle were closer to them now, though, so he gently pulled her arms from his neck. “Come, my love. We must go. Stay close to me.” As he helped her rise, a knifing pain shot through his leg. Gods! What did I do to it when I got off that horse? He made it to his feet, but then fell back with a sharp cry of pain when he tried to put his weight on it.

“Ned! You’re hurt!” she cried. She started to kneel back down to him, but suddenly she was pulled up and backwards, away from him.

“No!” he cried, and forced himself to his feet once more. He could see the man holding her by the hair, could see the knife at her throat. He’d never get to her in time. “Cat!” he screamed, stumbling toward her.

Suddenly, the man crumpled to the ground and Catelyn was standing there alone shaking. Ned reached her and pulled her into his arms. Behind her, he saw the man lying on the ground bleeding from a large stab wound in his side while another man stood over him, looking at the bloody sword in his hand as if he couldn’t quite comprehend it. The living man’s face was as colorless as the dying man’s. “Merrett,” he said.

Catelyn turned then and looked at the man with the sword. “Perwyn?” she said softly, and reached out to touch his arm. He looked at her as if he didn’t know her and then let the bloody sword in his hand fall to the ground. “Perwyn,” she repeated softly. “You saved me.”

The man looked at her more clearly now. “My lady,” he said in a choked voice. He didn’t seem able to say anything else.

“You are Ser Perwyn Frey?” Ned asked him. “I owe you a great deal, Ser Perwyn.”

The man shook his head. “Just go, my lord. Take your lady and get her safely gone from here.”

Ned looked around them. The battle did not seem as furious as it had been initially, but there were pockets of fighting all around the courtyard. The gate still stood open, he saw with relief, so Perwyn’s men and Reed’s men had done their jobs. There was danger still, to be sure, but this had the look of a victory to it. He turned to thank Perwyn again, but found the man had gone, leaving his sword on the ground behind him.

He caught sight of his horse a short distance away, and as he wondered how he would get it, Olyvar Frey came running to them. “My lady!” he called. “You are well! Oh, thank the gods!” Ned realized the boy was crying and that he had blood running down the back of his head.

“Olyvar, what . .”

“Merrett came after you, my lord. I tried to stop him and he hit me over the head. I feared he . . . Oh!” Olyvar had just noticed Merrett Frey’s body on the ground. He looked grim, but raised his eyes to Ned’s. “I am glad you killed him, my lord, if it means Lady Stark lives.”

Catelyn reached for the young man’s hand. “He was going to kill me, Olyvar, but it wasn’t Ned who killed him. Perwyn saved my life.”

Ned saw the meaning of her words sink in as an anguished look came over the young man’s face. He sympathized with him, but he had to get his wife out of this courtyard, so he spoke to him before he could think too hard about Perwyn. “Olyvar. My damned leg is done for now. Grab that horse and help Lady Catelyn and me get on him.”

Olyvar had been squire to a king, and hesitated not at all to do the bidding of his lord in battle, regardless of his own troubles, and Ned was soon riding out of the gate with Catelyn holding tight to his waist behind him.

 

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Catelyn was vaguely aware that a cheer went up as she and Ned rode through the gate and out of the Twins, but Ned didn’t stop the horse until they were well out of the range of any archers still shooting from the castle wall. He then stopped and lifted her carefully down before sliding off the horse slowly himself, careful to put no weight on his injured leg. She helped him to sit on the ground and then sat beside him.

She tentatively reached out a hand to touch his face, still not quite believing him real, and he returned the gesture. He ran a finger gently down her cheek, and she realized that he was tracing one of the faint red scars she had given herself when their son had been murdered.

“You have suffered too many hurts, my love,” he said.

She looked down, unable to to contemplate telling him of all the hurts she had suffered. Her eyes moved to his leg, stretched out in front of him. “As have you, my lord. How badly did you injure your leg?”

He gave a short laugh. “Today? I don’t think I’ve done anything dreadful to it. It was damaged in King’s Landing when I was set upon by the Kingslayer’s men. It festered badly. I fear I return to you a lame man, my lady.” His words sounded bitter.

“You return to me a living man,” she said softly. “That is more than I ever thought possible. And it is more than enough.” She wanted to hold him. “Shall I help you take off your armor, my lord?”

“I should return, Catelyn. I cannot ask my men to fight while I sit here with you.”

“You are injured!” she protested. Suddenly, she couldn’t bear the thought of not touching him. She grabbed his hands and held them in hers. “And you were dead! You were dead and I had lost you,” she said desperately. “They sent me your bones!” The last came out as a sob, and she threw herself against him again. “Please don’t leave me now,” she whispered against his armored chest. “Please.”

He said nothing more, but held her tightly and made no move to go.

After a time, Lady Mormont rode up. She dismounted and dropped to her knees before them, ignoring the fact that her liege lord and his lady were on the ground, holding each other as if their lives depended on it.

“My Lord and Lady Stark,” she hailed them. “It gladdens my heart to see you both well.”

Catelyn unwrapped her arms from around Ned and stood up. “Lady Maege,” she said warmly, walking to other woman and extending her hand to pull her from her knees. “Your presence here gladdens my heart. I cannot begin to thank you for what you have done today. I don’t truly know what has happened or how it came to pass, but . . .I thank you.”

“The battle, Lady Mormont, how goes the battle?” said Ned from his position on the ground. Catelyn was glad he didn’t attempt to rise. She was rather worried about that leg of his and wanted a look at it.

Lady Mormont smiled. “All but over, my lord. Lord Glover’s men are locking up Freys as we speak.”

“Lord Walder?” Catelyn asked sharply.

“Taken alive. He awaits my lord’s justice with the rest of them,” Lady Mormont said grimly.

“And he shall certainly receive it,” Ned said darkly. Catelyn felt a deep satisfaction at that.

“Tell me more, Lady Mormont. Did Galbart get into the western castle?” Ned almost grinned. “ I saw that our gate remained open.”

“Oh, yes, Lord Glover got into the western castle. The men assigned to ride through and open the gate for him went almost unopposed once they got to the bridge as virtually the entire Frey force was in the eastern castle. And almost no one tried to stop them from leaving the eastern castle because almost every man there was watching you, my lord! What a charge! I have never seen anything like it. Someone’s probably writing the song already,” Lady Mormont laughed. “Anyway, Lord Glover faced no opposition in the western castle, so he simply put a force of men on the bridge and caught every Frey that tried to flee that way. He also freed our captives from the dungeons. Lord Umber is most anxious to see both of you.”

Catelyn smiled at the thought of the huge man they called the Greatjon. “I am glad he is free.” She turned to Ned. “He was Robb’s fiercest bannerman, my lord. Your son won his loyalty by having Grey Wind bite a couple of fingers off!” The look on Ned’s face made her want to laugh out loud, and she realized it was the first time she’d thought of her son with laughter since his death. She also realized how much she and Ned did not know of each other’s lives now.

Having lost herself in her thoughts for a moment, Catelyn was startled to realize Lady Mormont was speaking again, telling Ned something about the gate.

“The two men Perwyn Frey hired were able to do precisely what Olyvar said they could. They had done something to the gate mechanism to sabotage it. Once it was raised, it could not be lowered again with any speed. Lord Reed’s men had plenty of time to get to the gate and take control of it for us. Truly, my lord, for a plan with far too many players and parts, it went perfectly.”

“Wait,” Catelyn said. “Do you mean to say that Perwyn and Olyvar were in on this plan?”

“Yes, my lady,” Lady Mormont responded. “We could never have done it without them.”

“Olyvar Frey knew you were alive and didn’t tell me?” Catelyn demanded of Ned.

“My lady, Olyvar was concerned about you,” Ned said softly. “He felt that if you had to worry about me, you would find your . . .captivity . . .harder to bear.”

Catelyn noticed the slight hesitation around the word captivity. She looked at Ned and then at Maege Mormont. Neither of them met her eyes. “He told you, didn’t he?” she asked softly. “He told you everything. I am so sorry, Ned. I am so sorry.” The shame of it colored her cheeks.

“No.” He spoke quietly, but the word came out with ferocity all the same. He rose to his feet then and walked to her, limping badly. He stood in front of her and took her hands in his, oblivious to Maege Mormont standing not five paces away. “You shall never be sorry for pain you did not cause, my lady.” The pain she heard in his voice broke her heart. “They will pay for every hurt they caused you. I swear it.”

Catelyn was silent then, very aware that they were not alone. Tears filled her blue eyes as she looked into his grey ones. Lady Mormont seemed to sense her difficulty, for she quickly said to Ned, “My lord, I am going back to the Twins. We shall secure the castle and set up camp nearby. No one shall disturb you until you return there. You have my word.”

Neither Ned nor Catelyn had looked at her as she spoke, continuing to look only at each other, and Lady Mormont did not wait for a reply before mounting up and riding away.

“I never wanted to bring you shame, my lord,” Catelyn said when she had gone.

“You never have, you never could, and you never will,” he told her.

“But people . .”

“People be damned, Cat!” he interrupted. Then he let go her hands and began tearing his armor off. Silently, she went to help him. Freed from his armor, he grabbed her and held her against him. “I am a man who was dead, Cat, holding my wife who was dead, and I can feel both our heartbeats.” He swallowed. “No one can touch us.”

“Oh, Ned . . .” the tears were flowing freely from her eyes now, falling for everything they suddenly had again and for everything they had lost. “Our babies, Ned,” she choked out. “They killed our babies.”

He sank back onto the ground pulling her with him, and wrapping her in the cloak she hadn’t even noticed Lady Maege left behind. Then he simply held her in his arms while she sobbed, finally crying all the tears she’d kept back for so long. Her grief was like the castle gate, she realized. Once she opened it up, she couldn’t close it again. And that was all right. Here in Ned’s arms, she could cry until all her tears were spent, and he could hold her close without speaking and know she understood his silent grief as well.

They stayed there just holding each other until daylight began to fade. Then Catelyn raised her head and looked at her husband to find him looking back at her. “I thought I’d lost you,” he said quietly. “And now I hold you again.”

She smiled at him. Her eyes ached from crying and she was stiff from lying on the hard ground, but she was well content. “Come, my lord,” she said sitting up and and offering him her hand. “Your men have won you a great victory today. They deserve our thanks. It’s time we go to them.”

He smiled at her and took her hand. Laughing, they pulled each other to standing. Then the Lord and Lady of Winterfell went to greet their victorious troops.

Chapter Text

Ned Stark lifted the ale to his lips and drank deeply. It had been a long day, and this bloody hall was the last place he wanted to be. He wanted to be with Catelyn, alone in the large tent the men had so graciously presented to them last night, a slight distance from the castle gate. When they had returned to their men last evening, Catelyn had gone pale at Lord Glover’s suggestion that they take rooms inside the Twins. He had felt her tremble beside him and had quickly informed Glover that he and his lady would be more comfortable outside those walls. That had meant a great deal of fuss, of course, setting up the tent and selecting guards to watch over them, but not one man protested.

They had held a celebration of sorts outside the gate last night, and the lords and their men had come out to pay homage to them. One by one, they had knelt before Catelyn and himself, and while he knew her to be as exhausted as he was, she was gracious to each. Wearing that blue dress and a borrowed cloak, with her hair hastily braided, Ned thought she had never looked more beautiful, with her blue eyes reflecting the flames of the fire she sat close to for warmth. The scars on her face and neck did not detract from her loveliness at all, serving only as testaments to her courage and stirring an even greater protectiveness in him than he‘d had already. The fading bruise on her cheek and the recently healed lip, though; as well as the other bruises he’d glimpsed briefly as she undressed in the tent---those provoked a fresh anger in him every time he thought of them.

Ned saw Howland Reed staring at him with concern from his seat just down the table, and he could only imagine what expression had been on his face at those thoughts. He nodded to his friend to indicate he was well, and looked further down the table at the Greatjon roaring with laughter at something Galbart Glover had said. The big man had picked Catelyn up by the waist and spun her in the air last night when he came out to greet them. Ned had to forgive the impropriety of it for the sheer joyful expression on the man’s face at seeing her alive. Cat had laughed out loud, the only true laughter he heard from her through all the greetings.

Later, she had sat quietly beside Lord Umber and told him of his son’s valiant defense of Robb. Apparently, the young man had single-handedly lifted a table off its trestles and laid it over Robb as he lay wounded to protect him from further arrows. He had fought with whatever weapon came to hand, including mutton from the table, and had not ceased his fighting until Bolton’s men had run into the hall and taken his head. Catelyn had recounted the tale for his father with dry eyes and a clear voice, but Ned had noticed the tremor in her hands as she spoke. He had moved beside her to take her hand in his, and she had clutched it tightly as the Greatjon thanked her for telling him of his son. Lord Umber had nodded solemnly at the two of them and walked away. It was the only time Ned had ever seen him quiet.

As he walked away, Catelyn had turned to him and said simply, “I am tired, my lord.”

He had nodded silently and led her to their tent. Inside, he looked approvingly at the furs laid upon the cot for her. The nights were cold now, and she was his summer lady. The Frey girl, Roslin, had brought out some clothes for her including a sleeping shift. He had helped her with her laces, but then felt her tremble and move away from him as she stepped from her dress. He turned aside as she pulled off her thin shift to get into the thicker one for sleeping, but not before seeing the bruises on her back and thighs. He caught a glimpse of an older wound along the edge of her spine as well. The quarrel, he remembered thinking.

She had crept quickly beneath the furs and then looked up at him, still standing there fully dressed. “I would sleep, my lord,” she said quietly, lowering her eyes. He had wondered if she wished to hide herself from him or only her injuries. “You should go back to the men, Ned,” she said softly. “Unless your leg troubles you. Stay here if it does.”

That had been the first thing she had seen to when they’d returned that evening. She’d sat him down, sent for the Frey’s maester, and had the man look at his leg. She had drawn her breath sharply when she saw the long twisted scars, but she hadn’t looked away. She had watched everything Maester Brenett did closely that she might care for him herself as needed. Only once the maester had pronounced him reasonably well, had she permitted him to receive his men with her at his side.

Ned wished she were at his side now. He looked around the hall to see that no one seemed to be leaving yet. He had long since had his fill of the food and company. He knew Roslin Frey was with Cat, but he wanted to be with her himself. He didn’t want her to go to sleep only to wake without him there. Not after last night.

He sighed. He had returned to the men last night after seeing her abed only to hear her cry out a short time later. She sounded terrified, and he had rushed back to the tent to find her still asleep, but thrashing about in the cot, struggling against an enemy only she could see. “Cat,” he had said to her. “Cat, I am here. You are safe.” She had fought him at first, but then relaxed into his arms as he continued to murmur her name. He had spent the rest of the night holding her as she slept, dozing off and on, never even bothering to undress.

Upon awakening this morning, she had smiled at him and chided him for sleeping in his clothes. She never mentioned her nightmare, and he didn’t know if she remembered it. He recalled the nights after Robert’s Rebellion when he would wake screaming and she had held him and whispered soothing things to him, never asking him the next day what had frightened him. He didn’t ask her now, either. He wondered if the not knowing had eaten at her the way it did him.

“My lord.” Ned looked up startled. He’d been so lost in his thoughts, he hadn’t seen young Marq Piper approach him. The toll of his imprisonment showed on the boy, Ned thought. He was far too thin, and his face had a haunted look that seemed out of place on such a young man.

“What can I do for you, Marq?”

“ I know you met with Lord Umber and the others today, my lord, about where we shall attack next. I wondered if you had come to a decision.”

Ned regarded the boy. “We have unfinished business here, first. I plan to address that tomorrow.” He looked levelly at the heir of House Piper. “By the next day, I hope to ride for Riverrun.”

“Yes!” the young man shouted. “I am your man, Lord Stark, as I am Lord Tully‘s.”

“You have heard that your father fights with the Lannisters and Freys. I would not ask you to take up arms against your kin, Marq.”

“My father is an old woman!” the boy proclaimed. “Bending the knee to those treacherous bastards because they might bloody my nose! He should have shown the courage Ser Brynden does.”

“Do not judge him so harshly. You are not yet a father. I have lost all three of my sons and I cannot say what I would do to have one of them back,” Ned said quietly. “As it happens, Marq, I may have need of you to speak to your father.”

The hope in the young man’s eyes at that belied the cold words he’d spoken of his father a moment before. “How could I possibly get to him through all those Lannisters and Freys, my lord?”

Ned looked at his friend Howland Reed who was now conversing with Lady Mormont. “Lord Reed’s men have a talent for going places they should not be able to. We may be able to devise a way for them to get you into Lord Piper’s camp. If we can count on your father joining us once we attack, it would make our plans easier.” Ned sighed. “We must free Riverrun quickly, before word travels widely that we have the Twins. Once we hold the Twins and Riverrun, whatever Freys remain will be in no position to help the Lannisters in their conquest of the Riverlands, and the other houses are likely to return their loyalties to House Tully with Edmure in his rightful place. Then, there’s the Mallisters at Seagard to be liberated.” Ned paused. “And eventually Winterfell,” he added sadly.

“I had thought you might wish to march for Winterfell at once, my lord.”

“Oh, I do, Marq. Make no mistake about that. But I can’t take Winterfell. Not as things stand now. I believe I can take Riverrun, with the Blackfish already there to help us, and possibly your father as well. And while I am of the North, my wife is a Tully, and House Tully called their banners for my son. I cannot leave them to the Lannisters and Freys. I will not.” Ned thought of the home he had left so long ago. “Winterfell must wait.”

Marq Piper nodded and took his leave, and suddenly Ned was even more tired than before. He had spent the entire day planning for tomorrow’s executions, planning the Riverrun campaign, discussing the future of the Twins, and the fate of House Frey. He had wanted Ser Perwyn to be a part of those discussions, but no one had seen the man since the battle. Olyvar had been a part of several discussions today, but not all. Regardless of his assistance here, many Northmen were hesitant to completely trust anyone named Frey: and regardless of his convictions about their cause, Olyvar was understandably not feeling celebratory about his family’s downfall. Perwyn’s killing of Merrett Frey and his subsequent disappearance had hit Olyvar hard.

Ned looked around the hall again. Who planned this bloody feast? he thought. He had no desire to celebrate on the site of his son’s murder. Catelyn had categorically refused to attend, and he defied any man to say a word about it. He again recalled her quiet, but vivid retelling of Smalljon Umber’s last moments to his father and realized that she could give him as clear an accounting of Robb’s if he asked her for it. Could I ask that of her? Do I even really want to hear it? He knew that he very definitely did not want to be in this hall any longer. He rose to leave and nodded at Lady Mormont and Lord Reed as he passed them.

They nodded in return and made no move to stop him as he went out. Quite a few men at arms were drinking and laughing in the courtyard, and some hailed him as he walked by with shouts of “Stark!” and “Winterfell!” and “The North!” He acknowledged them all with nods, but continued toward the gate. As he walked through, he was surprised to see the guards challenging three men on horseback.

The three stopped willingly enough and seemed to be identifying themselves to the guard. As Ned walked toward them, the torchlight lit up their faces, and he broke into as much of a run as his leg would allow. The two Winterfell men he had sent after Roose Bolton’s party to seek out Arya had returned. “What word have you?” he called to them.

At his voice, the third man gave a cry, and leapt from his horse. Coming to Ned, he literally fell on his face. “Lord Eddard! I did not believe it!”

When the man lifted his face, it was Ned’s turn to be shocked. “Hallis? Hallis Mollen? Where have you come from?”

Catelyn’s voice came from behind him as she approached from their tent. “I sent him north from Riverrun,” she said quietly. “With your bones, my lord.”

Mollen remained on his knees looking between his dead lord and lady as if his eyes could not be trusted. “We aren’t ghosts, Hal,” Ned assured him, pulling him to his feet. “I don’t know whose bones the Lannisters sent my lady wife, but they assuredly were not mine.”

Ned turned to the other two men. “Arya?” He couldn’t say any more than her name. His heart was pounding.

It was Mollen who answered. “No, my lord. It isn’t her. It’s the little Poole girl. Vayon’s daughter.”

“Jeyne?” Catelyn asked. “What has Jeyne to do with Arya? She was Sansa’s playmate.”

Ned’s heart had fallen at Mollen’s words. He hadn’t really believed Arya was with Bolton, but had clung to the hope of snatching her back all the same. “Come, my lady, let’s bring these men in to sit down and we will tell it all to you.”

He gave her his arm and the two of them led the three Winterfell men back to their tent. Once all were seated, Ned explained to Catelyn Bolton’s plan to marry Arya Stark to his bastard son, while Roslin Frey poured them all drinks. Then the men Ned had sent out explained that they had reached the Kingsroad after Bolton’s caravan already passed and had turned north hoping to catch them at Moat Cailin. Instead, they had found Hallis Mollen fleeing south. He had been trapped south of Moat Cailin when the Ironmen took it. When he heard that Roose Bolton’s men marched north to bring Arya Stark home to Winterfell, he jumped at the chance to join them.

“Just before we got to the battle, though, my lord, I had a chance to see the Lady Arya. I’d asked if I could speak to her before, but they always said no. As soon as I saw her, I knew why. I recognized Jeyne Poole right off. She doesn’t look anything like Arya Underfoot! She’s not even the right age! And she knew me, too. She looked right scared. I knew then I had to leave or I was a dead man.” He looked apologetically at Catelyn. “I’m afraid I had to leave his lordship’s bones, my lady.”

Catelyn snorted. “His lordship’s bones are right here with the rest of him,” she said, reaching out to touch Ned’s hand. “You are certain my daughter was not with the party? Could Jeyne have been there as her companion?”

“No, my lady. They all called the Poole girl ‘Lady Arya’ or ‘Lady Stark.’ There was no other girl.” Mollen told her.

“So my daughter is still missing,” she said softly. Then, she added, “Poor Jeyne. I have heard nothing good of Bolton’s bastard.” She sat very still and looked downward.

Ned shook his head. He knew more of the Bastard of Bolton than he’d yet had a chance to share with Catelyn, but now was not the time to talk of Winterfell. “Do you know if Bolton gained Moat Cailin?”

“Yes, my lord,” one of the other men said. "We had Hal wait for us and rode on to see for ourselves since none of the Boltons knew us. Boltons and Freys held the Moat and Lord Roose and the girl were already through.”

“Freys!” Catelyn spat. “Is there nowhere in the Seven Kingdoms not infested by Freys?” She stood suddenly and walked away from the men, turning her back toward them.

Ned looked after her and then stood as well. “Gentlemen, I thank you for your service. Go back to the castle and accommodations will be found for you. It is time my lady and I retired.”

The men took their leave, but Catelyn did not turn back around, standing still and silent as a stone statue.

Ned turned to Roslin who was looking at Cat with tears in her eyes. “You may go, Roslin. I will see to her.”

Roslin shook her head slightly. “She does this sometimes, my lord. She goes quiet and makes herself hard and still. You just have to leave her be.” She bit her lip. “Do you want me to stay until she’s ready to get into bed?”

“No,” he said quietly. “Go.”

As Roslin left the tent, he walked slowly toward his wife, who still stood unmoving. “Cat?” he said softly, putting a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t turn, but she didn’t pull away from him. “Cat,” he said again. “I will leave you be if you choose, but I’d much prefer to hold you, my love.” Carefully, he walked around to face her, putting both hands on her arms. She raised her eyes to his and fell into him, letting him gather her into her arms. He held her tight against him, rubbing her back with his hands and softly kissing the top of her head. Gods, help me know what to do.

 

._____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Catelyn Stark let herself collapse into her husband’s arms, and it felt good. She had missed him desperately throughout the day, but she could not face going back into the Twins. She simply couldn’t. And he had to. She felt weak and broken and ashamed of herself, but she could not go with him today. The least she could do was be strong enough to let him do what he needed to do. Now, she was failing at that.

Arya. Ned had been trying to get Arya back. Of course, he would. He would try to get Sansa back, too. She had to believe that he could. But how could her daughters ever be safe in a world with Lannisters and Freys? Freys at Riverrun. Freys on their way to Winterfell. Gods! The mere thought of them in her home made her want to vomit. She shivered and Ned held her tighter.

She realized his kisses had changed from the soft, comforting touches of a moment ago to something else entirely. His lips brushed along her ear to the nape of her neck, and she tilted her head to the side to allow him to continue. He brought his hands up to the back of her head, his fingers tangled in her hair, as he turned her face up to his. He looked at her so tenderly, she thought her heart would break, but there was a hunger in his look as well. He kissed her forehead and her eyes, then ran his lips down her cheek until they found her mouth. He kissed her lips, lightly at first and then more urgently, and she parted them to allow him to explore her mouth with his tongue. Ned, she thought. How I have missed you. How I have needed you. He could feel her respond to his kiss, and she felt him slide one hand down her back to press her hips to his. She could feel his need of her through the fabric of her dress and his breeches.

She panicked. “No!” she cried, pulling away. “I can’t. . .I can’t!” She turned away from him and began to cry.

“Cat.” Her name was a plea. “Cat, tell me . . . .tell me what to do.”

Gods! The pain in his voice was killing her. She was hurting him, and she couldn’t explain it to him. Not all of it. She had to tell him the one thing, though. She blinked to stop her tears and turned to face him. The expression on his face nearly broke her in two again, but she steeled herself against it. “Sit down, Ned,” she said, as she sat down herself.

He sat across from her and reached for her hands. “Cat . .” he started.

“No,” she said, pulling back from him. “It is easier if you don’t touch me.” She saw him flinch when she said it, and she tried to explain. “It isn’t that I don’t want you, my love,” she said softly. “I do. More than anything.” She swallowed hard. “The things that were . . .done to me . . .”

His face was carved in ice, his jaw set in a grim line, and she desperately wanted to comfort him, but there was no kind way to say this. “Ned, I could be with child.”

A shudder ran through him, but he said nothing, so she continued. “I do not think I am, but the last time that . . .” she couldn’t look at him and say it, so she dropped her eyes to the floor. “It has only been a few days since.”

He was shaking now. “Gods, Cat. I want them dead.” His voice was ice.

“No more than I,” she said. “But, Ned, I want . .I want . .moon tea. I want to be sure.”

“My lady?” he asked, not understanding.

“I will not bring you a bastard!” she cried. Then she saw his face and realized what she’d said. What he thought. Oh, Ned. “That was not a reproach of you, my lord,” she said quietly.

“Why not? I brought you home a bastard, did I not?” She couldn’t stand the ice in his voice.

“That was different,” she said. “That is not what I meant.”

“Different, how, my lady? Different because I had a choice and you had none?” Now the ice was breaking and she heard the guilt in his voice.

“I do have choice now,” she hissed. “And I choose to be sure that I am not with child.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she looked directly into the grey eyes she loved so much. “This is not about Jon, Ned. It isn’t. I will not deny that I have wanted to hurt you at times for the pain you caused me with Jon, but this is not about that. I simply cannot bear a child that isn’t yours. I won’t. I can’t.”

He met her gaze and nodded wordlessly in understanding.

“And I cannot lie with you until I am sure.” Then her voice broke as she finished,  "I could never seek to rid myself of a child that might be yours.” She allowed herself the tears then, and she allowed him to come to her and take her hands.

“Catelyn,” he said softly, when her crying had slowed. “Is this the only reason you fear to lie with me? I could feel your fear, my love.” He said the last before she could deny it.

She swallowed and tried to answer her husband as honestly as she could. “I do not know, my lord. But it is the thing I fear most, and I will not be easy until I am sure I need not fear it any longer.”

“Then I will talk to Maester Brenett in the morning,” he said.

He had Freys to kill in the morning. He didn’t need this task as well. “Tonight,” she said.

“Truly? It grows late, my love.”

“It is not that late. Can’t you hear them still going on in the castle? If the maester is truly abed, leave him be. But if he is awake, I would have it done.”

He nodded, kissed her hand, and walked back out toward the castle. I will survive this, she thought. I will survive this. Ned will break the siege at Riverrun. We will find our girls. She couldn’t think any further than that. That was quite enough.

She didn’t know how much time had passed before his return, but he came back with a cup of warm liquid.

“Here, my lady,” he said, handing it to her. “Maester Brenett says to expect your moonblood within three days. If it does not come then, you should drink another cup.”

She nodded silently and raised it to her lips. He moved to stand behind her and rubbed her shoulders as she drank. “How is it?” he asked.

“Bitter,” she answered. “But I can stand it.”

Chapter Text

It was cold in the tent as Ned stretched and opened his eyes. He reached beside him to find Catelyn gone. That alarmed him as he always woke before she did. Last night’s events were still fresh in his mind, and his heart ached as he recalled the hurt and shame he had seen in those blue eyes. He needed to go and find her.

As he was sitting up, she entered the tent, carrying a bundle of some sort of linens and a large mug. She smiled at him and handed him the mug. “Here. It’s warm.”

As he drank the hot liquid, he noticed she was fully dressed in layers suited to the colder temperatures outdoors. Her hair was back in its customary braid and her cheeks were flushed from the outside air.

“My lady,” he inquired, puzzled. “Where have you been? Why did you not wake me?”

“You slept so soundly. You were beyond tired, my love.” She put a hand on his face and then brushed it back through his hair. “You have done so much, and I believe you hadn’t truly slept in days.”

Well, he couldn’t deny that. “Still, Cat, you should have awakened me.”

She laughed, but there was little mirth in it. “Today will be a grim and terrible day, my love. And while I am anxious to have it done, I saw no need to have you start it before necessary.”

He looked at her closely as he continued drinking. She hadn’t mentioned last night or the tea she had drunk. He would not remind her needlessly of painful things, but he needed to know if she were truly all right. He asked her simply, “Are you well, my lady?”

She paused in unrolling her linen bundle and looked him in the eyes. “Yes, my lord. I am well.” Bending back over her bundle, which Ned now saw contained several small potion bottles as well as linens, she said, “Now lie back and let me treat and wrap that leg.”

“The leg is fine,” he protested.

“Of course it is,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “Lie back.” When he didn’t comply right away, she put her hands on her hips. “Eddard Stark, today is going to be long, grim, and terrible. I am not going to watch you suffer through it on a leg that pains you with every movement if I can do anything to help it.”

He conceded defeat and lay back. As she began massaging some foul smelling ointment into the flesh around his knee, he had to admit it felt wonderful, even if it did offend the nose. He watched her deftly wrapping the linen around it in spite of the several fingers which didn’t bend correctly and was suddenly struck by what she had said.

“Cat. You do not have to watch. I would not ask you to come with me today.”

“You need not ask. I am coming.” She finished wrapping his leg and looked at him. “Ned, you will be putting men to death today. And you’ll be doing it yourself.” She sighed. “I spoke with Wallen this morning. I sought him out to thank him for those skillful knots of his that saved my life. I found him preparing for hangings, but not very many.” She looked at him, but he didn’t respond, and she continued. “He told me that you intend to behead all of the Freys. Only some of the men-at-arms involved in that wedding get the noose.”

“The man who passes the sentence . .” he began softly.

“Swings the sword,” she interrupted. “I bloody well know that, Ned! I’ve been the Lady of Winterfell half my life now. I understand northern justice.” She paused. “But these men will die for treason I witnessed. I am one of the only people left alive who can testify to their crimes. Let my presence condemn every man who took part in their Red Wedding.” After another brief silence, she continued softly, “And some will also die for crimes against me. They are condemned by my word and for the sake of my honor.” She reached for his hand. “The woman who condemns them should stand by the man who swings the sword.”

He sat in silence for a moment, just holding her hand. The gods knew he would spare her any pain he could, but it seemed she would not spare herself. In truth, he would be glad to have her by him. He sighed and squeezed her hand. “As you wish, my lady.”

He stood up and found that the leg did bear his weight better as she had wrapped it. She helped him dress and he reached for the sword he had carried since Pentos. “Would that it were Ice,” he said. “I fear this blade will not be as well suited to the task today.”

“Robb demanded Ice back from the Lannisters, but they would not part with your sword. Only bones, and those not even yours.”

Ned shrugged. “The Lannisters likely thought they were mine. It was Varys’s intent that they believe me dead, anyway.”

Catelyn’s eyes widened. “Varys? The eunuch helped you escape? He works against the Lannisters?”

Ned sighed. “Who can say whom Varys works for or against? I certainly can’t. He removed me from the Black Cells and certain death only to imprison me in Pentos. To what purpose? I cannot begin to guess.”  He pulled on his cloak and placed Catelyn‘s over her shoulders. “But that is a puzzle for another day. Come, my lady,” he said, offering her his arm. “It is time to dispense the lord’s justice.”

“Then put on your lord’s face, my love,” she said to him as she took his arm, “and let them receive what they deserve.”

Looking into her eyes at that moment, Ned could not imagine any hell terrible enough to truly be what the men who had hurt her deserved. He thought of that terrible wedding and his son’s last moments on this earth. Then the Lord of Winterfell nodded to his lady and walked her out of their tent, his mind set on the task before him.

 

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Although she had dressed warmly enough, Catelyn shivered as they walked through the gate and into the courtyard of the Twins, but she allowed no distress to show on her face. She had already entered the castle once earlier that morning, to seek out medicine for Ned’s leg from Maester Brenett, to speak with Olyvar, Roslin, and Wallen, but mostly to assure herself she could actually do this before coming with Ned now. She knew what a difficult day lay ahead, and she was determined to be strong for his sake. There would be no collapsing into his arms today.

They were met by Lord Umber, looking uncharacteristically somber. “My lord, my lady,” he said, nodding to each in turn. “We have placed a small platform near the headsman’s block. You said you wanted all to be able to see and hear you. Lady Tully and her brother await you there.”

Catelyn realized with a start that he was referring to Roslin and Olyvar. Roslin was indeed Lady Tully, and she carried the heir to Riverrun. Gods help them, Catelyn thought. Roslin was even more tenderhearted than Edmure, and they would both require stern resolve if they were to reclaim and rebuild the Riverlands. As she and Ned ascended the platform to join the sister and brother, she was pleased to see that Roslin’s eyes were dry. Olyvar looked ill at ease, but that did not surprise her. She knew he was still very uncomfortable with Ned’s plan for him. He had only agreed to it because the alternative was for House Frey to lose the Twins altogether.

In front of the platform was the headsman’s block, and standing to the side of it, all in irons and heavily guarded were most of the adult male Freys currently in the Twins who had survived the battle two days ago. A chair had been placed there for Lord Walder, out of consideration for his age and infirmity, but Catelyn was pleased to note it did not look comfortable. Behind the prisoners, the other members of the household were gathered, the Frey women and their children, and the servants. Ned’s commanders and their men stood to the other side waiting to hear what their lord would say.

Ned squeezed her hand and then stepped to the front of the platform, slightly in front of Olyvar, Roslin, and herself. He cleared his throat, and all in the courtyard quieted. “I am Eddard Stark,” he called out in his clear, strong voice. “The Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. I stand before you today to pronounce sentence on these men . .” He indicated the Freys. “who committed treason and murder against their king and murder against their king’s men all in a despicable and craven violation of sacred guest right. The penalty for this is death.”

“I wasn’t there, Stark!” yelled one man from the group of Freys. “You can’t kill me just for being a Frey! I wasn’t part of it!”

Before Ned could reply, Catelyn stepped forward. “But you were there, Jammos Frey. I remember you clearly.”

The man glared at her, but said nothing further.

“You have heard Lady Stark’s evidence,” Ned continued. “As she was indisputably at this Red Wedding, you stand convicted by her testimony.”

Lord Walder actually started to laugh. “Convicted by her testimony. Heh, heh. Convicted by the word of the little trout whore. She tell you where else she’s been, Stark? She tell you how she likes to bed with my boys? Heh, heh.”

Catelyn felt Ned tense beside her, and she grabbed his arm lest he leap from the platform at Lord Walder. He had to be the Lord of Winterfell dispensing justice right now; not her angry husband seeking vengeance. “Lord Walder!” she cried out. “I name you liar as well as murderer.”

“Oh, you haven’t spread your legs for my boys then, Lady Stark? Tell it true, my lady. Heh.” Malice glittered in his eyes and she realized that he wanted to humiliate Ned, to make him appear weak by shaming her.

There was no holding Ned back now. He was off the platform and his hand was on the old man’s throat before Catelyn could make any reply. “My lord!” she called to him. “Do silence him. Put a rag in his mouth that no one should have to hear him again until you take off his head for his crimes!”

Galbart Glover was in charge of the guard detail and he was there by Ned’s side swiftly, pressing a large piece of cloth into his free hand. Ned stared at it, and then loosed the grip his other hand had around Frey’s neck. He allowed the old man about five gasping breaths and then shoved the rag into his mouth. “You will be silent,” he said coldly.

Everyone else was completely silent, and they were all staring at her. Catelyn willed herself not to blush or look down or show any sign of guilt that would be taken as evidence that old Lord Walder’s attempt to shame her had any merit. “He will be silent,” she said, “but I will speak the truth. I am Catelyn Stark, Lady of Winterfell and daughter of Riverrun. I was brutally attacked and nearly killed at my brother’s wedding where I saw my son murdered before my eyes. Since then, I have been held prisoner at the Twins, and have been beaten, humiliated, and yes, raped, all at the direction of Lord Walder Frey. I am guilty of nothing. But the guilt of Lord Frey and his family is compounded by their crimes against me. I condemn them, and I defy anyone to defend them.”

There was silence for a moment, and then Lord Umber shouted, “Hear, hear!” His shout was followed by someone yelling, “For the lady!” and more shouts of “Lady Stark!” and “Justice!” Catelyn stood silently on the platform and met Ned’s eyes. She nodded to him, and she saw him swallow hard twice. Then he ascended the platform and stood again at her side. He offered her his arm and she took it. “Be assured that my lady will have justice,” he said to the people assembled. “House Frey has many crimes to answer for, and today that will be done.”

He let the crowd settle down a moment before continuing. “But we shall not punish the innocent with the guilty. The Twins has long been the seat of House Frey. With Lord Walder and so many of his heirs proved traitor, we must have a new Lord of the Crossing. I now speak on behalf of Edmure Tully, Lord of Riverrun and Lord Paramount of the Trident.”

“Who are you to name our lord? Who gives you the right to speak for Tully?” called a woman. Catelyn thought she remembered her from the wedding as one of the Frey daughters or granddaughters.

“I do.” The voice which came from behind her was not loud, but it was firm, and Catelyn turned to see Roslin Frey Tully stepping up to stand at Ned’s other side. “I am the Lady of Riverrun, and while my lord husband remains a captive of his disloyal bannermen, I give his good-brother, Lord Stark, leave to speak with his voice.

“You’re no Tully, Ros!” another woman called out.

“Oh, but I am. I am wedded and bedded, and I carry the heir to Riverrun.” She turned to Ned. “Pray continue, Lord Stark.”

Ned nodded to her and then spoke again. “In the name of Edmure Tully, I name Olyvar Frey Lord of the Crossing and master of the Twins.”

Another murmur went up, this one mixed in tone, with some noises of approval and some of anger. Ned beckoned Olyvar forward, and Catelyn stood aside to allow him to come and kneel before Ned and Roslin. He looked younger than ever, Catelyn thought, but he knelt and said his words clearly, pledging fealty to House Tully. Ned had Roslin accept his pledge on behalf of Edmure, and for better or worse, it was done.

“And now, the task that remains to us is to carry out the sentence on the men condemned here today. I am a Stark, and Starks follow the old ways. As the man who passed the sentence, I shall swing the sword.”

Without another word, he descended the stairs, stood by the block, and drew his sword. Catelyn had seen him execute men before and knew how deeply it affected him. No one watching would know, though. His face was ice, frozen in an expression as stern as any of the statues of the old northern kings in Winterfell’s crypt.

The first man brought to him was Lame Lothar Frey. He spat in Ned’s face and cried out, “Your son spit on our honor, Stark! And I spit on yours!” Then he was pushed down on the block, and Ned raised his sword over his head, naming Lothar and pronouncing him guilty of treason and murder. The sword flashed downward and red blood spurted onto the ground as his head rolled away. A clean death, Catelyn thought, looking at the blood staining the ground. They call this a clean death.

One by one, the Frey men were brought to the block and each was allowed to say last words. Some cried. Some cursed. Some simply stayed silent. One by one, Ned named them, called out their crime of treason and murder, and brought his sword down upon their necks. He killed each of them with one blow, but some took a second blow to completely strike off the head. Catelyn watched him closely and saw that his arms shook more with each man, and he was leaning more heavily on the good leg.

Raymund Frey was the eighth man brought forward, with only his father still to go. Ned looked visibly tired now, at least to Catelyn, but when Raymund was brought before him, he drew himself up straighter. “You,” he said. “You cut my lady’s throat.”

Raymund sputtered, “I . .I . . No, my lord. I . .”

Ned pushed him down on the block himself, named him and his crime, and swung the sword with as much force as he had at Lothar. No second stroke was required to remove Raymund’s head. Ned stood there, panting, for the space of time it took to remove his body. As he prepared to call for Lord Walder, another voice hailed him from the rear of the crowd. “Lord Stark, I am here to have sentence passed upon me!”

Catelyn looked up and saw Perwyn Frey walking through the spectators. He came from the direction of the gate, as if he had only just returned to the castle. He looked terrible. His clothes were dirty, and his hair was uncombed. He had a sad, defeated look in his eyes as he approached Ned.

Perwyn fell on his knees before Ned. “I confess my crime, my lord. I am guilty of treason against Robb Stark, the King in the North, and my life is forfeit.”

Roslin gasped, and Catelyn couldn’t stop herself from saying, “Perwyn, no.”

Perwyn turned to look up at her. His eyes were full of guilt and sorrow.

Her heart went out to him. “You saved my life!”

“Yes, my lady, and I am glad of your life. But I slew my brother in that act, making me kinslayer as well as traitor. No man is more accursed.”

“Ser Perwyn,” Ned said. “You took no part in the Red Wedding. My lady wife was present, and has told me you were not there.”

“I was not there, my lord,” Perwyn said. “But I knew of it. I knew precisely how it was to occur, from the bowmen in the balconies to the rigged tents outside. I knew all of it, and I did nothing, my lord. In fact, I did worse than nothing. I removed my brother Olyvar from the Twins.” He shook his head sadly. “Had Olyvar been here and discovered the plot, he undoubtedly would have warned King Robb. So it isn’t true that I had no hand in it, my lord. I took away your son’s only hope.”

Ned shook his head. “I owe you Catelyn’s life,” he said softly.

“Had I done my duty to my king, you might have both your wife and your son alive, my lord. But I chose my family’s honor and my duty to my father. And in the end, I failed that, too, killing my own brother.”

Perwyn stood and looked at the assembled northmen and Freys and raised his voice louder. “I am Ser Perwyn Frey. I do not come here for Lord Stark to judge me. I have no need of judgment, for I confess my guilt. I stood with my family as the Red Wedding was planned. I deserted my king. I am as guilty of treason as any of my kin. I come now to receive my sentence.”

Catelyn stood frozen. What could Ned do? The man stood there confessing guilt for all present to hear.. He could not simply let him go. He had to serve equal justice to everyone, or there was no justice for anyone. Catelyn shivered. But how could he kill Perwyn? She could hear Roslin, who had been so strong today, softly crying. Oh gods, Ned. What can you do?

Ned appeared to be wondering the same thing because she could see past the mask of his frozen face to the deep sorrow showing in his grey eyes. Finally, he spoke, “Perwyn Frey, by your own words, you are condemned. You are guilty of the crime of treason, and your life is forfeit.”

There was complete silence at this pronouncement, and Perwyn knelt again on his own to place his head on the block. Ned reached out to take his arm and pulled him back up to stand. He looked him in the eyes.

“Your life is forfeit, Perwyn. But it need not be for nothing. I shall allow you to take the black. Become a man of the Night’s Watch. Defend the realm from threats beyond the Wall and regain your honor there. What say you, Perwyn Frey?”

Catelyn saw Perwyn turn to look at his brother and sister on the platform. Both looked back at him now with hope in their eyes. Perwyn turned to her, and she gave him an encouraging nod. Perwyn then turned back to Ned.

“I shall take the black, my lord. I shall do my best to serve the Night’s Watch honorably for all my days.”

“I have no doubt of it,” Ned told him quietly. “Lord Glover,” he said more loudly, “Take Ser Perwyn into custody until we can arrange escort for him to the Wall.”

As two of Lord Glover’s men escorted Perwyn away, Ned remained silent. He looked so tired.  Catelyn could see exhaustion etched into every line of his face. She wanted to go to him, but knew she could not. She remained in her place on the platform with Olyvar and Roslin as her husband sighed deeply and looked at Walder Frey.

“Bring Walder Frey forward.” His voice was so cold it was lifeless, and Catelyn noticed he did not give the man the courtesy of his title, as Olyvar had now been named Lord of the Crossing.

Two men lifted Frey from the chair, and he half shuffled and was half dragged before Ned. “You are an evil man,” Ned said in icy tones almost too quiet for Catelyn to hear. “An evil, twisted old man who talks about honor but has none. You have brought shame upon your house, and you deserve a thousand painful deaths. Would that I could kill you more than once.” Raising his voice, Ned cried out, “Walder Frey, you have been found guilty of treason and murder against your king! Your life is forfeit!”

The men holding Frey up pushed him down in front of the block, but before they could push his head down, Ned commanded them, “Remove the gag. Even such as he should get a chance to speak before his death.”

One of the men pulled the gag from the old man’s mouth and he retched, coughing up thick globs of blood. Looking at Ned with pure hatred, he rasped, “You win nothing, Stark. Your sons are dead, your daughters sold, and your wife ruined. You win nothing.”

Ned said nothing. He simply nodded at the men holding Frey, and they pushed his head down onto the block. Ned raised his sword, and Catelyn saw it there for the briefest of moments outlined against the grey sky and stained with the blood of Frey’s sons and grandsons. Then it arced downward and met the old man’s neck with a dull thud. His head fell and rolled several feet before coming to rest with his toothless mouth open and his malevolent eyes staring sightlessly toward the heavens.

Catelyn felt nothing as she looked at those dead eyes. Neither revulsion nor relief. She found she cared not at all about Walder Frey in that moment. She cared only for the man who stood with his hands still on the sword with its blade pressed into the block. Ned didn’t move as a man dragged Frey’s headless body away. He seemed frozen.

She descended from the platform and went to him. “My lord,” she said softly, touching him on the arm.

He looked up at her slowly, and his eyes held more pain, anger, grief, and exhaustion than she thought possible for one man to know. “My lady,” he said softly. “I would leave this place.”

She nodded at him. “As would I, my lord.” She looked to the platform. “Olyvar,” she said simply.

The new made Lord of the Crossing understood immediately, and like the squire he had been, he came to them and gently removed the bloody sword from Ned’s hands, wiping it on the grass before replacing it in its sheath.

As the show was over, people were gradually dispersing. Catelyn stood by Ned, her hands firmly holding his arm. “Lord Umber! Lord Glover! Lady Mormont!” she called. The three came to stand before them at once. “See to the castle, my lords and my lady. I would have no unrest here. Please assist Lord Olyvar in whatever he asks.”

The three of them nodded their assent as Ned stood silently at her side. “Lord Stark and I will be in our tent should you have need of us.” She gave them a look which very clearly indicated they should not have need of them any time soon. She hoped Lady Maege, at least, would understand her.

“And those, my lady?” Lord Umber asked, indicating the heads which had been gathered in a grisly sort of pile near the block.

“Mount them on the wall.” Ned’s voice was still ice. “Let the crows feed on them.”

Umber smiled grimly. “It will be done, my lord.”

“And have someone see to the bodies,” Catelyn added. “Treat them properly. When the heads are taken down, we must give the bodies to whatever kin wish to have them.”

“I thank you for that, my lady,” said Olyvar quietly. “It is . . .generous of you.”

Catelyn knew he was thinking of what his father had done to Robb’s body. “No, Olyvar,” she said. “It is only decent.”

She heard Ned take a deep breath beside her. “I would have you all come to my tent this evening. And Lord Reed. There is still much to speak of before the morrow.“ He looked at Olyvar then. “Lord Frey,” he said solemnly, “The castle is yours.” Turning to Catelyn, he said simply, “Come, my lady.”

Catelyn nodded and began to walk with her husband toward the gate. His limp was far more pronounced than it had been when they entered the courtyard, and she held his arm firmly that he might lean into her.

After they had gone about twenty paces, she stopped and turned back. The three lords and Lady Mormont still stood looking after them. “Lord Umber,” she called. “About the heads. Please mount them to the north of the gate.” She looked briefly at the grisly pile. “Our tent lies to the south, and I would prefer to never look on those men again.”

She turned to Ned who nodded grimly to her, and they continued out of the courtyard together.

 

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Olyvar Frey stood between Lord Umber and Lady Mormont and watched Lord and Lady Stark walk slowly toward the gate, her last words echoing in his head. He needed to see to Roslin, to speak with Perwyn, to do any number of things now required of him as the lord of this fractured and divided house. Yet, he could not turn away from them. There was an undeniable courage and strength in their halting progress that had drawn the eyes of many in the courtyard.

Lord Stark stumbled just once, his bad knee buckling as they passed through the gate. His lady’s hands were on his arm though, and he did not fall. With barely a pause, they turned and passed out of sight in the direction of their tent.

Lady Mormont shook her head slightly. “He asks too much of himself,” she said quietly.

“The leg troubles him far more than he lets on,” Olyvar agreed. “He should have used a headsman for so many.”

“Hah!” Lord Umber said loudly. “I’ll forgive the boy lord as an ignorant southron, but you should know better, Maege Mormont.”

Lady Mormont snorted softly, and Olyvar raised his brow at Lord Umber. “An ignorant southron?” he inquired.

“Aye, lad, an ignorant southron.” He turned to face Olyvar, looking down at him from his much greater height. “Lord Eddard is a Stark of Winterfell. If there’d been thirty Frey heads to take today, he’d have taken them all. The man who passes the sentence swings the sword! Those aren’t just words, young Olvyar.”

“No, they aren’t,” Lady Mormont said quietly. She looked gravely at Olyvar and said, “The north is a hard land for hard men, my lord. Lord Stark knows that well. Northmen have followed the Starks for more than a thousand years, but they won’t follow weakness.” She smiled at Olyvar then. “Lord Eddard has always proven himself a true Stark of Winterfell, and his men will follow him anywhere.”

Lord Glover, standing to the other side of Lady Mormont, had been silent to this point, but now he waved an arm in the direction of the army camp. “There isn’t a man out there who wouldn’t die for him,” he said simply.

Lord Umber nodded agreement, and then added thoughtfully, “And after today, not a man who wouldn’t die for her, either.”

Lady Mormont smiled, and Olyvar heard a distinct teasing note in her voice when she spoke. “Why, Lord Umber, do you refer to that southron lass Eddard Stark brought north? The one whose thin blood couldn’t possibly survive a northern winter?”

The Greatjon snorted loudly. “Oh, she may have been a Tully when Lord Eddard wedded her, but, by the gods, Lady Catelyn is a Stark!”

The other three regarded him carefully after this pronouncement, and the big man almost blushed. “Well, we have enough work to do,” he roared. “No reason for us to be standing around.” He turned on his heel, and strode off, calling to some men. Lord Glover followed, chuckling softly.

Olyvar looked after the two men, shaking his head.

“You must find us strange, Lord Olyvar,” Lady Mormont said to him, smiling.

“Well, my lady, I’ll never be a northman,” he answered, returning her smile. “But if I ever hope to be lord here in more than just name, I believe I would do well to learn more from Lord Stark’s example than my father’s.” He bowed formally to her and took his leave. The new Lord of the Crossing had a long day still ahead.

 

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Ned felt oddly cold as he walked with Catelyn out of the Twins. Cold weather never bothered him, and he knew it wasn’t the wind that chilled him now. He had killed nine men. Nine men had lost their heads to his blade that day in the name of justice. Justice! he thought bitterly. He had executed any number of men in his years as Lord of Winterfell, and never found it an easy thing to do. He had killed men whose crimes were heinous enough to provoke anger and revulsion within him, but he had never felt actual hatred for the men whose heads he took in the name of the law; only the solemn responsibility of ending their lives.

Today was different. He hated every man he’d killed today. They had taken his son and abused his wife. And in spite of his damned leg, every swing of the sword had come easily to him. Justice. He could name it that when he spoke to others, but to himself he admitted what he’d done today. Vengeance. He had taken vengeance on House Frey, and he wished to take still more. That left him cold.

Lost in his thoughts, he barely noticed Catelyn had led him past their tent. As he realized they were walking into the woods, he stopped. “My lady?” he asked, puzzled.

“Just a bit further, Ned. Come with me.”

He nodded and let her continue to lead him to a small grove of trees near an icy stream. In the midst of the dark trees, he saw the white of a solitary weirwood. “Cat,” he said softly, unable to say more as he realized what she had done for him.

“There isn’t a proper Godswood,” she said. “I asked Olyvar this morning and he showed me this place.” She looked at the weirwood. “It doesn’t have a face, but I thought at least it’s quiet here. And there’s water.” She pulled a cloth from the folds of her dress. “It’s freezing, I’m afraid, but it will clean your blade.” She fell silent and simply waited for him to say something.

Looking at her there, he felt so many things at once, he couldn’t speak. He simply reached out, took the cloth, and whispered, “Thank you.” He walked to the stream and plunged it into the frigid water, and then took out his sword and sat before the weirwood to wipe it thoroughly.

He could feel her watching him. After a moment, she said quietly, “I’ll leave you, my lord.”

“Stay.” His voice sounded to his ears like a command, so he looked up at her and added, softly, “Please.”

She nodded and knelt down near him, spreading the skirt of her dress on the cold ground. They stayed there in silence for some time, he cleaning every spot on his blade and then drying it against his breeches, and she sitting with her head bowed.

Finally, he asked her, “Do you pray, my lady?”

She smiled at him. “I suppose I do. I don’t really know how to pray to the old gods. I find the words to prayer come more easily to me in the sept. But they are your gods, so I find myself asking them to keep you safe.”

“And I ask them to keep you safe.” He sighed. “Since I have not.”

“Ned . .”

“No. It is true, my lady. I should never have left Winterfell. Robert and his iron throne be damned. My place was with you and the children.” He gave voice to the bitterness and guilt he’d felt since the day of his arrest in King’s Landing.

“Ned, I told you to go. It was my . .”

“No,” he interrupted her. “You encouraged me to go at first, I know. But it was my decision. Mine.” He paused. “And after Bran’s fall . . .you asked me not to go. You begged me not to go.”

“I said a lot of things after Bran’s fall,” she said quietly. “I was mad with grief. You did what you had to do, my love.”

“And what’s come of it?” he nearly shouted the words. “Our sons are dead, Cat! Our daughters are lost! I have failed all of you.”

“Don’t do this, Ned. It isn’t your . .”

“It is mine. My responsibility. I am their father. I am your husband. You are all mine to protect. I failed you! And if I take the heads from every Frey, Greyjoy, and Lannister in the Seven Kingdoms, I cannot change any of it.”

She looked at him. “No,” she said simply. “You can’t.”

He looked carefully at her then, but he saw no recrimination in her eyes. No anger or disappointment in him. Only sadness. “You truly do not blame me, Cat?” he asked her.

She closed her eyes. “Do you blame me?” she asked.

“Gods, no! How could you even think such a thing?” He grabbed her hands and held them tightly, resisting the urge to shake her for even asking such a foolish question.

“For the same reason you do. It seems we both blame ourselves.” Her voice didn’t waver, but he saw tears shining in her eyes.

He nodded slowly. “It seems we do. Perhaps, my lady, it is time we both find a way to stop.”

Ned let go of her hands, and shifted on the ground until he sat leaning back on the trunk of the weirwood. “Come here, Cat.” She moved beside him, and he reached his arms around her, drawing her in to sit cradled against him. “You said you weren’t sure how to pray to my gods. It isn’t difficult, my love. You don’t even need words. Sometimes to pray is only to be silent and still.”

“I can do that,” she said.

“Mmm,” he answered and kissed the top of her head where it rested beneath his chin.

After that, they were silent and still for a long time. He knew he could not banish the anger and bitterness completely. They were too much a part of his grief. Yet, as he sat by the weirwood holding his wife, he also knew he would not be controlled by them. He still had far too much to live for to allow vengeance to dictate his life. Wordlessly, he prayed for wisdom as they moved forward. So much still had to be done. He still had to find his daughters.

Finally, he said, “We should go back now, my lady.”

“If you are ready, my lord,” she answered. “I will stay as long as you wish.”

He laughed a little at that. “What I wish and what we must do are two different things, I fear. It is past mid-day now, and the evening will bring our men around for yet another strategy meeting.”

“Our men? What of Lady Mormont?” she asked with a smile. “Leaving her out, are you?”

“Never,” Ned’s laugh was bigger at that. “She’d not allow it. I’m not leaving you out, either, Cat. That’s why I asked them to come to our tent. Any discussions of Riverrun should include you. You know more about the place than any of us.”

“I should hope so. Come on, then,” she said, getting to her feet and offering him her hand. “I’d like to work on that leg of yours again before then.”

“If you insist,” he told her.

As they walked back from the woods, holding hands, he considered all she had done for him that day. His wife knew him well and he thanked the gods for it. He squeezed her hand, knowing she’d already done far more to heal him than her foul-smelling leg potion ever could.

Chapter Text

"No, Olyvar,” Ned Stark said for what felt like the millionth time. “You cannot come. Your place is here.”  The lords and ladies gathered in his tent had been discussing the march on Riverrun for well over an hour, and Ned was ready for this meeting to be at an end.

“I would fight for you, my lord,” the young man protested.

Ned sighed. “No one here doubts that for a moment. But, Olyvar, the force besieging Riverrun is made up, in large part, of Freys. I would not have you fight your own kin.” He frowned at the new lord and continued before Olyvar could protest. “And you have quite enough of your kin to be dealt with here. My naming you Lord of the Crossing did not sit well with at least half of the Freys who remain in the Twins. You must deal with all opposition here before any of your older brothers and their offspring who are elsewhere come to challenge you.”

“Lord Stark speaks truly, Lord Olyvar,” Galbart Glover put in. “The current state of quiet here is largely dependent on our presence. When we leave for Riverrun . . .”

“We’ll leave men behind,” Ned put in quickly. “Until Lord Olyvar has enough men of his own that can be counted loyal, we must assist him.” To Olyvar, he added, “Gaining the loyalty of your men is your task, my lord. You must show them that while you are an ally to the north, you are not our possession, to be used as we decree. You owe allegiance to Riverrun, yes, but your main concern must be the welfare of your people here.”

“I know all that!” Olyvar exclaimed, rubbing his face with his hands. “I just don’t know how to do it,” he finished quietly.

As Ned pondered how to answer that, Catelyn spoke. “Just be yourself, Olyvar. You are a good, honorable man. Treat your family here and all others for whom you are responsible fairly and reasonably. At first, you will need the backing of my lord husband’s soldiers, but as the people here come to know you as their lord, they will support you. I know it.”

Ned watched the young man look to his wife as if she held the answers to all his questions. “You truly think so, my lady?”

Catelyn smiled at him. “Yes, Olyvar, I do.”

Olyvar seemed to Ned to visibly grow stronger at her words, and he was not surprised when the young man turned to him and said, “My lord, you are correct. My place is here. I will offer whatever assistance I may to you, and I thank you for whatever men you may offer me to maintain the peace at the Twins.”

Ned nodded to him. “You will have whatever men you need, my lord,” he said. He looked at Catelyn who sat across the table from him and smiled at her. She returned his smile and his heart jumped in his chest at the sight. Then he noticed Howland Reed who sat next to her regarding her closely, and he felt an old anxiety seize him.

“Lord Reed,” he said, drawing the man’s attention back to him, “Your men have left already in the company of Marq Piper?”

“Yes, my lord,” Reed answered him. “If contact can be made with Lord Piper without giving us away, it shall be done.”

“And we are certain no word of events here has been sent to Riverrrun as yet?” Ned inquired.

“Quite certain, my lord.” Glover responded. “The rider sent out before the attack was easily apprehended, and no one has left the western gate since.”

“And I have had men guarding the ravens since we took the castle, my lord. The maester has not been allowed near them,” put in Lady Mormont.

“Maester Brenett will not act against me,” Olyvar interjected.

“I am glad of your faith in him, Olyvar,” said Ned, “but for the present, I believe Lady Mormont’s precautions should be continued.” Ned took a deep breath before continuing, “You have heard our basic plan of attack, Olyvar. You are better informed about the force surrounding Riverrun than any of us. What do you know about this Daven Lannister? I only recall hearing of him as an able soldier, loyal to Lord Tywin.”

“Well, you know near as much of him as I do, then, my lord,” Olyvar responded. “Since Lord Tywin’s death, things have seemed somewhat unsettled in King’s Landing. Cersei Lannister rules as King Tommen’s regent, and Ser Daven has been appointed Warden of the West. Most of us had thought that would be Ser Kevan Lannister or even the Kingslayer. But, in any event, Ser Daven appears to be a patient man, considering options before taking any decisive action against Riverrun. I know he thinks little of my nephew Ryman who commands the Frey forces. I have heard he has little patience for my half-brother Emmon as well, for all that he’s married to Genna Lannister and has been named Lord of Riverrun.”

Ned looked at Catelyn as Olyvar spoke, noting again the tightness in her expression that had occurred whenever Ryman Frey had been mentioned during the evening’s discussions. He suspected the reason, and the rage that rose up inside him at that made it difficult to concentrate on the discussion at hand.

Lord Umber was asking something about the river lords who were encamped with the siege army. Ned forced himself to attend to Olyvar’s reply that neither Ser Daven nor Ryman Frey were convinced they could be depended upon.

“This is good,” he said. “Our enemies mistrust each other, and we know we can count on assistance from within the castle once we engage.”

“Without fail, my lord,” Catelyn put in. “Ser Brynden is an able soldier. He will see what you are about and join battle to assist you.” She hesitated and then added, “I do fear for my brother. The Lannisters hold the Lord of Riverrun hostage.”

“Actually, my lady,” said Olyvar, “It is my nephew Ryman who holds Lord Tully. And I fear Ryman is no man of honor.” Ned noticed that Olyvar would not meet his eyes when he said that, and again a black cloud of rage descended on him.

“We will do all in our power to protect Lord Edmure, my lady, but we must attack the siege army. Riverrun must be liberated.” And Ryman Frey must die. Ned looked at her carefully, wondering if she could read his thoughts, but she only nodded at his words.

“What of Roslin, my lord?” asked Olyvar.

“What of Roslin?” Ned responded.

“She is quite insistent that she go with you tomorrow,” Olyvar said.

At this, a general mumbling broke out around the table. The loudest came from Lord Umber who was bellowing about women being useless near a battlefield.

“Lady Tully would be safer at the Twins,” Ned began.

“So are you leaving Lady Mormont at the Twins?” Catelyn asked him.

He sighed. “You know perfectly well that is not a fair statement, Catelyn. Lady Mormont is a soldier. She will command men in the battle.”

“Are you leaving me?”

Ned stared at her, wishing she wouldn’t do this in front of all their battle commanders. She knew the answer to her question, of course. He wasn’t about to leave her anywhere without him. “You must come with us, my lady,” he said quietly.

“And I am not a soldier,” she said. “I assume you will assign a guard to protect me during the battle.” She waited for his response, and for one brief moment he devoutly wished he had wed a stupid woman.

He nodded.

“It should be no more trouble to guard two useless women than one,” she said, nodding to Lord Umber. “Roslin is the Lady of Riverrun. Her husband is there. She carries his heir. She has more right to be there than any of us.”

“Lady Stark is right,” Lady Mormont said firmly.

Ned put his face in his hands for a moment and looked up to see both women staring at him expectantly. “Lady Tully will come with us,” he sighed. “You,” he said, pointing at his wife, “will see that she stays out of the way.”

He watched her duck her head to hide the little smile which appeared on her face, and he found it hard to keep the stern look on his own face. “Are we finished here? If there is no more to discuss, we should all get some rest. It has been a long day and it is a long march to Riverrun.”

“There is one thing, my lord,” the Greatjon said. “You have not declared yourself King in the North. I would have you for my king.”

Ned sighed. He had wondered when this would come. He had carefully avoided any mention of Robb’s title except as it pertained to the Freys’ treason. “I have no wish for a crown,” he said softly.

“But who else is there?” Umber insisted. “All the north will follow you, my lord. You know that’s true.”

“The north should follow me as Lord of Winterfell. I need not be crowned for that.” Ned looked around at the two women and four men gathered around him. “The Seven Kingdoms bleed. Setting up opposing kingdoms will only prolong that bleeding. You must see that. We have been too long one great kingdom to splinter into parts now.”

“So you would have us declare for Stannis Baratheon?” asked Galbart Glover. “Surely you do not accept Tommen on the Iron Throne after all the Lannisters have done!”

“Stannis has the legitimate claim,” Ned stated firmly. “Tommen is not Robert’s heir. All three of Cersei’s children are bastards born of incest. I had confirmation of this fact from her own lips before my arrest in King’s Landing.”

“And I heard the same from Jaime Lannister,” said Catelyn quietly. “When he was in the dungeon at Riverrun, he confessed to me his crimes.” She met Ned’s eyes then, and it was plain to him that she did not mean only the incest. Bran. He could not think about that now.

“So Stannis’s accusations are indeed true?” Howland Reed asked.

“They are,” Ned said flatly. “Stannis Baratheon is Robert’s only legitimate heir, and by rights, king of all the Seven Kingdoms. He is a hard man and not much loved, I know. But I have ever known him to be an honorable and just man. The realm could do far worse.”

“And the north could do far better!” Umber exclaimed. “Let the stag and the lion squabble over their iron chair. We can retake the north and defend it against any of them with little blood spilled by merely closing Moat Cailin and White Harbor! Be our king, my lord! Be like Robb Stark, King in the North!”

Ned was on his feet before he realized it. “I am not a boy of six and ten, Jon!” he shouted, slamming his fist on the table. “I know what lies that way, and it is folly!” He took several breaths to gain control of himself. “Close Moat Cailin, you say. What of the Riverlands? Were they not included in my son’s kingdom? Their borders are long and practically indefensible. Shall we just abandon them, then? Or be perpetually at war to hold them as the small folk starve and watch their homes and their crops burn?”

Ned looked at each person around the table. None spoke, so he continued. “And if we abandon the Riverlands and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, who shall feed us? Winter is coming. Who shall send ships to White Harbor bearing grain when the snows lie deep over our lands for the next five or more years?” He shook his head slowly and seated himself again. “I spoke truly when I said the Seven Kingdoms have been one too long to break apart now. We are dependent on one another. I will fight to unite the kingdom under a rightful king, but not to tear it apart.”

“Then it is to be Stannis Baratheon,” Lady Mormont said quietly. “There is no one else.”

“What of the Targaryen girl?” asked Olyvar.

“Daenerys?” Ned asked. “What of her?”

“There are stories out of the east, my lord. They say she has caused chaos in Slaver’s Bay. That she conquered cities,” Olyvar hesitated. “The stories I’ve heard are confused and fantastic, but they even speak of dragons.”

“People always speak of dragons when they speak of Targaryens,” Howland Reed said.

“Yes, but there are tales of real dragons, my lord.”

Ned rubbed his forehead. He had heard dragon tales in Pentos from Dak, but had paid no heed. His mind had been focused only on news from Westeros at the time. Besides, he knew that no living man had ever seen a dragon. He looked up to see Catelyn’s eyes upon him. As he met her gaze, her voice came to him in memory from the godswood at Winterfell, Until this morning, no living man had ever seen a direwolf, either. He resolved to call for Donnell Boden and see what the man could tell him of Daenarys Targaryen and her activities across the Narrow Sea.

“Be that as it may, Olyvar, I can only fight the foes I have now,” Ned said tiredly. “We shall march to Riverrun, liberate the castle, and drive the Lannisters and Freys away from it. Once we have the Tullys with us and I hope the other river lords as well, we shall devise our next move. I hope to gain more information on what Stannis is doing in the north and what the Lannisters are doing all around us once we have Riverrrun.” He smiled grimly. “I cannot stay dead forever, and perhaps the time to send out word of what we have done here will come soon. But, enough for tonight. I believe we are finished here.”

As Maege Mormont and the men rose to take their leave, Catelyn got to her feet. “I will see our guests out, my lord,” she said to him. He understood her unspoken directive to remain still and rest his leg. He was tired enough not to protest and nodded in farewell to the lords and Lady Maege as Catelyn walked them out.

As the group broke up outside the entrance to the tent and began going separate ways, he saw Catelyn stop Howland Reed. She said something to him, and then he offered his arm. She took it and they walked out of his sight. He suppressed the urge to jump up and stop them. He knew he had no legitimate reason to stop his wife from speaking with his closest friend.

Gods! What is she up to? Catelyn knew Reed had been with him at the Tower of Joy and throughout Robert‘s Rebellion. She had to suspect Reed knew the answers to questions she’d not asked him since the early days of their marriage. For over fifteen years, Ned had kept the two of them apart, not trusting himself to keep his secrets if faced with the two of them together. He couldn’t imagine she’d actually ask the man questions about Jon, and he knew Reed would not betray his secrets. But what in the Seven Kingdoms did she want to talk to the man about? Ned couldn’t quite banish the anxiety he felt at that question.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

“It is good of you to speak with me, Lord Reed,” Catelyn said as she walked with the man through the camp. Dusk had fallen and torches were being lit around the tents. Alone among their lords, Reed had chosen to remain camped outside with his men instead of taking lodging in the castle. Ned had told her the crannogman was always more comfortable outdoors.

“It is my pleasure, my lady. What is it you wished to ask me?”

Reed’s look was very direct and Catelyn’s resolve faltered a bit. But this was too important. She steeled herself, and smiled at him courteously. “I am glad to finally have a chance to know you. I had hoped to host you at Winterfell sometime after the rebellion, but Ned told me you seldom left Greywater Watch.” She sighed. “And of course, when he traveled there, I always had the children keeping me at Winterfell.” She felt the usual ripping sensation in her heart at the thought of her children.

It must have showed on her face, for Lord Reed said, “I am sorry for your sorrows, my lady. And I am glad of the chance to know you as well.”

Catelyn sighed. She may as well get on with it. She looked around. They were within sight of several people, as was only fitting. It would hardly be proper for Lord Stark’s wife to wander off alone in the dark with one of his bannermen. And though she hated to admit it even to herself, Lord Walder’s words from earlier in this endless day still wounded her. She felt compelled to do all in her power to rebuild her tattered honor. So she and Lord Reed must remain in sight, but she hoped they had walked far enough to be out of earshot.

“I wish to ask you about the papers Lord Glover and Lady Mormont carried with them when my son sent them to you.”

She could have sworn a momentary look of surprise passed over the man’s face. Had he expected another question? “You mean the false orders, my lady? The ones they carried in case of their capture?”

“No,” she said simply. “I mean the paper sealed by Robb and his lords indicating his wishes for succession in the event of his death.”

“Ah,” he said. “You know about that.”

“I watched them affix their seals to it.” She hesitated. “What I would like to know is why my husband does not appear to know about it. He has been in your company for some time now since he first arrived in Greywater Watch. Why have you not shown it to him?”

“Have you asked Lady Mormont or Lord Glover about this, my lady?”

“No.” She regarded the man carefully. “I do not truly know you, Lord Reed, but I know my husband well, and he considers you to be one of his closest friends. He regards you highly, and therefore I am inclined to do the same.” She paused, choosing her words with care. “I believe that keeping Robb’s wishes from him is your plan, that Lord Glover and Lady Maege are acting at your direction. You must have a reason, and I wish to know it.”

“You know what is in the paper, my lady?” he asked her.

“A royal decree legitimizing my husband’s bastard and making him Robb’s heir in the event that Robb and Jeyne had no children,” she said flatly. It bothered her how much it hurt to even say it, but she kept her voice as even as she could.

“And you would wish to see this done, my lady?” Lord Reed’s voice was as courteous as ever, but she heard the note of disbelief in his words.

“My wishes have nothing to do with it.” That came out louder than she intended, and she heard the bitterness in her own voice. She breathed deeply and looked directly at Lord Reed. He was such a small man, and being fairly tall for a woman, she actually had to look slightly down. “My husband rides to battle in a very few days, my lord,” she whispered.

“As do we all, my lady,” Reed replied.

“Yes, and you may not all return.” She swallowed hard. “My sons are dead, Lord Reed,” she said, choking on the words. “My daughters are missing and may be dead as well. How do I send my husband to battle believing he has no heir? How can you do it? And why?” She felt her voice breaking and fell silent, staring at the ground before her.

Howland Reed was also silent. Catelyn looked back up to find him looking at her intently. Finally, he said, “I had thought you might question me, but I had not expected this, my lady.”

“You hadn’t expected that I might wonder at a man my husband considers a trusted friend keeping secrets from him?” she asked. Then, as she watched his face, she realized what he meant. “Oh,” she said quietly. “You thought I sought you out to ask other questions.” Catelyn swallowed hard and drew herself up to her full height. Gazing directly down at Lord Reed, she said stiffly, “I would not ask you anything I do not ask my husband, my lord.”

Reed nodded slowly. “I will answer the question you do ask as best I can, my lady. Word of the Red Wedding reached us almost immediately after Lord Glover and Lady Mormont arrived in Greywater Watch. At that time, I counseled them not to send word to Jon Snow on the Wall.” He sighed heavily. “Jon is sworn to the Night’s Watch. A king’s decree has only as much power as the king who makes it, and your son had been killed. Had Jon left the Wall to heed Robb Stark’s call, he would have been named deserter by many and his life could have been forfeit. We had no fit army then to give him even if he did wish to take up the Stark cause. We decided to bide our time.”

The man paused and looked at her, but Catelyn remained silent, waiting for him to continue. After a moment, he went on. “Then Lord Stark found us. You cannot imagine our shock and joy when he appeared.”

Catelyn simply raised her eyebrows at that, and Reed actually chuckled. “Forgive me, my lady. Of course, you know quite well what we felt. However, as we told Lord Stark what we knew of happenings in the North and the Riverlands, he never once indicated a desire to take his son’s crown. Knowing him as I did, this did not surprise me. I suspect it does not surprise you, either.”

“No,” she said simply, and again waited for him to go on.

“If Ned believes there should be no King in the North, then the succession of that title would mean little to him. And after his remarks this evening, I cannot imagine he’d wish the crown on Jon any more than he would have wished it on his son, Robb. As to Winterfell, while your husband is alive, he is Lord of Winterfell, and it was never his son’s to dispose of.” The crannogman shrugged slightly. “I spoke with Lord Glover and Lady Mormont and obtained their agreement that we should not speak to Lord Stark of any of this until we had some indication of how he felt about such matters. He was rather single minded about taking the Twins and bringing Lord Walder to justice before considering any other actions.”

Catelyn nodded. She knew the bitter taste of knowing her children dead and believing Ned dead as well. She had no difficulty imagining exactly what her husband had wanted to do once he had men to lead against the Freys.

“Then we found you were alive,” Lord Reed said. “The effect of that news on your husband was . . .I don’t have words, my lady.” He looked at her with that intense gaze of his again. “Everything became about getting you out of the Twins alive at that point.”

Tears stung Catelyn’s eyes and she blinked to keep them in. “Lord Glover and Lady Mormont both know that I knew about Robb’s decree. Neither has said anything to me about it.”

Reed cleared his throat. “Well, my lady, while Lady Mormont did not specifically tell me you knew your son’s plans, she did say she was quite sure you would oppose them.”

“I do,” Catelyn’s voice sounded hard to her ears. “Make no mistake, Lord Reed, the thought of a bastard sitting in Ned’s seat at Winterfell in the place of my son . .” She stopped speaking as she feared she could not keep her voice from breaking. She looked down and felt a tear escape her eye in spite of blinking hard several times. After a moment, she was able to look at Reed again. “Yet, how do I send him to fight, maybe to die, believing none of his blood will ever hold Winterfell again?” she said, in a voice scarely more than a whisper. “How do I deny him the knowledge that our son would have given it to Jon Snow?” She shook her head and looked at Reed sadly. “I am heartily tired of secrets, Lord Reed, and would wish not to keep any from my lord husband.”

He looked at her for a long moment. “So what shall you do, my lady?”

“I do not know,” she told him honestly. “I do not know.”

She took her leave of him, and as she walked back to the tent she shared with Ned, she felt Howland Reed’s eyes watching her. He knew the secret that lay so heavily between Ned and herself. She felt certain of it. That man knew the identity of Jon Snow’s mother. He knew the woman Ned had loved. Gods! How does it still hurt so badly? She knew Ned had risked his very life for her. He loved her. She didn’t doubt it. Yet, the woman was still there, Ashara Dayne, whispered a voice in her head, and Catelyn couldn’t help feeling second best. Gods help me, she thought. Help me to know what is right. And then help me to do it. She suddenly felt a wet warmth between her thighs as she walked. She was bleeding.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Ned heard her as she approached their tent, her footsteps not quite running, but quicker than her normal gait. She hadn’t been gone that long, and he had not yet moved from his seat. He had remained there brooding over what she might be discussing with Howland Reed.

“My lord,” she greeted him as she came in, barely looking at him as she went immediately toward a chest where the linens she used on his leg were kept. She reached into the chest and ripped a length of cloth before moving to the chest containing her own clothing.

“My lady?” he asked, puzzled. “Surely, you don’t feel my leg needs doctored again already?”

“No,” she said quietly, straightening up to look at him. “My moonblood is come, my lord.” She stepped behind the small screen which hid their washbasin.

Her moonblood. The tea had done its work, then, and quicker than the maester had indicated it might. He wondered if that meant she had never been with child at all. He hoped so. His jaw tightened and he felt the icy cold that gripped him at any reminder of what the Freys had done to her. Would that moonblood could wash away the very memory of it. But he knew it wouldn’t. Not for either of them. Lost in his dark thoughts, he didn’t realize she had come to stand beside him until she spoke.

“My lord? Are you well?"

She looked concerned for him, and he willed his expression to soften. “I am quite well, my lady.” He reached to take her hand and pulled her down to sit in the chair beside him. “And you, Cat?” he asked softly. “Are you well, yourself?”

She shrugged slightly. “My belly cramps a bit. No more than I am used to with my moonblood, though. I do not think this any different, except the tea brought it early.”

Good, he thought. “I am glad of it,” he told her, still holding her hand as they sat beside each other. “Did you enjoy your walk with Lord Reed?”

It was difficult to be sure in the low light inside the tent, but Ned thought he caught a flash of panic in her eyes at the question. “Yes, my lord. He was quite courteous. I wanted to speak with him a bit.” Whatever had alarmed her, she had it under control now and looked directly at him as she continued. “I do not know him as I do the rest of your bannermen. I know you trust him without question, my love, but if I am to trust him to keep you safe in battle, I would know more of him.”

He smiled slightly at that. “You know perfectly well that Howland’s part in our battle plan will have him nowhere near me.”

“I know perfectly well that your success and safety depend upon the entire plan going well. Therefore, I am trusting you to every lord or lady leading any part of it,” she countered.

“There are larger issues than my personal safety at stake, you know,” he said quietly.

“Not to me.” He felt her hand grip his more tightly. “I wish I were like Maege Mormont,” she suddenly said fiercely. “I wish I could ride at your side and wield an axe or a sword at anyone who threatened.” He would have laughed then if she had not looked so deadly serious. These were not words he would expect from his wife, who had never had any love of weaponry.

She must have seen something of his shock in his expression, for she laughed then, although it was tinged with bitterness. “I surprise you. Do not fear, my love. I have not discovered a thirst for battle. I despise war and its weapons as much as I ever have. More even.” She paused for a moment, “But perhaps if I knew more of swordplay than dancing, our sons might be alive.”

“No,” Ned said softly. “No, they would still be dead, but perhaps you would be dead with them.” He looked at her intently, willing her to understand him. “Cat, I would not have you in harm’s way, ever, if I could prevent it. I fear my own death far less than I fear any hurt to you.” She started to protest and he cut her off. “And I know you feel the same.” He swallowed. “I didn’t know what it was like for you, not truly, until we planned the attack on the Twins. Gods! Planning to use you as bait. Having you out there where any stray arrow could hit you, or gods forbid, that damned noose not work properly and you . . .” he couldn’t finish the sentence. He realized he was almost hyperventilating as the terror of all that could have gone wrong overwhelmed him again.

She was out of her chair flinging her arms around him in an instant. “I am here,” she breathed into his ear. “I am here and safe and with you.”

He tightened his own arms around her pulling her into his lap. “Yes, my love, you are, and I thank the gods for it.” He then gently loosened her own arms from his neck, pushing her face far enough from him that he could look her in the eyes. “You have the harder part, Cat, sending me into battle. Waiting. I know that now. I never want to feel that way again.”

“Yet you would have me feel exactly that way in the space of a few days.” Her eyes never left his, awaiting his answer.

“Yes,” he said without looking away. “Because I have to fight. I am the Lord of Winterfell and this is mine to do. Maege Mormont is . . .well, Maege is simply who she is. But you are my lady. I would not change any part of you, and I would have you safe. I need you to be safe, Cat. Selfish as that is, my lady, I still would have it.”

She continued looking at him a moment, and then placed her hands on his face, leaned in, and kissed him softly. “If that is truly what you need of me, my love, then you shall have it.” She smiled at him with tears in her eyes. “I will give you my word of honor that I will not steal anyone’s sword and ride after you, if you give me yours that you will do everything in your power to return to me safely.”

“I give you my word, my lady,” he promised her. He gave her a smile of his own. “Do you have any other solemn vows you require this evening, or shall we attempt to sleep some before the morning arrives?”

For a moment, she looked thoughtful, and she bit her bottom lip in a gesture so reminiscent of their younger daughter when faced with a puzzle or dilemma, that Ned’s heart clutched in his chest. Alone of all their children, Arya looked nothing like Catelyn, but that expression . .

It was quickly gone, and Catelyn let go of him and rose to stand. “I believe we’ve promised enough for one night, my lord. To bed, then.”

He stood to follow her, but then paused. Beyond the pang of longing for his daughter, that expression on Catelyn’s face had stirred something else. Arya bit her lip only when deep in thought, often with troubling thoughts. What else was troubling Cat? What wasn’t she saying? Ned had a sudden very definite urge to have a conversation of his own with Howland Reed. “You go on to bed, my love. I will be back in a moment.”

“What? Where are you going now, my lord?”

He sighed. “I just want to bid the men goodnight. We break camp and march out early. I’d like them to see me tonight.” He realized as he spoke the words that indeed he should have done this already and felt somewhat guilty that, until that moment, he hadn’t given the men a thought since Catelyn had left his tent with Reed.

She frowned slightly and looked meaningfully at his leg, but she knew better than to argue with him. She knew how he was about the men who followed him. “Just don’t walk around too much, my lord. I’d like you to walk and ride comfortably tomorrow.”

“Again, my lady, you have my word.”

He left their tent, and walked through the camp, stopping to say a brief word to the various men he met, always moving in the direction of Howland’s tent. When he reached it, he was not surprised to see his friend sitting outside. Nor was he surprised by the look of amusement on this face.

He scowled. “Did you enjoy your conversation with my lady wife?”

Reed merely laughed at Ned’s scowl and responded, “It was enlightening, my lord, to be sure.”

“And what the devil do you mean by that?” The day had already been far longer than any Ned could remember living through and he was not in the mood for the crannogman’s indirect manner of speaking.

Apparently, Reed could see that because he quit smirking and said quite seriously, “Your lady wife is quite a remarkable woman, Lord Stark.”

“I know that,” Ned snapped.

“Do you?” Reed asked mildly. “I found her quite surprising in some ways, after all your efforts to keep the two of us apart.”

“I never . . .”

Now Reed laughed at him again. “Don’t bother denying it, Ned. We both know you have no talent for lying.” He looked at him shrewdly. “And yet you’ve managed to lie to that very perceptive woman for well over a decade. That has to have gotten harder every year. How, by all the gods, have you managed it?”

This was not the conversation Ned had come here to have, and yet he found himself answering. “I don’t,” he said simply. “I cannot lie to her, so I say nothing at all. I forbade Catelyn to speak of Jon’s mother or ask me any questions about her years ago.”

“You forbade her?”

“Yes.”

“And she obeyed you?”

“Yes,” Ned’s voice was tight and his face was grim.

“Looking at you now, I imagine you terrified her half to death.” Reed shook his head slowly. “Your wife has obeyed you in this without question throughout your entire marriage, and yet you come here tonight to ask if she’s questioning me about it?”

“No!” Ned roared. “I mean . . . gods, I don’t know what I mean.” He looked at the ground for a long moment and then raised his eyes to his long-time friend’s. “I did terrify her,” he said softly. “Her eyes were . . . gods, her eyes were so hurt and fearful and . . . For a long time after that, she actually cringed if I moved toward her too quickly. She tried not to, but I could see actual fear in her eyes when she looked at me, and I hated myself for it.” He didn’t know if he spoke to Reed or himself then, but he continued. “And she was so determined to be strong. To be a proper Lady of Winterfell. To do her duty. I wanted so much for it all to be more than just a duty for her. I wanted her to have joy. But the only times I saw her truly smile during all those long first months were the times I watched her with Robb unawares.” He smiled at Reed. “She is truly a wonderful mother. My children were blessed to be hers. But I made it impossible for Jon to ever share in that. I had hoped, but . . . .no. She forgave me. Somehow. With time, she found it in her heart to care for me, but she has never looked at Jon without seeing the woman I won’t speak of.”

“Your sister,” said Reed flatly.

Ned looked at him, almost in a state of panic. He had not admitted the truth out loud in years, and barely allowed himself to think it.

“Oh, I didn’t tell her, my lord. She never asked. And you should have known she wouldn’t.”

Ned closed his eyes briefly. “I am not proud of what I did to Catelyn all those years ago, but I had promised Lyanna, and I did not know what else to do. I am not proud of coming like this tonight, either. Because you’re right, Howland. I do know she would never ask. It’s just that now . .”

Howland Reed was possibly the one person who could read Ned Stark almost as well as his wife could, and in spite of Ned’s keeping his voice cool and level throughout that statement, he knew Reed could hear the desperation at the end.

“It’s just that now what?” Reed asked him quietly.

“What they did to her,” Ned whispered. “The Freys. The fear is back in her eyes, Howland. I didn’t put it there this time, but sometimes she looks at me and I see it, and I remember . . .Gods!! I swore to myself I would tell her the truth. All of it! When I was in that pit in King’s Landing, I swore it!” He shook his head. “But now I wonder, will it cause her even more pain? Can she forgive me the lie as she forgave me the bastard? I don’t know what to do! I don‘t know if I can lie to her any longer, but I do know that I can‘t lose her. Not again.”

Howland was looking at him with the most remarkable expression on his face. Ned wasn’t sure at all what it meant, but he was too full of his own concerns to puzzle over it long.

“She loves you,” Reed said firmly. “That’s basically what she came here to say.” At Ned’s shocked expression, he held up his hands. “Oh, not like that! Your very proper lady wife did not come here to declare her love and passion for you in so many words. We talked about the upcoming battle, various strategy points, a bit about your son, and about her fears for your safety. In all of that, though, what I heard was that she loves you.” He paused then. “And in all your bluster and guilt and tales of the past, what I hear is that you love her, too.”

“I do,” Ned said simply.

“Then the two of you have something rather rare in our world, Lord Stark. Trust it rather than fear it.”

Ned smiled ruefully at his friend. “I suppose that’s as close to advice as I’ll get from you.”

Reed only returned his smile and said nothing.

Ned waved a hand at him, and said, “I promised Catelyn I wouldn’t be long. Good night, my friend.”

As he turned to go, Reed asked him, “So what shall you do with your great secret, my lord?”

“I do not know,” Ned told him. “I honestly do not know,” he said again as he began to walk away. As his footsteps carried him toward his tent and his wife, he swore he heard Howland Reed laughing in the darkness behind him.

Chapter Text

Catelyn Stark stretched as she stepped out of her tent and surveyed the men around her, some eating, some striking tents, some running here or there on various errands. Ned’s army. She stretched again and tried to ease the various aches throughout her body, particularly her lower back. The cold was no friend to the muscles which had been pierced by that arrow, and it was much colder now than it had been when she’d made this trip with another army well over a year ago. Robb’s army. Since leaving the Twins, her thoughts had turned repeatedly to that journey. The similarities were overwhelming. This morning, she felt a hundred years older than she had during that trip, marching with her son to liberate her father’s castle and free her husband from imprisonment in King’s Landing. Only, before they ever reached Riverrun that rider had come and. . .. Stop it, Catelyn Tully Stark! Ned is alive and you are being ridiculous!

Stepping further away from the shelter of the tent, she wrapped her thick cloak more tightly around her for warmth and looked at up at the leaden sky. At least it wasn’t raining, as it had during the trip north from Riverrun to the Twins with Edmure’s wedding party. Stay safe, Edmure, she thought. We are coming. As if the thought of Edmure had conjured her, Roslin appeared, walking toward her with a cup of something in her hands, and a smile on her face.

“Here, my lady. Your lord husband sent you this.”

Catelyn took the mug, and her eyes widened with surprise as she felt the heat from it in her hands. “It’s warm,” she said, puzzled.

Roslin laughed. “A few of Lord Reed’s men are still with us, my lady, and they have a trick for burning some sort of moss and something else with almost no smoke. They burn it beneath stones and then use the hot stones to heat food or drink. I think it took half the night to heat, but it is wonderful, is it not?”

As Catelyn felt the almost tasteless tea warm her throat and belly, she nodded in agreement. “It is quite possibly the best drink I’ve ever had, Roslin.”

The first few days out of the Twins, the army had moved en masse, opting for speed over stealth, taking extra precautions not to be seen or heard only when they passed the way to Seagard. However, since they had passed south of Oldstones, they had moved much more slowly, sending out frequent scouts. A few riders heading from Riverrun to the Twins had been apprehended and questioned. Ned and the other lords did not believe any had escaped them. Now the main part of the army was encamped here, far enough from Riverrun not to be seen or heard, but too close for Ned to risk campfires. Several times each day, another small group would depart, making their way cautiously to their chosen position for the battle ahead. All depended on stealth now, and the camp was always quiet, conversations held in hushed tones, each man preparing for the fight ahead.

A day ago, Ned had come charging into their tent with a look of fierce triumph on his face and announced to her that one of Howland Reed’s men had made his way back to camp with the news that Marq Piper had reached his father, and that Lord Piper would aid Ned's forces. Now, most of Lord Reed’s men were gone, making their way south of the Red Fork. When the battle was started, they were to engage Emmon Frey who had the Kingslayer’s old army positioned there with the river lords. Reed’s force was small, and much depended on Lord Piper doing his part to win that segment of the battle.

The remainder of Reed’s men were to attack the boom the Lannisters had placed downstream of Riverrun across the Red Fork, blocking the river. Many of these were the same men who had been given the task of taking the gate at the Twins, and Catelyn felt quite confident in their abilities.

The largest part of their force, led by Lord Glover and Lady Mormont, would assault Ser Daven Lannister’s company at the front gates of Riverrun. These troops were taking the longest to position as they had to travel far enough upstream to ford the Tumblestone safely and to avoid detection until time for attack. Small groups were leaving frequently. Catelyn had bid farewell and good luck to Lady Maege two days ago, and Lord Glover himself was leaving this morning.

Finally, a smaller force made up of men from the other lords’ companies and the various Northmen who had found their way to the army in Greywater Watch would be led by Ned and Lord Umber, riding out of the Whispering Wood to attack Ryman Frey’s forces north of the Tumblestone. Catelyn knew perfectly well why Ned had chosen to attack Ryman Frey himself, and she feared he would take needless risks to kill the man for her sake. At least Ned’s company included Hallis Mollen and the man who had brought Ned out of Pentos, Donnell Boden. Catelyn had personally charged each of those men with seeing to Ned’s safety.

“My lady?” came Roslin’s voice, questioning, and Catelyn realized she had been so lost in her own thoughts, she hadn’t realized the girl was speaking to her.

“I’m sorry, child,” she said, reaching to squeeze the young woman’s hand. “Forgive an old woman’s distractions. I fear my mind is full of this battle.”

Roslin snorted. "You have reason to be distracted, my lady. But you are hardly an old woman.”

“I am certainly not a young one.”

Roslin smiled. “You do not see the way the men look at you.” She hesitated, and then looked at Catelyn from the corners of her eyes. “Lord Stark sees it, though. And then he looks at the men as if he really were the direwolf on his sigil.”

Catelyn kept her eyes on the mug in her hands and said nothing, although she felt the slight flush that came to her cheeks.

Roslin sighed. “After everything that has happened, my lady, do you think that Lord Edmure could ever look at me the way Lord Stark looks at you?” she asked hesitantly.

Catelyn looked up at the girl then. The slight rounding of her belly was hidden by her thick cloak, and her face looked heartbreakingly young and hopeful. Gods be good, and let Edmure love her, she prayed silently. Aloud, she said, “Roslin, my husband was dead and now he is not. I have to believe that most things are possible.” She smiled at her. “Edmure is far more tenderhearted than I, child, and I have come to love you dearly. Have patience. I have learned that the best of love comes with time.”

Catelyn heard the slightly uneven footsteps behind her she had come to recognize as Ned’s, and she turned to greet her husband. “I thank you for the drink, my lord,” she said holding up her mug. “I’m the warmest I’ve been in two days at least.”

“I am glad of it,” he answered. “No, I’ve already had some,” he said, as she extended the mug toward him. “That’s all for you.” Turning toward Roslin, he said, “I thank you for bringing my lady wife her cup, Lady Tully.”

Roslin, always shy around Ned, dipped her head slightly, “It was my pleasure, my lord.”

“Are we still moving deeper into the Whispering Wood tomorrow, my lord?” Catelyn asked him.

His face became grave at once. His lord’s face, she thought. “Yes,” he said. “Tomorrow, we move as far south as we dare, and we choose a safe position to have you and Lady Tully during the battle. We attack at dawn the following morning.”

Catelyn swallowed hard. It was what she wanted. They were going to free Riverrun. And yet . . .she couldn’t stop thinking about the last time. Passing through the gates to the joyous shouts from the castle after Robb’s victory, feeling nothing but the emptiness of Ned’s death. He was standing right in front of her, and still she felt that cold grief. What if they won Riverrun, but she lost Ned again? She felt suddenly faint, and her face must have shown it because Ned’s hands were suddenly on her arms, supporting her.

“My lady?” he said, concern in his voice. Then, “Cat?”

She looked at him and saw alarm in his eyes. She must look bad. He never used her nickname in front of other people. She reached up and touched his cheek. “I am fine, my lord. I haven’t eaten anything, and I fear I suddenly felt a bit faint, but I’m all right now.” She smiled brightly. “Nothing a bit of bread won’t cure.”

“I’ll get you something,” Roslin said quickly and bounded away.

“Cat,” Ned said slowly, once Roslin was gone, obviously not believing her hunger excuse.

“I fear for you, my love,” she said truthfully. “I cannot help it, Ned. I try, but . . .” She swallowed again. “It was just before Robb took Riverrun that we learned you had been killed. I know you are here, but I keep remembering, and I . . .”

“That explains Hal Mollen, then,” Ned said, thoughtfully.

“Hal? What of him?” Catelyn asked.

Ned chuckled softly. “I asked him to lead your guard during the battle. He looked damned uncomfortable and finally confessed that he’d promised you he’d guard me! I told him I’d speak to you.”

“Hal is going with you,” she said firmly. “He’s a Winterfell man, and I trust him to do everything in his power to keep you safe.”

“As I trust him to keep you safe,” he responded. His voice had gone from amusement to commanding in tone, but she was having none of it.

“No!” she exclaimed. “You told me you understood my part was harder. Back at the Twins, you told me. I promised I’d be good and send you off to kill or die, but you promised you’d do everything to come back to me safe! Well, taking Hal with you is part of keeping that promise. Leave me a guard. I don’t care whom, but it can’t be Hal.” Before he could respond, she added, “Or Donnell Boden, either.”

“Oh, I see,” Ned responded thoughtfully. “Recruited Donnell to my personal guard as well, have you?” She could hear the amusement creeping back into his voice and knew that she had won. “All right, my lady, we shall have it your way, but you are not to quibble at any other assignments I make to your guard. Is that understood?”

She nodded.

“And here’s Lady Tully with some food. Sit down, my lady, and eat.”

She looked at him watching her with that smile in his eyes that only she could see. He was concerned for her safety, concerned for her health, concerned for her feelings, concerned for her entirely too much with everything else he had on his mind. What if he does die? It certainly could happen. Men died in battle all the time. I cannot send him to his death not knowing what Robb did.  I have to give him the choice.

She accepted a dried venison strip and some bread from Roslin’s hand, but made no move to sit. “No,” she said, looking at her husband. “I will eat, my lord, but I need to speak with you. Will you walk with me?”

He looked at her, his grey eyes questioning, but said only, “Of course, my lady.”

“Please excuse us, Roslin,” she said, turning back to the girl. “I need to speak to my husband alone.”

“Of course, my lady. I will see you later, then.” Roslin blushed as she turned to go, no doubt imagining any number of girlish, romantic reasons Catelyn wanted Ned to herself. If only that were the case, Catelyn thought.

“ Now, my lady, what troubles you?” Ned inquired, as Roslin walked away.

“Not here. Walk with me, please, Ned. I would have privacy before we speak.” She popped a large bite of bread into her mouth to effectively stop him from demanding any further answers from her until she was ready to speak and then handed him her mug in order to free one of her hands to take his arm. She nodded toward the trees, and without another word, the two of them walked away from the camp.

 

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Ned could not imagine what his wife wished to say to him that required them to go so far from camp, but he walked beside her silently as she continued to stuff food in her mouth rather than say anything else. Well, he wanted her to eat, didn’t he? So, he simply followed her lead, walking deeper into the trees and waiting for her to stop.

When no sound could be heard behind them to indicate the camp even existed, she turned to him and reached for the mug he carried for her. After swallowing the last of her tea to wash down her hastily eaten breakfast and setting down the mug, she turned to him. “I must tell you something, my lord. Something I have kept from you.”

“Kept from me?” Ned suddenly felt alarmed. What harm had she suffered that she had not told him about?

As usual, she read his face as if his thoughts were written on it in ink. “There is nothing amiss with me, Ned. I am as well as I can be while contemplating the day after tomorrow.”

“My love,” he said, taking her hands in his, “I have much reason to come back safe. I would not leave you easily, Cat. Believe me.”

She nodded. “I know,” she said quietly, “but you cannot say with certainty that you will not be killed, and I cannot ask it of you.” She looked down then, and he wondered what she expected him to say. He had never promised her anything falsely, and she was correct in stating that he could be killed. Ryman Frey will die first, though, he thought darkly.

Apparently, she didn’t expect him to say anything because after a moment, she looked up and continued. “Our sons are dead. Our daughters may be, too.”

“No, Cat!” he interrupted her. “Our girls are alive, and we shall find them. I promise you I will do everything in my power to . .”

“I know you will!” she broke in. “If you live through the next two days. And if they yet live.” Her lips trembled and her eyes watered, but she said it with only the tiniest break in her voice. “But those things may not happen, and Ned . . . .there’s Winterfell. You must have an heir. Bolton cannot be allowed to keep Winterfell!” The venom in her voice when she said Bolton’s name was chilling.

“Sansa is my heir,” he stated firmly. “And Arya after her.” He let go of her hands to hold her face and looked directly into her eyes. “I will never let Roose Bolton or his bastard have Winterfell! We will find our girls, Cat! And we may have other sons, my love. We may . .”

“I don’t know that I can!” she cried, and the anguish in her voice tore him in two. “It’s been more than four years since Rickon,” she continued quietly. “Perhaps, I can bear no more children.” She pulled away from him and turned her back to him, putting her face in her hands.

Was this what she feared to tell him? He walked to her and put his hands on her shoulders. “I don’t believe that,” he whispered into her hair. “And it doesn’t matter anyway. We will find our girls. I need no more sons or daughters.”

“You have another son.” Her voice was so quiet, he wasn’t certain he had heard it.

But she turned to face him then, stepping back a bit so that he could not quite touch her. “Jon Snow,” she said flatly. “All my sons are dead. But not all of yours.”

She looked at him now, waiting for him to respond. He shook his head. “No, Cat. Sansa is my heir.”

“Robb wanted this,” she said softly. “He wrote out a decree, legitimizing Jon Snow and making him his heir. Ask Lord Umber about it. He was there.”

“No,” Ned repeated. He felt the world spinning out of control. “Robb had no right . . .”

“Robb had every right,” she threw back at him. “He was the king.” After a moment, she added quietly, “And however I felt about it, he considered Jon his brother.”

Ned was shaking now. What did it cost her to say this to him? He shook his head again, and swallowed once. Keeping his voice soft, he said, “This simply cannot be, Cat.” How could I make the boy who isn’t mine into my legitimate son? How could I do that to my girls?

“Lord Reed has the paper,” she said simply. “Lord Glover and Lady Mormont carried it to Greywater Watch when Robb sent them there. I asked him why he hadn’t shown it to you.”

Gods, Howland! You should have told me! You, of all people, know why this cannot happen! Keeping his voice under icy control, he asked her, “And what did he say?”

“A lot of things,” she sighed and looked down. “Nothing, really. It doesn’t matter.” Then she raised her eyes to look directly at him. “I couldn’t keep it from you any longer.”

He returned her gaze. “Cat . . . You cannot want this,” he said. “I know you do not want this.”

“What I want matters little!” she exclaimed fiercely. “I want my sons alive and my daughters safe. I want Robb in Winterfell putting half a dozen babies into his Jeyne’s belly. Babes that I can sing to, and you can toss in the air as you did their father.” The tears were flowing freely from her eyes now. “I want to watch our grandchildren grow up before I die an old, old woman in my bed with your arms around me,” she sobbed. “I can’t have what I want, Ned! Winter is coming. I’ve heard you say it a million times. Well, my winter has come. All my sons are dead.”

He wanted desperately to go to her, to hold her. But he didn’t think she wanted that right now. He watched her standing there with the tears falling down the tracks of the scars on her face. She shook her head as if to clear it, and looked directly at him once more. Quietly, she said, “I have only you to think of now. All my sons are dead.”

He looked at this woman who had given him so much and said the only thing he could. “All my sons are dead, too.”

She looked at him then, not understanding. How could she understand? Then a new concern came into her eyes. “Oh, Ned. Have you heard from the Wall? Is Jon . . .? I am so sorry, my love.”

She crossed the small space between them and reached out to touch him, true sorrow and concern for him showing in those blue eyes of hers. Gods, Cat! What have I done to you? He knew she didn’t truly care for Jon. He’d seen to that. And yet, she would mourn Jon for his sake. For my sake! How much have you suffered for my sake, my love? Gods forgive me!

He turned away from her then, striding three paces and slamming his fist hard against a tree. “I cannot do this any longer!” he cried out to no one in particular.

“Ned?” her voice held concern and a touch of fear. Gods! I swore I’d never frighten her again!

He kept his back to her until he felt more in control of himself. Then he turned and walked slowly back to his wife. He took her hands in his and looked into her face. “Jon is fine, as far as I know,” he said quietly.

She continued to look at him with a concerned, if somewhat bewildered expression. He held her hands tightly, and spoke. “Catelyn,” Gods, I don’t even know how to start. “Catelyn, my love . . .of all the truly important promises I have made in my life, I have managed to keep only two.” He swallowed, but did not take his grey eyes from her blue ones. “The first is the marriage vow I made to you in the sept at Riverrun.” Now confusion, disbelief, and even anger appeared on her face, and he hurried on before she could speak. “The second is a promise I made to my sister Lyanna as she lay dying.” He felt Catelyn go still before him, although her hands trembled in his. Or was it his hands which trembled? Her face had gone almost expressionless as she waited for him to finish speaking. “I promised I would do all in my power to protect her newborn son.”

 

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Her newborn son?  What newborn son?  Ned’s words slowly began to make sense to her, and Catelyn found it difficult to breathe. “Jon?” she asked. She could barely get the word out through the tightness in her throat. Ned was staring at her intently, and his grey eyes held a pleading look she had rarely seen there. His grip on her hands was so tight, she couldn’t feel the tips of her fingers. She couldn’t breathe. “Jon?” she croaked again. “Lyanna’s son?”

“Yes, my love, yes.” Ned’s voice broke, and his face seemed almost to crack into pieces as she looked at him. She actually saw a tear escape his eyes. She pulled her hands from his with some effort, and reached up to his cheek to wipe the tear with her finger, looking at the moisture on fingertip in wonder. She couldn’t speak any further. She couldn’t breathe.

“Cat?” he said, in that same ragged voice. “Say something. Please, my love.” He still looked at her with his pleading eyes.

She felt numb. Finally, she mustered the breath to whisper, “Why?” She took a great gulp of air and repeated it more loudly. “Why?”

“Robert,” he said. “Rhaegar.”

“What?” He wasn’t making sense. He just kept looking at her, and as she continued to gulp in air, the ability to feel came back with it, and she found herself shaking with rage. “You lied to me!” she felt like screaming, but she couldn’t forget there was a camp full of people not far away, so it came out more of a hiss between clenched teeth. “You’ve lied to me all this time! Gods, Ned! Did you ever care for me at all?” Now the tears filled her eyes again, and that made her angrier. She did not want to cry.

“Care for you? Cat, you are everything to me! You must know that.” He sounded so desperate, so unlike himself. But he had lied to her.

“Why?” she asked again.

“I . . .I want to tell you all of it.” He ran his hand through his hair. She had never seen him like this. “It is complicated. Will you please sit down?” He was shaking. “I need us to sit down.”

She didn’t know what else to do, so she spread her skirt and dropped to sit on the ground where she was. He sat beside her, reached out to touch her, but thought better of it and withdrew his hand. “Tell me,” she whispered hoarsely. “Tell me everything, Eddard Stark. Don’t you dare leave out one word.”

He nodded. “Rhaegar never kidnapped Lyanna,” he started. “She went with him because she wanted to.” He shook his head. “I loved my sister, but she was ever impulsive. She acted without thought of consequence to herself or anyone else.”

“A touch of the wolf’s blood,” Catelyn whispered.

Ned nodded. “So she went with him, and Brandon rode to King’s Landing in a rage, and you know what happened there. Everything else followed, and neither she nor Rhaegar Targaryen could stop it.”

“So Jon Snow is Rhaegar and Lyanna’s child.” Catelyn shook her head. “But, why, Ned? Why claim a Targaryen bastard as your own?”

“Not a Targaryen bastard,” he said quietly. “He married her, Cat. He married her, put a child in her belly, hid her away in that damned tower, and rode off to war believing he could put everything right. Perhaps he was as mad as Aerys after all.” Ned shook his head sadly.

Catelyn could barely wrap her mind around Ned’s tale. She was still reeling from the fact that the husband she had loved so much and so long had lied to her, and it required a great effort of mind to attend to anything else. “But Rhaegar was already married,” she protested.

“To Elia of Dorne, yes. He wasn’t the first Targaryen to believe himself entitled to two wives. Targaryens have long been known to make their own rules.” He sighed. “Rhaegar had half the Kingsguard at that tower, including Arthur Dayne. I knew when I saw them there what it meant. I knew, but I couldn’t stop it any more than Rhaegar could.”

“Did she die in childbirth?” Catelyn asked him quietly.

He shook his head. “It was a fever. Jon was a week or so old when I got there, and Lyanna had not been ill long. When she sickened, it took her quickly. Her strength was failing even as I fought to reach her.” His eyes got very far away then, and she knew he was back in Dorne, fighting against the Sword of the Morning, desperate to reach his sister’s side. She was quiet, and after a moment, he continued. “She knew Rhaegar was dead. She knew what had happened to Elia and her children. With her last breath, she asked me to protect her child. She begged me, Cat.” He looked at her again with those pleading eyes.

She hardened herself against that look. “Did she beg you to make her child a bastard and to lie to your wife?” she asked coldly. “Did she beg you to humiliate me and make me feel unwanted in my own home? Unwanted in my husband’s bed?”

“Cat, please. I never wanted to hurt you. I swear I didn’t.”

“But you did, Ned. You hurt me badly, and you know it.”

He bowed his head. “Yes. I did hurt you. And I knew it.” He paused. “And I hated myself for it.”

“Do you suppose I want that?“ she asked. “Is that supposed to make it all right?”

“Nothing can make it all right!” he exploded. “I couldn’t make it right then, and I could never figure out how to make it right later! Gods know I thought about it often enough. Every time I saw a shadow cross your face after we lay together. Every time you saw me with Jon and you looked like you wanted to die. Every time your smiles and laughter turned cold just because Jon came into a room. After so much time had passed, I didn’t know how I could make it right!” He paused. “And I was afraid of losing you. I was afraid of making you angry all over again,” he admitted.

“Making me angry?” She laughed bitterly. “Ned, I’ve been angry for over fifteen years!” He looked shocked at that, and she shook her head. “Oh, I’ve loved you. And I forgave you your bastard long ago. But I couldn’t forgive you for still loving his mother more than you loved me! And I couldn’t do a thing about it except pretend as best I could that Jon wasn’t there. And you never made that easy. Forever treating him as if he were one of ours.”

“He was Lyanna’s son, Cat! All I had left of her! How could I do otherwise?” He looked at her with regret in his eyes. “And Cat, I never dreamed you believed I loved another woman more. I knew you were curious about Jon’s mother, and my refusal to speak of her bothered you, but . . .” He shook his head. “I am sorry, my love. I never meant to hurt you in such a way. I couldn’t let you ask me about her because I found it too difficult to lie to you.”

She laughed again, hating the bitterness she heard in it. “I am so sorry I made things difficult for you, my lord.”

He looked stricken. “That isn’t what I meant! It’s only that you see me so well. Sometimes, I feel you read my very thoughts and feelings, my love, and I had to . . .”

“Yes!” she interrupted him. “I could see the love you held for the boy and his mother on your face every time the two of you were together, and not knowing he was your nephew, what was I supposed to believe?”

“I don’t know.” He shook his head and looked down at his lap. “I don’t know.”

They were both silent then for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, she asked him, “Why the lie at the start? Why not just bring your nephew home to Winterfell? Surely, you know I would have welcomed him.”

He sighed. “You weren’t there, Cat. You didn’t see him.”

“I wasn’t where? Didn’t see whom?” She was angry and hurt and tired of him saying things that made no sense to her.

“Robert,” he said softly. “When they brought him the corpses of Rhaegar’s murdered children, he was pleased. He was pleased, Cat! He called them dragonspawn and was glad they were dead.” He looked at her with haunted eyes. “Little Rhaenys had been stabbed too many times to count, and Aegon,” he choked on the name. “That baby’s head was not even recognizable as human after being bashed into the wall by Gregor Clegane. And Robert was pleased.”

He sat silently for a moment, and then looked at Catelyn steadily as he said, “The Kingsguard were at the Tower of Joy to protect the heir to the throne. With Elia and her children murdered, and Rhaegar dead by Robert’s hand at the Trident, Lyanna’s child became Jon Targaryen, first of his name, King of the Seven Kingdoms.” He closed his eyes as if in pain, and said, “He could not remain so and live.”

“So you made him Jon Snow.”

He nodded. “You know what he looks like. Even as a newborn, he was Stark through and through. I could see nothing of Rhaegar when I looked at him.” It was his turn to give a bitter laugh. “I look at him and see purely Lyanna, but it is easy enough for everyone else to look and see me.” He looked at her apologetically. “And it was hardly unusual for a man away at war to father a bastard. It seemed the only thing I could do to ensure his safety.”

“You truly believe Robert would have killed him.” Catelyn looked at him. “Ned, he was your closest friend. He was like a brother to you.”

“You weren’t there, Cat,” he said again.

“You should have told me,” she said quietly.

“Should I have?” he asked her. He didn’t sound defensive or mocking. He sounded as if he truly wanted her to consider the question, and so she looked at him, waiting for him to explain.

“We barely knew each other, Catelyn, for all we had made a son together. I was committing treason, you know. Harboring a potential threat to Robert’s throne in our home. Should I have made you a party to treason?” He looked at her levelly. “I didn’t tell anyone, Cat. Not even Benjen, although I think he suspected. Once Ashara Dayne died, only Howland Reed and I knew the truth, and I never spoke it to a living person until now.”

Catelyn’s heart had almost stopped when Ned had said Ashara Dayne’s name. So the most beautiful woman in the Seven Kingdoms did come into the story after all, even if she was not Jon Snow’s mother. Catelyn felt small and petty for asking, but she could not help herself. “Ashara Dayne . . . did you . . .” she couldn’t bring herself to say “love her.”

“No, Cat. Never,” he answered her unfinished question. “She knew where Lyanna was through Ser Arthur. It was she who sent me word where I could find her. And I repaid her by killing her brother. I had Jon with me when I returned Dawn to her. She guessed who he was immediately.” He paused. “She was lovely, and I danced with her once, at that damned tournament in Harrenhall where Rhaegar met Lyanna, but I could barely speak to her, I was so shy. Brandon had no difficulties speaking to her, of course, but then he could charm all the beautiful girls.”

“You were jealous?” she asked.

“Over Ashara Dayne? No. Over you? Terribly.” He looked at her as if it almost caused him pain to do so. “You truly are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, Cat, and you are mine only because Brandon died. It is a terrible thing to begrudge my dead brother any affection you ever gave him, and yet I do. Gods forgive me, I do. I want you to have belonged only and always to me.”

At that, she could no longer remain calm and quiet. “You blind, selfish man,” she said, rising from her place on the ground. “You sit there and tell me you want me to have belonged only and always to you. Yet you came home from Dorne and told me a lie that made damned sure I’d always believe you belonged to someone else. How dare you? How dare you?”

She couldn’t stay still any longer and began to walk aimlessly, back and forth. “I deserved better than that, Eddard Stark,” she flung at him as she paced. “I did. And Jon did, too. I won’t pretend I love the boy. I don’t. I never let myself even look at him more than I had to. But he deserved better. He’s a man grown now and deserves to know who he is. Robert Baratheon’s as dead as his parents are, so what’s to keep you from telling him the truth now? Or are you afraid of making him angry, too? Because I’ll tell you something, my lord, he’s been angry as long as I have, and not just at me! He’s angry at the man who made him a bastard!”

Suddenly, she couldn’t stand to be there with him any longer. She didn’t know what to say or do, only that she had to get away from him. She started to run back toward the camp, but he jumped up and caught her arm, moving surprisingly fast for a man with a bad leg.

“Let me go, Ned,” she said without turning around.

“I can’t,” he said. “Please, my love. Look at me.”

She breathed deeply and turned to face him. “You are hurting my arm,” she said coldly.

He let go of her as if she had burned his hand. “Please do not go,” he said. “I am sorry. Please forgive me.”

“For what? The bastard, or the lie, or the hurt to my arm? I’ve lost track.”

Again, he looked stricken. “For all of it! And I’ve fathered no bastards, Catelyn. I have never betrayed you in that way.”

She stood very still then and looked him in the eyes, speaking calmly and precisely. “You may never have fathered any bastards, my lord, but you created one nonetheless. Just ask Jon Snow. As for betrayal,” she completely let down her guard then, and did not try to hide any of her pain, confusion, or anger, “this is what it looks like.”

He simply looked at her, unable to respond. She stood there only a moment longer, and then turned and left him without looking back.

 

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Ned had no idea how long he remained standing alone in the woods after she left him. He felt empty. He had a battle to fight in less than two days. He had men to lead and a castle to free. Yet, he just stood there feeling empty. Have I lost her? He wasn’t sure what to do next. He desperately wanted to go after her, and yet he felt he had no right. This is what betrayal looks like. She had been shattered. That was the only word he could put to her face. None of the scars from the Red Wedding had done to her face what he had done to it this day. Gods forgive me. And please let my lady wife find it in her heart to forgive me as well. He wasn’t at all sure that she could.

Slowly he walked back to camp. He carefully avoided his tent, instead going to speak to any number of his men and making sure all moved according to plan. He found quite a lot to do, and it seemed everyone needed a word with him. The day passed into evening without his returning to his tent. He did not see Catelyn once. He ate his evening meal with the men and took some food to bring to her. As he was walking toward their tent, he saw Roslin Tully leaving it.

“Lady Tully,” he called to her. “How fares my lady wife this evening?”

Roslin walked up to him and looked at him coldly. “What happened today, my lord? What did you say to her?” Roslin ordinarily barely looked at him, but now she stared right at him and awaited an answer.

“I . . . is she not well?” He started to go around the young woman and into his tent, but her voice stopped him.

“She is in bed now.” Ned’s concern must have looked genuine to Roslin because her expression softened a bit. “I saw her return to your tent, my lord, earlier today. When I never saw her come out, I went to see if she wanted company and I found her standing . . . .the way she did before sometimes. She just stood there and wouldn’t talk or move or even acknowledge me for the longest time. Finally, she let me help her undress and get her into bed.”

Ned’s heart fell. “Did she say anything to you?”

“No, my lord. She only cried. She’s never done that in front of me before except when she’s asleep.”

Ned’s heart broke completely. “I’ll see to her, Lady Roslin. I thank you for taking care of her.”

“Did something terrible happen, my lord?”

“Yes,” he answered. “But it happened a long time ago.” He left her standing there and went into his tent.

Catelyn lay on their cot, bundled under furs, with her auburn hair spread out on the pillow. She looked completely at peace, with her eyes closed in exhausted sleep. He sighed and sat down on the edge of their cot to wait.

After an hour or so, she began to move in her sleep and then to cry out. He was ready, and bent over her to kiss her cheek and hold her in his arms as he had done during all her previous nightmares. “Cat,” he murmured. “I am here, Cat. You are safe.” Slowly, she settled back into peaceful slumber in his arms, and he kept watch over her throughout the rest of the night.

 

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She woke to the feeling of his fingers playing with her hair. For just a moment, she was back in her bedroom at Winterfell, having awakened to that sensation there so many times. She kept her eyes closed and pretended to still sleep, just as she had in the early days of their marriage. In those days, she had been so unsure of him, so consumed by thoughts of Ashara Dayne or whomever his mystery love was, that she trusted almost nothing he did or said while she was awake. He was only being courteous or dutiful, she would tell herself. Even when he lay with her, she imagined he thought of someone else. But when she realized he played with her hair when he thought her sleeping, well that was hers alone. He had no reason for pretense while she slept. And Ashara Dayne had black hair, not red. He could hardly confuse the two. She would pretend to sleep and savor the knowledge that in those moments, her husband thought only of her.

Later, as they slowly acknowledged the feeling between them, she would open her eyes when she felt his fingers in her hair of a morning and pull him close to her, touching his skin and feeling his body respond to hers. Gods, she had loved those mornings. Now she kept her eyes closed again, although there was no Ashara Dayne and never had been. She kept them closed because she didn’t know what to say to him. Didn’t know quite what she felt.

She heard him sigh deeply and felt him rise from his seat on the cot. His fingers gently traced the edge of her face at the hairline, and then were gone. As she heard his slightly uneven gait moving away from her, suddenly nothing mattered except the loss of those fingers in her hair.

“Ned, wait,” she said, opening her eyes.

She saw him stop about halfway to the tent entrance. He stood still, but did not speak or turn around.

“Please come back,” she said as she sat up in bed, pulling a fur up around her against the cold.

He turned and looked at her, his expression unreadable, although his eyes looked very tired. “You haven’t slept, have you?” she said.

“No,” he said. Still he stood there, as if waiting for something.

“Please come back, my lord. I would speak with you.”

He walked slowly back, and when she patted the cot, he sat beside her. “You were here all night, weren’t you?”

“Yes.”

She closed her eyes and sighed deeply. Opening her eyes to look at him, she said simply, “I love you, Ned.”

He looked at her and tilted his head to the side in disbelief, as if that were the last thing he’d expected to hear from her.

“I am angry at you for lying to me. I have never been as angry at you as I was yesterday, and I don’t imagine I’ll get completely over it for some time.”

He shivered, and Catelyn knew perfectly well he wasn’t cold. “My lady,” he started.

“But I will forgive you,” she interrupted.

He stared at her for a moment. “Why?” he blurted out.

“Because I choose to.” She took his hand in hers. “Forgiveness is a choice, you know. But it is not always an easy one. I cannot promise my forgiveness will be perfect, my love. The gods know it wasn’t before. I can’t imagine I have gotten any better at it with time.”

“I don’t understand, my lady. You have every right to . . .”

“Love you,” she interrupted. “You are my husband, and I have every right to love you. Do you still want me to be your wife?”

He gripped her hand more tightly. “There is nothing I want more, my lady.” She saw the truth of it in his grey eyes.

“Are there any more secrets, Ned?” Her voice faltered for the first time. “I don’t think I can do this again, so please, for the love you bear me, if there are any other lies or secrets between us, tell me now.”

“There are none, Cat. And there will be none.”

She nodded slowly. “I believe we move south today, my lord. I will be dressed momentarily so we can strike the tent.”

He made no move to rise. He simply leaned in and softly kissed her forehead. “I shall do everything in my power to be worthy of you, my love.”

She smiled and put her hand on his face. “Oh, you are, my love. If you weren’t, I wouldn’t trouble myself to forgive you.”

He chuckled softly and kissed her hand formally as he rose to go outside.  He looked back at her once, as if he still couldn't believe what she had said.   She smiled after him, thinking that while they were still somewhat uneasy, they had each chosen each other again. That was enough for the present. Now they had a castle to free. Riverrun was waiting.

Chapter Text

Roslin Frey Tully shivered as a particularly sharp gust of wind cut through the trees surrounding the group of ten men and two women on horseback. Her horse liked it no better than she did, and shied rather violently to one side. As she pulled on the reins in a somewhat panicked attempt to get the beast back under control, the rider beside her reached out a hand and grabbed her frightened horse’s bridle.

“Ho, now. Steady,” came Lady Stark’s calm, cool voice. “Steady, boy. That’s it.” Turning her face toward Roslin, she said, “Ease up on the rein, Roslin. You’ll hurt the poor thing’s mouth.”

As Roslin’s horse stilled, Lady Stark easily sidestepped her own mount right up next to it, so she could lay a hand over Roslin’s and help her relax her hold on the rein. “There you go, child. He was only frightened by the wind.”

In the relative darkness of the pre-dawn hour, the older woman appeared little more than a shadow beside her, but Roslin stared at her in awe. “You are a marvelous horsewoman, my lady! How do you come to ride so well?”

She couldn’t see Lady Stark’s facial expression, but she could hear the smile in her voice. “We rode quite frequently at Riverrun. The countryside here is marvelous for riding. Although in truth, I preferred swimming to riding until my father told me I’d gotten too old for stripping off my dress and diving into the Red Fork whenever I took a notion!”

Roslin tried and failed to imagine Lady Stark as a child splashing through the water in her smallclothes. “Truly, my lady?” she asked incredulously.

Lady Stark laughed. “Truly, child. Lysa, Edmure, and I rarely spent an entire day dry if the weather was hot. As to the riding, I actually got quite a lot more practiced at it once I came to Winterfell. I’m a fair hand at it, but I’m nothing compared to my lord husband, or even my daughter Arya. Apparently she takes after his sister Lyanna, who by all reports, was part horse herself.”

Lady Stark fell silent then, and Roslin wondered if speaking of her daughter had made her sad. The woman had been the very image of calm confidence since they had risen in the dark of night to ride with their guard to this little cove in the trees, calming Roslin’s fears with her presence. Yet Roslin sensed an underlying tension in her conversation, however light she kept her voice.

“Will the attack come soon, my lady?” she asked almost in a whisper.

“It is still a bit dark. I expect they will wait until the horizon shines just a little brighter.” Lady Stark paused as if considering something. “They need enough light to see when each force moves, but they want to strike the Freys and Lannisters before they are all truly up and moving for the day. And they must do it before Ryman’s men put Edmure up on that gibbet,” she said bitterly.

“My lady?” asked Roslin anxiously.

Lady Stark sighed deeply. “If my brother is standing on the trap of that gibbet with a noose around his neck when an attack comes, I cannot imagine Frey hesitating to drop him. Since his noose hasn’t been tied by the clever Wallen, we can’t allow that to happen, can we?”

“Oh no, my lady!” Roslin felt a new stab of fear at the thought of her lord husband being hanged before she ever had the chance to beg his forgiveness, a prospect which frightened her quite enough by itself. She shivered again even though the wind was still.

Lady Stark noticed. “Don’t be afraid, Roslin,” she said quietly. “Ned will not let that happen.”

Roslin knew then that Lady Stark was more anxious than she let on. She never called her husband Ned when speaking about him to her.

Lord Stark had ridden here with them and given the men assigned to guard them all kinds of strict instructions about riding the perimeter, keeping a constant watch, keeping at least four men within easy reach of the women at all times. He had instructed Lady Stark and herself to remain mounted at all times, in case the need arose to flee suddenly. His voice had been even sterner than usual, and Roslin was rather glad it had been too dark to see his face clearly, for she could imagine how icy his grey stare would feel as he gave those orders. She knew him to be a good man, but he could look so cold.

When he had left to join his men, Lady Stark had told him simply, “Stay safe, my lord. I will be waiting.” He hadn’t said anything. He had only pressed her hand to his lips and held it there a moment before turning his horse and riding off. Lady Stark had sat perfectly still on her horse and looked after him until he was swallowed up by the darkness. It seemed to Roslin an odd sort of farewell, but perhaps they had said their goodbyes in their tent earlier.

Roslin had found herself watching the Starks quite closely during the journey from the Twins. She knew they loved each other, and gods knew that was something she had seen little enough of growing up. She wondered at their formality with each other though, and secretly delighted in catching the small gestures and looks between the two of them which hinted at a much warmer relationship. She wondered if other married couples were like them. If perhaps, she and Lord Edmure would someday be like them. Edmure had seemed to her a thousand times warmer than Lord Stark, but that was before . . .

A long low blast interrupted her musings.

“It begins!” called one of the men with them.

“Maege Mormont,” said Lady Stark quietly, beside her. “Only Grey Wind isn’t here to answer her horn.”

Robb Stark’s wolf, thought Roslin. Grey Wind was the name of Robb Stark’s direwolf.

Then an even louder horn, and much closer by, sounded through the trees. “The Greatjon,” said Lady Stark. "He and Ned are riding out now.” She reached out and clutched Roslin’s hand. Other horns were sounding now, and shouts rang out in the gradually lightening darkness. One shout came to them clearly just before the sounds all blended into a chaotic mix of metal clanging, arrows singing, horses and men screaming, and hoof beats like thunder. One deep, strong voice called out loudly a single word. “Winterfell!!!!” And Lady Stark gripped Roslin’s hand tighter. “Be safe, Ned,” Roslin heard her whisper.

“He will be,” Roslin told her firmly, turning to look at her. It had lightened enough that she could make out her face now, and it looked carved from stone, grey in the half-light of dawn. Her blue eyes were fixed on the trees ahead of them, staring desperately toward the direction of that shout.

“Ser,” Roslin called to the guard nearest them. “Is it possible to move so that we might see more?”

“I’m sorry, my lady,” the man replied. “Lord Stark says you’re to go no nearer than this. And if you get where you can see them, they can see you. I don’t think his lordship would look kindly on me if I allowed some Frey bowman to use you or his lady for target practice.”

Lady Stark seemed to shake herself. She withdrew her hand from Roslin’s and reined her horse in the direction of the man who had spoken, suddenly the imperturbable Lady of Winterfell again. “Lord Stark’s lady has already played target to a Frey bowman,” she said. “And I have no desire to repeat the experience. Lady Tully and I shall remain right here, but I want one of you to bring reports from the perimeter riders of all they can see.”

“Lord Stark said . . .”

“Lord Stark is not here,” she interrupted. “If you would like me to ride out there and ask his permission to have you bring me reports, I will do so. Otherwise, simply accept that I speak for my lord husband in his absence and do as I ask.”

“My lady,” the man started to protest.

Roslin watched with admiration as Lady Stark turned her horse back toward the battle and started to give it a kick.

“No, my lady!” the poor guard said hurriedly. “I mean, yes, my lady. We will bring you whatever word of the battle we can get.” He turned to one of the others. “Orren, ride toward the perimeter, and find what can be seen.”

The man called Orren grinned at Lady Stark before riding off. “As my lady commands,” he said.

The shouts and screams along with a myriad of other sounds continued from beyond the trees unabated. Roslin suddenly was quite unsure of what to do with herself. She turned to Lady Stark. “What happens now, my lady?” she asked, feeling very young and frightened in that moment.

Lady Stark sighed and looked at her. “Now, child, we wait.” Then she turned her blue eyes back toward the direction of the battle sounds once more with the air of a woman accustomed to waiting.

 

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“Winterfell!” Ned shouted as he galloped into the Frey camp with Hallis Mollen and Donnell Boden at either side of him like twin shadows. Northmen flowed into the camp like a river, sweeping away the men in their path. They were badly outnumbered, Ned knew, and success depended on striking quickly, devastating the Freys before they could mount an organized defense. There were some Frey men up and armed who had already engaged the attacking northmen, but far more were just scrambling out of their tents, some of them not even fully clothed, much less armored.

Suddenly, he saw Donnell turn to his left to meet the charge of a horsemen from that direction, and an armored man on foot appeared just on Ned’s left swinging a heavy mace at his horse. Ned pulled hard on the reins, and the big gelding veered out of range just as the blow fell. Gods, that was close! Ned had no illusions about his ability to fight on foot. His damned leg had made him a virtual cripple for that type of sword fighting. He was only a passable soldier as long as he sat a horse. He turned the horse in a tight, quick circle, bringing his sword arm toward the man with the mace and felling him with a swift blow to the small space between the helmet and breastplate. Tugging hard to wrest the sword from the flesh of the man’s neck, he rode on, Hal close on his right side, and Donnell, having dispatched the horseman, galloping back up to his left.

He turned his head from side to side as he rode, seeking any sign of Edmure Tully’s bright auburn mane. He’d promised Cat he’d try to get her brother out of this alive, and he meant to keep that promise. He could see the gibbet Ryman Frey had erected standing in plain view of the walls of Riverrun, but it was mercifully empty. Looking toward the castle, he saw the direwolf of House Stark flying from its highest tower, above the Tully trout, and it filled his heart with pride and determination.

“Winterfell!” he shouted again and wheeled his horse to meet the charge of two mounted Frey men. While he knocked one of them off his horse easily, the other’s sword struck a glancing blow on his right side, getting beneath his armor. It was nothing serious, he knew, but the pain of it muddled his thoughts for an instant. He forced himself to focus before the man could strike a second blow, meeting the sword with his shield and bringing his own sword down hard on the man’s shoulder. He didn’t penetrate the man’s armor, but the force of the blow caused him to drop his sword, and Hal’s sword then separated the man’s head from his shoulders even as the man shouted curses at Ned.

The familiar sounds of battle had been joined by the smells of battle as well; the sweat of men and horses and the unmistakable scent of blood. Ned also smelled something like meat cooking and realized suddenly that a number of the tents were on fire, as well as some of the men. Looking back toward the castle, he could see that Brynden Tully had indeed joined the battle. Longbowmen on the walls were shooting flaming arrows into the camp.

Ned, Hal, and Donnell had several men on horse and foot around them now, and swords were flashing back and forth so quickly in the pale grey light, it was difficult to tell which weapon belonged to which man. As Ned drove his sword through the chest of a Frey man armed with an axe and wearing no armor, he felt someone suddenly pull hard at his back. His feet left his stirrups, and he fell from his horse, the wind knocked from him as his armored back hit the ground hard.

He struggled to breathe and regain his feet, as two men approached him with swords. Then Hal was between him and the men, having leapt off his own horse. He cut down the first man easily as Ned staggered to a standing position, but before Ned could brandish his own sword, the other man’s sword flashed downward taking Hal’s arm clean off at the shoulder.

“No!” Ned shouted and drove his own sword straight into the Frey man’s chest. As the man fell to the ground, Ned dropped to his knees beside Hal, grabbing the cloak of one of the fallen men and stuffing it into the gaping hole where Hal’s arm had been joined to his shoulder in an attempt to staunch the unstoppable flow of blood.

“Donnell!” he screamed, looking about him wildly. He saw that Donnell, still mounted, had killed or driven off the remaining men and now galloped back toward them. “Stay with him!” he commanded. “Keep pressure on the wound!”

Donnell looked grim. “I cannot leave you, my lord.”

Ned looked at Hal’s ghostly white face. “My lord,” the man gasped. “Donnell goes with you.”

“No!” Ned shouted again. “You will stay with him, Donnell. That is a command!”

Suddenly, Ned heard someone shouting above the fray. “I’ll kill him! I swear I will! Stop or I’ll kill him!”

He turned around to see a man clad only in unlaced breeches and a tunic standing in the doorway of a large tent and holding a knife to the neck of Edmure Tully. Behind the man, peering out of the tent with eyes widened in fear were two barely clothed camp followers. Ned had never known the man well and hadn’t seen him in years, but he knew precisely who he was. “Ryman Frey!” he shouted, as he walked slowly and deliberately toward him. “Unhand Lord Tully!”

Edmure was staring at Ned openmouthed, as if the sudden appearance of his goodbrother’s shade was more alarming than the knife at his throat. Ned’s visor was open, but Frey didn’t recognize him as Edmure had. He simply stood there, staring at him, and pressing the point of the knife into Edmure’s neck so that a bead of blood blossomed at its tip.

Ned stopped about five paces from the man and pulled off his helmet. “Do you know who I am?” he asked in a tone that sounded more like a wolf’s growl than a man’s voice.

Frey looked at him and blinked hard as if trying to focus. Gods! Ned thought. The man’s in his cups! Suddenly, the man’s eyes opened wider. Ned would have found the shock and disbelief on the man’s face comical had he not been in such a rage. This piece of filth, this pathetic excuse for a man had dared to . . .

“You’re dead!” the man suddenly shouted. “You’re dead!”

“I am not,” Ned said in a cold voice. “But you soon will be.”

“Lord . . . Lord Eddard?” Edmure rasped against the knife at his throat.

“Lord Edmure,” Ned replied, as if the two men were greeting each other at an inn. “Pardon me for not arriving sooner. I had business at the Twins.” The last sentence was spoken in tones of ice.

Ryman Frey paled at that, and Edmure shouted, “Kill him, Stark! They murdered your son! They murdered Cat! Kill him!” The last word was choked off as Frey gouged his neck a bit more with the knife.

Ned took another step forward, never taking his eyes off Ryman Frey. “Yes, Lord Tully,” he said in that same icy tone, looking not at Edmure, but at Frey, “They did murder my son. That is not, however, what this filthy Frey did to my wife.”

Ryman Frey’s hands began to shake now, as his bloodshot eyes stared at Ned. Edmure noticed and seized the opportunity to twist away from him. His hands were bound, but as he twisted away, he brought his knee up hard between Frey’s legs, and the man groaned and dropped the knife to the ground. Edmure dove to one side, and shouted, “Now, Stark! Kill him!”

Ned pushed the point of his sword against Ryman Frey’s chest, and something in the man seemed to snap. “Is that it, Stark? Are you going to murder me? You have no more honor than your son if you do!” His face reminded Ned of a rabid dog’s.

“Honor?” he said icily. “You dare speak to me of honor?”

“No one insults House Frey!” the man spit at him.

“He’s mad, Stark,” Edmure put in. “Kill him and be done with it. The battle still goes on. We can’t stay here.”

Ned ignored Edmure. He pressed the point of his sword harder into Ryman Frey’s chest. “How dare you lay hands on my wife? How dare you?”

The man’s face twisted into a nasty expression. “I laid more than hands on her. She’s a Tully and a Stark. She deserved worse! My grandfather told us she deserved worse!”

“Your grandfather is dead, Frey,” Ned said coldly. “His head and eight other Frey heads are mounted on the wall at the Twins for the treasonous murder of my son.” Frey went a ghostly shade of white.

“But you,” Ned continued, “won’t die for that.” The drunken idiot actually had the nerve to look relieved for a moment.

“You will die for what you did to Catelyn,” said Ned Stark, just before he thrust the sword through Ryman Frey’s chest.

Ryman Frey’s eyes opened wide with surprise as Ned pulled the sword out and allowed him to fall to the ground to die. Edmure stood staring at the blood spreading on the ground beneath the man’s body, and then looked up at Ned. “Catelyn?” he asked, his voice equal parts fear and hope.

Ned‘s vision swam a bit as he looked up from the dead Frey to Catelyn‘s brother. He wondered if he‘d lost more blood from that wound in his side than he‘d thought. “She’s alive,” he said as he reached behind Tully to unbind his hands.

Just then another war horn sounded, this time from inside the castle. “That’s Uncle Brynden’s!” exclaimed Edmure. “He’s opening the gates! We’ve got to get there and meet him.”

Ned looked around at what was left of the Frey camp. Fighting continued, but the day belonged to the northmen. He saw Donnell tightly binding Hal Mollen’s shoulder, wrapping material round and round his chest, but he also saw the crimson stain on the cloth continuing to spread in spite of it. He sighed heavily with grief. He looked back at his goodbrother and nodded. “We need to mount horses, for I fear I cannot walk the distance. And I would bring my injured man.” He put his hand on Edmure’s shoulder. “Let’s get you to your castle gate, Lord Tully.”

 

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Catelyn Stark had not moved from her horse. She had listened all morning to the terrible sounds coming from Riverrun and knew she was listening to men die. Not Ned, she prayed. Please, not Ned. The men who guarded her and Roslin had told her the Frey camp seemed to fall into complete disarray when Ned and his men had attacked, and that the battle there went well. Of course, men die in victories as well as defeat, she thought. That is the nature of war. Of the battles beneath the other walls of Riverrun, they could tell her little, not being in a position to see much of those. So she waited.

As the morning wore on, the sounds gradually diminished. There were still screams and other battle noises, but they were fewer, and separated by more spaces of relative silence. Finally, a man came riding up to her with a wide smile on his face. “It appears to be over, my lady! A victory!”

“Victory?” Roslin asked from behind her. “Truly, sir? It is over?”  The girl sounded breathless. She had done well, although she had been restless, sometimes riding in little circles or back and forth during the long waits for any little report. Youth, Catelyn supposed. She had been more restless at that age herself.

“Yes, Lady Tully,” the man assured her. “The Freys on our side of the river are thoroughly defeated. I cannot say for sure what happened south of the Red Fork with Lord Reed’s men because we cannot see that side of the castle, but Ser Brynden has ridden out to join our force at the castle gate, and they make no move to ride to the other side. That can only mean the fighting is done there as well.”

“Then we shall ride to Riverrun now,” said Catelyn.

“No, my lady,” the man responded immediately.

“No?” Catelyn questioned him, arching her brow. “Ser, that was not a request. We shall ride to Riverrun.”

The man was visibly distressed, but he shook his head again. “No, my lady. I am sorry, but Lord Stark was very clear on this point. We are not to move from this place until an escort is sent for us.”

Catelyn frowned. She needed to be down there. She needed to know that Ned was all right. She wanted to see Edmure and Brynden. She was on the verge of opening her mouth to argue when she felt Roslin’s hand on her arm.

“I am sure Lord Stark is safe,” the girl said softly. “And that he found my lord husband as well.”

“That’s what I intend to go find out,” Catelyn told her.

“My lady,” Roslin said, again in the softest of voices. “If the battle is just ended, all may not be secure. Our forces are rather spread out, after all. I am certain Lord Stark wishes to be certain of everything before he comes for us.” She lowered her voice still further. “He knows you are safe here,” she almost whispered.

Catelyn bit back the argument which came to her lips, for she knew the girl was right. Her desperate need to see her husband could not take precedence over his need to secure Riverrun and see to the men who fought for it. She would only be a distraction if she rode into the castle demanding her husband’s attention when it was needed elsewhere. She nodded at Roslin. “You are very wise, Lady Tully,” she told her with a smile, thinking that only a moment ago she had considered restlessness a folly of youth, and now she was the one itching to gallop her horse to Riverrun. Her brother was blessed more than he knew in his little bride. To her guard, she said simply, “We shall wait.”

 

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Roslin was not certain how long they waited, but she did know that her own apprehension and impatience paled beside Lady Stark’s. The older woman spoke little and sat still on her horse, but it was a different stillness than Roslin had come to know from her at the Twins. There, she had seemed empty--her stillness a byproduct of there being nothing left inside her. Now her stillness seemed a great effort of the will, as if rather than being empty, Lady Stark was now so full of emotion that if she let it escape her, she might not be able to contain it again.

Finally, one of their guards rode up from beyond the trees blocking the view toward Riverrun to tell them a small party of riders approached, bearing the Tully standard. Lady Stark did not wait to ask anything. She simply kicked her horse and rode in that direction, and so Roslin followed. As the party of six men came into view, she saw disappointment cloud Lady Stark’s face. Apparently, Lord Stark was not among the riders. Roslin could not truly recognize any of them at this distance, but she did not doubt that Lady Catelyn would know her husband. As the men drew closer, however, she heard a small cry of surprise and joy escape the woman’s throat, and then she was galloping to meet the riders, Roslin again trailing in her wake.

A tall white haired man with a deep, smoky laugh stopped and dismounted as they approached. “Little Cat!” he exclaimed, in a booming voice.

Little Cat? Roslin was shocked to see that Lady Stark had all but leapt off her own horse and was now throwing herself into the older man’s outstretched arms. He proceeded to spin her around joyfully, and when Roslin saw the expression on her face, suddenly it did not seem difficult to imagine her as a child playing in the rivers at all. This man must be her uncle, Brynden Tully, the Blackfish of Riverrun.

“Uncle!” Lady Stark exclaimed, confirming Roslin’s supposition, “it gladdens my heart to see you!”

“Ah, but so much more does it gladden mine to see you, Little Cat,” he replied, holding her at arm’s length and staring at her face. “We had believed you lost to us for so long, I had to ride out here to see you for myself, rather than take Stark’s word for it!”

“Ned!” cried Lady Stark. “Uncle, is he . . .”

“He is fine, niece. He sent us to fetch you,” the man interrupted her.

That struck Roslin as odd. From what she had seen of Lord and Lady Stark, she couldn’t imagine the man sending anyone after his wife if he were capable of coming himself.

Apparently, Lady Stark thought the same because she asked her uncle, “Why did my lord husband not come himself? What keeps him at Riverrun?” Roslin could hear the anxiety in her voice.

Ser Brynden looked carefully at his niece, and Roslin noted he had the same blue eyes as Lady Catelyn and Edmure, although his were half hidden under bushy white eyebrows. “Your lord is truly fine, Cat. He took some small wound, that is all.” Lady Stark drew in her breath. “It is nothing,” Ser Brynden said firmly. “He’ll likely have a few stitches in his side when we reach him, but it’s little more than a scratch. I swear to you he’s taken no permanent damage.” He surveyed Lady Stark even more closely. “It would appear he is a difficult person to kill,” he said slowly. “Rather like his lady wife.”

Roslin saw Lady Stark shake her head in response. Then she asked the question which had been on Roslin’s lips all this time. “What of Edmure, Uncle? How fares my brother?”

“Well, he’s a good bit skinnier than you’ll remember. Apparently those cursed Freys didn’t think to feed him much while they left him out on that gibbet all day every day,” he said bitterly. “But aside from that, he’s well enough. Thanks to your husband, apparently, who got him away from that bastard Ryman Frey who had him at knifepoint.”

Now Roslin gasped, and Ser Brynden looked up to see her on her horse as if noticing her for the first time.

“Uncle,” said Lady Stark. “May I present Lady Roslin Tully, Edmure’s wife and your goodniece.”

Now the blue eyes that regarded her turned very cold, and none of the warmth that she had heard in that smoky voice remained when he addressed her. “So you’re the little Frey tart who bedded my fool of a nephew as young Robb Stark and his men were murdered.”

Roslin felt as if she had been slapped. Tears stung her eyes, and she felt her cheeks flush with shame.

“Brynden Tully!” Lady Stark said in a voice full of barely controlled rage. “How dare you speak so to your Lord’s wife? You know nothing of Lady Tully and nothing of what occurred at that accursed wedding or after! You will apologize to my goodsister now!”

The man regarded Lady Stark with some surprise for a long moment. Then he turned back to Roslin. “Perhaps, I have been misinformed, my lady.” His voice was still cool, but polite. “If so, then I offer my deepest apologies for my behavior.”

It took Roslin a moment to find her voice, but she replied to him with every ounce of courtesy and dignity she had ever learned from watching Catelyn Stark. “Your apology is accepted, Ser Brynden. House Frey has committed terrible crimes against your family. Your anger is understandable. My part in those crimes was never of my own will, and I wish only to be a good wife to Lord Edmure and a good mother to his child.”

The Blackfish never took his eyes from her. “So, it’s true then? You are with child? And it’s Edmure’s?”

“Brynden!” snapped Lady Stark.

But Roslin did not raise her voice or even give notice to the insult. “Why, yes, Ser Brynden. I carry my lord husband’s child, and I am most anxious for him to know that his heir is safe.”

The Blackfish nodded to her, and then noting that all of her and Lady Catelyn’s guards had now joined them, he turned again to his niece. “It is time we head to Riverrun, my lady.” He gave her a leg up onto her horse, and then mounted himself, turning his horse to lead the group without another glance or word for Roslin.

Lady Stark rode to her at once. “Roslin,” she said, “he had no right to speak to you so. I am so sorry.”

“He had every right, my lady,” Roslin said softly. She looked up at Lady Stark with tears in her eyes. “Did I not take your brother into my bed even as my family was killing your son? Did I not know what was occurring? He has every right to hate me. I cannot understand why you do not.”

“Roslin, you are not to blame for what happened at your wedding,” Lady Stark said fiercely. “You had no power to change any of it. I know that, child.”

Roslin gave a small nod. “Perhaps, my lady.” She then looked into Lady Stark’s eyes, “But will Lord Edmure see it as you do or as your uncle does?” She could see in the older woman’s face that she did not truly know the answer to that question.

Finally, Lady Stark sighed. “I do not know what his initial reaction will be, Roslin. But I do know my brother. Whatever occurs on our arrival at Riverrun, be strong and be patient. It may take time, but he will see you for who you are. I know that.” She gave Roslin’s hand a squeeze. “Come, child, they won’t want to wait on us. I need to speak further with my uncle, so I shall ride up front with him. You needn’t accompany me if you’d rather not.”

Lady Stark turned her horse and trotted up past the entire column to fall in beside her uncle. Roslin took a place near the rear of the group. The battle was won. Soon she would be at her new home, reunited with her husband. All she could feel was a terrible sense of foreboding. Silently, the new Lady of Riverrun rode toward her fate.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

“Uncle, you have wronged Roslin terribly,” Catelyn hissed as she reined up beside her uncle.

“Have I?” he asked without looking toward her.

“Yes!” Catelyn said indignantly. “For the longest time, the girl was told nothing except that she was to marry the Lord of Riverrun, and she was giddy with excitement about it. By the time she knew the truth of the matter, nothing could be done, and she was under threat.”

Brynden made a noncommittal sound, and Catelyn reached out to grab his arm, forcing him to look at her. “You forget I’ve been at the Twins for some time now, Uncle. I know all about living under threat there. The girl is blameless.”

Her uncle looked at her face, and his expression seemed to soften. “Perhaps she is. I have never considered you overly sentimental, Cat, and yet you seem taken with her.”

“She saved my life. First, she cared for my injuries and afterward . . . .well, my captivity was not kind, Uncle. And Roslin was my only solace. She would have done the same for Edmure, except she was kept from him all the time he was held at the Twins.”

Her uncle continued to look at her, waiting to see if she had any more to say about the unkindness of her captivity. She did not. “Tell me of the battle,” she said instead. “And what sort of wound my lord husband took.” She remembered him saying that Ned had rescued Edmure from Ryman Frey and went cold again at the thought. “Who injured him?”

“The battle was like all battles,” he said. “Grim, bloody, and wasteful of men. Your husband took a sword cut to his side. Not deep, mind you, but he took it fairly early on and kept bleeding as he fought, so that he was fairly weakened by battle’s end. Nothing that will keep him down longer than a day. As to who injured him, I couldn’t say. Neither could he, likely. Some man with a sword.”

Brynden fell silent.

“What of the other lords and Lady Mormont? How grave were our losses?”

Brynden sighed. “It could have been much worse, Cat. We won fairly easily, truth be told. Ryman Frey’s camp was an unholy mess to begin with. Your Ned and that giant Umber cut through it like butter. Lord Reed’s men to the south had possibly an even easier time of it, as stupid Emmon 'Call Me Lord' Frey never could seem to grasp the Pipers were fighting against him, which made his defense rather a mess. Daven Lannister put up a brave defense before the gate, though. I’ll give the man that.”

“Lady Maege and Lord Glover?” Catelyn asked anxiously.

“Lady Mormont is fine. Bossing everyone in the place around, much to Edmure’s chagrin. Galbart Glover was wounded pretty badly, Cat.”

“Will he live?” she asked almost breathlessly.

“I think so. But he won’t be doing any fighting for awhile. He took a bad wound to the leg and another under the arm which bled a great amount.”

“What of Ned’s men? Most of them are actually Lady Mormont’s or Lord Glover’s, but we have a few from Winterfell.”

“I had hoped to wait to tell you,” Brynden said quietly.

“Tell me what?” Catelyn asked, her heart suddenly in her throat.

“Hallis Mollen wanted you to know he did his duty.”

Catelyn felt cold. “I asked Hal and another man to keep Ned safe,” she whispered.

“They did well for you, Cat.” He looked at her and smiled somewhat sadly. “Apparently your Lord Stark led the men into the Frey camp screaming “Winterfell” and making it plain to everyone that he was in charge. They may not have known who he is, but they knew he was the man to kill. Your two men fought on either side of him and the three of them did quite a bit of damage by all reports, but attackers kept coming and eventually Lord Stark was pulled from his horse.”

Catelyn shuddered. Ned would never give her such detailed accounts of his battles, and she now understood better why. Even knowing he had survived, she almost couldn’t bear to think of him in such danger. “What happened then?” she whispered.

“Two men went to finish him and Hallis Mollen got in their way,” he said simply.

“Is Hal dead?” she whispered.

Brynden nodded. “He lived long enough to know that we won and that Lord Stark survived. He wanted you to know it was an honor to serve the Starks.”

“Oh, Hal,” she whispered softly, thinking of the man who had never once flinched when asked to do anything by Robb or herself. One more good Winterfell man the Lannisters and Freys would have to answer for. She was silent the rest of the ride to Riverrun.

As they reached the castle, Catelyn took her leave of Brynden. “I am going to go with Roslin now, Uncle. She is understandably concerned about what welcome she will receive.” She gave him a dark look.

Her uncle snorted, but then told her, “She has reason to be, Cat. Edmure has had a very trying time of it in the Frey camp here and is not well disposed to anything or anyone Frey at the moment. Perhaps you should find the girl a room to rest and bring her to him when things are more settled--tomorrow even.”

Catelyn nodded with a frown and went to join Roslin who looked ready to drop, whether from exhaustion or apprehension, she wasn’t sure. The courtyard was full of people and activity. After leaving their horses at the stable, Catelyn led Roslin through the throng asking anyone she saw if they knew the whereabouts of Utherydes Wayn, the steward. As she was asking the fourth or fifth person, she heard a familiar voice hailing her.

“Lady Tully! It’s true!”

She turned to see Maester Vyman hurrying toward her. She greeted him with a smile. “It is Lady Stark, as you well know, Maester Vyman, but I happen to have Lady Tully with me.” She pressed Roslin forward in introduction. “Lady Roslin Tully, this is Maester Vyman, a most valuable member of your household, as you will learn quickly yourself. Maester Vyman, this is the new Lady Tully, Edmure’s wife and my very dear goodsister.”

If the maester had any qualms about accepting Roslin as the Lady of Riverrun, he hid them well, and was all courtesy and welcome toward her. Catelyn could see the pleased surprise on Roslin’s face and wanted to hug the man.

“Maester Vyman,” she told him, “Lady Tully is exhausted. The journey from the Twins and the anxiety over the battle has not been easy on a woman with child. I would like Utherydes to find a suitable room for her so she can rest, and to have food and drink brought to her.”

“My lady, that’s not . . .” Roslin started.

“Roslin, this is precisely what you need.” She pulled the young woman aside and spoke to her quietly. “Look around you, child. This place is a madhouse. It is not the time for you and Edmure to come together and speak of all that needs said. Go and rest. Eat and drink, if not for yourself, for the baby you carry. When things are calmer, I will come for you or send Edmure to you.”

To her vast relief, Roslin agreed. She hugged the girl and sent her with Maester Vyman, knowing she was in good hands. Before they left, she asked the maester if he knew where her husband was. Vyman smiled at her. “I have only recently let him get up after I sewed up his wound, my lady. He is a Stark. Must you truly ask where he has gone?”

She smiled at him and turned toward the godswood of Riverrun.

He was there, of course. As were Lady Maege, Lord Umber and several others. She felt a pang as she realized Lord Glover and Hal were both missing. She stood silently near the edge, not wishing to intrude. Ned looked so pale. He had lost a fair amount of blood, she realized. He knelt with his eyes closed, his sword in front of him, cleaned of course. Her need to touch him warred with her need to allow him privacy with his gods, and so she just stood and looked at him, thanking her own gods and his that he was there in front of her.

As if he felt her eyes on him, he opened his own and looked at her. Wordlessly, he rose and came to her, taking her in his arms, for once not mindful that there were others present. “Cat,” he whispered.

“I am here, my love,” she whispered back, putting her hands on his face. It felt colder than usual, likely from the blood loss.

“And I am glad of it,” he said tilting his head forward so that their foreheads touched. “Cat . . .” he hesitated. “Hal . . .”

“I know,” she said softly. “Brynden told me.” She saw that some of the others in the godswood were watching them now. “Walk with me, my love.”

He nodded and gave her his arm. She led him back into the castle to a small, almost hidden room off the long hall. “Sit,” she told him. “You should not be on your feet so soon after your injury.”

“I am fine,” he said, but he sat anyway. “Cat, I am the reason Hal Mollen is dead.”

She pulled a chair close to his and sat in front of him, taking his hand. “The Freys and the Lannisters are the reason Hal is dead,” she corrected him.

“I was pulled off my bloody horse! I couldn’t stand up! I couldn’t . . . .my damned leg got him killed!” he exploded.

“No,” she said calmly. "Some Frey man with a sword got him killed. And even if you want to blame the leg, well, the Lannisters are responsible for that, too.”

“I should have made him stay with you as I intended!”

“No,” she said again. “Ned, look at me. If Hal hadn’t been there, you would not be here. I mourn Hal, my love, but I do not regret his being there to defend you.”

“I should defend myself, Catelyn!”

“As I hear it, you were doing that.” She paused. “Ned, Hallis Mollen died defending his liege lord. He did what he was supposed to do. He did what he believed in doing. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same for Robert Baratheon.”

He had no answer for that. “That’s what I thought,” she told him. “You cannot imagine how fervently I prayed for Robert’s safety when you rode off with him for the Greyjoy rebellion. I knew that any peril of his would become your own.”

He nodded slowly, and then smiled at her just a little. “Only during the Greyjoy rebellion? You didn’t pray for Robert during our first war?”

She smiled more widely at him. “Oh, I did, though perhaps not quite with so much fervor.” She swallowed and tears filled her eyes. “I did not realize exactly how much I had to lose then,” she whispered. “And I only thought I knew during the Greyjoy war . . . Oh, Ned!” And then she was crying in his arms, tears of sadness for Hal mingled with tears of relief that her husband was truly safe with her once more.

They sat there in each other’s arms for a brief spell when she heard a discreet cough from the doorway. She looked up to see Utherydes Wayn standing there, looking somewhat uncomfortable. “Lord and Lady Stark,” he said with great courtesy. “Lord Edmure requests you attend him in his solar.”

Catelyn smiled at the man. “You always did know all my hiding places!”

“Most of them, Lady Catelyn, most of them,” the old man responded.

When Ned and Catelyn arrived in Edmure’s solar, they found not only Edmure, but Lady Mormont, Lord Reed, Lord Umber, Lord Piper, and Ser Brynden waiting for them.

“Cat!” Edmure exclaimed as she came in, and she left her husband’s side to quickly embrace her brother. He looked at her. “Are you truly well, Cat? You cannot imagine what I thought when I saw the specter of your husband striding toward me and old Ryman Frey, only to discover he was no shade at all when he ran the bugger through with his sword! Then he told me you lived . . .” Edmure shook his head and seemed unable to say any more.

“I know,” she told him. “Much has happened to all of us. I have brought your wife, Edmure.”

A shadow fell over his eyes. “I heard,” he said shortly. “Uncle Brynden told me.” Looking up at the others, he said more loudly, “But we have much to discuss. Everyone please take a seat.”

Catelyn moved to sit beside Ned and waited for Edmure to continue. “You all know Lord Piper, here. He fought bravely for Riverrun today and has received my pardon for the time he knelt to the Lannisters during his son’s captivity.” He frowned. “The other river lords who turned on us are making overtures as well, but I hardly wish to welcome them back into my councils at once. They need to prove their loyalty.”

“Wise move,” said Umber, with a dark look at Lord Piper who made no response.

“While he was with the Lannister camp, Lord Piper was privy to information we did not have. The most immediately concerning bit of news is that Jaime Lannister has just arrived at Darry with a company of nigh on a thousand men.”

A general rumbling broke out at that. “Are they to come here?” Lady Maege asked. “Were they to help in the siege?”

“Indeed,” said Lord Piper. “I fear the Lannisters felt Riverrun was not falling quickly enough and did not trust the competence of their friends the Freys.”

“So do we await the Kingslayer here? Or do we ride out to meet him?” Ser Brynden asked.

“Well, that is the question, isn’t it?” Edmure said.

Ned had been quiet beside her, but Catelyn knew he was listening intently and thinking about every word. Now he spoke. “In a battle such as we fought this morning, it is certain that many of our opponents fled. The enemy was out in the field, several fields in truth, rather than confined behind castle walls as at the Twins.” He looked at the gathered lords and ladies. “Word of our victory here will reach the Kingslayer at Darry before we ever could. There will be no surprising him.”

“He’s right,” Lord Reed said. “Stealth won the day for us here. That will not be an option for us when we face Ser Jaime’s force.”

“We will have more strength, though,” said Lord Umber. “We lost relatively few men and we have the strength of Riverrun and the Pipers added to our number."

“We’d have Jason Mallister, too, if only we could free Seagard,” Edmure lamented. “He has bent the knee to the Lannisters, but only to save his son, and I have seen no Mallister banners among the Lannister forces. I believe him more prisoner than turncoat.”

“I agree with you,” Ned said quietly. “In fact, I had thought to suggest sending a force to Seagard as our next move. But that is not an option now. We must make sure Riverrun is protected from this new threat, and we can’t spare the men to liberate the Mallisters just yet.”

“So what do you suggest, my lord?” asked Lady Mormont.

Catelyn realized everyone in the room, even her prickly and opinionated uncle was looking to her husband to see what he had to say. Ned sighed. “First, make sure every piece of siege equipment Daven Lannister has built is destroyed immediately. If Jaime does come here, we shall not give him a head start. And I think it is time to send a few ravens.”

“Ravens, my lord?” asked Lord Piper.

“Yes, Lord Piper. It is time to tell the rest of the Seven Kingdoms that the North is not as finished as they may believe. That we have taken the Twins and Riverrun and are allied with the Tullys against the Lannisters’ aggression in the Riverlands.”

“Do you mean to give your name, my lord?” asked Lady Mormont.

As Ned pondered that question, Brynden Tully spoke up. “No,” he said. “Simply sign the letters as the lords of the north. Leave them wondering who that might be.”

“Why?” asked Ned simply.

“After the Battle of the Blackwater, people all over the Seven Kingdoms claimed Renly Baratheon led the victorious troops against Stannis.”

“Renly Baratheon did no such thing. I saw the man die right in front of me,” Catelyn said. She felt Ned’s shocked eyes on her, and she reached to give his hand a squeeze in promise of an explanation later. Just one more thing from their time apart they had not yet gotten to discuss.

“Of course, he didn’t,” said the Blackfish. “But enough people believed it that the tale spread. And the Lannisters were happy to have people believe they were the beneficiaries of supernatural intervention by Renly from beyond the grave.” He looked at Ned. “More and more people have seen you, my lord. No doubt, some report of your involvement here will be included in the tales told. Why not let confusion reign among our enemies?”

“Perhaps that would be useful for a time,” Ned said thoughtfully. “As for the Kingslayer, though, who was taken alive in our battle that we might make use of? I know we have Daven Lannister.”

“Yes, my lord,” said the Greatjon. “We’ve fat Genna Lannister and her stick of a Frey husband as well.”

“Ah, yes, the Frey Lord of Riverrun!” Edmure said with laugh. “May he rot.”

“We’ve got the Westerling woman and her children still, as well,” said Brynden.

“Jeyne?” asked Catelyn. “You’re holding Robb’s wife?”

“Widow,” corrected Brynden. “And I believe there is more of Tywin Lannister in that marriage than any of us suspected, Little Cat.”

Catelyn bristled slightly at the use of her childhood name in this particular company, but merely asked, “What do you mean by that? Jeyne was devoted to Robb!”

“Yes, my lady, I believe the young queen’s feelings were genuine. I do not feel quite so confident in those of her mother, however. Tywin Lannister signed pardons for all the Westerlings before Robb was cold, Cat, and granted Castamere to Lady Westerling’s brother Rolph Spicer.”

Catelyn’s eyes widened. “Tywin Lannister has never been one to suffer betrayal, or to repay treason with generosity.”

“Exactly,” her uncle said.

“The Westerlings are not in the dungeons, Cat,” said Edmure. They are in comfortable rooms and treated with courtesy, for Robb’s sake. You may see Jeyne if you like.”

Catelyn nodded. Grey Wind had never liked the Westerlings, she remembered, and it had bothered her. Oh, Robb. Had they set you up from the start?

Lost in reflection, she hadn’t realized Ned was speaking again. He was saying something about sending an envoy to Jaime Lannister. “Let him know that any attack on Riverrun makes the lives of his cousin, aunt, and uncle forfeit.”

Lord Piper snorted. “I’ll tell you right now he doesn’t give a fig about Emmon Frey, but he may pause for the sake of the other two.”

Brynden nodded. “A pause is all we need. We can turn back a force of a thousand men easily from Riverrun with time to prepare.”

Edmure nodded grimly. “And then we can see about putting the rest of my lands to right.”

“Speaking of putting lands to right,” said Lord Reed, “I do not believe Lord Stark has heard the news from the north.”

“What news from the north?” Ned asked sharply.

“It would appear Lord Stannis has left the Wall, my lord,” said Lady Mormont. “He has rescued Deepwood Motte from the Ironmen and freed Robett Glover’s wife. Lord Umber’s uncle Mors has joined him. The news about his seat gladdened Galbart immensely.”

“However, my other whoreson of an uncle is with Bolton,” said the Greatjon darkly. “Along with what’s left of the Cerwyn, Hornwood, Tallhart, Ryswell, and Dustin men.” He spat.

“It is good that Deepwood Motte is liberated,” Ned said. He looked at Lord Umber and sighed. “No doubt your imprisonment in the Twins had some impact on Hothar’s decision, Jon. And the other houses are essentially leaderless at this point. Bolton is simply stepping into the void. He shall not stay there.”

Edmure looked uncomfortable as he spoke next. “They say he has your daughter Arya. He plans to marry her to his bastard at Winterfell.”

“He has the daughter of my steward whom he is passing as Arya,” Ned said grimly. “Arya fled the Lannisters on the day of my arrest in King’s Landing, and they have not had her since.”

“You are sure the girl is not your daughter?” asked the Blackfish, looking at Catelyn.

Catelyn nodded. “Hallis Mollen saw her,” she said quietly “He knows Arya and and Jeyne Poole by sight. He was confident the girl was Jeyne.” Poor Jeyne, she thought. A rescue might be well be mounted for the daughter of Eddard Stark, but the daughter of Vayon Poole would have to wait.

“I fear Winterfell must wait, my lord,” Edmure said to his goodbrother, in an echo of Catelyn’s thoughts. “Too much risk still surrounds Riverrun for an undertaking so large and far away.”

“I agree,” Ned said sadly. “Is there anything else of import that must be discussed now?” He sounded very tired.

“No,” said Edmure.

“There was a singer,” said Brynden.

“A singer?” Ned asked incredulously.

Brynden actually laughed. “Yes, a singer. He told me it was of gravest importance that he speak with Lord Stark as soon as possible. He was encamped with the Freys. Tom something or other. I told him to come back on the morrow.”

Ned sighed. “Perhaps on the morrow, I’ll be more in the mood for a song.”

As everyone left the solar, Catelyn hung back and Ned waited with her without questioning.

“I would speak with you Edmure,” she said once everyone else had left.

Edmure sighed. “If it’s about the Frey girl . . .” he started.

“It’s about your wife. Her name is Roslin Tully,” she said precisely.

“Cat! I cannot look at her! Do you know how it shames me to know where I was while your son was killed?” He looked at the scar on her neck which showed rather plainly now that she was indoors and wore no cloak. “What I was doing while some bastard Frey cut your throat?”

“You were bedding your wife, Edmure. There is hardly any shame in that. You had no idea what occurred after you were carried from the room.”

“She knew!” He sounded almost like a petulant child. “She knew and she didn’t say anything! And after they dragged me out to show me . . .oh gods, Cat, they showed me the bodies in the hall. I saw your hair. Two men were tossed on top of you . . .”

“It wasn’t me, Edmure,” she said quietly. “They killed some poor serving girl with red hair. The bodies were tossed on top of her so that you couldn’t see anything but the hair.”

“Well, she stood there in that hall full of the dead crying and pleading, and I almost believed her, but then she never came to me once, Cat!”

“You self-centered little boy, Edmure!” Catelyn exclaimed in disbelief. “Do you honestly think she had a choice? They forbade her to see you. They beat her the only time she tried. Do you think she ever had a choice about any of it?”

She looked at her brother who stood staring at her open mouthed. Ned remained silent behind her.

“I . . . I don’t know,” Edmure finally stammered.

Catelyn shook her head and felt the fury leave her. “No,” she said sadly. “You honestly don’t know. You don’t know what it is to be a girl.” She sighed. “You only ever spent time with Lysa and me. And Father loved us. He treated us kindly and allowed us to think and speak and run all over the countryside as we wished. Many girls are never given even that. Certainly not by Walder Frey. A girl’s only value is in the marriage she can make. What can she bring to your house? What can she offer another house?” She shook her sadly. “Even Father, who loved us, gave Lysa and me no choice in the end.”

“That’s different,” Edmure started.

“No, it isn’t,” Catelyn said quietly. “I would have done nothing differently if given a choice,” she looked at Ned as she said that, “but Lysa . . .Lysa begged Father. Pleaded with him. You were little more than a child, Edmure, but you have to remember her tears. Lysa was coerced into marriage and she had no choice but to obey. And her father loved her.”

“Father didn’t kill anyone,” Edmure said sullenly.

I am not so sure, Catelyn thought, thinking of her father’s last days and Lysa’s secret love. But that was not a tale for Edmure.

“Just give her a chance, Edmure. She wants to be a good wife. She has already proven herself a true goodsister to me, and she carries your child.”

Edmure’s face softened at that. “I’ll think about it, Cat. And I promise I’ll not have her mistreated here. She does carry my child.”

Catelyn smiled and kissed her brother’s cheek. Then she left the room on her husband’s arm.

 

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As Ned Stark led his wife down the hallway, she suddenly looked up at him. “Do we have a room, Ned?”

“Oh, indeed,” he smiled at her. “I saw to that, my lady. I also asked to have food brought there. I fear I am not up to dining in hall this night.”

“Oh, good. I feel the same.” She leaned into him a little, and he smiled.

She realized where he was taking her before they reached the door, and she began laughing. “At least no one ripped my dress today.”

“Jory had never seen anything so beautiful, my love. He couldn’t help himself.”

She smiled, but it was tinged with sadness at the thought of Jory Cassel, now dead in King’s Landing. “We were all so young,” she said.

“We were,” he replied as they entered the same bedchamber they had been carried into all those nights ago. A fire had been laid against the chill in the air, and a plate of fruit and cold meat and bread was laid on the table, along with a flagon of wine.

“Sit down, my love, and get those boots off. I’ll get a stool to prop your leg,” she told him.

“My leg is fine, Cat,” he answered in amusement, but he sat down and pulled off his boots and then poured them each a glass of wine. She returned in a moment with a stool and he dutifully propped his leg up while they ate.

They spoke little as they had their meal, but it was a companionable silence rather than an uncomfortable one. Finally, once they were finished, he sighed deeply and leaned back into his chair. He closed his eyes briefly and then looked directly into her eyes. “I killed Ryman Frey today, my lady.”

“I heard. Did he really have Edmure at knifepoint?”

“Yes.” He hesitated. “That is not why I killed him.”

“I know,” she said softly.

“Are there any others here, Cat?”

Her eyes filled with tears. “Do you wish to know every one?” she whispered.

“I wish to kill every one,” he answered levelly.

“The bastard,” she said after a moment. “Walder Rivers. I heard he was here. No one else.”

“He was killed in the battle today. Not by me, but he is dead.” He felt cheated somehow, that the man had not died by his hand. It doesn’t matter, he told himself. What matters is that he is dead. “No one else?”

She shook her head. “They are the only two who came to Riverrun.”

Now the silence was uncomfortable. He got up from his chair and knelt in front of her, taking her hands. “Cat, I do not wish to cause you distress. I simply cannot allow anyone who hurt you so to live. Can you understand that?”

She nodded. “I want them dead,” she whispered. “I only wish you did not have to kill them.”

He nodded then, and stood up, pulling her to her feet with him. “I thought staying in this room might bring you comfort. They brought me here for Maester Vyman to sew my wound, and I thought about how we made Robb in this room. It brought me comfort rather than grief. I’ll mourn our sons until I die, Cat, but I am still glad we made them.”

She nodded again, but now the tears in her eyes held joy as well as sadness. “I am, too,” she said. She hesitated briefly. “My moonblood ended a few days ago,” she said, looking down at the floor.

“I know.” When she looked up at him in surprise, he had to laugh at her. “We have been sharing a small tent, my lady.”

She laughed as well then, and he bent to kiss her. She tasted of the wine, and when she wrapped her arms around him and responded to his kiss, he felt as if he were drunk on her. He pulled away. “Are you certain, my love? Do you want this?” Oh gods, please want this.

She nodded once again. “I . . .I don’t know if anything will come of it, my lord,” she said hesitantly.

“Come of it?” he asked, confused by her words. Then her meaning hit him and he almost became angry with her. “Gods, Catelyn! You are not a broodmare! I don’t want your womb, I want you. I want my wife.” He turned away from her shaking and then turned back and took her hands. “I want you so much, I can think of little else . . .but I want you to want me as well. I would not have you lie with me for duty’s sake.”

She looked around the room then, and he saw her thoughts plainly on her face. “We are not the same people we were then. You were a dutiful daughter and I was a second son trying to be the Lord of Winterfell. We always did what we were supposed to do. That isn’t enough now. We have had a lifetime since then, and I will not have you give yourself to me only out of a sense of duty.”

She said nothing, but flung her arms around him again and kissed him until they were both breathless. “Did that feel dutiful to you?” she asked as they finally broke apart, gasping for breath. He smiled at her.

She returned the smile and then turned her back to him, and he realized she was presenting him with the laces of her dress. He started to undo them, and then felt her tremble. He couldn’t tell if it was from desire or fear, and his hands hesitated. “No,” he said, stepping back.

“No?” she asked, turning to face him. “You don’t want to . . .”

“Oh, I very much want to,” he told her, as he pulled his shirt and tunic over his head. “But I think it’s only fair if I undress as well, my love.” The smile that lit her face and the gratitude in her eyes told him he had made the right move. He undid his breeches and removed them along with his smallclothes until he stood naked before her in the dimming sunlight and the soft firelight.

He felt rather self-conscious as she stared at him, for all she had seen his body thousands of times. He watched her eyes move over his chest and arms, down his belly to his already stiff cock, and on down his legs. “I fear I do not look as I did the last time you beheld me naked in this room, my lady.”

She reached out her hands to touch him. “You are beautiful to me, Ned,” she said softly. She began running her fingers through his hair and then down his jaw line. She brought her hands lower still and traced the numerous scars on his chest and arms. When she reached the stitches in his right side, she touched them gingerly. “Does it hurt?”

“No.” He could barely breathe with her fingers running over his skin like that and didn’t trust himself to say more.

Then she dropped to her knees and began running her fingers along the scars on his legs. He put his hands into her hair, the sight of her bright auburn tresses so near his cock driving him to distraction. Then, having finished her inventory of his wounds, she smiled up at him. “You are beautiful to me, Ned, and I would never have you hurt.” Rising to her feet, she said, “But now I fear I am being unfair to you.”

Again she turned her back to him presenting him with the laces of her dress, and this time he did not hesitate. She stepped out of the dress as it fell from her and kept her back to him as she removed her shift and smallclothes. The perfect line of her shoulders and back shone pale in the dim light, the whiteness of her skin marred only by the red purple triangular scar in the small of her back just to the left of her spine. Taking a page from her book, he reached forward to touch it, and she jumped when his fingers made contact. “It’s only me, Cat. Turn around and look. It’s only me.”

She turned around to face him then, and he looked at his wife. “Oh gods, Cat. You are the most beautiful woman in all the world.” He could barely speak as he looked at her. Her breasts were not quite so high as they had been on that long ago night in this room, but they were full and round. Beneath them, her belly remained ever so slightly rounded after their children with its pink and silver streaks testifying to the babies she’d carried. The triangle of hair at the junction of her thighs was as bright as that on her head, and her legs were as long and shapely as they had been the day he wed her. Yes, he thought. You are even more beautiful now.

“I am old,” she said. “Old and scarred.”

He laughed. “I am older than you by more than a year. And if you wish to compare scars, I fear I shall defeat you, my lady. Yet you called me beautiful. I believe my eyesight is much better than yours.”

She smiled, but he noted she still trembled. The room was a bit chilly, but he didn’t think that was it. “May I touch you, my love?” he asked softly.

She nodded and he reached out to hold her, barely caressing her back at first as he again kissed her lips. As he pressed her closer to him, he felt her tense, but she did not pull away. He stopped and looked at her. She had her eyes shut tight. “Open your eyes, Cat. There is only me.”

She opened her eyes and he began to kiss her neck. She made a sound that definitely wasn’t fear and he placed a hand gently on her breast, caressing it as he kissed her. He wanted her so badly now, it was a physical pain, but he made himself go slowly and gently. He would not frighten or hurt her. He pulled his mouth from her lips and placed it on her nipple, gently teasing it with his lips and tongue. She whimpered, but again he did not think it was a sound of fear. He looked up toward her face to find her looking at him. He raised his eyebrow in silent question and she nodded. He then put his arm beneath her hips and lifted her off the floor. Neither his leg nor his side bothered him one bit as he carried his wife to the bed and laid her down.

 

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Catelyn sighed as Ned laid her on the bed and then lay down beside her. This was her husband, and she loved and wanted him. He moved above her kissing her face and her neck. He moved lower to kiss her breasts and she closed her eyes tightly, as if she could keep out unwanted memories by doing so. She could feel his lips and tongue, so gentle on her flesh, not at all like . . .she shut her eyes tighter and felt herself tense.

Ned must have felt it, too, for she felt him rise up from her and then she heard his voice just above her face. “Cat. Open your eyes, Cat.” She did as he asked, and saw his face above hers, his grey eyes filled with love and concern. “Stay with me, my love,” he said. “There is only me. Only you and me. Keep your eyes open, Cat.” Then he kissed her.

She kept her eyes on him as he moved downward to her breasts again, noting idly that the top of his head had more grey than she’d remembered. They’d been apart more than a year and those months had not been kind to either of them. The gentle kisses on her nipples were becoming more insistent now, and she felt him move his hands down her sides, over her belly and around her hips. The sensation made coherent thought difficult, but she concentrated on keeping her eyes open, keeping her eyes on her husband. As he moved over her body, he kept murmuring her name. She liked the sound of it on his tongue, just as she liked the feel of his tongue on her breasts and then around her navel.

Then his hand was between her legs as he continued to explore the flesh all around her belly and thighs with his mouth, and she felt herself become slick and wet, and her hips began to move beneath his hand. He looked up at her then and smiled to see her looking back at him. “You are so beautiful, Cat,” he whispered. “Stay right here with me, my love.” Then he bent to put his lips and tongue at her sex, and she knew nothing but desire. She heard herself crying out as she moved beneath his mouth, her hips held tight in his hands. Then her eyes did close as she reached her climax and felt her body shudder uncontrollably with pleasure. As her mind slowly returned to her, she felt his arms go around her, holding her tight as he whispered, “Cat” into her ear while she panted and her body became still.

She became aware as he held her that he was very still, and she could feel his hard cock against her side. Yet he made no move to take her. She looked at him, and whispered, “My love?” His eyes were full of desire for her, but he hesitated, fearful of hurting her. Oh gods, Ned. “Please, Ned,” she said, turning toward him so that his cock pressed against her. He groaned, and she pulled him tighter against her. “I want you, my love,” she whispered.

At that, he held himself back no more. He raised himself above her and she parted her legs for him. She was still wet from her own pleasure, and he slid into her easily. “Gods, Cat” he whispered hoarsely as he entered her, and he held himself still for a heartbeat. Then he began to move, slowly at first, still afraid of hurting her, just as he had been all those years ago. But she grabbed his hips and pulled him into her, and he began to move faster, losing all control and thrusting into her deeply. When he found his release and his seed spilled into her, his cry was her name.

He collapsed onto her, exhausted, and she held him tight lest he roll away from her. After his breathing slowed, he did roll to his back, but pulled her with him, so that her head rested on his chest and he held her tightly against him. They didn’t speak for a long time, and she just enjoyed the sensation of him playing with her hair. He pulled a long section over her shoulder and ran his fingers through it. She felt a slight chill and snuggled tightly against him.

“This room is not as warm as my rooms at Winterfell,” she said. “I am glad of it.”

“My lady?” he said, puzzled.

“I shall be less likely to melt you pressed against you as I am.”

He laughed at that. “My lady, I assure you I have no intention of letting you go this night, whether I melt or burst into flames.” He pulled her even closer.

She lay on his chest and felt sleep reaching for her. No wonder, she thought, after the day they’d had. She smiled at his fingers still fiddling with her hair, although his movements were slower now. She thought about what he had done for her this night, and her heart almost burst. Tears came to her eyes, and she put her face into his chest. “I love you, Ned.”

She felt his chest vibrate beneath her as he made that noise she loved, one she only ever heard in their bed--half way between a low pitched chuckle and a wolf’s territorial growl. “And I am glad of it, my love,” he told her.

She settled onto his chest, and as she was falling asleep to the sound of his heart, just in that space between wakefulness and dreams, she heard his voice. “I love you, my lady.”

Her eyes opened. It was not something she thought to hear him say. He was very still, even the fingers still tangled in her hair had stopped moving, and his breathing was slow and even. She lifted her head up to see his face. His eyes were closed in slumber.

Had she heard it? Had he said it, or had she only dreamed it? It came to her that it didn’t really matter. Words were wind. Every touch he had given her tonight was a declaration of love. She didn’t need words. She had Ned. She lay her head back down on his chest and allowed herself to be lulled to sleep by the slow, steady beating of a heart she knew belonged to her.

Chapter Text

Ned Stark awoke to pale, early morning sunlight streaming in the windows of the bedchamber at Riverrun. He felt a slight chill and noted that he had thrown the covers off the right half of his body as he slept, leaving his skin exposed to the cold air which never seemed to bother him. The shiver which ran through his body then had nothing to do with the cold air on his right, but the exquisite warmth on the left side of him, where he could feel his sleeping wife’s naked body still curled tightly against him beneath the coverings she had pulled up to her chin. She lay on her side with her head and left hand still resting on his chest, her face half obscured by her auburn hair which fell over both of them like a red waterfall. Absently, he began to run his fingers through that hair and gently kissed the top of her head, and he felt his cock begin to stiffen at the memory of the previous night. He had an almost uncontrollable desire to turn her on her back and bed her again right then, wanting to feel her body beneath his and to feel his cock inside her.

She murmured and shifted slightly in her sleep, and the feeling of her skin sliding along his did nothing to help ease his dilemma. Back in Winterfell, a hundred years ago, he would have simply kissed her awake, knowing that after smiling sleepily and teasing him about the appetites of wolves, she would wind her arms around him and draw her into him. Gods! Can it ever be so easy between us again? He desperately tried to turn his mind elsewhere, but it was difficult while his cock throbbed as her soft breath tickled his skin each time she exhaled. It seemed that having her had only made him want her more.

For the first time since he’d gotten her back, she had not awakened him once last night with nightmares. The idea that he’d given her an entire night of peaceful slumber filled him with joy, but the thought of her nightmares also reminded him she was still broken. He was not foolish enough to believe that the images of what those bastards had done to her could be erased from her memory any more than they could from his. He could barely stand imagining it, and she had lived through it for gods’ sake! He hadn’t imagined her body going rigid at his touch, her eyes shut tight and her face frozen in an expression somewhere between fear and resignation. That memory was real enough, and while he knew the rest of last night was real as well, it was enough to keep him from waking her with his need. He wouldn’t have her wake with that expression on her face.

His thoughts were interrupted by a loud rapping at the door of their chamber. Catelyn startled awake with a surprised cry, and he encircled her in his arms with a whispered, “You’re safe, Cat,” before calling out, “Who is there?”

“Ser Robin Ryger, Lord Stark,” came the voice of Riverrun’s captain of the guard. “May I enter? Lord Tully requires your presence in his solar.”

“Lord Tully be damned,” Ned muttered under his breath as he and Catelyn both sat up in bed. The man’s knock had given her a brief fright, but she seemed well enough now. “No, you may not enter,” he said with somewhat less courtesy than he probably should have. “My lady wife and I are not prepared to receive visitors. You may tell Lord Tully that I will attend him in a bit.”

“Yes, my lord,” came from the other side of the door. After a slight hesitation, the man added, “Lord Tully is most anxious to speak with you, my lord.”

“And I shall be there, Ser Robin.” When I bloody well get there, he added silently. “You may go now.”

“Yes, my lord.”

As the man’s footsteps retreated down the corridor, Catelyn raised her eyebrows at him. “Lord Tully be damned? Not a very kind thing to say about my brother, my lord.” The corners of her mouth twitched with laughter.

“He caused you to be awakened from your sleep, my lady. I cannot excuse that,” he told her gravely, although he knew she could hear the laughter in his voice as well. “I like watching you sleep,” he added softly. He looked at her now, sitting so close to him. He, of course, had sat up without the covers, leaving himself bare to the waist in the early morning air, but she had pulled the covers up with her, shivering against the chill. He wanted to pull those covers from her now to reveal her breasts, knowing her nipples would be firm in the cold air. He wanted to put his mouth on . . .

“My lord?” she said softly, reaching out to touch his cheek.

He jerked away as if her fingers were fire, and tried to control his thoughts. Shaking his head, he told her, “I suppose I had better dress and go see what your brother wants.”

She looked directly into his eyes and put her hand back to his cheek. Without a word, she then traced his jaw line down to his neck and then continued down his chest and stomach until her hand reached what was barely concealed beneath the covers. She arched her brow at him. “Are you certain you wish to get dressed, my lord?”

He swallowed hard. “Catelyn . . .I . . .”

She wrapped her hand around his length, causing him to gasp, and then leaned in to kiss him, softly at first but then with increasing urgency. When she pulled back to look at him again, her eyes glowed with desire, and he could see no hint of anything else in their blue depths. “Edmure can wait,” she whispered.

“Cat,” he breathed into her hair, and he laid her back down, pushing away all the covers that remained between them. His last coherent thought as he took her into his arms was that Edmure could wait a bloody long time.

 

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Catelyn Stark put a hand to her hair as she walked down the corridor toward the light, airy chambers she had once shared with Lysa. It had been thoughtful of Utherydes to put Roslin there. The rooms were large and comfortable and received some of the best light in the castle. The steward had told her he informed Roslin that the rooms had once been hers. She hoped that might comfort the girl as well, as Roslin did seem genuinely fond of her.

Again Catelyn tugged at her hair. One braid seemed to insist on coming away from her scalp, and she sighed. She had actually styled her hair that morning, a nod to her brother as he worked to establish himself as lord here. She would be a proper lady at any audiences he required her to attend. It was a simple, practical style of the north, as she was the Lady of Winterfell rather than Riverrun, but still more complex than the single braid she’d worn for so long. She’d scarcely remembered how to do it, and the old injury to her hands made any task requiring deft fingers more difficult than it had once been. Roslin could have done it with her eyes closed. But Roslin was the Lady of Riverrun and not to be summoned to do Catelyn’s hair. Perhaps she should teach Ned, she thought with amusement. The gods knew the man looked for any excuse to play with her hair. That thought made her laugh out loud as she walked. Laughter felt good.

Thoughts of Ned inevitably led to thoughts of his bedding her last night and again this morning. She had been more terrified than she’d ever want him to know. Terrified that she couldn’t do it, that she wouldn’t want him the way she always had, that he wouldn’t want her after what had been done to her . . .None of those things had been true, thank the gods. Her demons had come for her, all right, but her husband had chased them away every time. Tears came to her eyes as she remembered the care he’d taken with her. She prayed he would never lose patience with her because she feared he would still need a lot of it. Especially after this morning.

Bedding him this morning had been bliss. There was no one in her arms or her mind except her husband, and she’d actually dared to hope that perhaps she really had put the demons behind her. She had lain in bed afterward, watching him dress, laughing as he grumbled about Edmure summoning him away, wrapping herself in the extra fur he brought to the bed to take the place of his warmth. Once he had kissed her and left for Edmure’s solar, however, the bed had seemed cold and empty in spite of the fur. She had risen to wash and dress herself and felt the stickiness left between her thighs from Ned’s seed. Only suddenly it wasn’t Ned’s. Suddenly she was back at the Twins and she had to get it off her, get them off her. She only became aware of her surroundings again some time later, when she found herself standing at the washbasin, scrubbing her legs so roughly, they were red and raw. She had sunk to the floor and cried then. How could something so right between her husband and herself be transformed into that nightmare? And how, by all the gods, could she stop it from happening again?

Refusing to allow herself to wallow in self-pity, she had gotten dressed, attempted to do her hair, and sought out Utherydes Wayn to direct her to Lady Tully’s rooms. She hadn’t seen the girl since their arrival yesterday, and she was concerned about her. And perhaps Roslin’s troubles would keep her mind off her own. So she found herself blinking her tears away, putting on a pleasant face, and knocking on the door of her old bedchamber. “Roslin? It’s me, Catelyn Stark.”

“Oh, come in!” came Roslin’s voice.

As soon as she opened the door and entered the room, the girl threw her arms around her. “My lady! I am so glad to see you!” she exclaimed with a wide smile.

Taken aback just a bit, Catelyn patted the girl’s back gently. “I am glad to see you as well, Roslin.” She paused. “You know, child, as long as we are goodsisters, and both of us ladies of great houses, you really should learn to call me by my name.”

Roslin drew back a bit, and looked at her thoughtfully. “I shall try, Lady Catelyn.”

“Well, that’s a start, I suppose,” Catelyn laughed.

Then Roslin, who was studying her closely cried out in some dismay, “My lady, your hair isn’t done up evenly! Who did it for you?”

Now Catelyn laughed even harder. “I’m afraid I am the guilty party. I am rather out of practice.”

“Sit down, my lady, and let me fix it,” the young woman insisted, pulling out the chair in front of the dressing table.

“You are not my chambermaid, Roslin,” Catelyn chided her.

“No. I am your goodsister. Now sit down, please.”

“All right, sister. Call me by my name, and I’ll let you do my hair,” Catelyn challenged her.

Roslin giggled. “Sit down . . Catelyn.” She covered her mouth with her hands and giggled harder. “I’m sorry, my la . . .I mean, Catelyn. It just feels so strange to call you that!”

Catelyn sank into the chair and smiled. “Well it is my name. Just wait. I’ll have you calling me Cat by the time we finish my hair.” Roslin looked scandalized, and Catelyn laughed again. “My sister, Lysa, and I used to laugh together in these rooms. We did each other’s hair, as well.”

Roslin smiled, pulling pins out of Catelyn’s hair and brushing it out until it shone like burnished copper. “I imagine that was fun. These rooms are beautiful. Such a wonderful place to grow up.”

“It was,” Catelyn said. She turned and placed her hands lightly on Roslin’s ever growing belly. “Your children will love it.”

“I hope so,” Roslin said. “Lord Edmure came to see me last night,” she added quietly.

“Did he?”

She nodded. “He came to see if my rooms were comfortable enough. He said I could have my pick of rooms to be my own chambers once everyone has left.” She hesitated. “And he did say he is glad of the baby.”

The girl was quiet then as she twisted and braided her hair, so Catelyn asked her, “What else did my brother say?”

She looked down. “He said he wasn’t quite sure what to do with me, my lady. He told me he believes that I didn’t want to deceive him and that I was used against my will, but he isn’t sure what he feels about me right now. He doesn’t trust me. He didn’t . . . . . stay with me,” she finished quietly.

Catelyn patted the girl’s hand. “Roslin, I cannot imagine a worse start to a marriage than what the two of you had. But you are both good, honorable people. Honestly, what Edmure told you sounds pretty hopeful to me.” She smiled up at her. “Be patient. Give it time. I believe it will be all right.” Silently, she admonished herself to listen to her own words.

Roslin smiled back at her bravely. “If you say so, my la . . .Catelyn.”

“Now, as soon as you finish with my hair, we shall go see what on earth is keeping our husbands huddled up in Edmure’s solar so long.”

Roslin looked scandalized. “But they’re having a meeting, my lady! We couldn’t intrude.”

“It’s Cat. And yes, we can. They need to eat, don’t they? It’s time for the midday meal, and I never really ate breakfast. I doubt Ned did either, although Edmure most certainly did. Your husband relishes breakfast,“ she assured the girl with a smile. “Let’s take them something to eat. If they want us to leave, they’ll say so.”

The younger woman still hesitated.

“You don’t really want to sit in your rooms without knowing what’s going on, do you?”

“No. I really don’t . . . .Cat.” Roslin then dissolved into giggles before turning her attention back to Catelyn’s hair.

 

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Ned Stark’s stomach growled loudly as Maester Vyman read back the last letter they had dictated to him. This one was for Tytos Blackwood at Raventree Hall informing him that House Tully was securely in control of Riverrun and allied with the lords of the north. It thanked Lord Blackwood for his unwavering loyalty and stated that Lord Tully had no complaint about his conflict with Lord Bracken, as Bracken had declared for the Lannisters. If, however, Lord Bracken were to renew his fealty to House Tully, then Lord Edmure requested Lord Blackwood to accept a cessation of hostilities with Bracken in order to defend all the Riverlands against the larger outside threat. The previous letter had been to Jonos Bracken at Stone Hedge demanding that he cease hostilities with the Blackwoods immediately and present himself to Riverrun to renew his fealty. If he failed in this, House Tully would have no choice but to call on all the river lords and their allies from the north to aid Lord Blackwood in defeating Lord Bracken.

“Hungry, Stark?” asked the Blackfish with a grin. It was only Edmure, Ser Brynden, himself, and Maester Vyman in the solar today. Ned was grateful for that. Had all the lords been there, every word in every letter would have been debated even longer.

“Truthfully, I am,” he replied.

“Well, you should have come down to the hall for breakfast this morning,” Edmure told him. “It was an excellent meal. We were all wondering what kept you and Cat.”

Ser Brynden snorted loudly. “Oh, I don’t think anyone was actually wondering, nephew.”

Before Ned could decide if he needed to reply to that, there was a knock at the door.

“What is it?” Edmure called, somewhat irritably.

“Food, my dear brother,” came Catelyn’s voice as she pushed open the door allowing Utherydes Wayn to enter with a large well-laden tray. Behind him came Roslin and then Catelyn herself, each lady carrying flagons of ale and water.

“We didn’t call for any food,” Edmure insisted.

“No, but if you insist on working through midday, you must eat,” Catelyn stated emphatically.

“Well, your husband is no doubt grateful, Cat,” proclaimed the Blackfish. “By the sound of his stomach, he’s starving. In fact, only just now, we were speculating on what you and Stark were up to that caused you both to miss breakfast this morning.” The man grinned at Catelyn wickedly, and Ned was amused to see her cheeks flush to match her hair.

He caught his wife’s eye and smiled at her. Her blush deepened, but she smiled back at him, and then looked at her uncle. Lifting her head as she spoke, she said, “Why, Uncle, no wonder you have never married if you truly find that a matter of speculation.” Edmure coughed as if he had choked on something, but Catelyn merely went on to ask them what they preferred to drink.

“This is a delightful surprise, my ladies,” Ned said as soon as he could trust himself to speak without laughing. “You will stay and eat with us, will you not?”

“If we do not intrude,” said Roslin quickly, looking at Edmure.

“Of course you don’t intrude,” declared Ser Brynden. “We are only writing letters. And we’re nearly finished, I hope. Maester Vyman will quite run out of ravens if we give him many more to send.”

“Nearly finished indeed,” said Ned as he reached for a plate of food. He frowned as he continued. “But I am not entirely sure about the letter for Bolton. Naturally, we tell him we do not accept him as Warden of the North nor his bastard as Lord of Winterfell, but do we tell him we know little Jeyne Poole is an imposter?”

He had addressed his question primarily to Catelyn, and he noted Roslin looking at him in surprise and Edmure looking in irritation. These two have a lot to learn about marriage, he thought, and genuinely hoped they could. Riverrun needed a strong lord, and as he had learned well, a strong lord needed an equally strong lady by his side.

“I fear that exposing her could put her in greater danger than she is already in,” said Catelyn.

Ned nodded. “That is my fear as well. If the Boltons continue to believe they have everyone convinced Ramsay is wedding our daughter, they may feel they can gain support for his claim to Winterfell despite any opposition. If the other lords begin to doubt her identity, they may abandon the Boltons for us more quickly, but then Jeyne’s life will hold little value.”

“We can’t do that to her, Ned,” Catelyn said quietly.

Ned shook his head. “No, my love, we can’t. As much as it galls me, we may have to accept Bolton’s presence at Winterfell for the time being.”

“Is this a private conversation, or can anyone join in?” asked the Lord of Riverrun, with some irritation.

Ned noticed Catelyn’s mouth twitch at the corners in spite of the seriousness of the conversation.

Ned looked at Edmure, “What do you say on the subject, my lord?”

Edmure sighed. “From a perfectly strategic standpoint, calling the girl out as a fake, even giving her actual name to lend credence to your claim, makes sense if it causes those northern houses with Bolton to abandon him more quickly in favor of us.” He looked at Catelyn then. “But I have to agree with both of you. I could not condone putting that poor girl in an even worse position regardless of the strategic benefit. She is an innocent with no choice in the matter, and none to aid her save us. Until we can actually go to her aid, we shouldn’t increase her peril.”

“My lord, you are as kind as you are wise,” said Roslin almost breathlessly, looking at her husband with admiration.

Edmure looked startled, but then his expression softened and he actually smiled at his little wife.

“Kind, perhaps,” snorted the Blackfish. “But I do not know that this kindness is wisdom. Oh, I don’t say you are wrong ,” he added quickly as Ned, Edmure, and Catelyn all started to protest. “I only say that many of our enemies and probably some of our allies as well would make a different choice here. May the gods smile on your nobility of character.”

Edmure looked at Catelyn and rolled his eyes, and Catelyn laughed. “We know perfectly well you agree with us, Uncle. You only pretend to be quite so black a fish.” Looking back to Ned, she asked him, “Have you drafted letters to the other northern lords as well?”

Ned nodded. “Basically, we have confirmed that a northern alliance captured the Twins and put to the sword Walder Frey and those responsible for the Red Wedding and the murder of the King in the North.” Ned found it easier to use the title when he spoke of those events rather than to call Robb by name. My son. They murdered my son. Catelyn noticed his pause, and naturally enough understood the reason for it. She squeezed his hand briefly beneath the table, and he continued. “We have proclaimed the innocence of Olyvar Frey in those events as well as his loyalty to the cause of the North and the Riverlands, and asked all of our lords to confirm him as Lord of the Crossing.”

“We ask that in all our letters to the river lords as well,” put in Edmure.

“Finally, we condemn Bolton as having participated in the Red Wedding in order to usurp the Starks’ place in the North and the Lannisters for orchestrating all of it to protect Jaime and Cersei’s bastard on the Iron Throne,” Ned finished.

Catelyn was silent for a moment. “That’s quite a lot. You stop short of declaring for Stannis?”

Leave it to his wife to see right to the heart of a matter. “I wish to communicate with the man first. He does have the rightful claim. There is no question of it. But there have been some strange tales . . .”

“Renly’s death? I have not yet had a chance to tell you, my lord, but I . . .”

“Edmure has told me this morning how Robb sent you to treat with Renly, and what happened there.” Ned shook his head slowly. “If anyone but you spoke of deadly shadows, Cat . . .”

“I know what it sounds like, Ned, but I also know what I saw,” she said levelly, looking him in the eyes.

He nodded. “There is more, as well. Apparently, in his devotion to this new god of his, he has condoned the burning of septs. He burned the sept at Dragonstone. There are rumors of a red priestess . . .”

“She isn’t a rumor. I met her,” Catelyn interrupted.

Ned nodded. “Apparently there are rumors of her encouraging the burning of godswoods and sacrificing people to flames as well. I do not know the truth of it, but if Stannis is controlled by this woman, I worry we could be putting someone madder than Aerys on the throne.” He bowed his head slightly and added quietly, “Such things do not sound like the Stannis Baratheon I have known. He may be hard and inflexible to the point of cruelty at times, perhaps, but not this.”

Catelyn looked at him directly again. “It was his shadow in the tent with Renly that day, my lord. I do not know if it was his doing or the red woman’s, but I know what I saw.”

Ned sighed deeply. Edmure’s story of Bitterbridge had sounded fantastic, but with Cat sitting right in front of him backing it up, it suddenly seemed more plausible. “So, we shall write to Stannis, thank him for the liberation of Deepwood Motte, confirm our commitment to removing the Lannister bastard from the throne and ask to treat with him. No more can we say to him now.”

“Well, you are not naming a new King in the North. That ought to placate the man somewhat,” said Ser Brynden.

“Stannis Baratheon is not a man easily placated,” Ned said. “If he believes himself in the right about something, he will not waver.”

“Have we decided whose seals these letters shall bear?” Catelyn asked.

“I shall seal all of them,” Edmure stated. “Riverrun is the seat of the Lord Paramount of the Trident, and everyone should know it is once again secure in rightful hands.”

Ned nodded. “Lords Umber, Reed, and Glover, as well as Lady Mormont have asked to affix their seals to the letters for the northern lords and Stannis as well.”

“Not yours, my lord?” she asked him.

Ned pursed his lips. He hated this sneaking and skulking. He, Brynden, and Edmure had gone round and round all morning debating again whether he should proclaim his name and his rights as Lord of Winterfell. Much had been said on either side of the argument, but one factor had finally decided it for him.

“No, my lady. Not mine. Not yet.” He looked at her. “We must find our girls, Catelyn. I would not have them used as weapons against me. Once we know where they are and who has them, we can decide better what to do.”

She nodded, and he saw her take the sharp, short breath she always took when she wished to prevent herself from crying. “We will find them, my love,” he said softly, ignoring everyone else in the room. “I will not rest until we do.”

She nodded again and there was silence in the room for a moment. Then Edmure spoke. “We must decide whom we shall send to speak with Jaime Lannister at Darry.”

“I will go,” said the Blackfish. “Lord Umber should come with me. Seeing him alive and free from the Twins will lend credence to the truth of what I say.”

“Perhaps Lord Piper as well, with Marq,” put in Ned. “Show Lannister that loyalty bought with blackmail is no loyalty at all.”

Edmure nodded. “We’ll put together formal terms and send you all out with a company of men tomorrow, Uncle. Apparently, there are also several people seeking audience today?”

“Yes, my lord,” the Blackfish replied. “The Lords Vance wishing to bend the knee to you lead the list.” He turned toward Ned with some amusement. “And your singer came back this morning, Lord Stark. I told him you would see him in the hall before dinner this evening.”

For the life of him, Ned could not imagine what any singer wanted with him. He paid musicians little attention as a rule, knowing hardly any songs himself, and caring about dancing only for the smile it put on Catelyn’s face and the excuse it gave him to hold her in public. “I shall be pleased to receive him,” he told Ser Brynden, with a shrug of his shoulders indicating his general puzzlement.

The Blackfish laughed that deep, smoky laugh of his, and then Edmure stood, indicating that the meeting was adjourned. To Ned’s surprise, he actually walked to Roslin and offered his arm. Roslin, too, looked surprised, but then smiled at Edmure and took his arm to go out with him. Maester Vyman gathered up the many bits of parchment he had scattered about and went off to write out the many formal letters so that everyone could seal them that day and he could send them on their way.

Ned offered Catelyn his arm, nodded to Ser Brynden, and began to escort his wife out of the solar when the older man’s deep voice stopped him.

“Stark,” he said. Ned turned around to find the Blackfish grinning at him. “I suggest you and my niece make it to dinner this evening or people may start doubting you’re as frosty as you lead them to believe.”

Catelyn tugged on his arm and he simply left the room without replying, as Ser Brynden’s laughter echoed behind them. He looked at his wife and saw her cheeks had colored again. “Are you all right, my lady?” he asked. “I do not think your uncle means any real discourtesy.”

“My uncle is a rogue,” she replied. “And yes, I am quite well, my lord. And sorely tempted to skip dinner just to spite him.”

He chuckled at that. “I could easily be persuaded, my lady, were I not intensely curious as to why a singer is so determined to have an audience with me, of all people.”

She laughed. “I confess to being rather curious about that myself, my love. So I suppose we must go to the hall after all.” She sighed heavily, and then looked at him with a spark of mischief in her blue eyes. “We could always leave before dinner is finished and see how my uncle likes that.”

He actually laughed out loud at her now. “You are in a rare mood, my love. I have not seen you laugh so wickedly since . . .” He stopped. In truth, he had not seen her such a mood since before Bran’s fall, and that seemed a lifetime ago.

She understood. “I have had scant reason to enjoy games or jests. And I still am frightened, Ned, of so many things.” Her grip on his arm had tightened. They were in a fairly deserted corridor now, so he stopped walking and turned her so he could hold both her arms and look at her face. “But sitting in my old rooms with Roslin today, I found myself laughing,” she continued. “Laughing at nothing at all or at some silliness of titles and names. It reminded me of Lysa and myself and days when laughter was most of what we knew.”

He caressed her arms lightly with his hands and waited silently for her to continue speaking. “I realized I need to laugh,” she said. “And since last night,” she paused and that lovely color came once more to her cheeks, “I realize I still have so much more than most women will ever know.” The last part came out as barely a whisper. She leaned against him, and he encircled her with his arms. “I want to make you smile and laugh, my love. I’d almost forgotten what a joy it is to do that,” she finished.

He said nothing, but gave her his smile, and the light in the blue eyes gave him all the joy he could ask for in that one moment. It is enough, he thought. Winter is coming and hardship with it. But we will make each moment of joy be enough.

 

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Catelyn had put on a slightly more formal gown to go down to the hall, and she surveyed herself in the looking glass. She had been careful not to disturb Roslin’s handiwork so her hair still looked quite pretty. As long as she didn’t look too long at her face, she found her reflection reasonably acceptable. She had never been a terribly vain woman, but the red scars running down both cheeks always made her flinch when she saw them, partly because of their appearance, but mostly because of the memories they conjured. She turned away from the glass as Ned walked up to her and immediately began touching her hair.

“Don’t” she said, smacking his hand lightly. “Roslin put a lot of effort into that.”

“I like it down.”

“You can pull down every last braid later. I promise.”

He held out his arm to her. “Shall we, my lady?”

She smiled, took his arm, and allowed him to escort her into the corridor. They had made it less than halfway to the hall when Utherydes Wayn appeared before them. Catelyn thought the old man looked paler than usual.

“Lord Tully needs you to come to his chambers, my lady. Right now.” Turning to Ned, he said, “You had better come, too, Lord Stark.”

Catelyn’s heart sped up. Something was wrong. She let go of Ned’s arm and almost ran through the corridors to Edmure’s chambers with Ned following right behind her. When they reached Edmure’s rooms, the doorway was open. Edmure was seated on his bed, his face ashen.

“Edmure, what is it?” Catelyn exclaimed, going to him. “What has happened? Is Roslin . . .”

“I am fine, my lady.” Catelyn turned to see Roslin was in the room as well, coming from a table with a drink for Edmure. “Here, my lord,” she said softly, pressing the cup into Edmure’s hands.

Edmure’s hands shook as he held it, and he looked up at Catelyn. “Oh, Cat,” he said, with his voice shaking. His hands now shook so badly that Roslin took back the cup.

“What? What is it, Edmure?” Catelyn was starting to panic now.

“There was a raven from the Eyrie,” he said, almost in a whisper. “I don’t know when it came. The Freys apparently intercepted it during the siege.” His eyes turned toward a letter lying on the table where Roslin was setting down his cup, and he put his face in his hands.

Roslin picked up the letter and handed it to Catelyn, saying, “It was found in Ryman’s tent by one of our men. No one told ever told Lord Edmure about it. I am sorry, my lady.”

Catelyn’s hands were shaking as she took the letter. She felt Ned come behind her and place his hands on her shoulders as she read. Her hand flew to her mouth as she saw the words there. “Oh no! Oh, Ned, Lysa is . . Lysa is dead.” She turned then and put her face on his chest, and he held on to her.

“Murdered,” said Edmure, darkly. “Murdered by some singer, according to Baelish.”

“Baelish?” Ned asked, startled. “What the devil does Baelish have to do with Lysa Arryn or the Eyrie?”

Catelyn raised her head from Ned’s chest and shook it helplessly. “I . . .I don’t know, but apparently he had married her. He calls her his wife in the letter and refers to himself as Lord Protector of the Vale. I knew nothing of any of this. Oh, Lysa!” She couldn’t stop the tears then, and put her face back against her husband’s chest.

Ned held her tightly, but his voice sounded cold and deadly when he spoke. “There is more to this than this letter tells. I am certain of it.”

Catelyn raised her face to look at him, puzzled by the venom in his voice. He wiped her cheeks with his fingers, and said to her softly, “Now is not the time to discuss it, Cat. Now is time only for your grief for your sister. But believe me when I say that Petyr Baelish is an evil man. If he married Lysa, he undoubtedly had motives unknown to her. And for her to die by violence after marrying him . . .” he let the sentence trail off, and Catelyn shivered.

“But Petyr was always devoted to Lysa when we were children,” Edmure protested. “He wasn’t as crazy about her as he was Cat, of course, but Lysa was in love with him, and he was never mean to her. I can’t imagine him ever hurting her.”

Catelyn sighed. “That’s the trouble, Edmure. You can never imagine anyone hurting anybody. I’d have thought you’d have reason to get over that by now.”

Edmure just looked at her and shook his head. Catelyn swallowed her tears and looked back to Ned. “I fear you are right, my lord. I was wrong to trust Petyr in King’s Landing. Things have since come to my knowledge which make me wonder if I ever knew him at all. I am sorry.”

“None of this is your fault, Cat,” Ned said quietly. “You are certainly not to blame for whatever happened to Lysa.”

Catelyn shook her head, feeling she was missing something important. Then Edmure’s last statement came back to her more clearly. “Lysa was in love with Petyr? What makes you say that, Edmure? You were just a boy then. What do you know about it?”

Edmure gave a hollow laugh. “More than you do, apparently. You were all caught up in your betrothal to Brandon Stark, don’t you remember? You didn’t even notice how Petyr followed you around like a puppy. And he didn‘t notice Lysa following after him. I guess I noticed because none of you paid me any mind anymore, so I sort of tagged along behind all of you, just hoping be included somewhere.”

Catelyn allowed her memory to take her back to those days and felt she was seeing some things for the first time. “And after that ridiculous duel . . .” she said quietly.

“You were angry and Lysa was suddenly happy,” said Edmure. “Until Father sent Petyr away. Then she was miserable.”

The pieces of the puzzle clicked into place, and Catelyn put her face in her hands. “Oh, Lysa,” she whispered. “Oh gods, Lysa, I never knew.” Ned and Edmure both looked at her questioningly, but she just sat down on the bed beside Edmure and cried softly for her lost sister, realizing she’d been lost far longer than Catelyn had known. Edmure put his arm around her then, and they both sat there mourning their sister together.

After a time, Ned spoke quietly. “Cat, Edmure, I must go to the hall now. I can see these people who seek audience. The two of you can remain . .”

“No,” Catelyn and Edmure said in unison. Then they actually both laughed through their tears and Catelyn smiled at her brother, looking at those eyes that were a reflection of her own, at that face that reminded her so achingly of Robb’s.

Edmure squeezed her hands and then stood to face Ned. “I am the Lord of Riverrun,” he said quietly. “My grief does not change that. I will go down to the hall.” Extending his arm to Roslin, he said to her, “My lady? Will you come with me?”

“Of course, my lord,” she responded, and as Catelyn watched her brother escort his wife out toward the hall, she could not recall ever having been more proud of him.

“You do not have to come with me, my lady, if you would prefer more time to grieve,” Ned said to her.

“And will my grieving make Lysa live again?” she asked him as she stood up. “I would come with you, my lord.”

He looked at her with his grey eyes full of sadness and concern. “I am sorry for your grief, Cat.”

“Grief has been my constant companion since a rider came to me with word of your death, my love. I am grown used to his company.”

He started to say something, but she stopped him with a finger to his lips. “I‘m all right, Ned. I do not say that to make you worry for me, truly. I simply mean that I have been living with grief for so long now, I am quite practiced at it. You needn’t worry that I shall stop living. I know how to keep going.” She gave him a little smile. “And having you with me again does make it easier.”

He regarded her silently for a moment, and then offered his arm. “My lady?” he said. She took his arm and they followed Edmure and Roslin to the hall.

 

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The hall at Riverrun was already full of people, and dinner wasn’t to be served for another couple of hours. Ned Stark fidgeted slightly in his seat as yet another hedge knight from some obscure town in the Riverlands came forward to pledge his service to Edmure, repenting of having spent several moons laying siege to his lordship’s castle. Ned would rather be back in his chambers consoling his lady over the death of her sister. Catelyn sat immediately to his left, still as a stone, quietly watching the proceedings, speaking courteously when spoken to, but seeming not completely present. He thought longingly of the spark in her eyes and her teasing laughter earlier in the day. How could they ever hope to have enough moments of joy when new sorrows seemed so determined to find them?

Ned sat to Edmure’s left at the high table. Catelyn’s brother had seated Roslin at his right, a decision Ned approved of. To Roslin’s right sat Ser Brynden Tully. Surprisingly enough, the Blackfish was saying little as the various men came forward, allowing his nephew to find his own way in dealing with his vassals. Ned had to admit that Edmure was doing a remarkably good job of it, too. Hoster Tully had once remarked to Ned that he’d have felt more secure about the future of Riverrun had Catelyn been born male. The old man had been half in his cups at the time, and Ned had merely responded that he was grateful Catelyn had been born precisely as she was, causing Hoster to roar with laughter before forgetting the conversation altogether. Ned couldn’t help but think Hoster Tully would be very proud of his son tonight.

Finally, there was only one man left to come forward. As the man, who had a rather sharp nose and thin brown hair, approached the high table, Edmure’s face underwent a remarkable transformation. “You!” he bellowed, looking like more like an angry boy than the Lord of Riverrun. “What are you doing here?”

“Begging your pardon, milord, I’m here to see the Lord Stark, seeing as he’s not dead anymore, that is,” the man replied.

“Get out of here,” Edmure told him. “You are not welcome in my hall!”

Ned could not imagine why this particular little man was provoking such a reaction in his goodbrother, but he had no intention of letting Edmure throw the man out before he discovered his purpose in coming. “Lord Tully, I should like to hear what the man has to say,” he said respectfully but firmly.

“He has nothing of value to say,” sulked Edmure.

“Aw now, that ain’t true, milord. I’ve got a lot to say to Lord Stark. And don’t you worry none, milord, I’m not here to sing.” The remarkably cheeky little man then grinned toward Roslin and then back at Edmure. “Besides, milord, if it’s true you’ve got a little trout growing in her ladyship there, I’ve no cause to ever sing that ballad of the floppy fish again. I only sung it that once, you know.”

At that, Edmure’s face became so red, it was almost purple, and Ned felt the situation deteriorating rapidly. “Ser Robin,” called Ned, as he saw Riverrun‘s captain of the guard standing nearby. “Please escort this gentleman to . . .” He hesitated, unsure of an appropriate place.

“The anteroom of the south tower,” Catelyn finished for him.

Ser Robin nodded, and Ned looked back at this man who caused Edmure such distress. “I’ll be there to speak with you in a moment,” he said.

The little man nodded and followed Ser Robin without complaint.

“I don’t want him in the south tower. I want him gone,” Edmure protested as he watched the two men leave the hall.”

Ned sighed. “He will be gone, as soon as I have heard what he has to say. But I need to know his purpose in coming here.”

Ser Brynden had apparently been making an effort not to laugh for some time and now gave up that effort entirely. “I’d like to hear the man’s song!” he proclaimed. “What’s it about, Edmure?”

Edmure glared at him while Roslin sat silently between the two Tully men looking as if she’d prefer to be somewhere else. Ned decided it was past time to go speak to this man, and he rose from his seat and looked at Catelyn. “My lady?” She rose as well and took his arm. Turning back to Edmure, he said formally, “May we have your leave to go, my lord?”

Edmure hesitated and then waved in the direction of the doorway. “Go on,” he said. “For your sake, I hope he has something worthwhile to say for once!”

Catelyn led Ned down the corridor to the room where Robin Ryger waited with the singer. The man was seated, but jumped to his feet when they entered. “Milord, milady,” he said politely enough, bowing quickly to each of them.

“What is your name, may I ask?” said Ned.

“I’m Tom of Sevenstreams, milord, but folks call me Tom Sevenstrings or just Tom o’ Sevens. I’m a singer of songs.”

“So I gather,” Ned said drily. “Why don’t we sit down and you tell us why you have sought me out.”

When they had all been seated, Tom of Sevenstreams looked pointedly at Robin Ryger. When Ned made no move to ask Ser Robin to leave, Tom shrugged and began speaking. “I’m not just a singer, milord. I’m with the Lightning Lord.”

“The Lightning Lord?” Ned asked.

“Beric Dondarrion?” Catelyn asked at almost the same time. “Does he truly still live?”

“Well,” said Tom, scratching his chin. “That’s an interesting question, as it were. And he asked the same one about the two of you when I sent him word you were here.”

“Sent him word? I thought you said you were with him,” Ned said.

“I am with him, in that I’m his man, see. But he’s had me here to spy on those Freys for some time now.” He turned toward Catelyn. “He doesn’t much like Freys, see. Not since that Red Wedding. Lord Beric thinks what was done there is an awful crime. Worse even than the usual crimes done by the lions and wolves on all the people.”

“I wouldn’t disagree with him,” Catelyn said quietly.

“No, I reckon you wouldn’t. Your son, the young wolf, he’s really dead? And staying dead?”

Catelyn looked shocked at the question, but she answered him, “Yes. Our son Robb is dead.”

Tom shook his head. “Well, I’m sorry to hear it. We never found him by the river. We came on a lot of dead folks by the river after that wedding, buried ‘em as decent as we could. Thought we found you, milady, but Lord Beric looked real close at that woman and said, no it couldn’t be you. You were supposed to be beautiful like your daughter, he said, and he could remember her looks well enough to see that woman was nothing like her. She just had red hair, and that was all. So he just had us bury her with the rest.”

Catelyn looked disturbed by the conversation, so Ned called the man’s attention back to himself. “Tom, why are you here? What do you or Lord Dondarrion want from us?”

“Oh,” said Tom, as if just remembering why he had come. “He wants to meet you. He wants to see if you are truly back from the dead.” Tom grinned at him. “Your head looks like it’s on there pretty good to me, milord.”

Ned ignored that. “Well, you can give him assurances we are both quite alive. If he would like to come to Riverrun himself . . .”

“Oh no, milord. He won’t come here. Not the red priest, either.”

“Red priest? Thoros of Myr, do you mean? Is he with Lord Dondarrion?”

“Well, if he weren’t, there wouldn’t be no Lord Dondarrion, now would there,” said Tom cryptically. “But you’ll have to come to them, milord. I can take you.”

“I’m sorry, Tom, but that’s just not possible right now,” Ned started to say.

“He can tell you about your daughters.” Ned heard Catelyn’s sharp gasp. “The little one looks a lot like you, milord. Got your eyes, she has.”

Ned was out of his chair and gripping Tom of Sevenstream by his shirt. “Do you have my daughters?” he demanded.

“No, milord!” he shouted. “Honest, I don’t. We don’t. We had the one, a fierce little scrawny thing with grey eyes like yours, but we lost her.”

“Lost her?” Catelyn repeated, desolately. “Do you mean . . .”

“Aw, she ain’t dead, milady," Tom said quickly as Ned released his hold on him. "Not as far as I know. We was taking her to you, milady, I swear we was. Back before that wedding. We were on our way to Riverrun and she run off. Before we could fetch her back, the Hound took her.”

“The Hound? You mean Sandor Clegane?” Ned demanded.

“Yeah, that’s him. But she got away from him, too, it seems. Story is he took her to the Twins, but got there while all the killing was going on, so he took her and left. Heard they killed two men and a boy at an inn, but the Hound got a mortal wound there as well. Last we heard of the girl is she was looking for a ship at Saltpans.”

Catelyn had gone still and silent as the man told his tale. “How do you know these things?” Ned asked quietly. “How do you know what happened with her after she left you?”

“Because of Gendry, mostly,” he shrugged. “He’s a boy that came to us same time she did. He felt kind of responsible for her. Kept asking after her and searching for her after she disappeared. Lord Beric said it was a noble thing to do and let him keep at it. He couldn’t find her though. If she found a ship that would take her off, she could be anywhere.”

Ned felt dizzy. Arya had survived and come at least as far from King’s Landing as the Twins. He had no way of knowing where she was now, but he knew she did not die in King’s Landing. That was something. He held tightly to that knowledge and offered a quick, silent prayer for her continued safety. He touched Catelyn’s hand beside him, but she didn’t move.

“My lady?” he said with some concern, taking her hand in his.

Slowly she turned toward him, the scars on her face standing out more vividly than usual against the ghostly pallor of her skin. “She was there,” she whispered slowly. “She was there. Arya was right there at the Twins, but they killed Robb and everyone else and kept her away from me. Now she’s gone again.” She turned away and was silent again.

Ned turned back to Tom of Sevenstreams. “Thank you for telling us this, Tom,” he said quietly. “But I see no reason for us to seek out Lord Dondarrion if you’ve told us all there is to tell about Arya.”

“Oh!” said Tom. “He didn’t mean to tell you about that one. Said I could do that. Show of good faith and all. He said he can tell you about the other one. The one who looks like her.” He nodded toward Catelyn who looked up at him then with haunted eyes.

“Sansa?” she whispered.

Tom nodded. “He says someone came to him, milady. Someone who knows where she is.”

Chapter Text

Catelyn Stark stared out the window into the darkness. She had given up on sleep long ago and now stood motionless in the bedchamber at Riverrun while her mind traveled backward in time and northward toward the Twins. Arya had been trying to reach her. She recalled every rainsoaked, miserable league of that trek from Riverrun to the Twins, and how she had longed to travel faster. Now she wanted to go back in time and move much more slowly. She wanted her daughter to reach her in time. In time for what? In time to die with Robb?  She put her face in her hands and felt her fingers curl inward, her nails pressing into her flesh around her eyes, just at the tops of her red scars. Arya, she thought desperately.

The door to the bedchamber opened slowly. After a few seconds, she heard a whispered, “Cat?” Then he must have seen her standing there because his voice came again, louder and with fear in it, “Cat!” She heard him rushing toward her, and then he was pulling her hands from her face, rubbing his own calloused hands over her cheeks, and then crushing her to him. He didn’t speak for a moment, but she heard his rapid breath and felt his chest heaving against her as he held her tight.

“I am fine, Ned,” she said in an empty, hollow voice that didn’t sound like her at all. “I didn’t break the skin. I wasn’t going to . . . .” She stopped, unsure what to say next. They had never specifically discussed the scars on her face, but she knew he knew all about them. Someone would have told him what she did that day. She raised her face to look at him. Even in the dark, she could see the fear in his grey eyes. “I am not mad,” she said softly.

“No, my love,” he whispered into her hair as he held her tighter against him. “You are not mad, and I do not think it.” He swallowed. “You are only hurt beyond all that is bearable, and I would take that hurt from you if I could.”

She nodded. “I know you would.” With immense effort, she tried to pull herself from the past and be with her husband now. She pulled back enough to look up at him. He was exhausted. She didn’t know the time, but imagined it must be very late. “You have everything ready for the morrow?” she asked.

He nodded. “I had hoped you would sleep,” he said.

She shook her head. “A forlorn hope, I fear, my lord.” She pulled him toward a chair and gestured for him to sit. “But if you have finished with preparations, let’s get you undressed for bed. We can at least lie awake til morning intead of standing awake.”

He nodded tiredly. “I suppose, my lady.” She knelt to remove his boots. “I can do that, Cat.”

“I know. But I want to.” She pulled off his boots and then moved to help him remove the rest of his clothing. There was none of the passion or fear of the previous night’s undressing. She only wanted to take care of him, to be close to him, and to let him anchor her to the present. She needed to talk to him about what she felt, but she didn’t want to be pulled back there again.

She sat on the edge of the bed in her nightshift as he moved quietly around the room, putting his things away. “It shouldn’t make it any worse, I suppose, but it does,” she said softly.

“What makes it worse, my love?” he asked, coming to sit beside her.

“That she came so close.” Catelyn closed her eyes. “She must have known I was there, Ned. Can you imagine what that felt like to her? After all that had happened to her, all the long way she’d come . . .to think that she would be with me again. Be safe again.” Her breath caught then. “And then to see what was happening. She had to know, Ned. She must have been terrified. She had to know that Robb and I . . .” She felt her hands curling up again, but she kept them in her lap. “I couldn’t reach her either! I couldn’t get to Robb or Arya! I couldn’t keep them safe! My babies!!” The last word came out somewhere between a scream and a sob, and then she was shaking in Ned’s arms.

He didn’t say anything, but simply held her as she shook. Finally, her tears seemed to run dry and her sobs slowed to occasional gasping breaths. She looked up at him and asked in a very quiet voice, “Do you truly think she could still be alive?”

“I do,” he said firmly. “And yes, that’s partly because I want to believe it, that I need to believe it. But, Cat, she was a nine year old girl, who somehow got from King’s Landing all the way here. She escaped both Lord Beric’s men and Joffrey’s dog. If our girl could accomplish all that at nine, imagine how formidable she must be at one and ten.” He smiled as he said it and wiped the tears from her face, but she could see the fear and pain on his face as well.

Catelyn tried to smile back at him. “She always was a fierce little wolf,” she said. “But, Ned, however can she defend herself out there . . .wherever she is?”

“Probably better than you think.” He gently pushed her back to lie on the bed, and then he lay down beside her, pulling the covers over them and pulling her into his arms. “I have a small confession to make, my lady.”

“A confession?”

“Arya was very unhappy in King’s Landing, my love. She hated the court, and she was miserable over the loss of her wolf pup.”

“I know those things, Ned. And they weren’t truly your doing,” Catelyn told him.

“I may disagree with you there, but that is not my confession.” He paused. “I found one thing that did make her happy. She had smuggled a lovely little sword, small and light like herself, into her things from home.”

“A sword? Wherever did she get such a thing?”

“In truth, I don’t know all of it, but Mikken made it.”

“Mikken? Gave a sword to our daughter?”

“I don’t know that he gave it to her, Cat, only that it was his work. She confessed as much, but said little else when I found her with it.”

“What did you do with it?” she asked him.

He sighed deeply. “I let her keep it. And I found her a fencing master, a man to teach her fencing in the water dancer style---suited to the small and quick.”

He looked at her as if awaiting her censure, but she simply looked up at him and nodded. “Good.” She felt his arms tighten around her.

After a moment, she asked, “We will not return to Riverrun after we meet with Lord Dondarrion?”

“No.” He sighed. “Edmure is still not happy about it. At the least, he wants you to stay here and . .”

She sat straight up and looked down at him, but before she could voice a protest, he quickly said, “You are coming with me, Cat. I told Edmure that you will not stay. Wherever this Lightning Lord’s information leads us, that is where we shall go. Together.”

She settled back down into his arms. “You have men?”

He nodded. “Donnell, of course. The six left from Winterfell. Howland Reed insists on coming as well, with a few of his men.”

“Reed? Why?”

Ned sighed. “I am honestly not sure, although I think it may have something to do with Lyanna. He loved her a great deal, I think, and was not able to help me rescue her. Perhaps he thinks rescuing my daughter will help make up for that.”

“Were there any men who didn’t love Lyanna Stark?”

Ned actually laughed at that. “Plenty! She could be rather hard to take when she chose to be, and any man who counted ‘biddable’ among his desirable characteristics in the fairer sex hated her instantly.” He shook his head. “But you mistake me. Howland isn’t Rhaegar or Robert. He respected and admired Lyanna, but his affection was not romantic.”

“Well, he is a good man. I shall welcome having him along.”

“The others offered as well, you know. We could have taken the entire northern contingent, but that would be a poor battle plan indeed. And your brother might have objected.”

“So they all stay here? Who will command them?”

“Lady Maege has command of her troops. Lord Umber will take Galbart’s during his convalescence. I have instructed them to serve Edmure however he has need of them until they hear from me again, or the north has more urgent need of them.”

“Edmure is little tested as a battle commander, my lord. He had some small successes in our earlier war, but . . .”

“Cat,” Ned interrupted. “Maege and the Greatjon are both tested battle commanders. They will not allow your brother to make any glaring mistakes. And the Blackfish will be here as well.” He paused. “Although he also wanted to come with us on the morrow.”

“Uncle Brynden? But he has to go treat with the Kingslayer!”

“I told him as much. I have no doubt he is the best man for that job. He didn’t like it, but he finally agreed. He’s really quite fond of you, Cat. I wouldn’t have minded bringing him along myself, just to help keep you safe.”

She snorted. “The safety of Riverrun and all the people here is a bit more important than mine.”

He smiled at her. “Not to me,” he said, echoing her own words to him from before they’d left the Twins.

They lay silent for awhile, each knowing the other was still awake. Finally, she whispered to him, “Ned? Is it terrible that I cannot think of Sansa?”

“My love?” he asked, obviously not understanding her question.

She looked out into the darkness of their room as she spoke then. “I cannot think of her. I cannot allow myself to. I cannot hope and be disappointed. Arya was so close to me, Ned, and I never knew it. What if Sansa comes so close, and I can’t reach her either? I cannot bear that.” She sat up again in the bed and looked down at him. “So I cannot even think of my daughter as we leave to do this thing. Does that make me terrible?”

He reached up and gently brushed his fingers down the scars on her cheeks. “No, my love. You are not terrible. You are fierce and brave and strong.” He picked up her hands and kissed each of her palms where the dagger had cut her so long ago. “And I thank the gods that you are the mother of all of my children.”

She lay back down then, and the two of them held each other as they waited for the dawn.

 

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It was cold in Riverrun’s hall in spite of the fires when Ned entered it just before dawn. Few people were about yet, but Edmure was there in his seat, already deep in conversation with his uncle as a girl laid food down before them. Catelyn’s brother may not always have been the most serious-minded man, but no one could say he lacked energy, and he certainly seemed to have thrown himself into the managing of Riverrun and indeed an entire military effort in the Riverlands with gusto.

Brynden Tully looked up as he approached. “Stark,” he greeted him. “Are you still determined to ride off to gods know where with our little Cat today?”

Ned sighed. “Your little Cat is my lady wife,” he replied evenly. “She has long been a woman grown, and the mother of five children. She chooses to ride with me to seek our daughter, and I would not deny her.”

The Blackfish grunted. “No, I don’t imagine you would. I’ll admit you’ve been an exemplary husband to her in most respects, Stark. And she is certainly more than fond of you for whatever reason. Just keep her safe.”

“Believe me, Ser Tully, I intend to do just that,” Ned answered him, wondering at the slight chill in his manner. An exemplary husband in most respects? Like Edmure, Ser Brynden was worried about Catelyn leaving the safety of Riverrun, but he had seemed generally supportive of her going when Ned had spoken to him last night, and while the man was always gruff, he and Ned generally got on quite well.

“There has been a raven, Lord Stark,” Edmure said with a definite chill in his voice. “I am glad you have come alone. I would prefer not to discuss the letter in Catelyn’s presence.”

Ned’s eyebrows rose at that. He looked from one Tully man to the other. “Well, you had better discuss it quickly then, as she is coming right behind me. But I keep no secrets from my lady wife.”

Ser Brynden’s eyes darkened noticeably at that, and Edmure actually coughed. “The raven is from Lord Frey at the Twins, my lord, passing on a letter he received from the Wall.”

Now, Ned understood. He didn’t know if they had known of Jon’s ascension to Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch before, but they assuredly did now. The Bastard of Winterfell, whose mother’s name was never spoken. Damn! I keep no secrets from my lady wife. How hollow that must sound to them! Ned’s insistence on raising Jon at Winterfell had meant everyone knew of him, and undoubtedly Catelyn had not hidden her resentment from her family, particularly in the early years of their marriage. He could hardly fault the Tully men for their loyalty to Catelyn, but he did not need them angry at him today of all days.

He doggedly ignored the hostility coming from the two pairs of blue eyes gazing at him, and said mildly, “Yes, we allowed Perwyn Frey to take the black as I told you. Lord Olyvar and Lady Mormont sent a raven to the Wall to alert the Lord Commander of his arrival. Winter is coming. It will arrive at the Wall sooner than anywhere else in the Seven Kingdoms, and their journey north will likely be perilous. We wished to have someone looking out for Perwyn and his escort.”

“The Lord Commander,” repeated Edmure. “Your bastard, you mean. Jon Snow.” Edmure’s voice had risen to a pitch easily heard throughout the hall, and he said the last just as Catelyn walked in, arm in arm with Roslin Tully.

She stopped short when she heard her brother’s words. Then she dropped Roslin’s arm and walked to stand beside Ned in front of the high table. She stood stiffly, and there was no warmth in her voice as she asked Edmure, “What about Jon Snow?”

Edmure looked down at his plate, and Ned replied, “A raven has come from the Wall, my lady.”

“Oh.” She turned to her brother again, still all formality. “The boy has been made Lord Commander, apparently. My lord husband and I knew nothing about it until Lady Mormont informed him as they marched to the Twins. Is there news of Ser Perwyn?”

Her chin was held high as she spoke, and her air of courtesy never wavered. Ned allowed himself to see the sympathy in the eyes of her brother and uncle, and even in Roslin’s who had now come to stand at her other side. Gods, how she hates to be pitied! he thought. And I have done this to her for years.

“I have not yet heard the contents of the letter, my lady. But it is far too soon for Perwyn and his escort to have reached the Wall. They were leaving after us, and the distance is great.”

“And winter is coming,” she said.

“Yes,” he said, struck by how easily the Stark words came from her now. In the past, she had shivered every time she heard him say them.

“Well, Perwyn Frey is mentioned, but you’re right, Lord Stark, he isn’t there yet,” said Edmure, seeming now to want to diffuse any tension in the room, likely for Catelyn‘s sake. “Come sit down and eat, and the two of you can read it.” He then smiled at Roslin, acknowledging her for the first time. “Come and sit by me, my lady, and have your breakfast as well.”

Roslin blushed and ducked her head, but Ned could see that she had a smile on her face as well, and when she briefly brushed her hand over Edmure’s shoulder as she sat down beside him, Ned found himself wondering where Edmure had gone when they had finally finished speaking late last night.

Ned took a seat beside Ser Brynden who handed him the letter, and he held it where Catelyn, who had taken the seat next to him could read it as well. His heart lurched to see the handwriting which he recognized well. Jon’s penmanship had always been neater than Robb’s untidy scrawl. As with everything else in his life, the boy had always seemed to seek quiet perfection, as if to counteract the stain of bastardy. Ned sighed, and read the words.

Lord Frey,

I am pleased to call you by that title, my lord, in gratitude for your part in the justice dispensed upon those who most cruelly murdered Robb Stark, Lord of Winterfell and King in the North. Lady Mormont’s letter makes it clear that your assistance in their taking of the Twins was essential, and that you played no part in the Red Wedding. The Night’s Watch takes no part in conflicts within the realm, of course, but as Lord Robb‘s brother, I confess I am glad he and his lady mother have received justice.

We shall gladly accept Ser Perwyn’s service. I fear we are vastly undermanned and facing increasing threats from beyond the Wall. The Night’s Watch has recently accepted the oaths of a number of the free folk, but our numbers remain inadequate, as evils that have long been sleeping now stir. None of the claimants to the Iron Throne have responded to our pleas for help save Stannis Baratheon. I realize you have concerns of your own, but the Night’s Watch would gladly accept any men you could send north. Winter is coming, and our peril increases. With Winterfell fallen, we shall not have the support of the Starks as in years past. We seek men and supplies from all the Seven Kingdoms, for we defend the realm.

I do not know if word has reached you yet, but Lord Stannis has driven the Greyjoys from Deepwood Motte. This news should gladden Lord Glover.

Yours,

Jon Snow, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch

Ned put the letter down and was silent. Catelyn remained stiff beside him, but she did touch his hand beneath the table.

“What does he mean by free folk, Stark?” asked Brynden Tully, still notably chilly in his manner toward him.

“That is how the wildlings beyond the wall call themselves,” Ned said.

“He’s bringing them through and arming them?” cried Edmure in disbelief. “The bloody Wall was built to keep wildlings out! Is he a halfwit, this bastard of yours?”

“There are worse things than wildlings beyond the wall,” Catelyn said softly.

Ned remembered her telling him that before, and he had chided her for listening too closely to Old Nan’s stories. “There are rumors that the Others again roam beyond the wall,” he said. “I confess I gave them no credence, but I begin to believe there are many things in this world beyond what I know.”

“Well, I know that no one’s going to want to send men to your bastard if he’s thrown in his lot with a bunch of wildlings,” Edmure said definitively.

Catelyn stiffened again at the word bastard, just as she had done a thousand times through the years. Knowing the truth had not protected her from the sting of it.

“In truth, you have no men to send, Lord Tully,” Ned told him evenly. “Every man is needed here. And I fear Jon is right about the Starks. The Night’s Watch has depended upon Winterfell for support for over a thousand years, but I have no help to give.” Winterfell fallen. The words left him colder than any winter wind. He looked directly at Edmure and Brynden. “This is simply one more calamity beyond our help for now. Would that things were different, but they aren’t. Catelyn and I must go with this Tom and find our daughter. You must protect Riverrun and drive the Lannisters out of the Riverlands. Only then can we turn our attention to all that must be done in the north.”

“Winter is coming,” said the Blackfish. “Your bastard uses the Stark words in his letter.”

“He states a fact,” said Catelyn simply. “As cold as it grows here, there is likely snow covering the ground at Winterfell already. I can’t imagine what it is like at the Wall.”

“Conditions at the Wall should not concern you, Little Cat,” her uncle told her. “I was surprised this letter made no mention of you, though, Stark. I’d think the boy would be glad to know you live.”

“He doesn’t know,” said Ned. “It is hardly news for a raven. Firstly, we had decided not to send any ravens telling of my identity, and a raven destined for the Wall could easily end up elsewhere. Secondly, the news that Catelyn and I live will undoubtedly leave him with many questions. A raven can hardly answer those. I sent another letter with Perwyn. He will be able to speak with Jon.”

Ser Brynden looked at Catelyn and then at Ned before nodding and turning back to his breakfast. Edmure then leaned toward Roslin, telling her something Ned couldn’t hear. He looked out over the hall to see that several others had drifted in during their conversation, and more were coming now in a fairly steady stream, as Riverrun woke to a day of departures.

Ned finished his own breakfast rather quickly and stood to go outside with Howland Reed who had come down and eaten as well. He left Catelyn in the hall with young Lady Tully, who seemed quite distressed at the prospect of her departure. Brynden Tully had left his seat to join the Lords Umber and Piper at their table, no doubt to discuss their own departure. Young Marq Piper sat with them, and he had smiled at Ned as he passed them on his way out. He looked far better than he had at the Twins. Being reunited with his father had been good for him.

They found Tom in the courtyard by the stables, tacking up his horse. “Good day, milords,” he said as they arrived. “You can ride with as many men as you want, Lord Stark, but once we get to Lord Dondarrion, I can only take you and your lady. I told you that.” He shook his head at all the commotion in the courtyard.

“And I agreed to it,” Ned said. “Most of these men aren’t going with us, Tom. There will be twenty in our party, not including you or Lady Catelyn.”

The singer shook his head. “I’m not going to murder you, milord. Don’t know why you need so many.”

“I don’t need them to ride with you to see your lord, Tom. But I may need them to go wherever I must go after that.”

“You plan on going after her, then? Once Lord Beric tells you where she is?”

“Of course,” Ned said simply. “If your children had been taken from you and scattered about, would you not go after them?”

The singer grinned then. “To tell the truth, milord, my children are pretty scattered about. But that’s for the best, I think, as their mothers are scattered about as well.” The man began humming then, and walked over to a fire to warm his hands.

“You trust his man, my lord?” Howland Reed asked him.

Ned sighed. “Not at all, my friend. But what choice do I have?”

In less than an hour, they were all loaded up and prepared to go. Tom had shaken his head at the horses laden with supplies, but Ned told him simply, “Winter is coming. I know not where we travel or in what conditions. I do not wish to be caught lacking.”

“Well, I’m just taking you east down the River Road, milord. It’s not many days, and you won’t need much of that.” He hesitated, as if unsure how much to say. “We will have to leave the road finally, and we’ll have to leave your men camped by the Red Fork. I can’t have them following us after that, but I give my word, it won’t be far, and we’ll get you back to them in a day or less.”

“Fair enough,” Ned told him, wondering if he could leave Catelyn camped with the men as well, but doubting that she’d stand for it. Whatever this man had in store for them, they were going to face it together.

He had already said his farewells to Maege Mormont and the Greatjon, and he and Catelyn had both gone to Galbart Glover’s room to to wish him good health and tell him goodbye. Saying goodbye to Lady Maege had proven more difficult than he expected. He did not like farewells and generally did not make a fuss about them, but the Lady of Bear Island had been a true friend to him indeed since his return from the dead. As he struggled to find the words to express his gratitude to her, she had clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Well, my lord, it’s time for you to go. Once you’ve found the Lady Sansa and Lady Arya, and we’ve sorted out all these Lannisters and Boltons and anyone else who needs sorted, I expect to be feasted at Winterfell for at least a fortnight.”

He laughed. “It shall be done, my lady.”

Then she had looked at Catelyn who was being embraced tightly by the Greatjon. “Take care of her, my lord.”

“Indeed I shall, my lady,” and he had taken her hand and kissed it in farewell.

It amused him greatly when he overheard her say to Catelyn only a moment later, “You will take care of him, won’t you my lady?” Catelyn had hugged her tightly and assured the She-Bear that Ned was safe in her hands. Yes, Ned thought. He would miss Lady Mormont.

Catelyn had cried only a little at parting with her brother and uncle, although poor Roslin had cried and clung to Cat like a child. Edmure had pulled her away gently and put his arm around her protectively, a positive sign for their future, Ned thought. All three Tullys had admonished him to take care of Cat, and he duly promised each of them he would.

“If you’re taking the River Road east, you’ll be traveling roughly in the same direction we are,” the Blackfish had said to him as he finally mounted up after putting Catelyn on her horse. "If you go all the way to the crossroads, perhaps I’ll buy you a drink at the inn there once we’ve both completed our tasks.” He grinned at both of them. “And they do have beds there. Doubtless, you two will be missing those.” Without another word, he turned and walked back toward the stables, where his own horse was being tacked up.

“Rogue!” Catelyn called after him. He didn’t turn, but Ned saw his shoulders shake with laughter.

Catelyn turned toward him then. “I am ready, my lord,” she said in a soft, clear voice. Her blue eyes shone with unshed tears, but she looked at him steadily.

He reached over and took her hand briefly. “Then let us depart, my lady.”

They rode out then from Riverrun, and Ned wondered when and if he would see it again. He saw that his wife did not look back, and he knew that she wondered the same.

Chapter Text

While it remained cold, they were blessed with relatively fair weather as they traveled east along the River Road, and Catelyn did not find the journey too unpleasant. Spending most of the day on horseback and sleeping on the hard ground at night left her sore and stiff at first, but by the fifth day, her body seemed to have become accustomed to such treatment. With the exception of the old crossbow injury to her back, which continued to ache intermittently in the chilly air, she suffered no real discomfort. She disliked sleeping cold, but at least she had Ned to share his warmth with her beneath their furs, and she felt worse for the rest of the men.

Ned insisted on taking his turn at watch with the other men each night, and while he had originally insisted she go on sleeping, it had quickly become clear that she could do no such thing. Wrapped tightly in cloak and furs, she would sit by him as he watched, and they spoke quietly of things they had not had the chance to discuss before.

“I did not know you sent Perwyn with a letter to Jon,” she had said quietly that first night out of Riverrun, once he had conceded defeat and let her stay by him.

She heard him sigh and then pause before speaking, and she knew he was weighing his words carefully. “It may suit our purpose to have others hear of my resurrection as rumor or ghost tale. I would not have one of my own blood hear it so. I would have him know the truth of it.”

“Ah,” she said. “The truth of it.” She hated the bitterness in her voice as she emphasized the word truth, but she couldn’t help it.

“Catelyn . . .” he started.

“Will the boy read that his father lives, or his uncle?” she interrupted him.

“Do not do this, Cat,” he said quietly, not looking at her.

“Do what? Ask you what you said in the letter you didn’t tell me you sent? Ask you what other secrets you are keeping from me?” She knew she was being unfair, but she was exhausted, cold, and still reeling from all the farewells earlier in the day, and she just couldn’t stop herself.

She had kept her voice low, but Ned still took her by the arm, pulled her to her feet, and led her away from the other men. “I am keeping no secrets, my lady. I didn’t mention writing to Jon because I never mention Jon to you if it can be helped. It is a habit years in the making and not easily broken.” There was an edge to his voice, but Catelyn could not tell if he were angry with her or with himself. Likely both. He dropped her arm and looked at her a moment, although this far from the campfire, they could barely see each other. He sighed again. “I would have told you had you asked.”

“And I never ask about Jon,” she replied, although with less venom in her voice than before. “Another habit years in the making.” They stood there silently for a moment, not touching. Catelyn shivered. “I am cold, my lord. Let us return to the fire.”

“May I hold you?” he asked almost formally. “I would like to tell you what I put in the letter, my lady. I would prefer not to discuss it any closer to the men, but neither would I have you freeze.”

Without a word and with only a slight hesitation, she leaned into him, and he wrapped his arms around her, bringing the edges of his cloak forward to encircle her in an extra layer of warmth. She pushed her face against his neck and chest to warm her nose and cheeks, and then she laughed softly. “It is rather difficult to stay angry with you in this position, my lord.”

“Well, I had hoped for that as well,” he said, pulling her into him more tightly. After another moment of silence, he continued. “You spoke truly when you told me Jon deserves to know the truth, and I mean to tell him. But it is not a truth meant to be read in a letter. He deserves to have me look at him when he learns it. For now, he should know we are both alive, and that is essentially all I put in the letter. I feared he would not believe it from Perwyn, but he will recognize my hand. I asked Perwyn to tell him the details of our escapes.”

“I don’t even know all the details of your escape,” she said softly. “There is so much we haven’t said yet, my lord. Sometimes I feel that all those moons we spent apart will forever lie between us. That we can’t truly know each other as we did before.”

“There is already more truth between us now than since the day I first rode away from you at Riverrun, Cat,” he replied. “We will fill in the empty places over time. We cannot go back to where we were before, my love. We can only go forward. But I am yours as long as you will have me.”

She smiled against his chest. “Oh, I’ll have you, Lord Stark. We both may have reason to regret it at times, but I’ll have you.”

“I have many regrets, my lady. Wedding you has never been one of them.”

She had meant to tease him, to turn their conversation away from the anger and sorrow she had brought to it, but he had spoken simply and solemnly. She pulled back from him enough to place her gloved hands on the sides of his face, and looked up toward the eyes she couldn’t truly see in the dark. “I did regret our marriage,” she said softly, “when first I came to Winterfell and found Jon there.” She felt the tension run through him at her words. “But by the time you put Sansa inside me, I knew I loved you, my lord. And from that time, whatever else has happened to us, I have never regretted being your wife.”

He stood very still a moment, and then raised his hands to touch her own face. “I am glad of it, my lady,” he said in a voice filled with emotion.

She heard in his voice and felt in his touch all the words he did not say, and she tip-toed to kiss him softly. “Let’s go back to the fire now, my lord. Only one of us is impervious to cold.”

With the tension between them eased once more, they had walked back to the fire. There they suffered with good grace the speculative looks from the other men on watch about their absence, and finally settled back down to sleep close together when Ned’s watch ended.

Thinking back on that conversation now, as she rode beside her husband, Catelyn wondered if Jon Snow’s name would always bring tension between them. It was different now, of course. Better, in some ways. But like the crossbow wound in her back or the injury to Ned‘s leg, she wondered if this hurt was too severe to ever heal completely without pain.

“We’ll be stopping here, milord.” Tom’s voice interrupted her thoughts. The singer had pulled his horse alongside Ned’s. “The Red Fork’s not far that way,” he said, pointing through the trees. “Your men can make a decent camp there, and I’ll take you and your lady on to see the Lightning Lord.”

Ned looked at her and she nodded. She was ready to do this.

“How far to Lord Dondarrion’s camp?” Ned inquired.

“Well, I shouldn’t be telling you exactly, milord,” said Tom. “But it’s early enough we can get there easy. By the time you talk to him though, like as not it’ll be too late to ride back, so you may want to tell your men not to expect you back til the morrow. I don’t want ‘em to get to worrying and ride off looking for you. If they came too close, the Brotherhood would have no choice but to capture or kill them.”

“My lord, I do not like this at all,” said Lord Reed, who had ridden up to join the conversation. “If these are honest men, why do they hide like outlaws? How can we be certain you and Lady Stark are not riding into a trap to be kidnapped for ransom? The man told you plain as day they had planned to ransom your daughter.”

“Yes,” Ned said thoughtfully. “Yes, he did. Not a very bright thing to do if he intended to do the same with Catelyn and myself, wouldn’t you say?”

“Or a very clever thing, perhaps. You came here, did you not?” Reed challenged.

“Point taken. As for your assertion that they hide like outlaws, Lord Reed, they do so because they are outlaws. You are called the Brotherhood without Banners, are you not, Tom?” Ned asked the singer. Catelyn knew her husband had quizzed virtually every man, woman, and child in Riverrun about Lord Beric and his band the night before their departure.

“Some call us that, sure, milord,” the man responded.

“And you hold no allegiance to any king or overlord. You raid where you will, hang those you find guilty of crimes under your own authority, and claim to champion the smallfolk. Is that correct?"

Tom shifted on his horse. “More or less, milord, except the no king part. We are the king’s men.”

“What king?” Ned asked him.

“King Robert Baratheon,” Tom said boldly. “Lord Beric and his men were sent out from King’s Landing in King Robert’s name to stop Gregor Clegane from burning and raiding the holdfasts. Only they rode out to find a trap, milord. A lion’s trap, meant to catch the Hand of the King.” Tom stared at Ned as if awaiting his reaction. When Ned said nothing, he went on. “But then the King was killed and the Hand, too, so Lord Beric and what was left of his men just went on trying to protect the smallfolk as best as they could and kept after the Mountain, too. Lord Beric picked up new men where he found them. That’s how he got me, and he told us we owed no allegiance except to the dead king and his Hand, so we were on our own.” He paused again, and looked hard at Ned. “Only now the Hand’s not dead, is he Lord Stark?”

“So does Lord Dondarrion plan to renew his fealty to me then? Or to kill me for sending him into a trap?” Ned asked levelly.

“He plans to tell you about your daughter, milord. You can trust that or not, but it’s all I can say. And you will come back here tomorrow.”

Ned looked at Catelyn again, and she nodded. “We have no choice, my lord,” she said.

Her husband nodded back.

“I still like this not,” Lord Reed said.

“None of us like it, Howland,” snapped Ned, “but my lady is correct. We have no choice.” Turning to Tom of Sevenstreams, he said, “Lead us to this campsite by the Red Fork, Tom, and then my lady and I will ride with you.”

About two hours later, they reached the bank of the Red Fork. The river ran deep and straight here and did not look easy to ford. Ned put Lord Reed in charge of the men, and he and Catelyn continued on downstream with Tom before the men had even started setting up camp. After riding about another half hour, they came to a place where the river seemed to shallow and its current slowed.

“This is where we cross, milord,” Tom said. He looked at Catelyn, “I’m afraid we’re going to get wet, milady, but it’s an easy ford. Your horse won’t have any trouble. I can walk and lead your mount if you like. It’s not above my waist.”

Catelyn was surprised by the offer. “That won’t be necessary, Tom. I ride well enough to cross the ford. But I thank you.”

Ned surveyed the water. “Let me cross it first, Cat. If it’s easy enough, you can do it with your feet out of the stirrups and your legs pulled up. I’d prefer you no wetter than necessary.” He smiled at her. “I know you’re a trout, my love, but it’s rather chilly for swimming.”

She laughed at him, but Tom looked distressed. “Milord, she’s like to fall off that horse if she don’t hold on with her legs, and then she’ll be wet all over.”

Ned looked at the man with some amusement. “Only if there are any tricky currents. That’s why I’m going first. If you’d paid any attention at all, Tom, you’d have noticed already she’s three times the horseman you are.”

Ned splashed his mount across easily, and Catelyn noted the water was even shallower than Tom had indicated. Nevertheless, she pulled her feet out of the stirrups and bent her knees to raise her legs as high as she could. She got her balance and then guided her mount slowly across the ford without getting a bit wet. Tom shook his head and grinned before crossing behind her.

After they had ridden perhaps a little more than another hour, Catelyn was startled to see another man on horse appear out of the trees ahead of them. She was even more startled when she recognized him. “Harwin?” she cried, spurring her horse forward.

“My lady!” cried the man. “It is you!” He turned to Ned who had ridden up behind her. “Lord Eddard,” he said in tones of disbelief. “They told us the Lannisters took your head.”

“They seem to have missed,” Ned told him. “It is good to see you, Harwin. Tom had not told me any of my Winterfell men still remained with Lord Dondarrion.”

Tom shrugged. “Begging you pardon, milord, but he ain’t your man anymore. He’s one of us.” Turning to Harwin, he asked him, “Did you bring the hoods?”

Harwin seemed to hesitate. “No hoods,” he said then.

Tom cursed. “They gotta wear the hoods, Harwin. They can’t tell anyone where we took ‘em if they don’t know.”

“My lord,” said Harwin quickly to Ned. “Do you give me your word that you will not reveal the location of the place we bring you to anyone, nor ever come here again without invitation?”

“You have my word of honor and that of my lady wife,” Ned said formally.

“Now come on, Harwin,” Tom said. “You know that don’t mean a thing.”

At that, Harwin wheeled his mount around at the singer. “Shut up, Tom!” he told him. “You’re right about me being Lord Beric’s man now, but I was a man of Winterfell once, and my father was Master of Horse there. This man is Lord Eddard Stark and his word of honor is all the guarantee any man needs. He and Lady Catelyn will ride freely to meet Lord Beric, and I’ll not hear another word from you about it.”

“Let it be on your head then,” said Tom, shrugging.

“My lord, my lady,” said Harwin nodding to them. “Follow me, please.”

As they rode on through the trees, Catelyn noted the sun was sinking very low in the sky. She couldn’t help feeling uneasy in spite of Harwin’s vigorous support of Ned’s honor. She thought about some of the stranger tales of Lord Beric and shuddered. What sort of man were she and Ned riding to meet?

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Ned Stark moved his horse close to his wife’s as Harwin’s mount slowed and then stopped in front of them. He watched closely as Harwin dismounted and he could hear Tom of Sevenstreams doing the same behind him. Ned kept his hand on his sword hilt and waited.

“We have to walk from here, my lord,” Harwin told him. “Tom will take the horses.”

“Take them where?” Ned asked without dismounting.

“I’ll put them up with ours, milord,” Tom replied. “I’m not a bloody horse thief. Well, not tonight anyway.”

Looking at the sky, Ned saw it was nearly night. The sun had fallen below the treeline, and the woods around them were lit only by a pale glow. He nodded and climbed slowly from his horse. The bad leg never wanted to move quickly after a long day on horseback, and he winced slightly as it hit the ground.

Harwin noticed. “That’s the leg you injured in King’s Landing, isn’t it, my lord? When the Kingslayer’s men killed Jory.”

Ned nodded as he moved to help Catelyn dismount. “It never healed properly, but it does well enough.”

“You can walk? It isn’t far.”

Ned felt a flash of irritation. He wasn’t a cripple, for the gods’ sake! “I can walk,” he said shortly. Catelyn, now standing standing beside him, squeezed his hand, and he attempted to suppress the anger. “Lead on, Harwin.”

As they stepped through a narrow opening in a thick grove of trees, the entrance of a small cave became visible. Once Harwin led them inside, Ned could see that a tunnel extended off to the left. From somewhere in that tunnel came a faint glow of firelight that was not visible at all from the cave’s entrance. “This way,” Harwin said, and he started down the tunnel.

Catelyn gripped his arm tightly as they walked, and Ned could feel her apprehension. The tunnel twisted, this time to the right, and he could see the source of the glow. Several torches were set into the wall there. Harwin took one of these and continued to lead them through the tunnel, which appeared to continue for some way. After several more twists and turns, they stepped into the entrance of what appeared to be a much larger chamber, and were met by a man Ned thought looked vaguely familiar.

“Lord Stark,” said the man. “It truly is you. I hadn’t quite believed it.”

Ned searched the man’s face and recognition slowly dawned on him. The man he remembered was large and fat with a shaved head, and this one tall and thin with a mop of grey hair falling over his narrow face, loose folds of skin hanging from his chin. “Thoros,” he breathed. “Thoros of Myr.”

“Indeed, Lord Stark. It is good of you to recognize me without my flaming sword. And this would be your lady wife?” he said, turning to Catelyn.

“Yes,” Ned said simply, still stunned by the priest’s appearance.

“Neither of you look to have died,” the priest said thoughtfully, “although that is quite a gash across the lady’s neck.”

Catelyn’s hand went to her throat. Both of them had loosened their cloaks in the closeness of the tunnels, but now he saw her pull hers tight around her again as the priest stepped toward her and reached a hand toward her neck. Ned stepped in front of her and glared at Thoros without speaking.

Thoros smiled briefly and dropped his hand. “It could have been fatal, I think, had she been allowed to bleed out, but she wasn’t. No, neither of you has been brought back.”

Ned had no idea what the man was talking about, but he was tired of being led around in the dark with no answers or explanations. “We have come to see Lord Dondarrion. We have traveled a long way and are very weary. Please take us to your lord now, sir, for we would speak to him.”

“And I would speak with you, my lord,” came a hollow voice from somewhere in the chamber beyond.

Thoros moved aside and Ned could see clearly into the large chamber. A fire burned in the center, and its walls were stone and earth with weirwood roots snaking in and out of them in white tangles. Several people were within; some standing and some sitting on the large roots, on rocks, or on the earthen floor. Ned couldn’t tell who had spoken. Catelyn moved from behind him to once again take his arm, her blue eyes large as she peered around the chamber.

“This is an old place,” she whispered.

“Indeed, Lady Stark,” came that hollow voice again. Now Ned saw a scarecrow of a man rise from his place by the wall and walk slowly toward him. He looked like something out of a nightmare, wearing a black rag of a cloak over a breastplate so dented and deformed by blows that Ned wondered if the man could even remove it. He had red-gold hair, uncombed and hanging limply into his face, but the scalp above his left ear was bald, and the skull there was sharply caved in as Ned had only ever seen in corpses after battles. He was missing an eye, and his skin was a sickly grayish white, save a black ring around his neck. Ned felt Catelyn’s hand trembling on his arm.

As this ghastly apparition approached them, Thoros said quietly, “We seek protection here because the night is dark.”

“And full of terrors,” said everyone else in the chamber save Ned, Catelyn, and Beric Dondarrion.

For this man was Beric Dondarrion, Ned realized. As he drew closer, Ned could make out the stars on what remained of his cloak and recognize the ruined features of that gallant knight who’d set out from King’s Landing on this specter’s face.

“Lord Dondarrion,” he said softly. “You wished to speak with me.”

“They said you had died, murdered by the Lannisters.” He turned to look at Catelyn. “And your lady wife and son then murdered by the Freys.” He was quiet a moment. “Then you lived again. I wished to see.” He fell silent again.

After what seemed an eternity, Catelyn spoke, her voice hesitant. “My Lord Dondarrion, may we please sit? I feel . . .”

“You feel . . .” said Dondarrion quietly. “Leave us!” he said in a louder voice to the chamber at large. Ned saw the others, including Harwin, exit the chamber by a number of different tunnels, but Thoros remained.

“Please, be seated, my lord and lady. I forget my courtesies. I forget . . .many things.” Dondarrion moved to sit on a thick root protruding from the wall, and Ned pulled Catelyn down to sit beside him on a large smooth boulder facing the man. He feared she truly might faint, for her face was pale and the knuckles of her hand white where she gripped his arm. He laid his other hand over hers and squeezed gently. Thoros stood at Dondarrion’s shoulder.

“You feel,” Dondarrion repeated. He stared at Catelyn’s face and then down to where Ned’s hand held hers. “I do not. I have forgotten how to feel, it seems. I have forgotten many things, but I remember you sending us out to do the king’s justice, Lord Stark.”

“I did,” Ned said quietly. “Clegane was an evil man who needed to be stopped. I did not know it was a trap. I am sorry for what happened to you and your men, my lord, but I would send men out again, to stand against such butchery.”

Beric Dondarrion nodded. “Yes, but who are the butchers, my lord? I fear it has become difficult to tell. The lions raped and murdered throughout the land. The wolves came to fight the lions. Your son brought them here. But then the wolves fell upon the people as well, raping, burning, and stealing. All the high lords played their game of thrones and the people died. Children are left orphans whether a lion or a wolf kills their parents. There is no difference.”

“My son was no rapist or murderer,” Ned said fiercely.

“I did not say he was,” Dondarrion replied. “I said only that he brought the wolves. And now he is dead of murder himself.” Again the man looked at Catelyn with that single eye of his. His unblinking gaze upon her made Ned uncomfortable. “Now the Freys must pay for that crime, my lady,” he said in his dead man’s voice. “We came upon the Green Fork, just days after that wedding. We had been pursuing the Lannisters’ Hound who had taken something from us. Did Tom tell you?”

Catelyn nodded. “Arya,” she said in smallest of whispers.

“Yes, that was her name,” said Dondarrion. “Arya.” He stopped speaking again and looked off as if he were somewhere else.

“My lord?” Thoros said softly.

“She wasn’t there,” Dondarrion continued as if he had not paused. “Nor was your son. We found the Green Fork swollen with bodies. The rains had caused it to flood, and it tossed its corpses onto its banks.” He stared at Catelyn again. “I thought you were there, my lady. There was a woman. Her throat was cut, and she had long, red hair. I looked at her closely, though, and I could not see your daughter’s face. Not . . .Arya. The other one.”

“Sansa,” Catelyn whispered.

“Strange,” said Dondarrion. “I have forgotten so much. I cannot recall the face of my betrothed, nor even her name at times. But I knew then that woman could not be you. I had hoped . . . .”

His voice trailed off and he stopped speaking again.

“What did you hope, my lord?” Ned could hear the slight tremor in his wife’s voice as she asked the question, but she did not look away from Beric Dondarrion.

“It does not matter,” he said. “We have tried to give you justice as we have done for others, and Freys have dangled from our ropes just like wolves and lions. It is only that I am weary. Every day, it is harder to remember, and now I am not sure I can remember how to feel.”

“You died,” Catelyn said suddenly. “Didn’t you?”

“More than once,” Dondarrion answered softly, looking to Thoros.

Ned looked at Thoros as well, unable to believe what he was hearing, yet having seen the truth of it written on Dondarrion’s body. “How is such a thing possible?” he said, shaking his head.

“In truth, I do not know, my lord,” Thoros replied. “I know it is the power of R’hllor, the Lord of Light. Why he chooses to use me to give this gift, I do not know. I only know he is not yet finished with Lord Beric.”

“Gift,” repeated Dondarrion. “It’s an odd sort of gift, my friend. I’m left with nothing of who I was. I remember little but the need to do the king’s justice.” He paused then, as if he were trying to recall something. “The little girl asked you for it, though, didn’t she?”

“The little girl?” Thoros asked. Then his face registered comprehension, and he looked at Ned. “Your daughter, Lord Stark. Much like your lady wife, she could see the truth of what had happened to Lord Beric, and I told her I had brought him back him six times. She asked me then if I could bring back a man without a head. Not six times, but just the once.”

Ned felt as if he had taken a blow to the chest. Oh gods, Arya! Catelyn had been right. How much their little girl had suffered. How would she ever heal even if they could find her? Catelyn’s grip on his arm tightened again, but she made no sound, simply continuing to stare at Dondarrion.

Ned’s head swam a bit, as if he’d drunk too much wine, and he felt he could not continue this line of conversation without losing his mind. “Sansa,” he said suddenly. “Tom told us you know where she is.”

Dondarrion nodded slowly. “A woman was brought to us. A young woman with a strange tale. I did not know what to do with it until Tom sent word that you lived. I have forgotten much, but I do remember justice is not only killing. I swore on my honor as a knight to one daughter that I would return her safe to her mother’s arms. I failed her. Perhaps I can lead you to the other daughter as payment for that failure.”

“Shall I go get her, my lord?” Thoros asked.

“No. I am weary,” Dondarrion replied to the priest. “Take Lord and Lady Stark to her. I have seen them now, and I know.” He looked again at Ned’s and Catelyn’s joined hands. “They remember. They have not truly died nor been brought back.” Looking up at their faces again, he said, “I am glad for you. Go and seek your daughter.” Then he simply closed his eye and remained seated as he was on the weirwood root.

“Come,” Thoros said quietly, and Ned and Catelyn rose to follow him.

“Is he asleep?” Catelyn asked, looking back toward Dondarrion.

“He does not sleep, my lady. Nor does he eat.” Thoros sighed. “He has no relief from his weariness. I fear there shall be no return from his next death, and I also fear that mayhaps he wants that now.”

Then all three were silent as they passed into a tunnel leading away from the chamber. After a moment, Ned whispered to his wife, “I would desire death myself, if I were he. I cannot imagine such an existence. I confess, my lady, the thought of it terrifies me.”

She did not look at him as she replied. “It terrifies me as well, my lord,” she said quietly, “because I can imagine it all too easily.”

He shivered, thinking of all Roslin and Olyvar had told him about how cold and hard she had made herself to survive her ordeal at the Twins; thinking of how quiet and far away or deep inside herself she could still go at times. He stopped walking then and pulled her to him, heedless of Thoros walking in front of them.

“You live, my love,” he said softly, but fiercely. “You and I live, and Lord Dondarrion’s fate shall not touch us.”

She trembled in his arms then. “You cannot let me go,” she whispered. “Promise me, Ned.”

 Promise me, Ned, echoed through his mind, conjuring memories of all his failures. He could not fail Cat.

“I will not let you go, my love. I promise you.”

She nodded and looked up at him then. Thoros had walked ahead a bit, but now waited there for them. “I am well, my love,” she said bravely. “I was frightened, but I will be fine. Let’s go see what this woman has to say of our daughter.”

He smiled at her, releasing her from his embrace and again extending her his arm. As she took it, he called to the priest. “Lead on, Thoros!”

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Catelyn walked beside her husband through the tunnels, trying hard not to think about the man they had just left. The encounter with Beric Dondarrion had shaken her badly. She had looked into that eye of his and seen a man whose life had shrunken to a single purpose. Love and joy and hope were gone for him. He lived only to pursue his harsh brand of justice. She could not help thinking she had not been so different at the Twins. She had lived for one purpose then--only she had named it vengeance.

She focused on the hem of Thoros of Myr’s tattered robe as he led them along. I am here with Ned. We are going to find Sansa. I am not in that place. I cannot be taken back there. Ned will not let me go. She held tightly to her husband’s arm and repeated those thoughts over and over as they walked. The further they got from Dondarrion, the easier her breath came. By the time Thoros turned from the tunnel to lead them into a small room-like chamber on the left, her fear had subsided.

This room was far homier than the large chamber with its monstrous weirwood roots everywhere. A small table with four chairs was placed against the wall opposite the door, and two small cot type beds were snugged against the walls to the sides. On one of the beds, sat a woman with inky black hair, cut short around her head. She had her back to them, but she turned as Thoros strode through the door and stepped aside to allow Catelyn and Ned to enter.

When she saw Catelyn, she stood. “My lady, it is you.”

Catelyn looked at the face with its dark blue eyes and recognition came to her. “Mya?”

Ned was staring at the girl, and when he heard Catelyn speak her name, he looked startled. “Mya,” he repeated. “Mya Stone? From the Vale?”

Catelyn and Mya both stared at him, surprised that he knew her name. He glanced briefly at Catelyn before turning again to the dark haired girl and saying, “I knew you as a babe. I used to visit you with your father.”

“My father?” she said, clearly stunned.

Catelyn looked again at the black hair and blue eyes and suddenly wondered why she hadn’t seen it before. “Robert,” she breathed.

Ned nodded.

“I never knew my father, my lord, and my mother never spoke of him,” Mya said somewhat coldly. “If he truly came to see me, he certainly left nothing behind.”

“No,” Ned said sadly. “I fear he did not. If you wish to know of him, lass, I will gladly tell you, but first I would know what has brought you from the Vale to this place.”

The young woman sighed. “I was sent to Saltpans, my lord, to get a package from a ship for Lord Baelish.”

“Baelish?” Ned said sharply.

“The Lord Protector of the Vale,” Mya clarified. “Ordinarily, his packages from the east come to his keep on the Fingers and are brought through the Vale, but when the Lords Declarant brought their men to the Gates of the Moon and stopped allowing anything up to the Eyrie, Lord Baelish feared they might stop his men riding through the Vale as well. He sent a raven to the Fingers to have his shipment sent to Saltpans."

“The Lords Declarant?” asked Ned, who obviously did not understand the meaning of the term any more than Catelyn did.

“Six lords of the Vale who feel Lord Baelish has no right to be ruling in Sweetrobin’s place. Well, really they’re five lords plus Lady Waynwood.”

“Sweetrobin?” Ned asked, still confused.

“Robert Arryn,” Catelyn and Mya said at the same time.

Ned shook his head. “Perhaps we should sit down.” The three of them sat around the small table, and as they did so, Catelyn noticed that Thoros had disappeared, likely going back to tend to Lord Dondarrion.

“Now, Mya,” Ned said as they were seated. “Who leads these Lords Declarant?”

“Bronze Yohn Royce,” Mya answered.

Catelyn nodded. “I can’t see Bronze Yohn standing by while the Vale is usurped from the Arryns by Petyr.”

“Nor can I,” said Ned. “But are you telling me, Mya, that while besieged in the Eyrie, Littlefinger sent a lone woman to get through the men encamped at the Gates of the Moon and travel alone through the mountains on the High Road just to pick up something from a ship in Saltpans?”

Mya looked down. “He knew I could get through, my lord,” she said quietly. “Because of Mychel,” she added almost in a whisper.

“Mychel Redfort,” Catelyn remembered, and Mya nodded. “Is his father one of the Lords Declarant?”

Again, Mya nodded, saying nothing else.

“ Is Mychel with him then, at the Gates of the Moon?”

Now the girl blushed as she nodded. “Some of his men know I go to see him,” she said quietly. “They let me through.”

Catelyn recalled the girl speaking of her love and how they were to be wed, but her demeanor now made Catelyn think she had been correct in believing that marriage would never come to pass. “And Mychel allowed you to travel on down the High Road then?” she asked softly.

Now the girl looked up, and her blue eyes flashed with anger. “I am not Mychel Redfort’s to command,” she said angrily. “He can order his little bride, Ysilla Royce, about if he pleases, but I come and go as I choose.” Catelyn heard echoes of Robert Baratheon in her stormy words.

Ned apparently did as well, for he said, “No, Mya, I have no doubt you are not one to be commanded.” He paused. “So you used your connection to Mychel to get into the camp and then managed to sneak out of it on the far side.” He frowned. “I still can’t believe you then traveled to Saltpans on your own. The dangers along the High Road are well known. A woman alone . . .” Ned let the thought trail off.

“I wasn’t alone,” Mya said. “Not once I got to the place Lord Baelish told me about.” She sighed. “Many of the clansmen left the Vale with the Lannister dwarf you brought to the Eyrie, Lady Stark. I don’t know how he convinced them to help him, but when they returned, they had far better weapons and armor than before. Lord Baelish met some of them when they were at King’s Landing. He said even a Stone Crow could develop a taste for gold if given just enough of it. He started paying those men there, and he pays them still now that they’ve returned to their mountains.”

“Are you telling me that Petyr Baelish is paying the clansmen to do his bidding?” Ned asked in disbelief.

Mya shrugged. “Some of them, anyway. He likes the High Road being dangerous to travelers. Just as long as it isn’t dangerous for him and his.”

“And are you his, Mya?” Ned asked levelly.

They young woman shrugged again. “I’m as much his as anybody’s in that I’ll do as he asks only if I choose to do it. He told me where to go, and four Stone Crows met me there. They traveled with me all the way to Saltpans.”

“And where are they now?” Ned asked.

“They left when I told them I wasn’t returning right away. I couldn’t get up to the Eyrie anyway if the Lords were still camped out, and I know how to summon the Stone Crows when I do go back. And once I got his lordship’s package off that ship, I knew I was right. I just didn‘t know what to do about it.”

Catelyn felt her heart speed up just a bit. Could the girl’s story finally be coming around to her daughter? “Right about what, Mya?”

“Right about the girl. Lord Baelish’s daughter.”

“Daughter? Petyr doesn’t have a daughter!” Catelyn exclaimed.

“Oh, yes he does, my lady. And except for the dark hair, she looks a lot like you.”

Catelyn’s heart stopped. She couldn’t breathe. What was this girl saying? What did it mean? She turned to look at Ned and saw that his face had frozen with his jaw clenched and his grey eyes hard. “How old is Lord Baelish’s daughter, Mya?” he asked, in a voice as frozen as his eyes.

“She says four and ten, and she’s tall enough to be, but she seems younger to me. Even though she’s always the perfect lady.”

Oh, gods! Sansa. Could it be? Catelyn swallowed hard. “How often have you seen her, Mya? How long has she been there?”

“I only see her if I go up past Sky when I bring the food and supplies on the mules, my lady. She hasn’t come down from the Eyrie once since she first came with Lord Baelish and Lady Arryn. Although Lady Arryn was Lady Baelish by then. I was there when they first came and I led them up on the mules, just like I did you, my lady. The girl had a hood on her cloak and I couldn’t see her hair. If I had, I might not have noticed her face, but I did notice. I knew she looked like someone. I thought it was maybe that she just looked somewhat like Lady Arryn, but then we got to the saddle pass above Snow. Do you remember it, my lady?”

“Remember it? I shall never forget it,” Catelyn said, shuddering even now to think of that narrow path dropping off into nothing on both sides while the wind whipped at her cloak.

“It frightened her, too,” Mya said. "She stopped right as she started across, and called out to me that she couldn’t do it. I turned and looked at her face, and I remembered you. She looked exactly like you then.”

“Sansa.” This time Catelyn said it out loud. She turned to her husband. “Could it be, Ned?”

“The wretched man is certainly clever enough to have gotten her out of King’s Landing,” Ned said, and Catelyn could hear the tension in his voice. “But how could she go unrecognized in the Eyrie?”

“Begging your pardon, my lord, but no one looks twice at a bastard girl,” Mya said with a hint of bitterness. “And at first look, all you see of Alayne Stone is a lot of dark brown hair.”

“Dark hair,” said Catelyn. “You said that before. But Sansa’s hair is exactly the same color as mine.”

Mya nodded. “I guessed as much when I picked up the package in Saltpans.” She stood then and went to retrieve something from beside her cot. “There were several other things, but this is what I noticed right away. Ten jars of the stuff, from Tyrosh.” She set a darkly colored smooth stone jar on the table.

Catelyn picked it up, removed the lid, and looked inside. She then tipped the jar up and let a small drop of thick dark liquid fall onto the table’s surface.

“What is that?” Ned asked her.

“It’s a color wash,” she told him, staring at the small dark stain the drop had made on the table. “Tyroshi women use such to darken their hair.”

“So Littlefinger has our daughter,” Ned said flatly. Then he stood and banged his hand on the table, spilling the jar of hair dye. “Gods damn the man!” He shouted. “He has my daughter!”

Mya had righted the jar, but enough of the thick liquid had spilled that a dark brown puddle kept growing slowly upon the the table’s surface. Catelyn continued to stare at it, unable to say anything.

“If he hurts her . . .” Ned growled beside her. Catelyn shook her head. Once she would never have believed Petyr could hurt a child of hers. But now, she simply did not know.

“Why?” she finally whispered. “Why would Petyr take Sansa?”

“Why?” Ned repeated angrily. “Because nothing will ever be enough for Petyr Baelish! The Lannisters gave him Harrenhall, he’s taken the Vale through your fool of a sister, and now he can stake a claim to Winterfell as well!!”

Catelyn pulled her gaze away from the brown dye and looked up to see her husband’s eyes staring into hers. They were the grey of storm clouds and full of barely contained rage. Only last night, during his watch, he had told her it was Petyr who had betrayed him to the Lannisters, and that it was Petyr who had urged the boy Joffrey to take his head. She had confided her belief that he lied about Tyrion Lannister and that she now suspected he had taken Lysa into his bed all those years ago at Riverrun. This man had her daughter.

“Ned . . .” she said, choking on his name, unable to put the sick feeling in her stomach into words.

He saw it on her face, though, and nodded grimly. “I have thought of it,” he said quietly. His eyes held as much fear as anger as he forced his next words through clenched teeth. “She looks like you.”

 

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Ned Stark paced like a caged animal in the small chamber he and Catelyn had been given for the night. He had wanted to ride back to his men and make haste for the Eyrie as soon as Robert’s bastard girl had finished her tale, but it was well into night, and neither he nor Catelyn had rested or eaten since early in the day. Knowing that leaving the Brotherhood’s lair in the dark in such condition was utterly foolish did not make him wish to leave any less, however, and he found himself unable to keep still or to swallow more than a few bites of the food brought to them.

Catelyn, in contrast, sat still as a stone in her chair by the table, staring at her untouched plate, but undoubtedly seeing Sansa far away in the Eyrie. Ned stopped his pacing to look at her. “You must eat something, my lady,” he said.

“I have no appetite,” she responded quietly.

He went to her then and put his hands on her shoulders. “Nor have I, my love, but you must keep up your strength. The journey to the Vale will be long and difficult. I fear the snows will already be falling on the High Road through the mountains.”

She turned to look up him then, something very like panic on her face. “But we can get through, my lord, can‘t we?” she asked urgently.

He nodded. “We will get through, Catelyn.” He sighed. “Mya wishes to return home. She will ride with us, and with luck, her Stone Crows will meet us. With even more luck, they will help us. The clansman travel the mountain portions of the High Road throughout the winter. I only pray the weather does not turn ill enough to slow us too much.” At the thought of anything hampering his progress toward his daughter, Ned cursed and began pacing anew.

“You will not get any closer to the Eyrie by walking a thousand leagues back and forth, my love,” Catelyn said. “Come and sit. Rest your leg. Do that for me, and I shall do my best to eat a little.”

Ned narrowed his eyes at her, but he did want her to eat, so he took the chair beside her without a word. She dutifully took a bite of the stewed turnips on her plate and looked at him. “Put your leg up, my lord,” she told him. “You know it is likely to swell with all we’ve done today.”

There were no other chairs, so he pulled off his boot and laid his foot on the corner of the table. Satisfied, she took another bite. She looked at him thoughtfully as she chewed, and after she swallowed she said softly, “Ned, did you know? When my father arranged the match between Jon Arryn and my sister, did you know about Lysa?”

Ned sighed heavily. “Hoster told Jon that Lysa was not a maiden. He said she’d been taken advantage of by a man whose birth was too low to permit a marriage, although he did not give a name. Jon was no fool, Cat, and had wondered why your father would offer his daughter of barely six and ten to a man older than himself.”

“Because he feared no one would take her ruined,” Catelyn said bitterly, “Except, perhaps, an old man desperate for the heir a young wife could give him. Poor Lysa.”

“Jon always treated her well,” Ned said defensively.

“I’m sure he did. He was a good man, my love.” She looked at Ned levelly. “That’s what my father told me, you know, about our marriage. I was devastated when Brandon died.” Ned felt the old irrational jealousy flare at her words. “I didn’t love him. I know that now. But I was rather in love with the idea of the two of us as Lord and Lady of Winterfell--full of silly, romantic notions about my life in a place I‘d never even seen. Perhaps I was more like Sansa than I let myself remember.” Ned remained quiet and waited for her to continue. “When Brandon died and you asked to wed me in his place, my father told me, 'He’s a good man, little Cat. He’ll treat you well.'” She laughed softly. “And I thought that would be enough. I would do my duty; go north and be your lady wife and bear your children, and you would treat me with respect and kindness. But it isn’t enough, Ned.”

“My lady?” Ned asked hesitantly. “What do you mean?” The old doubts crept upon him; that deeply rooted fear that she was never meant to be his, that his lies had poisoned their marriage before it could really begin, that he was still a second son playing at being Lord, and failing his family and people at every turn.

She reached out to him and took his hands. “I married you for politics, my love, but then discovered you were my very heart. And I know now that anything less would never be enough.” Tears shone in her eyes and she swallowed before continuing. “Lysa lived and died without ever truly knowing what she missed, but she knew she missed it. Petyr took all chance of it from her when he took her maidenhead. And he never even wanted her.”

Ned held tightly to her hands and even more tightly to the words she had spoken, trying to banish his doubts. “No,” he said. “It was you he loved. Are you certain Petyr is the man Lysa went with? He was hardly more than a boy then.”

Catelyn laughed harshly. “A boy who had tried often enough with me! I thought it all so innocent, but now I see Edmure had the right of it. I was too involved in my own concerns to see Petyr or Lysa clearly then.” She shook her head. “But he never loved me, Ned. He wanted me, yes, but love, . . . No . . . I believe Tyrion Lannister told me at least one true thing. He told me Littlefinger never loved anyone except Littlefinger.”

“He still wants you,” Ned said, and suddenly he couldn’t stand the thought of it. He stood up and pulled her into his arms, holding her against him because she was his. Not Littlefinger’s. Not Brandon’s. His. He put his mouth on hers and kissed her. This was no gentle or comforting kiss. It was an act of possession. She was his, and he needed both of them to know it. What rational mind he had left urged him to stop, but then she threw her arms around him, her hands clawing into his back, and returned his kiss with equal ferocity, until they had to break apart to breathe, both panting.

“He only wants me because he cannot have me,” she said between gasps. “He took Lysa because he couldn’t have me, and he used her as he wished. It would seem now he used her until her death.” She grabbed his face in her hands and looked at him with sheer desperation in her eyes. “And now he has our daughter.”

“He will not have her long, my lady. I swear it to you.” Ned said fiercely. “Sansa is ours, and I shall take her back. This man will never touch anything of mine again. Not my daughter and not my wife.” He could hear the cold rage in his voice, the fury he’d held back since he’d first heard Mya’s tale. He realized how tightly he gripped Catelyn and suddenly feared he was hurting her. Gods, what if I've frightened her!

Then he looked into her eyes and saw not fear, but the same fury blazing there, overflowing from the blue depths. “No, my lord,” she agreed. “He will not.” Then she pulled his face to hers, and her mouth was on his again, hungry and desperate.

They grasped at each other’s clothing, attempting to remove anything between them without ever letting each other go, and moved toward the bed, which was truly just a raised straw pallet barely wide enough to accommodate both of them, in a frenzied tangle of limbs. He could not hold her tightly enough or be too close to her, and it seemed she felt the same.

As they tumbled together onto the pallet, free at last of all their garments, his cock pushed against the soft, bright hair between her legs, and she parted her thighs with a gasp. This was a far cry from the sweetly rapturous joy of their bedding at Riverrun. This was pure hunger and need for each other. He drove deeply into her with his first thrust, and she cried out before biting his shoulder and raking his back with her nails. All the hurt, anger, fear, and longing seemed to drive both of them, and it took only a few thrusts before they both peaked, and then lay shaking in each other’s arms.

Neither could speak for awhile, and Ned felt vaguely ashamed of using her in such a manner. “Cat,” he finally gasped, as his breathing slowed enough to allow speech. “Forgive me. I should not have allowed myself . . .” He searched her face with his eyes and ran his hands gently over her arms and back. “Are you hurt, my love?”

To his intense surprise, she caressed his face and smiled at him, her face warmer and more expressive than it had been since coming to this place. “Do not apologize, my love, for you did nothing to me that I did not do to you. I am not hurt, Ned. I am alive. You are alive.” Her voice shook slightly as she added, “And Sansa is alive.” She moved her face to kiss him then, with all the gentle warmth her kisses normally held for him. “That is far more than I should have had reason to hope for, my love,” she whispered as she released his lips. “And it gives me the courage to hope for still more.”

“Are you still frightened, my love?” he asked her softly.

“Terrified,” she replied. “But I am trying to brave in spite of it. Sansa needs us.”

“That reminds me of something I told Bran at Winterfell the day the boys found the direwolf pups,” Ned recalled suddenly. “He asked me if a man could be brave if he’s afraid. I told him that was the only time a man could be brave.”

“Then I shall have the opportunity to be very brave indeed,” she said with a small laugh. “I suppose we should put out the candles, my lord.”

He sat up. “I shall do it. Try not to freeze to death before I come back.”

She laughed a bit more at that, and his heart was gladdened by the sound. So much fear still gripped him. The journey ahead was full of dangers, and once they reached the Eyrie, he had no clear plan as to how to free Sansa from Baelish. But if Catelyn could still laugh in his arms, he could still believe in their chance of success. He gathered every fur in the room to pile over his wife, snuffed both candles, and then lay back down beside her.

She fell asleep against him almost at once, and Ned knew she had been beyond exhausted. He was tired as well, but his mind ran through the task ahead of them repeatedly as he listened to Cat’s breathing and absently twirled her hair around his fingers. Finally, as he tried to calculate supplies for a trek through possible deep snow along parts of the High Road, exhaustion overwhelmed him, and Ned Stark fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Looking at the scowl on Addam Marbrand’s face as he strode quickly toward him through the hall at Darry, Jaime Lannister suspected his day was not about to get any better. He scowled himself and rose from his seat to meet him.

“What is it now?” he asked without preamble.

“Our scouts report a company of men riding this way from the direction of Riverrun. They come through the fields, not by the road, and don’t seem to be in too great a hurry.”

“Another bunch? How many this time?” Jaime asked. For the past two days, men had been arriving at Darry castle, claiming they had fought a battle at Riverrun. First they had trickled in by ones and twos, but more recently, ragged bands of as many as ten or so had sought refuge in the castle or with Jaime’s men encamped outside it. All told wild tales of the siege army at Riverrun being overtaken by northmen or outlaws or even ghosts. They couldn’t even agree from which direction the attack had come. Some said the north and others the south. Yet faced with the sheer numbers of men showing up, Jaime could not escape the fact that something had happened at Riverrun, and it likely wasn’t good.

“Not another bunch like these,” Marbrand said, scowling even more as he swept his arm about the hall, indicating the men who had been brought in and given food, thanks to Jaime’s cousin Lancel. The new Lord of Darry had bestirred himself from his sept just long enough to declare that loyal men of the king should not be sent away in need. He then retreated back to his prayers, leaving his Frey wife and her household staff the task of actually dealing with the needs.

“This new bunch isn’t hungry, then?” Jaime asked, looking at all the good food being consumed by the extra mouths while he kept his own men outside the walls rationing their own provisions.

“Jaime!” said Marbrand in frustration. “I said a company of men. A mounted company of close to one hundred men, riding leisurely our way.” He paused half a beat. “Flying Tully banners.”

That got Jaime‘s attention. “Tully banners? If the Blackfish did escape my cousin Daven’s grasp, surely he doesn’t think to attack me with a scarce hundred men?” Now Jaime paused, thinking of some of the better stories the craven men who had run away from battle had told him. “Or perhaps it’s a hundred ghosts. No doubt they are led by Eddard Stark, one arm holding his sword and the other holding his head.”

His friend snorted in derision. “No, these are men, all right. They make little secret of their presence and do not hurry. Likely, they are envoys of some sort. In any event, they shan’t be here before the morrow at the earliest. They were spotted by our furthest outriders, and word was sent to me in haste.”

“Damn it, Addam!” Jaime swore. “I’d give a lot to know what has really happened at Riverrun. I’ve half a mind to ride out and demand answers from this company of men.”

“Why don’t we? I can have as many men ready to ride as you wish within the hour.”

Jaime sighed. He would have undoubtedly done just that not long ago. Apparently losing a hand had taught him something of patience and prudence. Or has it only made you craven? whispered a voice in his head.

“Has it not occurred to you that drawing me out might be precisely what this company is sent to do?” he asked Addam. “We don’t know who they are, what they want, or how many other companies might be lurking where. I’ve spent a good bit of time in the dungeon at Riverrun, Addam, brought there mostly by own impatience. I’d not return given the choice, and if the Tullys have managed to somehow free themselves from Daven’s army and his horde of Freys, they’ve got a lot more than a hundred men stashed somewhere. What men? Where did they come from? Where are they now? I hesitate to take up arms against this little band of Tullys until I know what lies behind them.” Or do you hesitate to take up arms against Tullys because of your vow to dear, dead Lady Catelyn? came that mocking voice again in his head.

“There is sense in that,” Addam sighed. “Certainly, this one small flock of fish cannot threaten the castle or even our men outside. I suppose we let them ride up and tell us what they want.”

Jaime nodded, and then swore under his breath as he saw the Lady Amerei approaching with an aggrieved look on her face. He turned to go as if he had not seen her, but she called out to him.

“Ser Jaime!”

He sighed and turned to greet her. “Lady Amerei, how might I be of service to you?”

“Where on earth shall I quarter these men, ser? We’ve barely enough rooms in the castle as it is, and my lord husband insists they should not be put out.” She sounded rather put out, herself, Jaime thought, but he couldn’t really blame her.

“Let them sleep outside in the courtyard, my lady. You are not refusing them protection that way, and if they choose to leave rather than sleep cold, well you haven’t put them out. You simply aren’t holding them against their will.” He rather thought quite a few of these men would depart quickly if the hospitality became less generous. “You might consider rationing the food as well. Feeding them need not mean feasting them.” He looked again at men gorging themselves around the hall and shook his head.

“What if my lord husband objects?”

Thoroughly tired of Gatehouse Ami and her lord husband, Jaime answered shortly, “Tell him to pray about it.” He strode out of the hall with Addam in his wake.

Out in the courtyard, there were more men telling fantastic tales about the attack on Riverrun. Jaime overheard one young man with a definite Frey look about him regaling three other men with an account of a giant northman killing five and six men with each swipe of his sword as he rode through their camp. He walked over to him.

“Truly?” he said, looking him in the eye. “One northman cut through your camp, killing indiscriminately, with no opposition?”

“Oh no, ser!” the youth protested. “We tried to fight him, we did. But he wasn’t alone. All kinds of northmen came riding out of the woods, yelling and swinging swords.”

“Truly? You are a Frey, aren’t you, boy?”

“I’m one of Ser Stevron’s grandsons,” the young man replied. “My mother was his daughter.”

“Then perhaps you can tell me what lies between the north and those woods above Riverrun,” Jaime said.

“Lies between? Oh, you mean the Green Fork and the Twins.”

“Precisely. And just how would northmen get past the Twins to attack you at Riverrun?”

The boy paused then, unable to come up with an answer.

“That’s right,” Jaime said. “They couldn’t, unless your great-grandfather issued them an invitation. And there are no northmen anyway. Between your great-grandfather and the Greyjoys, all the strength of the northern houses is gone. Their pitiful remnants are left to follow after Bolton and hope to survive the winter. Whoever chased you from Riverrun, it wasn’t northmen.”

He turned to walk away and the boy called after him. “But I heard what one man yelled, Ser Jaime! He yelled Winterfell!”

Jaime kept walking. Even if a small group of renegade northmen had stayed in the riverlands building support for an assault at Riverrun, there couldn’t have been any Winterfell men among them. Bitterly, he thought again of that vow he’d been forced to make to Catelyn Stark. He may have no choice but to fight the Tullys now, but the other half of his vow should be easy enough to keep. He couldn’t very well take up arms against Starks when there were no bloody Starks left.

He could see the sept as he and Addam walked on, and he thought of his cousin Lancel lying on the floor and praying for absolution for lying with his queen. The thought of it made him sick. Lancel had confessed to Jaime his great sin just before the first men arrived from Riverrun. While he needed to think about how to respond to the Riverrun situation, his mind kept giving him images of Lancel, his skinny arse pumping up and down between Cersei’s thighs before he pulled his little cock out of her cunt to spill himself on her belly. She’s been fucking Lancel, Osmund Kettleblack, and Moonboy, for all I know.

“Gods!” he suddenly exploded, and Addam Marbrand jumped beside him. “I cannot stay here, Addam. Let’s go for a ride.”

“A ride? But you said . . .”

“Not out to meet the Tully party. And not with any men. Let’s go up toward the Crossroads, just the two of us. We can stop at that inn and see what information can be found there.”

“Are you daft?” Addam asked him. “You just explained how foolish riding out with men would be, and now you want to ride out alone?”

“Not alone. You’ll be there.” Jaime looked at his friend. “I cannot stay here another minute. I am sick to death of my my cousin the sniveling septon and his wife the Frey whore. I am sick of these men who ran from Riverrun so quickly they cannot even say who battled there. I need to think, Addam, and I cannot do it here.”

Addam sighed heavily. “Don’t wear that gold hand. If we do this, we do not go as ourselves.”

Jaime nodded eagerly. “Our men can hold their camp without the two of us. I’m no good as a swordhand now anyway. I’m just a pretty target.”

“You’re more than that and you know it. What if the Tully envoy arrives here while we’re still gone?” Addam said. “They’ll expect to treat with you.”

“Let them treat with Lancel,” Jaime snorted. “It’s his castle.”

Addam shook his head. “All right, Jaime, but we’re bringing Ilyn Payne along. Forgetting all about Tullys and mythical northmen, there are outlaws all along the Kingsroad here. Another sword would be welcome.”

Jaime grinned at him. “And I do so enjoy his conversation.”

Addam then went to see to his men and find Payne, and Jaime went to put on something a bit less conspicuous than his white Kingsguard cloak, first stopping to speak with a couple of his own men. He knew this was madness. He admitted to himself that looking for information was a feeble excuse, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t stay in this castle one more minute. In the past, when he felt this restless, he would either find someone to fight or his sister to fuck. But he couldn’t very well go out killing people with one hand, and as for Cersei . . .Lancel, Osmund Kettleblack, and Moonboy, for all I know.

Cursing again, he called for his squire, Peck, and told him to have Honor saddled. At least he could still ride a horse.

 

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Catelyn’s horse was blowing hard as she slowed him to a walk. Ned had set a hard pace for their company since leaving the camp at the Red Fork, pushing the horses and the men as they rode quickly and camped for sleep only briefly on their journey eastward along the River Road. She hadn’t minded the haste. Every night they spent on the road was one more night Sansa spent without them in the Eyrie with Petyr Baelish. That thought filled her with dread, but she hardened it into resolve. They would get Sansa back.

Ned had been at the head of their column with Lord Reed. Having signaled for the horses to slow and rest a bit, he turned his mount back to where Catelyn rode by Mya Stone. “We have made good time, my lady!” he called to her as he approached. “We shall make the crossroads before sunset today.”

“Good, my lord. We shall seek this Gendry at the inn, then?” she asked him.

“Yes.” He paused. “I think it best we don’t take the whole company there, though. Harwin told me the inn is filled mostly with children. Orphans. I’d rather them not fear they are under attack. Perhaps, just us with Howland and Donnell.” He looked at the young woman from the Vale. “And you, too, if you would, Mya? You’ve met the boy Gendry, right?”

“Yes, my lord,” Mya replied. “I have met him. He and Lemoncloak found me in Saltpans and brought me to Lord Beric.” There was something in the girl’s tone that made Catelyn feel she had more to say about Gendry.

“Good, then,” Ned said. To Catelyn, he added, “You are well, my lady? We shall walk the horses at an easy pace for a bit, but should you need to stop . . .”

“I am quite well, my lord,” she told him. “I have no wish to stop. And when you feel the horses sufficiently recovered, I am prepared to ride as fast as you like.”

He didn’t smile, but Catelyn could see the pleasure he took in her response light his eyes. She smiled at him, and he turned to go back to the front of the column.

“What do you want with Gendry?” Mya asked her.

Noting that she had entirely omitted her usual polite “my lady” from her question, Catelyn felt even more strongly that the girl knew something about the boy Harwin had confirmed came to the Brotherhood with Arya.

“He traveled with my daughter,” Catelyn said briefly, watching the girl for a reaction. “Not Sansa, but my younger daughter, Arya. We believe he came from King’s Landing with her. And he kept searching for her after she disappeared with Sandor Clegane.” Disappeared. Catelyn hated even saying it. “We hope to speak with him and learn whatever he can tell us of her.”

Mya barely reacted to her talk of Arya. She simply nodded while looking down at her horse’s head and said vaguely, “Yes, he did say he comes from King’s Landing.” After a moment, she looked up at Catelyn and asked, “Is it true, my lady? What Lord Stark told me about the king?”

Catelyn regarded her closely. “My lord husband rarely lies, child,” she replied, and realized with a pang that once she would have said “never” in place of “rarely.” “If you mean to ask me if Robert Baratheon was truly your father, the answer is yes. Lord Stark was fostered with King Robert at the Eyrie when they were boys and young men. He remembers your mother well, and told me that Robert would take him to visit you often when you were first born.”

“He seems to have gotten over any need to visit quickly enough,” Mya said. “I have no memory of him.”

Catelyn sighed. “Robert Baratheon was a man of . . .great appetites, and short attention, I fear. You were his first child, Mya. That fascinated him for a time. I doubt that those who came after you held his attention even through infancy.” She smiled at the girl sadly.

“So there are others?” Mya asked.

“I fear there are quite a few. As I said, Robert was not one to deny his appetites.” The girl was silent and seemed troubled, so Catelyn sought to turn the conversation away from the myriad bastards of Robert Baratheon. “You said Gendry and Lemon something found you in Saltpans?” she asked. “How did that come about?”

Mya laughed. “Lemoncloak,” she said. “Lem. I was trying to decide if there was anyone I could tell about the girl in the Eyrie, the Lady Sansa, I mean, and I was just walking by the docks when someone started yelling at me. It was Lem. Only, he was calling me Bella, and he kept asking what I’d done to my hair and how I’d got so far from the Peach. Then he walked right up and grabbed me . . .well, where you shouldn’t grab a girl, my lady.” She looked down briefly. “Apparently this Bella is a whore.” She looked up at Catelyn again and said fiercely, “I may be a bastard, but I’m no man’s whore.”

“No, child,” Catelyn said softly. “You are not.”

“Anyway,” Mya continued, “When I slapped him, he looked me right in the face and realized he’d grabbed the wrong girl. He started apologizing, and then Gendry came up, and started laughing at him, saying I should have hit him harder.” She shook her head, smiling at the memory. “He’s really just a boy, Gendry, for all he acts like he’s grown.” She shrugged slightly. “So Gendry said the least they could do to make up for Lem’s bad behavior was feed me, and I ended up telling them about the gir . . . I mean, Lady Sansa . . . and Gendry said I had to come with them to see Lord Beric. He was pretty insistent, really.”

“He was?”

“He kept saying she could be the sister, and Lord Beric would want to help her if she was. I didn’t know what he was talking about then, of course., but I didn’t have any other real plans, so I came along. Besides, Gendry looks so much . . .” she stopped herself from speaking.

“So much what, Mya?”

“Oh, I think you’ll see, my lady. I think you’ll see it right away.”

On that enigmatic note, Mya refused to speak further, and Catelyn had little chance to ask her more because just then Ned gave the signal to speed the horses once more.

 

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Ned Stark looked at the sky and calculated that they still had at least an hour before sunset as they drew near to the crossroads. They had passed a few more travelers going in either direction along the River Road during the past couple hours, and he had drawn up the hood of his cloak, instructing Catelyn to do the same. Within an easy ride of the inn, they found a good place to make camp, and Ned assigned two of his Winterfell men to take charge of the others. Then he, Catelyn, Howland Reed, Donnell Boden, and Mya Stone rode for the inn.

As they approached the yard, Ned noticed a great number of children on the large porch of the three story inn and others running about through the mud. Several of those on the porch were armed with crossbows, and he noted to his dismay that the youngest bowman appeared to be no more than six or seven. He could hear the sound of adult male laughter coming from inside, so apparently the inn had some custom on this evening. He also heard the clang of metal from the direction of a forge which was positioned behind the thatched roof stable.

“You lookin’ for rooms? Or trouble?” the smallest bowman called out as they rode up.

It had been agreed that Donnell would speak for them initially, as he was the least recognizable man among them, and he called up to the boy. “We certainly want no trouble, my boy. We would like a meal if you’ve got one, and perhaps beds for the night.”

The boy didn’t lower his crossbow. A little girl beside him said, “Aw, go on with you. They’re not robbers. They got two ladies with ‘em. I’ll go get Willow.”

The little girl disappeared into the inn and returned in a moment with another slightly older girl, perhaps about Arya‘s age. “You got silver?” she said without introduction.

“Are you the innkeep?” asked Donnell with some amusement evident in his voice.

“No, my sister is. But she’s not here right now. If you got silver you can stay. There’s horsemeat if you’re hungry, but nothing else . The men coming through from Riverrun took all the rest. I got a little ale left, though.”

Donnell nodded. “That’ll do, lass. Why don’t I come in with you and settle for rooms while my companions put up our horses?”

She looked at him a moment, and nodded. Donnell dismounted, handing his reins to Ned and walked up onto the porch to follow the girl inside. Good. He can find out how many men there are inside.

Ned turned his mount toward the stable, leading Donnell’s along beside him and the other three followed. The sound of the hammer from the forge grew louder as they approached the stable.

“I wouldn’t have imagined they’d have a smith here after all that’s happened,” Ned mused out loud.

“Oh,” said Mya. “That’s Gendry. He was a smith’s apprentice in King’s Landing, and he helps out here at the inn whenever he can. Smiths for the Brotherhood here, too.”

Gendry? That Gendry? Was it possible? Ned recalled Robert’s bastard in King’s Landing, the boy with the inky mop of hair and sullen blue eyes. He had hoped to keep him far from Cersei’s reach. Had he come here?

“Mya,” he said. “Go to the forge and ask Gendry if he’ll come speak with us. He knows you, and may be more inclined to listen to you than a pack of strangers showing up at his forge.

“I’ll go with her, my lord,” Catelyn said quickly, already dismounting from her horse.

Ned looked at his wife quizzically, but she offered no explanation. He was loathe to let her out of his sight, but the forge was directly behind the stable, and she was unlikely to come to harm, so he simply nodded. “As you wish, my lady. I’ll take your horse.” He dismounted from his own horse as he now had three to deal with, and Howland took Mya’s.

Ned stood in the yard watching the women until they disappeared into the forge. He heard Mya call out a greeting and then heard a brief burst of male laughter as the sound of the hammer ceased.

“Neither of them is screaming, my lord,” Reed said with some amusement. “I think we should take the horses in.”

As they led the beasts through the stable in search of empty stalls, Ned saw three horses of questionable health in the first three, but then noted three horses of unquestionable quality in the next, especially a blood bay palfrey. Ned wondered who might be at the inn who rode such fine animals.

He and Reed had just about finished removing all the tack from their five horses when he heard the sound of a man entering the stables. Standing well back in a stall, Ned could not see the man, but it sounded as if he had stopped beside one of the quality mounts. Curious, Ned stepped out to see who the man might be. No one was visible outside any of the stalls, so he walked along to peer into them. In the second one he passed, he saw a man bending over to pour water for the animal.

“Good evening,” he said.

The man stood to face him, and Ned Stark went cold. “You!” he hissed, and his hand went to his sword hilt.

The other man’s face registered surprise and then what appeared to be amusement. He, too, wore a sword which he pulled at once with a nasty grin.

Ned had his own sword out in time to meet the man’s first thrust, but was hampered by his bad leg in trying to gain an advantage. Fortunately, the small space within the stall limited his opponent’s movements almost as much as the leg limited him, so Ned was able to hold his own.

The sound of the swords clashing brought Howland Reed to his side within moments, and very shortly, the two men together had disarmed Ned’s attacker and had him backed against the wall.

“Who are you?” demanded Howland Reed. “How dare you draw steel against Lord Stark unprovoked?” He was met with silence. “Answer me!” he shouted at the man.

“He can’t,” Ned said simply, as he slowly lowered his sword and stared at the grim pox-scarred face of Ilyn Payne. “He hasn’t a tongue.”

 

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The boy at the forge looked up at Mya’s greeting, and a grin split his face. He was just a boy, Catelyn realized, in spite of the dark stubble on his cheeks and chin, likely not much older than Sansa. His hair was a black mop, and his eyes . . .oh, gods! She saw it, all right. A younger version of Renly Baratheon was laughing and walking toward Mya. No, she thought. Not Renly. Renly had been a slender young man. She barely remembered the young, muscular man her husband’s best friend had been when she first met him; that image having been obscured by the fat king who had come to Winterfell to take her family away. But this broad shouldered smith’s apprentice was the image of the younger Robert Baratheon, already tall and muscular, with large hands which spoke of greater height yet to come.

As she stared at the boy, she suddenly realized that he was staring back at her, and that he had spoken.

“Milady?” he repeated. “You are her mother aren’t you?”

Confused for a moment, Catelyn thought he asked if she were Mya’s mother, but then realized he spoke of Arya. She nodded. “I am Catelyn Stark,” she said. “I understand you were with my daughter, Arya. My lord husband and I would very much like to speak with you.”

The boy looked at her as if she were a ghost. She supposed she should be getting used to that. “So it is true, milady? You and the Hand both still live? How can that be?” the boy stammered.

She sighed. “It is a long tale, young Gendry, and we have ridden long and hard for days. Let us go into the inn and we shall give you our tale for yours.”

He started to nod, but then an expression of horror came over his face. “Oh no, milady! You cannot go into the inn! Where is Lord Stark? Is he with you?”

Startled by the boy’s sudden distress, Catelyn answered his questions before asking her own. “Yes, he and his man are in the stable tending to our horses. But why can’t we go into the inn?”

The boy was already pushing past her toward the exit as she asked it, so she reached out and grabbed his arm. “Why can’t we go into the inn, Gendry?” she repeated.

He looked as if he wished nothing more than to shake her hand off him, but some ingrained courtesy restrained him even as desperation showed in his Baratheon blue eyes. “Because he is in there, milady!” he spit out. “And I don’t know what he . . .”

“Who, Gendry?” Catelyn asked him. “Who is in the inn?”

“The bloody Kingslayer!” the boy yelled.

Catelyn dropped her hand from his arm and felt her entire body turn to ice. Jaime Lannister sends his regards. She was back there. Roose Bolton’s voice went through her heart just as his sword went through her son’s. Vaguely, she realized that somewhere, Gendry was still speaking.

“ . . never seen him up close, but I think it’s him. I’ve got to get to Lord Stark.” He turned and left the forge.

Catelyn made no move to stop him. Jaime Lannister sends his regards. The ice around her heart began to steam and then boil. She felt herself walking from the forge herself, not in the direction of the stables, but toward the inn. Soon she was running, grateful for the riding breeches beneath her long cloak in place of a skirt which would have slowed her pace. He was in there. He would answer to her now.

From somewhere behind her, she heard Mya call out, “My lady! Stop! Wait!”

But Catelyn wouldn’t wait. And she couldn’t stop. She did, however, pause on the porch of the inn long enough to draw the hood of her cloak back up around her face. Jaime Lannister sends his regards. With icy hate and burning fury gripping her heart in equal measures, Catelyn Stark stepped inside the inn.

 

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The girl could call it ale if she wanted. It tasted like horse piss. Jaime slammed his tankard down on the table. “Damn!” he exclaimed.

Addam Marbrand and Ilyn Payne both looked at him. “If you can’t come up with any better conversation than that, I’m going to listen exclusively to Payne, here,” Addam told him.

Jaime sighed. “I am wondering what possessed me to come here, and what possessed you to let me.”

Addam raised an eyebrow at him.

“All right,” Jaime conceded. “I wasn’t in a mood to be told no, I admit.” He looked around the common room and took note of the three poorly dressed men drinking at one other table, the man who had just followed the girl Willow in and now stood at the bar discussing something with her, and the myriad children at other tables and sitting in corners. “Why I thought I might find answers to the mystery of Riverrun here is beyond me.”

“Perhaps you merely needed good food and entertainment,” said Marbrand, with some amusement.

“Ah yes, horse meat and horse piss,” Jaime proclaimed, lifting his tankard to take another swig. He thought of the good food and drink at Darry being devoured by the men fleeing Riverrun and shook his head. “And no whores,” he added with a laugh. “My brother would have left immediately upon the little girl telling him that.” The thought of Tyrion made him scowl, as he wondered where his brother had fled, and whether he had told him the truth in that dark cell. She’s been fucking Lancel, Osmund Kettleblack, and Moonboy, too, for all I know. He’d told the truth about Lancel, at any rate. Jaime had the truth of that from the wretched boy’s own mouth.

“If it’s whores you want, I’ll wager you can find any number of women who’d play the role for you back at Darry,” Addam Marbrand smirked at him.

Jaime laughed. “No doubt. Starting with my cousin’s sweet bride. Although like as not, I’d have to kick Lyle Crakehall out of her bed first!” He took another drink. The horse piss became less offensive with each swig, and this was his third tankard. “Well, it’s late enough that we’re here til morning, so why don’t you go make sure the horses are well bedded down for the night, Payne, and we’ll get rooms. Perhaps we can talk to that man at the bar as well. He looks somewhat less useless than the other three.”

Payne looked at him for a moment, but then rose silently and went out the front door without so much as a nod.

“Well I suppose he’s going to tend the horses. Hard to tell what that man thinks, isn’t it?” Addam asked, after Payne had left.

“I don’t care what he thinks. I am only grateful that I don’t have to listen to it, whatever it is.” Jaime sighed. “Ah, Addam, I know it was a rash thing to come here, but I could not stay there and listen to any more foolishness.” He looked at the man he had known since boyhood, the closest thing a kingslayer and sisterfucker could have to a true friend and confidant, even if he could never could share his most important confidences. “I fear we are in trouble, my friend. If Riverrun is truly back under Tully control, then Daven’s force must be destroyed--most of them killed or hostage, and gods only know what’s happened to all those Freys. My sister has made one ill move after another--that small council of hers is laughable. My Uncle Kevan should be the Hand. And now Lancel tells me she’s allowing the Faith to arm itself.”

“What?”

“Yes. The Warrior’s Sons are back, and my fool of a cousin means to cast aside his castle and his wife and go to join them.”

“An armed church could cause no end of trouble for the throne,” Addam said. “History is full of . .”

“History is full of lessons which have been ignored by many men wiser than my sister,” Jaime interrupted. He drained the last of the ale in his tankard and raised it high. “Girl!” he called. “Willow! More ale, if you would!”

Both the girl and the man she was speaking with turned to look at him. The girl nodded and said something to a smaller girl standing beside her who scurried off into another room, presumably in search of more ale.

Turning back to Addam, Jaime sighed again. “If the siege at Riverrun is well and truly broken, I fear the most prudent course may be to pull back and strengthen what lands we do hold. Let the accursed Freys fend for themselves.”

He didn’t hear Addam’s reply because the door opened then, and a woman in a long dark cloak and hood entered the inn. She stopped inside the doorway and looked slowly around the room. Her face was shaded by her hood in the dim light of the common room, but he had no doubt that her gaze stopped on him.

She strode directly toward him, and as she moved through the light of the lantern by his table, he gasped and got to his feet. She stopped just in front of him, blue eyes blazing at him, and struck him hard across the face.

“That,” she said, in a clear, cold voice, “is for my son.”

Jaime stood as if transfixed, his left cheek stinging and his left eye watering profusely. Before he could recover, she swung at him again. Now he did move by reflex, raising his right hand to grab her arm. But he had no right hand, and her second slap landed as well.

“Damn you to all seven hells, Kingslayer,” she said as she struck.

Now Addam Marbrand was on his feet. He grabbed her around the waist from behind, pinning her arms and pulling her backwards. As she stumbled back against Marbrand, the hood slipped from her head, revealing the bright auburn hair of Lady Catelyn Stark.

Her eyes blazed hatred at him as she struggled against Addam’s grasp, and Jaime noted several long, red scars marring the white of her cheeks. He raised his left hand to rub his own left cheek, and said calmly, “You hit very hard for a dead woman, Lady Stark.”

Some commotion occurred at the door, and Jaime looked up to see several people rushing in. The man at the bar suddenly lunged at him, and Jaime turned to defend himself with his wretched left hand. As soon as he turned his back toward the men at the door, however, he felt the cold steel of a knife at his throat and a strong arm wrapped around him from behind.

“Unhand my lady wife, Marbrand,” said the coldest voice Jaime could ever remember hearing, “or Lannister is a dead man.”

 

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Ned Stark regarded the man bound hand and foot in the chair before him.

After Marbrand had reluctantly released Catelyn, Donnell had relieved him of his sword, and Howland had taken Lannister’s while Ned continued to hold him at knifepoint. Then, as Gendry and the six year old crossbowman carefully stood guard, they tied up both men and put them in separate rooms on the top floor of the inn. Howland Reed went to collect Ilyn Payne who was trussed up in the stable.

The three unfortunate men who had witnessed the commotion had begged leave to go, but Ned could not afford to have this tale spread while they were so unprotected. He had ordered Donnell to ride out and bring the rest of their men to the inn, and then told the hapless three that they could leave in the morning. They grumbled considerably less when he added that he would pay them for their trouble.

Now he stood staring down at Jaime Lannister and wondering what he was going to do with him. Catelyn sat silently in a chair by the door of the room, staring at Lannister as well. Looking at her expression, Ned silently thanked the gods she had not had a knife on her, for she certainly would have stabbed the man rather than slapping him, and then Marbrand would have drawn his own steel on her before Ned had a chance to intervene.

“Why don’t you just kill me, Stark?” Lannister said. “Or give your sword to your lady wife, there. She doesn’t look like she’d hesitate to do it.”

“She has cause,” Ned said coldly.

“The brat?” Jaime asked flippantly. “She said the slap was for her son, but when I first confessed to flinging the boy from a tower, she set me free for it. I wish she’d make up her mind.”

“You foul monster,” Catelyn hissed from her chair. “You know I didn’t mean Bran.”

“As I haven’t injured any other sons of yours, my lady, I cannot imagine what else you mean.” He then looked back to Ned. “Unless she is simply angry that I didn’t service her properly when she came to see me in my lovely cell at Riverrun. I did offer to fuck . .”

Ned’s fist slammed into Lannister’s face before he could say another word, and the man and chair both fell backward onto the floor. “You will shut your evil mouth, Lannister!” he shouted, struggling to control the rage inside him.

Lying on the floor, still bound to the chair, Jaime Lannister turned his head to the side and spit blood from between his split lips. “You two are the most violent pair of corpses I’ve ever encountered,” he said, before spitting again.

Not trusting himself to touch the man without throttling him, Ned went to the door where Gendry stood guard outside, and asked the boy to come in and help him get the Kingslayer and his chair righted again. When Gendry went back out, closing the door behind him, Ned sat down across from Lannister.

“I am going to ask you questions, and you are going to answer them,” he said.

“Am I?” Lannister responded. “Perhaps we can play the game I played with your wife at Riverrun.”

Ned was halfway out of his chair to punch the man’s lying, filthy mouth again when he felt Catelyn’s hand on his arm. “Truth for truth,” she said softly. Her eyes still regarded the man across from them coldly, but she seemed to be more in control of her anger now than he was. “In the dungeon at Riverrun, I offered to answer his questions truthfully in exchange for answers to mine.”

Ned looked carefully at his prisoner. He needed to know things. He needed to know as much as Lannister could tell him. “I can agree to that up to a point. You have my word of honor that I will not lie. But I do not promise to answer everything you ask.”

Lannister grinned at him. “Well, I’ll give you the same bargain then. Although, according to your lady wife, I have shit for honor.” He paused a minute. “I’ll go first. How are you not dead, Lord Stark?”

“I was removed from the Black Cells below the Red Keep, and another was killed in my place.”

“Removed how? No one can escape from the Black Cells.”

Ned saw something in Lannister’s eyes when he said that, although he wasn’t sure exactly what it was. “Why don’t you ask your brother about that?” he said carefully. “I understand he escaped them as well.”

Again, there was a flash of something in the man’s eyes. Anger? Guilt? Ned couldn’t be sure. “Where did you go when you left Riverrun?” he asked.

“Why, to King’s Landing, of course. That is where Lady Stark instructed I be taken, and that bloody, big wench of hers was determined to get me there.”

“Brienne!” cried Catelyn. “What did you do to her?”

“Nothing,” Jaime said. “The wench still has both her hands, my lady. I am the only one who was maimed on our journey.”

“By whom?” Catelyn asked.

“My, my. That’s what . . .three questions? It is my turn.” He turned to Ned. “Does my cousin Daven live?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, I require a little more detail than that, Lord Stark,” Jaime persisted.

“He is held hostage by Lord Edmure Tully at Riverrun. He is not harmed,” Ned said flatly. “I am tired of this game, Kingslayer. I would have you tell me what occurred after you and Lady Brienne of Tarth left Riverrun, and why you broke every vow you made to my wife.”

“Broke every vow? When did I do this? I admit I could not get your daughters exchanged for myself, but that is hardly my fault. By the time the wench and I reached King’s Landing, my father had taken Tyrion’s place as Hand and forced him to marry your little red-headed girl. As for the other girl, no one in King’s Landing even knows where she is. And while I may have been on my way to Riverrun, I certainly haven’t taken up arms against any Starks or Tullys yet.” He looked at Ned and Catelyn in turn. “Not even dead ones who hit me.”

That was all Ned could stand. He couldn’t look at the man’s lying face or listen to his japing words for another moment. He stood and walked up to Lannister until he stood right over him. He could feel himself shaking. He looked down at the bound man and growled, “How dare you sit there and say such things after you sent Roose Bolton to murder my son?”

Lannister’s mocking expression was replaced by confusion. “Murder? Bolton? What are you talking about, Lord Stark? I thought your wolf pup was murdered by the Freys at that abominable wedding.”

Ned heard Catelyn rise behind him and she came to stand over Lannister as well. “Jaime Lannister sends his regards,” she whispered. Then she repeated it more loudly right into Lannister’s face. “Jaime Lannister sends his regards! That is what Roose Bolton said when he put his sword through my son’s heart!” She was shaking now and her eyes had that terrified look they got when Ned knew she was back in that hall at the Twins.

Momentarily forgetting Lannister, he put his arms around Catelyn, gently pulling her back away from the man, as she continued to stare accusingly at him and yet stare right through him at the same time.

“Is she mad?” Lannister asked suddenly, and that caused Catelyn to scream with rage.

Ned held her more tightly as she tried to fling herself at Lannister, and she shouted, “I am not mad! I was there! I saw it happen! You sent Roose Bolton to murder my son!”

“I did no such thing!” Lannister shouted. “I didn’t even know what happened at that damned wedding until we reached Brindlewood! Ser Bertram Beesbury told us you and your son were dead, and that big wench of yours like to died from hearing of it. I practically had to drag her into King’s Landing after that!”

Ned’s attention was focused mostly on Catelyn, but he thought he heard truth in the man’s words. Could she have been wrong? “Catelyn . . . Cat,” he whispered desperately in her ear. “Please, my love, let’s listen. Stay with me. Look at me.”

She did look at him then, fear and pain still foremost in those blue eyes he loved so much, but she was listening. He could see her trying to concentrate on his words. “We need to hear what he says,” he told her softly. “I don’t understand it, but there may be more to this than we know.”

She nodded mutely, and he slowly let go of her. She remained standing where she was.

Turning back toward Jaime, Ned asked him, “If you did not send Bolton, why would he speak of you when he killed my son?”

“I have no idea,” Jaime said. “I will not deny my father’s fingerprints were all over that wedding. And since that time, Bolton has certainly become my father’s creature---Warden of the North and all. Are you certain he did not mention my father rather than me, my lady?”

Catelyn took only the tiniest step toward the man, but Ned laid his hand lightly on her arm to be sure. Looking Lannister directly in the eyes, she whispered once more through clenched teeth, “Jaime Lannister sends his regards. That is what he said, Kingslayer. I heard it then, and now I hear it every night in my dreams.”

Lannister was silent for a moment, and then he said, “Oh,” so softly that Ned might have missed it, but for the movement of his mouth.

“What?” Ned asked him.

“Your lady wife asked earlier how I lost my hand, Lord Stark,” Jaime told him. “My cousin Cleos was killed, and then a group of mercenaries known as the Brave Companions fell upon the wench and myself. They were led by a man called Vargo Hoat. They were pets of my fathers, but had changed hands along with Harrenhall and now belonged to Roose Bolton. Vargo Hoat took my hand and then took the wench and me to Bolton.” He paused.

“Go on,” Ned told him.

“Bolton kept us there at Harrenhall until he decided what to do with us. Aenys Fry was with him and they told us about Robb Stark marrying the Westerling girl, and that Edmure Tully was to marry some Frey girl for penance. Ser Aenys left for the wedding while I was there. Bolton finally decided to send me on to my father, but give Brienne to Hoat. He left for the wedding when I left for King’s Landing, and he told me to give his regards to Tywin Lannister.” Jaime looked directly at Catelyn then. “So I told him to give my regards to Robb Stark.”

Ned looked at Lannister and then at his wife. The two of them stared at each other silently for a moment. Then Lannister said quietly, “I would have gladly killed your son in battle, my lady. Gods know I tried hard enough in the Whispering Wood. But I had no hand in that wedding.”

Catelyn remained silent another moment before asking him, “What happened to Brienne? Tell me.”

“I went back for her. Hoat tried to make her fight a bear with nothing but a tourney sword. Damn wench was holding her own, too. We got out of Harrenhall. We went to King’s Landing. I don’t know where she is now. She’s off still trying to fulfill her oath to you.”

“What?” Catelyn asked, her eyes opening wide.

“She’s looking for your daughters,” Lannister sighed. “Stupid wench swore she would find and protect them for you, even after you were dead.”

Catelyn sat back down, exhausted, and Ned looked at Lannister. “That’s enough for now. I hear horses in the yard. That’ll be my men. I’ll have some food sent up for you.”

“No horsemeat, please,” Lannister said.

Ned didn’t reply to that. “You will be well guarded all night, Lannister. If you make any move to escape, my men will have instructions to kill you without hesitation. Tomorrow, we leave here.”

“Where are we going?” Jaime Lannister asked.

“You will be taken to Riverrun,” Ned replied, his heart sinking as he said it. “Edmure’s dungeons are rather full, but I know he’ll make room for you.”

He took Catelyn’s arm and led her out of the room, sending Gendry inside to watch Lannister. Once they were alone in the hall, she looked at him. “We can’t go back, Ned! Sansa! We can’t go all the way back to Riverrun and then start again. We’ll lose days and days!”

“I know, my love. But what can I do with the bloody man? Drag him with us to the Eyrie? Split our company and take greater chance of his escaping or our being overcome by brigands on the High Road? I don’t know what to do.” Ned looked at his wife and wondered if his desperation and indecision showed as clearly to her as he feared it must.

Apparently, it did, for she took his face in her hands then and said, “Go down to the men, Ned. Set up whatever guard we need to secure Lannister and his two men and then come to bed.”

“Bed, my lady?”

“Bed,” she said firmly. “No staying up all night thinking and planning and worrying, my lord. We have to go get Sansa. We have to do something the Kingslayer and his friends. Those things will still be true tomorrow, and you can worry about them after a full night’s rest in an actual bed--the first in many nights, my love.”

Ned shook his head. “It won’t work, Cat. I shan’t be able to sleep in any event.”

She actually smiled at him then, and moved her hands from his face back through his hair. “I think perhaps I could help you with that, my lord.”

Now he was shocked. With everything they had been through today and the impossible dilemma facing them on the morrow, was she actually suggesting what he thought whe was? “My lady?” he stammered.

She quit running her fingers through his hair, and took both his hands in hers. “I asked you to hold on to me, Ned,” she said quietly. “And you did. Just now, in there . . . You held on to me and wouldn’t let me go.” She took a deep breath and then continued. “Now, let me hold on to you, my love. You have been doing so much, facing impossible tasks again and again. So please just let me hold on to you tonight. Just for a bit, put it all aside, and let me kiss you to sleep. The morrow will be here soon enough.”

She kissed him then, a long, sweet kiss that made him consider that her plan had merit. He couldn’t just forget all of it, though. As they broke apart, he asked her, “Do you believe him? The Kingslayer? Do you think he told us the truth?”

She sighed. “I don’t know. If I knew for certain that he lied, I’d suggest that killing him here would solve our dilemma nicely. But I don’t know.”

“Neither do I,” he frowned. He started to say something else, but she pressed her lips against his once more, and he found that he couldn’t remember what he had wanted to say. He only wanted her. He was tired, worried, and unsure he could find a solution to their current situation; but she was right. He wanted to be held safe in her arms.

When they broke apart this time, he said only, “I’ll go see to the men and come to bed.”

She took his arm. “I’ll come with you, my lord, lest you forget your way.”

The moon was nearly full and illuminated the place where the Kingsroad met the River and High Roads. Ned looked at the intersecting roads as they entered the yard and thought that they certainly had come to a crossroad. He felt the gentle pressure of Catelyn’s hand on his arm and reassured himself that as long as they held each other, they would be able to find their way.

Chapter Text

Catelyn Stark sipped cautiously from the cup in her hands and made a face at the bitter taste. The gods only knew what the girl had put into this brew she called tea, but at least it was warm and wet, and the taste certainly would help her be fully awake. Pale sunlight came through the windows of the common room as she carried her cup to the table where Ned sat with Howland Reed, Donnell Boden and the boy Gendry. Mya was nowhere to be seen.

Ned looked up at her as she approached and moved on his bench to make a place for her beside him. “Join us, my lady,” he said courteously.

She looked at him and saw the deep lines of worry creasing his face. He looked tired, but not so much as he had been last night. She did not know when he had left the bed they shared this morning, but at least she knew he had slept. She had kissed him and held him, and taken him inside her until he cried out softly, and afterward she had held him in her arms, softly stroking his hair and his back until she knew he slept. Only then had she closed her own eyes to wake alone in the pale dawn light.

The common room was full of children, and the girl, Willow, was giving them bread from the supplies Ned’s men had brought. So many children with no parents, Catelyn thought sadly. It caused her to think longingly of her own daughters who had no parents close to them to protect them either, and her heart ached in her chest.

“What decisions have been made this morning, my lord?” she asked Ned, fearing that no answers could ease the ache in her heart. She had given him the night, but she could not see any clearer answers for them this morning.

“I have been to see Lannister again this morning,” Ned said shortly. “He repeated much of what he told us last night, and said some little more. Lord Reed has questioned Marbrand and it seems their tales match well enough, not that Marbrand was willing to speak more than a word or two.”

“Shouldn’t my uncle be at Darry by now?” Catelyn inquired.

“I would think so, my lady,” Donnell Boden answered that question. “He should be very close at any rate, although apparently he had not arrived when these men left.”

“Why would they have come here?” Catelyn asked. “There are only the three? The men have found no others?”

“None at all, my lady,” said Boden. He shook his head. “I cannot think why they are here.”

Ned looked at her. “We will go over all of these things presently, my lady. But I had just asked Gendry to join us to speak of Arya, while we have the chance.”

Catelyn’s heart jumped. She looked at Ned and nodded. “Yes, please let’s do that,” she whispered.

Ned turned to the boy who looked rather uncomfortable with the four pairs of eyes on him. “Go on, lad. Tell us your tale.”

Gendry cleared his throat, and started by telling them how he had been taken from Tobho Mott’s shop to go with a man called Yoren of the Night’s Watch. He went on to tell them of a scrawny little boy called Arry whom Yoren had brought to the group just before they started up the Kingsroad. He told them of the gold cloaks pursuing them and how Yoren had taken them off the road to avoid further pursuit. Catelyn noted how his voice almost broke when he spoke of the abandoned holdfast where they were attacked by Ser Amory Lorch.

“Arry fought, milord. I mean, the Lady Arya. She was yelling Winterfell, which didn’t make any sense to me at the time, but she fought like the boy we all thought she was then. Then everyone was dying and buildings were burning and we had to get out. There was a tunnel in the barn and Yoren told us to go out that way. Me and Arry got Lem and Hot Pie and Weasel. But those three chained to the wagon were yelling at us.” Gendry’s eyes looked at something none of the rest of them could see, and Catelyn shivered, recognizing that he was back in that holdfast. “I told him, I mean her, to leave them, but she went back and got them the axe. Then she got out after the rest of us.”

“What three?” Ned asked.

“There were three going to the Wall that Yoren kept chained, milord. They were called Rorge and Biter and I don’t remember the other name. He was an eastern fellow, always talking at Arry. We didn’t see them again til Harrenhall.”

“Harrenhall?” asked Catelyn.

“Yeah,” said Gendry. “We didn’t really know what to do after we got away from the keep. Weasel was really just a baby, and Lommy was hurt too bad to walk even, and Hot Pie . . . Well, Hot Pie just wasn’t much use for anything except baking, I guess. So it was Arry and me. We tried to sneak up and see what we could find in this little village, and that’s when I told her I knew she was a girl.” The boy actually smiled then. “She told me who she was, and then she started hitting and kicking me for calling her milady!”

Catelyn let out a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and Ned caught her hand and held it tightly beneath the table.

“Anyway, I was stupid and got caught. It was Gregor Clegane’s men in that village. And she wouldn’t leave me. She tried to get Hot Pie to help her, but he just got them both caught.” He shook his head. “Arry told me Weasel ran off and the Mountain’s men killed Lommy. The rest of us they brought to Harrenhall, but only after they kept us in a house there for awhile with the people from the village. They’d question somebody every day.” He had that haunted look in his eyes again. “A man called the Tickler would ask them questions and . . .do things to them. Terrible things. And we all had to watch.” He swallowed.

Catelyn didn’t know if she was gripping Ned’s hand more tightly or he was tightening his grip on hers, but the thought of her little girl in such a place was threatening her ability to breathe.

Gendry continued. “Lord Tywin had charge of Harrenhall when we got there. I was sent to the forge and Hot Pie to the kitchens. Arya, she called herself Weasel there, she was made to work in some tower. After awhile, Ser Amory Lorch came riding in with his men and those three were with them. The ones she helped get away. The one with the funny name tried to talk to her sometimes. I don’t know what he said. I don’t think she knew I ever watched her. Then the Bloody Mummers brought in northmen captives, and she wanted me to help her free them. I didn’t see how it could be done and I told her so. But she did it. Somehow she got men to help her. I think she worked with that eastern man. He disappeared after that. Then Lord Bolton came and he was in charge of the castle, but nothing really changed. I think it got worse.”

Knowing what they did now of Bolton, this did not surprise Catelyn, but she simply let Gendry continue. “So one night Arya came and said we were going to escape, me and her and Hot Pie. She planned it all out and . . .we did.”

Catelyn couldn’t help but feel Gendry was leaving something out here, but she did not press him. “Then we were captured by Lord Beric’s men and you know the rest, milord,” the boy said, looking at Ned. “You said you talked to Harwin about it.”

Ned nodded. “Yes. And you found nothing of her in Saltpans, Gendry? Nothing at all?”

“No,” the boy said. “Whatever she did there after leaving the Hound, I think she was gone before it was burned. Maybe on a ship. She had talked about taking a ship north. Although she had no money.”

“She’d be unlikely to find passage on a ship with no coin,” Ned said thoughtfully.

At that Gendry looked up as if he’d just remembered something. “She did have a coin,” he said. “Not real money. It was iron, I think, although she held it tightly to her like it was a secret. I don’t think she had it before Harrenhall, but when we left there, she would hold it at night when she did her list.”

“Her list?” Catelyn asked.

The boy actually blushed at that. “I . .I shouldn’t have listened to her, milady, I know, but she would say it every night, starting before we ever got to Harrenhall. She whispered and I know she didn’t mean for me to hear.”

“Tell us, Gendry,” Ned said quietly. “We aren’t angry at you for listening. Any small thing may help us find Arya now. Tell us.”

“I thought it was prayers, at first,” he said. “But it was names. She said the same names over and over. All of Ser Gregor Clegane’s men that took us, the queen and King Joffrey. Some others. She had added some new ones when we left Harrenhall, and . . .and she stopped saying the ones who were . . .dead.”

Catelyn went cold. Her ten year old daughter had kept a list of people she wished dead. There was no other explanation. Oh, Arya.

Ned sighed heavily. “Did she say anything else, Gendry? Anything at all?”

Gendry screwed up his face in thought. “After Harrenhall, she started saying a funny word. I can’t remember it exactly. Val . .valla morga something or other.”

The syllables meant nothing to Catelyn, but Donnell Boden who had listened to the boys’ tale without comment suddenly jumped. “Valar morghulis?” he whispered. “Surely, that isn’t what she said.”

“Yes, milord,” Gendry said. “That sounds right.”

“Gods be good,” Donnell said, his face suddenly pale.

Catelyn thought back to the High Valyrian she had been taught in her youth. “All men must die?” she asked Donnell softly. “That’s what it means, isn’t it?”

He nodded. “You will hear it said in many places in Essos, my lady, but most of all in Braavos. I learned of its significance when I traveled there. It is the traditional greeting of the Faceless Men.”

“The Faceless Men,” she whispered. She knew little of the shadowy assassins from across the Narrow Sea, only that they killed whomever you asked as long as you could meet their price. “What would Arya know of Faceless Men?”

Ned had been silent during this exchange. She looked at him now and saw that he sat perfectly still with his jaw clenched tight. He took a deep breath and turned to look at her. “What would Arya know of war and torture and death and killing?” he asked her quietly. Then turning to face Gendry, he said, “It would appear that she has learned much of such things.”

Catelyn watched her husband’s grey eyes search Gendry’s face as if seeking there all the things he hadn’t said. The boy looked down silently and did not contradict Ned’s statement. Icy fingers began crawling over Catelyn’s skin as she contemplated what precisely her little girl had seen, suffered, and done since she had last held her tight.

Ned’s jaw had clenched even tighter and she could feel the tension resonating through him in the hand she held. Suddenly, he pulled his hand from her grasp, stood, and strode out the door of the inn without a word.

“My lord?” Donnell said, rising as if to follow him.

“No,” said Catelyn and Howland Reed at the same time. Donnell sat back down.

Catelyn looked at Reed for a long moment. “I will go,” she said quietly, and Reed nodded. To Gendry, she said, “I thank you for telling us all you know of our daughter. And I thank you for being a friend to her.”

The boy looked at her with sorrow and guilt showing plainly on his face. “I was not so good a friend as I should have been, milady.”

She shook her head. “You were there when we were not. She wasn’t always alone. Do not trouble yourself about things you could not or did not do.” She looked toward the door where Ned had walked out. “Nothing can come of that.”

Without another word, she rose and went outside to find her husband. Men and horses were milling about in the yard, and she could see that Ned had stationed men on the road as well. She looked around and noted there was a small grove of trees back behind the forge. She walked that way.

She found him alone there on his knees. Her own suffering seemed suddenly very unimportant to her when she saw the turmoil on his face. He turned to face her as she approached and the pain and guilt in his eyes was more than she had ever beheld there.

“I tossed away our daughters, Cat,” he said softly.

“No,” she said.

“Yes,” he said more loudly, getting to his feet. “I did!,” he said, almost shouting. “I went to the Lannister woman! I told her what I knew, what I planned! Gods, Cat, I threw my own children to the lions to protect Cersei’s bastards! What kind of father does that?”

The anguish on his face ripped her heart into pieces. “The kind who does not suffer harm to children, to any children,” she said quietly.

“I harmed our children!” he shouted, turning away from her. “They are mine to protect and I failed them! For what? For Cersei Lannister?”

She swallowed to keep the tears in check. “You did what was honorable, Ned. You tried . . .”

“Don’t speak to me of honor! Honor has no place in a world with Lannisters, and I am a fool to have believed otherwise.” Now his eyes held more of anger than anything else in their grey depths. He came to stand just in front of her. “The monster Joffrey is dead now, but Cersei holds her other two children close to her in King’s Landing. Where are your children, Cat? Do you hold them?”

At that, she sobbed, unable to hold it back any longer, and he grabbed her arms and forced her to look at him. “I have done this to you, my love. I have done this to us,” he said desperately.

Catelyn fought to regain control of herself and looked her husband in the eyes. “No,” she said firmly. “Stop it, Eddard Stark. You went to Cersei, yes, and I took Tyrion Lannister captive and freed the Kingslayer as well. Blaming ourselves and each other for all that happened since does not get our daughters back!”

They stared at each other then, unable to say any more, until Ned seemed to realize how tightly he gripped her arms. He let go of her, with a murmured, “Forgive me, my lady.”

“I forgive you all of it, Ned, if that is what you need. And I ask the same from you,” she said, looking downward.

“There is nothing to . . “ he started.

“There is,” she interrupted. “You are not alone in feeling the weight of your decisions, my lord.”

She looked directly at him then, and he nodded in understanding. “You are forgiven, my lady. Always.”

After another few moments of silence, she said, “We still have to go back inside and decide what we want to do, my lord.”

He laughed bitterly at that. “When has it ever been about what we want, Cat?” An edge of anger returned to his voice. “I want to take the Kingslayer’s head off and see it roll across the yard. I want to ride to the Eyrie, toss Baelish out the Moon Door, and carry Sansa safely away. I want to take ship for Essos and find Arya safe and whole in some eastern port.” He shook his head. “I want to go home, Cat,” he said softly, nothing but grief and weariness left now. “I want my wife and my children and my home.”

She put her arms around him then. “You have your wife,” she whispered. “We shall get our daughters, and we will go home, my love.”

He kissed the top of her head. “Let us return to the inn, my lady,” he said tiredly, but determinedly.

She nodded, and the two of them walked back to the inn together.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Gendry was no longer in the common room, Ned noted, upon entering it with Catelyn, and many of the children had gone as well. Donnell and Howland still sat at the table where they had left them. He led Catelyn over to rejoin them.

“We cannot stay here much longer,” he said as he sat down. “Surely someone will come looking for the Kingslayer eventually.”

“If they know where he is, my lord,” said Reed. He paused. “Marbrand is a good soldier. He answered very little of what he was asked, but I learned some things in what he did not say.”

Ned had learned long ago to trust Howland Reed’s observations. “Go on,” he said.

“Marbrand is frustrated, some with Jaime Lannister, but more with the situation in general. I think Lannister likely shares his general frustration, and knowing his reputation for brashness, he may have decided to ride off on a whim.”

“Hmm,” Ned said thoughtfully. “He doesn’t waste much thought before he acts. That is true. But what frustrations, Howland?”

“That is more difficult to say, my lord. I don’t gather that all is as Marbrand feels it should be at Darry Castle. He doesn’t seem to think much of the Lannister cousin it’s been given to. And his attitude about the queen borders on contempt. I think perhaps that things in King’s Landing do not go as Ser Marbrand would have them, either.”

“Addam Marbrand is as loyal a Lannister bannerman as you could find,” Ned said thoughtfully. “I cannot seeing him ever going against them. If he is truly displeased by what occurs in Darry or King’s Landing, that can only be bad for the Lannisters and good for us.”

“I agree,” said his wife. “But as much as any potential Lannister misfortune may gladden my heart, we still need to know if anyone at Darry knows the Kingslayer came here.”

“At least one person knew it!” came a deep booming voice from the doorway.

Before Ned could even turn to look, Catelyn was across the room. “Uncle Brynden!” she exclaimed as she grabbed the older man.

“Ser Tully,” Ned said, standing to greet the Blackfish. “It is indeed good to see you here.”

Tully chuckled. “So you’ve caught him, have you? The Kingslayer?”

“Lannister, Addam Marbrand, and Ilyn Payne are all tucked away upstairs,” Ned responded.

“That is good news indeed,” Ser Brynden said. “We’ll need to take the Kingslayer to Riverrun, of course.”

Ned nodded. “But how do you come to be here? Have you been to Darry?”

It was Tully’s turn to nod. “Sit, and I’ll tell you,” he said, leading Catelyn by the arm back to the table.

“We reached Darry last evening before sunset, and I decided not to wait until morning. I rode up and demanded a parley with Lannister. Well, the Lannister that met me wasn’t the Kingslayer, but a little wisp of a boy that looks half dead--name of Lancel Lannister, and apparently the new Lord of Darry. He tells me the Kingslayer has ridden out and asks me if I mean any harm to his people.” Brynden shook his head. “He’s got what looks to be a thousand men camped around his walls. I ride up with a mere ten of mine under a white flag, and the man wants to know if I mean harm! Anyway, I told him that Daven Lannister’s force had been routed at Riverrun and that Ser Daven and others were held hostage. I wished to negotiate terms that would secure the peace at Riverrun and possibly allow return of some hostages. The little man actually told me he had no interest in such matters. I would have to wait upon Ser Jaime’s return as this Lord Lancel is planning to leave his title and his castle to join the Warrior’s Sons!”

“The Warrior’s Sons?” Ned asked in disbelief. “They’ve not been in existence for hundreds of years!”

“That’s what I said,” Brynden replied. “The little lion told me King Tommen had signed a decree reinstating them. Arming the faith!” The old knight shook his head. “What Lannister madness this is, I do not know. But in the event, we withdrew to camp with the rest of our party just out of sight of the men camped around Darry, and after dark we received a visitor.”

“A visitor?” Catelyn asked.

Now Brynden Tully smiled broadly. “Lewys Piper. Younger son of our Lord Clement Piper. Apparently he was gifted to the Kingslayer as a squire as part of Piper’s swearing fealty to King Tommen and all. It seems Little Lew recognized his father and his brother Marq in my company when we rode up and realized that things had changed dramatically. He sneaked out to find us under cover of night, and told us another of the Kingslayer’s squires had saddled his horse for him and heard him talk to Addam Marbrand about riding to the inn. We rode all night to get here.”

Ned’s mind considered the possibilities that Brynden’s arrival had brought. “How many men rode with you?” he asked.

“Over half my company. I have about sixty men here. The rest are with Lord Umber, back at Darry. By now, the Greatjon is bellowing at the gates, demanding that Jaime Lannister come out and treat with us, and proclaiming that I have refused to speak any more to the little lord who has nothing to say.”

Ned smiled at his wife’s uncle. “Nicely done, Ser Brynden. I take it you planned to capture the Kingslayer and take him to Riverrun?”

“Of course,” Brynden replied. “But as you’ve done the capturing for me, I shall be pleased to simply escort the man back to his cell.”

Ned’s heart leapt at that. The Blackfish had more men than he did, even with only half his company present. There would be no need for he and Catelyn to turn aside from their journey to the Eyrie. “Then let’s get on with it. Lord Lancel may not pose much of a threat, but surely the Kingslayer’s own men will seek him out soon enough.”

Ser Brynden nodded grimly. “No doubt. My plan is set out for Riverrun as quickly as possible with most of my men. A few will be sent back to let Umber know we’ve been successful, so that he can leave with the rest and join us along the road. A few more will be sent back to Darry as envoys with Marbrand. Although I want them to wait a bit to give us a good start. I have no doubt we can defend ourselves on the road if need be, but I’d rather not have the need.”

“You want to set Marbrand free?” Ned asked him.

“We’ll have the Kingslayer. He’s not needed. And Marbrand’ll be believed when he speaks. We’ll send him with our promise to take the Kingslayer’s head if any Lannister force so much as marches toward Riverrun. And we’ll make him vow not to personally take up arms in the riverlands or the north again.” Tully shrugged. “We all know words are wind, but Marbrand’s an honorable enough man that it will at least give him pause. He can go work for the Lannisters elsewhere.”

Ned nodded thoughtfully.

“He has seen us, my love,” Catelyn said softly. “Are you ready for the Lannisters to know for certain we live?”

“I would rather Petyr Baelish not know yet,” Ned said slowly, “but by the time word of Marbrand’s report reaches King’s Landing from Darry, we shall be well on our way. And I don’t think reporting to Littlefinger is high priority for Cersei Lannister in any event. No, let Marbrand spread the word. See what that brings.” He looked at his wife. “I grow rather tired of being dead, in truth.”

She smiled at him. “As do I.”

“We’ll need to keep Marbrand closed up in his rooms until well after we leave,” Tully said. “I want no hint of the fact that you and Cat are not coming with us to reach his ears. We shall be safe from pursuit in our large party, but I would not have you overtaken on the High Road.”

“No,” said Ned. No one will know we travel another way. We’ll start down the River Road with you and double back after a bit, keeping to the north of the road until we’ve passed back by the inn.”

Brynden nodded, and everyone at the table stood to begin preparations for leaving.

“Where did Gendry go?” Ned asked.

Donnell Boden smiled then. “He went to his forge. Apparently the boy started a fine set of irons to bind the Kingslayer for his journey last night, and he went to finish them.”

Ned went to see Gendry in the forge and found him doing exactly as Donnell had said.

“Those look to be plenty strong,” Ned said as he eyed the boy’s work.

“They’ll keep him secure. I had enough scrap iron around, and shackles need not be anything to look at as long as they hold tight,” Gendry said without looking up. He paused. “Mya Stone was here, milord.”

“Ah,” said Ned. “And what did Mya come to speak about?”

“Our father,” Gendry said clearly and without hesitating. He looked directly at Ned and asked him, “Is it true, milord? Is that why you came to see me in King‘s Landing?”

Ned looked directly back into his Baratheon eyes and said simply, “Yes.”

Gendry nodded. “And that’s why the queen sent the gold cloaks after me then. If she was putting her bastard on the throne, it wouldn’t do to have any of King Robert’s bastards about. That the way of it?”

Impressed by how quickly the boy seemed to have grasped the situation, Ned nodded. “That’s why you were sent with the Night’s Watch. King’s Landing had become a very dangerous place for any of Robert’s natural born children. Cersei Lannister had already been implicated in the deaths of some.”

“Had a lot of us, did he?” Gendry asked somewhat bitterly.

“Yes, Gendry, he did.” Ned sighed. “Robert was my friend as well as my king, and he was a good man. But I cannot say he behaved well in this, or that he did rightly by you.”

Gendry shrugged. “It’s what you lords do, I guess. You’ve got your own bastard, right? Arry--Lady Arya--she told me she had a bastard brother in the Night’s Watch. Talked about going to the Wall herself. Did you stop at the one or just ignore all the others like King Robert did?”

Ned felt the old guilt and shame. Gendry had every right to compare him to Robert. He didn’t know. He was just one more man who felt entitled to judge Lord Eddard Stark for betraying his marriage vows and fathering a bastard. “There is only Jon,” Ned said quietly. “Not that it makes it any more right.”

Gendry was quiet for a long moment. “She talked about you all the time. Your daughter. She believed you were the bravest, most honorable man in all the world.”

That stabbed Ned’s heart more sharply than any blade could. He didn’t respond because he couldn’t speak.

Gendry looked up at him. “I believe you are a good man, Lord Stark. Good men do things they regret. I’d like to think I’m a good man, but I regret a lot of things I’ve done. Maybe King Robert . . .my father . . .was the same.”

Ned looked at this boy and saw that he was truly becoming a man even as they spoke. Is this what it was like with Robb? he wondered. Is this what I missed? “Yes, Gendry, he was. And while it may not mean much to you, I know he would have been proud of you now.”

Gendry nodded. “I’d like to come with you, Lord Stark. I’d like to help you get Lady Arya’s sister.”

Ned thought for a moment, and then sighed. “As much as I would like that Gendry, I believe your place is here.”

Gendry started to protest, but Ned interrupted him. “No, lad. Listen to me. When they learn that Riverrun and the Twins are truly lost to them, and that my lady and I yet live, the Lannisters will be furious. The riverlands will continue to bleed. Lord Beric and your Brotherhood will have even more to do than now. They will have need of your steel. And these children . . .” He swept his arm in a gesture meant to encompass all the area about the inn. “You are the only man here, Gendry. You cannot leave them.”

The boy still looked like he wished to protest, but he could not argue. He sighed deeply and nodded. “I will have these ready for you within the hour, Lord Stark,” he said, and turned back to his work.

As he left the forge, Ned thought about his dead friend, who had never really known this son, and it made him sad. You would be proud of him, Robert. Bastard or no, he is truly your son. He thought also of his own son, Robb, who grew to manhood with him gone and was killed before he could know him as a man. I have ever been proud of you, Robb. I pray to the gods you knew it.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

When Ned left to speak with Gendry, Catelyn endeavored to get her uncle alone. Finally, he pause briefly in barking orders to his men, and she caught his arm. “I would speak with you, Uncle, if I may,” she said.

He looked at her curiously. “But of course, little Cat.”

She led him up to the room she and Ned had shared the night before and closed the door behind them.

“What is this about, Catelyn?” he asked her.

“Once you have returned Jaime Lannister to Riverrun, he should provide a reasonable guarantee of safety there for some time. What do you plan to do next?”

“Well, that will ultimately be up to your brother, but I had thought to ride for Seagard, to aid the Mallisters.”

“I had thought you might,” she said. She swallowed hard. “If you go to Seagard, I need you to do something for me.”

Her uncle looked puzzled. “Anything, little Cat. Only name it.”

“You must kill Black Walder Frey. Last I heard he had remained there once he got Lord Jason’s surrender, and I want him dead.” She said it flatly with no particular heat in her voice.

Brynden Tully nodded slowly. “I understand he played a large role in that unspeakable wedding. We will see him brought to justice, Cat, do not fear.”

“Justice has nothing to do with it!” she spit out. “He dies for me. He dies because I cannot abide the thought that he lives.” She was shaking now, and the memory of that alcove in the Twins threatened to overwhelm her.

“Catelyn,” said her uncle softly, and he reached out to take her arm. She flinched away from him, though, because she could not stand to be touched in that moment.

He must have seen it in her face, because his face changed then. “Oh, Cat. Oh gods, child. What did he do to you?” The sympathy and anger mixed in her uncle’s voice made her feel worse.

“Precisely what you think!” she flung back. “And I want him dead. Will you do that for me?”

Her uncle was silent a moment. “I would kill him in an instant,” he said. “But, Cat. Lord Eddard is your husband. You should not keep this from him. It is his right to . . .”

“I have no secrets from my husband!” she almost shouted it. Remembering that the inn was full of people, she willed herself to speak softly. “My husband knows all of what happened to me at the Twins, Uncle. Black Walder was only one of many. The others are all dead now, most of them by my husband’s hand.” She looked her uncle in the face and pleaded with her eyes for him to understand. “I watched him kill them, Uncle. I’ve seen what it does to him. He’s taken his vengeance, again and again. But it cannot take from him the knowledge of what was done to me. What of my rights, Uncle? I need my husband to ride with me to the Eyrie and rescue our daughter, not to feel honor bound to ride to Seagard and kill yet one more Frey in my name!” She stopped speaking then, afraid she would start screaming or crying if she continued.

“Cat,” her uncle said, and she heard his voice trembling on her name. “Child, I wish . . .”

“I am not a child, Uncle Brynden,” she said sadly. “I have not been one for a long time. I cannot change what happened. Neither can Ned or you. I wish to move forward, but I find myself still wanting Black Walder Frey dead--for myself and for my son. I will not send my husband back into that black pit again. He has been there long enough. So, I ask you, Uncle Brynden, even knowing I have no right. Will you do this for me?”

“You have every right, niece. I am your family. That remains true however many years your name has been Stark.” He took her hands then, and she allowed it. “Whenever we ride to Seagard, the man will pay with his life. You have my word.”

She nodded. “Thank you.”

Her uncle left the room then, as there was nothing more to say, and Catelyn was left alone with her thoughts. Her daughter, Arya, came to her mind, and the list Gendry had told them she recited each night. Catelyn realized she had kept her own list, even if she had never spoken it out loud. Black Walder was the last Frey on her list, but not the last name. “Cersei Lannister,” she whispered. “Roose Bolton.” Oh gods, Arya! Do you have anything else to hold on to?

Catelyn had the love of her husband, the hope of being with Sansa very soon, and even the hope of finding Arya herself at some point to balance against the hatred of those who had hurt her and her family. And still that hatred threatened to overwhelm her, cause her to lose herself in it at times. She wondered fearfully if her daughter had anything to balance against her hatred, and how she could hold on to herself if she did not. Please, Arya, do not forget who you are. Hold on, my sweetling, and I will hold on to you.

 

______________________________________________________________________________________

 

They had left the inn well before midday, and by the time the sun had reached its zenith had traveled far enough down the River Road that Ned felt it was time for his party to double back. They took their leave of Brynden Tully, and as Ned and Catelyn turned their horses away, Jaime Lannister called out to them.

He and Ilyn Payne were both shackled to their mounts with men on either side of each of them. “Leaving us so soon, Lord Stark? Surely you haven’t tired of my company?” Lannister called.

Ned knew he should ignore the man and ride on, but he didn’t. He rode up to him and heard Catelyn follow him. “I have other places to be, Kingslayer. Enjoy your cell at Riverrun.”

“Oh, how can I enjoy it without your lady wife to keep me company?”

Ned’s hands tightened on his reins, but he made no reply. He started to go, but Lannister continued, “Of course, she’s a bit less attractive now. Whatever did happen to your face, Lady Stark? You look like you were mauled by an angry lion.”

At that, Ned sprinted his horse toward Lannister’s, startling the man on this side of him into turning his mount away so that Ned was directly beside Jaime. He punched his face and felt the crack of his nose against his fist. Lannister was knocked backwards, but couldn’t truly fall, shackled to the horse as he was. He couldn’t defend himself either, as his one hand was secured tightly to the pommel of his saddle, and Ned felt a brief, reflexive pang of regret for striking a defenseless man.

Lannister, however simply raised himself back into a seated position, and despite the blood pouring from his nose, Ned saw that he was laughing. “You are so predictable, Stark. I can say whatever I want about you, and you sit there like a block of ice, but one unkind word about Littlefinger’s little plaything and you lose all control.”

“You are not to say another word, Kingslayer. No promises have been made to keep your tongue in your head. You and Payne would make a much better pair were you both silent,” Ned said coldly. “Your words are no more fit to be heard than your shoulders are to wear that white cape of yours.”

Jaime Lannister sighed. “It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? The great, honorable Eddard Stark, sitting in judgment over all the world, especially kingslayers like me. Well you can imprison me Stark, or kill me if you wish, but you cannot judge me. You have your own sins.”

Lannister turned to look at Catelyn then, who had reined up beside Ned. “They say he never he never speaks the name of his bastard’s mother,” he flung at her. “Is that true, Lady Stark, or does he call it out when he fucks you?”

Ned went to hit him again, but Catelyn grabbed his arm, and hissed “No! He is baiting you, my lord. Ride away and end this!”

Shaking with rage, Ned turned away to Brynden Tully. “Gag him if he says anything else between here and Riverrun.”

Catelyn’s uncle nodded, but the look he gave Ned was colder than usual, and Ned knew it was because he blamed him for Lannister’s last awful words to Catelyn. He then turned his horse and rode to join the rest of their small party, already a short way into the woods. As Catelyn rode up beside him again, he noted that her cheeks were stained crimson, and he cursed himself for shaming her once again.

Halfway between the two groups of men, he stopped his horse, and motioned her to do the same. “My lady,” he said. “I am sorry. I . .” He really didn’t know what to say.

She reached out and took his hand. “It is behind us,” she said. “Leave it there. We are done with this place and done with that man and his mocking words. He is nothing.” Her voice was firm and resolved.

“But . .” he started.

“Please, Ned,” Her voice trembled only slightly on the please. “I only want to leave here. Let us go get our daughter.”

He squeezed her hand wordlessly and nodded. They joined their men and Mya, and rode without speaking through the woods for some time. When sunset approached, and they turned south out of the trees, they had long passed the inn, and found themselves on the High Road, riding toward the Vale of Arryn with the crossroad well behind them.

Chapter Text

The metal rang with each stroke of his hammer, and Gendry swung harder and harder as if he could hammer away his frustration at being left here. Ser Brynden Tully rode to Riverrun with the Kingslayer as his captive. Lord and Lady Stark and even Mya rode to the Eyrie to rescue Sansa Stark. He didn’t know the names of the men who had left only an hour or two ago with Addam Marbrand, but he envied even them. They were all riding off to do something important, something exciting, and he was left to hammer metal and herd children.

“Damn!” he shouted to no one. Perhaps if Lem and his men had been here, Lord Stark would have agreed to allow him to come. Gendry couldn’t argue with the fact that the inn couldn’t be left defenseless, but he was only one smith’s apprentice. Even if he was knighted by Lord Beric himself. Where are you, Lem? You should have been here ages ago!

The air inside the forge was hot from the fire, and he had pulled off his shirt. Now, he was sweating miserably even in only his apron and breeches. He walked to the door and looked outside. The day had turned grey and damp by noon, and now it was raining so hard, he could barely see the inn across the yard through the downpour.

He wondered if the four travelers were enjoying their meal. He’d tried to get Willow to send them away; the huge, odd-looking woman, the knight, the shabby septon, and the boy. She’d argued that the four had food, and she had a point. The Starks had left behind what they could, but they couldn’t very well travel the High Road without ample provisions. With so many little mouths to feed already, and the bloody sparrows bringing more children all the time, the food left here wouldn’t last long. He did laugh, though, remembering how boldly Willow had proclaimed to these new travelers that she had nothing to offer but horsemeat, when, in truth, they were better provisioned now than they had been in weeks.

The big woman had stared at him as if he were a ghost. “My lord,” she’d called him. That made him angry. He wasn’t any lord. His father may have been a king like Mya and Lord and Lady Stark said, but he was still just a bastard smith. The thought of Mya made him scowl. He had liked her from the moment he and Lem had met her in Saltpans. She was tough and didn’t let Lem get away with anything. But she had treated him like a kid brother from the start, and now that he knew he actually was her younger brother, that somehow annoyed him even more.

Their farewell had been awkward to say the least. He was already angry that she was going with the Starks while he was staying here, and then she went on and on about him keeping safe and staying out of trouble and remembering he was a smith not a soldier, blah, blah ,blah, until he snapped and started yelling at her. She started yelling right back, and the two of them had nearly come to blows when Lord Stark came by, looked at them, and burst out laughing. The shock of laughter coming from that solemn, granite-faced man had stunned them both into silence. As they stood there gaping at him, Lord Stark just shook his head, said, “Ours is the fury, indeed,” and walked away chuckling. Gendry had muttered, “Take care,” at Mya, and stalked off in the opposite direction.

Cooled by the mist coming in from the deluge outside, Gendry turned back to his forge. Removing the wheel rim he had been repairing, he picked up the sword he had been working on every chance he got and put it to the heat. Once the metal was warm enough, he went to work with his hammer, beating it with a fury.

After awhile, he was as hot as he had been and the damp hair and sweat in his eyes made it difficult to see. He paused to wipe his brow and realized someone else was in the forge. That big, awkward woman in man’s clothing was standing in the doorway holding a cloth-covered basket. “What do you want?” he asked sharply.

“I brought supper,” she told him, showing him the food beneath the cloth.

“If I wanted food, I would have eaten some.”

“A smith needs to eat to keep his strength up.”

Oh, no, he thought. I already had this conversation with Mya. I am not listening to this again. “Are you my mother?”

“No,” she said, putting down the basket of food. She was staring at him again. He realized her expression reminded him of Lady Stark’s when she had first come to the forge. Great. Someone else who looks at me and sees Robert Baratheon’s face. “Who was your mother?” the woman was asking.

Gendry had had enough. “Ask what you really want to know!” he shouted at her. “Tell me who you think I look like and ask me about my bloody father!”

That caused her to raise her eyebrows and widen her eyes. Gendry noticed then that she had rather large, blue eyes, the only pretty feature in her broad face. “Oh,” she said. “Someone has remarked upon your face before?”

“Yeah,” he said sullenly. “Unknown sisters, dead lords, and murdered ladies have all come to stare. Might as well take your turn.”

She creased her brow then in puzzlement at his words. “My name is Brienne of Tarth,” she said. “I am on a quest of sorts. So you do know who your father was? Am I right to believe it was King Robert?”

“So I’ve been told in the last two days,” Gendry sighed. “A quest? What kind of quest?”

“Only in the past two days?” The woman looked back out into the rain toward the inn. “But who has been here that would know such things in the past two days? There was a small party of men riding south as we approached. We hid in the woods until they passed. Did they come here to bring you such tidings?”

Gendry shook his head. Why did this woman care who his father was or who had told him about it? Why did she ask so many questions? She wasn’t going to get any more answers until she gave some. “I asked what kind of quest,” he said. “And why would you hide in the woods?”

She gave a small shrug. “The roads aren’t safe. The party was small, but still larger than ours, and Ser Hyle and I are the only members of our party skilled at arms.”

Gendry snorted at her description of herself as skilled at arms, but she continued as if she hadn’t heard him. “As for my quest, I seek a highborn girl of three and ten with auburn hair and blue eyes. I was sworn to . .”

“Wait a minute!” Gendry exclaimed, as he heard the description of the girl. “What did you say your name was?”

“Brienne,” she said. “Lady Brienne of House Tarth,” she added in mumbled tones.

Now he remembered. “Your Lady Stark’s swordswoman!” he exclaimed. That’s where he’d heard the name. He heard Lady Stark speak of her when she and Lord Stark were questioning the Kingslayer. And the Kingslayer had said she was out looking for the Stark daughters.

Lady Brienne’s big eyes had gone even wider than before when he had mentioned Lady Stark. “You knew my lady?” she asked.

“Met her yesterday,” he shrugged.

Now those blue eyes clouded with anger. “What cruel jape is this?” she demanded. “My lady was murdered at her brother’s wedding along with her son, the King in the North!”

“Well,” Gendry started, wondering how he could explain the Starks to this woman so that she would believe him. Before he could say any more, though, a dog started barking continuously.

“Someone is coming,” Lady Brienne said, putting her hand to her sword.

“Friends,” Gendry responded. About time, Lem, he thought.

The woman had moved back to the doorway to stare out into the rain. Gendry could hear the sound of horses’ hooves splashing through puddles in the yard, and then he heard Brienne say in a low voice, “Gendry, you’ll want a sword and some armor. These are not your friends. They’re no one’s friends.”

Gendry rolled his eyes. What was the woman talking about? He moved beside her and looked out just as lightning flashed. These men weren’t Lem’s He clearly saw one man with an axe, wearing mail and plate and the unmistakable helmet of the Hound. “Him,” he breathed.

“Not him. His helm.”

After that, things moved almost too quickly for Gendry could keep up. The Hound was threatening little Willow, and Lady Brienne had gone out to meet him. She and the Hound were taunting each other, and then they were fighting, axe against sword in the mud and the rain. Gendry noted her sword was beautiful with a blade that appeared wickedly sharp. The other men were getting off horses but did not intervene as the two fought, simply cheering on the Hound and throwing taunts at Brienne. From the porch of the inn, wide eyed children watched as well. Gendry grabbed a spear for which he had recently made a new point and ran into the rain. It appeared Brienne was going down, but just as Gendry tried to figure out the best way to get at the man, he seemed to tire, and Gendry saw Brienne of Tarth plunge that beautiful, sharp sword right through the man’s belly.

Gendry became aware that the dog was barking wildly again, and he looked around to see that the other men were now fighting. Lem’s men had finally arrived. A swordsman had run from the inn to join the fray as well; the knight who came with Lady Brienne he supposed. He looked back to where Brienne had stood and was horrified to see that she no longer stood there. She was flat on her back and a monstrous man was on top of her, with his hands around her throat and his face on top of hers. Suddenly the man raised up and Gendry saw blood dripping from his mouth. He had bitten her face! Without thought, he charged toward the pair of them and buried the spear point in the back of the man’s neck as he bent to bite her again. The man collapsed immediately, falling onto Lady Brienne. Gendry heaved him off her into the mud. Biter, he thought, when he saw the dead man’s face with it’s sharply filed teeth.

“Lady Brienne!” he yelled, but the woman did not respond. She lay in the mud as if dead, blood pouring from a ghastly looking wound in her cheek. Gendry looked desperately for something to press against it, and cursed the fact he wasn’t wearing a shirt. He looked and saw several of the children on the porch staring at him. “Cloth!” he screamed at them. “Get some cloth!” Then he picked Brienne up and carried her onto the porch and into the inn, leaving the sounds of battle behind them in the rain.

 

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“Ow.” Pain shot through her chest when she moved, and then stabbed at her jaw and cheek when she opened it to make the sound. Brienne swallowed uncomfortably and tried to shake the fog of her dreams. She had been dreaming. She was certain of it. Renly had been there, but he kept turning into that smith boy, Gendry. And Rorge and Biter and Vargo Hoat. She couldn’t find her sword. She had called out for Jaime, but he hadn’t answered. Lady Catelyn had watched as she fought the bear, but the bear was Biter. She shook her head, and her cheek throbbed in protest.

“Milady?” she heard from far away. A girl’s voice. I seek a girl.

“Milady, hold still. You’ll hurt yourself,” came the girl’s voice again.

“Let her.” A man’s voice. “Let the Kingslayer’s whore kill herself for all I care. Save me from hanging her.”

Kingslayer’s whore? Brienne heard, but didn’t understand. She shook her head and tried to move her arms, desperately trying to remember how to open her eyes. Where am I? The inn. The man in the Hound’s helm--Rorge. Biter. It all came back to her, and her eyes suddenly flew open.

She was lying in a bed and her left arm was tied to some type of board and wrapped tightly. Her right arm was bound at the wrist and secured to the bed frame. She blinked in the dim light and looked at the girl who sat by the bed looking down at her. “Willow?” she asked, hazily. No, that couldn’t be right. This girl was too old.

“I’m Jeyne, Jeyne Heddle” the girl said. “Willow’s my sister. Hold still milady.” The girl reached out to press down on something plastered to Brienne’s face.

“She’s awake for true now?” the man’s voice again. He stepped into her line of vision and her heart stopped as she saw the helm on his head.

“I killed you!” she cried out.

The man laughed. She could see now that he wore a tattered and stained yellow cloak. “No, milady. You’ve got that backwards. But I do thank you for killing the Hound.”

She shook her head. “Not the Hound,” she rasped, her throat feeling terribly dry. “Rorge. He must have taken the helmet off Clegane’s grave.”

“And now I’ve took it off him.” He turned and spoke to someone else. “See that she doesn’t get out of that bed. I’m going to check on the others.”

The man in the yellow cloak turned and left.

“Where am I?” Brienne asked the girl. “Can I have some water?” she asked, licking her lips. “Why am I bound? Where are Pod and Ser Hyle?”

“Drink this,” the girl said, shoving something to her lips. “It’s better than water to dull the pain. And don’t ask so many questions.” A bitter liquid entered Brienne’s mouth, but she was so thirsty she gulped it greedily.

“I get to ask the questions,” said a new voice, quietly, and Briene turned to see Renly, no Gendry--that was his name, sitting in the far corner.

“Gendry,” she said. “What happened? Is Biter . . .”

“Dead,” he said. “And I am asking the questions now.”

His voice sounded cold, and Brienne wondered why. Then she remembered something important. “Lady Catelyn!” she exclaimed. “You had said something about . . .”

“Shut up!” the boy exclaimed, scowling, and rising to come stand over her at the bed. “Why did you come here? Why do seek Sansa Stark?”

“I . . I swore an oath to Lady Catelyn. I have to protect her daughter.”

“Protect,” the boy said bitterly. “Explain this, then.” He shoved a piece of parchment at her, and Brienne tried to focus her eyes on it as he held it above her.

Recognizing it, she said, “Oh, that’s the letter Jaime gave me to . . .”

“Jaime!” Gendry shouted angrily. “Jaime Lannister, you mean. This has the boy king’s seal on it and says you are about his business. Do you mean us to believe the Lannisters are in the business of protecting Sansa Stark?”

“Yes!” she cried out. “I mean, no! I mean . . .only Jaime, he gave me that for protection. He sent me out from King’s Landing to find Sansa Stark.”

“And do what with her?”

“Take her someplace safe. He swore an oath to Lady Catelyn, too. He . . .”

Now the boy started laughing, loudly and bitterly. “An oath to Lady Catelyn Stark. I don’t think so. And he certainly wasn’t interested in keeping it if he did.”

“He did! He gave me the sword and named it Oathkeeper. He told me to keep my vow to Lady Catelyn and find her daughter!”

“This sword?” Gendry turned and lifted Oathkeeper from the table. “Beautiful blade this. Fine lion’s head for a pommel. Yet you say you don’t serve the lions.” He gave her a look of disbelief. “My brothers want to condemn you for the gold and rubies on this sword alone. No Lannister would give such a valuable blade to any but their own!”

“No, you don’t understand,” Brienne protested.

“I do,” Gendry told her. “I know more than my brothers about the value of this blade. They know it’s pretty, but they’ve never seen Valyrian steel.” He twisted it in the light showing the deep crimson and black of its ripples. “This blade is far more valuable than they even know.”

“Yes!” Brienne cried. “It was forged from Ice, Lord Eddard Stark’s blade. Jaime told me. Defend Ned Stark’s daughter with Ned Stark’s steel. He told me . .”

Now Gendry’s eyes absolutely blazed with anger. “Shut up!” he said again, even more forcefully. “Jaime Lannister cares nothing for Lord Stark or his daughter, and he has nothing but curses for him or Lady Stark. I know the truth of that so you can save your lies. No one here will believe them.”

Brienne was at a loss. She didn’t understand why the boy was so angry at her. She had done nothing here but fight Rorge in defense of the children. Why did Gendry suddenly view her as a criminal? What was Jaime to him or these friends of his? And what did he know of Lord and Lady Stark? Then something dawned on her. “Dondarrion,” she said. “Your friends are Dondarrion’s men, and you’re with them.”

Gendry said nothing, so she continued, “I know Lord Beric is turned outlaw, but I had heard he administers justice in his way.” She raised her right hand as far as it would go and looked pointedly at the binding. “This is not justice, Gendry.”

“We serve justice to all Lannisters, Freys, and those who serve them, milady. You serve Jaime Lannister, by your own admission.”

She sighed. “I served the Lady Catelyn Stark, Jaime just allowed me a chance to fulfill that oath in some way.”

He stubbornly shook his head.

“What do you know of it Gendry?” she asked in frustration. “You don’t even know Ser Jaime!”

Now the boy laughed again. “Now, there you’re wrong, milady. It so happens I helped tie him up in this very room not two nights past.”

His words hit her like a bolt. Jaime had been here? “What . . .what do you mean?” she stammered.

“I mean that your friend the Kingslayer strolled right into the inn and now he’s in irons where he belongs.”

“Where?” she exclaimed. “Is he all right?”

“Is he all right?” Gendry mocked. “No, you’re not Jaime Lannister’s at all.” He laughed. “You yelled out his name enough in your dreams, and your concern for him is really touching. Shame you’ll be dead without him ever hearing about it.”

“He lives then?” she asked, desperately. Her need to be sure of that mattered more than her knowledge that she damned herself in the eyes of this boy by even asking the question.

“Oh, he lives. He’s on his way to a cell at Riverrun. That’s where Lord and Lady Stark sent him.”

“Lord and Lady Stark! What are you talking about?” Brienne’s mind again scrambled to make sense of the boy’s words. Met her yesterday, she remembered him saying right before Rorge and his men had appeared. “Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn are both dead.”

“Well, one way or another, people seem to not stay dead around here, milady. Lord and Lady Stark were here, too. They questioned your precious Kingslayer right in this room, and I tell you he had no oaths for either of them--only curses and insults. Lord Stark nearly killed the man for the things he said about the lady. So don’t tell me Jaime Lannister cares about Lady Catelyn Stark!”

Brienne barely heard the end of Gendry’s words as her mind and heart both raced. Could it be true? Could her lady live? Oh, dear gods, can this be? “Gendry,” she said to him, tears threatening to choke her voice, “Is this true? Does my lady live? Do not lie to me about this, I beg you.”

Gendry stared at her a moment, his expression quite changed. The angry storm in his blue eyes was gone, replaced by questioning. He looked remarkably like Renly had, when he had looked at her sometimes, wondering how she could possibly be understood. “She lives,” he said quietly. “Her lord husband, too. I don’t know all of it, but they both somehow escaped death. They have taken the Twins and Riverrun, and now they go to find their daughter.”

“Their daughter!” Brienne exclaimed, her heart leaping. “They know where the Lady Sansa is?”

Gendry shook his head, not in answer to her question, but as if he needed to clear it. “I have already said too much,” he said. He looked at her. “I don’t know who you serve, milady, but I cannot trust you.” He reached down and checked the bindings on her arms. “She isn’t going anywhere,” he said to Jeyne, who had been sitting quietly in the room all this time. “Go get her some food. I’m going to get Lem and the others to come up and question her after that.”

He turned to go. “Pod and Ser Hyle and Septon Meribald!” Brienne called after him. “Are they well?”

He stopped at the door and looked back at her. “No harm will be done the septon. The other two are well enough. But Hyle Hunt is Randyll Tarly’s man and the boy admits he’s Tyrion Lannister’s own squire, so don’t expect them to stay that way.” With that, he walked out of the room, leaving her with such a mixture of contrasting emotions that she wasn’t sure she could feel anything at all.

“Jeyne,” she said, before the girl could go as well. “What is wrong with my arm?”

“It’s broken, milady. But it’s a clean break, and I set it good. It would heal up right as rain if you weren’t . . .”

“If I weren’t going to be hanged,” Brienne finished for her. “What else is wrong with me?”

“Your ribs got banged up. I’m pretty sure some are broken. And your face, well . . .”

“Biter,” said Brienne.

Jeyne Heddle nodded. “I cleaned it good and I’ve got a poultice on it to draw any putrification.” She shook her head. “Lem wanted to take you to Lord Beric straight away. I don’t know what would’ve happened to that wound if we’d had to drag you all that way in the rain, but Gendry said we should keep you here and treat your injuries out of respect for your fighting off Rorge.”

Gendry. “Thank you for treating me, Jeyne. How long have I slept?”

“Most of a night and day, milady. Sun’s almost down and it was last night those men came here and you fought.”

Brienne nodded and said nothing. Jeyne left her then to get a plate, and Brienne closed her eyes and tried to make sense of all that had occurred. If Lady Catelyn truly lived, she had to get out of here. She had an oath to keep.

 

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With all the men gathered in the small room, it felt close and hot. Gendry thought he would actuallyfeel more comfortable in the forge, but even so realized that the woman tied in the chair in front of them likely felt far worse than he did.

He had asked Jeyne Heddle to help him get her out of the bed before the rest of his brothers came to question her. It didn’t seem decent to make her plead for her life while lying on her back. While she had been given her supper, he had gone to speak with her companions. The septon they’d arrived with had been sent away, but the other two were held in separate rooms. Both had confirmed Brienne’s version of their travels and both seemed convinced of her sincerity in wishing to find and protect Sansa Stark. While Ser Hyle’s truthfulness was a matter for debate, Gendry sensed no deceit in young Podrick Payne.

“Explain again how you went from being the Kingslayer’s captor to being his companion,” Lem was saying, putting a lewd emphasis on the word companion.

If she heard the insult, the woman ignored it. “I was never his companion,” she said tiredly. “I ceased to be his captor once we were both captured by Vargo Hoat and taken to Harrenhall. He saved my life there, as I told you, but I was still bound to take him to King’s Landing with Lady Catelyn’s terms. I had no power to compel him there once Roose Bolton’s men were assigned to escort him, but I had to travel with him to present those terms, even though we had learned of Lady Sansa’s marriage to the Imp from Bolton.” She swallowed. “Then at Brindlewood, we heard of the Red Wedding,” she said softly.

“Yet still you went with him to King’s Landing, and still you do his bidding,” Lem insisted.

“No,” she said just as softly. “I went to King’s Landing because there was nowhere else to go. Then when Ser Jaime gave me Oathkeeper and bid me find and protect the Lady Sansa for the sake of my oath to her mother, I went.”

“To do the Lannisters’ bidding,” Lem repeated.

Brienne stubbornly shook her head. “To keep my oath to Lady Catelyn.”

She keeps repeating that, Gendry thought. She had said it over and over, in spite of the fact that it moved Lem and the others not at all. Was she stupid or stubborn or merely repeating the only truth she knew?

“Lady Brienne,” Gendry said suddenly. “If we were to let you go, what would you do? What is it you want?”

She looked at him. “If what you told me is true, I wish only to find my lady, lay my sword at her feet, and do what she bids me.” Those astonishing blue eyes of hers never left his as she spoke.

“Really?” asked Lem. “And what if she bids you to bring her the head of your sweet kingslaying Lannister?”

Brienne looked shocked. “She would not do that,” she said.

“But what if she does?” Lem pushed.

“She would not,” the woman stubbornly repeated. “The Lady Catelyn is good and honorable. She would never have me kill a man to whom I owe my life.”

“You still haven’t said which you would choose, milady,” Lem said mockingly. “Do you choose Lady Stark or Ser Jaime? How do I know you won’t betray and kidnap Lady Stark and try to ransom her to Riverrun for your lover?”

The shock and dismay Gendry saw on her face at that question could not possibly have been feigned.

“He is not my lover,” she insisted. “And I would die before I would betray the Lady Catelyn! I am sworn to her service!”

“So you are perfectly happy to allow Jaime Lannister to rot in the dungeon at Riverrun for the rest of his miserable life,” Lem said with a nasty smile. When had he become so cruel? He’d always had a knack for mockery, but Gendry suddenly realized that the man’s irreverence had become something darker somehow.

Brienne took a moment to respond. “No,” she finally said. “No, I would not be happy to see the man who saved me from rape and murder spend his life in a dungeon. But Ser Jaime Lannister has commited crimes against House Stark and if my lady and her lord husband have imprisoned him for those, I would not say them nay.”

She had lifted her chin up a notch as she spoke, and her voice was firm although Gendry thought he heard just the slightest tremble.

“She admits she doesn’t want the Kingslayer to stay locked up, Lem. We ought to just hang her and her friends with the others in the morning,” said one of the men.

“She doesn’t lie to you,” protested Gendry. “She could tell you she hates the man and would cheer if he rots. If she wanted to lie to save her skin, she could do a better job of it! If she tells the truth here, then perhaps she tells the truth in all of it.”

Lem looked around at the men. “She’s a lying Kingslayer’s whore,” he said darkly. “There’s the parchment and the sword to prove she’s his. We don’t even need her words.”

A couple men nodded agreement, but others looked troubled. “We should take her to Lord Beric,” said Jack. “She should have a real trial in front of him.”

This suggestion got even more nods and murmurs of approval. Lem looked at Gendry darkly, but nodded. “We’ll discuss it after we hang the rest of those raiders in the morning. It’s late.” He pointed out two men and said, “You’ve got first watch. The rest of you get some sleep.” To Jeyne, he said, “Tie her back to her bed.” Finally, to Gendry, he said, “You come with me.”

Without another word, Lem walked down the stairs, pausing in the common room only long enough to pick up the Hound’s helm he had taken for his own before walking out into the yard. Gendry followed him.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you, Gendry,” the big man said when they stood outside in the damp and the mud beneath grey light of the moon.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Gendry replied.

“You never used to be disloyal. That big, ugly wench is just another lion. The Kingslayer’s whore. She deserves to swing.” Lem said it flatly, without any particular malice. That somehow seemed worse to Gendry.

“Why are you so anxious to hang her? She didn’t do anything to you, Lem. Ever since Saltpans, you’ve wanted to hang everybody you meet . . .”

“Did you bloody look around in Saltpans?” Lem exploded. “Did you see what they did there? Or were you too busy worrying about your skinny little Stark girl to pay attention? The men who did that deserve worse than hanging!”

“I saw it,” Gendry said quietly. “And I haven’t said anything about us hanging any of those men without trials, have I? But Lady Brienne wasn’t at Saltpans, Lem. She even killed Rorge! And we’ve been after him forever.”

Lem fingered the helm in his hands. “So she killed one criminal. Does that erase all her crimes? Do you think if Walder Frey had killed Rorge, old Lord Stark would’ve let him live?”

Gendry shook his head. “What crimes, Lem?”

“She’s a lion, Gendry! They killed my wife! They killed my daughter!” He stopped for a moment and looked up at the porch as two little boys came running out of the inn, chasing each other into the mud. Willow could be heard shouting for them to come back inside. “They won’t stop until the whole world’s nothing but orphans, Gendry,” Lem said grimly. “Not unless we hang them all. They’re all guilty.”

“They’re all guilty,” Gendry repeated. “And what are we?”

Lem stared up at the moon and then spat. “What we have to be.” He looked up at Gendry. “She’s gotta hang, Gendry, and you know it. Now go get some sleep.” He raised the Hound’s helm and put it on his head then, and walked off toward the men he had assigned to first watch without another word.

Gendry watched him go and shivered at that helmet glinting in the moonlight. And what are we? he wondered again.

 

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Brienne woke in the darkness just before dawn after a few hours of restless, dream-filled sleep. “Who’s there?” she hissed when she realized someone was in the room.

“Hush,” came Gendry’s voice. “They’ve only just ridden out. We have to wait a moment.”

“Wait for what?”

“Hush.”

She fell silent and realized that Gendry had started undoing the bindings on her wrist and around the splint on her arm. Wordlessly, she watched him free her from the ties and then go to stand near the window.

“Okay,” he said. “They’ll ride a ways down the Kingsroad because Lem likes to hang the men along the roadside so travelers can see. There are already enough corpses in the trees near the inn.”

“We saw them,” Brienne said quietly, wondering what the boy was doing here.

“Lem didn’t want me to go with them. He’s going to get the others all whipped up hanging the rest of Rorge’s men. He’ll talk about justice and vengeance and how it’s all up to us.” He had said that as he stared out the window. Now he turned to face Brienne. “They’ll be ready to hang you when they come back.”

Brienne felt her heart sink. She had no response to that so she remained silent.

“We don’t have much time,” Gendry said. “There’s one pretty good horse left in the stable. We can saddle him and get you out of here if you can ride with that arm. Those ribs will hurt like the devil on horseback, too.”

Brienne wasn’t sure she was hearing correctly. “I can ride,” she said. “Where are we going?”

“Not we. You. Didn’t you say you wanted to find Lady Stark?”

Now her heart leapt. “Yes, yes,” she whispered. “We have to get Pod and Hyle, though.”

“No,” Gendry said.

“What? I’m not leaving them,” she told him. “I couldn’t do that.”

“You have to. I’ve only got the one horse that might be fast enough. And I don‘t trust Hunt anyway.”

She felt her heart sink. “I cannot leave them to hang.”

“You’re not leaving them to hang. You’re leaving them to me.” He sighed. "Will you at least come to the stable with me? I can tell you the rest there while I saddle the horse.”

She hesitated. She was not leaving Pod or Hyle whatever the boy said, but she could talk to him in the stable. Perhaps if she could just get out of this room, something else would come to her.

They crept down the stairs. In the common room, they were stopped by Jeyne Heddle, and Brienne’s heart sank again.

“Here,” said the girl, handing Gendry a large bundle. “I’ve got the others when you’re ready for them.”

It dawned on Brienne that the girl was helping them. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Don’t thank me,” said the girl in a cold voice. “This is his doing, not mine. I put some more rags soaked in the stuff for your face in here. Keep that wound clean and covered or it will fester for sure.” She turned on her heel and walked off.

“She’s not happy about this,” Gendry said. “But she likes me well enough to want me gone before Lem gets back, and she is grateful to you for defending Willow even if she won’t admit it.”

He was out the door and headed to the stables before she had a chance to respond. Chasing after him, Brienne hissed, “I thought you weren’t coming with me.”

“I’m not,” Gendry said. “I can’t leave the Brotherhood. You aren’t the only one who keeps oaths, milady.”

They had reached the stables, and he walked straight up to a big chestnut gelding. Gendry stroked the animal’s neck. “He’s strong, his feet are healthy, and he’s got four good shoes.” He started to grab the saddle.

“Wait,” said Brienne. “I told you I’m not leaving Pod and Ser Hyle.”

“You have to,” Gendry told her. “I’ll take them to Lord Beric for trial. I’ll have to go myself, anyway, to explain what I’ve done here and accept whatever punishment Lord Beric decides for me.”

“What?”

“Lem is wrong,” Gendry said simply. “But he is my brother and I’m going against him. That won’t sit well with the rest of them. They won’t string me up without a trial, though. Rather than sit around and wait on them, I’m riding for Lord Beric as soon as I get you gone, and I’m taking your two friends with me. I’ll have to tie their hands, but I won’t treat them badly.”

“You’re crazy,” Brienne said, shaking her head. She couldn’t understand why this boy was doing this or why he thought she’d agree to turn her friends over to another outlaw.

“Lord Beric won’t hang Pod,” he said. “I’m sure of it. He’s just a kid.”

Brienne fought down an absurd desire to laugh. If Gendry was older than Pod at all, it wasn’t by much.

“I’m not as sure about Ser Hyle," Gendry continued, "but I don’t think he’ll hang him. There’s no evidence he’s done anything really, except leave Lord Tarly’s service to ride around with you.” He’d been fiddling with the saddle as he spoke, but he stopped now and looked at Brienne. “I realize you have no reason to believe me, milady, but Lord Beric is not Lem. He won’t hang any of us without listening to us. It’s the best I can do.”

“It’s not good enough,” she told him.

“It has to be. Otherwise the three of you will hang as soon as Lem and the others get back. I am sure of that.”

He certainly sounded sure. She sighed. “Where am I riding?” she asked him.

“Probably to your death.” He shook his head. “The Starks have a two day start on you. I know they have to stop at some point to meet someone Mya has arranged for them, but I don’t know when that is. You will be pursued, milady. You cannot stop to rest until you catch up with them, and with your injuries . . .” He shook his head again. “This may do nothing but delay your death.”

“Where am I riding?” she asked again.

“The High Road. The Starks and their men ride for the Eyrie. They number about twenty.”

She nodded. The High Road was dangerous in the best of times. With winter fast approaching, it could be deadly. As if he had read her thoughts, Gendry pulled a thick cloak from behind a food trough. “Here. It isn’t much, but it’s all I could get my hands on.”

She pulled it to her. “What if they decide to pursue you?” she asked.

“Oh, they will.” Gendry shrugged. “There are eight of them. They can split up. But Lem will want you. He'll be coming your way, milady. And any who may come after me will simply ride with us to see Lord Beric. Without Lem, I can persuade them to let your friends have their trial with Lord Beric since we’ll be going there for me anyway.”

“How are you so sure Lem will come after me? Won’t he be angry at you?” Brienne could imagine the big man’s fury when he discovered what Gendry had done.

“Oh, he will be. But he knows me. When Jeyne tells him I’ve gone to our lord, he’ll know she speaks true. He can always find me. It’s you he won’t want to lose. And he knows where you’ll go, milady. You cannot stop.”

The horse was tacked now, and Brienne noted that in addition to the bag Jeyne had provided, two thick furs were rolled and secured to the saddle.

“Thank you, Gendry,” she said. “Will you tell Pod and Hyle that I . . .” she wasn’t sure what to say.

“I’ll tell them,” Gendry said. “Now go.”

Brienne pulled herself into the saddle with her ribs protesting all the way, and one arm feeling awkward and useless. It was no matter. She could not pay any mind to that. Once she was mounted, Gendry handed her Oathkeeper in its scabbard. She fastened it around her with some difficulty in using the hand and fingers on her broken arm. She felt terrible about leaving Pod and Hyle. She almost felt as if she were being torn in two thinking about them. But Gendry was right. This was the only chance any of them had.

She smiled sadly at the boy with Renly Baratheon‘s blue eyes. “I never knew King Robert,” she said suddenly. “But his brother Renly was the finest man who ever lived. You are like him, I think. I trust you to take care of Pod and Ser Hyle.” Then she kicked the horse and rode out of the stable. By the time the sun came up, she was galloping along the High Road.

Chapter Text

Early on the morning of their fourth day on the High Road, Catelyn Stark crawled out from underneath her furs having slept little, if any. She had been settled out of the wind in the protection of an overhanging rock formation, and the campfire had been near enough, but she’d shivered throughout the night anyway. She’d been frightened without Ned there--frightened that something would happen to him, frightened that she would cry out in her sleep when the nightmares came, frightened by the fact that she couldn’t seem to breathe in the dark unless her husband was beside her.

Pulling her cloak around her, she walked to stand beside the fire. Two men were sitting there already, and they nodded politely to her. They didn’t look at her as if she might be mad or wounded, so perhaps she hadn’t screamed during the night. She didn’t remember any nightmares, but then again, perhaps she hadn’t slept long enough to have any. She looked into the trees up the gently sloping hill to her left where Ned had disappeared with Mya and two others the day before and willed him to return quickly this morning. Gods! This won’t do at all! I have to get a grip on myself.

She and Ned had often slept apart in the early years of their marriage, and although they had long since fallen into the habit of spending every night together in Winterfell, they had endured lengthy separations when he was off at war or visiting his bannermen. While she missed him terribly when he was gone, and some nights dreaded going to her empty bed, she had never come as completely undone as she had last night. Perhaps I am mad, she thought. The only thing that had kept her beneath her furs as a thousand terrors ran through her mind was the thought of the men sleeping and watching all around her. She was the Lady of Winterfell, wife of Lord Eddard Stark, and she would not dissolve into tears or run screaming into the woods and shame her husband in front of his men. So she had lain still and silent, shivering from fears she could name and fears she could not. Mostly, though, she feared what she had become--a creature so weak that a single night without Ned holding on to her reduced her to panic. Catelyn Stark had never tolerated weakness in herself.

The men by the fire were heating a pot of tea, and one of them handed her a cup. She murmured her thanks and sat down on the ground. More men were stirring now as the camp awoke for the day, and a man named Aljen came up to her. He was one of Reed’s men, small like most crannogmen, and he had an easy manner about him.

“Good morrow, Lady Stark,” he said with a smile. “Lord Reed says that if the Stone Crows answered the signal last night, Lord Stark and the others should be back here well before midday.”

She nodded absently. “I hope he is right. I would like to continue on as quickly as possible” And I need to see Ned. I need him beside me. Unable to remain still, she stood up and began walking aimlessly about. She found a man breaking bread to soak in a broth and offered to help him, just to have something to do with her hands.

They had arrived at this place near midday the previous day, and Mya had announced this was where they needed to stop. To signal Petyr’s men, she would have to climb a ways up the hillside into the dense forest. She told them it was about a two hour walk to the spot, and that the signal was given at night. Ned, of course, had refused to consider allowing her to go alone, and Mya had insisted that a large company might frighten the Stone Crows off. In the end, it was decided that she and Ned would take just two others, and the large part of the company would camp near the road. Catelyn had considered demanding that Ned take her with him, but she knew he wanted her kept safe, and that she had nothing really to contribute to the group going with Mya. So, she had bitten her tongue and told herself she could survive one night without her husband. Well, I did survive, she told herself, if only just barely.

Just as she was breaking up the last loaf of bread, Howland Reed approached. “How fare you this morning, my lady?” he said in greeting.

She smiled at him and wondered if he somehow knew how poorly she fared. “Well enough,” she said non-commitally. “I am anxious for my lord husband’s return and our continued progress toward the Eyrie.”

“As are we all, my lady,” Lord Reed responded. He offered a hand to her. “Would you care to walk with me, Lady Stark?”

Catelyn looked at the crannogman, wondering what he wished to discuss. “Certainly, Lord Reed.” She accepted his assistance in rising and took his arm.

He led her a short distance from the rest of the their men and chuckled softly as he took note of her repeatedly checking that they remained within sight of at least some of them.

“You have nothing to fear, my lady,” he said with a smile.

“Oh!” she said, and felt the flush in her cheeks. “Of course not! I do not mistrust you, my lord. It is only . . .” She hesitated, not truly wanting to explain to Howland Reed her need to safeguard her honor from any hint of fault.

It appeared no explanation was necessary, however, as he looked at her with that disconcerting gaze of his and said, “I know what you fear, my lady, and you have no need. There is not a man here who holds you in less than the highest regard.”

“Am I that transparent?” she asked.

He smiled again. “Only to someone looking closely. But I assure you, were the two of us to disappear for the next hour, none here would look askance at you.” She must have looked alarmed, because he quickly added. “We’ll be staying right here, however. I’d hate poor Donnell to have to leave his breakfast in order to follow.”

“Donnell?” she asked, bewildered by the sudden reference to Boden.

Reed tipped his head toward the nearest group of men, and Catelyn saw that Donnell Boden had indeed joined that bunch, sitting on a fallen log, eating and talking with the others, but casting frequent glances in her direction.

“Your husband gave him very clear instructions not to let you out of his sight,” Reed said with a smile.

“Oh.” She had wanted Donnell to go with Ned and Mya, but Ned had decreed he should remain here to look after her. Their conversation had been remarkably similar to the one they’d had before the battle at Riverrun, but Ned had refused to back down this time. She bit her lip as she thought of Ned, wondering when he would return and praying it would be soon.

Lord Reed must have seen the concern on her face, but mistook the cause. “Donnell is to guard your safety, not your honor, my lady. Lord Stark knows well he has no cause to doubt you.”

Does he? Catelyn wondered. Littlefinger’s little plaything. Unbidden, Jaime Lannister’s taunting words came back to her. The Kingslayer had made the accusation to her before, as had his brother the Imp. Had Petyr truly spread such tales in Kings Landing? Had Ned heard it before? Surely he couldn’t believe such a thing of me! She swallowed hard against the lump that formed in her throat at the thought Ned might doubt her.

“Lady Stark? Are you quite well?” came Reed’s quiet voice beside her.

“Oh, yes, Lord Reed,” she answered, forcing herself to attend to the man speaking with her instead of her own troubling thoughts. “Please forgive me. I fear my thoughts are very much with my husband. What did you wish to speak to me about?”

He looked at her steadily once again. “It is natural you should dislike being separated, my lady. You believed him lost to you for so long, and have had him with you again for only a little while yet.”

Catelyn stared at the man, wondering if Ned wasn’t correct in his assertion that Howland Reed could read minds. “Well . . .yes,” she said. “But he shall doubtless be back soon. You did have something you wished to discuss, did you not? Or did you truly just desire my company while you stretched your legs?”

Reed laughed at that. “I find your company most pleasant, Lady Stark. So much so, that I confess I am quite aggravated with my friend Lord Eddard for depriving me of it for so many years. However, I did wish to ask you whether you had decided to speak to him about young Robb’s wishes concerning his heir.”

That surprised her. “He did not tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“I told him about it before the battle at Riverrun.” In truth, she had almost forgotten about that early part of their conversation that day, considering the magnitude of Ned’s revelation afterward. And neither of them had spoken of Robb’s decree since then. “You were correct in thinking he does not wish it done,” she said softly. “Although, I fear he was somewhat angry that you hadn’t told him of it.”

“Yes, I imagined he would be,” Reed said softly. “And yet, he has never come to me about it.” He looked at Catelyn intently again. “Something more pressing must have put it from his mind.” He continued staring at her.

She hesitated only briefly. “He told me,” she said simply. When Reed said nothing, she added, “He told me all of it. He says you are the only other person who knows.”

Howland Reed nodded slowly. “I am glad he told you in spite of his fears. He is not made for lies. It has been a very difficult thing for him.”

Catelyn felt a flash of anger rise at that. A difficult thing for him? And what has it been for me? But she would not criticize her husband to his bannerman, so she held her tongue. This thing lay between Ned and herself. Howland Reed may know the truth of Jon Snow’s parentage, but she would never discuss with him Ned’s actions or her feelings about them.

“My lord husband did what he thought he must,” she said, keeping her voice even.

Reed nodded again. “Your lord husband generally does what he thinks he must,” he said gently. “And he disregards any pain it causes him. It’s the pain his actions have caused others that troubles him.”

Catelyn knew Lord Reed spoke the truth. She said nothing, because she did not trust herself to speak any further on the subject.

Her husband‘s friend must have noticed her reticence, for he smiled then and said in a much lighter tone, “Of course, on occasion, that ironclad sense of honor of his does benefit him beyond expectations. He wed you because he thought he must, my lady, and he certainly thanks the gods for that every day!”

She smiled back at him then, but as she started to reply, he suddenly held up a hand for silence and appeared to be listening intently to something she couldn’t hear. “Someone’s coming,” he said tersely.

“Ned?” she asked breathlessly, turning back in the direction of the trail Ned and his companions had taken the previous day.

“No,” Lord Reed said. “Riders. On the road. And coming fast.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Ned’s leg felt as if it were being stabbed with every step as he and the others made their way back toward camp. Catelyn had warned him that an extended trek through wooded, hilly terrain would be difficult for him, but he had shrugged off her objections. He was the leader of this expedition, for gods’ sake! He couldn’t very well play the invalid and sit around a campfire while he let others put themselves in danger. He had to be the one to go. He had to meet these Stone Crows himself before putting his wife and his men into their hands.

And meet them, he had. Just before dawn, three men had come in answer to their signal fire. All had wild hair and beards and were dressed in odd combinations of animal skins and mail. Two wore well-made helms, and all three had swords of what appeared to be good castle-forged steel. Someone was paying these men, indeed.

Mya had greeted all three by name. Mogga, Hugor, and Romm, they were called. She had asked about the fourth, a man named Jaggot, and Hugor had told her that when she delayed so long in coming, Jaggot had left for the Eyrie to report to Lord Baelish that she had chosen not to return with them straight away lest he believe they had betrayed him somehow. The other three had stayed nearby, taking turns watching for Mya’s signal.

It was a rather ingenious signal system. After a long and rather arduous walk over terrain often far too steep for horses, Mya had led them into what appeared to be a cave. Once through the entry however, it proved to be more of a chimney, open to the top. It curved away from the opening into almost a complete second chamber which had only one small window-like opening in the rock. In this chamber, they had built a fire, visible to the outside only through that small rock window, and because of the lay of the land, visible only to someone who knew precisely where to stand and look for it.

They had arrived at the place well before sundown. He had agreed then to sit and rest his leg while his two men gathered wood to make the fire. He had expected Mya to go with them, but she had remained with him. As soon as they had left, she had surprised him by pulling a small bottle from her bag and grinning at him.

“Lady Stark said I am to rub this on your leg, my lord,” she had said with an infuriating grin on her face.

“That will not be necessary, Mya,” he had replied stiffly. “My leg is fine.”

“No it isn’t. You’re limping a lot worse than you usually do. Lady Stark said you would by the time we got here. She asked me a lot about what the trail was like. She said that . . .”

“It would appear that Lady Stark said a lot of things,” he interrupted. “But I do not require you to tend my leg.”

“She said you’d say that, too,” Mya told him complacently. “And that she expected me to tend your leg anyway. She insisted that I not take no for an answer, my lord.” She hesitated slightly then. “And I am to tell you that you shall regret it more than I if I fail to do so.” The girl at least had the decency to look down when she delivered Catelyn’s threat.

Ned had been tired, hungry, and thoroughly annoyed with both his wife and this infuriating young woman by this point. “Mya,” he said, “I am not about to let you rub anything onto my leg. My wife means well, but it’s hardly proper for . . .”

“As to being proper, my lord, she did say as you’d probably prefer me just to roll up your breeches rather than take them off.” That had left Ned speechless and before he recovered, the girl continued, “so if you’ll just go ahead and let me do that, my lord, I can have this finished before the others come back.” The look she gave him clearly stated she would not hesitate to continue this argument in front of the men.

Ned had conceded defeat and rolled up the leg of his breeches. True to her word, Mya worked quickly and efficiently, rubbing the salve into his leg, and she had it rewrapped long before the other two returned with not only wood but two freshly killed rabbits.

Limping along the trail now, Ned conceded silently that he probably would not have been able to walk at all at this point had Catelyn not sent the bloody stuff and ordered Mya to force it on him. He smiled at the thought that he was within an hour of being back with his beautiful, if sometimes infuriating wife. Last night had been the first one he’d spent apart from her since he’d gotten her back, and he’d found it even more difficult than he’d expected.

He hadn’t slept at all and wondered if she had. He wondered if her nightmares would trouble her more with him gone. He’d confided briefly to Donnell that her sleep was often troubled, and asked him to stay close to her through the night. Undoubtedly, Donnell knew something of her nightmares as he had been one of their guards at their tent outside the Twins, and her screams those first nights would have been easily heard outside. Gods, do not let her be frightened, he’d prayed.

Ned had been the one on watch when the Stone Crows arrived. They’d been rather surprised to find Mya now accompanied by three northmen. As agreed, Mya explained to them that this was why she had stayed behind. Lord Baelish had sent letters to these men with a business proposition, and they had sent word to her in Saltpans that they were prepared to ride to the Vale and discuss the matter with him.

Mogga had at first demanded to know what sort of business, but Ned has simply looked coldly at him and asked if he made a habit of inquiring into Lord Baelish’s private matters. The man called Hugor had then hit Mogga hard between the shoulder blades and told him their only business was to get Mya and the rest up the High Road to the Bloody Gate. There they’d collect their pay and leave the rest to Lord Baelish.

When they’d explained to the Stone Crows that they had an escort of about twenty men waiting for them by the road, Hugor had laughed and told them they didn’t need them. “No one will attack the Stone Crows!” he roared. “No one will be so foolish!”

Ned hoped the man was correct. Catelyn had told him of her perilous trip to the Eyrie with Tyrion Lannister during which they’d suffered multiple attacks by clansmen. Her eyes always filled with a dark guilt when she spoke of it, and he knew she felt responsible for the men who died on that journey. He wanted no clan attacks to put her at risk or to bring those memories to her mind.

He misliked that Baelish would hear of Mya’s delaying her departure from Saltpans and hoped it wouldn’t make the man more vigilant upon her return. He feared it would cause the man to be suspicious, though. Baelish was suspicious by nature. He wondered when Brynden Tully would reach Riverrun and send the letter he’d given him for Yohn Royce at Runestone. If Baelish suspected Mya of any deception, Ned feared he may have even more need of Bronze Yohn.

The thought of Brynden Tully caused Ned to remember the man’s cold look at him after the damned Kingslayer’s filthy words to Catelyn about Jon Snow’s mother. He could deal with the Blackfish’s disdain for him. It was his pity for Cat and how it shamed her that made his blood boil. At least a dozen men had heard clearly what Lannister had said to her. He doubted that she’d suffered many insults quite so blatantly vile over the years, but certainly she’d endured any number of veiled insults to his character and countless pitying glances from other ladies. He’d closed his eyes to how deeply his actions had shamed her, he realized. Now, she knew the truth, and yet still in the eyes of others, he shamed her. As he limped along behind Mogga, Ned prayed she would continue to forgive him. He could not truly regret protecting Jon, but he would regret until he died every moment of pain his decision had caused her.

He realized the descent had become much gentler. They were on the last easy slope just beyond their camp. His heart leapt at the thought of seeing her. The pain in his leg didn’t even seem so great and he quickened his step, overtaking Mogga and coming up beside Mya, who had stopped.

“Why have you . .”

“Shh,” Mya said, holding up a hand.

Then Ned realized why they had stopped. Noises came from the direction of the camp. There were shouts and the sounds of men moving quickly. Horses stomped. Suddenly one voice which Ned did not recognize called out clearly, “The woman’s our rightful prisoner, and we’re taking her!”

His blood ran cold.

“Cat!” he shouted. Then without a thought for caution or for his injured leg, he ran toward the camp as quickly as he was able.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Brienne was panting as hard as her horse as she kicked its sides and urged it to gallop faster. She hadn’t eaten or slept in gods knew how long, and had stopped only when the horse couldn’t go any further without rest. Her broken ribs screamed with the horse’s every stride and the wrist of her broken arm had long since gone numb as she gripped the reins. She had done all she could, and still they had caught her.

She quickly looked over her shoulder and saw that the two horsemen galloping behind her had closed a little more of the distance. She could recognize Lem by the Hound’s helm he wore. Gendry had been right in his supposition that he would chase her down himself. She did not know who the second man was. She kicked her horse again and gave a cry of frustration. The poor beast simply had no more to give. She could feel it slowing. Soon the men would be upon her, and there was no way she could fight both of them in her current condition.

I am sorry, my lady, she thought. I have failed you again.

Just then, she heard a man shouting. As she wondered vaguely why Lem was wasting breath yelling at her, she realized the shouts were coming from in front of her. She saw three mounted men appear from the side of the road and ride out to block her way. She slowed her horse and waved her arms over her head.

“Mercy!” she cried. “Mercy, good sers!”

Lem and his companion were still riding at full speed. She could hear the hooves of their horses behind her. Suddenly she felt a sharp pain just to the side of her left shoulder blade. What? Then an arrow sailed beside her face and she realized what had caused the pain. Lem’s companion was an archer and he was shooting at her.

Now one of the men in front of her shouted in outrage as his horse reared. The arrow which had just missed her had struck the beast’s foreleg. The man drew a sword and rode past her toward Lem and his archer. She saw more men coming from the trees, a few on horseback, but most on foot. Lem and the man with him had stopped now, turning their horses round and round as if not sure whether to flee or fight or surrender.

One of the mounted men in front of her had now ridden up and grabbed her reins. “You’ll be coming with us, lad,” he said.

“I’m . . I’m not . . I’m . .” she could barely speak for breathing so hard and greatly feared she was about to fall off her horse. She shook her head and tried to focus on the man’s face which seemed out of focus. “Who’s man are you?” she managed to gasp finally.

He looked shocked by the sound of her voice, and some small part of her recognized that he had just realized her to be a woman. “We’re Lord Eddard Stark’s men, my . . my lady,” he said.

At that, a wordless cry of relief escaped her, and she very nearly did fall off her horse as she lunged sideways to grab the front of the man’s mail shirt. “Take me to the Lady Catelyn,” she begged him. “Please, ser. Please.”

The startled man must have touched the arrow sticking out of her as he went to grab her because she felt a fresh stab of pain and then heard him cry out, “Somebody help me with her! She’s wounded!”

Brienne was vaguely aware of other arms holding her as they slid her off the horse, and as she began to lose consciousness, she heard a familiar female voice ring out in clear, authoritative tones, “Be certain they are disarmed, Donnell! And then bring them here that we may find who they are!”

My lady, she thought. You do live. Then she knew no more.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Lord Reed had shouted “Horses!” to Donnell and the men with him, and they had instantly run for their own mounts, already saddled. As those men galloped toward the High Road, Catelyn and Reed ran after them in the same direction. Aljen and another of Reed’s men ran up to them with Reed’s sword which they handed to him.

He turned to Catelyn. “Stay here, my lady!” Turning to Aljen, he said, “Stay with her. Allow no harm to come to her!”

Aljen took her arm as Lord Reed ran toward the road, now joined by most of the other men on foot or on horseback.

“Let go of me, Aljen,” she said irritably, jerking her arm.

“I can’t do that, my lady,” he said apologetically. “You’ll run after them if I do, and I don’t know what’s out there.”

She glared at him, but as her heart rate slowed a little, she realized he was right. They did not who was on the road, nor how many, nor what purpose they had. She certainly had no business running into a battle.

“Let’s walk then, Aljen,” she said reasonably. “I’d like to get close enough to know what is happening, but if it is too dangerous, I promise I will turn back at your direction.”

He looked at her and then nodded. She knew he wanted to see what was happening as well.

They walked to the edge of their camp closest to the road and could see two men pulling a tall youth off his horse. The poor boy looked to be half unconscious. Just down the road, Donnell Boden and several other horsemen had two mounted men encircled. The one held his arms above his head, a bow in his right hand. The other continued to brandish a sword, and Catelyn saw with a start that he wore the same hound’s head helm she remembered seeing on Sandor Clegane at Winterfell. We were told the Hound was dead, she thought.

The shouting had died down a bit, and she called out to Boden. “Be certain they are disarmed, Donnell! And then bring them here that we may find out who they are!”

The two men who had the youth supported between them were already coming toward her. “My lady!” one of them called out. “This one’s wounded! And she said to bring her to you, my lady!”

Her? Oh gods be good, could it be? Catelyn ran then, and met the men with their burden before they had gotten another three paces. She put her hand under the chin of the unconscious woman and raised her face. She drew her breath in sharply at the sight of the mauled cheek, but she recognized the broad face at once even with the big, blue eyes closed , one of them swollen shut. “Oh, Brienne,” she said softly. Louder, she called, “Bring me clean water, and make a place to lay her down!”

As several men ran to do her bidding regarding Brienne, she saw Donnell approaching with the two men from the horses, now on foot and with their hands bound. The one still wore the hound helmet.

“Remove his helm,” she commanded. Donnell did so, and the man revealed had a full head of hair, no burns on his face, and a bushy brown beard. “You wear the helmet of a dead villain, ser,” she said coldly. “Pray tell us why you would ride down and attack this young woman?”

“She’s a Lannister whore and a traitor, milady,” the man spat. “We took her to be tried and hanged for her crimes, but she escaped. Now we’re here to get her back.”

“She is Lady Brienne of Tarth,” Catelyn responded. “And she is under my protection. You shall pay dearly for this assault upon her.” Catelyn looked to where her men had laid Brienne face down to see to the arrow in the far left side of her upper back. “Look at her!” she shouted at the two before her. “There’s scarcely an uninjured place on her! What sort of fiends are you?”

“We didn’t do none of that!” protested the second man. “Well, I shot the arrow, yes, but all that other stuff happened when she fought Rorge and the Biter!”

“Shut up!” the brown-bearded man told him. “That doesn’t matter none.”

Rorge and the Biter, Catelyn was thinking. Where have I heard those names?

“You’re Lady Catelyn Stark, aren’t you?” Brown Beard was saying.

“I am,” she replied.

“I’m Lemoncloak,” the man said. “I’m one of Lord Beric’s men.”

Catelyn raised her eyebrows. “And does Lord Beric Dondarrion know that his men are out accosting women?”

“Not women, milady. Traitors, murderers, and whores. This one said she was sworn to you, but we caught her with a Lannister sword and a paper from the boy king saying she’s about Lannister business. Said she was looking for your daughter. No doubt to sell her to that other whore Cersei Lannister!”

“Lady Brienne is no traitor, Lemoncloak. She told you true that she is sworn to my service. And she swore an oath to find my daughters and keep them safe.” Even when she believed me dead, Catelyn thought, remembering the Kingslayer’s words in the inn at the crossroad.

“Look at her sword, milady,” the man called Lemoncloak insisted. “Then you’ll see I’m telling the truth about her. Anguy told it true that she got injured in a fight. Happened right in the yard of the inn, and we took her in to tend her injuries. And all the while she was unconscious, she kept calling out, “Jaime, Jaime!” Then we looked through her things and we figured it out.”

As if she had heard the man, Brienne stirred on her pallet just then, and murmured, “Jaime” softly, but not so softly that Catelyn couldn’t hear.

She looked at the young woman. “Give me her sword,” she said.

As soon as it was drawn from the scabbard, all the men near enough to see gasped at the sight. Catelyn took it in her hand and looked at the handle with its gold and rubies, an ornate lion’s head for a pommel. The blade was even more impressive. She had seen her husband clean Ice often enough to recognize Valyrian steel when she saw it. This blade differed from Ice in that it had crimson ripples intermixed with the black, but it was Valyrian steel nonetheless.

“Where did she get this?” she asked the men. “Did she say?”

“Sure she did,” said Lemoncloak. “She told us the bloody Kingslayer gave it to her! She’s his whore I tell you, and if you can’t see it then you’re a damned fool of a woman!”

Lemoncloak had jerked away from the man holding him as he shouted, and he took several steps toward Catelyn. At this, several of the men shouted and about ten ran to grab him and pull him to the ground. The shouting and running startled the horses who began to stomp and snort.

“You will speak no more. I will hear what Lady Brienne says herself when she wakes,” Catelyn told him coldly, looking down at him where her men now held him on his knees before her.

The man’s eyes were defiant as he shouted at her, “The woman’s our rightful prisoner, and we’re taking her!”

“It would appear that you are the prisoner here,” she started to say when suddenly she heard her name shouted loudly.

“Cat!” Ned’s voice rang out from the direction of the trees behind them. She turned to see him emerge a few moments later, running Running? toward her with his sword raised.

“My lord!” she cried. “All is well!” She walked toward him so that he could see she was safe, and her heart lurched to see the fear in his eyes.

He had stopped running when he saw her approach, and now he slowly lowered his sword. “My lady,” he gasped. “I heard the shouting. I feared . . .”

She had reached him now. She knew every man in the camp was looking at them, so while every part of her longed to throw herself into his arms, she merely reached out and took his hand. “I know what you feared, my love,” she whispered. “But I am well.”

Mya, the other two men who had traveled with them, and three shaggy men in outlandish costume of skins and various bits of mail had come out from the wooded path now as well and looked around to see what was going on.

Ned simply stood and stared at her face as if making certain she truly was still in one piece. Finally, he said simply, “I . . .missed you, my lady. And I am glad to find you well.”

She smiled. “You just missed all the excitement here, I fear. Come, my lord, we have much to speak about.” She took his arm and was dismayed at the severity of his limp as they walked back toward her injured woman and new prisoners. “Oh gods, Ned! Your poor leg!”

“It’s fine,” he lied.

She shook her head. But, in truth, she knew they could deal with the leg. He was here beside her again, and in spite of the complications that had just entered their camp and her confusion about precisely what Brienne’s lion’s head sword meant, she now breathed easily for the first time since yesterday.

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Ned Stark sat with his leg propped up. His wife had slathered more foul smelling ointment on it, wrapped it, and forbidden him to move. They obviously weren’t going anywhere today, much to his frustration, so an actual tent had been erected, and the tallest woman he had ever seen lay stretched out on a pallet laid on the ground in the tent beside him. She appeared to have been beaten almost to death. She had a broken arm, which Howland Reed proclaimed had been well set, and half her face appeared to have been torn off by a wild animal. Reed said that wound was remarkably clean, and he had discovered linens with some form of linament in a bundle tied to her saddle.

“Someone treated her injuries as well as they could, my lord,” he said. “And the arrow wound is very shallow. I think she still sleeps mostly from exhaustion. Her life is not in danger.”

That had cheered Catelyn. She was obviously very fond of the girl even if she was troubled by Lemoncloak’s tale and that fancy Lannister sword. Valyrian steel, Ned thought. Tywin Lannister had wanted to own a Valyrian steel sword for as long as Ned could recall. It would appear he’d found one. So how did Catelyn’s odd little vassal wind up with it?

He looked again at the sleeping woman. “Little” was probably not the word to use. Ned thought the woman may well be taller than he when she stood up. But she was apparently Catelyn’s vassal of sorts. His wife had spirited this odd woman away when she was suspected of Renly Baratheon’s death, and in turn the woman had sworn herself to Catelyn’s service, not Robb’s, but Catelyn’s. She had told him the story one night during their journey from Riverrun. “I’ve watched you accept enough oaths of service,” she had told him with a smile. “I knew the words well enough.”

He had laughed then. He wasn’t laughing now. This injured woman was under Catelyn’s protection. They couldn’t very well leave her, but he was eager to press on toward the Eyrie. And if this woman had actually developed some sort of loyalty to Jaime Lannister, then she was Catelyn’s to pass judgment on. He shook his head and hoped that Catelyn’s faith in the woman was not misplaced.

Mya had been surprised to find Lemoncloak and Anguy held prisoner in the camp. She had confirmed they were Beric Dondarrion’s men. Lemoncloak had been the one to find her in Saltpans. She said he could be hot tempered and vengeful at times, but she didn’t believe him to be a bad man. She had tried to talk to them, but Lemoncloak had told her he had nothing more to say, and Anguy had told her only that Gendry had apparently set Lady Brienne free before Lemoncloak had told him not to say anything else.

The fact that Gendry had set the woman free spoke in her favor as far as Ned was concerned. He found it hard to believe that Gendry would break faith with Dondarrion’s men over anything other than a terrible miscarriage of justice.

Deep in thought about all these things, he barely noticed Catelyn coming back into the tent. “How’s the leg, my love?” she asked him.

“Fine,” he answered absently.

She laughed at him. “You need a new word, Ned. That one is becoming rather tired.” She came and prodded his leg just below the knee, and he winced. “Not quite fine, then,” she said. “You will absolutely stay off it until tomorrow.”

“Yes, my lady,” he said with exaggerated courtesy. “Sending Mya with your nasty potion was sneaky trick, by the way.”

She laughed again. “If I’d sent it with you, you simply would have neglected to use it.” She looked down at Brienne and sighed. “I wish she’d wake. I know Lord Reed says she needs to sleep, but I so want to speak with her.”

“I know, my love,” Ned said. “Come here.”

When she got within his reach, Ned reached up and grabbed her by the hands, pulling her into his lap. “I’ve barely gotten to touch you since I’ve gotten back,” he said, nuzzling her neck.

“Ned! Brienne is right there.”

“And completely insensible.” He turned her face toward him and kissed her. He felt her respond to the kiss and he pulled her tighter against him. When they finally pulled apart, both were breathing raggedly and he noted her lips were puffy. “I missed you badly,” he said.

“I missed you,” she whispered. “I did not sleep.”

“Nor did I,” he told her. “I find it . . ..difficult to be away from you.” He shook his head. “I could not keep from thinking of you.”

“I felt the same,” she told him. “Lord Reed said that having believed you . . .dead” She whispered the word as if she feared to say it aloud, “ for so long, that it is unsurprising I want you with me always now.”

“Lord Reed, eh?” he asked her. “You discussed this with Lord Reed?”

“Not really. He simply made the observation when he saw how distracted I was.”

Ned smiled and wound her hair absently around his fingers. “Yes, he’s irritatingly observant.”

“I told him that you told me about Jon,” she suddenly blurted out.

Ned raised his brows at that. “You did?”

“He asked me if I had told you about Robb’s decree about Jon being his heir, and I said yes, and then I just told him that I knew.” She looked at him as if she feared he might be angry with her.

“It’s all right, Cat,” he assured her. He’s known the truth as long as I have after all.”

“You never told him you told me. Why not?”

He shrugged slightly. “He never asked me.”

She sighed and ruffled his hair back. “Do you ever tell anyone anything unless they specifically ask you, my lord?”

He thought about that for a moment. “Not often,” he admitted. “Did you and Howland discuss Jon’s origins at length?” He realized that he didn’t want the two of them discussing it. They may be the only two people in the world who knew what he’d done, but he didn’t like the idea of them talking about it in his absence.

“No,” she said. She pulled back far enough to look him in the face. “I am still angry at times, Ned. And hurt.” She paused. “But those are not things I would discuss with anyone save you. Ever.”

He nodded and pulled her back against him, holding her tight in his arms. “I would take the hurt from you if I could, Cat.”

“I know,” she said simply.

They sat silently for a moment, and then she pulled away again. “I’m going to go get us something to eat, my lord.”

She knelt down to feel Lady Brienne’s forehead before leaving. “She’s not feverish,” she said, “and her breathing is easy. Mayhaps she simply does need to sleep until morning.” She stood back up, but continued looking down at the sleeping woman. “And then she will answer all our questions and put any foolish doubts to rest,” she said firmly, but Ned still heard an edge of doubt in her voice. She looked up at him with a sad smile, and then she walked from the tent.

Ned looked after her for a long while and then looked down at the sleeping woman.

“Don’t you betray her,” he told the woman softly. “She’s had enough of betrayal and doubt.”

Chapter Text

Ned Stark had fallen into sleep easily enough bundled in furs within the shelter of the tent, his arms around his lady wife. The small twinge of guilt he had felt at sleeping with the twin luxuries of a tent and Catelyn’s arms while the rest of the men slept alone outside had been erased by the presence of the wounded giantess sleeping beside them in the tent. Her presence effectively prevented him from taking advantage of the privacy the tent provided. In truth, he and Catelyn were probably both too exhausted to have done more than sleep in any event. So he had simply pulled her to him beneath the furs, kissed her gently, and held her as she drifted off, following her into slumber soon after.

He was awakened by the sound of a woman’s voice uttering a soft frightened cry. Instinctively, he reached for his wife, whispering, “Cat, I am here. You are safe.” Then the cry came again, and he realized that his wife slumbered on quietly. The sound was from further away.

He sat up and tried to get his eyes to focus in the dark. The woman who slept only a few feet on the other side of Catelyn was thrashing about on her pallet. “No,” she said. “Please, no.”

Ned had no idea what to do about the nightmares of this other woman, and was about to wake his wife, when the Lady Brienne suddenly called out, “Jaime! Jaime, please!” Ned sat unmoving in the darkness, staring toward the dreaming woman. “Jaime,” she said once more, almost too quietly to be understood. Gods! Ned thought.

He didn’t want to think about what this meant. He certainly no longer wanted to wake Catelyn, but he also no longer had any inclination to sleep with this woman of unknown loyalties lying unrestrained so close to his wife. The potential threat she posed had been brought up by Donnell, but Catelyn had refused to entertain any talk of removing her from the tent or having her bound in any way. Ned had contented himself with guards just outside, and his belief that even with his leg, he could defend his wife against an injured, unarmed woman.

Now, as his eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, he watched this Maid of Tarth settle into a more quiet slumber and wondered what the hour was. He hoped dawn was not too far off, as he pulled the furs more tightly around Catelyn to fill the space where his body had lain. Carefully, he moved to sit between the two women and determined to watch for whatever remained of the night.

She spoke in her sleep only once more just as pale fingers of light began to creep at the edges of the tent. This time, her body was still and her voice a whisper filled with awe. “My lady,” she said. “You do live.”

Ned’s eyes widened at that, for in that whisper, he heard a faint echo of his own mingled hope and fear when Olyvar Frey had first told him Catelyn lived. There was unmistakable devotion in the woman’s voice, just as there had been unmistakable longing in it when she’d uttered Lannister’s name earlier. It would appear that Brienne of Tarth was a riddle he could not easily solve.

Ned sighed, adjusting his position to ease his leg, and watched the dark slowly diminish as he waited for the sleeping women on either side of him to wake.

 

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Brienne stretched her arms and felt a painful catch in her back just below her left shoulder. The air was cold, but she was covered in something warm and soft. Fur? she thought. There had been furs on her saddle, but she could not stop. She had to keep going. Lem! Lem was going to overtake her. She wouldn’t reach Lady Catelyn. Lady Catelyn! Her lady had spoken! Brienne had heard her. She knew her voice. She was here!

Brienne’s eyes opened and she sat up suddenly at the memory, her broken ribs causing her to breathe in sharply. From beside her came the startled sound of a man’s deep voice.

Blinking, she looked toward the voice and saw a man sitting there who looked like grim death. He had dark hair streaked with grey, and a closely cropped beard of mostly grey. Even his eyes looked grey, but that may have been simply the cold grey light in the tent which seemed to leech color away.

“Be still, my lady,” he commanded. “You took an arrow beneath your shoulder. Movement may start it bleeding again.” By the gods, even his voice was grey!

“I . . I . .where am I, ser?” Brienne hesitated, trying to clear her mind. “Lem was chasing me. I heard my lady!” She looked up at the man, then. “Ser, I seek the Lady Catelyn Stark,” she said breathlessly. “Do you know her?”

Just then she noticed movement on the the man’s other side. Someone lying beneath fur coverings was stirring and as the head turned, Brienne caught sight of a long copper braid shining with color even in the grey light.

“My lady!” she cried out loudly and then several things happened at once. The grey man said rather coldly, “What do you wish of her?” Her own Lady Catelyn sat up right in front of her and cried out, “Brienne, child, you are awake!” Two men came rushing into the tent with swords drawn.

Brienne cared only about Lady Catelyn at that point. She lunged forward and grabbed the older woman’s hand in both of her much larger ones, and fell toward her so that her forhead rested on the hands.

One of the swordsmen called out, “You will unhand Lady Stark at once!”

She was vaguely aware of the grey man holding up a hand to stop the other man. “Wait,” he said.

Without raising her eyes, Brienne spoke to Lady Catelyn. “My lady,” she said. “I have failed to return your daughters to you. Forgive me. I remain yours to command, and I will never give up seeking them. I give you my oath.” She remained there, half sitting and half lying prostrate in front of Lady Catelyn, waiting for her answer.

“Oh, Brienne,” her lady said softly. “Look at me.”

She raised her eyes and looked Lady Catelyn in the face. She was shocked to realize that the woman had a number of pale red scars running down both cheeks, and a much wider, darker red slash of a scar visible all the way across her throat just above the neckline of the thick garment she was wearing. “Oh, my lady,” she whispered. “Tell me who has done this, and I will see them dead for you.”

Lady Catelyn shook her head sadly. “I would not have you kill anyone for me, Brienne.”

“You do not wish me to serve you any longer, my lady?” Brienne felt a vague sense of panic at the thought, and tightened her grip on Lady Catelyn’s hand.

“Of course, I do!” Lady Catelyn assured her. “Did I not vow that you should always have a place at my hearth?” She brought her other hand up and laid it over Brienne’s. “But you are not my sword of vengeance, Lady Brienne. Rather I would have your help in rescuing my daughter.”

“The Lady Sansa?” Brienne said. She had been seeking Sansa Stark for so long, it almost felt as if the girl were but a myth or legend. “You know where she is, my lady?”

Lady Catelyn’s face lit up as she smiled and nodded.

Before she could speak further, though, the grey man’s voice interrupted. “My lady, I don’t believe we should speak any further of Sansa quite yet.”

Brienne was startled at the interruption. She had quite forgotten the men were there with them. She turned now to see all three of them staring at her as if they weren’t quite sure what to make of her.

“My lord,” said Lady Catelyn somewhat sharply. “Why don’t you and the others go find some breakfast. Then send Lord Reed to me so he can have a look at Lady Brienne’s injuries. I should like to dress before he comes. If he pronounces her able, we should ride again as soon as possible.”

Brienne swore that the man actually growled low in his throat. “Donnell, you two may leave us. Go to Lord Reed and tell him to attend my lady and her guest after he breaks his fast. Then see that the two men in custody are dressed and fed as well. We have a busy morning ahead of us.”

The two men with swords left, but the lord who had spoken made no move to leave or even to stand up. “Lady Brienne, I am Lord Eddard Stark,” he said.

Gods be good! It was all true! Her lady’s husband lived as well. “Lord Eddard,” she said, bowing her head. “I am most honored to meet you.” She started to rise so that she could kneel properly, but her head began swimming as she got to her feet, and her vision clouded.

“Ned!” she heard Lady Catelyn cry, “She’s going to faint.”

Then she was gripped by a pair of strong arms and slowly lowered back to the furs.

“Here, Brienne,” Lady Catelyn was holding a cup to her lips. “Water,” she said. “With some honey in it for the blood you lost.”

Her vision cleared now that she was back down again and she raised herself on her elbows, as Lady Catelyn tipped the liquid into her mouth. She found she was very thirsty, and she drank it all.

“Thank you, my lady. That is much better.”

“Had you been stopping to rest or eat at all, child?”

Brienne shook her head. “Gendry told me you had two days head start on me. He told me Lem would come after me. I had to reach you before he caught me.”

“It was a very near thing,” Lady Catelyn said, shaking her own head.

“Lady Brienne, why would Lord Dondarrion’s men think you a traitor?” Lord Stark asked her.

“Ned!” Lady Catelyn protested. “She’s barely been awake yet!”

“Catelyn, she will have to answer Lemoncloak’s accusations soon. And before many more people than just the two of us.” Lord Stark’s voice was not truly unkind, but it certainly was not warm.

“I will answer Lord Stark, my lady,” Brienne said quickly. “And I will answer any accusations Lem makes. I have done so once already, and my answers were enough for at least one person.”

“The boy, Gendry,” said Lord Stark.

Brienne nodded, thinking of the boy with Renly’s eyes. “He told me he was riding to Lord Beric once I left. He was turning himself over to his judgment.”

“For letting you go?” Lord Stark asked.

Brienne nodded again and thought she saw approval in the man’s grey eyes. The light was brighter within the tent now, and she could see that they truly were grey. “He took my two companions with him. A knight who in truth had nothing much to do with me, and a boy. Lem would have hanged them without a trial. Gendry promised me that Lord Beric would at least hear what they had to say.”

Lady Catelyn looked thoughtful. “Lord Dondarrion will not hang them for no cause, Brienne,” she said softly. “He is not so far gone as that. Justice is what he holds most tightly to now.”

Brienne didn’t really understand what she meant. Nor did she understand the look that passed from her lady to her lord husband then, or the way those hard grey eyes suddenly softened as he reached out and touched her lady’s hand. Still, she took comfort in Lady Catelyn’s belief that Lord Beric’s justice could be trusted more than Lem’s.

Turning back to her, Lord Stark’s eyes were not quite as cold as they had been before. “Tell us your tale, Lady Brienne.”

She did. She told them all of it--the pursuit on the river by the men from Riverrun, Cleos Frey’s death, their capture by Vargo Hoat who took Ser Jaime’s sword hand, their time at Harrenhall, Jaime’s return to take her from the bear pit, their journey to King’s Landing in the company of Bolton’s men.

“Her account matches the Kingslayer’s point for point,” Lord Stark remarked to his wife when she had gotten that far. “When did you last see Jaime Lannister, my lady?” he asked her.

“After I was released in King’s Landing and he sent me out in search of your daughter, my lord.”

“Released? You were held prisoner?” asked Lady Catelyn.

“Sent you out? Lannister did send you to do his bidding?” asked her husband at the same time.

Brienne looked between the two of them and decided to answer Lady Catelyn first. “Ser Loras Tyrell meant to slay me when he saw me, my lady. You remember he was there.”

Lady Catelyn nodded. As her husband started to ask something, she said quietly, “When Renly died, Ned. Go on, Brienne.”

“Ser Jaime intervened and had me imprisoned. Not in a cell, but confined to my rooms. After awhile, Ser Loras came to me. He said that Ser Jaime had bid him speak with me. If he truly believed me guilty of killing my king after he heard me, Ser Jaime promised him I would be punished.” She swallowed.

“And?” Lord Stark demanded.

“I guess he believed me, my lord.” She shivered as she recalled that terrible day and Renly dying in her arms. “Although I scarcely believe it myself. I still do not understand how Stannis .. .”

“I have heard the tale from my wife,” Lord Stark interrupted. “From her, I believe it. Go on.”

“Ser Jaime had Ser Loras bring me to him. That’s when he gave me Oathkeeper.”

“Oathkeeper?”

“My sword,” she said. “Well, his sword actually. A gift from his father. He said a cripple such as himself had no need of such a thing and bid me take it and keep my oath to my lady by finding her daughter.”

“The Kingslayer gave you a Valyrian steel blade and ordered you to keep a vow made to my lady wife?” Lord Stark’s disbelief was evident in his voice. “Jaime Lannister has no love for myself or any of mine, Lady Brienne. Had you been at the inn earlier, you would have heard that for yourself.”

The thought that she had missed seeing Jaime by so narrow a margin stung more than she liked to admit to herself. She remained silent a moment, and then endeavored to look the Lord of Winterfell directly in the eyes. “I heard the terrible things he said to my lady in the dungeon at Riverrun, my lord. I know the terrible thing he did to your son, and what he did with his . . .his sister.” She swallowed. “But he did tell me to go, and he did tell me to keep my vow to Lady Catelyn. I don’t know why he did it. Whether he truly wanted to keep his own oaths to your lady wife, or cared anything about mine, or just wanted me gone from King’s Landing. I do not know.”

There was silence among the three of them then for a bit until Brienne turned to face Lady Catelyn. “I know you hate him, my lady. I know you sent him back to a cell in Riverrun. And I know he deserves to answer for what he did to your son.” She hesitated. “But I also know he came back for me in Harrenhall. He saved me from being raped and killed. He didn’t have to do that.”

She could feel Lord Stark’s grey gaze boring into the side of her head, but she kept her own eyes on Lady Catelyn. “I am yours, my lady. I swore I would give my life for you, and I will, gladly. But I do not hate him. I cannot. And I will not tell you otherwise.”

Lady Catelyn’s blue eyes never left hers. She looked sad, but not angry. “Brienne, I do not believe you would ever do me or my daughter harm, but I must know this. Have you sought her for my sake, or because Jaime Lannister asked it of you?”

Brienne didn’t know how to answer her. She didn’t think that her lady would understand how it could be both.

As if she had a window into her thoughts, Lady Catelyn then said, “You must choose, Brienne. There is naught but enmity between House Lannister and House Stark. You cannot serve both. Your loyalty must be clear.”

Brienne looked at her and then raised herself to her knees before her. “I serve neither House Lannister nor House Stark, my lady,” she declared. “I serve you. My loyalty is to you. I pledged that I would shield your back, keep your counsel and give my life for yours. I pledge all that to you again before your lord husband as witness. I can say no more.”

Lady Catelyn rose to stand for the first time then, and laid her hands on Brienne’s head. “No child, you need say no more.” She turned to her husband then, who sat still as a stone staring at Brienne with those grey eyes that seemed to look right through her. “My lord, she has spoken nothing but truth to us here. She is mine, and I will defend her. Allow me a few moments to dress for the day, and then bid Lord Reed come to us. Doubtless, he is waiting nearby.”

The man continued to sit silently for a moment, but had turned his gaze upon his wife. Finally, he stood as well. “As you wish, my lady.” He moved to stand very close to Lady Catelyn then and spoke in a low voice. Brienne could make out his words, though. “Are you certain of her, Cat?”

“I am, my lord,” her lady replied just a bit more loudly, and took her husband’s hands in hers. Their words were formal, but the way they touched and the expression on Lady Catelyn’s face caused Brienne to remember the grief she had seen in the woman when she had spoken of her husband’s death.

Lord Stark nodded then. He raised his wife’s hand to his lips and kissed it briefly, nodded courteously to Brienne, and left the tent.

Both women stared after him for a moment, and then Lady Stark picked up the cup Brienne had drunk from and filled it again from a pitcher nearby. “Here,” she said. “We’re going to have a long day ahead. You’d best work on recovering your strength quickly.”

Brienne smiled at her, even though the stretching of her mouth hurt her cheek. “I will be strong, my lady.”

 

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Catelyn greeted Howland Reed with a smile as she stepped out of the tent. “Lady Brienne is awake and drinking the honey-water almost faster than I can give it to her.”

“Excellent, my lady,” he replied. “I’ll have food sent for her as soon as I have seen her. Will you be coming back in with me?”

She shook her head. “I have already cleaned the wound on her face and changed the dressing. I told her you are far more knowledgeable than I about broken bones and arrow wounds, my lord. She is waiting for you.” She hesitated. “I need to speak with my lord husband.”

In truth, Catelyn felt rather badly about leaving Brienne alone to be cared for by a stranger, but she had to find Ned. She knew he had been troubled when he left, and she needed to speak with him and discover all that concerned him. She could guess much of it, but still she wanted to hear what he would say.

Lord Reed did not press her. He simply nodded and said, “I believe he is with Donnell where those two men are being held. Do not worry, Lady Stark,” he added with a mischievous smile. “I will take good care of your young vassal.”

Catelyn rolled her eyes. “That’s one of Ned's words for her. But I do thank you, Lord Reed.”

She turned then toward the large pair of sentinel pines where the two men were bound and guarded. Ned, Donnell Boden, and two other men were huddled in conversation off to the left of them. Around the camp, all the men were moving about restlessly. Two nights in the same spot had made everyone impatient to leave, and there was an air of unease about what would transpire with the two bound men and Brienne. In addition, the three Stone Crows who sat off to themselves just staring at everyone else and laughing almost randomly set quite a few people’s nerves on edge. They needed to be finished with this business with Dondarrion’s men and back on the road.

Ned saw her approaching and called out to her. “My lady! We have just been questioning our two guests again.”

“Guests?” she said with a raised brow.

“Of a sort,” he answered. “Would you walk with me, please?”

She nodded and he excused himself from the other men and offered her his arm. As they walked away from the others, he said, “We need to be away from this place, my lady. The longer we delay, the more snow will fall in the mountains to delay us and the more chance Littlefinger will hear of our coming.”

“I was just thinking the same thing, my lord.”

He chuckled softly at that. “Well, on that much, at least, we agree.” They had come some distance now, and he stopped, turning her toward him and holding her gently by both arms. “Catelyn, I know you care about this girl from Tarth, but how can we trust her? She spent a great deal of time with the Kingslayer and obviously earned his trust if he gifted her with that sword.”

“I don’t know what all transpired between Brienne and Lannister once they left Riverrun, Ned, but I do know she would never betray my trust. She has far too much honor for that.” The expression on his face clearly said he was unconvinced. “Did you not hear the truth in what she said, my lord? She did not try to hide anything. I have never known the girl to be anything but painfully honest, and I heard nothing to change that opinion this morning.”

“Hmm,” Ned murmured thoughtfully, in a low growl of a voice. “And what about that business of not serving House Stark? How the devil can the woman claim to serve you, but not your house?”

“Oh, and do your vassals answer to all Starks?” she asked with her brow arched.

“What do you mean, Cat?”

“I am Lady Stark, am I not? Yet, when the battle for Riverrun ended, your men refused my instruction to ride immediately for the castle.”

“Cat!” he exclaimed with some exasperation. “It wasn’t safe to do so. You know that I instructed them to wait because . .”

“I’m not questioning your judgment, Ned,” she interrupted. “I admit you were right about that. I merely point out that your men only obey me when you tell them to. They just as quickly refuse me if you have told them to.”

He looked at her without speaking, so she continued. “They may be sworn to House Stark, but it is to you they truly belong. How is that different than Brienne being sworn to me? She’ll obey you in anything you ask if I direct her to do so.”

She watched in some amusement as he tried to comprehend the concept. “I promise not to command that she keep you anywhere you don’t want to be,” she said, attempting not to laugh.

Ned was not amused. “You jape, Catelyn, but I have serious misgivings about her. She indeed cries out in her sleep for the Kingslayer. I heard her last night as you slept. Is there a chance she loves the man?”

“No,” Catelyn said quietly, but firmly. Her husband looked intently at her, questioning her certaintly in this. “She may well have some affection for the accursed man, Ned, and she undoubtedly is grateful to him for her life. I know she is not in love with him, however, because the poor girl is in love with Renly Baratheon.”

“Renly? Cat, Renly is dead!”

Catelyn looked at her husband and shook her head sadly. “Ned,” she said softly reaching up to touch his face. “You were dead for a long time. Do you suppose that caused me to love you any less?”

His entire face seemed to soften then, and she saw in his eyes an echo of that unbearable pain and loss she remembered too well. “No,” he said after a moment. “No, I do not think that.”

“And I know she still loves Renly," Catelyn said. “I saw her face when she merely mentioned that boy Gendry. You know how much he resembles his father . . .and his uncle.”

Ned nodded. “It is hard to imagine, though. This girl and Renly Baratheon were . . .lovers?” He looked dumbfounded.

“No. I fear it was only Brienne who felt so. Renly was amused by her . . .oddness . . .I suppose, and her devotion to him. No more than that. He did not seem to be cruel to her, at least.” Catelyn shrugged. “But, the point, my lord, is that whatever Jaime Lannister means to Brienne, I would stake my life that her oath to me means more.”

“You may well be staking your life, Cat,” he said darkly.

“I am not wrong about her, Ned,” Catelyn said. She had been shocked by that Lannister sword, and had privately harbored a few doubts of her own. But now that she had heard Brienne, she felt confident that her faith in the awkward, mannish, young woman was justified. The girl’s stubborn refusal to compromise what she saw as her honor was just as she remembered.

“All right, my lady. We shall keep her with us,” Ned sighed. “In speaking with that archer, Anguy, away from his friend Lemoncloak, I did learn that not all of Dondarrion’s men at the inn wanted to hang her right away. Apparently, she stepped in to defend the children there against some violent men before Dondarrion’s men showed up, and she took all those wounds in that fight. She killed their leader, and Gendry apparently killed a man who attacked her after that. Gendry argued for taking her to Lord Beric, but Lem wanted to hang her along with the brigands who had attacked at the inn. The rest of the men were somewhat divided, but are inclined to do what Lem tells them.”

Catelyn nodded thoughtfully. “So that’s why Gendry let her go. He didn’t think he could keep Lem from hanging her.” She shuddered to think of it. “What shall we do with the two of them, my lord?”

Ned sighed deeply. “Send them back to Dondarrion, I suppose.”

“What?” Catelyn thought of Lem’s violent words and Anguy’s arrow in Brienne’s back, and she knew her voice sounded outraged.

“Would you have me kill them, Cat? Lady Brienne came to no lasting harm at their hands, and they are Dondarrion’s men. He did us a great service by bringing us to Mya. And we certainly can’t take them with us. I have no wish to slow our progress leading bound men along, nor to devote men to guarding them.” He shook his head. “If I send a letter with them for Lord Beric, telling the truth of what has happened here and of your faith in Lady Brienne, it may go better for Gendry.”

“Do you think Lemoncloak would deliver your letter?”

“I don’t know. But I believe Anguy will. Lemoncloak need not know of it.”

It was a well thought plan, Catelyn knew, and probably the best that could be made. “I trust your judgment in this, my lord, she told him. “So what do we do now?”

Ned took a deep breath. “We gather the men and let your young lady tell her story to everyone. You then tell everyone that she is indeed sworn to you and under your protection. Finally, we publicly pardon Lemoncloak and Anguy for their pursuit of her on the grounds that they were acting in good faith on what evidence they had. We send them back to Dondarrion with the provision that if they ever threaten Lady Brienne or any of our party again, they will be executed.” He looked at her tiredly. “And then, my lady, we leave this place and get back on that road.”

Catelyn nodded and tucked her hand back under his arm. “Let us be done with this, my lord.” His face still looked troubled, so she added gently. “And I am right about Brienne, my love. You must trust me in this, as I trust you.”

He didn’t answer, and Catelyn knew that Brienne would have to earn his trust. As they walked back to their men, she prayed that her husband would give the young woman a chance to do so.

 

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Ned moved the curry comb over the horse’s flanks, brushing out the sweat and grime from the day’s long ride. The young man assigned to the horses had looked rather scandalized at being forced to allow his lord to groom his own horse, but Ned’s mind was filled with far too many things, and he had sorely needed a nice, mindless task to settle it this night.

He knew he had pushed hard on today’s ride, going longer than perhaps was wise before calling a halt, but the Stone Crows assured him they could make camp safely here and not be troubled. It was already full dark, and the men were lighting fires. They had reached the portion of the High Road that truly ascended into the mountains, and their way would be much steeper from here on. At least it was not snowing. Yet.

Catelyn had gone with the men in charge of provisions to see about getting all the men their evening meal, and her Lady Brienne had followed her like a hulking, silent shadow. He had been right when he had supposed the woman was taller than he was, and he found it disconcerting. He was not an exceptionally tall man, but he certainly was not short, and he had never known a woman taller than himself before. He’d always considered Catelyn to be tall, and she looked like a child next to this woman. And apparently the woman could handle that fancy sword of hers, too, if Anguy had spoken truly.

The horse jumped, and he realized that his strokes had become much harder as his mind considered how easily this woman could hurt Cat if she wanted to. He pushed those thoughts from his mind. Catelyn steadfastly stood by the girl, and she had never been one to trust blindly. She trusted Littlefinger, came a voice in his head. He mentally shushed it. Littlefinger had been a childhood friend, known to her for years. And this girl certainly did not appear to be as devious as Baelish.

She had done rather well that morning, reciting her story in front of an assembly of men she did not know, who attended at least as much to her odd appearance as they did to her words. Catelyn, of course, had spoken her part beautifully. Ned knew that whatever the men may feel about Brienne of Tarth, they would show her no discourtesy. They would not risk offending Lady Stark.

Dondarrion’s men had ridden back toward the crossroad with a minimum of fuss. Lemoncloak had looked sullen and angry, but wisely kept his mouth shut. Anguy simply looked relieved to be going. He had looked at Ned and patted his coat just before turning his horse away, acknowledging that Ned’s letter was tucked saftely inside.

Now, Ned wished to put the entire episode out of his mind and concentrate on getting to Sansa., but he couldn’t quite banish his sense of unease about this Brienne.

“Lord Stark,” came a quiet voice behind him.

He turned, and there she stood, as if his thoughts had conjured her. “Lady Brienne,” he said, hoping he did not sound as startled as he felt. “Does my lady wife have need of me?”

“No, my lord.” She just stood there looking at him, although he doubted she could see him any more clearly than he could see her by the light of the waning moon and the scattered fires. He decided to remain silent and wait to hear what she would say.

“My lord, she started, and then hesitated. “My lord, I need to speak with you about . .about the sword.”

“Your sword, you mean?” Ned asked.

“Not truly mine, my lord,” she said. “It was really Ser Jaime’s and it’s not really . .well, it started out . . .” She had begun speaking very quickly, and then seemed almost to trip over her words, and then run out of them. Again, Ned simply remained silent and waited.

He actually heard her swallow then, an uncomfortable gulping sound. “I would give this sword to you, my lord.”

Now he was stunned. Whatever he’d expected the girl to say, it hadn’t been that. “To me? I thought your sword already belonged to the Lady Catelyn. You have been very clear on that point, my lady.”

“My sword does!” she said vehemently. “Whatever sword I wield, I give to my lady and her service. I am her liege man . . .or . . .whatever you would prefer to call me,” she finished awkwardly. “But this was never truly my sword.” She drew it out then, and the rubies on it sparkled even in the dim light. She laid it on the ground before him, and instinctively he stepped back, almost backing into his horse.

“Well, it certainly isn’t mine,” he said coldly. “Do I look like a Lannister to you, woman?” The name Lannister sounded like a curse coming from his lips.

She shook here head. “No, my lord,” she said, almost too quietly to be heard. “You are a Stark, and this is a Stark blade.”

Now the girl made no sense at all. Ned stared at the sword on the ground before him, the revoltingly beautiful lion’s head pommel facing him. He shook his head.

Brienne continued speaking, looking at the ground rather than at him, and he had to strain to catch her words. “You had a greatsword called Ice, my lord. The Lannisters took it when you were arrested.”

“I recall the name of my own sword, my lady.” Ned said in a voice almost as quiet as Breinne’s.

“Lord Tywin had it melted down.” Ned’s heart gave an odd lurch at those words. “He had it melted down and had two smaller swords forged from it. This is one.”

Both were silent then for a long while. Slowly, Ned bent and picked up the sword before him. It was perfectly balanced. He could not truly see the color of the blade in the darkness, but he had seen it in the daylight and knew that it rippled crimson and black. There had been no crimson in Ice’s blade.

The girl mumbled something as he stood there staring at the sword. “What?” he asked her.

“You’ll be defending Ned Stark’s daughter with Ned Stark’s own steel,” she repeated. “That’s what he said to me. Ser Jaime, I mean, when he gave it to me.”

Ned scowled. “Why would Jaime Lannister care about defending my daughter? The man tried to murder my son!”

“I . . .I wondered the same. I thought he wanted me to bring her to Cersei, and I told him I would never harm my lady’s daughter for a sword . . .that I would never serve . . .” She stopped speaking and shook her head. “He told me to shut up and take the sword. That I had to find Sansa and take her somewhere safe. How else would the two of us make good our stupid vows to my . . .precious dead Lady Catelyn?” She whispered the last words, and Ned noted her eyes seemed to shine with moisture when her face caught any light.

“Well,” he said after a moment. “That at least sounds almost like something the man might say.”

“He did say it, my lord.” Brienne looked at him now. “Only, my lady isn’t dead, and so I will serve her however she wishes. And . . .you aren’t dead. And I must return to you your sword.”

Ned looked at the sword in his hand, turning it slowly to catch the distant firelight. He sighed. “This isn’t my sword, Brienne,” he said softly.

Brienne started to protest, and he interrupted her. “Oh, I believe you speak the truth, my lady. This steel was once part of Ice, and it belonged to the Starks. But this blade is not Ice.” He held the sword out to her. “You tell me this sword is called Oathkeeper. Use it then, to keep your oath. This steel should protect my wife and my daughter.” It was his turn to swallow now. “But this is not my sword. Take it, Lady Brienne.”

She hesitated, but then reached out and took the sword in her large hand. “If this is what you wish, Lord Stark, I would be honored to wield this blade in the service of your lady wife.”

“It is my wish,” he said softly. “Now go back to Catelyn, my lady.”

She turned to go without speaking again, but he stopped her. “Lady Brienne,” he called. She turned back to face him. “Thank you.”

She looked at him a moment longer, and then nodded and turned to walk away.

Lord Eddard Stark stood alone in the dark with his thoughts for a long time after that.

 

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Brienne stood watching the two men spar.  Donnell Boden was a good swordsman.  She had realized that the first time she watched them three nights ago.  She wished she could ask him to spar with her, as she was out of practice, and her body felt stiff and awkward after her injuries.

She drew in her breath as Lord Eddard almost disarmed him with a clever twist of his blade, but Boden recovered and jumped away.  "Damn it, Donnell!" Lord Eddard cursed at him.  "Why didn't you take me down?  You can't keep giving me time to recover my balance!  No enemy will!"

Lord Eddard was right.  The correct move after escaping being disarmed would have been to press the advantage.  She felt vaguely guilty about watching them as they always went so far from camp.  She was certain this was something private.  But she could tell that Lady Catelyn didn't want her constantly at her side, and since she didn't actually speak to anyone else in their party, watching them gave her something to do.  She had discovered the two men practicing quite by accident when she had been walking the night after she tried to give Lord Eddard her sword.

She drew that sword now and attempted to mimic what she'd seen Lord Eddard do a moment before.  It was a good move if she could perfect it.  They were much higher up in the mountains now, and snow flurries were falling.  She had gotten cold standing there, but felt herself warming up as she repeated the maneuver several times.  She was so intent on getting it right that she didn't realize the men had come upon her until Lord Eddard spoke.

"Well, Donnell, it would appear we've had an audience."

Stunned, Brienne whirled around to face him and almost dropped her sword.  His face was as unreadable as ever, but she thought his voice sounded more amused than angry.

"My lord," she stammered.  "Forgive me.  I . . .I . . .just . ."

"You just about have that move right," he finished for her. "But not quite.  Here, let me show you."

He stepped up to her and placed his hand over hers on the hilt of Oathkeeper, moving her arm through the motions. She could see immediately what she had missed before.

She grinned.  "You are a good teacher, my lord," she said, forgetting in her excitement to be afraid of him.

"And you are a good pupil," he replied. "How long have you been watching us, my lady?"

"I . . .I am sorry, my lord. I know I should not have intruded. I . . .I . . ."

"It's all right, Brienne," Lord Stark told her.  He sighed. "I fear I have to learn everything new. For years I fought with two good legs and a greatsword." She noticed his eyes go to Oathkeeper as he said that. "Now I have but one good leg and a smaller blade. Donnell is good and patient enough to work with me."

"You fight very well, Lord Stark," she said quickly.

He shook his head. "And my wife keeps insisting you are infallibly honest," he said ruefully. "I have hopes that I am getting somewhat better, at any rate."

"Practice is everything, my lord," she said earnestly. "Ser Goodwin always said so."

"Ser Goodwin?" asked Lord Stark.

"Master-of-Arms at Evenfall when I was young.  He taught me my swordwork."

"Well, let's see what he taught you, then."

"My lord?" she asked.

He actually almost smiled at her. "My leg is quite finished for the evening.  But Donnell here is a young man.  Why not spar a round with him?"

"My lord?" Boden sputtered.  "But . . .she's . . .she's a . . ."

"A lady," Lord Stark finished for him. "A lady who knows how to use a sword. A lady who has sworn herself to protect my wife. Shouldn't we see how capable she is of doing that?"

"I would like that very much," Brienne put in.

"I don't . . ."

"Oh, come on, Donnell. Lady Brienne and I won't tell anyone if she beats you."

At that, the man turned bright red, but he did agree to spar with her. It felt wonderful to move against an opponent with a sword in her hand again. She could quickly tell that Boden was much better than she, but as he was going very softly for fear of hurting her, she kept pace with him easily, and ended up disarming him with the very move Lord Eddard had shown her.

At that, Lord Eddard actually laughed out loud. "Well done, my lady! It is time someone showed young Donnell that he should always do his best rather than hold back for fear of wounding his opponent's pride!" He looked meaningfully at Boden then, but the younger man just shook his head. "We had best go back before my lady wife sends men out searching for us."

As they approached the camp, Boden turned to join some other men, and Lord Stark stopped her before they continued on to find Lady Catelyn.

"You truly are a soldier, Lady Brienne. Did you have the chance to meet Lady Mormont when you were with my wife at Riverrun?"

She shook her head. "No, my lord. She was with your son, raiding in the west."

"You would like her, I think." He looked at her then, and Brienne got the impression he wanted to ask her something.

"My lord?" she said.

"I was simply wondering something, my lady. My wife is a remarkable woman, but she is no soldier. She despises war and weaponry. How is it you came to bind yourself to her?"

Brienne was silent a bit, not sure what to say to him. Finally, she simply told him the truth. "She understood me, my lord. She has courage. And she is good."

Lord Stark smiled then. "She indeed has courage, my lady. Far more than she knows. And the gods know she is good. But what did she understand about you?"

Can I really tell him that? she wondered. She swallowed hard and said it. "She guessed that I wanted to kill Stannis for what he did to Renly . . .she tried to tell me that she knew how I felt, and I told her no one knew." She stopped then and looked directly into Lord Stark's eyes. "She told me I was wrong, and I remember what she said next word for word."

She stopped then, but Lord Stark said softly, "Tell me, Brienne."

She swallowed again and looked away, letting herself hear Lady Catelyn's voice from that long ago day in another camp. "Every morning, when I wake, I remember that Ned is gone," she quoted. "I have no skill with swords, but that does not mean I do not dream of riding to King's Landing and wrapping my hands around Cersei Lannister's white throat and squeezing until her face turns black."

She had not been able to look at him while she said that, and he was so silent that she wondered if he was still there. She made herself look at him and found him staring off to their right with his face frozen white in the fading glow of the setting sun against the grey sky, and his eyes were filled with pain. She followed his gaze and saw the Lady Catelyn step away from a group of men to walk toward them.

"She understood, my lord," Brienne said, "but she would not have me throw my life away for the dead. She said it was better to fight for the living."

He nodded then, and without another word, left her side, walking forward to meet his wife. As they came together, she saw Lady Catelyn reach up to touch his face, a look of concern on her own. Lord Stark put his hands on her shoulders and ran them down over her arms as he said something to her. Then he released her and offered his arm to walk her back toward the men.

Watching them together, it hit her that he had once believed her to be dead as well. Brienne didn't know if it had been right or wrong to tell Lord Stark about Lady Catelyn's words to her, but she did know one thing. Lord Stark understood them all too well.

 

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Catelyn Stark was vaguely irritated. Ned had left ages ago to speak with Lord Reed about something. She had seen Reed since, and he told her that Ned had gone to see Donnell Boden about something else. He'd been gone a long time, and now the sun was going down. Brienne had managed to disappear as well, but in truth she had been glad of that until dusk approached. She was overjoyed to have Brienne back with her, but the girl spoke to no one but Catelyn and almost never left her side.  Sometimes she felt a bit smothered by the responsibility of being the girl's sole companion. Brienne had taken to walking in the evenings, and while Catelyn cautioned her not to wander too far away alone, she was glad of the small period of time without her hovering.

Looking to the edge of the clearing where they had made camp for the evening, Catelyn saw three figures emerging from the trees. One immediately turned off to his left and joined a group on the far side of the clearing. The other two stopped.  One of them was clearly Ned, and she was almost certain the other was Brienne. When they made no move to come closer, she began walking toward them.

She had gone about halfway when Ned started coming toward her. As he approached, she noted that he had an odd expression on his face. He said nothing when he reached her, so she put a hand to his bearded cheek, and asked him, "Are you well, my love?"

He placed his hands on her shoulders. "I am well, he said. "And you are beautiful," he continued, running his hands down over her arms. "Sometimes, I forget how truly beautiful you are."

The sensation of his hands on her arms made her shiver in a very pleasant way, but he still looked odd to her. He stared at her a moment, and then let go of her to offer her his arm.

She smiled up at him as they walked toward a group of men. "Well, perhaps, if you didn't stay gone so long, you would not forget what I look like," she teased.

Immediately, she regretted her words because his eyes clouded and his expression became pained. "I would have returned to you a thousand times over all those long days had I been able, my lady!" he said in a choked voice.

"Ned! What is wrong?" she asked him, alarmed. She stopped and turned him toward her.

He shook his head. "When Donnell told me you and Robb had been killed at that wedding, I cannot tell you how much rage I felt," he whispered harshly. "I dreamed a thousand terrible deaths for Walder Frey."

"And now he is dead," she whispered. "He is dead, Ned. You gained justice for our son, my love." She looked into his eyes, wanting to comfort him, but feeling she didn't truly understand what he was trying to say.

He shook his head again. "No, Cat. I wasn't thinking about justice. I was thinking of you lying dead somewhere. And I wanted to hurt Walder Frey. I wanted to watch him die slowly and painfully in front of me. It was a terrible place to be, and it did not occur to me that you . . .that you had been to that hell as well."

"Ned?" she said softly.

He looked into her eyes then. "Brienne told me. She told me that you dreamed of choking the life from Cersei Lannister with your own hands."

"Oh." She didn't know what else to say.  She couldn't imagine why Brienne had found it necessary to tell Ned about that, but she couldn't deny it. "She had taken you from me," she said softly."And I could never have you back." She felt that crushing pain and loss threatening to overtake her again, and she put her arms around him, not caring for propriety in the face of her need to remind herself that he lived. "But I do have you back, Ned, and you have me, my love. All that is over."

"I just can't stand it, Cat," he said. "That you were taken to that place of dark, vengeful dreams. I would never wish that for you. I could kill the woman right now with my bare hands for ever causing you to feel that!"

She pulled back from him then to look at his face, which indeed looked like vengeance incarnate at the moment. "But I am not supposed to mind your being assaulted by vengeful dreams? There is no difference, my love. I would not have you suffer so, either."

"There is a difference!"

He had almost shouted it. His voice had gotten loud enough that the closest men had  turned to look at them. She grabbed his arm. "Come with me, my lord," she said urgently and led him into the shelter of the trees.

The sun was gone now, and the twilight washed the color from his face as he looked at her intently. "There is a difference," he said more quietly. "I have killed more men than I can count. I have slain them in battles and executed them on blocks. I have killed to protect myself, to protect others, to punish wrong, or simply to remove an obstacle to a battle objective. I know death and killing well." He paused and cupped her face in his hands. "You are not a killer, Cat."

His words went through her like a crossbow bolt, and she could not stop the tears which suddenly filled her eyes and spilled down the red scars on her cheeks. "You're wrong about that, Ned," she said flatly. "I am a killer."

"No, Cat."

"Yes," she said. "I have killed men since we parted at King's Landing. Some I led to their deaths and some died by my hand. I am a killer."

"Catelyn," he said, coming to her. "I have heard about . . ."

"You have not heard it all!" she interrupted. "When I captured Tryion Lannister, six men died on this very road. They stood up for me at the inn, and volunteered to travel with me and to die. For what? For a lie told by Petyr Baelish?"

"Cat, you did not kill those men. They were slain by mountain clansmen," Ned said.

"I slit a man's throat perhaps two days' journey from here!" she cried. "Tell me I didn't kill him!"

Now Ned just looked at her silently. "Come here, he told her after a moment. He took her hand and led her to a large, fallen tree. He guided her to sit down upon it, and then sat beside her, never letting go of her hand. "Tell me about it, my love, if you wish to."

She nodded. "It was the first time the clansmen attacked us as we rode. We armed everyone as best we could, even the dwarf. There were so many of them, Ned. Ser Rodrik had given me a dagger and bid me stay hidden, but one of them found me and pulled me from my hiding place.  I slashed at him and ran, but there was nowhere to go save up against the mountainside. Another man came and then a third on horseback, and I was trapped with the rock face behind me.  I screamed and then . . ." She laughed bitterly then and looked at Ned. "It was Tyrion Lannister who came. He had an axe, and he felled one man quickly. The other went to stab him, and he knocked him back toward me. I just stepped up behind him and . . .slit his throat. Just like that. Like I'd done it a hundred times."

She fell silent then, and after a moment, Ned said, "I am very grateful that you thought to arm the dwarf." She made a sound that was half a laugh and half a sob, and he put his arms around her. "Cat, the man was going to kill you. You had no choice. You did no wrong."

She nodded slowly. "I know. Not that time. I haven't told you about the man I murdered."

"Cat," he said.

"I know you've heard it. Aegon Frey. Did they tell you I was mad?  That I didn't know what I was doing?"

"Catelyn, you are not mad," he said slowly.

"No, I am not," she said. She stood then and walked a few paces away before turning back to face him. It was darker now, and she could not quite make out the expression on his face. "And I was not then. Would you hear it, my lord?  Would you hear all of it?" She hesitated a moment, and felt her voice break slightly as she asked, "Would you hear about Robb?"

He didn't answer right away, but then she heard him sigh. "I would not make you tell it, my love. But if you wish to tell it, I would hear it."

She nodded. "I should have known what was happening. Everything was wrong there, Ned. The food was poor, the musicians were too many, too loud, and not any good. Roslin was crying as if she were at a funeral. She made Lysa look like a happy bride! Everything felt wrong. Then when they carried Edmure and Roslin out to bed them, far too many men remained in the hall. Dacey Mormont went to say something to Edwyn Frey, but when she touched his arm, he jerked away, and she went pale." She licked her lips and swallowed before continuing. "I went to Edwyn then, and by the time I got there, the musicians were playing that song. The Rains of Castamere."

Ned startled. Apparently no one had told him that detail. "I knew it before I reached him, and I wasn't truly surprised when I felt the mail beneath his shirt. I slapped him then, and split his lip, and he shoved me. Robb saw that." She gave Ned a small smile. "Your son didn't take insults to me any better than you do. He was angry and came toward Edwyn, but then he suddenly staggered sideways." She shook her head slowly, and the tears now flowed freely from her eyes. "I saw a quarrel sticking out of his side, just below his shoulder. Then I saw the second strike his leg, and he fell. I ran to him. Oh gods, Ned, I tried to reach him! I did! But then I took the quarrel in my back, and I fell as well." She stopped to breathe and looked toward Ned. She couldn't see much more than his outline in the darkening night, but he sat perfectly still, barely breathing as he listened to her speak.

"I was screaming his name. The Smalljon covered him with the table then. You heard me tell his father about that. Men were dying all around me. Robb was beneath his table, and I was lying on the floor. I couldn't get up. I saw Wendel Manderly shot through the neck and Ryman Frey put an axe in Dacey's stomach." She stopped and looked at Ned again suddenly. "I never told Maege that," she said quietly.

"Did she ask you about it?" Ned's voice was hoarse.

"No."

"Perhaps she doesn't want to hear it, then."

"Do you want to hear this, Ned?" she asked him through her tears.

"Gods, no! But . . .yes." When she didn't start speaking again right away, he said gently, "Go on, Cat."

"By then I was screaming for mercy, but no one heard or listened or cared. I saw northmen run in and I hoped  . . .but they were Bolton's." Her voice sounded dead to her when she said the hated man's name. "And old Walder sat there watching it all like he was at a mummer's farce or a tournament." She shook her head. "That's when I saw the dagger. It was on the floor by Jinglebell--Aegon. But the poor idiot didn't know what to do with a dagger. He was only hiding under a table. I decided I would kill Walder Frey. I was able to crawl to the dagger and get it in my hand and then . . .Robb got out from under his table top."

She looked at her husband. "I'd thought him dead, you see. But he was alive. And that changed everything. He had three arrows in him, but he managed to get to his knees. And then Walder Frey started laughing," she said, her voice going hard and bitter. "He was laughing and mocking our son while he knelt there bleeding."

She closed her eyes and she could feel herself back at the Twins. She could hear the drum, smell the blood, hear Lord Walder's hated laugh. "That's when I grabbed Jinglebell. I dragged him from under the table and put the dagger to his throat. I called out to Lord Walder and I  . . .begged him. I begged him, Ned! Begged him to let Robb go free. I told him to keep me hostage, keep Edmure. We would take no vengeance if only he let Robb live."

Now, she was crying in truth. No longer did she have just silent tears spilling down her cheeks. Sobs interrupted her words. "Robb spoke to me. He told me no. I told him to save himself. I begged him to get up and walk out--for me, for Jeyne. He kept saying Mother. He heard Grey Wind outside, and I told him to go to him."

Catelyn stopped speaking for several minutes as she forced herself to stop crying. Ned stood and started to come to her, but she put up her hand to stop him. "No," she whispered. "I can't stop crying if I let you hold me. I can't" He sat back down.

She managed to stop her sobs. "Lord Walder asked me why he should let Robb go." Now, Catelyn's voice was perfectly flat. "I pushed that dagger hard against Jinglebell's throat and told Walder I would trade his life for Robb's. I swore it on my honor as a Tully and a Stark. A son for a son." She shook her head. "But he said that was a grandson and he never was much use. And he laughed.

She stopped speaking again. She was back in the hall at the Twins, Jinglebell's head pressed up against her with her dagger at his throat. She was lost in the sound of Walder Frey's laughter.

 

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Ned Stark was so overwhelmed by the horror of Catelyn's tale that he didn't realize at first how long she had been silent. But after he called her name twice and got no response, he went to her and took her in his arms. She stared at something far away, and didn't seem to know he was there.

"Cat," he said desperately. "Cat, I am here. Please, love, please stay here with me." She remained silent. "Oh gods, Cat, please stay here with me." Now his heart raced. "Please, please, please," he begged.

He heard her draw in a sharp breath. She turned to look at him, and tears again began flowing from her eyes. "Ned?" she said, in a slightly dazed voice.

"I'm here, my love. I've got you. You are safe, Cat. You are safe." He murmured those words over and over into her hair and neck as he held her against him in the dark of the night surrounded by the trees.

"I'm safe," she finally whispered back. "But Robb isn't. Roose Bolton put a sword into his heart and he twisted it. Jaime Lannister sends his regards."

She pulled far enough back to look into Ned's face, although he could see little more of hers than a shine where her blue eyes were in the dark woods. "That's when I killed him. Jinglebell. Aegon. I knew what I was doing, Ned. I had sworn on my honor, and I killed him. His blood ran all down my arms and my dress, and perhaps I did go a bit mad then." She held her hands up to her face. "That's when I did this", she said softly. "I don't remember it very clearly. I know I was ready to die. I wanted to find you."

She laid her head on his chest, and he just held her for a long time. When she raised her head up again, she said quietly, "So you see, my love, I am a killer. I meant to kill that poor halfwit. What had that pitiful creature done to deserve death?"

"Nothing," Ned said softly. "But you did not do murder, Cat."

"I killed an innocent." She sounded half-dead herself, and it frightened him.

"Come sit with me again, my love." He led her back to sit on the tree and she did not resist. 

"Theon Greyjoy," he said then.

"Is a fiend in human form and will rot in all the hells for what he did to our sons," she finished.

"Yes," he told her. "But when he came to us, Theon Greyjoy was a little boy. An innocent who became a hostage. Had Balon Greyjoy attacked the Seven Kingdoms again, what was I to do with little Theon, Cat?"

She looked at him, but didn't answer.

"Threatening the life of hostages only works if the person being threatened knows you will actually take their lives," he said softly. "And I would have. I would have had no choice. It would have been an evil thing, perhaps, but it was what I had sworn to do."

She said nothing.

"You took a hostage, Cat. You are no different than anyone else who has ever done so. You swore on the man's life that it was to be traded for Robb's. You only kept your word."

"How can the death of an innocent person not be evil?" she protested. "Robb's death was evil! Doesn't that make Aegon's evil as well?"

He put his arms around her and said gently, "I don't know if the man's death was good or evil, Cat. That is for the gods to judge, not for me. I only know that it was not murder, and it was not done without honor." He hesitated a moment before continuing. "I have killed men who deserved life. I regret every one of their deaths, and I will carry them with me always as you will carry this. But I have not done murder, Cat. And neither have you."

She was silent for so long that he feared she had gone away again. "Cat?" he said finally, somewhat fearfully.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"For what, my love?

"You are the only one," she said. "Madwoman or murderess. I had to be one or the other. And I knew I was not truly mad." She reached up to touch his face in the darkness. "You believe I was not mad, and yet you do not name me murderess. You are the only one."

He raised his own hands to touch her face then. "I am the only one who matters. Because I know you, Catelyn Tully Stark. Family, duty, honor. You have never forgotten those things, my love."

"Winter is coming," she said softly. "I've learned never to forget that either."

"That is true," he told her. "Winter is coming. But you are a Stark now, my southron bride, and we Starks have been surviving winters for thousands of years."

Neither Lord nor Lady Stark seemed to take notice of the light snow falling on them or the chill in the air as he held her there in the woods.  Having heard all she had seen and done on the day of their son's death, Ned knew he could never take that burden from her. He only hoped he could perhaps help her carry it.

 

Chapter Text

It had been snowing steadily for most of the day--large, white flakes that stuck to the ground, horses, and riders alike. Brienne had the absurd urge to stick out her tongue and attempt to catch one as it fell. Snowflakes such as these did not fall on the island of Tarth. It was cold, but not unbearably so. Lady Catelyn had obtained a variety of clothing items for her from the various men to augment her meager wardrobe. No one would call any of the ill-fitting garments fashionable on her, but they were warm.

A particularly fat flake drifted down right beside her face, and she couldn’t resist. She caught it quickly on her tongue and pulled it into her mouth as it melted. A bright laugh rang out beside her, and she turned to see Lady Catelyn smiling at her as she rode. Embarrassed, Brienne ducked her head.

“Oh, I’ve done that at least a thousand times, Brienne!” her lady told her. “I do not know why it is such a tempting thing, but it truly is,” she said, the laughter still audible in her voice.

Brienne raised her eyes to look at her, but Lady Catelyn must have seen the disbelief in them, for she frowned at her. “Surely, you don’t think me incapable of catching snowflakes,” she teased. “In Winterfell, we get snows even in the summer sometimes, and the children are all mad for catching the flakes on their tongues. They’ll actually make it a competition and drag their father and myself into it if we let them!”

The joy in her lady’s voice would have gladdened her heart more if Brienne didn’t know it would be quickly followed by the shadow in her eyes that always appeared when Lady Catelyn caught herself speaking of her children in the present tense. Sure enough, before Brienne could make any response, Lady Catelyn’s expression changed, and she looked away without saying anything more.

At least she seemed to be physically well now. The previous day, she had suffered some cramping in her belly which she had told Brienne was nothing, and quite normal for her with her moonblood, but she had seemed so much sadder and more silent than usual that Brienne feared perhaps something more was wrong. She had watched Lord Eddard closely, though, and hadn’t detected the darkening of his grey eyes she had come to recognize as concern for his lady wife.

It had been two days since her impromptu fencing lesson from Lord Eddard and practice bout with Donnell Boden. She knew the two men had gone to practice again last evening, but she didn’t feel comfortable inviting herself, so she had remained at Lady Catelyn’s side, attempting to help her as she mended clothes for the men. Lady Catelyn had invited that girl, Mya, to sit with them as well. She seemed nice enough, Brienne supposed, and at least she didn’t say anything about Brienne’s manner of dress, appearing to prefer breeches herself, but she talked mostly about mules, horses, or various nobles from the Vale whom Brienne did not know. Lady Catelyn knew them, however, so she and Mya had conversed while Brienne sat silently concentrating on her stitching and devoutly wishing she were with Lord Eddard and Boden.

Just then, she saw Lord Eddard and one of the Stone Crows riding toward them from the head of their column. “How do you fare, my ladies?” he called out, encompassing both Lady Catelyn and herself in his greeting.

She allowed Lady Catelyn to answer. “We do well, my lord.” She turned her face up to look at the sky, and her hood slipped off her head. “What do you think of this snow? Will it continue?”

Lord Stark pulled his horse up beside his wife’s and reached out to pull her hood back up, tucking a lock of auburn hair which had escaped her braid behind her ear. “It will,” he sighed. “Probably past nightfall, I think, and Mogga here agrees,” he said, indicating the clansman with him. “I fear we shall have to stop, for I would have tents set up for everyone tonight to give shelter from it, and I don’t want to be setting them up in the dark. And Mogga says there is a large sheltering rock face with a good amount of ground for camping in front of it just ahead. We will call a halt there.”

“Ned, we’re so close,” Lady Catelyn said softly.

“Yes, my lady,” he said gently. “Close enough that we shall reach the Bloody Gate within a day or two even with today’s shortened ride. I cannot sacrifice our safety for a few extra leagues.”

“No, of course not,” Lady Catelyn replied. “We shall stop at your word, my lord.”

He gave her one of his almost smiles, nodded to Brienne and turned back toward the front of the column. The clansman continued on to the rear, apparently to speak with the Stone Crow who always rode at the back of the party.

“I have no tent, my lady,” Brienne said once the men were gone.

“You shall share with Mya, Brienne,” Lady Catelyn said as if she had thought of this long before.

Brienne frowned a bit. She had always made her pallet on the ground not far from the Starks, with her sword beside her in case of need. She knew Lord Stark always had plenty men on watch. She had taken her turn at watch herself. But she still considered Lady Catelyn’s safety her personal responsibility and did not relish the prospect of sleeping far away from her.

“My place is by you, my lady,” she said.

Lady Catelyn looked down and twisted her mouth slightly, and Brienne saw a flicker of amusement in her blue eyes as she looked up again to speak. “I believe my lord husband would prefer if I shared my tent with him, child.”

Brienne blushed furiously at that and looked down. “I . . .I did not mean . . .I mean . .I know that . .” she stammered.

“I know, Brienne,” Lady Catelyn said kindly. “But I can’t allow you to stand outside our tent in the snow standing guard over us, and I fear Lord Stark would be most uncomfortable to have you inside it standing guard over us, so you’ll just have to trust him to keep me safe this night.”

Brienne nodded, still not looking at her. “Of course, my lady.” She knew perfectly well that Lord Stark would allow no harm to come to his wife. She simply couldn’t stop feeling responsible for her. She wasn’t sure what else she was supposed to do.

She knew one thing, though. As they had come nearer to the Bloody Gate, there had been discussion on how many people and which people should be sent up to confront Lord Baelish. Lady Catelyn was always included in those who would go. Even Lord Stark agreed with this, although he looked anything but happy about it. The one thing Brienne knew with certainty was that Lady Catelyn would not go up that mountain without her. She would not allow even the frosty-eyed Lord Stark to keep her from her duty to her lady then.

 

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Catelyn Stark watched as two men struggled to start a fire with the damp wood. At least they had a place to make their fires out of the snowfall. The shelter of the rock which jutted out above them as it rose from the ground provided a narrow strip of snow-free ground at its base. Some others already had managed to get their fires going, and she saw one successful man walk over to assist the hapless two she was watching.

Turning her eyes from the fires at the bottom of the cliff, she scanned the area around her, but did not see Ned or Brienne. Howland Reed was in conversation with Mya beside her tent, and Catelyn thought he was probably asking her yet again for every detail she knew about Petyr’s personnel at the Eyrie. She briefly considered joining them, but she didn’t feel like discussing potential scenarios for gaining access to the steps up the Giant’s Lance.

She didn’t feel like discussing anything really, and so she went inside her own tent. Once there, she pulled out the bundle of linen from its bag and began ripping some more strips to use for her unwelcome moonblood. She sighed. As relieved as she had been by its previous arrival, she now found the coming of her moonblood had once again become only a reminder that she may well be past the ability to bear any more children.

She had tried not to dwell on that possibility all through the past two days, but her thoughts kept returning to it. It seemed terribly cruel somehow to have awakened the morning after telling Ned all the terrible details of his first born son’s death only to find her shift stained with the proof that she still could not give him another.

Gods, Catelyn Stark, stop doing this. You have lain together scarcely a handful of times! You know women who have borne children past forty, and you are not near forty yet!

With a start, she realized she didn’t truly know how old she was. She had lost all track of time while at the Twins. Her name day had been several moons away at the time of Edmure’s wedding. Had it gone by yet? Was she still five and thirty, or was she six and thirty now? She shook her head. She knew that with so much unsettled in their lives--their daughters to get back, their home to reclaim--being with child now would only complicate matters in any event. Still, she couldn’t escape feeling that she didn’t have much more time. If any.

It occurred to her that Rickon’s name day had certainly passed. Had he lived, her baby would be five by now. She closed her eyes and imagined his sweet face, frozen in time for her at age three. He had seen his fourth name day, she knew. But she had not been there for it. The tears came then, but she couldn’t give herself to them. She would drown. She forcibly pushed thoughts of Rickon and any other babes away and walked back out of the tent.

Ned and Brienne were still gone, and she wondered what they were up to. The girl was rather terrified of Ned, and she didn’t blame her considering some of the looks he gave her! Yet, when he had asked if she could accompany him to speak with Donnell Boden about something, she had practically vaulted to his side. Catelyn sighed. She had been glad of any sign of increased trust between the two of them, but she hadn’t expected them to be away so long.

As they had stopped to make camp earlier than usual, there was still daylight left, but Catelyn felt out of sorts and on edge. She realized she could not keep her mind away from her worries and fears if she remained at the tent alone. Still having no inclination to make small talk with any of the men or even with Mya or Lord Reed, she decided to see if she could find her husband or Brienne.

 

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“Damn it!” Ned cursed as he fell backward into the snow once again. There couldn’t be more than a couple inches of snow on the ground, but it was playing havoc with his balance and movement. He was angry and frustrated. He was a northman, by gods! He’d been wielding swords in the snow since he had learned to walk!

“It’s very slick here, my lord,” Brienne said. “Perhaps we should find some ground more sheltered and dry.”

Ned glared at her. “Winter is coming, my lady,” he said coldly. “And I intend to go north from here, not south, so any fighting I do will be in the snow for years to come. Perhaps I should just get up off my arse, and you can try to knock me down again.”

The poor girl paled to a color similar to the snow, and Ned cursed himself. Unlike Donnell, the lass was at least willing to go all out with him when she sparred, but she wouldn’t be if he frightened her half to death.

“Lady Brienne,” he said in a more controlled voice, “I am not angry with you. I am very angry at my leg, at Jaime Lannister, and even at the damned horse who fell on me, but I am not angry at you.”

“That was almost an apology,” Donnell Boden said in a shocked tone from where he stood watching the two of them. He grinned at Brienne. “He never apologizes to me, my lady, and he’s said much worse to me, too!”

Now, Ned glared at Donnell. “It was a clarification.” Slowly he got to his feet. “Are you ready to go again, Lady Brienne?” he asked.

The huge girl nodded mutely, her blue eyes twice their normal size. She raised her sword and Ned did the same. After a few moments of thrusts and parries and dancing around each other, Ned growled, “Stop! Just stop!”

Brienne instantly stood still and lowered her sword, saying nothing.

Ned looked at her in frustration. “Now you’re fighting like Donnell, lass. If I want an easy win, I’ll put him back up here. He’s actually a better swordsman than you are. But he doesn’t ever really try to knock me down. You do. Or at least you did. I need you to do it again!”

“Yes, my lord,” she said softly. She started out tentatively again, but Ned slashed at her sword rather viciously, and she started to fight harder instinctively. He was breathing hard after a few minutes, but he was keeping his footing much better. It was a matter of remembering what the bad leg couldn’t do, and making up for it with the good one. That currently took too much time and thought. He had to keep doing this until it became instinctual, just like his footwork had always been before. He could not continue to fight like a cripple!

“Very nice, my lord,” came Donnell’s voice. The admiration sounded genuine for a change, so Ned surmised that he must truly be improving. Feeling more confident, he began to make some more complicated moves and succeeded in throwing Brienne off balance. She managed to keep her feet under her, however, and simply kept returning whatever Ned threw at her. Deciding to surprise her, Ned feinted to his left, and then lunged sharply at her from his right. She moved slightly to one side, and as he attempted to alter his direction mid-lunge, he lost his balance and landed in the snow again, this time on his face.

Before he could utter another curse, he heard a feminine gasp from somewhere behind him. He rolled onto his back to look toward the sound, and was appalled to see Catelyn standing there, hand over her mouth and blue eyes wide with concern. “Gods, Catelyn! What are you doing here?” he almost shouted.

She cringed just slightly at his words, but then took a few tentative steps toward him. “Are you hurt, Ned?” Her voice sounded fearful.

“No!” he shouted. “I am fine! Go back to the tent!”

She stood there staring at him as he struggled to rise from the snow, and the thought of what he must look like to her shamed him. “Go, Cat!” he said again. Once he was back on his feet, he turned to Brienne. “Escort Lady Stark back to our tent, Brienne,” he commanded her. He half expected her to refuse, and wait for some order from Catelyn, but she simply turned and walked to his wife.

“My lady,” she said softly. “We really should go now.”

Catelyn looked at Brienne and then back at him, and he saw the tears in her eyes. “Yes, Brienne,” she said in a voice that threatened to break, “We should definitely leave here.”

Ned put his face in his hands as Brienne led his wife away.

 

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Lady Catelyn did not speak as they walked back toward the tents, but Brienne could see the tears in her eyes. The lady’s pain was difficult for her to see, but she was not sure what to say, so she did not speak either.

Finally, when they reached the shelter of the rock face, where fires had been built, Lady Catelyn stopped and turned toward her. She was shivering with cold as she asked softly, “What did I do to anger him so, Brienne?”

Brienne hesitated, shocked a bit at being asked the question. “He is not angry with you, my lady.” She took Lady Catelyn’s arm and led her close to the nearest fire. Two men sat by it drinking. “Pardon me sers,” Brienne said, swallowing hard. “Lady Stark needs to get warm, and I have need to speak with her privately. If you would excuse us a moment?”

The men first looked astonished, as she never spoke to any of them, and then one looked as if he might protest. The other was looking at Lady Stark, however, and he grabbed the first man’s arm. “Of course, milady,” he said simply. He pulled the other with him as they joined a group at another fire.

Lady Stark watched them walk away. “That wasn’t kind, Brienne. Those two worked long to make this fire,” she said in a distant voice.

“And they should be pleased to have done so for their lady’s service,” she answered.

Lady Catelyn made a small noise of disagreement, but she sat down on the ground near the fire and wrapped her arms around herself. “You did not answer me, Brienne. Why is my lord husband so angry with me? Do you know?”

Brienne sighed and sat down beside her. “I told you, my lady. He is not angry with you.” Brienne felt terribly uncomfortable discussing Lord Eddard with his wife, but she could not stand the look in her lady’s eyes. “He is angry at his leg,” she continued. “He had said so just before you came there. He does not like the way it hampers him when he fights, so he has been practicing with Donnell Boden.” She gave a small shrug. “And now me.”

Catelyn shook her head. “The leg will never be what it was. He knows that. Why must he risk injuring himself?”

Brienne stared at the fire then, because she couldn’t look at Lady Catelyn. She knew the answer to her lady’s question well, but how could she explain it to her? “He is a soldier,” she said simply. “It is his duty to protect and defend you and his men.” She paused briefly, but then pushed on. “He cannot accept not being able to do that, my lady, and so he trains. He cannot do otherwise.”

She heard Lady Catelyn let out her breath softly. “I understand that, Brienne, I do. But he is angry with me. I could see it in his eyes.”

Brienne shook her head. Lady Catelyn did not understand. She wasn’t a soldier. “Not anger, my lady,” she almost whispered. “Shame.” She forced herself to look up at her then, and saw shock in the lady’s blue eyes. “He would not have you see him fall . . .or fail.”

Lady Catelyn was silent a moment, and then she put her face in her hands. “Gods, what a fool he is!” she exclaimed. “And what a bigger fool am I!” Brienne feared she might be going to cry then, but she simply shook her head and then raised her face again. “I am going to my tent, Brienne, as my husband asked me to. When he returns, please send him to me.”

She stood then, but looked down at Brienne, as if considering what to say. In the end, she just pursed her lips together, murmured, “Thank you,” and walked away to her tent.

Brienne watched her go, and then sat by the fire awaiting the return of Lord Stark, hoping he wouldn’t be long. In fact, it was only a very short time before she saw Donnell Boden walking with him from the woods, and she rose to go meet them.

“Lady Catelyn is in your tent, my lord,” she told him as she approached. “She asked that I send you to her.”

Lord Eddard’s face was frozen, hard and expressionless, and he merely nodded. Donnell quickly mumbled something about seeking out food and wandered off.

Once he had gone, Lord Eddard looked away from her and asked in his cool, grey voice, “How is she, Brienne?”

“My lord?” Discussing Lord Stark’s feelings with his wife had been difficult. Discussing hers with him would be impossible.

“My wife,” he growled. “How is she?”

“She . . .she is well enough, my lord,” Brienne stammered. “She wants to see you,” she added quickly.

“Does she?” he said quietly, but Brienne did not think he was truly asking her. He looked at her then, and said formally, “I thank you for seeing her back here, my lady.” Then he turned and went to his tent.

She watched him go and then went to find some food herself. She didn’t think she could do anything more for either Lord or Lady Stark and so she left them in each other’s keeping for the present, and hoped that all would be well.

 

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Catelyn sat brushing out her hair by the light of a small lantern, and the sight of her pierced his heart. It was fairly cold in the tent, although warmer than outside, and she had a fur wrapped around her. It kept slipping from her cloaked shoulders as she moved the brush.

Ned walked to her. “Allow me, my lady,” he said softly. She surrendered the brush to his hand, and he pulled the fur up securely around her shoulders, and she hugged it to her as he began stroking the brush through her long hair, which glowed red in the lantern’s light.

“I know it is early yet,” she said. “But in truth, my head is warmer with it down.”

“I would have it down all the time, as well you know.”

She gave a tiny chuckle at that, and they were both silent for a bit as he continued to brush her hair. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Cat . . .”

At almost the same time, she turned to face him, and said, “Ned . . .”

He gently put a finger to her lips. “I would speak, my lady.”

She nodded, and he put down the brush, pulling her from her stool to the pallet laid in the center of the tent where they could sit together. “My lady, I must beg your pardon. I had no cause to treat you so shamefully. No cause to speak to you so.”

She swallowed. “No,” she said softly. “You didn’t.” She looked at him intently then. “Why did you?”

He clenched his jaw. He was not made for this, for speaking of things he preferred not even to think about, but he had promised her no secrets. “I know well that I am no longer a whole man,” he said between clenched teeth, “and you know it as well. But I could not abide your seeing my weakness like that . . .” He couldn’t say anything more. He realized his hand was clenched into a fist so tight, it was shaking.

“Not a whole man?” she said incredulously, putting her hand over his clenched fist. “Ned, you are the finest man that . . .”

“I cannot defeat a hulking awkward girl with a sword!” he spat out. “I am not as much good to you as your lady knight!” He stood then to walk away from her, but could only go a step in the confines of their small tent.

She stood as well and put her hand on his back. “I watched you cut your way through countless men to reach me at the Twins, my lord,” she said softly. “It was your knife at the Kingslayer’s throat when his man grabbed me.”

He bent his head. “I fear I will fail you,” he whispered. “I am not the man I was, Cat.”

She took him by the shoulders and turned him toward her. “You are not the swordsman, you were, perhaps. But there were always better swordsmen. You said so yourself. You have defeated many better swordsmen, my love.” He started to speak, but now she laid a finger on his lips. “As to the man you are, Eddard Stark, you cannot be anything other than who you always have been.” Tears now filled her eyes. “You are the bravest, most honorable, greatest man I have ever known. There are none like you, my love. None. And I have no fear of your failing me.”

He put took her hands in his. “I cannot let harm come to you,” he said fervently. “I cannot lose you again.”

“You won’t.” She brought her lips to his then, and at the contact, he felt his entire body shiver with desire for her. He put his arms around her and deepened the kiss as he pulled her tightly against him, feeling the length of her body against his through the layers of clothing between them. His cock stiffened, and she must have felt it, for she shuddered and pulled him even closer against her before breaking off the kiss and gasping for air. “My lord,” she panted. “I can’t . . .my moonblood . . .”

He tried to keep the disappointment from his face, but she must have seen it for her face fell. “I am sorry, my lord,” she murmured. “Perhaps, it is only too soon. Perhaps, once we are back at Winterfell . . .”

Back at Winterfell? She looked desperate, and she made no sense. Looking at her, he slowly realized the reason for her distress. Gods, Cat!

He put his hands on her face to turn her eyes to his. “My lady, you mistake me,” he said raggedly as his breathing was still rough with desire for her. “My sorrow is only that I cannot lay you down and bed you this very moment. I want you very badly, Cat. I have no thought of babes, my love.”

“But . . .”

“Gods, Cat! How often must I say it? I want no more children! I want only you!”

“I cannot help it, my lord,” she said in a small voice. “I worry that I may fail you, as well.”

“Never!” he said, and pulled her against him again, simply holding her.

As both of them began to breathe more slowly, he held her back so she could look at him, again. “Cat, I was with you when you brought all our children into the world, save Robb. I would never call what you did easy, my love, for I held you and saw how hard you worked to bring our babes safely. Yet, everyone called them easy births, and you never suffered more than an upset belly when you carried any of the children. And you were so beautiful with each of them inside you. In truth, you spoiled me, and I became convinced that no harm could come to you, in spite of what I know of the perils of childbirth. I would have gladly had you bear me a dozen babes for as much joy as I had in them and in you.” He swallowed. “I was young and foolish. But now, my love, while a babe might be a wonderful thing, the thought of you carrying another frightens me. I cannot lose you, Cat. You are more to me than any number of unborn babes.”

More tears spilled from her eyes then, and he held her close once more. “You will not lose me,” she assured him again. She kissed him again and ran her hand down his chest and belly below his waist where she brushed it across the firm bulge in his breeches.

He gasped and pulled away from her. “Cat, you are going to kill me.”

The smile she gave him then was positively wicked. “No,” she said. “I have something other than killing you in mind, my lord.”

With that, she knelt before him and he felt her hands undoing the laces of his breeches. Realizing what she was about, he felt dizzy as he looked down at the mass of auburn hair tumbling forward onto his belly as she bent her mouth to him. “Oh gods, Cat,” he breathed as she took him in her mouth, and he buried his fingers in her beautiful hair. The feel of her tongue and her lips on his cock drove him quickly beyond the brink, and he cried out her name as his body jerked, and she held him there with her hands. Sinking down beside her then, he pulled her close and held her as his heart slowly settled. Kissing the top of her head, he chuckled. “I fear you are going to kill me, my lady.”

She laughed then, and pulled away to stand up. “Well, perhaps we will starve. The sun is down now, and neither of us has eaten.” She moved to the washbasin and cleaned her hands. “Stay, my love, and I will bring us something.”

Before he could respond, she was gone from the tent. He lay back on the pallet and considered the events of the day. He would protect her. If he had to spar a hundred hours with Donnell or Brienne or anyone else, he would do it. He would try to be the man she believed him to be.

She returned relatively quickly and as they sat together eating their evening meal, they were both quiet, almost shy with each other after everything that had been said and done. As she set the dishes aside and began to undress for sleep, she said quietly, “The snow has almost stopped falling.”

“That is good. We shall travel more easily on the morrow if the weather stays fair.”

“You truly think we may reach the Bloody Gate tomorrow?” she asked him.

“If the weather holds, we should be there before sundown.” He sighed. "And we shall see what greeting we receive from young Waynwood.”

“Mya believes Ser Donnel will be inclined to help us.” Catelyn remembered Donnel Waynwood, Lady Anya’s second son, from her trip to the Eyrie with Tyrion Lannister. Mya had told them he had been named Knight of the Gate when her Uncle Brynden had resigned the post to accompany her back to Riverrun.

“Well, whatever his inclinations are, we will go up to the Eyrie, Cat,” Ned said, turning back the furs to make room for her to lie down beside him. “We will have our daughter back, my lady. I promise you that.”

“I know,” she said softly. “I believe you, my lord.” She nestled against him then. “I love you, Ned.”

I know, he thought. Please, gods, let me be worthy of her. Aloud, he only said, “Sleep well, my love,” and he kissed her gently. Then he held her as she fell asleep, and he turned his thoughts toward the hope of recovering his daughter, endeavoring to banish the lingering fear of failing mother and daughter both.

 

Chapter Text

Catelyn Stark felt her entire body tense as she recognized the place where Ser Donnel Waynwood had met her party near the end of her last terrible journey to the Eyrie. It struck her that nearly two years must have passed since then, and she couldn’t decide if it felt like it should be far less or far more. She knew they would easily make the Bloody Gate by evening, for the sun was still high, and while it was certainly cold, the sky was clear, and no new snow fell. The horses walked easily through the soft white blanket on the ground from yesterday‘s snowfall.

She heard Ned call a halt and saw him turn his horse back in her direction. They had said very little to each other since waking this morning. Yesterday’s hurts and fears were still fresh, and neither wished to discuss them on this day. He had kissed her tenderly before leaving their tent, however, and had simply looked at her for a long moment. She took comfort in the love and strength she saw in his grey eyes and prayed to the gods he had been able to see the same in her own.

Now, as he approached her, she saw him motion to Mya and Lord Reed to join him. “My lady,” he called to her. “Would you accompany us, please?” He turned his horse off the road then, and she gave hers a slight kick to follow after him. Brienne, of course, followed her without waiting to be asked.

Ned was dismounting when she reached him, and he held out his arms to help her off her horse. “I would speak with all of you,” he said, “as we will be at the Bloody Gate within hours.” He sighed. “Waynwood will undoubtedly recognize Catelyn, but I would prefer not to reveal ourselves in front of all his men right away if possible. I would rather know how much assistance we can expect from him first.”

“His mother despises Lord Baelish,” said Mya. “I cannot imagine him passing up a chance to be rid of him.”

Ned frowned at that. “We hardly comprise a conquering army, Mya. And I have no intention of calling any more men to arms against the Eyrie while the man holds my daughter there. Sansa’s safety comes first. If Baelish keeps as few men in the actual Eyrie as you say, then if we can just get in, we should be able to use Littlefinger’s surprise that my lady wife and I are not as dead as he supposes against him. You have said that any actual Arryn men will not defend him very diligently once it is clear who we are. Do you stand by that?”

The girl nodded. “Ser Lothor is his only true man. Well, him and Oswell Kettleblack, but I think Kettleblack’s gone off somewhere on a ship unless he’s returned while I’ve been gone. The others won’t put up much resistance, I don’t think. Some of the older guardsmen may even know you, my lord.”

Ned nodded. “The problem will be getting all the way up the mountain and inside without him suspecting who we are. The Stone Crows will turn back at the Bloody Gate?”

Mya nodded. “They are paid for their services there. Lord Baelish doesn’t allow them to enter the Vale as it would offend the other lords.”

“Good,” Ned said. “They undoubtedly know who we are if they have ears at all. Our names have been spoken freely by the men, and while these mountain clans concern themselves little with what occurs in the rest of the realm, they should recognize the name Stark all right. They know nothing of Sansa, however, as Lord Reed has kept one of his men always close to each of them to be certain she is never mentioned in their presence.”

Catelyn hadn’t realized Ned had taken that particular precaution. He had cautioned her to never speak of their daughter within the clansmen’s hearing, but now she realized he had been far more careful than she had even known.

“If they tell Waynwood our names, it is no great added difficulty as we cannot hope to pass through to the Gates of the Moon without his discovering our identities anyway,” Ned was continuing. “As long as they turn back from the Bloody Gate with no further communication with anyone else.”

“They should,” Mya shrugged. “They’ll have their money which is all they truly want.”

“My lady,” Ned said, turning to Catelyn. “I would have you keep your hood up and well over your face when we encounter anyone.”

She smiled at him. “That’s an easy thing to ask of me, my lord. It’s quite cold enough that I have no wish to take it down.”

“Lady Brienne,” he said then. “You will not move from my lady wife’s side for the remainder of our journey.”

“I will not, my lord,” the tall girl said seriously. “You need not worry on that account.”

Ned nodded at her. “Our Donnell will ride at the head of the column with Mogga and Hugor. I left him with them now. He’s gotten rather used to being my voice when we approach new people. Mya and I will follow just behind them.” Looking again at Catelyn, he said, “I would prefer you in the center of the column, my lady.” Brienne nodded before Catelyn could make any response, and finally Ned turned to Howland Reed. “You shall ride at the rear with our friend, Romm, Lord Reed, and see that he does nothing untoward.”

Lord Reed nodded. “I believe the horses are quite rested now, my lord,” he said.

“Indeed,” Ned said. “Let us be on our way.” He made no move to remount though, even as Reed and Mya did so and rode back to their places in the column. Catelyn and Brienne waited there with him, although Brienne did turn away and make herself rather obviously busy with her horse’s bridle.

Ned took Catelyn’s hand and asked her, “Are you well, my lady?”

“Well enough,” she replied. “And you, my lord?”

He smiled at her. “I am always well when I am with you.”

She felt her heart turn a small flip within her chest at his smile and his words, and she embraced him briefly, raising on her toes to kiss his bearded cheek before drawing back to a more respectable distance. “You shall never be without me, my love,” she said softly.

Then his hands were on her waist as he helped her back onto her horse. “Guard her well, Brienne,” he said rather sternly, before mounting his own animal. He smiled once more at her before turning his horse to trot back to the head of the column. A smile for courage, she thought.

In less than two hours, two score men bearing the sky-blue and white banners of House Arryn rode to meet them. From her place in the center of the column, Catelyn heard Mya call out clearly in front, “Ser Donnel! Well met!”

“Mya Stone!” declared the stocky young man. “The girl who slipped past all the Lords Declarant! It is good to see you haven’t perished. Lord Baelish and Lord Nestor feared the worst since you have been gone so long!”

Catelyn heard Mya laugh, and then the voices at the head of the column lowered and she could no longer hear the words. Instinctively, she started to nose her horse forward, but a large hand immediately came down over hers on the reins.

“Lord Stark wants you to stay here, my lady.”

Catelyn felt a momentary flash of irritation. “And are you sworn to Lord Stark or to myself, Brienne?” she hissed.

She regretted her words immediately as she saw the hurt in the young woman’s eyes. “I am yours, my lady,” Brienne said softly. “And I shall do as you command. But I would prefer to keep you safe, and your lord husband would do the same.”

Catelyn sighed. “I know, Brienne. We shall both both abide by Lord Stark’s wishes.” She frowned toward the front of the column. “For now.”

Then Catelyn Stark pulled the fur trim of her hood tighter around her face and settled in her saddle to wait.

 

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The stocky, brown haired young man whom Mya hailed couldn’t be too many years past twenty, Ned thought. He recalled Anya Waynwood’s second son vaguely as a small boy, but had certainly not seen him in well over fifteen years.

“You come with a great deal of company, Mya,” Waynwood was saying now.

“I have the honor of presenting Ser Donnell Boden to you, ser,” Mya said. Donnell was no knight, but Mya was playing this for all it was worth. “I had the good fortune of meeting him in Saltpans, and he and his companions had business with Lord Baelish. I knew I could offer them safe conduct with our friends here,” She indicated the two Stone Crows who rode just ahead of her with Donnell, “so I waited with them until they were prepared for the journey.”

Waynwood nodded. “Ser Donnell,” he said courteously to Boden. “I am pleased to meet you ser, and I must say I approve of your name.” He laughed then. “Alyn,” he called to a man behind him. “Bring the payment for Hugor and Mogga, please.”

“You would not have us go to your Bloody Gate?” Hugor asked.

“We have guests at the Bloody Gate just now, Hugor. I doubt they would be pleased to see you there. No offense.”

Ned thought the tone of the young knight’s voice held quite a lot of offense, but the Stone Crow merely scowled and turned to say something quietly to Mogga. While the two clansmen conferred, Ned wondered who was at the Bloody Gate and what their presence might mean to his plans.

“Romm is with us, too,” Hugor said now. “He needs paid as well.”

“There is more than enough,” Waynwood said, nodding at the man Alyn to hand Hugor a heavy looking little bag.

“Maybe there is more if we tell Littlefinger the names of these,” said Mogga suddenly. “This man is not the leader,” he continued, pointing at Donnell. Turning to point at Ned, he added, “He is. And he bears a dead man’s name.”

Waynwood betrayed no surprise at this news. He looked at Ned with the barest flicker of interest. “We are well aware of his name,” he said to Mogga coldly. “And if you truly have Lord Baelish’s best interests at heart, you will not speak it publicly. The Lord Protector’s business with this man is no concern of yours.”

Mogga scowled, but Hugor simply weighed the little bag in his hand and said, “We go then. Lord Baelish knows how to find us if he has need.” The two men rode down the length of the column and met their companion at the back. Then all three continued down the High Road away from the Bloody Gate.

Ned’s head was spinning. Could Baelish have heard of their coming? Everything had depended upon surprising him. Lost in his worry, he was startled to hear Donnel Waynwood’s voice just at his ear, and looked up to see that the man had pulled up directly beside him. As he met Ned’s eyes, the young man’s face did register a momentary look of disbelief before he hissed, “Keep your hood well up, Lord Stark. None here know who you are save Alyn and myself. We need to get safely inside the Bloody Gate.”

For the next three hours, Ned rode in complete silence, listening to Donnell and Donnel exchange meaningless courtesies and idle talk about the Vale. Mya occasionally offered a comment, asking if Ser Waynwood knew who had been caring for her mules or whether or not Myranda Royce was in residence at the Gates of the Moon, and when precisely the Lords Declarant had left the foot of the Giant’s Lance.

“They left not too long after you did, Mya, in truth,” Waynwood said. “Mother said that Lyn Corbray actually drew his sword on Littlefinger after they’d eaten with him, which put them all in a terrible position of course. The upshot of it all was that they’d give him a year to put the Vale to rights, and if he doesn’t, he’ll step down as Lord Protector.”

Ned gave a snort in spite of himself. “Littlefinger lies as often as most men breathe,” he muttered, remembering Varys’s words from so long ago.

Waynwood heard him and laughed. “My lady mother is inclined to agree with you, I think, although she’s in a rather difficult spot at the moment. And the gentleman who is currently my guest most certainly shares your sentiments.”

Before Ned could ask any more about this guest, the path narrowed abruptly, and the battlements of the Bloody Gate rose before them. As they climbed the narrow path, Ser Donnel suddenly rode ahead and turned back to call out to them. “Who would pass the Bloody Gate?”

Mya answered, “Mya Stone, with Ser Donnell Boden and his companions. May we enter the Vale?”

“In the name of Robert Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie, Defender of the Vale, True Warden of the East, I bid you enter freely, and charge you to keep his peace,” responded Waynwood.

Ceremony observed, Waynwood then led them up beneath the shadow of the Bloody Gate. Beyond it, stretched the Vale of Arryn with the mountains on either side. He hadn’t seen the place in years, but Ned found that the vista had the same impact on him it had in his youth, and he paused at first in simple awe of the place. Then he spotted Alyssa’s Tears tumbling from high on the Giant’s Lance, and he paused longer, knowing that he was looking toward his daughter.

Ned was aware that others in their company were riding around him, being led to stable their horses. They were mixing with Waynwood’s men freely, and Ned hoped fervently they all remembered his instructions not to speak of Sansa, ever. He felt a soft touch on his arm, then.

“My lord?”

He turned to see his wife on her mount beside him. She turned to gaze where he had been looking and whispered softly, “She’s there, isn’t she?”

He nodded, unable to say anything at the moment.

Then Waynwood approached them on foot. “My lord, he said, if you would care to dismount, my men can . . .” He stopped then, staring at Catelyn. Her hood remained up, but she was looking directly at him so her blue eyes were clearly visible as well as a few strands of her fiery hair. “Lady Stark,” Waynwood whispered. “It is all true, then.” He shook his head. Turning back to Ned, he said, “My men are good and loyal soldiers, but I would still prefer to have you inside quickly. Bring your lady and follow me, please.”

Ned dismounted carefully and found to his great pleasure that the bad leg was not too sore after this day’s ride. He helped Catelyn down, gave her his arm, and turned to follow young Waynwood into the keep.

 

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Climbing down from that horse, turning her back on the Giant’s Lance, and walking into the keep was one of the most difficult things Catelyn Stark had ever done. Every part of her screamed to get back on the horse and gallop for the Gates of the Moon as quickly as she could go. She was so close. So close. I was even closer to Arya, but she is still gone. The thought came unbidden. I was in the same room as Robb, but I couldn’t reach him. She clutched Ned’s arm more tightly. He looked at her then, questioning, but she shook her head. We will reach Sansa, she told herself firmly. We must.

“Right in here,” Ser Donnel was saying as he led them to a doorway about two-thirds of the way down the corridor. Then speaking to someone behind them, he said, “I’m sorry, ser, but I don’t know . . I mean, um, my lady?”

The poor man had ended his inquiry on a rather confused and embarrassed note, and Catelyn turned to see that Brienne had followed them silently. She smiled. “Lady Brienne of Tarth, Ser Donnel. She comes with me.”

“Well . . .” he hesitated.

“Lady Brienne accompanies my lady wife,” Ned said in his lord’s voice. It worked as well on Donnel Waynwood as it did on most people, as he simply nodded then and opened the door.

Inside was a fairly small room with a fireplace at each end, both laid with sizable fires. The only piece furniture was a long table with about eight chairs around it. Only a single man was seated there at the moment, though, and he rose as they entered.

As soon as she saw the tall man with his grey hair and heavily lined face, Catelyn threw back her hood and went to him with her hands outstretched in greeting. “Lord Yohn!” she cried.

The Lord of Runestone smiled broadly as he took her hands, and looked at her in wonderment, although Catelyn did not miss the frown as he took in her scars. “It is indeed good to see you, my lady,” his deep voice still tinged with disbelief.

“My Lord Royce,” Ned said, having removed his own hood and stepped up beside her. “It is very good to find you here as well.”

Bronze Yohn stared at Ned and shook his head slowly. “In truth, I feared Brynden Tully had lost his wits. But that grim face of yours still seems firmly attached to the rest of you, Lord Stark.” He smiled at Ned, then. “It is very good to see you as well, my friend, although you are not so fair to look upon as your lady wife.”

In spite of the seriousness of the situation, that made Catelyn smile. Bronze Yohn had always complimented her excessively, and she had secretly been convinced that he did it at least in part just to make Ned growl. Today, however, Ned’s mind was much too preoccupied to rise to the bait, and he merely took a seat at the table, indicating that the others should do the same.

“What did Brynden put in his letter, Yohn?” Ned asked.

Royce frowned. “Not a lot, to be truthful. We had already received word from his nephew Lord Edmure that a group of northmen had taken the Twins and lifted the siege at Riverrun.” He looked hard at Ned. “That was you, I take it?”

Ned nodded. “I had help. What did Brynden say?” he repeated.

“He said that the two of you lived---something about you being spirited out of the Black Cells and across the Narrow Sea and Lady Catelyn being held captive at the Twins after the Red Wedding.” He waited then, as if expecting some elaboration on these tales.

Ned nodded again. “All that is true, my lord. I fear it is a long tale. Suffice it to say that I was held prisoner in Pentos for several moons. I eventually escaped and made my way to White Harbor and eventually the Neck where I joined forces with Howland Reed, Maege Mormont and Galbart Glover. We discovered my lady was alive at the Twins, and went to get her.”

Lord Royce chuckled at that. “Just walked right in and took her, I’m sure.” He shook his head. “I’d have loved to have been there for that. I can’t imagine a better reason to storm a castle than to rescue a beautiful lady.”

“I’m glad you feel that way,” Catelyn started to say, as Ned said again, “What else did Brynden put in his letter?”

Royce shook his head and looked at Catelyn. “You’d think after years of marriage to such a charming lady, he’d have learned better conversation.” Turning back to Ned, he answered, “He said Petyr Baelish is not to be trusted, that he should under no circumstances be allowed to discover the two of you live, and that you were riding to the Vale on a matter of great importance. It was all rather mysterious, to be truthful. I decided to ride here to young Donnel and see if any ghosts would come galloping up the High Road or if the Blackfish had simply taken to drinking excessively since leaving the Vale.”

“Petyr Baelish has our daughter,” Catelyn said flatly.

“Your daughter?” Royce said, shocked. But the only girl he brought here with him is . . .” he paused then, and looked Ned and Catelyn in turn.

“Alayne Stone,” said Ned coldly. “Mya told us the name he uses. Littlefinger is claiming my daughter, Sansa, the heir to Winterfell, as his own bastard.”

“Gods!” Bronze Yohn exclaimed. “Gods!” He looked at Catelyn closely then. “I saw her,” he said. “I spoke to her. I even asked her if I knew her!” He shook his head. “Her hair is the wrong color, but she has your eyes, my lady. I thought the little Lady Sansa had your hair as well.”

“She does. They’ve been dying it.” Catelyn’s heart felt like it was going to explode. Bronze Yohn had spoken to Sansa. Why hadn’t she said anything? Why didn’t she tell him who she was? Oh gods, how frightened she must be! Of everyone!

Now Donnel Waynwood spoke for the first time. “So Petyr Baelish holds the title of Lord of Harrenhall, Lord Protector of the Vale, and he controls the true heir to Winterfell?” He shook his head. “And Lady Sansa is your heir, correct? She is older than your daughter that the Lannisters gave to the Bolton bastard.”

Catelyn thought for a moment that Yohn Royce was going to hit the young man for his thoughtless words, but Ned very quickly said, “Bolton does not have any daughter of mine. He was given an imposter. We believe Arya may have escaped by ship, possibly going as far as Essos.”

Bronze Royce’s expression was grim. “That’s a hard journey for a young girl,” he said, “but a better fate than marriage to Ramsay Snow, if even half of what one hears of the man is true.”

Catelyn spared a thought for poor Jeyne Poole and shuddered. “It is true,” she whispered. “But Lord Yohn, we must find a way into the Eyrie to get Sansa away from Petyr.”

“I certainly am not welcome there,” Royce said. “If we tell the other lords whom he actually holds there, they will all rally to our cause, though.”

“And do what?” Ned asked. “A host is useless against the Eyrie for they cannot get to it. And laying siege to it only starves my daughter. And I do not know what Littlefinger would do to her if threatened.”

“He’ll agree to see my mother,” Donnel Waynwood said softly.

“What?” Ned asked.

Ser Waynwood looked at Catelyn. “You could be my mother,” he said thoughtfully.

Catelyn and the two grey eyed lords looked at him blankly and the young man laughed. “Baelish has propositioned my lady mother, my lords. He wants her ward to wed his bastard daughter.”

Ned sputtered at that, and Bronze Yohn bellowed, “Lady Anya would never consent to give Harry a bastard bride.”

“Not ordinarily,” Ser Donnel agreed, “but I fear Ironoaks is heavily indebted, and he’s offering an unbelievable dowry.”

“But why?” Catelyn started.

“Because Robert Arryn is a very sick little boy,” Yohn Royce said. “If he dies, Harry the Heir is suddenly Lord of the Vale. It would seem that Petyr Baelish has designs on ruling half of Westeros through your little girl, Lady Stark.”

“Poor Mother,” said Waynwood. “If she only knew, she’d be offering up me or my brother to Baelish instead of hesitating to sell Harry!”

Catelyn’s mind whirled in an attempt to process all this information until it came back to Donnel Waynwood’s earlier statement. “What did you mean that I could be your mother?”

“Oh,” he said. “You need to get up to the Eyrie, right? If my lady mother were to appear at the Gates of the Moon and ask for an audience with Lord Baelish to discuss this proposal, he’d allow her up. You look nothing like my lady mother, of course. But you are a lady. I have one of her green cloaks here. From a distance, any lady in green cloak on a mule could be my lady mother. Mya could escort you and your party up, and no one would stop you.”

Yohn Royce nodded thoughtfully. “That could work. He’d expect Lady Waynwood to travel with at least a small contingent of men, so we could take enough to deal with the household guard once we are inside. “And this time, I won’t drink any of the man’s damn wine,” he said grimly.

“You intend to come with us?” Ned asked.

Bronze Yohn Royce smiled then. “Did I not just say that I couldn’t imagine a better reason to storm a castle?”

 

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It had been decided that they should spend the night at the Bloody Gate so that they could arrive at theGates of the Moon early enough to deal with Nestor Royce and still have time to make the ascent to the Eyrie by nightfall. Ned and Catelyn had been given a small private bedchamber with an even smaller adjoining room for Brienne. Ned smiled thinking about the consternation on the faces of the men at the keep about his lady’s personal bodyguard. True to her word, the young woman had not allowed Catelyn to be more than three paces away from her until he had firmly bid her good night and closed the door between their chambers.

Sighing, he looked at Catelyn who sat pale and silent on the edge of the bed. “My lady?” he said softly.

“He’s planning to marry her to someone,” she said just as softly. “Do you suppose that means that he hasn’t . . he isn’t . .” she couldn’t finish the sentence.

“I do not know what it means, my love.” He sat beside her. “I only know that this time tomorrow, we will have her away from him.” In truth, Ned preferred not to think too long on what Littlefinger may or may not be doing with his daughter. The man’s eyes on his wife in King’s Landing had been quite bad enough. His desire to possess her had been all over his face. Damn the man!

He stood up then and walked quickly to the door and back.

“You’re pacing, Ned,” she said softly.

“I want it to be morning.”

“Pacing will not make the morrow arrive more quickly, my love.”

“No.” He stopped walking at looked at her again, wondering what, if any, he should tell her of Royce’s last comments. After he had bid good night to Catelyn, Bronze Yohn had asked Ned to stay just a moment, and had told him what little he knew of his daughter’s time at the Eyrie.

He had personally seen her only that once, but she had appeared completely devoted to her “father” then, the man had said. Gossip among household staff between the Eyrie and the Gates of the Moon apparently held that “father” and “daughter” were very close, and that Littlefinger actually had his bastard girl running a great deal of the household.

Ned felt he had learned enough about Littlefinger to know that the man trusted no one, so if he did not trust Sansa, then he must believe he controlled her well enough that she would do his bidding without fail. If the man had no use for trust, he certainly believed in control, and the thought of his daughter in Littlefinger’s hands caused Ned’s blood to run cold.

“What’s wrong, Ned?”

Her voice shocked him out of his thoughts and he looked at her. “He’s controlling her, Cat,” he said simply.

She nodded. “Of course, he is.” She swallowed hard and then stood up and came to take his hands. “She’s easy for him to control. She was in the hands of the Lannisters for a long time between your arrest and his taking her away. I cannot imagine what she suffered at their hands, but whatever Petyr says or does, he’ll be able to remind her that he is her rescuer.” She put her hands on his face. “She thinks she has no one else, Ned.”

He nodded, feeling vaguely sick at the thought of his little girl feeling dependent on Petyr Baelish. “She finds out differently tomorrow,” he said darkly.

“You’re scowling,” she said, smoothing the lines in his forehead with her fingers. “Whatever has been done to her, my love, she is going to be hurt. She is going to be frightened. You will need to be patient with her--just as you have been with me.”

“Of course, I will,” he said. “And Baelish will pay dearly for any hurt she’s suffered.”

Catelyn sighed. “You look like a wrathful spirit just now. And I don’t blame you. But she won’t understand, Ned. If she looks at that face, she’ll fear that you’re angry with her, disappointed in her.”

“But that’s ridiculous, Cat! Of course, she won’t think . . .” he stopped then, as he looked into his wife’s eyes and began to see something clearly for the first time. “You mean that you . . .oh gods, Cat! I have never been angry at you for any of it! I have never blamed you! I never could! You know that!” he was babbling then and he hated that, so he simply stopped speaking and implored her with his eyes to see the truth there.

“I do know it, Ned. I do,” she said softly. “But even knowing that your anger is always for the ones who hurt me and never for myself, it still sometimes hurts to see it.” She bit her lip then before continuing. “And I am much older than three and ten.”

He nodded. “I will be careful of her,” he said shortly, unable to put any more words to it.

She smiled at him. “I know you will. Now let’s go to bed, my love.”

He started to protest.

“Oh, neither of us will sleep tonight, I know.” Her lip trembled just slightly then, and he realized anew just how frightened she was. “But I would rather hold each other than lie here alone and watch you wear a groove in the floor.”

He kissed her forehead. “As you wish, my lady,” he told her.

 

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Lord Nestor Royce’s reaction when Catelyn removed the hood of Anya Waynwood’s green cloak was possibly the most explosive response to her resurrection yet. The man had been eating a midmorning meal when they arrived, and he had declined to get up to meet them when he’d been informed that his cousin had arrived escorting Lady Waynwood. Undeterred, Bronze Yohn had simply strode into the dining hall of the Gates of the Moon with Catelyn in his wake, and bellowed, “Nestor, you fool, you’ll want to have a look at the lady I’ve with me!”

Taking that as her cue, she had lowered the hood and looked up at the massive barrel chested man who proceeded to choke on the large bite of turkey he had just bitten off and then to spew large chunks of meat across the table.

“I see you recognize Lady Stark,” Bronze Yohn said drily. “Might I also present her husband, Lord Eddard Stark, whom you may recall as well.”

As Ned stepped out from behind Brienne and Donnell Boden, what little color Nestor Royce’s face still had drained away.

“My lord, my lady!” he stammered. “How is this possible? This is a miracle!”

“Yes, yes, a miracle, no doubt,” his cousin said dismissively. “But what Lord and Lady Stark would like from you is their daughter.”

“Their . . daughter? What daughter?” The man’s confusion was real, and Catelyn knew that whatever loyalty Petyr had bought from him by granting his family a hereditary title of Keeper of the Gates of the Moon, it did not extend to knowledge of Sansa’s true identity.

“Petyr Baelish stole my daughter, Sansa,” Ned said coldly. “He took her from King’s Landing, dyed her hair, and claimed her as his own natural child.”

Nestor Royce blinked stupidly a couple times before saying, “Alayne? You mean Alayne Stone? She’s not your daughter. I’ve met her.”

“She is my daughter,” Ned said even more coldly, “And your having met her does not change that fact. Although if you have met her, I encourage you to look closely at my lady wife’s face and then tell me you do not believe the girl you know as Alayne Stone is her daughter.”

Lord Nestor did stare at her then, and Catelyn knew that uncomfortable fraction of time when his eyes invariably focused on her scars, but then he looked at her eyes for a long moment and muttered, “Gods!” under his breath. He took a large gulp of ale and sighed. “Dyed her hair you say? Is it truly that color?” He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of Catelyn’s hair.

“Yes,” she said quickly. “It’s a memorable shade, I fear. And Petyr must have thought it too memorable, especially when Lysa was with them. Her hair was only slightly darker than mine and Sansa’s.”

When Bronze Yohn had told them about Littlefinger’s conferring the perpetual title on Lord Nestor and his descendents the night before, he had sighed deeply. “My cousin is not without honor, Lord Stark,” he had said, “But he is an ambitious man who has always resented being considered the lesser part of our house. Littlefinger played him well when he rewarded him with a position he, in truth, had given good and loyal service to earn. Now he stands to lose a lot if Littlefinger falls.”

Catelyn thought about Lord Nestor’s honor and moved forward to speak with him before the men could make him angry. “Lord Nestor,” she said. “I beseech you for your help. I realize that Lord Baelish has conferred on you and your heirs the title of Keeper of the Gates. And I do hope he means to honor it, for you certainly deserve it. Lord Arryn always knew the value of your service. He often mentioned it to my lord husband.” She gave Ned a significant look.

“Yes,” he said. “Certainly.” She caught the look of amusement in his eyes, but was certain no one else could see past his impassive face.

“But I fear he will betray you,” she said then with as much genuine concern as she could muster.

“What?” Lord Nestor sputtered. “Why would he do such a thing?”

“Why indeed?” she said. “Why would he lie to me about the attempted murder of my son? Why would he betray my lord husband to the Lannisters? Why would he kidnap my daughter and keep her for his own purposes?” She shook her head sadly. “He was raised at Riverrun, you know. As close as a brother to me. And yet he has done all these things to me and my family for no reason I can discern. I cannot imagine he would hesitate to play you false as well.”

“He truly did all these things?” Lord Nestor honestly sounded shocked. “You have proof?”

“I stand before you to testify that it was Littlefinger who held the knife to my throat as Cersei Lannister called for my arrest,” Ned said shortly. “And my daughter is in the Eyrie. Once I have retrieved her, I shall be happy to properly introduce you.”

Nestor Royce swallowed hard. He wasn’t at all happy about this turn of events. Catelyn could see that plainly. But she could also see that they had him. “House Stark and House Tully will forever be grateful to you for your assistance today, Lord Nestor,” she said with all the courtesy she possessed. “Your young Lord Robert is my nephew, you know. He belongs in the Vale, of course, as Jon Arryn’s heir, but I certainly intend to make sure he is suitably cared for and that he knows to treat well all those who provided good and leal service.”

Nestor Royce sighed and nodded. “What would you have me do?”

Bronze Yohn smiled at his cousin. “Send up a bird, Nestor. Ask the Lord Protector if Lady Anya Waynwood and her party might come up to the Eyrie to discuss his recent business proposition.”

“Waynwood? Business proposition?”

“Just do it, Nestor. And make no mention of myself or Lord and Lady Stark.”

As Lord Nestor Royce went to send a bird up the mountain, Ned pulled Catelyn close to him. “You were brilliant, my lady,” he said softly.

Lord Yohn, who still stood beside her heard him, however, and laughed. “And to think I’ve envied you all these years just for her figure and face, Stark! You are indeed a rare treasure, my lady.” He bent deeply to kiss her hand, and, flushed with the success of their meeting with Lord Nestor, Catelyn laughed as well. She laughed even harder when she looked up to find Ned’s face set in a scowl.

Hardly an hour later, Lord Nestor Royce received word that the Lord Protector of the Vale would be most pleased to meet with Lady Anya, and would happily host her party overnight in the Eyrie.

 

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“Mya is back, Sweetrobin. Isn’t that wonderful news?” Alayne Stone asked the little Lord of the Eyrie as she tried to coax him to eat his midday meal.

“I don’t like Mya,” he said petulantly. “She’s stinky like the mules.”

Alayne sighed. “Well, Mya is better at getting those mules up here than anyone else, so that means more good things for you to eat, now doesn’t it?”

That got Robert Arryn’s attention. “Sweet cakes? Even lemoncakes like we both like?”

Alayne actually smiled at that. “Yes, my Sweetrobin, even lemoncakes. Although I doubt Mya will be coming up today, so you must have another bite of your porridge now.”

Robert made a face, but he did take another bite.

“Actually,” said a dry, cultured voice from behind her, “Mya will be coming up the mountain today. But she won’t be bringing sweet cakes, I fear. She will be bringing visitors.”

“Visitors?” Alayne felt a wave of panic at the mention of visitors to the Eyrie. “Who is coming, Father?”

“Lady Waynwood, my sweetling,” said Petyr Baelish as he walked to Alayne and kissed her hair. He pulled back and ran his fingers along the scalp, frowning. “Too much red is showing, Alayne.”

“I know, Father,” she told him. “But I used the last of the color when the Lords Declarant came. I cannot do anything about the red until Mya brings the new color you sent her for. Do you think she’ll bring it today?”

“I certainly hope not. I hardly need Anya Waynwood wondering why we need hair coloring hauled up to the Eyrie.”

“She’s old,” Robert put in. “I don’t like her.”

Petyr actually smiled at little Robert then, which surprised Alayne because Petyr rarely smiled at the boy. “Well, you needn’t see her then. She is coming to speak to me of a particular business matter which need not concern the Lord of the Eyrie.”

“That’s me!” shouted Robert.

“Indeed it is,” Petyr agreed. “And the Lord of the Eyrie is far too important to waste his evening listening to old Anya Waynwood prattle on.”

That pleased Robert enough that he ate another bite of porridge without being coaxed. “Good! Alayne and I will play in my room and she can read me stories.”

“Well, I shall need Alayne for just a bit when Lady Waynwood arrives, but I promise she shall come and read to you after that,” Petyr told him.

For a moment, Robert looked like he might protest, but Petyr gave him a very stern look, and he simply nodded.

“Now, Maddy and Gretchel can help you finish up with your meal, young Robert. I have need of Alayne.” Without waiting for Robert to reply, Petyr gave Alayne his arm and led her from the dining hall to his solar.

“I will be leaving soon, Alayne,” he said as they walked.

“How long will you be gone, Father?” she asked. She didn’t like it when he was gone because Robert invariably behaved far worse. Her father was the only person he was the least bit afraid of.

Petyr sighed. “Several weeks, I fear. I must attend Ser Lyonel’s wedding.”

“To the merchant’s daughter? The match you arranged?”

“Yes, Alayne,” He smiled at her, pleased that she had remembered. “Why is it important I attend?”

“Because the lords loyal to you will be there; those with Bronze Yohn will not. You need to show your supporters that you are there for them.”

He smiled again. “Indeed,” he said. “And if my meeting with Lady Waynwood goes well today, she may well accompany me to this wedding feast, and the Lord of Runestone will find himself even more isolated.”

“But why would Lady Waynwood change her allegiance?”

“Why does anyone change their allegiance, Alayne?” her father asked patiently.

“To gain something they need,” she said thoughtfully.

“A fine answer,” Petyr said.

“But, Father,” Alayne asked, “If a person changes their allegiance to gain what they need, what will prevent them from changing it again when they need something else?”

“Why, nothing, Alayne!” Petyr laughed with delight then and turned to kiss her on the mouth. The kiss lasted too long, and she felt the same shameful discomfort these kisses always caused, but she smiled dutifully at him when he pulled away from her. “That, my daughter, is why you trust no one, and always make it your business to know precisely what people need. And to have it whenever possible.”

“What does Lady Waynwood need, Father?” she asked.

“Money,” her father answered. “She needs a great deal of money rather badly. But I shall not give it to her for anything less than what I need of her, sweetling.”

“And what is that, Father?”

He smiled at her rather enigmatically then. “I shall not tell you that until it comes to fruition, I think, Alayne. But you should be very pleased.” He ruffled her hair then before seating himself at his desk. “Now, I need you to plan a nice wine to serve Lady Anya and perhaps a light meal as she‘ll likely arrive after dark and be hungry. She’ll take the baskets once she gets to Sky, so there’s no need to meet the mules. I’ll have Lothor escort her men inside, and you can await Lady Waynwood with me here. Now, go and see if you can style your hair to better mask the red, sweetling. As fond as I am of your true color, it won’t do for Lady Waynwood to notice it.”

As Alayne walked back to her room to address the problem of her hair, she twirled a dark chestnut strand around her finger. Brown is my true color, she thought. Red was Sansa Stark’s hair. I am Alayne Stone.

 

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The mules’ progress was slow, but steady, and Ned kept his eyes on his wife’s green cloaked back on the mule just ahead of him. The idea of having her confront Baelish made his stomach turn, but he couldn’t imagine any greater shock to the man than Catelyn’s face, and if he were foolish and egotistical enough to believe even briefly that she had come to him because she wanted to, it could buy them time for his men to secure Baelish’s.

Mya and Bronze Yohn said that Lady Anya would be expected to ride up in the basket from Sky, and Catelyn confessed she had done the same when she came previously. Sansa would either be sent to escort Lady Waynwood from the baskets to Littlefinger or would be waiting with him to greet her. Ned hoped his daughter would be sent to the baskets as they could then secure her right away and there would be no need to send Catelyn to Baelish.

The plan was for Reed, Brienne, and himself to ride up in the baskets with Catelyn--Brienne and Reed going first, to be in position to handle whomever did await them, and Catelyn and himself after. Donnell, Bronze Yohn, and five other trusted men would climb the stairs with Mya. Ned and and his little group would linger at Sky long enough to give the men a chance at an arrival time near theirs.

Stone was the only way castle remotely well garrisoned, and Mya had smiled warmly and refused their offer of refreshment when they dismounted to change mules, stating that Lady Waynwood was fearful of being on the mountain after dark, and wished to keep going right away. They had kept Catelyn well surrounded by their own men, and had her on her second mule and headed up toward Snow before anyone from Stone had a chance to look at her twice in her hooded green cloak. She sat very stooped on her mule, both to hide her height and to give the appearance of older age.

Snow was no more than a stable and a timber keep with only a few men present. Mya had predicted they would not have been told specifically who was coming up the mountain. Nor would they care. The men here simply exchanged the mules again, figuring that if Mya led the party, and they had been allowed past Stone, all was well. No one asked any questions except for one young man who was very interested in Mya’s adventures on the High Road and seemed very happy to have her back. She chatted away with him, keeping his attention focused on her as the others filed by without comment. Then with a smile and a wave, she moved back to the front of their little procession before the trail became too difficult to make a pass.

“Sky will be a different matter,” she said grimly, as she rode abreast of Ned.

He nodded. There would be no more than a handful of men at Sky, but they would have to be quietly taken prisoner without sending any word up to the Eyrie in order for Ned’s group to take control of the winches. No one helping Catelyn into the basket would believe she was the aged Anya Waynwood. Catelyn had closed her eyes and let him lead her across the high saddle above Snow without hesitating, and Mya had smiled broadly at her then.

Upon reaching Sky, they discovered six men, all drinking some conconction designed to keep them warm. They stood in a circle around a small fire, and Mya went to join them, talking and laughing as Ned’s men then slowly integrated themselves into the circle and on his signal, each quickly subdued and disarmed the surprised man next to him. In truth, the men didn’t seem terribly upset by the turn of events as soon as they realized they weren’t to be killed, and Ned began to realize how little these people did love Littlefinger. Mya, who knew all the men, apologized profusely, and promised to set them free as soon as possible.

After showing Ned how to send a message up stating who would be coming up in the baskets, Mya left with Donnell and Bronze Yohn and their five. Ned waited at Sky with Catelyn, Reed, and Brienne, and the two men who were to work the winch and remain to guard the men of Sky until word came they could be released. After a time he had one of the men write out a message that Lady Waynwood and three of her companions would be riding up. It was getting dark on the mountain by the time the response came to send them up.

As he and Catelyn watched the basket carrying Brienne and Lord Reed move up and away from them, he pulled her to him. “Are you sure you wish to do this, my lady?”

She looked at him. “We have no choice, Ned.”

“You have a choice, my love. I will confront Baelish if you’d rather.”

“And have him send up an alarm instantly.” She shook her head. “I can do this, Ned.” Her voice was steady.

He nodded. When it was their turn to ride in the basket, and they were out of sight of others’ eyes, they held tight to each other all the way up. He let go of her only as the basket banged against the wall, being pulled inward by someone inside the Eyrie.

As he stepped from the basket, Ned realized it had been Brienne who had hauled them inside, and he saw with some amusement that four men and a serving girl were bound together on the floor, but he was disappointed to see that Sansa was not there.

“Which of you is to take Lady Anya to Lord Baelish?” he asked courteously.

“I . . .I am, my lord,” said the girl.

Ned nodded. “Well, no harm is going to come to you, lass. All you have to do is take us to Lord Baelish, announce Lady Waynwood, and you will be safe. We must keep you bound for a bit, so you don’t raise an alarm, but you will not be harmed. Do you understand?”

The girl nodded, her eyes staring from him to Catelyn as if still wondering when Lady Waynwood was going to appear.

“Put your hood up, my lady,” he said to his wife, before pulling up his own. “Lead on, young lady,” he said to the girl as Lord Reed helped her up and took her by the arm.

“This way,” she said.

“Where does Lord Baelish await us, lass?” Ned asked.

“The Lord’s solar,” she said.

Ned smiled. “I know the way, child. I lived here for quite a few years, so I will know if you take a wrong turn.”

She nodded, and they started toward the staircase.

 

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Alayne had watched the little party earlier on the bits of the path she could see from her balcony. They were only little splotches of color on mules from this height. She could recognize Mya simply because she had watched her make the climb so often before. The only other figure who could be recognized was Lady Waynwood, and that was only because of the vivid green cloak she remembered from before. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have been able to even tell she was a woman at this distance. She had gotten cold eventually, and, after dressing, had gone to make sure Gretchel and Maddy had brought the food and wine she requested to her father’s solar.

Her father was there when she arrived. He was looking over the food and wine the girls had carried in with approval. “You did well, Alyane,” he said. He then came to peer closely at her hair. She had twisted it up on top and let the ends fall loosely. She had encircled her head with a thick ribbon which matched her russet dress to cover the red which peeked through at her forehead. It was perhaps a more formal style than one expected of a baseborn girl, but she couldn’t figure any other way to cover the red.

He nodded at her. “I cannot see the red unless I specifically look for it. Well done.”

Just then, a man from the basement came to say that Lady Anya and three of her companions would be arriving in the baskets and that several other men were climbing the steps with Mya.

“Maddy, why don’t you go to the basement and greet Lady Waynwood for me. Bring her and her companions here, please.”

Maddy nodded.

“You don’t want me to go, Father?” Alayne asked.

“No,” he said. “Gretchel, you may go look after Lord Robert now. Alayne will serve us here.”

Once the girls left, he turned to her. “You have done an elegant job with your hair, sweetling, but I’d still prefer Lady Waynwood not get to examine you all the way from the basement to here. Now come give your father a kiss.”

Alayne moved to kiss him on the cheek, but he caught her face and held it. “Now, come, Alayne. Is that any way to show affection for the father who is working on such a lovely surprise for you?” He kissed her mouth then and one of his hands brushed up the side of her bodice rubbing against her breast. Alayne closed her eyes and pretended she was somewhere else until he released her.

“What surprise, Father?” she asked then.

“Now, if I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?” he said with a smile. “Go ahead and pour me a glass of wine if you would, Alayne. And you may have a small one yourself, as it will be a bit before they get the old woman hauled up.”

As she poured, he cautioned her, “Only a little, Alayne. Never fail to keep your wits.” He smiled at her again. “Ah yes, sweetling, with your mother’s beauty and my sharp wits, no one shall resist you.”

She sipped her wine. She didn’t like it when he spoke of her mother. He had loved her a great deal, she knew that. He always said she loved him as well, but she had seen her mother with her father. Her real father. I am Alayne Stone, she told herself automatically. Petyr Baelish is my father. But she had seen her mother look at Lord Eddard Stark and she didn’t like to think of her looking at Petyr the same way. Lady Catelyn Stark, she thought. That is my mother’s name. I am Sansa Stark, daughter of Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn.

Shocked at herself, she put the wine down, wondering if the small amount she had taken had caused her to think about Sansa Stark. No, she decided. It wasn’t the wine. It was Petyr mentioning her mother. Catelyn Stark was Sansa’s mother, not Alayne Stone’s.

She sat quietly and watched Petyr marking in a ledger at his desk while he took occasional sips from his wineglass. After awhile, she heard Maddy’s voice at the door. “Lady Anya Waynwood, milord,” she yelled. Alayne wondered why she said it so loud and squeaky.

“Come sit close to me, Alayne,” Peter said, and she moved to his side. “Show her in, Maddy.”

The door opened and a lady in a green cloak and hood walked in, closely followed by a hooded man with a grey beard and a noticeable limp. Behind him came a small man, even shorter than Petyr, and a very tall---was that a woman dressed like a man? Alayne was so thunderstruck by the strange woman’s appearance, she didn’t notice anything else until she heard her father gasp.

She looked at him and was shocked to see that his face had lost all color, and the hand that held his wine glass actually shook. She had never seen him like this.

Then she heard a voice she hadn’t heard in years, but that went straight into her heart, say softly, “Hello, Petyr.”

She looked away from Petyr Baelish then. The very tall woman and the two men remained back near the doorway, but the woman in green had moved to the center of the room and removed her hood. Alayne couldn’t quite breathe. The woman’s face had scars upon it that weren’t there before, but it was her face all the same. Alayne blinked tears out of her eyes, and thought she should do something, but couldn’t think what.

Petyr grabbed her arm then, and gripped it tightly. “Cat,” he whispered.

She knew better than to move or even speak with him holding her arm like that, but as she looked at the auburn hair and blue eyes of the woman who was now looking at her, Alayne Stone disappeared.

Mother, thought Sansa Stark.

Chapter Text

Catelyn’s heart was pounding as they walked up the stairs and through the corridors of the Eyrie. They passed no one, which seemed to support Mya’s contention that the castle was very lightly staffed. Catelyn prayed that Bronze Yohn and the other men would arrive quickly.

Ned and the young woman stopped outside a closed door, and Ned silently motioned for Reed and Brienne to bind her again, hands and feet. As they did that, Catelyn pulled her husband aside. “You must be still and silent, Ned,” she whispered. “No matter what he says or does.”

His eyes darkened at that, but he said nothing, and she continued. “He will likely touch me, my love. Or Sansa.” His hands tightened reflexively then. “Ned!,” she whispered more urgently. “Unless either of us is actually being harmed, you must not give yourself away! We must give Bronze Yohn and Donnell time!” She put her hands to his face and looked at him, allowing her eyes to plead with him. She felt his jaw clench beneath her fingers, but he gave a tiny stiff nod.

“Courage, my lady,” he whispered to her then, and she nodded back as she drew the green hood more tightly around her face.

Ned nodded to the serving girl who was being supported by Brienne, and she screeched at the door, “Lady Anya Waynwood, milord!” Brienne gently set the poor child down in an alcove off to the left as Petyr Baelish’s voice bid them enter from behind the door. The sound of it sent a cold shiver down Catelyn’s spine, but she pushed open the door and walked into the Lord’s solar with Ned following immediately.

She managed not to gasp at the beautiful dark haired maiden sitting too close to Petyr behind the large desk. She was aware that Petyr rose in greeting as she entered, mostly because the girl beside him did, too. Oh, gods, she’s as tall as I am! It was difficult to look at the girl clearly without revealing her face, but Catelyn could plainly see it was her daughter. Sansa was older and more beautiful than ever, but she was undeniably her own sweet girl, and Catelyn forcibly stopped herself from crying out with joy at the mere sight of her.

Petyr made some sort of movement, and Catelyn forced her attention back to him. The frown on his face clearly stated he knew something was amiss as he stared at her. Cloak or no, she was simply too tall and too agile to be Anya Waynwood. Without further thought or hestitation, she threw back her hood and looked him directly in the eyes.

His reaction was immediate. He gasped as if he had been run through with a sword, and the color drained from his face just as if he were bleeding out. He began shaking so badly that she had the absurd urge to go and remove the wineglass he held from his hand, lest he spill it all over the desk.

Instead, she stayed rooted to her spot in the center of the room and spoke, rather shocked to hear her voice come out softly, but evenly, with no audible tremor. “Hello, Petyr.”

Sansa made a tiny sound then, and as Catelyn turned her eyes back toward her daughter, Petyr grabbed the child’s arm and whispered, “Cat” in a harsh rasp of a voice. She saw recognition in Sansa’s blue eyes, mingled with fear, disbelief, hope, and a gradually dawning joy that caused Catelyn to feel her heart would actually burst open. She remained acutely aware of Ned, strung tighter than any bowstring, behind her near the doorway, and knew his eyes were fixed on Petyr’s fingers digging into the flesh of Sansa’s arm.

“Petyr, you are hurting my daughter’s arm,” she said coolly, again surprised at the calmness of her voice, when calm was the last thing she felt.

“Your . . .your daughter,” he stammered, as if confused by the word, not taking his hand from Sansa’s arm.

“Yes, my daughter,” she said, taking a step toward the desk. “Surely you don’t believe a simple brown hair rinse would prevent me from recognizing my own child.” She heard something like a tiny, half-swallowed sob escape from Sansa, and her cool resolve threatened to crumble. She kept her eyes on Petyr Baelish.

“Let go of her, Petyr.”

Baelish continued to stare at her in disbelief, but he dropped Sansa’s arm. Catelyn could actually feel Ned relax marginally, and she silently thanked the gods. She forced herself to smile at Petyr then. “Thank you for getting Sansa out of King’s Landing, Petyr,” she told him.

He seemed to recover himself a bit then for he smiled back at her, “Cat,” he said. “I cannot believe you are standing here. How is this possible?” As he looked at her, she saw the expression on his face slowly changing from complete shock to something her husband would not like at all. Be still, Ned, she thought desperately.

“I assure you I am not a ghost,” she said lightly, “although it was a near thing, and I have the scars to prove it.” She glanced at Sansa and saw that she was inching very slowly away from Petyr while his attention was focused on Catelyn. Good girl, she thought. “I am sorry for the deception, Petyr, but I have heard so many strange tales. I didn’t truly believe them, of course, but I had to see you and Sansa for myself before I could risk being open.” She arranged her features into a portrait of feminine distress. “I have found so few real friends. There is no one I could trust. I had to come here myself.”

The desire and avarice in his expression was so blatant after she made that statement, she wondered how she could have been blind to it for so long. Turning again toward Sansa, she saw that her daughter was now more than an arm’s length from Littlefinger.

She held her arms out. “Come here, my sweetling!” she called to her. “I have gone far too long without holding you.”

Sansa gave Petyr a frightened look which chilled Catelyn’s blood, but after the slightest hesitation, she scooted around the desk and flung herself into her mother’s arms. The feel of her warm, solid, living daughter was almost more than Catelyn could take and she felt a sob escape her own lips as she clutched Sansa tightly to her. She wasn’t quite her height yet, she realized, holding her close, but almost. She would certainly be taller than Catelyn within a year.

Sansa cried softly against Catelyn’s neck, whispering, “Mother,” almost incoherently, and Catelyn forced herself to focus on the danger here. She could feel the two of them pinned between the gazes of two men, the one who loved them and the one who would own them, and she put her mouth close to Sansa’s ear, on the side where Littlefinger could not see.

“We are not safe yet, child, but we will be,” she whispered. Sansa nodded almost imperceptibly. She looked up to see Petyr now moving around the desk toward her much more slowly than Sansa had. She released her daughter from her arms and stepped toward Petyr as if to greet him, effectively putting Sansa behind her. She held her hands out to grasp Littlefinger’s as she was not entirely sure Ned would remain still much longer if the fool man tried to embrace her.

He held both of her hands in his, running his thumbs over the backs of hers. Looking directly at her, he asked slowly, “Why have you come here, Cat?”

She decided to give him the truth. “To find my daughter, of course. And to find you.” She squeezed his hands more tightly, as if in affection, but, in truth it was to prevent him from running them up her arms. “I was nearly killed at the Twins by the Freys when my son was murdered at their Red Wedding.”

“Everyone believed you dead. I believed you dead,” Petyr said. He cocked his head, and continued to regard her carefully. “But why are you not with the northmen? Word arrived that northmen had taken the Twins and driven the Lannisters from Riverrun. Why are you not there?”

“My daughter is not there!” She turned and walked away from him then, allowing some of the tears she had held back to escape her eyes, hopeful they would help obscure the lies she next told him. Keeping her back to him, she said, “I am not trusted by the northmen or even my own brother.” She could see Ned clearly while facing this direction, and noticed his right hand clenching and unclenching near his sword. Be still, my love. Just a little longer. She prayed fervently to the Warrior that Donnell and Bronze Yohn were in the Eyrie and taking control of the guards even then.

“Why would anyone mistrust you, Cat?” Petyr said in tones of deep sympathy and disbelief. She felt him place his hands on her shoulders and felt his breath on the back of her neck. She flashed a warning look at Ned which she hoped he could see beneath that hood of his before whirling back around to face Littlefinger.

Her spin had effectively knocked his hands away from her shoulders and she grabbed them in her own again. “I freed the Kingslayer!” she cried. “My husband and all my sons were dead and I set Jaime Lannister free because he promised he’d send my daughters to me!” She made no attempt to control the tension and fear in her voice now, hoping that Littlefinger would mistake the cause of it.

He did. “Oh, my poor Cat,” he soothed, putting his arms around her. “Always too trusting, by far. So they have made you to blame for their own failures, have they?” His hands moved up and down on her back. “You were right to come here. I will keep you safe. Better those northern savages blame your dear departed husband for their woes. He bungled one thing after another, the fool.” Oh, gods!

She felt, rather than saw Ned begin to move toward them, but then Howland Reed’s voice called out clearly, “My lady!”

She spun around again, out of Littlefinger’s arms, and Ned stopped.

“My lady,” said Reed. “Should we go into the hall and make certain you and Lord Baelish are not disturbed?”

Catelyn silently thanked the man for intervening. “The two of you go,” she said, indicating him and Brienne. “Guard the door. Kinnet can stay,” she finished, making up the name on the spot.

“Who are your companions, my sweet? You have no need for guards here, Cat,” Petyr was saying. “I will keep you safe.”

She couldn‘t have him asking her questions. “By dyeing my hair and changing my name?” she challenged him. “I would trust you, Petyr, but no one else. And if you are so secure here, why is Sansa disguised, and how did my poor sister come to be murdered in her own home?”

She thought she saw a brief moment of panic, but then he turned slightly to stare hard at Sansa. “The Lannisters want your daughter dead, Cat. She cannot be Sansa Stark now. As for Lysa,” he tutted and shook his head. “That was a tragedy. A mad singer, blind with jealousy, threw her out the Moon Door. My poor daughter saw the whole thing. Didn’t you, sweetling?” He held his arms out toward Sansa.

Catelyn started to correct the man as to whose daughter Sansa was when she realized that the girl was walking slowly toward Petyr, looking at him fearfully, and nodding. Quickly, she reached out, and took her hand. “Sansa, what’s wrong?”

Sansa looked at her, but her eyes were far away. “I saw the whole thing, my lady” she said slowly. “Marillion pushed her.”

Something was wrong with her daughter. Something that had to do with Petyr. “Come here, Sansa,” she said, but the girl just stood there between Petyr and herself as if frozen.

A shout came from somewhere outside the room then, followed by the unmistakable sound of swords. Startled, Littlefinger looked away from Sansa, and suspicion narrowed his eyes as they met Catelyn’s. “Cat,” he said slowly. “What exactly have you done here?”

“I have come for my daughter.”

He actually laughed then. “Oh, my foolish, sweet Cat! You plan to take her away? I fear you cannot. I would prefer you to stay here of your own choosing, but you will both stay either way. Whatever your little friends are doing out there will fail, my sweet Cat. You know that you have always belonged with me. Sansa knows it, too.”

She stayed perfectly still as he smiled and brought his face close to hers. He touched her hair with one hand and drew the index finger of his other down the front of her bodice. The sounds outside were louder now, and she swallowed and forced herself to keep looking in his eyes. She needed him focused only on her. “You will truly keep us both safe, Petyr?” she whispered.

He smiled at her. “But, of course, Cat. You can trust me.”

There was a sudden flurry of movement from beside them, and he was suddenly jerked back from her. Ned gripped the man tightly against him with his left arm, and his right hand held the point of a dagger beneath Littlefinger’s chin. “I don’t think she can, my lord,” he said coldly. “But she can certainly trust me.”

Held as he was, Littlefinger could not see Ned’s face, but he recognized the voice. Catelyn smiled as she watched all the color drain from Baelish’s face for the second time. “You recall my lord husband, don’t you Petyr?”

Now, Catelyn heard Sansa gasp, and when she turned to look at her, she was alarmed to see that she looked as pale as Baelish. She stared wide-eyed at her father with his knife to Littlefinger’s throat and began to sway. Catelyn moved quickly, and caught her just as she started to fall.

“Sansa!” Ned cried out.

“She’s fine, Ned,” Catelyn assured him. “She’s only fainted.” She pulled her daughter over to a small chaise at the edge of the room and reclined her on it. “Shall I check outside?” she asked her husband.

“No, I can’t be sure what’s going on out there, and I wouldn’t have you injured.”

“What’s going on out there is my guardsmen coming to arrest you, Stark,” Baelish said. “How are you alive anyway?”

Ned laughed bitterly. “Apparently, I’m harder to kill than you thought.” Looking at Catelyn, he said, “There is rope at my waist, my lady. There. Bind his feet.”

As she moved to do what Ned had asked, she was surprised to hear Petyr laughing. “You do realize this gains you nothing. My guards will be here momentarily.”

Ned jerked Petyr’s hands roughly behind him and thrust his dagger into Catelyn’s hand, as he pulled the end of the rope she had wound around the man’s ankles up to his wrists and began to bind them tightly together. Catelyn held the point of the dagger at Petyr’s chest as Ned worked.

“Now, Cat. This is disappointing,” Petyr said. “Why must you always choose these foolish Starks? I would have given you the world, you know. Now, I fear I must leave you to your fate and content myself with my lovely Alayne. She is even lovelier than you, you know.

Ned grabbed the dagger back from Catelyn and shoved Littlefinger roughly into a chair. “If there is a guard left alive here who is actually loyal to you, Baelish, I shall happily drive this dagger through your neck should he come to arrest me,” Ned said matter-of-factly.

“The oh, so honorable Eddard Stark murder me in cold blood?” Baelish laughed. “I think not.”

“You sold me to the Lannisters. You plotted my death. You set Catelyn against Tyrion Lannister for some reason of your own. You undoubtedly had something to do with Lysa Arryn’s death. You have kidnapped my daughter and slandered my lady wife.” Ned’s voice was ice. “I could kill you this very moment and call it justice, not murder.”

Baelish actually looked frightened then as he looked at Ned’s eyes, but he spoke with bravado. “Slander my darling Cat? Never! I have only the greatest reverence for her beauty when I tell of how she spread her legs for me at Riverrun.”

Ned’s right fist exploded into Littlefinger’s face. Catelyn saw his head snap back, and then he was still. Her husband calmly put his fingers on the man’s neck.

“Ned,” Catelyn whispered. “What have you done?”

“What I’ve wanted to do since I walked into the room. He isn’t dead, Catelyn, merely quiet for once.” He looked up at her then. “I will see him dead, though. Publicly executed for his crimes.”

She nodded grimly.

Ned then left Littlefinger and walked to Sansa’s supine form. He knelt beside her and traced her face with his hand. “Gods, she looks like you,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. He then put his forehead down on her shoulder and his own shoulders shook briefly. Catelyn’s eyes filled with tears of joy at the sight of the two of them together, and she walked to put her hand on Ned’s shoulder.

Sansa stirred then, and opened her eyes, blinking. “Sansa, sweetling,” Catelyn said softly. “You are well. We are here.”

Sansa’s blue eyes looked at her in wonder. “Mother?” she said. “Are you truly here?”

“Yes, my love. We are both here.” Catelyn looked down at Ned, whose eyes were fixed on Sansa’s face as he knelt beside her, and Sansa followed her gaze. She gasped slightly as she met Ned’s eyes.

“Sansa,” he whispered. “You are safe, my daughter.”

“Father,” she said. Then troubled tears filled her eyes, and she pressed her lips together tightly. “Father,” she repeated softly. “Do you . . .do you hate me?”

Ned’s face seemed to shatter. “Hate you? Gods, no, Sansa! Why ever would you think such a thing? I could never hate you, child. I love you with all my heart.”

Sansa burst into sobs then and threw her arms around her father’s neck. Ned gathered the girl in his arms and held her tightly. Catelyn let her own tears fall freely then as she fell to her own knees and put her arms around her husband and child.

A short time later, Catelyn was vaguely aware of people entering the room. “Take Baelish to the sky cells. He appears to be having a nap,” she heard Bronze Yohn’s amused voice say. Then after a moment, she heard him say more quietly. “Stand guard outside, my lady, and see that no one disturbs the Starks.”

“Yes, my lord.” Brienne’s voice, sounding somewhat choked.

After that, Catelyn was aware only of Ned and Sansa, and how none of the three of them wished to be the first to let go. They remained there, holding one another, for a very long time.

 

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Time seemed to have stopped for Ned Stark as he knelt on the floor holding his wife and daughter, but eventually the pain in his leg pushed itself into his awareness, and he knew he must move from that position. He gently pulled Sansa’s arms from his neck, and braced himself with his own arms. Catelyn moved to help him stand as Sansa watched with wide, watery eyes. She seemed to surmise he had some difficulty, for she moved to one end of the chaise and patted the place beside her.

“Here, Father,”

Father. Just hearing the word from his daughter’s lips made him feel a joy he had no words for. Gratefully, he sank down beside her, and Catelyn immediately stretched out his leg and began massaging all around the knee.

“That’s the leg the horse fell on,” Sansa said softly. “In King’s Landing.”

Ned nodded, grimacing as Cat’s hands pressed on a particularly tender spot. “It festered and never healed properly,” he said. Looking at his child’s distraught face, he added quicky, “But I am quite all right, Sansa. Your mother has taken very good care of me.” He smiled at both of his blue-eyed ladies, marveling at their likeness and wishing he could remove the dark color from his daughter’s hair.

Sansa was looking back and forth between the two of them, as if not quite believing them possible. Then she bowed her head and asked in a very small voice, “Robb . . .and Bran and Rickon . . .are they . . .are they really . . .?” The hope he could hear in her hesitant question broke Ned’s heart.

“I am afraid your brothers are truly gone, sweetling,” he said gently, and she nodded, not looking up. “We know that your sister escaped from King’s Landing,” he added. “She came as far as Saltpans and may have taken ship there.”

“Arya’s alive?” she looked up at that.

Ned nodded. “And we shall find her. Just as we found you.”

She looked at Catelyn then. “Tyrion . . .Tyrion said you were murdered,” she whispered. She reached out and touched the scars on her mother’s face. “Did the Freys do that to you?”

Ned saw the pain in Catelyn’s eyes as she struggled to find a way to explain her scars to her child. He answered for her. “Yes, Sansa,” he said firmly. “Your mother’s wounds are all gifts from the Freys.” He took his wife’s hands and looked at her face. The Freys were responsible for everything she had done there. “It’s true, Cat,” he said softly.

She nodded slightly and looked to Sansa. “But I am quite well now, Sansa. The marks no longer hurt me.” She bit her lip, and Ned knew she wished to ask what hurts their daughter bore, but would not do so yet.

“Joffrey showed me your head,” Sansa’s voice came quietly again, trembling as she spoke. “He held it up on the steps of the Great Sept, with great empty eye sockets and all dripping with tar.”

“Oh, Sansa,” Catelyn whispered.

“It was not mine, child,” Ned said. “It was never mine.”

Sansa continued as if she hadn’t heard them. “I screamed and screamed. I couldn’t stop. The Hound carried me into the Sept and still I screamed. They locked my in my room then. I don’t know how many days . . .until Joffrey came.”

She paused then, but neither Ned nor Catelyn could find words to speak. “I hate Joffrey,” Sansa finally said. “I was glad when he died.”

Ned still didn’t know what to say, but Catelyn did. “Sansa,” she said firmly, “Joffrey was an evil person, and he fully believed he held your father’s head. Don’t ever doubt that. He planned to kill your father, and would have done so had he not been tricked. You are not wrong to hate him.”

Sansa looked hard at Catelyn for what seemed like a long time before she said flatly, without looking away, “I hate a lot of people, Mother.”

Ned’s heart broke into even more pieces as he heard those words from his gentle daughter who had always believed in people’s goodness and songs and the honor of gallant knights.

“So do I, Sansa,” Catelyn told her without hesitation. “But in this room, now, are two people that I love beyond measure, and that matters more than all my hate.”

Sansa’s eyes lost that hard look then, and her face broke into that of the child he remembered as she began to cry. “I do love you, Mother!” she sobbed, and Catelyn gathered her into her arms.

“I know, sweetling,” she whispered, softly patting Sansa’s back; and Ned sat there watching her soothe and comfort their daughter with the same touches, words, and soft murmurs he had seen her use a thousand times for scraped knees, wounded feelings, and broken hearts.

He would have sat there watching them forever, his heart full, but for a knock on the door.

“My lady?” came Brienne’s tentative voice.

He laid a hand on Catelyn’s back, letting her know she should stay with Sansa, and went to open the door. Brienne stood there with a rather distressed looking thin, balding man.

“My lord,” she started. “I am sorry, but . . .”

“Lord Stark!” the man cried. It is indeed you! I had not dared to believe!”

“Maester Colemon,” Ned greeted him. “It is good to see you, as well.”

“I am sorry to intrude, my lord,” Colemon said hesitantly. “It’s just that . .well, Lord Robert is quite wroth. He had been promised that Lady Alayne would attend him, and he’s already had one rather bad shaking spell. I hesitate to use any more sweetsleep and . . .”

“I will go to him, Maester Colemon,” came a calm feminine voice from behind Ned.

Ned turned to see his daughter walking toward them. Her face was tearstained, but her manner was composed. Dark hair notwithstanding, her resemblance to her mother was now even more pronounced.

“I am sorry, Lady Alayne, but the boy will not . . .”

“Lady Sansa,” she interrupted. “My name is Sansa Stark, Maester Colemon. I would prefer that you call me by it now.” Turning to Ned, she said, “I am sorry, Father, but Sweetrobin is . . .difficult . . .and sometimes I am the only one who calms him. It is late, and you and Mother must be hungry. There is food here. I had it prepared for Lady Waynwood.” She smiled at that. “I will have a chamber prepared for you, and others for . . .well, whoever else you brought here.” She shook her head, as if she still did not quite believe the night’s events. “I will find you once Sweetrobin is asleep. We still have so much to say.” Her lip trembled a bit then, and she let her lady of the manor demeanor slip just long enough to tip-toe and kiss his cheek. “I cannot believe you are here,” she whispered.

Then, with a swish of skirts, she was gone, following Maester Colemon down the corridor, leaving Ned reflecting with some surprise that his daughter could now reach his cheek as easily as her mother did. He didn’t realize Brienne still stood there, until she spoke again.

“My lord? Lord Royce and Donnell Boden greatly desire to speak with you if you are ready.”

Ned sighed heavily. All he wanted was to shut himself away with Catelyn and Sansa and not think of anything else this night, but he knew that was not possible. “Bring them here, Brienne,” he said wearily. “My daughter has had food and drink prepared. We can at least eat while we talk.”

Once Brienne left to find the men, he returned to Catelyn who had not moved from the chaise. “Are you well, my love?” he asked, sitting beside her.

In a gesture reminiscent of Sansa’s, she flung her arms around him then. “Oh gods, Ned, I was so scared! Did you see the way she looked at him? She’s been badly frightened. I couldn’t stand him touching her!”

Ned held her close. “You were so very brave, my love. And we’ve got her now. Petyr Baelish shan’t touch either of you ever again.”

She pulled back to look at him and wiped at her tears with the back of her hand. “I should not be such a mess when Bronze Yohn and the others arrive. Did you see our little girl just now? She puts me to shame.”

Ned smiled at her and and kissed her damp eyelashes. “I saw her. I saw you in her, Cat. Your courage, your poise, your strength. She is a testament to you, my lady.”

“That’s funny,” she said, smiling back at him.

“Why?”

"Oh, she looks like me, to be sure, although she’s much prettier.” She raised a hand to stop Ned’s protest. “But when that maester came in search of her, she pulled herself from my arms, dried her tears, and squared her shoulders with a rather large sigh. And as I watched her commit herself to what she had to do rather than what she wanted to do, I saw you, Eddard Stark.”

Before he could respond to that, there were voices and footsteps in the hall, so he simply got to his feet and offered his hand to help her rise.

Bronze Yohn Royce and Donnell Boden entered with Brienne and two men behind them. These were introduced as captains in the Eyrie‘s household guard. Apparently, Littlefinger’s man Brune had been sent to meet the men walking up from Sky, and they had surprised and subdued him rather quickly. After that, very little resistance had been offered, and as of now, the guards were taking orders from Ned’s men.

“Lord Stark,” Donnell said with a large smile. “The castle is yours.”

Ned shook his head. “The castle is Robert Arryn’s, Donnell. I want only my daughter.”

“Well,” boomed Yohn Royce, “as Robert Arryn happens to be eight years old and your nephew, at the moment you have his castle, too. What you intend to do with it is one of the things we need to discuss.”

Ned sighed. “I intend to see young Robert properly fostered here in the Vale. Winter is coming, and the Eyrie should be closed soon in any case. Lord Nestor will remain in the Gates of the Moon with his household and those from the Eyrie. Gods willing, Lord Robert will grow stronger as he grows older, and when summer returns, he shall return to the Eyrie with good men to guide him.”

“And what plans do you have for yourself, Lord Stark?” Royce asked.

“Winterfell,” Ned said. “If I am able. Until I receive communication from my goodbrother at Riverrun and Lord Olyvar Frey at the Twins, I don’t know how things stand there, or how many northmen or river lords could go north with me. I cannot leave the riverlands without adequate defense if they remain under threat.” He sighed. “I plan to remain at the Eyrie for a time and to keep Maester Colemon rather busy with ravens so that I might better make my own plans.”

“Whatever those plans are, when you call the lords of the Vale, we shall come,” Bronze Yohn said firmly.

Ned smiled. “I thank you, my friend. But it is not my place to call the banners for House Arryn.”

“No, but as I intend to foster young Robert myself, I believe I can get the other lords to agree that it is my place. We have sat idle in this conflict long enough, Ned, and I confess that I am far more inclined to help you right the wrongs in the north than involve myself in the Lannister mess to the south.”

“Riding with me is involving yourself in it, Yohn. While I have no plans to ride south now, I will never swear fealty to Tommen. He is no Baratheon and no king, only a child born of incest and a puppet for the Lannisters. Bolton has become a Lannister man, and I shall drive his men from Winterfell and take his head for the murder of my son. As long as Tommen sits the Iron Throne, riding with me is treason.”

“Well, if it’s treason we’re planning, let’s do it on a full stomach,” the Lord of Runestone said with a smile, and he walked to the table which had been laid with food and drink. Snatching up a small loaf of bread, he took a large bite of it and looked at the others. “Shall we?”

 

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Catelyn stifled a yawn as she and Brienne followed the guardsman down a corridor. She had eaten a little at Ned’s insistence, but had no real appetite for food. She wanted only to be with her daughter. Her mind had wandered dreadfully while the men talked in the Lord’s solar, and when Ned had asked one of the guardsmen to fetch Maester Colemon to them in order to write out letters to the lords of the Vale and to Edmure and Olyvar, she had asked if he would take her to find Sansa as well. The gods only knew how long the men would stay up. She knew Ned had slept very little in the past two days and she worried for him, but she also knew there was nothing she could do about it. He would not rest until he was finished.

As they rounded a corner, Catelyn saw her daughter walking toward them and felt her heart leap yet again when Sansa called out, “Mother!” and actually ran to meet her. “I am so sorry, Mother,” she said as Catelyn pulled her into another embrace. “Sweetrobin was being dreadful, and I just couldn’t . . .”

“It is no matter, child,” Catelyn said, holding her at arm’s length just to look at her. “I cannot believe I have you with me again. I have missed you so terribly for so long.”

“I missed you every day,” Sansa said, her lip trembling. “So much has happened, Mother.”

“Yes,” Catelyn said, nodding. “And I will hear all you wish to tell me, sweetling, and I will tell you all you wish to hear. But not tonight. Tonight, I only want to have the joy of looking at you once again.”

“I would like the same,” Sansa said with a smile. “But where is Father?”

“Still holed up in that solar with Bronze Yohn and the others. We’ll be lucky to see him before dawn, I fear.”

Sansa looked disappointed, and Catelyn quickly added, “It isn’t where he wishes to be, sweetling, you must know that.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, when you take a castle that doesn’t belong to you, there is much to be discussed.”

Sansa frowned then, and her face wore a calculating look Catelyn could not recall ever having seen there. “I should go to him,” she said. “I know quite a lot about the Vale and its lords, Mother. Petyr told me a great deal about his plans. I know who can be relied upon to keep their word, who is susceptible to blackmail or bribery, and which men will act rashly or cautiously.”

Catelyn looked thoughtfully at her daughter. “Well, your father has no intention of blackmailing or bribing anyone, and I am certain Yohn Royce knows the Vale lords quite well. Your father will certainly hear whatever you have to say, but he can hear it tomorrow. I may have to give my husband up to politics and strategy tonight, but I will not give up the daughter I only just got back.”

Sansa looked for a moment as if she might argue, but then she smiled and said, “Yes, Mother.”

Catelyn laughed out loud then and hugged her again. “Now, is there a room for us? I confess I am beyond tired.”

“I’ve put you and Father in the Maiden’s Tower next to me, if that’s all right. I didn’t want you far away,” she said, sounding like a little girl again.

“That is perfect. Would there be a room there for Lady Brienne?” Suddenly, she realized that in her absorption with her daughter, she hadn’t even introduced Brienne. She turned to find the tall young woman standing several paces behind her, giving her privacy with Sansa. The guardsman was gone.

“Come here, Brienne,” she called. “Sansa, please forgive your mother her appalling lack of courtesy. This is Lady Brienne of Tarth, who is sworn to my service.”

“Your service?” Sansa asked, as Brienne went down on one knee in front of her.

“Lady Sansa,” said Brienne, “I am very glad to make your acquaintance.”

“I am pleased to meet you, too,” Sansa said with a puzzled expression. “Your service, Mother?” she repeated.

Catelyn laughed. “It is a long story, sweetling. Take us to our rooms, and I shall at least tell you this one tonight. Your sister would love it!”

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Sansa Stark leaned her head back as her mother brushed her hair. My mother! She kept wanting to pinch herself at the thought. Her very own lady mother was alive and brushing out her hair. If she closed her eyes and only listened to the sound of her mother’s voice, she could almost pretend they were in Winterfell, and that the last two years had never happened.

But when she opened her eyes, she saw the dark brown locks of Alayne Stone in her looking glass and the terrible red marks on her mother’s face and neck. She swallowed hard and wondered how she could ever tell her lady mother what she had done. Even worse was the the thought of telling her father. He had said he could never hate her, but once he knew how she had betrayed him . . .

“Sansa?” her mother asked. “What troubles you?”

“Nothing,” she lied.

Her mother laid the brush down on the table, and turned Sansa to look at her. “I know you are troubled, my sweet child, but you needn’t speak of it if you do not wish.” She led Sansa to the bed and pulled her down to sit beside her. “I have seen things and done things, and had things done to me since you left Winterfell, Sansa, that I would strike from my memory if I could, and I have no doubt that you have some of the same.”

Sansa stared at her mother, wondering what terrible things she could ever have done. Certainly nothing like she had done. Mother would never betray Father. “It was terrible in King’s Landing,” she whispered. “After Father was arrested.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Mother asked gently.

Sansa shook her head. She couldn’t. Not now. Not yet. She couldn’t disappoint her mother so soon after getting her back.

“That’s all right, Sansa. You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to. But you can always tell me anything when you do want to. Do you understand that?”

She nodded. But will you still love me when you know I helped Petyr lie about killing your sister?

She had been looking down, and her mother put her hand under her chin and raised her face to look at her. Sansa tried to look just at her eyes and not at the scars. She hated those scars. They weren’t really so terrible looking--her mother’s face was still beautiful. They were terrible because they meant her mother had been hurt. Sansa was glad her own scars didn’t show because she didn’t know if she would be brave enough to show her hurts on her face like her lady mother did.

“Sansa,” her mother said. “Nothing that happened to you in King’s Landing or here was your fault. You are not to blame for any of it. Your father and I love you, and nothing will change that.”

But what if it is my fault? Will you hate me then?

“Did you love Petyr a great deal, Mother?” Because I think you hate him now.

The shock on her mother’s face plainly showed that whatever she had expected Sansa to say, it was not that. “Petyr and I were children together,” she said. “He was rather like a little brother to me, annoying at times-- like Bran or Rickon could be to you--but he could be sweet as well. I suppose I did love him then, but I fear I did not truly know him.”

 “I don’t mean only when you were little,” she said. She now blushed deeply and could not look at her lady mother. “I mean when you . . .I mean, you did stop loving him, right? After you were married to Father?”

Her mother was quiet for a long moment, and then her voice shook as she asked, “What has that man been telling you, Sansa?”

“Nothing! I mean, only that you loved each other, and how he would have married you so it was all right and . . .”

Her mother stood up suddenly, exclaiming, “Gods be good! To speak such filth to my own daughter!”

Her lady mother looked as angry as she had ever seen her, and Sansa was afraid she had said too much, but then her mother put her face in her hands for a moment. When she looked up again, she no longer looked angry, only very sad. She came to sit beside Sansa again and took her hands.

“I am not angry at you, Sansa,” she said softly. “I told you that you could tell me anything, and you can ask me anything as well.” She sighed. “ I fear Petyr Baelish told you a lie. He did fancy himself in love with me in the years before I married your father. He has told other people that I lay with him as a wife lies with her husband. Is that what he told you?”

Sansa nodded.

“That is a lie, Sansa. I never loved Petyr Baelish in that way. I came to your father’s bed a maiden, and while I did not love him when we wed, I came to love him very much. Your father is the only man who has ever been in my heart, sweetling. Do you understand?”

Sansa nodded again. She knew her mother would not lie to her. But if she had never loved Petyr, would she hate Sansa even more once she knew how often she had lied for him? She knew she had to tell her parents the things she had done, but she simply couldn’t do it yet.

“Mother,” she asked, suddenly feeling very small. “Would you stay in my room tonight?”

Her mother smiled the way that had always made Sansa feel that everything would be all right. She knew now that some things would never be all right, but that smile made her feel a little safer just the same.

“Of course, I will, sweetling.”

 

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The sun was close to rising when Ned Stark finally trudged sleepily to the chamber he had been assigned only to find it empty. Concerned, he wandered into the next room, surprising a slumbering Brienne. Once she put down her sword, she informed him that she and the Lady Catelyn had accompanied Lady Sansa to her chamber, where the three of them had sat and talked until Lady Catelyn dismissed Brienne and stayed herself to help Lady Sansa prepare for bed.

She wanted to brush her hair, Ned thought with a smile. Catelyn liked brushing the girls’ hair almost as much as he liked brushing hers, and while Arya had always fought her, Sansa had loved having it done.

He had Brienne show him the way to Sansa’s room. No one answered when he knocked softly, so he quietly opened the door and went in. Lying in the bed, he saw his wife and his daughter snuggled up together, Catelyn’s arm protectively over Sansa.

He silently thanked the gods for the two of them and prayed for the wisdom and strength to keep them safe and get them home. He prayed for Arya, that he might soon see her wrapped safely in her mother’s arms as well. He then simply stood and watched the two of them sleep until he was almost asleep standing there himself.

He then walked back to his own chamber, going over things to be accomplished the next day--foremost of which was questioning Petyr Baelish about a number of things. Just the thought of the man made his fist clench, and the image of his fingers clutching Sansa’s arm and running through Catelyn’s hair made his blood boil. As he undressed and climbed into bed, he forced all thoughts of Littlefinger aside, and fell asleep with a far more pleasing image in his mind---Catelyn sleeping with her arm curved around their Sansa.

Chapter Text

Catelyn Stark woke slowly to the realization that pale sunlight was streaming through a window. As she stretched, and her arm touched the sleeping girl beside her, the memory of yesterday’s events suddenly flooded her mind, and joy so intense it was almost unbearable filled her heart. She raised herself on one elbow to better look at her sleeping daughter.

Sansa looked so much younger as she slept. Catelyn could easily imagine they were at Winterfell, and the child had crawled between Ned and herself during a storm which frightened her. The image was so vivid, Catelyn actually caught herself looking across Sansa for Ned and the other children. A truly bad storm had rarely brought only one of them to her bed when they were small. The absence of her other four sent a stab of pain into her heart as intense as the joy of Sansa’s presence. She closed her eyes and wondered if she would ever feel joy without pain again.

Pushing aside such thoughts, she sat up and wondered if she should check on Ned. Surely, he had discovered where she slept. After their one uncomfortable night apart on the High Road, she felt a little guilty about leaving him alone to sleep, but she rather doubted he had come to bed until very late in any event. He would understand Sansa’s need to have her mother close to her.

She looked down upon her sleeping daughter and frowned slightly, remembering Sansa’s face when she had offered to help her undress for bed the previous night. The child had actually looked frightened, and Catelyn had quickly changed the topic of conversation. After going to her own room to get her nightshift, she had returned to find Sansa already dressed in a long-sleeved nightshift and under the covers of the bed. She remembered how reluctant she, herself, had been to undress in front of Ned the first night after he had taken her from the Twins and wondered what wounds her daughter now felt compelled to hide from her. She resolved to dress in front of Sansa and allow her to see the big scar on her back from the crossbow wound. Perhaps that would make the child more comfortable about sharing her own hurts.

Lost in her thoughts, Catelyn didn’t hear the door open behind her, but she did hear a child’s voice say hesitantly, “Mother?” As she turned toward the sound, the child screamed, “Mother!” and Catelyn found herself looking at a small, skinny boy with long, brown hair rushing at her.

As soon as the child saw her face, he stopped, a horrified expression appearing on his own face. “You’re not my mother!” he screamed. “You’re horrible! Your face is all ugly and horrible!!” He stood there two paces from the bed, with his arms shaking and his face turning red.

“Robert Arryn!” came Sansa’s horrified cry as she leaped out of the bed toward the shaking child. “Hush right now! You are not to say such awful things to my lady mother!” She knelt on the floor, holding the boy’s arms.

“She’s not Mother!” he screamed again. “Mother’s face is soft and white! I want my mother!! Make this horrible lady fly!”

Sansa slapped him hard across the face. “Do not say that!” she yelled fiercely.

Catelyn had been shocked into silence by her nephew’s appearance and his words, but Sansa’s slap seemed to strike her. “Sansa!” she cried. “Do not strike that child again!”

Sansa looked at her then, eyes filling with tears. “But he’s always so horrible, Mother! And he shouldn’t be horrible to you. He shouldn’t!”

Before Catelyn could respond, Ned appeared in the doorway, closely followed by Brienne. “Catelyn! Sansa!” he shouted. “What is the matter?” He wasn’t even dressed, but Catelyn saw that he had his sword. Brienne was fully dressed and had her sword drawn as well. Robert Arryn took one look at the two of them, and his eyes rolled upward and he fell to the floor, still shaking.

“Call Maester Colemon!” Sansa said urgently, as she attempted to cradle the boy’s head while avoiding being pummeled by his flailing arms. Brienne left at once.

Ned looked about wildly. His hair was uncombed, and he had obviously come directly from his bed.

“We are both well, my lord,” Catelyn said quickly, rising from the bed to go to him. She put a hand on his sword arm, and he slowly relaxed it. “Little Lord Arryn had a shock, I’m afraid, and it’s caused him to have a shaking fit.”

Even as she held the child’s head protectively, Sansa shook her own violently, and Catelyn realized she was crying. “He said horrible things to Mother, Father! Horrible things!”

Ned was breathing hard, but seemed to be coming to the conclusion that his family was not in any danger. Catelyn touched his face softly, “I am unharmed, my love. Sansa is unharmed. We are safe,” she whispered.

She then turned and knelt beside her daughter. “The child’s words do me no harm, Sansa. How can I help you with him?”

Sansa shook her head again. “I am sorry, Mother.”

“For what, child? You have done nothing wrong. Here, let me hold his arms, and they will not beat at you so.”

The two of them held the little Lord of the Eyrie there on the floor while Ned looked on, and by the time Brienne returned with the maester, his shaking had slowed and he seemed to be falling into a deep sleep.

Sansa brushed the hair from his face. “Take him and give him sweetsleep, Maester Co