The babe never cried. Or no, that was not precisely true; the babe cried all the time, even sometimes when he slept, but it was soft, quiet sniffles and not the loud, full throated screams he’d come to expect from newborn babies. When Lya had been that small, she’d screamed all the time, screamed when she was hungry and when she was wet, screamed when she was tired, and sometimes she’d seemed to scream for no reason at all. She’d screamed so loud that Ned had been able to hear her from his room several doors down, through multiple layers of stone walls. He’d been all of two or three years old at the time, but he still remembered telling his mother that babies were far too noisy, asking if they could send her away until she learned her courtesies.
He had not had the foresight to bring a wagon along, hadn’t had the foresight for much of anything. His only thought when he’d left King’s Landing had been finding his sister as quickly as possible—finding his sister, and putting as much distance as he could between himself and Robert. He’d scarce slept in weeks, but the few times he’d managed to doze off, he’d seen it in his mind, the crushed head of a babe wrapped in Lannister red. I see no babes, Robert’s familiar voice whispered in his ear, only dragonspawn.
Dragonspawn. Eddard Stark looked down at the babe he held, so small the boy could fit comfortably in the crook of one arm, whimpering quietly. The wet nurse, Wylla, was not a particularly good rider, especially not in the rocky outcrops of the Dornish hills, and Howland’s arm was pressed tight against his body in the makeshift sling they’d made for him, so it was down to Ned to carry the boy as they guided their mounts down rocky ridges at an agonizingly slow pace.
Lya would have had no trouble navigating her way up to the tower, Ned knew, may very well have been able to outpace any of her traveling companions on the way up. But Lya was dead and gone now, her body thrown unceremoniously into the saddlebags of one of the extra horses, attached to Howland’s by a lead, as though she was nothing more than a slain boar. The hot Dornish sun was already bringing forth the acrid smell of rot in her flesh. Once they were out of the mountains, they would come upon Kingsgrave long before they reached Starfall, and Ned could only hope that her body could be dealt with there in dignity.
When Ned could stand the sound of the babe’s small whimpers and sniffles no longer, they stopped to eat a small meal. The babe ate, too, latched onto Wylla’s breast even through his subdued sniffles, and despite it all, the boy gave suck with vigor belied by the rest of his demeanor.
“Do you think something is wrong with him?” Ned asked the wet nurse as she fed the boy. Ned knew little and less of babes, had scarce been around one since Ben had been a born, and that had been more than fourteen years gone, now. There had been Robert’s bastard in the Vale, of course, but Robert would spend no more than an hour at a time with the girl before he’d grow bored of her. But Mya Stone had always seemed a happy babe, large and vigorous and everything his sister’s son was not.
“I could not say, m’lord,” Wylla admitted honestly, deferentially. “I have never before known a babe such as this. But he eats and he sleeps and he continues to breathe, so mayhaps he is fine. Mayhaps he can simply sense…that he is not wanted. Mayhaps he does not want to make a fuss.”
Could a babe so small sense something such as that? Ned realized that he truly had no idea, but the thought that his sister’s son could mayhaps sense that from him made his blood run cold, ice in his veins.
“He is not unwanted,” Ned bit out, before he even realized what he was saying. The brown-skinned girl’s eyes widened in fear.
“Of course not, m’lord,” she deferred immediately. “I didn’t mean to imply—”
The fear that he saw on the girl’s face marked one of the first times Ned had felt acutely who he now was: Lord Stark of Winterfell, Lord Paramount and Warden of the North, a title he’d never thought to fall upon him. He had been born a son of a lord, certainly, but in his early years in Winterfell, too many had known him too well to fear him. He had always been Brandon’s younger, less fierce brother. In the Eyrie, he had been even less, overshadowed by Robert, larger, louder, and more boisterous. Robert had, in name if not in truth, been Lord Paramount of the Stormlands since he had been a boy, and next to that Ned had been nothing to be feared, a second son who had little hope of amounting to much. He immediately felt ashamed for the sharpness of his tone.
“I’m sorry,” he told the girl honestly. “I did not intend to be harsh.”
Not certain how to react, the wet nurse simply nodded and held the babe close to her chest until they were all rested and fed and they set off once again, the tiny figure snuffling in Ned’s arms. Eventually the boy slept deeply enough that even the sniffling stopped, if only for an hour or so.
They reached Kingsgrave the next day, but they remained far from the castle, having no desire to draw the attention of Lord Manwoody or his retainers. The war was over, at least officially, but the Dornish had not historically been all that committed to peace. With a party of four, comprised of himself, an injured man, a young wet nurse, and an infant, Ned was keen to avoid trouble.
But in addition to an inn, they did find a small funerary parlor. He handed over his sister’s body with a deep sense of sorrow, and when the proprietor told him how they planned to boil the flesh away from her bones, he’d had to go outside and relieve himself of the contents of his stomach. Two days later, his sister, who had once been the most vibrant and lovely girl he’d ever known, was nothing more than a pile of bones in a box, and they continued on their way as if nothing of consequence happened at all.
The boy whimpered and sniffled softly to himself, and the fear that the boy could be ill and in pain was nearly enough to send Ned searching out the castle and the maester when they came upon Skyreach. But the boy continued to eat, continued to sleep and breathe and live, and so they continued on to Starfall, Dawn sheathed and slung along the side of his horse.
The look in Lady Ashara’s haunting violet eyes when he returned the sword was one Ned knew he would never forget, one he knew would haunt his dreams for many a year to come. He had a wealth of things to haunt his dreams now, so one more could not hurt, he supposed. It was with great guilt that he made his next request.
“My lady,” he said softly, the words sounding hollow, “I apologize for the imposition, but I would be very much obliged if you would allow us the services of your maester.”
The request clearly surprised her, and a small bit of life returned to her deadened gaze.
“Are you injured, my lord?” she returned, curious. Ned breathed in a long breath, then exhaled slowly. There was no use in telling a lie, not to her; she would know, no matter what it was that he told her. And still he spoke the lie.
I must needs practice, he told himself wryly, elsewise no one shall believe me when I must lie for real.
“Not me,” he assured her. “My man Howland Reed.” Ned paused, hesitated. “And my son.”
She blinked, looked at him, with violet eyes narrowed upon his face. “You do not have a son,” she said dully, uneasily, and Ned’s heart beat a staccato rhythm in his chest. His palms were clammy with sweat.
“I do now,” he said with as much conviction as he could muster, and his voice wavered. Realization passed over the girl’s face, her expression shifting from suspicious to compassionate. She shifted then, uncomfortable herself.
“You could…leave him here?” she attempted quietly, hopefully, but even before the words finished leaving her mouth, Ned knew that he could not agree. Ashara’s violet eyes became Lyanna’s grey ones, desperate and pleading. Promise me, Ned, she’d begged him, weak and forceful all at once. The smell of blood still felt thick in Ned’s nostrils. Promise me.
“I can’t,” Ned told her, though not without regret. The girl’s expression was pained, though she appeared resigned to his response.
“You should tell people that I am his mother, then,” she said instead, voice wavering, eyes brimming with moisture. The objection was quick to Ned’s tongue.
“My lady, I could not dishonor your name that way.”
She shook her head listlessly. “I have already birthed a Stark bastard,” she said with sadness and regret. “And this is Dorne. Birthing a bastard is no dishonor here.”
The implication was thick and heavy in her words, the truth of the life he would be subjecting this boy to by taking him north. He could be happier in Dorne, and Ned knew that well, but Ned could not ensure that he would be safe. Lyanna’s pleas lingered in his ears.
“He has the Stark look,” Ned protested, though feebly. Lady Ashara’s expression was compassionate.
“He is a newborn,” she told him seriously. “Hair, eyes…they may change with time. What shall you do if his eyes change from grey to violet? What shall you do if his hair turns pale? Both traits run in the Dayne line, my lord.” She stopped, leveling him with a sharp look. “Tell people that he is my son.”
Ned swallowed thickly and nodded, not willing to speak the assent aloud, not certain if he’d be able to keep to his word.
Robert had known all but immediately, had known as soon as Ned had walked into the Red Keep with nothing more than a box that held his sister’s remains. It pained Ned to admit that Robert looked good upon that seat, looked regal and handsome and every bit a king. He looked nothing like the man who had looked upon dead babes and declared them dragonspawn, acceptable casualties, as if the death of children could ever truly be acceptable. The tears that glittered in Robert’s eyes had been unexpected.
“I loved her,” he’d said in a thick voice, and part of Ned had wanted to scream back at him you didn’t even know her, but he saw in Robert’s deep blue eyes that he truly believed it, that he felt it. And mayhaps that was all that mattered in the end, that after everything, some capacity for love remained inside Ned’s childhood friend. Ned wanted to forget, wanted to block out the look of utter disdain he’d seen on Robert’s face when he’d looked upon Rhaegar’s slain children. And yet now more than ever, Ned could not forget, could at best pretend that the love he’d once felt for Robert still remained. And mayhaps if he pretended hard enough, it would one day be true.
I see no babes, Robert had said, only dragonspawn.
And so they drank. Or Robert drank at least, and Ned nursed the Arbor vintage for which he had no taste, not willing to trust himself even if it had been more to his liking. Robert drank well, taller and broader and more muscled than Ned could ever hope to be. Drink had always made Robert more Robert, as though the wine took everything about him and amplified it, made him louder, more boisterous, more charismatic than ever. Even in his grief, he was every inch the king, every inch the conqueror.
An hour in, and Ned wouldn’t have believed that Robert felt grief at all.
“I nearly forgot!” Robert exclaimed halfway through his fifth cup, or mayhaps his sixth. “We finally received word from Riverrun.”
Ned felt his heart nearly stop at the words. News had been sparse throughout the war, ravens shot down and roads all but impassible save for by armies. Messengers and birds unrelated to the war effort had remained home for fear of death, but he’d known, of course, known that his new wife’s time would have already come and gone, and yet within the recesses of all that had happened, Ned had all but forgotten he had a wife at all. The memory, the realization of it all came crashing down upon him, chilling him to the bone.
Her mother died in childbed, a sinister voice in the back of his mind reminded him. Your own mother died in childbed. Lya died in childbed. Ned knew his nephew’s wet nurse better than he knew his wife, for all that he’d lain in bed with her, spilled himself inside her and gotten her with child. And yet Ned’s ears rang, and he tasted the metallic odor of blood against his tongue, blood and winter roses and whispered pleas.
“Is she...?” Ned began, but he could not bring himself to give the fear voice. Robert seemed entirely too far gone to even notice it.
“You have a son! A healthy son!” Robert exclaimed, clapping him on the back as though he’d accomplished some great feat, when he had done nothing much at all. His wife had gone to battle as well as he had, but she had not had an army at her back, just her own determination against the whims of the gods. Robert said nothing of her, of Ned’s stranger of a wife, as though she meant nothing at all in any of this. Ned thought to ask of her before he realized, with a dry mouth and a pounding heart, that this was his only chance. Robert had known him too long, and unfortunately all too well. Ned had told the lie once, and Lady Ashara had seen right through it—but, of course, she’d known where he’d gone, known what he’d be like to find when he got there. Robert, though...Robert would mayhaps be able to put the pieces together, if he were sober, but now—
“Two sons,” Ned choked out, the words still thick and uncomfortable upon his tongue. Robert stared at him as though he’d spoken in the tongue of Asshai rather than the Common Tongue, as though he couldn’t understand a word Ned had said. His mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water.
“Two...you?” Robert demanded incredulously. “Lord Eddard Stark, the prudest man I’ve ever met, got yourself a bastard?”
The disbelief was sharp in Robert’s tone, Ned’s mind raced, a desperate panic, wondering how he could get out of the city, get the babe out of the city before Robert could—
And then Robert’s face split into a huge grin.
“Thank the gods, Ned!” he boomed, clapping Ned upon the shoulder with enough force that Ned was nearly bowled over into the table, and Ned realized the man was well and truly drunk. “I might have thought your parts didn’t work if Catelyn Tully hadn’t shown up with a babe in her belly. And on your wedding night! And another son at the same time! You must be the most virile man in the Seven Kingdoms!”
And Robert was pleased, Ned realized, more pleased than his friend had ever been with him. Robert, who had always tried to push Ned into enjoying life more, into being less serious, had never been prouder of his friend.
Ned felt sick to his stomach, and still he fought to smile at Robert’s joy. I must needs become used to this lie, he told himself, allowing Robert to refill this glass. I must needs become so used to it that no one can guess that it is not truth. For Lya...and for Jon.