It is a bright morning on the day the King and Queen leave King’s Landing—and the maesters predict that the time of bright mornings is fast running out. Winter is coming to Westeros and Catelyn finds it fitting. Summer had long since grown stale, even for a child of the Riverlands.
Her handmaidens are silent as they pack up her trunks. They whisper about omens in the hallways and the kitchens—the fall of snow, the whispers of monsters, the stench of death, all seems to lead towards some great happening that Catelyn can barely comprehend. It is how she finds herself following her feet to the sept. She must believe that the gods know what she does not. She must.
Far away, servants jostle one another in their haste to pack up the wheelhouse. Children yawn and nudge one another and hiss rumours about the strange, faraway North, where dead men walk and wolves run free. The King swallows a last tankard of ale and winks at the servant wench. The absence of the Queen will not yet be noticed.
Fifteen years have passed since she stood before a different sept, a blushing, blossoming bride, beside a man who was to bring new life to the Seven Kingdoms. The war of the Rebellion was ravaging their land, murdering and raping their people, but Catelyn was laughing, gaily as a girl, resplendent in fine white lace, and nothing mattered but the smile of her father spinning by as she was twirled by her new husband. He was so handsome, Catelyn thought—handsome and laughing and alive, so alive.
Her own sister drooped like a dying plant. Her good-brother was unsmiling, staring into the blood-red of his wine. He who would have been her good-brother—may well have been her husband in another life—lingered at the edge of the hall, grave as stone, striking as blue roses. But Catelyn was the sun in the night and she would shine the winter away.
It was not until later, as her husband slept beside her—she had sobbed when her maidenhood was taken and the name on his lips was ‘Lyanna’—that Catelyn felt the cold seep into her heart.
History books will forever remember Robert’s Rebellion as one man’s fight for the good of his kingdom and the life of his betrothed. Waging war not for power, not for wealth, but for an adored woman—is not that what all the songs and all the stories are about?
The stories ought always to end with the dragon slain and the fair maiden brought safely home, in the arms of her handsome lord. That is what little ladies and knights are taught from the cradle. They are never told until too late that life is no song. The dragon died, the lord won the war, but the crown was heavy and the lover was lost. Lyanna Stark had been a rare creature, or so the talk goes: beautiful as a dark star, sharp as a new blade, brave as a wolf. She was meant to be Robert’s wife; she might have been his Queen.
Yet Robert was married even before his victory over the Targaryens and the people were not to have a she-wolf be their Queen. They got Catelyn Tully instead; Catelyn of the Riverlands, Catelyn whose hair spills coppery-bright down her back. Catelyn who gave birth to an heir before her husband was even a king, whose children flourish even under the watchful eye of the capital, who always smiles and never turns away. If Robert Baratheon never set out to be a king, Catelyn certainly never asked to be a queen, but she knows duty and she knows honour. They are the words of my house, engraved on my heart, more than the stag ever will be.
Her husband was with her for only two weeks after their wedding. She had waited out the war in Riverrun, spending days by the swollen blue rivers and under green-lit trees even as blood choked lands faraway. Robb had been born there, black-haired and hale but made as much for the river as she was, and she had wondered if he would ever meet the father for whom he was named. When word reached them that King Aerys was slain, that the Lords Tully and Stark and Arryn would return alive and that Robert was to be declared King, Catelyn had clutched Robb to her and tried not to weep—not for joy, not for relief, but for fear of living home and journeying South, of seeing Robert again and bringing him his son, a herald of spring when he dreamed only of winter flowers.
I am a Tully, she had thought, and a Tully must do her duty.
When Jon Arryn died, Catelyn could barely consider mourning before her husband had summoned the small council. On a day such as this, when Robert could barely stand for drunkenness and could barely speak for grief, Catelyn felt anxiety flex in her belly like a wet snake. No word reached her until late in the evening, when Robert himself arrived at her door. He said nothing for a long while, merely leaned on the wall by her window and stared out into the starlit night. It had been some time since he came to her apartments; in truth, it unsettled her to see his hulking shadow spanning black across her chamber floor and she could barely stand to keep still. She despised feeling so nervous; she wrung her hands but forced herself to face him, to address him in a clear voice.
“Lysa is fled to the Eyrie,” she reported, “with her son by her side. They undoubtedly want time to cope with their sorrow. The matter of Sweetrobin’s fostering will have to wait.”
“Hang that,” sniffed Robert, “Hang the boy and hang his fool mother. Let them rot on their mountain for all I care.”
Catelyn said nothing. Annoyance boiled in her, to have her sister spoken of so, but Robert was a man of war and Catelyn had learnt to pick her battles. Silence proved fruitful: Robert shifted, sniffed again, and then turned to look at her.
“I have decided,” he said, “who I will have succeed Jon as my Hand. I informed the small council today.”
Catelyn pushed away the urge to point out to Robert that the council existed to advise and discuss with a king, not solely to be ordered about by one. Robert would not be swayed by others if he had set his own course. “I am relieved to hear that, my lord.”
Let it be someone wise, she prayed, let it be someone strong and shrewd. Let it be someone who will not tremble before Robert’s thunder.
Robert grunted, eyes not quite meeting hers, “Good. It is my wish that we shall go and tell him in person. We might take the children as well.”
“Where are we to take them?”
“Winterfell, Cat. I intend to fetch Ned Stark.”
A sensation like ice-cold water trickled down Catelyn’s spine.
“Ned Stark?” Catelyn repeated, “You will ask Ned Stark to be your hand?”
“Of course,” Robert said gruffly.
“I did not realise,” Catelyn said slowly, “that he had…courtly aspirations.”
“You know Ned is my closest friend, Cat,” said Robert, “and we have not seen one another for years. I wish to have him by my side again.”
“I see,” said Catelyn. Anger prickled within her, growing stronger and hotter with every moment. To choose Ned Stark, over his loyal and worldly lords here! “Is it so that the Hand of the King need only be a partner to spar and drink with now? What does Ned Stark know about leading a kingdom that those you will not count as a friend do not?”
“Mind your tongue, woman,” Robert said in a low tone, “I have told you of my plans. I did not ask you to question them. My ties to the North are weak now; inviting Ned to King’s Landing will begin to bring them closer to the throne. I would have us united, Catelyn. Not only is Ned my friend and Hand, he has a daughter of an age with Robb.”
“You mean to arrange a marriage for Robb without speaking of it to me?” Catelyn asked through gritted teeth, clenching her fists at her side. Robert barked a harsh laugh in the face of her ire.
“You forget, my lady, which of us wears a crown! Myrcella is by all accounts a beautiful young woman, very like her mother.”
Catelyn could feel herself beginning to shake. Lord Tywin’s daughter, she remembered, of course. She tried to envision it: her son stood in the sept, tall and straight and smiling, clasping hands with a golden-haired girl with a secretive smile. She tried to imagine Tywin Lannister at his side, Tywin Lannister hovering over her grandchildren’s cots, Tywin Lannister shining in the eyes of the next King.
“The small council is in agreement,” Robert said, blind to Catelyn’s fury, and Catelyn wonders if he had given them the choice.
“Even your brothers?” Catelyn bit out, “Is Stannis pleased to have been overlooked yet again?”
Robert’s brows drew together in a scowl, “‘Overlooked’, you say? I have given my brothers great reward, rewards befitting for our House. That Stannis, curse him, believes himself to be better—”
“Not better,” said Catelyn angrily, “More deserving, more suitable, perhaps, than your boyhood friend—”
“Do not interrupt me, Catelyn,” Robert growled but Catelyn could not find the mind to pay it little heed.
“—but we must not think of suitability, must we? Not if the Starks could land Tywin Lannister’s coin in your pocket,” she continued, “He has lent enough to the crown to buy the Iron Throne himself, I presume, but he must have a king to put on it first. Why not appease him twice over, Robert, and marry his dwarf son to Sansa?”
It happened in a flash. Catelyn did not even see him strike out until she was stumbling hard, the side of her head throbbing, pain exploding under her skin. Her vision swam, quivering and spotted black. She raised an unsteady hand to her cheek and her knees weakened further. Before her, Robert was breathing heavily, as if he was emerging from a vicious fight rather than an argument. When Catelyn felt the strength to stand upright, she felt hollow, abandoned by her wrath. He had not hit her on the face before.
“Forgive me, my lord,” she said, eyes fixed on her husband’s collar, “I spoke rashly and out of spite.”
Robert stumbled over his words now, uncertain and childlike. “You consent, then? You will accompany me North.”
“If you wish it, I shall,” Catelyn replied stoically. After a moment, Robert sighed and the very air seemed to relax, as if sensing that the danger had passed. He touched his fingertips to Catelyn’s cheek and looked dismayed when she flinched away. His hand was warm and, against the lingering fire of his blow, had proved almost unbearable to her.
“I ought not to have done that,” he said. Catelyn finally raised her gaze to his. Something sad and scared glimmered in his eyes. “That was not…that was not kingly of me.”
No, Catelyn wanted to say, No it wasn’t. But she said nothing. When Robert lifted his hand to the other side of her face, she kept still and accepted it. The fear faded from Robert’s eyes, outshone by warmth that Catelyn knew too well.
“It will be good to see Winterfell,” he said, “to see Ned and his family. It has been almost nine years now since I clapped eyes on the man. His lad was still a babe at the Lannister woman’s breast then. It will be good to see them.”
“Yes it will,” Catelyn said. All forgiven, all forgotten; it was easier, this way. Robert smiled now and Catelyn returned it tremulously. She did like it when he smiled, for he nearly looked handsome and young again when he did so. His thumb hooked under her chin and tilted it up; when he kissed her, she kept still and accepted it.
It is not her husband, nor her children, nor a member of her household, nor even one of the Kingsguard who comes for her in the sept. It is Petyr.
“Your carriage awaits, your Grace,” his voice murmurs, smooth as silk, barely jarring Catelyn from her prayers. She lifts her head slowly and looks to him.
“A long journey is all that awaits me, I fear,” she says. There is a moment of silence before Petyr lowers himself beside her, bumping her shoulder with his. He gazes up; they kneel before the image of the Warrior, golden and fearsome, wielding his sword high above his head.
“What do you pray for, Cat?” Petyr asks in a quiet voice. He catches her hand and turns it over, tracing the lines of her palm curiously. The pads of his fingers move as lightly as a feather. “These are not hands made for battle.”
“Not all battle requires a sword,” Catelyn says. She wonders if she ought to pull her hand away but Petyr’s grip is sure and his touch gentle.
“True enough,” Petyr chuckles. He has ducked his face closer to hers, close enough that his breath brushes Catelyn’s ear. “If all wars were conducted with words and manners, you would be our finest soldier.”
In a moment, Petyr is gone, jerked away as if by an angry hand. When Catelyn twists around, Ser Jaime Lannister hovers in the doorway, brow furrowed.
“I did not expect you, Lord Baelish,” he says finally but there is a knife-edge of suspicion in his tone, “I believed the Small Council to have been adjourned until the King’s return.”
“That it was,” Petyr says, clasping his hands behind his back, “I came merely to bring her Grace my best wishes—and his Grace, of course.”
“I see,” Ser Jaime’s eyes narrow, flitting from Petyr to Catelyn, still knelt on the floor, “Well then. Allow me to pass on your kindnesses to King Robert. In the meantime—”
He breaks off and moves to one side, chin raised expectantly. It is a dismissal, Catelyn knows. Once, she might have marvelled at the arrogance of a whitecloak to behave so to a member of the Small Council. The arrogance of a Lannister, however, ought to come as a surprise to nobody. Petyr’s jaw clenches.
“My thanks,” the words grate out of his mouth like steel over stone. He turns to Catelyn and his expression softens. “My lady. Safe travels.”
Catelyn nods. Petyr waits for a moment, then two, and then departs only after Ser Jaime clears his throat. When his cloak has flashed around the corner, Ser Jaime approaches her.
“Your Grace, we must depart now,” he says, not unkindly, “The King waits by the wheelhouse.”
“The children?” Catelyn asks.
“Already settled. Prince Lyall is close to falling back to sleep, your Grace.”
“Of course he is,” Catelyn says and it is no effort to smile now, “Thank you, Ser Jaime.”
Ser Jaime merely inclines his head and offers an arm, which Catelyn takes gratefully. She heaves herself up and Ser Jaime leads her out, arms still linked.
“You must be cheered, Ser Jaime,” Catelyn ventures, shaking her head free of Petyr’s voice and the glare of the gods, “to be visiting Winterfell. Has it been long since you saw your sister?”
“Very long,” Ser Jaime says blandly, “Very long indeed.”
The passage North is indeed long and tiring, and none are unaffected. The guards are quiet and sullen as they ride—not only because they must move through air and ground that grow colder every day, but because Robert gives enough voice to his displeasure to render the whole party silent.
As the wheelhouse rumbles slowly and steadily northward, Catelyn occupies herself with the children. Robb is cheerful, though he cannot make a secret of his boredom stuck for hours on end in the carriage. He is not yet fifteen years old, with all the energy and restless limbs of a young colt. To pass the time, he entertains his younger siblings, weaving delightful and exaggerated stories about the North, Winterfell and the Wall beyond it. “Wolves as big as horses, they say!” he cries, “Big enough to be ridden, though only the wildings can come close to them. You can’t tame a wolf, you see: they’d bite you clean in two!”
Kendra squeals and hides her face in Catelyn’s side. On her left, Sansa is wide-eyed, making a poor attempt at pretending not to listen. Catelyn wraps an arm around her youngest and levels a glare at Robb.
“You’ll frighten your sisters,” she warns him, but Robb merely laughs.
“They’re only stories, Mother.”
“There is strength in fairy tales,” Catelyn says, “and some truth in all stories. Why else do we take them so easily to heart?”
“I’m not frightened,” Sansa declares, “but I don’t wish to hear about the ugly things beyond the Wall. Haven’t you got any nice stories?”
“Oh, you mean pretty stories about fair maidens and dashing heroes? Maybe tales about the oh-so-handsome Ser Loras Tyrell—?”
On the other side of the carriage, Robert booms a laugh, one which Lyall, who is squashed between him and Robb, readily joins in on. Catelyn smiles too as Sansa’s face turns rose-bud pink and Kendra regards them all with the comically solemn face only a six-year-old can achieve.
“What’s so interesting about Ser Loras?” she asks, to Robert’s further amusement.
“Nothing you’d yet understand, my girl!” he chuckles, reaching over to tap her nose in affection. His hand seems big and meaty-red against Kendra’s fair face. “Enough about that boy now, and about scary tales. Perhaps we ought to stop soon for the night. When will this bloody journey end?”
Stories forgotten, Robert leans his head out of the window to bellow at their coachman. On the opposite end of the bench, Robb pulls up the hood of his cloak and does not speak a word.
When the peaks of Winterfell finally dawn on the horizon, the court could almost weep for relief. Catelyn watches the grey walls and sharp lines of the castle become clearer day by day, and every day the sight of them brings a small smile to her face. She has not seen Winterfell since she was but a lord’s first daughter and betrothed to Brandon Stark. The spiralling towers and grim silhouette had then enraptured her for a very different reason. Had King Aerys not been mad, had the Rebellion not have happened, had Brandon survived … I might have been Lady of this castle, and Robert my good-brother.
As the carriage rolls into the courtyard, black-and-yellow banners flapping in the wind, Kendra peeks through the window and exclaims loudly at the number of people present to receive them. A sea of dark and curious faces watches the royal train arrive, craning and leaning forwards to get a glimpse of their King, who has not come this far North in more than a decade. At the forefront, Catelyn spots a familiar man. It had been years since she had seen Eddard Stark; he was never as handsome as his brother had been, had never meant to inherit as Brandon had, but now he stands as tall and proud as any lord.
Beside him, Cersei Lannister eyes the carriage from under a furrowed brow. She wears the colours of her husband’s house, grey dress under heavy black cloak, her golden hair pinned back in an elegant braid. She possesses a haughty look that the harsh North has not beaten out of her. Southern-born she may be, but she stands in the courtyard mud of Winterfell as though she had belonged there all her life.
The wheelhouse draws to a stop. Robert, of course, barrels out first. Even travel-worn and dishevelled, fat and scowling, his presence alone has the people before him sweeping to bow in waves. As Robert comes to stand before him, Ned Stark looks up and murmurs a polite, “Your Grace.”
Robert beckons, and Ned obediently rises again. There is a moment of appraisal, before Robert declares, “You’ve got fat.”
Catelyn swallows her groan. Beside Ned, Cersei’s frown deepens. Ned only arches a brow at his King. Abruptly, both begin to laugh and the tension eases as Robert steps into Ned’s embrace.
“Nine years, Ned. Where the hell have you been?”
“Guarding the North for you, your Grace!”
Robert chuckles again, and Catelyn decides it would be timely now to ferry the children out of the carriage. Robb, Sansa and Lyall squeeze out quickly when her gesture permits them, but Kendra clings to her skirts with an anxious twist to her mouth.
“Come, sweetling,” she says, brushing a wisp of red hair away from Kendra’s face, “We must step out and be gracious guests, must we not?”
Kendra looks displeased at this notion, but follows her mother when she climbs down out of the wheelhouse, clutching at her hand stubbornly. Before them, Robert presses a wet kiss to Cersei’s cheek, oblivious to her grimace as he does so. Catelyn’s older three now stand in a line, staring at who Catelyn determines must be Lord Stark’s children. She has met none of them, though she knows of them all. Word was sent to Robert every time his oldest friend was made a father, but he has always struggled to remember the names of anyone’s children but his trueborn own.
There are six of them now, and Robert takes a moment with them all one at a time: the heir, Brandon, still a lad peeping up from under a mop of brown hair; the youngest, twin boys named Rickon and Joffrey, both golden-haired and shamelessly nudging one another as if in conspiracy; Arya, who gawks in open interest at the sword strapped to the King’s side; Joanna, who only half-smiles when Robert reaches out to chuck her under the chin. Myrcella is the last one to address, and Robert does so with a knowing smile.
“Aye, you’re a pretty one,” he comments, to Myrcella’s shy pleasure. She is, Catelyn realises, prettier than she had hoped: blonde and slender as her mother, with a long face and eyes grey like summer rainclouds. A glance risked at Robb finds his eyes round and his mouth pulled into a dumb smile. The sight stirs warmth in Catelyn’s breast.
Ned’s eyes have now found her, calm as mist. Catelyn takes a breath and delves deep inside herself, finding some mask of queenly serenity to don. Then she smiles.
“Well met, Lord Stark,” she says and holds out a hand for him to kiss. Kendra shuffles forward with her, still determined in hiding her face from these strangers. Catelyn prays she is not turning red as she gently pries Kendra’s fingers off of her skirt. Robert mumbles disapprovingly, but Ned is grinning at the sight.
“I did not mean to frighten the princess, your Grace,” he teases, and Kendra blinks at him curiously.
“Excuse her,” Robert flaps a hand towards his youngest, “Barely weaned off the tit. Take me to your crypt, Ned. I’d like to pay my respects.”
Catelyn says nothing and offers only a wan smile when Ned glances at her. She does not meet his eyes but drops her gaze to the ground, unwilling to see what her hosts have made of Robert’s outburst. Cersei, in particular, will be unbearable, she thinks. But it is Cersei who is left stood before them, as their husbands make their way out of the courtyard to the castle crypts.
“Well,” says Cersei, and her voice is smooth and careful, “My Queen, allow me to show you to your rooms. You must be exhausted from such a journey.”
Catelyn is. Catelyn would like nothing more than to lie down and drag the heavy blankets over her head and sleep for a good long while. The Queen, however, raises her head and faces Cersei Lannister with all the dignity she can muster.
“Thank you, Lady Stark.”
The welcoming feast is everything a Northern celebration ought to be. Here, the men are unabashed, and the hall rings with laughter. Music blares without pause and, when food is not served and speeches not made, ladies are dragging their lords to dance between the tables. Robert is utterly in his element, sat in the middle of the chaos with a tankard in one hand and jape after jape upon his lips. He looks so happy that even Catelyn's heart is lightened and the lord and lady of Winterfell cannot help but crack smiles of their own. They both change when they smile, Catelyn thinks, The somber lord vanishes and the beauty of Casterly Rock shines.
Below them, the children of Stark and Baratheon alike sit at their own table. Catelyn keeps an eye on them, telling herself it is a mother's duty. Certainly, it is a motherly exasperation Catelyn feels when she spots Lyall crammed between Cersei’s twins, giggling as they aim spoon-and-stew catapults. It does not take long for Sansa to intervene and then Catelyn allows herself a glance at her oldest son. Robb has pulled one knee up onto the bench, so that his body is turned towards Myrcella next to him. It is too rowdy to hear what they speak of but Catelyn can see the way Robb grins and the dramatic gestures of Myrcella’s hands as she tells him some story.
“I hear we might share a grandchild someday.”
Catelyn jolts out of her thoughts. It is she and Cersei alone at the high table now. Cersei has twisted to look at her, watching her now with a sharp gaze. She is calculating, observing me, looking for any chink in my armor.
“I have heard the same,” Catelyn replies, “I should think your daughter will fare well in the capitol.”
Cersei hums noncommittally. After a moment, she says, “None of my children have ventured far South, your Grace.”
“Oh? I should think King’s Landing will seem gaudy in comparison.”
“Did you find the South gaudy after you first came North?”
Catelyn bites the inside of her cheek. Cersei peers at her expectantly, eyebrows raised, like the cat that got the cream, and Catelyn fears that she was the one to spill it. She takes a moment to measure how she will answer.
“I found the North grim,” she says slowly, “when I first saw it. The Riverlands are a veritable rainbow in comparison.”
“I can imagine,” Cersei says dryly. Catelyn remembers the woman she met that morning, refined in the colours of House Stark, and wonders if she had once looked upon Winterfell with the fear and disdain of a Southern girl as well.
“There are some charms to this country as well,” Catelyn adds weakly and casts her gaze about the room as if to point one out. That is when she sees Robert at the centre table and the wench he is coaxing into his lap. Both are unkempt and ruddy-faced from drink, and both cackle as Robert seizes her backside and hauls her closer. Catelyn’s heart sinks.
“Some charms,” Cersei repeats, voice low, and Catelyn knows that she has seen. How could she not, when Robert is right in front of them, bawling loud enough for the whole kingdom to hear, cavorting about with the maid before his audience as well as any bard may sing? The woman joins his dance with relish, leaning down to whisper in his ear and earning a smile and a playful pinch that makes Catelyn ache.
“I fear this wine does not agree with me,” she finds herself saying, “I do not wish to be rude, but I may soon retire.”
“As you wish, your Grace,” Cersei says and moves to stand. Catelyn follows hastily as Cersei sweeps from the hall, unnoticed save for Ned, who follows their forms with concern etched on his face. Catelyn does not see what gesture Cersei sends him, but it is enough to placate him, for Ned nods and turns back to the black-clothed man at his side—Benjen Stark, Catelyn realizes, though he had been but a child when she last saw him.
“Your children will be sent for soon,” Cersei tells her as they walk, “as will the King, I should hope. If I may speak freely, I worry tire and excitement wear already on his comportment.”
The arrogance of a Lannister, Catelyn thinks, but any anger that might have been roused at such insolence now barely flares and flutters away like an ember. At the door of her chambers, Cersei turns to Catelyn and offers her a half-smile.
“Thank you, Lady Cersei,” Catelyn says sincerely, “A warm bed and good rest will do my family the world of good, I’m sure.”
“A month on the road is no small feat. I remember when first I came to Winterfell…” Cersei trails off, her green eyes briefly flicking away from Catelyn as though catching sight of something else. She regains her composure quickly and smiles again. “Perhaps tomorrow my daughters and I might give you a tour of the glass gardens or the godswood. Joanna, particularly, would take great pride in showing you the gardens.”
Catelyn nods and quietly assents, and Cersei leaves her to her rooms with a last word of goodnight. She undresses and readies for bed alone; Catelyn had not summoned her handmaidens in her hurry to leave the feast and it has not been so long that she has forgotten how to put on a nightgown or brush her own hair. As she sits before the mirror, Catelyn catches sight of her reflection and blinks. She had not become so ugly in her age: her hair was still thick and deep red, running sleek through her fingers; her face was not badly lined, her hands not frail, her skin not blotched. Four children had left their mark on her body, in the width of her hips and the pouch of her belly, but she looks softened for it. Catelyn reaches up to trace the wrinkles around her eyes—round eyes, sky-blue eyes, sad eyes. Love comes in at the eyes, she had heard; does sorrow come after?
Perhaps all Robert sees is the cold woman I have become. Unconsciously, her hand drifts lower, to the cut of her cheekbone where the bruise had faded only weeks before. She wonders if Robert is even now admiring and flattering his newest conquest. He would leave her as a whore in the morning, no doubt, but tonight he would make her feel like a queen. Perhaps a woman is only a worthy queen when she is loving him, and a king’s cold wife must be slapped like a dog.
Catelyn hates the thought as soon as it crosses her mind. She gets up and pads to the bed, peeling back the thick covers. When she slips under them, it is with a grateful sigh; and she sinks without resistance onto the mattress. It has been too long since she slept in a proper bed. Tomorrow, she would wake up comfortable and refreshed, Queen Catelyn Baratheon, loyal to her husband and king. Looking back is a dangerous slope and Catelyn dares not so much as peek over her shoulder. If she does, she might slip and fall and never find her way up. She must stand tall and look forward, or she may be lost.
Everywhere Catelyn goes, she sees the direwolves.
She first notices one when Joanna Stark takes her to see the glass gardens. Only Kendra accompanies her, but she spends the trip gaping less at the flowers and more at the pup winding around the three of them, sniffing suspiciously at the trail of Catelyn’s skirts. She is only months old, Joanna assures her, but already she is close to the size of some of Robert’s hunting dogs.
“I did not know direwolves yet lived,” Catelyn confesses, “let alone came south of the Wall.”
Joanna looks up from a patch of greenery, “It wasn’t heard of for years until now. Maybe the mother was just following the cold. Winter is coming, or so Father says.”
There are six direwolf pups in all, Catelyn learns, and all were bestowed upon the Stark children. Rickon and Joffrey share ownership of one so even Lord Stark’s bastard, Jon Snow, is shadowed everywhere by his own direwolf, pure white and red-eyed. Lyall quickly becomes sick with jealousy.
“Did they get the wolves because that’s their sigil?” he asks Catelyn one night, “Does that mean I’ll get a deer one day?”
“What would you do with a deer?” Robb laughs.
“Anyway, the Baratheon symbol is a stag,” Sansa points out, “not a deer.”
“A stag is a deer, stupid.”
“Don’t call me stupid!”
“Enough of that,” Catelyn chides them, “Nobody here is stupid and nobody has the right to call anyone stupid. Lyall, the Starks have wolves because their father allowed them to keep them. Lord Stark found the pups himself.”
“I can’t picture Father letting us keep wolves,” comments Sansa, “or deer.”
“Father’d like as not kill the beasts as soon as look at them.”
“Father wouldn’t kill puppies,” pipes up Kendra, “They’re only babies.”
A bitter smile curls Robb’s lips, but he looks away before Catelyn can say anything. Sansa and Lyall are content to leave the argument then. Sansa returns to her embroidery while Lyall shuffles closer to the lit fireplace and props his chin on his knees, staring into the flames. Just as Catelyn thinks about sending them all off to bed, Kendra turns her face up towards her.
“Mother, will Robb be a wolf when he marries Lady Myrcella?”
On the opposite couch, Robb startles enough to nearly tip himself onto the floor. Sansa’s shoulders begin to shake with the force of her giggling.
“If Robb marries Lady Myrcella, do I get a wolf?” Lyall asks plaintively.
“Lyall, really,” says Catelyn, though she can feel herself smiling too, “Direwolves are not part of Lady Myrcella’s dowry.”
“They should be. They’re much more interesting than gold dragons or whatever it is Father will get.”
“Grandchildren,” says Sansa, “A tie with the North. Lord Stark in King’s Landing. More support—”
“I’m not betrothed yet,” Robb reminds them, cheeks flushed red, “although Myrcella is very, very—anyway, if I did marry her, she would join House Baratheon, not the other way around. She’d take the stag sigil.”
“Would she keep the wolf?” asks Kendra.
“I’d take it for her.”
“I don’t think any of you understand what sigils mean,” Sansa says, “But if Robb and Lady Myrcella marry, she would join our house, just as Mother joined Father’s when they married. Isn’t that right, Mother?”
Catelyn hesitates before answering, “Yes, Sansa. That is right.”
“Did you have another s-sigil, Mother?” Kendra stutters over the unfamiliar word and leans against Catelyn’s side, “I know my grandfather’s name is Tully. Was that yours too?”
“Yes,” says Catelyn and distracts herself from the itch in her throat by running her fingers through her daughter’s hair, “I was Catelyn of House Tully. It’s from the Tullys and I that you and Lyall got your red hair. Kissed by fire, some in the North may call us, but we are not a people to fight with fire. Our sigil is the trout, because we live by the river and it is from the river that we draw our strength.”
“Oh,” Kendra says, and then: “So did you have your own fish?”
Catelyn’s blurt of laughter at this is a welcome surprise to her, and she presses her lips to the top of Kendra’s head—whether out of gratitude or sheer unadulterated love, she cannot be sure.
“No, little one. And I don’t expect I’ll ever have a deer either.”
Ser Jaime comes to Catelyn’s quarters early one morning, unusually stern-faced. How the Kingsguard have been occupying themselves, Catelyn cannot say; Robert is rarely without his friend Lord Stark and his men, while Catelyn herself has seen only glimpses of her husband’s guards. Only Ser Jaime has remained constant, be he waiting by the horses for an afternoon hunt or keeping a careful eye peeled as the royal charges run rampant.
“Good morning, Ser Jaime,” she says as her handmaiden ushers him into the room, “I trust you have been enjoying your respite?”
“Indeed, my Queen,” Ser Jaime says, “although I fear the ways of the North have rubbed off some on my dear sister. She is far more gracious a hostess than I can recall.”
Catelyn tuts good-naturedly, “It is good to see how well Lady Stark is settled. Did my husband send you to me?”
Now Ser Jaime pauses. “I am afraid not. It was, in fact, Lord Stark who bid me request an audience. He did not wish to intrude upon you.”
Lord Stark? Catelyn laces her fingers together, fixing a sceptical eye on Ser Jaime. He looks dreadfully uncomfortable, more like a fidgeting boy caught in the kitchens than a renowned knight of the King’s service.
“What is it Lord Stark is seeking?” asks Catelyn.
Ser Jaime grins ruefully, “That he would not disclose, your Grace. If I may be so bold—I do not believe Lord Stark would dream of confiding in me, family though we are.”
Catelyn flinches at this. It has been fifteen years since Jaime Lannister raised his sword and first gained the mantle of Kingslayer, and even now whispers of his white cloak, soaked in the Mad King’s blood, dog his steps. There is power in a name and House Lannister had gained a formidable reputation. Yet to Catelyn, the man who broke his vows and the guard who has stood behind her for all these years do not seem one and the same.
“Very well,” she says and stands with a determined flurry of skirts, “You will accompany me to his solar. We must not keep Lord Stark waiting.”
Ser Jaime’s eyebrows rise at this but he otherwise hides his surprise well and follows her as she stalks out of the chamber. Ned Stark’s solar is in the Great Keep, across the courtyard from the Guest House, and Ser Jaime is a silent presence at her elbow as they walk. When Catelyn glances back at him, his face is pinched against the brisk icy wind. It occurs to Catelyn that she has not been the only fish out of water here in the freezing North.
Beside the heavy oak door of the solar, Ser Jaime takes his stance. “I will await you here, milady,” he says, and Catelyn allows him to remain, turning to knock upon the door by herself. She does not wait for an answer; with a last glance at Ser Jaime, she twists the handle and pulls the door open.
The room is not meanly sized, but most of the space is given up to the ornate desk and its matching austere chairs. On the other side of the desk, before the narrow windows overlooking grey sky, Ned Stark raises his head as Catelyn strides into the solar. His eyes widen and the legs of his chair screech against the floor in his rush to stand in greeting.
“Your Grace, I did not expect you so soon,” he says quickly, coming around the desk to stand before her. A smile comes remarkably easily to Catelyn then, to see him flustered.
“I would not keep you waiting, when I was informed so urgently that you requested we meet!” she laughs, “Though I fear I startled you.”
“Startled? No,” Ned replies, and reaches out to pull forward a second chair, “I did desire to speak with you, my lady, concerning our mutual acquaintances.”
“Among others,” Ned says with a thin smile and Catelyn finally sits down. She gives Ned a moment to return back to his own seat. Their eyes are level now.
“Robert intends to have our children be married,” Catelyn says, “That is what you wished to speak about.”
“Aye, it was,” Ned says, his hand folding on the desktop, “He has asked also that I return to King’s Landing as his Hand.”
Catelyn purses her lips at this. “Yes. He told me.”
Ned is quiet for a moment. It occurs to Catelyn that he expects her to say more.
“It is a great honour, of course,” she says slowly, “and Robert has missed you, of that I am sure. The death of Jon Arryn was a hard blow.”
“Yes it was,” Ned’s eyes lower and, for a moment, a shadow crosses over his face. This silence crowds about Catelyn like a fog and she shifts in her seat.
“Why, then, have you asked for me?” she demands. Ned’s eyes snap up. “I do not believe I am a suitable adviser in either matter. The decision is yours alone, Lord Stark; you will come or you will not. As to the betrothal, it would be a fair arrangement for the realm and for us. If Robert offers it, would you truly turn it down?”
“He has already offered it,” Ned says, “and I mean to consent to the match. I wished to speak with you about your thoughts.”
Ned’s face softens, “I have heard you say little since you arrived here, my lady. But Robert has said much.”
Catelyn freezes. A dark weight settles in the pit of her belly like a rock. “What has he said?”
“That you objected to his requesting me as his Hand, my lady.”
“Oh,” Catelyn says in a low voice, “I did.”
“You don’t believe me to be a good choice,” Ned carries on, “and you are not alone, my lady. But Robert is most insistent.”
“Why not refuse him, then?”
She does not mean to speak those words, but they spill out anyway, hanging in the silence between them. Ned watches her, eyes as grey and blank as stone. It makes her think of Cersei, of her careful voice and piercing stare at the welcoming feast, waiting for Catelyn to lower her guard. Her heart stutters against her ribs. She must hold his gaze now. To do otherwise, to lower her eyes and drop the words to clatter on top of the table, would be a defeat.
“Robert is my friend,” Ned says at length, “and my king. I have been brother, soldier and servant to him. But what he asks of me now—”
“Is an honour,” Catelyn repeats, “One that comes with the greatest price.”
Ned smiles at this, but it is a sad one, “My lady wife shares much the same view, your Grace.”
“The Lady Cersei is not an insensible woman,” Catelyn says. Ned nods, lapsing into another melancholy reserve. A hot burst—something like courage—blooms now in Catelyn’s breast, and she leans forward.
“You were never meant to be Lord of Winterfell,” she says, “but you have proved more than capable. I objected to your being offered the Hand because I believed Robert thought only of himself, not of the good of the Kingdoms. In truth, in having seen you here, I believe you would do well. But Robert has given you the choice. It must be your choice. Your daughter will marry Robb and be Queen. If that is enough, let it be enough.”
Ned says nothing for a long moment, but his eyes, silvery in the weak swaths of daylight filtering through the windows, hold her own and she finds now that she can read them as well as any book. Perhaps he is letting you, Catelyn muses but it is in the back of her mind. She merely smiles and sits up again, pulling her demure air back over her like a shroud.
“I ought to let you return to your business,” she says, “Doubtless I have distracted you for far too long, and left my escort loitering with far too little to do.”
“You were not a distraction in the least, your Grace,” Ned replies and stands in a fluid motion, “Thank you very much for your time.”
Catelyn gets to her feet, smoothing the front of her skirts as Ned edges around her to the door. For all that the mood about them has warmed some, Catelyn’s throat still itches with words that clamour to be said. Tell him about Tywin Lannister, they beg, and the worth of his gold dragons. Tell him about Stannis Baratheon, how he will not bend even as he breaks. Tell him about Brandon, how we might have been siblings, how Robert’s eyes dim when his thoughts fly to winter roses.
Instead, Catelyn squares her shoulders. I must look forward, or I will fall.
And so the Queen leaves the solar of Lord Stark with only a last graceful smile. Ned’s eyes had for a split second been clear as glass and, when a great knocking comes to her chamber door that night and Catelyn finds Robert stood there, swaying on his feet and grinning, she already knows what he will say.
“A new Hand, Cat!” Robert proclaims, lugging himself into the room and gripping the doorframe for dear life. Even slurring, his announcement still carries majestically. “And a betrothal! Ned has accepted. We shan’t be long here now!”
“Good news, husband,” Catelyn says wryly as he drops onto the end of her bed, “And have you and he yet celebrated?”
“I don’t care for your sarcasm, Cat. You’re too good at it,” Robert says. His face is bright with mirth and, even though she knows he is deep in his cups, Catelyn’s heart still skips a beat when she sees the merry prince she married peeping out from the dimples of his smile and the shine of his eyes. “Come now. Tonight is a happy night and much happiness won’t be had with you standing in a corner like that.”
Catelyn obliges and moves to perch on the other side of the bed, watching as Robert stretches out on the pillows as though they were his own. He lies still for a handful of minutes, as though on the verge of unconsciousness, but Catelyn stays sitting, knowing full well what will come next. Robert would have gone to his own chambers if he meant only to sleep.
“Closer, wife,” Robert mumbles, a hand reaching out to close around her wrist, and Catelyn lies back. It never lasts long when Robert is drunk. He only just finds the coherence to ruck her nightgown up around her hips before easing her thighs open and thrusting inside her. He pumps into her once, twice, four times before he spends with a grunt. Catelyn stays pliant beneath him, eyes fixed on the ceiling above his shoulder, and patiently waits for him to regain his breath.
“Gods, Cat,” he mutters, his words hot and damp against her ear, “You didn’t make a sound. Might as well have been asleep.”
One hand drifts down between them and touches her where they are still joined, fingers fumbling in their search, and only now does Catelyn feel any spark of yearning heat. It is unwelcome tonight and she catches his hand with hers, carefully pulling it away.
“Not now,” she whispers, “We must sleep, my love.”
Robert sighs but, for once, obeys without complaint and rolls aside. His seed slides within her and Catelyn wonders vaguely if she ought to climb out of bed and wash herself now. Beside her, Robert flops onto his belly.
“At least I tried to make it good,” he says into his pillow, eyes flickering shut, “It is good, eh, Cat?”
He falls asleep without a reply.
It is an overcast morning on the day that the King and Queen leave the castle of Winterfell. Catelyn looks out on the horizon, the sky a dirty grey and lanced through with black cloud, an omen of rainfall, and knows that they will be followed to King’s Landing by the winds of winter at last. Her stomach is churning. Catelyn closes her eyes and breathes the sharp, cold Northern breeze for the last time.
The wheelhouse stands in the courtyard and rocks minutely as the children bustle inside. Sansa is already happily sandwiched between Myrcella and Joanna Stark, while Kendra nestles shyly next to Arya and Lyall dawdles by the steps. He is yet trying to convince his father to let him ride a horse alongside him instead of going in the carriage—“The girls are in there and I can ride just like Robb! I can!”
“Mayhaps I’ll allow it once you’ve reached more than eight name-days,” Robert says, but he is chortling and ruffles the boy’s hair afterwards. Mounted on his own steed already, Robb shrugs a sheepish shoulder to his brother.
Robert’s cheer today is the sort that one may find in the victor of a great war, and it is almost enough to make up for the solemnity of his Hand. Ned smiles not as he watches his stablehands saddle his horse, nor even as he hears his daughters laugh as Lyall finally surrenders and all but throws himself headfirst into the wheelhouse, only pulling a face when Catelyn scowls at him.
Cersei stands in the courtyard, flanked by her sons, waiting impassively to see them off. They are striking in the middle of the commotion of preparing the royal train. Brandon, not yet ten years old but now a lord in place of his father, smiles bravely whenever one chances to look at him. To his left, Cersei’s proud gaze is cast over the chaos, flitting only once or twice to Ned or to Catelyn herself. Catelyn is not sure how to react when first her eyes meet Cersei’s, and she is the one to look away, duck her head as she climbs into the carriage herself.
“Ned,” Robert calls when the door of the wheelhouse is latched and the horses are stirring, hooves stamping and heads tossing. “Ned, it’s time.”
Catelyn is half-listening to the girls’ chatter—Sansa and Myrcella now gushing about King’s Landing, Joanna and Arya now gently needling Kendra into talking to them—and so she catches Ned’s final, hesitant goodbye to his family only out of the corner of her eye. It is only a matter of minutes before the coachman cracks his whip and the wheelhouse jerks into motion, but Catelyn imagines that the soft sadness on Cersei’s face—that moment of the mask slipping, unstoppable and inevitable as the tide—as Ned leant in to kiss her will remain with her for far longer.
And so the royal court rumbles onto the Kingsroad in triumph, chased by three young direwolves and the shadow of a storm.
A letter awaits Catelyn in her chambers at the Red Keep, thin and plain and unmarked. The paper is dry and brittle under her fingers as she opens it. The words she reads are written in worn ink, faded enough that Catelyn must lean towards the candles to see it, but she would recognise the sharp scrawl of her sister’s writing anywhere.
Robert comes to her that night. With a new Hand installed in the Keep and his old friend close by, with a marriage arranged and talk of a tourney to throw, he is buoyed with joy, floating into the room with scarcely a sound but his laughter. Catelyn looks up from her desk.
“Robert,” she says. Even to her ears, she sounds distant, as if she were not speaking with her own voice.
“We missed you at supper, Cat,” he declares. Despite herself, Catelyn’s mouth twitches at the thought. “Could barely get Kendra to say a word. No matter! What’s that you have?”
The letter is still clenched in her hands, paper crumbling under her firm grip. Catelyn swallows.
“Robert,” she says again, “It is a letter from Lysa.”
Robert snorts and walks towards the bed, “Has the woman come to her senses yet? I dread for her boy, up on that mountain with no-one but her. What does she say?”
He’ll never believe me, Catelyn thinks. She had known it from the moment that she finished Lysa’s letter. He would never believe a word that Lysa claims without proof, even if his wife were to swear that she would never lie, not about this.
‘The sickness came so suddenly, to the point where it cannot have occurred with no unnatural help. Grand Maester Pycelle was the one to tend to Jon. Pycelle, who has long been caught by the lion’s claws. Tywin Lannister’s good-son is now the Hand of the King, and his granddaughter the future Queen. Cat, do you not see? I believe Jon saw, and they blinded him for it…’
No, Robert would not believe that. He would only be made furious. He may even go straight to tell Ned Stark, as though it were a story to joke about over a mug of ale. Catelyn remembers Ned’s eyes, clear as glass in a mirror, the downturn of Cersei’s mouth as she bid them farewell at the gates of Winterfell, even the steadfast protection of Ser Jaime, and finds them twisted, poisoned, in her mind. Tywin Lannister’s eyes, Tywin Lannister’s mouth, Tywin Lannister’s words.
I must not fall.
“She writes of her grief,” Catelyn says, standing up. It is only a few paces to the lit fireplace and then the flames are swallowing the fears of Lysa Arryn whole. “Of the grief of her son. But she is quite lucid.”
“Lucid,” Robert repeats, a note of incredulity bleeding into his tone, “As lucid as Lady Lysa can be, I imagine.”
When Catelyn does not reply, does not even turn away from the fireplace, Robert speaks again, “Don’t be like that, Cat. She’s your sister, I know. Come to bed now and we shan’t ruin a good night.”
“I won’t,” Catelyn says. When she blinks, the shapes of the flames dance against her eyelids. “I am not well.”
“Not well?” Robert repeats at a near-shout, though Catelyn cannot say whether it is from surprise or anger, “How so? You never refuse me, except—” He cuts off. The floor squeaks under his boot when he takes a step forward. “Cat, are you with child again?”
The morning that they had left Winterfell, Catelyn had felt the familiar rebellion of her stomach. She had not bled at all on the journey home, though they had travelled for over a month. They are not so old yet, Catelyn knows, but still she had prayed that these were signs of her body’s age, of the end of her time of child-bearing. Not now, she had begged the gods, don’t let me have a babe now.
“Perhaps,” she says at length, an answer as good as a yes. Again, her voice seems far away. Behind her, Robert huffs, a sound part-disbelief and part-delight.
“A babe,” he murmurs, “This is another good sign, Cat.”
Abruptly his hands are curving about her waist, arms curling to follow suite, and Catelyn is tugged back against his front. It is an unexpected, intimate show of affection. Once, Catelyn may well have yearned for a moment such as this—treasured it, even. Now she wants to shove him away and scream at him that he is a fool, has always been a fool. But she does not. If he is killed and a Lannister is Queen, the world will know him for a fool but knowledge is not power. It must all be on me, as it has always been before.
“The snow hasn’t come just yet,” Robert grins against her shoulder, every bit the happy youth of long ago, “We may yet have another summer child, eh?”
Catelyn cannot speak past the tight collar of her throat. She grasps his wrists, rested on the flat of her belly, and closes her eyes against the glow of the fire and the burn of tears.
Family, duty, honour, she tells herself, For your children, for your House, for your sake, stay strong.