Catelyn is swimming with the children when the news finds her.
When she had first laid eyes upon the hot springs at the center of the godswood she’d been incredulous, skeptical even that they could truly withstand the coldest days of a northern summer. Ned’s awkwardly worded suggestion that they might remind her of home- of Riverrun- had been kindly meant, but it had been all she could at the time to keep a straight face. This, she’d wanted to snap, is not home. This may never be my home. I may come to tolerate it, as I may come to tolerate your bastard in the same nursery as my own babes, but I will never come to love it.
Let it never be said that Catelyn Tully Stark is without a temper. She had never hated Ned, but those first six months at Winterfell had been brutal. To be sure, he had treated her as well as might be expected, for a man who had just lost a father, sister, and brother, and who was soon to lose another brother to the Wall. Yet there’d been no love betwixt them, and at times, little like. They’d never bickered- never even exchanged unkind words, really, or cast aspersions on each other’s characters, yet there had been many a stiff, cold dinner or sleepless night in separate bedchambers, wondering if this was to be their marriage.
At least, it had felt like that for Catelyn. So much had seemed called into question. How could she trust a man who would put his natural son on equal footing with her own? Had he so little respect for her? For their marriage? The question of his infidelity had been little and less to her. He had strayed while away on campaign, like a million other men. What of it? So long as he brought no mistress into Winterfell, she could abide peaceably enough with him, could even love him for the children they would share. But he had not brought a mistress back from war with him. He had brought a son. Catelyn had consoled herself; mayhaps he only meant to have the child kept here until he was weaned.
But that was not the case, as Ned had made very clear to her. Jon Snow would be raised up here, at Winterfell, alongside their own children. He would be educated in the same lessons as Robb, would train in arms alongside him, would take all his meals with them, would be afforded every courtesy and respect due to a lord’s son. He would not be fostered out to another family, he would not be sent away, even to Castle Cerwyn, just half a day’s ride- Ned could have visited him every week, if it pleased him, Catelyn would not have complained-
He would not hear of it. And he would certainly not hear any questions as to the child’s origins. The once she had worked up the nerve to ask, Ned had scared her. He had changed from the mild-mannered, if often distant young man she’d married to a stranger, a stranger she’d realized, even as she lay beside him in bed, that she truly did not know at all and perhaps never would. He had changed from her husband to just a man, an angry, stone-faced man, and it had opened up a black pit of unease in her belly, because for an instant she’d thought he might strike her, or worse, that he might have permanently lost respect for her.
Respect was important. Respect was a wife’s currency and with it she bought a happy life alongside a good man, whatever his other flaws and wrongdoings. When she had no respect left to bargain with, her life could quickly become very cold and very cruel. She could be subjected to all sorts of humiliations and indignities. When men lost respect for you and turned harsh and spiteful, they did not stay good long, and life did not stay happy long, either.
It had angered her, the fear he’d inspired in her. She had done everything that was expected of her. She had laid with him without complaint, had tried to find the good in his every word and deed, had smiled when she felt like frowning, had made conversation when she felt like sulking. She had forced herself to put girlish concerns and woes over not immediately loving her husband to rest. She had always paid him the proper respect and obedience he was owed. She had never disobeyed, never raised a fuss, never pouted or sighed like a child. She had held her tongue, tried to be as gracious and adaptable and willing as possible, had ignored japes about the delicate southern flower come north, had ignored the stares and whispers about his bastard residing in their household.
So when he’d turned cold and strange and furious, she had swallowed back the breadth of fear, forced herself not to hide her face in the pillow like a child or babble excuses, and calmly named the servants who had been gossiping that the boy was Ashara Dayne’s. Then she had forced herself to look into those flinty grey eyes and ask his forgiveness. It was not her place to question him. She was sorry to have pried into his affairs. It would never happen again. She had laid a hand gently on his bare arm and prayed his look would soften. Please, she’d thought. Please don’t let him be angry with me forever. I don’t want him to hate me. Please.
He had accepted her apologies, then put out the light, rolled over in bed, and gone to sleep. His look had never softened, although his voice had. She had stayed up half the night, raging at herself for being so foolish- what had she been thinking, asking him such a thing, what if he had said yes, I loved her, more than I could ever love you, and I wish her son was my heir, not yours, your boy looks more Tully than Stark, and for that I blame you, because you are not enough. And raging at him, for putting her in a position to ask such a thing in the first place. It was not done. It was not fair. Men had bastards. Yes, they did. But north, south- all over, did they bring those bastards into their homes? As servants, occasionally. To be afforded a rank equal with their trueborn children? No. Never. Not in the North. Not in the Riverlands. Not in the Vale.
She had never wished for Jon Snow to be reduced to a servant, even in her darkest moments, when she looked at him and felt a stabbing sort of pain in her chest and a twisting in her belly, when she wanted him gone, wished he would simply disappear. He was a lord’s son and owed his due. But he could very well have received that due somewhere else. At any other keep. Under any other lord and lady. With any other children. Just not hers.
Oddly enough, her anger and unease and fear had driven her to the godswood after that, and if not to that frightening heart tree, then to the springs. Catelyn had been swimming since she was a babe. Water was peace, water was joy, water was family. The hot springs had no current, no enticing pull of the river, but they were warm, and tranquil, and soothing. She taught Robb to swim there when he was no more than five moons old, and in time, Ned would draw closer and closer, like a wary wild animal, watching her splash and play and sing to their son, and eventually, one day, he shed his clothes and his stiff manners and his long face, and waded in with them. She’d kissed him and felt true pleasure and happiness for the first time standing waist deep in the springs, pressed against him, feeling rivulets of water run down his back, his fingers in her wet hair.
Marriages were not built overnight, nor were they built in a few sunny afternoons of swimming and frolicing. Love had not happened upon her. Catelyn had worked for, strove for it. Strove to forgive him, to be forgiven by him, to understand. To earn his respect, not simply accept it because he felt it was his duty to show her the proper courtesies. She’d proven herself. She’d won the trust and admiration of the household. She’d diligently applied herself to the accounts and the stores and learning the names of all the people of Winterfell. She’d ridden out into the winter town at least once a week and made herself known, did not just sit prettily upon her horse, had walked the muddy streets and spoken to the people. She’d accompanied him to Torrhen’s Square and Hornwood and White Harbor and Barrowton.
Robb might have been borne of duty, but Sansa had been borne of love, and Catelyn had taken her into the springs at three moons, even younger than her brother, with Ned beside her, gently stroking her head of matted coppery curls with his fingers. “She’s beautiful,” he’d said. “Cat, she looks so like you.” Cat. By then, three years wed, he’d called her Cat, and how it had spun her heart to hear it, like a familiar song being sung again. He was Ned, and he was hers, and she his, and although some hurts still plucked at her from time to time, how she’d loved him. How she loves him. How she loves their children.
So she takes Arya into the hot springs at just two moons old, tucked carefully against her chest, while Sansa makes small waves with her hands, sitting half in and half out of the water like a miniature mermaid, and Robb dives down deep so he can touch the bottom of the pool, then pop back up with an exuberant yelp like an eager otter. “Arya,” Catelyn hums to her youngest, rocking her gently, although she’s far from sleepy. Arya hates to sleep. She must fear she’s missing out on something. She will be a fierce one, Catelyn can already tell. Not half so sweet and demure as Sansa, but oddly enough, part of her almost looks forward to it. Uncle Brynden says she was a fierce one as a little girl as well, before her mother died.
“Arya,” she hums again, “Arya, Arya, my sweet summer girl, the prettiest babe in the world.”
They picked out their names before Ned left for war, two moons before Arya was born. Arya if it was another daughter- a brown-haired, grey-eyed one, Catelyn had prayed, let him have a girl who looks like his mother, his sister- and Brandon if it were a second son. But it was a daughter; she’d been hoping for a second son, so that might be settled, but another daughter had given her a surprised sort of delight. Catelyn had so loved Lysa, when they were girls. They’d been close as twins, despite the two years between them. Sansa was only three moons past two when Arya was born, for Sansa had been born very late in the year, and Arya quite early. That was good. They’d be close, as she and Lysa had been; two years was nothing to sisters. And they would have their mother. Had Mother lived, the troubles with Lysa would never have begun, Catelyn was sure of it. But she would be here for her girls. Nothing was going to happen to her or their father, and these sisters would grow up secure in that knowledge.
But she’d so wished Ned could have been there for the birth. Thus far the only child of theirs he’d held in his arms in the hours after their birthing had been Sansa. Robb had practically been a stranger to him when his father first laid eyes upon him. At least she’d had some forewarning that he would miss Arya’s birth. With a third child she’d felt more assured, certain that it would go as smoothly as the others, and for the most part, it had. The labor had been more painful than Robb and Sansa’s, but it had also been her shortest- there’d seemed scarcely any time between her waters breaking in the middle of the night, and her tiny daughter, screeching her way into the world at the hour of the wolf, the darkest time of early morning.
At two moons old, Arya seems to spend most of her time wailing, but when she is not wailing, she smiles and gurgles, and even rolled over on the bed the other day, from her tummy to her back. Sansa had clapped her hands together in delight as if watching a mummer perform; she adores having a babe to fuss over. She’s always trying to hold Arya like one of her dolls; Catelyn can’t turn her back for an instant without Sansa trying to put a ribbon in Arya’s scant hair or loop it around her neck, or trying to tuck flowers behind her tiny ears. Robb is less impressed with the babe, but she supposes that’s to be expected from a boy of five and a half. He’ll start taking heed when she starts to toddle; until then he’s mostly content to spend his days racing around the keep with Jon Snow and trailing after Jory Cassel.
Slowly, careful not to send Arya into another howling fit, Catelyn sinks into the water, letting it come up to her chest and lap around Arya’s body tucked against her. To her relief, the babe does not cry out or even stir much beyond kicking her legs against Catelyn’s chest, as if trying to swim already. “There we go,” she says, “my little swimming wolf.” She lowers them even further into the water, until it reaches Arya’s shoulders; the babe babbles and butts her head against Catelyn’s chin in delight.
Catelyn smiles, then scoops up some water with her free hand, pouring it down Arya’s head and back. Behind her, Sansa pushes off from the edge of the pool and swims happily to Robb, who is floating on his back, squinting up at the glimpses of fair blue sky visible between the leaves of the towering trees. Beyond these three acres, the rest of the keep bustles and hums with activities, for it’s a fine midday, perfect for washing and laundering and exercising the horses and throwing open windows and sweeping out stairwells.
But in here, the only sounds are the gentle splashing of the springs and the cry of birds. Catelyn adjusts her grip on Arya, smiles down at her pale little face- this one seems to have more of Ned’s complexion, she may not freckle and burn in the sun quite as badly as Robb and Sansa do, and while her eyes will not settle for many more months, Catelyn is certain they will be grey as her father’s. Good. She always thought grey eyes on a girl would be so lovely. She remembers Lyanna, still. Being bemused with the younger girl’s obvious discomfort with her own beauty. But there is too much pain there, for both Ned and her. Never Lyanna for a daughter. It would be too much for him. Perhaps Lyarra, if they ever have a third girl, for his mother. Or even Minisa, for hers.
She is delaying Arya’s anointing in the sept until Ned returns, of course, he should be present as the father, even if they are not his gods. When he comes back he will pray with her before the weirwood, as he has with her sister and brother, and put her before his gods so they might know her, this Arya of House Stark, and then they will go to the sept and see her blessed with seven sacred oils and there will be singing and incense and Catelyn will offer up her own prayers to her gods- prayers that Arya will continue to grow and thrive as her siblings have, that she will live, that she will grow into someone kind and clever and capable, and perhaps beautiful too, and that Catelyn will be able to give her the sort of life she deserves- a marriage she deserves, a household she deserves.
The sound of twigs and leaves crunching underfoot draws Catelyn’s gaze away from her children and towards the figures emerging from the treeline. Two of the maidservants who’d accompanied her and the children out to the springs flank Maester Luwin, who holds a letter tightly in his hands. She can tell it is bad news instantly from the look on his face, and fights back a wave of brief panic before composing herself, clambering out of the springs, Sansa scrambling after her, and handing Arya to one of the maids, who immediately begins to dry her off with some linens.
“Word from Pyke,” Luwin says, and his eyes are very, very sorry for her. Catelyn walks a few paces away as she reads it, mindless of her soaking wet shift or the disheveled state of her thick hair, until she reaches the end. Robert must have had someone else transcribe for him; she’s seen his writing before, and it’s barely legible, but these are his words all the same. Pyke broken by the siege, the surviving Greyjoys have surrendered, Balon clapped in chains, but Ned was seriously wounded, being sent back to the mainland, Seagard, for healing with the Mallisters’ skilled maester…
She swallows, painfully, conscious that Robb is looking at her closely, still paddling in the springs. Sansa is too young to realize something is wrong, but Robb is old enough now to understand at least a little of it. She smiles tightly, in an attempt to reassure him, and the anxious looking maids. The castle will be flooded with rumors by dusk. Best to stave them off for as long as possible. She cannot go to pieces like this, not in front of her children.
“We must write to Lady Dustin at Barrowton,” she says. “And try to secure passage on the next boat going down the Saltspear.” She’s already calculating the distance in her head. They haven’t the time to go by land, so sea it will have to be. It should be safe enough, if the Ironborn have truly been defeated. A ship can take them out of the Blazewater Bay, around Cape Kraken and the Flint Ciffs, and hug the coast all the way to the Cape of Eagles. They can slip into the far end of Ironman’s Bay and dock at Seagard. It’s a ten day ride from Winterfell to Barrowton for a small party. Perhaps a week’s voyage from the Saltspear to Seagard, if the weather holds fair. Ned can hold on that long for her. Barbrey Dustin has no love for either of them, but if she is ordered to hold a ship, she will, however sullenly.
All she will announce to the household is that Lord Eddard is injured and has been taken to Seagard for healing, and that she must be with him now, and she says as much to the children, especially Sansa, who is heartbroken that Catelyn is taking Arya and not her along. But Arya is too young to be separated from her mother, by Catelyn’s judgement, and she is also the only one of their three children that Ned has to yet to meet. If it is… if it is grievous, she would rather him look upon his younger daughter just once before it is too late.
But there is also Jon Snow. Ned is his father as well. Catelyn may not want to acknowledge it, may grimace at the thought of it, and it has gotten no easier as the boy grew from a solemn babe to a shy child, but she has never lived in complete denial of it. She could have Vayon Poole inform the boy, tell him where she has gone, where his father is. But that feels like cowardice to Catelyn. She steels herself instead, and for the first time in four years, willingly seeks out her husband’s bastard son.
She finds the boy in his room, bent in concentration over some sort of large scale battle between his wooden animals and his tiny soldiers. Catelyn watches in the doorway for a few moments as he hunches over the array, dark hair falling into his eyes. He and Robb could not look more different, for all that they share the same father. Her son is ruddy-haired, freckled, round-faced, verging on plump, and as short as Edmure always was as a little boy. Jon Snow’s hair is so dark a brown it verges on black, and his eyes so dark a grey they often seem black as well. His face is long and thin, especially for a child of his age, and between that and his recent growth spurt he always seems a little older, more mature than Robb.
He has Ned’s long nose and Ned’s ears. Looking at him she can easily imagine her husband as a child. Ned is not so old, only six-and-twenty. They have many years left together, he and her. They should have many years left together, them and their children. Jon Snow’s noticed her; he jumps to his feet and stays where he is, eying her warily, the way one might a wild beast. She has never been cruel to the boy, never mocked or insulted him behind Ned’s back, never even issued a reprimand- it is not her place to scold her husband’s bastard, no more than it is her place to take him in her lap and hold him while he weeps.
But Jon Snow is not a weepy child, and he does not begin to bawl or sob when she tells him the truth; Lord Stark is badly injured, and she is going to see him as soon as possible. She is leaving on the morrow with Arya. Robb and Sansa and he will be looked after by Master Poole and Maester Luwin and Old Nan. Word will be sent to Winterfell when she reaches Pyke and his- and Lord Stark. Catelyn can never bring herself to address Ned as ‘your father’ when speaking with Jon Snow. It feels like a concession of some sort, a surrender. Yes, she has her pride, and she prays for forgiveness for it often. But it is more than that. Why should she even have to say it? Everyone looks at Jon Snow and thinks ‘now here is Ned’s son’. What do they think when they look at Robb, and see his Tully coloring, how little he bears in common with his father? When they look at her and her Tully-looking children, save Arya, now?
The boy says nothing, just looks at her, then gives a nod. For all his composure, she can see he is struggling not to cry by the way his mouth is trembling. That same feature on Robb would cause her to pull him into her arms and hold him close. Catelyn stays where she is, her hands clasped in front of her, and then says, “If I can, I will tell him you are progressing well in your lessons with Maester Luwin.” He has just began teaching the boys their letters and numbers this year. Jon Snow can already write his name, albeit unevenly; the J takes up most of the space. Robb is struggling with that, although he can count on command.
She must not compare them. Robb is the only one who matters. But she has a dreadful fear of her son being outpaced by his bastard brother. Not now, but later. When it begins to matter. When they are studying history and geography, memorizing the names of lords and ladies and their seats, when they pick up swords- what will it mean, if Robb is seen as the foolish one, the weak one, the ungainly or awkward one? If Jon Snow is the subject of praise and admiration, commended as every bit his father’s son, while Robb Stark is pitied or despaired over?
Robb will not be foolish or weak. Catelyn will make sure of that. But that does not stop the fears from circulating. There is no one she can confide them in. Other ladies would make eager mention of it to their husbands, and eventually Ned would hear of it, and be furious with her again. She loves him, but she learned who he would choose, if it came to her happiness or his bastard’s, long ago. Catelyn knows he loves her, knows he would do anything for her, but it may be that a man’s guilt and shame is often more powerful than his love and affection. He has cause to feel indebted to give Jon Snow this life, whoever the boy’s mother was. And when will that debt be paid? When will it be enough? When he is forming a cadet branch of the Starks for his sake, like the Greystarks who rose up against Winterfell with the aid of the Boltons? When he is making him a fine marriage to an ambitious lord’s daughter, who might seek to see his grandchildren inherit this keep, and not hers?
She stops halfway down the hall, listening to Jon Snow carefully shut his bedchamber door so no one will hear him crying for his father. Catelyn feels sick, and she has not even seen Ned yet. Yesterday everything was assured. Today, nothing is. It reminds her of when Father informed her that Brandon had ridden for King’s Landing instead of coming back to Riverrun, for their wedding, for their marriage. When suddenly her future, so bright and shining and certain, was split in half. When she was forced to set aside her girlhood for good. But in truth, she was never much a child after Mother died. There was no room for it anymore. Childhood games were for Lysa and Edmure. She prays this is not the same for her own children, especially Robb. Let him be a boy a while longer, please.
Robb and Sansa are both still asleep when she comes into the nursery to say goodbye to them. Robb sleeps on his stomach, his auburn hair a rumpled mess, one small fist tucked up under his chin. Sansa even sleeps daintily- on her side, her hands pressed under her head, her long hair neatly braided back so it will not tangle by Catelyn the night prior. “I love you,” Catelyn whispers to both of them, smoothing back their hair, pressing her lips to the warm foreheads. She has to pass Jon Snow’s bedchamber before she reaches the stairwells. She doesn’t stop outside the door, not quite, but her pace slows before she continues briskly downstairs. There’s no time to waste.
She washes up in Seagard eighteen days later, nose and throat still burning from the smoke on the air; she could smell the Iron Isle’s fleet burning all the way down the coastline, and Seagard is not much better. One of the largest towns in the Riverlands, is it still in a state of repair four moons after the Ironborn’s initial attack, after Jason Mallister slew Rodrik Greyjoy, Balon’s heir, and pushed them back into the sea. The attack had been swift and brutal, by all reports- they had made it up to the castle itself. The Mallisters’ longships are still at Pyke, no doubt, but the war galleys were left behind to defend their harbor; she can see them bobbing in the bay. The buildings facing the sea are by and large still rubble, and the beaches are littered with ruins and hastily erected shelters. Lucky that is summer, and not the winter years, or even more would have died from exposure.
The sunlight reflecting off the grand bronze bell hanging in the fortress’ tallest tower is bright enough to blind her. She shields herself and Arya’s eyes all the way up to the castle. The Mallisters are courteous but mercifully brief in their greetings. Their maester, a balding man called Ronnel, leads her in silence to the room where Ned had been treated since he arrived at Seagard three and a half weeks ago.
“Tell me,” she says, a hand splayed across Arya’s back- she is nestled in a sling against her chest, “How bad it is.” She needs to know, to prepare herself, even if only for a few brief moments. Hope is fluttering frantically in her throat- he is still alive, waiting for her, just behind that door, but at what cost?
Ronnel studies her for a moment, as if trying to gauge her reaction, than says, “I have done what I can to treat his injuries, but infection has set in, and he’s been feverish these past few days. He does not have very long, my lady. I am very sorry I could not do more for him. They say he fought valiantly at Pyke.”
The words barely register. She feels as though she is slowly sinking. Arya whines against her chest; Catelyn gives a wooden sort of nod, ears ringing gently as if she’d just been struck in the temple. She wishes she had.
He admits her into the room. The fresh linens and the salty air wafting in through the sunlit windows do little to disguise the smell of the blood-rot. Ned is flushed with fever, his hair sticking to his scalp, the blankets only brought up to his waist; his chest is covered in bandages. Catelyn stares at him for a moment, a lump in her throat, a deep cry of pain threatening to tear its way loose, then forces herself to walk forward when he murmurs something.
“Ned, I’m here,” she says softly, approaching the bed. She wants to look away, but she cannot. She doesn’t want to be here, doesn’t want to see him like this, but she is. He’s gaunt, the flesh clinging to his bones, and he was never a very big man to begin with. The four-postered bed with its rich trappings seems to dwarf him. He doesn’t belong in this strange place, he belongs in her rooms at Winterfell, or in the godswood, with Robb perched on one knee and Sansa on the other.
She draws up at a seat at his side, takes his sweaty hand between her own, presses his knuckles to her forehead. “Ned,” she whispers. “Please, look at me,” His eyes flicker; the grey, at least, is the same as she remembers. She watches him struggle to focus before seeming to take in the sight of her. His lips pull into a brief smile of relief.
“Cat,” he sighs, and she chokes back a sob.
“I’m here,” Catelyn assures him. “I’m right here, Ned. Look. Your daughter is here too. Arya,” she pronounces her name like a prayer, as though hearing it might heal him. She removes Arya from her sling and tucks the swaddled babe up into the crook of his limp arm. Ned briefly glances down at her in confusion, then back up at Catelyn, and seems to understand.
“You had the babe,” he whispers. “Are you well, my lady?”
She almost wants to laugh hysterically. He would ask her if she was well, as he lays here dying before her. No, she cannot think on it. Can’t even say the word. She will go to pieces, will crumple before him, and she needs to be strong. He has always been so strong, able to endure so much pain and grief, but now he needs her, more than he ever has before. She only wishes it were different. This is wrong. The gods owed them more time together, his and hers. She’s only had five years to love him. What is that? The blink of an eye, a single sunlit afternoon. They deserve more time. Their children deserve more time.
“I am well,” she nods. “Look at her, Ned. She’s beautiful. I think she’ll have your eyes.”
He glances down at his daughter again, but cannot exert the energy to do much more than stroke her swaddled form. “They could change. To blue.” He swallows, with difficulty. “Like yours. Your eyes are beautiful, Cat.”
“So are yours.” She squeezes his hand again. “Don’t stop talking. It’s been months since I heard your voice, Ned. I missed you so.”
“I… missed you… too,” he smiles faintly at her. “And the… the children. How are they?”
“Robb is growing so fast,” she says, fighting back tears. “He’s so brave now, and so strong. He’s a good-hearted boy. He takes after you. And Sansa… she’s missed you so. Every day she asks when you’ll be home. She tried to draw a picture of you. I should have brought it with me.” Catelyn blinks, rapidly, sniffing. “They are so good, Ned. Our children. You gave them to me. And they could not ask for a better father.”
He sighs. “And Jon?”
She stiffens, but what can she do? She cannot avoid the subject now. Not when he is like. “He is… he is well,” she says. “He misses you too.”
Ned looks at her again, grey eyes creased as if in sympathy or regret, and says, “I’m sorry, Cat.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” she vows. She made her peace with it long ago, her peace with him. She loves him, and that eclipses all other hurts. “Don’t apologize to me, Ned. Just stay a while longer. Please. I love you.”
“I love you too,” he whispers. “I don’t want to leave you.”
“Then don’t,” she chokes out. But they both know it is out of their hands.
Outside, the afternoon turns to golden dusk. Ned drinks a little water from time to time, dozes on and off, but his fever does not break or lessen. She feels at his forehead frequently, but the flesh still burns under his skin. At some point, she throws formality aside, takes off her light summer’s cloak, and clambers into bed beside him, careful not to jostle his wounds or crush Arya. If they just lay here, looking at the rafters, she can pretend nothing is wrong, that it is a slow, languid evening at Winterfell, a rare occasion when neither of them has anything to do but spend time with one another. But the room looks and smells and feels wrong, and the bed feels cold and empty without Robb and Sansa clambering on top of them as well.
Maester Ronnel comes in briefly to administer some more milk-of-poppy.
Ned wakes again when the sunlight fades, and still recognizes her, but no longer makes much sense. He apologizes, over and over again- for what, she’s not sure. It cannot all be in reference to his bastard. Is he confusing her for someone else? “I wasn’t there in time,” he whispers at one point, as she strokes his hair, trying to soothe his pain. “I was too late. For Lyanna. I’m so sorry.”
His sister. She feels a heavy weight in her chest. “You did what you could, Ned. It is not your fault. You were with her in the end. It is no one’s fault but Rhaegar’s.”
He only shakes his head, and there are tears in his pale eyes. “No. I’m sorry. I only meant to keep him safe. I’m sorry, Cat. I promised.”
His gaze is erratic, unfocused, and his breathing is fast. She stills beside him. Keep who safe? Who is ‘him’? What does he mean, ‘I promised.’?
“Who did you mean to keep safe, Ned?” she asks in what she prays is a tone of comfort, not disturbance. “It’s alright.” She lays her head on his shoulder. “You’re a good man. The best of men.”
“Her boy,” he whispers. “I promised her. I’m so sorry, Cat. I’ll make it up to you. I must try. When I come back to Winterfell…” he trails off. Does he think this is a dream? Her boy? His bastard’s mother, he means? What does that have to do with anything?
“Who did you promise?” she asks him, tearful with alarm and terror.
He gives an odd sort of little half smile, then rasps, “Lyanna. I always kept my promises. She would have been so angry with me… otherwise. I had to help her. It was the only way.”
“What was the only way?” Catelyn feels cold sweat dripping down her back, feels slightly feverish herself. “What do you mean, Ned? Did Lyanna ask you to do something?”
“Keep him away… from Robert,” he whispers. “To protect him.”
All at once, terrible, horrific clarity. Her boy. Lyanna’s boy. They said she died of a fever. Catelyn known exactly what sort of fever, now. Lyanna was never a frail or sickly girl, not one to be undone by hard travel, but childbirth… The birthing bed could be the end of any woman, no matter how strong or healthy. It had been for her mother, who’d never been ill a day in her life before that.
She feels like she might be sick. “Lyanna’s boy,” she whispers. “Did you bring him home, with her bones?”
He nods weakly. “I had to. I’m sorry, Cat. Please. I can’t tell you. I couldn’t… the danger… it was mine to bear.” He sighs again. “Better you hate me… than die with me. If Robert knew…”
If Robert knew, Catelyn thinks, he might raze Winterfell to the ground. To know that Ned had been lying to him, to her, for years… Raising Rhaegar’s bastard son in the Stark ancestral seat, passing him off as his own child… Bile rises in her throat, and Arya begins to wail. Catelyn sits up straight, her head swimming. Ned is weeping. She gathers their daughter into her arms, tries to breathe in and out, steadily, rocking the babe back and forth. He brought him home. Not his bastard, but Rhaegar’s. Rhaegar’s and his sister’s, begotten in that cursed tower in Dorne.
Growing up right under their roof these past five, going on six, years. How could he not have told her? How could he have kept this from her? Jon Snow is not his son. Jon Snow does not have a Stark father, he has a Stark mother, and he was never borne of Ashara Dayne, but someone else with violet eyes. What would Ned have done had the child resembled his father, and not his mother? How could he have explained that? That he’d been with a Lyseni? Some Velaryon or Celtigar bastard daughter?
But he had not had to. Perfectly, coincidentally, Jon Snow was the very picture of a Stark. The long face, the brown hair, the grey eyes… He was every bit Ned’s son. No. Lyanna’s son. For the past five years she has been tormented by vision of- of what, Robb’s cousin replacing him? They are not even half-brothers. And Ned was not even his father. She dry heaves, even as Arya quiets. Ned has gone silent now. Catelyn moves closer to him again.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asks hoarsely, but he has no answers for her anymore. He never did in the first place. She cannot shake him awake and demand he tell her the truth, the whole truth, for the first time in their marriage. All she can do is lie back down beside him with their daughter, and hold him close, fighting back her own tears. She wishes he’d never said anything. Were he in his right mind, he never would have. It was the fever and the milk-of-poppy. Gods, she wishes he never had. She tries to put it out of her mind, to just be with him, in this moment, but it is impossible. When she closes her eyes all she sees is Snow, and beyond that, a terrifying figure in black armor, the Rhaegar who featured in all her terrors and dreams in the days leading up to the Trident.
By nightfall, Ned is gone. He passes peacefully, at least, with her whispering that she loves him, she forgives him, in his ear. He passes with his daughter’s head under his chin. But she doesn’t forgive him. She does love him, will always love him, but right now she cannot forgive him, and she does not know what to do with that. One by one the maester and the Mallisters file in to express their grief, to assure her that they will write to Robert for her, to inform him of Ned’s death. Catelyn feels as though she were stumbling through a haze, simply nodding in agreement. She feeds Arya and tries to get some sleep. She wakes up in the early hours of the morning, and for a few minutes cannot realize why she feels so empty and hollow, until she remembers all of it.
Then she cries herself back to sleep, like a little girl.
But her eyes are dry by the time she journeys back to Barrowton with Ned’s bones. They cremated him in the Mallisters’ rocky godswood overlooking the sea. It was nothing like the North, but it was better than nothing. Barbrey Dustin meets her at the docks, expresses her condolences, but there is nothing but steely anger in her eyes. Ned’s bones will find their way home, but Willem Dustin’s never will. Catelyn should perhaps apologize for that, but she cannot bring herself to feel guilty for another one of Ned’s actions right now.
Is she angry with him? How can she be? She is a widow, he is her husband, she loves him still, she dreams of him every night after she nurses their daughter. She will never forget him, has no desire to ever remarry, would go to her grave remaining his wife. He lied to her, but there is no law forbidding that, and if it is a sin, it remains in the realm of her Seven, not his old gods. It is not her right, perhaps, to be angry with him. He did what he felt was best. He was trying to do what was right, to spare the life of an innocent child. Is it selfish of her, to feel anger? She had no claim to his inner thoughts and truths. He would have carried this to his grave. Had she been a day too late, he would have. Had he been sensible, not drugged with milk-of-poppy and feverish, he would never have told her. But she is so, so angry. It’s wrong. It is sinful of her. It is not her place to have this fury for him in her heart, intermingled with the love and grief.
But he told her his nephew was his bastard. He told all of them. He took the child into their home. Had Robert ever suspected- had someone discovered the truth, and informed the King- would Robert have believed she had no idea? Would Ned risk the lives of their children for his sister’s babe? But that is why he did not tell her, so she could honestly deny any knowledge of it. Still, is Robert so logical when his temper is roused? Would that have spared them? Well, it will not anymore. Now she knows. Now she cannot honestly deny it if questioned. She will have to lie.
The children can never know. That much is obvious. The boy- Jon Snow- she has no idea. Mayhaps when he is of age, it could be… it would depend on him. If he is anything like Brandon, like his mother, she could never tell him. He would do something bold, brash, brazen, put them all in danger going after some fool’s claim to a throne. He has no claim. He is a bastard still. That has not changed. But if anyone were to find out… They would find a way to use him. To prop him up against the Baratheons. To claim he was Rhaegar’s heir. Thank the gods he does not have the right look. Thank the gods his eyes are grey, not violet, indigo, or lilac. He can never leave the North. He can never be put in any situation where someone might ever, even for a moment, see him as anything other than Ned Stark’s natural son.
It’s bitter to the taste, that truth. She loves Ned, and Jon Snow is her nephew, her good-sister’s son, and she has some duty to him. She might not like it, but she does, just as she had duties to Ned. Family, duty, honor. He is all three. He is Ned’s family, her duty, their honor. She cannot let a prince’s bastard become the undoing of House Stark. She cannot let all of Ned’s lie, all the pain and resentment he put them both through, be for naught. She may never forgive Ned for this, but she will have to forgive Jon Snow for it. She cannot deny it to herself. The realization leaves her cold. She is not ruled by emotions, as much as men may argue all women are. She can put her feelings aside and consider this rationally, difficult as it is.
As her small party- House Dustin begrudgingly provided something of an honor guard- approaches Winterfell, she hears the bells begin to toll. The lively winter town falls strangely silent for the middle of the day as they ride through, and then all at once she can hear the scattered woman’s wail or shout of dismay here and there. “The Stark!” rings out, more than once, and “Gods rest Lord Ned!” and the like. She barely hears any of it. Arya is crying again, set off by the discordant noises, and Catelyn feels on the verge of tears herself until they make it through the gates. The entire household and much of the garrison has assembled to see Ned’s bones delivered into the crypts.
Catelyn dismounts, feeling as though she were wading through thick mud, and all but staggers in the direction of her children; Old Nan is holding a squirming Sansa in her arms, and Robb is clutching at Rodrik Cassel’s leg until he sees her and goes to her, shouting and crying. She wants to fall to the ground and hold her babies, but she has to settle for embracing and kissing them both, then turning with a stoic face to the crypts. Arya is at her chest, Robb holding one hand, Sansa the other. They lead the procession into the dark. Arya’s cries die away, as if muffled by the caverns around them. Sansa is terrified of the crypts, but aside from a trembling lower lip, does not make a sound. Robb keeps looking fearfully at Ned’s wrapped bones, unable to reconcile them with the image of his strong and healthy father.
Were this a funeral in the fashion of the Faith, it might last hours. The North has not the patience for that. Ned’s bones are interred, and there is a silent vigil in the godswood that evening. Catelyn should be relieved to be home again, but she feels nothing, feels as though her heart had gone to stone overnight, petrified. Her children come to her for comfort and all she can do is hold them. Robb knows his father is gone forever but Sansa barely understands and keeps tearfully asking when he will return. She doesn’t see Jon Snow, nor does she look for him.
The first week passes in a blurry daze. There are letters from all over, expressing formal condolences. Her sister writes, offers to host them at court, complains of how dreadfully boring it is as of late. Her father’s letter overflows with warm affection and sympathy, tells her he knows she is strong enough to endure this, as he endured her mother’s untimely death. Her uncle’s letter is short but sweet in his terse sort of way, tells her that he would be on her doorstep in a turn of the moon, had he not sworn himself to Lysa’s household. Jon Arryn writes for Robert, tells her that the King is overcome with grief, that when he heard he raged and almost thought to go back on his word and take Balon’s head, although he’d already promised him mercy, and it was not Balon’s axe that felled Ned, but that of a common Ironborn, just another soldier on the shore.
For now she retains the title of Lady Regent of Winterfell. It will be a decade before Robb comes of age and can be legally declared Warden of the North. She must hope and pray and write enough convincing words to assure Robert that no, he need not pay them an immediate visit, and no, he need not declare any other regents, or attempt to have Robb fostered with another strong Northern family, like the Karstarks or the Umbers or the Manderlys. He is her son, Ned’s son, and if he is to rule from Winterfell, he must be raised in Winterfell. By the same token, he is her only son. If something were to happen to Robb- gods forbid- the North will pass to Sansa.
The idea of Ned not being here for any of this is not easily definable. It still doesn’t seem very real. Everything rests on her shoulders now. She must rule for Robb, and she must rule wisely and fairly and present herself as strong and unshaken, lest they dismiss her as a hysterical widow. Eventually, men will approach, seeking her hand, thinking to hold sway over both her and Robb someday, to advance their own fortunes through House Stark. The thought of if it infuriates her, but someday she will have to contend with it all the same.
She should invite another highborn lordling close in age to Robb to foster here. Daryn Hornwood, perhaps, or Benfred Tallhart, or one of the Karstark or Umber boys. Cley Cerwyn is so close by he is here near every week as it is. Robb’s sole companion growing up cannot be his- his cousin who the world must see as his bastard brother. The question of Jon- people will wonder why she does not send him away. It is what any other widow would do, in her situation. She could send the boy to Cerwyn, close enough to be checked on often, but still out of this household. But can she risk it? Of course Jon has no idea, but what if he begins to resemble Rhaegar more as he ages? Could others identify similarities in his face, his build, even his voice? What if he picks up a harp and begins to play? The thought almost brings a bitter sort of smile to her face.
She ought to send him to Howland Reed. Reed was with Ned at the Tower; he must know. Perhaps she will send him to Reed, eventually, when things have calmed, when she… knows him better, can judge how he might behave in another lord’s house. Someday it might be easier to hear the truth from another man, a close friend of his late… ‘father’... than from her. He will never love her. She would not want him to. That would only add to all their pain. She can never be shown to be affectionate or warm with him. Cordial and courteous, even amiable, but she cannot treat him as she would a nephew. People would whisper, question. The explanation that he reminds her of her late husband will only extend so far.
After a fortnight, she finally seeks out Jon Snow. The children are no longer up half the night crying, Arya is growing rapidly, and it has been over a month since Ned’s death. She still feels raw and bloodied by it, but the wound is no longer agonizing, just very painful. Her feet feel as though they were shackled together as she walks. She does not want to do this. She wants to pretend Jon Snow does not exist, she wants to never acknowledge any of this. But she must. She has a duty. It is what Ned would want. If she does not clear the air between them now, or at least attempt to, the boy will hate her forever.
He is in the godswood. Not praying, but swimming in the hot springs. She realizes after a moment that she’s never even seen him swim before, and that he is swimming alone, having escaped the notice of any of the usual servants who might look after him. Her pace quickens; he’s a strong swimmer, she can tell from here, he is not even paddling about, but it’s dangerous for any child to swim alone like this. She grew up on rivers, hearing tales of drowned children and agonized mothers every other week. Most of them had not even heard it happen.
“Jon!” she snaps, as soon as she is in earshot, lifting up her black mourning skirts, face flushed from the warm day. “Come out of the water! You cannot swim alone like this!”
His head swivels to her, all wounded shock for an instant, and then she sees a flash of childish anger. He does not move, only treading water, as Catelyn reaches the edge of the pool. She struggles to keep her tone level. “Come out of the water,” she repeats herself. “You should not be here alone. It’s not safe.”
His nose crinkles, that pale brow furrows, and he ducks down under the water instead. A moment passes, then another, and she briefly debates jumping in to fetch him, absurd as it might sound, when he surfaces back up, eyeing her stubbornly and silently. “Why do you care?” It sounds so strange, coming from a child as young as he, but his voice is clear and hard for his age. He’s closer to six than five now, she realizes. He’s a month and a half older than Robb.
For a few moments she is speechless, and then she says, “Because your father would want you to be safe.”
“He’s dead,” Jon snaps. “He doesn’t want- he doesn’t want anything, he’s dead!” He makes a hiccuping sort of noise on the last word, as if holding back a sob. His face is wet anyways; she can’t tell if he has been crying or not.
Slowly, Catelyn crouches down on the water’s edge. She’s not used to this; she’s never even bent down to address him better. She’s used to staring down at him, or watching him from afar, distant, detached. Up close, she can see some of the similarities between him and Robb, cousins though they may be. Their mouths are similar. When they are upset, they sound similar; their voices high and reedy. They both have thick eyebrows, both have long eyelashes for boys.
For the first time, she feels a sharp jab of sympathy. She has felt pity before for him, but never sympathy. Sympathy implies affection, however meager. “I know,” she says. “I know. But when he was alive, all he wanted was for you to be safe. Come out of the water. I needs speak with you.” She hopes that in treating him as though he were a bit older, and not a child in need of correction, he will come out. Slowly but surely, he does. He clambers out of the water, clad in his smallclothes, dripping wet. Catelyn hands him the faded only cloak he brought out with him, so he might start to dry off a little. His hair is sticking up. She almost goes to smooth it, out of habit, because she’s only ever sat like this with Robb.
She feels something like fear in her chest. Not of him, of herself. That she could change so swiftly. That… with the anger towards Ned, might come some stumbling affection for his bastard nephew. It feels like a betrayal. Of what, she’s not sure. Herself? Or is it just shame, and guilt? It is wrong to blame a child for the wrongdoings of their father. The Faith preaches against bastardy, condemns the act of relations outside of marriage, of bringing a child forth out of wedlock, yet it welcomes bastard boys and girls into its ranks frequently and without question. Who’s sin is this? Hers or Ned’s or Rhaegar’s? It is not Jon’s; he is a child. It is her weakness, her pride, her disobedience that keeps her from doing her duty now.
Perhaps Ned deserved a milder wife, one who would have found it in her heart to completely forgive him long ago, who would hold no resentment or anger towards him now. She might have loved him less passionately, but mayhaps they would all be better off for it. Perhaps Jon deserved different parents. Perhaps she- she doesn’t know what she deserved. To be her father’s heir? To wed Brandon? What one deserves is not always what is for the best. She will never regret any of what she’s shared with Ned. But she fears she will regret this, that she will fail in this, fail to protect any of them, fail to raise her children properly, fail to raise Jon Snow properly. Ned would know what to say. Ned had such a quiet, peaceful way about him. Children always loved him, found him easy to speak with. She would never describe herself as peaceful, nor quiet. She was raised to speak her mind, to be courteous but firm in her opinions, to not hesitate to call things into question, to stand her ground.
This doesn’t feel like holding ground, it feels like losing it. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry he cannot be here with you. I miss him as you do.”
Jon has drawn his legs around her knees, and his knees are tucked under his chin. Robb sits like that on his bed, sometimes. He studies the mossy earth.
“Are you sending me away?” he asks. “I heard people talking about it.”
Catelyn inhales sharply. “No,” she says. “You are not being sent away.”
“Why not?” he dares to glance up at her, and she sees Ned’s eyes staring back at her, wary, cold, angry. It takes her breath away yet again. “You hate me.”
She swallows around the knife in her throat. “I don’t hate you, Jon.”
“I don’t.” She closes her eyes to collect herself, then looks away from him, across the pool. “I am not going to send you away. Your father was a Stark of Winterfell, and this is where he wanted you to be raised, and I will respect his wishes. Your home is here.” She hesitates. “With your siblings.” She’s never addressed them as that before.
“I saw the baby yesterday,” he admits after a moment. “She looks like me.” Then he draws back slightly, as if anticipating an explosion. Perhaps he is not wrong to. That sort of comment would have infuriated her, before any of this. She would have had words with Ned about it, they would have bickered, she would have conceded. But Ned is not here. And she can never go back.
“She does,” she says. “You both look like him.”
He is tearing up some grass, now. “You’re really not going to make me leave?”
“Really,” she says. “I swear to you, on my honor as a Tully, I will never make you leave,” Reed can visit, when the time is right. He owes her that much. Ned owes her that much. Gods, it hurts still, this aching in her chest, this longing, this bitterness. She has to let it go. She has to start to forgive him.
Jon does not look quite convinced, but doesn’t argue, either. “Sometimes I sleep in Robb’s bed with him,” he says, perhaps feeling they are both making confessions, now. “He gets nightmares about Father dying and the Ironborn coming here and killing us.”
“The Ironborn are never coming here,” she says. “Your father and the king helped make sure of that.”
“Is the King coming here?”
“I don’t know,” she admits. “Maybe. He needs to return to court, first.”
“Are we going to court?”
“No,” she says, forcefully. “We are never going to court. Any of us.” She will not risk it. Never. They will stay here, where it is safe, where Ned’s name still holds power, reverence, where she is respected still as his lady wife.
He looks a little relieved at that. “Good. I don’t want to go south. I like it best here.”
“You’ve never been anywhere else.” She smiles slightly at him. That is a first.
Jon gives a small nod. “Never. You have, though. Father… Father has.”
“Yes,” she says, “but we never liked to travel much, after… after the war.”
“Why?” He is curious. Better curious than knowing. Knowing is not always a comfort. Often, it is a terror.
“Because the war was hard. The war was bloody. It made us feel afraid. We never wanted… wanted our children to feel afraid. We wanted to keep them close.”
“I’m not your children.”
“You’re not,” she agrees, “but that does not mean I want to see you hurt, Jon. I know I have been…” She trails off, then forces herself to commit to it. She must. “I know I have not been kind. I am going to try to be… to be someone you can trust, now.” That is not how this works. Mothers do not trust bastard kin, bastards do not trust mothers. But it will have to work for them, because the alternative… she has too much to worry about, without adding Jon Snow to the list any longer.
“What does that mean?” He sounds genuinely confused.
“I’m not sure,” she admits. “We will have to find a way. I am not your mother. But I loved… I loved him. Your father.” Ned is still his father, if not by blood, by truth. Rhaegar never lived to lay eyes upon him. Ned held him, comforted him, gave him a home. That is what makes a father. “I still love him,” she says. “And he loved you, just as much as he does Robb, and Sansa.”
“And Arya,” Jon says.
“And Arya.” She swallows. “So we will have to find a way, Jon. For his sake. For all our sakes. It is our duty to have peace betwixt us from now on, do you understand?”
He seems to study her, the way Ned sometimes would, and then nods. “Yes, my lady.”
Her eyes sting. Catelyn inclines her head to him. “Thank you very much, Master Snow.”