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meanwhile, in a somewhat kinder world . . .

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The auburn haired little girl clapped happily as her dark haired brother presented her with the freshly picked wildflowers, and Catelyn Stark smiled as she watched them. Minisa loved flowers, and Rodrik loved making his little sister happy so he brought some to her every day now that they grew in such abundance in the godswood. It occurred to Catelyn that since since spring had arrived shortly after Minisa’s fourth name day and her seventh name day had passed over a moon’s turn ago that her youngest child likely already had only vague memories of the long and bitter winter of her birth. Even Rodrik’s would fade with time. Would that she could say the same of her older children, but at least she could take comfort in the fact that they had all survived to see this summer. That was nothing short of miraculous, and she thanked the gods for it, hers and Ned’s every day.

“Mother, look!” Minisa had spotted her and was running across the courtyard waving her small bouquet like a banner. “Roddy got me yellow ones today! I like yellow!” Catelyn saw the scowl on her ten year old son’s face as he had recently decided that ‘Roddy’ was a name for babies and asked that everyone please call him by his real name. Minisa never remembered to do so.

“They’re lovely, sweetling,” Catelyn said as her daughter reached her. “Shall we put them in some water and place them in your room beside the blue ones from yesterday?”

“And the white ones!” Minisa exclaimed.

“Ah, little love, I fear the white ones are quite wilted. You know these little blossoms don’t last terribly long once they’ve been pulled from the ground.”

She turned to Rodrik who’d followed behind her at a slower pace with a frown on her face.

“Don’t worry, Min,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. There are millions of those white ones. They’re the easiest to find. I’ll take you with me to pick some if you want more.”

“Now?” She asked eagerly, already grabbing his hand to pull him back in the direction of the godswood.

“Sorry, little sister, but I’m supposed to be training with Edd and Ben already. I’ll take you tomorrow. I promise.” Rodrik’s solemn expression as he gave his sister his word was the very image of his father’s. She felt certain that her youngest son looked very like Ned had as a child although few old enough to recall her husband as a child had survived what was now being called the Endless Winter although it had eventually proven to have an end—slightly more than ten years after it began. Spring had lasted scarcely a year, and summer had now reigned for two.

“What about Jon?” Minisa asked.

Sansa had arrived with children from Last Hearth a fortnight ago and her husband was expected to join them here in Winterfell before the wedding. Catelyn was thrilled Sansa had come early because it had been nearly four moons since she’d seen Jon and Lyarra, and she’d missed her daughter and grandchildren terribly.

“He’s only six. He’s not big enough to train with us yet,” Rodrik told her.

“He’s as big as Ben!” she pointed out.

“Well . . . yeah. But he’s only six. Benjen’s eight, and he only just started training.”

“Rickon says Jon’ll be as big as you in a year,” Minisa said, grinning.

“No he won’t!” Rodrik protested. Then he sighed. “Not in a year anyway. I’m four whole years older than him. But . . . he’ll probably be bigger than all of us eventually. His dad’s a giant!”

Catelyn laughed. In truth, Sansa’s children did seem to grow at an alarming rate and both Jon and his three year old sister Lyarra had come into the world already quite a bit larger than most babes. Catelyn had been with Sansa for both of her children’s births and had worried for her, but her brave girl had done beautifully both times. She was now expecting a third child, and Catelyn prayed daily for the safety of mother and child. “Your goodbrother Smalljon is not a giant, simply a very large man,” Catelyn assured them, although having now seen actual giants with her own eyes, she privately had no doubt that giant blood flowed through Umber veins from some long ago ancestor. It certainly explained their House sigil.

“Why is he called Smalljon, Mother? He’s the biggest man in the world!” Minisa asked.

Catelyn laughed again. “His father was also named Jon.” Her youngest children never knew the former Lord Umber with his gruff manner, big booming voice, and unmatched bravado. Like too many good men, he had perished in the long fight against the Others. “He was an enormous man, too, and people called him the Greatjon. When your goodbrother was born, people called him Smalljon to differentiate the two. In time, he did grow to be a bit bigger than his own father.”

“But our Jon is just called Jon,” Minisa said.

“What do you want to call him, Min? Tiny Jon?” Rodrik said, laughing.

Rodrik had his father’s face, but he laughed far more frequently and easily in spite of having spent over half his young life with the twin specters of freezing and starvation always present. At least he had never known war, and the white demons that had once assailed this castle he called home were only frightening stories to him—and the names carved on monuments all over the North—names like Rodrik Cassel for whom he was named, who had died in this very courtyard battling to keep the Others away from the Great Keep where she and her children and so many others had taken shelter.

Rodrik’s solemn Stark face reminded her not only of Ned, but of another boy—one she had known at the age of ten. And her son’s easy tendency toward laughter caused her to think back at times with a pang of regret for the way that boy never laughed in her presence when he lived here and with a painful echo of the anger which had threatened to destroy all she and Ned had built between them when she finally learned the truth of that boy’s parentage. But war and winter had forced everyone to think on little except survival for a very long time, and now the passage of time and the surprising gift of new children had helped heal the wounds between her husband and herself and between herself and the man who was now King of the Seven Kingdoms.

Jon Stark Targaryen and the aunt who had become his wife and queen now had two children of their own—a miracle in itself as Daenerys had been quite certain she was barren. Jon had told Catelyn once, after the birth of his first son, that the first moment he looked at him he realized he would do anything to protect him from harm—anything at all. It wasn’t forgiveness, precisely, but it was an acknowledgement that he understood her better as a man and father than he had as a lonely, motherless boy in Winterfell. That understanding between them had grown slowly through the years and allowed her let go of most of her anger toward both her husband and herself. Jon would be coming for the wedding, too. Daenerys had to remain in King’s Landing because the two of them preferred always having at least one of them in the capital, but Jon was coming by ship and road rather than dragon so that he could bring the boys along for the wedding.

Catelyn found that she was honestly looking forward to their visit. She hadn’t seen Jaehaerys since he was an infant, and he was of an age with Robb’s Eddard—one and ten. She’d never seen Rickard at all. The name of Jon’s second son made her smile. He’d given his firstborn son the name that Daenerys had suggested he take for himself as Lyanna had not given him a name or at least had not told it to Ned. She’d only begged him to keep her son safe, and he had pledged to do so. Jon insisted upon keeping the name Ned had given him and, with the blessing of both Ned and herself, used the surname Stark as well as Targaryen. She suspected he’d have named his second son Eddard if Robb hadn’t already used it for his firstborn. So he named his second son, a Targaryen prince, for his Stark grandfather who’d been murdered by his Targaryen grandfather.

“Mother?” Rodrik’s voice interrupted her musings. “May I take leave of you now?”

“Oh! Yes, Rodrik. I’m sorry, sweetling. My mind wandered for a moment. Go on, now, and make me proud. Tell your nephews to do the same.”

“Yes, Mother,” Rodrik said with a smile, and he sprinted off to play with swords. Of course, Catelyn knew all too well that training at arms was not play at all, but she knew her youngest son and grandsons saw it more as sport than anything. She prayed they never needed to see it differently.

“Can I go see if Jon wants to play, Mother?” Minisa asked.

“Yes. Or . . . you could come with me. That’s why I came out here to find you.”

“Come where?”

“To my solar. Your sister and I are going to work on the marriage cloak, and I thought you might want to help.”

“Really?” asked Minisa, her grey eyes suddenly big as saucers. Minisa’s face was unique among all her children. The child’s eyes were entirely hers save for having Ned’s color, and her cheeks and lips were more like hers as well. But she had her father’s long face and her jawline was Arya’s to the smallest detail. Her hair was auburn, but much darker than her own and at least somewhat darker than the varying auburn shades of her other children. Only brown haired Arya and Rodrik had darker hair, and not by much. “I can really help?"

“Yes, sweetling. You are a daughter of House Stark. Your handiwork belongs on the cloak.”

Minisa grinned, but then she screwed up her face. “But Sansa makes things beautiful. My stitches aren’t really that good, Mother.”

Catelyn laughed. “That, my love, is because you are only seven years old. They’ll get better. And Sansa will help you. As you said, she sews beautifully.” She leaned over to whisper, “My stitches aren’t as perfect as hers are either, and I’m older than Sansa!”

“I think your sewing is wonderful!” Minisa exclaimed. “And I bet it was just as perfect as Sansa’s before the bad man hurt you!” she added with a flash of indignation in her grey eyes.

Catelyn sighed. Minisa had only recently thought to ask about the scars on her hands—scars nearly fifteen years old now. In truth, the old wounds impeded her very little in most things now, but her penmanship and her precision with fine embroidery would never be what it once was. She had answered Minisa’s questions about her injuries honestly but in no great detail. However, Minisa had done what all of the Stark children in Winterfell did when they felt an adult hadn’t answered a question well enough—gone to Rickon. Regardless of how she or Ned or any of his older siblings tried to dissuade him, he would always provide the children with any detail they wished regardless of whether or not it was appropriate for them. Considering that many of their questions were about events that occurred when Rickon himself was a very small child, his information wasn’t even always entirely accurate, but his younger siblings and nephews, for better or worse, considered his word as definitive truth.

“Well, that was a long time ago, sweetling. Old hurts do not bother me over much. Let’s go to my solar and we shall both do our very best and we’ll count on Sansa to make certain everything is beautiful.”

Minisa took her hand and practically dragged her toward the Great Keep, and Catelyn smiled as she allowed herself to be pulled along. Her third daughter somehow managed to be very much like both her older daughters, something she never would have thought possible, but that made her very happy.

She’d been sewing with her oldest and youngest daughter for about an hour when her gooddaughter arrived in her solar.

“May I join you?” Margaery asked.

Sansa smiled up at her. “What have you done with Olenna, Marg? Don’t tell me you actually got her to nap?”

“Nap? Ha! The child doesn’t know the meaning of the word! Meera took pity on me and is amusing her for awhile. We all know she hates decorative sewing, and she knows I love it so she offered to take my demon child.” She made a face at Sansa. “Lyarra is still sleeping like an angel, by the way.”

Sansa smiled. “Yes. I told Brigid to bring her to me when she wakes.”

“None of my grandchildren are demons,” Catelyn said mildly without looking up from her sewing. “Olenna is simply . . . spirited.” In truth, Robb and Margaery’s only daughter could be a terror at times, but Catelyn recalled Rickon being much the same at two. Ned firmly believed the child’s behavior was due to the name Margaery had given her as Olenna Tyrell hadn’t been called the Queen of Thorns without reason. Margaery had loved her grandmother dearly, however, and mourned her terribly when she died. “And Lyarra has her moments, too, Marg. All two and three year olds do.”

“My boys were much easier to deal with at this age,” Margaery insisted. “At least she’ll give poor Meera good practice at handling the demands of tiny tyrants. Although, I can’t imagine any offspring of Bran and Meera with anything other than a serene disposition.”

Sansa laughed. “I know you’ve seen Meera angry, Margaery. You live here! She is the calmest person alive until you push her too far, and then her temper competes with anyone’s. And Bran . . .” Catelyn looked up at Sansa’s pause and saw the fleeting sadness in her daughter’s eyes before she continued. “Well, Bran was quite lively when he was little. Never bad really, but he could get into mischief.”

Catelyn smiled at her daughter. “He certainly could. And according to the rest of you, he could then talk himself out of trouble with me.”

“It’s true!” Sansa exclaimed, and Minisa laughed. She was too young to understand all of the conversation, but having known most of her siblings only as adults, she loved hearing stories of them as children like her and Rodrik. “Careful, Min,” Sansa said, reaching out to take the cloth the younger girl was working on from her hands. “When you laugh, always pull the needle out because laughter makes your hands shake a bit, and it can mess up your stitch.” She pulled one stitch out and handed it back to her. “You’re doing a beautiful job, Min. The lines on the sail are perfectly straight. I can’t believe how much you’ve improved since my last visit. You’re so much better than I was at seven.”

Minisa positively glowed, and Catelyn smiled at the two of them. Sansa had once confessed to her that she felt bad about never once trying to make Arya feel better about her sewing or helping her with it when they were young. Catelyn had told her she had been a child, and that if anyone was at fault for the strife between the two girls it was herself for not handling it better. It shouldn’t have taken the terrible events in King’s Landing and subsequent war against the Others to make them all see each other clearly and allow the love that was always there between them to shine through more strongly than their differences.

Catelyn was happy that Sansa and Arya had become as close as they had before Arya went south, but she still worried that her own disagreements and misunderstandings with Arya had contributed to her daughter’s desire to leave Winterfell halfway through the long winter. She’d bitten her tongue when Ned allowed her to continue her sword training when they’d all managed to make it home after the troubles in King’s Landing, and she’d nearly lost her mind when her twelve year old daughter managed to escape the Great Keep and join the fighting when the Others breached Winterfell’s walls. Two of Ned’s guards had to physically restrain her to keep her from running into the courtyard herself to find her. But when she’d appeared in the doorway at after the battle’s end—after the combined efforts of valiant fighters armed with dragonglass or rare Valyrian steel and Jon and Daenerys on their dragons won the costly victory—Arya had been pale as a ghost herself, with her dragonglass dagger in her hand and a haunted look in her eyes. ‘I couldn’t get to him,’ she’d said in a hollow voice, and only later did Catelyn learn that Arya had seen Ser Rodrik surrounded by Others, shouting for them to come at him rather than toward the keep. She had seen them cut him down even as she tried to fight her way to his side, and she felt she had failed him. He was a knight, a seasoned soldier, and a man older than her father. She was only a child, but she feared she’d failed him. In that moment, Catelyn had only known her child was alive but hurting, and she’d wrapped her arms around her both in gratitude for her life and to comfort her and hold her safe, whispering in her ear that she’d been so very brave. And Arya had held onto her for dear life for a very long time. After that, she had never spoken about being in the battle, and Catelyn had not wanted to push her by asking about it. She had never again expressed opposition about her sword training, and she did not try to discourage her friendship with the blacksmith who’d come to Winterfell along with so many others to fight the White Walkers—the blacksmith that was so plainly Robert Baratheon’s son, a fact Ned eventually confirmed for her. And when Arya informed them she simply couldn’t stay in Winterfell just after Sansa’s wedding in the middle of the Endless Winter, Ned first tried to talk her out of it but then gave her instructions to go certain places and get information and carry messages for him, and sent her with a company of his men. The blacksmith, Gendry, went with her.

Arya wrote them at least once every moon’s turn after she left. She diligently did all her father asked, and Catelyn thanked the gods every time a letter arrived as it meant her daughter still lived. She and Gendry spent time in King’s Landing, and Jon and Daenerys legitimized the young man as a Baratheon—not the Lord of Storm’s End. That was given to Shireen Baratheon as Renly had died mysteriously before the Others ever attacked and Stannis died at the Wall fighting the Others. But Gendry was given a small Keep somewhere on the coast of the Stormlands, and Arya wrote nearly two years ago that they had wed. The letters continued arriving in Winterfell, a little less frequently now, but at least her daughter was settled in one place which made it easier to write letters back. She seemed happy, but Catelyn longed to see her. Rodrik didn’t truly remember her, and Minisa had never met her. Mayhap now that summer was two years old and going strong, Ned would agree to a trip to the Stormlands. Robb was eight and twenty, and perfectly capable of acting as Lord. Ned had been Lord in truth long before reaching Robb’s age, and Robb had been acting as his father’s right hand for years, proving himself a strong and wise leader like his father. Once this wedding was over, she would ask Ned about it. All of their children save Arya (even Jon) would be here over the next few weeks, and while that gladdened her heart more than she could express, it also made her miss her second daughter more fiercely. Nearly eight years is far too long to go without holding your child—however old that child may be.

“I wish she was coming to the wedding, too, Mother,” Sansa said softly.

Catelyn looked up at her oldest daughter and smiled. “My thoughts are that transparent?”

Sansa smiled back, but her eyes held the same lingering sadness Catelyn knew was in her own. “When you’re thinking about Arya.”

“Arya?” Minisa interjected. “She says I should train with the boys if I want to. She said it in her last letter. And Rickon says she killed a score of White Walkers when she was barely older than me, and . . .”

“Rickon needs to work on his math,” Catelyn said succinctly. “Both in terms of kill numbers and your sister’s age at the time the White Walkers came. But that is neither here nor there, young lady. Tell your sister precisely what your other sister said about your training with the boys in her letter.”

Minisa looked at her for a moment and then huffed. “She said I should train with the boys if I still want to when I turn eight,” she said to Sansa. “But seven is almost eight!”

“And did Benjen begin training when he was almost eight?” Margaery asked, raising an eyebrow.

“No,” Minisa said with a pout.

“Oh!” Sansa suddenly exclaimed. “Come here, Min, quickly.”

“What?” Minisa said, jumping up to stand by Sansa’s chair.

Her sister reached out and took her hand. “Here,” she said, laying it over the soft swell of her belly. “Your new niece or nephew is kicking. Feel it?”

Minisa was very still and quiet for a moment, and then she squealed. “I do! I feel it, Sansa! I feel the baby!” She ran to Catelyn nearly knocking her sewing out of her hands in her excitement. “Sansa’s baby kicked me, Mother! Did I kick like that in your belly?”

“Yes, sweetling, you certainly did.”

“Does Meera’s baby kick, too? Can I feel it?”

“Meera’s baby is still too small to kick,” Catelyn said, feeling the joy bubble up inside her every time she thought about the fact that Bran was to become a father. They’d been told it might be possible as he had some sensation and no difficulty passing water. But Bran and Meera had wed just after his eighteenth name day and had no children by the time he reached his twenty-first. Now though, the long awaited babe was on its way, and Bran seemed happier than he’d been since he’d awakened from that terrible fall that wasn’t truly a fall. He hadn’t been unhappy in recent years--his marriage to Meera and the continuing restoration work at Moat Cailin which Ned had given him as his seat had certainly brought him joy. The castle had been restored to the point that he and Meera had lived there for the past year and had taken as their sigil a direwolf standing before a large gatehouse signifying that the Starks of Moat Cailin guard the entrance to the North. The knowledge that there would indeed be Starks of Moat Cailin to come after him had given her second son a new lightness of spirit that filled her own heart with joy. She knew he would be a wonderful father. “Where is Bran, by the way, if Meera is with Olenna?”

“Oh, he went out riding with Robb and Lord Stark,” Margaery replied.

“To check the granaries around Wintertown?” That struck Catelyn as odd. Now that Bran had his own responsibilities in the lands around Moat Cailin, Ned generally didn’t involve him in the mundane business of running Winterfell when he and Meera visited unless he felt he had something to teach him, and checking the amount of grain stores was a rather straightforward matter.

Margaery shrugged. “Maybe he was bored. He has been bragging to Robb about his new horse. He says this one responds so well to the reins and vocal commands that he wants to challenge Robb to a race.”

Catelyn drew in a sharp breath. She didn’t like the idea of Bran putting himself at risk. He had learned to do nearly everything he could do before either in one of his wheeled chairs or on horseback, but she still worried about him. She couldn’t help it. However, her son was a grown man and the Lord of Moat Cailin so she only bit her lip and didn’t comment. She didn’t miss Sansa and Margaery look at each other with amused expressions.

“Hello, ladies!” came a boisterous voice from the doorway, and Catelyn looked up to see Rickon standing there.

Sansa jumped up surpisingly quickly for a woman six moons gone with child. “Is Lya with you? She can’t come in here!”

“She’s still with your oversized child,” Rickon replied. “Why can’t she come in? Just because she’d rather fight than sew doesn’t mean . . .”

“Rickon, be still,” Catelyn said just as she’d said at least a million times to him before. “No one is criticizing Lyanna. She is welcome to join us any time except for when we are working on your marriage cloak. The first time she should see it is in the godswood at your wedding, don’t you think?”

“Oh,” Rickon said. “That’s fine then. It’s just . . .”

“It’s just that you’re very protective of your lady, and while that’s admirable, son, it’s unnecessary among family.” She smiled at him. “And I can’t imagine a lady less in need of protection.”

Rickon laughed at that. “True.” He walked over to look at what Sansa was working on. “Hey is that the ship? It looks good.”

“Yes,” his sister replied. “Minisa’s doing the outline of the big sail, and then I’ll put the direwolf on it.”

“Thank you, Min!” Rickon said, causing his little sister’s face to light up. She ran from Catelyn back to her chair and held up her work for him to see.

“That looks wonderful. Lya’s going to love it. And I know she’ll love that you’ve all made it together.”

“Was Jon good at the pools?” Sansa asked.

“The pools?” Catelyn asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes. The little giant was pouting about not being allowed to train when he’s as big as Benjen . . .”

“Benjen is two years older than Jon,” Sansa interjected.

“Yes, but people keep telling him he’s still too ‘little’ instead of too ‘young,’” Rickon said slowly as if Sansa were a young child herself. Sansa rolled her eyes. “You should use more precise words when speaking to NotSmallJon.” He turned back to Catelyn. “So we took him swimming to cheer him up. It worked, too. He loved the water, Mother. Must be the Tully in him.” He grinned at her.

“You and Lyanna went swimming together, of all things. Who went with you?”

“Jon. Taking Jon was the whole point. Haven’t you been listening?”

Catelyn took a deep breath, and Sansa and Margaery burst out laughing while Minisa looked from one adult to the next trying to make sense of this conversation.

“Swimming involves a certain amount of undress, Rickon,” Sansa said between giggles. “And you went unchaperoned.”

“What?” Rickon sputtered. “We didn’t swim naked! Lyanna wore her shirt and breeches and so did I!” He looked at Sansa. “We did let Jon strip down. Much easier to swim without clothes, after all.”

Catelyn sighed. “Still, Rickon, it is not the type of activity an unmarried young man and young woman should engage in unchaperoned. It’s unseemly.”

He looked at her as if she was speaking gibberish. Then he grinned. “We weren’t unchaperoned. Jon was with us the whole time.”

Sansa and Margaery both began laughing again, and Catelyn couldn’t keep herself from joining them.

“Go on and get out of here,” she told her wild wolf pup when she caught her breath. “Let us get back to our sewing, and try to stay out of trouble.”

“Thank you for taking Jon, Rickon,” Sansa said. “It’s still much too cold to swim in any of the water around Last Hearth.”

“I will miss the hot springs when the keep at Sea Dragon Point is finished,” Rickon agreed.

“Will you take me swimming, Rickon?” Minisa asked.

He grinned at her. “Certainly, little sister! You can chaperone us next time.” He then winked at Catelyn.

“Go!” Catelyn told him, and he gave them all a deep bow, and left.

“What’s a chaperone?” Minisa asked, and Sansa and Margaery’s giggles bubbled up anew.

Catelyn shook his head. “A chaperone is someone who is supposed to keep you out of trouble. Something I fear your brother Rickon needs every day of his life.”

Sansa and Margaery laughed harder, and Catelyn bit her lip to keep from smiling as she returned to her sewing.

Several hours later, Catelyn found herself wondering what was keeping Ned, Robb, and Bran so long. It was nearly time for dinner and they hadn’t returned. She tried not to worry as there could be any number of reasons for their delay. She had just found Rodrick and Minisa playing with their three nephews. Minisa considered both of her nieces too young to be any good at playing and generally spent her free time with the boys when she wasn’t in lessons or with Catelyn. She sent all of them to get washed up for dinner and was walking toward her own rooms when her husband met her in the hall.

“Ned! I’m so glad you’ve returned. I began to worry you’d miss dinner!”

“I’m glad to be home, my love.” He kissed her briefly. “And glad to know you’ve missed me.”

She laughed. “Come get cleaned up. I’m sure you’ve got dust everywhere from the road.”

“I will, Cat, but I have a surprise for you first.”

“A surprise?” He looked very pleased but also a bit anxious. “What have done, Eddard Stark?”

“Nothing, my lady . . . except . . . I have been keeping a small secret from you.”

“What?” she said, looking him in the eyes.

“I can’t tell you.”

“Eddard . . .”

“Let me show you.” He offered her his arm, and she frowned slightly before taking it.

He led her to his solar where they met Robb coming out and closing the door behind him. He looked almost as if he’d been crying, and yet he had a great big smile on his face. “Mother!” he said, embracing her as if he’d last seen her a moon ago rather than this morning at breakfast.

“Robb, what is going on?” she asked him. She knew he couldn’t lie to her. Of all of her children, he had always been the easiest for her to get the truth from. “What are you and your father up to? And where’s Bran?”

“Bran’s with Meera,” Robb said quickly. You know how he can’t stand to be away for her longer than fifteen minutes since they found out she’s with child. They’re cute but a little sickening. I think it was good for him to get out with us today.”

He had answered the easy question and ignored her others. She looked back and forth between her husband and firstborn son. “Robb Stark, what are the two of you up to?” she asked fixing her eyes directly on his.

As Robb began to squirm, Ned said softly, “Why don’t you go into the solar and see for yourself, my love?”

Catelyn turned to look at her husband and he smiled at her and nodded.

Sighing, she opened the door, and then stopped still in the doorway, heart pounding as she looked at the dark haired young woman standing before her.

“I’m home, Mother,” she said softly.

Catelyn cried out and grabbed her daughter to her chest holding her tightly as she had that long ago day the White Walkers were defeated. She barely registered the fact that she was crying and then that Arya was crying, too. How long they stood there, she wasn’t certain, but even when they broke the tight embrace, Catelyn could not bring herself to completely let go of her daughter.

“How . . . when . . .I . . . Oh, Arya, you are truly here! My sweet girl, how I’ve missed you!”

Tears filled Arya’s eyes. “I’ve missed you, too. All of you. I just . . . I can’t explain it, Mother. It was hard to be here after . . . that day. I kept seeing it. I couldn’t walk through the courtyard without . . .”

“Shhh. Shhh. You don’t have explain, sweetling. I understand better than you think. But you’re here now, and I’m so happy you are.” She ran her hand down Arya’s cheek. “Your hair’s gotten longer,” she said with a small laugh.

“It has,” Arya agreed. “I don’t mind it. I kind of like it, actually.”

“She even wears dresses on formal occasions,” came a male voice from somewhere in the room.

Catelyn turned slightly to see Gendry standing against the wall. “Gendry,” she said. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you, Lady Stark,” he said, bowing slightly.

“Oh, please, I’m your goodmother—you don’t have to call me Lady Stark anymore.” She laughed and turned back to Arya. “You’re a wife,” she said, looking at her daughter as if seeing her again for the first time. “My wild little girl, a wife.” She couldn’t stop simply looking at Arya and smiling.

“I am, Mother. And I try to be a good one.”

“She’s a wonderful wife, Lady Stark—Lady Catelyn. She’s a wonderful woman, and I swear to you that I will always be a good husband to her,” Gendry interjected once more.

Catelyn tore her eyes away from Arya long enough to smile at Gendry. “I have no doubt of that, Gendry. Her letters clearly tell me how happy you make her. Thank you for that.” Turning back to Arya, she said, “But . . . how are you here? When did you . . . Why didn’t you write that you were coming?”

“I did,” Arya said. “But only after we reached White Harbor. And I asked Father not to say anything to anyone. I wanted to surprise you. Please don’t be mad at him. He hasn’t known I was coming very long. Robb was with him when he opened the letter, and then Bran just insisted on riding to Winter Town with them today—something about showing off his horse.”

Catelyn laughed at that. She felt she could laugh at anything or nothing at all. So much joy was bubbling up through her. “You’re here. That’s all that matters.”

Arya nodded. “I’ve been gone too long. After I got the letter about Rickon’s wedding, I just . . . I felt I needed to be home. I missed Bran’s wedding and I didn’t want to miss Rickon’s too, and I want to meet my little sister, and I just missed all of you. I’ve missed you so much, Mother. I never knew how much I missed you until . . .”

“Sweetling, we sent you the letter about Bran’s wedding nearly a year ago! Why didn’t you come sooner?”

“Because . . .” Arya bit her lip and seemed hesitant to speak. Then she turned to her husband. “Gendry?” she said helplessly.

Gendry smiled tenderly at her. “It’s all right, Arya. Come here.”

Catelyn watched, puzzled as Arya walked to where Gendry stood. He kissed the top of her head and then moved aside revealing a basket of sorts behind him. Arya reached into it and picked up something. As she turned around and walked back toward her, Catelyn tried very hard to remember how to breathe.

“You have another granddaughter, Mama,” Arya said, holding the baby out to her.

“Oh, Arya,” Catelyn said, reaching out to hold the babe. The child wasn’t asleep. She looked up at her with intensely blue Baratheon eyes in a face that looked just as Arya’s had as an infant covered with a startling amount of black hair like Gendry’s. “She’s beautiful.”

“She is, isn’t she?” Arya whispered.

Catelyn looked up from the babe to her daughter. “I should have been with you, sweetling. Why didn’t you write me? I would have come. I would have come right away.”

Arya nodded. “I know you would have. I . . . I didn’t know when we got the letter about Rickon’s wedding. About two moons later, I had decided I wanted to come home. I wanted to be here. But by then, I’d been feeling sick in the mornings and just ignoring it for awhile, and I realized I didn’t remember when my last moonblood was. I couldn’t ask you to come then because I knew you’d have a thousand things to do to prepare for the wedding, and I wasn’t sure when the babe would come exactly, and I couldn’t tell you because you would have come even if I didn’t ask you to, and that wasn’t fair to Rickon so . . .” Arya had speaking very fast and then seemed to just run out of words

“Arya,” Catelyn said shaking her head slowly. “I am not angry with you, but please don’t shut me out if you need me because you fear someone else may need me more. To have more than one child is to spend half your life wishing you could cut yourself into separate pieces to be with all of them and knowing that’s not possible. And I won’t deny that’s hard. But my sweet, sweet child, never think that your needs are less important than another’s for they are not. I love you, my sweetling. And if you need me, I will move heaven and earth to be there for you.”

“I love you, too, Mother,” Arya said, throwing her arms around her once more, and then laughing as she realized she’d nearly squashed her own daughter in Catelyn’s arms.

“She’s a remarkably calm child,” Catelyn asked as she gazed down into those blue eyes again.

“She can be,” Arya said with a smile. “She is, really. Most of the time. But she has very definite opinions on things.” Catelyn laughed at that. “And she isn’t afraid to make them known. And she has a bit of a temper.”

“Sounds like her mother,” Catelyn said with a smile, and she heard Gendry snort.

“Sounds like her grandmother,” Ned said softly, and Catelyn turned around to look at him. She’d forgotten all about him as she’d been mesmerized by her daughter and granddaughter, but he stood there looking at her holding Arya’s daughter with all the love in the world shining in his eyes.

“I think she sounds like both of them,” Robb interjected, grinning from behind his father. His eyes still looked teary, but now Catelyn understood it. “Good luck, Baratheon,” he said to Gendry.

“You aren’t funny, Robb,” Arya and Catelyn said at the same time. Then they both laughed again. The babe gave a short squeal as if to redirect their attention back to her, and Catelyn bounced her gently. “Shh, sweetling. You’re all right.” She looked up at Arya once more. “Arya, what is her name?”

Arya smiled. “Her name is Catelyn.”

“Oh,” Catelyn whispered, tears coming to her eyes again. She hadn’t expected that.

“Catelyn Baratheon,” Arya continued. “It’s quite a mouthful. Mostly we call her Little Cat. Like Uncle Brynden used to call you.”

Catelyn nodded, unable to speak now. Her Uncle Brynden was another good, brave man who was lost in the war against the Others. She had not heard the name ‘Little Cat’ since his death as he had been the last person alive who called her that.

“Mother? Is it all right that we gave her your name?”

“Oh, my precious daughter,” Catelyn breathed. “I couldn’t be prouder to share my name with your child.”

Dinner that night was delayed for quite awhile as everyone in the household was gradually made aware of Arya’s, Gendry’s, and Little Cat’s presence in Winterfell. The babe was almost three moons. Gendry and Arya had been advised not to travel with her until three moons had passed since her birth, so they’d waited as long as they could, but Arya was determined to get home before Rickon’s wedding, and as Little Cat was nursing and growing well, they decided to set out regardless of what they’d been advised. Catelyn knew she should scold them but couldn’t bring herself to do it.

When dinner finally did occur, it was a joyous affair. Catelyn spent much of it simply being silent, watching all the people she loved best together in her home, often with her little namesake in her arms. Robb and Margaery sat beside her and Ned at the table in their places as the heir and his lady. They made a handsome couple and both doted on their three children. Their marriage had been one of necessity, a hastily made alliance in the political collapse which had taken place after Ned’s escape from the Black Cells and Renly Baratheon’s mysterious death but before the arrival of Daenerys Targaryen and the dragons. Yet after more than a decade as man and wife, the two had forged a true affection between them--possibly not as deep a love as she had found with Ned at that point in their marriage—but her son and goddaughter had done nothing but gain respect for each other and grow closer each year they’d spent in Winterfell, and Catelyn believed their marriage would continue to grow stronger with time. After the meal, as she watched the two of them dance together at the rather impromptu celebration for Arya’s homecoming, she was certain of it—just as she was certain Winterfell and the North would be safe in Robb’s hands when it came his time to sit in Ned’s seat.

Sansa danced with her father, her brothers, her nephews, and her son, laughing heartily with all of them. Catelyn new she missed Smalljon at this celebration for theirs was a love match from the beginning, born of shared hardships and deprivations and a mutual respect which had blossomed into friendship and then more in the cold dark winter following the end of the war. The two of them were as strong as the North, and their children would know love and strength from their parents.

Arya was indeed wearing a dress now, and she looked quite lovely, but she laughed loudly and spoke her mind and teased her siblings mercilessly just as she had done years ago. She appeared a beautiful grown-up wife and mother to Catelyn and yet somehow a little girl at the same time, and Catelyn rejoiced watching her with her siblings, especially Rodrik and Minisa who both seemed a bit in awe of her. The care she took of her daughter and the obvious affection between her and Gendry made Catelyn smile. She knew that all too soon, they would return to their home in the Stormlands, and she hated thinking about one of her children once again being away from the North, but she comforted herself with the knowledge that she could and would visit her daughter’s home and that Arya, having come home at last, would never stay so long away from Winterfell again.

Bran had Meera in his lap, spinning his wheeled chair in circles rather faster than the tempo of the music called for, but both of them were laughing loudly, and anything that made Bran laugh was a good thing in Catelyn’s opinion. Her laughing little boy had become first a sad, hopeless little boy after Jaime Lannister’s heinous crime upon him, and then had grown into a too serious young man, and while she was proud of the serious manner in which he had taken up the lordship of Moat Cailin, she was most pleased by the laughter his wife and their expected child brought to his life. She almost laughed herself to realize that the child she had worried so much over for so long no longer needed her worries, and she silently admonished herself not to be fearful for Bran simply out of habit.

Rickon and Lyanna Mormont had disappeared from the Hall briefly, and Catelyn had little doubt as to what they’d been up to. Her son had too much of his father’s nature despite his wild ways to truly dishonor the girl before their wedding day, but she had no doubts he pushed the boundaries as far as he could. And Lyanna was nearly as wild as he was. Gods help the two of them when they left for their own household. Fortunately, the keep at Sea Dragon Point was likely a year from being ready to actually live in, so Ned and Catelyn would have time after their marriage to try to get them prepared for their new life together as a Lord and Lady rather than the somewhat indulged youngest siblings of large families. She laughed at her thoughts knowing that Rickon would point out he hadn’t been the youngest Stark sibling for ten years, but the seven years between him and Rodrik gave him plenty of time to be treated as one. Lyanna’s mother and sisters would arrive in Winterfell within the next few days for the wedding, and Catelyn knew Maege Mormont would once again suggest having the new couple live on Bear Island as it is closer to Sea Dragon Point, but Catelyn would resist that suggestion tooth and nail. She had no objection to them spending a significant amount of time there when the needed to oversee particular developments at Sea Dragon Point, but as much as she liked Maege (and she truly did), Lady Mormont who didn’t even name the father of her daughters could not really provide the children with marriage advice. Rickon, for all that he was nominally an adult at seventeen still had a lot to learn from Ned in many areas, and she would keep him at Winterfell while she could for that reason. And, if she were being truly honest with herself, also because she would miss him terribly when he left. All children save the heir are meant to leave home. Catelyn knew that well. But it didn’t make watching hers leave any easier.

She watched Rickon now describing his new sigil to Arya with help from an enthusiastic Minisa who was gradually becoming less shy around this new sister who’d previously been mostly a legend to her. “A ship with a great sail that has the Stark direwolf emblazoned on it,” Rickon was saying. “For the naval force Jon has authorized us to keep on the west coast of the North. It’ll be based at Sea Dragon Point. Some people feel the North is being given too much power, but that’s what you get when your brother’s the king.” Catelyn saw Ned shaking his head as Rickon’s inaccurate assertion that the North was being given more ships just because a Stark was king rather than because Westeros as a whole now knew too well that a North unprepared to mount a strong defense was a detriment to the entire nation should the threat from beyond the Wall ever manifest itself again. She realized quite suddenly that she now referred to Jon as a Stark in her head and that she wasn’t the least bit bothered by Rickon referring to him as his brother even when the whole realm now knew he wasn’t. She found herself wishing that Jon could be here for this night. He would arrive soon, however, and find himself surprised by Arya’s presence and Little Catelyn’s existence. Arya had confessed that while she and Gendry had seen Jon a few times over the long years they’d been away from Winterfell, she hadn’t told him of her daughter either because she wanted Ned and Catelyn to know first. As close as those two had always been, Catelyn looked forward to what would most certainly be an entertaining reunion.

Rodrik came up to the table and asked her very politely to dance with him. She’d already watched him dance with Minisa which had made her heart feel very full. She handed Little Cat to Ned because Gendry and was dancing with Sansa and Arya was still engrossed in conversation with Rickon and Minisa. Rodrik grinned at her the entire time they danced and she complimented him on his dancing skill. He sulked just a bit when Eddard and Benjen both demanded she dance with them immediately afterward. As Robb and his family lived in Winterfell, Eddard, Rodrik, and Benjen were more like brothers than an uncle and two nephews, and Rodrik loved Robb’s boys dearly. Sometimes, however, he did get annoyed by the fact that Eddard and Benjen (who had their own mother) seemed to think they were as entitled to his mother’s attention as he was. Catelyn sometimes found it difficult to navigate the relationships herself as she loved her grandsons dearly, but she tried very hard to make certain Rodrik knew he was her son, and as much loved and cherished as his older brothers. She had given up on the notion of having any further children when so much time had passed after Rickon and then she and Ned spent so long apart physically during his time in King’s Landing and with his army, and then emotionally after the revelation of Jon’s parentage. Rodrik had been conceived during their early tentative steps toward reconciliation—a gift from the gods that hastened the healing of their hearts and marriage and gave them hope the long winter would not be the end of them. She sought him out for another dance after Robb’s boys and Sansa’s Jon had all partnered her, and as she spun round with him looking up at her, she swallowed hard to think that in a few years he would tower over her like her other sons. She prayed that he would not have to grow up as quickly and harshly as his brothers did.

As she finished her second dance with Rodrik and pled exhaustion so she could return to her seat she saw Arya now sat with Meera who was holding Little Cat in wonderment. Soon enough Meera would be holding her and Bran’s first child and even sooner than that, Sansa would be holding her third. Eight grandchildren! It struck Catelyn that in less than a year she would have more grandchildren than children, and over half of them will have been born since winter ended. Births had slowed generally during the Endless Winter as it dragged on for years. Maester Luwin said that was unsurprising due to the state of relative hunger and at least mild malnutrition people had suffered as well as increased illnesses. Since spring, it appeared that babies were blooming as abundantly as the wildflowers in the godswood, and it made Catelyn smile to think of it even if her own time to have babies was certainly over now. Her moonblood still came, but much less often than every month and not with any particular pattern at all. Maester Luwin had told her it was very unlikely she would conceive again, and she found herself content with that. She had given Ned seven children, and in spite of the horrors they had been through, they all still lived and thrived. She was more than content.

Thinking of Ned, she realized he was no longer at the table as she reached her seat. She looked about for him as she sat down and spied Rickon tossing Olenna into the air to her great delight while Lyanna spun Lyarra around in circles and then laughed as the little girl wobbled around dizzily but kept asking Lyanna to do it again. Catelyn shook her head but decided to allow the girls’ mothers to put a stop to it if they chose rather than intervene herself. Neither girl looked to be in any danger although they might lose their dinners if Rickon and Lyanna kept this up too long. It might be a memorable lesson for the overly energetic young couple if one of the little girls lost their dinner on them.

Finally, she spotted Ned. Minisa, apparently inspired by the boys dancing with her had dragged him onto the dance floor. She didn’t know the steps so he had her standing on his feet as he held her and moved them both around the floor while she giggled wildly. Minisa—her little bundle of energy who loved sewing and swordplay and mud and flowers and horses and babies. Whose face was a beautiful mosaic of every family member she had and yet unique among all of the Stark children. Whose conception in the middle of the Endless Winter a year past Catelyn’s fortieth name day had been so unexpected that she hadn’t realized she was pregnant for a very long time. Her moonblood had become erratic as her weight dropped lower than it had ever been in her adult life from the strict rationing of food. When she’d realized she was with child, she had been given slightly larger rations but she still spent the entire pregnancy worried that the babe couldn’t possibly be born healthy in such conditions. Minisa had been smaller than her other babes, but otherwise had been well, and Catelyn had thanked the gods abundantly that her breasts produced enough milk to feed her far better than all the children who were weaned were got. Ned had worried about her as what little weight she’d gained during the pregnancy had rapidly melted away and then she lost more as she continued to nurse Minisa until her third birthday, longer than she’d nursed any of the others, but she was determined to keep her as healthy as possible. Her own health concerned her far less. And now it was summer, and everyone could eat abundantly as the world replenished itself. Catelyn only realized how bad she had felt in those last years of winter after Minisa’s birth because of how much better she felt now, but it was all worth it because her precious girl, her last babe, was dancing on her father’s feet and would soon sleep in a room filled with wildflowers—something she had never seen prior to her fourth name day. Nothing in the world was more important.

“Mother,” Sansa’s voice interrupted her thoughts, and Catelyn looked up to see Sansa holding a sleeping Lyarra awkwardly over her large belly. “I’m going to take her up to bed, and I don’t think I’ll come back down. I’m tired, and Arya wants to go for a walk early tomorrow morning, just the two of us.”

Catelyn smiled. “That sounds lovely. I’ll make certain Jon goes up when the other boys do. But make Rickon carry her for you. He and Lyanna wore her out, and she’s heavy, Sansa. You don’t need to carry her up the stairs when you’re already carrying one with you all the time.”

Lyarra was only three, but she was half Umber, and nearly the size of a typical five year old. Sansa protested weakly but then gratefully handed her daughter over to Rickon when Catelyn called him over. Bran and Meera also came over to tell her good night, and Catelyn smiled thinking back to how pregnancy did tire you out too easily as she watched the two of them leave the Hall.

“Would you dance with me, my lady?” She looked up to see Ned standing beside her.

“I would be honored, my lord,” she replied.

He smiled at her and led her onto the floor. “Are you angry with me, my love? For keeping Arya’s secret from you?”

“No. You only did as she asked. And it was a wonderful surprise.” She looked over to where Arya and Gendry sat conversing quietly with Margaery and Robb who held a sleeping Olenna on his shoulder. Cat’s little basket was on the table beside them, and Catelyn assumed she was sleeping in it as she didn’t see her in anyone’s arms. “Did you know about Little Catelyn?” she asked her husband as he pulled her into his arms to dance.

“Not until we met them on the road. She asked me if I thought you would mind that she gave her daughter your name. I told her you’d cry with joy, and I was right.”

“But why would she ever wonder about that?”

“Because she’s Arya,” he said simply. “Forever behaving as if she needs no one’s approval, but yet always wanting ours.”

“And only feeling that she has yours. Not mine,” Catelyn sighed.

“Cat,” Ned said almost warningly. “Don’t do that. You and Arya have not always had an easy time with each other, I know. But that’s not a failure on your part. The two of you are far too alike in most substantial ways and neither of you could see that for a long time because of the more superficial differences between you. But I swear to you it’s your similarities which have sometimes placed you at loggerheads.” She frowned, and he laughed. “Even Robb can see it, my love. Why do you think he wished Gendry luck if Little Cat takes after her grandmother and her mother.”

“She didn’t think I would come to her to help her in childbed because I had a wedding to plan, Ned!”

“No. She knew you would come. And that you’d feel guilty about putting Rickon’s wedding on hold or about leaving Minisa for too long or for any one of the million things you know perfectly well you’d feel guilty about had you gone to her.”

“But . . .”

“But she still should have told you, and you would have gone and known it was the right choice regardless of any pangs of guilt it caused you. I know that, Cat. But don’t you see? She wants to protect you. Even from your own guilty feelings. She shouldn’t, but she can’t help it any more than you can. How many times have you attempted to manage my life in order to keep me from feeling badly about something I have no control over? How many times have you done it with the children?”

“I . . .” She bit her lip. She couldn’t pretend she didn’t do whatever she could to protect all of them from whatever she could—including hurts and worries and any other negative feelings.

“See? She’s you, my love. She always has been. Even when she would have disputed that statement at the top of her lungs.” He smiled at her. “She’s you. And I believe you are the most remarkable woman in all the world, Catelyn Tully Stark, so put aside your fears that you have somehow done more poorly than you should have in raising our daughter. She is a strong and wonderful woman, like her mother.”

Catelyn smiled at him. “She is a strong and wonderful woman. And you are right when you say that we are more alike than either of us has always recognized. I think Arya sees that as well, but her need for reassurance that I do approve of her . . . well, I will always feel I let her down where that is concerned and I will endeavor to correct it as much as possible when I can.”

“You’re too hard on yourself, Cat. Another trait you share with our middle daughter.”

“Ha! I admit I may be a bit critical of myself, but you of all people don’t get to call anyone out for that fault, Eddard Stark.”

“It would be so much easier to win an argument with you if you didn’t know me so well,” he chuckled.

“Are we arguing?”

“Debating, I suppose. I’m trying to convince you to believe that the daughter who resisted you in so many ways as a child also happens to admire you more than she does anyone else in the world.”

“Oh, Ned, I do love you, and I thank you for all you’ve said. I’ll even acknowledge that some of it is true. Arya loves me, I know. But you know perfectly well that you are the parent Arya idolizes.”

The song ended, but Ned still held her in his arms and smiled at her. Then he leaned in and whispered. “I know she didn’t name her daughter Eddara.” He actually winked at her then, and offered her his arm once more. “Shall we go to bed, my lady?” he asked her brightly.

“After we chase our youngest two and Sansa’s Jon to bed? Yes, my lord. I’d like that very much.

“How did we acquire responsibility for Jon?”

“Sansa is six moons gone with child, exhausted, and her husband is still at Last Hearth.”

“All right then. Let’s say our good nights. I’ll get the boys settled and you get Min, and I’ll meet you in your bed?”

The desire and promise in his eyes warmed her to her toes. “Excellent plan, my lord.”

A few people were still dancing and several more still sat around talking or drinking ale. Catelyn acknowledged most with a simple nod, but she collected hugs from all her still-conscious grandchildren before drawing Rodrik into her arms for hug and goodnight kiss before sending him off to bed with his father who already had Jon in tow. Margaery took that as a cue to round up her boys and give Robb a meaningful look. He rose from his seat and managed to kiss Catelyn on the cheek without disturbing his sleeping daughter. Rickon and Lyanna Mormont had both disappeared from the Hall now and Catelyn chose not to think too long upon that. They’ll be wed within a fortnight, she reminded herself. She bid Gendry goodnight, gently kissed Little Cat’s sleeping face, and then hugged Arya a bit longer than a simple goodnight called for. Arya didn’t seem to mind at all. She then took a yawning Minisa by the hand and led her to her room, helped her undress, tucked her into her bed. She was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.

She walked to her room knowing that the boys would not go down quite so quickly for Ned. She sat down in front of her mirror and took down the braids in her hair smiling to think that all seven of her children and all eight of her grandchildren (including the two still within the womb) would sleep within Winterfell’s walls tonight. She knew this would be a rare occurrence as time marched on, but on this night, she would simply enjoy what she had now.

She spared a few thoughts for all her family had suffered over the past fourteen years and how many times things could have gone differently for any one or all of them, and she then devoutly thanked the old gods and the new for bringing them all through it as well as they had. Then she daydreamed idly about the days ahead with all the children here, Jon and his boys arriving soon, Rickon marrying the girl he’s so obviously crazy about, and she smiled to herself as she lazily pulled the brush through her hair.

“I do love your hair.”

She turned to see her husband standing in the doorway. “Do you?” she asked with a smile.

“Mm hm. I love everything about you.”

“I’m flattered, my lord,” she said teasingly.

He laughed and held his arms out to her. “Come here, Cat.”

Catelyn rose from the chair and ended a very good day the best way she could imagine by stepping into her husband’s arms.