The blood is not finished drying on Pyke when Robert announces that he has an idea. Ned stops wiping the blood off Ice, looks over to his oldest friend, and feels uneasy. Robert has the same look he had back in the Vale when he had come up with a plan that was not half as clever as he thinks it is. A look that Stannis Baratheon is also familiar with if him bracing is any indication.
"We are going on a Royal Progress." Robert declares. Ned does not know exactly what he was expecting but that was not it. Stannis scoffs.
"We have just finished putting down a rebellion. It is not the time for you to be galavanting around the Seven Kingdoms."
"It is exactly the time." Robert counters. "Balon thought my rule was weak. He was wrong but other lords may think the same. Those bastards may even think that Balon has soften me up for them. A tour will show them I, we, are as strong as the day I crushed Rhaegar's heart with my hammer. Let our soldiers come with us and spread the word of how easily we put down the Greyjoys. Best from word of mouth then ravens."
Ned has to admit that this idea is not without merit. Stannis looks like he feels the same.
"I've seen my fill of the Iron Islands so we will start with the Westerlands." As Robert continues talking, Ned realizes that he is being included on this tour of the Seven Kingdoms.
"It would be an honor Robert, but I must return home." It has been months seen he has seen his family. His last image of them was a pregnant Catelyn standing in the courtyard with their children at her side and Jon just behind her. The child, a girl, had been born since he left. He aches to see them all. Robert shakes his head.
"You have to come with me. This won't work unless the North is present and no one else will do. The Stormland-Vale-North Alliance must be seen as strong as ever. Fuck it, Jon can bring a Riverlander or two when he arrives. Four out of eight kingdoms at my side will remind them well enough." Robert is grinning like a boy as he gets swept up in the idea. "Don't be a stick in the mud! It will be grand Ned!"
"It will be a waste of coin." Stannis grits out. It is Robert's turn to scoff.
"Then it is a good thing you won't be coming with us. You're going to Kingslanding." Even Ned winces at the order. Stannis face contorts in anger at being sent off like a misbehaving child. "Don't look at me like that Stannis! Someone needs to hold the city while Jon is with us. It's either you or Tywin and I'm not letting that prick anywhere near the Iron Throne."
Stannis entire posture changes. His shock is evident from his toes to his eyebrows. "You...you are making me Hand of the King?"
"Only for a few moons." Robert points a finger at him. "The whorehouses better still be open when I get back or I will have your hide as a coat!"
And Stannis is right back to gritting his teeth. "Yes Your Grace."
"Robert-" The King flaps a hand at him.
"I won't hear your excuses. You are coming with me and that is final. Your king commands it."
Ned sighs. "Yes, Your Grace."
Robert claps a hand on his back. "That's the spirit! Now let's see if anyone else wants a taste of my hammer!"
Ned valiantly resists rolling his eyes at that.
Before the Greyjoy Rebellion, Ned Stark had precisely no inclination to visit the Westerlands. After being dragged through them with Robert, he can say with certainty that he still has no desire to see any corner of it. But seen it he has. Tywin had taken great pleasure in showing off the riches of his kingdom. He wanted no one to say that the Lannisters had been undone by the razing of Lannisport. They were taken through hills and mines and castles filled with more gold than Ned had ever seen in his life. Robert is having a grand time. He's taking full advantage of the Queen staying in Kingslanding; the latter unwilling to travel while pregnant.
"Come on Ned! Stop dragging your feet!" The man in question roars as their caravan moves out. Ned puts away the letter Catelyn sent him. She is disappointed that he will not be returning straight away but understands that he must do his duty to the king. She also assures him that she will be ready for his return as well as his ward, Theon Greyjoy. The boy in question is precariously balanced on a pony that his tied to Ned's. The ten year old is not a horse rider by nature and it shows. Ned is tempted to have Theon ride with him but the boy is too big for it. Ned gets onto his own horse after he finishes tying the reigns of Theon's horse to his own.
"I'm surprise about your reluctance to leave Lord Stark," a voice that is already giving Ned a headache comes from below him. Lord Tywin's youngest son may be the most irritating member of the family. He is certainly the most talkative. "Has my family's hospitality finally won you over?"
"The Lannister's hospitality is without fault."
"I believe that is a compliment! Quick, Greyjoy, write it down or no one will ever believe it happened." Tyrion says. Ned wishes he could leave his presence and ride up with Robert, but Tyrion will bully Theon if left alone with the ten year old and Robert refuses the boy's company. Not to mention that Ned doesn't trust the Westermen in the group to leave the Ironborn alone. If he is being honest with himself, he doesn't even trust some of his own men. Not with the blood of the Ironborn reavers still drying on some of their swords.
"Ignore him." Ned commands Theon.
"How cruel of you, Lord Stark, to deny my the companionship of the only boy near my age here."
"There are plenty of squires for you too talk to." Ned points out.
"Ah, but those are Lannister squires. I have talked to them all my life. Is it such a poor thing to wish to speak with someone new?"
It is when you insist on tormenting the boy. Ned thinks but does not say. He stays silent and keeps moving. Tyrion stays with them, needling the pair. Ned decides that Tyrion is not the most annoying Lannister, he is the most annoying man he has ever met in his life.
Ned has to take back his belief that Tyrion is the most annoying man he has ever met. Mace Tyrell has taken the title by a mile. For all Tyrion's japes, he only wants a rise out of Ned and his ward. Mace wants a betrothal or a fostering or a marriage and is persistent. No amount of refusal dissuades him. He is under the impression that if he throws a big enough festival that Ned will be impressed by the wealth of Highgarden enough to cave. Instead, Ned's horror is slowly mounting.
Twenty-five barrels of wine, three glasshouses, nine Ryswell horses, and six years worth of food. Ned adds up the prices for all this pageantry in his head. The live flowers everywhere despite it barely being spring, the Yi-Ti silks decorating every noble and tapestries, the colored Myrish glass decorating the arches, the gold competing with the Lannister's for sheer amount, the tables upon tables of food. He saw a cartful of the later being dumped into a pit. Not even a pig pit, just dumped with no care who else it would feed. The Stark blood in him nearly threw up at the sight. The entire North would have murder any lord so careless with this amount of food.
Currently, Ned is attempting to avoid Lord Tyrell in a literal fashion. He sees a library, tiny for the Tyrells, and ducks in startling the occupant. A small, pudgy boy who drops the book he is reading like it has become a snake.
"Ah-I-Sorry My Lord!" The boy acts like he has been caught with his hand in a cookie jar.
"It is alright. What were you reading?" The boy hands over a history of the Tyrells. "Heavy reading for one so young." Ned pegs the boy as the same age as Robb and Jon. He is confident that neither of his sons would be able to read something so thick. The boy doesn't take this as a compliment.
"Samwell, what are you doing here?" A voice snaps. Ned turns to find a man that resembles the boy if much thinner.
"Father, I was, it was,"
"Avoiding your responsibilities. Shaming the family. I have told you a thousand times that this is no place for a Tarly."
"Yes, Father." Ned heart goes out to the boy who is clearly upset but says nothing. It's not his place to interfere with another lord's family.
"Lord Stark, I apologize for this."
"There is no need. Samwell was only doing what I myself desired to do." Well, not interfere much.
"I would have thought you would have sent your own ward to fetch the books for you."
"Theon preferred to stay in my camp. He is not one for festivities." More like he isn't one to be mocked. Ned tries to shield him from it but the Ironborn are ill-liked and he can only protect the boy so much while mingling with the nobility.
"This is no place for an Ironborn." Randyll states. Ned reluctantly agrees with him. The Tarlys takes their leave. Ned has about five minutes of peace before a servant pops in to inform him that Robert is looking for him.
The next day, he watches Samwell get beaten black and blue by a master-at-arms while his father scowls and Paxter Redwyne quietly turns down a suggestion of fostering the boy. Ned wouldn't be here except that Theon has been goaded into practicing as well. Ned feels sorry for both boys but can't think of anything he can do for Sam. That is until Lord Tyrell comes around a corner. He has given up on securing a betrothal and doubled down on getting Ned to foster his youngest son, Loras.
"I would take Samwell." Ned turns to Randyll. The other lord blinks at him. In fact, both look shocked. "He is the same age as my son. It would do Robb good to have a playmate from the South."
The last line is one that Mace has repeated frequently. The lord in question must have heard it because he comes to a stop, mouth hanging open. Randyll glances between Samwell and Ned while Paxter carefully steps back from the conversation.
"My boy is craven, Lord Stark. Even his three year old brother is braver than he is. The North is a land for hard men and hard men alone."
"Hard men are made not born." Ned counters. He does not know if Robb will care for Samwell but he imagines that Jon will get along with him well enough. Theon's journey through the Seven Kingdoms might also be easier if he has a friend.
"If you can make Samwell into a hard man I will owe you a great deal."
"Then let me foster him at Winterfell. It would be an honor."
Randyll looks back at Samwell one last time before agreeing. Mace Tyrell is still standing nearby in shock. Ned nods politely to him before going to inform Samwell that he should look forward to leaving with the King's party. Idly, Ned notes that he needs to send a raven informing Catelyn of this development.
The sight of a grey direwolf seal fills Catelyn with joy. Ned is not a man of words so each letter she receives is a precious treasure. She takes this one from Maester Luwin with a smile. Opening it eagerly, she sees his familiar, precise letters.
My Dearest Catelyn,
I am bringing back another child.
She sits down hard.
No. She thinks. No, he can not be doing this. Not again. She reads on, bracing herself for whatever apologies he makes for breaking their marriage vows again. She pauses, re-reads the letter, and then laughs.
His name is Samwell Tarly, eldest son of Randyll Tarly, Lord of Horn Hill. I hope that he and Robb will become close like Robert and I did while in the Vale. He gets along with Theon well enough though the pair have little in common.
The rest of the letter is about his wards. Tyrion Lannister, the drunk and whore-monger, is making a nuisance of himself, and Robert's time in the Reach sprinkled with combination of Lord Tyrell. He cornered me in the Godswoods about a betrothal. The Godswoods! It was not a proper one, lacking a weirwood like all Southern godswoods, but still. Has the man no shame? By the time she has read it thrice, Catelyn's heart has calmed down. This was not at all what she had been expecting but it was good news none the less. She place the letter away for safe keeping.
It speaks to Robert's lack of self preservation that he actually goes into Dorne. It speaks to Ned's loyalty that he stays just outside of it. Robert maybe assured that the Martells will let him live because they cannot stave off the rest of the Seven Kingdoms coming down on their heads or desire Tywin Lannister to rule through Robert's six year old heir but Ned is never setting foot in Dorne again. Not after the Tower of Joy.
That was the plan at least.
Then Tyrion, who had no desire to be poisoned to death in Sunspear, had decided to stay with the North contingent as they remained in the Marches while Robert and Jon went on to Sunspear. Understandable if annoying. Things would have been fine if the boy of six and ten had understood that the boundaries on a map are not always the boundaries by the small folk. He did not.
"When was he taken?" Ned asks Jory. Several Lannister guards are dead but no one else is missing.
"About an hour or so, I reckon."
"Saddle my horse and have the guards do the same."
"We're going after them?" He is surprised.
Ned may have no love for the Lannisters but Tyrion, for all his japes and mockery, is just a boy. A boy who had nothing to do with Elia Martell's death and who has been surprisingly kind to Samwell. Ned will not leave him for raiders.
"Yes. I'll take the Lannister men while you stay back to protect the boys. We should be able to catch up to them."
"Are you sure my lord? This land is a dangerous one, unlike anything in the North."
"Do no fear, Jory. I have travelled this area before."
It takes three days to find the kidnappers. The fight is far quicker. Tyrion is chained to a stake which requires a hammer to break. Besides a lack of water his is fine. Ned tries not to be offended when the delirious dwarf mistakes him for the Kingslayer. Tries. They hold up in an inn. Ned prayers his coin will keep the innkeeper's mouth shut about who is rooming there. Traveling back to the safety of the Marches will have to wait at least a day. Their horses need to rest and Tyrion needs time to recover. The man is talking but Ned will feel better if they have a nights rest. They talked about much before the Lord of Winterfell left to get dinner. About the reason for Tyrion going too far from camp, he blames Theon but Samwell already told Ned that Tyrion had been drinking and complaining about women before he wandered off. About past wrongs and the weight of unwanted legacies. About kindness undeserved but much appreciated.
Once fed, Ned stares out into the dark sky and knows that he is not that far from the Tower of Joy. That there are good, Northern bones, wasting in the deserts sands.
He saddles up his tired horse and attaches a cart with five boxes. Everything is as he and Howland left it. The Tower still a burnt ruin; the graves at the foot of a hill nearby. He unburies the bodies of his five companions by hand and places each skeleton in a separate box. It takes all night to make sure that he has not missed a piece.
He gets back to the inn, exhausted by the work and the memories it brought up. He is waylaid from his bed by a woman, a captain of a ship, who questions if he is part of the Royal Progress. He admits that he is and there is some discussion of trips to Sunspear that he is too tired to keep track of. He vaguely notes that he is promising to pass along a message about a daughter to the Martells before the two depart ways and he can finally rest.
The next morning he very much wishes he had been paying more attention to that conversation.
"I'm sorry, who are you?" Ned asks as a small girl comes up to his table and asks when they will be leaving.
"Sarella Sand. Mother said you were talking me to Sunspear."
"I know you are a brave man, Lord Stark, but tell me you haven't completely shed your common sense." Tyrion asks as he munches on his bacon.
"I have no plans on going to Sunspear. I am going to meet up with King Robert at Wyl." The girl is very distressed at this. Clearly the woman captain had assumed that he was going to the capital of Dorne and that her daughter would have safe passage so that she could find whatever noble was her father. "Where is your mother? I will clear this up with her at once."
"She's gone. She left at dawn."
"Tide was high then, a good time to sail." Theon mentions.
"Who is your father then? I will send a raven letting him know he can collect his daughter at Wyl."
"Prince Oberyn Martell."
Tyrion chokes on his wine. Ned ignores him. The best course of action to take with the dwarf. Same with Theon's snickering.
"Then he will surely meet us there." If there is one good thing Ned has heard about the man, it is how much he loves his bastard daughters. "You will be safe traveling with me."
Oberyn does not meet with them at Wyl. Ned has sent the man three ravens and has not had a single reply. He's outright furious. Ned knows there is no love between the Starks and the Martells but to ignore his own bastard like this is cruel. He's a frozen wraith by the time Robert meets back up with them. Jon Arynn looks like he has had twenty years shaved off his life but Robert has gained only a single grey hair.
"What happened, Ned? You look like someone pissed in your ale then forced you to drink it." Robert asks as soon as he sees him.
"Nothing, Your Grace."
"Nothing my ass. Have the Dornish been bothering you? The Martells? I thought I made it clear to Doran that we were not to be fucked with but I'll go back and make that clearer."
"My lack of dealings with the Martells is the problem." Ned fumes. Robert is confused by this. "It is nothing worthy of royal attention, Robert. Truly." The last thing Ned wants is Robert to be involved in any dealings with the Martells. Judging from the gratefully, confused look that Jon is giving him, he agrees.
"If you insist. Well then, get your boys and we'll be off, I want to get in a hunt before we-" Robert stops talking and squints. He looks at the gaggle of children around Ned then visibly counts. "Didn't you have less than this when we parted ways?"
"Yes, Sarella Sand is my new ward." He nods to the eight name day old girl in breeches with her hair braided back.
"And who is her father?" Asks Jon, eyeing the girl critically.
"Oberyn Martell." Both his foster brother and foster father freeze. A hush falls over the children. Then Robert laughs. And laughs and laughs until he is howling like the storms of his homelands with tears in his eyes.
"This isn't funny!" Ned hisses.
"This is hysterical!" Robert roars.
"How did this happen?" Jon looks like he is about to loss the last bits of brown in his hair. Ned explains. The Lord of the Eyrie looks even less pleased. "I'll send word to Prince Oberyn myself. He sailed for Essos just as we left but I know where he has gone."
"Pox on Oberyn." Robert says once he has wiped the tears from his eyes. Ned silently agrees. "If he wanted the girl, he would have come to claim her. Save your ink, Jon."
"I will send it anyway."
Robert shrugs before grinning at Ned. "Well, you're three for four now! We must hurry to the Stormlands so I can watch you pick up another pup."
Ned refuses to give that the dignity of a response.
(One day, far from now, Oberyn Martell is going to greatly regret refusing to open his mail.)
My Dearest Catelyn,
I regret not writing to you while I was in Dorne but I mistrusted the ravens there. Now that I am at Storm's End I have no such fear. It is a welcome respite in this trip. Many times Robert promised me to show me his home when we were younger and now he has made good on the promise. The land suits Robert's nature with it's constant storms, rough cliffs, and green forests. It's people match him too. Even the girls. I fear I must inform you that I have agreed to host more children. Brienne of Tarth is the most unusual lady but kind and strong.
Catelyn smiles. Hearing about Ned's fosterlings is like listening to Edmure insist that he had no intention of bringing home a kitten but it was out in the rain and he could not let it just lie there. She adores the man for his kindness though questions where she will put the new additions. Winterfell is large but most of the noble rooms haven't seen use in a generation. She'll have to find funds for repairs and expansions.
She has the most unfortunate look and was rejected cruelly by a boy her age. She took him to the yard and taught him better than most squires. The news went around and she found no playmates outside of my other wards. I know it is much to ask but her mother is dead and she has no elder lady to guide her. Let alone show her how to be the Heir of a great house. I can teach her swords, her father queerly enough insisted that I would, but I ask for your help in showing her how to be a lady.
Catelyn remembers the days when she was her Father's Heir then the days after her mother passed. It had been a trying time but she feels confident that the experience and holding Winterfell in Ned's absence has prepared her to teach a child how to be a great lady. She is pleased that Ned would trust her with this.
Besides that incident she has shown herself to be quiet and fair. She gets alone well with Sarella Sand, a bastard from Dorne,
"Mother!" Robb cries out.
"Lady Stark!" Maester Luwin adds.
"I'm fine." Catelyn has to pretend she did not just walk into a wall as she collects herself off the floor. She snatches Ned's letter from the ground.
She is Oberyn Martells daughter by a ship captain.
Her heart starts to beat again. Ned goes onto complain about the man refusing to collect his bastard daughter in tones he usually reserves for Night Watch deserters. The rest of the letter allows Catelyn to fill in the details of what happened.
"Are you sure mother?" Robb, barely six but growing so fast, asks.
"Yes my sweetling. Everything is fine." Catelyn would simply have to remember not to read Ned's letters while walking.
The trip through the Crownlands is uncomfortable. Ned is forcibly reminded that not even ten years ago he was fighting these men against the Targaryens. The Red Keep is even worse. He is glad that they are only here to rest before returning on their way.
"Welcome back You Grace." Stannis says kneeling.
"Get up brother. It's been a long day. Let us not stand on pageantry now." Robert grumbles. Ned spots a maid rising with a babe in her arms. "Who is this?"
"Shireen of House Baratheon." Stannis says with pride. "She was born while we were at war."
Robert takes her for a moment before passing her back to her wet-nurse. "A fine girl."
"Congratulations Lord Stannis." Ned adds.
"Thank you Your Grace, Lord Stark." There seems to be a genuine smile on Stannis's mouth though it may be the trick of the sun.
"Where are my children Stannis?" Robert asks.
"The Queen wish to keep them by her side. She will birth you another child any day now and cannot move easily."
Robert gives Ned a sly look. "She must have her your penchant for collecting children. Be wary Ned, Cersei is a vicious lioness with her cubs."
"I do not collect children." Ned refutes. Robert just laughs and Ned has to admit that his statement is undermined by the line of wards he introduces to Stannis. The Lord of Dragonstone takes a look at them then narrows his eyes at Ned before shuffling Shireen out of his sight. Ned cheeks tint red as Robert laughs harder.
The spend all of three days there before leaving again. Ned sees Cersei twice and her children once. Turns out Robert is right about the reason Cersei is keeping them close. In a stunning display of agreement, Stannis refuses to let Shireen be in the same room with Ned for more than a moment. He makes Ned regret mentioning that his daughter, Arya, is the same age as the babe. Stannis glares so fiercely, head slightly lowered, that Ned is reminded of the great stags of the north to such a degree that he would have sworn Stannis turned into one for a moment. No desire to be skewered by antlers, imagined or not, Ned hastily retreats. Oddly enough, Robert complains about this.
"You down one now Ned. It's a shame."
"This isn't a contest." Ned says dryly as he does a head count. "If I was I would be down two anyway."
"Nah, that Lannister dwarf evens out the numbers." Ned goes to protest but Robert cuts him off. "Don't tell me you haven't invited him to stay at Winterfell and he spends most of his time with your pups anyway."
Ned can deny neither of these things.
"You know, if we're quick, we can still grab Shireen. I'll distract Stannis while you get the girl."
"We are not kidnapping your niece."
"It's not a kidnapping! It's a royal rescue! Stannis will turn into a stiff little doll. He's got the personality of a rock and his wife is little better."
"He has the rage of a moose and I will not be on the receiving end of it because of your harebrained idea."
"Bah, you could take him."
"It is not happening."
"Then you will have to get two in the Riverlands to make up for it."
"I will pick up no more for this entire trip." He declares.
Tyrion is doing Ned a favor. He doesn't know that yet though. If Tyrion is lucky then no one will connect this with him.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Brienne asks.
"Absolutely." Only fifty-fifty Tyrion admits inside.
"And that Lord Stark will approve?"
"We are reviving a weirwood tree. How could he not?" Tyrion recruited her for this task because no one would believe her doing anything sneaking but is learning she questions a lot if she thinks she could possibly be doing something wrong. Pity.
"And this will work?"
"It will if you stop talking and start doing." Tyrion has combined everything he has learned, what Lord Stark speaks of weirwood trees, and the cleverness of Lann himself and he thinks he's got a way to heal the Blackwoods's weirwood. Tyrion doesn't care about the Old Gods but Ned nearly cried when he saw the thing. He compared it to seeing a Sept razed. For a man as devoted as Eddard Stark, it is a hard sight indeed. Tyrion owes Ned. Owes him for saving his life, owes him for his company, and for the tentative friendship they have formed. Few people try to be friends with him once he has tried his best to ridicule them. He values those that do and Ned has done so. A weirwood cannot be healed with gold but the Lannisters won Castlerly Rock with smarts.
"Move those goats here." He directs Brienne. It is a messy business of slitting their throats and burying the bodies at it's roots. A more uncomfortable business is doing it while praying. Tyrion isn't a devout man but he is wary of offending gods who have already taken to spiting him. Hopefully Ned's assurances that the Old Gods care only for honest intentions is true. His honest intention is to revive the tree. Fingers crossed they won't care about the why too much. Both are quick to scrub away the traces of their act after that.
Three days latter, he sees three, little red buds on the tree, and puts his second part into action.
"It's doesn't have a face." Tyrion notes, loudly, within earshot of Lord Blackwood and Ned.
"What are you speaking of Dwarf?"
"Have you considered what is wrong with the tree is that it doesn't have a face?"
"The faces on weirwood trees were carved by the Children of the Forest until they died centuries before this one was planted. It grew just fine without it until it was poisoned by the Brackens."
"Or the Old Gods took offense that you never got around to it and decided you didn't deserve a heart tree." Lord Blackwood goes white then red then murderously purple. Tyrion quickly adds. "But I'm sure Lord Stark will be happy to fix that for you."
"What?" Ned is unbalanced by Tyrion's suggestion.
"Surely a Stark of Winterfell is capable of carving a face into a weirwood tree? Hasn't your family done it for ages?"
"Well, yes, but it is a sacred rite that has not-"
"There we go then. Lord Stark can rectify this travesty and your hearttree will bloom again." It takes some more wheedling but before dusk settles, Ned Stark is in front of the weirwood tree with a knife of iron and a very select group of people. Tyrion is the Seven's worshiper allowed to join in and that's because it is his suggestion and Lord Blackwood wants someone to shove before his gods if it went wrong. There is speaking in Old Tongue which he doesn't understand and Lord Stark cutting himself along his forearm until the blood drips onto the blade. He carefully etches a smiling face into the tree. It is the most disgustingly interesting thing Tyrion has ever seen. The tree seems to bleed with his blood and it's own.
Then the ravens that have filled the branches take off and even a blind man can see that there are little buds of pure red scattered along the whole thing. Tyrion watches them unfold into leaves with an open mouth. Ned is equally as shocked but he doesn't stop what he is doing. When all is said and done, there is a weirwood in full bloom in front of him. There is utter silence in the courtyard.
Ned sits down hard. Someone rushes to bandage his arm and that snaps everyone out of their stupor. Mostly. Ned looks over to Tyrion. He sees something in the dwarf's face that clues him into Tyrion's assistance but he has no chance to ask him about it as Lord Blackwood is dropping to his knees in front of the Lord of Winterfell. The other Blackwoods are yelling and clamoring around the Stark. The noise brings Jon Arryn and Robert. Which is good because Ned Stark is having no luck in stopping Blackwood from renouncing his fealty to the Tullys in favor of eternal loyalty to the Starks. Jon Arryn managed to talk him down from that. Ned got another child to his ever increasing brood.
Chickens don't lay eggs as quickly as he gains children. Tyrion thinks with an edge of dumb-foundness. Ned will insist this is just another fosterling because he's blatantly ignoring the fact that Tytos Blackwood is literally giving his son Hoster to Ned. All but throwing the boy at him. He'd probably have added another but Ned put his foot down.
Robert Baratheon spent the night wondering if the High Septon would count this as a miracle and saint Ned. Tyrion got to witness the Lord of Winterfell threaten to castrate his king if he dared to bring this up before the Faith.
"It recalls memories, does it not?" Jon asks they watch the sun set from the Moon Tower.
"Many." Ned answers. Being back in the Vale is like stepping back in time to happier, simpler days.
"I will miss you."
"You could continue on with Robert and I to the North." Ned suggests. Jon shakes his head.
"I have been gone from the Eyrie for too long and Robert doesn't need me to keep him safe in the North." Ned sees his point but wishes it wasn't so. "Besides, you will have your hands full. Have you told Lady Stark about your newest additions?"
"Yes." Ned tries not to sound annoyed. He had fully intended to keep his wards down to the five he had taken in before Kingslanding but somehow the number had grown to nine. He blames Hoster's addition on Tyrion. The other's he admits are his own fault. At least Domeric Bolton is of the North. He had been visiting his relatives in the Vale when the Royal Progress had arrived. Ned had to discuss with his mother the return of William Dustin's bones since Barbary is unlikely to welcome his presence in any capacity and somewhere along the lines he had picked up Domeric and his playmates Waymar Royce and Mychel Redfort.
(One day, Roose Bolton is going to regret masterminding this event but for now he is smiling to himself.)
"Then this must be her reply, my maester handed it to me just as I was coming up." Jon holds out a letter with the direwolf seal on it. Ned opens it. His wife's lovely writing brings it's usual joy. There is, however, second piece of paper in her writing. It is a list with a note.
Please let me know if this is all of them. I must know if I need to reconstruct one wing of Winterfell or two.
The tone is more tart than Catelyn normally uses but Ned has to admit he has earned it. He looks over the list. Something is wrong. He realizes that Tyrion's name is not on there. In that moment, Eddard Stark is faced with a hard choice.
Tell his wife that he forgot to mention that Tyrion Lannister will be staying with them or surprise her with it when they reach Winterfell.
In the end, he takes the high road. With a heavy quill he pens his wife a letter informing her she needs to include Tywin Lannister's youngest son to the list. Ned hears nothing back from her until he reaches Moat Cailin. There a letter is waiting. It is short.
My Dear Ned,
I have invited Alys Karstark, Wynafryd Manderly, and Lyra Mormont to Winterfell to be playmates of Sansa. She is much looking forward to it. I wish you safe travels.
That is fair. Ned thinks as he puts it away. He hopes they get along with his daughter, daughters he has two now, Brienne, and Sarella. Sixteen children will pack the walls of his home. He doesn't think there have been that many in Winterfell in generations. It will be a nice change.
Ned watches Tyrion and Theon butt heads again, Samwell, Hoster, Sarella bicker over books, Waymar and Brienne fight it out with wooden swords while Domeric provides them with battle music on his harp and Mychel claps a beat.
"Ain't that a sight. I'm going to have to father more bastards just to keep up with your's!" Robert japes.
"They aren't my bastards."
"Well, your bastard will be disappointed to learn that I'm sure. Still, I should gather my own and we should have them compete. The King's Bastards versus the Bast-sorry, Wards of Winterfell."
"It would hardly be a fair fight."
"Aye, your's are outnumbered."
"I was speaking how your's are outmatched."
Robert sputters before laughing. "Ah, Ned, I will miss this. Best year I've had since taking this damn crown."
"You have better years ahead of you, Your Grace."
"I doubt that." He grumbles. "Still, this year has been good. Some good fights, some good fucking, even some good songs!"
"I swear Robert, if you make that bard sing The Tree Whisper one more time I'm going to throw him out of the caravan."
"Then pick up another child before Winterfell and I'll have them singing Father Wolf all the way instead!"
Ned glares at him. Robert laughs it off and decides he is going to find another child for Ned's litter. He is mildly disappointed when he fails at this. (He's even more disappointed to learn that it takes three miracles to canonize a person. The High Septon isn't even willing to make Ned a minor saint because of Raventree Hall. It's alright though. The North has done it for him.)
The sight of Winterfell's inner gates is a sweet, sweet sight indeed. It is only bested by the image of his wife and children waiting for him. The King is introduced and then Ned can hold Catelyn in his arms once again. As they part, other introductions are made. Catelyn pulls Ned close after it is all done.
"I have missed you dearly, my lord but I feel I must say something."
"What is it my lady?"
"Swear to me that there will be no more children besides the ones between us." Ned looks at the hoard of small children in the courtyard. They are a mis-matched group that is almost too big for the courtyard but Ned loves them all the same. "At least for a few more years."